"Civilizing" Rio: Reform and Resistance in a Brazilian City, 1889-1930.
Professor Meade informs her readers at the outset that "the process of writing this book has been long and choppy.... [I]t is a project that has been put down and picked up many times over." (p. ix) Unfortunately, the book gives every indication that this was indeed the case. Its theoretical apparatus dates almost entirely from the 1970s; and the author's style of analysis is strongly reminiscent of that bygone era. It has been twenty years or more since I last heard the term comprador bourgeoisie applied to Latin American elites; yet here it is, on page 22. Though it is the "masses" and the "nameless people" of Rio de Janeiro who are the nominal subjects of this book, "British imperialism" turns out to be the prime mover and shaper of the events depicted. Thus, as Meade concludes in the book's penultimate sentence, while lower-class Cariocas (natives of Rio) "may have in no way seen themselves as resisting imperialism's plan for the built form of their city," in fact "that was their ultimate task." (p. 192).
The book does not really spend much time analyzing how imperialism (embodied here by two utility and construction firms, one British and one Canadian) determined the path of Rio's urban development. Rather, its focus is on how lower- and middle-class Cariocas reacted to the changes taking place around them. Those changes were indeed dramatic. They included the doubling of the city's population between 1870 and 1890, as European immigrants and newly freed slaves poured into the national capital, and its doubling again by 1920. Sanitation authorities launched public health campaigns aimed at eliminating yellow fever, smallpox, and other scourges; and urban planners largely demolished and rebuilt the center of the city in the style of belle epoque Paris. These projects produced a dazzling simulacrum of European "civilization," but at the price of dislodging tens of thousands of workers and their families from their homes and neighborhoods and shipping them off to live in desolate suburbios miles from the city center.
Lower-class Cariocas struck back in a series of protests, demonstrations, riots, and strikes. In describing and analyzing these events, Meade stresses two central points. One is that collective protest at the point of consumption (e.g., against price-gouging by grocery monopolies or trolley companies, or against inadequate or non-existent urban services) is as much a vehicle of class consciousness and class struggle as is protest at the point of production (i.e., strikes). Second, the frequency and magnitude of these protests "calls into question conclusions that Rio's popular classes passively accepted their lot." (p. 149)
But who in recent memory has drawn such conclusions? The only quotation that Meade supplies concerning worker passivity is from 1963! (p. 183) Her assertion that Ruth and David Collier's 1991 comparative study of Latin American labor alleges such passivity is, in my judgement, simply wrong. If anything, the Colliers repeatedly demonstrate the impacts on national politics of labor's bargaining, pressuring, and politicking. Some Marxist authors of the 1970s (e.g., Sheldon Maram, with whom Meade takes issue at several points - why isn't he in the index?) did impute a lack of class consciousness to Brazilian workers. But definitions of such consciousness, and historians' understanding of class-based behavior, have broadened considerably since that time, with the result that most recent depictions of the 1890-1930 period portray it as one of considerable popular agitation and protest. One has the sense of Meade flailing away at opponents who have long since moved on.
The same with consumption-based protests. Again, labor historians of the 1970s were not always willing to see these as class-based phenomena (which was why Ira Katznelson's City Trenches , which Meade cites repeatedly concerning the importance of such protests, was indeed an advance in the literature). But by now, and especially after the widespread mobilization in Brazil during the 1970s and 1980s of poor and working-class neighborhood associations demanding improvements in basic urban services, it is generally conceded that mass-based urban protest is as much a part of class struggle as are strikes.(1)
Doubtless it is good for us to be reminded of this point and to have some concrete historical examples. But one can't help noting that the book's most informative material along these lines is already available in the form of journal articles (including one in this journal, 1986, and another in Journal of Latin American Studies, 1989), and that vivid accounts of Rio's urban growth during this period, the labor movement, conditions of urban life, etc., can be found in previously published works by Jose Murilo de Carvalho, Sidney Chalhoub, June Hahner, Jeffrey Needell, and other authors. Given the availability of those sources, I can't say that I learned a lot from this book that I didn't already know, with one curious exception: the existence in Argentina of "a program to eliminate people of African descent from urban areas, and eventually from much of the population, by forcibly relocating blacks from the cities and dispersing them through the countryside or out of the country entirely." (p. 29) Eager to learn more about this, I was startled to find myself, along with Aline Helg, cited as the source. Neither of us mentions such a program, which as far as I know did not exist.
On the positive side, Meade writes clear and literate prose, and the book contains a number of evocative photographs.
George Reid Andrews University of Pittsburgh
1. See for example, Lucio Kowarick, ed., As lutas sociais e a cidade: Sao Paulo, passado e presente (Sao Paulo, 1989), published in English as Social Struggles and the City: The Case of Sao Paulo (New York, 1994).
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|Author:||Andrews, George Reid|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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