Education as a practice of freedom

Sculpture José Resende / Latin America Memorial, São Paulo/ photo: Christiana Carvalho


Commentary on the book by Rebecca Tarlau, “Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education”

After the collapse of communist regimes, and the collaboration of so many social democratic parties in neoliberal capitalist globalization, understandably, a strong anarchist sensibility emerged in the radical left, which remained influential for a considerable period of time. From the continent-spanning anti-globalization protests at the turn of the millennium to the rapid spread of Occupy Wall Street from New York to cities across the US and beyond, the prevailing mood reflected a widespread suspicion, if not disdain, for any political strategy that involved going to state.

And then, kind of suddenly, there seemed to be a widespread epiphany that you can protest until hell freezes over, but it's not going to change the world that way. This epiphany came during the short period connecting the square occupations in Madrid and Athens and the rapid electoral advances of Syriza and Podemos in the middle of the decade. It also seeded the Corbyn and Sanders insurgencies within the dominant centre-left parties in the UK and the US.

The work of John Holloway Changing the World Without Taking Power (Boitempo), inspired by the Zapatista movement in Mexico, famously summed up the earlier mood on the left. Another important book, inspired by another very different Latin American example, captured the contrast with the zeitgeist later: Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education by Rebecca Tarlau.

Tarlau is a Democratic Socialists of America activist and professor at Pennsylvania State University, and the daughter of Jimmy Tarlau, a longtime union leader in the Communication Workers of America (Communications Workers of America – CWA). She presents in vivid detail the movement's "long march through institutions" within the Brazilian educational system, from primary school to universities, and from Rio Grande do Sul to Pernambuco, drawing further on her degree in anthropology at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. than in his graduate studies in pedagogy at the University of California at Berkeley. The result is one of the most in-depth analyzes ever written of what it means to be “in and against the state” as a strategic practice.

Forged in the difficulties of the struggle against the Brazilian military regime during the 70s, the cadres of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST) were closely aligned with those of the new Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). The distinct strategic orientation of the PT at the time could be expressed as follows: “we are organizing militants, that's what we are good at. But we need to enter the state. When we do, we will have to continue being organizing militants. We have to use state resources to help organize those who remain disorganized.”

It was this orientation that inspired the famous experiment in Porto Alegre of participatory budgeting, where a PT mayor had already been elected at the end of the 80s. As I can attest personally, when activists who attended the World Social Forums at the turn of the millennium heard about the achievements of this experiment, most of them returned from Porto Alegre sounding a lot like journalist Lincoln Steffens after his trip to the USSR in 1919 and came back declaring, "I've seen the future, and it works."

In fact, the participatory budgeting process was riddled with contradictions and limitations, as was already clear to those who had launched the experiment a decade earlier — not least in the sense that participants at the bottom never had the opportunity to decide on strategic issues. most important issues that the local PT government had to deal with. Yes, favela representatives were allowed to choose to put resources into building a sewer or building a road, but they were never involved in addressing the strategic issues of how to deal with landowners who claimed that land, as soon as those roads and sewers were constructed.

By contrast, the MST actively engaged in the development of political and strategic competencies in its camps and settlements (as well as its national cadre school in southern São Paulo). MST militants also dedicated themselves, as Rebecca Tarlau shows so well, to nurturing such skills through the public education system.

When the PT elected its first mayors in the late 80s, the party found it faced accusations of “clientelism” if it hired a bus to take protesters to Brasília to challenge the way federal spending on public services was being channeled to cities. . Since party leaders were committed to ending clientelistic practices, they didn't know how to respond to this criticism, so they simply stopped doing it. The MST did not have to face the same political contradiction. However, their own long march through the weak educational structures of the clientelistic state and municipal governments soon left these governments dependent on the MST to help run the schools, even as the MST managed to radicalize many of the teachers who were initially suspicious of the movement. .

What made the MST distinct as a social movement in this regard was, and remains, its explicit status as a class movement — and, no less explicitly, a socialist movement. Most of the literature on social movements in recent decades has taken the form of hostility to class analysis, not to mention hostility to the “grand narrative” of replacing capitalism with socialism. Tarlau's achievement is to turn social movement analysis back to class analysis. It also emphasizes the kind of socialist strategy that involves working “within and against” state institutions to transform them—rather than merely protesting outside them, let alone “crushing” them in the old insurrectionary sense.

However, this incredibly sober book is by no means an exercise in teasing. Indeed, Tarlau's study of the MST's involvement in “disputed co-governance” in Brazilian educational institutions offers a stark contrast to much of the existing literature on Brazilian experiences with participatory budgeting institutions, which so often presented them as “real utopias.” The MST did not transform the entire Brazilian educational system, it only changed those apparatuses in proximity to its own spaces of occupation and settlement, and the institutions of higher education directly involved in training teachers for rural areas.

As Tarlau shows, the Ministry of Education itself was practically unaffected. This raises further questions about what it would mean to go beyond transforming state structures that are primarily involved in social reproduction, bringing into question those institutions that are centrally involved in reproduction. Valuation capitalist, such as central banks and departments of finance or commerce.

Furthermore, insofar as it talks about the very different experiences of the MST and the PT in Brazil, the study raises yet another question: namely, what strategic competencies should a mass political party try to develop if its objective is to occupy all the state land in order to transform it? This is the key question facing the socialist left in our times. That Rebecca Tarlau's important book leads us to reflect on this issue is yet another of her considerable achievements.

*Leo Panitch (1945-2020) was professor of political science at York University and co-editor of the Socialist Register. Author, among other books, of The new imperial challenge(Merlin).

Translation: Julia Dorea

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Brazil.



Rebecca Tarlau. Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers' Movement Transformed Brazilian EducationOxford University Press, 2019.


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