Populism has no side

Multiple forms of populisms may threaten our common future. Our role as progressive intellectuals is to contribute to clarify what is at stake and propose a new way forward. Español

Lena Lavinas
21 November 2017

Detail of Lenin in the work “Man at the Crossroads” (1934), by Diego Rivera. Mural in permanent exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts of Mexico City. Image: Jaontiveros /Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

One should not blame the reemergence of populism solely on a revitalization of the extreme right wing. Populism may be addressed either as a conceptual tool or as a political and social phenomenon, as a structural or a conjunctural phenomenon. As a consequence, one must acknowledge that there exists varieties of populisms and that Latin America may serve as an example in this respect. For populism in Latin America, as I understand it, is both structurally and conjuncturally determined, being fueled by recurrent crisis of all sorts. As is known, the rhetoric of crises is intrinsic and constitutive of populism. Let’s then keep in mind that the repertoire of populisms is rather broad. This is not only a mark of the radical right, though rightwing populism may be particularly alarming.

Populism has been a major feature of Latin American politics and economic development ever since the 1940s. Peron in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, Haya de la Torre in Peru, Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, Cárdenas in Mexico or Gaitán in Colombia – to cite those leaders who held office during the first wave of import-substitution, that period when state interventions were key in promoting capitalist relations through state-led industrialization. Protectionism (not only to boost national sectors but also in protecting people from the elites), and some attempts to develop social insurance as a way to conform a new proletariat were in the menu. Most of these leaders pursued nationalist policies and some of them also pursued limited redistributive social policies, incorporating into the “nation” those segments of the population which had previously been excluded from it, moving from heterodox to liberal policies according to the context, governing either according to democratic principles or, most often - let’s not forget it - also applying authoritarian rules.

All of these leaders were fighting the oligarchies while creating coalitions that produced new oligarchies and not more homogeneous and egalitarian societies. Latin America remains still marked by structural heterogeneity, both productive and notably social. Despite their very real differences, these populist platforms pursued in the various Latin American countries were marked by a dynamic of popular inclusion while benefitting from massive popular support which was engendered by a new urban industrial working class and which in turn was swiftly and steadily coopted by the political leaders –all of which was accompanied by the rise of new elites.

All of these leaders were fighting the oligarchies while creating coalitions that produced new oligarchies

This kind of populism, which goes by the phrase “classic populism,” associated with the modernization of Latin American societies, was finally repressed in Latin America by a series of military coups. Then, a new wave of populism reemerged during the re-democratization process in the late 80s and 90s: Menen in Argentina, Collor in Brazil or Fujimore in Peru—all are illustrative of a new wave of clientelism and patronage that was openly neoliberal and which the literature has thus dubbed “neoliberal neopopulism.”

But we have been through a third wave of populism. This came in the wake of the Pink Tide and was marked by a political shift in the populist tradition through the rise of a radical populism committed to refounding the “nation and reinventing twenty-first century socialism. Chaves, Morales and Correa were swept to power by the excluded masses – namely the urban poor and lower classes, destitute peasants as well as the impoverished and repressed Indigenous communities, those who continued to be the genuine outsiders in our societies, though now integrated into market relations. The “true people” were once more mobilized against the elites and oligarchies.

New pioneering Constitutions were drafted, as in the case of Ecuador and Bolivia. They recognized the plurality of political nations while adopting concepts such as sumak kawsay (which means living well or buen vivir) and thus acknowledging the diverse spectrum of human ways of life. Nature became a subject with rights, a move all the more significant in a place with a centuries-long tradition of extractivism as the key to an international insertion rooted in the commodification of nature and expropriation from Indigenous peoples and the masses of the never-represented. Extractivism’s days seemed numbered. Chaves, Morales and Correa were acclaimed as post-neoliberal governments despite the fact that the Left was unable to so much as explain the precise content of “post-neoliberal” policymaking.

And what exactly happened to Latin America during the Pink Tide? For most leftist and center-left governments, including Brazil and Argentina, there was a shift to reprimarization of the economy, marking a return to extractivism rather than deploying more audacious development strategies that would take time to mature but which would have finally fueled that structural shift which we have been expecting for decades. But these governments succumbed to populism and their desire to remain in power – for the sake of “the people” of course.

The most immediate consequence was that natural resources, such a precious and outstanding differential, have been commodified in a disgraceful and irresponsible fashion. In agriculture as well as in large-scale mining projects, extractivism has stolen the scene and made the development model a corollary of violence, blood, and the denial of the most fundamental rights of those populations traditionally marginalized by growth. Extractivism went a step beyond, dominating the agricultural and animal husbandry sector. The spread of genetically modified organisms in Argentina and Brazil helped to wipe out native species. The environmental costs are extraordinarily high, and may not be reversible. Indigenous and peasant resistance to extractivism, meanwhile, has resulted in violent criminalization and numerous deaths. The death toll of environmental activists and nature defenders has never been so high in Latin America. We are back to colonial times, marked by violence, incarceration and expropriation.

And what exactly happened to Latin America during the Pink Tide? For most leftist and center-left governments, including Brazil and Argentina, there was a shift to reprimarization of the economy, marking a return to extractivism

Both left and right fell silent when it came to this sort of development and the brutal violence it wrought, as if this were only the price to pay in the search for progress. Similar silence met the alliance between democratically elected left-wing leaders, Latin America’s traditional rentier elites, and major mining and agribusiness multinationals. The return to extractivism brought an even greater concentration of power and wealth, feeding the growing dilution of environmental regulations and the savage repression of Indigenous, peasant, and environmentalist movements. It also strengthened the most conservative groups in Parliament, as is the case of Brazil. The Brazilian agribusiness, for instance, is a leading force within any current political coalition. They are now more powerful than 15 years ago, because they spread their influence for having been chosen as the Brazilian “global players” to compete in international markets.

Meanwhile, states continue to evade prior consultation with respect to the use of land, as established by law in many countries. In the absence of official mechanisms of consultation, people establish autonomous ones, which are denied by the states and severely repressed, ranging from judicial intimidation to illegal incarcerations and assassinations.

Latin America remains not only the most unequal region in the world but also the most violent. And the commodities consensus, as coined by Maristella Svampa, persists.

We are back to colonial times, marked by violence, incarceration and expropriation

Let me quote Carlos de la Torre’s view of this wave of radical populism: “In Venezuela and Ecuador, new populist caudillos of the 21st century are concentrating power in their own hands and are undermining both the separation of powers as well as the institutional spaces that guarantee civil society’s autonomy from the state. If under neoliberalism the market penetrated and weakened a fragile civil society, under twenty first century socialism, the state attempts to control or co-opt social movements. In Venezuela and Ecuador, and to a lesser extent in Bolivia, citizen’s rights to form independent political associations or organizations to express themselves without fear of reprisal are being undermined and attacked at the same time that press and media freedom are being curtailed”(In Name of the People, 2013:33).

Shall we consider that this has nothing to do with the economic model put in place by recent leftist and center-left Latin American governments and their priorities with regard to social policies?

The backlash we have experienced – and which is far from being reversed – calls into question those choices and shortcomings which have characterized the trajectory of leftist and democratic parties since the rise of neoliberalism. It is true that throughout the twentieth century we witnessed several processes entailing a renewal and a recomposition of the Left. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the way that leftist and democratic parties embraced neoliberalism and ignored the fact that people’s lives were rapidly and profoundly deteriorating and that suffering was spreading – this was a clear indication that the Left had already succumbed and was declining to represent our political, social and economic aspirations.

Looking at Brazil, makes me realize that the losses still to come are difficult to measure and evaluate – not to mention those losses that have already been incurred. But why not mention few of them – these include, in the first instance, the loss of hope for or any faith in change. In the second instance, there is the loss of dignity and security, without which any prosperity worthy of the name is meaningless. In this race to the bottom it would seem that the bottom is being lowered on a daily basis and with no end in sight. So just how are we to forestall this disaster and redress the situation?

Latin America remains not only the most unequal region in the world but also the most violent

Uncertainty has never been so great since the mid-1950s. Not that I ever imagined the path to a good life as put by the Skydelsky (How Much is Enough, 2013), to be a linear one, but in the past we at least had certain benchmarks in which we instilled our faith. Being on the Left, as opposed to the Right, was to take a clear position! You had a strict ideological divide with political identities that were relatively well-defined. The far Left existed back then and gathered those who thought that “revolution” was not only feasible but necessary in carrying out the essential structural shifts to curtail capitalism, whereas the far Right seemed to have been phased out since the end of World War II – this thanks to a long period of sustainable economic growth coupled with increasing democracy and new patterns of redistribution. It goes without saying that welfare regimes and social protection schemes played a fundamental role in fueling our positive expectations, as recalled by John Abromeit when he states that “Keynesianism and a robust welfare state . . . created a historical climate that was unfavorable to right-wing populist movements in Europe and in the United States”(Logos, 2016).

This movement seems now, if not completely gone, at least interrupted. Public provision is at stake and is being replaced by various for-profit schemes due to the prevalence, since the late 1970s, of neoliberal economic thought, globalization and the destruction of public finance by a certain type of macroeconomic policy that is marked by fiscal austerity and subsumed by the logic of interest-bearing capital. Conditionalities, controls, residual schemes tend to prevail, despite the fact that some welfare dimensions have expanded in many countries, notably these relating to poverty-alleviation in the developing world. The last decade has proven to be a great time to monetize the poor and drag them into the market, inlcuding financial markets, and this financial inlcusion has been celebrated by the left as a signal of democratization. The ideal “welfare state model” is no longer needed, not only because the current regime of accumulation, increasingly dominated by finance, is taking over the state and causing the public sphere to collapse, but also due to the emergence of limited forms of democracy and deepening social fragmentation. This social fragmentation is refraiming subjectivities in the misdt of a process of class restructuring. And this transition is difficult to apprehend.

It is no accident that people are now thinking in terms of financial resources as a way of coping with risk since welfare regimes appear to be less effective in providing security. It is true that both finance and social protection systems are organized under the banner of risk, but the very notion of risk has changed in the meantime, acquiring profoundly different meanings. Paradoxically and simultaneously, risk is now being systemically manufactured by the financial sector, financial institutions and their actors. And this engenders a distrust of institutions.

Distrust and suspicion are the watchwords of our time. Political representation, supposedly based on trust, has been profoundly eroded. In France only 43 percent of all eligible voters elected the new president. Voting is mandatory in Brazil, but in the election for mayor of Rio de Janeiro in October of last year – which took place amidst a severe political, institutional and economic crisis – the non-vote (that is to say, abstentions, white votes and what we call nule votes) in fact surpassed the number of votes garnered by the winner, by the way, an evangelical! This most progressive and avant-garde city of Brazil is now run by an evangelical against gay marriage, reproductive rights, gender principles and so on and so for. In a recent essay, Kenneth Roberts (2013) argues, and I quote: “Populism is a permanent possibility where representative institutions are weak, fragile or ineffective in articulating and responding to social concerns.”

“Populism is a permanent possibility where representative institutions are weak, fragile or ineffective in articulating and responding to social concerns.”

Are we currently in the process of forming new majorities outside the logic of traditional political parties and majorities – new majorities that cannot be represented or which claim not to be represented? And, should this indeed be the case, then, how is politics supposed to operate? Through the mainspring of social and political movements? How can we grasp and channel the spirit and vitality of thousands of activists, environmentalists, feminists, trade unionists, students, pensioners, workers, indigenous and church groups, and those millions of normal unaffiliated people who take to the streets to express their rage and revolt with current politics? Boaventura de Sousa Santos, that prestigious Portuguese sociologist, holds that we need to create so-called movement-parties, and I quote: “They require internal participatory democracy and citizen networks in charge of defining the political agenda and the list of potential candidates. We need primaries and permanent consultation to challenge the status quo,” – unquote – and in so doing also reinventing the Left. If he is right, and I fully agree with his diagnosis, then we must start acknowledging that the Left yet again has been authoritarian for ignoring deficits in democracy. 

Maybe it is just a matter of time before we see new forms of political action emerging and consolidating – but how long this might take is always of legitimate concern. Hopefully all is not lost. A very interesting and successful experiment is presently taking place in Portugal with a left-wing coalition running the government under the leadership of the Portuguese Communist Party. In a word, this coalition is contesting the current power-hegemony in these times of scarce progressive alternatives. But as we know, one swallow does not a summer make. Perhaps starting a process of reckoning with prior mistakes might unleash a new trend to create and unite a truly progressive coalition, including and strengthening again the middle classes.

Unfortunately this is not what is going on in Brazil for now. Self-critique is not really in the agenda, although former president Lula has acknowledged every so often that “we undoubtedly made mistakes” (Le Monde, November 18 2017).  When the Worker’s Party was in office, criticism was condemned because it could destabilize the government, after two decades of attempts to take power. Those who were severe critics, like Sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, have been literally demonized. And of course, as populist governments often do, anti-intellectualism was there to devalue complexity. Now, in the midst of a disaster, this is not either the right time for a deep and long-overdue reflection of the paths taken, because with a non-elected right-wing government in place the left – and especially leftist parties that formed the Left under the PT’s mandates – cannot weaken its political capital by recognizing missteps and wrongdoings.

We must start acknowledging that the Left yet again has been authoritarian for ignoring deficits in democracy

It seems that the time to acknowledge mistakes, flaws and omissions either never comes or, when it does, it only seeks to prove good faith –which is clearly insufficient. This is a main characteristic of the Latin American left, and very likely of the left in general. Venezuela is just the most dramatic, desperate and poignant evidence of this.

Back to the case of Brazil, let´s recall that in 2013, 4 years ago, protests filled the country’s major urban hubs. Hundreds of thousands of people called for quality public services, free healthcare and education, and subsidized, efficient public transportation. Dilma Rousseff’s administration was unable to correctly translate the desires and expectations of a population that seemed to be “out of place,” working off the “wrong script.” It was as if the marches were somehow resisting a new habitus, understood as adaptation and adjustment to the real world and to a new or revised social contract – ultimately resisting the material, every day, increasingly banalized practices of what Ben Fine refers to as the “material culture of financialization” (2013)

The recent cycle of growth in Brazil saw effectively the adoption of an array of policies and regulations that, rather than resuscitating and shoring up the existing social protection system – which was still in a phase of consolidation and subject to such ills as chronic underfinancing – it was plunged deeper into the logic of the market and broadened commodification also via financialization and the collateralization of social policy. Creditors’ legal rights would be expanded and strengthened via the efficient intervention of the developmentalist State. The creation of consigned credit at the end of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first year in office, even before the launch of Bolsa Família, is a perfect example of how financial neoliberalism took on ever-greater prominence and depth, corroding the foundations of the social protection system in order to create another in its own image.

That social protection system would find itself increasingly vulnerable to a whiplash-inducing series of advances and setbacks that seemed to signal contradictory, confusing trends, as well as to targeted, specific reforms that quietly sapped rights and compromised the effectiveness of social policy. This strategy hit its stride when it managed to discredit public provision by trumpeting non-existent operational deficits (despite an increase in contributions to the system, given economic growth and the rising formalization of employment); demolishing the public healthcare system, which went from universal coverage to patchy coverage for those with no other options, the poor; and, given the unsatisfactory performance of the public educational system, encouraging citizens to opt for private schooling. In all these examples, what prevailed was the spurning of public financing in favor of a vigorously expanding variety of forms of private financing, made possible thanks to the dynamism of financial markets – and thanks to the intervention of the developmentalist State, which has normalized and regulated the process of financial inclusion for those once excluded or marginalized.

It is undeniable that redistribution was never made a priority under the tenure of the Workers’ Party. It was not just that there was no room for a thorough, courageous tax reform that might have tackled the regressivity of the prevailing system. Rather, tax policies and tax regulations were honed to serve the logic of financialization through an active thrust towards more exemptions and tax credits in favor of businesses and rich households, concentrating wealth and power against the grain of the collective interest. The foundations for this turnabout had been laid long ago, between Lula’s first and second terms.

The rhetoric of “everyone wins” fit into the rhetoric of conciliation, flirting with the foundational myth of Brazil as a cordial nation

What is interesting is that the narrative not long ago was that Brazil had achieved a win-win coalition. What a difference! Everybody was benefiting from this new cycle of economic growth under the Workers’ Party, especially the financial sector and the wealthiest! The vertical opposition of the people versus the elite was nonexistent. The rhetoric of “everyone wins” fit into the rhetoric of conciliation, flirting with the foundational myth of Brazil as a cordial nation. The Workers’ Party, once in power, believed it possible to re-found the nation by creating new social identities, ones forged not on bonds of collective belonging or communal solidarity, but rather on having a credit card, a personal bank account, or access to credit that might throw open the doors to the mass consumer market and make dreams of a house of one’s own or a college degree possible. Ownership of a cheap car or other durable goods came to fight for space alongside holding a private healthcare policy (no matter the coverage) and enrolling in higher education (no matter the quality, nature, or real value of the degree). Mass indebtedness became a marker of “social inclusion,” and the constant renegotiation of debt was cast as an alternative to marginalization. Households and individuals internalized the notion that financial markets and the dependence on credit could provide a response to their concerns and their needs.

But now that the economic model proved to have failed, and the backlash in Brazil goes well beyond the most pessimistic expectations, the elites are the problem. Lula has radically changed his discourse and now points to the elites as the ones responsible for this dramatic downward trend. The cause of all our problems is that elites and the oligarchies did not tolerate the people occupying new social positions. Were they really moving up in the social ladder by consuming and running debts? The fact that the people became more visible tough continuously marginalized and segregated living in ill and poor neighborhoods, being penalized by a deficient and expensive public transportation, was this the real problem? Or the lack of massive investment so as to provide a more egalitarian access to wellbeing through public provision?

Cornered, the Workers’ Party is engendering a new narrative that is very likely to foster a new trend of leftist populism in the region, in which the losers, whose ranks have grown rapidly and greatly, may take him back to power in 2018, when a new presidential election will occur. According to the polls (November 2017), Lula is leading with 35-36% of support nationwide.

My feeling is that leftist populisms of many sorts will be competing with right wing populists

But he is not alone in the race. Jair Bolsonaro, representing the extreme far-right, is running second in the polls, with 13%-18%. He has shown himself to be the great novelty in this electoral dispute, gaining prominence at a time of economic and political crisis – this despite the reputation of brutality, vulgarity, and violence that he has been forging ever since his election to the Chamber of Deputies in the 1990s, having begun his political career in Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro defends fascist stances. He openly supports the death penalty, backs the “bullet lobby” and believes that the Brazilian dictatorship’s greatest mistake was having tortured too many and killed too few. Bolsonaro is racist, homophobic, pro-life, and sexist, unabashedly calling for lower salaries for women because they get pregnant. He opposes pro-human rights policies; he has said that the military police responsible for the 1992 Carandiru Prison massacre, where 111 inmates were killed, should have taken the opportunity to kill a thousand criminals. And when he was challenged on these vile positions by Maria do Rosário, his colleague in the Chamber and Minister of Human Rights under Dilma Rousseff, who spoke out against his inciting violence, he retorted publicly that he wouldn’t rape her only because she wasn’t worth it, and proceeded to call her a slut. A man who sighs for the military and authoritarian rule, he used his vote for the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff to pay a public tribute to Colonel Ustra, who confessed to torturing Rousseff when she was a revolutionary militant captured by the regime.

This grotesque figure has made headlines in the national and international press. His stances, however, seem to be not only distant from, but frontally opposed to what Brazilians truly believe. A recent survey (from the second semester de 2017), conducted by the Instituto Big Data (2017) for the liberal-leaning Movimento Agora! indicates that 2/3 believe that human rights should apply to all, criminals included. A similar share supported same-sex marriage, while 57.2% were favorable to racial quotas at public universities, a positive and just form of addressing racism.

Apart from railing against everything and everyone and spreading hate speech, it is difficult to say what Bolsonaro would do if elected president. For the moment, he has limited himself to a manifesto in which he claims to be gathering thinkers and specialists to put together a presumptively orthodox platform. This has proved insufficient to stanch the clear rejection of his candidacy from economic and financial elites, which spurn his excesses of interventionism and nationalism and judge him unprepared to carry on their agenda of liberal reforms. 

The fact remains, however, that the widespread violence that rules social relations in Brazil – with homicide rates of young people, black people, and women far outstripping those in countries at war – ultimately favors those who position themselves as “saviors,” strongmen who would wield power and repression. On this score, the Big Data survey offers a measure of hope; it indicates that 72.8% of Brazilians reject this sort of “hero.”

It is high time to broaden our analysis and examine how these multiple forms of populisms may threaten our common future. My feeling is that leftist populisms of many sorts will be competing with right wing populists. This said, nothing can be taken for granted. Our role as progressive intellectuals is to contribute to clarify what is at stake and propose a new way forward. 

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