Foundations of a New Politics

September 25, 2007

TO IMAGINE NEW ALTERNATIVES FOR THE Left we ought to begin by recognizing that the current crisis is global and structural in nature. Crisis does not always mean catastrophe. It means that old ways of thinking and acting are breaking down. While today's crisis has both economic and political causes, at its root it is a crisis of values. It challenges us to invent a new political culture with new forms of collective action, which in turn could lead us to new modes of understanding. To sum up the convulsive decades of the recent past: Toward the end of the 1960s, after two decades of eco- nomic growth, the United States and Europe were en- gulfed by what sociologists today call new social move- ments-a counter-cultural challenge to the status quo. At the same time, as Third World identity reached its apex in the southern half of the globe, dramatic episodes of social and national struggle there appeared as counterpoints to the decadence of the consumerist, predatory model of the North. During the 1970s, economic problems beset the industrialized world, leading many to find fault with the entire system, what scholars of that era lambasted as the decadence of the welfare state. Today, the scenario has changed once again. Industrial capitalism has retaken the initiative and the image of collapse is now associated not with the West, but with the crumbling of the so-called socialist world. The notion- which appeared self-evident in the 1960s and even in the 1970s-of a bipolar world in which one system was an alternative to the other turned out to be mere illusion. How can anyone believe that Latin America could remain unaf- fected by the internationalization of the crisis? Let's look again at decades past: In the 1950s, the governing ethos in Latin America was economic develop- ment and social modernization. A decade later, it was the VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 5 (MAY 1992) Juan Carlos Portantiero is dean of social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, and an editor of the journal La Ciudad Futura. 17RThe Left on Amri The Left -~.a .- '( -': _:$~ , VR;~ra~ V ffrt Progressive policy would overturn the perve that privatizes profits and socializes all losse relationship of dependency established with ized nations through that process of devel modernization, and the growth of vigorous political movements that challenged that dep the 1970s, the response was military authorita state terrorism, which was followed in the process of transition to democracy in almost the continent. The general picture in Latin America tod The United Nations' Economic Commissio America and the Caribbean coined the phra cade" to reflect the gravity of what occurred i per capita GNP today is the same as-and in lower than-that recorded 13 years ago. TI monumental. Every index of standard of liv creased dramatically. Latin American socie them-are even more brutally divided betwe poor. My country, Argentina, is no longer the the rule. The decade of the 1990s holds out to t democracies the enormous challenge of ovei crisis and of finding a way to fit into this w This is the challenge that a democratic Left n if it is to present itself as an alternative neoliberals in power and the state socialists who have been so discredited by the debacle in the East. The essence of the economic crisis, unlike the crisis of the 1930s that gave rise to populism and develop-mental- ism, is the relative loss of productivity in an integrated transnationalized world market that leaves little margin for the autonomy of national markets. Not only neoliberal ideologues believe it inevitable that national economies must open up to foreign investment and trade, and restruc- ture their productive systems to fit world demand. And the neoliberal prescription for achieving these objectives-modifying the relationship between state and society that grew out of the cycles of previous decades-can't be dismissed out of hand. For the demo- cratic Left as well, serious reform of the state is the way to begin to address the crisis. Neoliberals begin with the fiscal crisis of the state and, like their counterparts in the industrialized countries, they propose closing the yawning gap between revenue and expenditures by replacing state-centered policies with market-centered ones. That a fiscal crisis exists in Latin America is not in doubt. What is open to question is the idea that the crisis can be resolved by dismantling social welfare policies, which in Latin America have always paled in comparison to those of the industrialized world. The fact is that there is no longer much of a "welfare state" to dismantle. The task was accomplished by the "market fascisms" (to use Paul Samuelson's term) that laid waste to the continent from the middle of the 1970s on, pro- moted by both military dictatorships and civilian regimes. The roots of the fiscal crisis are to he found not in rse system rse system excessive social policies, but in other subsidies tradition- s.11__ _,dL ___ j __T _" . . _" .. industrial- the issue is not the generic relationship between state and opment and society, but rather the more specific relationship between social and the state and the economy. Latin America's risk-free endency. In version of capitalism has depended (and still depends rianism and despite the rhetoric now in vogue) on the limitless favors 1980s by a that the state grants business, while the needs of the all parts of majority go unattended. State-assisted capitalism and the patronage state are two sides of the same coin, two faces ay is tragic. of the same crisis. r for Latin The need to reform the state is a valid premise rooted se "lost de- in reality. But today it is the exclusive property of the New n the 1980s: Right, leaving the democratic Left at a difficult cross- some cases roads. The Left's traditional discourse which casts the he retreat is state as the central agent of change is no longer in sync ring has de- with reality, among other reasons because the state, de- ties-all of spite the vaunted transition to democracy, is run by private een rich and corporate interests. How can we recapture a terrain that exception to has been occupied by the Right without falling into the trap of ideological anachronisms or giving in to the lure of these fragile neoliberalism? coming the world in flux. r HE REAL QUESTION IS HOW TO BEGIN OUR lust take up .own debate about creating a new mass politics for a to both the democratic Left. I want to formulate a few general and Inecessarily schematic hypotheses, that as such do not exhaust the crucial problems that lie before us. First we must recognize that the current crisis demands a restructuring and that it will not be resolved by flights into the past or leaps into the future. The classic discourse of the Left forms part of the crisis. Many precepts, among them the role of the state as the principal agent of change, have lost their original meaning and have little to offer an era in which civil society desires a greater political role. Dependency theory, which encouraged nationalist autarky, like the populism and developmentalism so common in the political rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s, is spent. Industrial culture itself is now in crisis, in both concept and practice. This of course does not validate the neoliberal model of structural adjustment. On the contrary, it means that economic restructuring should involve a transformation of the relationship between the state and the economy, which would overturn the perverse association that privatizes extraordinary profits and socializes all losses. We must devise a new relationship between the market and the state, an alternative to both neoliberalism and the classic statism of nationalists and the Left. Faced with the options of either privatizing the state or "statizing" soci- ety, we should support policies that democratize both the state and society, with the understanding that "de-statizing" does not necessarily mean privatizing. Proposals for a democratic Left should focus on the "public sphere," as distinct from both the "private sphere" and the "state sphere," as the locus for the autonomous organization of a self-managed or cooperative society, alongside "purely" state and private forms of property and control. By creating public spaces that could insure greater information, participation and decentralization of deci- sion-making in the different arenas of public life, we could free up the state without turning social needs into commodities on the market. Even though the state can no longer be considered the only center of society (and because of this, its reform is essential), any project of democratic modernization should conceive of the state as a strong regulatory body: one which would enforce poli- cies, and not simply allow the market to set the course. Modernization and the restructuring it entails do not respond only to the objective imperatives of the market, but rather to the basic values people share. In this respect, the modernization to which the democratic Left should aspire should be based on solidarity and the struggle against inequality. To achieve this we will have to build a new political culture not bound by the logic of the market or the logic of the state. Salvador Allende, leftist president of Chile overthrown in 1973 in a CIA-sponsored coup. The democratic Left should cultivate a publicc sphere." distinct from both the private sector and the state.Repr on t4 Am4rias The Left The subject of ethics arises here as a foundation for the construction of a new politics. No modernization is worth the savaging of the most vulnerable members of society. This means introducing into the debate about state reform specific questions about who will pay the cost of restruc- turing and how it will be paid. The statist Left is unwilling to confront on ethical terms either the fiscal crisis or the cult of the market. Yet it is precisely the realm of ethics that should serve as the backbone of our endeavor to achieve a more just transformation of our economies and societies. For example, the democratic Left should submit pre- cise, technical and detailed proposals for reforming the tax system, which is brutally regressive in most of the continent; for increasing the portion of the national bud- get devoted to social spending; and for establishing public control over subsidies to the private sector. Such propos- als could effectively distribute the economic burden more equitably. Finally, any program for a renewed Left must propose to enhance political democracy-not repudiate its "for- mal" legal nature (as is common practice among the Left), but expand on it. We must understand the relationship between a liberal political system and a democratic soci- ety if we are to move beyond the predominant political culture of both populists and the classical Left. The strengthening of democracy requires, of course, institu- M-19 guerrillas occupy the Dominican Embassy In BogotA in 1980. The failure of political parties to break out of their Insularity and to shake off their corruption could lead people to abandon politics altogether. tional reforms that give civil society a greater say in state decisions. But it is not simply a problem of constitutional engineering. The crisis has also undermined the system of political representation, or more precisely party politics as a legitimate form of representation. There is today widespread mistrust of political institutions, parliament foremost among them. T HE ECONOMIC COLLAPSE HAS CAUSED A social disintegration that expresses itself in anomie, flight into private life, or unorganized violence running the gamut from occasional "explosions" to crime or drugs. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, politics is passing through a time of darkness. The crisis of political parties is part of the dissolution of public life reinforced by the barbarity of an ideology that rewards the values of anti- solidarity and individualism. The only public space today is that created by the television screen, which at the level of imagination unites an aggregate of atomized individu- als and subjects this ersatz community to the violence of a message that exalts the privatization of life. In this absence of authentic social arenas, the very idea of representation loses its meaning, because the commu- nities to be represented are broken into fragments. The reconstruction of those communities, difficult as it may be, is the precondition to a new politics. The recuperation of political democracy in the 1980s was the result of a pent-up demand for institutional change. When economic problems could not be resolved within the framework of democracy, people turned toward social demands, which were not saustiea elmer. Inis aouole rrustraton only provoked greater disillusionment with political parties and with politics in general. Evidently, political parties can no longer relate to people only as anonymous "citizens." If the parties are not capable of expanding ties to their constituents (and it seems clear they find it difficult to do so), their disintegra- tion is only a matter of time, with the obvious risks this void would entail. This is true for both the mass-based popular parties and the incipient forces of the democratic Left that are developing inside and outside the large parties. Society has made an ethical choice to reject the "nar- cissism" of political parties, their manner of engaging in politics, the corruption they can't seem to shake, and the insularity that smothers them. This process could lead large numbers of people to abandon the political system, something which fundamentalists and demagogues of various types have already capitalized on. Or, in the most desirable of scenarios, the process could lead to self- criticism and a future realignment of forces. For the democratic Left, such a realignment is, to my mind, fundamental, because the Left will be unable to make its presence felt unless it can draw on new forces, including the progressive sectors of the major parties. But all this requires a new understanding of politics-perhaps the most important challenge that those of us who seek a new democratic alternative should take on.

Tags: leftist politics, neoliberalism, mass movements, economic collapse

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.