'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Dancing with Dynamite 

Back in July 2007, I reviewed Ben Dangl's The Price of Fire, an excellent book that described how Bolivians collectively organized against the neoliberal globalization process to preserve their access to the resources necessary for their survival. Now, Dangl is back with a new book, Dancing with Dynamite, addressing the problematic relationship that the social movements of several South American countries have with the left leaning governments of the region. Many of these movements are associated with the historic grievances of campesinos and indigenous peoples going back centuries.

It is a timely subject, one that, as with most issues associated with South America, we are tempted to push to the side because of our ongoing, necessary preoccupations with the perpetually expanding war on terror and the sub-proletarianization of the US and Europe. But, given that the people there have resisted the postmodern atomization of social life throughout much of the rest of the world, and insisted upon alternatives to neoliberalism, we should remain engaged with what is happening there. For, it is primarily within South America that we perceive the prospect of either a post-capitalist order or one in which the voraciousness of capital is sharply curtailed. His work provides us with new insights and encourages us to speculate about the social forces that will shape the future.

Generally, Dangl presents a dynamic whereby social movements seek to obtain greater autonomy within the nation state, sometimes in conflict with the electoral left within government and sometimes not, while aligning with leftist political parties when necessary to prevent the reemergence of right wing control as it is universally acknowledged that a return to rightist repression and neoliberal economic policy would be catastrophic. He suggests that social movements retain the most effectiveness in terms of achieving their aspirations and containing the rightist threat, when they preserve an independent stance in relation to the political process. Dangl describes this complex, often contradictory relationship between social movements and leftist political parties as a dance, one that requires cooperation without cooptation.

Both Bolivia and Venezuela are interesting examples of how this dynamic plays out on the ground because of their relative distance from American influence. Not surprisingly, the chapters about the social movements in these countries are the longest ones in the book, and Dangl brings out the similarities and differences in regard to the relationship of their social movements to the state. Both countries are governed by charismatic leaders, who, by virtue of their personal appeal, have the capability of incorporating independent activism into their electoral organizations. But both also require a vibrant, activist culture to remain politically viable.

However, in Bolivia, Dangl relates how Morales, and his political party, the Movement Toward Socialism, the MAS, have, by and large, successfully channeled pre-existing demands for the transformation of society into the decisionmaking processes of representative government. He expresses concern about his discovery that the community organizations of El Alto, once a center of anti-authoritarian resistance to state authority, have become quiescent. Meanwhile, in Venezuela, Chavez remains an inspirational figure for millions of poor Venezuelans, one who encourages them to take charge of their communities through demands for public services, such as water and power, as well as by seeking legal recognition of land seizures, housing developments and cooperative factory takeovers, frequently in the face of institutional resistance. Paradoxically, social movements in Venezuela face the challenge of becoming powerful enough to effectively organize themselves independent of the government, while those in Bolivia struggle to preserve their hard fought independence.

Perhaps, this is attributable to the differing socioeconomic terrain in the two countries. Social movements in Bolivia, especially ones involving indigenous peoples, have the express purpose of decentralizing power to the point of achieving the dissolution of the nation state itself. Conversely, decentralization has been a prominent feature of Venezuelan life for decades, with the people there having lived through the rapid urbanization of the country in the absence of a strong administrative presence. Furthermore, indigenous people play a more prominent role in Bolivia because they constitute a substantial part of the population, while, in Venezuela, they are much less so. Hence, the people of Bolivia have a stronger tradition of resistance to the nation state form of organization imposed by Europeans, resulting in a strong anti-authoritarian sensibility, while the Venezuelan left retains the influence of Trotsky and Luxemburg, probably reinforced through various waves of immigration. But, despite such different ideological traditions, Dangl implies that the momemtum in both countries appears to be in the same direction, towards the creation of a highly democratized Keynesian social welfare state.

Unfortunately, there is a more sinister possibility, as revealed by Dangl's exploration of social and political conditions in Paraguay. In 2008, former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo won the presidential election there, a historic victory for the left in a country dominated by an oligarchy for decades. But, upon visiting there, Dangl discovers that little has changed in the last two years. One political analyst tells Dangl that the powerful interests in the country can be described as follows:

1) the oligarchy, consisting of soy growers and cattle ranchers who rely upon paramilitaries to allow them to expand

2) the narco-traffickers who pay off politicians

3) the lumpen business class, which relies upon international trade and black market goods

4) the transnational corporations who that buy and export soy, cotton and sugar

Accordingly, poor urban and campesino movements remain marginalized, despite Lugo's victory. Campesinos are finding it hard to retain their land against the incursions of the transnational soy business, tragically related to Dangl through the experiences of the victims, much less obtain more through land reform.

Of course, one can imagine similar outcomes in other countries throughout the region, including left bastions like Venezuela and Bolivia, as James Petras has already done. There is nothing irreversible about what has transpired there, particularly given the personality cults centered around Morales and Chavez. Such a propect points toward something that deserves investigation beyond what Dangl has done in Dancing with Dynamite, the role of the industrialized workforce in the social transformation of South America. In his chapter on Brazil, Dangl contrasts the laudable radicalism of the landless workers movement, the MST, with the accommodation of President Lula, and his party, the Worker's Party, the PT, with international capital. The proletariat, and its informalized brethren, are noteworthy for their absence and it is a significant one, given the industrialization of Brazil with the assistance of foreign investment since World War II.

An examination of the relationship between unions, pension funds and foreign investment in Brazil might be revelatory in this regard. Consider, for example, Francisco de Oliveira's evaluation of Lula's record in 2006:

Lula’s reconstruction of the system of power, after the dizzying decomposition that had led to his own election, has been geared around a further, externally oriented shift towards financialization and export-led growth, with new relations of domination powerfully over-determined by globalized capital. Exports have been led by the expanding agribusiness sector. With few exceptions, the other export fronts are in low value-added commodities, with little capacity for establishing strong, inter-industrial relations or self-sustaining growth processes on a national scale. These sectors have limited means for binding together broad social interests and generally tend towards a strong concentration of wealth, as exemplified by agribusiness, founded on an expropriated workforce.

In Brazil’s semi-peripheral economy, capitalization was always closely tied to the state. Financialization, in its latest form, has also been dependent on state-linked capital, via the pension funds of public-sector enterprises; these were developed as a type of private welfare insurance by the military dictatorship, on the model of the Banco do Brasil’s Previ scheme. The 1988 Constitution capped this with establishment of the Workers’ Assistance Fund (fat), now the principal contributor to the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (bndes). There is currently an attempt to attract further foreign investment with new domestic financial instruments, via the pension funds and a banking system that largely depends on transactions involving government bonds. Ultimately, such dependence on external capital flows can only deepen the crisis of peripheral neoliberalism. As Cardoso himself, on whose watch the national debt multiplied tenfold, has put it, It is not the government that controls the debt, but the debt that controls the government. The policy of external financing leads to an exponential increase in the debt burden, hamstringing the accumulation of capital. It also functions as a powerful mechanism for the concentration of income in the financial system. Banks’ profits have risen to staggering new heights under the Workers Party government.

The consequence of such policies are social formations that de Oliveira has described as a duck-billed platypus, a creature that combines external dependency with casualized labour, truncated accumulation with an unremittingly inegalitarian social order. According to de Oliveira, the most conspicuous feature of this order is the creation of a new social class, defined by its access to and control over public funds.

There is therefore an urgency to an effort to move beyond an examination of social movements created by indigenous people, campesinos and the jobless, and their relationship to leftist electoral parties, as so compellingly profiled by Dangl, to others more centrally located in the process of capitalist accumulation in South America. I say more centrally located, because they are workers, whether formal or informal, who directly faciliate the process of truncated capital accumulation referenced by de Oliveira, whereas those emphasized by Dangl constitute its detritus, useful to the current economic order only if they can be reconstituted in a form rendering them subject to the accumulation process.

Similarly, such an examination in Argentina, where Dangl posits the desultory interaction between social movements, such as the jobless piqueteros, the middle class and the government as an explanation for the demobilization of social movements since the economic collapse of late 2001 and early 2002, might provide further insight as well. It might partially explain why Kirchner was able to reconstruct capitalism in Argentina as he has acknowledged.

Beyond clarifying current social conditions in Brazil and Argentina, it could also make a strong contribution to Dangl's effort to show how the practices of South American social movements can be effectively utilized by people in the US, as he has done in relation to the Republic Windows and Doors occupation, successful efforts to reverse the privatization of municipal water systems and the Take Back the Land Movement in south Florida, where homeless people seize empty, foreclosed properties for their homes. In any event, the proletariat, even in its currently disorganized condition, is likely to play a major, possibly decisive role, in deciding the future of the South American left, despite its premature dismissal by Chavez.

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