The populist Left in Latin America and rebuilding the nation-state


What “the end of history” means After the collapse of 20th-century socialism, neoliberalism was proposed as a positive prospect for a globalized free market economy and representative democracy, as argued by Francis Fukuyama in “The End of History.”  

But if Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” is one of victory for liberal democracy, his declaration is wrong. Not long after the declaration, we have been witnessing a structural recess of the world economy and failings in our representative system.

The emergence of the left — whatever “left” implies — signals that our rendezvous with neoliberalism has resulted in serious social polarization. According to data from Oxfam, 85 of the world’s richest people own the same amount of property as 3.5 billion poor people. It is impossible to insist the end of history without hiding the fact that the result of neoliberalism has been a few people gaining benefits at the expense of the majority.

However, if the end of history meant the establishment of a modern social formation dubbed in academia as the “capital-nation-state,” then Fukuyama was right. According to the Marxist concept of social formation, society is in the process of building and forming. It implies two contrasting aspects, one of a society heading toward a certain complete form and the other of a society that exists with a mixture of different zones that cannot be considered in its complete form.

Fukuyama’s end of history can be understood as a modern society that is in the process of forming but in a complete form as a capital-nation-state.

What we usually call a “nation” is actually a nation-state, a compound of “nation” and “state.”. As modern social formation progressed, the nation became intertwined with capital before the nation could with the state. Thus, the modern social formation should be perceived as a capital-nation-state.

Capital, nation and state are different from one another and lay their roots in different principles, but they are intertwined like Borromean rings — if one is missing, a capital-nation-state cannot be established. The modern social formation is strongly combined as a trinity, the capital-nation-state. This is why resistance to capital cannot exist without resistance to nation and state at the same time.  

What the Latin American “left” means It is evident that Latin America has turned left for the past 20 to 30 years. The administrations of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Michelle Bachelet in Chile are certainly different from one another as are the piquetero (protest) movement in Argentina from the Zapatista indigenous movement in Mexico. That is why people depend on the term “left” to describe the political changes happening in Latin America, even as question using the term “left” so broadly.

The term “pink tide” has emerged as a desperate measure to assert that the recent political and social changes in Latin America are different from the last century’s left and general concept of the left, even as some continue to use the word “left.”

Both the left and the right are aware of the problems of structural recession in the world’s economy and failings of the representative system. For instance, social polarization has become an official agenda of the International Monetary Fund.

Furthermore, political rhetoric has become more progressive on both the left and the right, with both proposing a “fairer and more plural” order. Mexican President Felipe Calderón promised to build a multiracial society without poverty based on two pillars: mestizaje (mixed races) and neoliberal capitalism. President Chávez, seen as part of the radical left, campaigned on 21st-century socialism based on a conservative oil production model funded by state and multinational capital and its stage being the world market.

On the other hand, Subcomandante Marcos, a leader of Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation, argued for listening to the people rather than arguing over left and right. There is no doubt that various social movements in Latin America, including the indigenous movement, landless peasant movement, women’s movement and urban poor movement, face is the global capitalist system.

In this situation, we can ask a series of questions about the left in Latin America: Can we talk about a fundamental common left project? Would it not be more accurate to talk about a diverse set of leftist movements resisting a dominant order? Is the Latin American left movement an attempt to practice equality based on Western ideals or one based on different cultural traditions? Who is the protagonist for change if the proletariat is not the protagonist of the left movement? Is the leftist movement a struggle for political power or an anti-power struggle as some have proposed? If the left is struggling, who is the common enemy — neoliberal capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, Europe, the West, white civilization or modern episteme? Whatever the common enemy is called, the question that should be asked is “how does the left differ from its enemy?”

Two dilemmas of the Latin American left These questions relate to two serious dilemmas that the Latin American left has faced since the late 20th century. The first is about capitalism. It is difficult to imagine the end of capitalism as much as it is to imagine its continuation. The left, facing this dilemma, was confronted with two political choices.

The first was to compromise with capitalism by minimizing the social cost from the capitalist principle of profit accumulation. The best examples of this are social democracy, Keynesianism, the welfare state and the developmental state in the 1960s. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil characterizes this political choice. Lula’s social policies were not based on people’s universal rights, but it was a new type of social democracy that offered conditional welfare benefits to vulnerable social groups. The neo-developmental state, combining economic nationalism with a neoliberal platform, also belongs to this political choice.

The second political choice was to imagine either a “post-capitalist alternative” or a “pre-capitalist alternative” that harkens back to the pre-colonization period. Advocates of this choice use the concept of socialism as an alternative to capitalism, but they define socialism differently to distance themselves from failed 20th-century socialism. “Twenty-first-century socialism” in Venezuela and “community socialism” in Ecuador are the best examples.

In the political arena, “post-capitalist alternatives” and “pre-capitalist alternatives” caused conflict. Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador imagined post-capitalist alternatives, while indigenous movement organizations imagined pre-capitalist alternatives. Currently in Latin America, the coexistence of these  two political choices represents the current reality of the left in Latin America.

The left’s second dilemma is about the perception of colonialism. Just as it is a mistake to think that colonialism has finished, it is also a mistake to think it will not finish. Like the dilemma presented by capitalism, this divides progressive forces into two sides.

For those who believe colonialism ended when they were independent from Spain, the only goal of progressive politics is anti-capitalism through class struggle. They put forward mixed races as a cultural uniqueness in Latin America and politically support racial democracy instead of acknowledging the need for ethnic-racial struggle.

For those who believe nepotism and internal colonialism still continue or have even worsened  since independence, the anti-capitalist struggle goes hand in hand with the anti-colonialist struggle. They believe that class domination and ethnic-racial domination are intertwined, so the struggle for equality and struggle for acknowledging difference cannot be separated. In the sense that internal colonialism is an enormously comprehensive social paradigm crossing social relationships, public and personal spaces, cultures, ways of thinking and protagonism, they insist that postcolonialism is more important as a progressive force than anti-capitalism.

The two dilemmas that the Latin American left faces are directly related to its crises and to the “future of the left” or even “the future left.” As Carl Schmitt has asserted, just as there is a distinction between good and evil in the realm of morals, between beauty and ugliness in aesthetics, and between profit and loss in economics, there is a distinction between friend and foe in politics. As regards the crisis in Latin America, Schmitt’s assertion has important significance because the left’s critical tendency has triggered constant internal divergences.

The Latin American populist left opposes capitalism and colonialism. As Ernesto Laclau has argued, antagonism is established by combining democratic demands from diverse social groups into popular demands through chains of equivalence.

Does the nation-state exist in Latin America? The policy line of the populist left in Latin America is re-establishment of the state, more precisely the nation-state. It is not completely wrong to say that Latin America drifted from statelessness to statelessness after World War II regardless of whether it was politically left or right. After the war, modernization theory, which had a huge impact all over the world, was blind to politics and especially blind vis-à-vis the state.

According to the theory, developing countries are simply lagging behind industrialized countries. The processes of economic development, social modernization and political democratization are accepted as a law of nature. The central pillar of the theory is that all societies accept modern values, that systems spread from developed countries to developing ones, and they develop into industrialized and developed societies “naturally.” The theory was the zeitgeist after the war and became the basis for all social science as expressed in the subtitle “A Non-Communist Manifesto” of Walt W. Rostow’s 1960 book “The Stages of Economic Growth.”

In the writings of Gino Germani, one of the important scholars who introduced modernization theory to Latin America, there is no mention of state, state institutions and bureaucracy. Although Germani left remarkable achievements in classical populism research in Argentina, he did not have any reflections on state theory, the ruling class and political institutions. He knew that classical populism included demands for socialism, strong nationalist elements and rejections of classism, but he viewed them as transitional phenomena that appeared in the process of modernization. That is why he could not explain the military coups and authoritarian governments that constantly appeared in Latin America after the war.

Germani also could not demonstrate why economic policies based on modernization theory kept failing even though the theory promises economic development and prosperity. He could not describe the gradual collapse of social structures due to social exclusion and increase in poverty. In short, the theory is a black hole, sucking everything without explaining constant low growth, worsening dependency, political crises and social disintegration.

Dependency theory criticized modernization theory and reflected on the idea of the modern state and imperialism, which had been ignored for a long time in Latin America. The theory played a major role in revealing the multidimensionality of the state phenomenon. It defined the state as (1) a “ruling contract” hiding the agreement between the collective and the class that controls state wealth and other sources of power; (2) a privileged place for power struggle, more generally speaking the place for all existing social conflicts; (3) a complex institution and organization maintained by bureaucracy; and (4) a symbolic “unity of the nation” between systems beyond the sectarian interests of civil society.

To sum up, dependency theory reflects on the modern social formation, the capital-nation-state.

Guillermo O’Donnell analyzed the dictatorships and authoritarianism that have plagued Latin American countries since the 1964 military coup in Brazil by putting the state at the center of discussion. O’Donnell’s insight about authoritarian-bureaucratic systems is very significant because it offers a milestone for social science in Latin America. Not only did he highlight the relation between economic development and politics, which was overlooked in the modernization paradigm, but he also showed that political authoritarianism related to the new phase of capitalist development.

Yet in his later work, O’Donnell accepted the mainstream political motto “politics is explained with politics.” Not even he could overcome the limitations of his field.  

Fernando Enrique Cardoso attempted to escape from the view that dependency theory could only be analyzed from an economicism perspective. In a joint article with Enzo Faletto, Cardoso regarded dependency as a matter of external dependency while at the same time being the result of domestic factors. The world market and state were related actors in a complex system, and in it, the state had absolute importance. The state took up a central role domestically and internationally. Cardoso emphasized that the state and political organizations had a close relation with the capitalist accumulation process, and that the relation should not be understood in a reductionist fashion because the relations are complex and diverse.

The influence of dependency theory, though, did not last long. The social and academic background enabling the emergence of the theory was constricted by the rapid collapse of democratic and developmental systems during the military coup in Chile in the mid-1960s.

However, the more important factor was globalized neoliberalism that began to apply to Latin America first, and very strongly, from the late 1970s. The dual process of political democratization and neoliberal economic reform was the enormous paradox that Latin America went through. In the process that Latin American countries became more and more dependent on foreign powers and world markets, dependence theory disappeared from academic discussions and the public agenda.

The topic of conversation shifted from dependence to interdependence and from imperialism to empire. The state became the subject of attack by market fundamentalists, and politics was considered intellectually reactionary noise disturbing the peace of market function. Theorizing the state was replaced with studying the implementation theory of democracy, leaving the Borromean rings of the capital-nation-state incomplete.

The populist left in Latin America and re-establishment of Nation-State Entering the 1980s, resistance and collective struggle on many fronts appeared in almost every country in Latin America, though they were not so apparent and some even took place under the surface. Mass mobilization did not disappear in the 1980s and 1990s. The 1980s, usually called “the lost decade,” was actually “the harvest decade” in terms of social movements. It is difficult to identify them precisely because collective actions were very diverse and of mixed forms.

These collective actions showed the changed social, cultural, political and economic reality in Latin America. The power to change Latin American politics in the 2000s started from the collective actions that began in the 1980s. More specifically, diverse groups’ democratic demands were incorporated into popular demands through chains of equivalence.

This leads to two questions: How can democratic demands become popular demands, and how long will the popular demands last?

The answer to the first question is by democratizing democracy. The structural recession of the world economy and failings of the representative system can be expressed with soft-handed dictatorship or low-intensity democracy. The democratization that occurred in the 1980s was capital’s “preemptive reform” to absorb and incapacitate demand for democratization by the people.

The answer to the second question is the dialectic of fear and hope that Spinoza wrote about. The individual and society are dominated by two basic emotions: fear and hope. When there are negative expectations for the future, fear dominates. Conversely, hope dominates when there are positive expectations or antiestablishmentarianism, that is not accepting negative expectations as fate. Neoliberalism is the immense machine producing negative expectations for the future.

In Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, classified as the populist left, people’s demands are shaped through re-establishing the nation-state. The two axes of this are constitution and building hegemony. The constitution is legal reform to restructure the political system and institutions in order to achieve democratization. Each state has different reform situations and reform mechanisms. Constitutional reform can be done through parliament, for example. If parliament becomes an obstacle for constitution reform, a constituent assembly can be summoned. The common goal of constitutional reform is to secure a more representative and transparent elections system and strengthen representative democracy through participation. Just as  liberal theorists acknowledge that the two ideologies to maintaining a stable democracy are faith in people’s capacity to actively participate and intervene in politics, and in the governing elite.

Another axis for re-establishment of the nation-state is building hegemony. The populist left can sustain itself by building hegemony not through force but through agreement. This is done not only in the political sector but also in public education, people’s education, media, cultural activities and social movements.

From the late 1990s, the experiences of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela — the revitalization of social movements, emergence of progressive governments and constituent assemblies — are examples of fundamental innovations in participatory democracy combined with representative democracy; the exposure of social movements through efforts such as the World Social Forum; establishing new relations between political parties and social movements; the participation of landless peasant, indigenous people and African descendants’ in politics; building plurinational states in Bolivia and Ecuador; and the decolonialist project to escape from the persistent legacy of  colonialism.  


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written by Professor Kim Eun-joong Seoul National University Institute of Latin American Studies