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Neoliberal Ties Doomed Latin America’s Leftist Political Tide

We must be willing to criticize Latin American governments from the left, says author Mike Gonzalez.

A man walks past a mosaic depicting late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) and Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro on a wall in Caracas on January 30, 2019.

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The pink tide, conceived as the rise of popular movements, provided a glimpse of what people’s power may look like – in the grass roots organisations, the cabildos abiertos, the popular assemblies, the Zapatista communities, the MST land occupations. These are only some of the many examples. Their central feature was their democratic, open and participatory nature. They were not always fluid or efficiently organised; they may have contained contradictions. They were noisy, messy, often with kids and dogs and reguetón in attendance. But that is how the creative intervention of the mass movement feels. And at times it produced extraordinary imaginative leaps, like the student demonstrations in Chile in 2012. All of these things were expressions of the unrealised potential for original and imaginative transformations. They were much more than lobbies or pressure groups – they were pointers towards the future. But the absence of political coordination and of thinking about the realities of power and how to address them left a vacuum which was filled by existing political strategies.

In his final writings, Hugo Chávez recognised that the Venezuelan state had not been transformed, though parts of it had been occupied by a new layer of Chavistas. Yet its functions remained largely unchanged, though ministries and ministers had had the words ‘people’s power’ added to their titles. The intention was no doubt good, but what did it signify in terms of a changed relationship between the movement from below and the state? It could be argued that many of the new occupants had come from the working class barrios, had been community leaders in their own right. This is certainly true in some cases, but were they charged with speaking on behalf of their base organisations or with carrying the decisions from above to the movement? In an unchanged state, the latter was their role; they were co-opted into the existing institutions. These people’s representatives became part of a new bureaucracy overseen by the PSUV, in other words by the state apparatus itself. Steve Ellner, whose analyses of Chavismo are sophisticated and thoughtful, acknowledges the absence of internal democracy in the PSUV in a lengthy 2017 article in Monthly Review. His starting point, based on Marta Haernecker, is that ‘the old state and a new one will coexist for a long time’. But their coexistence will not be harmonious, indeed it cannot be. It will be, as García Linera insistently reminds us, a contradictory and conflictive relationship, with the two sides pulling in opposite directions. Ellner’s defence of the existing Chavista state is based on the tactical necessity of coexisting with the bourgeoisie:

The government’s distinction between the hostile traditional bourgeoisie and a ‘friendly’ emerging one has remained largely unchanged under Maduro.

Friendly or not, it remains a capitalist class committed to the maintenance of a bourgeois order. Ellner quotes the intervention of one such friendly capitalist at the Constituent Assembly, where he argued fiercely for a return to private ownership of state enterprises.

The Ebb of the Pink Tide
The Ebb of the Pink Tide, 2018.

That could be regarded as a sign of a healthy openness in debate, were Steve able to cite more than one Chavista voice (Julio Escalona) criticizing the Maduro government’s approach to the bourgeoisie. In any event, a political formation claiming revolutionary credentials cannot take a neutral position between the old and the new states. The question is, where is the ‘new state’ being formed; in what forums is the debate about a future socialist society being conducted?

Madurismo is not a variety of revolutionary thinking but a state pragmatism, holding the balance between two class forces. In the Marxist vocabulary this is described as Bonapartism, and is by definition a transitional and fragile form. So the legitimate question for socialists to ask is what is being done to strengthen and prepare the new state that will at some time emerge from the old. Because that will be a conscious collective act informed by new values and new purposes. Yet Steve refers to people with a critical position on Venezuela (like myself) in a familiar way.

The disillusionment of many former Chávez sympathizers both in Venezuela and abroad likely stems in part from this privileging of grand goals over immediate challenges.

In other words, all critics are ultraleft utopians. But how often in the history of our movement have grand purposes (like twenty-first century socialism, for example) been sacrificed to immediate challenges that have a curious habit of becoming permanent? ‘Revolution now!’ is a slogan nobody really uses; it is a parody. But the revolution is a process of preparation, of extending and deepening consciousness, of testing new organs of power, of building that democracy from below, which is what socialism means. Dual power, Ellner, says is ‘an approach in which the old state is considered enemy territory’. That is a little crude; but the Poulantzian underpinning to his argument suggests that it is not hostile terrain. The proof lies in the elements in the situation that Steve Ellner does not mention. What does the Arco Minero project, and its definitive move back towards neo-liberalism, signify? It was a defining decision – and the full scale militarisation of the region, the suspension there of constitutional protections and the collusion with massive environmental destruction is not consistent with the building of a socialist alternative – but is its opposite.

What is urgent is to deepen the discussion about the pink tide experience among those committed to socialism under whatever label. Steve Ellner is right to speak about disillusionment, but that does not mean abandoning the field to others, to Castañeda’s ‘good left’. What the left failed to do in the past, in ideas and in practice, is learn from and with the social movements, what democracy can look like. At the level of ideas, Latin America is not without visionaries and thinkers for the future.

It is no accident that the social movements have rediscovered Latin America’s great revolutionary Marxist, José Carlos Mariátegui, who died in 1930, in the course of the struggles of the pink tide. Despite his youth, Mariátegui developed a Marxism that embraced indigenous America and a visionary (some call it romantic) socialism. He was demonised and rejected by the Third International for his refusal to bend to Stalinism. Today he is a source for rethinking the future.

On Populism

Commentators on the collapse of the left governments in Latin America deploy the concept of populism frequently, usually in a deprecating way. As a concept, it is prone to ambiguity and confusion. Yet it points to a real phenomenon that is helpful in understanding the pink tide.

In moments of political crisis – whose causes and nature may vary considerably, from the consequences of economic collapse to internal divisions within the hegemonic class or a collapse brought about by the dramatic loss of legitimacy of the political system, as has happened in Brazil with the corruption investigations, the ruling class, or class coalition, loses control of the political system. This was manifestly the case in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in the early part of the new century, and later in Nicaragua; in Brazil and Mexico in more recent times. This leaves a political vacuum with no collective political actor able to assume leadership. At such moments what Laclau has called ‘the empty signifier’ which ‘signifies a totality which is literally impossible’ fills the space amid what may well be a ‘catastrophic equilibrium’, as Garcia Linera described in the period 2003–5 in Bolivia. I do not share the general conclusions of Laclau, but the concept is useful. As I understand it, describes a moment in time, transitional and unstable, whose outcome is unclear. In that moment a new concept or discourse emerges which is by its nature ambiguous; it may well be eclectic, taking elements of different ideologies and melding them into a new symbolic referent. The ideological space is not, however, as Laclau suggests, empty, but it draws on contradictory elements – and or a period it may engage with different and opposing class interests. But it is also a battleground between social forces seeking to fill the concept with its own meanings. It is also a phenomenon that offers new possibilities or the promise of them, material or symbolic, to a wide enough range of groups in society to maintain control, though not yet hegemony. The populist discourse is not universal; it is forged out of elements of culture tradition, the collective memory and the remnants of other ideologies.

The conjunction of crisis and the emergence of a leader whose social roots and loyalties are sufficiently ambiguous clearly describes Venezuela in 1988, Bolivia in the wake of the Gas War in 2005–6, Ecuador in 2006 after the fall of Lucio Gutiérrez and Argentina in 2001, where the slogan que se vayan todos – let’s get rid of them all – perfectly exemplified the phenomenon. Brazil and Mexico lived through major crises in 1999 but they were resolved in each case without a breakdown in the system; in Brazil with the intervention of Lula, the Workers Party candidate. The financial crisis of 2008 hit the countries of pink tide differentially in the succeeding years but they weathered the storm at the time politically, though not economically, as we have argued. But they did not escape the longer term effects. By 2018, Mexico and Brazil were once again immersed in a profound political crisis, while the Macri regime elected in Argentina in 2015 has devoted itself to reimposing the core measures of neoliberalism, dismantling public services and privatising the national economy. The imminent elections in Mexico illustrate the problem to perfection. The hegemonic party, the PRI, entered an effective alliance during the previous presidency with the right-wing Catholic party PAN as its own internal crisis ended its seventy year monopoly of power. In the last two elections its presidential candidates faced Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a left critic of the old system who enjoyed wide popular support across the country and in the capital, Mexico City. Obrador claimed that the results on both occasions were fraudulent – and that would not be out of character with the exercise of politics in Mexico. Yet he has also responded to his double defeat by presenting himself in a very different light in 2018 – where his campaign has carried him to the presidency. In the meantime, the PRI-PAN collusion has collapsed, though both parties share an unshaken commitment to neo-liberalism. Over 20 years of neo-liberalism have produced a disaster in Mexico. The spread of violence and criminality, far from being brought under control by the military and the police, have penetrated and criminalised both. The murder of 46 students in the state of Guerrero was not an isolated incident, but it was especially savage and the final straw, with the open complicity of the state police and governor. Violence against workers, a systemic femicide, the murder of over 100 candidates in the current election round, are the tip of the iceberg, together with privatisation, particularly of the oil industry. The ruling bloc has lost control of the situation and the level of popular rage is rising, though it has no unified political expression. Against that background, Obrador has moved to occupy the space vacated by the PRI, not by building a clear left bloc but by absorbing elements from across the political spectrum under the banner of unity. The ambiguities in his current speeches illustrate the point.

For the left, the dilemma that presents itself is all too familiar. Like Lula, Obrador has moved to the right in order to gain power, and made compromises with business sectors and members of the old ruling castes to that end. Nonetheless, his past reputation is sufficient to create expectations among working people and the poor, reinforced by the propaganda war the right is waging against him, and the insistent comparisons with Chávez, which do him very little harm among the majority population. What is certain is that his prior commitments indicate a continuing neo-liberal direction, and some elements of state welfare provision. What we can assume is that he will not offer an alternative strategy for the achievement of a society of equality and social and economic justice. On the other hand, Massimo Modonnesi sees hope in Obrador’s moral campaign and his emphasis on honesty in the notoriously corrupt Mexican political system. That is to be encouraged and supported, but its limitations can be anticipated and prepared for.

For all its radical rhetoric the pink tide was a movement whose economic thinking was shaped by developmentalism, or what is sometimes called productivism. It has demonstrated once again its limitations, as it did during the import substitution period. The future will pose the same problems again.

There is imaginative and visionary thinking emerging from Latin America even amidst the crises of the moment. Alberto Acosta in Ecuador, Edgardo Lander and Roland Denis in Venezuela, Marisvella Stampa in Argentina, Pablo Stefanoni in Bolivia, Raul Zibechi from Uruguay offer us important starting points for a new discussion directed at the future. But for us all, the starting point must be a rigorous and honest appraisal of the present. Manuel Sutherland, the young Venezuelan Marxist economist makes the point well:

The left should criticize the ‘progressive governments’ with the same wisdom and insight that it applies to right-wing anti-working class regimes. There is no reason to ignore the problems that arise in those countries; the left should instead collaborate in an urgent search for meaningful proposals, and this will involve analyzing objectively the ‘progressive’ governments and criticizing them with the methods of dialectical understanding. If the Titanic sank, there is no justification for denying the wreckage in the name of solidarity and anti-imperialism.

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