Social Movements and the Left

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

Midge Quandt

Social Movements and Leftist Government in Latin America:
Confrontation or Cooptation
Edited by Gary Prevost, Carlos Oliva Campos, Harry E. Vanden
Zed Books, 2012, 192 pages. $34.95 paperback.

EVER SINCE LEFTIST governments were installed in Latin America in the late 20th century, much of the political commentary and political science literature has focused on them, while largely ignoring the social movements. In fact, these movements not only played a big role in the 1990s as advocates of social justice and democracy, but their protests were instrumental in getting the progressive leaders elected.

In this collection of essays, Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America, the editors right the balance by turning their attention to the movements. They had asked the contributors to examine the relationship between progressive social movements and progressive governments in the 2000s.*

The movements considered here are often called “new” social movements for the following reasons: They are made up of previously marginalized groups, like the Indigenous and environmentalists; the movements usually seek autonomy from political parties and governments; and they use nonviolent direct action instead of the armed struggle of the historic left.

As the essays in this book relate, these movements faced some combination of cooptation, confrontation, and cooperation from the governments they helped to bring to power.

Cooptation has been most thorough in Chile, where the social democratic coalition government lasted until 2010. Edward Grieves does a case study of one neighborhood in Santiago and then analyzes the rest of civil society. In this neighborhood, the popular movements have been integrated with the municipal government through social programs and the inclusion of activists in positions of authority.

In Chile overall, the state and the market have penetrated virtually all of civil society. Popular movements are weak. However, the student movement, which has the neoliberal state as its target, may point the way to a broader challenge to the government in the future.

In Argentina, where Peronism has always tried to blunt challenges to government authority, the pattern continues in the 21st century. Most social movements have been coopted by the Peronist, moderate government of Nestor and then Cristina Kirchner.

The neighborhood-based piqueteros (road picketers) were the most visible of these former social insurgencies. Many were integrated with the state through subsidies and government posts. Overall, the movements lacked organization and a political party of their own to press for change.

The essays on Chile and Argentina suggest that, in the eyes of the writers, both sides benefited from cooptation, with the movements getting material benefits and the government, stability.

Strained Relations

In contrast, Brazil’s most important movement, the Landless Workers Movement (MST), has remained independent of the moderate, poverty-alleviating government of Lula and his successor Dilma Rousseff. As Lula moved rightward, the MST pursued its radical posture, continuing with land takeovers. This movement believes that it is more effective if it remains independent of the state, so as to pressure it.

But as strained as the situation is in Brazil, it is in Ecuador that the movements have the most difficult relations with the government. Rafael Correa and his government are often grouped with the radical left; he calls himself a socialist; his rhetoric is anticapitalist; and he has done much for the poor majority, as Marc Becker notes. Yet the social movements accuse him, rightly, of hewing to a capitalist model of development.

Correa has also marginalized the movements. Further, in the case of Indigenous groups, (some of which receive U. S. funding), he also represses protests against extractive enterprises that affect their land. The Indigenous often clash with the government over mining and water policies.

Venezuela and Bolivia also engage in extractive industries, but in contrast to Ecuador have opened political spaces for the popular organizations. In these two remaining radical left states, neither government can count on the unqualified support of the base.

In Bolivia the ruling party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), and the presidency of the indigenous Evo Morales are built squarely upon the social movements, especially the coca growers’ unions and the several indigenous organizations. Cooperation between the unions and the government is strong. This is because of “a shared solidarity — class, ethnocultural and revolutionary.”

However, significant protests by the MAS-allied movements arose during Morales’ second term. “Their complex relationships (both complementary and conflictive)” remain. The same may be said for the state-focused movements of Venezuela.

This volume is useful in so far as it lays out the relationship between movements and government. I have two reservations. First, the essay on Venezuela by Daniel Hellinger focuses too much on rent-seeking behavior (Venezuela is oil-dependent) and its consequences for the urban poor including clientalism, and not enough on the situation of the state and the largely supportive social movements.

Secondly, the authors do not engage with those aspects of the movements that do not seek state power. Several social movements, including the Brazilian MST and some groups of piqueteros in Argentina, regard autonomy from the government as basic to their anti-statist, anti-capitalist vision.

The editors state that in their opinion, the social movements have no power to effect change unless they are connected to the state apparatus. “No matter how powerful they may be, the social movements cannot hope to achieve all or part of their ambitious projects without the mechanisms of the state apparatus that a left party in power can provide.”

Both the editors and authors in this volume treat the power of the state as a necessary complement to the power of the social movements. I agree with this: Given the strength of neoliberalism at home and abroad, progressives need the state to effect change. To rely solely on the grassroots is to ignore the question of power.

At the same time, though, as Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi and U. S. journalist Benjamin Dangl — who are not among the authors in this collection — have pointed out, the state generally weakens the autonomy and militancy of the social movements and dilutes their radical vision.

*Progressive governments can be moderate or radical. The editors and authors in this volume do not use Jorge Castañeda’s discredited terms — bad left (radical) and good left (moderate) — because all leftist states, they emphasize, operate in a capitalist framework. This fact enables the writers to be non-committal. In addition, perhaps they do not want to take sides. This reviewer believes that there is a difference between radical and moderate governments. The radical governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and to a lesser extent, Ecuador, which I support, have challenged capitalism and imperialism; the moderate governments of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are capitalist — and U.S. — friendly.

May/June 2015, ATC 176