Social Movements: Building From the Ground Up

September 25, 2007

One of the major contradictions in the Americas today is that between the included and the excluded—those who can regularly participate in the formal institutions of society, politics and the economy, and those who are able to do so only intermittently, or not at all. This Report examines the self-organization of the excluded into movements struggling for inclusion, and for the creation of “another world” within which that inclusion is possible.

Despite their great diversity, what unites the movements considered in this Report is their common global perspective: their loose integration into a broader global movement fighting against a world order called “neoliberal.” They have been drawn, that is, into global debates about democratic change, universal social justice and meaningful political participation.

In some cases, as with Brazil’s landless or southern Mexico’s insurgent peasantry, the exclusion of vast segments of the population dates back to the Iberian Conquests of the Sixteenth Century, and even earlier. In other cases, as with the working poor in Argentina and Venezuela, exclusion has been built into contemporary urban structures. But in all cases, it has been exacerbated to crisis proportions by the region’s current model of neoliberal social and economic development, a model premised upon the systematic exclusion of certain segments of the population from meaningful participation.

Neoliberalism arose in the early 1980s when, faced with falling commodity prices, rising international interest rates and a sizable debt burden contracted largely under dubious circumstances, most Latin American countries, as a condition for being “rescued” by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were obliged to adopt a series of “market-based” economic reforms, including zero-deficit public budgets that quickly became “austerity budgets” throughout the Americas.

These market-based reforms were designed to impart a measure of fiscal and social discipline to Latin American governments and populations in the belief that such discipline would build confidence among private investors that their investments in the region would be safe and profitable.

The protection of a secure investment climate became an economic and political priority, frequently at the expense of social well-being. Financial security replaced social security; social inequality grew; income was redistributed upward; and the working poor, to lower the costs of doing business, were deliberately deprived of options and social mobility.

Because this imposed discipline was never meant to be evenly shared, it attracted opposition from the “disciplined”—those excluded from the benefits of reform. So while many of the grievances considered in this Report are ancient, the neoliberal reforms of the past quarter century have sparked a number of serious rebellions and protests from below. And in many cases, these movements from below have sparked changes of governments.

Popular movements have not by themselves created alternative policies, but over the past 15 years or so, they have been the impetus for change. And they have developed complex, frequently ambiguous relationships with the governments they have helped bring to power. While some of these movements have strongly identified with newly elected “anti-neoliberal” governments (especially, for example, the Bolivarians in Venezuela), all have managed to protect and preserve a significant degree of autonomy for their anti-neoliberal projects.

This complex relationship between militant social movements and progressive, elected governments is at the heart of this Report. It is an understanding of the value of independence that has made many activists uneasy about joining progressive governments they might be willing to support from the outside, unsullied by the political compromises—some necessary, some opportunistic—that can undermine the motivating belief that “another world is possible.”


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