Contested paths

Issue: 109

Angie Gago

bq. A review of James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and State Power: Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador (Pluto Press, 2005), £17.99

Latin America is in turmoil. What is written today will be obsolete tomorrow. People’s struggles to shift the course of a history of imperialist oppression, and to resist the attacks of the powerful and wealthy elite at home, have created movements that are reinventing themselves and adapting to new forms of exploitation. The continent is the best place to observe the impact of neoliberalism, and to witness the development of what Antonio Gramsci called ‘counterhegemonic blocs’ resisting this agenda.

This is the overall idea expressed in Petras and Veltmeyer’s excellent account of recent events in Latin America. They provide a telescopic approach to the political changes in four countries—
Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador— during the past five years. They show the expectations created on the left after the
toppling of different presidents by mass movements. But in each of these countries disenchantment has grown as people realise that the new figures are continuing the neo-liberal policies of their
predecessors. The detailed analysis of these policies helps us to get a great sense of the existing contradictions in Latin American
politics nowadays.

The authors work within a Marxist framework to explain the tension between state power and the social movements. On the one hand, there is a political elite committed to the neo-liberal recipes of the international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. On the other hand, there is
a diverse mass movement that demands a radical transformation of society. Each of the case studies in the book offers certain
specific features.

In Argentina, President de la Rua was overthrown in 2001 after two days of major demonstrations. A potentially revolutionary situation emerged. The authors argue that Nestor Kirchner (who
became president) was aware that after the mass mobilisations the main challenge was to gain political hegemony among the
movements. The application of policies aimed at delivering minimal social programmes had a devastating effect on the unity of the movement. And, only three years after the toppling of de la Rua, the piqueteros, the most militant group of the mass movement, was dispersed.

The situation in Brazil shows a different dynamic. Lula came to power in 2003 having already reached agreements with the US and the IMF over his planned economic measures. However, the close connection between his party, the PT (Workers Party), and important social struggles in Brazil assured him of popular
support. Petras and Veltmeyer’s view is that the PT was, by the time of the 2003 election, no longer a workers’ party. They argue that this is not just due to the appointment of right wing ministers, but also to the transformation of the PT into an electoral party.

Moreover, Ecuador and Bolivia have experienced similar betrayals following recent mobilisations. The election of Lucio Gutierrez, an ex-army officer discontented with the armed forces who was supported by the main indigenous organisation (CONAIE-Pachakutik), was welcomed as a radical shift in Ecuadorean
politics. The authors argue that it took only six months for Gutierrez to betray the movement and sign an agreement with
the IMF. The pattern has been followed in Bolivia, where in the space of five years two presidents have been overthrown. The
Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), led by Evo Morales, has played a contradictory role. It has benefited from the mass
movement, but at crucial moments Morales has sought to hold the movement back. For example, during the mobilisation of 2003, which overthrew President Lozada, he offered critical support to Lozada’s successor Carlos Mesa. But Mesa continued his predecessor’s neoliberal policies, leading to his overthrow in the June 2005 uprising.

What is the underlying cause for this phenomenon? Petras and Veltmeyer offer a sharp critical perspective of the problems that the social movements are facing. They explain that capitalism, in its neoliberal form, has been accompanied by a process of disempowerment of the traditional grassroots movements. Since
the 1980s the introduction of deregulation, privatisation and structural adjustment policies has had devastating
consequences for living standards.

Therefore the introduction of concepts such as ‘governability’ and ‘civil society’ into liberal discourse was of major
importance in counterbalancing the reduction of state services in aid of disadvantaged sectors. Furthermore, descentralisation strategies and ‘participatory budgets’ schemes were introduced. As the authors claim, the overall objective was the empowerment of the poor without the disempowerment of the rich. In fact, they argue that this process was ‘designed to demobilise them, to divert the struggle for state power in one or more directions towards electoral politics, reformist social organisations or local development’ (p9).

Which path, then, do the social movements need to take for the
achievement of state power and therefore the radical transformation of their political and economic system? While the liberal discourse of civil society and the formation of ‘no-power’ was dominant for the last two decades, Petras and Veltmeyer argue that fashionable postmodernist perspectives are not
relevant in the Latin American social movements’ spectrum. That is clear in the levels of determination and militancy that we can observe through the struggles. Nevertheless, there is an important
weakness that the social movements share in the different case studies—the lack of class consciousness. Examples of this thesis
are abundant in the book—the splitting up of the movements in Argentina after the election of Kirchner when the middle class recovered their savings or the contradictory composition of the
militancy of the PT are just two of them.

On the contrary, some indigenous movements such as the Movimiento Indigena Pachakuti (MIP) in Bolivia have shown far greater awareness of class (communal land rights, agrarian reforms, etc). In this case, Petras and Veltmeyer argue that they face a second major problem—the lack of a revolutionary
political organisation that would lead them to achieve state power. The authors draw the following conclusion: ‘Electoral politics are a trap and mass mobilisation is the only path to achieve political power and social change.’ However, they affirm that the social movements have failed to deliver this change so far.

In conclusion, the book is a complete account of the complex relationship between the capitalist state and the building of a counter-power. Taking into account the failures of recent movements, the advice of the authors appears correct.
However, ‘dry recipes’ don’t fit in Latin American politics—only rank and file struggles will ultimately define the strategies for a way forward.