If Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s sweeping presidential victory in Mexico stirred cautious hope among leftists across the region, it owed in part precisely to how isolated it seemed—an island in a sea of reaction, with rising waters. Brazil’s recent nightmare election of Jair Bolsonaro was only the latest sign of the Pink Tide’s steady decline in Latin America. In Ecuador, Rafael Correa’s decade-long rule combined technocratic-capitalist development and redistributive state spending, but his successor Lenín Moreno has returned the country to more orthodox neoliberal terrain. In Venezuela, the bureaucratic ossification of the Bolivarian process already underway late in Hugo Chávez’s presidency has accelerated under Nicolás Maduro, alongside a burgeoning economic meltdown. And in Bolivia, Evo Morales’s weakening approval ratings in part reflect his decision to ignore the “no” results of a 2016 referendum allowing him to run for a fourth term.
Against this setting, there are few more pressing intellectual and political tasks for the region’s Left than assessing the Pink Tide’s many-sided legacy. In the urgent rearming of a new Left adequate to face the threat of an emboldened Right, it will be necessary to discard the failings of the Pink Tide states, while salvaging any remaining usable parts.
How should we begin to take stock of 21st century Latin American experiments in progressive electoral politics? And what about the region’s wider extra-parliamentary dynamics of social struggle? What explains the strict limits of the Pink Tide’s transformative efforts and achievements? Were these merely the result of impositions from outside—imperial and domestic, economic and structural—or did they also involve self-inflicted wounds? What accounts for the tempering of the Left’s popular appeal in the region, and the strengthening capacities of the right?
Writing in the summer 2018 issue of Catalyst, René Rojas offers a sweeping account of the left turn that tackles these questions head on. Impressive in its scope and clarity, Rojas’s article pleads for a sober, structural assessment of the Pink Tide’s record. Rojas’s call for structural analysis stands as an alternative to what he sees as a prevailing “voluntarism” in the critique of the Left’s experiments in office from both the Right and the Left. In other words, Rojas encourages us to focus on leaders’ practical ability to effect change given structural circumstances, rather than in their will to do so.
For Rojas, left critiques of the Pink Tide, including some of my own work, tend to “[resurrect] a hobbyhorse of revolutionary socialists.” Namely, such critiques see missed revolutionary opportunities everywhere, “squandered in absence of ‘correct’ leadership lines.” According to Rojas, focusing more on the structural circumstances of rule in Latin America—and how these circumstances constrained leftist leaders and administrations—would lead to less unproductive scolding of particular leaders, and to more recognition of what was actually achieved under Pink Tide administrations in a necessarily restrictive scenario.
Recent left reform efforts, Rojas argues, were limited by the weak “structural leverage” that their supporters could exert. That is, insofar as Pink Tide governments proved unable “to push through proposals for economic democratization that the classical Left thrust onto the agenda,” it was because, unlike left governments of decades past, those of the recent left turn lacked a social base of organized, strategic labor to help transform structural conditions. Instead, they relied on a predominantly informal proletarian base.
Rojas draws a sharp contrast between the classical Left and the Pink Tide. On the one hand, the classical Left originates in the 1959 Cuban Revolution, climaxes between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, and closes with the defeat of the peasant insurgencies of Central America in the 1980s. This Left was characterized by militant class struggle from below and consisted of the industrial working classes in the more advanced capitalist countries and, particularly in Central America, a “rebellious ‘peasantry’ that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture.” Its radical platforms sought land reform, nationalization, decommodification, and “a profound democratization of political and social affairs.”
On the other hand, the Pink Tide originates in the mid-1990s with defensive popular protests against neoliberal market restructuring. It then finds electoral expression in a number of countries mid-way through the first decade of this century, adopting “social policies aimed at reversing the harshest effects of two decades of economic liberalization,” Rojas writes. The character of the protests was determined by the widespread informalization of work and the lack of representation of laboring classes in political parties, with informal proletarian labor as the key class basis. Contrary to the radicalism of the classical Left, once in office Pink Tide governments generally focused on the moderate aim of ameliorating the worst effects of the preceding neoliberal decades. Minimum wage hikes, welfare spending, cash transfers, and subsidized basic services sought to improve the conditions of “the most vulnerable groups such as the unemployed, mothers without formal work, and the precarious poor.”
Given the two Lefts’ contrasting class character and their consequently divergent political programs, for Rojas, expectations for what was possible under the Pink Tide should have been more realistic from the outset. Seen in this light, the achievements of Latin American progressivism should be judged impressive, considering the unforgiving circumstances left administrations faced.
Bringing Strategic Labor Power Back In
There’s much to praise in Rojas’ panoramic account. It is obviously built on years of reading and experience and raises the bar considerably for all further discussion. Rojas convincingly demonstrates the limits of structural power in the “informal” proletarian sectors underpinning at least some of the Pink Tide regimes, and the susceptibility of these popular bases to clientelist incorporation and cooptation. A political economy approach emphasizing strategically-located labor power (even if his conception of ‘structural power’ is too narrowly conceived) is an important corrective to some prevailing analyses on the Pink Tide—be it liberal institutionalists, decolonialists, or the bulk of extractivist literature, not to mention the newly invigorated academic industry built up around debates on “populism.”
Rojas also persuasively shifts attention to what a path forward could look like, at least in terms of labor organizing. “Effective organization of fractured, atomized, and informalized workers in mineral extraction and export infrastructure… such as the painstaking unionization and coordination of subcontracted miners and dockworkers in Chile—the poster child of Latin American neoliberalism— point us in the right direction,” Rojas writes. Rojas’s structural analysis lends itself to plans for practical change, which is something the Left in the Americas desperately requires.
Many of the important anti-capitalist political and intellectual currents of the Latin American left today would agree with the need to direct crucial energies to strategic labor organization, and that the limits of previous such efforts helped account for the Pink Tide’s weak foundations. Rojas is also correct to say that the “Left’s task, therefore, is not to forsake the movements that fueled the Pink Tide, but rather to develop linkages that might coordinate their mobilizations with the struggles of popular sectors that enjoy structural power.”
These and other points constitute vital insights, both for assessing the left turn and for looking ahead. But as a broader assessment of the region’s left experience, there are significant problems with Rojas’ account. His work warrants extended engagement in line with the rigor and seriousness of Rojas’ analysis, offered here to promote healthy debate among the Left of our pasts and futures.
The Limits of Structuralism
Rojas’ bare bones structural analysis is common to positivist sociology and the “analytical” turn of North American academic Marxism since the 1980s. It privileges two variables, “structural” and “associational” labor power, and pivots on a mechanistic determination of political outcomes by economic structures. Temporality, the dialectic unity of the economic and political, and the complexity of capitalist totality are all lost in the mix.
Rojas focuses his portrait of Latin American class structure to two static points in history rather than considering class as a historical process and dynamic relationship—thus ignoring the living history of concrete class forces in formation today. Although such straightforward causal claims lend the piece a sense of scientific authority, they also collapse into a crude economism. Once Rojas fixes his portrait of Latin American class structure to the beginning of the Pink Tide era, the complex dialectic of historical specificity and process, concern for the juridical-political and the ideological, and thus, too, their embeddedness within the economic and the material all but disappear from the story.
There is likewise an underdeveloped sense of the contingencies of class struggle, relational processes in the formation of political subjectivity, and the role of contending ideologies, and insufficient attention paid to the ways that class struggle bridges production and social reproduction. Instead of addressing these moving complexities, Rojas assumes that different actors make static, knowable, rational choices in a context of structural constraint or opportunity.
Rojas’ theory on relations between society and the capitalist state rests heavily on the presuppositions of a sophisticated form of liberal institutionalism, by way of recent literature on “incorporation” and “clientelism” by Kenneth Roberts and Eduardo Silva, among others. His main conclusion is that, in spite of an ultimately corrosive expansion of clientelism due to the informal proletarian social base of progressive governments, “Pink Tide reformers designed a number of new public institutions to advance popular interests, which genuinely upgraded their political participation and influence.” Absent here is more adequate engagement with the dual character of said inclusion of the working classes. In addition to providing selective benefits, the form of incorporation also often actively disorganized the independent capacities of working classes while at the same time repressing those workers and broader social movements unwilling to obey the state’s terms of political participation.
Classical Left Reductionism
Much of Rojas’ analysis relies on a sharp distinction between what he identifies as “classical left” and pink tide governments. In this context, when evaluating the classical Left’s impacts on gender and racial equality, Rojas is overly generous and misses relevant critiques coming from Marxists, materialist feminisms, and other left-wing variants of anti-racism. This class abstractionism persists in his treatment of the 21st century Left. He says nothing about Indigenous liberation and socio-ecological movements, for example, two of the most important features of the Pink Tide era, broadly understood. The classical Left’s broad structural orientation toward socio-economic transformation could not and did not automatically solve sexist and racist oppressions. To the extent that there was democratization in these areas, progress came about through the militant self-organization of oppressed groups—often working within, but simultaneously in tension, with classical left formations.
To point to just one example of many, I am reminded of the extraordinarily rich and complicated encounters of the politics of Indigenous liberation and the national-popular politics of the Left in Bolivian history, captured eloquently in Sinclair Thomson and Forrest Hylton’s Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian History. Only the crudest class analysis would suggest, for example, that Bolivia’s 1952 National Revolution—which corresponds in substance to the wider claims made by Rojas about the “classical Left” even if it precedes his periodization—resolved the question of internally colonial race relations in Bolivia. Indeed, the National Revolution’s extreme limits on this issue contributed to the later build-up of more far-reaching, left-Indigenous movements for a new Constituent Assembly, and later, demands for a plurinational Bolivian state.
Even within Rojas’ preferred structuralist approach, there is good reason to argue for the structural power of some of the current strategically positioned ecological, Indigenous, peasant, and agrarian labor struggles against the expansion of agro-industry, mining mineral extraction, and natural gas and oil projects. These class-inflected struggles from below have directly challenged the pursuit of profitable investment by multinational capital and the further commodification of nature, as Thea Riofrancos pointed out at a recent conference hosted by Dissent and The New School in New York. Latin American capitalist states—including those governed by the Pink Tide—clearly see organized popular opposition to the extension of extractive capitalism as a threat, considering the degree of state mobilization of tremendous coercive paramilitary, police, and military power in defense of extractive capital. This is one major area in which the state apparatuses of the Pink Tide did not merely engage in the incorporation of compliant popular sectors stressed by Rojas, but also intensified the criminalization of structurally powerful left and left-Indigenous oppositions to the state.
Another puzzling feature of Rojas’ class analysis is the near-total absence of capitalists within the Pink Tide movement itself, casually dismissing capital’s domestic and international relations with Pink Tide governments as determining factors in their decision making and overall class character. “One possibility is that the regimes were constrained by their ties to elite interests, as some radical critics have claimed,” Rojas writes. “But such accusations fail to capture the more complex dynamics at work.” By now there have been serious investigations into capital-state relations under the Pink Tide, which cannot be brushed away so easily. On their own, they would be an insufficient explanation for the failings of the Pink Tide. But so too is exclusive attention to laboring classes—a product, again, of conceptualizing class mainly as a structural location and not as a social relation, which would include the antagonistic relation between labor and capital as part of the analysis.
Rojas’s argument largely hinges on the informal proletarian bases of the Pink Tide administrations. And yet the piece does not define “informality” and “informal labor,” except implicitly as a legal category—i.e. where the labor-capital relation is unrecognized by the state through a contract. This doesn’t do much to clear things up, at least in terms of assessing the potential structural power in this amorphous “sector.” This is important because in the literature on Latin American informality it is common to confuse hidden wage labor with self-employment, to stress informal laborers’ marginalization or exclusion from processes of capital accumulation instead of their complexly integrated forms of exploitation, and to miss class stratification within the “informal sector.” In Latin America, what Rojas calls the “informal sector” has its own distinctions between the petty bourgeoisie and informal proletarians, not to mention the huge variety of informal proletarian forms of employment, with consequent variety in potential structural power.
Consider Bolivia: Politically, the role of the petty bourgeoisie—because of its growing economic and political weight during the commodities boom—became increasingly powerful relative to informal proletarians, and helps explain some of the changing class composition of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party over time. Under the MAS, in office since 2006, the Bolivian class structure has hardly remained stable within the context of a decade of state capitalist modernization, rooted in natural gas, soy, and mineral extraction. So is the MAS’s class composition—as distinct from its class character—informal proletarian, or petty bourgeois? Other Pink Tide cases invite similar questions, especially where a party has been in office over many years. An analysis hinged on baseline statistics of relatively unchanged “informality” at the beginning and the end of governmental terms loses such important intricacies.
As for formal sector workers during the Pink Tide, Rojas’ analysis explains little about them and why they lacked associational power to begin with. For example, what happened to the Venezuelan oil workers after their key intervention in 2002-3? Without the intervention of the oil workers, would the Bolivarian process even have lived to see another year? There are gestures at an explanation—for example, Marea Socialista (Socialist Wave), a Venezuelan socialist organization committed to rank-and-file labor organizing, lacked a presence in strategic sectors—but given the centrality of this political question, it deserved more attention. What of the still considerable layer of industrial laborers in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile across various strategic sectors? What of the natural gas workers in Bolivia, or the agrarian laborers, or miners in key sectors of that country? In gas, in particular, it is notable how much the Morales government has done to prevent associational power of gas workers in upstream extraction, which continues to see non-union labor dominated by multinational capital. This is only explicable in terms of Morales’s mode of relations with multinational petroleum companies. His slogan of working with multinational corporations as “partners” rather than “bosses,” is, in many ways, just that: a slogan.
Taking Stock of the Pink Tide Today
There is strong evidence that various Left administrations made crucial strategic and political errors that cannot be reduced to structural constraints—not least in terms of the center-Left and Left’s responses to the delayed reverberation of the global capitalist crisis onto the shores of South America by 2012, or the Maduro government’s administration of Venezuela’s economy. Most important, perhaps, was leftist administrations’ tendency to absorb and demobilize independent social movement and trade union activity, and in so doing to depoliticize their social bases.
One question that Rojas’s bold attempt to provide a sweeping account of these experiences raises is whether or not a static structural portrait of what was possible at the beginning of the Pink Tide can take us very far. Rojas writes: “A structural perspective that corrects for the voluntarist judgments of the Pink Tide urges us to move from a focus on the will of reformers to their ability to affect change. After all, how can we thoughtfully assess left governments’ willingness to challenge elite power without first mapping the contours of what was feasible?”
But how confidently can we make a static evaluation of what was possible? There is an assumption that the balance of forces can be captured as in a photo, and then clear determinations made as to what rational choices were available to key actors in light of this once-off measure. Undoubtedly, in the face of any open political conjuncture, a preliminary mapping of the capacities and constraints facing competing social blocs is a necessary first move for the Left. But it is merely the beginning of a more complicated process whose veracity requires testing over time as conditions change. This is the terrain of politics and strategy, a terrain largely uncharted by Rojas.
Rojas’ error is to leave the passage of time and exercise of politics out of his equation. He is correct to warn of the real dangers of a voluntarist analysis. (I have criticized others for precisely this mistake.) But surely static-structural feasibility analysis as the last word of theory and politics also entails an opposite danger of in-built left conservatism, of sophisticated apologia for complacently reformist administrations. The trial-and-error of political processes requires constant evaluation of the balance of forces and, therefore, recognition that the balance of forces can change—even in the short term. In many cases, Pink Tide governments did little to test the limits of what was possible because they actively demobilized their loyal social bases, while frequently criminalizing independent social movement activity. It is therefore not so straightforward to determine a priori “the contours of what was feasible” based on a static, historical moment. Seen in this light, Rojas at once exaggerates what was achieved, and underestimates what was possible.
Facing The New Right
A final point in the shortcomings of Rojas’ analysis is his considerable underestimation of the threat of the Right. “This perspective,” Rojas says of the framework he has developed, “should allay concerns over the exaggerated threat of a neo-authoritarian hard right in the region.” Rojas obviously could not have foreseen exactly the depth of support which accelerated behind proto-fascist Jair Bolsonaro in the first and second rounds of the Brazilian elections in October, some time after his essay was already in print. But similar ultra-right political expressions—often with like-minded alliances involving right-wing evangelism at their heart—had already experienced important electoral and extra-parliamentary social growth elsewhere in the region. And because Bolsonaro secured victory in the second round, the Brazilian turn will provide serious momentum to still-incipient far-right currents.
We need to the take the new Right far more seriously. Doing so involves opening up the debate on the Left experiments of the 21st century beyond the structuralist parameters of Rojas’s framework. We need to look to left-wing feminist, anti-racist, environmental and Indigenous movements and understand why they were often at odds with the Pink Tide states, and how they are still mobilizing and organizing today. We need to properly assess the weight of the failures of the Pink Tide in order to explain the present regional conjuncture—as part of the wider world-historical conjuncture— which is fostering the emergence of dangerous right-wing forces as the political center collapses.
Jeffery R. Webber is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author most recently of The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left (Haymarket, 2017).