The rise and fall of the "pink tide"

The Last Days of Oppression and the First Day of the Same:

The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left

For much of the first decade of this century, Latin America appeared to herald the birth of a new left that demonstrated how to take on and defeat the free-market fundamentalist Washington consensus. For a period, left-of-center governments in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela formed what the media called a “pink tide” that concretized the World Social Forum (WSF) slogan: “Another world is possible.”  At the 2005 WSF in Brazil, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez proclaimed the aim to build “socialism for the twenty-first century.”

Today, the political panorama could not look more different. A right-wing government rules Brazil after last year’s parliamentary coup removed Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff. In Argentina, the government of Mauricio Macri is implementing massive attacks on the country’s working class that recall the worst of the neoliberal Menem era of the 1990s. In the 2015 parliamentary elections in Venezuela, the right-wing Unified Democratic Roundtable (MUD) swept the board, and only a few constitutional technicalities and government maneuvering have stood in the way of its plan to oust Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. In early 2017, Lenin Moreno, the designated successor of pink tide Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, won a close election against a right-wing banker. But much of the left’s traditional base in the Indigenous, Andean region of the country deserted Moreno.

Jeffrey R. Webber, a Canadian-born Marxist teaching in London, is not one to sugarcoat what many analysts have called the “end of the cycle” of progressive governments in Latin America. Looking reality in the face, he is intent to explain both the rise and the fall of the pink tide in The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same. Webber is an astute analyst of contemporary Latin America, and certainly one of the most insightful Marxists writing on the region for an Anglophone audience. To explain the political and economic developments in twenty-first century Latin America, he draws on the classical Marxist tradition (Mariátegui, Gramsci, Trotsky) and from the region’s contemporary Marxist and Marx-influenced scholar-activists like Claudio Katz, Massimo Modonesi, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Hugo Blanco, Raúl Zibechi, and contributors to the journal Herramienta, among others, several of whom have published in this journal. 

The book turns on a general assessment of the new political conjuncture in Latin America marking the rise of a new right in the wake of the collapse in commodity prices in the 2010s. As he sums up in the book’s last chapter, “The global economic crisis has made its delayed landing in Latin America, and that in this context, the hegemony of the center-left is in sustained and protracted retreat, even while various new rights remain incapable of offering an alternative hegemonic project.” 

Webber traces the rise of a new left in Latin America from mass struggles against neoliberal orthodoxy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like Bolivia’s water and gas wars and 2001’s Argentinazo. This struggle from below broke orthodox governments and opened the way for the ascendancy of a “center-left” that dominated Latin American politics through most of the first decade of this century. The center-left arrived in power just at the time of a China-fueled commodity boom that increased economic growth and filled government coffers. The surplus generated from the export of commodities such as oil, natural gas, and soy allowed the center-left governments to enact mildly redistributive policies while dampening opposition from the business elite. 

While the center-left governments did enact changes that furthered social progress, they fell short in critical ways. First, they accommodated to—rather than challenged—capital. Despite some rhetorical nods in the direction of alternative economic models, they instead concentrated on distributing commodity “rents,” while largely allowing capital to run its affairs on neoliberal lines. Second, their reliance on commodity exports actually deepened the region’s dependent insertion into the world economy as a supplier of primary goods. Third, while the region experienced significant decreases in poverty and a small uptick in formal employment, the highly unequal class structure of most countries remained untouched. In fact, in Bolivia and Venezuela, new groups enriched themselves through their ties to the state and the rent stream it managed.

These shortcomings meant that when the global crisis arrived in Latin America, the state was no longer able to rely on the commodity boom to paper over deep social and class conflicts. And the experience of the left in governmental power had demobilized many of the social movements. Both of these factors provided an opening to the right that responded with both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary action.

In developing this argument, Webber challenges two key left-of-center alternative explanations: the social-democratic reformist one and a statist one that “claims a certain Marxist pedigree.” Both of these tend to be apologies for the pink tide governments, and both are insufficient. The reformist vision—associated most clearly with the North American social democratic scholars Evelyne Huber and John D. Stephens—treats “democracy as liberalism [Webber’s emphasis], in which, ironically, capitalism is taken for granted, naturalized, and thereby rendered outside the remit of further interrogation.” These social democrats tended to support the more tepid of the pink tide governments, like those of Lula and Rousseff in Brazil and Bachelet in Chile, that combined some social-liberal reform with economic policies “broadly in alignment with . . . the World Bank, which is understood to have transcended the neoliberal paradigm.” Against this view, Webber uses a Marxist and decolonial framework to expose multifaceted class, racial, and gender inequality, emphasizing how “liberal capitalist democracy is . . . a perversion limiting the possibilities of human emancipation rather than a normative ideal that we should celebrate.”

Webber directs more sustained fire at the statist view, whose main ideologue is the one-time Maoist guerrilla, now Bolivian vice president, Álvaro García Linera. García Linera’s writings have provided a Marxist gloss to two key arguments that bolster the economic policies of his government. First, he has advanced a theory of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” that puts the question of socialism off the agenda for a century, after a full-fledged capitalism in the region has been established. Second, he’s described the recent history of the revolutionary process in Bolivia as resulting in the hegemony of a national-popular bloc (represented by the Morales government) that is now subject only to “creative tensions” from within, rather than to challenges from without. Both of these theories tend to converge as a justification for the type of extractivist capitalism that Morales and García Linera have nurtured. Meanwhile, García Linera has “assumed the role of slanderer” against extractivism’s opponents from the left, like the Indigenous and social-movement activists who have protested plans to build a highway through Indigenous lands and a national park.1

As a specialist in Bolivian politics, whose books Red October and From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia are among the best accounts of the early 2000s mass struggles that overthrew two neoliberal governments, Webber devotes much of his most pointed analysis to the experience of the Morales government. And in responding to García Linera’s “Marxist” apologetics, Webber employs the insights of two of the most respected classical Marxists: José Carlos Mariátegui, whom many consider to be the founder of Latin American Marxism, and the Italian Communist leader Antonio Gramsci.2

Against the passive evolutionism of García Linera’s theory of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism,” Webber counterposes Mariátegui’s “romantic” vision that claims elements of precapitalist Indigenous collectivism as building blocks for a socialist future. In fact, Webber’s profile of Indigenous socialist leader Felipe Quispe illustrates how, in the “revolutionary epoch” of 2000–2005, the class struggle and Indigenous-based communalism fused together in the water and gas wars against neoliberal governments. “[S]eizing upon selective values and practices of the precapitalist past while struggling for a socialist future is an element common across the long arc of Mariátegui’s writings, and increasingly alien to the extractivist ideology of figures such as Álvaro García Linera.”

Likewise, Webber contends, Gramsci’s concepts of “passive revolution” and “transformism” explain social and political changes under Morales more readily than García Linera’s theory of “creative tension.” Gramsci, reflecting on the experience of European bourgeois revolutions, designated as “passive revolution” the situation in which elite actors can capture and redirect a revolutionary process so as to make some concessions to mass sentiment while preserving most of the existing structures of society. Aiding in this process is “transformism,” where opposition political forces begin to converge and radical proponents of the new order become absorbed into the state. 

Webber sustains the Gramscian analysis with a well-researched account of the transformation of Bolivian society since the Morales government, and its mobilized social base, defeated a right-wing secessionist movement in the agriculture-rich eastern “media luna” region in 2010. After establishing its political hegemony, the government and Morales’s Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, moved to stabilize Bolivian politics. Over the next few years, through the medium of extractive capitalism, MAS and the government realigned themselves around new social bases. The government won support from petrochemical and export agricultural corporations, while a rising indigenous capitalist class displaced the working-class base of MAS. Thousands of leaders and cadre of the social movements from 2000–2005 became state or MAS functionaries, while denouncing former comrades who remained independent and critical of the government as “ultra-left.” 

In recognizing indigenous political, civil, and cultural rights, the Morales government has moved the postcolonial republic in a “plurinational” direction. But Webber also marshals an impressive amount of data on the country’s infrastructure investment, class structure, precarity, income inequality, and land tenure to show how little has changed for the mass of the population. In a very detailed analysis of land rights and distribution, Webber shows how the Morales government consolidated large capitalist farming in the country’s lowlands, thus accomplishing “the March to the East” that was the “most regressive aspect of the nationalist ideology of the 1952 revolution.”

While the chapters on the Bolivian case form the core of the book, two other chapters are worth noting. These are the account of Chile’s “new left” growing out of the years of mass movements that came together in the mass campaign for public education in 2011, and a friendly critique of George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez. Webber calls Ciccariello-Maher’s work “the single most important book available in English advancing an explicitly anticapitalist framework . . . underlying the rise of Hugo Chávez” and the “Bolivarian process” in Venezuela. Despite Webber’s regard for We Created Chávez, he offers a solid critique on its limitations, rooted in Ciccariello-Maher’s anarchist-influenced politics.

Reading The Last Day of Oppression, and The First Day of the Same is a must for those who want to understand contemporary Latin American politics from the point of view of “socialism from below.” Webber does not pretend that there are easy answers to the left’s current predicament, and he foresees defeats for the left before it reverses the tide. In the first months of 2017, as this review was being written, mass workers’ demonstrations and strikes erupted across Brazil and Argentina. Perhaps the renewal of struggle that Webber anticipates will arrive sooner than we think. 


  1. See Tom Lewis’s detailed analysis of this struggle and García Linera’s attacks on social movement activists in “The Politics of ‘Andean-Amazonian Capitalism’,” International Socialist Review 83 (May 2012),  http://isreview.org/issue/83/politics-an....
  2. See my “Mariátegui and Latin American Marxism,” International Socialist Review 96 (Spring 2015), http://isreview.org/issue/96/mariategui-....

Issue #85

September 2012

Election 2012

Who will serve the 1%?
Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Reviews

WeAreMany.org