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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.

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