The so-called end of the progressivism cycle in South America

Political polarization is currently tensioning Latin America. The result will not be a general rightward shift by society, but the increase in economic, political, cultural and ideological contradictions. Español.

Edgar Isch López
2 February 2016
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A few months ago, a debate on the end of an era of progressive governments in our region had surfaced. The topic has attracted analysts and activists from different backgrounds, but it seems that the answers given to this question have had more short-term urgency – even presented in similar patterns in the mass media - than a theoretical analysis with historic attributes, which could help in building clearer perspectives.

Without claiming that this article will achieve the latter, it seems important to consider various issues which have not been given enough emphasis. Here, we will touch base with those useful aspects by making queries, considering the reality beyond the recent elections in Argentina and Venezuela.

“End of a cycle” or processes that have reached their limits?

History isn’t defined by cycles. If that were the case, it would mean that a series of repeated events is just a natural phenomenon. We can certainly talk about the cycle of water or of other natural elements, but that is not applicable to society, where there is the capacity for social organization and the construction of class dominance. This does not deny that certain events – when seen as isolated instances – have cyclical traits, as seen with the frequency of crises that stem from capitalism. But these belong to a general evolution of society that prevents them from repeating, as they occur in different forms and the crises are deeper and more widespread, illustrating a more spiral form than an eternal cycle.

In addition, let’s consider the fact that “the people make history” by constantly transforming society and themselves; with advances and setbacks that resemble a zigzag. Conscious and voluntary action of the people, however, is determined by historical and specific productive conditions. The absence of predetermined facts would illustrate a famous phrase from Rosa Luxemburg:

“Engels once said: ‘Capitalist society is faced with a dilemma: advance to socialism or return to barbarism.’ What does ‘return to barbarism’ mean in the actual stage of European civilization? We have read, and quoted, these words lightly, unable to conceive its terrible meaning. At this point, it is enough to simply observe our surroundings in order to comprehend what the return to barbarism means in the capitalist society. This world war is a return to barbarism. (…) Such is the dilemma of world history, its iron alternative, its trembling balance at the point of equilibrium, awaiting the decision of the proletariat. It depends on the future of culture and humanity.” (Rosa Luxemburg. The Junius pamphlet. The crisis of German social democracy.).

In the history of nations, you always come across such dilemmas. Socialism or barbarism; war or revolution; colonialism or independence; they are part of the many who remember the real processes.

Bringing the idea of close social life cycles, it is a variant of the old mechanism. A mechanism that has been rejected in the social sciences but reappears in different forms, an example being the one that absurdly aims to guide social analyses through the process of subatomic quantum level analysis.

The cyclical theory of history was first formulated by Oswald Spengler and then by historians like Arnold Toynbee, who promoted the idea of constant return to humanity as its starting point. According to these theories, society has unavoidable phases to which they refer to as childhood, youth, maturity and old age or spring, summer, autumn winter. Phases in which are supposedly unavoidable, as if it made reference to a mechanical progression that we were doomed to repeat.

What conditions have emerged nowadays, that have prompted us to speak about an end of a cycle?

It occurs at a time when the enlightenment shows its failure in the continuity of reforms that have been proposed and that, in cases like in Ecuador, was even betrayed. Speaking of a cycle or pendulum, in an illegitimate version of the first view, is a way of refusing to self-criticism. If there is a “cycle”, this is “inevitable” and therefore very little or nothing could be done, there is not error to acknowledge. This starting point is a call to indifference and resignation, to open the doors to the right now that the progressives were defined as the “new” left of the 21st century. This means to tell us that the right and the progressives would take turns to govern, but always within an unbeatable capitalism, that would only have the possibility of a more social and more centered market trend.

It would be different in thinking about the actual process that governments that call themselves progressives have lived through. You clearly cannot place them in the same spot, and the differences between Argentina and Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador or any among any other, are great indeed. However, there are some characteristics that must be taken into account, from their common origin in the wave of protests and uprisings that fought neoliberalism and its blows to social life, reaching the capacity to overthrow corrupt governments and representatives of certain sectors of the ruling classes. Battles that also intended to fight imperialism and proposals such as the FTAA, which put at the forefront US imperialism and its multilateral domain of its “backyard”.

However, after their initial programs that were based on platforms of popular struggle in those battles and presented a stage of progress in implementing the program, which brought order to the functioning of the state, they showed clear evidence of renouncement of its own discourse. This led them to consider that their main enemies were those who demanded compliance with government programs and constitutional mandates. Therefore, not only the removal of historical organizations, but also the criminalization of popular protest became widespread in recent years.

In other words, the “cycle” was closing from within governments, as a result of the policy that was implemented by them and not only due to the interests of the most backward sectors of society. It is the actual process used by these governments, their decisions and policies, which have weakened it. Today, once removed from the people, they accuse them of electoral defeats and setbacks.

Is the progressivism always the preferred movement of the people?

Progressivism is a somewhat vague term. Usually, it is referred as the opposite of deterrence. Hence, even capitalist revolutions were progressive in their time, as their intent was to overcome feudal darkness. But that same example goes to show that progressivism can have consequences that didn’t always benefit most people, as the first workers, taken away from the countryside due to the dispossession of their lands, met with harmful situations such as violence and hunger in the new factories.

Even though the progressive nature of capitalism was linked to its revolutionary period in overcoming the feudal system, it seems that today the movement proposes reforms within the existing system and doesn’t intend on overcoming it. This already poses serious limits and these are due to the belief around the idea of progress as if it were a permanent route for the better. To achieve it, extractivism and its accompanying violence are merely just pragmatic decisions. Rafael Correa makes this clear on his December 1, 2007 national channel speech against the strike of Dayuma, province of Orellana that clashed with oil companies, stating: “Do not believe the romantic environmentalists, anyone who opposes the development of the country is a terrorist.”

Correa’s defensive stance towards extractivism also notes his faith in the market and in transnational corporations, as stated on the June 7, 2008 edition of his weekly ration station, saying: “I hope that the leftist radicals that do not believe in the oil companies, the mining companies, the market or the transnational corporations just leave…”

Here, the “progress” begins to appear as a pretext of an unprincipled pragmatism and, naturally, of violence against the defenders of ancestral lands – no matter the contradictions of earlier speeches or the constitution of a country. What matters is to count on resources to maintain a system of bonuses and some gains won by the social struggle. In addition, everything that justifies violence carried out by the state is justified by their intention for providing state handouts. It is difficult to understand Maduro, who said that he will not deliver housing because they did not vote for him [2] or Correa putting human rights as the basis of patronage blackmail, in remarks that suggest that populations do not want mining so they would be seen without several public services.

Consequently, the progressive discourse can be used for a favorable tendency towards the working-class sectors or to the dominating classes. In the case of the latter, when progressivism becomes synonymous with modernization of capitalism, when referring to its “progress” it is equated with said modernization. Of course, it is a distorted progressivism, pointing in two directions at the same time and that, using economist Alberto Acosta’s metaphor about Ecuador’s government, announces its intent of turning left, but actually turning right instead.

The leftists, those that arise in various ways beyond capitalism, walk with progressivism while this notion is true, but they must reveal when it returns to a discourse that masks a rightist that is presented as having social concerns.

From what has been said and observed the strong weight that the repetition of measures have stem from the 70s, more correctly than referring to them as progressists is define them as capitalist developers, regardless of what forces and social sectors at any given time support these governments.

What is causing the weakening of progressivism?

In Argentina and Venezuela there was talk of the existence of a strong “punishment vote” that brought voters close to governism to decide to support the neoliberal right opposition. This increasingly adds analyses that show that the progressive governments are weakened by their own actions. This once again highlights the fact that there are differences in each country, we can mention the most mentioned similarities: an authoritarianism that expressed itself against the working sector, whose struggle is criminalized; a level of corruption in the high spheres becoming unbearable; an inability to solve the problems that determine outrageous living conditions of the rich and the poor; the fragmentation and cooptation of certain popular movements; rapidly growing foreign debt conditioned by lenders; a decrease of labor and social rights in many areas - although it could be said that in some cases, certain progress was made - but in cases such as bonds there were no guarantees for the future.

It is evident that the neoliberal right dispute the space of power with the developmental right, following the historical divide between conservatives and liberals; it is also logical that American imperialism search to broaden its margins of domination and pester governments that open the doors to Chinese imperialism. Hence, looking at the facts, it is undeniable that there is an existence of interventionism against the Chavez government in Venezuela o that support the right-wing opponents in Bolivia or Argentina. But this is not critical in the election results. And it wouldn’t have had much weight if it complied with the people, as it did with the measures of these governments during their early years.

Say, for example, that the business press won the elections, recognizing that the government now did not have full capacity to exercise political power. The loss of social support comes at a cost to all the developers and we insist that this resulted of their own actions. But if the blame for the defeats is viewed in other cases, the developmentalist governments are incapable of self-criticism and approach their end.

One aspect that stands out is how they built a bureaucratic power, more and more distant from the social bases. Therefore, the acquired power was left without strong social controls. This has given rise to corruption not as isolated incidents, but as the present feature of these regimes. It is unfortunate that leftist intellectuals still seek to hide this in Venezuela or even worse when describing “coup” members in demonstrations against corruption in Brazil and we go back to the thesis of the coup, when nothing was said about the demonstrations and the actual overthrow of the government of Guatemala in 2015. This defense of the corrupt “progressives” recalls the expression of President Roosevelt of the US when he couldn’t justify the crimes of dictator Somoza in Nicaragua: “He is a bastard, but our bastard.” A curious logic, that ends up protecting the corrupt in the name of the “process”.

Who opens the door to the conservative restoration?

During these governments’ reigns, a new legal and institutional body were established, even after constituent assemblies, but leaving on paper its most advanced parts. Examples include Venezuela, where a communal power has not been built; Bolivia has not been able to achieve industrialization; or Ecuador which hasn’t taken the necessary steps towards the Multinational State.

Decisive structural changes to combat the capitalist system weren’t suggested, nor an intention of beginning a transition to socialism, which is mentioned less and less, with the exception of the Venezuelan government. Instead, they sought the modernization of capitalism by means of state capitalism (Venezuela); an “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” (Bolivia); a form of developmentalism of the substitution of imports as in the 70s, but without managing to boost the industrial production system (Ecuador).

The “conservative restoration”, as it is called, has a history in the very heart of the so-called progressive governments. There is a rightward movement through discourses and policies. There are broad agreements with the radical right (Brazil is the biggest example); a guarantee of economic benefits to the powerful; an opening of multinational corporations; repression and criminalization of protests from workers and low-class citizens, often raising dictatorial laws (which the bourgeoisie appreciates); a backward moralistic discourse; a justification of extractivism from economic growth; among others. The conservative discourse is driven by governments whose concrete measures to confront the crisis appeal to the neoliberal recipe.

They situation was different when they enjoyed a decade of high prices for commodities sold in the international market (oil, mining, gas, soybeans, bananas, etc.), which them great resources to expand infrastructure and implement social assistance programs through bonds and subsidies. Therefore, in the economic sense they strengthened the extractivism and expansion of the external debt, that is to say an international dependence that, although not equal to that in the commencement of their regimes, doesn’t remain conflicted to the mentioned sovereignty. There is perhaps the material basis of the cooling of important regional projects such as UNASUR, CELAC, Banco del Sur and the like.

Before prices of raw materials (or commodities) fall comes the crisis, which is the biggest test to see if they didn’t make any real changes in the productive structure of the country. It also shows that extractivism is not the way out of extractivism. And evidence they referred to as an “economic miracle” was nothing more than happily spending money in higher quantities to other governments.  Once the pattern of high prices ends, the mortgage future of each country and the resurgence of neoliberalism in each government is the norm. 

Is there a rightward movement in our societies?

The punishment vote against the failure of developmentalist governments to definitely resolve the great problems of the people, it didn’t start with the presidential elections of Argentina. It had already presented itself earlier in the recovery of mobilization capacities of the workers, peasants and indigenous movements in different countries. It was also shown in local elections in which they lost cities and territories (as in Ecuador in February 2014).

This suggests that there is a sector of the population that continues to hold positions in favor of a significant change and popular character. They are those who did not fall into the networks of governmental mechanisms that encouraged a pause the popular mobilization and reestablish the necessary order for the modernization of capitalism. Progressive governments, in general terms, stood out for being an obstacle to the actions of social and revolutionary left movements.

However, it is clear that many fell into disillusionment not only against the real actions of the developmentalist governments, but also towards the discourse in which these maintained the demagogic use of words like revolution and socialism. The conservative right has managed to use this discourse to its favor, specifically to work with ideological aspects of defending capitalism and attacking a socialism that hasn’t reached the region even in the slightest.

The self-appointed progressives built a series of theses that generate widespread confusion in social thought in the wave of struggles against neoliberalism, which had achieved significant levels of understanding of a number of social phenomena and the significance of capitalism. Among these theses, some had importance such as: the alleged “nineteenth century socialism” that does not propose distributing wealth and socialize it (bonds, which are also delivered under right-wing governments such as Colombia or Peru, only partially redistributing income and not the wealth that is found in the means of production, land, water, banks, etc.); the socialization that steered clear from the economic to remain under the slogan of propaganda; the falsehood that the left characterizes the strengthening of the state, but forgetting that for the revolutionaries, the key is in which social class manages the state (otherwise, talking about a strong state would make us believe that Pinochet was leftist); that the US is merely an imperialist country (allowing to enter before a Chinese or European imperialism); or that the social concern make a revolution (then Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a revolutionary).

The sectors that have moved to the right are not in the labor, ethnic or political sectors that have opposed the resignation of the initial programs of the governments of the developmentalist regimes. On the contrary, they have had another experience that should allow them further reflection about the historic processes in our America. The rightward cove, on the contrary, in the areas of poverty and lower organization that was the social base of developmentalist governments, who were recipients of the message but were disappointed at the lack of certainty over its future. That’s where the demagogy of the conservative right leaves its mark.

The result will not be a general rightward shift by society, but the increase in economic, political, cultural and ideological contradictions whose fate can be expected today. They highlight the importance of breaking the polarity between a conservative right and a developmental right in order to open alternatives passes to multinational and pluralistic leftists.

[1] The reference to the spiral movement is also in the conception of time of the Andean peoples: “This also answers the call – circular time – that is to say time and space, Pacha, to move forward, turning and turning around, they are taking steps back, although it never returns to the same point, but to a new, different point.” (CONAIE, 1992 “Pachacutic” in Nacionalidades indias No. 2).

[2] “I wanted to build 500,000 houses next year, but now I am reconsidering it. Not because I can’t build them, I can but I asked for your support and you didn’t give it to me”, he said in Contacto con Maduro TV show, in December 2015.

Translation by Martin Pastorino, member of the Volunteer Program of DemocraciaAbierta

This article was previously published by La línea de fuego

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