Class makes a comeback

The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same
Jeffery R Webber
2017, Pluto Press
327 pages, paperback

IF THERE is one lesson to be drawn from the resurgence of the right in Latin America, it is that governments ostensibly on the left who have let power slip through their fingers should have known better.

As Jeffery Webber notes, capital has scented blood – and while it was able to live with the new left and even flourish under it, the latter was never its first choice of bed mate and consequently it is now going in for the kill.

In an apparent domino effect, the new right has regained power since 2015 or engineered the downfall of left-of-centre governments in Argentina, Brazil and Chile, has consolidated its position in Paraguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, has tried ceaselessly to destabilize Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and has turned Mexico into a bloodbath.

In doing so, the right has shrugged off barriers posed by formal democratic mechanisms confident in the knowledge that it enjoy the support of the imperial centre for its anti-constitutional routs. Democracy, after all, is merely the label the empire gives to its allies.

The author writes: “Thus while left governments bend over backward to capitulate to capital and ensure market confidence, capital has left them to flounder in the political darkness, preferring a return to traditional and new rights, or sometimes a novel synthesis of the two.” [p 3]

As the organized left recedes, things will get darker for it before they get brighter, Webber suggests – voicing what most of us suspect but do not want to admit. The new right in Latin America will rule more intensely – lacking social consent, it will be more reliant on militarized and repressive domination.

We are already seeing this in Honduras, where the shameful, almost triumphant, open subversion of democracy is being celebrated both on the domestic right but also in Washington in ways redolent of the military coups of the 1960s. Formal democratic legitimacy, it would seem, is no longer seen as a requirement.

But this bleak assessment is not the principal theme that runs through The Last Day of Oppression which – if not necessarily optimistic – is at least refreshing in leading the reader back to basics and offering a candid assessment of the failure of the “pink tide” to bring about the revolutionary transformations that Latin America needs.

This is because the complex theoretical arguments in this detailed treatise boil down to a potent reminder of the main Marxist premises that the centre-left chose to overlook in its enthusiastic hurry to gain a toehold in the corridors of power after 1998.

Given that, the left’s recent setbacks should not be accepted in fatalistic terms, Webber argues, and hence the end of the cycle of progressive governments in Latin America should not be equated with the end of the left.

The future is still in play – and winning it will require above all a keen eye for the established class arguments which became so unfashionable after the Cold War and which address the shortcomings of social democracy, and even the pallid Marxist arguments that see meaningful change in the recent left-of-centre experiments. Webber writes:

“.. even taking into account variability across cases, the new Latin American left did not challenge the underlying class structures of its societies or the systems of capitalist accumulation that fundamentally reproduces the basic patterns of simultaneous wealth and poverty, of luxury alongside misery. The facility with which centre-left and left governments were able to skim a portion of the rent generated by the commodities boom and redirect it to the popular classes helped for a time to conceal underlying structures of continuity.” [p 2]

In The Last Day of Oppression, Webber takes stock of the left’s evolution in Latin America since the 1990s. He argues that a principal response to fading centre-left political hegemony in the region is denial, and there are two variants of it. A social-democratic position argues that recent rightwing gains are a temporary setback and the direction of travel remains leftward; and a position inspired by Marxism sees these setbacks merely as part of the “ebb and flow” of the revolutionary process and the (eventual) transition towards socialism.

Webber’s position is also inspired by Marxism but is much messier still and, as such, feels much more plausible. He argues that both the “denialist” narratives are mistaken and that in the context of the delayed aftershocks of the global economic crisis, a receding centre-left and a somewhat fragmented new right incapable of consolidating its hegemony are locked in a novel impasse. This is characterized by continuities in neoliberal economic norms and underlying patterns of regional accumulation and insertion in the international division of labour.

The rise of the left in Latin America rejuvenated essentially liberal arguments about inequality which have, predictably, failed to tackle the fundamental concerns of social movements and parties that can only be adequately understood in terms of class dynamics.

Webber offers a broader vision of class oppression that can take in related social oppression – especially, in the case of Latin America, gender, sexuality and race – which he examines in terms of the extractive capitalism upon which much of the new left’s recent social gains have been achieved.

As the “commodities consensus” has come to an end, so have those gains – and, with this, increasing conflict between the left and its social movement bases, heightening the dilemmas facing progressive governments and parties.

These are “increasingly wedged between growing popular demands for the sustenance of recent social gains, on one side, and the intensifying discontent of foreign and domestic capitals that had learned to live with centre-left hegemony when there seemed to be no other option” [p 282]. They are unable to move forward, “ideologically, organizationally, or politically” unprepared to take audacious steps against capital such as the nationalization of the banks, the monopolization of trade, agrarian reform, public works, etc.

Webber writes: “The cycle of progressivism in Latin America has demonstrated that mass mobilizations against neoliberalism in the early part of this century, and the subsequent occupation of state apparatuses by progressive governments of different shades, are insufficient on their own to structurally transform society, the state, and the economy in the current context of global capitalism.” [p 282]

This is the main lesson of this book, and for Marxists it is not controversial – nor should it be. It draws attention to the shortcomings of the analytical approaches that have been applied to understanding the recent leftward turn in Latin America, and the latter’s clear limitations.

The author highlights, in particular, the way in which Massimo Modonesi, an Italian-Mexican sociologist, explains the contemporary scenario through Gramsci’s notion of passive revolution. By this understanding, Latin America’s new left captured the and channelled the momentum of social change from below, rather than incentivizing, fomenting and directing it.

Since the end of the commodities boom the popular social movements that created the foundations for centre-left hegemony have increasingly borne the cost of austerity, just as the centre-left has itself reconfigured its social bases, channelling social movement energies into growing bureaucracies to guarantee governability over social conflict, while shifting rightwards in their reluctance to confront the capital interests required to generate the social rents that they used in order to maintain power.

With refreshing and table-thumping clarity, Webber concludes by reminding us: “Actually existing apparatuses of the capitalist states cannot be captured by left governments and straightforwardly retooled for purposes other than the reproduction of capitalist society … Ultimately, there can be no self-transformation of the state from within its apparatuses, given the fundamental role of the state in reproducing dominant class relations and the mode of capitalist exploitation.” [p 300]