Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Moving to the Latin beat

Dancing with Dynamite: Social movements and states in Latin America, by Benjamin Dangl (AK Press), reviewed by Mike Geddes

March 6, 2011
4 min read

In this accessible and fascinating book, the product of a deep understanding of radical politics across Latin America, Ben Dangl explores the tense relationship between states and social movements in seven different countries. From a position of engagement with, and sympathy for, social movements such as the landless movement in Brazil, indigenous peoples in Ecuador or the explosive mixture of urban, rural, trade union and campesino movements in Bolivia, he explores the complex ways in which different social movements have worked with, against or apart from states and governments.

As well as the author’s depth of experience, a major strength of this book is the breadth of its coverage. It explores why the relationships of Latin American governments with indigenous movements have been so different, even when the governments are apparently quite similar, as in Bolivia and Ecuador. It considers what we can learn from the Argentinean urban social movements that emerged from the collapse of the state and the nourishing of Venezuelan movements by the Chavez regime. The sophisticated exploration of such differences not only enables us to get beneath the superficial media treatment that Latin American issues often receive in this country, but also makes it clear there is not just one Latin America. Context matters: a mutually advantageous engagement between a government and social movements in one country might not be possible in another.

The book prompts the reader to think about what we mean when we talk about social movements being co-opted or undermined by ‘the state’. The state is complex and if we treat it as an undifferentiated institution we may not identify clearly enough what the problem is.

So, where do the problems lie? With elected (or would-be-elected) politicians and/or the political parties that they lead? With the repressive forces of the state – army, police – and its ability to resort to violence and intimidation? With the state bureaucracy’s ability to hide from democratic accountability and its openness to corruption and manipulation? To what extent is the problem the capitalist nature of the state? How far is the problem one of limited, bourgeois forms of democracy that appear to give governments power over the economy but in reality leave corporations and bankers with power over governments?

Too often in Latin America, the answer has been ‘all of the above’. In this book the emphasis is on two main issues: the state’s capacity for violence and its deployment of force and coercion against social movements (such as landless people’s or indigenous movements); and the politicians and political parties who either abandon social movements’ key demands as they try to build broad coalitions to get elected, or abandon or water down such commitments once they have been elected.

One of the book’s key threads is the contrast between those politicians and parties (in Brazil and Ecuador) that have seriously disappointed the social movements, and those (in Venezuela and Bolivia) where Dangl sees a more nuanced picture of the opportunities and challenges for both sides in the relationship. While the close relationship between governments and corporations is frequently recognised in the book, the dance between state and capital is mostly in the background. The same is true of the role of the state bureaucracy – the ‘internal enemy’ for some radical regimes.

It is easy to understand why the repeated experience in Latin America of state coercion and political abandonment leads Dangl, along with many of the social movements he discusses, to a position of radical scepticism, often close to outright rejection, of engagement with the state. And yet, as the more positive examples in this book – Bolivia for example – show, social movements and the state can together create progressive developments that are unlikely to occur if one or other of the two sides refuses to dance.

Perhaps most importantly, a government with close ties to the social movements is less likely to use force against them – although there are enough examples of seemingly progressive governments using force against, say, indigenous peoples that this cannot be taken for granted. More generally, radical governments can apply the rule of law, and the powers of the state, on the side of, rather than against, social movements.

But what this book shows is that such possibilities will not materialise unless social movements stay true to their social roots and their own agendas. Dancing with the state must not mean, as Ben Dangl says, ‘tying movement horses to electoral or state carts’. Yet, at the same time, the state controls valuable resources that social movements need.

The lessons of this book for us in the UK concern both the possibilities and the pitfalls of the dance – as well as the need to support the progressive changes now sweeping Latin America.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death