Managing Capitalism in Latin America: the Decline of the ‘Pink Tide’

Following over a decade of relatively high growth rates wedded to redistribution, increased social spending, and the incorporation of labour and social movements into the wheels of decision making, consistent electoral success of the political Left in countries as diverse as Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Venezuela had given the progressive ‘Pink Tide’ a growing sense of permanency. Latin America  has been heralded by many on the Left – most prominently in Manuel Riesco’s concept of the Developmental Welfare State – as a new model for development that breaks substantively with the neoliberal consensus.

But beginning with the economic and political convulsions in Brazil centred on a deepening corruption investigations linked to the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) and a widespread middle-class dissatisfaction with the government of Dilma Rousseff this is being increasingly shaken. The language and practices of austerity have begun to re-emerge in these states, with Brazil, the largest economy in the region, taking the lead in reducing social spending, unemployment protections, and taxation in a strategic re-orientation in favour of powerful business interests that began as early as Rousseff’s first government after 2012.

The unexpected electoral victory of conservative former businessman Mauricio Macri in Argentina has reinforced the growing clamour that proclaims the end of the informal progressive regional coalition. The first non-Peronist leader to gain office through democratic election since 1983, Macri has come to power with a mandate to address the “mistakes” of Kirchnerism through a new commitment to free-market economic policy. Despite assurances he will sustain some of the popular social policies previously implemented, he now represents the leading edge of the re-emergence of austerity practices.

The phrase “re-emergence” is used deliberately in these contexts as such restrictions on social spending, the rolling back of protections for labour, and the use of varied mechanisms of economic policy to promote regressive redistribution upwards to powerful firms and financial capital are all too familiar. Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet 1973 and Argentina under the post-1976 military dictatorship and the disastrous economic stewardship of Carlos Menem in the 1990s, saw first-hand the deleterious impact of such a constellation of policy measures. IMF Structural Adjustment Programmes, most notably with Mexico in 1995, also consolidated this global counterrevolution in the region and the dramatic reversal of the “populist” redistribution and government spending strategies of the twentieth century.

The Pink Tide had ostensibly offered a peaceful interlude in these devastations, first of neoliberalism and now of emergent austerity in Latin America, as well as a return to the policies of redistribution and state support for workers. Backed by neostructuralist ideas and programmatised as strategies of neodevelopmentalism that sought to combine state-led development with an openness to international markets, progressive Latin American governments (from Lula Inácio da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Néstor and Cristina Fernández Kirchner in Argentina to Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia) offered the possibility of growth with increasing equality, social spending to support the poor, and the genuine inclusion of the voices of workers and social movements in the politics.

Yet this distinction from the policies and practices that preceded and followed it have increasingly been shown to be deeply problematic. Alfredo Saad-Filho writing on Brazil has argued that despite the rhetoric of reform there has been little substantive change either to the political configuration of power (represented in the Constitution inherited from military rule) or in the hegemony of neoliberalism and concomitant international economic integration. On Ecuador, Jeffrey Webber goes further to argue that Rafael Correa, despite positioning himself on the radical edge of the Pink Tide alongside Bolivia and Venezuela, has deliberately demobilised the social movements that brought him to power, restoring economic power and privilege across sectors and actors that are the antithesis of his proclaimed project.

So, if not a progressive interlude contrasting the varying strategies of neoliberal and austerity capitalism, what does the Pink Tide and its neodevelopmentalist model represent? It would be too simplistic to dismiss it as a mere fraud. Evidence economic growth and redistribution in leading economies of the region does not bear this out. Declines in poverty through the famous ‘Bolsa Familia’ cash transfers to the poorest families in Brazil under Lula and the universal child support measures introduced by Cristina Kirchner (which Macri has at the moment vowed to retain) provoked a genuine redistribution of wealth towards the lower end of society. Attempts to reverse neoliberal reforms of education in Chile, the prominence of indigenous social movements in Bolivia, and environmental proposals in Ecuador also pointed to the opening up of potential new space for the redistribution of political power.

Instead, these measures must be viewed along a continuum of strategies aimed at managing capitalism. I have developed this line of argument in other areas of my research to date inasmuch as the varied progressive and regressive strategies that comprised the period of import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) during the twentieth century in Latin America represented distinct efforts to intensify exploitation and – most significantly – suppress and discipline labour to this end. The limitations and contradictions of the Pink Tide, identified elsewhere by a growing number of scholars, combined with the apparent ease at which the return to the practices and processes associated with austerity and the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s, imply this progressive turn must be viewed through the same lens.

Significantly, it is by returning to the workplace, the space that at CURA’s launch event last month Phil Taylor described as the “front line” of austerity where managerial strategies seek to squeeze out maximum effort at minimum cost as the epitome of exploitation, that these contradictions can become most apparent. Alongside experience of the harsh disciplining of restrictive economic and social policies, the region has seen some of the clearest examples whereby relatively progressive developmental strategies have served to incorporate workers into intensified social organisations of production with increasing work rhythms.

The archetypical populist regimes of Getulio Vargas in Brazil and Juan Perón in Argentina serve as an important point of reference, offering an ostensible voice to organised labour whilst supporting a transformation of labour processes that deepened exploitative relations of contemporary capitalism – most obviously with the Peronist “Productivity Conferences” of 1954. More closely linked were the developmentalist strategies adopted by Arturo Frondizi in Argentina after 1958 and Juscelino Kubitschek after 1956, which sought to attract foreign capital through a liberalisation of trade and investment regulation that facilitated what I have referred to elsewhere as a “disciplinary modernisation” of industrial production.

In the same vein, the proclaimed progressive strategies of the Pink Tide have gone hand in hand with appeals to foreign investment across modern sectors, to the continued opening up of once-protected sectors to the rigours of international competitive pressures that reposition domestic firms in the global economy and impose regressive technological and organisational changes. It has even led to a return to ‘extractivism’ (most notably in Ecuador) associated with a bygone era of the nineteenth century widely critiqued by regional and international scholars. It is by analysing the changing relations in production of neodevelopmentalism and the Pink Tide, as well as the changes that have occurred before and after, that will make possible a comprehensive understanding of the management of capitalism and the interconnectedness of these periods of harsh restriction and ostensibly progressive social peace.

Dr Adam Fishwick is a CURA team member as well as Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University

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