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In elections and beyond: fight for an ecosocialist city and against the city of capital

Programmatic Editorial

In the country of ‘favelas’ (slums), ‘morros’ (hillside shantytowns), ‘palafitas’ (stilt houses on river banks), and ‘periferias’ (sprawling poor suburbs on city outskirts), urban inequality has become even more divided during the COVID-19 pandemic. The spatial chasms within Brazilian cities were the greatest factor in the transmission of the disease. Far from just being a moment in which people are only concerned about “the asphalt on the roads”, taking part in municipal elections means denouncing the very urban segregation that establishes whether or not life itself in the cities can be guaranteed.

To “live” is how one sleeps, moves, breathes, feeds, and does or does not exist. It is the geographical condition of class that signifies whether workers have a roof over their heads, have a job, or drink clean drinking water. Adequate housing, basic sanitation, and public transport, all of which are social rights linked to the responsibilities of municipal administration, are not a reality for millions of Brazilians today.

There are around 100 million people (47% of the national population) who have no access to sewage facilities, 35 million with no access to the water supply, and close to 30 million people who either live in substandard housing or are excessively burdened with rent. This urban poverty, which may seem like no more than a “shortfall”, is in fact part of the very pattern that has promoted Brazilian industrial urbanization.

The fact is that housing costs, a special commodity in the reproduction of workers, were never added to the costs of social reproduction, which then allowed for the formation of low average wages and the systemic denial of access to land. This is especially so in metropolitan regions, which continue to be transformed (destroyed and rebuilt) in combination with the transformations of the world of work itself.

On the one hand, the fact that housing, this basic commodity of consumption, is not contained in the average price of wages, has led to the expansion and acceleration of city sprawl on the edges of cities where the price of land is lower, and where families erect their homes in dubious allotments and precarious positions. In Brazil, there are around 5 million dwellings in 14,000 areas of precarious conurbations, such as the Paraisópolis complex in São Paulo or the Maré complex in Rio de Janeiro.

On the other hand, urban land itself has become an enormous asset and therefore a source of concentration and centralization of wealth. In the 21st century, our cities have become increasingly dominated by interests that use real estate as capital, as a source of generating more money for a few property investors. This raises the price of land, and as a consequence, the cost of the social reproduction of workers in general. Between the years 2009 to 2014, Brazil experienced the highest rise in the value of real estate in the world.

Along with extreme poverty in the big cities, there is also the alarming growth in illness due to both respiratory and mental health problems. This is combined with the climate crisis that, in the 21st century, will be felt worst of all in the big cities: it is estimated that between 8 and 9 million people in the world suffer premature death from air pollution, and climate change can lead to city heat spikes that are up to 7 degrees higher than in environments with high vegetation density.

It is becoming more and more obvious that the needs of living in and moving around the city are obstructed by the interests that valorize urban land, the private owners of which (real estate funds, developers and investment groups) take over public budgets, monopolize the land market, hand out the directives for urban plans and works, and violently remove unwanted populations in the areas they have appropriated. This all leads to private owners increasingly capitalizing on the real estate ownership of land, and their increasing political monopoly over urban space.

This is why the last decade has seen a rise in important struggles over urban space. While not new to the history of class struggle in Brazil, there has been an increasing emphasis on such struggles since 2010. Occupations of and for housing, civil construction strikes, the demonstrations of June 2013, popular committees against urban mega-events and megaprojects, movements against the privatization of public spaces, occupations of schools, ‘rolêzinhos’ (‘little walks’ – mass gatherings of poor youth in upmarket shopping malls), cultural movements, and protests against the increasing militarization of poor areas and the genocide of the black population. The renewal of these struggles began with the real estate boom that started in the early 2000s, which restructured Brazil’s conurbations and increased the power and scale of the mid-sized cities linked to agribusiness infrastructure.

The housing problem in Brazil

In terms of housing, the socialist left needs to go beyond the experience of the Workers’ Party (PT) governments and their drive for a new cycle of accumulation in the construction industry. The “Programa Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (PMCMV – My Home, My Life Program), which in part revived the plans of the business-military dictatorship’s Banco Nacional de Habitação (BNH – National Housing Bank), was based on the productivist idea of a housing deficit, a “lack of housing”, and on the pretext of the feasibility of the construction of housing stock on an unprecedented scale. From its beginning in 2009 until 2019, 5.7 million units of housing were contracted, 4.3 million were effectively delivered and another 222,000 under construction. According to the Brazilian Association of Real Estate Developers (ABRAINC), the PMCMV in 2018 (a long way from its peak) was still accounting for 75% of all housing stock released to the market and 78% of all stock sold.

The anti-cyclical packages based on the construction industry (both civil and heavy) were central to the ‘petista’ (PT) pact with the Brazilian business elite, which experienced its peak between 2009 and 2013, and then declined after the implications of the Operation ‘Lava Jato’ (Car Wash) corruption scandal were felt. A huge mass of state credit to companies in the sector arose from these programs, but this was not the only thing that they produced.

They also reproduced a peripheral pattern of urbanization, with smaller enterprises in the lower income brackets being built in peripheral and hinterland regions of the metropolis, which created isolated clusters of housing within medium cities, clusters which were veritable “parking lots” of houses and buildings and terrible in terms of habitability, location and infrastructure. There are now millions of new private property holdings, which valorize urban land, push prices up, and then repeat the cycle of the expulsion from the cities of those within the working class most affected by urban spoliation and financial exploitation.

The entire real estate boom of the 2000s was made possible thanks to the resources of the Time of Service Guarantee Fund (FGTS – a government severance indemnity fund for employees), which financed the production and consumption of real estate. All the same, the problem of housing still continues ten years on. Research by the João Pinheiro Foundation shows that the 6 million new housing units needed in 2009 has grown to 6.3 million in 2015. There has been an increase in the number of families that are burdened by the need to pay more than 30% of income to rent while earning no more than three minimum salaries worth of income (the biggest issue of the housing deficit according to the survey), and well as increases in precarious housing, excessive cohabitation, and multi-family occupation.

Fighting the housing problem at its root means not falling into the contradiction of the dominant productivist discourse, which omits the fundamental need to control the price of land and real estate, promotes the construction of more poor quality housing stock, and guarantees the profits of developers and builders through public funding.

Instead of reproducing the contradictions inscribed in the recent experiences of the PMCMV cycle in Brazil’s main cities, it is necessary to redefine just what “housing needs” are, to consider the location of housing and its corresponding infrastructure as a primary criterion, and to pay attention to the new ways of living, the current diversity in family structures and in particular the significant increase in female management within the home.

In order to fulfill this requirement, the guidelines established in the City Statute (a 2001 federal law which aims to provide land access and equity in Brazil’s big cities) for the expropriation of idle real estate should be put into practice for popular housing. This should especially be the case in central neighborhoods, with priority for single mothers, women in situations of violence, and those living on the streets, and this should be based on a model of cooperative housing and collective property.

Combined with this, it is necessary to implement a subsidized public program for the renting of social housing, in order to go beyond the default setting of individual property ownership. In addition to social housing, there should be regulation and control of the rental market to ensure that the low-income population can live in central areas with public service infrastructure.

The urbanization and the legalization of land tenure in slums, occupations and urban allotments are also essential. This must be subsidized through public budgets, and so too the creation of ‘frentes de trabalho’ (‘work fronts’ – employment schemes for construction labor) that include qualified municipal technical advisory services and multidisciplinary teams. All such projects must be democratically managed and controlled. Special use for public land must be granted and the expropriation-sanction of private land exercised.

The projects, when relying on the organized management of the communities and movements involved, must have budgetary support for higher quality housing, with areas for living together (squares, courts, playgrounds, libraries, cultural centers) and community gardens for organic produce. Socialist candidates must also unequivocally commit to the immediate suspension of all evictions and housing repossessions of those who default on payments.

Ecosocialist proposals in opposition to the privatization of city sanitation and mobility infrastructure

Basic sanitation is another area in which capital is set to expand across the country. The privatization of the sector and the acceleration of its financialization were essentially authorized with the approval of the new sanitation framework bill of June 2020. Private companies will be able to bid just as easily for sanitation services as public companies.

Whether it is sanitation or public transport, price hikes are an indissoluble part of maintaining the profit rates of the private companies that gain from these current concession models. Publicly-listed companies can manage these services, but that means subordinating service provision to the sovereign rights of shareholders who only perceive of their shares in terms of corporate earnings. These companies choose to produce infrastructure where it is profitable, not where it is socially necessary. An enormous number of whole communities remain disconnected from sewage and water supply infrastructure, and with no alternative, they end up using rivers and other sources of water.

Because formal housing ownership has always been blocked for the black and poor population, road infrastructure that is dependent on bus lines is “justified” for reaching the areas furthest from city centers. This type of housing occupancy by class further deepens the dependence on this high pollution emission mode of transport, which causes poor air quality and a serious public health problem due to the proliferation of respiratory diseases.

Traditionally, bids for bus and subway contracts have been a haven for large scale corruption and the appropriation of public funds. Bus company mafias have won local government bids to continue operating terrible services for the masses, rob them through high fares, superexploit the workforce with low wages and increasingly precarious working conditions, and force operators to act as both driver and fare collector. Subway systems are also the object of serious schemes of international corruption, such as the famous case in Brazil that involved the French company Alstom.

Capitalist urban infrastructure is therefore governed by the movement to inject public funds into private companies linked to urban public services for their generation of surplus value, which is an enormous safeguard for the reproduction of capital in municipal economies. The problem is not only the private appropriation of what is public. Governed by the business, financial and private-profit logic of the city, the very means of producing the metabolism of human life and nature is at risk. Life has never been worth so little compared to profit.

That is why socialist candidates must fight for the ‘municipalização’ (‘municipalization’ – nationalization by local authorities) and expansion of investment in basic sanitation. Water needs to be a guaranteed fundamental right, cutting and reducing the water supply to poor neighborhoods must end, and a system of sewage collection and treatment that preserves sources of water must be integrated into public health programs. There must be structured plans for the regular checking and inspection of basic sanitation facilities to ensure that rivers become cleaner, and municipal plans for the construction of water, sewage, garbage and drainage systems that are built with the involvement of the social movements and local communities.

The banner of public transport municipalization must be raised, along with a plan to transform the transport energy matrix so that the emission of pollutants in cities, including noise pollution, is reduced. With the conversion of fleets to electricity use, workers in the fossil fuel-based public transport sector must be able to relocate to jobs in clean energy production.

An ecosocialist plan for transport and mobility should include investment in the expansion of long and short pathways in order to combat the use of private automobiles. Encouraging the use of public transport and the implementation of zero fares in this regard is also an ecological flagship.

Urban transport must be seen in an integral fashion, and include the renovation and restructuring of sidewalks for better pedestrian flow (the main mode of travel in large cities), the creation of safe and integrated bike lanes, encouraging the free and public use of bicycles and creating shop fronts for repair shops. The appreciation and validation of the rights of people with disabilities is fundamental, and for this reason it is necessary to build, together with social movements, a plan for improvements in urban accessibility.

Taken as a whole, these measures point to the need to confront the capitalist interests that organize urban life in Brazil, as well as the possibility of the articulation of urban space under a different logic. For a socialist left which intends to expand its role through the revitalization of social struggles, centrally addressing these issues and organizing the working class around the axes presented above is an unavoidable task.

This article is an English translation of “Nas eleições e além: lutar pela cidade ecossocialista contra a cidade do capital”, [https://esquerdaonline.com.br/2020/11/11/nas-eleicoes-e-alem-lutar-pela-cidade-ecossocialista-contra-a-cidade-do-capital/], Esquerda Online (EOL), 11/11/2020.

Translation: Bobby Sparks