From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide


In Feb­ru­ary, scenes of protest began fil­ter­ing out from cities all over Venezuela. Stu­dents threw molo­tov cock­tails. Red ban­ners waved in the streets. Bar­ri­cades, made of old tires, burned high. After two years of inten­si­fied glob­al protest from Cairo to Athens to Oak­land, these images were some­what famil­iar. Pres­i­dent Nicolás Maduro had been in office for less than a year fol­low­ing the death of Hugo Chávez, and now the peo­ple seemed ready to give their judg­ment on his tenure. The Venezue­lan government’s response appeared to mim­ic the actions of so many oth­er states under threat; the Nation­al Guard faced off with demon­stra­tors in the streets, and police arrest­ed the movement’s most vis­i­ble pro­mot­er for incit­ing vio­lence.

For some out­side observers, this series of events made for easy polit­i­cal posi­tion­ing in sup­port of the pro­tes­tors. And it is dif­fi­cult to blame any­one whose first impulse is sym­pa­thy with the streets. Yet most of the pro­test­ers, despite the evoca­tive face masks and stone-hurl­ing, are demand­ing lit­tle more than a return of the priv­i­leges they held in the pre-Chávez era.1 If the sit­u­a­tion in Venezuela is, in fact, dif­fer­ent from else­where, it is because polit­i­cal con­tent mat­ters: those on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Left must rec­on­cile their reflex­ive sym­pa­thies for protest with the fact that, at the moment, Venezuela rep­re­sents just about the clos­est thing in the world to real­ly exist­ing social­ism.

Of course, the pur­port­ed polit­i­cal goals of the Venezue­lan state do not auto­mat­i­cal­ly guar­an­tee it a free pass. But it is dif­fi­cult to ignore that the cur­rent gov­ern­ment is the prod­uct of a mas­sive and pop­u­lar two-decade polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Indeed, as peo­ple through­out Latin Amer­i­ca react to the unspar­ing neolib­er­al poli­cies that swept the region in the 1980s and 90s, Venezuela has become the hinge of a much broad­er left­ward turn. This shift has impelled mas­sive polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions in Venezuela and Bolivia, stirred more mod­er­ate res­o­nances in the South­ern Cone, and in the cas­es of Paraguay and Hon­duras, aroused reac­tionary coups. As one of the few left polit­i­cal projects of its scale in the post-Sovi­et era, this Latin Amer­i­can marea rosa­da, or pink tide, is a mate­r­i­al test­ing ground for the tran­si­tion from cap­i­tal­ism to some­thing else – leav­ing open for now the ques­tion of whether this some­thing else is com­mu­nism – and it demands sub­stan­tive dis­cus­sion on the Left.

To real­ly grasp what is hap­pen­ing in Venezuela and else­where, how­ev­er, it is impor­tant to rethink the con­cepts through which we approach new polit­i­cal sce­nar­ios. In the 20th cen­tu­ry, the theme of gueril­la war­fare dom­i­nat­ed the the­o­ret­i­cal cur­rents in and about Latin Amer­i­ca; Che Guevara’s own work on the sub­ject and Reg­is Debray’s foco the­o­ry of rev­o­lu­tion are notable exam­ples. But as cul­tur­al stud­ies and inter­na­tion­al affairs schol­ar Sophia McClen­nen has sug­gest­ed, “the cur­rent­ly exist­ing forms of polit­i­cal activism [in Latin Amer­i­ca] have tak­en on new modes of orga­ni­za­tion that no longer track to the ide­al­ized ideas of indige­nous resis­tance move­ments and gueril­la groups, and they no longer take place whol­ly with­in the nation state.”2 In oth­er words, the old the­o­ret­i­cal tools and polit­i­cal impuls­es are inad­e­quate for the new ter­rain of the Latin Amer­i­can Left—particularly when one con­sid­ers its entry into the state.

The chal­lenge in assess­ing Latin America’s 21st cen­tu­ry social­ism, then, is twofold: first, it is nec­es­sary to for­mu­late a con­cep­tu­al frame­work that can explain the pink tide’s var­i­ous process­es of state-cen­tered polit­i­cal change. And sec­ond, such a frame­work must serve as a polit­i­cal com­pass for those of us on the Left who favor the broad­er goals of the pop­u­lar marea rosa­da states, and thus give us cri­te­ria by which to make seri­ous polit­i­cal assess­ments as these projects unfold.

Six­teen years after Hugo Chávez’s elec­tion to the Venezue­lan pres­i­den­cy, peo­ple have already begun to the­o­rize these devel­op­ments and supercede the gueril­la-cen­tered frame­work of Gue­vara and Debray. The main cur­rents in this new­er vein revolve around the the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny and the relat­ed con­cept of sub­al­ter­ni­ty. But these ideas, focus­ing as they do on exclu­sion from state pow­er, must now too be rethought, or at least rel­a­tivized. The state itself must now fall at the cen­ter of the Left’s polit­i­cal analy­sis. As John Bev­er­ley puts it, “In a sit­u­a­tion where, as is the case of sev­er­al gov­ern­ments of the marea rosa­da, social move­ments from the pop­u­lar-sub­al­tern sec­tors of soci­ety have ‘become the state’… or are bid­ding to do so, a new way of think­ing the rela­tion­ship between the state and soci­ety has become nec­es­sary.”3 This new way of think­ing the about the state is nec­es­sary in order to assess the achieve­ments, weak­ness­es, and post-cap­i­tal­ist pos­si­bil­i­ties pre­sent­ed by the pink tide. One poten­tial foun­da­tion­al source of a renewed state the­o­ry is a fig­ure who was once cen­tral to any Marx­ist dis­cus­sion of the polit­i­cal, but who is now rarely men­tioned: Nicos Poulantzas. But before turn­ing to Poulantzas, it is use­ful to exam­ine the con­tri­bu­tions and lim­i­ta­tions of the the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny as it has been used to under­stand Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.


The the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny, of course, has a long, mul­ti-thread­ed his­to­ry. Though the term itself was impor­tant to some ear­ly Russ­ian social­ist polit­i­cal debates pri­or to 1917, its more famous con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion emerged with­in Ital­ian com­mu­nist Anto­nio Gramsci’s attempt to under­stand the posi­tion of West­ern Euro­pean work­ers’ par­ties in the 1920s and 30s. The increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of Gramsci’s work over the course of the 20th cen­tu­ry meant that hege­mo­ny the­o­ry soon found res­o­nance out­side of “West­ern Marxism”—the impor­tance of the con­cepts of hege­mo­ny and sub­al­ter­ni­ty for the South Asian sub­al­tern stud­ies school, for instance, is well known. Schol­ars of Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and cul­ture with­in the North Amer­i­can acad­e­my, includ­ing many who orig­i­nal­ly hail from Latin Amer­i­ca, have also made exten­sive use of this the­o­ret­i­cal com­plex, and in 1993 the Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies Group (which offi­cial­ly last­ed until 2000) was found­ed on the mod­el of Rana­jit Guha and his South Asian col­leagues.4

Lit­er­ary schol­ar Gareth Williams was one of the lat­ter-day mem­bers of the Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies Group. In his 2002 book The Oth­er Side of the Pop­u­lar, Williams attempts to push onward with the group’s mis­sion “to recu­per­ate the fig­ure of the sub­al­tern” in order to chal­lenge “elit­ist forms of con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion that have silenced Latin Amer­i­can sub­al­ter­ni­ty with­in Latin America’s his­to­ries of nation for­ma­tion.”5 He seeks to refine the notion of sub­al­ter­ni­ty so as to unite the “philo­soph­i­cal-decon­struc­tive” mean­ing of the term, which he asso­ciates with Gay­a­tri Spi­vak, with a more soci­o­log­i­cal under­stand­ing ascribed to Guha.6 In its more “philo­soph­i­cal” role, sub­al­ter­ni­ty “promis­es to inter­rupt” dom­i­nant polit­i­cal narratives—it is an onto­log­i­cal frag­ment whose very pres­ence sig­nals the lim­it of state pol­i­tics. In its more con­crete soci­o­log­i­cal mean­ing, on the oth­er hand, it denotes the per­sis­tence of a sort of work­ing-class or peas­ant polit­i­cal sen­si­bil­i­ty that stands out­side, and in antag­o­nism to, elite pol­i­tics. With these two mean­ings tak­en togeth­er, Williams explains that “sub­al­ter­ni­ty con­tin­ues the pos­si­bil­i­ty of, and yet promis­es to desta­bi­lize, hegemony’s often neo-colo­nial expan­sion of its uni­ver­sal­iz­ing log­ics… [it] is a lim­it to con­sti­tut­ed pow­er that is poten­tial­ly con­sti­tu­tive of alter­na­tive forms of think­ing, read­ing, and act­ing.”7 In oth­er words, the oppressed and exclud­ed quar­ters of soci­ety con­sti­tute a sub­al­tern dif­fer­ence, which in turn stands in for the polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty of a dif­fer­ent future to come. Thus, polit­i­cal­ly, Williams’ syn­the­sis means that one should take one’s cues from those out­side what Gram­sci called the his­toric bloc in pow­er; philo­soph­i­cal­ly, these out­siders are the bul­wark of poten­tial decon­struc­tive dif­fer­ence hold­ing back the total­iz­ing threat of state and cap­i­tal.

Williams’ argu­ment is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive exam­ple of Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies: he offers some impor­tant insights, but he also comes up against char­ac­ter­is­tic lim­i­ta­tions. His def­i­n­i­tion of sub­al­ter­ni­ty clar­i­fies some of the group’s more ambigu­ous work by argu­ing that sub­al­ter­ni­ty can­not be reduced to sim­ple iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. And he pro­vides a com­pelling analy­sis of the dan­gers of such an approach by explain­ing how Latin Amer­i­can states in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry used vari­ants of sub­al­tern iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics in order to solid­i­fy the posi­tion of nation­al cap­i­tal­ists and forge mass bases for elite polit­i­cal par­ties.8 Nev­er­the­less, the incor­po­ra­tion of the “philo­soph­i­cal-decon­struc­tive” read­ing of hege­mo­ny and sub­al­ter­ni­ty means that Williams mis­takes the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts for onto­log­i­cal categories—that is, he takes a set of ideas that cor­re­spond to a spe­cif­ic polit­i­cal issues and rad­i­cal­ly over-gen­er­al­izes them.9 By using hege­mon and sub­al­tern as syn­onyms for “oppressed” and “oppres­sor,” Williams and oth­er sub­al­ternists lose the abil­i­ty to explain the par­tic­u­lar rela­tion that the for­mer set of con­cepts is meant to illus­trate. This mis­take obscures the more spe­cif­ic soci­o­log­i­cal mean­ing in the work of Gram­sci and Guha (relat­ing to class alliances and ide­o­log­i­cal lead­er­ship), and the terms hege­mo­ny and sub­al­ter­ni­ty become tran­shis­tor­i­cal stand-ins for an eter­nal­ly recur­ring dynam­ic of unequal pow­er rela­tions.10

The con­se­quence of phi­los­o­phiz­ing and gen­er­al­iz­ing hege­mo­ny the­o­ry is that as soon as the sub­al­tern stra­ta become hegemonic—which was, of course, the strate­gic goal under­ly­ing Gramsci’s own theory—subalternists run into a polit­i­cal dead end. Their con­fla­tion of sub­al­ter­ni­ty and oppres­sion does not per­mit the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the new­ly hege­mon­ic class­es and groups are still oppressed and exploit­ed. Such a polit­i­cal sce­nario desta­bi­lizes the entire rela­tion­ship of sub­al­ter­ni­ty and hege­mo­ny and should lead to a search for appro­pri­ate con­cepts.

To return to this year’s protests in Venezuela—it would be pos­si­ble, on a cer­tain view of the scenes there, to project onto pro­test­ers the sta­tus of a sub­al­tern group, an oppressed minor­i­ty who is exclud­ed from the hege­mon­ic bloc in pow­er rep­re­sent­ed by the rul­ing Unit­ed Social­ist Par­ty of Venezuela (a catch-all col­lec­tion of pro-Chávez par­ties and move­ments). Such an assump­tion (protesters=oppressed=subaltern) might have been a safe bet for the Left in the last quar­ter cen­tu­ry, but this polit­i­cal reduc­tion is unten­able in the case of Boli­var­i­an Venezuela. One has to look instead beyond imme­di­ate pow­er rela­tions to the under­ly­ing social frame­work. It would be impor­tant to note in this case: the his­to­ry of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in the Venezue­lan uni­ver­si­ties where many pro­test­ers came from; the rela­tion­ship of these anti-Chav­ista stu­dents to the tra­di­tion­al pow­er elite; the nature of the Boli­var­i­an Repub­lic of Venezuela itself as a state com­pris­ing a great num­ber of social orga­ni­za­tions that, in anoth­er moment, were clear­ly sub­al­tern.11 In short, to define the rela­tions of pow­er, Left observers need to the­o­rize the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in ques­tion rather than rely on the cat­e­gor­i­cal oppo­si­tions of a social ontol­ogy of oppressed and oppres­sor.

In light of the new suc­cess of pop­u­lar mass move­ments, some thinkers have begun the nec­es­sary recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tion. John Bev­er­ley sums up the ques­tion that I am try­ing to advance here:

What hap­pens when, as has been the case with some of the gov­ern­ments of the marea rosa­da in Latin Amer­i­ca, sub­al­tern or, to use the expres­sion more in favor today, sub­al­tern-pop­u­lar social move­ments orig­i­nat­ing well out­side the para­me­ters of the state and for­mal pol­i­tics (includ­ing the tra­di­tion­al par­ties of the Left), have “become the state,” to bor­row Ernesto Laclau’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, or have lent them­selves to polit­i­cal projects seek­ing to occu­py the state?12

In oth­er words, what hap­pens when the state and sub­al­tern cease to be in oppo­si­tion? In answer­ing this, Bev­er­ley, a found­ing mem­ber of the Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies Group, aban­dons his pre­vi­ous­ly strict anti-state ori­en­ta­tion. He right­ly notes that we can­not approach Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics today with­in a mere­ly philo­soph­i­cal or decon­struc­tive frame­work— the press­ing weight of polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty, that is, “the resur­gence of an actu­al polit­i­cal Left in Latin Amer­i­ca,” com­pels us to take a stand beyond sol­i­dar­i­ty with those who hap­pen to be out of pow­er, and to pay atten­tion instead to the polit­i­cal and social com­po­si­tion of the new left states.13 In doing so, one finds that far from repro­duc­ing an infi­nite alter­na­tion of hege­mo­ny and sub­al­ter­ni­ty, the marea rosa­da rep­re­sents a rar­i­ty: the agency of the sub­al­tern pass­ing through the frame­work of the state. Bev­er­ley is an thus an unabashed sup­port­er of Venezuela’s Boli­var­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion and, despite many acute dif­fer­ences, all oth­er left-lean­ing polit­i­cal under­tak­ings in the region. What­ev­er their present weak­ness­es, he argues,the cur­rent state-cen­tered Latin Amer­i­can Left can “keep alive the idea of social­ism as the post­cap­i­tal­ist order of things,” and at the same time present the actu­al “‘trans­for­ma­tive’ pos­si­bil­i­ty” that “soci­ety itself can be remade in a more redis­trib­u­tive, egal­i­tar­i­an, cul­tur­al­ly diverse way.”14

Bev­er­ley notes that it is not enough for the Left to sim­ply take over the state; it must trans­form the state machin­ery as well. Yet his readi­ness to indis­crim­i­nate­ly endorse any left-lean­ing state project, as well as his quick con­dem­na­tion of left endeav­ors that aim away from state pow­er (name­ly, the anti-elec­toral stance of Mexico’s Zap­atista Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Army), mean that he does not ask impor­tant ques­tions that might help to dri­ve such trans­for­ma­tions. The impru­dence of this near­ly dog­mat­ic sup­port is clear when one con­sid­ers the his­to­ry of the Left-in-pow­er, so full of mis­takes, betray­als, and tragedies. The trou­ble­some lega­cies of the Ger­man SPD and the USSR par­al­lel the dif­fi­cul­ties of Sal­vador Allende’s abort­ed term as pres­i­dent of Chile and the mis­steps of the ongo­ing Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. Each of these cas­es is unique, but then, as now, the insti­tu­tion­al­ized Left had more to gain from ques­tions and chal­lenges than from acrit­i­cal admi­ra­tion. It is essen­tial to keep these ques­tions alive: how can the Left con­sol­i­date pow­er with­out falling into author­i­tar­i­an­ism? What are the pos­si­ble pit­falls that might derail a rev­o­lu­tion­ary project? And beyond abstract ideals, what do we hope that Left-lean­ing states actu­al­ly do—and don’t do—in order to open up a set of post-cap­i­tal­ist pos­si­bil­i­ties?

Jon Beasley-Mur­ray, like Bev­er­ley, argues for a renewed atten­tion to the state, but his skep­ti­cism about state-cen­tered projects gives his 2010 book Pos­thege­mo­ny a crit­i­cal edge that Bev­er­ley lacks. He advances his argu­ment through a cri­tique of Argen­tine polit­i­cal philoso­pher Ernesto Laclau—one the most com­plex the­o­rists of hege­mo­ny, and a way­point of the theory’s pro­lif­er­a­tion with­in both British cul­tur­al stud­ies and South Asian sub­al­ternist schol­ar­ship. A brief recon­struc­tion of Beasley-Murray’s argu­ment will thus illus­trate anoth­er thresh­old of the present the­o­ret­i­cal con­junc­ture.

Laclau, for his part, attempts to the­o­rize the artic­u­la­tion of social antag­o­nism through chains of equiv­a­lence between social sec­tors. His ver­sion of hege­mo­ny the­o­ry is meant to explain how a fig­ure like Argentina’s Juan Perón, for instance, came to sig­ni­fy dif­fer­ent things for his polar­ized base of both left and right polit­i­cal groups—an unex­pect­ed join­ing of stu­dents and mil­i­tarists, trade union­ists and cap­i­tal­ists.15 Laclau con­ceives of Perón him­self as an emp­ty sig­ni­fi­er that took on dif­fer­ent valences for each of these dif­fer­ent fac­tions. He dis­cur­sive­ly man­aged to bring them all togeth­er against the com­mon ene­my at the core of Per­o­nist dis­course, an always-shift­ing “anti-peo­ple” con­sist­ing some­times of com­mu­nists, at oth­er times impe­ri­al­ists, and yet at oth­er times, the old oli­garchy. Con­verse­ly, Laclau uses this same log­ic to explain how exclud­ed sub­al­tern move­ments begin to make demands on a state, estab­lish­ing an equiv­a­lence between them that can ulti­mate­ly lead to the cre­ation of a mass counter-hege­mon­ic project.16 Though Laclau’s work is con­sid­er­ably more elab­o­rate than this brief account might sug­gest, the point is that the con­cept of hege­mo­ny and the log­ics of equiv­a­lence and dif­fer­ence sit at the cen­ter of his the­o­ret­i­cal world.

But for Beasley-Mur­ray, this empha­sis leads Laclau into the same error that I’ve iden­ti­fied in Williams: by ascrib­ing an onto­log­i­cal sta­tus to par­tic­u­lar con­cepts, Laclau reduces all of pol­i­tics to a rela­tion between hege­mo­ny and sub­al­ter­ni­ty. Oth­er man­i­fes­ta­tions of the polit­i­cal are cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dis­count­ed; noth­ing can be explained except through the play of sig­ni­fiers and dis­cur­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tions. As Beasley-Mur­ray argues, “The basic flaw in hege­mo­ny the­o­ry is not [as some have sug­gest­ed] its under­es­ti­ma­tion of the econ­o­my; it is that it sub­sti­tutes cul­ture for state, ide­o­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions for insti­tu­tions, dis­course for habit.”17 In oth­er words, ques­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion dis­place all oth­er mech­a­nisms of pow­er. All of pol­i­tics becomes a game of who or what can best rep­re­sent their hege­mon­ic bloc, and the state itself—not to men­tion the con­stituents of hege­mon­ic power—receives no the­o­ret­i­cal elab­o­ra­tion.

Beasley-Mur­ray, how­ev­er, does not focus on to the state so as to bet­ter sup­port it. Rather, his goal is to under­stand the way that the state restrains rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial by har­ness­ing the con­stituent pow­er of the mul­ti­tude and sta­bi­liz­ing it in the con­sti­tut­ed pow­er of the state and its sub­ject, the peo­ple. He thus aligns him­self with move­ments that eschew such capture—again, Mexico’s con­tem­po­rary Zap­atis­tas come to mind—through the pur­suit of auton­o­my and spo­radic insur­rec­tion, occu­py­ing the bound­aries of con­stituent and con­sti­tut­ed pow­er rather than attempt­ing to sim­ply replace one state with anoth­er. The real polit­i­cal test of a move­ment, for Beasley-Mur­ray, is whether trans­for­ma­tions man­i­fest them­selves in cre­ative forms of col­lec­tiv­i­ty and nov­el social prac­tices out­side the are­na of the state.18

As Bec­quer Seguín points out, if Bev­er­ley is not crit­i­cal enough of the pink tide states, Beasley-Murray’s the­o­ret­i­cal posi­tions lead him into an unsat­is­fy­ing polit­i­cal ambiva­lence regard­ing state pow­er itself. At best, his empha­sis on insur­gency and insur­rec­tion leads to the con­clu­sion that the pos­i­tive pow­er of the state is large­ly irrel­e­vant. And at worst, this route leads back into the same cul-de-sac as sub­al­ternism: an over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of pol­i­tics in which what­ev­er is against the state is always deserv­ing of polit­i­cal back­ing.19

While Bev­er­ley and Beasley-Mur­ray there­fore rep­re­sent two oppo­site poles of a the­o­ret­i­cal advance beyond hege­mo­ny the­o­ry and sub­al­ternism, nei­ther gives us any polit­i­cal cri­te­ria by which assess the var­i­ous actions and deci­sions of pink-tide gov­ern­ments. Seguín right­ly notes that their accounts “all too quick­ly sup­port or reject pink tide gov­ern­ments with­out being able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate among them.”20 He asks instead what it would mean to present a true “left-wing cri­tique” of the pink tide: “Can we cri­tique these gov­ern­ments from with­in the realm of their the­o­ret­i­cal enter­prise pre­cise­ly in order to make them more egal­i­tar­i­an, demo­c­ra­t­ic, mul­ti­cul­tur­al, mul­ti­eth­nic, and the like?”21 In oth­er words, how can we con­tribute to and learn from the polit­i­cal projects under­way while hold­ing onto a Marx­ist the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work and shar­ing the stat­ed eman­ci­pa­to­ry goals of those gov­ern­ments? And how can we gauge the achieve­ments, flaws, and tra­jec­to­ries of these gov­ern­ments with­out reject­ing them or unequiv­o­cal­ly back­ing their every move?


An oft neglect­ed the­o­ret­i­cal per­spec­tive presents itself as a step­ping stone out of the mire: Nicos Poulantzas’ the­o­ry of the cap­i­tal­ist state.22 The most intrigu­ing ele­ments of this the­o­ry for a left-wing cri­tique of the pink tide are found in State, Pow­er, Social­ism, pub­lished a year pri­or to the author’s death in 1979. Part of the dif­fi­cul­ty with this text is that, as Stu­art Hall not­ed in a com­mem­o­ra­tive 1980 arti­cle, many of its more excit­ing insights require fur­ther expli­ca­tion.23 Poulantzas opened a path that he him­self did not live long enough to walk. Even his most basic insights, how­ev­er, can shed some light on our cen­tral ques­tion of how best to eval­u­ate 21st cen­tu­ry social­ism today. First, with Poulantzas’ con­cept of state pow­er, it is pos­si­ble to rethink what it means for a pres­i­dent like Chávez or a move­ment like Bolivia’s Movimien­to al Social­is­mo (MAS) to “take pow­er.” And with the com­ple­men­tary idea of the insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state , we can reex­am­ine key tran­si­tion­al ques­tionslike the sta­tus of the nation, or the social divi­sion of laborin order to grasp how dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal changes may deep­en the process of social­ist con­struc­tion. Togeth­er, these two con­cepts, state pow­er and insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty, form the nucle­us of a gen­er­al polit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion toward the pink tide.

For Poulantzas, Marx and Engels’ com­ment in the Man­i­festo of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty that the state is the com­mit­tee for man­ag­ing the affairs of the bour­geoisie is a start­ing point, but it is incom­plete. It aims at the first con­cept, state pow­er, with­out rec­og­niz­ing that the state is “a spe­cial appa­ra­tus, exhibit­ing a pecu­liar mate­r­i­al frame­work that can­not be reduced to giv­en rela­tions of polit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion.”24 In oth­er words, the flaw in Marx and Engels’ most com­mon­ly cit­ed (but by no means only) for­mu­la­tion on the state is that it fails to spec­i­fy the shape and role of the state machin­ery with­in the broad­er land­scape of bour­geois class rule. Rather than speak­ing to its insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty, it sug­gests that it is enough to qual­i­fy a state as a bour­geois state in order to under­stand it.

But even state pow­er is more com­plex than it appears in the “rul­ing com­mit­tee” for­mu­la­tion: impor­tant divi­sions tra­verse its con­fig­u­ra­tion, mean­ing that the state can­not be reduced to the expres­sion of a uni­fied class. Class con­flict, says Poulantzas, is “inscribed into the insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture of the state.”25 This means that, against the notion of class dic­ta­tor­ship empha­sized by Lenin, the state is not the prod­uct of a vic­to­ry by one class over anoth­er, but is rather itself “a rela­tion­ship of forces, or more pre­cise­ly the mate­r­i­al con­den­sa­tion of such a rela­tion­ship among class­es and class frac­tions.”26 That is to say, the antag­o­nism with which class­es encounter each oth­er in the eco­nom­ic realm repro­duces itself polit­i­cal­ly on the ter­rainthough not only on this this ter­rainof the state. Thus, even while a state may be bour­geois in the sense that it ulti­mate­ly repro­duces cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, Poulantzas’ argu­ment sug­gests that no sin­gle class or class frac­tion can dic­tate the terms of this repro­duc­tion.27 The pres­ence of social and polit­i­cal resis­tance by exploit­ed class­es is reg­is­tered in the polit­i­cal archi­tec­ture of bour­geois class dom­i­na­tion.

Most basi­cal­ly, one can con­cep­tu­al­ize by this the con­crete pres­ence of the work­ing class­es and oth­er oppressed groups with­in state insti­tu­tions. The cap­i­tal­ist state com­pris­es mas­sive num­bers of work­ers whose obe­di­ence allow it to oper­ate effec­tive­ly, or not. In the case of Venezuela, for instance, left orga­ni­za­tions have found some suc­cess orga­niz­ing the many work­ing class (and often racial­ized) mem­bers of the mil­i­tary. This class divi­sion with­in the armed forces led to a num­ber of sol­dier-led rebel­lions and defec­tions dur­ing the armed move­ments of the Left in the 1960s, and also spawned the clan­des­tine Boli­var­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Move­ment from which Chávez him­self emerged.28 The inter­nal divi­sions in the mil­i­tary also proved impor­tant dur­ing the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, when num­ber of junior offi­cers decid­ed to turn against the coup-plot­ters and join the mass­es of more or less orga­nized work­ers and Cara­cas slum-dwellers who crowd­ed the streets to demand his return.29 In short, state pow­er in this con­text is con­di­tioned by the sta­tus of class con­flict: the rul­ing class­es can­not sim­ply pos­sess or occu­py it as if in sep­a­ra­tion from the the class­es they exploit, since these class­es are vital to the oper­a­tion of the state itself.

Cut­ting across these class divi­sions, anoth­er set of fis­sures sep­a­rates the many insti­tu­tion­al com­po­nents that frame the broad­er struc­ture of state pow­er. Side-by-side appa­ra­tus­es with poten­tial­ly clash­ing goals—the mil­i­tary, the bureau­cra­cy of this or that depart­ment, even indi­vid­ual judges or legislators—engage in a com­plex, sit­u­a­tion­al­ly depen­dent, and ulti­mate­ly con­tin­gent inter­play of deci­sions and pri­or­i­ties.30 These dif­fer­ing pri­or­i­ties may in turn be the man­i­fes­ta­tion of vari­able con­fig­u­ra­tions of class con­tra­dic­tion with­in a giv­en branch or depart­ment. Ulti­mate­ly, says Poulantzas, devel­op­ing Althusser’s account of the rel­a­tive auton­o­my of the state, “the estab­lish­ment of the State’s pol­i­cy must be seen as the result of class con­tra­dic­tions inscribed in the very struc­ture of the State.”31 That is, through the inter­ac­tion of the var­i­ous depart­ments and branch­es affect­ed in dif­fer­ent ways by class rela­tion­ships, the state takes on a num­ber of poten­tial­ly con­flic­tive projects, and can­not there­fore be thought as an instru­ment to be uni­lat­er­al­ly direct­ed by a par­tic­u­lar class.

Here, Poulantzas’ non-uni­tary con­cept of state pow­er pro­vides some insight into the role and lim­its of charis­mat­ic lead­ers like Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and it can cor­rect some mis­con­cep­tions aris­ing from an overem­pha­sis on hege­mo­ny. If the the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny can explain how these fig­ures became emblem­at­ic of their respec­tive move­ments through the play of emp­ty sig­ni­fiers and sub­al­tern demands, the con­cept of the rel­a­tive­ly autonomous and inter­nal­ly divid­ed state shows that the ide­o­log­i­cal promi­nence that led to their elec­tion does not trans­late into unfet­tered polit­i­cal pow­er. The posi­tions of such lead­ers are always both bol­stered by and behold­en to the con­tours of class strug­gle and the mul­ti­far­i­ous struc­tures of the cap­i­tal­ist states they inher­it. As Beasley-Mur­ray cor­rect­ly argues, hege­mo­ny the­o­ry tends toward a fetishiza­tion of both state and indi­vid­ual leader that finds its apogee in the ide­ol­o­gy of pop­ulism. The result is either a hope- or fear-dri­ven assump­tion (depend­ing on your polit­i­cal posi­tion) of instru­men­tal­ism: the pop­ulist Pres­i­dent appears to have com­plete con­trol of the State. Poulantzas’ con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of rel­a­tive auton­o­my pre­cludes such con­clu­sions; “A change in state pow­er,” he writes, “is nev­er enough to trans­form the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state appa­ra­tus,” rather, “such a trans­for­ma­tion depends on a spe­cif­ic kind of oper­a­tion and action.”32 But what is this “spe­cif­ic kind of oper­a­tion and action”? And what sort of trans­for­ma­tions are we to expect or hope for in any case? To ask this is to bring into view the ques­tion of insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty.


While the con­cept of state pow­er des­ig­nates how dif­fer­ent posi­tions of pow­er are struc­tural­ly relat­ed, insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty des­ig­nates the spe­cif­ic means and cir­cuits through which these rela­tion­ships crys­tal­lize in cap­i­tal­ism.33 To ask about the specifics of the insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state in a giv­en sce­nario is to ask: what is the sed­i­ment­ed shape of polit­i­cal bod­ies and insti­tu­tions in a giv­en social for­ma­tion, and by what mech­a­nisms are they linked to the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion and the class­es that inhere in it? From this per­spec­tive, Poulantzas offers fur­ther inquiries—what is it about cap­i­tal­ism that has made so promi­nent the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy, such as par­lia­ments and leg­is­la­tures? How might the sep­a­ra­tion between the gov­ern­ing and the gov­erned be relat­ed to the larg­er divi­sion of man­u­al and intel­lec­tu­al labor with­in cap­i­tal­ism? Why is the indi­vid­ual, and not some oth­er unit, the object of pow­er in such polit­i­cal cir­cum­stances? And why, more often than not, has nation­al­i­ty become the de fac­to bind­ing agent of cap­i­tal­ist states?

Of course, not all of these can be direct­ly addressed here, and the answers may vary in dif­fer­ent con­crete sce­nar­ios. But tak­en along­side the con­cept of state pow­er, the con­cept of insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty can set these ques­tions into motion, so to speak, as ques­tions of transformation—and per­haps even point toward the tran­si­tion to a new mode of pro­duc­tion. In oth­er words, in under­stand­ing how the spe­cif­ic shape of the state relates to the dis­tri­b­u­tion of pow­er both with­in and out­side of it, the mea­sures by which that shape can change become clear­er.

The trans­for­ma­tion of the insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty of the state, how­ev­er, should be dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed from minor pol­i­cy shifts in response to pop­u­lar demands. This dis­tinc­tion is what sep­a­rates social demo­c­ra­t­ic wel­fare states from poten­tial­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary ones. It is the dif­fer­ence between a sup­pos­ed­ly social­ist state that tries to cre­ate objec­tive eco­nom­ic con­di­tions for a per­pet­u­al­ly deferred future social­ist soci­ety, and one that sets itself to, as Boli­vian Vice Pres­i­dent Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era says, “sup­port as much as pos­si­ble the deploy­ment of society’s autonomous orga­ni­za­tion­al capac­i­ties,” and to invite the mass­es into the polit­i­cal cir­cuit­ry of the state.34

Poulantzas approach­es this issue in terms of the social divi­sion of labor. He argues that the exis­tence of a spe­cif­ic insti­tu­tion charged with social orga­ni­za­tion ( the state) is an instance of the divi­sion between intel­lec­tu­al labor and man­u­al labor at the heart of the broad­er social divi­sion of labor with­in cap­i­tal­ism.35 This insight opens var­i­ous options for left polit­i­cal projects. It would be char­ac­ter­is­tic of social democ­ra­cy, for instance, to act strict­ly with­in the con­fines of the exist­ing social divi­sion of labor, gov­ern­ing with an eye toward the mass­es, and toward a redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, toward reg­u­lat­ing cap­i­tal, and even tak­ing on a more direct orga­ni­za­tion­al role in some indus­tries by nation­al­iz­ing them. In con­trast, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive on this point would have to refig­ure this divide: if the sci­ence of gov­ern­ment is an intel­lec­tu­al project of cap­i­tal, then one thing that the insti­tu­tion­al­ized Left must do, instead of sim­ply gov­ern­ing dif­fer­ent­ly, is open up gov­ern­ing appa­ra­tus­es to those who were pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed from this intel­lec­tu­al work with the hope that the types of knowl­edge they bring to social orga­ni­za­tion will dis­place that of a class trained in repro­duc­ing rela­tions of exploita­tion.

To what extent are pink tide gov­ern­ments and the move­ments that pro­pel them expand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for reg­u­lar mass engage­ment with the day-to-day work of gov­ern­ing, usu­al­ly ced­ed to tech­nocrats and rep­re­sen­ta­tives? How might work­ers, campesinos, neigh­bor­hood orga­ni­za­tions, and oth­ers exe­cute their own projects with resources that would oth­er­wise trav­el through the upper ech­e­lons of the state? In short, to what extent is the state being restruc­tured so as to encour­age and make pos­si­ble pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion?

In the case of Boli­var­i­an Venezuela, Arti­cle 62 of the 1999 Con­sti­tu­tion artic­u­lates this goal: “The par­tic­i­pa­tion of the peo­ple in the for­ma­tion, exe­cu­tion, and con­trol of pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion is the nec­es­sary means to achieve its pro­tag­o­nism and guar­an­tee its com­plete devel­op­ment, both indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive.”36 The state, accord­ing to Arti­cle 62, is to cre­ate con­di­tions favor­able to this pos­si­bil­i­ty. A great num­ber of pro­grams have come into exis­tence to this end, includ­ing Com­mu­nal Coun­cils that, as stat­ed in the 2006 law imple­ment­ing them, “allow the orga­nized peo­ple to direct­ly man­age pub­lic pol­i­cy and projects ori­ent­ed toward respond­ing to the needs and aspi­ra­tions of com­mu­ni­ties in the con­struc­tion of a soci­ety of equi­ty and social jus­tice.37

Also in the spir­it of Arti­cle 62 is the a pol­i­cy of work­er-state co-man­age­ment that actu­al­ly blurs the lines between the polit­i­cal and the eco­nom­ic by redis­trib­ut­ing the intel­lec­tu­al work of social orga­ni­za­tion across the bound­aries of the pro­duc­tive sphere. Inve­val, a work­er-occu­pied valve pro­duc­er in the coastal state of Miran­da, is one of the more suc­cess­ful projects of co-man­age­ment, oper­at­ing not only under work­er con­trol, but in tan­dem with local com­mu­ni­ty-based par­tic­i­pa­to­ry struc­tures in order to avoid the cap­i­tal­ist pit­falls that undo the best efforts of many work­ers’ coop­er­a­tives. The bal­ance of work­er pow­er, com­mu­ni­ty pow­er and the state at Inve­val cre­ates a nexus of trans­for­ma­tion in which the top-down social divi­sion of labor has no place.38 The realms of pro­duc­tion, con­sump­tion, and dis­tri­b­u­tion are bound togeth­er in a nov­el recon­fig­u­ra­tion of the social divi­sion of labor.

Thus, against social democ­ra­cy, the thing to pay atten­tion to in the marea rosa­da is not so much a state’s inter­ven­tion in the econ­o­my, as if from the out­side, but rather the state’s efforts to trans­form its own role in the social divi­sion divi­sion of labor and refig­ure class rela­tion­ships that oth­er­wise exclude direct pro­duc­ers from deci­sion-mak­ing. The above are just brief examples—deserving of more scrutiny—whose sig­nif­i­cance becomes intel­li­gi­ble with­in this Poulantz­ian the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work. With­out then suc­cumb­ing to an abstract faith in par­tic­i­pa­tion, and with­out con­fus­ing these exam­ples for the death throes of cap­i­tal­ism, this per­spec­tive illu­mi­nates the empha­sis on par­tic­i­pa­to­ry democ­ra­cy that per­vades the dis­course of the insti­tu­tion­al­ized Latin Amer­i­can Left. The stan­dard of this greater par­tic­i­pa­tion, from a crit­i­cal left per­spec­tive, must be to leave open the polit­i­cal door to greater trans­for­ma­tions down the line. Against economism or revi­sion­ism, the pink tide states can only cre­ate post-cap­i­tal­ist pos­si­bil­i­ties by build­ing, as Mar­ta Har­neck­er says, “spaces of pop­u­lar pro­tag­o­nism that con­tin­ue to pre­pare the pop­u­lar sec­tors to exer­cise pow­er from the sim­plest lev­el to the most com­plex.”39

The impor­tance of reflex­ive polit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion also becomes clear through the exam­ple of the nation. Nation­al­ism is, of course, a recur­ring his­tor­i­cal ques­tion for the Left, and one with impor­tant con­se­quences for any rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach to pol­i­tics. With respect to Latin Amer­i­ca, John Bev­er­ley argues (con­tra Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri) that the nation is still an indis­pens­able polit­i­cal locus: “To con­struct the pol­i­tics of the mul­ti­tude today, under con­di­tions of glob­al­iza­tion and in the face of the neolib­er­al cri­tique and pri­va­ti­za­tion of state func­tions requires a rele­git­imiza­tion and reter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion of the nation-state.”40 In oth­er words, with the appar­ent frag­men­ta­tion and weak­en­ing of the nation-state vis-á-vis inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal, the Left needs to push back, empha­siz­ing its impor­tance and mak­ing it a site of strug­gle.

Bev­er­ley makes a fair point here, but wades into dan­ger­ous ter­ri­to­ry in the process: In the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, the con­sol­i­da­tion of mes­ti­zo nation­al-pop­u­lar iden­ti­ties through­out Latin Amer­i­ca, along­side import-sub­sti­tu­tion eco­nom­ic mod­els, offered an impor­tant way for var­i­ous nation­al cap­i­tals to strength­en them­selves and to build cor­po­ratist arrange­ments through unions and polit­i­cal par­ties. The result of this polit­i­cal project in osten­si­ble defense of the nation was large­ly a co-opta­tion of fledg­ling worker’s move­ments and a refusal to acknowl­edge the per­sis­tence of racism and indige­nous oppres­sion.41 And as the wave of right wing dic­ta­tor­ships that fol­lowed in the wake of these projects shows, the con­tra­dic­tions with­in these nation­al coali­tions were always resolved in favor of cap­i­tal.42

Acknowl­edg­ing this his­to­ry under the head­ing of “pop­ulist” nation­al­ism how­ev­er, Bev­er­ley hopes for some­thing else:

What might be envi­sioned in the place of both clas­si­cal nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry style nation­al­ism and more recent pop­ulist forms of nation­al­ism is a new kind of pol­i­tics that inter­pel­lates “the peo­ple” not as a uni­tary, homo­ge­neous­ly mod­ern sub­ject, but rather in the fash­ion of [Otto] Bauer’s “com­mu­ni­ties of will,” as inter­nal­ly fis­sured, het­ero­ge­neous, mul­ti­ple.43

This gen­er­al call for plu­ral­ism allows Bev­er­ley to dif­fer­en­ti­ate his hopes from those of last century’s nation build­ing projects, yet he does not remark on the role of the state in actu­al­iz­ing his ideals, nor on the rela­tion­ship of dif­fer­ent inter­nal fissures—namely class struggle—to nation­al­ism.

Poulantzas can fill in these gaps on the het­ero­gene­ity of the nation. Like the state itself, “the mod­ern nation is… the out­come of a rela­tion­ship of forces between ‘mod­ern’ social classes—one in which the nation is the stake for the var­i­ous class­es.”44 In oth­er words, the frac­tures and divi­sions that tra­verse the state also cut through the nation. This is because, accord­ing to Poulantzas, the nation itself is a state project, built and defined through the con­struc­tion of bor­ders and the shap­ing of nation­al his­to­ries.45 To con­struct the nation as an “inter­nal­ly fis­sured, het­ero­ge­neous, mul­ti­ple,” then, is to play upon bor­ders and his­to­ries as they relate to exist­ing social divi­sions. Just as with the divi­sion of labor, the point is not to use the exist­ing appa­ra­tus­es to alle­vi­ate the ills of capitalism—for instance by smooth­ing over class or racial het­ero­gene­ity with a new dis­cur­sive con­struc­tion. Instead, a refig­u­ra­tion of the nation-state must bring those antag­o­nisms into its very struc­ture in order to open new polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties.

If, as Poulantzas says,“the state estab­lish­es the mod­ern nation by elim­i­nat­ing oth­er nation­al pasts and turn­ing them into vari­a­tions on its own his­to­ry,” then to what extent have the marea rosa­da states staked a claim for legit­i­ma­cy by dig­ging up these oth­er pasts? What does it mean for a state to build upon an alter­na­tive and poten­tial­ly divi­sive con­cep­tion of sub­al­tern his­to­ry that explic­it­ly chal­lenges, and does not mere­ly sub­sume, the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tion of the dom­i­nant nation­al frame­work? In oth­er words, how do these states set the stage for trans­for­ma­tion by bring­ing dif­fer­ent claims to nation­al legit­i­ma­cy into conflict—in par­tic­u­lar, by draw­ing on hid­den dis­cours­es that locate the nation not in the past of the col­o­niz­ers, or even of mes­ti­zo uni­ty, but rather, of the oppressed, exclud­ed, and exploit­ed?

In Venezuela, the state’s acknowl­edge­ment of social con­flict is itself a rebuke to a cer­tain nation­al his­to­ry which has empha­sized the “Venezue­lan excep­tion” in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry. This sup­pos­ed­ly excep­tion­al his­to­ry of Venezue­lan uni­ty and sta­bil­i­ty at a time when oth­er South and Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries were divid­ed by polit­i­cal strife was only achieved, in fact, through the strat­e­gy of puntofi­jis­mo, where­in Venezuela’s three major polit­i­cal par­ties agreed, fol­low­ing the 1959 intro­duc­tion of for­mal democ­ra­cy, to share pow­er at the expense of both the rad­i­cal Left and the rem­nants of the old right­ist regime, and to enforce this pact through vio­lent repres­sion and exclu­sion of any­one who would ques­tion it.46 Chávez’s elec­tion marked the end of puntofi­jis­mo; with the sup­port of the mass­es, polit­i­cal antag­o­nism, which had erupt­ed more than a few times even under that sys­tem, burst out into the open and achieved a pres­ence in the state. The accu­sa­tions that he was a divi­sive fig­ure are cor­rect in this respect: Chávez and the move­ments that brought him to pow­er sought pre­cise­ly to high­light the already divid­ed sta­tus of the Venezue­lan nation that had been obscured through 40 years of elite par­ty rule. Thus, by acknowl­edg­ing the exis­tence of at least two Venezue­lan nations, divid­ed by class, the Boli­var­i­an state took a giant for­ward leap in the found­ing of a new his­to­ry and a new Venezue­lan nation.

The the­o­ry of hege­mo­ny can, in part, explain this log­ic of equiv­a­lence where­in the social is split along increas­ing­ly clear lines, and one of Laclau’s great con­tri­bu­tions is to reveal how these dis­cur­sive demar­ca­tions (e.g., two Venezue­las) emerge. But Poulantzas intro­duces the ques­tion of how the state par­tic­i­pates in and solid­i­fies these recon­cep­tu­al­iza­tions of the divid­ed nation—i.e, to what extent these dis­cur­sive con­struc­tions at the lev­el of hege­mo­ny trans­late into changes in the state’s own nation-build­ing role.

The case of Bolivia pro­vides con­crete exam­ples of such changes. There, the rise of the Movimien­to al Social­is­mo and the even­tu­al propul­sion of Evo Morales to the country’s pres­i­den­cy cor­re­spond­ed to a series of racial and class-based re-iden­ti­fi­ca­tions of indige­nous and nation­al iden­ti­ty.47 MAS began as the “polit­i­cal instru­ment” of a grass­roots coca grow­ers syn­di­cate, but with its 2006 entry into var­i­ous key posi­tions of state pow­er, the bat­tle it had been wag­ing for social hege­mo­ny on the ques­tion of the nation—what is the Boli­vian nation? what of the oth­er indige­nous nations that exist with­in the Boli­vian borders?—entered the ter­rain of the state under the ban­ner of pluri­na­tion­al­ism. The 2009 con­sti­tu­tion end­ed the Repub­lic of Bolivia, a title and form of gov­ern­ment pred­i­cat­ed on nation­al uni­ty, and cre­at­ed the Pluri­na­tion­al State of Bolivia in its place; rep­re­sen­ta­tives from indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties took seats along­side oth­er deputies in the new Pluri­na­tion­al Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly. That is to say, Bolivia gave up the very con­cept of the nation-state, and mem­bers of MAS, with mas­sive par­tic­i­pa­to­ry sup­port, began to restruc­ture both state pow­er and insti­tu­tion­al appa­ra­tus­es on the basis of the Boli­vian multitude’s inter­nal divi­sions of class, race, and nation­al­i­ty.

The point here is not whether one is “for or against” the nation-state as a site of polit­i­cal mobilization—this mat­ter is already set­tled in the case of the pink tide. One must ask instead how left-lean­ing gov­ern­ments can use the pos­i­tive pow­er of the state to trans­form the shape and con­tent of the nation, even as they rely on it, and con­sid­er whether they are cre­at­ing polit­i­cal space through which con­stituent pow­er can push social trans­for­ma­tion toward a deci­sive break with the cap­i­tal­ism. What should be clear, more broad­ly, is that beyond the ques­tions of who is in charge and who they claim to rep­re­sent stands the press­ing mat­ter of how those in pow­er can recon­fig­ure the var­i­ous parts of the state, its insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty, and change the terms of pop­u­lar polit­i­cal engage­ment with an eye toward con­tin­u­ing strug­gle and future rup­tures.


Changes in the­o­ret­i­cal prac­tice must match the changes in the polit­i­cal prac­tice of those we sup­port. Though the course of polit­i­cal devel­op­ments must guide any ongo­ing analy­sis of the pink tide, and though hege­mo­ny the­o­ry has its uses, Poulantzas’ state the­o­ry offers a nec­es­sary ori­en­ta­tion for the cur­rent con­junc­ture.

Once we rec­og­nize that state pow­er is a var­ie­gat­ed and con­tra­dic­to­ry phe­nom­e­non, and that the task of state pow­er is not sim­ply to “take over” the state machin­ery, as one takes over the driver’s seat of a vehi­cle, then the need to deeply recon­fig­ure the already-divid­ed struc­ture of the state becomes obvi­ous. But how can one know when the recon­fig­u­ra­tions are mov­ing in the right direc­tion? The guid­ing ques­tion is this: to what extent are pur­port­ed­ly left-lean­ing states sharp­en­ing the divi­sions that inhere in the state’s insti­tu­tion­al mate­ri­al­i­ty? In oth­er words, to what extent are they car­ry­ing class strug­gle into the struc­ture of the state appa­ra­tus, not to tame or rec­on­cile it, but to advance, on the polit­i­cal lev­el, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a rup­ture with cap­i­tal­ism? Where the man­date of cap­i­tal­ist states is always to accom­mo­date or repress antag­o­nism, the man­date of 21st cen­tu­ry social­ism must be height­en it and bring it to its polit­i­cal, and not sole­ly eco­nom­ic, con­clu­sions.

The polit­i­cal process­es under­way across Latin Amer­i­ca are some­thing less than com­mu­nism, but they are some­thing more than reformism. As they move on, how­ev­er, they have the poten­tial to become either. Their momen­tum is dif­fi­cult to gauge; at times it is hard to tell the dif­fer­ence between a gen­uine open­ing of a state’s polit­i­cal struc­ture and a cyn­i­cal attempt to gar­ner pop­u­lar favor. The proof can only be in con­crete trans­for­ma­tions. Fur­ther elab­o­ra­tion of Poulantzas’ the­o­ret­i­cal inter­ven­tion can, hope­ful­ly, serve as a guide for under­stand­ing these changes. If we are to be fel­low trav­ellers of any polit­i­cal project today, and if crit­i­cal voic­es can lend any sort of sup­port to these polit­i­cal projects, then we need to track new devel­op­ments, to push onward to fur­ther polit­i­cal rup­ture, and to encour­age the deep­en­ing of the class strug­gle both out­side of state appa­ra­tus­es and with­in them.

Inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, of course, will not make or break a rev­o­lu­tion. But cross-bor­der engage­ments have been the glue of the worker’s move­ment since the days of the First Inter­na­tion­al, and the stakes now are as high as ever: for if the pink tide turns red, it may sweep the whole world into unchart­ed seas.

  1. For more on the con­tent of the protests and social com­po­si­tion of pro­test­ers see: George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher, “Venezue­lan Jacobins,” Jacobin, March 13, 2014. See also: William Neu­man, “Slum Dwellers in Cara­cas Ask, What Protests?,” The New York Times, Feb­ru­ary 28, 2014. 

  2. Quot­ed in Béc­quer Seguín, “Pos­thege­mo­ny in Times of the Pink Tide,” Post­mod­ern Cul­ture 23, no. 2 (2013). 

  3. John Bev­er­ley, Lati­namer­i­can­ism after 9/11 (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2011), 9. 

  4. For more on the Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies Group, see their “Found­ing State­ment,” bound­ary 2 20.3 (1993): 110-21. 

  5. Gareth Williams, The Oth­er Side of the Pop­u­lar: Neolib­er­al­ism and Sub­al­ter­ni­ty in Latin Amer­i­ca (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2002), 84. 

  6. Ibid., 10. 

  7. Ibid., 11. 

  8. Ibid., 1-23.  

  9. As Louis Althuss­er put it, philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­gories are under­stood rela­tion­al­ly and dual­is­ti­cal­ly, and can be use­ful for estab­lish­ing broad the­o­ret­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. Con­cepts are more con­tex­tu­al­ly spe­cif­ic, and are cre­at­ed as part of a shift­ing the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work through which objects of study can be defined so as to pro­duce knowl­edge. See Louis Althuss­er, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, and oth­er essays, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Month­ly Review Press, 2001), 28-9. 

  10. Along these lines, see Sum­it Sarkar’s crit­i­cal overview of how Spivak’s philo­soph­i­cal turn affect­ed the orig­i­nal Sub­al­tern Stud­ies project in Sum­it Sarkar, “The Decline of the Sub­al­tern in Sub­al­tern Stud­ies,” in Map­ping Sub­al­tern Stud­ies and the Post­colo­nial, ed. Vinayak Chaturve­di (New York: Ver­so, 2012), 300-23. 

  11. On the anti-Chav­ista Venezue­lan stu­dent move­ment, see Chap­ter 4 of George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher, We Cre­at­ed Chávez: A People’s His­to­ry of the Venezue­lan Rev­o­lu­tion (Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press Books, 2013), 105-25. 

  12. Bev­er­ley, 110. 

  13. Ibid., 55. 

  14. Ibid., 115-16. 

  15. The begin­nings of this analy­sis of Perón are in Ernesto Laclau, “Towards a The­o­ry of Pop­ulism,” in Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry: Cap­i­tal­ism, Fas­cism, Pop­ulism, Reprint edi­tion (New York: Ver­so, 2012), 144–98. It is a recur­ring theme how­ev­er in Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (New York: Ver­so, 2007), as well as Ernesto Laclau, On Pop­ulist Rea­son (New York: Ver­so, 2005). The most com­pre­hen­sive devel­op­ment of the broad­er hege­mo­ny the­o­ry, with­out direct ref­er­ence to Perón how­ev­er, is in Ernesto Laclau and Chan­tal Mouffe, Hege­mo­ny and Social­ist Strat­e­gy: Towards a Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­t­ic Pol­i­tics. 2nd ed.(New York: Ver­so, 2001). 

  16. Laclau’s turn toward the­o­riz­ing hege­mo­ny is both unsur­pris­ing and a bit iron­ic giv­en his own cri­tique of Nicos Poulantzas in his 1975 essay “The Speci­fici­ty of the Polit­i­cal,” which can be found in Laclau, Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­o­gy in Marx­ist The­o­ry (op. cit.). There, Laclau argues that Poulantzas includes too much in the con­cept of state pow­er when the lat­ter clas­si­fies ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions as state appa­ra­tus­es. Laclau sug­gests that class pow­er, as found in ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions, needs to be thought of sep­a­rate­ly from the state so as to main­tain the speci­fici­ty of the polit­i­cal. It is there­fore unsur­pris­ing that Laclau turns toward an analy­sis of this class pow­er in ide­ol­o­gy and hege­mo­ny, rather than state pow­er, in Hege­mo­ny and Social­ist Strat­e­gy, as well as his fol­low up essay “New Reflec­tions on the Rev­o­lu­tion of Our Time,” in Ernesto Laclau, New Reflec­tions on the Rev­o­lu­tion of Our Time (New York: Ver­so, 1990). It is per­haps iron­ic, how­ev­er, that Jon Beasley-Mur­ray and oth­er crit­ics can right­ly point to Laclau’s own ten­den­cy to ignore state pow­er as a spe­cif­ic cat­e­go­ry and, per­haps bend­ing the stick in the oth­er direc­tion, end up the­o­riz­ing only class pow­er at the expense of state pow­er in his the­o­ries of hege­mo­ny and pop­ulism. 

  17. Jon Beasley-Mur­ray, Pos­thege­mo­ny: Polit­i­cal The­o­ry and Latin Amer­i­ca (Min­neapo­lis: U of Min­neso­ta Press, 2010), 60. 

  18. Beasley-Mur­ray speaks of affect and habit, or what Seguín calls the “pre-social, pre-ide­o­log­i­cal, and even pre-cog­ni­tive modes of social dom­i­na­tion.” See op. cit. 

  19. For an alter­na­tive view of the rela­tion­ship between con­stituent and con­sti­tut­ed pow­er, or mul­ti­tude and pueblo, in the Latin Amer­i­can con­text see Enrique Dus­sel, 20 Tesis de Políti­ca (Méx­i­co D.F.: Siglo XXI, 2006). Avail­able in trans­la­tion as Enrique Dus­sel, Twen­ty The­ses on Pol­i­tics, trans. George Cic­cariel­lo-Maher (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008). For a strong the­o­ret­i­cal com­par­i­son of the con­cepts of pueblo and mul­ti­tude and an account of how the Boli­var­i­an Venezue­lan state dis­cur­sive­ly medi­ates these ideas, see Don­ald Kings­bury, “Between Mul­ti­tude and Pueblo: Venezuela’s Boli­var­i­an Rev­o­lu­tion and the Gov­ern­ment of Un-Gov­ern­abil­i­ty,” New Polit­i­cal Sci­ence 35, no. 4 (Decem­ber 1, 2013): 567–85.  

  20. Seguín, “Pos­thege­mo­ny in Times of the Pink Tide.” 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Poulantzas was, in part, respond­ing to the polit­i­cal demands of his own con­jec­ture and the emer­gence of Euro­com­mu­nism. It would be inter­est­ing to fur­ther com­pare that move­ment with the pink tide gov­ern­ments under dis­cus­sion in Latin Amer­i­ca, as both move­ments involved a greater reliance on par­tic­i­pa­tion in state pow­er and an attempt to steer away from the Sovi­et exam­ple. Par­tic­u­lar­ly, it might be instruc­tive to study the even­tu­al chal­lenges and even­tu­al short­com­ings of Euro­com­mu­nism that pushed it back in the direc­tion of tra­di­tion­al social democ­ra­cy. 

  23. Stu­art Hall, “Nicos Poulantzas: State, Pow­er, Social­ism,” New Left Review 119 (1980): 67. 

  24. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, trans. Patrick Camiller (New York: Ver­so, 2013), 12. 

  25. Ibid.,125. 

  26. Ibid., 128.  

  27. Ibid., 133. 

  28. Cic­cariel­lo-Maher We Cre­at­ed Chávez, 33-4, 98. 

  29. Ibid.,171-73. 

  30. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau,” New Left Review 95, no. 1 (1976): 69-71. 

  31. Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, 133. 

  32. Ibid., 131.  

  33. Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, 49. 

  34. Pablo Ste­fanoni, Franklin Ramírez, and Maris­tel­la Svam­pa, “El ‘Des­cubrim­ien­to’ Del Esta­do,” in Las Vías de La Eman­ci­pación: Con­ver­sa­ciones Con Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era (Méx­i­co D.F.: Ocean Sur, 2009): 74-88. Trans­la­tion by present author. 

  35. Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, 55-56. 

  36. Trans­la­tion by present author. Orig­i­nal text of con­sti­tu­tion avail­able here. 

  37. Cic­cariel­lo-Maher, We Cre­at­ed Chávez, 244. 

  38. Ibid., 196-98. 

  39. Mar­ta Har­neck­er, “Cin­co Reflex­iones Sobre el Social­is­mo del Siglo XXI,” Rebe­lión, March 26, 2012. Trans­la­tion by present author. 

  40. Bev­er­ley, 42. 

  41. This process did, of course, have the con­tra­dic­to­ry effect of cre­at­ing mass nation­al-pop­u­lar resis­tance move­ments to both impe­ri­al­ism and, at times, to cap­i­tal­ism.  

  42. Sara C. Mot­ta, “Old Tools and New Move­ments in Latin Amer­i­ca: Polit­i­cal Sci­ence as Gate­keep­er or Intel­lec­tu­al Illu­mi­na­tor,” Latin Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics and Soci­ety 51, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 40. 

  43. Bev­er­ley, 41. 

  44. Poulantzas, State, Pow­er, Social­ism, 115. 

  45. Ibid., 105. 

  46. Cic­cariel­lo-Maher, We Cre­at­ed Chávez, 25. 

  47. For some back­ground on this process, see Robert Albro, “The Cul­ture of Democ­ra­cy and Bolivia’s Indige­nous Move­ments,” Cri­tique of Anthro­pol­o­gy 26, no. 4 (2006): 387–410. 

Author of the article

is a member of the Viewpoint editorial collective and a PhD candidate in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz.