Tuesday, June 28, 2016

“THE CLASH OF POLITICAL PARADIGMS IN TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY LATIN AMERICA” by Steve Ellner published in the July 2016 issue of Latin American Perspectives

The Clash of Political Paradigms in Twenty-first-Century
Latin America and the Response of Area-Study Journals

Steve Ellner

The 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 exile.

Similarly, U.S. 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).

Fundamental 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 

LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 209, Vol. 43 No. 4, July 2016, 111–116
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X16644923
© 2016 Latin American Perspectives

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defenders of 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.

Academic 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. (2)

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 study journals.

Leading U.S. 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 underlined political

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leadership and 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).

Concurrently, 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).

The left’s 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 and other 

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state reforms 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).

The leftist 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).  

The indigenous 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. 

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Similarly, the 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 other institution.

In short, 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.
2. Latin 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.


Alvarez, Sonia E. and Arturo Escobar
       1992 “Conclusión: Theoretical and Political Horizons of Change in Contemporary Latin American Social Movements,” pp. 317-329 in Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez (eds.), The Making of Social Movements in Latin America. Boulder: Westview Press.

Beasley-Murray, Jon, Maxwell A. Cameron and Eric Hershberg,
       2010 “Latin America’s Left Turns: A Tour d’Horizon,” pp. 1-20 in Cameron and Hershberg (eds.), Latin America’s Left Turns: Politics, Policies and Trajectories of Change. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Crabtree, John
       2013 “From the MNR to the MAS: Populism, Parties, the State, and Social Movements in Bolivia since 1952,” pp. 269-293 in Carlos de la Torre and Cynthia J. Arnson (eds.), Latin American Populism in the Twenty-First Century. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University.

Diamond, Larry and Juan J. Linz
       1989 “Introduction: Politics, Society, and Democracy in Latin America,” pp. 1-58 in Diamond, Linz and Seymour Martin Lipset (eds.), Democracy in Developing Countries: Latin America. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Ellner, Steve
       1994 “Two Conceptual Approaches to Latin American Social Movements from the Perspective of Activists and Scholars.” Studies in Comparative International Development 29, no. 3 (Fall): 70-80.
       1997 “Recent Venezuelan Political Studies: A Return to Third World Realities.” Latin American Research Review 32, no. 2: 201-218           
       2002 “The Tenuous Credentials of Latin American Democracy in the Age of Neoliberalism.” Rethinking Marxism. 14, no. 3 (Fall): 76-93.

Evers, Tilman
       1985 “Identity: The Hidden Side of New Social Movements in Latin America,” pp. 43-71 in David Slater (ed.), New Social Movements and the State in Latin America. Amsterdam: CEDLA.

Fagen, Stuart I.
       1977 “Unionism and Democracy,” pp. 174-194 in John D. Martz and David J. Myers (eds.) Venezuela: The Democratic Experience. New York: Praeger. 

Fernandes, Sujatha
       2011 “Radio Bemba in an Age of Electronic Media: The Dynamics of Popular Communication in Chávez’s Venezuela, pp. 131-156 in David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger (eds.), Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. Durham NC: Duke University Press

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Hellman, Judith Adler
       1992 “The Study of New Social Movements in Latin America and the Question of Autonomy,” pp. 52-61 in Arturo Escobar and Sonia E. Alvarez (eds.), The Making of Social Movements in Latin America. Boulder: Westview Press.

Huntington, Samuel P.
       1991 The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Laclau, Ernesto
       1985 “New Social Movements and the Plurality of the Social,” pp. 27-42 in David Slater (ed.) New Social Movements and the State in Latin America. Amsterdam: CEDLA.

McCoy, Jennifer L.
       2004 “From Representative to Participatory Democracy: Regime Transformation in Venezuela,” pp. 263-295 in McCoy and David J. Myers (eds.), The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

McLellan, Andrew
       1974 Personal interview with Director of the AFL-CIO’s Inter-American Affairs Department. Washington DC, December 12.

Prevost, Gary, Harry E. Vanden and Carlos Oliva Campos
       2012 “Introduction,” pp. 1-21 in Prevost, Campos and Vanden (eds.), Social Movements and Leftist Government in Latin America: Confrontation or Co-optation? London: Zed Books. 

Schiller, Naomi
       2011 “Catia Sees You: Community Television, Clientelism, and the State in the Chávez Era,” pp. 104-130 in David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger (eds.), Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
       Forthcoming "Changing the Channel: Class Conflict, Everyday State Formation, and Television in Venezuela." Latin American Perspectives.

Slater, David
       1985 “Social Movements and a Recasting of the Political,” pp. 1-25 in Slater (ed.) New Social Movements and the State in Latin America. Amsterdam: CEDLA.

Stein, Steve
       2012 “The Paths to Populism in Peru,” pp. 110-131 in Michael Conniff (ed.), Populism in Latin America (second edition). Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

von Mettenheim, Kurt and James Malloy
       1998a “Conclusion,” pp. 173-184 in von Mettenheim and Malloy (eds.) Deepening Democracy in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
       1998b “Introduction,” pp. 1-20 in von Mettenheim and Malloy (eds.) Deepening Democracy in Latin America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. 

Friday, June 10, 2016


Article of mine in “NACLA: Report on the Americas. The article is an attempt to show that there is shared responsibility for the Venezuelan crisis. And, that the so-called “boliburguesia” (“Chavista businesspeople”), which the Venezuelan opposition claims are the only ones in the private sector responsible for corruption, are hardly “Chavistas.” https://nacla.org/news/2016/06/09/beyond-boliburgues%C3%ADa-thesis

Thursday, June 9, 2016


WHY IS THE CORPORATE MEDIA AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY ESTABLISHMENT SO INSISTENT THAT SANDERS ENDORSE HILLARY? Is it because they want to enhance Hillary’s chances of beating Trump or is that they are afraid of the independent movement that is behind the Sanders phenomenon? I would say the latter. The following quote from the Tribune Washington Bureau shows how ridiculous their line of reasoning is: “Should Sanders endorse Clinton soon and, equally important, urge his supporters to back her, he could increase his influence in the party.” Does 74-year old Bernie Sanders really care about his “influence in the party?” Does he really have his eye on the 2022 presidential campaign? It’s not about Bernie’s personal ambitions, it’s about developing an independent movement that is not manipulated by the Democratic Party machine. That’s what the political establishment and the establishment media are really concerned about. That’s why Bill Clinton and even Obama back in 2006 refused to come to Connecticut to campaign for Ned Lamont, thus allowing Joseph Lieberman to win the senatorial elections and depriving Democrats of the much-needed 60 senators. They preferred Lieberman (who some may have called a traitor or a turncoat) in the senate to opening things up for a really progressive pole within the Democratic Party. This is what the establishment really fears. What is really at stake is the two-party system that preempts any movement on the left that represents the opinion of the majority of people in the U.S. on a number of key issues ranging from health and education to foreign policy.