The rise of new social movements and ‘pink tide’ governments across Latin America has been accompanied by a burgeoning range of texts exploring the phenomenon. The relationship between the state and social movements is commonly approached by counterposing the ‘bottom-up’ approach of grassroots social movements and the ‘top‑down’ orientation of populist leaders. In this scenario, hope for real change ultimately resides with autonomous social movements operating independently of parties, governments and states.
Defying the prevailing orthodoxy is this book, an insightful and invaluable collection of case studies, which dares to delve deeply into the multifaceted circumstances and challenges facing the Latin American left.
For example, Daniel Hellinger argues that the Venezuelan experience ‘challenges many preconceptions about the need for strict borders between the state and civil society’, given the presence of a state which, through its control over oil rents, remains central to the process of capital accumulation. He points to the success of government-promoted local community councils in democratising rent re-distribution and creating the embryos of a new state built from below.
A ‘dynamic tension’ exists within this relationship; and so does the risk that the relationship may transform into one based on ‘co-option’ or ‘confrontation’. While Argentina shows how a government can reassert social stability by co-opting and marginalising movements, the Brazilian example lays bare how a strategy of avoiding co-option by focusing on ‘exerting pressure from below’ has also faltered.
If a common pattern can be found, the book’s editors argue it is that ‘the parties of the left need the enthusiasm and renewing qualities of the mass social movements if they are to achieve state power . . . [similarly] the social movements cannot hope to achieve all or part of their ambitious projects without the mechanisms of the state apparatus that a left party in power can provide. Inevitably their relations will be filled with conflict, but that is the nature of politics.’