The Emerging "Threat" of Radical Populism

September 25, 2007

At a house armed services committee meeting in March 2004, the then-commander of the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), Gen. James Hill, made the obligatory mentions of terrorism and narco-trafficking as pressing issues of “hemispheric security.” But he also added, “These traditional threats are now complemented by an emerging threat best described as radical populism, in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights.”1

According to the former Southcom commander, “Some leaders in the region are tapping into deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services. By tapping into these frustrations, which run concurrently with frustrations caused by social and economic inequality, the leaders are at the same time able to reinforce their radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.” As examples, he mentioned Venezuela, Bolivia and Haiti, but he also pointed to the general questioning of “the validity of neoliberal reforms” expressed in the October 2003 “Buenos Aires Consensus” signed by Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner. The declaration, according to Gen. Hill, “stresses ‘respect for poor countries.’”
“Populism in and of itself is not a threat,” said Gen. Hill. “Rather, the threat emerges when it becomes radicalized by a leader who increasingly uses his position and support from a segment of the population to infringe gradually upon the rights of all citizens.”

What Gen. Hill describes, in effect, is not a reappearance of the post-World War II nationalist-popular movements, commonly labeled “populisms.” Instead, this is a new trend, stemming from the effects of neoliberal structural reforms throughout the region in recent decades. Indeed, he’s alluding to a phenomenon that is difficult to define when compared to the movements led by Juan Perón in Argentina, the Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) in Bolivia, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, João “Jango” Goulart in Brazil and, especially, Fidel Castro in Cuba and Salvador Allende in Chile. The repeated recourse against these governments were military coups or invasions sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon, for which Gen. Hill, until recently, served as regional representative and spokesperson.

The only survivor among these is the Cuban movement. It has survived for several reasons, among them that it has not played by the rules of the game. It transformed its national revolution into a social revolution, expropriated the land and money of the oligarchy and directly challenged imperial power. Significantly, a characteristic shared by the new political subjects Gen. Hill calls “radical populists” is that they all maintain close ties to Cuba—Lula, Kirchner, Chávez, Evo Morales, Tabaré Vásquez and others. It is doubtful that the General has overlooked this detail, which effectively makes Cuba a bridge between the old epoch and the new.

In this way, from their respective postions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Pentagon—guarantors of capital’s world dominance and the hegemony of the United States within that system—are seeking to redefine their relationship with Latin America’s new reality. For Gen. Hill, this reality is the “emerging threat.” It is important then to consider this situation from another vantage point: from within the social realities generating this “threat.”

More than an economic model, neoliberalism is first and foremost a mode of domination on a national and global scale. It is a mode of domination that arose from the restructuring and global expansion of capitalist relations beginning in the 1970s after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

This global restructuring, also called globalization, culminated in the 1990s with a frenzy of privatizations (the plundering and private appropriation of the national and public commons); labor flexibility (the weakening or abolition of legal structures protecting workers); financial and commercial deregulation (the absolute power of financial capital in capitalist relations as well as its unrestricted power over governments); and the incorporation of land and labor from Russia, China, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia into an unbridled global marketplace.

Deregulation under neoliberalism unleashed the destruction of the hard-won legal, political and social protections gained by the struggles of workers and societies throughout the twentieth century. Successive generations had constructed, inherited and augmented these benefits of their shared patrimony with public services, public education and protected lands and resources. These collective “savings” and “investments,” passed on from generation to generation, were left in ruins during the 1990s in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico and the other countries of the region.

At its most abstract, the neoliberal expansion of capital, unfettered by laws or controls, can be understood as a global process that destroys small businesses, continuously makes technology obsolete and, above all, devalues labor power on a planetary scale. It has incorporated hundreds of millions of new entrants into capitalist labor markets at the same time that it has disqualified and expelled millions more from those same markets. Dislocated workers have been made as obsolete and redundant as the machinery with which they once worked. The crowning achievement of neoliberal deregulation is probably the lawless, unregulated competition of wage-earners in the global market and the consequent devaluation of their labor compared to the mass of valuable commodities they produce.

The neoliberal regime creates a new mix of dispossessed, displaced and informal-sector workers, along with men and women with no stable work and no qualifications to enter the new labor markets—migrants, the uprooted, street vendors, trash pickers. In this new mix there are also children pulled from school and thrown into the world of work, panhandling or illegal activities. The mixing and upheaval of the workforce and the subordinated classes is a brutal and permanent process that takes place in neighborhoods newly situated on the margins of workplaces and urban centers. Moreover, it takes place in the bosom of a population that carries within itself an intangible heritage of know-how, histories and shared experiences of “unofficial” narratives.

This is a population forced to adapt to the new reality of unemployment, vulnerability, precariousness and hunger. With its unique blend of inherited, lost and lived experiences, it emerges not with passivity or individual solitude, but with new forms of self-management and self-organization. The principal center of organization today is not production-based but territorial: neighborhood committees in El Alto near La Paz, piqueteros and communal organizations in Argentina, Councils of Good Government in Chiapas or the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil.

In the cases of Bolivia and Mexico the heritage of indigenous communities and the experience of campesinos and miners are clearly visible. In Argentina, the organizational knowledge of the piqueteros, the neighborhood assemblies and the occupied factories are all part of an inheritance from the direct action of revolutionary unionism, as well as the more recent union movement that led the general strikes at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s.

The researcher or historian, taking a longer view than the reporter, cannot help but acknowledge the reappearance and the extraordinarily diffuse presence of older traditions and experiences in the new movements, even among those participants who are too young to have lived them, but who have, nonetheless inherited them as their cultural patrimony.

These movements appropriate the open spaces of freedom of action left by the dismantled corporatist controls of “classical populism” (if we may call it that). The movements also appropriate the supposed “rules of the game”: democracy, the political rights of citizens and the human rights of individuals. The political use of repressive forces against popular movements, though never abandoned, has been rendered “illegitimate” by these rules.

This illegitimacy is no minor detail, but a real opening in the new framework of the “permitted,” and it has been firmly implanted in the collective imagination. This was evidenced by the way the police and military forces were physically confronted and made to retreat during the December 2001 mobilizations in Argentina, and again during the February and October 2003 mobilizations in Bolivia. In both cases, the presidents tried to assert their rule through military force by declaring a state of siege, but were nonetheless forced to resign, albeit at the cost of dozens of lives in Argentina and over a hundred in Bolivia. Those spaces of freedom of action exist and persist, above all, because popular and subordinated classes have appropriated them for self-organization.

It is in moments like these that the nearly always invisible politics of the lower-classes dispute the dominant institutional politics of representative democracy. They challenge legislators, presidents, judges, leaders, television hosts, “opinion-makers” and the other usual actors of the theater of dominant politics where they are most visible: in public spaces and in the headlines. Lower-class politics is rudimentary and dense; it takes place in the neighborhood, in the community, in places of production. Rarely is it granted the “honor” of being called “politics” by the canonic texts; instead, it is referred to as daily life, conversation, gossip, rumor or local conflict.

These moments of insurrection are also carriers of the fluid processes inherent in the formation of new legitimacies. Programs and organizations float like skiffs on an unquiet sea, pushed and pulled by opposing and newly discovered currents that are not registered on existing maps. It is a state of things that has no fixed and recognizable representation in the public politics of republics. It exists at the intersection of neoliberalism’s dismantling of protective structures and the insurrection against this dismantling. In the language of Gen. James Hill, it is an explosion of “deep-seated frustrations.”

To borrow a metaphor from Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa, now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the plazas are again beginning to fill up. What she calls the “emptying of the plaza” describes the profound change under neoliberalism that vacated the symbolic place of encounter between the protector-state and the people; that is, the geographic heart of the nationalist-populism of previous decades: the plaza.2 Today, the plaza is filled with new protagonists, and different social and political subjects still in the process of formation. These multitudes have their own reasons and symbols for mobilizing, but they have no single leader, nor are they in search of one.

In a situation marked by uncertainty and turbulence without clearly set definitions, symbolic actions take on enormous importance for both the privileged and the non-privileged, the rulers and the ruled: removing portraits of repressive Argentine rulers from the halls of power and sending them to the Museum of Memory, challenging the IMF or maintaining cordial relations with Havana. These are measures that don’t alter the substantive dependent relationship with the IMF and its dictates. But they do mark early and provisional attempts to construct a new reality with elements and points of equilibrium that have yet to be specified (and cannot be specified until they pass through the processes and conflicts of societies). Nevertheless, the symbolic dimension has an initial importance: it organizes feelings and thoughts, it blocks returns to the past and it disrupts the trivial terrain of television and the media.

These conflicts and redefinitions will eventually pass into the realm of practice. Then, in one form or another, the hard questions posed by reality will have to be restated and resolved: the fate of natural resources; the fate of privatized common goods and public services; rural issues and agrarian reform. Practical definitions of the forms of societies’ organization and the relationship of these organizational forms with state powers will also have to be confronted. This includes the now inescapable question of broadening and consolidating the rights, guarantees and ownership inherent in citizenship. The framework and content of negotiations with global capital and its institutions—such as the IMF and the World Bank—will also have to be confronted, as will the configurations of investment and regional trade, like the FTAA, NAFTA and Mercosur. A redefinition of sovereignty and each republic’s control of its territory will be necessary amid the global power of the United States.

All this is part of a turbulent process of definition and subject to the inflexible constraints posed by a world economic cycle in contraction. However, the subordinated are no longer caught off-guard by the neoliberal assault, and their fight now focuses on mending or restoring the protective networks woven in difficult struggles that were so quickly destroyed. Although an idealized longing for the past remains alive, many are looking for something else: new rights, guarantees and protections, and new liberties. This intersection is far from having left the stage of politics. In all probability, we are living in an interregnum in which, as always, members of the subordinated classes are putting their bodies and lives at risk to regain and expand their rights, their land, their material and symbolic patrimony.

It is in this interregnum that what I call “unidentified political objects and subjects” appear, or in the words of the General/sociologist, the “emerging threat of radical populism.” But the threat he sees materializing from the leaders is really the uprising of the subordinated. With their own style of organizing and engaging in politics, with their own imaginations and subjectivities, with their demands and with their transitory and permanent organizations, their insurrections are once again filling the plazas, the neighborhoods, the streets and towns. These groups are struggling from the outside, facing in; and from below, facing up.

As Charles Tilly once wrote about popular protest in France, and Javier Auyero echoed with regard to Argentina: “We shall know a new era has begun not when a new elite holds power or a new constitution appears, but when ordinary people begin contending for their interests in new ways.”3

About the Author
Adolfo Gilly is a professor in the department of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the evaluation
coordinator for the government of Mexico City. A more extensive version of this article first appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, Buenos Aires. Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

1. All the quotes from Gen. James Hill in this section are from the “Posture Statement of General James T. Hill: FY 2005 Budget—Defense Programs,” House Armed Services Committee, March 24, 2004. Available on line at http: //
2. Maristella Svampa and Sebastián Pereyra, Entre la ruta y el barrio, La experiencia de las organizaciones piqueteras (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2003), p. 202. Also see Maristella Svampa, “Las dimensiones de las nuevas protestas sociales,” El Rodaballo, Buenos Aires, No. 14, Winter 2002, pp. 26-33.
3. Charles Tilly, The Contentious French (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), cited in Javier Auyero, La protesta, Relatos de la beligerencia popular en la Argentina democrática (Buenos Aires: Libros del Rojas, 2002), p. 11.

Tags: radical populism, leftist politics, neoliberalism, protest, social movement

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