Book Review: Social Movements and Leftist Governments in Latin America: Confrontation or Co-option?

The book Social Movements And Leftist Governments in Latin America: Confrontation and Cooption is a welcome addition to the burgeoning area of literature on left-wing governments and their relationship with social movements, whether as the title suggests it is confrontation, co-option, or simply the outside influence of these disparate groups.

Since the advances made by various social movements across the Latin American continent, from the Brazilian landless workers movement to indigenous movements in the Andean nations, there has been added focus on their role in ushering in Latin America’s “pink tide” governments. As more and more leftist governments were voted in after the initial election of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 1998, the participation, or at least influence of social movements has been one of the key features.

Much of the journalistic and scholarly work in the Anglophone world has focused on the leadership of presidents like Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, and Rafeal Correa, thereby deleting by omission the role of the social movements.  Countervailing this, is academic work which places too much influence on the role of social movements, as if a politician or political party was only created from the bottom up. Both these methodologies in their own way separate the state from society, and are unable to see the complex, and often indefinable relation between the two.

What can be learned from the debate on “new social movements” is that the new generation of movements, which the Zapatistas have become emblematic of, is that the majority have no interest in taking state power. Instead, they have acted in social mobilization —  and even overthrowing presidents — which could be said is a more powerful social position than the social movements linked directly to the state in the past. For example, in 2000 people stormed the government in Ecuador to oust President Jamil Mahuad, in which the government was eventually taken over by the colonel Lucio Gutierrez who was overthrown just four years later by the same people after reneging on his initial anti neo-liberal policies.

A great deal of the inspiration and talk around this form of social movement power has been influenced by the small Mexican Zapatista group who saw the pitfalls of the armed revolutionary groups earlier in the twentieth century.  One prime example is the Sandinistas, who lost their popular support after entering government, and were unable to follow through with their dreams. It has been a hard lesson to learn, but autonomy of social movements from the state seems to be the best hand to play. Also, the United States seems to take less notice of non-state actors, paying very close attention to former social movements adding to their problems.

This is not to say this it is a hard rule, with Ecuadorian and Bolivian social movements at one point attempting to establish political parties. Various Ecuadorian indigenous movements established Pachakutik in 1996 as an electoral platform to rally for a plurinational state. But rather than a political party, Pachakutik has more or less served as a political movement that aims to guarantee indigenous rights. Despite the participation of CONAIE leader Antonio Vargas as a minister of Welfare in the Gutiérrez government, the indigenous movement itself prefers to stay autonomous from state power.

In Bolivia the leaders of the Aymara indigenous movement (such as Felipe Quispe, a central figure in the recent uprisings) are also rallying for autonomy, possibly with a mandate for self-government. The coca growers association led by Evo Morales chose a more traditional path by establishing the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), which temporarily supported President Carlos Mesa after the 2003 insurrection. Morales has been able to take state power and continue after coming from the grassroots.

But if this peaceful take-over of state power by a social movement will indeed happen, it will likely represent the exception to the rule that social movements are staying away from assuming government responsibility. After all, maintaining their autonomy from the state seems to be a solid guarantee for these movements to prevent co-option and their subsequent (cyclical) downfall.

Therefore, the book Social Movements And Leftist Governments in Latin America: Confrontation and Co-option is a welcome addition to this burgeoning area of literature on left-wing governments and their relationship with social movements, whether as the title suggests it is confrontation, co-option, or simply the outside influence of these disparate groups.

Before opening a book like this one, some of the key questions that I thought it should be looking at are, what roles do the underlying social norms and national structures play in shaping the state and interactions between state and society?  Also, what role do formal and informal and daily practices play in shaping state-society interactions?  But unfortunately these kinds of more difficult theoretical questions are underplayed from the get go in this book, which rather takes a more superficial look and at times is unable to make strong links between the state and social movements.

The book itself is an edited collection of six chapters, one each on Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela. The stated key aim is to investigate the social movements that have appeared in the recent decades, which the authors deem to “have brought new forms of struggle into play, often with somewhat different political objectives that their predecessors.”

The book starts off saying it will use social movement theory, but lacks a discussion on what is a social movement, and what is the state.  In a work such as this that aims to reconcile the relation between these two spheres of political life, the lack of theoretical and normative discussion is sorely missing. It also assumes that an electoral victory by a “leftist” (no discussion of what is left either) means that the whole state itself, and the country is leftist, theoretically negating any oppositional forces.

However, despite its theoretical weakness, the book does indeed provide a good introductory text for readers who are not that familiar with the region, nor the various social movements and their interactions with the left-wing governments. Once again unfortunately, the book itself is an uneven one, but this is often the case with edited collections that cover large amounts of geographical and analytical territory as in the case of this one.

The first chapter by United States professor Gary Prevost gives an account of perhaps one of the most well-known movements, the piqueteros in Argentina.  The movement itself is disparate and the name piqueteros in fact refers to the protest action of blocking streets, rather than a concrete set of demands, perhaps reflecting some of the complexities of modern social movements. Prevost concludes that this movement has actually brought stability to the Kirchner governments, although the jury is still out “on whether or not this represents a stable, long-term relationship.” It is argued that the Kirchner administrations employed traditional Peronist tactics of co-option to minimize the social unrest and to consolidate their political power, through their relation to the social movements. A sort of hold at arms length relationship.  However, this is not a sustainable one, and actually shows a very weak relationship between these types of social movements and the state.  Soft co-option, and at times ignorance, does not provide strong links between state and social movements in this case, something which Prevost could have made clearer.

Well-known academic Mark Becker, in one of the stronger chapters, outlines the complex Ecuadorian case which has divided leftists worldwide in President Rafael Correa’s centralization of power, who has proven an adept politician in dividing and weakening social movements for his own gain. He argues that “Correa appears to be playing a dangerous game of co-option,” which with the benefit of some time passed we can see that he is very correct.

Correa is coming under attack from both the left and right, and many social movements which once were part of his astronomical support are turning against him as he tries to appease business, such as the extractive industries, as well as the social movements. This means that he, politically, has blocked himself in to some extent. Becker, although writing three years ago, saw the position Correa was getting himself into with his centralizing of power, and that he has “sacrificed his alliances” for power.  He damningly concludes that Correa is favoring short term gain over long term prospects, and may not be actually improving the lives of those his power allegedly serves.

The chapter on Brazil shows the that the landless rural workers movement (MST) are losing influence on the increasingly neoliberal Workers’ Party governments, which are becoming more and more allied with agribusiness interests, even though Lula and Rousseff have denied these neo-liberal links. The author of the chapter, Marxist scholar Harry Vanden, rightly fears that the MST and other social movements, representing those sectors of Brazilian society that still suffer injustice and exclusion, “would be left out in the cold.” I would add to this that his fear might be more than just a premonition, and is a deep reality in a country which in many ways is only representing the left in rhetoric. Although this chapter provides some good points, it goes through the motions and it feels like Vanden is just pointing out the bleeding obvious.

In another one of the stronger chapters in the book, political scientist, Edward Greaves writes on Chile where the strong state has extended “its presence deep into civil society to dispense an array of targeted, focalized social programs to a number of different groups, and which is capable of shaping political and associational space,” which for Greaves has insulated the center left state from popular pressure and being able to fragment movements. However, little attention is paid to the student protest that emerged under Bachelet, and continue to this day to be a thorn in her side, along with the myriad left-wing groups who do not identify with her. Bachelet’s current second term is showing her ability to control the state, not so much by extending it into social movements, but with a top down vision, knowing full well that she is the only political option the left has at the moment.

In the chapter on Bolivia, we can see a different state-society interaction where the state is more committed to developing a more even relationship. The author, Waltraud Morales, describes in detail the contentious politics of social movement activism that helped elect Evo Morales and in part continues to support him, and the vigorous opposition he has faced from lowland regions, and even the COB trade union confederation. For all the success of building what Morales calls “Bolivia’s highly participatory social movement democracy,” chronic protests and roadblocks have continued. But, as the author emphasizes, “Morales’ presidency has been unique among Latin American leaders, providing an instructive lesson on how building trust and a working alliance between social movements and a progressive, like-minded executive can advance fundamental reforms within the democratic process and without destructive violent revolution.”

Daniel Hellinger, who has written much on this topic, illustrates a similar dynamic in the case of Venezuela where he describes the close links between social movements and the government of the country’s now deceased former leader Hugo Chávez. He makes the very good point that, in a country “with a state that enjoys outsized economic resources in relationship to the productivity of labor, social movements in Venezuela are bound to be more state-focused than their counterparts elsewhere in the hemisphere.” Yet, he emphasizes that despite high levels of support for Chávez among social movement members, “Bolivarian officials often find themselves in confrontation with local movements of core supporters in the working class, the poor and the peasantry,” demanding better services or protesting against deficient state provisions. Venezuela therefore is a much more complex case than often appears from outside, and the nature of the oil state not only effects the core of the state, but how social movements relate to it.

After reading this book, which shows a strong understanding of the governments, and at times the social movements it feels like it lacks at times lack fresh empirical evidence, with Greaves’ chapter being an exception in additional to theoretical understandings. What the book could have looked at is that fine line between constituent power from below, and the constituted power of state institutions and how these two sides work in creating positive change.

Thinking more broadly about the themes of the book, it brings up the concerns of how the demands of the excluded will be translated into policy change. The articulation of social demands from below is blocked by institutional weakness in Latin America and undermined by the long continuing corruption, clientelism and the dependence on the figure of the president.  As a result, the electorate has very little confidence in politicians. However, the emergence of new social movements whose aim is to not take power, but rather pressure states, and if necessary bring down government is an important part of progressive change in the region that should not be overlooked in favor of strong leaders.