Electing a left-wing government is not enough; Jeffrey Webber’s analysis of Latin America shows that capitalism must be confronted, argues Orlando Hill
Jeffery R. Webber, The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left (Pluto Press 2017), 327pp.
When the left in the Britain is faced with the real possibility of electing a socialist prime minister, there has never been a more important moment to study the experiences of other countries. For the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, Latin America has been a depository of hope for most of the world left. Now we see, one after another, progressive governments being toppled by right-wing reactionary groups either through parliamentary coups (Paraguay and Brazil) or elections (Argentina).
Webber introduces his book with a summary of what has happened in Latin America, and particularly in South America, with which very few people would disagree. The progressive governments were a result of extra-parliamentary social movements that surged as a consequence of the economic crisis of the neoliberal model which the countries had experimented with in the 1990s.
However, once in office, as a rule these governments did not confront the class structure of the state nor the system of capitalist accumulation. There were minimal, if any, changes in the tax regime. Venezuela’s economy remained dependant on its oil exports and in some cases, such as Brazil, countries reverted to their positions as basic commodity exporters, after a period of industrialisation following import substitution policies.
Instead, governments relied on a China-driven boom in international commodity prices and adopted a policy of accommodating both the ruling class and the working class. Governments could skim off a proportion of the economic rent generated by commodity exports and redirect it to social programmes that, despite being minimal, were sufficient to lift vast layers of the population out of absolute poverty.
Social movements and trade unions were attracted into the state apparatus. They became bureaucratic and developed an intrinsic interest in maintaining the status quo. They began to ‘live off the state they are ostensibly fighting to transform’ (p.297). Any sort of discontent from the rank and file was seen as betrayal. Alternatively, they were portrayed as innocent pawns in the hands of imperialist powers. Indigenous groups, whose interests went counter to those of big-development projects that benefited construction companies and commodity exporters, were seen as imperialist agents for simply defending their right to their land.
The impact of the 2007-2008 crisis in Latin America was not immediate. Lula, Brazil’s former president, described the tidal waves of the financial crisis as mere ripples. In 2010, Lula introduced a Keynesian countercyclical stimulus package and Brazil achieved a 7.6% rate of economic growth. It seemed that Brazil had managed to outmanoeuvre the global downturn. However, by 2011 commodity prices started their swift downturn mainly following China’s slowdown. Centre-left and left governments could no longer rely on commodity prices to keep the so-called neo-development model aloft. To keep the pact intact, governments bent backwards to satisfy the needs of capital and the working class carried the burden of the crisis.
One of the problems identified by Webber was the abandonment by the left of a Marxist analysis in favour of adherence to Weberian historical sociology. The capitalist market was not seen for what it is: a field characterized by coercion and imperatives, but rather as an arena, albeit in need of taming and regulation, full of opportunities which could be seized or missed. The objective was that through a programme of distribution of income, the poor in Latin America could become active players in a capitalist market. In a recent London Counterfire event, Webber described it as a policy very similar to New Labour’s.
In Webber’s opinion, true transformation cannot come from within the state apparatus. The state is presented as a bureaucratic trap representing ‘a tremendous obstacle to anti-capitalist projects – indeed, even to projects for deep structural reform within capitalism’ (p.298). The future of the left in Latin America lies with their ability to return to their origins, which was characterised by direct action and participatory democracy. We can already see signs of this in social movements in Brazil and Argentina combating the austerity measures being imposed by their governments.
What can we in Britain learn from Latin America’s recent history? Parliamentary activities are important and play an important role. However, on their own, they can easily become an obstacle to structural transformations. An independent grass-roots social movement, which moves quickly to set the scene, is crucial. The social movements need to remain in an independent position to hold left governments to account, and to force them onto the offensive against capitalist interests. The recent events held by the People’s Assembly during the Tory conference in Manchester are an example of how social movements should act if we are serious about transforming society. That is the lesson we can learn from our brothers and sisters in Latin America.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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