Book Review: Dancing With Dynamite

Amidst the flurry of recently published books on the dynamics of contemporary Latin American politics, Ben Dangl’s Dancing with Dynamite stands out for his reporting on social and political change from the vantage point of social movements themselves. In this polemical book, Dangl studies subaltern struggles vis-à-vis states, drawing primarily from targeted interviews with social movement activists and analysts from seven South American countries that are generally seen as part of the region's move to the left. The resulting product is a view from below of countries ranging from Ecuador to Venezuela.

December 14, 2010

Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America
Benjamin Dangl, AK Press (2010), 206 pp., $15.95 (paperback)

Amidst the flurry of recently published books on the dynamics of contemporary Latin American politics, Ben Dangl’s Dancing with Dynamite stands out for his reporting on social and political change from the vantage point of social movements themselves. In this polemical book, Dangl studies subaltern struggles vis-à-vis states, drawing primarily from targeted interviews with social movement activists and analysts. The resulting product is a view from below, in which Dangl portrays the state most frequently as an antagonistic agent of repression, usurpation, and cooptation, yet also as an apparatus that can sometimes lend itself to progressive designs so long as social movements maintain sufficient autonomy.

In fast-moving and colorful narratives, Dangl dedicates a chapter to each of seven South American countries that are generally seen as part of the region’s “pink tide,” covering the social movement contestation that emerged from recent histories of neoliberal rule – the shortcomings of which led to the election of left and left-leaning governments. The case studies depict the particularities of the “dances” that have taken place between states and social movements under these left-of-center presidencies – ranging from somewhat collaborative in Venezuela and Bolivia to more repressive and demobilizing in Ecuador and Paraguay, with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay falling somewhere in between.

Opening with Bolivia, Dangl constructs an analysis based on his interviews with sociologists, politicians, and social movement participants, including those involved in neighborhood associations in El Alto, community radio programming in Uyuni, a feminist group in La Paz, and the landless workers movement in the department of Beni. He finds that social movements have largely stood behind Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, which they feel listens to them where former administrations did not. “Nowhere else in Latin America has a grassroots party maintained such close ties to social movements after taking office,” he asserts, “And nowhere else have the boundaries between the party and the social movements been so confused.” But this has benefited the MAS much more than the country’s increasingly demobilized and uncritical social movements, which, Dangl and most of his informants believe, have surrendered a significant degree of autonomy. While a series of social gains have been won by Bolivian social movements, this has occurred within the domain and according to the logic of the state.

Most of the other cases present an even less rosy assessment of state-social movement relations, despite some modest gains in social programs. Again, Dangl builds his analyses primarily from the positions articulated by leaders and members of social movements – including indigenous confederations, labor and campesino organizations, and environmental groups – as well as political party activists and social scientists. Of the seven countries he examines, Ecuador under President Rafael Correa seems to present the most dismal scenario, where the president, ever more at odds with social movements opposed to his resource extraction agenda, has criminalized dissent, using legal maneuvers, verbal attacks, and military repression to silence organizations like the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the environmental group Acción Ecológica. Meanwhile, in Argentina, former President Néstor Kirchner is portrayed as co-opting, dividing, and demobilizing the social movements – the piqueteros and workers’ recovery of factories – that arose during the country’s 2001-2002 economic crisis. The Broad Front in Uruguay and the Workers Party in Brazil have apologetically embraced many of the neoliberal policies the parties were formed to combat, “betraying” many of the social movements that gave the parties legitimacy. Dangl sees an even deeper betrayal in Paraguay, where Fernando Lugo has failed to deepen democracy or confront social and economic inequality (i.e. through agrarian reform). In Paraguay, he argues, even as the state fails to fulfill its promises, the country’s social movements have fallen into disarray.

Dancing with Dynamite depicts the Venezuelan state as the one most favorable to social movement mobilization – that is, at least, social movements of the left. There, Dangl speaks with activists ranging from volunteer broadcasters with the Catia-based “Radio Rebelde” to Venezuela’s Housewives’ Union in Mérida – and finds that concomitant with the dramatic social investment (educational programs, health clinics, discounted food markets, etc.), Hugo Chávez has done what other South American leaders have not: empowered the somewhat autonomous development of civil society groups, such as the constitution of tens of thousands of community councils. While noting the perilous centralization of power and the Bolivarian project’s dependency on a charismatic leader, Venezuela under Chávez seems to come closest to the “genuine collaboration” pole in Dangl’s “dance” between the state and social movements.

Throughout these chapters, the piquant observation to which Dangl repeatedly returns is that social movements are frequently most vulnerable to cooptation or corruption during electoral campaigns and referenda, in which their constituent power is channeled into the logic of the state. “During elections in particular,” he argues, “parties work against the autonomy of movements.” When social movements concede to picking between the lesser of two evils – a center-left candidate over a free market fundamentalist – “electoral politics traps movements into accepting limitations on their struggle for social change.” In contrast, Dangl notes that in Venezuela, a great deal of activism occurs outside the electoral realm, and does not directly contribute to Chávez’s power.

In Dancing with Dynamite, Dangl himself attempts a difficult analytical dance that seeks to reconcile his evident distrust for states and the governments that run them, and his recognition that certain administrations, such as those of Chávez and Morales, have expanded the capacity of social movements to organize, even in fairly autonomous ways. While he acknowledges that state-society relations can be collaborative and mutually beneficial, his prose typically defaults to skepticism about such shared projects, favoring a competitive, zero-sum disposition as opposed to a dialectical relationship that his conception of a state-society “dance” might suggest. To be sure, this is a product of Dangl’s deliberate methodological approach of allowing his interviews with social movement participants to inform his own analysis, and this positioning of a North American researcher certainly hedges against misinterpretation. However, the analysis would have been strengthened by a closer engagement with the broader literature on state-society relations. That it does not draw on theoretical contributions of thinkers like Marx, Gramsci, Weber, or Foucault is an omission for a book on states and social movements.

Take, for example, the chapter on Argentina. There, Dangl critiques Kirchner’s use of “liberal economic policies to create employment and stability” as demobilizing and “buying off” the middle class with “crumbs,” which fractured the “class-blind” alliance that had been constructed autonomously and was oriented toward revolution. But such a framing is based on two unlikely assumptions: that the middle class was otherwise inclined to maintain an alliance with subaltern groups and steer a revolutionary course once the crisis subsided, and that the state did not view employment and institutional stability as legitimate ends in themselves, but wielded them cynically to foment class division. More likely, there were – and often are – goals shared by the state and the middle class, just as there can be between a leftist government and social movements. It is not that Argentina’s middle class was bribed with jobs; more plausibly, they were quite happy to leave the streets and return to normalcy when the economy ticked upward and just a few of the “todos” had been thrown out.

On the whole, Dangl guides the reader through a rapid and fascinating survey of South America’s “pink tide”, capturing the vicissitudes of today’s relationships between social movements and states. That the book is more a combination of journalism and polemic than an academic text generally works to its advantage in terms of readability and accessibility, although it does miss opportunities to dialogue with, and be informed by a broader body of thought on the nature of the state and its relationship to society. However, Dancing with Dynamite serves as a good primer for the newcomer to the region’s contemporary politics, while its revealing interviews add additional texture for closer observers of Latin America.

Jason Tockman is a Ph.D. student of political science at the University of British Columbia, and a regular contributor to NACLA.


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