Territories of Dissent: The Cultural Political Economy of Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement
The crisis in Brazil has issued in a new, highly unpopular President, a return to boldly neo-liberal policies, and renewed debate about the effectiveness of the country’s political institutions and its economic future. With the political left weakened by scandals and adverse media coverage, social movements have grown in strength – none more so, arguably, than the Homeless Workers’ Movement (Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem-Teto, MTST), which in five short years has gone from a clandestine movement engaging in land occupations on the periphery of São Paulo to a protagonist on the national stage.
In this paper I draw on long term ethnographic research of the MTST and propose a relational framework for theorising its emergence and some of the key spheres in which it is active. More specifically, I examine: first, its trajectory and makeup as it relates to the shifting terrain of the political economy; second, its use of a federal housing programme (My House My Life Entities), which has enabled the MTST to construct formal housing for its members; third, the movement’s presence in the media, through which it campaigns together with alternative media partners such as Media Ninja; and fourth, the cultural work of the movement that serves to cultivate solidarity and shared values in occupations on the peripheries of the city. I respond to calls to ‘bring capitalism back into the study of social movements’ by drawing on two elements of the Lancaster school of political economy: political and economic structuration and semiosis.