The political economy of Zé do deposit

Swimming (1820–1910), Pierrot Laughing, 1855.


Brazil crushed by inequality without country adjectives

“As long as one man owns this field and more of that field, and another man bows down, journey after journey, over someone else’s or rented land, and has neither his own nor the ground where he will fall dead – wait for the war” (Rubem Braga , Dead Christ.

His real name is José…, but for his friends he is Zé do Depósito. He is Brazilian, lives on the outskirts of São Paulo, but he could very well be the guy from any big city in the country. His skin color... It doesn't matter, or at least it shouldn't matter. He is friendly and intelligent despite the education he was denied. His broad smile, however, hides his awareness of the violence experienced every day. He could be any one of the millions of men and women who squeeze daily onto buses, trains, ferries, on the long journeys between their homes and work in the center of the city. The same that after nine or ten hours they have to go back. Every day. On one of those days, downtown, I met Zé.

I was on my way to the bank when, from the bakery counter, Zé do Depósito shouted my name. I had lunch and thought it would be nice to meet someone for a cup of coffee. A little sullen with life, Zé told me about the problems at home. The woman was a cleaner. Then came the pandemic and she was dismissed, without rights, from the houses she cleaned. The new employers wanted to pay little for the day's work. So D. Jane, his wife, started making snacks to sell. The son lost his job. The daughter-in-law, pregnant, worked as a supermarket cashier. The daughter was still studying and wanted to go to college, but she thought about giving up to work and “help at home”.

So, I provoked Zé and asked him if he had an opinion, a reason for so many job problems and lack of money at home. I was certain that I would give my friend a lesson. After all, I was a white man, born in São Paulo, had a good income, lived in my own house and had studied at the best universities in the country. It was then that Zé did what he had to do: he taught me political economy from the point of view of the poor.

My friend was clear about the unfair distribution of income in the country and did not hesitate to blame the concentration of power in the hands of the richest for this Brazilian reality. For him, “owners of factories, commerce, banks, the rich in general, have money to buy politicians, advertise good people and, if necessary, call the police to end the political circle of poor people”. I still wanted to intervene, nominate these powerful people as owners of the means of production, say that the order favors them and about the alliance they establish with the State, but Zé looked at me paternally, grabbed my arm and started again. He went straight to the point and explained: work has no value in Brazil and this is not an accident, but a choice of those who can decide and prefer to keep things as they are and continue enjoying the privileges they have. “Growth, jobs, higher pay? Loose promises in the mouth of toothless people. Anyone speaks. I want to see a good school, decent buses and offer a job with a fair wage to anyone who wants it. The rest is stuff that appears every four years”, he fumed. And he continued: “fifteen years ago, it seemed that things were going to get better, but I saw that while I bought a new refrigerator back home in installments, the boss's family bought zero cars and they traveled all year round to another country. I know this because the boss bragged in front of us. So, I ask: who won more?”

At that point, he started making comparisons. your salary versus rent, electricity, water and transportation, etc. Then she added up her prepaid cell phone and Miss Jane's. She added up her income: cleaning plus snacks to sell. She remembered and put into the account the salary her daughter-in-law receives at the neighborhood supermarket. The son is unemployed and has just signed up as a delivery person “in one of these internet services”. Then he added up the expenses for the supermarket, the expenses for his daughter who still doesn't work and, disconsolate, he realized that he was already short of money to complete the month.

I watch my friend and notice that life has not been fair to him. His face shows fatigue and the day is halfway through (at least for me, who woke up at 7:00 am). “It takes me an hour and a half to go to work and another hour to go home”, lamented Zé. “I work eight hours and always a little more and I have an hour for lunch. Putting it all together, I spend 12 hours a day on things at work and I have to get home, shower, have dinner and sleep so that, the next day, I can have breakfast with bread and start over. What time do I have to do the gym that the 'cute ones on TV' talk about? People appear there walking in a square full of trees, gardens, in the middle of the afternoon... That's not for me. It doesn't even have that where I live. These guys are fooling us, Seu Marcio”. I looked more closely and saw that his teeth were all gone. “Dentist?”, he was astonished, “but I can’t even pay the house bills!” His protruding belly indicated that, at the age of forty, Zé do Depósito fed on things that others in his income bracket could also buy throughout the month: bread, biscuits, pasta, rice with beans and egg – although rice is so expensive that “it's becoming rich people's food”, he complained. “Meat cannot be eaten every day. No salad,” he says. “At lunchtime, I eat some cheap snacks. One of those in a package”. Luck, according to Zé, is having a public hospital close to the house. “The service is not wonderful, but for everyone in the region, this service 'is everything'.” Essential.

Zé's indignation grew when he reported a “research done by himself” in the supermarket he frequents. He was sure – and I admitted that he was right – that inflation is much higher than what the TV shows. “I noticed”, he said, “that a lot of things I buy on the market have the phrase 'new weight' appearing and that weight is always less than what was on the packaging before. So I pay the same price as before for a pack of less product each day. This is a way to hide inflation, right?”

The class goes on and he apologizes for not "being studied". He reiterated, however, that none of what he and the periphery experience is by chance: “There's an arrangement there”, he says. The question my friend asked was quite simple: “how come he works hard all day and doesn’t have a car and the boss’s son, who doesn’t do anything, changes fancy cars all year round?”. “And look”, he points out, “I'm not talking about the boss. It belongs to the son and daughter who show up at the depot from time to time, always in cars that I know are expensive, full of designer clothes and such”. “But the worst thing,” he grumbled, “is the boss saying that to get there, we and our children have to study. I keep thinking: either this guy doesn't know what a poor life is or he's a liar”. He made a gesture of impatience and continued: “Do you want to convince me that by studying at the school in my community, the kids will enter the same college as the boss's children? Will she vie for the same job? The same salary? Will you speak English? I really think they are fooling us.” My friend Zé was absolutely right.

“Now, the boss and the newspapers talk about such an industrial revolution, about a different future, about modern machines, about… about… Industry 4.0. Since then, they began to complain, to anyone who would listen, about the lack of qualified labor for companies”. “But with which school?”, Zé do Depósito asked me. More sad than angry, this “paulista” from the interior of Minas Gerais, did not hesitate to say: “It's stupid, you know? Because those who rule the country, a long time ago and even today, decided that a good school is not for the poor. In my neighborhood, the investment there is tiny. There's not even a computer for kids. It seems that, for the rich, young people from the periphery just need to know how to read labels and do math to be able to serve the boss. Now, they keep saying that we don't know how to do it, we don't know how to behave, we don't use the computer and a lot of other things”. With his tongue loose, he advanced: “but, boy!, without school, without health, without security and with the salary that we have in the periphery, do they want the worker to be modern and ready when they decide? I wanted to know if the children of these rich people would be ready if they went to my children's school and lived on my street”. Then, he pulls my arm and says slowly: “Look, Seu Marcio, with this human capital talk they talk about there, at the firm, every day, to justify our salary, they want to blame poverty and lack of work on us. job. For them, we are lazy. And I ask: so, how is it? Who does and does not do in the country will stay there, 'exempted'?”

Already ready to return to work at the warehouse, Zé also commented on the crisis caused by COVID-19: “This year there was still this pandemic. Most unfortunate thing. My uncle died in the hospital and my aunt needed money because government help was slow to arrive. My wife missed cleaning, my son, his job and there, on the outskirts, there's a doctor saying one thing, a pastor saying another, the 'Zap-zap' with a message anyway… The people don't know what to do. But since we have to work to eat, most of us closed our eyes and gave it to God”. At the end of the conversation, Zé do Depósito seemed discouraged: “What to do, Mr. Marcio? That's how poor people are in Brazil: they have no value. It only serves as arms to work for a rich boss to get richer”. And thoughtfully said goodbye: “Will it always be like this? See you later, Seu Marcio.”

I was left alone at the counter, watching my improvised teacher walk away among cars and people. In that conversation, I learned that Zé was Brazil crushed by inequality without the country's adjectives. My friend was a hardworking, intelligent, strong, honest and… poor man. By this last chevron he was judged, led, and controlled. Their talents, efforts or abilities didn't matter because they were never noticed or encouraged. He and millions of others, the country's decision makers, chose to downplay and use as muscle power. It was, then, inevitable to think about the superficiality of the analysts, graphs and newspapers that filled my head. So many almost equal opinions, axioms and reports and I had never realized that people, like Zé, were not seen. Theories know little about the poorest and devalue their anxieties, pains and anguish. The same theories, however, highlight the issues, numbers and concerns that interest the richest. The problem is that the invisible ones are the majority of the population. In fact, I had just understood the meaning of underdevelopment. A question then arose: who is interested in Brazil's underdevelopment? I believe that another cup of coffee, with Prof. Zé do Depósito, will help me answer.

*Marcio Ka'aysá is the pseudonym of a Brazilian economist, “without important relatives and coming from the interior”.


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