Sunday, July 03, 2016

"Dissent" forum on Latin America populism

Patrick Iber introduces a group of articles on the subject Lessons from Latin America’s Pink Tide: A Forum Dissent 06/13/2016

Iber's main piece for the forum is The Path to Democratic Socialism: Lessons from Latin America Dissent Spring 2016:

Observers have frequently divided the region’s left-wing governments into “social democrats” (especially Brazil, Chile, Uruguay) and “democratic socialists” (Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and sometimes Argentina), though some of them have been more democratic than others. While the left retains formal power across much of the region, the high-water mark of the “pink tide” certainly seemed to have been reached by 2015—when the left lost presidential elections in Argentina and parliamentary ones in Venezuela. Weak economic performance across the region makes the expansion of social programs all but impossible. In drawing up a balance sheet of the pink tide’s achievements, however, there is a particular puzzle with respect to the “socialists.” Most of the world’s democratic socialist intellectuals have been skeptical of Latin America’s examples, citing their authoritarian qualities and occasional cults of personality. To critics, the appropriate label for these governments is not socialism but populism.
Iber's article is a useful perspective on the so-called Pink Tide governments. And he cites the important work of Ernesto Laclau on populism.

But his article has a definite tone of grinding some old ideological axe. Not that grinding old ideological axes is never pleasant or even informative. But it is often just distracting.

Dissent has always positioned itself in the social-democratic tradition since it began publishing in 1954. Which means that it's often critical of both liberal and conservative programs and positions from a left outlook. It also means, in practice, that it struck a distinctly anti-Communist tone. Since very few Americans have considered themselves adherents of some form of Communism between 1954 and now, technically just about anyone with a political outlook was "anti-Communist" in that sense. But of course anti-Communism was at the core of US Cold War foreign policy ideology, not always with constructive results. To put it mildly.

And I've been really struck in this year's Democratic Presidential primary contest how shocked many Democrats who regard themselves as "progressives" made themselves out to be at hearing the words "socialism" and "revolution" from Bernie Sanders. Patrick Iber doesn't blanch at the word "socialism." But he still seems to want to distance himself from ideas and movements and parties that could be considered revolutionary, even democratically-elected ones.

And despite citing Laclau, who did not regard populism as inherently threatening, Iber in this piece seems more worried about the potentially threatening side of even left-democratic populism than acknowledging its real achievements. He does at least partially acknowledge the value of Laclau's perspective in seeing populism as constructing the "people" as an opposition to a commonly defined enemy, like "the elite" or "the oligarchy." He was this to say about the Kirchner governments in Argentina:

[P]opulist leaders and movements run a higher risk of constructing and inhabiting alternative realities in which the problems created by their own actions are seen only as the responsibilities of others. These forms of popular mobilization can also endanger liberties essential to a democratic state, since those who do not belong to the people may be deemed unworthy of receiving the same rights as others. Short of disaster, populist polarization can simply become exhausting, and exhausted. This was a factor cited by many voters in Argentina when they elected a center-right president in 2015, replacing the husband-and-wife mini-dynasty of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who in three successive terms from 2003 to 2015 oversaw the expansion of social programs and deprivatization of certain industries in good times, but also faced protest, accusations of corruption, and a black market in dollars during bad ones.
I'm not sure how any of those accomplishments are opposition criticisms are supposed to be specific to "populist" governments. Lots of governments not usually described as populist are confronted with "protest, accusations of corruption, and a black market in dollars."

The current Argentine government of Mauricio Macri, a distinctly conservative and non-populist one that took office in December, has hardly been immune to serious questions of corruption. Macri himself had secret offshore accounts revealed through the Panama Papers. He memorably said that he didn't report 18 million pesos (about $1.2 million) in offshore holdings because, "The truth is, I didn’t even realize, honestly." (Macri: I didn’t realize I had millions in Bahamas Buenos Aires Herald 06/19/2016) The main party in Macri's government is the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR), a member party of the Socialist International; an official social-democratic party, in other words. If "social-democratic" is taken to mean center-left, it's a bad joke to call the UCR social-democratic. Because it's currently stone conservative. (Macri's own party is a separate one, the PRO.)

Iber acknowledges that progressive social change will require some form of populist movements. But he's still suspicious of it:

But even if it is agreed that limited markets may remain under democratic socialism, a market society in which nearly every aspect of life is subject to commodification is almost certainly incompatible with a meaningful democracy. Significant change to our political economy will require significant change to our structure of government. It is hard to see how to get there without some kind of “populist” moment, fraught with danger to other values we believe to be essential. Much can and should be done in the United States to level hierarchies of class, race, and gender, thus deepening the meaning of democracy. That alone is work enough. But it would seem that even achieving social democracy, much less democratic socialism, will require fundamental institutional changes.
I won't even try to parse what he may mean by his distinction between "social democracy" and "democratic socialism."

But he does give Bernie credit for create a populist movement of a kind that Iber regards as a good variety:

Bernie Sanders recognizes this, calling his campaign the foundation of a “political revolution.” Perhaps sensing that Sanders has more successfully called forth a “people,” in the manner of Laclau, Hillary Clinton has adopted a technocratic and often explicitly anti-populist discourse, saying things like “I’ve never believed in dividing America between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are all in this together.”
Javier Buenrostro notes that Venezuala's current eonomic problems are not unique to populist governments like the current one (Chavismo’s Crumbling Economic Foundations 06/13/2016):

The current economic crisis is not without precedent, however. In the years before Hugo Chávez came to power, when Venezuela was ruled by neoliberal governments, the country experienced very high inflation (exceeding 100 percent in 1996), while oil wealth was squandered and more than half of the population lived in poverty. It is true that Chávez’s government, too, failed to completely control inflation; nevertheless, inflation levels dropped considerably from the previous decade. In the fourteen years before Chávez took office (1985–1998), inflation averaged 44 percent annually, with peaks in 1989 and 1996 when it hit three digits, while under his government (1999–2012), it averaged 22 percent. Similarly, since the “Black Friday” of 1983, currency devaluations have been frequent in Venezuelan history; they are not an invention of the Bolivarian revolution. From 1983 to 1998 the average annual devaluation was 65 percent, while under Chávez it was “controlled” to a level of 32 percent annually.
Sujatha Fernandes in Democratic Socialism From the Ground Up 06/13/2016 also takes up the Venezuelan case:

Populism has proved highly effective for pink tide leaders in appealing to disenfranchised and excluded marginal majorities to bolster their hold on electoral power: it was widespread popular pressure that defeated the opposition coup of 2002 in Venezuela and brought Chávez back into office. But this kind of populism focused on electoral politics is ultimately limiting for disenfranchised sectors, because they become beholden to charismatic leaders who are themselves constrained by global capital and the need to seek their own continual reelection in order to extend their social programs and policies.
Bryan McCann looks at the current situation in Brazil, Brazil’s Democracy Back in the Streets 06/13/2016:

Over the last four years, this social-democratic consensus has dissolved, unable to withstand plummeting global commodity prices, a series of haphazard, unsuccessful economic interventions, and the revelation of a massive kickback scheme in government contracting. It was this dissolution of consensus that enabled the April 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff on dubious legal grounds and the return of conservative sectors to political preeminence. Rousseff’s former vice-president, Michel Temer, temporarily occupies the presidency. With the left in crisis, Temer, from the centrist PMDB (Democratic Movement Party), has swung hard to the right. Recession has already eroded some of the economic gains of the growth period and the conservative resurgence threatens to wipe out many of the social gains, as Temer’s unelected government seeks to reverse twenty years of redistributionist policies.

If there is any positive aspect to the current crisis, it is the reemergence of non-partisan, civil-society mobilization in response to impeachment and its fallout. A wave of protests rocked Brazil in 2013, signaling the end of the social peace of the growth period. But the 2013 protests were notably inchoate, with no clear goal. The current mobilization, in contrast, aims clearly to remove Temer’s illegitimate administration and to restore pluralistic democracy. That mobilization comes, for example, from high-school students who have occupied schools in cities across the country, resisting school closures and spending cuts. And it has come from a broad coalition of citizens outraged by Temer’s announced elimination of the Ministry of Culture. Protests across the country, including occupations of Ministry of Culture buildings, led to a rapid about-face, preserving the ministry, at least temporarily.
Thea Riofrancos in Populism and the People 06/13/2016 argues that Iber doesn't give sufficient weight to base-democratic movements:

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.
Riofrancos is essentially dismissive of Laclau's view of populism, including the way Iber uses it. "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." Actually, Laclau doesn't argue that the populist "people" is "constructed from the top down and through powerful 'rhetoric' alone."

Iber ends the discussion with Populism and Democratic Socialism in Latin America: Reply 06/13/2016. He addresses Buenrostro's analysis of Venezuela's situation:

Javier Buenrostro’s essay makes a different argument: that the problem of Venezuela (in the extreme case) and of other left governments lies in having failed to change the mode of production based on the extraction of natural resources. This is also an important point: Venezuela has witnessed a succession of economic crises both under “socialism” and under “neoliberalism.” If today’s crisis discredits “socialism,” as some say, then the riots and state repression known as the Caracazo of 1989 discredit “neoliberalism.” In reality, Buenrostro argues, the problem is deeper. Lack of diversification remains a major economic problem for most Latin American economies, exacerbating both instability and inequality. And this is also a source of conflict between even left-wing governments (looking for mineral or oil resources, for example) and people in rural areas (frequently poor, indigenous, or both) whose lives and environments are most affected.

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