The last day of oppression and the first day of the same

The last day of oppression and the first day of the same – the politics and economics of the New Latin American Left by Jeffrey R Webber 2016 (Pluto Press) reviewed by Dave Kellaway

A year or so ago I was teaching a Brazilian student English. He worked for Siemens, a big German multinational . We got to talking about soya bean production and he started explaining about the huge expansion of soya bean cultivation in eastern Bolivia. His company was supplying large amounts of pesticide and fertiliser to Bolivian soya bean producers. He showed me on Google Maps how vast areas of eastern Bolivia was being turned over to this monoculture. The size of the area and how it was changing the environment was staggering.

Reading Jeff Webber’s comprehensive analysis of the rise and recent crisis of the wave of progressive governments in Latin America made me think about that conversation again. It illustrated one of his key points. Real social gains in terms of better welfare, education and health programmes have been achieved in countries like Brazil (Lula, Rousseff) Bolivia (Morales) Venezuela (Chavez, Maduro), Ecuador (Correa), Chile (Bachelet) and Argentina (the Kircheners). However at the end of the day these governments had not managed to break out of the relative dependency of extractive economies exporting oil, minerals and agricultural goods to China and the developed West.  Indeed Webber shows how the share of manufacturing in the economies is, in many cases , actually less that it was twenty or thirty years ago. ,

Record oil prices and the huge demand from China had allowed these countries with left of centre governments to become compensatory regimes, carrying out various degrees of redistribution through taxing companies (sometimes increasing the state take) while supporting the development of these extractive industries. A little similar to how Thomas Piketty in his book  Capital in the Twentieth Century shows that in the Post-War Boom up to the 70s it was possible for advanced capitalist countries to simultaneously increase profits, raise wages and provide a level of welfare.

However this cycle in Latin America ended a few years after the worldwide recession broke out in 2008. A number of these progressive governments have lost elections (Argentina) or been removed in other more dubious ways (so called constitutional coup in Brazil). All of them have lost popular support.  In Ecuador Correa’s chosen successor, the less radical Lenin Moreno has sneaked home by a couple of points,  in Bolivia Morales lost a vote to allow him to  have a third term and in Venezuela Maduro lost the congressional elections. As the commodity prices plummeted the progressive governments reined back their socially redistributive policies which affects their support too. We can say that a political cycle is over. Nevertheless the recent mobilisations in Brazil over pensions, Chile over education and Argentina over public sector cuts show, class polarisation continues.

The key political conclusion Webber draws from this is that an evaluation of the previous cycle needs to be made.  A left movement has to be built that is capable of maintaining self-organisation and class independence from governments that try to square the circle between tackling inequality and appeasing national and international capital. As he stated in the recent public meeting hosted by Socialist Resistance, Lula, the former Brazilian leader,  has been seen in the recent protest demonstrations against the Temer government but it would be unhelpful if the dynamic of the movement was channelled into another presidential run for such a compromised leader.

The book goes into some detail to show how the vitality and scale of the social movements of the indigenous populations and the rural and urban working people was the true basis of the rise of the Chavez, Correa or Morales governments. In other words these progressive governments were not the simple result of some sort of military infighting or charismatic caudillismo.  Another aspect often ignored in the mainstream media is the link between the Cuban revolution and these progressive forces. Although it is a different relationship than we saw between Cuba and the guerrilla movements of the 70s or in Central America in the 80s, it is still an important source of inspiration. Morales, Chavez/Maduro and Correa go to Havana regularly. Cuba correctly saw this wave of progressive governments as providing both diplomatic and material support (Venezuelan oil) in the teeth of a continuing US blockade. In turn Cuban doctors have made significant contributions in nearly all those countries.

While this book provides a wealth of empirical data and very useful bibliographical references and notes for those interested in further study it also establishes a solid theoretical framework.  Key organising concepts are used such as: extractive capitalism, compensatory states, passive revolution/transformismo, the utopian socialist dialectic of the past and future and the logic of accumulation by dispossession. Let us examine two of these ideas.

Gramsci’s ideas of passive revolution and transformismo  are drawn on to show how both transformatory and conservative tendencies can coexist in the same process but the key difference with an authentic revolution is with the latter there is a decisive shift in class and state power. It is a pertinent way of understanding these progressive governments, their strengths and limits.

Referencing the great Peruvian Marxist, Jose Mariategui via the work of Michel Lowy provides Webber with a way of thinking the transition from capitalism in a way that breaks with the unproblematic acceptance of the productive forces as a positive force. Mariategui saw in the communal political organisation of the highland indigenous peoples as providing a link to a communist future.

“in indigenous villages where families are grouped and bonds of heritage and communal work have been extinguished, strong and tenacious habits of cooperation and solidarity that are the empirical  expression of a communist spirit still exist. The community draws on this spirit. It is their body” quoted on page 125

Mariategui was not anti-scientific or wanting to recreate some sort of Inca civilisation of the past but he saw this heritage as a favourable factor in the struggle for socialism. Looking back to look forward also puts into question the idea that exponential industrial development that destroys the environment is the same as socialist development. This is what we mean when we talk of the utopian socialist dialectic of the past and the future. We can see how this sort of approach allows radical Marxists to link up with progressive ecologists like Naomi Klein. Webber shows how the clash between those indigenous movements, which helped Morales’ rise to power, and Linera, the Bolivian vice president and its main theorist, exemplifies this debate. Linera defends the idea of industrial development in order to provide a stronger national business class that can then lay the basis for future socialist development – which could take a long period. It is a variation of the classic stages approach. Consequently the Bolivian government found itself in direct conflict with its indigenous supporters over exploiting their lands.

In his pen portrait of the Ecuadoran indigenous leader, Luis Macas, Webber shows how these ideas of Mariategui are alive and well:

Macas returns repeatedly both to a total critique of bourgeois civilisation and a perennial dialectic between the utopian characteristics of specific precapitalist practices and values of indigenous life, and a future  that will abolish capitalism while expropriating and subordinating its technological and productive advancements to human and environmental needs.” page 101

There is a lesson for Marxists generally here. The notion that socialism equals the freeing of the productive forces once the social relations of production are radically socialised is a narrow and dangerous view.

A useful chapter in the book takes on the mainstream university sociologists and economists who, while providing some useful information and analysis, ultimately reproduce a liberal or social democratic framework for understanding Latin American reality. Essentially they are cheerleaders for incremental change, relying on both the political institutions and the dynamism of a market with some regulation. Not surprisingly such theorists as Huber and Stephens tend to praise the more moderate of the progressive governments such as Brazil but condemn the radicalism of Correa, Morales and Chavez. They fail to see the way the market dominates and coerces and thus contradicts the freedoms formally installed by the capitalist state.

Some activists in Britain are attracted by the social struggles in Latin America and are excited by the progressive governments and their left of centre policies. They identify those governments as being in conflict with imperialism, particularly US imperialism. However they can sometimes ignore the internal contradictions between these governments and the working masses. Indeed if there is a struggle say by an indigenous community against the government then it is seen as disruptive, divisive or even fomented by or playing into the hands of the imperialists. Similarly any restrictions on democratic rights by such governments are at times justified on the grounds that the life and death struggle against imperialism in paramount.

We see this argument in relation to Venezuela and it is often applied to Cuba. This book emphasises that any analysis of Latin America has to relate the class struggles to economic tendencies but also locate these struggles within a triple matrix involving the imperialists (and not just the US but also China), the national bourgeoisie and the rural/urban workers.  Webber steers a judicious path between the uncritical cheerleaders of this process and those who deny any real gains– there is a delightful skewering of Rory Carroll, the Guardian correspondent and his anti-Chavez rhetoric.

To some degree the end of the progressive government cycle in Latin America articulates with the rightward shift internationally following the election of Trump, Brexit and the rise of rightist forces in many countries combined with the crisis of social democratic forces. A particular feature in Latin America is the influence of the protestant evangelical churches which tend to be right wing and are increasingly influential. Already they played a reactionary in places like Guatemala in the 80s but today in places like Brazil a fifth of the population follow this creed and it is playing a role in Chile.

There is even evidence of a new popularity in Cuba – I was surprised to see a group in Baracoa in the remote eastern province last year and several bed and breakfast owners I met were evangelical. Also the right have reorganised, as we have seen in the US and Europe. The counteroffensive in Brazil, Venezuela or Chile is often spearheaded by students who politically organise to win control of universities and who are adept at social media. The private mass media is very important for the opposition in most of these countries. At the same time the right has ditched some of its more reactionary, traditional ideology in order to galvanise the youth and modern middle classes.

Webber looks at the evolution of the social movements and the way they interact with the progressive governments. Here there can be a twofold process of moderation. On the one hand indigenous and other radical movements are given institutional positions and resources which make it harder for them to directly confront government policies. On the other hand the governments’ economic policies can provide economic incentives that give some of the previously radical groups a certain economic prosperity so they tend not to bite the hand that feeds them. Finally this also works on the level of individuals being pulled into a less radical approach because they are elected or have a government role that provides a decent salary.  Indeed this is a very difficult issue – particularly when you see the degrees of inequality in Latin America – individual promotion is a human issue.  If you think how a lot of quite developed Marxist cadre from the Socialist Democracy current in the Brazilian PT went right over to an uncritical pro-Lula stance then you can understand how this can work with social movement leaders. Building strong independent, left organisations is not easy. Nevertheless honest books of reflection on these political processes at least provide some basis for reflection on this issue.

For non-academics the book is quite accessible. The first chapter, the final conclusion and the chapter introductions and summaries help clarify the general arguments. You can dip in and out of the book since the chapters – some of which were published articles – can stand alone.  So if your interest is in one or another country you can focus on that.

Finally, although one cycle has ended polarisation and struggle are not extinguished. Apart from the recent big demonstrations in Chile, Brazil and Argentina largely around defending gains made as a result of progressive governments we have seen crowds burning the Paraguayan parliament building just a few days ago.


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