Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New Latin American review seeks to revitalize progressive social science theory

The Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO in its Spanish acronym) is an international NGO, linked to UNESCO, that promotes research in sociology, political science, history and anthropology through publications, seminars, and exchanges among scholars. Its membership includes 195 university and investigative research centres in 22 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, from Cuba to Argentina. Many of their publications are on line at http://www.biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/.

The CLACSO recently launched the first issue of a new theoretical journal, Crítica y Emancipación, the contents of which can be downloaded at http://bibliotecavirtual.clacso.org.ar/ar/libros/secret/CyE/. Its editorial board includes a broad range of scholars from many Latin American countries as well as Perry Anderson, an editor of New Left Review. A leading item in the first issue, an interpretation of the political and social confrontation in Bolivia today, is a lecture given by the country’s vice-president, Álvaro García Linera, and is available in my English translation at http://links.org.au/node/484#comments.

Another leading article, by sociologist Raúl Prada Alcoreza, analyzes Bolivia’s new Political Constitution, adopted in draft form by its Constituent Assembly but not yet put to a popular vote for final adoption. Prada emphasizes the innovative ways in which the constitution recognizes and protects the plurinational reality of Bolivia with its indigenous majority.

Crítica y Emancipación

In the editorial, “Dos momentos del pensamiento social latinoamericano”, CLACSO’s executive secretary Emir Sader traces some of the major features of Latin America’s evolution over the last three decades. Latin America was the site of the first major experiments in neoliberalism, carried out with great ferocity by military dictatorships counseled by U.S. right-wing economists. This brutality was necessary, Sader explains, because neoliberal policies required that the militant organized working class movements, especially in Brazil and the Southern Cone (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay), had to be smashed in order to radically alter the relations between social classes and between the political left and right.

During the 1980s the generals retired, their job done, and a democratic interlude opened up. But it was at best a formal, neoliberal democracy, devoid of social content. And “socialism had been virtually transformed into a taboo word in Latin American politics,” Sader writes. For example, “the newest and boldest left force in the region — the Brazilian PT (Workers Party) — did not seriously invoke socialism in its political discourse.”

The overall scenario today is quite different, Sader writes, and not least because many of the social movements to some degree survived the repression and have re-emerged, often in new forms, to re-engage in profound social struggles. However, the transformations of the last two decades have not spared social thinking. The neoliberal hegemony “imposed as well certain dogmas that came to the forefront as determinants of the newly established theoretical terrain”. The new review, Crítica y Emancipación, aims therefore, to provide a vehicle for the new critical thinking now re-emerging in Latin America and the Caribbean to challenge those dogmas.

The following are major excerpts from this editorial. My translation.

-- Richard Fidler

"Two moments in Latin American social thought"

[ . . . ]

Overall, the defeat was not definitive. Neoliberalism, with its shock therapy, generated its own detractors. During the last decade, the principal space of resistance to neoliberalism has been Latin America. In 1994, the Zapatistas uttered their cry of opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Since then, the continent has witnessed a series of successive victories of the left or centre-left — Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and, most recently, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay — as well as the resurgence of social movements, some of them led by campesinos and indigenous peoples, from Chiapas to El Alto, from the piqueteros to the landless workers.

Over the last 15 years, 11 Latin American presidents have fallen before reaching the end of their term of office, not through the traditional process of military coups supported by the United States but through the action of popular movements in opposition to the neoliberal policies of their governments. During this period, the only attempted coup — against Hugo Chávez in 2002 — was defeated. Governments such as those of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa are setting out to refound the state structures of their countries with constitutions that are more advanced than the existing liberal-democratic models.

These countries have set out to build an experiment in what the World Social Forum calls “fair trade”, with exchanges responsive to the needs and possibilities of each country, independent of market prices. The various advances made by the ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for Latin American and the Caribbean), such as the end of illiteracy in Venezuela and its impending end in Bolivia this year and soon in Nicaragua, to mention only those initiatives, reveal that democratization means decommercialization, abandoning the market regime in favour of a regime of rights in the public sphere. That is what ALBA does, based on solidarity among the governments and peoples of the continent, and what Mercosur, the Bank of the South, the continental gas pipeline, Telesur and Petrocaribe propose to do albeit in a different form.

The more important reason why Latin America has been transformed into a sort of weak link in the neoliberal chain is precisely that it was the laboratory for experiments in that model, the region of the world where neoliberalism was given its most extensive and extreme expression. The model applied by General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and by Martínez de Hoz, the senior minister in the Argentine dictatorship, supported by the Chicago school, was similar to the model the nationalist leader Paz Estenssoro had implemented in Bolivia, years before it was adopted as a global formula by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Introduced by the right, the neoliberal model ended up being adopted by forces of nationalist origin — like Peronism under Argentine president Carlos Menem or the PRI in Mexico — as well as by Social Democrats and Socialists such as Chile’s Socialist Party, Venezuela’s Acción Democrática and Brazil’s PSDB, ultimately becoming hegemonic throughout the continent.

The continent then turned to modelling its policies on the Washington Consensus: development would be directed by foreign capital, attracted by the privatizations of public enterprises and the abundance of natural resources, by the liberalization of imports, the high interest rates, the fiscal austerity and, in some cases by the mechanical link to the exchange rate. As could be anticipated, after a short initial period of euphoria, serious economic and social crises erupted in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Imports grew precipitously as a result of the tariff reductions; in the end, the overvalued currency discouraged exports; current account deficits and debt payments rose; and the high interest rates stifled national investment and consumer demand, resulting in a recession. In the mid-Nineties, the rise in U.S. interest rates made the external debt unbearable, provoking the collapse of currencies in the continent’s three major economies: Mexico in 1994, Brazil in 1999 and Argentina in 2001.

However, unlike Southeast Asia and Africa, in Latin America the open crisis of the neoliberal model intersected with the old tradition of militant mass movements and political uprisings. During the last half century, the continent has experienced three important cycles of mass mobilizations and major left-wing strategic initiatives. The first was nationalist, between the 1930s and 1950s. The second was expressed in the guerrilla movements, from the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the end of the 1970s. And, since the late 1990s and increasingly during the initial years of this century, the continent has been experiencing a third cycle of rising struggles, this time anti-neoliberal in character.

Critical thought had retreated to a defensive position, especially during the Nineties, when the fully established ideological consensus assumed the initiative in the realm of theory as well, redefining the terms of the debates. The very slogan of the World Social Forum, which first met in 2001 — Another World is Possible — revealed just how defensive the alternative movement had become, fighting simply to affirm that history had not ended, that alternatives still existed and the future remained open.

The combined force of the neoliberal campaigns — orchestrated with the broadcast potential of the major publishing networks, the television, radio and other media chains — and the appeals of liberalism, with their campaigns against “Soviet totalitarianism” and in celebration of its defeat, were to radically alter the theoretical space that had existed prior to the Nineties.

[. . . ]

Today, as we commence publication of Crítica y Emancipación, the continent’s physiognomy has changed a lot. If, during his first term, the then president of the United States, Bill Clinton, felt no need to travel around Latin America, a continent behaving in accordance with Washington’s designs, the current president, with only a few isolated allies in the region, is almost unable to come. The processes of regional integration include a fair share of our countries, among them some of the largest economies, such as Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, which have opted out of the free trade treaties proposed by the United States. The countries that have opted for regional integration processes — in addition to those just mentioned, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Cuba — have diversified their international connections and strengthened their trade relationships within the area and among the countries of the international South.

New political forces are emerging, such as the MAS in Bolivia, while attempts are being made to build new parties in Venezuela and Ecuador that are suitable to the new social and political subjects. Other countries are governed by parties that were in opposition a decade earlier, such as the PT in Brazil, the Frente Amplio in Uruguay and the Frente Sandinista in Nicaragua. The central topics of debate are no longer about fiscal adjustments; they are now devoted to the new forms of development integrated with redistributive social policies and major projects for regional integration.

The political and ideological climate is different. The one country in the region that is the setting par excellence of the “unending wars” of the empire, Colombia, is completely isolated in the continent although its government enjoys substantial support internally. True, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica and Peru have opted for bilateral free trade agreements with the United States, but at the price of internal questioning and without the enthusiasm that existed in the previous decade. Neoliberalism has lost its economic and ideological momentum. Latin America is the setting for a struggle between the old, which insists on surviving, and the new, which is experiencing difficult birth pangs. Hence its instability, amidst an immense hegemonic crisis, in the search for a post-neoliberal model and the construction of a new bloc of forces and strategies for its implementation.

The hope for a new Latin American school of thought that comes to exercise a similar political attraction in the present period cannot be limited to a discussion within the prevailing democratic paradigm of the Eighties and Nineties, nor can it simply turn to the intellectual horizon of the Sixties and Seventies. Faced with the complexity and diversity of the continent’s reality, and in an international context that has been profoundly reconfigured during the last decade, with the emergence of new subjects, identities and demands, a difficult job of theoretical re-elaboration is needed.

[ . . . ]

The image of the intellectual — or the supposed intellectual — in the media has come to occupy an essential place in the new strategy of trivialization of theory and, at the same time, of the discrediting of critical theoretical work as well as its privileged spaces, in the first place the public universities. Underlying this is a notable decline in reading habits and in the availability of books for purchase, and some of the best publishing houses on the continent are in crisis, as are the public universities — not only in their functioning but also in their mission.

In this context, this crisis of Latin American social thought refers to new forms of theoretical production, a new mode of hegemony that redefines not only concepts and values but also the place of theory, forging a particular type of common sense closely articulated around a form of life centered on the commercialization of social relations, a focus on the individual as consumer.

Latin America has entered the new century convulsed anew amidst one of its most profound hegemonic crises, with the premature exhaustion of its recent past and a future that has yet to be invented. While we are well aware of the old — albeit not necessarily in all of its dimensions and the depth and extent of its influence — it is the new that demands our reflection, and the dedication of our greatest energy and capacity for theoretical elaboration.

Let us reaffirm our deepest democratic and pluralistic conviction. We are nevertheless aware that what the continent needs is not just the restoration of the standards of formal democracy; these have to a large degree been restored, but without touching the deepest structures of power (land, money, social communication, etc.). Those structures have not been democratized; on the contrary, they have been concentrated even more in the hands of a few companies, largely international or internationalized. The refoundation of Latin American states is a project that points precisely to much broader and deeper forms of democracy that are compatible with and capable of strengthening projects for emancipation instead of imposing limits on them and making them impossible. A democracy that does not point toward social, political, economic, cultural, ethnic, gender and ecological emancipation will tend to be an empty shell and produce apathy instead of increased mass participation, and to be an instrument of old elites instead of expanding the spaces of citizenship and struggle for democracies with a social vocation consistent with the old dream of the barricades of 1848.

The new political processes in the continent point to that: to rearticulating the social forces with new forms of doing things, constituting and organizing the political sphere. They point to the overcoming of the reform or revolution dichotomy, incorporating popular rebellions that lead into political departures but are not resigned to transforming society with the old instruments of power of the elites and instead seek to refound the state.

These are new theoretical challenges for us all: rethinking the recent trajectory of our countries from the perspective of overcoming the crisis of accumulation and the exhaustion of the existing type of state, affirming the many cultural, ethnic and gender identities, and strengthening and renovating the actually existing democracies. The Latin American crisis is not a theoretical crisis but then again it is a crisis of theory, of a search for new theoretical horizons in order to conceive of new practices and point to possible futures of critique that underscore the different forms of emancipation on the continent.

[. . . ]

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