Ronaldo Munck’s latest book, Social Movements in Latin America, is a welcome addition to an ongoing discussion on protest movements in the twenty-first century. As stated in the Introduction, Munck seeks to avoid the pitfalls in what he terms “the universal validity for what is sometimes known as ‘social movement theory’, seen as a self-contained discipline”. The result is an engaging, quite easy to read, and challenging book.
The book begins, asking in the very first line, what is a social movement? The answer is linked to Mario Diani’s definition: “networks of informal interaction between a plurality of individual groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared identity”. After clarifying that social movements are not necessarily progressive, Munck then goes on to analyze a wide variety of movements: workers, peasants, women, indigenous, community, environmentalist. These are considered against the backdrop of governments and political parties that Munck sometime terms progressive, other times center-left, and finally as left. This serves to posit a political conclusion (Chapter 10: Ways Forward) that is as debatable as challenging. States Munck: “The construction of a pueblo to win elections and transform society cannot be achieved from a position of absolute exteriority (for example, by criticizing Kirchnerism for its national-popular rather than explicitly socialist politics) and not understanding the political horse trading that constructs political alliances and the successful connection to labour and other social movements, which has helped forge a new—potentially hegemonic—political force”.
I would like to take advantage of this opportunity not to discuss the whole book, in all its richness, but rather to consider three aspects. First, the issue of social movements, considered, as Munck asks us to do, by “grounding” the subject. Second, the issue of the new political movements sometimes termed “the Pink Tide” in Latin America, and, third, derived from the above, the political conclusion.
My first concern was that Diani’s definition of social movements covers just about anything, left, right, apolitical. In fact, though Munck refers to Fox Piven and Cloward’s seminal work, he elides the fact that not once do they use the term “social movements”, but rather refer to “protest movements” of the proletariat (understood in a more flexible definition than that of Lenin) as a working-class resistance. As such, my feeling is that Fox Piven and Cloward would probably reject Diani’s bland, all encompassing, definition especially as they retain a form of analysis grounded in class and not in identities.
In fact, once we “ground” the question of “what is a social movement?”, it becomes more elusive and complex to define. Let us briefly consider Argentina. The past three decades have seen myriad protests ranging from unemployed workers, to gender-driven, to indigenous people, to retirees and pensioners, to “youth”, and include several thousand workplaces under “workers control”. All these protests have developed organization, proposals, and specific tactics. For instance, whereas all mobilize in the streets, the unemployed organizations tend towards highway blockades and setting up cooperatives. They coincide with indigenous people (mostly the Mapuche nation) in terms of land occupations. They differ in terms of the reasons they do so (the unemployed to be able to build housing; the mapuches demanding the return of ancestral lands). On the other hand, gender-driven protests and organizations, do not resort to these tactics, focusing mostly on education and parliamentary reforms. Perhaps this is the reason why, when in Argentina politicians refer to “social movements”, they allude to the unemployed organizations, and not indigenous or gender-driven groups. This also obscures a problem derived from Diani’s earlier definition: the main self-identification of the members of the unemployed movement is as workers, in other words it is class- and not identity- based. The same can be said of the numerous employed-worker protests in Argentina. Most of these exist outside institutional union structures and have developed their own forms of organization. The similarity between both movements is suggested by the names they adopted. For instance, some of the main unemployed workers organizations are the Polo Obrero (Worker Pole), and the Corriente Clasista y Combativa (Combative and Class-based Current). At the same time, some of the organizations of rank and file workers are called Movimiento de Agrupaciones Clasistas (Class-based Groups Movement), Corriente Sindical Rompiendo Cadenas (Trade Union Current Breaking Chains). At least in Argentina, these apparently “identity-based” movements, have strong class undercurrents and cleavages. Thus, a definition of social movements as based on a “shared identity”, while seductive, oversimplifies a complex phenomenon that tends to resignify past trends and give them new meanings.
A similar problem comes to the fore when we consider the “Pink Tide” governments. Both Kirchners, Lula, Chavez, Evo, Mugica, Correa, Ortega, all are thought to be similar by outside observers. And yet numerous conflicts between them suggest differences, for instance those between Uruguay’s Mugica and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, on the one side, and the Kirchners on the other (for instance, Mugica often referred to Néstor Kirchner as a “one eyed crook”). The same can be said in terms of their policies and ideas. Chavez was a proponent of what he termed “Twenty-First Century Socialism”, whereas Evo Morales insisted on the creation of a plurinational society with deep roots in indigenous traditions. Lula on the other hand, in his alliance with Igreja Universal and PMDB, never did pose anything as radical. And the Kirchners’ have often repeated that they were not “left” but rather represented a modernization of Peronism. These notions had an impact on government policies. For instance, Chavez took over Venezuela’s petroleum corporation (PDVSA) and used its considerable income to develop various social programs (albeit there seems to have been a lot of corruption). The Kirchners, in spite their rhetoric, did nothing similar. Their nationalization of YPF implied becoming the majority stockholder by buying Spanish Repsol shares. As such, YPF remains a private corporation, driven by profit, paying dividends, and selling shares on Wall Street. The same can be said of Lula and Evo Morales. At least until 2010 Evo’s policies implied a far- reaching redistribution of income, which differed significantly from the policy of government hand-outs implemented by Lula.
The differences in approach are telling in terms of popular support. When Dilma Roussef was overthrown in a parliamentary coup d’etat, Lula and his PT were unable to mobilize any kind of a significant protest. This was unlike Bolivia where the coup orchestrated by Jeanine Añez saw significant resistance and repression, that ended when Añez accepted new elections, albeit without Evo as candidate. In Argentina, one of the Kirchners’ successes was the 2015 election. For the first time in Argentine history, an overtly right wing candidate was elected. Mauricio Macri had the dubious honour to be the first presidential candidate who did not even bother to mask his neoliberal proposals. Twenty- five years earlier Carlos Menem promised a “productive revolution and a salariazo” (large increase in wages), and once elected did exactly the opposite.
What, if anything, did these governments have in common? First, they all tended to accept neoliberal premises, such as private property being untouchable, and that you fight large economic corporations by creating your own. Second, they believed redistribution of income is a result of increased government subsidies, not of something derived of job creation (especially full employment). As such, unemployment tended to remain at levels close to those of the 1990s. Third, they did not attempt to develop their economies integrally, breaking the export cycle. This meant that when the price of commodities fell after 2009, their situation became critical. And yet, they were clearly not all the same. Evo and Chavez were reformists in a more traditional social democratic sense. Neither was a Marxist in any meaning of the term. Lula, the Kirchners, Ortega, and Correa are at best populist conservatives. In fact, Ortega has a strong component of mysticism; it is no accident that Ortega’s health policies in the midst of the COVID pandemic are similar to those of Bolsonaro, or that he has dismantled many of the original Sandinista reforms. And all four have been accused (and in the case of Lula condemned) for corruption. It is interesting that the response of the kirchneristas to these accusations has been two-fold. First, they claim that Mauricio Macri, who succeeded Cristina in 2015, was “more corrupt”, not that she was not. And second, that their corruption was done to obtain sufficient funds to fight the big corporations. Hopefully, this complete loss of moral and ethical compass, is not what Munck refers to as “political horse trading”.
In this sense, I have no idea who, if anyone, has been “criticizing Kirchnerism for its national-popular rather than explicitly socialist politics”. There are always some people and groups who pretend that other movements should be what they want to be, and not what they are. But most of the Left’s critique tends to focus mostly on the abyss between discourse and actual policies. For instance, in spite of their narrative, after 13 years in office, with an absolute majority in both chambers of Congress, the Kirchners never proposed a law to legalize abortion, or to reform labour laws, or to reform agriculture, or to protect the environment; what is much worst, the person who did present an abortion law to the Senate, and who developed an environmental policy of sorts, was the overtly neoliberal and Catholic Macri. At the same time, the Kirchners have also been criticized by many of the more traditional Peronists who consider that they have highjacked the movement and abandoned its reformist premises. The fact that a united Peronism was able to defeat Macri in 2020 cannot obscure these facts. Cristina Kirchners’ government between 2011 and 2015 was disaster, which is why Macri won. Macri was also a socioeconomic disaster, and voters faced with either him or the earlier Peronist coalition voted to change in the hope that the Kirchners had learned from the 2015 defeat. The fact that they have not is reflected in all the polls which indicate that the two most hated political leaders in Argentina (October 2020) are Mauricio Macri and Cristina Kirchner.
Last, but not least, Munck refers to “horse trading” as the ability to make deals and keep compromises and promises to reach political agreements. This is an essential aspect of building a viable political alternative. And yet, I tend to feel that political alliances are not built only by horse trading, unless you have a postmodernist view of politics and the only thing that counts is a mixture of narrative plus personal benefits. In a sense, Lula, the Kirchners, and Correa seem to have believed not in principles but in “horse trading” in an absolute sense. This is why their alliances included political forces and politicians that were contradictory in both ideas and trajectory, such as the Igreja Universal, the PMDB, and the PT. Leaders like Lula seem to have disregarded that policies, ideas, leadership, trust, and organizing over time all come into play when building a coalition. Obviously, how political loot is apportioned, must be considered. But when it is the only consideration, the political coalition becomes a royal battle. Vice-president Michel Temer betrayed Dilma voting her destitution; Lenin Moreno became President of Ecuador thanks to Rafael Correa’s support only to turn on his benefactor once in office; Kirchnerismo is full of former Peronists, Trotskyists, Communists, and Radicales (members of the center right UCR party) who only seem united in the effort to remain in office.
Perhaps more importantly is that society and politics in Latin America are in a state of flux. Not only have new politicians and parties come to the fore, but there are new social organizations, with strategies and tactics that would have been unthinkable barely a few decades ago. There are many new phenomena arising that have not coalesced into what is new. The old refuses to die, while the new is not yet fully born. Perhaps it would be more useful to go back to more flexible theoretical models of E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, instead of Barrington Moore who is not only a bit dated but has a series of problems, at least, for the historian.
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Author: Pablo Pozzi
Pablo Pozzi, PhD in History (SUNY at Stony Brook 1989) is a Plenary Full Professor in the History Department of the University of Buenos Aires (Argentina), where he holds the Chair in United States History and teaches the dissertation seminar on Argentine Labor. He specialises in contemporary social history, specifically post-1945 labour, both in Argentina and in the United States.