Digression on power in the political economy of Zé do Depósito

Blanca Alaníz, Quadrados series, digital photography and photomontage based on the work Planos em Superficie Modulada by Lygia Clark no.2 (1957), Brasilia, 2016


Brazil seen and read from below

“A handful of men in this country have been training the remaining ninety-nine point nine percent – ​​even if they are strong, talented, intelligent – ​​to live in perpetual slavery; a bondage so strong that you can hand the key of your emancipation into a man's hands and he will throw it back, cursing” (Aravind Adiga. The White Tiger).

The bakery where we sat down to lunch, Zé ​​do Depósito and I, was the same as always and, at noon, not even the fans turned on full blast managed to dissipate the heat. The unpleasant feeling of humidity, however, diminished with the wind from the propellers. So the conversation started on the street[I], on the day of Zé's resignation, he transferred to a counter and the PF was served. I knew the conversation would be long. But, I had time and my friend was unemployed.

Zé was still taciturn and his voice confessed secret rebellious thoughts that he had kept to himself. There was no naivety. From the days of the graphics union, in the oven of wage struggles and working conditions, he became a political man, attentive to everyday injustices. For him, Brazilian inequality was a stone in the sun, too heavy for a country to carry without blood conflicts. This intolerable reality repeated itself every day and was discussed on buses, trains and, later, in neighborhood associations and NGOs in the periphery. But never among the well-born of the city.

Zé spoke of a fractured society, which dissolved citizenship in smoke. To begin with, he did not believe in “Brazilian rich people”. What there was, as he saw it, were rich, period. The interests of this group were only national if they made a profit within the country. For any inconvenience or opportunity, these same rich people would send their money abroad or even leave Brazil. Without any remorse. Their affections, as I translated it, would be linked to the world, preferring to identify themselves as part of the international elite.

The middle class, for Zé, was nothing. “The white boys in suits who work in air-conditioned offices,” he described, “are today's taskmasters who control everything but own nothing. Like on old farms. They lack what gives power to the rich and, as a result, fear losing face. This is the truth”. Most, according to Zé do Depósito, were cowards. I was afraid of everything: violence, unemployment, but, above all, the rise of the poor and losing my job. status and the cheap servants who fit into his salaried pocket. The mentally chewed adjective was: pusillanimous! Although, the words of Zé do Depósito were not a shot in my direction, I was included in the “mass of cowards” and I thought where my friend and I were on the scale of social roles.

For the poor, Zé did not hold a much better assessment. For him, most were easily dominated by threats at work and by the “talk” of evangelicals, Catholics and the internet. “I see this every day in my street: the elderly find some solace in the church. Young people have other dreams: doing well, competing, winning. But really? They also have their 'shepherds'. Yeah... You know those internet kids who preach success alone and merit? Well, they are the 'shepherds' that young people follow. And it's all bullshit, just like religious talk. The boys are deceived and end up doing exactly what the managers say and the bosses want. In the end, they will grow old like their parents: with nothing.”

Zé's speech continued to be subversive: “Deep down, those who work and generate wealth in the country are the poor and the silly middle class who think they are the elite, but are salaried just like us. The problem is that the boss receives the 'lion's share' and accumulates, getting richer and richer. He can even hire more workers to get even richer. It's a circle. It has no end. How long has this been going on? Brazil has grown, there are modern things, and such, but the favelas are getting bigger every day.” And looking into my eyes, he added: “We workers, especially the poor, spend all our money on basic purchases. We spend what we earn. No savings. And the rich? They earn so much that, even buying nonsense, they are the only ones who can invest because they have plenty. But why don't they? Why don't they buy machines and employ people? Do you prefer the casino of the stock exchange and interest rates? Do they feel safer sending money out?” There was a short silence, and for a moment anger gave way to regret: “That's why it's all wrong: they don't care. They only know themselves. They betray the people every day. Every day there is news of a rich person involved in a scandal. To them, we're like horses: just muscles to do what they're told. But if we complain about the low salary, transport, housing, the boys' school, then, Mr. Marcio, we become a problem and here comes the police to end the complaint. And then, it’s poor people beating poor people to defend the good life of the rich.”

When he was completing the idea, Zico, another friend of Zé, entered the bakery. He made a party, greeted us and sat next to us. Introduced, I discovered that Zico ‒ he really looked like the football player ‒ , was also active in the graphics union and supported an NGO run by a “very brave” girl from the community where he lived.

Zé resumed speaking, as he was trying to explain to himself the dismissal and all the injustice he saw around him. “So, Zico, I 'was' saying, here, 'to' Seu Marcio, that our parents and grandparents came to work in the city because they hoped for a better life, one with less suffering than that exploitation on the farms. At the time, the country was growing and the poor had hope for the future of their children in the big city. In our future, 'huh'? But time passed, the economy stopped growing, industries closed, jobs disappeared, unions lost strength and, now, our children no longer have jobs and we are afraid of the future.”

"So," - he added, - "I want to know: how did we get to this? As we asked at the union. Remember, Zico?” The friend nodded and Zé continued: “I think that, really, Brazil hasn't changed much since forever. The rich, my dears, are always the same rich. Exit the father, enter the son. Not even the daughter enters. Women are seen as weak, good for taking care of only the offspring. And the son perpetuates the wealth and continues to order the employees to work and line the boss's pocket. The owner's son, even when he closes the factory doors, remains rich: he either goes into business or becomes one of those perky 'pretties' who earn money in the 'purse' without producing a pin. Want more? It's the same thing in the countryside: the son of a farmer either remains a farmer or sets up a company in the city. You see people, since when has this been repeated?”

Zico made a sign of impatience and Zé tried to cut it short: “Okay, okay… In short: rich people are united. There are no fights between landowners and city entrepreneurs: there are people and arms to explore at will and the government makes it easy. What I mean is that those working relationships that exploited people to exhaustion in the country are also in the city. It just changed the shape.”

This time, Zico tried to interfere, but Zé wouldn't let him. The new friend didn't bother and was taking big bites of his PF that had just arrived. “Then, when this crisis from hell comes, this dog virus, do you see rich people tighten up? I have not seen. Those who suffered were the workers and the owners of commerce, of small businesses. On the other hand, I read that in the union newspaper, the banks had an increase in profits. AND! In the middle of the crisis, the guys' profit grew. As? Just 'skinning' someone. It's not possible. The whole economy doing bad and they doing good? Someone lost a lot, and someone else gained. That simple. Anyway, I believe that for things to go less badly for everyone, it would be necessary to better distribute income in the country, but it is difficult. Here the resistance to change is such that the rich and the 'government' prefer the past and violence to giving more than crumbs to the people. And you don't need to be studied, like Mr. Marcio, to see that. It is enough to be poor to feel it in the skin.”

Showing signs of ending, Zé do Depósito went on to say: “What moves the world is work. Work is what produces wealth, what moves the wheels. In Brazil, however, it has no value. Our effort, toil, dedication of the best hours of the day, every day, only serve to enrich the owners of machines and goods. The worker, the one who created, transformed, put in order, sold, only receives enough to, at most, generate children who, in the future, will be new workers. Sometimes, he doesn't even get paid for that, as we see today. But without work, there is no commodity and there is no profit. Deep down, you can't even think about a country without work. And what is our value in society? Huh? Speak to me? Do we have any importance other than doing what they say? I am convinced that it is not.”

The words spoken by my friend had the bitter taste of uncomfortable revealed truth. Zico, who until then had only listened, had lost the smile on his face. His body was taut and reflected the drama laid out on the table. He started by agreeing with Zé: “That's Brazil: those who can rule, those who suffer obey, and everything stays the same, in their hands. Of the same! Sometimes, who does the dirty work changes, but the bosses are the same. Since always." And he continued: “That, Zé, does not allow the Brazilian to see the other as an equal citizen. In fact, I don't think we're even a nation. Just a collection of people who, willingly or unwittingly, have to live together, below and watched over by those above.”

Zico was also graphic like Zé. His years in the workshop of a major newspaper in São Paulo led him to join the union against what he considered abuse by managers and bosses. But more important, he said, was discovering that the workers are alone. That the government, justice, in short, the State was not concerned with them, simple, manual workers. He said: “The State wants order, to maintain the scheme, the functioning of things as they are.” Zico identified the State with the interests of the rich and operated by that fearful and obedient middle class, anxious to maintain the status social.

I listened attentively to what they both said and really wanted to take notes, read it later and reflect on my social role in this oppressive design offered by the two former graphic artists. My opinion of what I heard fluctuated between astonishment, agreement and open disbelief. Sometimes, Zé and Zico seemed exaggerated, resentful, but soon after, they told stories to illustrate what they said and, really, it seemed that their ideas and feelings were just the other side of the coin of Brazilian life. I was being convinced that fantasy was actually what white, well-educated, urbane people believed in.

I was thinking this when Zico called me: “Zé and Marcio, I'm going to say something 'to' you. Even with the government, justice and also the congress having this face of a partner of the rich, it is not possible to agree with what the bosses want: to make the State only insurance against crises, distributing crumbs and maintaining order, using force. Do you understand? They want to shrink the state in order to disorganize the only force that can oppose the power of the rich and impose limits on greed and exploitation. This story of freedom is 'soft talk for the ox to sleep'. What the bufunfa gang wants is nobody supervising, limiting their abuses against us and against nature. What they really want is for everyone to be a small company, including the worker. All competing against all. In their dream world, money will be the law: whoever has more can, whoever has less submits. Do you know what that means? It means that a very small, well-discussed and very rich group will rule and define everything: the good school, the knowledge that matters, the right consumption, good behavior and even what is a sin. All! 'I'm' saying that they want a world that is their image and likeness, but that only they, being the rich, have power. The control of everything will be theirs. This is tyranny in disguise, only!”

I was worried. What did Zico propose? I asked if I wanted breakage. Zico laughed and, teasing me, said: “Look there, Zé, the fear of the middle class? Any change smoke gets goosebumps.” I was embarrassed. He was right: I really was a closeted conservative. What a sad discovery. I then began to ask myself: “But to conserve what? The current income distribution? Of wealth? Of culture? Of power?! The old exploitation of nature? Submission to rich countries that say what we should think, consume and think is beautiful?” I was ashamed of myself, but I tried to hide my embarrassment.

The 'arsonist' then replied: “That's not it, Marcio. Sometimes I feel like breaking even, but that's not what I'm talking about. I want to say that it is necessary for the workers, the poor, to have power to share decisions in the country. Just that. The State 'is' there, ready-made, a large and powerful machine that, today, is only used by the owners of economic power. I think we should fight for it to be used by us too. I'm not just talking about crumbs from a school on the periphery or a UPA[ii] new. What I'm talking about is using the State to build a fairer society. I believe, and it may be my thing, that this is the only way that feeling of being Brazilian can arise, of looking at the other as an equal, as a part of the whole that is also mine. A small state, I say again, is something for the rich who want to do whatever they want, after having already enjoyed the public money as they wanted.”

It was clear that Zico was thinking about democracy. It was with no surprise that I noticed, then, that neither of the two, neither Zé nor Zico, spoke of a vote, when speaking about power in Brazil. Both knew what it was like to live in poor neighborhoods and, in this country, it's not new that voting, for those who don't have school, health, security, employment or hope for the future, can cost a basic basket or a temporary job. My friends wanted democracy, where the precariousness of one did not serve as a springboard for others to bargain their interests.

Visibly upset, Zé looked around with the sadness of someone who feels the indifference in the middle of a war: “That's right, see, Zico? And the comrades still have the courage to talk about entrepreneurship on TV, that agro is tech, agro is pop... It's the cambal! 'In the can', I wanted to know: what is the point of the economy growing? To reinforce all this and be left with only the crumbs left over from the feast of the rich? Yeah... The problem is that we are always cornered, with no way out. And because we are afraid, we happily accept the crumbs. Clear! We can barely buy what we need. And here comes the evil: we were taught that we are only something if we consume. So, all that remains is to say, to our face, that we are inferior. The worst thing is that to receive these crumbs, we still have to recite that everything is 'beautiful', smile because it has always been like this and say amen to those who exploit us. Meanwhile, the internet, the school, the church, bosses and managers say this is right. Then, after giving everything, they offer us poverty and affliction. We are not the guests at the party. We are the porters and the waiters. It's... It's difficult, but we resist. We’ve been doing this for 500 years.”

His face changed again and his voice rose as if he were going to speak on a platform: “So, guys? After all this, I ask: who is, at this point, the patriot here? Us poor people who need the country to do well or those soft-spoken suits who use, abuse, get all the help from the government and then run abroad? Speak to me, Seu Marcio! I am sure: a patriot is the poor person who needs Brazil.” It was Zé do Depósito's last outburst. In it, my friend exposed the accumulated sorrows due to the injustices he has experienced since he was a young man. Finally, he sighed, “This is not right.”

When we left the bakery, one of those big storms, common in the summer of São Paulo, was starting. Dark clouds piled up in the sky, the wind lifted the dirt from the streets and the rush of people announced an afternoon of many problems in the city: flooding, congestion, stopped buses, slow trains and Metro, maybe a power outage... I wondered if the approaching storm was not the portrait of Brazil: a small part of the population was protected and had everything at hand to survive well during the storm, while the patuleia would have to run, try to take shelter, but would inevitably get wet and take a long time in the traffic back to the house that could easily be flooded.

*Marcio Kaaysá is the pseudonym of a Brazilian economist “without important relatives and coming from the interior”.

To read the first article in the series click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/a-economia-politica-de-ze-do-deposito/?fbclid=IwAR3G2wYV8IOKVagBxsw_kzpFPE4FC4P4_fVGvdOHj7VErqrweY6xF5qzjFE

To read the second article in the series click on https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-poder-na-economia-politica-do-ze-do-deposito/?doing_wp_cron=1634916948.1522290706634521484375


[I] See previous chronicle: https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-poder-na-economia-politica-do-ze-do-deposito/?doing_wp_cron=1634916948.1522290706634521484375 .

[ii] Emergency Care Unit (UPA) is a public health facility that operates full-time for urgent and emergency care. More serious cases, hospitalizations and specialties are referred to hospitals capable of providing care to the patient. The UBS (Basic Health Unit), in contrast, provides routine care.

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