The Limits of Social Movements: An untimely reflection

Marc Saint-Upéry


ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento

Los Límites de los Movimientos Sociales: Una reflexión intempestiva


In the 1950s and 1960s, people in the French left sometimes avoided speaking certain truths (on the Soviet system, for example) so as to “keep hope alive in Billencourt”[1]  for the pro-Communist workers. While I do not share this Jesuitical conception of the truth, I offer these very incomplete and imperfect reflections on the limits of the social movements with no intention of denying hope to the militant cadres that work to construct and to fortify these movements. I intend, rather, to oppose the deceptive and unspoken fallacy that underlies a certain enthusiastic movimientismo, that in my opinion is an uncritical exaltation of the social movements, that is often just a cheap substitute for, and only barely disguises, the comfortable and monolithic certainties of Leninist or foquista [guerrilla] vanguardism. This fallacy takes a correct and extremely important premise – "without the social movements, nothing is possible" – and surreptitiously derives from it an invalid conclusion: "with the social movements, everything (or almost everything) is possible."


In calling a debate on the unanswered questions surrounding social movements, I wanted to concentrate on three subjects: the problem of the relation of social movements to politics; the relation between their "demographic" weight and their political weight; and the question of the "antisystemic" character, or the anticapitalist potential, of these movements.


The dilemma of politics


As soon as they take part in the dispute over the common good and the social order, social movements move openly and directly to politics and contribute to the definition of the political agenda. Nevertheless, the relation of the social movements with politics – much less politicians – is not usually understood in the sense of state institutions, public policy and electoral competitions. In the latest debates on social movements in Latin America, there was a certain tendency to presuppose the existence of an emphatic split between social self-organization and political institutions. This absolute dichotomy often reflects a slippery attempt at moralizing the strategic debate, and a new version of old fundamentalist impulses. Nowadays, the question is: just what is the revolution, who are the revolutionaries and the reformists, how best to distinguish the “pure” from the “impure” in order to defend the virginity of idealized social movements against any institutional contamination. The most extreme form of this purism is found in a curious book by John Holloway.[2] However, I believe that Holloway’s thesis is only the hyperbolic crystallization of a vague but insistent ideological mood that other authors offer in more qualified forms.

One of them is Raúl Zibechi, who has published an article on the "dangerous relations" between social movements and state power.[3] For Zibechi, the contrast between the brief and ill-fated governmental participation of the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, once powerful and now debilitated by this experience, and the practice of electoral and institutional participation of theBrazilian landless movement MST, verifies that the real alternatives are constructed essentially outside state spaces, in the “stubborn autonomy” of social and community base areas. However, the reality is a little more complex. Like many social movements, the Ecuadorian indigenous movement was built in large part based on the political, institutional and symbolic reserves of the state – as well as those of the para-state or supra-state constituted by the multilateral and international cooperation agencies [non-governmental organizations]. Its real militance, although cyclical, could almost be characterized in the terms used by García Linera Alvaro to describe the old Bolivian labor movement: “a deep-rooted, accusing spirit confronting the state, bellicose certainly, but demarcated within the boundaries of meaning and modernization propagated by the state.”[4] In general, the diagnosis of Pablo Ospina applies: “The [Ecuadorian] Indian movement navigates between various options that interconnect, separate and diverge: to oppose the power of the state, to turn to the power of the state, to create more or less autonomous spaces of power inside the state.”[5] Yet these “separations” and “divergences” hardly ever break out between the spurious professional politicians and the heroic supporters of social mobilization; rather, the ambivalences of its relation with power systematically cut through every instance of a social movement, from the leadership to the base.[6]


At the heart of this mythical dichotomy between political power and social anti-power, there is, in Zibechi’s words, a noticeable confusion between two not necessarily congruent strategic options: a rigorous distancing from market competition and electoral obligations, as is the case with MST; and an actively driven, separate and autonomous institution, like the Zapatista “caracoles” [local government assemblies] (but not with the Ecuadorian indigenous municipalities, which promote participation within the framework of the prevailing legal-administrative order). But the situation on the ground in Chiapas is much more subtle. In a recent document, for example, Subcomandante Marcos, while fully supporting the autonomy and radical democratic practices of the Zapatista Good Government Assemblies, pointed out that they: (a) recognize the penal jurisdiction of the Mexican State; (b) have cooperative relations with many of the official municipalities with which they share territory; (c) maintain a communications channel with the state government of Chiapas through the Secretariat of Indian Peoples; (d) although “they do not think that the elections are in truth a path for the people’s interests,” they recognize the right of the administrators to participate in the official elections and are ready to facilitate the work of the electoral authorities on Zapatista turf.[7]


In addition, after some very stormy attempts, the Zapatista municipalities renounced the imposition of taxes in the territories under their control, to live essentially on international solidarity and cooperation.[8] Zapatista “counterpower” is kept in a curious ambiguity in the face of the coercive and expropriatory prerogatives that traditionally characterize state power. This ambiguity can be interpreted as a weakness, or as a fertile area of institutional innovation. It demonstrates, at least, that reality does not affirm the twofold schemes of the ideologists of counterpower or antipower.


The case of the Zapatistas is very particular for its creation of armed “self-limited” insurrection and its subsequent trajectory. In any context outside of pure coercion or institutional anarchy, the most general problem of social movements is that their essential “internal institutionality,”[9] while original and autonomous in form, cannot overlook “external” institutionality and the problems that it raises: Who holds sovereignty? Who is the legitimate representative? – and so on. The autonomy of social movements from the political-electoral market, especially its corrupt, “for sale to the highest bidder” versions, is indispensable. To believe, all the same, that this autonomy lessens the problems of the struggle for state power, of the contentious formation of the general will, of the institutionalization of the rules of social coexistence and of public deliberation, of the equitable administration of resources, of the representation of citizens and of their active participation in public matters, is the coarsest of illusions.


The contribution of social movements is not in the unilateral promotion of a spontaneous “direct” or “participatory” democracy against a purely “formal” representative democracy. It takes just a minimum of reflection to understand that workers’ democracy, the soviets, the popular assemblies, or any form of democracy with strong participation of the base populations, should not become spaces for turning militants into professional apparatchiks or for plebiscites of acclamation for the great leader. They need to have rigorous rules and delegative and representative mechanisms, simultaneously impartial, transparent and efficient. In other words, they need to be even more “formal” than representative “bourgeois” democracy. Beyond its anthropologic ingenuousness, the fetishization of the “constituent power” in opposition to the “constituted power” – to use Toni Negri's lexicon – demonstrates a complete miscomprehension of, and maybe a certain scorn for, the dynamics of the democratic institution as the social construction of a public space where the rules give rise to conflicts, and conflicts restructure the rules and transform the actors and their interests. The real political challenge of social movements is there, not in the deceitful dilemma between social purity and institutional contamination.


The dilemma of size and scope


Some of the more important and active Latin American social movements are rural movements acting in majority urban societies. It is certain that, despite the furious smear campaigns carried out by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the media, a movement like the MST has great acceptance in Brazilian opinion. However, we can't confuse popularity with hegemony. The case of the Zapatistas is illustrative.


Are social movements the majority or the minority in society? And if they are the minority, to what extent does this condition their capacity for political and moral leadership in the subaltern sectors? This question, which, at bottom, brings us back to the classic problem of the “dialectic of quantity and quality,” is usually ignored or ultimately silenced in the current debates on social movements in Latin America. Empirically, nobody would question the fact that, in general, organized social sectors – including organizations as powerful as the Brazilian MST – are demographically the minority not only in the overall population, but even in their own popular sectors.[10] A notable partial exception are movements like the Argentinian “puebladas,” the Cochabamba Water War, the Peruvian Arequipazo or the case of certain particularly homogeneous indigenous zones, like the Norpaceño Aymara in Altiplano, where the organized social actors are able to move almost an entire population, strongly identified with a “dense” geographic or cultural space, in defense of a claim or of a local resource endowed with great material and symbolic resonance. However, these cases, while significant, are relatively exceptional.

Generally, while it may appear a trivial consideration, the frequently minority character of social movements does not receive the attention it deserves. The silent removal of the subject contributes the same motivational dynamics as the middle-class intellectuals who are considered allies of, or close to, social movements and who participate in them in various ways (solidarity, advice, training, communication, political mediation, etc). Often, the uprootedness and discomfort of professional intellectuals are due to their ambiguous social location ("the dominated fraction of the dominant class," to use Bourdieu's term), to the decline of the moral authority of book learning and to the relative loss of prestige of specialists not in directly 'productive' areas, resulting from the joint influence of mass audiovisual culture and neoliberal technocratic economics. In this frustrating and disillusioned social universe, to be alongside or within the social movements is like taking a bath of authenticity, recharging the moral batteries in the warmth of the popular community and feeling the pulse beat of a sometimes idealized and sentimentalized people.


From this idea – generally implied – it is very easily extrapolated that social movements are the potential center of gravity of the popular or subaltern, or that the supposed “alienation” or “false consciousness” of the unorganized, nonmobilized sectors of the people are only the distorted image, while the militant popular movements are the teleological truth. However, a little sociological realism would show that this is not the case. Several other factors can be mentioned, without resorting to invoking a capitalist conspiracy to demobilize the masses, with a much more determinant weight than social movements in the moral, intellectual and political formation of the subaltern sectors. We mention only two of them: television and its complex relations with the dynamics of urban popular culture; and the extraordinary rise of Pentecostal movements. The important subject of the changes in social consciousness and the public space by audio-visual means – which are not, nor must they be, unilaterally “negative” and “alienanted” – are too complex to deal with here. As for the new, neo-Pentecostal forms of popular religion, they are seen by many observers as a sui generis form of modernization-individualization, all combining a range of socio-economic, therapeutic and ethical-spiritual functions, whose meaning is not univocal. However, not only their quantitative dimension – they reach between 15% and 20% of the Latin American population, and proportionately more in the subaltern sectors[11] – but more importantly, their impact on the moral and material economy of the popular classes may make them the most massive movement of self-organization and popular self-advancement in the history of the continent. This phenomenon, which is just beginning to be explored by religious sociology experts, is still totally beyond the horizon of reflection of the Latin American left.[12]

So it is not only that the “pulse of the people” beats in all these spaces, but also that the same increasing plurality, the incongruity and the relative immeasurability of the various spheres of the popular “lifeworld” considerably complicates the panorama. That said, while a symbolic, ontological or sociological “center of gravity” of the people does not exist, that fact does not mean that the subaltern sectors are evolving in a kind of postmodern limbo of fluidity and hybridity, forever changing and resistant to any formalization. In spite of the destructurization of working hours and of the “symbolic precariousness” imposed by the informality and the socioeconomic complexity of peripheral post-Fordism, the same exigencies of survival and reproduction against neoliberal penetration themselves trace lines of fracture and of partial recomposition, and favor the emergence of plebeian democratic narratives around expressions like “those who do not live on other people's work”, “the simple and working people”[13] and the various "sins" (sin tierra, sin empleo, sin viviendo; without land, jobs, housing). In this sense, in decisive circumstances, social movements can still function as what used to be called “vanguards of the people.”


However, only if the concrete sociological contexts – the more or less routinized forms of coordination between the movements' protest and political work and the everyday life of the great majority – are taken into account, will we be able to rationally evaluate the relative effectiveness, the scope and the hegemonic and transformative potential of their intervention. For the same reason, the question (merely "demographic" in appearance) of size, quality, regularity, cohesion and density of individual and collective participation in social movements cannot be neglected, as if it is too self-evident to be analyzed carefully and without ideological or sentimental populist prejudices. On the other hand, only organizational ingenuity and concrete experimentation in the "internal institutionalization" of social movements (while decidedly rejecting the illusion of abstract counterposition of "formal democracy" and "real democracy," or "participatory democracy" and "representative democracy"), can give us instruction as to finding the best way to relate to the (nonmobilized, or less mobilized) rest of society, and simultaneously to face the dangers of dilution, opportunism and cooptation, as well as those of professionalization of militants, sectarianism and disconnection from reality.


The dilemma of anticapitalism


Are social movements necessarily “antisystemic”? Do they foreshadow, in some way that is not purely rhetorical, the overcoming of the present patterns of production and redistribution of social wealth? In reality, this question divides into two: (1) Can social movements exist without being politically progressive and/or socially emancipatory? (2) Are progressive social movements enscribed with a credible perspective of overthrowing capitalism?


In order to answer the first question, it seems to me difficult to deny that mobilizations like, for example, those that were fomented against lawlessness by Juan Carlos Blumberg in Argentina, or the “March of Silence” against delinquency in México City[14], display all the classic social movement characteristics defined by sociology.[15] The existence of clearly “reactionary” social movements - and perhaps of reactionary values in some progressive movements - can only strengthen my line of argument. However, for reasons of space and convenience, I am limited to examining the problem of anticapitalist or socialist potential of social movements generally recognized as "progressive." The problem has two aspects: the beliefs and rational expectations of the movements, and the concrete content of its practices in action and organization.

James Petras, the verbose U.S. academic, dedicated most of a recent article to preaching to the Latin American left about its dearth of revolutionary dynamism, unleashing his fury at the Salvadoran FMLN leader Schafik Hándal, who had confessed to him, speaking of socialism, “that it will take centuries, it's very far off.”[16] In a more diplomatic tone, the farabundista leader expressed his point of view on the subject: “In fact, our supposed radicalism cannot be defined at present as total anticapitalism. […] we do not call for the immediate abolition of capitalism in general, of every form of capitalist relations of production, distribution and exchange [but] to abolish dependent neoliberal capitalism and to assure national development with social justice and participatory democracy, that it overcomes poverty, deep and chronic unemployment, and educational, cultural and scientific-technical backwardness, that guarantees health, housing, the environment, gender equity; that reactives the economy, restructures and fortifies the underlying national productive, agricultural and industrial structure, supports small and medium-sized enterprises, cooperative enterprises and the development of regional integration.”[17]

This is highly symptomatic of the present ideological situation of the left in that nobody in Latin America, however radical their political genealogy – even a guerrilla movement like the FARC – seriously proposes another perspective.[18]  I do not have any principled objection to Schafik Hándal's exposition, although it would be possible to discuss it in detail forever. What worries me is that the more or less tacit conformity – or confused silence – on proposals of this type, reflects not only the poverty, but the flat-out nonexistence of any serious and coherent debate on the form and content of a possible postcapitalist society, neither in the ranks of the so-called revolutionaries or those of the so-called reformists.


I see two reasons for this slight omission. First, beyond superficial and unconvincing reactions – like: "the Soviet Union was the victim of an imperialist conspiracy," or the reverse: "we never had anything to do with the Soviet model"[19] – in Latin America, the resounding failure of the regimes of Eastern Europe and some of its clients and allies in the third world – not to mention the paradoxical evolution of the People's Republic of China – was never processed properly by the left on the level of theoretical and strategic reflection. This applies a fortiori to a subject that is completely taboo in the Latin American left, what some Cuban official economists discreetly call "the exhaustion of the regime of extensive growth,"  meaning the catastrophic performance of the Soviet-style command economy on the Caribbean island – subsidized before by the USSR, now by emigration and tourism dollars.[20]


The second reason, intimately tied with the first, is that on the continent there is no reflection, not even the yearning to seriously reflect on the institutional forms, the economic and anthropological incentives and the motivational mechanisms that could make viable, in the medium and long term, a democratic socialism in the world in general, and third world countries in particular.[21]


However, the Latin American anticapitalist and anti-imperialist left share a tendency to frequently make an escape from problematizing the concrete institutionality of postcapitalist society by postulating the existence of an anthropological communitarian and solidaristic substratum that would recover and revitalize the ability to define the essential characteristics of an indigenous socialism or an alternative development model. There exist, obviously, philosophical and ideological antecedents of this thesis in several syntheses of socialism and romantic populism that emerged in nineteenth century Europe – we recall the famous debate between Marx and Vera Zasulich on the Russian mir (traditional peasant community) – and various equivalent formations working the same way in other geographic-cultural spaces. Likewise, in Latin America one can cite innumerable conceptions and variations on this theme, from more or less articulated theoretical hypotheses with references to Karl Polanyi, Marcel Mauss, or historical and anthropological works on resistance to capitalist modernization by the peasantry's moral economy or by popular sectors, to a plain and simple essentialist rhetorical cliché.


It will be enough to mention the emblematic formulation – midway between a theory and a catchphrase – of one of the principal opinionmakers of the continental left, Eduardo Galeano: "It is based on hope and not nostalgia that we must recover a mode of communitarian production and a way of life founded not on greed but on solidarity, on ancient liberties and the identification of human beings with nature. […] A lethal system for the world and its inhabitants, it befouls the water, annihilates the Earth and poisons the air and soil, is in violent contradiction with the cultures that maintain that the Earth is sacred because we, its children, are sacred.  These despised and negated cultures deal with the Earth as their mother and not as raw material and a source of income. Against the capitalist law of profit, they propose a life of sharing, reciprocity, mutual aid that in the past inspired Thomas More's utopia and that today helps to discover the American face of socialism, whose deeper roots lie in the tradition of the community."


In the same way, but with a more precise lexicon, Anibal Quijano maintains that “the socially oriented private sector and its nonstate public sphere,” as they are found in Andean communities, can serve more as a basis for a “noninstrumental reason” focused "more on the ends than on the means, and more on liberation than on power.”[22] The apparent ideological plausibility of this exposition has been considerably strenghthened by the emergence in several countries, in particular Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Bolivia, of powerful indigenous-rural mobilizations which laid the foundations for a politically autonomous indianismo – rejecting the paternalism and "ventriloquism"[23] of traditional indigenous currents promoted by white-mestizo intellectuals – with the practices of self-managed organization and reproduction/survival of popular movements like the Brazilian MST (productive settlements, systems of skills development and training), the Argentinian piqueteros (various dining halls, schools, cooperatives and enterprises), or their worker compatriots of the empresas recuperadas (worker cooperatives in occupied workspaces). Naturally, to those who would tar the advocates of a community-inspired indigenous socialism with naivete or atavism – particularly from the point of view of defending representative democracy and liberal modernity (either in its neoliberal or more or less social-democratic variants) and economic and social efficiency – Indianists and neo-communalists answer in general that they don't seek to return to an idealized communal agrarian life themselves, nor do they reject the essential conquests of modernity, but that they arrive at a harmonious synthesis according to the social and cultural conditions of the Latin American people. In summary, socialism no longer would be “Soviets plus electricity,” but “ayllu [Incan political unit] plus optical fiber,” or “self-management plus the Internet.”


Unfortunately, at this level of sociological abstraction, arguments pro and con can be posed indefinitely without ever reaching a substantial conclusion. I want to bring them down from the stratospheric heights of this civilizational debate on modernity and tradition, or on efficiency and autonomy, and try to land it on the solid ground of concrete interactions and social evolutions, without teleological prejudices about its content being either alienating or emancipatory. For that, it is essential to settle accounts with three systematic tendencies of the Latin American social-comunitarian discourse: moralism, ideologism and abstract utopianism.


1. Moralism. There is a systematic confusion of anthropological and economic categories – like the notions of "reciprocity," "redistribution" and "market" – or social categories – like "collectivism," "communitarianism," and "individualism" – with ethical or motivational categories – like "egoism" and "altruism." This confusion is very much connected to the fact that, in the left, debate about collective values, individual motivations, and forms of social organization, is usually implicit and emotional, rather than explicit and rational. In addition, the cheap moralism of certain sides of the left is an indirect effect of the theoretical amoralism of officially recognized marxisms and, in large part – although with a greater theoretical and philological complexity – of Marx himself.[24] This is not the place to enter this complex debate, but it is enough to mention two significant aspects: a) in epistemological terms, it is well known that, in the ecological and demographic-cultural context generally used by Marx, "reciprocity" is a category that can be perfectly reinterpreted in terms of "rational egoist" strategy[25]; b) on the more normative level, it is no coincidence that the resurgence of ethical debate in contemporary neo-Marxism should involve an exhaustive confrontation with liberal – in the political sense – of theories social and economic justice, nor that it should be marked by a noticeable convergence with their most radical ideas.[26]


2. Ideologism. When, for example, the Bolivian kataristas call on their followers to "remove Marx and Jesus from their head" and to replace them with the indigenous cosmovisión [worldview], they bring about a surreptitious denaturalization of the anthropological-cultural bosses of perception and interpretation of the current reality in the rural-indigenous communities of the Andean altiplano. The “cosmovisión” of precapitalist peoples is a contextualized symbolic practice, not a quasi-universalist doctrine like those of monotheist religions or modern political philosophies. Notions of "reciprocity" and "community" lose a great part of their real substance and material effectiveness when they rise to the status of ideological concepts. I don't want to deny that, in the dialectic of the "traditional" and the "modern," very often the emotional coloration that the identitary memory of ancient practices brings to such-and-such type of "modern" social or economic aspiration plays an important role, in that the partly imagined past is transformed into a criterion of the desired future by means of a complicated alchemy of necessities and expectations. In this sense, the presence and/or recovery of precapitalist communitarian practices can have a strong emancipatory meaning, and not just for those who directly live or lived with these practices. However, purely ideological exaltation of a solidaristic “cosmovisión” of original peoples entails the danger of double talk and double standard, in particular when the rhetoric of community and reciprocity cover a perfectly classical and “occidental” strategic rationality,[27] including maximized collective or individual behaviors that could be absolutely legitimate if they were taken on as they are, instead of being mystified.


3. Even without getting into the slight problem of the interaction between the local/national and the global, we can say that not only is society not a grand ayllu – including societies like Bolivia, Ecuador or Guatemala – but it cannot be, and does not have to be.[29] On the other hand, the possible organizational form of a complex postcapitalist society – and anyone who thinks getting beyond capitalism, alienation and the division of labor, much less eliminating them completely, requires unilaterally reducing social complexity, is deeply mistaken – cannot consist of a simple reproduction of the societal scale of local interactions based on minga [indigenous community gathering], ayni [culture of reciprocity] or mutirão [Brazilian collective], but requires a sui generis combination of elements of centralized (state) redistribution, mercantile interchange and communitarian reciprocity. The fact is, as I indicated, we do not have a detailed prescription, nor do we know all the ingredients in this combination – and there is no certainty that they can even be obtained in a humanly conceivable horizon of possibilities – that would enable us to build castles in the air, even castles of beautiful pre-Columbian architecture.


In this sense, the very real vernacular practices[30] of communitarian reciprocity and solidarity found in the daily life of the Latin American popular sectors should not function as the ideological standard in getting beyond the neoliberal model of development, but more modestly, and in circumstances that have to be determined cautiously, like (1) the forms of social capital that they can contribute, on a par with other social forms and dynamics, to a mode of alternative development or to the fight against dependency and subalternity, and (2) within a concrete sociological substratum - among other moral and material factors - of an ethical imaginary able to deconstruct, at least in part, the illusion of the "naturality," the "necessity" and the "eternality" of capitalist relations of production and domination. However, no existing linear sociological determinism exists that can guarantee that, by itself, such-and-such traditional or communitarian solidaristic practice, or even such-and-such practice of "modern” and urban popular self-management, has a potential that is “pansocietal” (in the sense of being applicable to a broad range of social interactions beyond its own ecological context) or "intermodal" (in the sense of concretely prefiguring the possible postcapitalist political and economic institutionalization of a mode of production and social organization[31]). It is not even necessary to support Hernando de Soto's defense of popular capitalism[32] to understand that the community networks in which lower-class social actors are involved can serve as social capital to spur the spontaneous development of unequal relations of mercantile accumulation within the popular economy.


And so we return to the problematic character and the ambivalence of the supposed “antisystemic” character of social movements; not only on the level of its relative ideological indetermination (uncertainties of socialist perspective), but of the movements' pattern of “alternative” practices that seem to justify extrapolations on their anticapitalist potential. I do not mean that social movements are totally prisoners of the visible range of prevailing relations of production and domination, to be modified only in extremely limited and perhaps ephemeral spaces; however, this assumed anticapitalist or postcapitalist potential cannot be evaluated without taking into account the totality of political and ideological mediations, on the one hand, and on the other, of “infrastructural” socio-economic and anthropological conditions that condition their content and range of influence.


Provisional Conclusions


As I said at the outset, the viability of social movements is a sine qua non for any transformative dynamic, but the existence of powerful and aggresive social movements is not enough to infinitely expand the boundaries of the possible. We see in this illusion a rather anemic, or falsely humble version of the historical optimism of the traditional socialist workers' movement--one no longer looks to the infinite wisdom of the party, but to the infinite creativity of the movements--that was founded on excessively simplified philosophical and epistemological premises: everything desirable is possible, and, by virtue of the “laws of history,” everything supposedly possible is inevitable. Nowadays, movements that take part in the dynamics of the World Social Forums are happy to affirm that 'another world is possible,' without taking the trouble to define the paths to this other world. This caution is not so questionable in itself, but lack of definition can be another form of “living a lie” for a left that often has to deal with emergencies involving power and leadership. So, new forms must be found to outline and articulate “minimum program” and “maximum program,” an intensely political task that no social movement can deal with in isolation.


I will probably be accused of advocating a mixture of “politico” elitism and vulgar reformist “posibilismo,” thus demonstrating the pettiness of my utopian imagination. As the Argentinean comrades of the Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD) of La Matanza say, the accusation of reformism does not worry me much, since “It's tough to be attacked as a reformist when you don't know you are one. But it's good to know it, because then people can't guilt-trip you."[33] I am perfectly willing to submit to this type of challenge as long as it comes with a minimum of developed argument and empirical illustrations. That is why, in a later article that will be able to perhaps pick up on observations and possible criticisms provoked by these reflections, I will set out to develop a more positive agenda and try to apply the famous questions of Kant – What can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope? – to the strategic perspectives of the social movements.



[1] The large Renault auto factory, labor stronghold of the French Communist Party.


[2] Change The World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today, University of Michigan Press, 2002.


[3] Raúl Zibechi, “Movimiento social y poder estatal: relaciones peligrosas”, ALAI, 10/08/2004.


[4] Alvaro García Linera, “Sindicato, multitud y comunidad. Movimientos sociales y formas de autonomía política en Bolivia”, in AA.VV., Tiempos de rebelión, Muela de Diablo Editores, La Paz, 2001. García advanced the concept of movilización pactista”, later adapted, with certain nuances, by indigenous Ecuadorians.


[5] Fernando Guerrero y Pablo Ospina, El poder de la comunidad. Ajuste estructural y movimiento indígena en los Andes ecuatorianos, CLACSO, Buenos Aires, 2003. Ver también Augusto Barrera, Acción colectiva y crisis política. El movimiento indígena ecuatoriano en la década de los noventa, Abya Yala, Quito, 2001.


[6] In fact, participation in the government of [coup leader and Ecuadorian President] Gutiérrez was not the cause of the crisis and of the division of the movement, as Zibechi suggests. To the contrary, the internal divisions of the CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador], and the electoral appetites of some “social” leaders that oriented [CONAIE’s] Pachakutik “political” movement toward alliance with Gutiérrez, were only a little worse than the lack of a candidate chosen by consensus, and the division of the center-left.


[7] Subcomandante Marcos, “Leer un video,” published in various electronic media.


[8] As reported by Pablo Ospina.


[9] Alvaro García Linera, op. cit.


[10] Some of the more important and active Latin American social movements are rural movements working in majority urban societies. It is certain that, in spite of ferocious slander campaigns carried out by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the media, a movement like MST gained great acceptance in Brazilian opinion. However, one should not confuse popularity with hegemony. The case of the Zapatistas is quite illustrative.


[11] It is possible to make (obviously imprecise) estimations, on the bases of the approximate aggregation of national data and the rate of exceptional growth observed in several countries. See David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990. The Pentecostal boom is far from being exclusively Latin American.


[12] The Brazilian sociologist Clara Mafra, for example, deplores the fact that left feminists are unable to perceive the potential for self-organization and social reconstruction of women's lives offered by evangelical churches in the marginalized sectors, in spite of their relatively conservative conception of gender relations (interview with the author). In many depressed favelas and barrios, they are the only organizations able to fight against the tremendous unravelling of the social fabric. See Clara Mafra, Os evangélicos, Jorge Zahar Editor, Rio de Janeiro, 2001.


[13] The quoted formulas are from Álvaro García, op. cit.


[14] See Subcomandante Marcos, op. cit.


[15] See, for example, Erik Neveu, Sociología de los movimientos sociales, Abya Yala, Quito, 2000. The fact that Blumberg or other players can have “moorings” with the organized political right changes nothing. That progressive social movements often have links to the political left doesn't make them any less social movements.


[16] Mario Hernandez, interview with James Petras, revista La Maza, reproducido in, abril de 2004.


[17] Schafik Hándal, “El FMLN y la vigencia del pensamiento revolucionario en El Salvador”,, September 2004. Hándal adds that it is trying “to construct the economic and social base that makes transition to a socialist society possible” and refers to the example of Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution," but nevertheless declared recently to the London Guardian: “I do not hold with dogmatic postulates of the Marxist revolution. I do not believe we live in a period of proletarian revolutions. All this must be reexamined, reality demonstrates this every day. Will our objective in Venezuela today be the abolition of private property or a society without classes? I don't believe it."


[18] Nobody except proponents of the subversive “exodus” of the movements [Hardt, Negri], and “changing the world without taking power.” Although they are rarely explicit, I suppose they start from the hypothesis that popular organizations in radical rupture from any form of political institutionality or systemic functionality spontaneously exude comunism, like spiders spinning webs. Mutant spiders from science-fiction movies, probably, since one assumes that they could little by little cover the entire planet and radically remodel its material and spiritual infrastructure with this web of self-management.


[19] In a debate in Quito on the future of the left after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I heard it said that “it is not that Marxism-Leninism is mistaken, but that it has been applied badly.” This demonstrates that the creation and the poscapitalist social consolidation of a Soviet-type formation is preceded by the social appeal in the traditional labor movement of a statist, verticalist and unanimist imaginary, alongside the deeply democratizing and emancipatory elements – conquest of rights, self-education, civic participation, valorization of the work force and creation of proletarian public spaces (see Marc Angenot, L’Utopie collectiviste. Le grand récit socialiste sous la Deuxième Internationale, PUF, París, 1993).  Far from being a simple “deformation” or bureaucratic “betrayal,” it reflects the same conditions of accumulation and class and organizational composition of union and political movements shaped by the material and cultural infrastructure of capitalism in a given period.


[20] The formula "exhaustion of the regime of extensive growth" comes from Luis Suárez Salazar, former director of Centro de Estudios sobre América in Havana. I do not want to speak here of human rights in Cuba, a subject of innumerable hypocritical and opportunistic rationalizations, as much on the part of certain anti-Castroites as of confirmed Castro fans. It's enough to cite Marx: "In order to combat freedom of the press, the thesis of the permanent immaturity of the human race has to be defended" (Rheinische Zeitung, 1842).


[21] A notable exception is the Brazilian economist Paul Singer, historical militant of the PT and specialist of the third sector, that often mentions classic books of Nove and Kornai: Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism, Allen & Unwin, London, 1983; János Kornai, The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, Princeton University Press, 1992. On market socialism, see for example: John E. Roemer, A Future for Socialism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 1994; Frank Roosevelt and David Belkin, Why Market Socialism? Voices from Dissent, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk (N.Y.), 1994; and the series Real Utopias from Verso. In Castillian, Roberto Gargarella y Félix Ovejero Lucas, Las razones del socialismo, Paidós, Barcelona, 2001, offers a beginner's guide to these debates.

[22] Both authors – Galeano and Quijano – are cited in Jorge Larrain, Identidad y modernidad en América Latina, Oceano, México, 2004.


[23] The notion of political "ventriloquism" comes from the Ecuadoran anthropologist Andrés Guerrero.


[24] See, in particular: Steven Lukes, Marx and Morality, Oxford University Press, 1985; Norman Geras, “The Controversy about Marx and Justice,” New Left Review, 150, March-April 1985.


[25] Literature on the subject is considerable, although little has spread outside specialized academic atmospheres. See, among others: Robert Axelrod, The evolution of cooperation, Basic Books, New York, 1984; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “Is Equality Passé? Homo reciprocans and the future of egalitarian politics,” Boston Review, December 1998. For two decades the French magazine of the Anti-Utilitarian Movement in the Social Sciences has explored this subject matter. See Revue du MAUSS, Éditions La Découverte, París.


[26] On the subject, Bolivian readers can consult my article, “El pensamiento filosófico de John Rawls”, in El Juguete Rabioso, 80, La Paz, May 2003, and my introduction to Amartya Sen, La libertad como compromiso social, Plural, La Paz, 2003. A good introduction in Castillian, with ample mention of the Marxist debate, is Will Kymlicka, Filosofía política contemporanea, Ariel, Barcelona, 1995.


[27] That is to say, in fact, universal, in my modest opinion (not very popular in these times of postcolonial relativism).


[28] Naturally, the indigenous leaders do not have a monopoly on this type of behavior, by far, and often they must “command obedience” and respect perfomance mechanisms of accounts and of democratic assembly control which the traditional political or union leaders are not subject to. Nevertheless, that does not change anything of substance in my argument.


[29] I cannot develop this subject in the space of this article. I will only mention that it conforms to much of the minimum exigencies of sociological realism such as the Marxian conception – totally ignored by various orthodox Marxisms and a large part of the heterodox – of the full development of the individual. On the liberal-romantic type of philosophical individualism of Marx and his aporias, see, among others: Louis Dumont, Homo aequalis. Genèse et épanouissement de l’idéologie économique, Gallimard, París, 1977; Pierre Rosanvallon, Le capitalisme utopique. Essai sur l’idée de marché, Seuil, París, 1979; Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx, Cambridge University Press, 1985; Gianfranco La Grassa, Costanzo Preve, La fine di una teoria: il collasso del marxismo storico del Novecento, Uncopli, Milán, 1996.


[30] See Ivan Illich, Shadow Work, Boyars, Boston (Mass.), 1981, and Le Genre vernaculaire, Seuil, París, 1983. I use the term coined by Illich to insist on the socially and ecologically contextualized character – embedded, as the anthropologists would say – of these practices. Nevertheless, I do not exclude the possibility of producing virtuous circles connecting local communitarian practices with dynamic global democratization in the political and the economic domains.


[31] The term "intermodal" is used by Costanzo Preve, op. cit., to describe the classic Marxist conception of the industrial working class, whose historical-structural location anticipates the overthrow of class society.


[32] Hernando de Soto, El Otro Sendero, Editorial Diana, Mexico 1986; El misterio del capital, Sudamericana, Buenos Aires, 2002.


[33] “Seduciendo al capital: el MTD de La Matanza y sus alianzas con los empresarios”, 13/7/2004,