Crisis and contradiction: Marxist Perspectives on Latin America in the Global Political economy

Edited by Susan Spronk and Jeffery Webber Historial Materialism book series 79 published by BRILL (Netherlands) €129.00

Reviewed by Dave Kellaway

The rise, fall and rise of the Latin American Marxist left
The Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 and the concurrent Marxist led uprisings elsewhere in Central America, notably in El Salvador and Guatemala, created tremendous hope that the breech opened up by Cuba at the end of the 1950s was finally going to be widened after the bloody defeats in Chile (1973) and Argentina (1976). Unfortunately the revolutions in Central America were defeated largely by repression and US covert and open intervention.
Alongside the physical annihilation of thousands of cadre lots of radicals and Marxists shifted rightwards towards an accommodation with capitalism. This was often linked with a purely pessimistic reaction to the end of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The material and ideological victory of neo-liberalism permeated Latin America, destroyed working class organisation and disoriented many activists into believing that radical, mass resistance was impossible and a ‘native’ social democratic approach was the only alternative. It is exemplified in the trajectory of Daniel Ortega, an historic leader of the FSLN which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in an armed mass rebellion but is now the country’s moderate president. Even leaders of revolutionary Marxist groups fell prey to this rightist shift notably in Brazil and Mexico.

There was Brazilian PT, led by ex-factory worker Lula, who started out as anti-capitalist but eventually led his party in a social democratic direction and failed to prevent corruption of its government – something that still bedevils President Rousseff today. Elsewhere there were the breakthroughs of army officer Chavez in Venezuela and the indigenous leader Eva Morales in Bolivia who headed up governments still in existence today that have passed policies favouring working people but do not have a strategy of breaking with capital or replacing its state. The mass movements and progressive measures of the Kirchner governments in Argentina also fuelled hopes but the recent electoral victory of the right of centre party there shows this process has become exhausted.

Apart from the irruption of the mass movements in Venezuela and Bolivia with their expression in progressive governments another two factors have helped the revival of the left. The post-2002 commodities boom allowed new governments to survive and redistribute without seriously antagonising capitalist interests. This has been the case in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. Also the global economic crisis post 2008 has not had the same impact in Latin America so it has been less disruptive of working class organisation.

Nevertheless the authors warn against any complacency and suggest the working through of the global crisis could put an end to this margin of manoeuvre – as we have seen recently in Argentina and Brazil where the scope for redistributive measures has been reduced.

This book attempts to come to terms with these historical cycles both in terms of analysing social reality from an historical materialist perspective and in showing how Marxists in Latin America have responded through these ups and downs. In the 1990s they tended to theorise an accommodation with capitalism. However the authors suggest (page 2) that there has been an “uneven but tangible intellectual revival”

The book has a number of contributions, mainly concerning Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela.

Firstly it examines the way neo-liberalism has changed class formation in Latin America and the role of working class organisation in any transition to socialism. Secondly it looks at how mainstream political economy has viewed the relationship between the state and the market under capitalist social relations and how Marxists critique such an analysis. In particular it tries to understand the state form in countries endowed with incredible natural resource wealth. The articles consider this in terms of the struggles of three sectors: the mass of the oppressed, the local capitalist class and US imperialism.

Neo-liberalism and class formation in Latin America

Unlike many academic studies the authors link the notion of the power of the organised working class to the rhythms of capitalist accumulation. The process of capitalist accumulation is not mechanical and smooth but is inherently conflictive and contradictory. Political and economic outcomes are not determined by clever leaders or policies or technical fixes but are determined by the class struggle. Working class mobilisation and pressure can wrest concessions from left of centre governments and improve their living and working conditions. When they are defeated, as in the 1970s and 80s, the pendulum swings back the other way.
In Europe and the other advanced capitalist countries, there has been much discussion about the destruction of large working class workplaces with deindustrialisation and the rise of precarious, ‘liberalised’ work relations and an overall attack on living standards through wage cuts, pension and welfare cuts. In Latin America it is not a simple question of Latin American factories replacing the car plants, shipbuilding yards and steel plants of Europe. Even here neo-liberalism is decomposing and recomposing the working class.

A distinctive factor is that new agricultural business –asparagus production in Peru for example – leads to further proletarianisation of the peasantry and increased rural migration to the cities. Latin America has had huge armies of precarious workers living in the megacities for many years now. The informalisation of the economy poses new challenges for working class organisations. Just as the old strongholds of trade union or militant action, such as the mines, have been destroyed in Britain, so too this is happening in Latin America like in the industrial belt in Argentina. Nevertheless new spaces of accumulation have also opened up giving new sites for working class organisation and struggle e.g. table grape, flower and asparagus export sectors.

There are two problems with the new informal sector. Firstly collective bargaining is non-existent because workers are mostly self-employed. Secondly they are scattered geographically as domestic servants or small groups of day labourers. The article by Feliz (p 52) on Argentina shows the shift from the period of import substitution industrialisation, during the first Peronist period of the 50s and 60s, which allowed wages and profits to rise together along with corporatist trade unions that organised but also controlled and moderated working class action, to the more recent period of de-industrialisation and a return to the primary export sector. One response has been the rise of the piquetero movement involving mass street protests which represents a certain recomposition of working class organisation. But even so, the neo-developmentalist project of the Kirchner regime has not restored the loss in wages from earlier period so it is still neoliberal – e.g. state employee wages in 2007 were 28.4 % below their 2001 levels.

A subsequent article by Castorina shows how Kirhner’s Argentine regime established a form of democratic neo-liberalism which loosened repression of workers protests and made concessions to the piqueteros while at the same time successfully co-opting some of their leaders into a clientalist based relationship through welfare work programmes. Welfare programmes of this sort are quite different to welfare benefits gained as universal rights:
“Welfare is now seen as a low-cost way to enhance individual opportunities while nurturing the Peronist political machine” (page 15)

Another example of how new forms of capitalist accumulation are changing working class organisation is recounted in an article by Selwyn about the grape workers of North East Brazil. Despite the fact that the majority female workforce lost their permanent contract rights, their activity in the union has enabled them to keep the workforce mobilised and to win concessions – often through focussing on fighting for maternity leave and childcare.

The articles on working class organisation in Venezuela are particularly interesting since they look at the thorny relationship between self-organisation and the role of the left populist, self-declared ‘socialist’, government of Chavez (his legacy is continuing under Maduro today). Azzellini finds room for optimism in his description of the blossoming of local popular power initiatives in Venezuela, in particular the 40,000 Communal Councils. However he does highlight the conflicts between the state bureaucracy and the workers council in the Alcasa aluminium plant. Purcell is even more critical of the way he feels the government uses ‘workers control’ in the more backward aluminium sector to achieve efficiency gains without seriously investing in the plant while at the same time not allowing any experiments in workers control in the key petroleum industry.

Relationship between the state and market in Latin America

This book’s second major theme is a critique of the mainstream political economy’s view that the state and the market are diametrically opposite forms of organising capitalist social relations. The contributors instead argue that the state and the market are not dichotomies but complementary forms of state power. Moreover the state is not a neutral institution that somehow serves the general interest of the population while the market is seen as the outcome of the natural tendency of humans to barter and trade. Grigera argues that the central role of the state is to facilitate capital accumulation. It does not function according to the ideology proposed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). If we talk about state capacity as a positive process that, through more or less intervention, looks after people’s interests, it is just smoke and mirrors. Indeed such ideological constructions are used to put pressure on labour to accept stepped up productivity and increasingly precarious forms of employment.

Grinberg and Starosta challenge the over-rigid dichotomy adopted by many on the left between those countries governed by the ‘responsible left’ (Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay) from others governed by old style populism whom are defined as genuinely progressive (Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia). Rather than looking at the political forms of government they suggest that capital has been accumulating in these countries under the same specific form: “namely through the appropriation of the extraordinary mass of social wealth existing there under the form of ground rent”. (p 21) Ground rent is a form of income that results from production processes involving scarce non-renewable natural resources such as land, mineral and oil deposits. Other contributors go into more detail about the specific relationship between ground rent and the formation of the capitalist class in Latin America, for example Purcell raises the profile of Venezuela as a landlord state.

The role of the state and the limits of its progressive policies under the rule of capital is examined by Webber in relation to Bolivia. He accepts progress has been made in mitigating the social apartheid suffered by the indigenous people of Bolivia but Morales’ development project is limited by its lack of an eco-socialist strategy. The movement to defend the Tipnis territory against the construction of a superhighway exemplifies that contradiction. Webber challenges those on the left who say this movement was manipulated by imperialist interests against the Morales government. Katz in the final contribution considers the prospects for such an anti-capitalist popular project rooted in an eco-socialist perspective.

Reading these concrete analyses of social formations helps us avoid simplistic readings of the unfolding events in Latin America. Sometimes the solidarity movements here are reluctant to encourage deeper discussions that highlight contradictions within the processes unfolding in those countries. The need to defend progressive governments and their policies against internal attacks or aggression from US or other imperialisms does not mean we should not examine carefully the class relations and the nature of the state and the forms of accumulation. We can learn through less familiar concepts as ground rent how the formation of these states and their ruling classes are not a straight reproduction of the model in Europe.

Some of the analysis is a little academic and long winded but I would recommend a careful study of the introduction which provides a clear overall framework for understanding the detailed analyses of the following chapters.

It also refreshing to see the concept of eco-socialism integrated into the discussion. We often either find Marxist analyses or ecological ones that both suffer from not involving both aspects.

This is a useful reference book to dip into if readers wish to have a deeper analysis of any of the countries examined.


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