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April 16, 2013

Why has economic crisis produced a new left in Latin America, but not elsewhere?

April 16, 2013
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For a wonk parent it’s hard to beat the heart-warming experience of seeing your book referenced in your son’s university essay. In this case, junior hadSilent revolution the task of trying to understand the link between neoliberalism and the rise of a new left in Latin America, so he cited Silent Revolution, a book I first published in 1995, when he was 3 years old.

But his essay also got me thinking. Citing Polanyi, he put the rise of Chavez, Morales, Lula et al down to the ‘commodification’ of land, labour and money. Through privatization, deregulation etc, the Washington consensus over-reached itself, trying to commodify things like jobs that have much deeper human significance than just being tradable items. That provoked the backlash that became Latin America’s centre left, while simultaneously undermining the unions that were the backbone of the previous ‘old left’.

Nice thesis, but surely if that was true, the centre left would be much more of a global phenomenon, given that commodification is hardly confined to Latin America? So what, specifically, about Latin America has led to the rise of such an interesting range of political movements and governments over the last 15 years? Candidates include:

– The depth of prior trauma from hyperinflation meant that people were less willing to go for slightly friendlier variants of neoliberalism and ready to pursue more radical solutions

– Disillusion with more orthodox forms of ‘bourgeois democracy’ because in Latin America, the return to democracy from military rule coincided with the debt crisis and economic stagnation of the 1980s

– The particular depth of progressive social capital: the radical Catholic Church, the fight back against military rule, the rise of identity movements (indigenous, black, women) created new political expressions outside the previous structures

– The concept of ‘social debt’ – the new left successfully argued that the legacy of military rule was a degree of inequality that was unacceptable, and they won that argument even with the middle classes. As a result, Latin America is the one region in the world where inequality has been falling.

Hold on, what's HE doing there?

Hold on, what's HE doing there?

And of course, (sorry, son) it’s very dangerous to generalize about the whole region (even in an undergraduate essay). For a start, there are at least two ‘new lefts': a more social democrat ‘sensibilist’ left, epitomised by the PT under Lula, and the more fire-breathing ‘Bolivarian’ left of Morales, Chavez and friends (see left). One reason why Venezuela and Bolivia were able to depart further from the Washington Consensus was at least partly because they were enjoying massive oil and gas royalties, so felt much freer of fiscal constraints. Brazil, traumatized by memories of hyperinflation, pursued a different combination of radical social policy and cautious economic policy. Argentina, as always, is a special case, buying itself fiscal space by defaulting on its debts after the 2000 meltdown, but is now having trouble maintaining it (and the Peronists are virtually indestructible, and have so far headed off any new political challenges).

Not that Silent Revolution is much help in understanding all this. One painful aspect of being an author is that your thinking is captured at a fixed point, even as time moves on. The first edition in 1995 lamented the Latin American left’s inability to move from ‘protesta a propuesta’ (protest to proposal). The second edition in 2003 saw much more evidence of a crisis in the prevailing paradigm, but failed to find any clear signs of what was emerging. Oops.

Any other thoughts on the origins of Latin American exceptionalism? (Don’t worry, junior’s already handed in his essay, so he can’t be accused of crowdsourcing.)


  1. Is it too old fashioned to mention the example of Cuba and Castro or do they not get a mention in undergraduate texts these days ? Chavez , Moreles etc would all claim Castro as their inspiration and the example that you could run a Latin American state without following the Washington consensus must have influence on their electorates

  2. Well, if you restrict “left” to “marxist-based left” then the lack of response in other regions may be puzzling.

    But if you don’t and look for political responses to neoliberalism, that is, those whose focus is active resistance against the colonisation of social spaces by profit-extractive mechanisms (from publicity in the UK schools to land grabbing in Africa for cash crops), then you will be aware of a number of “new” parties and movements all around the place, from the social greens in Europe (see and the 15M movement in Spain or the Pirate party in Germany) and beyond (Wangari Mathai, Vandana Shiva and other ecofeminists and many others that fall below the radar of Western media)

    Ask your son: usually the younger generations have wider views of what does the world “left” means in the politics of the 21st century.

    1. sure but the rather important distinction is that in Latin America, a number of them have won elections and transformed their countries!

  3. Very interesting post.

    Perhaps a geopolitical approach could be useful. It can’t be a mere coincidence that the left-wards turn came about following the end of the Cold War and the re-legalisation of leftist parties in the region. Obviously, that comes with a spatter of caveats; but it could provide a starting point.

  4. I’m going to take Pierre-Louis’s opening a step further. Might there be something significant about the struggle for democracy and human rights in Latin America being largely a struggle against rightist authoritarian regimes, while in Eastern Europe, that same struggle was fought against leftist totalitarian regimes? The recovery/establishment of democracy in Latin America then—a uniting force–tended to emphasize or at least was more open to economic, social and cultural rights and the notion of equity over the civil and political rights and notion of freedom emphasized in Europe. I’m less familiar with how this looked in Africa, where such struggles may have been more focused on independence and decolonization, less on specific political philosophies. Ideas of equity, access and fairness built on a base of human rights became a common frame, a political center of gravity in Latin America, even after more radical leftist notions waned.

  5. Could a factor also be neoliberalism’s push to decentralize political power? I’d wager the World Bank did not have anything like this in mind when it encouraged decentralization in the 1990s, but in fact it made municipal government significant in people’s lives and provided a platform for political movements to build experienced government cadre and eventually electoral machines capable of challenging the old parties for national power. The PT in Brazil was first to build a solid party structure from the ground up, but the municipal experience also shifted “the left” significantly in Colombia and Mexico. Could Bolivia’s transformation have occurred without the far-reaching decentralization wrought by the neoliberal regimes that came before?

  6. It might be more interesting to ask why a coherent centre left, (or further left) hasn’t emerged in other parts of the world where inequality has risen. In Africa, the intelligentsia is very small, partly due to tragically misguided global policies towards higher education in Africa since the 1980s, and partly because of the inclination of highly educated Africans, until recently, not to choose to live in their own country or on their own continent. Even the compressed intelligentsia that exists in Africa is not very independent, generally tied to government, or international companies or organisations, in one way or another. NGOs offer valuable critiques but (rightly) don’t dare to offer political alternatives. Politics in Africa seldom offers recognisably alternative policies, relying more heavily on other forms of mobilisation. This may be because of the nature of African society and/or the level of education of the bulk of the electorate. In contrast, Latin America has a much deeper domestic intelligentsia and a relatively better educated populous. (Even Morales, the rural worker leader, had earned a university degree though he never claimed it, according to online sources.)Yet, the rise of anti-parties in Italy and Germany, and the ease with which American politicians sell logically contradictory policies seems to question the value of education. So, maybe it is that the lost decades of African development are, in the freer African societies, associated with left-wing populism, echoing the Eastern European experience, and contrasting with Latin America.

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