Managing transience: Bolsa Família and its subjects in an MST landless settlementby Gregory Duff Morton

The Journal of Peasant Studies


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Managing transience: Bolsa Família and its subjects in an MST landless settlement

Gregory Duff Morton

Published online: 10 Feb 2015.

To cite this article: Gregory Duff Morton (2015): Managing transience: Bolsa Família and its subjects in an MST landless settlement, The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2014.978298

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D ow nl oa de d by [N ew

Y or k U niv ers ity ] a t 1 5:3 0 1 4 M ay 20 15

Managing transience: Bolsa Família and its subjects in anMST landless settlement

Gregory Duff Morton

Bolsa Família, the world’s largest conditional cash transfer, provides welfare payments to 13 million Brazilian households – and creates dilemmas for Brazil’s rural landless movement, the MST. Through ethnographic analysis in two villages, this paper explores the daily practices and political conceptions of the program’s beneficiaries.

Bolsa Família does not, as is often believed, create a de-radicalizing sense of contentment. Instead, the program generates a temporality that makes the benefit feel unreliable to beneficiaries. These beneficiaries must mediate the tension between ‘citizen’ and ‘manager’ identities, the latter being a salient subject-position produced by Bolsa Família. The precarity of this position helps explain why Bolsa Família has not inspired significant mobilization by social movements.

Keywords: Bolsa Família; MST; conditional cash transfer; welfare; manager; neoliberalism; temporality

In the ruins of the great wooden farmhouse, overlooking a dry valley that the government had redistributed, the movement’s next generation was camped out for the weekend. It was a cloudless afternoon late in 2011. The leaders of the MST, as Brazil’s landless movement is called, had convened a 3-day training, hoping to turn some new recruits from Bahia into militantes, or organizers. Clear skies notwithstanding, this training shivered with the feel of frank anxiety.

The anxiety was about Dilma Rousseff. Dilma, Brazil’s Workers Party president, had been elected with support from MST activists, but as her first year in office came to a close, she was refusing to redistribute land at even a modest pace. Instead she had prioritized the continuation of a set of massive development projects and social service programs. The most important of these was Bolsa Família,1 a conditional cash transfer that uses electronic debit cards to deliver modest monthly payouts, preferentially to low-income mothers. Bolsa Família, in the 10 years since its creation, has proven both extraordinarily popular among its recipients and crucially effective at relieving hunger, school dropout and child mortality (De Brauw et al. 2010; Rasella et al. 2013). © 2015 Taylor & Francis 1 ‘Bolsa Família’ is roughly translatable as ‘Family Grant’, ‘Family Scholarship’ or ‘Family Purse’.

The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2015

D ow nl oa de d by [N ew

Y or k U niv ers ity ] a t 1 5:3 0 1 4 M ay 20 15

But, like other conditional cash transfers around the world, Bolsa Família is not a right; it is a social program. The money is delivered to families that comply with certain human-capital mandates for children, including school attendance and vaccination. Bolsa Família, I will argue, operates inside a deep politics of transience and management: transience as the time-system for bureaucrats and beneficiaries to think with, and management as the subject-position for them to occupy. Bolsa Família remains always temporary; it must be managed, never counted upon, never demanded. To the trainers in the wooden farmhouse, this politics seemed like a threat to the very logic of the MST.

That afternoon the anxiety was getting channeled through Otilo.2 Tall, prone to smiling, disposed to both pessimism and friendliness, Otilo was in his late twenties and he had braved land occupations and marches for a decade. Now it was time for him to help train a new crop of organizers. Pacing near the edge of the valley, he restlessly asked the assembled crowd of about 50 landless farmers:

Otilo: Folks, who gives Bolsa Família to you?

Answer me here–

Otilo: Pessoal, quem dá Bolsa Família pra vocês?

Me respondem aí–