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Passive Revolution: The Transnational Capitalist Class Unravels Latin America’s Pink Tide

A dependence on the globalized system of production and finance has been the left’s undoing in Latin America.

The day after the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Washington, DC, on May 31 at the behest of the US and right-wing Latin American governments to debate the crisis in Venezuela, judge Nelson Moncada was gunned down at an opposition protest in Caracas, in a crime that some claimed was an act of revenge for his involvement in the sentencing of a prominent opposition politician. The OAS, however, remained silent on the crime, as well as on the deepening crisis and escalating state repression against mass protests sweeping Brazil and Colombia. Bolivian President Evo Morales accused the OAS of seeking to “politically eliminate the anti-imperialist presidents and governments” in Latin America in line with the historic pattern of US intervention in the region to prop up right-wing dictatorships and crush revolutionary and progressive movements.

The leftist governments in Latin America that swept to power in the early 21st century, known collectively as the Pink Tide, transformed the political landscape in the Americas and inspired popular and revolutionary struggles around the world. The Pink Tide governments came to power on the heels of mass popular resistance to the late 20th century juggernaut of neoliberalism and capitalist globalization in the region. Yet nearly two decades after the turn to the left, the right has resumed power with a vengeance in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Honduras, while the Venezuelan revolution is in deep crisis and the leftist projects in Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua and El Salvador have been emptied of much of their socialist pretensions. If this ebbing of the Pink Tide demonstrates the limits of parliamentary changes in the era of global capitalism, it also points to the renewed hegemony of the transnational capitalist class over the region.

The social model pursued by the Pink Tide governments involved the capture and redistribution of surpluses generated by the export of raw materials to global markets. Notwithstanding the leftist rhetoric, these governments oversaw a massive expansion of raw material production in partnership with foreign and local contingents of the transnational capitalist class, that is, the transnationally integrated ruling capitalist groups that emerged in countries around the world through globalization and that exercise collective control over the new globalized system of production and finance. As a result, the Pink Tide countries became ever more integrated into emergent transnational circuits of global capitalism and dependent on global commodity and capital markets.

There was no attempt to break with this extractivist model, even in the more radical experiments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, where energy and other natural resources were nationalized. All three countries deepened their dependence on the export of hydrocarbons and industrial and precious minerals. Venezuela is even more dependent on oil exports in 2017 than it was at the turn of the century. Soy production in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia experienced an explosive expansion as transnational corporate agribusiness displaced millions of smallholders and converted the countryside into a vast sea of industrial-scale soy plantations.

With the exception of Venezuela during the height of the Bolivarian revolution, what stood out were the absence of any shift in basic property and class relations despite changes in political blocs, a discourse in favor of the popular classes, and an expansion of social welfare programs. In effect, these governments carried out what Italian Marxist theorist and politician Antonio Gramsci referred to as passive revolution, whereby dominant groups undertake reform from above that defuses mobilization from below for more far-reaching transformation. The Pink Tide governments were “progressive” insofar as they introduced limited redistribution and restored a role for the state, less in regulating accumulation than in administering its expansion in more inclusionary ways. When we cut through the rhetoric, many of the Pink Tide states were able to push forward a new wave of capitalist globalization with greater credibility than their orthodox and politically bankrupt neoliberal predecessors.

The commodities boom financed the expansion of social programs that reduced poverty and raised the standard of living of the working and popular classes. Yet because there were no more substantial structural transformations that could address the root causes of poverty and inequality, these social programs were subject to the vagaries of global markets over which the Pink Tide states exercised no control. Once the 2008 world financial crisis hit, they came up against the limits of redistributive reform within the logic of global capitalism. The extreme dependence on raw materials exports threw these countries into economic turmoil when global commodities markets collapsed, undermining governments’ abilities to sustain social programs and generating political tensions that helped fuel popular protest and open up space for a right-wing resurgence.

Brazil was most indicative of the mild reformist thrust of many Pink Tide governments, and the most tragic for the popular classes. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the 2002 election only after his wing of the Workers’ Party moved sharply toward the political center and promised not to default on the country’s foreign debt. In Brazil, as elsewhere, the Pink Tide state remained a part of the larger institutional networks of the global financial system and beholden to transnational finance capital. The Workers’ Party government demobilized the mass social movements that brought it to power and then imposed austerity after the collapse. Only in this light can we understand the brazen return of the far right.

US intervention, of course, is a critical part of the story of the unraveling of the Pink Tide. As in other historical moments of counterrevolution, such as in Chile under Salvador Allende in the early 1970s and Nicaragua in the 1980s, US strategists have been deft at exploiting mistakes and limitations of the Pink Tide governments and manipulating legitimate grievances among the popular sectors in these countries for the purposes of destabilization. This is especially the case with the Bolivarian project in Venezuela — by far the most radical and socialist-oriented experiment among the Pink Tide — that has faced an all-out strategy of US counter-revolution since its inception.

There are other factors to consider as well, such as the particular dynamics of class and social struggles in each country that shaped the trajectory of Pink Tide experiences and the attempts at building an alternative regional economic bloc around the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

Yet these dimensions played out to the drumbeat of the expansion of capitalist globalization in the region followed by crisis. The transnational capitalist class used its structural power in the global political economy to defuse the Pink Tide challenge to its rule. In this way the transnational capitalist class demonstrated its capacity to subordinate leftist projects at the national and regional levels to its logic of global accumulation. The lesson seems to be that a viable project from below requires a more significant rupture with that logic than the Pink Tide was able or willing to undertake.

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