Globalist Paper

Globalization and Grassroots Democracy: Which Revolution? (Part II)

How can the productive power of modern capitalism be harnessed for social ends?

Read Part I here and Part III here.

Takeaways


  • Well into the 21st century, Latin America still faces challenges that most of Western Europe put behind it by the mid-20th century.
  • Unfulfilled expectations continue to haunt the political landscape. The hope for a New World free of the vices of autocratic, elitist, conflict-ridden Europe remains largely unfulfilled.
  • Latin America remains the world's least militarized region, having become the first nuclear weapons-free zone.
  • The struggle for development is still largely seen through the filters of a tortuous history of political subordination and economic subservience to overseas interests.

Modern sociology grew out of the failure of what might be termed the Marxian ultimatum, i.e. the Communist Manifesto's prophesy that the 1848 revolutions would usher in a proletarian-led era of mass prosperity built on the ashes of the bourgeois state.

However, prospects for revolution in Western Europe faded remorselessly in 1914, when nationalistic enlistment for war easily trumped worker class-consciousness.

Modern capitalism and its massively creative productive power were enthroned as the truly revolutionary force of the 20th century. How best to harness this restless energy to social ends?

The goal was not to destroy bourgeois society and its prosperity-making machine, but rather to bring it to heel under popular control — in other words, to make capitalism safe for democracy. Social democracy, in its various European and, at times, North American hues, attempts precisely this.

In contrast, variations on Marx’s prophesy retained their pungency well into the second half of the 20th century for many budding revolutionaries in the developing world.

Despite the cautionary tale provided by Chinese, Soviet and Cuban collectivist experiments, until quite recently socialist-style revolution was seen in both academic and workers’ circles in large swathes of the Global South as a credible alternative on the path to national economic and social empowerment.

Rather than a force for social improvement through political reform, capitalism in Latin America was often seen exclusively through the unforgiving lens of colonial history.

In its most antinomian forms, this meant that capitalism, in its contemporary globalized version, is not an economic engine to be mastered. Rather, it is a perverse system of oppression to be smashed — in the name of an idyllic pre-Colombian past overrun by ruthless gold-hungry Iberian conquistadors (and their modern-day successors).

No doubt the skewed circumstances under which (what is today known as) Latin America first joined the global economy back in the 16th century go a long way to explaining past poverty and present misery. Even when disagreeing about how much of today's problems should be laid at the feet of the colonial inheritance, few would question its centrality to understanding contemporary Latin America and its politics.

The struggle for development is still largely seen through the political and ideological filters of a tortuous history of political subordination and economic subservience to overseas interests. The notion of a region condemned, under the guise of a rational economic division of international labor, to export its natural riches to feed the engines of industrialization in former metropolises still resonates in many quarters.

Raúl Prebisch, an Argentine economist, famously encapsulated this sense of outrage when he argued that industrialization via import-substitution was the only route to prosperity for countries that relied on the export of increasingly undervalued primary goods to finance their balance of payments accounts.

In 2009, countries in Latin America are beginning the bicentennial celebrations of the wars of independence that gave birth to most of today's Iberian-American republics, such as Ecuador. As we do so, we can boast of many sizeable achievements. Latin America remains the world's least militarized region, having become the first nuclear weapons-free zone.

It is largely unburdened by ethnic or religious strife, and benefits from a shared linguistic and cultural heritage. It is equally proud of its pioneering role in developing a coherent body of international law centered on the principles of non-intervention and the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Yet, the unfulfilled expectations of the region's Bolivarian founders continue to haunt the political landscape. The hope for a New World free of the vices of autocratic, elitist, conflict-ridden Europe remains largely unfulfilled. The region remains rife with border disputes, social unrest and political upheavals.

Many would lay the blame for much of this state of affairs at the feet of the spectacularly abrupt and dramatic collapse of Spanish rule under the impact of the Napoleonic invasions.

The Spanish Empire gave way to an antagonistic collection of highly unstable proto-nations with little political or social cohesion. All lived under the permanent threat of outside intervention or domestic turmoil, trying as best they could to consolidate national institutions and identity within ill-defined boundaries.

Even today, they are a rich playground for jingoistic maneuvering. These mutual suspicions and rivalries reinforced the reactionary authoritarianism and militaristic nationalism that has intermittently plagued the region.

As a result, well into the 21st century, Latin America still faces challenges that most of Western Europe put behind it by the mid-20th century. How to ensure that the gains of political democracy, however slow in coming, are translated into social and economic democracy?

This challenge remains very much alive in Latin America. This is best illustrated by the fact that in the decades since the return to full democracy, the traditional party system — which in many cases survived the authoritarian period — collapsed or became dysfunctional in much of the region.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I of this Globalist Paper here and Part III here.

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