The bewildered progressive camp in Latin America and Europe

Something unites Latin American and European progressives: the struggle for survival and the need for broad, bold reforms to face global challenges. Español

Claudia Detsch
16 May 2018

UE-CELAC Flags. Photo: European Union. Some Rights Reserved.

Western societies are facing today radical changes and looming uncertainty. Liberal democracies are exposed to both external and internal pressures and party systems are particularly affected. This puts in a difficult position the large traditional political groups, particularly "moderate" ones.

In Europe, for instance, new alliances and a multiplicity of movements are emerging and displacing the old, "traditional" parties at the polls.

The most outstanding example is Emmanuel Macron’s movement En Marche, which was founded only a few months before his presidential election victory. But the 5 Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain or Alternative for Germany are also important new leading actors.

In this current election “Super Year”, outsiders who have potential or real possibilities of getting elected are making their appearance on the political scene.

This phenomenon is not alien to Latin America, where broad pressure is being exerted on historical parties (particularly on the center-left ones). The collapse of the traditional party system has been an ongoing process in the region for quite some time now. In the Andean countries, it started about 10-15 years ago and has recently intensified.

So, in this current election “Super Year”, outsiders who have potential or real possibilities of getting elected are making their appearance on the political scene.

They use rhetoric aimed at the establishment as their prize weapon. They are often former members of one or several traditional parties, who now criticize them harshly. They label all dominant groups as populists: this is often a diversionary tactic, although in many cases it is a justified claim.

The troubles of Social Democracy

In the industrialized countries, the parties in the progressive camp are under pressure, mostly, for questions related to a fairer configuration of globalization.

The workers, who used to adhere to social democratic tendencies, no longer feel represented by this political force and increasingly turn to options to their right or left. At a time of digitized production and immigration, they fear losing their jobs and their cultural identity.

On the path to globalization, they do not seem to be on the winning side. This poses a dilemma for Social Democrats, who have traditionally defended international solidarity.

The Left in Europe (and Democrats in the US) are not finding an answer to the contradiction of, on the one hand, protecting the local working class and, on the other, sustaining the development wished-for by societies in the South, while convincingly confronting climate change and the waste of resources.

Within this framework, authoritarian populism suggests that some simple tools may suffice to solve the widespread feeling of loss of control.

Today, the commitment to solidarity is defined on a national scale, and this implies that the European Right is dragging Social Democrats and Socialists along with them. Within this framework, authoritarian populism suggests that some simple tools may suffice to solve the widespread feeling of loss of control.

The authoritarian drift and the danger for democracy

Liberal democracy has expanded far beyond Western industrialized countries, particularly in Latin America. But today, it is also under pressure there too. There is much concern about Cuba, but also particularly about unfolding events in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Brazil.

The cases of Venezuela and Brazil clearly show that in some Latin American countries democracy is in real danger and that it is exposed to the possibility of being attacked by the Left and the Right.

The abyss into which Brazil stares today is breathtaking. Until quite recently, what has been happening there was unimaginable. The same could be said of the economic collapse of Venezuela.

From a political perspective, however, the path towards authoritarianism has been on the cards for quite some time now, although the alarm signals have not been noticed so clearly in the region itself.

One of the obstacles which prevent these signs from being clearly perceived is polarized thinking. The Right points to the disheartening situation of Venezuela and declares that it is the result of the only-to-be-expected failure of those who tried to reedit Socialism, while at the same time maintaining that what has been going on in Brazil is merely the restoration of order.

The Left tends to do a reverse analysis. Harassed by foreign imperialism, Nicolás Maduro’s government has had no choice but to hold its own and, in so doing, has deviated to some extent from democratic ways.

All the evils are attributed to the enemies, who are bent on preventing the resurgence of Socialism at any cost. It is a situation where the end justifies the means.

Corruption and credibility

In Brazil, on the other hand, the imperialist forces have allegedly realized their darkest intentions - and they are now trying to do the same in other countries in the region. According to this interpretation, investigations into corruption cases are simply a tool for political destabilization. And there is no denying that corruption cases have generated major instability in Brazil.

If we look at the Odebrecht case and the countries involved, it is quite clear that political tendency was not at all a determining factor.

The Right is increasingly using its dominant position to get off scot-free in any investigation directed towards its own ranks. But it is definitely rather awkward to play the part of the victim before each judicial move in corruption cases and claim that these are due to the vindictiveness of the Right, bent on settling old scores with a Left that fights hard for justice.

This narrative handicaps the development of the Left and its electoral potential in the future. On the one hand, because it carelessly admits what the Right has no ground to say: that corruption is mostly a problem of the Left. If we look at the Odebrecht case and the countries involved, it is quite clear that political tendency was not at all a determining factor.

The conservative governments of Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Peru appear also on the list of bribed high-ranking officials. But maintaining that the investigations into the Odebrecht case are simply a weapon directed against the progressive camp only strengthens the idea in public opinion that the Left is easier to corrupt.

The second problem is related to credibility. Latin American voters are fed up with corruption – so that evidence seems to point out that only political forces which can be trusted to fight it effectively will succeed in the future. This could become a real test for the Left.

The tension between party politics and political agenda

The same suspicion is brewing in the industrialized countries where, instead of being at the service of ordinary citizens, political actors are perceived as favouring large economic and financial groups. The European Union has become synonymous with these practices. So, in the coming years, in both regions, an essential task for the Left will be to reformulate, on a new basis, the relationship between the people and the elites.

In Latin America, outrage over corruption fuels disenchantment with democracy. In Europe, the traditional Left is being accused of having completely distanced itself from its historical bases.

At the same time, criticism of the widespread preferential treatment enjoyed by the rich and big corporations is mounting. The situation calls for urgent and profound reforms in taxation of transnational companies and lobby regulation.

Both in Europe and in Latin America, politicians are facing a dilemma. On the one hand, if they wish to maintain or increase their possibilities at the polls, they must address several challenging issues immediately.

On the other hand, given that their parties are going through serious internal problems -which in some cases endanger their own survival -, they are left with almost no time or energy to devote to the demands of the political agenda.

The list of necessary reforms in both regions is a long one and shows many coincidences – even though the starting points are obviously quite different.

Fiscal policy is key

When assessing the progressive forces in both regions, it is crucial to check, among other things, whether they are committed to a strong and operational State which can guarantee its citizens the necessary public goods and services, such as security, education and health. The key to achieving these goals is a progressive fiscal policy.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, only in exceptional cases are taxes used as a means to increasing social justice. The distribution of wealth there is the most unequal in the world and the bulk of State revenue comes from indirect taxes, such as VAT and other taxes on consumption, which are a disproportionate burden for the poor.

Tax evasion is high and the contribution of taxes to the GDP is low. So, there is a lack of resources to meet the public interest goals and to improve infrastructures.

In Europe, in the days of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, tax rates were slashed for the highest incomes and income derived from business activities. Allegedly, this was done so as to better fit the requirements of globalization.

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel has written that Social Democracy simply fell into the temptation (even prior to the social and employment liberal reforms) and the State relinquished some of its own power.

As a result, European Social Democracy has been feeling overwhelmed ever since. For quite some time now, the population has been aware of the fact that great inequality characterizes the paying of taxes. And this generalized feeling drives populism.

Education and the labour market, at risk

The leitmotiv in all social democratic discourses has always been free access to education as key to guaranteeing equal opportunities. In a context which is marked, precisely, by the arrival of immigrants from other regions, this norm is the most convincing element for integration.

In addition, as a consequence of the digitizing of production, continuing education becomes a must. It is crucial for Europeans to make great efforts and invest heavily in order to ensure the viability of their societies and their national economies. In Latin America, the role of education and training is also central.

Although in recent years there have been advances in primary and secondary education, the proportion of university students in the region continues to be low and very few among them take up CTEM options (science, technology, engineering and maths).

Educational systems do not meet the demands of the labour market and professional training compares badly with international benchmarks. Due to the ongoing process of growing commercialization in the education sector, access to high quality educational establishments increasingly depends on the level of family income.

Digitized production will generate a radical change in how we work. There is an intense debate going on about its consequences not only on the demand for jobs and training, but also on certain social issues (such as compatibility between job and family).

Opinions range from euphoric promises of salvation to gloomy warnings predicting the end of work and its corresponding negative economic consequences for wide swaths of the population.

The Right in the region does not have a program for the future. Its recipes continue to be the Washington Consensus ones: strengthening the economy through deregulation and tax reduction.

In industrialized societies, there is great uncertainty. And the Social Democratic parties are being put to the test: it remains to be seen if they can face this issue with the necessary audacity and design viable scenarios for the future so as to chart a course for employment and social policies.

In the Latin American labour market, the dichotomy is further heightened as a result of digitization. No options are currently available for facing the moment when agricultural products and raw materials will be obtained largely through synthetic means - which will do away, at least partly, with the comparative advantages of the region.

Industrial policies do not contemplate yet the consequences of 3D production, which will prompt the relocation of production centers which are currently located in low labour cost countries and their return to the industrialized countries.

The issue of digitized production is closely linked to the urgent need to restructure national economies. In a context of climate change and scarcity of resources, the parties and movements on the Left also lack the necessary vision and audacity to show how to secure (in Europe) or improve (in Latin America) the standards of living and how to develop the economy.

Government declarations and party programs agree that a socio-ecological transition is inevitable. But no one is willing to tread an unusual path. This is happening both in Europe (where industrial workers used to provide the bulk of social democratic voters) and in Latin America (where exporting raw materials and agricultural products is the quickest means to cash).

If we compare the decade of the governments on the Left with the current situation in Latin America, it is quite clear that the Right and/or Liberal administrations are following the usual paths without even a hint of criticism. The Right in the region does not have a program for the future. Its recipes continue to be the Washington Consensus ones: strengthening the economy through deregulation and tax reduction.

At first glance, given the very different starting points, one might think it impossible to formulate common solutions, which is a misleading impression.

The problem is that the competitive edge of the Latin American national economies will not be resolved by accelerating the bidding downwards (in taxation, environmental protection and social welfare). What needs to be done is to improve the educational level and combat the informal labour market. The quality of public goods and services is inadequate. The development of infrastructures is at a standstill.

Common solutions

Today, Latin American progressive forces are also criticized for failing to carry through sufficient substantial reforms in education, infrastructure and public services. Although the Western industrialized countries obviously continue to be at a much higher level in these areas, there are large deficits are there too and they should not be underestimated.

They start from a higher level, but the countries of the North are increasingly lowering their standards. This contributes to the growing dissatisfaction of voters.

The challenges in Europe and Latin America are actually quite similar. At first glance, given the very different starting points, one might think it impossible to formulate common solutions, which is a misleading impression.

The tasks we have described - the restructuring of national economies from a socio-ecological premise, the need to deal with digitized production, the creation of a modern migration system, controlling the power of transnational corporations and other global economic groups, the reform of the international tax system - are all challenges which must be addressed and resolved on a global scale.

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