Governments and Movements: Autonomy or New Forms of Domination?

The end of 2008 marked the ten-year anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s first electoral victory (December 6, 1998), which initiated a new period marked by the emergence of progressive and left governments in South America. His clinching of the presidency was the result of a long process of struggles from below, beginning in February 1989 with the Caracazo – the first great popular insurrection against neoliberalism – which drove into crisis the party-system that for decades had sustained elite domination.

In the years that followed, seven other presidents embodying the ongoing political-institutional changes came to power, accounting for a total of eight out of ten governments in the region: Luiz Ina´cio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Ne´stor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Tabare´ Va´zquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. These administrations were made possible – to a greater or lesser degree – by the resistance of social movements to the neoliberal model.

In some cases, admittedly, this change at the top level arose from years of steady electoral growth (notably, in Brazil and Uruguay), while in other countries it was the fruit of social movements capable of overthrowing neoliberal parties and governments (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and to an extent Argentina). A decade after the start of this process, it is time for a brief evaluation of what has happened:

1. Beyond the differences between these processes, they share something fundamental in common: the return of the state to a central role as the driver of change.

2. Movements that in the 1990s and early 2000s were the central protagonists of resistance to the neoliberal model have been marginalized.

3. The dominant contradiction in this period is between the governments and right-wing sectors, a change that has sucked movements into a statist whirlwind from which most have been unable to escape.

4. There are some tendencies – still dispersed – that seek to rebuild the movements on new foundations, based on new issues and new forms of political action.

The twilight of the “progressive” decade as a source of social, political, and economic change makes it necessary for social movements to balance their accounts and take stock of the gains and losses this decade has brought to popular forces.

The risks of subordination

An initial stage was marked by government subordination of the movements, or rather by the movements’ demobilization and division, and the fragmentation of their initiatives. Only small nuclei remained in open confrontation with the governments, while most slid toward government collaboration in exchange for direct economic subsidies (known as planes sociales) and other material benefits. Many other movement collectives simply dissolved.

By contrast, in Chile, Peru, and Colombia, the movements are experiencing an era of vibrant activity. In all three countries, indigenous groups are taking the lead. In Chile, the Mapuche are recovering from the ravages of the Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law, which was reactivated by “socialist” President Ricardo Lagos (2000–2006). The Mapuche, along with high school students and workers from various sectors, particularly mining and forestry, have generated a major reactivation of social struggles.

Indigenous communities affected by mining in Peru are vigorously resisting through the grassroots Quechua organization CONACAMI, paying a high price in lives and arrests for their struggles. The group is leading the fight against genocidal mining projects that leave behind contaminated water sources and unbreathable air just to line the pockets of the multinationals. CONACAMI fiercely opposes the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and President Alan Garcıa’s neoliberal policies.

In Colombia, the long struggle of the indigenous Nasa represented by the ACIN and CRIC has been doubly fruitful.1 The broad social mobilization known as the “Minga” (literally, collective work), which brought together dozens of indigenous groups in October 2008 in Cauca, managed to break through a military siege and the militarization of society that had immobilized indigenous communities. Cane cutters – most of them Afro-Colombians – service workers, neighborhood organizations, and human rights activists all joined the indigenous-led Minga.

The example set by these movements, which are beset by and born out of adversity, should be a point of inspiration for the rest of the continent’s movements. The long hunger strike by Mapuche advocate Patricia Troncoso between November 2007 and January 2008 and Colombia’s indigenous Minga share the potent mission of breaking through the isolation and “soft” genocide that seek to wipe indigenous groups off the map in an attempt to silence their existence as a people.

In other countries, the outlook for the movements is extremely complex. Perhaps the most emblematic case is that of Argentina. The vast majority of the piquetero movement of unemployed workers has been coopted by the state through economic subsidies to families (the planes sociales) and the awarding of government posts to their leaders. The human rights movement – particularly, the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which had played a prominent role in resisting neoliberalism during the 1990s – has joined officialdom, becoming an unequivocal defender of government policies. Meanwhile many neighborhood assemblies have simply disappeared.

Nonetheless, not everything has been a step backward. Over the last five years, innumerable collectives have sprung up, many of them focusing on environmental issues, such as open-pit mining, forestry, and soy mono-cropping. From this process, some 100 local assemblies have emerged and are organized into the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC), which has become one of the most active opponents of multinational mining.

Also in Argentina, campesinos and small farmers formed the National Campesino Front, made up of some 200 rural organizations representing family and community agriculture against the impetuous advance of soy agribusiness. The organization represents long-standing movements (such as MOCASE from Santiago del Estero) as well as new organizations of small producers, including a handful of collectives from urban peripheries.

In Brazil, the movements have been incapable of advancing beyond their long-standing defensive footing – a position aggravated by the Lula government. In Uruguay, despite organized labor’s growing strength – largely attributable to state protection of labor leaders’ activities – the movements are far from being an anti-systemic actor, and organizational levels among the urban poor remain local and fragmented. The planes sociales are largely responsible for this weakening of the movements.

In Bolivia, the situation is quite different. The movements have not been defeated and maintain their significant capacity for mobilization and pressure over the government and right-wing sectors. The September 2008 crisis, for example, was resolved in favor of popular sectors thanks to the movement’s intense mobilization, which included the cordoning off of Santa Cruz and the resistance of Plan 3000 – the poor and indigenous peripheral suburb of the oligarchic mestizo city.2

As Raquel Gutie´rrez noted about the current conjuncture, Bolivian movements have “recovered a margin of political autonomy in relation to government decisions,” particularly when they see the government as incapable of stopping the oligarchy. “But they have no inclination to be subordinated when it comes to the fulfillment of their demands.”3

The pressure exerted by the movements, however, comes up against statist logic, which remains firmly enmeshed in bloated state bureaucracies (military, judicial, legislative, ministerial, and municipal). Those bureaucracies are reticent to change. Bureaucracies are not only conservative by nature, they are also managed by newly empowered officials – both elected (deputies, senators, council members, mayors) and non-elected (ministers and hundreds of advisers) – whose main ambition is to maintain their positions.

The new forms of domination

It is not possible for movements to overcome state dependency and subordination without understanding that the new “left” and “progressive” governments are exercising new forms of domination. The planes sociales aimed at “integrating” the poor play a central role in these novel modes of social control.

I recently had the following conversation with a top-level official of Uruguay’s Ministry of Social Development:

The official said, “For us, social policies are emancipatory policies, not a way of disciplining the poor.”

“Is this your personal opinion or is it the ministry’s as well?” I wondered.

The official replied, “It’s not just mine, it’s also that of the national government and of the Ministry of Social Development. The national government did not come here to placate the poor; it came to generate opportunities for integration and emancipation.”

Such affirmations, no doubt honest in their intent, implicitly undermine the role of social movements by adopting their discourses and even their practices. This raises three central questions:

1. The end of the old right: The new governments born from the crisis of the first stage of neoliberalism – the period of privatization and deregulation – consolidated their rule by destroying right-wing elites’ traditional bases of domination. These elites had built extensive clientelistic networks with local political bosses (caudillos), who used their role as mediators with state institutions and the electoral system to subjugate the poorest sectors.

The movements arose to fight against these elites. The piquetero case is symptomatic: the piqueteros’ struggle for direct control of the planes sociales sought to snatch from caudillos their ability to control patron-client networks. In confronting the right directly, this wave of mobilizations strengthened the piquetero movement and modified Argentina’s regional political map.

With mixed success, the new governments have sought to displace these clientelistic networks, putting government-directed state bureaucracies in their place. This is arguably the main “progressive” action of the new governments. In the process of dismantling the old elite networks, the governments have employed the same language and codes used by the movements of organized popular sectors.

2. New forms of control: The crisis of discipline as a way of molding bodies in closed spaces was one of the most prominent characteristics of the “Revolution of ‘68.” The overwhelming of patriarchal hierarchies and the defiance of authority in the workshop, the school, the hospital and the barracks forced capital and the state to create new forms of open-air social control. They now had to find new ways to deal with the population and to maintain security.

The state-backed planes sociales, directed by a coterie of NGO officials, are how these new forms of domination are being introduced into spaces and territories that are impervious to discipline. In these sites, the state becomes capillary, working from within, stretching its reach into ramshackle neighborhoods that had been bastions of revolt. It works with the very sectors that had been organized as movements, but its aim is to disorganize them.

The state’s presence no longer manifests itself in the grotesque form of the police baton – though, for sure, it’s never absent – but rather in the subtler form of “social development for citizen integration.” For this, the state counts on all the knowledge accumulated by NGOs over decades of local “cooperation,” during which they adopted the “participatory” practices of popular education.

Young NGO officials constitute a new army of functionaries who no longer wait for children at schools or tend to patients at hospitals, but who instead go directly to the territories of poverty and rebelliousness. And they have something that makes this job much easier: they have insider knowledge of these popular sectors, because many of these officials at one time participated in resistance against the neoliberal model; they had been militants or, at least, deeply tied to social activism.

Echoing Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, it could be said that the planes sociales are instruments of biopolitical control in which the state classifies people according to their material needs and “restores a type of clientelism” (let’s call it state-scientific) in which politics become irrelevant.4

True, the planes sociales help alleviate poverty, but they do not change the distribution of income, and they altogether avoid the growing concentration of wealth, while leaving the fundamental aspects of the model intact. And by affecting the organizational capacity of the movements and blocking their ability to grow, the planes sociales serve the neoliberal drive to turn all of life into a commodity. In this regard, it is alarming that left intellectuals are nearly unanimous in viewing the planes sociales as an achievement of progressive politics.

3. An offensive against autonomy: States now adopt the language of the movements, even claiming support for the “critical autonomy” of those receiving the planes sociales. States have devised mechanisms of coordination so that the movements themselves participate in the design of the planes sociales and are involved in the implementation of local policies (never general policies, though, or those that might question the model).

The movements are persuaded to undertake a “participatory diagnosis” of the neighborhood or town; in fact they are even put in charge of carrying out the local charity work. This all falls into the policy of “capacity building” designed by the World Bank, which involves choosing which ministry each organization is suited to work with.

All of this is aimed at “state building” within the everyday practices of popular sectors, and it is done precisely in areas where people had learned “movement building.” The planes sociales are directed straight at the heart of territories that were incubators of rebellion. These programs seek to neutralize or modify networks and forms of solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual assistance that were created by the poor (los de abajo) in order to survive neoliberalism. Once the social ties and knowledge that assured their autonomy have disappeared, these sectors are easier to control.

None of this should be attributed to a supposed malevolence on the part of the progressive governments. Whenever the poor have overturned existing forms of domination, new and more perfected ones have necessarily taken their place. Only by neutralizing these planes sociales and overcoming their offensive against the autonomy of the poor will the movements be able to get back on their feet and resume their march toward emancipation.


This is a slightly modified version of a text read at the Festival de la Digna Rabia, Lienzo Charro, Mexico City, January 28, 2008. The present text is revised from a draft-translation prepared by Teo Ballve´.

1. [Ed. note: For organizational details, see the “background” section of Mario Murillo’s article in Socialism and Democracy, no.52 (November 2009).

2. [Ed. note: For Plan 3000 resistance to the right-wing coup, see Marxa Chavez in Socialism and Democracy, no.52 (November 2009).]

3. Raquel Rodriguez, “Winds of Civil War in Bolivia: Understanding a Four-Party Conflict,” Center for International Policy-Americas Program, October 29, 2008

4. See Francisco de Oliveira, “The Duckbilled Platypus,” New Left Review 24, Nov/Dec 2003.

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