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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 276 | Julio 2004


Latin America

The Left in the 21st Century: Reflections, Tasks and Challenges

With the Latin american Left that created the Sao Paulo Forum in 1990 to "counteract the neoliberal onslaught" meeting in Managua as Nicaragua's "Lost Revolution" celebrates its 25th anniversary, this article analyzes what the Left should be doing and, perhaps more urgently, what it should be thinking.

Atilio A. Borón

The Left’s renewed presence in Latin American political life can be observed in the emergence of a series of governments that, admittedly vaguely, identify themselves as “center-left” or “progressive.” It can also be seen in the tumultuous appearance of new social movements that have acquired enormous influence in some countries.

Single thought, single policy

Edward H. Carr once observed that, midway through the 19th century, democracy was emitting a very unpleasant smell for the bourgeoisie and the classes allied to it. The same classes are finding the odor emitted by today’s “Left” and “leftist” expressions equally disagreeable. Such labels are usually used to designate political positions or proposals seen as “senseless,” “out of line with the times” or “demagogic.” “Good sense,” on the other hand, is identified with obedience to the policies—and not just the economic ones—dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or kowtowing to the Washington Consensus in general. Being “in line with the times” implies that the political actors have realized we’re living under the empire of globalization and that, as former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso put it, there are no alternatives within globalization and no salvation outside of it. Ergo, governments must passively obey the dictates of the Washington Consensus and work to see that they are implemented. This leads to the unquestioned rule of single thought and its correlate: single policy. The reasoning behind this is easy to discern: the final and definitive triumph of the markets imposes a single kind of policy, which runs along the confined paths of fiscal discipline, the fight against inflation, Central Bank independence and the Sisyphean task of attracting investor confidence. No wonder that neoliberal theorists tend to refer to the “noise” that democratic life introduces into the serenity of the market.
Finally, republican prudence and responsibility to society and history are incompatible with the “demagogy” that characterized the dark ages of populism and socialism in Latin America.

During those times the governments, in a cheeky display of irresponsibility, proposed and attempted to implement aggressive policies to redistribute income and property; nationalized foreign monopolies; shared out land among peasants and rural workers; and established annoying regulations in the labor, trade and financial spheres that hindered capitalism’s “creative destruction.” According to the dominant neoliberal discourse, that era of demagogy was the main reason behind the wave of dictatorships that swept away the region’s fragile democracies. Leaders such as Salvador Allende and Juan José Torres paid with their lives for their fascination with outdated and utopian discourse, while others were forced into exile. And the region’s peoples suffered for years under some of the cruelest tyrannies in Latin American history.

The progressive exhaustion of neoliberalism

But the situation has changed. Large social movements flourished in the final decade of last century, new political coalitions have come to power—in Venezuela and Brazil, for example—or are preparing to do so—as in Uruguay—and different governments are arguing the need to abandon the policies that caused such universally recognized destruction in the past. Argentina is a case in point. Generally speaking, it could be said that the rhetoric has changed more than the concrete policies being implemented by the governments, but even the limited change has been significant.

Some of the most important transformations that have taken place in the Latin American countries strongly influenced the appearance of new forms of social protest and political organization. And the complexity of the slow but progressive exhaustion of neoliberalism in these lands is extraordinary. The decline of neoliberalism since the mid-nineties has reversed the crushing influence it had acquired starting in the seventies with the two cruelest dictatorships in living memory: in Chile and Argentina. While it would be absurd to sustain that neoliberalism is now in retreat, it is no less absurd to claim that its influence over Latin American society, culture, policy and economy has remained unscathed over the years. In this sense the spectacular collapse of the neoliberal experiment in Argentina, seen by the IMF and World Bank as a “model country” for years, has offered an enormous lesson. Crises teach lessons, and the Argentine one has revealed the consequences of carrying out neoliberal policies to the letter with a forcefulness worthy of the greatest philosophers.

What is being confirmed at this time is something quite peculiar: a striking disjunction between the consolidation of neoliberalism, particularly in the crucial area of economy and policymaking—in other words in the minds of officials, treasury and economy ministers, central bank presidents, political leaders, etc.—and its undeniable weakening in the areas of culture, public awareness and politics. Neo-liberalism’s economic policies remain on course, but unlike in the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, they no longer have the support—manipulated, of course, but support nonetheless—previously guaranteed by a civil society struggling to put behind it the horror of dictatorships, which accepted, sometimes reluctantly, the prescription promoted by the imperial masters and their local representatives.

Political aberrations when the old has yet to die

This phase lag between the economic and ideological-political components of hegemony is far from new in Latin America. There is a certain analogy between the prolonged crisis of the oligarchic hegemony in our region and the current neoliberal decadence. While the former reached its peak in the period immediately preceding the Great Depression of the thirties, its slow decomposition would last for several decades. As demonstrated by Agustín Cueva in a now classic Latin American social science text, the irreversible deterioration of the material foundations of oligarchic hegemony did not cause its instant collapse; rather it took diverse paths that conditioned and in some cases postponed for decades its definitive demise, which came precisely when the populist regimes burst on the scene.

While it is impossible to draw linear conclusions from historical experience, one can reasonably propose the discouragingly pessimistic hypothesis that the bankruptcy of the basic economic conditions that made the neoliberal boom possible will not necessarily or immediately lead to its disappearance from the public scene. The ideological and political components amalgamated in its economic primacy could guarantee its unexpected survival even in the midst of extremely unfavorable conditions. Paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, it could be said that the slow agony of neoliberalism is one of those situations in which the old is not yet dead and the new is not yet born. And as Gramsci recalled, all kinds of aberrant phenomena tend to appear at such times.

The following are a few examples of this kind of political aberration: the resounding failure to honor the electoral contract by governments that take power then immediately break with their campaign promises; the brazen betrayal of principles by certain “leftist” parties and organizations; the drawn-out survival of figures such as Pinochet, Menem, Fujimori and the late Banzer; or the scandalous social situations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, countries that could be the world’s granary, leaving no objective reasons for the vast majority of their populations to be living in hunger.

The democratic farce: Intense and prolonged frustration

What brings about the appearance of new rebellious political and social forces in this dynamic? The reasons are multiple and complex and their influence varies from one country to another. There are, however, some reasons that underpin them all. First, there is the exhaustion of neoliberalism, which accentuated the contradictions generated during the painful economic and social restructuring that had taken place in the preceding years. That process created new social actors—such as the “piqueteros” [pickets] in Argentina—and increased the influence of existing but previously unorganized and unmobilized actors, such as the peasants of Brazil and Mexico, or the indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Bolivia and parts of Mexico, to name but a few. The impoverishing and exclusionary impact of the social polarization induced by the policies of the Washington Consensus has also attracted intermediate groups and sectors—the so-called middle classes—to the ranks of those responding to neoliberalism.

Second, it is important to recognize that the emergence of these new expressions of leftist politics is intimately related to the failure of the different forms of democratic capitalism in the region. The performance of the so-called democratic regimes in this part of the world has generated intense, profound and unending frustration. The dramatic deterioration of the social conditions occurred precisely during these peculiar “democracies” that flourished in the region during the eighties. This also took place in a context of growing globalization that, among other things, has increased the disturbing results of the “demonstration effect.”

In other areas, democratic capitalism appears to have generated material well-being and social justice (we stress “appears” because such results are really due to the subordinate classes’ social struggles, not some kind of natural secretion of democratic capitalism). In Latin America, however, it has brought adjustment and stabilization policies, labor instability, high unemployment, a vertiginous increase in poverty, external vulnerability, unbridled indebtedness and the foreign-izing of our economies. These democracies are devoid of content, reduced to a face that expresses neither pleasure nor rage, unable to eliminate the farcical odor of democratic politics—or at least that was how Fernando H. Cardoso put it before becoming President of Brazil. According to him, that odor resulted from that particular political regime’s ineffectiveness at introducing far-reaching reforms in the productive system and the ways of distributing and appropriating wealth.

Our region has barely made it to the lowest rung on the ladder of democratic development given the limited room for maneuver allowed by the structure of capitalist society in merely electoral democracies. In other words, these are fundamentally oligarchic political regimes controlled by big capital totally independent of the ruling parties that assume the tasks of administrating in their name, while the people, manipulated at will thanks to the dominant groups’ control over the mass media, are expected to vote every few years to elect those responsible for subjugating them. With democracies like this, it is no coincidence that non-conformist social forces emerge after repeated frustrations.

Parties and unions fail to “read” the reality

Third, this process has been fed by the crisis affecting the traditional forms of political representation. There is little doubt that the new morphology of social protest in our region is a symptom of the decadence of the mass parties of the past and of the traditional models of union organization.

The transformations in the characteristic “social base” of those organizational forms thanks to the neoliberal recomposition policies implemented in the peripheral capitalist countries explain this decadence. These transformations include the working sectors’ growing heterogeneity and quantitatively decreasing influence in the subordinate classes as a whole; the appearance of a voluminous “sub-proletariat”—dubbed “pobretariado” (poorletariat) by Frei Betto—that reflects contemporary capitalism’s growing economic and social exclusion, which sidelines segments of the popular classes as unexploitable; a marked increase in populations that are either unemployed or work in extremely unstable conditions only weakly linked to the economy’s operation; and, finally, the explosion of multiple identities (ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexual option, etc.) that redefine and diminish the relevance of traditional class-based variables. If we add to this list the failure of the political parties and unions to correctly “read” the new realities of our time, the stagnation of their organizational structures and practices and the anachronism of their discourse, it is easy to understand why they entered into crisis and why new social protest movements emerged.

The fourth and final factor—in a list not meant to be exhaustive—is the globalization of the struggles against neoliberalism. These struggles started up and spread rapidly across the planet as the result of initiatives that came from neither parties nor unions. In Latin America’s case, the stellar role was played by the Zapatista movement, which emerged from the Lacandona Forest to declare war on neoliberalism on January 1, 1994. The tireless work undertaken in Brazil by the Landless Movement, another nontraditional organization, considerably amplified the impact of the Zapatistas. Then, in a true avalanche, came the great peasant and indigenous mobilizations in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and certain regions of Colombia and Chile. The Argentine piqueteros’ struggle was part of the same general trend.

Events in Seattle [the disruption of the World Trade Organization meeting] and similar occurrences in Washington, New York, Paris, Genoa and other big cities of the developed world gave the protest against the Washington Consensus a universal stamp, ratified year after year by the impressive progress in the participation at the Porto Alegre World Social Forum. All of this produced a kind of “domino effect” that revealed the intimate connection between social struggles and political processes launched in the most remote parts of the planet, thus contradicting the widely disseminated theory of Hardt and Negri in their work Empire.

There’s no manual, no preconceived script

Is it possible to say that we’re witnessing the emergence of an alternative, or several alternatives, to neoliberalism? The problem has to be considered in other terms because quite simply history doesn’t work in that way. History isn’t constructed by following a preconceived plan. That vision of History with a capital “H” that is simply a text written by someone—be it God, the Führer, a Central Committee, a prophet—to be blindly executed by mere mortals is one of the possible visions since Hegel. In the other vision, the one adopted by Marx, history is a dialectic process with no preconceived script and open outcomes. Marx said that revolution was an essential way of historically overcoming capitalism, but essential is not the same as fatal necessity. Something can be essential without inexorably appearing. That’s why the creator of historical materialism said that capitalism’s final crisis could be resolved either positively, in the direction of socialism, or negatively, plunging humanity into the most terrible barbarism.

So there are clearly alternatives to neoliberalism and capitalism. But are they written down, is there a manual? No. They are not contained in a book, or—thank God!—is there any manual setting out the different alternatives. That was precisely the sense of Gramsci’s incisive article, “The Revolution against Capital,” written just after the Russian Revolution to demonstrate from a Marxist perspective that revolutionary processes are not born of books, no matter how brilliant those books may be. Thus the French Revolution did not spring from the pen of Jean Jacques Rousseau, nor was the Russian Revolution born from the pages of Karl Marx’s Capital or Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia, nor the Chinese Revolution from Mao’s On Contradiction. Leaving to one side these particularly strident revolutions, not even did the least clamorous recomposition of capitalism starting in the 1930s result from John M. Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, nor was Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom the script for the neoliberal age of capitalism, which it unveiled in the 1970s.

There are alternatives to Thatcher’s “TINA”

The ideas contained in the above-mentioned books were undoubtedly very important, but it shouldn’t be thought that their observations “made history.” That was achieved by the people and their struggles or by the dominant classes when favored by the correlation of forces. “Keynesianism” is a phenomenon that transcends Keynes’ text, just as neoliberalism cannot be reduced to Hayek’s thesis. In the same way, we can now point to a set of ideas that contradict neoliberalism’s axiological premises and concrete policies. But none of this provides any kind of “model,” or decalogue, like the famous Washington Consensus, popularized by John Williamson. In reality, “models” and decalogues are inevitably post-festum theoretical constructions, codifications of practices implemented throughout the historical process.

The starting point for alternatives is to recognize that there are alternatives. The dominant “single thinking,” which has been a fundamental weapon of neoliberalism, incessantly preaches Mrs. Margaret Thatcher’s TINA: “There Is No Alternative.“ And it has done so with such success that many leftist intellectuals and politicians, not to mention the dying species of “leftist economists,” ended up firmly accepting the neoliberal mandate: this is the only thing that can be done, there are no alternatives, anything else is madness or stupidity. So it boils down to proposing that madness and stupidity are in reality on the side of those who think it’s possible for things to carry on the way they are and that there are no alternatives to the region’s prevailing bleak panorama of social disintegration and permanent economic crisis.

How can there be no alternatives to mass unemployment, the poverty affecting over half of the population, the absence of social policies, the unsustainable weight of illegitimate and illegal foreign debt? What has been lacking so far is any correlation of forces to enable the testing of existing alternatives that don’t require too much imagination. The problem is not so much geo-social as political. The good news is that the correlation of forces is gradually changing in favor of the popular classes and strata.

Rebuild the state and de-privatize the privatized

It is evident from the experience of the past several decades that the alternatives to neoliberalism—because there will undoubtedly be many—will contain the following elements to varying degrees. First, a vigorous reconstruction of the state, which was destroyed or withered by the orthodox policies. The state is the area on which the democratization of society can be based, unless anyone still thinks it possible to base it on the market or a class-divided civil society. Without the state, there will be no force capable of assuming the Promethean task of subjecting the markets to a regulatory framework that protects the general interest, preserves public property and protects the vast majorities who were stripped of their most basic rights by neoliberalism.

Second, there should be a radical reorientation of the economy towards the domestic market, the redistribution of wealth and income, the promotion of development and ecological sustainability. This does not mean a return to the period of import substitution or an illusory “national capitalism,” which is an anachronism in these times, but rather that the community should assume control of the processes of production and redistribution of wealth through its political expression in the state. It is essential to meticulously review the essence and the form of everything done during the neoliberal era. For example, the privatized industries should be placed under public and democratic control. Some will remain in the hands of their current owners, others will go to form part of the public sector and yet others will become new forms of mixed property under a variety of models that to varying degrees combine the participation of different sectors: foreign capital, national capital, the public sector, workers, consumers, the general public, NGOs, etc.

It is well known that the implementation of neoliberal policies was an immense focal point of corruption and that a transparent and honest transfer of the social wealth accumulated in state companies into private hands was the exception rather than the rule. It will therefore be necessary not only to de-privatize much of what was privatized, but also to “re-regulate” what was unscrupulously deregulated, put an end to the prevailing liberalization and start implementing active policies in different areas of the economy and society. In short, there is a need to stop the ill-termed “economic reforms” inspired by the Washington Consensus—which are actually counter-reforms—and start up a genuine program of far-reaching economic reforms that place the economy at the service of collective well-being and social development. Under the primacy of neoliberalism, well-being and development are at the service of the markets, establishing a perverse hierarchy of values whose effects are plain to see.

Tax policy: The Achilles heel

Tax policy, the Achilles’ heel of Latin American economies, is unquestionably a priority area in the great reconstruction that will have to come. The flip side of the disgrace of being the region with the worst distribution of income and wealth is the fact that this part of the world also has the greatest tax inequity on the planet. There is a prevailing “tax veto” by the dominant classes of our continent. Our long colonial experience has built up a tradition in which those social groups that have inherited the conquistadors’ wealth and privileges also enjoy irritating prerogatives when it comes to paying taxes. In practice, it is known that the poorest sectors endure a greater tax burden relative to their meager resources than the 10% of the population that most benefits from the distribution of wealth. If the new governments do not attack the roots of this problem, and they have shown no signs of being willing to do so up to now, then all of their promises and anti-neoliberal rhetoric will come tumbling down like a house of cards. Without a far-reaching tax reform there will be no reconstruction of the state or any active policies to solve the great challenges of our time. And without these two elements, things will continue much as they are now.

In the same way as there was no single Keynesian model in the post-war years, there will be no single post-neoliberal political model in the years ahead. If Keynesianism presented faces as diverse as those in Sweden, Japan and the United States, why should we expect post-neoliberalism to be a uniform proposal for all countries? No such uniformity existed in the more recent neoliberal experience either; instead we can distinguish a variety of sub-types and concrete models of operation. The alternatives to neoliberalism will also be as varied as the economic-political formulas that preceded it. All of them in their time were defined as Keynesian or neoliberal, for example, because that was the main coloring, over and above the features that differentiated them. And the same will happen with the arrival of different forms of post-neoliberalism.

If Brazil can’t, who can?

Having accepted the existence of post-neoliberal alternatives, we are faced with the worrying question of whether there’s room for them. The answer has to be qualified. In some cases it is unreservedly positive, while in others it is positive with certain reservations. Let’s take a look at the most optimistic case: Brazil.

When one asks friends in the Brazilian government why they don’t attempt an economic policy that is at least minimally distanced from the Decalogue of the Washington Consensus, that tries to do something other than intensify the preceding neoliberal policies, the answer that comes back is a carbon copy of the manuals produced by US business schools. Those in Brasilia explain that “Brazil needs to attract the trust of international investors, we need foreign capital and have to maintain very strict fiscal discipline; otherwise the country risks going through the roof and nobody will invest even a dollar in Brazil.”

It doesn’t take a lot to demonstrate the incurable fragility of this argument. If any country in the world has all of the conditions needed to try out a successful post-neoliberal policy, it’s Brazil. If Brazil can’t, who can? Lucio Gutiérrez’s Ecuador? An eventual Broad Front government in Uruguay? A possible government led by Evo Morales in Bolivia? Argentina, perhaps, but only given very favorable international conditions.

Brazil, on the other hand, has it all, with an immense territory that harbors all kinds of natural resources. Brazil has great agricultural and ranching resources, enormous mineral wealth, phenomenal sources of renewable energy in some of the world’s biggest rivers, 8,000 km of coastline with its corresponding fishing resources, a population of nearly 200 million, one of the most important industrial structures in the world, a society scourged by poverty but with a high degree of social and cultural integration, an intellectual and scientific elite that ranks among the best in the world and an exuberant, pluralist culture. Brazil also has enough capital and a potentially extraordinary tax base—as yet unexplored due to the strength of the money owners, who have vetoed any such initiative respect. If Brazil can’t break out of neoliberalism with this superabundance of conditions, then we are lost and it would be best to prostrate ourselves humbly before the verdict of a history that has declared the final and definitive victory to the markets. But fortunately things aren’t like that.

From “conservative possibilism” to immobilization and catastrophe

The corollary of “conservative possibilism”—the beloved son of single thinking—is that nothing can be changed, not even in a country like Brazil with such exceptional conditions. According to certain eminent officials, trying out something that is beyond the realm of possibility and abandoning the dominant economic consensus would expose Brazil to terrible penalties that would destroy Lula’s government. Yet casting an attentive glance at the recent economic history of neighboring Argentina can be revealing.

Argentina intensely cultivated the idea of “possibilism” from just after Raúl Alfonsín took office right up to the final disaster under Fernando de la Rúa. That false realism, relentlessly encouraged by neoliberalism’s ideological factories throughout the world, led Argentina into the worst crisis in its history by binding the state’s political will and administration to the greed of the markets.

The possibilist temptation is always lying in wait for any government animated by reformist intentions. Faced with the current objective and subjective impossibility of revolution, not only in Brazil but in the region as a whole, a misplaced sense of prudence encourages tolerance towards adversaries and the search for some small escape route in the complicated reality to avoid a tout court capitulation. The only problem with this strategy is that history demonstrates that later it becomes impossible to avoid passing from possibilism to immobility and from there to catastrophic defeat. This was clearly what happened with the Alliance’s “center-left” government in Argentina and, more generally, with social democracy in Spain, Italy and France.

Generally speaking, Max Weber also reached that conclusion in his famous lecture on “Politics as a Vocation,” when he stated that history proves that you can never achieve the possible this world if you don’t reach for the impossible time and again. Weber’s words are so much more important in a continent like ours, in which history indisputably shows that it takes true revolutions just to institute certain reforms in the world’s most unjust social structures, and that without an audacious and mobilizing political utopia, even reformist impulses are extinguished, governors capitulate and their governments end up assuming the disappointing administration of daily routines as a fundamental task.

Reforms help us advance but are not the path to socialism

Putting our hope in a vigorous reform process, which is certainly possible, does not imply turning a deaf ear to Rosa Luxemburg’s warning that no matter how genuine and energetic they may be, social reforms do not change the nature of the existing society. As revolution is not on the immediate agenda of Latin America’s vast masses, social reform has become the most probable alternative, particularly in the times of ebb and defeat that have characterized the world system since the implosion of the Soviet Union and disappearance of the socialist camp. Nor, as Luxemburg also reminded us, is reform a revolution that advances slowly or in stages—with the imperceptibility of the traveler crossing the equator, to use Edouard Bernstein’s famous metaphor—until socialism is achieved. A century of social democratic reformism in the West irrefutably shows that reforms are not enough to “overcome” capitalism. It did produce changes that were undoubtedly important “within the system,” but failed in its declared intention to “change the system.” At the current national and international juncture, reformism appears to be the only way of advancing while the objective and subjective conditions needed for more promising alternatives are being modified. The mistake made by many reformists, however, has been to confuse necessity with virtue.

Even if reforms are all that is possible for now, this doesn’t make them appropriate instruments for building socialism. If done in a certain way, they can make an invaluable contribution towards advancing in that direction, but they are not in themselves the path that will lead us there. In the current barbarized world that requires far-reaching transformations rather than merely marginal adjustments, they are what is possible, not what is desirable. If, as the Zapatistas put it, the task is to create a new world, it certainly exceeds the more cautious limits of reforms. But we cannot stand with arms folded until the time arrives.

What serious economist could believe this advice?

Let’s return to the case of Argentina. The consequence of the timidly heterodox experiment implemented following the default declared at the end of 2001, particularly after Nestor Kirchner became President, was a vigorous reactivation of the economy, no doubt helped by the sheer extent of the decline experienced between 1998 and 2003—the most profound and prolonged recession in Argentine history. This shows that even a weaker and more vulnerable country than Brazil can achieve growth without following the advice—categorized by Joseph Stiglitz as very bad—that the IMF gave Argentina for decades and without the famous support of the “international financial community,” which is currently showering the same praise on Lula it earlier squandered on Carlos Saúl Menem’s administration.

Is it “realistic” to follow the advice of the main promoters of the crises throughout the world (crises that have incidentally enriched the very speculators and parasites for whom the phlegmatic John M. Keynes once recommended euthanasia, while condemning everyone else to prostration)? What serious economist—and we’re talking of genuine economists, not representatives of business interests disguised as economists—believes a country can grow and develop by fostering economic recession through exorbitant interest rates, reducing public spending and the domestic market, increasing unemployment, putting the brakes on consumption, facilitating the operation of fly-by-night capital and overwhelming the poorest with indirect taxes, while subsidizing the strongest and establishing tax loopholes for big monopolies? Can this really be the path that will free Brazil from the ravages of neoliberalism?

Argentina’s resounding lesson

Successive Argentine Presidents opted to govern by the rules of possibilism, tranquilizing the markets and hastening to satisfy their every demand. The voices of big capital and the IMF resounded deafeningly in Buenos Aires and the government immediately responded to their mandates. That same government, however, was deaf to the cries of those who had been condemned and now the results are plain to see. There is obviously no comparison between a figure like Lula and a governor from the political underworld like Menem or an inept one like De la Rúa. Nor is there any comparison between Menem’s Justicialista Party (the Argentine Peronists) or De la Rúa’s Alliance—that insipid mix of radical dilettantism and Frente País Solidario opportunism—and the Brazilian Workers’ Party (PT), which is one of the most important political constructions in the world. But as the Brazilian experience in the first year of Lula’s government painfully shows, neither respectable leadership nor a great mass party can guarantee the right path for a given government experience.

Despite the words of its economic ministers, Lula’s government is advancing along the wrong path, at the end of which there will not be a new, more just and democratic society (the search for which produced the PT a little over 20 years ago), but rather a capitalist structure that is more unjust and less democratic than before. It will be a country in which—while garbed in pseudo-democratic clothing—the dictatorship of capital will be more rigid than before, painfully demonstrating that George Soros was right when advising Brazilians not to bother electing Lula because the markets would govern anyway. It would be a good thing if Brazil were to save itself from the horrors produced in Argentina by “possibilism” and the policy of “market pacification.”

Towards post-neoliberalism: The power of the markets

A quick review of recent Latin American history is enough to illustrate the serious obstacles apparently facing governments that are energized—at least in principle and rhetoric—by a desire to definitively reverse neoliberalism’s sad history in the region. The fact is that the continued supremacy of neoliberalism in the economic sphere was perpetuated—sometimes grotesquely and at others tragically—despite the citizenry categorically turning its back on it at the ballot box. In the first round of the 2003 presidential elections in Brazil, candidates offering an alternative to neoliberal policies attracted a combined 70% of the votes. There have been similar showings of popular repudiation in other places: the collapse of Alejandro Toledo’s popularity in Peru and the large mobilizations centered in Arequipa against his policies; the election of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, regardless of his criminal post-electoral deception; the formidable protest that ended Sánchez de Lozada’s government in Bolivia; the unprecedented popularity Kirchner achieved in Argentina during his first year in office; and, finally, the Uruguayan citizenry’s repudiation in the referendum on privatizing the state petroleum company.

Nonetheless, the governments that come to power on the back of an impressive wave of popular votes and with an express mandate to end the primacy of neoliberalism cave in when it comes to establishing a post-neoliberal agenda. Various factors can explain this. First is the increased power of the markets, or rather of the monopolies and big businesses that control them compared to the shriveled strength of the state after decades of neoliberal state reduction policies, the dismantling of its agencies and organizations and privatization of public companies. All of this gives the dominant sectors the capacity to blackmail governments through capital flight, investment boycotts, speculative pressure, bribery of officials, etc., that is very hard—impossible?—to resist.

The power of the empire’s guard dogs

The second factor lies in the persistence of imperialism and its multiple links and mechanisms, which ensure the continued validity of neoliberal policies by using a variety of instruments to discipline disobedient governments. On the one hand are pressures derived from the need of highly indebted governments to curry Washington’s benevolence for the viability of their governmental programs, whether through some kind of “preferential treatment” that guarantees the country’s products access to the US market, the unending renegotiation of its foreign debt or approval for the entry of different kinds of capital investment. All of this is expressed in a very long list of “conditionalities” imposed on the region’s governments by the guard dogs of imperialism—mainly the IMF and the World Bank, but also the World Trade Organization and the Inter-American Development Bank. On the other hand, the coercion exercised by imperialism ranges from direct political demands made in the context of military aid, coca crop eradication, technical assistance and international cooperation programs to ideological manipulation facilitated by big capital’s almost exclusive control of the mass media, which shape the era’s perception of “common sense.”

High-tech, non-politic states

The last factor here is the anti-democratic regression affecting the Latin American states, which have been emptying the democratic project of any content and irreparably weakening their institutional capacity to intervene in social life. One of the defining features of this crisis is that a growing number of issues dealing with collective welfare are progressively being shifted to more “technical” arenas, thus isolating them from the popular will expressed in elections. Despite their enormous impact, these matters are thus not being publicly debated, but are dealt with by encapsulated “experts” in the shadows who, removed from any kind of democratic scrutiny, resolve them through sealed agreements between capitalists and their state representatives.

This whole fraudulent operation is surrounded by absurd justifications, such as “the economy is a technical matter that must be handled independent of political considerations.” The aim is to pass economics off as merely technical knowledge, even though, as the science of scarcity, it is a political science of the first order. The sadly celebrated “independence of the Central Bank” is an eloquent example of this nonsense: it is only independent of popular sovereignty, because our region’s central banks have no independence from either financial capital or the imperialism they serve unconditionally.

The Left in opposition: Dealing with pessimism, resignation and fear

The forces of the Left are facing formidable challenges. Those in opposition to a variety of bourgeois governments have to honor the Gramscian proposal of building genuinely democratic parties, movements and organizations as a way to prefigure the nature of their future state.

As if the above were not an enormous task in itself, the leftist opposition also has to demonstrate its skill in neutralizing the bourgeoisie’s ideological apparatus and getting its own message and discourse across to a population that doesn’t have its ears tuned to listen to a socialist message. The prejudices skillfully cultivated and instilled by rightwing publicists make people profoundly resistant to any discourse that talks of socialism or communism, which is associated with violence and death. Although the region’s Left has been the victim of both at the hand of the Right, it is accused of being their representative and bearer.

This attitude contains a component of resignation and pessimism that cannot be ignored and suggests a certain futility in opposing capitalism. Such audacity could be followed by a bloodbath, and nobody wants that. There is thus a considerable challenge involved in generating leftwing credibility. A great deal of progress has been made in this field, but there is still a long way to go.

The Left in government: a colossal social reconstruction task

The “governing” Left faces different challenges. Lula’s victory in Brazil is an historical event comparable only to the triumph of the Cuban revolution in January 1959; Salvador Allende’s electoral victory in September 1970 in Chile; the insurrectional—and unfortunately ill-fated—Sandinista Revolution of July 1979 and the eruption of Zapatismo in Mexico in January 1994. It was fundamental to win the Brazilian elections and gain access to government, but it is much more important to build enough political power to “govern well,” which implies honoring the popular mandate to put an end to the neoliberal nightmare. And, although it really hurts to say it, the results have been disappointing so far.

The PT is the first party that has taken government with the mandate of implementing a post-neoliberal reconstruction program since the categorical failure of the policies inspired by the Washington Consensus. The collapse of neoliberalism in Argentina—which has always been a pioneer in misfortune—was consummated in the great events of December 19 and 20, 2001, but it has yet to clearly outline its political alternative. Néstor Kirchner’s government is declaring its good intentions and acting according to its principles on certain fronts (such as human rights, the cleansing of the Supreme Court and the reorientation of Argentina’s foreign policy), but it has an increasingly onerous assignment pending in the economic field, where it has yet to free itself from orthodox policies.

The bankruptcy of neoliberal policies is also evident in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Paraguay. Storm clouds are even threatening on the not-too-distant horizon in Chile—the latest “successful” example brandished by the theorists of “single thinking.” In Brazil, three out of every four voters rejected the continuation of such a pernicious policy, and José Serra, the ruling party’s candidate, was thrashed because of his adhesion to an economic model that had already incited the citizenry’s massive repudiation. The popular mandate is for change, and Lula ratified it in his first public speech as President: “The key word is change.” But there has been little in the economic field. Lula’s first year in government intensified the neoliberal path followed by his predecessor’s administration.

Will Lula be able to satisfy the popular mandate? It won’t be easy, but nor is it impossible. It’s no longer a question of saving Brazil from the neoliberal plague that threatened it from behind Collor de Melo’s smile in 1989; or of rescuing it from its first ravages, as in 1998. The mission is now much more complex because capitalism’s famous “creative destruction”—so exalted by Schumpeter—has already occurred and a colossal task of economic and social reconstruction needs to be undertaken. And this cannot even be imagined without audacious social reform policies that introduce the expected changes, while at the same time—in an inseparable dialectic—strengthening the social foundations and political mobilization of vast sectors of the subordinated classes, without which any policies tested out in Brazil would inevitably succumb to the market’s imperatives.

What about Venezuela and Cuba?

Similar challenges are facing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has to advance along the narrow pass of a revolution profoundly etched in the popular consciousness and self-image—something underestimated in the Left’s traditional analyses—that is at the same time bordered by the abyss represented by Venezuela’s petroleum wealth and its condition as the empire’s strategic supplier. After a series of initial vacillations, the Bolivarian revolution has showed signs of finding its direction.

It is also worth recalling the Cuban case. Over and above the peculiarities of its political regime, Cuba has been able to make significant progress in the construction of a democratic society despite all the obstacles it has faced, such as a 45-year blockade and constant US belligerence. It has managed to guarantee its population standards of health, food, education and general rights—for women, children, the disabled, etc.—that have not even been achieved in certain countries of the developed capitalist world. So what might not be achieved by countries with far greater resources and not subject to the sick US obsession with the Caribbean island, such as Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela? If Cuba did so under those conditions, what obstacles could make similar achievements unobtainable in countries with much more promising circumstances?

Nothing will change without the will to make it happen

The answer doesn’t lie in the frequently convenient pretext of economic determinism but rather in the weakness of political volition. Without a decided will to change the world, the world will remain the same. Those who want to take on this task need to be aware of two things. First, that by doing so they will come up against the tenacious and absolute opposition of the dominant social classes and groups, which will use anything from seduction and persuasion to the most atrocious violence to frustrate any attempt at transformation. That’s why we are seriously concerned about certain Zapatista formulations such as “the democracy of all,” which reflects a worrying romanticism.

Second, that there is no truce possible in this fight: if a governor who is trying to change the world is not attacked, it is either because his or her actions have become irrelevant or—a perverse hypothesis—because he or she has gone over to the other side. It won’t be because the former owners have resigned themselves to losing their prerogatives and privileges, but because they realize that their opponents have put down their arms and stopped doing them any damage.

Atilio A. Borón, executive secretary of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), presented this paper at the Congress of the Latin American Left held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, in May 2004.

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