It could be said that there are two Left-wings in Latin America, each facing a crisis in its own way. One of them came to government and began a process of democratization of their societies and of departure from the neoliberal model, but today is encountering difficulties – of different kinds, from outside and from within – to ensure continuity of these processes. The other is that which, living in countries still under neoliberal governments, cannot yet manage to constitute forces capable of winning elections, acceding to government and beginning to overcome neoliberalism.
The post-neoliberal left has had extraordinary successes, all the more so taking into account that the advances against poverty and inequality have taken place in the framework of an international economy that, on the contrary, increases poverty and inequality. In the most unequal continent in the world, surrounded by a process of deep and prolonged recession of international capitalism, the governments of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Ecuador have diminished inequality and poverty, consolidated democratic political processes, constituted processes of regional integration independent of the United States and accentuated South-South interchange.
Meanwhile, the other expressions of the left, for different reasons, have not managed to build alternatives to the failures of neoliberal governments, the cases of Mexico and Peru being the most evident, demonstrating their incapacity, so far, to learn from other countries in order to adapt them to their own specific conditions.
What is the present crisis that afflicts the Left that has come to government in Latin America? There are common symptoms and features particular to each country. Among them are the inability to counter the power of the private media monopolies, even in countries that have made advances in legislation and taken concrete measures to break this back-bone of the Latin American right. In each of these countries, in each of the crises confronted by these governments, the leading role has been that of the private media, acting in a brutal and domineering way against those governments that have registered success in their management and have won broad public support.
The media have concealed the great social advances in each of our countries; they have censured or hidden the new ways of life that the processes of social democratization have promoted among the mass of the population. Meanwhile, they have underlined isolated problems, giving them an unreal projection, even distributing falsehoods, with the purpose of undermining the achievements of these administrations and the image of their leaders, either by denying them, or by attempting to emphasize secondary negative aspects of the social programmes.
The media have systematically promoted campaigns of terrorism and economic pessimism, looking to lower the self-confidence of peoples in their own countries. As a specific part of this operation there are systematic denunciations of corruption, either from real cases which they exaggerate disproportionally, or inventing denunciations for which they fail to respond when questioned, when the impact has already been made. The repeated suspicion around the acts of governments produces sentiments of critique and rejection, especially among the middle classes, as well as other sectors affected by this anti-democratic fabrication of public opinion. Without this factor, one could say that the difficulties would reflect their true dimension, but would not be transformed into political crises provoked by the unilateral influence of the media over sectors of public opinion, including those of popular origin.
This issue is not easy to resolve; but not to consider it as a fundamental matter to be confronted is to underestimate the level where the left is at greatest disadvantage: the war of ideas. The left has come to government due to the failure of the neoliberal economic model but it has received, among other things, the hegemony of neoliberal values disseminated in society. "When the left finally reached government, it had already lost the battle of ideas", according to Perry Anderson. The tendency towards pre-Gramscian visions on the left have accentuated technocratic forms of action, in the belief that creating good policies for people would be sufficient to automatically produce a corresponding awareness in support of the governments. The power of action of the media over people’s consciousness has been underestimated alongside the effects of political erosion of the governments that this action promotes.
Another conditioning factor, initially in their favour but later against them, was the relatively high price of commodities for several years, that these governments failed to take advantage of to recycle the economic model, in such a way as to be less dependent on these exports. For such recycling, it would have been necessary to formulate and begin to put in practice an alternative model based on regional integration. A period of significant homogeneity in Mercosur has been lost, without having advanced in that direction. When the prices fell, our economies suffered the effects, unable to defend themselves, since they had not promoted their recycling towards a different model.
It is also necessary to understand that this historical period is marked by profound regressions on a world scale, and that the alternatives on the left are in a defensive position, and that what is needed at this moment is to escape from neoliberal hegemony and to build alternatives, relying on the forces of regional integration, the BRICS and those sectors within our countries that support the model of economic development with income distribution and a priority for social policy.
In some countries there has not been sufficient care for balancing the public accounts, which has generated levels of inflation that have partly neutralized the effects of social policy, since the impacts of inflation fall on wage-earners. The adjustments should not become goals, but rather instruments to guarantee balanced public finance, which is an important element for the success of economic and social policies.
Even though the media have magnified cases of corruption, it must be recognized that there was not sufficient control by governments over the use of public resources. The question of the unqualified care of the public sphere should be sacred for leftist governments, which should be those who discover eventual irregularities and punish them, even before the media do so. Ethics in politics must be the permanent heritage of the left, and absolute transparency in the management of public resources must be the golden rule for leftist governments. The fact of not always having acted this way means the governments pay a high price, which could be the determining factor to put their continuity at risk, with serious damage to the rights of the great majority of the population and the very destiny of our countries.
Finally, to outline some of the problems of these governments, the role of the political parties in their condition as governing parties has never been well resolved in almost any of these cases. As governments have their own dynamics, including political and social alliances with the centre-left, in several cases, these parties should represent the historic project of the left, but they have not succeeded in doing so, losing relevance beside the preponderant role of the governments. Thus strategic reflection is weakened, beyond political junctures, as well as the training of leaders, the propaganda of the ideas of the left and the ideological struggle itself.
None of this authorizes us to speak of the "end of a cycle". The alternatives to these governments are always on the right, with their projects of conservative restauration that are clearly of a neoliberal character. Post-neoliberal governments and the forces that have promoted them are the most advanced elements that the Latin American left can count on at the present time and that also function as a reference for other regions of the world, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece, among others.
What is happening now is the end of the first period of the building of alternative models to neoliberalism. The dynamism of the centre of capitalism can no longer be counted on, nor can high commodity prices. The key to the second period must be: deepening and extending the internal market of popular consumption; a project of regional integration; and the intensification of the interchange with the BRICS and their Development Bank.
In addition to overcoming the problems already noted, above anything else it means creating democratic processes for forming public opinion and taking on the battle of ideas, as a central matter in the building of a new hegemony in our societies and in the whole of the region.
We must create a strategic project for the region, not only to overcome neoliberalism and the power of money over human beings, but also the construction of just, sovereign and free, societies, with solidarity, free from all forms of exploitation, domination, oppression and alienation.
(Translated from the Spanish, for ALAI, by Jordan Bishop)
Emir Sader, Brazilian Sociologist and Political Scientist, is Coordinator of the Laboratory of Public Policy of the State University of Río de Janeiro (UERJ).