Q&A with the Authors of “The Impasse of the Latin American Left”

Impasse authorsFranck Gaudichaud is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at Universite Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.

Massimo Modonesi is Professor of Sociology at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Jeffery R. Webber is Associate Professor of Politics at York University.

Gaudichaud, Modonesi, and Webber are the authors of The Impasse of the Latin American Left, a new book that explores the Latin American Pink Tide as a political, economic, and cultural phenomenon, showing how it failed to transform the underlying class structures of their societies or challenge the imperial strategies of the United States and China.

Throughout the book, you explain that recent political shifts in Latin American countries indicate an “end of the cycle” for progressivism in the region. Do you see historical developments as occurring in cycles? What kinds of lessons can be learned from previous cycles?

Gaudichaud coverThe notion of cycles is more of a metaphor, equivalent to that of a wave. It is borrowed from biology and economics. In the field of the study of political processes, it does not refer to circularity, but to phenomena that experience ups and downs, expansions and contractions. In this sense, it is a notion that allows visualizing a historical process, in the absence of another more effective one. Latin American progressivism experienced a cycle of ascent-descent of approximately 15 years, depending on the case. Leaders, parties, and governments emerged, expanded, consolidated, and eventually entered into crisis. Their crisis occurred hand in hand with a rightward shift in the political scene that contributed, together with the contradictions accumulated within progressivism itself, to close a stage in recent Latin American history.

This shift to the right was not consolidated, however, due to the inability of the right to formulate a hegemonic project that would give it legitimacy and durability. As a result, the door was opened, in recent years, to a partial return of Latin American progressivism, in part from the same forces that led the earlier cycle (think of the return of the Movement toward Socialism to office in Bolivia, or the return of a variety of Kirchnerist-Peronism to office in Argentina, or the likely return of Lula in Brazil in the October elections this year). Elsewhere, Latin American progressivism has formed governments in countries that were largely outside of the earlier cycle (Gabriel Boric in Chile, Pedro Castillo in Peru, and Xiomara Castro in Honduras, all of whom will likely be joined by Gustavo Petro in Colombia in elections later this month).

But this return of earlier progressive governments and the rise of new ones are occurring in a different and less favorable political and economic context, and progressivism has assumed more moderate, less ambitious forms. Historical cycles do not merely repeat themselves. Marx claimed, half seriously and half in jest, that they appear first as tragedy and then as farce. We know that the progressive cycle had some tragic traits, insofar as it wasted the momentum of the popular movements. Let us hope that the constitutive processes of the current cycle are not a farce. In any case, a significant determination of the correlation of class forces in Latin American societies occurs outside electoral conquests and use of government agencies and state institutions, through processes of consciousness-raising, mobilization, and organization of the subaltern classes that pass through but also escape the institutional dynamics of progressivism.

You write that, in the early- and mid-2000s, left-progressive movements rose to power on a wave of popular support. Given that popular support, what accounts for the inability of the Latin American left to fully transform domestic and international economic order?

In the book we outline a series of objective, structural impediments to domestic and international transformation that the Latin American left faced in the early decades of the twenty-first century. These should not be understood as static and insurmountable obstacles to transformation, but dynamic and contradictory constraints, the transcendence of which would have required revolutionary ruptures in social, political, and economic relations, and which could never have been overcome overnight.

Among the many dynamic barriers of this kind, we discuss the inherited productive structures of primary-export commodity economies in many Latin American countries, rooted in over a century of their subordinate incorporation into the world capitalist system. Relatedly, the ongoing uneven development of capitalism and inter-imperialist rivalry (today, most importantly, between the United States and China) has created a world system of states based on hierarchy and exploitation, in which imperialist powers use whatever resources available to them to reproduce their domination of the system and thus the ongoing subordination of weaker states, including Latin American countries seeking more autonomy and a modicum of self-determination.

Uneven capitalist development and associated nationalist competition internal to Latin America, furthermore, was another important reason behind the strict limits encountered by the various region-wide initiatives for change, such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).  More proximately, the Latin American left in the early twenty-first century operated within a novel class structure in all countries, one that had been transformed by decades of neoliberal economic restructuring. Peasant dispossession and proletarianization, widescale rural-to-urban migration, the decline of formal, unionized urban employment, and the florescence of atomized informal economies were some of the dominant trends. This new class terrain made it difficult to organize and sustain radical left politics and presented a challenge for left social movements and political party formations alike. Nonetheless, through invention and experimentation, with tactics and strategies adapted to the new era, popular class recomposition proved quite successful on the social movement front in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Alongside the dynamic structural elements, the book also explains subjective, political factors that weakened the possibilities of Latin American progressivism achieving further reaching social and political transformation. By the late 1990s, the political left in Latin America had suffered through generations of fierce repression that disarticulated its formal political organizations through brute repression. Recall the bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 1980s, or the counterinsurgencies of Central America in the same period, both of which were necessary military precursors to the technocratic roll out of neoliberal economic programs. Ideologically, the idea of socialism had been widely discredited by the early 1990s through its association with the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, and with the crumbling of the latter, the “end of history” had been confidently pronounced by liberals around the world.  The Latin American left therefore had to rebuild new projects of transformation out of the rubble of the past, using bold and militant experimentation to eventually find a way to recompose itself on the unsteady ground of the early twenty-first century.

Despite these structural obstacles and enduring legacies of past political defeats, a social, extra-parliamentary left, constituted by increasingly militant social movements, emerged, grew, and consolidated over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, disrupting the smooth political reproduction of neoliberal regimes. This growing social power of the left was eventually translated, albeit in distorted form, into the rise of an institutional, electoral left, with the formation of a whole series of centre-left and left governments in the mid-to-late 2000s.

That the rise of new left governments coincided with an international commodity boom, driven by rapid industrialization in China, was a gift and a curse at the same time. On the one hand, it stoked dynamic capitalist growth which enabled states to skim rent from the extractive sectors and achieve significant temporary improvements in terms of poverty and income inequality, as well as in health and education coverage for the popular classes in a number of cases. On the other hand, the easy rents from the extractive sectors also allowed the new progressive governments to avoid, for a period at least, a sharper confrontation with domestic and international capital, even while improving the living standards of their popular bases. This was the material basis for passive revolution, we argue, so long as the commodity boom endured.

The Latin American progressive governments of the first decade of the twenty-first century were agents of passive revolution, in the Gramscian sense. That is, they governed processes that combined a certain combination of transformation and conservation carried out from the state so as to pre-empt the escalation of class struggle. Patterns of capitalist accumulation were altered at the margins through socioeconomic reform that benefitted the subaltern classes, but these reforms were carried out from above in a manner designed to demobilize, control, and pacify the popular classes through their subordinate incorporation. The basic underlying productive and property systems and associated class structures of society were largely unaltered by progressive rule. When the commodity boom ended, the easy rents lubricating these passive revolutions dried up, class antagonisms reemerged more sharply, and progressive governments were unable to secure ongoing support from their popular social bases while they also lost the confidence of capital; thus a window was opened up for right-wing restoration, however unstable that restoration has ultimately been.

Of course, this general synthesis necessarily obscures many of the specificities of different cases that we examine in closer historical detail in the book. The processes of pacification and control from above, for example, need to be differentiated so that the distinctions between, say, the social-liberalism of lulismo in Brazil and the more advanced moments of social struggle in Bolivia under Evo Morales or Venezuela under Hugo Chávez can be made clear, just as the chasm separating social democratic governance under the Broad Front in Uruguay and the nepotistic authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua can be properly understood. In this sense, theoretical generalizations and propositions are made in the book, but not at the expense of attentiveness to the important differences separating each case under the broad label of “progressivism,” each with their unique social actors, political parties, levels of control from above and participation from below, and particular socio-historical traditions of class struggle.

The progressive movements have recently been overtaken by a variety of right-wing actors, who operate without a “coherent project of political rule and vision of economic development” (6). Do you think the rise of the right in Latin America will lead to a return to a capitalist-neoliberal order or something else?

In many senses, there was never a full break with neoliberalism even during the hegemonic phase of Latin American progressivism. The right that has returned to office in recent years in many countries consists of a spectrum ranging from the technocratic neoliberalism of a relatively orthodox variety (think of Mauricio Macri’s administration in Argentina from 2015-2019) to more explicitly authoritarian, far-right populism (think of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or the second-place finisher José Antonio Kast in Chile). Both the technocrats and the far-right populists represent different flavours of neoliberal rule.

However, while neoliberal policies were sometimes able to produce periods of modest capitalist expansion in parts of Latin America in the 1990s, today the region is mired in a social and economic crisis to which the neoliberal project cannot provide a solution, even on its own perverse terms. While the new right governments, therefore, are intent on reproducing neoliberalism, their attempts to do so will be structurally impeded by recessionary trends in the global economy and defensive resistance from popular movements.

The present interregnum is characterized by an impasse with no secure hegemonies, whether left or right, and all of Gramsci’s morbid symptoms are robustly on display. The electoral left continues its adaptation to the center, so that even when it wins, it tends to lose. For its part, the center-right is increasingly eclipsed by far-right formations, new and old. The most promising explosive moments suggestive of the possibilities for a more radical left have taken the form of wide-scale rebellions, such as those in Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia in late 2019. Each of these instances, though, were defensive in character, and ultimately ran up against their own limits of political articulation. The absence of lasting popular organizational forms emerging out of their milieus is one indication of this fact.

Outside these important before-and-after moments of mass upheaval, uneven transnational expressions of ecological movements and popular feminisms have proved to be the most sustained and transversal expressions of extra-parliamentary class struggle in the region. In their overlapping yet distinct ways they implicitly bend in an anti-capitalist direction; the totalizing logic of the issues animating their resistance demands that they, on occasion at least, condense the problems they face into a sharp singularity: capitalism or life. That this is the real choice faced in Latin America today, as in the rest of the world, has only become more apparent in light of the pandemic.

Populism is mentioned throughout your discussion of Latin American politics. To what extent are the political developments discussed in the book the result of popular movements and/or influenced by foreign actors? How difficult is it to disentangle the various influences on the politics of the region?

The notion of populism has a properly Latin American history. It is not an imported political form in the region. Latin American populism is historically progressive, nationalist, statist, integrationist and class-conciliatory, unlike the right-wing populism that sprouted strongly in Europe and the US in recent decades. This ideological distance of the phenomena does not allow for any generalization or theorization that assimilates the separate trends, beyond the fact that they share certain discursive and gesticulatory resources and the search for the support of the popular sectors, especially the unorganized popular sectors.

We must also distinguish the totally endogenous cases of progressive governments which most closely fit the classically “populist” profile, such as that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, from Kirchnerist Peronism in Argentina, Lulismo in Brazil, Pepe Mujica in Uruguay, and now Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, where relatively typical politicians transformed themselves into charismatic and paternalistic presidents once in office, deploying the entire repertoire of classical populism.

At the same time, there may be not so much direct influence but a certain emulation in the cases of an emerging “populist” right-wing in Latin America. They saw a particular political opportunity with the rise of Trump. Surely there is something of that in the emergence and trajectory of Bolsonaro who, although his impact can easily be exaggerated. The Bolsonaro effect seems to have been replicated to a certain extent in the appearance of characters such as Kast in Chile and Javier Milei in Argentina. It remains to be seen to what extent these reactionary, neoliberal, authoritarian and culturally regressive populisms will be able to install a populist form of doing politics that is antithetical to the more traditional, more progressive, plebeian and multi-class version, which continues to show strength in the region.

You write a post-conclusion about the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Latin America. How do you see the pandemic, and the recovery from it, affecting political developments in the region in the future?

By now it’s well known that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic Latin America has, by many metrics, suffered more than any region in the world, with extremely high rates of contagion and mortality. Less well remembered, perhaps, is that the pandemic arrived in the midst of an economic crisis that was already full-blown. According to data from the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), for example, between 2014 and 2019 the sub-region of South America experienced its lowest five-year growth rate ever registered, with an average of only 0.3 percent GDP growth, and negative GDP per capita.

The pandemic dramatically worsened an already dire scenario, such that 2020 saw the worst ever regional contraction of GDP across Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole. In this context, poverty, inequality, and food insecurity soared to new heights. Existing axes of inequality were exacerbated, with more and more of the population’s access to basic services, health, education, and housing foreclosed. In 2020, 52 million additional people fell into poverty, according to Oxfam, while the richest Latin Americans added $48.2 billion to their pockets. Capital will always try, and will sometimes succeed, at profiting from disaster.

The limited but real social gains of the first Pink Tide era, in the context of a commodities boom, had already been in steady reverse since 2014, but the pandemic has simply annihilated any remnants. The scale of social regression in the region has been phenomenal. World trade fell by 17 percent between January and May 2020, and Latin America was the developing region most affected by this contraction, with a decline of 26.1 percent in exports and 27.4 percent in imports. Aggregate regional GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean declined by 7.5 percent in 2020. According to the International Labour Organization, there were roughly 25 million net employment losses in the region that year, with approximately 82 percent of these translating into permanent exits from the labour force – that is, 82 percent of people who lost their jobs in 2020 have been unable to find any new employment. Again, recall that these trends are in addition to those of regional decline since 2014.

The closure or bankruptcy of millions of small and medium sized firms meant that the counter-cyclical absorptive capacity of the informal economy to soak up some of the surplus labour pushed out of the formal economy in previous capitalist crises was diminished, at least for the first year of the pandemic. Women, youth, lower-qualified, and migrant workers suffered most severely under these conditions.

With a relative recovery of commodity prices mid-way through the year, the opening-up of economies after pandemic closures, and expansionary fiscal measures by most governments in the region, Latin America and the Caribbean experienced GDP growth of 6.0 percent in 2021.

But employment growth continued to lag, and the job growth that did occur was largely isolated to the informal sector. In many Latin American countries, over 70 percent of net job creation since 2020 has been in the informal sector. Even with this relative informal growth in jobs, at the close of 2021, both formal and informal employment levels were persistently lower than pre-pandemic years in most countries of the region. The unemployment rate remained elevated at 10.0 percent in 2021, and even optimistic projections suggest that the unemployment rate will continue above pre-pandemic levels at least through 2023.

World market conditions are likely to be considerably worse in 2022 for Latin American economic prospects than in 2021, although just how much worse is unclear, and only getting murkier. The IMF growth forecast for the world economy at the outset of 2022 was only 4.9 percent, down from 5.8 percent in 2021. This was before the system-shaking events toward the end of February, when Russia launched its imperialist invasion of Ukraine, considerably heightening extant inter-imperial rivalries in the world system – anchored as they are by the primary rivalry between the United States and China. Innumerable new complexities and uncertainties have been added to an already-unstable world market. Accelerating military spending and sky-high food and energy prices may be just the beginning.

Read the introduction to The Impasse of the Latin American Left for free and save 50% on the paperback with coupon code SPRING22, now through May 27.

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