Populism and the People

Trade unionists join a march against the Correa government organized by the indigenous federation CONAIE, Quito, Ecuador, September 2014 (Agencia de Noticias Andes / Flickr)

This article is part of a forum on the lessons of Latin America's "pink tide" for democratic socialists. To read the rest of the forum, click here.

In his essay “The Path to Democratic Socialism: Lessons from Latin America,” Patrick Iber encourages leftists hopeful for democratic socialism in the United States to learn from leftist governments in the Americas rather than those in Scandinavia. He asserts (correctly, in my view) that almost two decades of “pink tide” governments in Latin America, which at their peak collectively ruled two-thirds of the regions population, hold important lessons for those seeking “radical, democratic, and participatory reorganization of economic control.” Such a radical reorganization of power, he writes, constitutes a better way to conceive of democratic socialism than the usual conflation with the “social democratic” welfare state models of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Exactly what lessons can be drawn from the leftist administrations south of our borders for democratic socialism would thus depend on the interpretation of their achievements and pitfalls.

But Ibers evaluation of these administrations misidentifies the conditions of their ascent to power and the dynamics of their tenure in power. Absent from his account of the rise and rule of the left in Latin America are the central protagonists of this profound shift away from the neoliberal policies that dominated the region in the 1980s and ‘90s: social movements. These movements, based in the “popular sectors” of labor, peasant, indigenous, and urban neighborhood groups, emerged as forceful collective actors. They resisted the onslaught of privatization, deregulation, and austerity imposed by a coalition of domestic elites, often under pressure from international financial institutions and the United States. The rise of an electorally successful left can only be understood as the product of this longer process of struggle.

Keeping this context in mind, we can reevaluate Ibers claim that the primary “risk” of radical leftism as embodied in the pink tide is the tendency toward centralization of power in a single, populist-authoritarian leader. According to Iber, this risk emanates from the dynamic of confrontation, mobilization, and counter-mobilization triggered by radical challenges to established power relations. In order to respond to the oligarchic reaction that the radical reorganization of power necessarily provokes, leftist leaders must mobilize their bases. And, in order to mobilize their bases, they must forge a shared identity of “the people” in opposition to “the elite.” How then is this potent, popular identity constructed, and by whom? Iber draws on Laclau, a theorist of populism whose work has been made newly salient by recent developments in Latin America, Greece, and Spain, to assert that leftist governments “rhetorically” construct this shared identity, using the ready-to-hand symbol of “a single leader” (that is, the president). Once established, the unified people engages in ongoing confrontation with an elite defined as a “class enemy”—whence the risk of Manichean politics, the policing of the boundary between “us” and “them,” and the abrogation of liberal rights.

But this analysis rests on two questionable assumptions: first, that “the people” is constructed from the top down and through powerful “rhetoric” alone, and second, that once forged, “the people” exist as a monolithic force defending the regime. Careful historical study of some of Ibers key cases—Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela—betrays both assumptions. In all three, popular mobilization predated the electoral success of Correa, Morales, and Chávez.

In Ecuador, long before Correas ascent, the 1990s saw a series of uprisings, led by the national indigenous federation (CONAIE) in coordination with a broad front of labor and neighborhood groups, that toppled multiple presidential administrations and triggered a long-term crisis of political legitimacy only partially resolved by Correas election. In this period of intense social mobilization, the indigenous movement managed to articulate a broadly encompassing notion of “the people” as those harmed by neoliberal policies, racial and ethnic discrimination, and political exclusion. Correa was inaugurated in 2007 with the hesitant support of these popular movements, but since then his tenure in office has been marked by the increasing polarization between the state and social movements over the questions of resource extraction, indigenous rights, and labor reforms.

In Bolivia, the political party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) emerged out of the political struggles of peasants and coca growers in the Chapare region of Bolivia, who faced repression by U.S.-funded coca eradication efforts. It gained momentum in the wake of anti-privatization protests known as the Water Wars and the Gas Wars. Disenchantment with neoliberalism and existing parties provided a political opening for the presidential campaign of coca union leader and MAS candidate Evo Morales, elected in 2005 and now in his third term. Over the past decade, some have accused MAS of coopting social movement leadership, but labor unions and indigenous groups have also demonstrated their autonomy by forcing policy changes from below.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, the 1989 popular uprising known as the Caracazo was an eruption of popular discontent—in part articulated by long-standing urban and rural radical movements—that paved the way for Chávezs rise. But Chavismo was marked by a very different dynamic than Ecuadors left turn: unlike Correa, Chávez was radicalized by increasingly militant social movements, movements that he in part cultivated in order to fend off elite backlash, but that also maintained critical distance from the state, resulting in a tense alliance.

The transportable “lessons” to be drawn from Latin American socialisms, then, is not of the inevitable centralization of state power under leftist regimes. This is a risk, but regimes cannot be analyzed in isolation from their social bases, nor can they rhetorically conjure them out of thin air. These leftist administrations originated in anti-neoliberal social mobilization, and subsequently have existed in a variety of relationships with organized popular sectors, which in turn have shaped the nature of their confrontations with conservative elites. For those of us that desire the radical reorganization of power in the United States, the lessons remain: get organized (to win power) and stay organized (to prevent centralization, ossification, and moderation).


Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of Political Science at Providence College.

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