The crisis of democracy in Latin America

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By ANDRÉS TZEIMAN & DANILO ENRICO MARTUSCELLI

Introduction by the organizers of the recently released book “The crisis of democracy in Latin America”

1.

At the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, the Latin American situation is faced with the coordinates established by three phenomena that develop simultaneously and in a juxtaposed manner. These phenomena serve as a general framework for the democratic crisis currently underway in our region, which will be analyzed in the pages of this collective book.

The first of them, without a doubt, refers to the global context. Three decades after the emergence of a unipolar world (after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989), the international order today faces a situation of hegemonic discontinuity. The unipolar leadership of the United States is in clear decline, a phenomenon that has been forcefully expressed in recent years in two political moments.

First, during Donald Trump's government, when, under the slogan America first and as a result of the trade war with China, the ideology of globalization that had predominated in the international order since the 1990s (precisely when the United States began to unequivocally hold its global leadership) was questioned.

Then, secondly, in January 2021, when the storming of the Capitol exposed to the eyes of the world the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the democratic system within the borders of the United States itself. Likewise, this decline in US hegemony coexists with the advance of two powers, such as China and Russia, which, however, have not yet definitively consolidated the contours of a multipolar and alternative global order.

The war in Ukraine, unleashed in 2022, is an important chapter in this transition process. Taking this panorama into account, a scenario is emerging that the former vice-president of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, called a “liminal historical time”. In other words, a situation marked by the suspension of historical time, in which the horizons of the future are not clear and, therefore, uncertainty about the future tends to predominate as a way of life and political and social organization.

It is worth highlighting, in this sense, that the COVID-19 pandemic, which began at the beginning of 2020, exacerbated the traces of uncertainty that mark this scenario. As a consequence, particularly with regard to our region, local elites and dominant classes demonstrate a high level of perplexity in the face of this global hegemonic vacancy, thus placing great doubt on the economic, political and social project to be developed in and for Latin America.

The second phenomenon that marks the regional situation is the conservative reaction to the implementation of progressive governments in the first fifteen years of the 21st century in Latin America. The continental harmony achieved by progressive political movements and leaders in this decade and a half, in which processes of democratization of social life and expansion of the rights of large popular majorities took place, was responded to by a challenge from conservative and anti-democratic forces, both in each of the countries in question and at a continental level.

Although in the last five years there have been mutations and radicalizations in the characteristics and perspectives of this conservative turn (which this collective work intends to explore in more detail), the “anti-progressive” trace continues to be a landmark, understood as the need perceived by the dominant classes to extirpate the possibility of the resurgence of democratization processes and expansion of rights to the benefit of popular sectors.

Finally, the third phenomenon that organizes our situation is directly linked to the previous two. In the context of global hegemonic vacancy and processes of social revenge in Latin America, the growing contradiction between neoliberalism and democracy is manifesting itself in our region with all its force. If in the United States and Europe, after the 2008 crisis, social unease in the face of renewed neoliberalism was expressed with the emergence of new radicalized right-wingers, in Latin America this process has not ended in this aspect, but has strong repercussions on development of democratic systems themselves.

2.

Here we identify and seek to analyze three trends in this direction in the current Latin American situation:

(i) Neo-coupism. Faced with the adoption of policies by democratic governments that disobey the dictates imposed by the dominant classes, new ways of producing ruptures emerge to alter the institutional dynamics. This phenomenon has a notable historical dimension. In the 20th century, institutional ruptures in Latin America occurred fundamentally through the irruption of military regimes that declared themselves and explicitly presented themselves as a rupture with the routine of democratic institutions, but, in the current context, new forms of coups d'état are carried out by alternative means.

The interference of the Legislature over the Executive, together with the persecution of political leaders by the Judiciary in collusion with the mainstream media and concentrated economic groups (known as lawfare), constitute new ways of breaking the rules of democratic-institutional systems in the 21st century.

Regarding the drift of neo-coupism, it is important to highlight that the coups d'état against progressive governments that were effectively completed were accompanied by the deepening of neoliberal policies. This is an aspect that differentiates them from the coups of the 1960s and 1970s, which were marked by the variable implementation of developmental and neoliberal policies, depending on different national cases.

(ii) The constitution of hybrid political regimes. If neo-coupism leads us to institutional ruptures through which ruptures or forced changes of governments are provoked, a new threat looms at the same time over the development of Latin American democracies, even within mandates elected by popular vote: the constitution of regimes hybrid politicians.

The forced displacement of political faculties from the Executive to sectors of the Legislative or Judiciary establishes serious limitations to the possibility of deliberation by representatives who were elected in accordance with the principle of popular sovereignty. Therefore, the rupture of order is not accomplished exclusively through a coup (hard or soft, old style or new), but is imposed daily through an increasing displacement of political powers outside the executive powers. This occurs in conjunction with forces outside the political system in the strict sense of the term (we are essentially talking about economic power and concentrated media power).

Thus, with the emergence of leaders and/or political forces whose democratic election is based on the promise of producing transformations for the benefit of large social majorities, the decision-making room of these governments is considerably reduced (to the point of becoming practically null in some cases) as a consequence of an increase in the powers attributed to other powers in the name of the democratic system itself.

(iii) Authoritarian radicalization and the emergence and rise of far-right forces. The contradiction between neoliberalism and democracy is expressed in the irruption of far-right political forces that seek to drastically modify the limits of the democratic system with the aim of transforming violence into a permanent feature of the organization of social life, making it an inherent characteristic of this system.

In this way, we can point out that, if the democratic pact forged (explicitly or implicitly) in the 1980s in the region (after the popular disciplining imposed by the military dictatorships of the 1970s) imposed harmony between the neoliberal economic model and democratic institutions- representatives, this occurred under the pretext of putting an end to the permanent exercise of violence as an organizer of social coexistence.

On the contrary, today, four decades after the beginning of this pact, political forces emerge with increasing insertion and capacity to radiate among the popular masses and, mainly, in the middle classes, which proclaim and express in the public sphere the exercise of physical and symbolic violence (whose borders, in fact, are increasingly blurred). In this context, racism, classism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia have become a permanent and inherent feature of the region's political life.

It is clear that these characteristics make the existence of a democratic system indistinguishable from an authoritarian system, despite the functioning of the electoral system and the strictly formal, although already quite impaired, dynamics of representative institutions. The denial and even annihilation of others have become an everyday landscape of our political culture. For this reason, the concepts of fascism, neo-fascism or post-fascism are re-emerging in the current situation as part of the vocabulary used to characterize the socio-political processes and political forces of the extreme right in many of the countries of the region.

3.

Therefore, this collective work intends to reflect on the three aforementioned dimensions of the democratic crisis currently affecting Latin America. In this sense, in addition to this brief introduction that serves as a presentation of its general reading keys, the volume will be divided into three sections, in which theoretical approaches and national case studies will be carried out.

In the first section, the articles will seek to provide a theoretical approach, both to the general political context in which Latin America finds itself and to the different ways of conceptualizing the democratic crisis. To this end, classic categories of political theory will be explored, along with other more innovative concepts, forged in the heat of the region's last political cycle. In particular, the three articles that make up this first part will focus, respectively, on the conceptualization of contemporary political regimes, the characterization of neo-coupism and the unique articulation between neoliberalism and the familial morality that exists in native rights in the current context.

The second section, in turn, deals with sociopolitical processes in which conflicts are analyzed that show, in different national cases, the confrontation of forces that led to the current crisis. Discarding as a starting point a deterministic perspective that could think of the democratic crisis as a result of the action of an external context or exogenous forces, the different works will try to think about the disputes between classes, fractions of classes and social groups that give rise to the crisis and that , fundamentally, explain why the crisis takes certain forms and is processed under specific modalities in the political field.

Precisely, the differences between the histories of struggle, the relations of forces and the social and political subjects, according to the different national cases, will allow readers to observe in the different articles in this section the diversity with which a common cycle ( as the current democratic crisis) is expressed politically in our region.

Finally, the third section focuses on the approach to authoritarian radicalization and the phenomenon of the emergence and rise of far-right forces in recent years in our region. Once again, the different articles will examine different national cases in order to show the diversity of this phenomenon according to the heterogeneity of political-ideological traditions in the history of native rights and the more recent development of political conflicts.

In this section, the works will also be approached from different perspectives, with the aim of enriching the examination of the new formations of the extreme right. Historical sociology, ideological criticism and political science are the different disciplinary vehicles used in the different texts to approach a phenomenon that has erupted in the region in recent times and which, therefore, deserves to be studied from different angles to understand the complexity that characterizes it. Thus, the political experiences, imaginaries and representations that are part of the authoritarian radicalization currently in full swing in our region will be analyzed.

Certainly, we must recognize that this collective work has left some tasks pending. Even though this volume covers a very wide range of national cases (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru), it does not cover all countries in the region. Although we know that such an objective would imply work of dimensions that are very difficult to encompass, it is necessary to admit substantial absences, such as the cases of Uruguay, Paraguay and Venezuela, the latter being extremely important in the geopolitical scenario of the last two decades.

We were also unable to address the sub-regions of Central America and the Caribbean, so ignored by intellectuals from the Southern Cone (to which, in fact, we, the organizers of this book, belong). This deserves not only recognition and self-criticism like the one we are trying to express here, but also a critical observation of both the asymmetries that persist in the academic system between different countries and the inadequacy of the communicating vessels between university institutions in the different sub-regions of the world. Latin America.

We have no doubt: there is still a lot of work to be done in this regard. In any case, we believe that these gaps do not invalidate the richness of this work and, much less, the critical potential concentrated in its pages.

To conclude this brief introduction and leave readers in contact with the authors of each of the chapters, it remains to be said that this collective work aims to address the multiple dimensions that are evident in the current Latin American situation. Recognizing the centrality of the global context in thinking about the reality of Latin America, this volume seeks to reflect on the region's inclusion in this framework.

But it does so considering the fundamental role played by the long history of social classes and their political traditions, the disputes of the recent past, as well as the specificity that sociopolitical conflicts assume in these latitudes. Without losing sight, in this last aspect, of the fact that both plebeian irruptions and the authoritarian responses of the ruling classes to them, acquire a primordial place when it comes to finding ways to resolve the current crisis.

We must not forget, as René Zavaleta Mercado used to constantly remind us, that crises contain enormous potential as a form of visibility and knowledge. In the midst of global chaos, assuming the presence of the crisis and trying to understand it, as we propose in this book, seems no small feat.

*Andrés Tzeiman is a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).

*Danilo Enrico Martuscelli is a professor at the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU) and editor of the blog marxism21 and author, among other books, of Political crises and neoliberal capitalism in Brazil (CRV, 2015) [https://amzn.to/4cNX6r6]

Reference


Andrés Tzeiman & Danilo Enrico Martuscelli (eds). The crisis of democracy in Latin America. Buenos Aires, CLACSO, 2024, 386 pages.

The book can be accessed in full and free of charge at the link: https://biblioteca-repositorio.clacso.edu.ar/bitstream/CLACSO/249627/1/La-crisis-Tzeiman.pdf


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