Between Market Democracies and Capitalist Globalization: Is There Any Prospect for Social Revolution in Latin America?

Social revolutions are massive progressive processes confronting from below the whole arrangement of power structures. If success- ful, they involve profound changes in class relations, as well as changes in the material and symbolic dimensions of individual and collective life. Social revolutions are the contingent outcome of political, ideological, social, and economic factors at both the national and international levels, resulting from political agency. Revolutionary situations tend to develop when: 1) political oppres- sion and illegitimate rule (i.e. dictatorships, autocratic rule, systematic electoral fraud) combine with regressive social and economic changes, fostering new social inequalities or deepening ongoing ones; 2) political organizations waving the banners of social revolution win over the active support of large segments of the population; and 3) internal conflicts in the ruling elites and/or specific international conjunctures improve chances to seize state power to build a better society. The combination of all of these conditions sets up what is usually called a revolutionary situation. This explains why social revolutions occur so infrequently.

Examining the prospects for social revolution in Latin America involves questioning the ability of the area’s current democracies and progressive political forces to cope with the most socially perverse dimensions of economic backwardness: capitalist rule and globalization. The following discussion focuses on the nature of existing democratic regimes and their recent evolution towards what have been called “market democracies.” It then offers a very brief assessment of the impact of recent capitalist globalization in reshaping power relations at both the national and international levels, in determining the living conditions of large segments of the Latin American population, and in provoking new strategies of social mobilization and protest. Finally, I advance some preliminary conclusions on revolutionary prospects in these institutional and structural settings.

In sharp contrast to most of the twentieth century, the current Latin American landscape is one of representative democracies, with left-of-center parties as active participants in institutional politics. Democratic polities have never been conducive to revolutions. A democratic government may be ineffective in advancing progressive reforms. Yet democracy provides, at least in theory, institutional resources to peacefully change things. This tends to convince many that if they create the proper means ¾a progressive political party, a broad enough political coalition, a talented leader, a social security system¾things can be improved. Even if, from a Marxist perspective, the democratic capitalist state is nothing more than a veil for bourgeois dictatorship, revolutions have occurred only when the dictatorial aspect became blatant. Social unrest motivated by harsh living conditions and government policies¾such as high cost of living, environmental pollution, police brutality, or downsizing social services-is widespread in today’s Latin America, not infrequently involving violent reactions and subsequent state repression. Yet these are mostly defensive struggles usually linked to issue-targeted negotiations with government agencies. Revolution is not seen as either a necessity or a possibility, even by the most powerful confrontational social movements.1

Democracy is not an obstacle to structural changes from either a theoretical or a historical standpoint. As a matter of fact, the relationship between political regimes and structural change is rather loose. Structural change can be implemented or attempted by government agencies and bureaucratic actors not supported by or resulting from revolutionary struggle, as in post-1948 Costa Rica, the 1968-75 Peruvian military regime, Chile’s Unidad Popular (1970-1973), or even in populist or social democratic experiences such as Argentina’s early Peronist phase (1946-55) or Michael Manley’s government in Jamaica in the 1970s.2 Whereas some of the attempts could not withstand fierce opposition from conservative coalitions of domestic and foreign forces, others proved extremely efficient in bringing about long-term restructuring. In turn, there is no direct correlation between political revolutionary efforts and social or economic outcomes. Despite their commitment to far-reaching restructuring and the widespread social mobilization and violence that these revolutionary efforts usually involve, revolutionary performance in terms of structural change frequently relies on a different set of alliances, resources, capabilities, and power arrangements than those that propelled confrontation with the old regime.

Throughout the 1990s a disjunction developed between the way a great many Latin Americans approached democratic regimes, and the way really existing democracies performed. People’s criteria for viewing a particular government as legitimate or democratic revolved not just around legal or institutional issues but also around concrete daily ones. They focused on democracy as the combined product of institutional tools and policy outcomes, pointing as much to a particular institutional system for decision-making as to the content of the decisions made. Grassroots and middle-class concepts of democracy evaluate institutional procedures on the basis of their ability to implement progressive socioeconomic and political changes (Alarcón Glasimovich 1992, Franco 1993, Lagos 1997). By contrast, what we have today is a number of polities subordinating democratic procedures and institutions to market goals¾ what former US president Bill Clinton branded as “market democracies,” that is, democracies whose legitimizing principle and main goal is the advancement of capitalism.3 Thus, “market democracies” go back to crass eighteenth- and nineteenth-century definitions of state/ capital relations as they put emphasis on such specific outcomes as securing property rights, fostering the conditions for capital accumulation, and widening the involvement of market forces in the allocation of public goods (World Bank 1997).

Power shifts from the late 1970s on prompted this reinter- pretation of democracy. Capital reinforced its rule over labor. At the same time, financial capital predominated over productive capital, and interaction with new global markets supplanted interaction with domestic or regional markets. World Bank and IMF-sponsored state reforms facilitated the dismantling of incipient populist/social democratic welfare states and gave an institutional imprint to the symbiotic relationship between economic and political power (Rodríguez Reina 1993, Vilas 1995, Concheiro Bórquez 1996, Fazio 1997, Basualdo 2000). In little over a decade, privatization of state-owned firms, public utilities, health and educational services, and pension and retirement systems, combined with across-the-board deregulation of finance, the reduction of unions’ bargaining power, and a dismantling of institutional solidarity networks, brought drastic changes in power relations and quality of life for many Latin Americans, damaging not just social well-being but also individual physical security.

For the first time since the 1920s the Latin American ruling classes have been able to combine capitalist development with bourgeois democracy. Under the aegis of the “Washington Consensus,” representative democracy turned out to be the institutional tool to advance increasing concentration of wealth and power along with a growth in inequality. This tends to confirm the most vulgar depictions of the state as the “executive committee” of the ruling class. Capitalist restructuring was conducted through a systematic bypassing of parliaments or downgrading their institutional capabilities in relation to strategic decision-making-e.g., pace and scope of privatizations, economic policies, foreign-debt management, state reform, etc. Most market-oriented reforms were implemented by executive order. The traditional democratic principle of majority rule thus remained confined to periodic elections of governments, while effective governance took place in accordance with economic power (Vilas 1997, Diniz 2000).

Increasing inequality and economic hardship are insufficient conditions for social revolution. Revolutions involve consciousness, organization, and leadership, which do not develop spontaneously- although ingredients of spontaneity exist in every revolutionary process. Revolutionary consciousness has to be developed and a fighting spirit enforced through organization. Revolutionary political activists teach the common people to link their individual experiences of oppression and exploitation to general impersonal processes and actors. They encourage organizing and they bring leadership. They provide a political explanation for people’s grievances. They convince them that victory is only attainable through their own direct involvement and that revolutionary struggle is the only meaningful and successful path. The outcome of the process was summed up as follows by a Comandante of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional): “Peasants…responded as if by magic, yet there was really no more magic than in the years we spent in the mountains” (Ruiz 1980).

The hypothesis of an imminent overall restructuring of social, political, economic, and cultural relations has receded in most Latin American countries as participation in state and government institutions has substituted for confronting or replacing them. In both El Salvador and Guatemala guerrilla warfare ended up in political negotiations which eventually led to constitutional reforms and the insertion of former insurgents into civilian life and mainstream politics. This also looks like the inevitable future of the Chiapas conundrum. In Colombia, guerrillas seem to approach war as a means to strengthen their positions until the moment arrives when political negotiation will be the only feasible option for the government. Across the continent, dozens of municipal and provincial governments are held by modernizing democratic forces-including capitals or mega-cities such as Buenos Aires, Montevideo, São Paulo, Porto Alegre and Mexico City. These same forces have also been able to build electoral coalitions running the national government in Chile. Prospects for broad political and economic restructuring have given way to pragmatic programs to attack the most obvious social effects of the economic restructuring. These are not times to assault the Winter Palace, but to reshape it and book some of its new accommodations.

A number of mass rebellions took place in several countries during the last decade: Guatemala (1993), Ecuador (1997 and 1999), Peru (2000). Governments were ousted as a reaction to economic crisis, corruption, and authoritarian manipulation of democratic institutions. Yet the absence or fragility of revolutionary actors prevented the unorganized masses from taking advantage of their own efforts and attempting to fill the power vacuum they had engendered. In the absence of organization, leadership, and anything more than anti-government rage, what might have evolved into a revolutionary situation ended up in new rounds of electoral participation or closed-door dealing among traditional political parties. However, revolutionary power-building and the accumulation of forces are protracted processes that demand long-term approaches more than short-term solutions. Conjunctural failures can teach lessons and contribute to subsequent more successful efforts. Revolutions, like plays, may have rehearsals, as Lenin referred to the 1905 Revolution in Russia.

Twentieth-century Latin American revolutions developed in a variety of regional and international settings, interacting in diverse ways with external actors and processes. Mexico’s revolution (1910) erupted at a time when the US was still building its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Guatemala’s (1944) and Bolivia’s (1952) revolutions belong to the beginning and late years of the Cold War. The revolutions in Cuba (1959), Grenada (1979), and Nicaragua (1979) triumphed during the Cold War in areas of uncontested US regional supremacy. Free trade and free cross-border investment were central traits at the time of the Mexican Revolution. Capitalism was looking for a new transnational system when the Guatemalan revolutionaries seized power. Bolivia’s and Cuba’s revolutions belong to the golden years of the Bretton Woods regulated world economy-a system that was crumbling under the initial blows of the current era of globalization by the time the New Jewel Movement in Grenada and the FSLN in Nicaragua began to implement their revolutionary programs.

As modern social revolutions have taken place in a world of nation-states, the end of the Cold War plus ongoing global restructuring along with increasing trade and financial integration pose questions about the impact of new international alignments and actors on the prospects for revolutionary change. Statements about the emergence of a “borderless world” (Ohmae 1990) or “the end of geography” (O’Brien 1991) have led to deriding revolutions as a thing of the past. Insofar as they aim at seizing state power in order to advance progressive changes, the impact of economic globalization and new informational technologies on state capabilities would make revolution a misguided, backward-looking fantasy. While traditional conservative politics opposed revolutions from a class perspective, updated conservative rhetoric faults them on the grounds of being passé. Yesterday they were dangerous, today they are outmoded.

In a number of ways, revolutionary situations in Latin America have resulted from the increasing plunder of their economies by global capitalism, mediated by domestic power arrangements. New or renewed modes of capitalist penetration, with their impact in terms of shifting land uses, the eviction of peasants or displacement of Indigenous villages, the steady migration to urban areas, the large commercial chains pushing small shops or traders to marginality or bankruptcy, growing urban poverty, lower employment levels because of new technical biases, increasing exploitation of workers, augmented dependence on food imports and thus on international commodity prices, the heavy burden of foreign debt, are all associated with changes in the relationship of subaltern states to the global capitalist economy. In turn, these changes owe as much to market forces as to state policies enacted through legal reforms enforced by the courts and through actual or real threatened police or military action-not infrequently with foreign support, training, or advice ranging from the US Marines to USAID, the World Bank, or the IMF. The market’s invisible hand wears the iron glove of the police and armies as well as the more sophisticated one of government officials and technocrats.

The interrelationship between anti-imperialism and democracy has been a persistent ingredient in all Latin American revolutions. It points to the efficacy of revolutionary appeals in recruiting supporters beyond class boundaries. The political divide between those benefiting from or supporting political oppression or foreign domination and those supporting revolution, has replaced the class divide of capital vs. labor. At one moment or another, all Latin American revolutions have been able to bring together activists and allies from almost every stratum of society. This explains the increasing and eventually overwhelming strength of the revolutionary coalition in its confrontation with state power, as well as its internal conflicts with regard to economic, social, or any other reforms once it takes over the government. Yet it is the massive involvement of the laboring poor, with their own demands for social and economic justice and their own symbolic constructions of democracy and social equality, that pushes for further radicalization. In Mexico, for example, what started as an expression of liberal- democratic anti-reelection demands turned into a social revolution when peasants from Morelos led by Emiliano Zapata joined the move- ment with demands for “Land and Liberty.” Or, as Che Guevara put it in Cuba: “Agrarian reform was not our invention; it was imposed on the revolution by the forceful demand of the peasantry” (Guevara 1970:18).

Hypotheses of a neoliberal withering away of the state or of the development of a global capitalist ruling class are highly contested and have scant empirical support. The power shifts mentioned above, as well as overwhelming government acceptance of neo-classical economic recipes, have downgraded traditional Keynesian policy tools for state intervention. However, new state policies and capabilities exist. These include: institutional safety nets for financial investment, regional trade agreements, export-promotion agencies, or subsidizing private foreign debt. To these must be added more traditional capabilities such as: police and military repression, electronic surveillance of the population, and reinforced border controls on migrant labor. States are not just victims of globalization; they are also its partner and even its midwife. Moreover, competition for markets among transnational corporations or for investment funds has not receded. Neither has the interrelation- ship between government agencies, technical or managerial inno- vations, labor relations, environmental policies, and the like (Doremus et al. 1998, Weis 1998, Macedo Cintra 1999, Guedes 2000).

Capitalist globalization owes as much to market forces as to armies, navies, and government decision-making. Washington’s current proposal for a Hemispheric free trade agreement illustrates the strategic role of state agencies in furthering market forces to the ultimate benefit of US multinational corporations (Estay 2001). Characteristic icons of global capitalism such as the WTO or OECD are multi-state organizations. Business firms hurt by an individual state’s policies have to resort to their own governments in order to have their complaints processed by those multilateral organizations. Similarly, the US government holds strategic control over the IMF and World Bank’s policy recommendations to developing countries (Green 1998, Wade & Veneroso 1998, Cox & Skidmore-Hess 1999, Vilas 2000, Wade 2001).

As in the early and mid-twentieth century, current global processes and actors contribute to the buildup of the new regional and domestic settings. World Bank, IDB, or IMF technocrats accomplish what the US Marines or USAID once did. They reform state institutions and advance market economies, tightening relations between increasingly “globalized” domestic elites and increasingly “internalized” foreign actors. The “globalization” of domestic elites clearly updates the traditional outward biases of Latin American ruling classes. The concentration of income and social benefits in the upper levels of society happens at the expense of the laboring poor or the unemployed. The so-called “new poverty” reaches increasing segments of the middle classes, and deregulation and global finance drive many businesses into bankruptcy.4 Far from reducing social inequalities, capitalist globalization reproduces uneven development at the domestic level and deepens the cleavages in quality of life on a world scale. From this perspective, similarities between late twentieth-century globalization and early and mid-century imperialism are worthy of further exploration. From a Latin American perspective, ongoing globalization reinforces a hierarchy of states which has more to do with the persistent transnational power structure of capitalism- which has not experienced significant changes for almost a century -than with recent global shifts (Dunning & Hamdani 1997, González Casanova 1998, Panitch 2000).

As the hegemonic power in twentieth-century Latin America, the US government approached revolutions as dimensions of its own confrontations with third-party, non-Hemispheric powers, whether Germany or Great Britain during the Mexican revolution, or the USSR regarding the post-WWII revolutions. Policy responses to revolutions depended to a large degree on the government’s perceptions of the real or imagined challenges posed by each revolution to national security¾perceptions which in turn were influenced by third parties’ polices toward the revolutionary process and regimes in question. The traditional support given by most US administrations to oligarchic or dictatorial rule in Latin America convinced policy-makers that challenges to their Latin American allies could only be the product of some kind of outside intrusion into Washington’s national affairs. Against this backdrop, US reactions were also shaped by the particular traits of each revolutionary process, as well as the ability of specific actors (either in the US or from the country in revolution) to influence Washington’s foreign policy decisions.

Real or supposed threats to US political and military hegemony in the Hemisphere vanished with the end of the Cold War. However, new global foes have been added to Washington’s repertory of foreign policy concerns. International terrorism, money laundering, or the drug trade now take the place of communism or Soviet incursions. Recent examples of this new policy would be the 1989 invasion of Panama, security operations in strategic areas such as the Brazil/Argentina/Paraguay border, or present involvement in the Andes through “Plan Colombia.” Economic nationalism, if it affects strategic resources such as oil, also produces a policy response, as seen in Washington’s unfriendly relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In turn, a growing flood of both European and Japanese investment, plus a new breed of Latin American transnational capitalists, is challenging traditional strongholds of US transnational corporations in a number of economic sectors such as banking, insurance, automobiles, infra- structure, communications, the wholesale trade, foodstuffs, etc. Monopoly capital in both the financial and productive areas looks much more diversified than thirty years ago, a fact which could enhance the opportunities for governments and social actors to advance reform-oriented policy negotiations.

Certainly, the Soviet collapse together with ongoing economic reforms in both China and Cuba have made socialism no longer a promising alternative for structural re-arrangement. Socialism has become some kind of cultural utopia, more than an over-all design for economic and social restructuring (Buarque 1999: 46-50). Yet socialism was not a central ingredient in Mexico’s, Bolivia’s or Guatemala’s revolutions. To a great extent Cuba’s socialist transition was a by-product of its defensive integration into the Soviet bloc in the face of increased US military and diplomatic aggression-a dimension of Cold War power politics much more than an ingre- dient of the original nationalist democratic revolutionary design. Whether or not a transition to some variety of socialism took place in either Grenada or Nicaragua remains an open question. The hypo- thesis of a “non-capitalist path to development” pointed to the many specificities and divergences of these revolutionary processes from standard Soviet or even classical socialist/Marxist approaches. Central to this discussion was the concept of the “moral obligation” of advanced socialist countries to support more backward ones, as Che Guevara noted in the 1963 Algiers meeting of Non-Aligned nations¾in Engels’ words, “to teach them how to do it” (Engels 1894: 89-90). Needless to say, today’s international settings no longer supply many teachers.

Social unrest is growing everywhere as market-friendly demo- cracies prove unable or unwilling to set limits on the most devastating dimensions of capital accumulation. In recent years government- sponsored policies to enhance the scope of global capitalism have triggered massive protests across Latin America paralleling similar phenomena in Europe and the Pacific. Access to new communication and information technologies has facilitated this increased linkage of social, political, economic, and even symbolic demands. While in many cases traditional organizations of “pre”-global times such as labor unions, student organizations, or progressive political parties have been strategic backbones for this new breed of social mobilization, much of the most active involvement comes from a varied array of social movements and NGOs concerned with environmental issues, identity politics, human rights, and cultural concerns. No meaningful correlation exists, however, between access to information or new communications technologies or mobilization at the global level, and effective policy outcomes. Ecuador’s indigenous organizations and Mexico’s EZLN are cases in point. The ability of CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador-the country’s largest grouping of indigenous organizations) to increase its stature in Ecuadoran politics, or its success in fighting neo- liberal reforms in spite of its isolation from the most committed sectors of global progressive activism, contrasts sharply with the inability of the EZLN to attain basic reforms regarding communal or cultural rights, notwithstanding a privileged access to global solidarity.

Whether a revolutionary situation exists is always a matter of dispute that can only be settled if a revolution actually occurs. Consequently, it is extremely risky to assess in advance the probabilities of a revolution occurring or the chances for rulers to prevent it. In Eric Hobsbawm’s words, revolutionary situations “are…about possibilities, and their analysis is not predictive” (Hobsbawm 1986).

Revolution is a particular strategy to which actors resort when conventional institutional channels for progressive change are closed. Like any other capitalist environment, globalization opens opportunities for (as much as it raises obstacles against) revolution or other types of progressive politics. International or global actors and processes play an indirect role through the mediating filter of domestic settings and actors. Consequently, the relationship between social revolution and global environments as well as the chances for revolutions to develop in the current interaction between domestic and global settings involves a number of complex issues. These have to do not just with social or historical analysis, but also with each individual author’s concepts of revolution and globalization, as well as with the role state agencies and political power are expected to play in globalized settings.

Social revolutions are infrequent events in history. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s words, they are rare events. Whether they will become more or less rare under conditions of globalization will be judged by each writer as a function of his or her interpretation of historical trends and would-be developments, subject also to personal ideological biases, hunches, fears, or wishes. Social revolutions are specific power strategies to reach democracy and structural change, their specificity having to do with the scope and depth of the latter, but also with the violence and suffering they involve, particularly for the people pushing for such revolutions. This is perhaps the very reason for their being last-report strategies, used only when other strategies for bringing democracy and socioeconomic change are no longer viable or meaningful.

While progressive structural change is still on the agenda, the basic institutions of capitalist (bourgeois) democracy, even in their mild market-friendly version, are the dominant political arrangement in Latin America. Even if the hypothesis that new revolutions are coming is still a topic for academic debate, such debate no longer looks relevant for today’s political and social actors. Fostering representative democracy and endowing it with the efficacy to enact social reforms and to confront the negative sides of capitalist globalization and its domestic expressions is the most that can be expected from today’s progressive political or social involvement.

Every historical period has its own kinds of social injustice, political oppression, collective actions, and emancipatory aspirations. The challenge to political analysts is then to acknowledge the permanent features of social revolutions beneath their phenomen- ologies, as well as recognizing the alternatives to such revolutions that may be available at particular moments of political life. Revolutions are as much a product of will as of necessity; and necessity, like political will, is a collective construct. Whether the socioeconomic and political scenarios set forth by globalization and market democracies help foster or prevent revolutions is a question that can elicit only discrete, case-oriented responses. Even with these parameters, the social sciences can only provide hypothetical assessments on whether specific combinations of ingredients in a given setting may or may not lead to a revolutionary situation. Political success, for both insurgencies and governments, is a contingency, and contingency, like Comandante Ruiz’s magic (magia) alluded to above, has to be tirelessly worked out. Then it may, or may not, show up.


1. This is clearly the case with Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST). It has been able to combine land seizures and open confrontation with landowners and provincial governments, with a dynamic relation to the Workers Party and a tense bargaining relation to the federal government in order to achieve legal enactment of peasant demands. But this does not stop the federal government from launching harsh police repression whenever its own alliance with Northeastern landowners and their parliamentary representatives is threatened by MST claims.

2. According to some observers, Venezuela’s current regime fits into this reformist democratic model (López-Maya & Lander 2000, Vilas 2001).

3. “Our leading purpose must be expanding and strengthening the world community of market democracies.” Clinton speech at U.N. General Assembly, September 27, 1993. See also Lake (1993).

4. According to CEPAL (1998), almost 40% of Latin Americans live in poverty. In addition, social inequalities are deeper in Latin America than in any other region in the world (BID 1998).


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