South America’s Radical Awakening

Social movements are the engines of historical change. As the absurdity of postmodernism swallows the cultural landscape all around us-from mass pop culture to contemporary scholarship-it becomes increasingly fashionable to reject any notion of human history as a meaningful and mindful movement towards a fundamentally better world. But even a most brief observation of history seems to reveal such an arch, a coherent trajectory towards the collective liberation and fulfillment of humanity. New eras of history emerge out of the confrontations between freedom and oppression. Largely through organized mass political activity, people have freed themselves from the horrors of feudalism, slavery, colonialism, domination. It’s this notion of history, and its implicit conception of human nature, that animates movements for social and political change.

People would simply not participate in such activity if they saw themselves as passive spectators of an external, inevitable historical process rather than as conscious agents of and participants in the movement of history. And while the debilitating “cultural logic of late capitalism” prevails in the affluent consumerist societies of the North, pockets of movement activity persists the world over. One such pocket lies in the Amazonian region of South America, where mass movements continue to redefine the politico-economic arrangements of these societies. Undoubtedly, wherever established authority is perceived as illegitimate, non-institutional political activity exists. But the following analysis will focus on certain hot spots in South America, where movements are most developed and continue to exist as significant actors in social and political life.

Venezuela is undoubtedly the most significant case, where mass movements are structurally organized and act as major participants in social affairs. Grass-roots movements are seeking to build parallel politico-economic opportunity structures to act as the institutional scaffolding for what they envision as a grassroots, participatory society. Mass movements of the indigenous population in Bolivia have exploded onto the political scene in recent years, fundamentally altering the power relations in the society. Organizing around indigenous rights to the country’s natural resources and a commitment to sovereign independence from external (imperial) forces are major motivating factors for the Bolivian movements. All these movements are thematically connected by common commitments to a rejection of neoliberalism and the global economy, imperial domination, exploitation by private multi-national capital, and other overarching values that define the South American movements. The World Social Forum propelled into existence new movements or simply organized pre-existing networks of political actors as a means of coordinating movement vision and strategy. Landless people’s movements and the mobilization of the rural and urban masses in Brazil in coordination with the transnational global justice movement are crucial to the emergence of this annual global project. The devastating effects of corporate globalization have revitalized the radical aspirations of an entire continent.

These movements and broader political developments in the region have enormous implications for the people involved and the societies being directly affected. They are challenging prevailing politico-economic institutional arrangements in their societies, the residue of centuries of colonial imperialism. Local/regional elites and other centers of established power are being challenged on all fronts, igniting fierce reactions and counter-movements. How are these movements affecting political opportunity structures, ownership of wealth and natural resources, economic development and social well-being, and regional/global power alignments? This latter issue plays a central role in the South American context, where you have enormously powerful actors like multi-national corporations and international economic institutions with significant interests at stake in the region.

Other issues to be explored include movement organization and structure; to what extent are they centralized or decentralized, vanguard or participatory? Who are the participants and what are their backgrounds? How does the notion of “established structures of solidarity incentives” apply? From what sectors of society do the movements draw most support? Who (if any) are the patrons of the South American movements? Do the movements have a face, a leader? From where are the material resources and social capital drawn, grassroots or elite largesse? On what associational and communication networks do the movements depend? To what extent do they act independently of each other?  Or as trans-nationally coordinated movements?    

How does one situate the South American movements into the existing theoretical frameworks that define the literature on social movements and insurgency? In attempting to do so, it is wise to draw from the work of McAdams as a means of locating these South American movements within an overall theoretical framework. How does the classical model of social movements (and its variants) apply to the Amazonian political landscape? Does resource mobilization theory offer sufficient insights into the emergence of social movements to explain the South American context? Or do the deficiencies of these approaches, astutely outlined by McAdams, render them at least insufficient and at most entirely inappropriate for understanding the emergence and persistence of the South American movements? How does the political process model of social movements apply to this context?  How organized and engaged is the aggrieved population? Is there a clear articulation and understanding of movement goals and the likelihood of success? Are the political opportunity structures of these societies flexible enough to facilitate insurgency? Finally, how do issues of individual and collective identity factor into these movements? How does the movement process affect the needs, cognitions, and interests of its participants? Is there a clear process of cognitive liberation at work in the Amazon? These are all questions of critical importance in assessing the developments in South America.   

The history of the region-including centuries of colonial repression, economic exploitation, and imperial domination-renders the classical model wholly insufficient as a means of explaining the emergence and fruition of the South American movements. While particular variants of the model may provide some insight in specific situations, the fact that all of the branches of the classical model are conceptually connected by a common general causal sequence means they are each inappropriate for the South American context. As noted by McAdams, mass society and status inconsistency theory assume movements to be a form of “extreme” behavior, sought only by maladjusted social isolates, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Collective behavior theory assumes that a lack of movement activity naturally translates into a lack of social “system” strain.

The causal sequence of the classical model (system strain–tension reaches threshold–movement emerges) treats social movements as largely reactionary responses to external change or systemic strain driven by individual psychological dissonance, rather than as actual agents of the change themselves. Given the long history of perpetual “strain” in the South American context mentioned above, but the relatively recent emergence of organized and effective mass movements, the classical model fails to offer a compelling framework within which to analyze the contemporary South American context. It is because of these fundamental deficiencies that the following analysis will focus on resource mobilization theory, political process, and identity models as applied to the movements in South America.

Popular Power and the Paradox of State-Supported Social Transformation: Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution

            Venezuela is ground zero for radical social transformation in the twenty-first century. Following the ascendancy of Hugo Chavez, the politico-economic institutions in Venezuelan society have been significantly rearranged, generating new social and economic relations of solidarity and a culture of popular political participation. While Chavez is the symbolic figurehead of the new Venezuela, the process of the Bolivarian Revolution is very much rooted in grassroots networks of social movements, civil society organizations, and a system of popular assemblies and councils that are evolving into the political infrastructure through which this democratic awakening, the Bolivarian Revolution, is sustained.

The Bolivarian ideology is the symbolic political frame with which the movement identifies and through which the Chavista identity has developed. Despite a very heterogenous cross section of Venezuelan society, with participants motivated by myriad of different interests, it is the values and ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution that animates and sustains the social mobilization that has taken place over the last decade. The movement transcends Chavez. While his leadership is widely viewed as just one possible course of action in the Bolivarian process, one that has indeed served the movement well, “support for him was always contingent on his active commitment to the ideals of the Bolivarian Revolution.” (Ramirez 93) 

Who are the “Chavistas” and how are they organized? The Chavistas are a “mostly peaceful and autonomous counter-hegemonic social movement allied with the state…with a long history of organizing, considerable political sophistication, a definite ideological overview” and goals that transcend the Chavez presidency. The hegemonic bloc in Venezuelan society or Coordinadora Democratica (CD)—status-quo political parties, military officers, the Catholic Church hierarchy, national/international private media, business lobbies, the national labor union coordinating body, executives of the state-owned oil company–  is now outside the power structure of the state.(Ramirez 80) This is the hegemonic force against which the Bolivarian movement has mobilized. Ramirez discusses a whole network of Chavista organizations, mostly non-state financed, engaged in consciousness raising and political education, increasing civil political participation, democratizing economic production, coordinating resources available from the state at the grassroots level, and planning/implementing social policy. All of which is political action insofar as they are ideologically aligned with the Bolivarian movement and seek to further the cause of the Revolution.

            In addition to the popular masses of the country, the Chavista social movement network includes popular associations, classical leftist organizations (communist/socialist parties, progressive church groups, student organizations) as well alternative leftist women’s, gay/lesbian organizations, etc. Transcending social classes and divisions, “this left sector includes people from the popular classes as well as the middle-class and university-educated” and even includes some sectors of the security forces. The Bolivian Worker’s Force (FBT) is a Chavista coordinating body of 455 unions founded in 2000 to facilitate decentralization of the political process through worker participation and bring an end to representative “democracy”, and “constitutes an institutional structure for political education.”(Ramirez 88)

The FBT is part of the larger National Union of Venezuelan Labor (UNT), a progressive union formed after the 2002 coup attempt to break from the conservative status quo unions and support the Bolivarian process. Progressive labor unions have played a primary role in the organization and politicization of the working class. The Circulos Bolivarianos are grassroots units of the larger Bolivarian movement. Designed to disseminate Bolivarian ideology and promote community participation, “the Circulos may be thought of as cells that participate in larger organizations” like a Chavista workplace, university, labor organization, or civic association.(Ramirez 85) Neighborhood development as

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