Slums in Rio de Janeiro. Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Given that the cycle of Latin American progressive politics (progresisimo) appears to be coming to an end, it seems the right time to develop an in-depth analysis of the phenomenon, one that goes beyond providing political or economic snapshots or dwells on secondary data, but rather tries to get to the root of what progresismo is, and has been all about. But before I start, I want to make it clear that the end of the cycle will no doubt be extremely difficult for popular sectors and people on the left: it is will leave us in a situation of uncertainty and anxiety about the repressive right wing environment we are going to have to live with in the immediate future.
As a term, Progresismo can seem a little vague, containing as it does very different political processes. By my own definition it includes those governments that attempted to change what was the Washington Consensus, but never aspired to go beyond the extractive and financial phases of capitalism. The governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Ecuador – and Paraguay when it was ruled by Fernando Lugo – fall squarely into that category. Those of Venezuela and Bolivia can be viewed in another light given that they have shown a willingness to transcend the reality they inherited, and not simply manage it.
But why put the Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa on the list? The main reason is its relationship with the country’s social movements: popular movements in Ecuador – indigenous people, workers and students – called a national strike for the 13th of August in reaction to an authoritarian government that persecutes leaders and grassroots organizations.
At the same time, right wing media and business groups, encouraged by the United States, are waging campaigns throughout the South American region with the goal of tipping the balance of power in their favor. However, as a counterbalance we have the revival of popular movements, – particularly in Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru – fighting against a model that continues to concentrate wealth and against governments that have not committed themselves to structural change.
In my view, it is in Brazil where we can find the most profound debate about the significance of the twelve years of government of the Workers Party (PT), headed by Presidents Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. This may be due to the fact that Brazil represents half of the South American region in terms of population and production, due to its undeniable regional and global significance and, above all, due to the fact that the PT – created from by trade unionists, former guerrillas and ecclesial communities – is the largest party on the Latin American left and represents the driving force, together with social movements, behind the major international social forums held in the country, as well as the São Paulo Forum, organized in conjunction with other left wing parties.
The Brazilian Marxist philosopher Paulo Arantes, who occupies a place on the left of the PT spectrum and who constitutes a reference point in many of the debates about the Left, argues that the country and its left wing are tired and exhausted. “We have rapaciously mined and exhausted the immense reservoir of political and social dynamism built up during the time the dictatorship was ending*,” he said in one of his latest speeches (“Correio da Cidadania”, July 15, 2015).
The spent force he refers to, is the ethical power that brought into being the PT, the union federation (CUT) and the Landless Movement (MST), the social organizations that constitute the country’s main progressive political power. The demand for quick results that produced a “a social decay never before experienced,” and which can be summarized as “the right of the poor to have money” is, in his opinion, one of the keys to understanding the cycle we are now witnessing. Whereas the dignity of the working class was always a priority, what we have now is a range of concerns that focus on managing rather than transforming: a policy of betting everything on the growth of the economy, with no goals beyond that.
The sociologist Francisco de Oliveira is one of the Left’s most respected intellectuals. He was a founding member of the PT during the dark days of the dictatorship (1980) and then helped found the PSOL (Socialism and Freedom Party, 2004) when the Lula government began implementing neoliberal reforms. He coined the term “reverse hegemony” to explain how the rich consented to be led politically by those they generally dominate, with the proviso that no questions be raised about capitalist exploitation. In his opinion, what happened in Brazil is similar to the experience in South Africa under the ANC government.
In a 2009 article D Oliveira stated that “Lulismo is political regression” (Piauí, October 2009). At that time, the last year of Lula’s second term, the statement seemed out of place, bold and controversial, despite the fact that it was shared by many Brazilians on the left. This was borne out by the results of the 2006 presidential elections, when Heloisa Helena (expelled from the PT for refusing to vote for pension reform) received 6.5 million votes as the PSOL candidate, almost 7% of the total vote.
Six years later, in the midst of a neoliberal financial adjustment that violates social rights and a mind-boggling corruption scandal (Dilma acknowledged that the amount of money stolen is equal to one percent of GDP), we might well ask again whether De Oliveira was right, whether progresismo was in fact a step forward or back.
One of De Oliveira’s central arguments is that the Lula and Dilma governments triggered a depoliticizing of society, in large measure because politics was replaced by management and because “the unions and social movements, including the Landless Movement, were coopted, although the MST is still resisting”.
At this point the analyses diverge, not only in Brazil but within the entire region’s left wing. One side takes the view that the progressive governments were a step forward, their main argument being that poverty was reduced, brought down to its lowest levels in recent history. In this context it’s worth considering two elements: on the one hand, economic growth allowed more people to become part of the labor market, while on the other, social policies and increases in the minimum wage undoubtedly played a role.
But another sector, myself included, argues that there has been no significant improvement in inequality, and no structural reform, while at the same time the country suffered deindustrialization and the economy became more dependent on commodity exports. In this sense we can say that liberalism was clearly not an advance.
But was it all a setback, as De Oliveira argued? If we put politics at the center of the debate, the situation takes on a different perspective. From a left wing point of view, politics revolves around the capacity of the popular sector to organize, mobilize and weaken the economic and political power of the Right, thus opening the way for structural change. From this standpoint, popular power in Latin America has been seriously eroded by progresismo. Large demonstrations June 2013 in Brazil, which were criticized by the PT for allegedly playing into the hands of the Right, are clear evidence of the changes that have taken place in both the upper and lower echelons of Brazilian society.
The problem now, is how a depoliticized and disorganized society, a result of the left squandered the social authority it accumulated during the dictatorship, is to confront the coming right wing offensive. It is, incidentally not the only part of the world where this has happened.
Three decades ago the social democrat PSOE became the government of Spain; was it a step forward or a step backward? I should point out that while I am not trying to compare European socialism with Latin American progresismo, I am commenting on how social movements became weaker in both situations.
This article was first published by La línea de fuego, Ecuador.