Rethinking Populism: Opinion

Progressive politics in Latin America needs a Green Democratic Revolution

A green populism could be the basis of a new kind of politics in Latin America, one that embraces many of the region’s struggles in a challenge to neoliberalism

Rodrigo Echecopar
4 November 2021, 12.01am
Indigenous people protest during the closing of the 'Red January - Indigenous Blood', in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 31 January 2019
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved
Rethinking Populism partner banner: Lund, Helsinki and Istanbul Bilgi universities

With the climate crisis emerging as the next great challenge, many progressive leaders in advanced economies have advocated for a Green New Deal, which would shift economic policy and redistribute wealth. In the Global South, however, the centrality of a green transformation is still contested. Some argue that these countries should focus on pressing social issues such as poverty, housing or healthcare before facing the climate crisis, while others believe that the climate movement can simply be appeased with limited policy commitments.

But these views ignore the power a Green Democratic Revolution can have both in challenging the neoliberal model and guiding a political transformation focused on equality and well-being.

A Left-populist strategy focused on a Green Democratic Revolution is a way to achieve this, especially in Latin America and the Global South. But this needs to be interlaced with a feminist and internationalist perspective.

Towards a green populism

Populism is often used as a derogatory term to dismiss alternative political strategies. On the one hand, centrists accuse anything that challenges the establishment or positions itself outside the current hegemonic neoliberal framework of being populist. On the other hand, some on the Left believe populism is just a communication strategy used as a shortcut to winning elections while avoiding the long-term toil of building lasting relationships with social organisations. Neither of these views seriously considers populism, limiting our capacity to discuss alternative political strategies.

As developed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau in their landmark ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, populism is a political strategy that establishes a political frontier between two groups with opposing interests, and seeks to defeat the other within democratic institutions. Mouffe challenges the rationalist view that dominates current democratic theory and argues that political identities are determined by common affects. Namely, passions within the political domain that shape our political identities.

In other words, populism is not a shortcut, but a long-term political strategy that acknowledges the role of affects in building a resilient social and political majority that can challenge hegemonic interests and institutions. So what advantages does populism present as a political strategy today?

First, it provides the tools for building a coalition of interconnected yet diverse social struggles, based on shared values and ideas. Currently, political conflicts range from long-standing issues of workers’ rights to the escalating environmental clashes and massive feminist movements. Progressive political leadership must aim beyond the traditional Marxist capitalist-proletariat dichotomy and help weave a common thread between these diverse struggles, situating them in opposition to those who benefit from the current power structure.

This is not only electorally advantageous but politically necessary. The role of Left political parties is not only to win elections but to politicise social conflicts and extend the categories of oppression beyond class.

In other words, the role of political leadership is not only to be good sailors who correctly read the direction of the wind and position their ship towards an electoral victory. Left political projects have a long-term role. They must help develop a mirror in which society can see itself, allowing oppressed groups to identify where their afflictions come from and how they relate to other social groups’ oppressions. A populist political strategy can help shape how real-life grassroots struggles view themselves and others within the social and political landscape, leading towards a resilient and effective counter-hegemonic coalition.

A green perspective can help change the dominating questions in economic policy discussions, moving from "Does it generate growth?" to "Does it increase human well-being sustainably?

The second advantage is that, unlike the mainstream liberal perspective, populism builds on socialist grounds and recognises that politics isn’t just an electoral competition of policy proposals. It is rather a struggle waged on different fronts, where a programme of social transformation must face the interests rooted in many of the establishment's institutions and the governing elite. A populist political strategy provides space for challenging those institutions without slipping into the depoliticised anti-establishment vein of much of today’s politics.

But with all this in mind, what should be at the heart of a populist strategy today?

A Green Democratic Revolution

In the last few years, the rise of extreme weather events, from increasing average temperature to floods, droughts, storms and biodiversity losses, certainly demands a radical answer. Countries in the Global South have fewer resources to adapt and, in many cases, are exposed to more dire consequences of the climate emergency.

Many of today's struggles, social unrest and social movements are directly related to the environmental crisis. Climate protests have become some of the most massive in the main cities of the Global South, gathering young people and climate activists against government policies that don't recognise the climate emergency.

Local communities ravaged by extractivist industries, such as the ‘sacrifice zones’ in Chile, or those facing the eviction of local farmers to create large-scale soy plantations in Brazil, have created some of the toughest pushback to neoliberal policies and have rallied support from various quarters of society. Finally, indigenous communities all over Latin America have been fighting for years against an economic paradigm that destroys their lands and ignores their own concept of well-being.

A populist environmental movement can help weave a common thread that unites these diverse struggles, bringing together different generations, urban and rural areas, and indigenous communities behind an anti-neoliberal political project.

Furthermore, the green movement also has the power to challenge one of the pillars of the current neoliberal hegemony: the need for unlimited economic growth. Ecological movements advocate for an economy focused on human well-being, rejecting unrestrained economic growth driven by excessive depredation, boundless consumption and hazardous pollution.

A green perspective can help change the dominating questions in economic policy discussions, moving from "Does it generate growth?" to "Does it increase human well-being sustainably?"

This shift can help move the focus of progressives away from snatching rights from the jaws of the neoliberal economic status quo and towards designing policies that develop an economic and social system that aims to increase human well-being, not profit.

The potential of a green perspective to unite different social groups and challenge pillars of neoliberalism shows why it can become the centrepiece for a progressive populist political strategy. However, a Green Democratic Revolution encompasses a broader range of social struggles than environmentalism, namely feminism and internationalism.

International and feminist

Feminisms, as an essential driver for political and social change, can help connect diverse struggles into a larger equality narrative within a Green Democratic Revolution.

Feminist movements, especially in Latin America, have consistently grown in size, influence, and politicisation. They have primarily focused on issues of gender violence, reproductive rights, and policies on care. Some feminist struggles, such as advocating for the social responsibility of care, overlap with the demands of environmental movements. Both aim at shifting the current hegemonic economic theory of value, moving from a GDP-focused perspective towards a more democratic one that recognises the social role of reproducing life.

In other words, they can be allies in advocating for a system focused on well-being and social responsibility instead of an extractivist and ever-growing economy of consumption.

Feminisms have also provided a powerful drive for societies to embrace real equality. For example, many protests against gender violence in Latin American countries have denounced the hypocrisy of formal equality before the law, which ignores the fact that patriarchy is embedded in many of our institutions. Other oppressed groups, such as victims of racism, migrant communities or indigenous people, also experience the limits of formal equality and can see themselves in this common thread.

Finally, many of today’s grassroots struggles are situated within the complex framework of international commercial, financial and political ties that make up our current neoliberal globalisation. This is why any serious challenge to neoliberalism must aim at developing new regional and global policies that rearrange the foundations of the international economic system. Progressive internationalism must go beyond electoral solidarity and drive for regional and global policies that push back against multinationals that exploit low tax rates, lack of workers' rights and natural resources.

The climate emergency is a powerful compass for a new internationalist perspective, based on the idea of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that has been recognized globally since 1992’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. This compass can help rethink and demand global economic institutions that prioritise sustainability together with redistribution towards the Global South.

The push for an international minimum corporate tax (and its expansion towards wealth taxes), the waiving of vaccine patents, and the demand for technology transfer for the green transition should be primary aims of political platforms. Although populist strategies have been known to kindle a national spirit, they are unlikely to develop a resilient social and political majority without also targeting the international foundations of our current neoliberal system.

Alternative pathway

Latin America has one of the largest indigenous populations globally, strong and diverse environmental social movements and a primarily extractivist economy. It is also the deadliest region in the world for environmentalists. Far from non-essential needs, a Green Democratic Revolution, with a rich feminist and internationalist perspective, has the potential to resonate with many grassroots struggles and become a long-term cornerstone for transformational politics. It can also become a compass for much-needed Latin American integration and broader Global South cooperation in challenging the current neoliberal global framework.

Progressive parties in Latin America have the opportunity to develop a narrative and strategy that reveals the connections between environmentalism, inequality, indigenous rights, feminism, human rights activism, LGBTIQ+ and migrant struggles, and other movements that have shaped the political context. A Green Democratic Revolution could become an alternative pathway towards substantial equality, closer to the concept of well-being developed by Latin American indigenous peoples than to the idea of progress through boundless extractivism and consumption imported from the Global North.

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