Why has economic crisis produced a new left in Latin America, but not elsewhere?

April 16, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

For a wonk parent it’s hard to beat the heart-warming experience of seeing your book referenced in your son’s university essay. In this case, junior hadSilent revolution the task of trying to understand the link between neoliberalism and the rise of a new left in Latin America, so he cited Silent Revolution, a book I first published in 1995, when he was 3 years old.

But his essay also got me thinking. Citing Polanyi, he put the rise of Chavez, Morales, Lula et al down to the ‘commodification’ of land, labour and money. Through privatization, deregulation etc, the Washington consensus over-reached itself, trying to commodify things like jobs that have much deeper human significance than just being tradable items. That provoked the backlash that became Latin America’s centre left, while simultaneously undermining the unions that were the backbone of the previous ‘old left’.

Nice thesis, but surely if that was true, the centre left would be much more of a global phenomenon, given that commodification is hardly confined to Latin America? So what, specifically, about Latin America has led to the rise of such an interesting range of political movements and governments over the last 15 years? Candidates include:

– The depth of prior trauma from hyperinflation meant that people were less willing to go for slightly friendlier variants of neoliberalism and ready to pursue more radical solutions

– Disillusion with more orthodox forms of ‘bourgeois democracy’ because in Latin America, the return to democracy from military rule coincided with the debt crisis and economic stagnation of the 1980s

– The particular depth of progressive social capital: the radical Catholic Church, the fight back against military rule, the rise of identity movements (indigenous, black, women) created new political expressions outside the previous structures

– The concept of ‘social debt’ – the new left successfully argued that the legacy of military rule was a degree of inequality that was unacceptable, and they won that argument even with the middle classes. As a result, Latin America is the one region in the world where inequality has been falling.

Hold on, what's HE doing there?

Hold on, what's HE doing there?

And of course, (sorry, son) it’s very dangerous to generalize about the whole region (even in an undergraduate essay). For a start, there are at least two ‘new lefts’: a more social democrat ‘sensibilist’ left, epitomised by the PT under Lula, and the more fire-breathing ‘Bolivarian’ left of Morales, Chavez and friends (see left). One reason why Venezuela and Bolivia were able to depart further from the Washington Consensus was at least partly because they were enjoying massive oil and gas royalties, so felt much freer of fiscal constraints. Brazil, traumatized by memories of hyperinflation, pursued a different combination of radical social policy and cautious economic policy. Argentina, as always, is a special case, buying itself fiscal space by defaulting on its debts after the 2000 meltdown, but is now having trouble maintaining it (and the Peronists are virtually indestructible, and have so far headed off any new political challenges).

Not that Silent Revolution is much help in understanding all this. One painful aspect of being an author is that your thinking is captured at a fixed point, even as time moves on. The first edition in 1995 lamented the Latin American left’s inability to move from ‘protesta a propuesta’ (protest to proposal). The second edition in 2003 saw much more evidence of a crisis in the prevailing paradigm, but failed to find any clear signs of what was emerging. Oops.

Any other thoughts on the origins of Latin American exceptionalism? (Don’t worry, junior’s already handed in his essay, so he can’t be accused of crowdsourcing.)