openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Why does the political left fail grassroots movements?

Can the left translate emancipatory practices into an electoral project?

Ana Cecilia Dinerstein
20 May 2020, 1.12pm
Evo Morales opens the World Meeting of Social Movements

Every political party of the Left that hopes to become the government faces a key problem: how to shape a nourishing relationship with civil society and engage with grassroots political activism from a position of power. Feeling very close and grateful to those who campaigned and worked hard to get them into power, the leaders of the Party will promise to keep encouraging social mobilisation and to become humble servants of the people, the citizens, expecting to be held to account by them. Nevertheless, collective initiatives, ideas and demands that once were central to the political campaign must straightaway be decoded into the institutional language of the law and policy, for any government – left or right – needs to maintain order and stability. I call this the problem of translation

The problem of translation is inextricably connected to representational politics and democracy. Representation is necessary because of the separation between the political and the social/economic spheres that characterises capitalist societies. This separation shapes our citizenry and our political lives. It brings about the need for ‘political’ representation, while every change that occurs in the realm of civil society is labelled ‘social’ or ‘economic’ by default. Such separation enables the state to appear as a deus ex machina, that is, as above us. But this separation also authorises the idea of ‘freedom’ in two ways that are central to capitalism. On the one hand, we are ‘free’ citizens, who freely sell our labour power in the labour market. On the other hand, capitalists are freed from the necessity to coerce workers into labour; delegating this coercion to the state. The state appears above us as the realm of freedom and order. 

Why do I see this as a problem for the Left? This separation between the political and the economic is experienced by citizens as a contradiction on a daily basis: the contradiction of being both a part of the dispossessed – exploited – proletariat (regardless of how much money we earn) and a quasi-free citizen in the political realm (with our rights secured by the law or custom). Thus, questions such as ‘why, if I am a UK citizen, am I sleeping rough?’ cannot be answered straightforwardly but require elaborating a response to justify this perverse fact of pseudo democratic life: ‘You are a citizen of this country but political life is mediated by abstractions such as economy, policy, ideology, culture, and these are preventing you from having a roof above your head’. This is when policy comes into play.

Challenging this separation is what makes autonomous movements’ collective action political. And the role of the Left in power is to make this separation as small as possible. The rivalry between those who believe that the Left must capture positions of state power and those who favour a prefigurative strategy for grassroots movements has reached a cul-de-sac. This happened for good reasons: it is an abstract distinction which does not correspond to the reality of everyday grassroots politics and/or institutional politics.  

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

I see translation as a process of struggle over the form of political subjectivity. By this I mean the forms of agency that are available within a particular socio-economic and political context: how do we define our identities, our forms of organisation, and our political struggles. This is itself the outcome of past processes of contestation and struggle in and against the state, capital and the law.

The process of translation of grassroots practices into law and policy entails a struggle over the meaning of such practices. But such struggle over the meaning of radical change is never direct but unfolds as struggles over mediations: institutions, legislation, policy, welfare provision, participatory democracy, etc.

The translation of radical social movement demands by the Pink Tide governments of Latin America

The problem of translation became evident to me during my research with social movements in Latin America during ‘the pink tide’ period, at the beginning of the XXI Century. On the one hand, new autonomous movements emerged and regarded themselves as prefigurative, for they offered a myriad of autonomous initiatives that shaped the politics of the time through radical pedagogies; cooperative work, art, entertainment and care; new forms of defending indigenous traditions and customs; horizontal democracy; environmental awareness and territorialized resistance cultivated in imaginative forms on a day-to-day basis in neighbourhoods, squares, the countryside, jungles, and harbours. This change in social movements and activism that expanded into Europe, (particularly but not exclusively Southern Europe), a decade later, indicated a shift from a claim-making role to a prefigurative role based on the articulation of alternative practices, which I have called ‘concrete utopias.’ 

However, what also became apparent during ‘the pink tide’ period, was that the integration of movements’ concrete utopias into the political, legal and policy instruments of governability required their deradicalisation. As left governments worked to incorporate movements’ ideas, demands and practices into state institutions, legal apparatuses and other state structures, (after initially repressing them, in some cases) they rendered invisible everything that does not fit into the State’s existing parameters of legibility. In doing so, they inhibited social movements’ most important innovations.  

This phenomenon can be well illustrated with the case of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) in Brazil, and their incorporation within the Brazilian state. The MST had a concrete proposal for popular agrarian reform aimed at, amongst other ends, attaining ‘food sovereignty’. Why did this get ‘lost in translation’ during the policy process? Well, the MST’s vision of popular agrarian reform is very different from the agrarian capitalism favoured by the then ruling Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT). The latter is based on the idea that a solution to the agrarian question can be found through the integration of rural workers’ communitarian production into the capitalist market. The role of the state is to provide credit to impoverished sectors and encourage land purchases through the Land Bank (Banco de la Tierra) with support from the World Bank. 

The PT’s programme of agrarian reform translated the MSTs radical settlements into the World Bank’s ‘family farms’ programme. This turned them into a means for profit-making: rural workers and farmers must purchase technology, machinery, pesticides, seeds and fertilizers from transnational conglomerates. What was lost in translation were the incredible experiences of self-management, new gender and work relations and new forms of approaching production, consumption and distribution, orientated around protection of the environment and the protection of family needs. 

In other words, the most radical and utopian elements of the MSTs practice, which were working towards a social, political and economic transformation of the Brazilian countryside, were lost in the government’s efforts to incorporate MST practice into the existing development paradigm. 

We should know by now that the state will never be the political form of organisation for radical change, but it is a political mediation. By political mediation I mean that the State is not simply an instrument of regulation, co-optation, coercion, and oppression. It is the political form of capitalist social relations and therefore intervenes in the process of shaping our form of existence and resistance. As a mediation, the state ‘intervenes’ in the appropriation of grassroots autonomous practices by power by legalising them or monetising them. In doing so, it works to force grassroots autonomous practice into forms which fit the capitalist/ patriarchal/colonial demarcation of reality. 

The Left must come to terms with the idea that the State is not synonymous with the government. It must recognise that the State is not a state in a capitalist society, i.e. a neutral arena on which the common good is decided, but a capitalist state. The state is a class state. Its ‘relative autonomy’, makes both reform on behalf of the working class and capitalist accumulation possible, but the state will ultimately function to preserve a legal order based on private property. 

The need for ‘prefigurative translation’ through the radical co-construction of policy

The question then is not how can left governments encourage radical change from the very institutions, political dynamics and structures of the State? The question is in what ways can prefigurative movements, grassroots innovative practices, and citizens’ initiatives push for a prefigurative translation from the government? How can they prevent the government of the Left from transforming their radical action into governable practices, institutions, ideas, and legislation that will obliterate the concrete utopian element of their actions? How can we identify the untranslatable surplus that remains unreachable by the social, political, economic and legal forms that govern capitalist political life?

By prefigurative translation I mean an engagement with the creative process of transformation that is already taking place at the grassroots, within what I call the ‘beyond zone of movement collective action’. Prefigurative translation is a form of translation that requires co-construction of policy. But not only this. Such co-construction must engage with what is already being proposed and experienced by grassroots movements instead of attempting to filter radical elements to prevent them from entering the policy realm. I would say that the process of creation of the MAS-IPSP (The Movement for Socialism- Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples) in Bolivia and the subsequent creation of the plurinational state, which aimed to recognise indigenous peoples as nations and indigenous autonomy, had many elements of prefigurative translation, (although this process was not perfect and full of contradictions, as would be expected).

If the party recognises that change comes from below, from the process of deployment and expansion of movements’ alternative-creating capacity, that is being experimented with in what I call the beyond zone of movements activity, policy should be prefigurative too. This means that the left in power should render visible what is already being proposed and experienced at the grassroots. This does not mean to ‘learn’ from the movement’s alternatives, but to facilitate the emergence of a collective intellect that can create alternative forms of politics. That is to let the society in movement govern. This is not only an adequate translation but the only translation that can be said to be part of the process of ‘co-construction of policy’. Without an engagement with the concrete processes of anticipating the future in the present, in heterotopic spaces created to that end, and through considering the struggles surrounding these process of prefiguration, co-construction of policy remains either a tool to deradicalise movements or merely a buzzword.

The vital goal of autonomous struggles is to overcome the differentiation between the state and civil society. As Marx suggests ‘human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen… and when he has recognized and organized his own powers as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power’’ (Marx 1978 [1843] 46)’. 

Easier to say than do? Too naïve? Too utopian, romantic or unfeasible? Mediocrity prevails today, reducing our tunnel vision to (what is presented to us as) ‘reality’. With hope, we can defeat mediocrity, demarcate new realities, open fronts of political possibility and venture beyond. It is up to the Left in power to regard autonomous movements’ actions as political rather than social, and as central, rather than as an annex, to what matters politically, for the movements already believe so and are exploring alternative forms of organisations. The state can translate some of these practices into policy, but what we hope for cannot be completely translated into reality because it is unknown and once it becomes concrete it will not be hope any longer. This is why I speak of ‘concrete utopias’, because they contain the ‘not yet’ within them. The not yet is what keeps us searching for the marvellous. Radical hope takes us beyond the forms of state institutions, and pushes us towards something we cannot yet explain, but which feels right. Let us hold on to that. Let us not discard it so quickly. The shift towards a concrete politics of hope in Left politics that we expected from the ‘leaders’ of the Latin American ‘pink tide’, Syriza and Podemos did not materialise. Maybe, to encourage leadership of this kind is not the solution, (let alone white and male leadership). Maybe, the state cannot be the architect of radical change but just a mediation in the art of organising hope from below.  

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData