Chomsky, Touraine, Petras: Opinions on the South

Source: IRC Americas

On both the right and the left, First World academics usually dispense analysis and forecasts, critiques and apologies on different socio-political aspects of Latin America. Among those that align themselves on the left, simplifications and straightforward explanation abound as to what those on the left-wing and social movements should do.

Among First World academics, quasi common ground has arisen around the belief that the pendulum in Latin American is swinging toward the left. It has been suggested that today our continent is a type of laboratory of alternatives, that more than a few regard with both enthusiasm and hope, perhaps as compensation for the less than attractive situation that they are experiencing in their own countries, where once powerful movements—such as the one that took to the streets in opposition to war in Iraq—now languish in a state of disarray and lethargy.

Without in any way claiming to exhaust the subject matter, a brief review of recent articles by a handful of academics—the U.S. writers Noam Chomsky and James Petras, the Frenchman Alain Touraine, and the authors of the book Empire , Michael Hardt and Toni Negri—is sufficient in order to reveal the predominance of a simplified analysis that avoids both the complexities that pierce Latin America and the distant realities of the domestic problems of the First World.

Reducing the complex to the simple

In a recent article, "Latin America: Four Blocs of Power," Petras maintains that at the organizational level, the continent’s "radical left" can be reduced to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC). In this same bloc, he includes sectors of the urban and rural movements in Venezuela and El Alto (Bolivia), Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement together with certain strata of the social movements in Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Argentina. The second bloc comprises what Petras refers to as the "pragmatic left," among which he highlights Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Fidel Castro, together with great left-wing parties of Central and South America, the leaders of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement, Argentina’s CTA trade union head office, Mexico’s PRD party, and Bolivia’s MAS. The author considers them pragmatic because "they neither appeal for the expropriation of capitalism nor debt cancellation; nor do they consider any breaking-off of relations with the United States."

It is surprising, for example, that Petras puts the Cuban president and Mexico’s PRD, one of the most moderate left-wing parties on the continent, in the same group. Moreover, the author believes that Chávez is a pragmatic radical that the United States "is able to accommodate" and maintains that Cuba is no longer the radical it once was given that the country "extended a diplomatic hand to Uribe (president of Colombia), rejects the revolutionary leftism of the FARC, and publicly supports neoliberals such as Lula de Silva, Néstor Kirchner, and Tabaré Vásquez." Petras places these three leaders in the "pragmatic neoliberals" bloc, together with the current Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, although he is not mentioned by name by the author. Petras places the presidents of Chile, Mexico, and Colombia (Michelle Bachelet, Felipe Calderón, and Álvaro Uribe) in the fourth bloc, the "neoliberal doctrinarians" because "they follow the dictates of Washington to the letter."

In an article entitled "Between Bachelet and Evo Morales: does a left-wing exist in Latin America?" published in the Nueva Sociedad journal, Touraine attempts a more ambitious interpretation. He begins, however, with an uncomfortable statement:

"The left and the right in Latin America are losing their way." Dismissing this language, the author maintains that the challenge that faces the continent lies in "locating the social struggles within an institutional and democratic framework" as is the norm in Europe and the United States. Touraine follows this with another surprising statement: "Today Latin America appears further away from finding a solution to its social problems than it did 30 years ago."

For Touraine, the left’s main problem is that it has not tied a "knot" between social movements and political parties, which would be the key to achieving Touraine’s longed for institutionalization of the "social." In a stroke, he dismisses the broad spectrum that ranges from Zapatismo to Lula. Of the former the author says that the "hope born of the Zapatista uprising has vanished." Furthermore, he reveals himself to be disappointed by Lula for his "refusal to elaborate a venture for change which is both political and social." The conclusion is simple: "This compels us to discuss a fundamental failure of the solutions of what could be called the left-wing throughout the whole continent."

Just as Petras insists on categorizing, out of necessity, the complicated network that is the socio-political left into four categories that appear to be unpredictable, Touraine extrapolates from our continent a reality that works well in his own, despite the fact that it presupposes that everyone has to assume a European path. It does not, however, appear to be the most suitable direction urbi et orbi. The questions arising from such positions come thick and fast. Do both analysts believe in the central importance of the political supporter/political party when everything seems to indicate that in Latin America, civil society exceeds such political institutions? Can the reference to imperialism and the attitude toward the external debt be the key to understanding the winding course of the movements? In recent history, has the "knot" that ties movements and parties, as defended by Touraine, in fact been the best way of training the former to be the subordinates of the latter?

Petras, who has distanced himself from the MST on account of its "pragmatism," appears not to want to assume that Lula’s triumph is a positive outcome for the landless movement, even knowing that he is not going to announce agrarian reform. For this movement, that comprises two million people in 5,000 rural settlements, not everything can be reduced to the break away from capitalism and the non-payment of the debt, since, among other obligations, it has to secure a minimum amount of food for its members, day-in, day-out. And, above all, because its anti-systemic nature does not tolerate the "calling for the expropriation of capitalism" except for survival—in spite of and because of the system—it tries not to reproduce it. This involves encouraging new forms of working, self-education, health provision, and no end of questions regarding daily life. And that has little to do with the discourse. One key point of classic revolutionary theory, above all, has been called into question by the practice of a few movements, especially the indigenous movements of Chiapas and Bolivia, the landless movement and, increasingly, by feminists and other supposed "minorities." The key point in question is the requirement that there be a "rupture" with the ancient regime as an axis around which the changes should turn: the binary logic that advocates reform-revolution ceased functioning a long time ago as a way of explaining the nature of social processes.

The Eurocentric View

Touraine maintains that "in the majority of Latin American countries inequality has transformed itself into a structural dualism in such a way that the continent appears incapable of achieving what Great Britain and other countries, including the United States and France, did. In other words they are unable to create something that goes beyond political democracy, that doesn’t destroy it but even strengthens it. That is to say they are unable to create a social democracy that has been founded, by law or by collective negotiation, on the recognition of workers’ rights." It might appear derisive holding up the First World as an example of social democracy, for two fundamental reasons. Firstly, each continent, and each country, will create what it can based on its own resources, without resorting to models that would be difficult to adapt to these realities. And it would appear to be difficult to speak of "workers’ rights" in relation to a continent where at least two thirds of the workforce have precarious and informal work situations.

Secondly, the French sociologist leaves to one side something fundamental for anyone who claims themselves to be left-wing. To what extent have the European "social democracies," built in the era of benefactor states, been oiled by capital export processes, or, in other words, imperialism? Everything seems to indicate that in the majority of Latin American countries the first step toward democracy has to be decolonization and the cutting of cultural ties, a clear colonial legacy, whichever way it is regarded. Was it not indeed the countries in the North and their transnational corporations that impeded the functioning of a welfare state in this part of the world? And who was it who supported the local elites each time that they ran the risk of losing the upper hand?

At this point in history, no time should be dedicated among left-wingers to explaining that "the struggle against inequality" that Touraine appeals for, and that certainly is far from making progress, requires the rupture from those that have benefited from such inequality. Such beneficiaries include big First World corporations, a good number of which are European, French, and Spanish. Development and the process of export substitution collapsed as a result of, among other reasons, the attitude of these corporations and the governments that supported them. And this is the common ground that should not be avoided by left-wing intellectuals in the North.

While Petras believes that the FARC, and others sharing the same ideology, are the nucleus of the Latin American revolution, Touraine, for his part, maintains that currently "the political future of the continent depends on Bolivia’s chances of building and turning into reality a model of social transformation while, at the same time, gaining independence from the rhetoric of Chávez." In Touraine’s opinion, it is the government of Evo that is best placed to link the struggle against inequality and the struggle for democracy. However, it does not appear that this government can do both, or either of them, without dismantling the colonial state that currently excludes two thirds of the Bolivian population and that supports the interests of Northern corporations. The difficulties that Evo faces in achieving an effective nationalization of the hydro-carbon industries demonstrate a three-way alliance between the multinationals, the governments of the states where these corporations are registered, and the local elites. Without overcoming this, the initiation of the struggle against inequality appears unthinkable.

The Role of Criticism

All too often the glances of the left-wing academics in the North define an agenda that is not exactly routed in the necessities, problems, or emergencies of the South. That is the case with Negri and Hardt who demonstrate their sympathy for the progressive left-wing governments of the continent. They do this, however, from a fairly removed position vis-à-vis the region. In an interview granted to BRECHA, Hardt defends the thesis that the importance of these governments is that the "alliances of these countries can provoke changes in the internal relations of the empire, that do not make them disappear but rather achieve a new relation of strength." In short, they are important in terms of putting the brakes on George W. Bush and strengthening the multilateralism that so many analysts defend. This ought to be very positive for the health of humanity and even for the peoples of Latin America. But the reality is much more complex: the people have not spent decades struggling to resolve the contradictions of the empire, even though that could indeed be the result.

Even someone as measured and reasonable as Chomsky often falls down when describing the reality in black and white. In his article "Latin America declares its independence," he hails the fact that "from Venezuela to Argentina, the region is rising up in order to overthrow the legacy of external domination of the last few centuries." Based on this he concludes that "the new programs that are being carried out in Latin America are reversing the models that have their roots in the Spanish conquest and that are characterized by the relationship between the Latin American elites and the imperial powers." The assertion reflects more a desire to see the empire defeated than an observable reality.

Even a publication as reliable and reasonable as Le Monde Diplomatique, edited by Ignacio Ramonet, often celebrates the processes of change like the one in Venezuela. Ramonet’s support of the government of Chávez, and of the Cuban revolution, constitutes a healthy commitment on the part of the intellectuals of the First World. This positioning, however, is most of the time made at the cost of omitting the criticisms or ignoring the negative aspects like those exposed by the current debate concerning the "the 21st century socialism" as launched by the Venezuelan president. On this topic, it is precisely the European academics who are in a better position to stage necessary and urgent debate, on the basis of the experience of "real socialism" and the avalanche of the sound studies carried out in the "old continent."

It is true that the European and U.S. academics were, and are, sources of unavoidable inspiration for those on the political, social, academic, and cultural left in Latin America. But, today, this continent has the capacity to carry out its own analysis and diagnosis and could even suggest solutions, more often than not supported by studies originating in the North, even if a growing "epistemological autonomy" is developing. Intercultural relations, as is the case here, are a challenge that we are barely starting to overcome. And one of the most negative effects that simplifying analyses, like those of Petras and Touraine, have is to promote among their followers a set of certainties that do not contribute to the promotion of a debate nor to the opening up of the issue to the diversity of opinions that include all those involved in social change.

Translated for the IRC Americas Program by Charlotte Elmitt.

Raúl Zibechi is a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo journal and a teacher and researcher of social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina. He also works as an adviser to various social groups. He is monthly collaborator of the IRC Americas Program ( Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Elmitt.

For More Information

Noam Chomsky, "Latin America Declares Independence," International Herald Tribune, October 3, 2006.

James Petras, "Latin America—Four Competing Blocs of Power,"


Alain Touraine, "Two Opposing Solutions to Latin America’s Two-Sided Problem," Revista Envio:

Alain Touraine, "Entre Bachelet y Evo Morales, ¿existe una izquierda en América Latina?", Nueva Sociedad:

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 189.