Political Anatomy of the South American Conjuncture: Images of Development and New Social Conflict in the Present Period


The essay translated below was first published in November 2014 on Lobo Suelto, a blog linked to the Argentine militant research group Colectivo Situaciones. Its appearance followed the reelection of Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and the election of Tabaré Vásquez in Uruguay (who returned to the office for a second, non-consecutive term on the the popularity of his predecessor and party-mate José Mujica). Despite these ostensibly “progressive” victories, Sandro Mezzadra and Diego Sztulwark argue that the region’s period of left-wing state dominance may have reached its limits, and in some cases, fallen into outright conservatism. Consequently, they call for a re-activiation of political struggle at the grassroots level to overcome the inertia of the political cycle. This analysis continues to resonate, as several successors to the original pink tide leadership are gearing up for another round of electoral politics this year, with a general election in Argentina (October 25) and an important parliamentary vote for Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro (December 6). The outcomes of these elections and the political trajectories generated by them will call for yet more conjunctural analysis; Mezzadra and Sztulwark therefore offer an essential theoretical starting point. With this in mind, we present the following translation with the occasional editorial addition of in-text links to English-language coverage of referenced events.

I. How should we read the triumph of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Bolivia, the Frente Amplio (FA) in Uruguay, and the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in Brazil?

The recent electoral cycle in Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay permits us an initial evaluation of the political period of so-called progressive governments in South America, as well as of the region’s pattern of development, generally called neo-developmentalism or neo-extractivism.

Above all, it offers an opportunity to ask how South America has changed during the past decade. Indeed, a materialist analysis – and not just a policy analysis, focused on the “achievements” of the progressive governments – requires a view of the political anatomy of society in terms of its subjects, changes and continuities in its social fabric, and new problems posed by a more aggressive phase of the global economic crisis that has affected the region.

To begin, the triumph of the forces in government (PT in Brazil, MAS in Bolivia, and FA in Uruguay, with their respective coalitions) permits us to affirm the persistence of a “progressive” political cycle – very clearly in the case of Bolivia where the political consolidation of the government was extraordinarily forceful, and in a more limited way in the case of Uruguay and Brazil, where both an organized conservative opposition and, beyond the elections themselves, persistent market pressure have shown themselves capable of restricting the future scope of the governments’ political orientations.

What does this electoral ratification mean? In principle it extends the “porous” character that public institutions have had with respect to the period of struggles that, during the past decade, managed to overthrow the legitimacy of the neoliberal consensus of the 80s and 90s. This ratification prolongs and affirms the defeat throughout the region of purely neoliberal efforts, by elites, to retake direct political control. In that sense, it holds open the possibility for a region-wide development of a political dynamism unencumbered by the hegemony of the neoliberal West.

But the consolidation of these governing experiences cannot be assessed only with reference to the impasses that precipitated the current period more than a decade ago. The tensions of the present conjuncture, derived from a new configuration of South American societies as well as from a new regional and global context, pose a series of more precise questions regarding the meaning of these electoral victories.

In the case of Brazil, whose influence over the region is obvious, what has been put in question is the capacity of the new government to reinvent Lulismo’s institutional “porosity” following the conservative turn of public policy in the Dilma Rousseff era and the PT’s retreat from organized militancy.

This is not merely a rhetorical point when we recall that the movements that erupted in many Brazilian cities during June 2013 forcefully manifested a series of conflicts linked to public transportation, repression in the favelas, urban gentrification (above all around the World Cup and the Olympic games), and the harshest features of the developmentalist model. These movements expressed a structural modification in Brazilian society and posed a challenge that might well have been an opportunity to reinvent those aforementioned “porous” mechanisms. This possibility, nonetheless, was not realized. And although it is true that those movements did not manage to impose themselves politically – they were barely relevant in the elections – what is certain is that they illuminated a new social landscape violently ignored by the state and the Partido dos Trabalhadores.

Similar phenomena throughout the region show the intention of various governments to uncritically tie the continuity of the “progressive” political period to the neo-developmentalist/neo-extractivist model. This situation obliges us to realistically consider scenarios of closure, political exclusion, and growing social violence in the future.

The intensification of violence, including both structural violence arising from the mode of accumulation and the more diffuse but omnipresent violence in poor urban neighborhoods, transverses regional geopolitics, affecting countries with “progressive” governments as much as those that are openly conservative – though not always in the same way. The recourse to massacre, of which Mexico sets an extreme and perverse example, signals the extent to which terror has returned to the continent as a means for the management of social conflict, appealing to fear and preventing any collective evaluation on the new architecture of power.

II. What can we expect from a consolidation of the current pattern of development?

The established development model in Latin America, with its clear internal differentiations, was configured around a successful renegotiation of its insertion into the global market as a supplier of raw materials (grains and extractive goods). These activities provide the foreign reserves necessary to sustain the policies of “social inclusion” at the same time that they permit the state to play a more active role.

The administration of these processes is complex and has different levels. On the one hand, the cycle itself depends for its functioning on external factors that cannot be guaranteed in the long term. On the other hand, given the contradictory structure of multilateral global dynamics – represented above all by the formation of the BRICs – its management requires a special geopolitical sensitivity, and regional integration becomes a key question for the internal affairs of each country. Furthermore, neo-extractive economies suppose a high level of structural violence (in both rural and urban areas) and it is not clear, at least in public political discourse, how it is that governments are weighing the advantages of capturing rents against the consideration of future projects for the development of higher-quality democracy.

Faced with these questions, the progressive ideological discourse does not provide acceptable answers. They tell us of a simple evolutionary line with the promise of continuing every kind of improvement. We know very well that things do not work that way: the so-called neo-developmentalist model has already produced powerful effects (linking consumption and violence) throughout the region, and has substantially modified social behaviors and class structures. The results of this pattern of development are already present among us, with all their contradictions.

Among the most significant changes in the present landscape, we should highlight the emergence of new “middle classes,”1 as well as the massification of consumption, and the transformation of a continuing poverty under the effects of this massification. In the subjective order, these shifts are accompanied by an intense new centrality of the theme of insecurity, which serves to reproduce the the agenda of the right. In fact, “middle class” and “security” are two signifiers being simultaneously redefined by the same dynamic: the intentional production of a new social subject, intrinsically disciplined by the political dispositifs of mediatization, securitization, debt, and representation.

III. What are the stakes of the conjuncture?

If, as we have argued, the pattern of development appears to be continuing without change – at least in the short term – and if the conquests of the period of anti-neoliberal in the 90s continue to be legitimate and cannot be ignored, the question “What are the stakes of the present conjuncture?” points to something else.

We are referring to the struggle to interpret and politically articulate the social mutations that have occurred throughout the region. In this struggle, racist and classist discourses aim to harden internal borders, moving the collective imaginary and public policy in a punitive direction and focusing on security, reaffirming the internally hierarchical character of national space (and using nationalist rhetoric to do it).

Unfortunately, the “progressive” governments are not immune to these transgressions, nor do they always effectively take up the task of containing them. It is therefore easy to see how, in Brazil, persistent violence in the favelas is displaced time and time again from the neo-developmentalist agenda, or how the Argentine state gives a racist and classist treatment to young people from ghettos and informal settlements. (This current criminalization of poor, immigrant citizens is nothing but a new chapter in a larger story.)

IV. Argentina’s conjuncture, Argentina in the conjuncture

The presidential elections planned for 2015 will be a difficult process of transition, marked by, among other things, the intense weight of the struggle that the national government continues to pursue on the plane of international finance. The current position of the Argentine government with respect to the so-called vulture funds has created an opportunity to fully open up the financial world as a space of struggle, but this possibility, in order to be effective, will require an intense internal political mobilization. And, on the regional and global levels, it will mean the proposal of concrete strategies for challenging the articulation of financial flows, including the centrality of the dollar as the sovereign global currency.

The complexity of the situation becomes clear when we look at Europe, ever firmer in its role as an obstacle to revising the architecture and power of finance or changing the global framework: recession and crisis, which continue to be particularly sharp in Southern Europe, constitute, in themselves, the cause of a vicious circle that prevents the continent from playing a role in the dynamic refiguration of financial and monetary management.

It is necessary to add, when looking at Europe, that the rise of nationalist forces from the right, like Le Pen’s Front National in France, only reinforces the continent’s role as an obstacle to change. Only a rupture with neoliberalism from below could permit the emergence of new correlations and configurations of forces to make possible a Europe capable of playing an expansive role at a global level.

The case of Asia is different. The importance of Argentina’s swap with China and of the diversification of its national reserves as part of its conflict with the vulture funds may signal a still unclear but more multilateral future scenario. Inertia, however, persists with respect to the pattern of development, and there is a lack of political initiative to revise the tendential link between Chinese loans and the consolidation of mega-extractive activities. And it must be said that this link makes future changes in the Chinese economic model an extremely important problem for Argentina and for the region.

Under these complex conditions, the tendency toward a conservative national consensus inside and outside Kirchnerism based on the aforementioned racist and classist phenomena is a reactionary factor insofar as it prevents any innovative or democratic wagers at the social level. These wagers would be the necessary conditions to further the struggle on the terrain of global finance.

It is therefore worrying, in this sense, that the electoral field is dominated by conservative and right-wing candidates, without any visible alternative able to expand those innovative elements that, in their moment, signaled a virtuous circle between government and collective mobilization (human rights organizations and social movements).

In effect, Kirchnerism has governed by combining, over the course of years, a vocation for innovation with a recognition of – and pact with – conservative powers, as much in local and provincial governments as in organized labor.

The large unions, beneficiaries of the last decade’s economic reactivation and of a general representative parity for workers, are a notable piece of governmentality. They are currently being reconfigured in the face of amplified labor conflict caused by inflation, recession, and layoffs. In this context, the appearance of young unionists with a democratic spirit of struggle – and an inclination to ally themselves with left parties – is gaining traction against the powerful, old union bureaucracy, itself often allied with the government.

To highlight the full complexity of the political process it’s worth noting the devaluative pressure of the export sector, the negotiations with investors (including China and Russia) interested in strategic zones like infrastructural development and the Vaca Muerta region, and the constant threat of destabilization by rightwing groups – increasingly associated with narcotrafficing and autonomized police forces – as during the hot month of December 2013.

All of these tensions reverberate within Kirchnerism, challenging the numerous militant collectives that are a part of it.

On the one hand, the government creates scenarios of political confrontation and militant mobilization and tries to compensate for the effects of an inflation rate greater than the incomes of informal workers by distributing resources through social programs. But on the other hand, it finds itself increasingly compromised by the features of a precarious governmentality, leaving it with few options during the electoral period.

The ambivalence of the government’s policies is that although they postpone the need for a conventional currency adjustment, they weaken the very bases necessary to counteract this need, recreating a division between formal and informal workers and linking the financing of public policies to the creation of inflation.

V. Can the victories of recent struggles be a democratic vector for the future?

The outcome of this last decade’s political cycle is very important not only for Latin America but also for the globe. This impact is due above all to the fact that Latin America has been the only place on the whole planet where “left” alternatives to neoliberalism have been attempted in the last decade: from the rejection of free trade agreements to the proclamation of 21st-century socialism; from the relative reverse of the tendency toward privatizations to the rise of anti-debt politics; from the policies of human rights and social inclusion to the creation of South American integration efforts like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the entry of new subjects into the state, like Evo Morales in Bolivia.

These imaginative efforts have served as an inspiration for new political experiences all over the planet, as is occurring now with the experience of Podemos in Spain and the attempt to stir a powerful reaction from below against the Europe of neoliberal adjustment.

Having reached this point in our discussion, we must clarify a bit what it is we mean by “neoliberalism.” In addition to a (Washington) consensus over structural adjustment and privatization, neoliberalism has become a mode of social governance and a powerful micropolitical dynamic (affects, beliefs, desires), circulating and dominating in different spheres of social life.

A first element of our assessment of regional attempts to construct a “post-neoliberal” process in South America shows that these efforts have been concentrated primarily at the state level, based on the presumption that neoliberalism equals unregulated markets. The political will constituted at this level has embodied a neo-developmentalist ideal, opening important debates and proposing valuable reforms without eliminating, nonetheless, the features of a neoliberalism that persists as much in its structural features (financial hegemony, concentration of land), as in its reproduction “from below.” The “business” form and the rules of competition continue to decisively organize and manage concrete social existence in a large number of spheres.

Indeed, the political will that has acted from the state in the name of economic growth and the improvement of vast inequalities has not managed to overcome extensive degrees of social disparity nor to subvert deep structural hierarchies.

This leads us to propose a certain dissonance between the political will of the state and the political potential of the intense insurrections and revolts of the 90s in many South American countries. These struggles declared the crisis of neoliberalism’s political hegemony, strengthening and making visible a plural group of excluded subjects: workers, campesinos, the poor, and the indigenous. Following this, a process of plebeian appropriation spread throughout the space of the public (most evidently and persistently in Bolivia under Evo Morales). The presence of these subjects, beginning with the rise of “progressive” governments and the complex system of recognitions that came with it, forced the opening of a new process of regional integration.

And yet, the limits of the project of social inclusion proposed by these progressive governments ended up weakening the potential to deepen the processes of plebeian democratization. As it happened, integration through consumption and the project of creating a new “middle class” did not permit any real confrontation with the structural violence linked to neo-developmentalism/ neo-extractivism, a violence systematically denied by these very governments. This dynamic has reached the point where violence is a constitutive feature of progressive citizenship itself, creating a new space of social conflict over the role of the state.

In light of a hypothetical scenario of stabilization (neo-developmentalism, conservative consensus) obtained by the “progressive” governments themselves, is it possible to imagine that the achievements of the past decade’s movements could act as the basis for a re-opening of political productivity and a new virtuous cycle between movements and political spaces? Or has this cycle already been exhausted?

Again, it is a matter of considering the role of the state. The recent political period, as can been seen in the current situation of Venezuela and Ecuador, shows that even when the state plays a valuable role in the construction of alternatives, it can in no case be relied upon as the exclusive strategic agent. This is because processes of change tend to exhaust themselves in a sterile state centrality if there are no modalities of articulation for the emergence of new, non-state-centric subjects and the configuration of a regional political space beyond the national scale.

If it is true that the Latin American scenario has been stabilized despite the continuation of a “progressive” period, is it possible to rethink the relationship between politics and the current pattern of development?

The new socio-territorial conflict linked to this pattern of development is a challenge to the last few decades’ tendency toward democracy – we have already mentioned the classist and racist violence associated with it. This conflict is essentially reactionary, since it serves as the practical route for the subordination of anti-neoliberal plebeian rebellion. This situation forces us to imagine new, more radical meanings of “social inclusion.” We refer to the possibility of reanimating collective vitalities around key nodes of the informal and self-employment economy, around precarious work and struggles for land and dignified housing that, freed from the dispositif consisting of the consumption pattern, cheap industry, and neo-extractivist economy, could form part of a coalition of forces to inspire new social and political dynamics.

But this coalition is not imaginable without considering the collection of experiences and struggles linked to the strategic task of producing a new subjectivity. These experiences are rooted in the material power [potencia] opened by these struggles rather than in an attraction to transcendental authority [poder]. We have in mind here new ways of life and their collective production around healthcare, education, and human rights. The production of these ways of life can offer a positive materiality for the construction of autonomous citizens’ self-defense networks in neighborhoods and territories facing ever greater dynamics of violence.

Far from looking backward and hoping for answers in the movements that began the recent period, as if nothing important had changed in the span of a decade, it is worth recalling that the material base created by those movements continues to serve as a condition for political productivity and to generate new understandings of development.

The original version of this text can be found on Lobo Suelto

– Translated by Robert Cavooris 

  1. The scare quotes aim to problematize the use of this simplistic category whose political function is to indicate a sort of homogenous inclusion, displacing a much more plural and heterogeneous reality. 

Authors of the article

is a member of Colectivo Situaciones, a militant research collective based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In addition, he is involved with the publisher Tinta Limón, regularly blogs for Lobo Suelto, and participates in the Instituto de Investigación y Experimentación Política (IIEP). Two recent Colectivo Situaciones books have been published in English: 19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism and Genocide in the Neighborhood.

teaches Political Theory at the University of Bologna, has long been engaged in activist projects, and is an active participant in the "post-workerist" debate (see particularly Euronomade). Among other books, he is, with Brett Neilson, author of Border as Method.