People’s power and political instruments in South America


Nowhere else in the world but South America has the left been able to move beyond theoretical discussions on the question of people's power to large scale attempts to build bottom-up organs of popular participation. Elsewhere, there have been important revolts against authoritarian and neoliberal regimes (Arab Spring), elections of leftist governments (Greece) and small-scale initiatives in popular power (worker occupations, farming cooperatives, etc). Few places, however, have seen the kind of large-scale experiments in participatory budgeting and construction of communes and worker-control industries which involve grassroots social movements and left governments that have been undertaken in South America during the period commonly referred to as the “Pink Tide.”

During this period of experimentation in people's power, a discussion—and at times, a quite heated debate—has persisted throughout regarding the role of, and relationship between, social movements and political parties in the process of building genuine people's’ power. In light of recent events in South America—electoral defeats suffered by leftist forces, conflicts between grassroots social movements and “Pink Tide” governments—this debate has once again come to the fore.

Unfortunately, many contributions in this debate have tended to take a one-sided view of the last two decades of struggle. For some, the current woes are simply the result of foreign interference and/or “radical” minority left forces working to undermine governments that represent the will of the people. Others point the finger of blame at the governments themselves, claiming that they prioritized maintaining power over listening to the people.

Looking at how social movements and political parties have interacted before and during the Pink Tide can provide us with many important lessons regarding the question of people's power and the kind of political instrument we need today.

Before the “Pink Tide” Confronted with the generalized sympathy and solidarity these left governments generated among the people of the region and the world, a number of social movement activists continuously insisted on the need to acknowledge the important role that social movements had played in helping bring them to power. They were correct to do so. The waves of mobilizations that shook through the region in the late-eighties and nineties were not only critical in rolling back certain neoliberal reforms and bringing down right-wing governments; they also helped open up space for political left forces that for decades were largely marginalized.

Moreover, these movements could potentially provide new left governments with more than just votes and supporters to rally in the streets; they could provide critical infrastructures of resistance that would help make a reality the slogan of “poder popular” (popular power), commonly chanted in leftist street protests and election campaigns. After all, years of struggle had slowly converted many of these local collectives and neighborhood groups into something akin to a micro-government that filled the space left vacant by the receding neoliberal state.

If left governments were going to succeed, they knew they would have to rely on the movements that had brought them to power to fend off the right-wing backlash. But these social movements could also be the key to carrying out the left’s political agenda, particularly as the inherited state could not be readily used for this purpose. While not necessarily counterposed, the emphasis here was on subordinating the political instrument in power, and in particular caudillo leaders, to “people's power” in the form of existing social movements.

While correctly highlighting the important role that class struggle played in the emergence of what many tried to pigeonhole as electoral phenomena, this one-sided view does not fully encapsulate the dynamic relationship that existed between social movements and the left governments they helped elect.

It largely overlooks or downplays the important overlap that existed between the political left (parties) and social left (movements). In some cases, the social left was the one that took the initiative to create parties, with social movements providing the organizational backbone of the new political instruments. This was the case in Bolivia (Movement Towards Socialism), Ecuador (Pachakutik) and Brazil (Workers Party), where the decision to form parties came after much deliberation among social movements who not only began to see the limitations of street mobilizations but also held a strong distrust towards existing left parties that generally only sought to control them or seek their support at election times (Harnecker & Fuentes 2008, Harnecker with Fuentes 2013). These parties were not the work of a small group of cadres that came together on the basis of an ideological agreement on the need for a political instrument; they came about because large layers of social left activists concluded that if those in power were not going to listen, then it was time to replace them with representatives who would.

This view that sees the successes of the political left as largely the result of the mobilizations of an independent social left also tends to mistakenly conflate social movements—which by and large represent corporatist fragments of society—with the “people” as a whole. Leftist electoral victories not only required social movement mobilization but also an ability to reach beyond the social movements and win much broader support.

The political left in South America was not only capable of harnessing the power and discourse of anti-neoliberal social movements, it was also able to tap into and mobilize the prevailing “anti-politics” mood and deep distrust that existed towards the political establishment.

Where new left parties were able to reach out beyond the existing social movements and mobilize this broader anti-political sentiment, they succeeded in winning elections. They did so by attacking the old political class while promising a new type of politics — a new type of democracy. Where they didn’t, their vote usually failed to climb much higher than 5% (e.g. Felipe Quispe’s MIP in Bolivia, various left fronts in Argentina). In particular, when leftist parties came to be seen as being part of the old political class, its support crumbled (e.g. Pachakutik in Ecuador, Causa R in Venezuela).

The fortunes of the political left in South America were tied to the mobilizations of the social left that preceded it, but cannot be solely explained by this phenomenon. Also of importance were the strategic discussions among the social left over the need for a political instrument, and the strong dynamic relationships that existed between the social and political left. Similarly, the left’s ability to reach out to a societal majority that was fed up with politicians and their neoliberal policies was critical to its electoral successes.

During the Pink Tide The first years of the “Pink Tide” period saw the relationship between the social and political left tighten. Newly elected left governments understood that their victories represented the culmination of decades of struggle by social movements. A number of social left activists were named to key roles in governments and elected into parliament. Additionally, many key demands of the social movements were implemented— no Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, removal of US military bases, nationalization of key natural resources, constituent assemblies to rewrite the constitution. Both sides felt that by working together, progress was being made.

There were of course examples of governments only partially fulfilling election promises where talk of working with social movements failed to go beyond words. In general, however, it seemed the political and social left could work together, and in fact needed to if both were to survive the initial onslaught of the Right (coup and bosses lockout in Venezuela, civic-prefectural coup in Bolivia, etc).

As the first decade of the Pink Tide came to an end in 2008-2009, tensions between social movements and left political parties began to reemerge. Few questioned the important advances that had been made in the social sphere: poverty reduction, higher literacy rates, expansion of healthcare. Instead, the focus was on political and economic policies. At the heart of these disputes was an unresolved debate regarding social movements, political instruments and people's power.

As mentioned previously, a key factor in leftist electoral victories was the ability to tap into the widespread anger that existed towards the political class. Part of this was achieved by promising a new type of democracy, one that went beyond the formalities of an outdated and out-of-touch (un)representative democracy; one that was participatory, “protagonistic” and people-orientated. Left parties pointed to novel experiments they had led in participatory budgeting as examples of what was possible, and promised to convene constituent assemblies that could serve as collective spaces to come up with a new vision of society.

However, very early on differing visions of what — or who — constituted people's power led to some important debates. For example, how were delegates to the constituent assembly to be elected? Social movements said they should get to directly elect their own representatives in assemblies, but were disappointed when left governments insisted on traditional elections involving political parties. What about the national budget? Should it be carved up along the lines of what the various social movements demanded or was the government in a better position to look after the overall interests of the people? While social movements saw themselves as best representing the interests of the “people,” left governments began pointing to electoral majority to claim the mantle of representing the “people.”

The examples of Venezuela and Bolivia are useful for shedding more light on the debate over people's power.

Venezuela is generally viewed as having advanced furthest down the path of promoting people's power. This is despite very few strong nation-wide social movements existing prior to Chavez’s elections, and arguably even today. While there were a number of large social explosions (most famously the Caracazo of February 1989), there were very few social movements that one could point to as being on par with those that existed in Bolivia.

As result, Chavez first had to rely on the military — where he had strong support — to carry out his earlier anti-poverty programs. As the class struggle intensified and Chavez became more aware of the need to organize the people, he began to look for ways to bring together the dispersed and localized collectives and social groups that existed throughout the country’s poor barrios (neighborhoods).

The first important step taken in this direction was the creation of the social missions — a range of bottom-up initiatives in social service provision that relied on existing or newly created local groups such as health and education committees. These committees later became the basis upon which the community councils, and then communes, were built.

By bringing together residents and activists from different committees to design an overall plan for improving the neighborhood and community, it was hoped that sectoral interests could be overcome. Today, despite problems and obstacles, and criticisms from some on the social left that these represent attempts to undermine existing social movements, many still view these bodies – involving millions of ordinary citizens - as potential or existing organs of people's power and the foundations of a much needed communal state.

No similar initiative exists in Bolivia. There, existing social movements were seen as the vehicle upon which to build people's power. This made some sense in areas where communities were highly organized and social movements — particular peasant unions or neighborhood committees — had already begun to take on tasks generally carried out by the state. Where these social movements won local council elections, existing municipal bodies (and their budgets) tended to be subordinated to the deliberations of social movement assemblies.

The ability for communities to exercise control and power over municipal councils has been aided by the introduction of laws regarding indigenous autonomy. This allows residents in a municipality to vote in a referendum on new statutes for the local council so that can it can be run according to traditional indigenous customs and practices.

In some cases this has worked well, however, in others, problems of social movement infighting over resources and positions on council have hampered attempts to build genuine people's power. More importantly, most local council areas do not count on the necessary level of existing social movement organization. This is particularly the case in the big cities, precisely where the MAS have had the most problems in winning elections.

In both countries, few attempts have been made to consider how people's power could be implemented beyond the local level. At most, councils or summits of social movements have been convened to debate national priorities and policies, but it is evident that real decision-making power still lies with the government.

Overall, perceptions of how well left governments have done in implementing new, more participatory forms of democracy vary. For many on the social left, left governments have become more interested in maintaining control of the old state than building genuine people's power. For many of those in government, their continued success in elections indicates that they, not corporatist social movements, best represent the overall interests and will of the people.

When it comes to economic policies, debate has centered on whether left governments have been able to come up with successful anti-neoliberal/anti-capitalist economic strategies. While the political left points to strong social and economic indicators that show poverty has fallen and the state sector has grown as evidence of success, social movement activists argued this falls well short of representing a rupture with capitalism. Moreover, they say, dependency on revenue from extractive industries is pushing these governments down the same environmentally destructive path that previous neoliberal governments had taken.

A strong case can be made that important steps have been taken, particularly in Venezuela and Bolivia but also elsewhere, towards breaking with neoliberalism. This has been possible due to the left’s capture of the state apparatus, which it has used to take back control over key natural resources and regulate market forces. Nowhere in South America has there been a rupture with capitalism; but then, none of these left government have claimed to have done so. It is not clear that a complete break with capitalism is possible in the current conjuncture.

A number of left governments have explicitly stated their socialist ambitions – an important step in re-raising a banner that long ago had been dropped – but it is evident that none have come up with a program for how to achieve this. This is not meant as a criticism, but rather as a statement of fact, one that also applied to the social left.

Segments of the social left have been quick to point out deficiencies in the economic strategies of left governments, particularly the tendency of governments to make decisions over important national issues, such as the use of natural resources, without consultation. However they have failed to provide alternatives for how such important national decisions could be made, and instead point to small-scale initiatives that could never be reproduced on a national scale. Their economic proposals tend to be based on handing over natural resources to local communities that, while premised on the idea of participatory democracy, would ultimately serve to fragment rather than strengthen any potential national (or regional) system of people's power.

Lessons of the “Pink Tide” Where does all this leave us? Recent experiences of the left in South America have provided us with a number of important lessons in dealing with social movements, political parties, people's power and the relationship between them. These lessons have come about both due to theoretical debate, but more importantly, as a result of lived experiences. To ignore them would be perilous for the left, irrespective of what may become of the Pink Tide.

Statements such as “as the Pink Tide recedes hope lies as it previously did with social movements - not parties or governments” or the future will be determined from below, not from above, may sound nice, but it is of little use for determining the next steps. It ignores the fact that social movements themselves have previously concluded that social struggle alone is not enough, and therefore took the decision to build political instruments. The reasons why this decision was made, the lessons drawn from these debates and the subsequent trajectory of these political instruments should not be ignored – unless we want to risk repeating the same mistakes.

It is not possible to go through all the debates and lessons, but I want to conclude by at least listing some that are the most important. I will note here that many of them are also ones that Marta Harnecker has highlighted in numerous texts. This should be no surprise: we have worked together on these issues for a number of years, collaborating on books, research projects and translations.

On its own protests, strikes, rebellions, insurrections, that is, the initiative of the people, is not enough to bring down capitalism. Social mobilization may be able to block certain legislation or even overthrow a government, but alone it cannot revolutionize the existing order of things. A political instrument that is capable of uniting forces and work out how to strike at the right place and the right time - always seeking out the weakest link in the enemy’s chain - is indispensable to ensure social force is neither dissipated nor wasted but rather channelled into converting a rebellion into a revolution.

It was precisely this conclusion that led a number of the regions’ most important social movements to propose the construction of parties, or as they referred to them political instruments. Why political instrument? Because unlike for much of the traditional political left, the social left saw their political instrument as a means, not an end. The goal is not to build the party, the party needs to be built as necessary tool in the struggle for societal transformation. The concept of a political instrument was also used to differentiate it, both in form and content, from existing parties – left and right – that had become thoroughly discredited and disconnected from the people.

While running in elections can be an important task of the political instruments, it does not exist solely for electoral purposes. Instead, it has to be a vehicle that can unite the existing social and political left behind a radical project for change. More importantly, such an instrument must be able to reach out to broader sectors of society that are unhappy with the status quo in order to help shift the balance of forces and make possible tomorrow the kind of changes that today seem impossible. This political instrument is not built with a view to winning government; it is built with a view to winning over society, because you cannot build a political force without building a social force.

The political instrument we need has to be more than just a sum of existing parts of the social and political left — it has to politically organize those who had never been involved in politics before. Nor can its program be a simple collection of social movement demands. It has to present a genuine project of change that could win over society.

Marta Harnecker sums this view of the kind of political instrument we need as follows: “I envisage this political instrument as an organization capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism. As an organization that is orientated towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social movements instead of manipulating them. And one whose militants and leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people—derived from their cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for survival—through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer. An orientating and cohering instrument at the service of the social movements.” In other words, to achieve its aim, the political instrument has to win over the social movements through debate not imposition; it has to win hegemony on the left, and in society more broadly. Unfortunately, some on the political left believe that once it has become the biggest force, the political instrument no longer needs to continue convincing people. However, life follows its own course, new problems constantly arise with new challenges to face. We must see the concept of hegemony as a dynamic one: hegemony is not something that can be consolidated once and for all; maintaining it requires a process of permanently re-winning it.

To be able to construct social force, the political instrument must respect social movements, contribute to their autonomous development and avoid all attempts at manipulation. It cannot forget that social movements have a lot to offer; through their daily struggles they too learn many lessons, discover new paths and find solutions.

Social movements — and political parties — must never forget that winning elections is not the same thing as taking power. There is still much work to be done and implementing changes is not as simple as issuing decrees. Political instruments need to patiently explain these difficulties to the people and social movements, both to maintain support but also to mobilize its base and help overcome these hurdles.

This does not mean transforming social movements into appendices of the government. The political instrument must respect the autonomy of social movements and their right to criticize errors. Social movements, however, must also learn to move beyond a culture of oppositionalism, of opposing everything for the sake of it. Under right-wing governments it seemed almost automatic: the government makes an announcement, the left says no and protests to try and stop it. But as Harnecker notes in reference to a context where social movements are confronted with a left government: “If we cannot overcome this culture, a division will emerge between those leaders and their social bases, as the latter will begin to see the positive effects of government policies in their day-to-day lives and will not understand the oppositional stance of their leaders.”

What of people's power? It should be clear by now that while social movements and political parties are indispensable, neither can substitute for the people. What is needed are genuine organs of people's power, where those from the political and social left can come together with individuals of all political persuasions to democratically decide upon the direction in which they want to take society.

Recently, and historically, experience shows that the existing state is not suited for this task. Therefore new spaces for participation need to be built and power transferred to them. These spaces for community (and workplace) self-management must be open to all. Active participation in discussions and the carrying out of tasks decided upon should be encouraged and stimulated, as it is only through such participation that people begin to grow, to increase their self-confidence and to throw off the shackles of the inherited culture.

But these spaces, this new state, cannot be built overnight. Therefore we can expect that for a transitional period, the two — the old state and new bodies of people's power — will have to co-exist. Having captured control of the former, left forces can begin to foster the emergence of the new state. While some see this as akin to the classic idea of “dual power,” in reality the situation involves a complementary, rather than confrontational, relationship between the two states.

Complementary however, does not mean without complications. The experience of the Pink Tide has shown just how essential it is for social movement to exert pressure on the inherited state, both because of the tremendous inertia within it and because those in public office can slip into the same behavior patterns as officials of the past.

But recent experience has also shown that the new organs of people power can also be contaminated by corporatism, corruption, bureaucratism, infighting over quotas of power, etc. One of the most important characteristics of the new state is the tendency towards localism, of being unable to see beyond the borders of the neighborhood, much like main trade unions are unable to see beyond their own factory gates. The inherited state, on the other hand, because of its national character necessarily tends to take a global view of things, even if in some cases this is to the detriment of those most immediately affected by certain decisions.

Given this, it will be necessary, as Michael Lebowitz says, to walk on two feet. Those left forces occupying the old state must help come up with a plan for the overall development of the country. This must be done with as much participation of the people as is possible. The organs of the new state are best suited for this task.

Federico Fuentes (Assistant editor of Links Journal of Socialist Renewal)