In a world reeling from the effects of neo-liberalism and the dominance of finance capital, with terrified politicians at the mercy of global corporations and ordinary human activity increasingly replaced by push-button global finance - $32 trillion is held in tax havens by corporations and individuals who have no intention of basing themselves there or of putting their money into the real economy – Latin America is a remarkable exception, a continent where ordinary people are showing that a better world is possible. Politics there now subsumes the economy, and the United States’ dominance over the region ended fifteen years ago. No Latin American country participated in the illegal invasion of Iraq, or in the ensuing crimes of rendition and torture, and it even seems that the United States and its allies did not ask a single Latin American government to participate. Emir Sader’s short, clear, and very accessible account is probably the outstanding explanation of how Latin Americans have taken a fresh grasp of economic and financial forces, forces usually presented as inevitable and therefore beyond evaluation and control.
Sader enables us to make sense of where we are, that is, in a captivity formed by three monopolies or axes. The first is the militarisation of international tensions, because the United States — despite the evidence — believes it has unquestionable superiority. The second is neoliberalism’s financialisation of all social relations and commodification of all natural resources.
The third is the control the private media have over the “profoundly selective and anti-democratic processes of shaping public opinion.” Our captivity, however, is not total, and the peoples of Latin America, who were among the first victims of a brutal form of neoliberalism enforced by extremely brutal dictatorships, have seen through the veil of illusion to generate a political economy grounded in a nearly-forgotten sanity about a decent human life.
Ceasing to be the world’s first laboratory of neoliberalism is anything but easy. In previous periods, less severe crises have generated mass responses, but neoliberalism causes such fragmentation that mass responses are now the exception, despite counter-movements such as the current strikes and worker walkouts across the United States, or consumer boycotts and advertisers’ fear thereof, and the like. For Sader the problem is that alternative expressions of discontent and despair, such as religion, or violence whether public or private, serve to depoliticise public critique; indeed Brazil is undergoing mass protests about corruption and a failure to improve public institutions and services. However justified the protests, the current context makes coherent alternatives to neoliberalism much harder to develop. Furthermore, around the rest of the world, governments and major corporations, whether or not they are aware of their global loss of public approval, appear unable to admit that neoliberalism has collapsed; they also struggle constantly with one another for control over the world’s political economy.
Although the global South, Russia included, has started building its own institutions, the states concerned remain locked into a global economy dominated by the major blocs and corporations. Across the world too, social democratic parties, and at present the trade unions, have been weakened by the spread of neoliberalism, the former by their own belief that they had to adopt neoliberalism in order to regain elected office, and the latter as the result of relentlessly hostile legislation and media abuse (France and Germany, which have retained a recognisable version of the post-war domestic consensus, are possible exceptions, and may well have weathered the global crash better than most). The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s also removed any lingering sense in western and allied countries that they had to maintain even some decencies so as to show their moral and ideological superiority over communist states.
That makes the achievements of Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of the initiators of Latin America’s resurgence, all the more notable. Drawing upon the emergence of an industrial proletariat around São Paulo, Lula built a movement to replace the discredited Brazilian Communist Party, and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) or Workers’ Party seeks to combine social justice with ethics in politics; he won office in 2002 following the failure of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s idea that monetary stability would generate high employment. Lula’s main problem, however, was that despite renewed electoral mandates he felt obliged to maintain his predecessor’s focus on monetary policy.
The issues Lula faced highlight the continuing tension on the left between reform and revolution, a question at least as old as the exchanges between Rosa Luxemburg and Eduard Bernstein. In addition, the left too often sees all movements in Manichaean terms of good or evil; according to Sader, many on the left fail to see that all revolutions are heterodox and that successful ones involve concrete engagement informed by a wider vision. These can be desperately urgent practical questions; the Chilean Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) supported Salvador Allende despite their entirely justified expectation that an entrenched state apparatus would smother Allende’s reforms and that there would be a military coup.
Sader moves illuminatingly between theory and political history in his respective analyses of the democratic rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the calculated U.S.-driven overthrow of Daniel Ortega’s elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Public support for such politicians, crucially, requires the rejection of the neoliberal distinction between civil society and the state — a rejection which has enabled Latin Americans to recognise that, for example, those who speak the Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní languages must be included in politics as of right and are a true cultural asset; it has also enabled the continent’s leaders to ignore the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It is this which shows how much contemporary Latin Americans inherit from Cuba’s victory over imperialism and thereby shows how capitalism can and must be brought under control. Sader has written a most marvellous book.
(Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is a senior deputy editor with The Hindu)