Latin America and the Next U.S. Left

Source: Democratic Left

"The democratic left of Europe and North America must do the same, nationally and internationally. It is not just that its Fordist program of the past half-century no longer works and that it must go far beyond it. It will only be able to speak for then increasingly diverse peoples of the West if it rethinks and restates its own legitimacy."– Michael Harrington, The Next Left: The History of a Future (1986)

The leftist political movements that have sought to fundamentally reconfigure the terrain of politics in Latin America offer some lessons for the Left in the United States. Over the past decade, new political actors have taken center stage across the Latin American region in a tenacious struggle to redefine the nature of political power and representation.

New political formations such as Raphael Correa’s Alianza PAIS (Patria Altiva I Soberana) in Ecuador and Evo Morales’s MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo) in Bolivia have engaged in political elections, popular mobilizations, and ideological battles in an effort to transform the norms of politics and materially alter cultural and economic relations. These and other groups have forged new political identities by expanding the spectrum of political representation to include marginalized persons, most notably indigenous peoples, while deepening both formal and informal democratic forms of governance.

To be sure, the political reorganization struggles in Latin America have met fierce resistance from entrenched power elites throughout the region in addition to a hostile and aggressive political regime in Washington, D.C., that maintains the imperialist view and posture that Latin America is the United States’ backyard. One need only examine the failed 2002 coup d’état against Hugo Chávez and the recent conservative opposition battles against Evo Morales over the new draft constitution to understand the tremendous power of those forces determined to resist any structural realignment in the region.

Despite the multiple internal and external obstacles facing these political tendencies in their attempt to institutionalize more egalitarian social, political, cultural, and economic policies, the left in the United States can learn a great deal from the strategies, tactics, and philosophies of some of our Latin American comrades.

The "Battle of Seattle" in 1999, which graphically confronted capitalist globalization, also marked the high-water mark of the U.S. left’s unfortunate valorization of a model of politics and organizing that privileges civil society in challenging the power of capital and the state. In this view, the mechanisms and politics of the state are disconnected from other relations and formations in society and the only opening with any potential of political transformation of the existing order is offered by and through the actions of civil society actors and groups. As encouraging as the waves of opposition to neoliberal globalization were, the U.S. Left remained bereft of any critical strategies, formidable tactics, and coherent ideologies that critically integrate a radical politics of civil society with an equally radical politics of the state.

This situation is exacerbated by the presidential electoral campaign of 2008. Left discourse has been saturated with what Howard Zinn has rightly called "electoral madness." Instead of taking up the arduous task of organizing a broad Left, there has been a pronounced tendency to abandon the electoral field and allow the low-intensity spectacle politics of the American "one party, two faction" political system to set the terms and frame the debate not only on social policy but on left political thought and strategy, too.

In contrast, what we have seen demonstrated again and again throughout the struggles in Latin America and what is particularly instructive for the U.S. Left is the creative responses by multiple Latin American leftist movements to the question, "How do organizations and movements within civil society change relations of politics and the terrain of the political in light of the concentration of hegemonic forms of power in the apparatus of the state?"

Indeed, Hugo Chávez’s formulation of a "grassroots government" and Evo Morales’s push to make Bolivia a "plurinational" state both seek to bring together the radical democratic politics of mass mobilizations with an equalitarian and egalitarian politics of statecraft. The radical experiments afloat in Bolivia and Venezuela represent novel ways of envisioning and enacting new state forms that respond to the political agenda of the masses while recognizing the need for leveraging the operations of the state in service to a radical socialist democracy.

The Latin American Left has reformulated the frame of the century-old Bernstein-Luxemburg debate on reform or revolution to rightly focus on under what conditions it is possible for a horizontalist grassroots politics to transform the vertical structures of the state in the interests of the marginalized and dispossessed.

By reformulating the frame of this debate, Latin American leftist movements exposed the false dichotomy of reform or revolution and have rightly focused on political agenda setting, political education, organizational infrastructure, and critical coalition building aimed at empowering the dispossessed and creating a more humane existence. This is not a one shot strategy, but a continuous and evolutionary process as demonstrated by the cocaleros (cocoa growers) in Bolivia who continue to mobilize, educate, and agitate despite Morales’s ascension to the presidency.

Although the U.S. Left may not exactly follow the lead of the cocaleros who have inspired the cocoa farmers in Peru to get better organized by forming the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers in Peru’s Coca Growing Valleys (CONPACCP), they do offer a model for redefining the nature of politics in the U.S. and working to achieve a radically democratic, if not socialist, state of affairs.

With new forms of political and economic sovereignty, these elements in the Latin American Left have also provided the U.S. Left with new models not only for critically understanding the transformations of capitalist political economy but also for developing effective responses to the age of contemporary capitalist imperialism. Too often, leftist analyses of neoliberalism in the U.S. – as ideology and economic policy – have decoupled the economics of global capital from the politics of statecraft. This has impoverished our understanding of the transformations of capital since what Harvard economist Stephen Marglin has so aptly named the end of the Golden Age of Capitalism in relation to the transformations of the politics, practices, and philosophies informing U.S. statecraft in the same period.

Admittedly, this is a sweeping claim that would require several stout volumes to elaborate and substantiate, but what it aims to highlight is a gap in the U.S. Left’s theoretical vision that views "capitalist imperialism" grounded in the American nation-state as ancillary to challenging a dematerialized and spiritualized "neoliberalism." The rhetoric of challenging neoliberalism has aided in the proliferation of organizational practices that eschew any critical interrogation of and consistent struggle against state power. Politics is reduced to personalities – whether the personality of a corporation, a politician, or a cause – absent any institutional or systemic critique, let alone producing and enacting alternative proposals that take a long march through the institutions.

Such a luxury is not enjoyed by our comrades in Latin America. Because of the devastating history of the penetration of the national and the economic by the capitalist ventures of the West, the Latin American Left is forced to creatively confront the interpenetrations of the economic and the national. With the U.S. military and intelligence services strained and overreached in Iraq and Afghanistan, these elements of the Latin American Left see the chance for greater independence from the U.S. In so doing, leftist Latin American regimes, inspired by the ideologies and politics of the movements that have swept them to power, have begun to experiment with new forms of political and economic sovereignty that harness the massive powers of the state to facilitate the development of alternative labor and production relations aimed at restructuring the political economy of the region to address massive inequalities and injustices. The struggle for hegemony waged by forces on the Latin American Left have pressed for a critical shaping of domestic and foreign policy that punctures the smooth textures of neoliberalism in its economic and political guises.

The mobilizations by Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement-Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST)-are an exemplary articulation of this initiative. It continues to agitate for land reform even as it develops new policies for formal land acquisition by the landless while also challenging the economic initiatives of transnational corporations. It is targeting use by corporations of increasing amounts of land for biofuel crop cultivation and the introduction of genetically modified seeds that impair the ability of local farmers to grow and cultivate sustainable crops. The MST has also linked these issues to other issues like energy sovereignty and support for movements against state police violence while continuing to maintain pressure on the government of former labor leader Lula da Silva to develop policies and practices in the interests of radical structural change.

These leftist movements and governments remind us in the U.S. of the importance of linking the struggles against the policies and ideologies of free market fundamentalism with a coherent theory and strategy of fundamental transformation of the state. Theirs is not a call for a left "electoralism" – an impoverished principle when not critically linked with an emancipatory politics – but for a more comprehensive strategy of social mobilization, ideological articulation, and political transformation geared toward fundamental restructuring of the relations of labor, production, and power. The critical question thus becomes not when, where, who, but how.

The recent declaration of sovereignty by the Lakota Nation is a beginning of a response to the critical question of how. Drawing on U.S. and international law, including the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous People passed by the UN general assembly in 2007, the Lakota Nation has inaugurated a new path for political sovereignty that will open up its ability to exercise political and economic self-determination in its own interests. The Lakota Nation’s example has inspired a number of other indigenous groups throughout the U.S. to examine ways in which they may exercise political and economic sovereignty in the interests of radically restructuring economic and political relations.

Although the U.S. Left has been mostly silent in the wake of these radical and potentially revolutionary developments, the clear and present danger represented by these actions has caught the attention of the regime in Washington. So much so that Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, along with thirteen co-sponsors, recently succeeded in having the Senate issue a formal apology from the U.S. government to Native Americans. According to a February 15, 2008, press release from his office, the senator stated, "Hopefully, this apology will help restore the relationship between the United States and Native Americans."

However, the actions of the Lakota Nation remind us of the limits of symbolic politics and the necessity to develop liberatory politics for a new century. Their declaration of sovereignty holds out the possibility of translating Morales’s vision of a "plurinational" state to their neighbors to the north with potential radical implications. Coupled with a crippling crisis in capitalism that has perplexed even the most ideologically orthodox free-market economists, the U.S. Left may be confronting a critical opening for bringing forth a hemispheric transformation of political and economic sovereignty like we have witnessed in Latin America.

In The Next Left: The History of a Future, Michael Harrington optimistically states, "The Western left will confront the possibility of political power within the next five years, and perhaps sooner rather than later. No one knows when or for what immediate reasons that possibility will manifest itself. But it will come." Harrington then tempers his optimism with the following caveat: "Only that in no way guarantees that the next left will successfully respond to the opening. It may well be overwhelmed by the very events that give it a new chance; it may simply lack the creativity to deal with a crisis that has already bankrupted so much of American liberal and European socialist ideology."

The events of Latin America provide the next U.S. Left with an important opportunity to respond in an ideologically, politically, and institutionally creative manner to the opening that exists in our contemporary conjuncture. If the U.S. Left refuses to learn from the examples in Latin America, we can rest assured that Harrington’s caveat will (once again) become the fate of the "next Left."

Corey D. B. Walker, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee, is an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies and a faculty affiliate in the Center for Latin American Studies at Brown University. This article is an expansion of comments delivered at the Young Democratic Socialists national conference in New York, February 2008.