Lula and the politics of cunning

Patrick Heron, Six in Vermilion with Red in Red, 1970


Commentary on the newly released biography by John D. French

In the book The Brazilian Workers' of ABC, thirty years ago, John D. French had already perceived the link between electoral and union phenomena. In Lula and the Politics of Astúcia: from metallurgist to president of Brazil, recently released, the American professor focuses on “a historical personality of the first order”, with emphasis on his personal trajectory, family experiences, migrant origins and companions in the struggle in the context of the socioeconomic evolution of the state of São Paulo, from 1950 onwards .

The 684-page biography holds attention with a well-distributed narrative. The Portuguese edition encountered difficulties with commercial and academic publishers. It was made possible thanks to University of North Carolina Press and the author, who gave up their publication rights free of charge to reach “Brazilians, who are the most interested and most impacted by the contribution to better understanding their country”. The historian warns: “In this book, Lula will not be treated in isolation or as someone entirely merged with his context”. Nor can it be explained using self-sufficient abstractions such as “charisma” or “lulismo”. The text is a dense lesson in dignity.

In the First Part, “Origins and Roots”, John D. French presents the family saga of the young Luiz Inácio, which the “elites” would like to remain hidden. Then, with an analytical lens from the outside in, he focuses on “Latin American Detroit as an extreme example of industrial production on an unprecedented scale. The gigantic Volkswagen factory in São Bernardo employed between 35 and 40 thousand workers in a single complex”. The ABC metallurgist strikes at the end of the 1970s had a double meaning. They infused a formidable energy into a “new union movement” that spread throughout the national territory; at the same time, they strengthened opposition in civil society to the military regime. The scale and intensity of the mobilizations were staggering.

Among the ways to narrate the trajectory of the biography, the choice fell on the image of the “pau de macaw, which symbolizes changes occurring so quickly that the developments went unnoticed by many contemporaries; the younger generation found themselves in a modern, urban society, but their parents were born into a very different world”. From the perspective of intelligentsia, oThe northeastern migrants waved to egalitarian interventions by the public power, with the aim of social reforms, national development or socialism. The nation's painful division between a traditional pole (Northeast) and a modernizing one (São Paulo) was evident. “Metallurgy – with the ABC as its center – was at the forefront of an industrial revolution”. The rapid urbanization of the region, accompanied by a vertiginous industrialization that generated jobs, income and self-esteem attracted rural migrants, from near and far (Garanhuns).

From the domestic environment, the illustrious son underlines the moral value of “stubbornness” to live independently (Dona Lindu, Lula's mother), love (Marinete, Lula's sister), dream of a fair society (Frei Chico, unionized brother). “Stubbornness made me president,” declared Lula in the rearview mirror. Supported by the obstinacy to live, love and dream, the person excluded by birth embarked on what seemed to be an impossible mission, improbable by any statistic. The middle class sees the moral trait of tenacity as synonymous with an insistent ambition to move forward, with faith.

Union militancy, in a sense, condensed stubbornness into the plane of economic struggle and provided an opportunity to forge bonds with courageous men and women. But that's not all. For an analogy with the imaginary of the two brothers, after the 1964 coup, “Lula, the citizen-turner mechanic, and Frei Chico, the citizen-worker, are part of the same history of self-affirmation of the working class of São Paulo”. The classist configuration movement is the synthesis of disparate moments, in the face of the ideological hegemony exercised by the dominant classes.

Lula's entry into the union, on a situationist ticket, depended on the nomination of the politicized brother (affiliated like Vladimir Herzog to the Brazilian Communist Party / PCB). The controversies in the assembly, which watched quietly without reaching the political motives, were wielded by cadres of clandestine organizations. At the time, the minimum wage lost 20% of purchasing power. “But the 'us-against-them' rhetoric of the young revolutionaries blurred the distance that separated members of the more literate classes, however radical, from the workers in whose name they claimed to speak and act. Immature and bookish ideas made them oblivious to the workers' visceral resentments”, points out John D. French. The vanguards did not know how to question the soul of the working class.

For Lula, empathy with commoners' suffering was not an intellectual equation, but an existential one. Poverty, immersion in material shortages, hunger and unemployment were experienced by Lula da Silva. About the fruitless search for a job in 1965, she reports: “I would leave at 6 am, take Via Anchieta on foot”. Nothing was more humiliating than “leaving with a professional card in the morning and coming back in the afternoon, with it in a sweat without finding a job for months after months”. The public and social policies of reparation by the governments of the people, for the people, amounted to a self-criticism assumed by the State, for immemorial negligences that sacrificed the most vulnerable layers.

The second part of the biography, “From Luiz Inácio to Lula”, opens with the praise of important institutions on the pilgrimage “to Lula” until the early twenties: the Roberto Simonsen School of Senai, inaugurated in 1954 and the portentous six-story headquarters of the São Bernardo do Campo and Diadema Metallurgists Union, inaugurated in 1973. In the first, he trained as an apprentice and, subsequently, as a lathe operator; in the second, he joined as a full-time director. Both constructions echoed optimism, from top to bottom, with the country's post-war industrialization dynamics. They reflected hope “in a working-class elite inspired not by class struggle but by social peace”, as intended by the systematic sociologist Oliveira Viana, who worked with Lindolfo Collor, Minister of Labor, to draft Getulio’s labor legislation.

Only on p. 259 and 278 ss, the term “astúcia” appears in the title of the research. The intention is to show how everyday politics affected the perception of the working class, “giving shape to the cunning” through which workers explored metropolitan São Paulo. It was the way to get around the police-military repression and the supervision of the foremen over the bodies in the factories. "Cunning is the subordinate art of circumventing difficulties." Or: “Astuteness was central in the fight to 'win in life' in Lula's generation”. That was and is a survival strategy to face adversity.

The improvement in the living conditions of qualified ABC workers was expressed both within and beyond the walls of the plant. The questioning about the fruits of progress in the “economic miracle” happens in the awareness of their denied rights, in the battlefield “of a war of maneuvers of 'us' against 'them', common in the workplace”. The “dissimulation” tattooed the universally hated and execrated figure of the “snitcher”, in collusion with the powerful.

“In their immediacy, workers had much to celebrate: land purchased, houses built or expanded, consumer durables purchased, and more formal education.” Professional affirmation and economic ascent were combined in the portion that landed in the capital of São Paulo, in pau de arara and in misery. The qualification allowed them to think with more autonomy. Unlike unskilled workers, they maintained a greater sense of responsibility.

“Skilled workers had a powerful motivation to seek individual achievement associated with robust professional pride. In addition to a certain team spirit, these men were veritable learning machines, impatient with social and cultural subordination and given over to a persistent suspicion about the way in which the booty of economic growth was being divided between bosses and employees”, emphasizes French. The thinker Ortega y Gasset seems to advise the biographer, at every moment, about the character and his intricate circumstances.

In the social sciences, the expression “socialization” is used to designate the processes that induce human beings to adopt standards of conduct and values ​​of the social environment. This learning, in Lula's case, has a before and an after of the discovery about the strength of the organized collective, either to claim rights, or to protect itself from the discretion of the instruments of repression in charge of the state. “It was this collective mobilization that generated the charisma that Lula came to exercise as commander of an army of pawns”. The charisma was stamped “in the minds, in the culture and in the emotions of those who applauded, booed and cheered during the demonstrations”. The notion of an organized collective was a lesson learned in the trade union struggle, then transferred to politics with boldness and success.

“We are all pawns! We are all Lula!” In the slogan created by the union base, the workers' class consciousness was expressed "for itself". In Pierre Bourdieu's terminology (quoted by French), 'the signified, that is, the group, is identified with the signifier, the individual, the mouthpiece'. Charisma is wrapped in this social magic. Speech acts were performative for constituting social subjects who then defined themselves politically. Like public intellectuals, to the Sartre, now laborious anonymous became public workers, to the Squid – head up.

The principle of organization spread through urban and rural movements. Exponents lent a special value to “non-important people”, in neighborhoods, at parties, in bars, in individualized interconnections. Such leaders became known as “authentic”, because they were free from corruption and demagoguery. Horizontality facilitated the emergence of a collective identity and built workers' power against employers and the state, in public spheres of resistance. The Workers' Party (PT) and the Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT) are heirs to the aura of the Vila Euclides stadium and grassroots democracy. Lula's election in 2002 symbolized the apogee of democratic struggles. The World Social Forum (WSF), in Porto Alegre, helped to globalize the trademark of PT administrations, the Participatory Budget (OP). Participatory citizenship was born.

In 1993, former communist Jorge Castañeda (in The Unarmed Utopia), in Mexico, and former socialist Fernando Henrique Cardoso (The Challenges of Social Democracy in Latin America), in Brazil, criticized the left and embraced the free market, the minimal State, the rationality of accumulation and agreements with the USA. On the contrary, an authentic popular leader joined the social movements to defeat the “single thought”, organize the São Paulo Forum and denounce the interminable imperialist economic blockade of Cuba. Journalist Elio Gaspari, writing about “the years of lead”, was enthusiastic about Lula's presence on the national scene, painting him as a man “without an owner”. It reads itself without organic articulation with the left. Today, he does not seem to share the same opinion, due to the credit granted to the lawfare in the programming of Globo.

By focusing fire on “neoliberalism” and on the nonsense of the Washington Consensus (1989), the counter-hegemonic bloc employed astuteness in the fight it waged against capitalism. Astutely, he kept “capitalism” in a drawer to undermine it under a code name, beating him in the liver like a boxer. This was the source of inspiration for the new dictionary of politics that received impetus in the apotheosis of Hugo Chávez in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Lula in Brazil. “For the love of God, the iconic metallurgist asked economists in the federal administration, do not make the mistake of using the words 'development' or 'economic growth' without adding the phrase 'income redistribution'”. It was the capitalist dimension of greed that it revealed.

The third part, “Lula, the ABC workers and the search for the Presidency”, of the lengthy biography, refers to the companion who fulfills the promises already sworn in as president. There are moving passages, such as the one (p. 589) that alludes to the stimulus given by the Lula and Dilma governments to the “solidarity economy”, which encompasses a network of cooperatives. The most symbolic of the successful initiatives, which deal with the precariat, organizes around 800 brave collectors of recyclable materials, in the garbage. Friar Leonardo Boff calls them “new prophets”, under the prism of the First Testament, for bringing an alternative ecological proposal to the logic of consumerism and waste in the “society of abundance”. During the period in power, Lula spent every night of Christmas Eve with the fighters who take care of this environmentally correct activity.

On December 24, 2010, at the end of her second term, she took Dilma Rousseff to meet two thousand cooperative members across the country. In the hall where they gathered, there were handmade banners with inscriptions like: “The fight is good, the fight is hard, the fight continues”; “The street catches, the street sings, the street enchants with struggle”. In the interviews, proud of the simultaneous presence of two presidents, they did not spare praise for the government that took care of the poor and “gave people food and work”.

The work on canvas has the merit of revealing windows that allow the tree to be seen, without hiding the forest; vice versa. Others are implied, such as the works of Celso Amorim, “the best chancellor in the world”, according to the magazine Foreign Policy. Tireless in the implementation guided by the Lula ruler of the South-South strategy, which included Africa in the negotiations. Or the work of the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA), under the responsibility of Miguel Rossetto, to bring visibility to millions of still unassisted workers. Quilombolas (ancestral communities formed by fugitive slaves), rubber tappers (such as Chico Mendes) and riverside dwellers (such as those who discovered the murdered bodies of Tom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon) were recognized.

The memory of the series of victories to redeem the atavistic rural abandonment evokes the gesture of the small farmer from Rio Grande do Sul, in the Grito da Terra Brasil, wrapped in the patriotic flag, who embraced Minister Rossetto when he told that he had gone to the Bank to hand over his smallholding property, and informed that Agricultural Insurance had paid off its debt – good policy also touches managers. That, on one of the tripods of the unfinished Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil, the “agrarian question”, which with the “national question” and the “democratic question” were never completed, observes Florestan Fernandes.

The “Lava Jato gang” and the “approval of FHC under false accusations aimed at removing Lula from the 2018 presidential race” did not escape analysis, which made the escalation of the “extreme right ogre” possible. There was complacency with those who “proudly stayed outside the democratic consensus of the New Republic; his fascist, racist and sexist stance has always attracted attention, including public rebuke, but at no cost, given his political marginality”.

Jair Bolsonaro, thus, continued with bellicose statements against “the weak – women, blacks, indigenous people, gays, northeasterners, manual workers, environmentalists and left-wing militants, and against politicians (called corrupt), the illiterate and academics with too polite”. The incomplete democratic question gave birth to the ogre; the incomplete national question, privatizations handed over at liquidation prices by Petrobras, Eletrobrás, the Central Bank, etc.

At the conclusion of the text, with the headline that exposes the persecution suffered (“Victim of his successes”), the virtue of the ruler convicted in a fraudulent process. The Brazilian Supreme Court of Justice attested to his innocence, confirmed by international justice through the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations (UN). “The charismatic Lula mobilized words, interests and emotions to establish and cultivate relationships; the organizing Lula extended his influence with a dedication to institution building, through movements, unions, parties and government alliances” (p. 616). Even opponents dare to question it.

Lula is a “walking metamorphosis”. In his own words: “When they ask me what I am and what I came for, I always say that I am the result of my class. If my category evolves, I evolve” (Statement to the ABC Workers' Memory Preservation Project, Museu da Pessoa, April 2000). The radicality of the leader is an expression of the politicization of the followers.

In the Epilogue, John D. French revisits the theoretical debate (Tolstoy, Carlyle, Plekhanov, Trotsky, Bourdieu, Sartre, Engels) about the role of individuals in history. The tendency is to “engulf concrete historical subjects in broader explanatory mechanisms”, in which individual militants are portrayed “as participants in an impersonal system”, warns the late historian and leader of the PT Marco Aurélio Garcia (1941-2017), in the article "The gender of militancy: notes on the possibilities of a different history of political action”, recalled in the final paragraphs.

In short, as taught by the French Enlightenment of the “three powers”, Montesquieu, in the Persian Cards published three centuries ago, it is necessary to learn from a foreign perspective. Saint of the house performs a miracle.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.



John D. French. Lula and the politics of cunning: from metallurgist to president of Brazil. Translation: Lia Machado Fortes. São Paulo, Popular Expression & Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2022, 688 pages.

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