The Clash of Political Paradigms in Twenty-first-Century
Latin America and the Response of Area-Study Journals
relationship between state and society, particularly with regard to social movements
and organizations, constitutes an important paradigmatic gap separating the
experiences of Latin American and U. S. democracies, and represents a challenge
to area study programs including academic journals. These differences manifest
themselves in major ways today as a result of the rise to power of leftist and
center-leftist movements, as they also did in the past on different fronts.
U.S. labor leaders, for instance, steeped in the tradition of Samuel Gompers
who envisioned organized labor’s political role as that of a pressure group,
have always felt uncomfortable with the political party affiliation of their
Latin American counterparts (McLellan, 1975). This line of thinking, which
defends the separation of social movements and the state, is reflected in U.S.
scholarly literature on organized labor in the region (see, for instance,
Fagen, 1977: 189-192). Latin American trade unionists, on the other hand, justify the nexus
by pointing to the supportive role played by parties during military
dictatorships when many labor leaders were forced to go underground or into
academics have traditionally championed concepts of liberal democracy, which
posits a clear separation of state and “civil society.” At the same time, they
tend to view Rousseau’s writings on radical democracy (1) as tantamount to the justification
of non-democratic rule, an opinion generally not shared by their Latin American
colleagues. These differences have come to the fore with the recent electoral
successes of leftist and center-leftist movements, which defend distinct political
models including participatory democracy and direct popular input in decision
making that contrast with traditional liberal thinking in the United States and
elsewhere (Beasley-Murryay, Cameron and Hershberg, 2010: 9).
structural differences between Latin America and the U.S. lay at the root of
the differences in tradition and dominant conceptual frameworks related to
democracy and state-society relations. Unlike in the United States, for
instance, the organized working class in Latin America has to compete with a sizeable
reserve army of labor, which limits the effectiveness of the use of the strike.
For this reason, Latin American trade unionists have traditionally looked to
the state and legislation that guarantees job security. These same factors may
also help explain the rise to power of populist movements that spurned
institutional constraints – considered sacred by the
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© 2016 Latin American Perspectives
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liberal democracy – in order to promote the interests of the working class, but
that at the same time exercised tight control over organized labor. In spite of
their organizational weakness, social movements and organizations in Latin
America have displayed an outstanding mobilization capacity largely unmatched
in developed nations. In short, theoreticians need to take into account factors
such as mobilization capacity and state ties that differentiate Latin American
social movements from their U.S. counterparts.
journals specializing in Latin American studies are a natural venue to analyze conflicting
patterns and visions of this nature. This is particularly the case with U.S.
and British journals, which dominate the prestigious Science Citation Index list
in the area of social science. Not surprisingly, Latin American professors
strive to publish in English-speaking journals in order to further their
possibilities of career advancement. In the age of globalization, journals and
universities in the developed countries have opened themselves up to the
participation of Latin American academics (as demonstrated by the Latin
American component of LASA’s membership which has reached approximately 40
percent). But the fact that these journals are based in U.S. and British
universities, and with few exceptions limit themselves to articles written in
English, produces an inevitable bias in favor of dominant modes of thinking
prevalent in those nations, specifically with regard to democratic theorizing.
This is not to
say that there is some kind of ironclad barrier to the full comprehension and
assimilation by U.S. scholars of Latin American realities. Indeed, the field
work conducted by non-Latin American scholars, particularly those who undertake
ethnographic research and immerse themselves in Latin American society,
facilitates a reexamination of assumptions rooted in national political culture
and experiences. The following paragraphs discuss the dynamic in which recent developments
on the ground in Latin America as well as longstanding patterns have influenced
researchers to reexamine views on the relationship between state and society
that were traditionally dominant in U.S. political analysis and scholarship.
The end of the article will discuss the implications of this dynamic for area
scholars relied on traditional concepts of the state, society and social
movements to interpret events in the decades leading up to the twenty-first
century left’s rise to power. Thus the scholarly literature on democratic
transition and consolidation beginning in the 1980s reflected the defense of
the separation of civil and political society and the emphasis on the role of political
actors in spite of the overriding importance of mobilizations organized by social
movements in opposition to military dictatorships. Much of the literature
assigned social movements a subordinate role to political organizations and
argued for the autonomy of social organizations vis-à-vis the state. The literature
was heavily influenced by Samuel Huntington’s The Third Wave, which recognized the importance of social movements,
but only at the outset of the transition process and only because they
strengthened the hand of reformist politicians. In his “Guidelines for
Democratizers, Huntington states “Be prepared to mobilize your supporters for
demonstrations when these will weaken the standpatters in the government. Too
many marches and protests, however, are likely to strengthen them, weaken your
negotiating partner, and arouse middle-class concern about law and order”
(Huntington, 1991: 162). Other leading
scholars attributed the success of democracy historically in certain Latin
American nations to the “autonomous institutional expressions of new popular
interests” (Diamond and Linz, 1989: 9, 35-36). Subsequently, much of the
literature on “democratic consolidation” reflected a similar bias in that it
the learning experience of political actors in resolving the knotty problems
brought on by globalization without recurring to old-style populism. These same
scholars paid significantly less attention to the massive protests against the
implementation of neoliberal formulas (von Mettenheim and Malloy, 1998a, 11-16;
von Mettenheim and Malloy, 1998b: 177; Diamond and Linz, 1989: 14-18).
the “new social movement” paradigm associated with Alain Touraine, which spread
to Latin America from Europe, went even further in insisting on the absolute
autonomy of social movements vis-à-vis political society. According to this perspective,
the strength of social movements lays in their loose horizontal structure and
their ability to instill in their members a sense of participation and
identity, goals which would be endangered by links of any kind with political
parties and the state. Touraine and others viewed the new social movement model
as a corrective to the tendency of Latin America’s social movements to look to
the state for quick and easy solutions as well as a corrective to the region’s authoritarian,
populist, paternalistic and excessively centralist traditions (Ellner, 1994: 72;
Slater, 1985: 8-17; Evers, 1985: 45 and Laclau, 1985: 39-42).
By the 1990s,
scholars began to question the applicability of these theoretical frameworks to
Latin America. In their seminal The
Making of Social Movements in Latin America, editors Arturo Escobar and
Sonia Alvarez argued that scholars have largely ignored the impact of
deep-rooted patterns on social movements, such as the “prominence of state over
civil society,” the existence of “corporativist channels for interest
representation, and the pervasiveness of clientelism.” They added that social
scientists have to appreciate how the “new or reconstituted identities,”
emphasized by new social movement theorists, have emerged against the backdrop
of these factors (Escobar and Alvarez, 1992: 318-319). Some of the revisionist
scholars pointed to the recent emergence of political parties such as the
Workers Party in Brazil that developed a symbiotic relationship with social
movements based on a two-way flow of influence (Hellman, 1992). Joe Foweraker
called the new social movement theory a “Euro-centered paradigm” that “does not
necessarily reflect Latin American realities.” He added that in Latin America
“acute centralization of power…in the state.. has catalyzed the process of
social mobilization” and as a result the state “has become the main focus for
social movements” (Foweraker, 1995: 24-25, 29).
The rise to
power of leftist and center-leftist governments in the twenty-first century has
led to a further questioning of assumptions associated with liberal democracy. The
presidential election of three labor leaders (Lula, Evo Morales and Nicolás
Maduro) as presidents, who have had a profound political impact on their
respective nations, is indicative of a Latin American reality that contrasts
sharply with that of the U.S., where trade unionists seldom hold public office.
Indeed, these electoral triumphs can be seen as part of a longstanding Latin
American tradition of labor prerogatives. Beginning with the rise of populist
movements in the 1930s and 1940s, some labor leaders conditioned their support
for political parties on the incorporation of fellow trade unionists in slates
for elected office (Stein, 2012: 117).
advent to power lent itself to a reexamination of views on the democratic
transition and consolidation of the 1980s and 1990s, with theoretical
implications. The trend has influenced scholars, as demonstrated by the abundance
of scholarly literature on Latin American social movements. Pro-leftist analysts
questioned the validity of the interpretations on Latin American
democratization put forward by Huntington and others who highlighted the role
of political leaders and parties that ended up promoting neoliberalism. One
example of this revisionism influenced by future events is the critique of decentralization
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES
that in the 1980s and 1990s had been celebrated as catalysts of the deepening
of democracy. In Venezuela, for instance, legislation formulated by the much acclaimed
Comisión Presidencial para la Reforma del Estado (COPRE) led into privatization
and other neoliberal measures in the 1990s, which were thoroughly denounced by
the Chavistas after 1998 (Ellner, 2002: 80). In addition, “pacted democracy”
based on political party pacts, which Huntington (1991: 165-174) and others
credited with facilitating democratic transition but which scholars in the
1990s began to criticize, was attacked by the twenty-first century left in
power for being exclusionary and amounting to elite decision making (Ellner,
1997: 202-206; McCoy, 2004: 274-275).
movements that reached power in the twenty-first century traced the democratic advances
in their respective nations not to pragmatic reformist politicians and
political parties, as did Huntington, but to social phenomena. Social movements
and mobilizations were credited with having created the conditions for the
election of leftist presidents as well as the deepening of democracy: the
“Caracazo” disturbances of February 27, 1989, seen as having paved the way for
Chávez’s triumph in 1998 as well as the constituent assembly held the following
year; social movement activity in Brazil ranging from automobile workers
strikes under Lula’s leadership to liberation theology, which led to the
founding of the Workers Party in 1980 and which pressured the military
government into accepting a democratic opening; the Gas and Water Wars and
cocalero struggles, which created conditions favorable to Evo Morales’ rise to
power and the achievement of indigenous self-governance through the
“plurinational state”; the indigenous movement in Ecuador, which claimed credit
for the passage of the 2008 constitution and its incorporation of the
“plurinational state,” a concept that the nation’s traditional politicians rejected
when drafting the previous constitution of 1998 (Prevost, Vanden and Campos,
2012: 17); the massive protests before and after the fall of Fernando de la Rúa,
which paved the way for the rise to power of Néstor Kirchner and his subsequent
move to the left.
A number of programs
designed by leftist and center-leftist governments to facilitate popular input
in decision making clash with the principle of the separation of “civil” and
“political” society, which is basic to both liberal democracy and representative
democracy (as embraced by Joseph Schumpeter and defended by Huntington). While advocates
of liberalism envision social groups that pressure and make recommendations but
do not decide, leftist and center-leftist governments have established provisions
endowing civil society with decision-making powers that are “binding” (see
Crabtree, 2013: 288). The most prominent example is the participatory budget initiated
by the municipal government of Porto Alegre in 1989 under the leadership of the
Workers Party (even though the mayor was granted the right of veto over
decisions reached in popular assemblies). The Venezuelan constitution of 1999
also contemplates citizen assemblies “whose decisions are of a binding
character” (Article 70).
self-government structures, such as the ayllus
in Bolivia, and the community councils, which have proliferated under various
twenty-first century leftist governments, are examples of the blurring of the
division of state and society. In Venezuela, the experiences of the councils have
put in evidence the complex combination of top-down and grassroots decision
making and the tension between the two. Following the passage of the Community
Council Law in 2006, the Ministry of Participation and Social
Protection sent representatives to popular communities to inform residents that their eligibility for special funds for public works was contingent on the establishment of a community council. Once the councils were established, however, they often clashed with the Ministry, which they accused of unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles. The initiative undertaken by the state to transfer decision making to the communities, the sense of empowerment that the process fostered particularly among non-privileged sectors, and the tensions with the state bureaucracy are complex issues that a dogmatic adherence to the liberal democracy paradigm is unable to fully appreciate and analyze.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES
experiences of the twenty-first century left has led some social scientists to question
traditional concepts of clientelism, which characterizes the practice as a
perversion of democracy. Anthropologist Naomi Schiller, in various studies of
alternative media in Venezuela, faults the liberal democracy framework for
reaching misleading conclusions regarding the complex relationship between
social movements and social organizations, on the one hand, and the state as a
dispenser of resources on the other. “She writes: “assumptions that the relationship between
grassroots groups and government institutions is always vertical, automatically
induces corruption, and creates weak democracies inhibit an analysis of the
multiple impulses at work.” She goes on to argue against “traditional theories
of clientelism” in that the “constitutive opposition between state and society
cannot capture the complexity of these emerging state-barrio relationships”
(Schiller, 2011: 127-128; forthcoming). Schiller and others writing on the same
topic assert that negotiating with the state is “legitimate” (Schiller, 2011:
128) for “those who retain a level of organizational independence, while making
strategic alliances with the state (Fernandes, 2011: 156). These arguments are
particularly significant because liberal democratic thinking considers the
independence of the media virtually sacred, more so than in the case of any
assumptions related to liberal democracy, which clash with recent political
developments in the continent, represent a challenge to Latin American
scholarship. An important first step for area study journals is to recognize
the nature of the challenge and design measures to meet it. Like other academic
institutions, journals create agendas and set priorities. Published colloquiums
on the applicability of liberal and radical democratic models to Latin American
twenty-first century politics would help frame issues and open a necessary
debate. In addition, manuscripts that combine theorizing with empirical
research on the wider political impact of social movements, mobilization and
grassroots phenomena, and that recognize the complexity of the process of
change in Latin America, deserve priority treatment. The end result of efforts along
these lines would hopefully be the perfection of methodological tools to help
place the surprising political and social developments in twenty-first century Latin
America in broader contexts.
1. The relationship between Rousseau’s
thinking and radical democracy, with its emphasis on direct input in decision
making, is the subject of considerable scholarly discussion and debate, which
needless to say is beyond the scope of this essay.
American Perspectives is an exception in that it welcomes articles written in Spanish and
Portuguese, reviews them in that language, and then translates them to English.
Indeed, the journal receives about half of its manuscripts in foreign languages.
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