What Europe’s Hopeful Left Can Learn from Latin America
After years of austerity and economic turmoil, mass movements based on hope are finally taking root in Europe – and not just on the streets. Syriza is now in power in Greece, and enjoying a surge in the opinion polls. Meanwhile, its success is inspiring Spain’s Podemos to make a serious stand in elections there; its rallies are drawing Spaniards in their tens of thousands.
These movements are not just part of the everyday turnover of domestic politics. They are a real rejection of the insidious politics of austerity, and the beginning of the end of the politics of fear.
Austerity politics, after all, depends on fear. It relies on worries about the future to justify swingeing cuts and sacrifices in the present. Creating a sense of hopelessness is a very efficient way to quickly implement irreversible structural economic changes, even if they degrade living standards, worsen working conditions, and generally spread fear and unhappiness.
And as it goes in Europe today, so it went in Latin America in the 1990s.
Living in fear
In various South American countries, particularly Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, hopelessness was central to the rhetoric that accompanied the deeply damaging structural adjustments imposed by the IMF and Western creditors.
References to sacrifice, pain, danger, fear, uncertainty, and the like were used to frame the implementation of stabilisation plans – plans which dramatically destabilised both economies and their people’s lives. By presenting this as the only weapon against crises such as hyperinflation in Bolivia, austerity’s Latin American adherents changed the terms within which their democracies could operate. Radical and revolutionary dreams were thwarted, and protest and assembly were crushed.
But fear and hopelessness have short legs, and there are extraordinary moments in history when governing by fear reaches a cul-de-sac. At such breaking points, often marked by economic, financial or political crisis (or all of the above), fear can give way to another equally important human emotion: hope.
Be the change that you seek
Hope is not just the ability to wish or fantasise. It is a tool for taking alternative realities seriously so that they might actually become possible. With hope, people can make mental space and concrete preparations for alternative ways of organising their societies – alternatives that are already lurking in the present, but which are simply not thought possible yet.
Austerity is unrealistic because it demands that we abandon hope, which is an essential component of our humanity. Our inherent capacity to dream and aspire collectively is our only way to make a truly better world, and a political “reality” that does not accept the possibility of alternatives is not a reality at all, but a demented fiction.
In Latin America, the eruption of hope in the face of austerity began with a real sense of injustice and frustration across different sectors of the population, quickly reaching beyond the dedicated activist to the ordinary citizen. That outrage led to mass demonstrations, mobilisations, strikes, uprisings and upheavals against neo-liberal policies.
The resulting movements embraced democratic resistance as an answer to forced structural adjustments and their often devastating aftermaths.
While outrage is the first step to radical change, real social transformation requires a process of learning, educating, and above all organising. Those movements have since been able to compete in elections and incorporate grassroots demands into their states' political agendas.
The “21st century socialism” ushered in under the leadership of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador was supported by grassroots movements, financially and politically. In those countries, popular organisation translated the power of hope into actual political platforms, and then into governments.
Meanwhile, Argentina is perhaps one of the most compelling example of the power of hope – and also of its pitfalls.
In 2001, the country became the scene of both a spectacular sovereign debt default and the equally remarkable process of popular mobilisation against President Menem’s politics of “stability”.
The unemployed, neighbours, workers, human rights movements rejected the violence of what was passed off as stability – privatisation, deregulation, dispossession. They began organising around hope in various forms: workers’ co-operatives, new social organisations, community projects. They embraced radical direct democracy in their streets and neighborhoods under the slogan “All of them Out!”
But that translation did not always go smoothly, and it has not held up well over the ensuing years.
The initial coherence of the governments of the “Pink Tide” is falling apart. In some cases, little of their founding movements' zeal can be found in their current economic policies, which frequently contradict the original anti-neoliberal and bottom-up thinking. In short, they have frequently let their parent movements down.
Brazil’s Movement of Landless Rural Workers organised their own co-operative agrarian reform at their settlements and demanded equitable land distribution with food sovereignty, but the last two administrations - which they helped usher in – have both promoted World Bank-led agrarian reforms. Those reforms in turn have transformed the MST’s settlements into factories for the enrichment of Monsanto and its agribusiness ilk.
Similarly, the Ecuadorian government cynically incorporated the indigenous cosmology, sumak kawsay, into its policy agenda by translating it into a “development model” – blithely ignoring the fact that indigenous people opposed “development” altogether.
Argentina, meanwhile, possesses the third-largest reserve of shale gas in the world, and the ostensibly left-wing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ignored environmentalists' protests against fracking to sign a contract on it with Chevron-Texaco. She cannot have been unaware that the same company was thrown out of Ecuador for committing egregious human rights violations and causing environmental disasters, including the contamination of indigenous lands.
Despite important achievements, these governments are failing their people in many ways, betraying the hopeful movements that got them into power. But the point of hope in the political sense is that it does not stop with the state.
Radical hope takes us beyond the contours of state institutions, and pushes towards something we cannot yet explain, but which feels right. The state can translate some of these practices into policy, but hope can never be perfectly translated into reality. That impossibility is what keeps us campaigning for what could be.
Now, at last, a shift towards a real politics of hope is gathering momentum in Europe. It is up to Greece’s citizens to watch the new Syriza government closely, and hold it to the principles on which it rode into office. In the meantime, Podemos can take inspiration from its Greek counterparts as the Spanish elections approach.
But above all, the citizens of Europe must keep dreaming collectively of a better society, a better Europe, and a better world.