Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008
War(s) With No Exit
— The Editors
The Elephant in the Room
— Malik Miah
Rev. Edward Pinkney Imprisoned
— Dorothy Pinkney
When Human Beings Are Illegal
— Peter Rachleff
The God Question
— Terry Eagleton
Obama and the Empire
— Allen Ruff
The New Chinese Nationalism
— Au Loong Yu
The Russian-Georgian Clash
— interview with Ronald Grigor Suny
Democracy Against Politics
— Joseph Grim Feinberg
- The Revolution of '68
The Legacy of 1968
— Gerd-Rainer Horn
On May '68
— Michael Löwy
Letters to the Editors
— Barri Boone, Pam Chude Allen & Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
No Outside Saviors!
— ATC interviews Gwen Patton
- Russian Revolution Revisited
Victor Serge: For Our Time
— Susan Weissman
The Russian Revolution in Retreat
— review by Samuel Farber
Voices of Asian Americans
— Seonghee Lim
- In Memoriam
B.J. Widick, 1910-2008
— Alan Wald
“¡QUE SE VAYAN todos!” shouted rebellious crowds during the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, “Out with them all!” The call soon spread throughout Latin America: for a new politics without politicians and a new society without social elites. Many radicals have been inspired by the movements that seemed to rise with so much energy and idealism from this foundational fire. Others have been quick to criticize the inadequacy of movements which seem to have forgotten that economic exploitation is more fundamental than political oppression, and that exploitation is held up by political power which must be seized rather than ignored.
What both the champions and the critics of the new radicalism share is a tendency to understand the new movements in fragmentary form, either as a loose collection of exemplary ideas and acts or as an incoherent array that must be given structure and led back on track. This is understandable enough, not only because observers’ first goal is to take from their object what is most useful for them, but also because the new radicalism really does appear fragmentary when seen from the perspective of earlier leftist movements whose structures have taken decades to develop and define.
Nonetheless, a certain coherence might be found in the theory and practice of the new Latin American radicalism. An analysis of this coherence might help us better to understand its potential as well as its limitations. Its parts may cohere in unexpected ways. Its contradictions may be productive contradictions, which it would be hasty to summarily discard.
The Traditional Latin American Left
The novelty of the new Latin American radicalism should be understood in relation to what came before it — older tendencies that can also be analyzed as structures of theory and practice which give form and cohesion to the multiple movements that pass through them (an assertion which should in no way contradict the real variation contained within these generalized structures).
For most of the nineteenth century, dictatorial political bosses controlled Latin America, opposed by so-called “liberals” who struggled, often violently, for parliamentary democracy, land reform, secularism and industrial modernization. In the early twentieth century a European-style labor movement began to grow and ideas of anarchism and socialism began to spread. But these remained small next to the prevailing struggles between “conservatives” and “liberals.”
We can see an indication of the power of the liberal-conservative axis in the fact that even the renowned Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores-Magón, around the turn of the 19th-to-20th century, called his political organization the “Partido Liberal.” It was only after World War II, once the parliamentary system began to stabilize itself with both liberals and conservatives loyally playing by its rules, that a new paradigm of leftism began to take shape against the liberal backdrop.
The first major challenges to the liberal-conservative order came from mass-based electoral parties that took aim at the ruling parties’ inherent elitism and their failure to remedy Latin America’s problems of inequality and underdevelopment. Working within the electoral system, reformers like Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Juan Perón in Argentina began to mobilize mass support.
Once elected, left-leaning governments expanded social welfare, nationalized profitable industries, promoted local industry through import substitution, and spoke in glowing terms of the dignity of the people who had put them in power. In return, the masses turned out to support them on election days; and in some cases — especially in Perón’s Argentina — new mass organizations developed that pledged loyalty to the government in exchange for the government’s material and moral support. The most radical of such governments was also one of the last: Allende’s “Unidad popular” in Chile from 1970-73.
Over time, elected governments that were not overthrown generally moved to the political center and failed to fulfill the hopes that they had kindled in the masses. As varied as these movements were in many important respects, they shared a commitment to the electoral process and a fundamental structure that turned on the reciprocal relationship between benevolent party leaders and a mass base whose loyalty had to be won.
Only in special situations — most notably in Allende’s Chile and Perón’s Argentina when the central government was under attack — did mass organizations take their own political initiative on a grand scale and demand changes far more radical than party leaders appeared ready to grant. But Allende’s government went the way of many predecessors, overthrown and the President murdered in the U.S.-backed coup of September 11, 1973.
As elected leftists across the continents were overthrown, rank-and-file militants began to conclude that electoral victory was futile even when it was possible at all. After Fidel Castro succeeded not only in creating a left-leaning government but also in holding onto power in the face of U.S. opposition, guerrilla movements throughout Latin America began to follow the Cubans’ example.
Latin American guerrillas thought they had found a way to “make revolution” wherever they were able to defeat the power of the pre-existing state, and they recognized that a popular army was harder to overthrow than an elected government that left old military structures in place. In the vast jungles, mountains and slums of Latin America, guerrillas could quickly gain the upper hand. And while elections had always put off the question of revolution, leaving it to be accomplished by someone far away, the guerrillas could make the issue immediate. They could arrive suddenly in a state-forsaken village or slum and present people with a stark choice between the status quo and liberation. Often, people chose the latter.
But for all their differences, mass electoralism and armed struggle shared a lot, both in their conception of the world around them and in their vision for the future. Both presented a world divided primarily into two groups, masses and elites. Differentiation within the masses of people was of secondary importance. Directly related to this was an assumption that mass political power must ultimately be concentrated in a central authority, either a revolutionary state or the military command of a guerrilla army. If the ideal remained that the masses would replace the old elites, this would be accomplished by a kind of direct relationship between the masses and the new leaders, manifested in large public rallies and in symbolic displays of equality between humble leaders and their proud followers.
It is true that the strategies of guerrilla warfare demanded a certain decentralization — as advocated explicitly by Che Guevara with his theory of focos, small bands of militants who scattered far and wide to incite armed struggle. But it was thought that the success of such strategies depended on scattered units’ ability to unite themselves under a single structure of hierarchical command (expressed for example by Debray in Revolution in the Revolution? ).
In postrevolutionary Cuba a similar structure emerged of decentralized units united under an ultimately hierarchical central authority: every neighborhood formed its own “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,” but these committees had (and have) relatively little power to influence the direction of Cuban society beyond their local sphere of activity. The crucial axis of politics remained the connection between the revolutionary leadership and the masses conceived as an essentially undifferentiated whole.
From the 1940s to the 1980s, these two models of revolution — electoralism and armed struggle — met with measurable success. Probably no region had so many leftist presidents elected in that period, even if the best of them were overthrown. And almost every Latin American country had a significant guerrilla movement at some point. But by the late 1980s both models were in serious decline. In many places guerrilla movements had helped overthrow US-backed dictatorships, but the new electoral regimes were rarely leftist. By the late 1990s, neoliberalism reigned in almost every corner of the hemisphere, making privatization, free trade, and elite-based electoralism the new order of the day.
The old left was in crisis. Its old methods seemed ineffective or irrelevant. Guerrilla movements had either been brutally crushed or forced to follow on the heels of better-financed movements for liberal democracy; and then new elections after years of dictatorship made armed struggle seem outmoded. But leftist political parties had little success in those elections (which of course is part of the reason that the United States and the local elites allowed them to take place). The traditional leftist parties had either moved to the right or lost their popular support.
The masses, as the basis for both left electoralism and guerrilla insurrection, had become fragmented, disarticulated by a newly flexible economy and by a rising discourse that replaced the demos (“el pueblo”) with “civil society” (sociedad civil) and a merely formal “democracy.” The most pressing questions became “democratization” after dictatorship and the reestablishment of order after the economic and political failures of the dictators’ right-wing populism. Neoliberals presented themselves as progressive, and the whole globe seemed to be spinning with them.
Fortunately, it did not take long for Latin Americans to recognize neoliberalism for the sham that it is. Neoliberal “democratization” revealed itself as an empty procedure, a guarantee that every electoral period would bring new governments with an ever-decreasing ability to make significant changes in social life. Isolated voters would be like consumers, called to choose from several almost-identical political offerings (cf. García 2001), while governments, already controlled by private interests, continually handed more public property to private hands and out of the purview of democracy.
The ideal of neoliberalism is perfect democracy over nothing that matters and perfect free-market administration over everything that does. Compared to the military dictatorships, many of which felt obliged to provide social welfare in exchange for minimal popular support in lieu of elections, the new “democracies” could claim legitimacy through elections with little need to provide welfare to their supporters.
Meanwhile the free market provided few tangible benefits for most people, leaving Latin America with little more than an aesthetic feeling of orderliness and pats on the back from international monetary institutions. The 1980s, when Latin America led the world in neoliberal reforms, became in retrospect a “lost decade” for the continent’s economy and social well being. In the 1990s poverty only continued, and slow economic growth contributed to little more than a widening gap between rich and poor. No sooner had neoliberalism consolidated itself in the region than the first major cracks began to appear in its hegemony.
On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the greatest triumph of neoliberalism met with its first spectacular adversary, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The Zapatistas looked at first like a guerrilla movement from earlier decades. But they heralded a new way of doing politics in Latin America.
Emergence of the New Radicalism
Once it became clear that the Zapatistas did not consider themselves an old-fashioned guerrilla movement, commentators began categorizing them as an indigenous movement in the mold of the identity politics and social-movementism that had arisen in the 1970s and ‘80s in North America (involving many Latinos in the United States), and which had just begun to gain strength in indigenous political movements throughout Latin America. Parallel social movements had emerged in non-indigenous communities, most successfully in Brazil where various social movements coalesced to form the Workers Party (PT).
Here was a clear departure from the earlier framework of mass electoralism and guerrilla warfare. Instead of positing an undifferentiated mass that confronted and replaced entrenched elites, these new social movements placed a primary value on difference and participated in traditional politics only after mobilizing themselves outside of the political sphere, in “civil society.”* But these social movements and identity politics were not yet the anti-political politics that we see today.
The Zapatistas were involved in identity politics, but also in something else. They insisted that they were struggling not only for indigenous rights, but for the “national liberation” of Mexico as a whole and for an end to neoliberalism everywhere. Whereas identity politics most often posits a radical difference among homogeneous social groups (“races,” “ethnicities,” “nations,” “genders”), the Zapatistas seemed much more concerned with the rights of particular village communities, on the one hand, and with the struggles that could unite people throughout the world, on the other.
Also unlike most social movements of identity-political ilk, the Zapatistas refused to participate in traditional politics or even to support friendly political parties or candidates. They soon announced that they opposed in principle the taking of any form of state power, whether through elections or armed struggle, and they aimed to avoid creating powerful leaders within their own organizations — their most prominent spokesman being ranked “sub-comandante” Marcos.
We might recognize two major objectives in their series of communiqués: 1) the creation of better social structures in newly autonomous communities, and 2) the transformation of the country as a whole by rewriting the constitution to establish new structures of participatory-democratic political power. Both of these objectives involved demands for “indigenous rights” that had been promised by the government; but the emphasis now was not on the right to equal citizenship as individuals or on the right to national or ethnic separation (as in more radical nationalisms) but on the rights of a community, even (and especially) a very small one, to govern itself.
This new kind of radicalism did not really come to international prominence, however, until the region saw another major uprising, this time at the opposite end of the Americas: the Argentinazo of 2001. As the Argentine economy imploded, people poured into the streets chanting what might be considered the most popular slogan of the new tendency: “¡Que se vayan todos!” — throw all the politicians out. Neighborhood assemblies formed throughout the country; workers took factories over from absentee owners, and as one president after another fell from power, people cursed the entire political system and all the parties, left and right, that played its game.
Already social movements throughout the region had asserted their opposition to traditional politics, and people everywhere had grown disgusted with old political systems, but Mexico and Argentina helped provide rising social movements throughout the region with a new self-understanding. The World Social Forum, which met from 2001 to 2003 in southern Brazil, forbade political parties from official participation. Social movements in Bolivia repeatedly overthrew presidents and demanded a new constitution. In 2005 Ecuadorian rebels overthrew their president and tried to do the same with their congress, echoing the Argentine call, “¡Que se vayan todos!”
In 2006 rebels in Oaxaca, Mexico effectively banished the ruling political party from their state and formed a “popular assembly” with the goal of re-organizing political life on fundamentally new grounds, while sometimes formally repudiating and at other times remaining deliberately agnostic with regard to electoral politics. In Ecuador, just after elections in late 2006, voters took to the streets to demand a constituent assembly while they denounced the representatives that had just been elected as enemies of democracy.
Structure of the New Radicalism
We can now begin to piece together the most significant elements of the new radicalism. By looking at several axes of tension within the tendency, we can understand it as an attempt to overcome in new ways several long-standing contradictions in leftist politics. What follows, of course, does not apply to every new movement in Latin America, but to a certain tendency that has become a force of varying strength in almost every country on the continent.
Organize without Leaders: The new Latin American radicals rarely invoke anarchism by name, especially outside of Argentina and Mexico, where anarchism has deeper historical roots than elsewhere; but they have taken up this classic anarchist credo with gusto. They see the state as fundamentally opposed to human freedom; they seek at least to make it obey popular movements and if possible to abolish it entirely. Further, they attempt to avoid reproducing the logic of the state within their own organizations, using whatever mechanisms they can to prevent new elites from forming.
So the Zapatistas and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) speak not of leaders in their ranks, but of “spokespeople” (voceros) and of “leading by obeying.” When the police come to arrest their leaders, they answer, “But we have none.” Consensus is favored in decision-making, at least ideally if not always in practice, especially in indigenous organizations. Important decisions are made in public assemblies. Care is taken so that no single organization will monopolize power in federations of social movements.
This rejection of hierarchical authority has sometimes been understood by critics as a total rejection of organization in favor of spontaneity. But one of the most striking features of the new radicalism is precisely its propensity to organize — in new ways. The typical organizations of the new radicalism are not mass organizations in the older leftist mold, meant to include the entire people or the entire working class in a single body under a single leadership, with internal differentiation appearing only as a secondary feature.
The new organizations are more often based in a single local community or around a single form of exploitation, and they are recognized as such. Then the task becomes one of articulating multiple organizations in federal structures capable of combating or supplanting the structures they oppose. Many new organizations might look formally similar to those that came before them, but a new value has been placed on the particularity of multiple struggles that must unite without forgetting their multiple points of origin.
The challenge that emerges is by no means small, but criticism of the new radicalism on this point is misplaced if it portrays the attempt to “organize without leaders” as nothing but naïve wishful thinking. It may indeed be difficult to “organize without leaders,” but it may also be the most viable strategy available at the current historical moment. For the old left, the central leadership and ultimately the Party provided the node for articulating multiple structures. But regardless of one’s opinion regarding the desirability of parties in accomplishing this task, the fact remains that in today’s world almost no party has been capable of fulfilling such a function.
If it is true that it may be hasty to declare the Party dead as a political form, it is also hasty to assume that no other form could accomplish what the Party itself no longer accomplishes. This is what makes new structures like the Social Forums and the Oaxacan “Popular Assembly” (APPO) interesting: not their degree of success, which may be debated, but their attempts to create new links among varied political movements.
In most cases it is not a matter of rejecting central organization in favor of disorganization, but of finding new forms of organization where there have previously been none. Some examples, like the Brazilian PT and Bolivia’s MAS, show that social movements can build political parties (rather than political parties intiating social movements as was often the case — at least ideally — for the older left).
Yet the PT and MAS have also sorely disappointed and even demobilized the movements that put them into power, making alternative strategies appear eminently realistic. It is in this context that we should understand the new radicals’ search for forms consonant with their goal of building a society run collectively and without elites.
Change the World without Taking Power: John Holloway’s (2002) formulation of this strategy has led many critics to interpret the new radicalism as a one-sided rejection of all power in favor of endless but fruitless protest. Yet any close observer would notice that in practice new Latin American radicals have taken power in many unexpected fields of social life (which Holloway himself advocates as “power-to,” distinguished from “power-over”).
While rejecting state power, today’s movements have launched an expropriation and collectivization of private property on a scale that had not been seen in decades: Peasants have occupied private lands in Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela; workers have taken over factories in Argentina, Venezuela, and elsewhere; and during the 2006 uprising in Oaxaca, members of the APPO occupied their city’s squares, public buildings, and media of communication until they were dislodged by force of arms. The issue, then, is not really one of ignoring power, but of building new kinds of power in new sites: “counterpower” or, in Holloway’s terms, “anti-power,” power that rejects the dominant forms of power, power that refuses to play by the rules of the already-powerful.
Still, the problem of oppressive power has not disappeared. The Zapatistas’ response to the power of the state and of capital has been to protect their autonomous municipalities and cooperatives with an army that remains, as much as possible, under the command of the community. The APPO’s response was to insist on the non-violent occupation of the centers of local power, a tactic which brought widespread support on a scale probably broader than the Zapatistas’, but ultimately did not avert their violent repression at the hands of paramilitaries and the federal riot police.
Clearly there are limitations to the autonomy of any popular power. Even if an autonomous organization is not violently attacked, a thousand social forces might conspire to re-integrate it into the dominant social order. And if radicals understand their autonomy as absolute, then they might be wholly unprepared for any attack on it, or they might be reintegrated and dominated without even noticing. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to conclude that nothing can be from the achievement of limited, partial autonomy.
In spite of the widespread perception of this tendency as “infantile” (following Lenin’s 1920 polemic against “Left-Wing Communism”), the current generation’s refusal to “take power” stems from a rather mature sociological assessment based on the experience of previous generations. Wherever leftists have participated in party politics, whether through mass electoralism or through vanguardist revolutionism, leftist practice has been altered by this participation. Lenin himself, in The State and Revolution, acknowledged Marx’s (1871) realization that “the working class, once come to power, could not manage with the old state machine.”
The state cannot simply be wielded like any other tool — it is a tool that transforms whomever wields it. The strategy of changing the world without taking power is based on an extension of this realization into the entire field of bourgeois politics. Not only does the state machinery redirect the practice of whoever wields it after taking power, but it structures the consciousness of all who compete for its power from the outset. This fact alone is not enough to prove that it is wrong to take state power or to accept other forms of power derived from the state; but we can now place in proper perspective the attempts to combat statist politics without participating in them.
Within the structures of the state — that is, in the entire sphere of bourgeois “politics” — the most that leftists can accomplish is a critique that condemns capitalist society for failing to fulfill its own promises and which might improve conditions for more radical autonomous politics. If the project of taking state power ever succeeds in more than this, this can only be because the project rests on a base of power that has remained outside state structures and has already begun to “smash the state.”
This moment of autonomy is present in all radical movements insofar as they are social movements, and it shrinks insofar as they integrate themselves into the logic of state politics. It is this moment of autonomy in any political strategy that makes possible truly radical critiques of power and radical re-imaginings of a world that is to come.
Anti-politics, ultra-politics: The emphasis on the state so far in this discussion has already hinted at another tension at the heart of the new radicalism. In old debates about state politics, those who advocated participation (like social democrats and “Leninists”) generally agreed on one point with those who rejected participation (like anarchists and “left-wing communists”): that “politics” was a sphere separate from “economics.” The former was most typically understood as part of the ideological superstructure, while the latter formed the more fundamental material base. The state and its politics then appeared as a reflection of economic relations, and the major debate focused on whether state politics was an additional field of struggle or merely a ruse that mystified real class relations and distracted workers from the crucial task of struggle at the workplace and in the streets.
Without wholly leaving this framework behind, the new Latin American radicalism has begun to face the issue in a new way. The new radicals are vociferous in their opposition to the traditional politics of elections and states, what many in Latin America can only refer to with a sneer as “politicking” (politiquería). But in another sense the new radicals are far more political than earlier Latin American leftists. By refusing to confine politics to the ballot-box and the state, they encourage the politicization of all parts of life.
Rather than embracing bourgeois democracy or rejecting democracy as purely bourgeois, the new radicals build democratic forms outside of traditional government — in the neighborhood or village, in the workplace, in music and art (the best case of the latter coming from the “Asamblea de Artistas Revolucionarios de Oaxaca” [ASARO]).
The old Latin American leftists tended to view politics as an instrument, as a way of realizing the social goals of revolution, as a tool for bringing about equality of wealth, nationalized industry, healthcare for all, education for all, and so on. If they favored democracy, it was usually as something in addition to social revolution, something that was also good, maybe a precondition or an aftereffect of revolution, but not the most fundamental part of the revolution itself. For the new radicals, these results of revolution appear secondary to the political processes involved in obtaining them. At the center of debates now is not the equal distribution of products, but the equal distribution of power.
In one sense, we might observe a shift from social to political revolution — a move that would be entirely out of step with the older conception that political revolution (taking state power) should be only a first stage in the transition to social revolution (transforming the fundamental relations of social life). Instead of first proposing an ideal society and then using the necessary political means to reach that society, the new radicals first propose ideal means of making decisions, and then they suggest that new social forms could be created through these political structures — whatever new forms people democratically choose to create.
In the new radical discourse, the most hated enemy is no longer the bourgeoisie, a socially defined class, but the so-called “clase política,” the “political class,” the people who monopolize decision-making power through traditional politics. But at the same time this new conception of politics is thoroughly social (see, e.g. Gutiérrez 2001). It presents political structures not as merely empty procedures, the way they figure in liberal practice and discourse, but as social forms: variously structured assemblies, movements, unions, self-managed enterprises, whose political importance depends on their horizontal social organization and on their social proximity to ordinary people and everyday life.
Within this framework, social class is still important, on the one hand as a central component of how new structures should be democratically located, and on the other hand as a component of traditional political domination that must be overcome. Capitalists may not be the chief target of the new radical discourse, but capitalism clearly figures as a condition of traditional politics and an obstacle to the re-foundation of democracy.
Nonetheless, there is a danger involved in this emphasis on the political. Politics is a fully social activity, and society is infused everywhere with political relations of power. But bourgeois society turns politics into a separate sphere that can be experienced as floating above society, free of social constraints. The model of material bases and ideological superstructures led older leftists to accept as a given the separation between the political and the social, so that when they insisted on material social struggle, questions of power fell away, and when they insisted on political struggle, they risked forgetting the importance of the social, following in the footsteps of their bourgeois rivals.
This risk remains for the new radicals today. If the call for “democracy” becomes a call for merely formal changes in law without social-structural changes in political practice, then the sphere of politics can lose its potential for radical change even if it has shifted to new institutional shells and away from its traditional sites of state politics. The enormous insurrectionary energy of recent years could be demobilized; the people could believe they have accomplished their goals, only to realize that once again nothing important has changed.
The most telling challenges faced by the new Latin American radicals relate to this unstable balance of the political and the social. Recent anti-electoral uprisings have been followed by a series of electoral victories by political forces that have identified with the “left”: in Venezuela in 1998, Brazil in 2002, Argentina in 2003, Uruguay in 2004, Bolivia in 2005, and in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Chile in 2006 — in addition to near-victories in 2006 in Mexico and Peru.
What we see now, in a sense, is the reverse of the dialectic between electoralism and anti-electoralism in the older Latin American leftism. Then it was electoral politics that first dominated, and anti-electoral guerrilla movements emerged only after electoralism seemed to fail. Now the anti-electoral movements have generally come first, and the leftist presidents have ridden into power on their wave. Anti-political radicals have thoroughly discredited the old political system, creating space for autonomous politics but also space for new politicians who step into a political void — if they can capture the support of the anti-political public.
The first conclusion from this fact is that extra-parliamentary and even anti-parliamentary struggles can powerfully influence the course of parliamentary politics. It is worth speculating that if activists in those countries had put more effort into electoral campaigning, leftist candidates might have fared worse in those elections; instead, we can see that anti-political mobilizations prepared voters for the en masse rejection of entrenched politicians in the electoral arena.
The case of Rafael Correa in Ecuador shows this especially clearly. As with Chávez in Venezuela and maverick-populist Ollanta Humala, who almost won the presidency in Peru, Correa’s success depended on his ability to present himself as an outsider who opposed the entire political system. As with Chávez and Evo Morales in Bolivia, his most important campaign promise was to hold a constituent assembly to re-found the country’s political system.
Correa’s political party, founded expressly for his presidential campaign, ran no candidates for the national congress. He won the presidency amply, without risking a show of weakness or of traditional politicking in congressional elections, lending credibility to his claims that he represents popular anti-political sentiment better than the congress. Even if the goal were political power, then, anti-political activity might sometimes be the most effective means to that end.
There are many reasons to remain skeptical, however, of the role of these new anti-political politicians. Although some have given indications that they might take more radical steps while in office than previous left-leaning governments have taken, none have fulfilled the high hopes raised by social movements that came before them. In many cases, it is easy to see the newly elected leftists as just another set of politicos intending to make careers out of popular movements and contain popular energy within acceptable bourgeois-political bounds.
But this skepticism, however important, is not enough to explain what distinguishes this most recent wave of electoral betrayal from earlier waves, or to specify the potential that still remains in this situation for radical transformation. The new electoralism is not the same as older electoralisms — it is a statism that is fundamentally anti-statist, a politics that remains anti-political, a populism that might still be transcended.
Even among current left-leaning Latin American governments we can make a distinction between those that have been elected on the basis of well-established and powerful political parties, like the Brazilian PT or the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in Uruguay, and those whose base of support lies largely outside of their own political establishment, as in the case of Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador. The former have succeeded fairly effectively in quieting discontent among their supporters, while the latter have been forced either to rely on extra-parliamentary movements for support or to found entirely new political organizations that are only institutionalized after electoral victories.
This reliance on autonomous social movements encourages more radical action on the part of this second type of president — they are less afraid of losing political allies among the traditional elites and they are less capable of harnessing popular movements for their narrowly political interests. At the same time, the indeterminacy of the situation means that if presidents like this can successfully establish political parties under their own hegemony, new forms of domination might emerge that concentrate authority in a single leader rather than a complex and bureaucratic state.
So we can see the continued radicalism of Correa as dependent on his lack of support within the congress of Ecuador, while we can worry that as his party (Alianza PAIS) establishes itself in the new constituent assembly — disappointing those who had demanded that a constituent assembly be formed without representation from any political parties — the president may rely less on autonomous social movements and his radicalism might decrease. And we can see the radicalism of Hugo Chávez largely as a result of his loss of support within Venezuela’s traditional political elite and his move toward relying on popular mobilization in order to remain in power.
At the same time we can observe that Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) has been able to turn itself into a powerful electoral institution, while the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), still in the process of formation, might further consolidate political forces, enabling the president to increase his autonomy relative to extra-parliamentary social movements, leaving them dependent on him rather than vice versa.
In this way the new radicalism’s anti-politics makes possible a form of populism in which charismatic individual leaders replace old institutional elites. New institutions can be created that do not look like the old institutions; new hierarchies can be erected in the appearance of a new egalitarianism. A real equalizing of power among the masses can be combined with a dependence of these masses on politicians who place themselves simultaneously above the elites as well as the masses themselves.
The most fundamental structures of society might remain unchanged beneath the changes that rearrange the political realm. These political changes are not merely an illusion existing in the presidents’ rhetoric alone. They are real changes, but specifically political changes that fail to transform society as a whole. Their reality is what makes them effective as a distraction from other goals.
As people and presidents alike call for constituent assemblies, let no one forget that a constitution can lay the groundwork for re-forming society only if it leaves the paper on which it is written and becomes a political and social form. And only people themselves, organizing themselves, can take it there. For in the end, what is more important than the writing of constitutions is the reconstitution of the world.
With all the challenges it faces, the potential of the new Latin American radicalism has not been exhausted. As long as the call remains in the air, “¡Que se vayan todos!” an insurgent people will continue to move. As long as people organize autonomously, they can demand that politicians listen to their voice; they can replace bad leaders with better ones; and they can begin create new worlds where there are no leaders at all. They can, in short, replace “democratic” politics with authentic democracy.
¡Que se vayan todos!
Debray, Régis 1967. Revolution in the Revolution? Trans. by Bobbye Ortiz. New York: Grove Press.
García Linera, Alvaro 2001.“¿Qué es la democracia?” In Pluriverso: Teoría política boliviana. La Paz: Muela del Diablo (Colección Comuna).
Gutiérrez, Raquel 2001. “Forma communal y forma liberal de la política: de la soberanía social a la irresponsabilidad civil.” In Pluriverso: Teoría política boliviana. La Paz: Muela del Diablo (Colección Comuna).
Holloway, John 2002. Change the World without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.
Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. Trans. Winston Moore and Paul Cammack. London: Verso.
Lenin, Vladimir 1920. Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/.
Marx, Karl 1871. The Civil War in France. Online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/index.htm.
ATC 136, September-October 2008