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Book Reviews

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The military claims to have relaxed its political control in Brazil. This month’s books include a study questioning the reality of the Brazilians’ new freedom.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Democracy - or else

Brazil: State and Struggle
By Bernardo Kucinsky
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Latin American Bureau (pbk) £2.50
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Democracy - or else Last November, Brazil held its first general elections since the military coup of 1964. Five newly-formed political parties contested the elections. But a post-election issue of Isto é, a Brazilian weekly news-magazine, carried a cartoon strip by Henfil, a well-known cartoonist, commenting wryly on the significance of the elections to the Brazilian worker. A bent and bleary-eyed factory worker punches the clock every morning, a slave of industry and the régime. On November 15th, the clock becomes a ballot-box, and he is transformed into Superman as he puts his paper in. The next frame shows him, bent and bleary-eyed, punching the clock again.

The elections were presented as the triumph of the government’s plan for abertura (the opening up or redemocratisation of the political process). But post-election blues are setting in as it becomes clear that the government is not about to hand over power although the opposition parties won the majority of the votes. In the northeast states where the government party, the Partido Social Democratico (PDS), secured its political stronghold, supporters of the opposition during the elections have suffered reprisals, and in the southern states where the opposition was victorious, the government is setting up rival power structures.

Brazil: State and Struggle unmasks the apparent relaxation of political control by the military. The book’s central theme is the history and development of the Brazilian labour movement and the attempts of the State to control and repress it. The struggle of the book’s title, although claimed in the introduction to embrace the struggle of the popular movements against the ruling groups, refers principally to the struggle of the trade unions against the State since the labour legislation of the Vargas government in 1937 established State control of the unions up to the abertura of General Figueiredo who promised to bring democracy back to Brazil, even if he had to do it ‘by force’.

The sixth chapter, The Struggle Unfolds, which describes the first genuinely grass roots movement to occupy an important space on the political scene’, the Cost of Living movement, is an important chapter which could well have been expanded. The Cost of Living movement mobilised women from the slum favelas of Brazilian towns and cities on an unprecedented scale, and’ not only demonstrated the local base communities’ ability to take co-ordinated action on a national scale... [but] had also begun to undermine the government’s machinery of electoral patronage in the localities’. The chapter also describes the first big workers’ strike for ten years, the role of the church in the support of rural and urban struggle, the Amnesty campaign and the rebirth of student politics.

Brazil: State and struggle is certainly a useful source book and a concise introduction to current central issues in Brazilian politics, as well as providing a background to the development of the trade unions. But the author has given all too little attention to the struggle in the rural areas, a struggle more bloody and more desperate than that of unionised workers in the urban south, and one of increasing significance. Sixty-nine rural workers were killed in land conflicts in 557 municipalities in 1980 and 1981, and rural syndicate leaders have been assassinated one by one. The rural union movement is one of the most dynamic areas of popular organisation in contemporary Brazil, and while the book includes a section on ‘The War on Land Squatters’, a fuller treatment of the rural struggle would have done better justice to the book’s theme.

Suzanne Williams
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Suzanne Williams is Oxfam UK’s Field Secretary for Brazil

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In brief...

From: Low cost physiotherapy aids. Why did the British Government fund a Club Mediterrané in the Cacos Islands as part of its overseas aid programme? Why did the EEC and the US refuse even humanitarian assistance to Vietnam? How come the recipients of food aid actually decline in nutritional status, only to improve when the supplements stop?

These are some of the questions I hoped to find answered in The Contradictions of Foreign Aid by Desmond Mc Neill (Croom, Helm, hbk £10.95). I was disappointed. The book makes pleasant reading – the text is mercifully free of developmentese and Unospeak . But the very blandness of the style serves almost to massage the ‘contradictions’ of the title into no more than differences of motive between the various people involved in setting up aid projects. In fact, the general lack of analysis makes one suspect that McNeill doesn’t see any fundamental conflicts in foreign aid and that he is prepared to take the donor’s motives at face value.

The optimism is as refreshing as the conclusion is unexceptionable — that foreign aid should be untied and controlled by the recipients. But the absence from the picture of the actual recipients of aid (as opposed to their governments) does not seem to point to radical change.

The Appropriate Health Resources and Technologies Action Group (AHRTAG) has brought out two useful publications in the ‘Where there is no doctor’ style: many drawings and few words.

How to look after a health centre store (pbk £3.00) tells how to order, organise and dispense supplies necessary for a primary health care programme. Low cost physiotherapy aids (pbk £1.00) has almost no words, but 45 pages of drawings illustrating how to use and make aids with locally available materials – literally with sticks and stones

Deborah Eade and Anna Clark


A Poor Man’s House
...being the book that showed how thrift can be a vice

In 1906, Stephen Reynolds abandoned his prosperous middle class existence and went to live in ‘a poor man’s house’. He became lodger to a fisherman’s family on the south-western coast of England, squeezed into a poky little cottage along with fishing-tackle, cats, wet socks, oily fish, Bob and Main Woolley and any number of noisy, grimy-faced children, and recorded his growing admiration for the fishing families’ way of life in a sensitive and imaginative journal.

A Poor Man’s House is a compilation of extracts from this journal Published in 1908, it was raptuously received, even by such celebrated contemporaries as Conrad, Galsworthy and Bennett The journal was meant to be the basis of a novel; fortunately, it remained intact in this highly personal form— a hotch-potch of dialogue, rumination, misspelt postcards sent to him by fishermen, poetry, polemic and sea-shanties. Its freshness and authenticity allow Reynolds to get away with a degree of sentimentality and uncritical dogmatism that would have grated in a more polished form.

Reynolds’ purpose was to convey the true quality of the fishing families’ lives to a prejudiced middle-class. He argued, for example, that thrift (a favourite middle-class virtue) becomes a ludicrous concept when the money that comes into a household is so meagre and so irregular that any attempt to create savings is laughable. If there were to be some wonderful windfall, then its rarity would justify spending it soon: when you are this poor, there is never going to be a time when you can afford to splash out— you have to do it whenever you can, for your humanity’s sake. To be nervously laying by for the future at all times is to descend to soullessness.

The openhandedness of lucky fishermen sharing out their catches with their hungrier fellows on shore taught Reynolds that it wasn’t ignorance but a warmer sense of priorities that governed the apparent thrift-lessness of the poor, an ability to respond to the human needs of the moment The fishermen, he decided, were, like the sea, inwardly large.

Several episodes in the book illustrate Reynolds’ distaste for the meanness of the rich who dare patronise the poor for mismanaging money, while themselves making the elementary error of putting profit before human dignity. At the local regatta, for instance, the tourists offer small prizes to the winners of the boat race; they love to watch the poor men scramble to win a little loot What they don’t know is that the fishermen always pool the prize money and share it out between them. The ‘scramble’ at the finishing post is a fake: a private arrangement among the poor that preserves their dignity and dissociates them from the patronage on offer.

How has this cultural divide between the classes come about? Reynolds argues that the poor live close to the primal realities of life — birth, death, risk, starvation. The gentlefolk’ live on the surface of life, on perpetual holiday; their crises are no more than dents to their comfort, not threats to their existence.

This disconnection from hard, external reality is reflected in their superficial personalities: they live on the level of manners and masks, out of touch with other people, out of touch with themselves. Like a compliment paid with cold eyes, their textbook good manners— which pretend to lubricate social intercourse — actually reinforce the barriers between people.

But the poor cannot avoid reality and they live connected to their real feelings, which pour out nakedly: the Woolleys shout or weep in public, swear constantly ‘You danged ol’ fule!’, but when they show affection you can rely on that, too, springing from the heart. A gentleman, by contrast, would only invite you formally to dinner — ‘next Friday’, never to ‘potluck tonight’ — if he is feeling extra friendly; and if he is angry he will conceal his bark but will bite hard enough to ‘make his teeth meet if he can’.

This view of the situation puts Reynolds in a philosophical dilemma He doesn’t want his beloved fisherfolk to suffer material hardship for ever: but he is afraid that prosperity would divorce them from the very qualities that make them so admirable.

Reynolds does tend to spoil his case by overstating it — and perhaps even to invite the misunderstandings of solemn sociologists half a century later who looked on the poor as a cultural subspecies with characteristics like the inability to defer gratification’.

But his sincerity can be in no doubt He passes the final test, which must be how long he lived like this. He lived with the Woolleys until he died, aged 38— a brief life but a chosen one. He’d put into practice his own best piece of advice: ‘Better risk hell for heaven than lounge about paradise for ever.

Anuradha Vittachi

A Poor Man’s House
by Stephen Reynolds (1908)
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Oxford University Press (pbk) £2.95
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