Democratising Class Theory
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Understanding and Misunderstanding the Pink Tide in Latin America

by Tom Chodor on April 14, 2015

The recent departure of the late Eduardo Galeano, author of the classic Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America), highlights more than ever, especially since the late 1990s, that Latin America has been at the forefront of experiments with alternatives to neoliberalism, which themselves have been highly contested. Indeed, beginning with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, Latin America has seen a ‘Pink Tide’ of leftist governments elected across the region, all with a mandate to confront ‘savage neoliberalism.’ And confront it they did! Over the past decade, the region has made impressive developmental strides under Pink Tide governments, lifting more than 56 million people out of poverty, more than 20 million out of extreme poverty, and bucking the global trend by reducing income inequality. As even neoliberal stalwarts like the IMF have been forced to admit, states in the region seem to have found the ‘enviable sweet spot’ between growth and social progress.

jorge-casteneda1And yet, understandings of the Pink Tide too often remain rooted in a simplistic binary between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lefts, best articulated by the Mexican diplomat and scholar Jorge Castañeda in 2006. According to this ‘two lefts thesis,’ the Pink Tide divides into the ‘good’ countries – for example Brazil, Chile, Uruguay – which embrace neoliberal globalisation and reap its benefits, and ‘bad’ ones that remain ignorant of the new globalised reality, pursuing fruitless utopias leading to economic ruin; with Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador the usual culprits.

ChodorIn truth, the situation is a great deal more complex, and in my new book, Neoliberal Hegemony and the Pink Tide in Latin America: Breaking Up With TINA? I offer an alternative framework for understanding the Pink Tide, focusing on its two most prominent members: Brazil under the Workers’ Party (PT) governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, and Venezuela under Chávez and now Nicolás Maduro. Utilising the work of Antonio Gramsci, I argue that the Pink Tide is itself a contested phenomenon, an object of social struggles in a process Gramsci would recognise as a ‘war of position.’ Within this war of position, different social forces put forward alternative political, economic and social projects – ‘historical blocs’ – that seek to respond to the organic crisis of neoliberalism, with Brazil and Venezuela the two clearest articulations of this process.

Brazil’s project can be understood – in Gramscian terms – as an example of a ‘passive revolution’ – an attempt to reform the most objectionable aspects of neoliberalism in order to preserve consent for it. Whilst a passive revolution inevitably involves significant material and ideological concessions to the subordinate and marginalised classes, its ultimate aim is to preclude more radical challenges to dominant class hegemony from below. In the Brazilian case, this has seen the Workers’ Party governments articulating an industrial strategy that charges the state with increasing the competitiveness of local capital in the global economy via ‘neostructuralist’ means reminiscent of the East Asian developmentalist state, including subsidies and inducements for R&D, an increased focus on education and training, the promotion of ‘National Champions’ in their bids to conquer the global market, and the fostering of a tripartite compromise between state, capital and labour, all while bolstering domestic demand via public investment and financing. At the same time, social policy is oriented towards improving the conditions of the marginalised classes, for example through increasing wages and expanding the provision of welfare and social services, most famously through the ‘Bolsa Família’ conditional cash transfer program.

While delivering impressive socioeconomic results, the overall aim is to incorporate previously marginalised social forces – domestic capital and the subordinate classes – into the neoliberal historical bloc, in order to sustain consent for it. The result is a hybrid combination of reform and restoration, which, in certain ways departs from the neoliberal project, while preserving it in others. Nevertheless, this project should not be thought of as completely devoid of radical potential. As Gramsci himself reminded us, by the very virtue of the new balance of forces it creates, a passive revolution also necessarily creates new points of tension that can provide openings for more radical praxis. The Brazilian passive revolution is no different, and the widely reported 2013 Confederation Cup protests are only one example of a growing mobilisation by subordinate social forces seeking to push the limits of the possible in the Brazilian project. Thus, rather than a straightforward acceptance of the neoliberal common sense as the two lefts thesis would have it, the Brazilian situation is much more complex and interesting, as also Alfredo Saad-Filho notes in his assessment of The Débâcle of the PT.

This is even more so in the case of Venezuela, and the crude characterisations of the Bolivarian Revolution as Chávez’s authoritarian vanity project. Instead, as I argue in my book, the Revolution can be more accurately seen as a potentially counter-hegemonic project that seeks to construct a Bolivarian ‘collective will’ – an alternative emancipatory culture based on solidarity, social justice, democracy and protagonism that enables revolutionary praxis. In this analysis, Chávez played the role of a radical ‘organic intellectual,’ reaching out to subaltern social forces, and articulating their multifaceted and often disparate grievances with the social order into a coherent critique of dominant class common sense, founding the basis for the collective will. Once in power, Chávez proceeded to construct political, economic and social structures that would foster this collective will and facilitate radical subaltern praxis. These include, for example, the Communal Councils through which people take over the management of their own communities, rather than relying on elected representatives or bureaucratic officials to do so. Economically, this has involved experiments with a ‘social economy’ in which the profit motive is replaced by a focus on the satisfaction of collective needs, through the promotion of Social Production Enterprises, cooperatives, and worker and co-managed factories. Likewise, there has been a drastic expansion of education, via a system of ‘Missions’ which provide access to education for previously marginalised communities, coupled with the radicalisation of the curriculum towards critical, holistic and transdisciplinary learning. In all of these structures, the focus is on constructing a new common consciousness to enable radical praxis with a strong geopolitical dynamic, as Luis Angosto-Ferrández writes on US-Venezuela relations.

albaHowever, the extent and success of these experiments should not be overstated. They are, still, experiments, and occur within the context of the traditional social order. Thus, for example, the social economy experiments remain cautious and often problematic, and embedded in a larger economic project more accurately described as state-led capitalism rather than socialism. Likewise, the traditional institutions of the state endure, while corruption and occasional authoritarian practices remain a problem. This reflects the fact that the Bolivarian collective will remain very much a work in progress, highlighting the difficulties of constructing a radical alternative culture in a short historical period.

Moreover, the Revolution has not attained hegemony across society. While the Bolivarian historical bloc brings together an alliance of subaltern social forces, the state and the military, local and transnational capital remains vehemently opposed to the Revolution, while the middle class support is contingent on the satisfaction of material needs. With Venezuela in the midst of an economic crisis fuelled by a capital strike and policy mistakes, this threatens the future of the Revolution, especially in the absence of Chávez following his death from cancer in 2013. Nevertheless, I argue that the Bolivarian Revolution has unleashed a process of profound change in Venezuela that will not be easily reversed; a process that, contrary to the two left thesis, creates openings for a radical democratisation of the country.

In a sense then, my book agrees with the notion that there are two lefts in Latin America, exemplified by Brazil and Venezuela. However, unlike mainstream analyses, I argue that the difference between them should not be conceived of in dichotomous terms – as a stark choice between ‘reform’ or ‘revolution,’ or a simple difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ leftism. Rather, it needs to be understood dialectically, in terms of the potentials for radical transformations that arise out of their interaction. These, I suggest, are most evident at the regional level, where Brazil, Venezuela and other Pink Tide members, are creating a new regional common sense, characterised by a renewed emphasis on Latin American autonomy and unity, and desires to deepen democracy and find alternative development strategies in the global political economy. Just as it is domestically, the exact meaning and emancipatory potential of this common sense is the subject of a regional war of position, in which competing social forces put forward different projects for the region. They do so via new regional institutions like UNASUR, ALBA, CELAC, BancoSur or Telesur, which create the sort of spaces for social struggles that have never existed before in the region’s history. Thus, there is a new historical bloc under construction in Latin America, one that, in Gramscian terms, has clear counter-hegemonic potentials. As Eduardo Galeano states in Open Veins of Latin America:

The Latin American cause is above all a social cause: the rebirth of Latin America must start with the overthrow of its masters, country by country. We are entering times of rebellion and change. There are those who believe that destiny rests on the knees of the gods; but the truth is that it confronts the conscience of man with a burning challenge.

To what extent these potentials become actualised will only be clear with time, meanwhile my examination of neoliberal hegemony and the Pink Tide in Latin America might offer insights on the global search for alternatives.

Tom Chodor
Tom Chodor is a UQ Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. His research interests are in the areas of international political economy, international relations and globalisation. In particular, he is interested in the struggles over consent and hegemony within the neoliberal world order, and the transformative possibilities that emerge from such struggles. He is the author of Neoliberal Hegemony and the Pink Tide in Latin America: Breaking Up with TINA? (Palgrave, 2015).

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