Progressivism, populism and the left in Latin America

Progressivism is a disputed concept in Latin America. Between the manipulation of the populist governments and the discomposure of the Left, there is little room for understanding what it means. Español

Juan Cuvi
21 September 2016

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa, second from left, shakes hand with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. January 7, 2015. AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool. All rights reserved.

Populists have the upper hand in this dispute. Their position is based on strong official propaganda rhetoric and on rampant political patronage which translates into popular support at the polls. Distributing the economic bonanza’s surplus without affecting the historical structure of capital accumulation has proven to be good political business.

The problem lies in the ambiguity of the term. In Ecuador, for example, it was coined as an eclectic mediation between conservatism and radical liberalism in the late 19th century, with only one purpose: stopping the revolution led by Eloy Alfaro (President of Ecuador from 1895 to 1901 and from 1906 to 1911) - even though he was, from the logic of modernity, the most conspicuous champion of progress in the country.

Historically, oligarchic domination in Latin America was always confronted with a dilemma between modernity and pre-modernity – a dilemma which was resolved, in many cases, through the idea of progress. Preserving the status quo meant not only maintaining the privileges of the elite, but advocating backwardness and inequality as identity forms. Modernizing the country became, therefore, a strategy to break away from these stale and obsolete domination structures.

The Latin American Left’s approach to entering modernity was through the most difficult – though straightforward – gate: revolution. Its strands differed in terms of the means rather than the purpose. It never questioned the idea that modernity and progress could harbour content intrinsically opposed to the ideals of equality it stood for. Unrelenting advance along the path of history was not only a doctrinal but a moral imperative. And in this winding path, all those who were heading in the same direction were its allies.

The Latin American Left’s approach to entering modernity was through the most difficult – though straightforward – gate: revolution

The limits of the radical options and the countless failures of the revolutionary struggles pushed to the Left towards more moderate formulas. Among them, leaning towards the ideological centre as an electoral necessity, not only to capture a whole new world of voters, but also to overcome old, ossified dogmas. The agreements with the so-called progressive sectors emerged from there.

This shift has had two consequences. The first is the departure from such basic principles as fighting the system - not only capitalism, but all the different systems of domination imposed by modernity (ecological, cultural, patriarchal, etc.).

The second consequence has been to take the option of populism – which has proved disastrous. Reformism has been abandoned to embrace pragmatism at its coarsest, and we have moved on from the rationalization of capitalism to its decay. Populism is informal capitalism’s most effective tool: no rules, no limits, no controls.

In her famous analysis of imperialism, Hanna Arendt argues that the "adventurous" brand of capitalism was the way out from the mid-nineteenth century devastating overproduction crisis of the European economies. The colonization of Africa and Asia allowed the export of surplus capital to areas under regimes of legal relativism. European entrepreneurs in the colonies did what the law and public opinion did not allow them to do in their homeland.

Cecil Rhodes’ quote with which Arendt sums up this expansionist stage of British capitalism ( "I would annex the planets if I could") may very well be used to describe the imperialist policy of contemporary China. The Chinese do not want colonial administrations, but rather populist governments to ensure the greatest possible impunity for the performance of their capital investments. The self-styled progressive governments in Latin America have fully complied.

This article was previously published by lalineadefuego.

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