A New Left Resurgence
‘Leftists are Ascendant in Latin America as Key Elections Loom‘ announces a recent report in New York Times. And this report isn’t talking only of Leftist victories of the last two years but also of possible forthcoming ones in Brazil and Colombia, later this year. ‘Economic suffering, widening inequality, fervent anti-incumbent sentiment and mismanagement of Covid-19 have all fueled a pendulum swing away from the center-right and right-wing leaders who were dominant a few years ago’ underlines the report.
Close on the heels of the victory of Xiomara Castro as the first Left-wing, woman President in Honduras in the beginning of December 2021, came the news of the victory of Gabriel Boric in Chile (19 December). Unlike the socially conservative Left wing position of Peru’s Pedro Castillo, who stands opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage, the Chilean victory, in particular, has been strongly backed by the feminist and queer movements. Honduras’ Xiomara Castro too has legalization of abortion as one of her election planks, which is significant since it is one the few countries that has a complete ban on abortion as of last year.
In Chile’s case, Boric’s victory has itself been attributed to the massive support he has received from social movements, prominent among them being the indigenous peoples, the feminist, the LGBT+ and ecological movements. In fact, Boric was trailing a bit, in the first round of elections, to Jose Antonio Kast who has not only been known to have close family connections with the Pinochet dictatorship but also, through his father, with Hitler’s Nazi party. To a large extent, what actually brought all the social movements out in his support was these antecedents of his far-right opponent. His victory, therefore, represents an unstable coalition of this large array of non-party movements – though the Communist Party is also formally part of the coalition that will assume power in March.
The ‘Pink Tide’ and the Economy
The big challenge for the new left-wing formations assuming power in Latin America now is of effecting a break with neoliberalism at the very least. For there is no way the questions of poverty, deep inequalities and precarity can be solved without taking on the neoliberal bull by the horns. The New York Times report referred to above, points out that ‘poverty is at a 20-year high in a region where a short-lived commodities boom had enabled millions to ascend into the middle class after the turn of the century’. Citing ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) sources, the report also underlines the fact that while most countries in the region face double-digit unemployment, more than 50 percent of the Latin American and Caribbean region are employed in the informal sector. Parenthetically, let us recall that the corresponding figure for Africa is well above 60 percent – reaching 70 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. It is important to remember this – it means that a majority of the world’s population actually lives ‘outside’ capital and policies need to address their need instead of pursuing the chimera of corporate capitalism.
What the NYT report does not tell us is that this big change had been made possible in the entire region with the rise of the so-called Pink Tide of the new Left-wing governments ‘who began rejecting the free-market orthodoxy.’ As this article by Pablo Trujillo suggests, it was the fact that ‘between 1998 and 2011, every major Latin American country other than Colombia and Mexico, elected a Pink Tide president’ that proved hugely transformative:
‘In 2000, forty-five percent of Latin Americans earned less than $4 a day; by 2014, that figure had dropped to twenty-five percent, while roughly ten million Latin Americans rose to middle-class status each year between 2002 and 2012.’
It is clear from various available analyses of the Latin American scenario (e.g. this by Alejandro M. Pena and Matthew Barlow), that the move away from free-market, neoliberal orthodoxy and the concern with welfarist re-distributive agenda did help the Pink Tide Left governments play a significant role in this relative increase in prosperity. But it is also clear that for economies like Latin America’s that are overwhelmingly dependent on the export of primary commodities, this situation could only last as long as the commodity boom lasted. As ‘the commodities boom died down, economic growth stagnated, zapping much of the social progress achieved’, ‘politics became increasingly contentious—with mass protests engulfing countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, among others’, argue the authors. The field was once again open for right wing leaders and parties to step in.
As I see it, there are two kinds of issues involved here. The first political and the other economic, which also has to do with the inability of these governments to effect a change.
Media and Oligarchy
The situation described by the authors above clearly encapsulates one of the major predicaments faced by the new left wing formations everywhere. They are, of course, not concerned with the political aspect of what I want to underline here but it is of critical importance, especially since all the new Left formations everywhere have been functioning within the framework of democratic politics. This constitutes a fundamental departure from the context of twentieth century state-socialism, for we do not have a situation where a vanguard seizes power in the name of the majority and then suspends all democratic liberties and takes control of the economy and polity. It has been an important lesson for the Left across the world that democracy is not a gift of the bourgeoisie that can be dispensed at will, but is integral to the vision of the Left. Consequently, the fact is that each of these regimes has to work keeping in mind the fact that they have to periodically face elections and that there is every possibility that opposing right-wing forces and the powerful oligarchies that have ruled so far will make use of every misstep or wrong move.
Subversion of the democratic process in our times may not take the form of a coup -d’ etat but it has taken different forms when the oligarchies are in power and when they are displaced by Left wing regimes. Crucial here is the question of the flow of information and media control that has been used to create fear and mobilize reactionary forces. So, one of the big issues, if one has to take the experience of Brazil and Venezuela (or India in a different way) seriously, is the question of media control. The continuing control of the media by the corporate-oligarchy actually makes it impossible as we have seen through some of these experiences, for informed choices to be made by electorates. In other words, one the key issues is the leveling of the playing field which should be among the first issues to be addressed by the new governments. Then answer certainly is not in a state-run media but there has to be a way of liberating it from monopolistic control by placing certain kinds of caps on ownership – if need be through enacting laws to that effect. This is NOT a question of controlling the media but of keeping the oligarchy in check.
Calling Capital’s Bluff
The second big challenge – equally important – is the question of the economic transformation that these governments can or cannot bring about. The fear of the ‘flight of capital’ – already rife in Chile months before the government has assumed office – is one of the ways by which incumbent governments have been threatened. After all, if capital flees, it will not only affect production and the economy in general, it will lead to further aggravation of the unemployment situation. I am often reminded of the headlines of Indian newspapers in 2004, when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA I), supported by the Left and social movements was to assume power. ‘BLOODBATH’ screamed the headlines of one of the leading newspapers, referring to the way the stock market crashed. Nothing really happened on the ground. No one was affected even for one day and the stock market too, soon returned to its normal business.
When Iceland jailed 26 of its bankers in 2015, there were grave apprehensions of the possible consequences of this action but nothing really happened. It is not as if nothing at all happens. If you suddenly breakaway from set patterns of doing things, there is bound to be an immediate dislocation. Certainly, transitions need to be planned because we are functioning in democratic polities. Planning transitions even in the case of old fossil fuel industries will be necessary – not for the benefit of capital but so that ordinary people do not have to face the consequences of any sudden disruption. Some flights of capital too will definitely happen in the short run. But they will come right back and want to invest. This is evident even from the way they want to do business in a highly controlled environment like China’s. Notice that in none of the instances I have cited above was there any threat of nationalization or any such radical measure being undertaken. This business of stock markets crashing and threats of ‘flight of capital’ are standard blackmailing tactics used by capital and their bluff needs to be called every now and then.
After all, it is always good to remind ourselves that global capital has actually fled, through the 1990s onwards, from the high cost of labour and environmental requirements in the USA and Europe. It cannot afford to ‘flee’ very much further – unless Elon Musk can gratify capitalists by providing cheap labour and a ready made market on Mars!