Space, frontier and class struggle in Brazil

Image: Diana Smykova


The opening of new frontiers beckons with new “eldorados”, pushing our contradictions forward in time and space

In 1952, the French geographer Pierre Monbeig, after his 11-year stay in Brazil, still had enough distance to realize that the publicity slogan – “Stay rich” – of the Federal Lottery, publicized in a small town in the pioneer zone of western São Paulo, it was, in fact, a “collective slogan”, which reproduced in Brazil the myth of Eldorado (MONBEIG, 1952, p. 110).

For Monbeig, the pioneer fringe embodies the birth of a Brazilian-style capitalism. As you flip through the pages of your book Pionniers et Planteurs of São Paulo, published in the 1950s, one has the feeling that the myth of Eldorado and the pioneers’ attraction to clearing the forest produced an illusion effect (in addition to indebtedness to acquire new land) in the so-called “small pioneers”.

The struggle to improve life, which could be portrayed by Monbeig in his observation about the development of Brazilian capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s, does not appear to the geographer under the aspect of a class struggle, agrarian or urban, but arises, especially, in the form of a migratory displacement of workers towards the frontier, in the fight against virgin forest, indebtedness, disillusionment, the return to the metropolis and proletarianization, after a long cycle of collective struggles with little claim. In this sense, the objective of this text is to present questions about the existence of a softening effect that the border space, and above all, the wide spaces like those of Brazil, can have on the degree of intensity of the class struggle in this country.


Class struggle geopolitics

If, from the historical point of view, the 1995th century is a century of violence (HOBSBAWM, XNUMX), from the geographical point of view, it is the century in which the sensation of a closed world-space emerges. Incidentally, the phenomenon of violence, whether revolutionary or counterrevolutionary, and the depletion of “empty” spaces (from the Western perspective) are closely related. The idea of ​​a closed space, which reached its zenith at the beginning of the XNUMXth century, corresponds to the fact that economic globalization has spread to all corners of the world. Politically, the spaces already had, almost all, some kind of sovereignty or appropriation. The result is that there are no more empty spaces that can serve as a compensatory valve for political conflicts and that can be the destination of large migrations. The English geopolitician, Halford Mackinder, predicts in the old style:

“From now on, in the post-Columbian age, we must again have to deal with a closed political system, and yet it will be one of worldwide scope. Every explosion of social forces, instead of being dissipated in a surrounding circuit of unknown space and barbaric chaos, will be strongly re-echoed from the farthest parts of the globe (…)” (MACKINDER, 2011 [1904], p. 87 ).

The Post-Columbian Era, for Mackinder, corresponded to the era of the Great Discoveries and the generalization of commercial capitalism. On this point, the British imperialist has the endorsement of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when both profess to evaluate the history of societies as a history of class struggle. The apex of the class struggle was also the new apex of globalization, the conquest of the world by railroads and economic and industrial globalization. At the Communist Party Manifesto (2008), in the famous passage in which the authors profess the radical social transformation produced by bourgeois society, in which “everything that is solid melts into air” (p. 15), it is possible to carry out a geographical reading.

In effect, in The Manifest, at the beginning of a long line of reasoning about the formation process of the world market, which “promoted an immeasurable development of commerce, navigation and communications” (p. 12), it can be understood that the filling of these spaces by capitalism produced a aggravation of political and social conflicts, from which “everything that was sacred is profaned, and people are finally forced to face with serenity their social position and their reciprocal relationships” (p. 16). Thus, within the era of closed space, the era of class struggle opens. The same observation was made by the revolutionary Vladimir Lenin: the apex of financial capitalism was also a new moment of wars and revolutions (LENIN, 2011).

Through these examples, it is observed how political violence, horizontal or vertical, can be related – from the geopolitical point of view – with the closing of spaces and their successive globalizations. It so happens that, still in 1935, another North American geopolitician, occupying the role of adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, Isaiah Bowman, took the accuracy of this “law” for its exceptions: the world was once again closed (on the eve of World War II ), but there were caveats: Brazil, South Africa, Australia and Siberia were still pioneering fronts. The problem, for us, is to reflect on how the pioneering front can constitute itself as a structure in Brazil.


Frontier and class struggle at the origin of Brazilian capitalism

To speak of an economic geography that addresses the birth of Brazilian capitalism and its social and political consequences, it is worth returning to the work of Pierre Monbeig. The idea of ​​the urban cycle, one of his first contributions to the subject, was presented in Brazil in 1940, twelve years before the defense of Monbeig's doctoral thesis, in Paris, in 1952. He maintains that this pioneering fringe urban cycle often reopens itself in space and reproduces a new cycle. From such openings arises the possibility of postponing agrarian and urban struggles, in the countryside and in the city. For this reason, the pioneer fringe that expands in the “empty” space, in the form of action and feedback on the space, also creates a cycle of overexploitation of the Brazilian worker that delays their sedentary processes and, consequently, their demands.

Monbeig introduces this cyclical apprehension of the Brazilian economy in space: Brazil inherits multiple urban centers from the colonial space, but the foundation factor of the city is a past factor, and what determines the geography of modernization are the factors of progression of urbanization on the fringe , as the impetus for advancing exploration of the purple earth by coffee was selective. This selectivity valued some intersections (cities) to the detriment of others. This, depending on the situation in a geographic network. Immediately, after the explosion in demand for coffee on the world market, there was a local advance of the railroad due to the resources of the purple earth and the position of the nodes of this economic space, in a network of geographic relations, (in which the relief , for example, played an essential role in favoring circulation) that generated the “flourishing” of cities. The pioneer fringe was moving towards its terminal point, the front, while the cities that were in the rear aged, generating a small internal market, small farms, small properties and a proto-industrialization.

In this condition, the new city that became the “mouth of the sertão” came to mean an important market between the part of the industrialized ecumene and the sertão. The new city served as a supply space between the areas then occupied and the remote areas, generating a real market of convergence between the products of the hinterland, an area not yet reached by the railroad, and the areas that produced manufactured goods. It is precisely this new city that began to attract labor from the country side of Brazil and promote its redistribution. The first crops that this city concentrated were distributed and exported by rail and later by the port, and they were exceptional. But soon the soil was depleted by its own pedological cycle, in tropical soils. However, the pioneers, those nomadic workers, the farmers and those small indebted farmers, managed to renew their hopes with the idea of ​​advancing even further into new lands. It was not yet the time for claims.

However, having captured the main information from the State regarding speculations about new railway constructions, the capitalists anticipated the idea and began to organize the new mouth of the sertão from a distance: scientific missions, speculations, land pricing, plans for the route iron. When there was a shift to pioneering front, from the renewal of the foreign market demand for coffee and the “discovery” of the location of the new terraroxa, the old city lost its status as a commercial warehouse and, in Monbeig’s words, the critical period began: the depleted soils would tend to not resisting the competition of the new zones and the old city decayed, expelling part of its inhabitants and starting a cycle of aging. With that, the new pioneers advanced to the new lands already divided among large farmers. And so the cycle repeated itself.

If, the now old city, had managed to solidify itself, adhering to a new urban function, it would have more chances of surviving: industries, schools, banking centers could help in the specialization of this function. An eventual syndicalism could arise. After the decadence, migrations could follow in two main directions in space: either to the new pioneer zones or to the industrial regions at the rear of the process, closer to the capital of São Paulo. In the new pioneer zone, a new beginning of the cycle could be seen. In cities, a cycle of growth and industrialization was generated. Thus, around the industrial city, the largest being the capital of São Paulo, neighborhoods or villages were built for the production of vegetables.

It is seen in the work of Pierre Monbeig that the problem of sedentary workers and, moreover, the construction of the internal market in Brazil, also have their specificities: the market was constantly shaken by the pioneering front and by mass mobilizations of workers. In addition, the sedentarization of work took place at the back of the process, after a long cycle of regional development led by the fringe, and which could be repeated as long as there was space (fertile soils) and external demand, that is, available resources and a propitious global economic environment. As already stated, the end of the cycle or the “aging” of the city would still retain the chances of producing the embryo of a unionism.

The essential fact is that the Brazilian worker settled on the land or in industry at the rear of the process, that is, between the metropolis and the pioneer zone, after his class, full of illusions, had been exploited in the pioneer zone. Thus, the sedentarization of work and the construction of the internal market went through a cycle of decades of dynamization of the front before taking place in the city.


Frontier and class struggle at the origin of the industrialized agrarian space

A text by Octavio Ianni released by CEBRAP in 1976 is a perfect continuation of the work of Pierre Monbeig. Incidentally, French geography seems to have left deep marks on the Brazilian intelligentsia. Octavio Ianni analyzes the production relations of the agrarian society, in the São Paulo municipality of Sertãozinho, microcosm of the pioneer zone, from the end of the 1975th century until 3. At that time, the municipality was going through the following periods: the coffee growing period, followed by its “aging” ; the emergence of polyculture; and, finally, the arrival of industrialization in the countryside, with the “wide domain of the sugar agroindustry” (p. XNUMX). But, unlike Pierre Monbeig, Ianni chooses the relationship between social classes as his main focus, which suggests an important sociological and political perspective in continuity with Monbeig's geographical perspective.

In this period of Sertãozinho's economic development, the slave workforce was being replaced by free labor and this, in turn, was being provided by the flow of Italian migrants. Ianni demonstrates the relationship that can be established between space and the issue of exploitation of the workforce: extreme social mobility is observed, which he calls “instability”, to which the worker was subject, and which the coffee farm had to win.

To this end, there was an overcontracting of labor, causing the constitution of an industrial reserve market to overcome the social instability caused by the very availability of space and the advance of the frontier, among other elements: “It is clear that not all settlers who arrived at the farms remained there. There was reasonable instability and mobility of the settlers, for economic, social and cultural reasons. There were those who did not adapt to the means and ways of life they faced on the coffee farm. Some clashed with the values ​​and standards of the slave style that often erupted in the relationships between planters and administrators and settlers and their families. Others were poorly paid by farmers. (...) There were those who looked for other farms, or urban centers, in search of better working and living conditions. (…) This instability explains the farmers' struggle to ensure that new immigrants always arrive in Brazil. It was necessary for their number to exceed the real needs of the crop, for the supply of labor to far exceed demand, so that the 'settlers' could be satisfied with reasonable wages and could also be easily replaced” (IANNI, 1976, p. 11).

This instability faced by the owners of the farms constituted a mechanism through which, on the one hand, the workers were able to take advantage: “In addition to the fact that they were never satisfied with their wages, the higher wages paid on the farms that opened up in the new zones, in clearing, made the colonists not renew their employment contracts with the same farmer (...)” (p. 12). On the other hand, a second consequence was the process, more or less residual, in which the settlers ended up acquiring land, mainly in times of coffee crisis, constituting a polyculture. The important thing to note is that in both situations, there is no sharpening of the class struggle on the pioneer front. Thus, perhaps it can be inferred that the counterpart of this extreme mobility or the temporary relief of monoculture on the land was also a process in which the organization of the workforce was delayed.

Afterwards, the coffee industry regains part of the land that was lost in the past, and a new concentration of property takes place in the municipality of Sertãozinho. It was also the moment when an internal market was established, either because of the resilience of the benefits of the polyculture phase, or because of the growth of cities. The social trajectory, therefore, coincides with the cycle initially portrayed by Monbeig: from settler on the pioneer front, to smallholder in polyculture, after a long period of clearing the forest and social mobility, until, finally, worker in the sugar mills. It is at this moment, according to Ianni, that a practice of making demands for organizing unions begins to appear in Sertãozinho, starting around 1940, but still with low intensity: “it is noted that unionism did not have major developments in the sugar agroindustry” ( p. 47), having received a stronger impetus from 1963, with the recognition by João Goulart, of the National Confederation of Agricultural Workers. The problem is that, while Ianni focuses on a validated periodization for Sertãozinho, if we follow Monbeig's reasoning, this is actually a broader cycle of action and feedback over space.


Frontier, space and sharpening of class struggles in Brazil?

In 1964, the Military Coup begins a trajectory of repression of the first rise of the struggles for claims. However, this trajectory of repression coincides with a new cycle of expansion towards the frontier, which begins with the expansion of soybeans. Such a cycle builds a parallel that seems contradictory to the argument that space could alleviate class conflicts. But now, the expansion of soybeans was mediated by financial and industrial capital. Apparently, with the industrial technique widely used, Brazil's own space was beginning to find the potential end of its borders, which also coincided with an even more vast expansion of large properties on new fronts.

Indeed, understanding this expansion involves understanding the major transformations of the Brazilian economy, and the way in which the role of agriculture was reconfigured in this new context. Because, in parallel, the accelerated process of urbanization, which took place between 1950 and 1980, led to a significant increase in non-agricultural employment, with the consequent demand for agricultural products in a short period of time. In addition, it was part of all the economic plans of the military governments[I] the diversification of agricultural exports, bearing in mind that, in addition to urban supply, agriculture continued to be a source of foreign exchange for the rest of the economy.

These transformations demanded and encouraged the beginning of a process of change in the technical basis of Brazilian agriculture, through its integration with industry, with the formation of the so-called Brazilian Agroindustrial Complex (CAI). This was a very relevant change in relation to previous frontier advances, since agriculture became less dependent on human labor and natural conditions, so that greater investment in capital goods and food processing would allow for greater manipulation of natural conditions and a greater degree of mechanization of production.

This process was extremely important in the sense of placing agriculture in the time of capital, that is, of making the expanded reproduction of capital in agriculture depend less on human labor and natural conditions and more on products and industrial processes. Thus, the marriage between the agro-food industry and the large agricultural property was consummated, which made possible a “conservative modernization” of Brazilian agriculture, in which the agrarian elites managed to keep their properties untouched, as well as their political power over the course of development of the country. country, with the industrial bourgeoisie as a “minor partner” (RANGEL, 2005a, b. 61).

That is, even if the new frontier were to expand, this would also coincide with a greater and vaster expansion of the large property, making the Brazilian agricultural space potentially more limited. Apparently, the process of mechanization and expansion of agroindustry occurred at an even greater intensity than the geographic advance of the border, which allows us to speculate that the argument defended here – that the border contributed to the relief of tensions – can still be validated, if well contextualized the technical conditions in the new expansion.

Possibly, as or more important for the expansion of soybeans towards the western frontier, was the land policy implemented by the regime established in 1964. In this regard, the military established two basic guidelines: the institutional bases of its agrarian reform project and the principle of inviolability of the rural enterprise, seen as an important pillar of the Rural Development Policy. With regard to the agrarian reform policy of that period, the frontier played an essential role, since the policy was fundamentally based on public and private colonization projects in vacant public lands and in spaces considered “empty”, in practice, this process constituted into an agrarian counter-reform. In private colonization projects, land was sold to companies for symbolic values ​​for the creation of agricultural projects. Agricultural projects also served as a way to guarantee control of land ownership, since its use <strong>Training</strong> business it was an essential condition for acquiring loans subsidized by agricultural incentive programs, in a tactic that concentrated land and subsidized credit in the hands of producers integrated into the agroindustry (SOARES, 2018).

In general terms, although the Land Statute contains a provision for Agrarian Reform, it was reduced to programs for titling and distributing lots on the fringes of colonization projects. The highlight of the land policy of the period was concentrated on supporting large rural enterprises. This support took place mainly through support for private colonization and tax incentives for agricultural projects. Furthermore, the entire space became virtually owned, as land ownership became a reserve of value in the companies' asset portfolio, as well as a means of obtaining credit and subsidized incentives. Then, there was an expectation of land appreciation due to the government's agricultural and agrarian policies, without the need to invest productive capital in these areas. Finally, this speculative view of land ownership left its price subject to capitalist valuation of financial assets and securities in general.

The expanded reproduction, and now mediated by financial capital, of the Brazilian landholding structure in the Midwest, especially in Mato Grosso (state with the highest land concentration in Brazil), as a result of the agrarian counter-reform carried out by the military dictatorship, created, apparently different way to other frontier cycles, obstacles to the absorption of these masses of rural workers who migrated towards the region. The space available for the absorption of labor surpluses in the Southeast and Northeast was restricted to a few subdivisions and colonization projects, which, for the most part, left out the poorest small producers, squatters and rural workers. For this mass, the destination was the outskirts of the new agricultural cities that emerged mainly on the axis of BR-163.

In this context, medium and large regional centers saw masses of workers (especially from the Northeast region) occupy areas precariously served by public infrastructure, considered in the dominant discourse as foci of violence, disease and disorder, against which strategies were reinforced. control and hierarchy in the organization of urban space, as well as the State security apparatus (FARIAS, 2020, pp. 159-166).

Therefore, it can be said that the new urban agribusiness space represented an important and unprecedented arena of conflicts on the agricultural frontier and an important stage of the contradictions of our condition as the “barn of the world”. The supposed “soybean El Dorado”, endowed with plentiful, fertile and cheap land, a land of opportunities for migrants, quickly became a closed frontier, where the violence, disorder and ills of this model began to be attributed precisely to those whose implementation supposedly aimed to attract migrants in search of new opportunities.

The spatial organization of the agro towns denotes how the class struggle in the new frontier manifested itself in a particularly violent way. However, it is in the world of work that this violence is expressed more clearly and with even more visibly exploitative purposes. Slave labor, meager wages and exhausting and excruciating working hours constituted the daily life of Brazilian agriculture. Even though the most profitable and industrialized sectors formally hired their workers, average wages rarely exceeded the line of the two minimum wages. (DIEESE, 2013, p. 30).

But, paradoxically, at a time when the closure of spaces became at least relative, and both the rise of conflicts and repression were accentuated, the cycle of expansion was once again relaunched. The rapid conversion of the “Eldorado” into an exclusion and segregation zone, into a “closed” frontier in various ways, leads again to a constant need for displacement towards new lands. Converted into functional spaces of the globalized monopoly agribusiness, over a period of 30 years, the soybean cities in the Midwest went from being a land of opportunities to a closed frontier, with a high concentration of land and no land available for new pioneers. Unemployment, violence and inequality have driven new conflicts, but also new migratory flows towards the new frontiers of agriculture in the Amazon, mainly in Rondônia and southern Pará, main stages of the current destruction of the forest.



Finally, this text does not intend to present answers, but questions: is this constant transhumance of work a fundamental characteristic of our development model? Would the survival of our model depend on the constant opening of new geographical frontiers, with the growing impoverishment of the mass of workers, tempered with a relief from the class struggle and immeasurable concentration of wealth? Apparently, is the possibility of moving in space towards new “eldorados” one of the factors that does not lead us to a situation of radicalization of the class struggle?

Perhaps, it can be said that, although the contradictions of this spoliating, predatory and concentrating model keep an important mass of workers in constant restlessness, such restlessness does not cease to be expressed through displacements in search of better opportunities for access to land and work – even if these opportunities hardly materialize or materialize residually – this appears as an alternative solution, at least to a part of the impoverished population, to the radicalization of the class struggle.

After all, how can we describe the mass of pioneers, garimpeiros, miners and squatters who are still constantly on the move? Through displacements and the constant opening of new frontiers, does the class struggle constitute a violent conflict, but politically of low intensity in Brazil? Although the dominance of the ultra-concentrated land structure and violence against workers generate constant and violent conflicts, the opening of new frontiers beckons with new “eldorados”, pushing our contradictions forward in time and space.

*Larissa Alves de Lira, PhD in Geography from the École des Hautes in Social Sciences, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) at USP.

*Herick Vazquez Soares it's dPhD in economic history from the University of São Paulo (USP).



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SOARES, Herick Vazquez. The soy eldorado in the Brazilian Midwest (c. 1980 – c. 2010): the monopoly production of space from a historical-economic perspective. 2018. Thesis (Doctorate in Economic History) – Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, 2018. doi:10.11606/T.8.2019.tde-20052019-143227



[I] For the military government, agriculture had the role of ensuring low prices for the products that predominated in the formation of labor prices and generating foreign exchange through the export of agricultural goods. in natura or already industrialized, as expressed in the Government's Economic Action Plan (PAEG) and in the Strategic Development Plan 1968-1970, the basis for the I PND (1972-1974).


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