The dilemma of Progressivism

Latin America is experiencing a very special time, as everyone knows. We had to bear for nearly 200 years the rigorous, systematic and often brutal application of “The Monroe Doctrine”, until not much more than a decade ago, the United States was forced to move its eyes (and claws) from the “backyard” by the countless outrages that its interventions  had generated in other regions of the world, now more important for them in geopolitical and economic terms.

Thanks to this providential imperial disinterest, progressivism has been conquering spaces and becoming strong in the region. From that position it has impelled reforms, some more determined , some more lukewarm, but in all reforms that contradict to a greater or lesser extent the model imposed from the north. This has happened in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina. The governments of these countries, each with its nuances and particular emphasis, have agreed on a common purpose: to free themselves from the dominance of the international finance capital. To finance these projects, they had to partly or wholly re-nationalize natural resources, which, as we know, are the favorite prey of transnational capital.

A few weeks ago President Rafael Correa from Ecuador was in Chile, presenting his Book “From banana republic to non-republic” as part of the XXXII International Santiago Book Fair, an event in which that country was a guest. In his presentation, Correa explained clearly the bases of his agenda and outlined the process to get Ecuador out of the the status of “non-republic” (hence the title of his book) in which it had sunk due to the sustained intervention of Big Capital for the previous decades. At the end he was very insistent on making it clear that the factor that made this recovery possible was his coming to power, that is, this titanic struggle can only be addressed from a position of power. A few days later he accepted his candidacy for reelection.

The Ecuadorian president’s approach makes sense because it does not seem feasible to oppose a universal dictatorship like that of money without getting a foothold in the local political power, however limited its scope. This has been the commitment of progressive governments that have settled in the region and so far these projects have managed to overcome the difficulties wisely, well supported by the enormous financial resources provided by the commercialization of their commodities.

The problem arises when thinking about their continuity in the future. Prices of commodities may fall and widespread public discontent may develop, as is happening today in Argentina. Or maybe the current leaders have not had enough time to generate replacements tending then to remain in power using legal loopholes undermining the democratic spirit. In a convulsive social context the reaction will necessarily grow, even displacing the government’s progressivism and rolling back each of its conquests.

This mechanism is known since time immemorial. It is as old as the world. As old as the pharaoh Amenhotep IV: it is Akhenaten’s syndrome.

Progress and setbacks

Amenophis (or Amenhotep) IV was an Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled in the mid-second millennium BC. When he arrived to power, Egypt was polytheistic and there was a powerful priestly caste, which exploited the people and their rulers. Amenhotep replaced traditional polytheism with a monotheistic worship of the god Aten and dismantled the enormous power of the clergy linked to the god Amun, while changing his own name to Akhenaten (“pleasing to Aton”). Also he abandoned Thebes and installed his court in a new site built where today is the town of Tell-el-Amarna.

All these radical reforms produced huge upheavals in Egyptian society, not only by the resistance of the Theban priests to lose their influence but also because people had a strong bond with their traditional gods, especially Osiris. At his death Akhenaten was succeeded by his son Tutankhamun who restored the traditional order, returning power to the clergy and returning the imperial court to Thebes. So, all the reforms of Akhenaten were swept by the new ruling leaving almost no trace and the influence of the Theban clergy became stronger than ever.

The truth is that many times revolutionary changes were attempted from power, from the top to the bottom. But it is also true that many times this progress retreated following a cycle reaching a situation even worse than the original. Examples abound.

Chile today is virtually the opposite of Salvador Allende’s socialist project, which was dismantled by the military dictatorship and replaced by an extreme neoliberal system. The Marxist project of the Soviet Union lasted 70 years until its fall in the early 90s when it was supplanted by the current form of unbridled, corrupt and authoritarian capitalism. The European Union, celebrated at the time of its birth as a breakthrough for humanity because it proposed a kind of solidarity and distributive capitalism, is now suffocated by huge financial problems which it tries to solve by applying the classical measures of adjustment and privatization, typical of the prevailing macroeconomic approach.

Even the Catholic Church has suffered Akhenaten syndrome. After Vatican II called by John XXIII in 1959 and continued by Paul VI, the church was expected to be more modern and open to the changes of its time. However, the next pope, John Paul II, dismissed such spirit of renewal, installing an ultraconservative ecclesiastical conception which remains to this day and whose paradigm was Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer’s canonization, founder and ideologist of Opus Dei.

These advances and retreats highlight a play of actions and reactions that operates trying to establish profound social transformations, which makes us consider whether social democratic reformism, accused of being lukewarm by the revolutionaries, did not have some reason to attempt gradual but sustained changes in time. However, although we may coincide with this current in its rejection of extremism, we also observe its impotence when faced with the much needed modification of constitutional regulatory frameworks, usually illegitimate, that support a given social order, which greatly restricts the scope of its action.

The time of the people

While Correa’s position is understandable (most likely coinciding with that of other progressive leaders in the region) on the need to work within the political power, the historical experience seems to show that that one point of support is not sufficient to ensure lasting change. Maybe it’s time for the people.

In current representative democracies, especially in presidential ones, the social base has little prominence. The leadership appeal to the public to get their support in the elections and then manage the power that was given to their sovereign will. There is no right to initiate a law by popular initiative or to choose directly the candidates, without the auspices from political parties. Nor are there procedures to dismiss representatives in case of not meeting their election commitments and mechanisms for direct consultation on matters of importance to the whole.

Moreover, the fictional figure of the centralized State, which today is but an instrument of international capital, suffocates regions and provinces because they do not have any means to channel and fulfil their demands. In sum, this is a formal democracy, because the people, who are the source and foundation of political legitimacy are increasingly excluded from power.

If the current Latin American progressive leaders aspire to sustain their projects for deep change in the long term, they are required to generate the means to involve people in these processes, moving steadily towards a real democracy. Definitely it is not enough to buy their loyalty temporarily, granting short-range benefits that end up depleting the fiscal resources and put the country in a situation of extremely dangerous instability. Rather, they should engage in “selling” their programs better, clarifying the population at large and putting in their hands increasing levels of sovereignty so that they have effective tools to defend the changes when the tide turns.

Strictly speaking, this is the only way: citizens’ political “literacy” about projects in progress using the mass media, encouraging the organization of communities; implementing a technological platform that allows direct binding consultation and ongoing involvement of the social base.

Surely, new revolutions will emerge from below … and from within. They will look nothing like the earlier ones as they will be non-violent, friendly and fun, people driven, aware that they will be the absolute owners of their destiny and participants in a collective epic.
Then we will have found the antidote to Akhenaten’s syndrome.