Álvaro García Linera: ‘In turbulent times, moderation means defeat for the left’

First published in Spanish at Anfibia. Translation by Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Álvaro García Linera is an essential reference point for progressive politics in Latin America — as an intellectual for his writings on the state, revolution and plebeian politics, and as a politician for serving as Bolivian vice-president under Evo Morales between 2006-19. 

Iván Schuliaquer interviewed García Linera for Anfibia’s podcast, “Batalla Cultural”. Garcia Linera discussed the current deadlock in the struggle for hegemony, the failures and horizons of progressive politics in Latin America, and the growth and limitations of the right, insisting: “There is always a progressive way forward.”

Latin America has mostly centre-left or left-wing governments, even in countries such as Mexico and Colombia that were not part of the first wave of left governments at the start of the century. However, this second wave seems a long way away from generating the kind of hegemony the left had a decade ago. Why is that?

Yes, we had a so-called first wave at the start of the 21st century, with the emergence of progressive governments in Argentina with Néstor Kirchner, Ecuador with [Rafael] Correa, Bolivia with Evo, Lula’s first term [in Brazil]. This wave began in 2003-2004 and included Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Paraguay. This progressive wave was largely sustained through huge social mobilisations. Such waves of mobilisation are decisive for understanding how societies behave, because they help break down pre-existing ideas regarding what is possible, what is credible, what is up for discussion. If a progressive government is able to ride the back of such a wave, then the chances for transformation are much greater. This was followed by a moment of retreat and exhaustion, and the return of conservative governments in Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. From 2018-19, a second progressive wave began, one that is more extensive, geographically speaking, because it encompasses Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina but also Mexico, Chile and Colombia. This second wave is more expansive territorially, but it has different characteristics. While more expansive, it is more superficial in its density.

There are several reasons for this. One is that this wave is perhaps more exhausted. The first wave was very intense and filled with hopes for great reforms. This is not the case with the second wave, where the left has turned up to the fight in an already exhausted state. It faces a more cohered right that has reorganised after the defeats of 2003, 2005, 2010. It is a more arrogant right: it takes to the streets, wages cultural battles on its own terms, mobilises, takes over social media, is more aggressive and pokes at the wounds left behind due to mistakes made by the left and progressives when they were in power. This was something it was not able to do previously as the left was largely spotless because we had not been in government. But once in government you are always going to make mistakes and miss things. And the right is always there to rub salt into those wounds and try to ensure they never heal. This second wave was also not accompanied by large mobilisations (with the exception of Colombia, which is also where the most radical steps have been taken). This is not a wave that emerged on the back of mobilisations. For example, what we saw in Chile was a complete retreat from mobilisation; what we have today is a hangover [from previous mobilisations], there is nothing to push Boric. 

What we have are somewhat tamer progressive parties and more moderate leaders. We are dealing with progressives that seek to administer rather than transform. During the first wave, progressives sought to rupture the status quo. Everything revolved around the left: there was a new political system, a new system of ideas, a new economy. The progressives that make up the second wave seek to administer the status quo: “Settle down guys, let’s administer what we have and just tweak a little bit here and there”. They want to be part of the political system, while the first progressive wave did not want to be part of any political system; back then, progressives were the political system. Everything revolved around them. In contrast, the second progressive wave has as a medium term goal of carving out its own space within the political system. These progressives have become more timid, more calculating and more compromising. They are more easily placated. Because of this, because of its leaders’ lack of strength to push forward, because of the absence of mobilisations, it is a left that wants to preserve what exists rather than conquer new gains.

And, of course, the right never forgives: if it sees that you are weak, if it sees that you have stopped to take a rest, it goes for the jugular. It has always acted like that. Some leaders do not see it that way, they believe it is possible to coexist in a civilised manner with the right. No, the right never forgives; they want to bury us. When you are strong, they put up with you. But when you are no longer strong, they go after you and start dancing on your grave.

This second progressive wave is weak, lacking in density and, I would go as far as to say, temporary. My hypothesis is that, in these liminal times, we are going to have short-lived lefts and short-lived rights: we are going to have short-lived hegemonies, left and right, until at some point our destiny realigns itself with one side or the other, and a long 20-30 year cycle begins.

These waves seem to coincide less in time across nations. By this I mean the shift between (hard or extreme) right-wingers and more timid progressives. Where do you think all this will be resolved and how? I assume this has to do with the capacity to come up with political responses based on generating a correct diagnosis of the situation and proposing some kind of solution, but my question also has to do with whether that solution will necessarily be democratic. 

I believe that we are in a moment of global structural transition. Latin America inaugurated this transition with the model it began developing for accumulating wealth, distributing it, producing it, and legitimising these new relations. The free market neoliberal model was inaugurated in the ’80s, replacing the welfare state (or developmentalist) model that began in the ’40s. Now, the neoliberal model has entered a period of turbulence: it has not disappeared, but it is beginning to crack. It no longer generates the enthusiasm it used to. This was the context in which the global crisis of 2008 occurred. Then came Covid. Then the war in Ukraine. So, now you have economies around the world feeling around, looking at what’s on the horizon and introducing hybrid policies. You had [former US president Donald] Trump who advocated for protecting America — “America first” he said. Then along comes [US president Joe] Biden, a “progressive”, who says: “We are going to build American bridges, roads, mobile phones, electric cars, with American raw materials and American labour.” This would have been viewed as madness 20 years ago, as failed Communist archaism. Now Biden is subsidising the economy; the Europeans are also dedicating 3, 4, 5% of their GDP to subsidising energy and industry.

A search has begun for new alternative models. For now we are in a hybrid period: free trade policies are mixed with protectionist policies, globalisation policies with subsidy policies. It is confusing. Latin America is in the middle of this vortex, this global rearrangement. We still do not know what the new model of accumulation will look like. Some say: “Let’s go back to the palaeolithic laws of the free market, let’s go back to the glorious ’90s where everything was privatised and borders were open for trade.” Others say: “No, let’s do a mix, let’s have elements of both globalism and protectionism.” China says: “Wait a minute, gentlemen, what we need is free market policies with a single party system.” Given no one is certain what the best option is for the future, they are trialling things. 

The collapse of the old regime and the search for a new economic and political regime will take another decade. This is normal. We have been immersed in a global systemic chaos since 2010. My guess is that we still have another decade or so until a new model of accumulation emerges. Will it end up being a hybrid of free market and protectionist policies? That seems to be at least what most developed countries are aiming for. Will it be the Chinese model of free market policies with less liberal-democratic freedoms? Will it be another Latin American-style progressive model? Or will it involve a return to free market policies, though now no longer relying on seduction but rather the stick to keep down the insubordinates? Which one will triumph? Ultimately, it will be the one that gains the most vigour, the one that wins the broadest social support, and the one that stabilises the economy in the long term. Whoever manages to provide certainty in a world that has become uncertain and taken away people’s ability to plan their future will have the greatest chances. 

I think the solution will be planetary. You asked me at the beginning about the first wave: Latin America emerged with a lot of strength, but we were not accompanied by the rest of the world, which was still busy glorifying the free market. These things are not solved regionally. Latin America will not be able to go it alone. Just as in the ’40s and ’80s, this will be resolved globally. Any new model of accumulation that generates stability, growth, wealth distribution and political legitimacy will obtain a global reach. What will it look like? There are all kinds of possibilities. Some neoliberals are even advocating an authoritarian neoliberalism that borders on fascism — solve problems and guarantee stability by privatising everything while ignoring social demands.

For quite some time now you have been saying that all this is going to be resolved in the sphere of the economy. Given this podcast is called “Batalla Cultural” (Cultural Battle), I want to ask if you think that sometimes there exists a somewhat voluntarist idea that everything can be resolved through cultural battles (as if this could be separated off from the economy), leading to a loss of sight of more material issues. To what extent do these progressives you were talking about see material issues as their core priority? Should the new agenda they need (and perhaps do not have) be linked to this?

Resonating in my head is a powerful phrase uttered by a Russian revolutionary 100 years ago: “Politics is concentrated economics.” Culture, and the cultural and political battle, is concentrated economics — with other symbols, other gestures, but the economy is ever present. The economy is also sublimated politics and culture. It is one and the other: they are intertwined. It is not the case that if you solve the economy you automatically solve politics. To solve the economy you need politics, ideas, intellectual frameworks, foreseeable prospects. Politics is fundamentally a dispute over foreseeable prospects; over the monopoly of foreseeable prospects.

What do I mean by foreseeable prospects? I mean the ability to imagine what’s likely to happen in the next year or two: are you going to be able to save, to travel, to buy a bike, to be able to buy better clothes for your daughter, to be able to feed her better. That’s what makes the economy work: belief in what will happen in the future enables you to save, to make sacrifices at work, to put up with a reduction in your salary or look for another job with a higher salary. Whether you buy more or less at the supermarket is driven by people’s beliefs. We need to see this as a dynamic combination. We need to fight for ideas, for foreseeable prospects, but for this to have a solid basis, to have credibility and practical feasibility, it must be accompanied with more money in people’s pocket, lower inflation, savings in banks, good salaries. If there is no correlation, my foreseeable prospects vanish. And vice versa: if my salary, income and savings are not accompanied by a vision, it will be ineffective and not last. Both are needed. The cultural battle is itself an economic battle and the economic battle has components of a cultural battle. Solving one helps solve the other, and vice versa. You will never carry out transformations if you do not walk on both legs.

We had the pleasure of interviewing you three years ago. It was a different time as we were amid the pandemic. Much of your theoretical reflections then had to do with the role of the state and the centrality that the state was regaining. Market fundamentalists all of a sudden turned to the state to beg it for help. We also saw a revival of people’s primary impulse to ask the state for protection. At that time, you said a phrase to me that has to do with what we are talking about: “A temporary moment of creativity and social articulation has opened up across the world. If left forces do not do their job, do not make an effort to take this seriously, a saviour-like or authoritarian scenario could easily impose itself over time in these cracks. Authoritarian outcomes, as we are seeing in some Latin American countries, could well spread and expand throughout the world”

Almost visionary (laughs). I maintain the general spirit of that idea. When the old systems of political legitimation and organisation of the economy start to collapse, to stumble, as has occurred with neoliberalism, elites and societies start to look for options of all kinds, including progressive ones. Bold leaders who understand the moment can seize such moments and take courageous steps in the economy: nationalise, distribute and lift people out of poverty. 

But also present are reactionary proposals that say: “No, if neoliberalism is currently not working it is because it has not been implemented correctly; it has been perverted. We have to return to the original core of true neoliberalism, which is absolute market and zero state.” If a progressive government administering the state not only fails to resolve people’s anxieties and even exacerbates them, then of course you will find people willing to listen to those reactionary proposals and think that maybe the solution is to go backwards. That is what, in his own way, [Jair] Bolsonaro represented [in Brazil]. He privatised what was left of Petrobras and the electricity company, but found that the crisis had still not been resolved. It is logical that in these times of uncertainty, where the old global model no longer works, even more authoritarian proposals will emerge. These responses will gain greater strength if progressives in government do not solve people’s problems. This will encourage the palaeolithic neoliberals to say: “Hey, zero state, zero taxes, zero subsidies, let’s go back to the original model. Because, look, when there was a state, inflation doubled, the currency lost its value. Let’s go back to what we had before.”

In general, conservative, authoritarian and racist proposals will emerge in this interregnum. Why authoritarian? Because neoliberalism tells us: “It is someone else’s fault that we are in bad shape, it is because of the state, because of taxes. We are going to have to turn our backs on those who advocate protection and the state. There are too many rights for women, too many freedoms for trade unionists, too much disorder and too many migrants taking our jobs.” Neoliberalism today views the problems through a repressive framework and sees a return to the market as the solution. It is a different neoliberalism to that of the ’80s, which said: “There is no alternative, gentlemen. The Berlin Wall has fallen. Come with us. This is the only way.” That was an expanding neoliberalism that sought to seduce. This one is different, it is coercive: “If you do not allow us to punish you, we will build a jail for you like [El Salvador President Nayib] Bukele’s one”. Its language is different. The economic recipe is still the same, but its discursive narrative is one of punishment, hatred and repression. 

This is occurring all over the world, but such proposals acquire a wider audience and tend to become more plebian (a curious phenomenon) when, on top of this, it is preceded by a failure of progressives, by a failure of statism. When the government that generated the unrest is right wing it is more difficult for them; they cannot justify their actions. Authoritarian neoliberalism exists, but acquires greater social presence if a progressive government has failed to fulfil its promise. That is why progressive politics cannot seek to be just another party of the moderate administrative establishment. In turbulent times, moderation means defeat and failure. Progressives are obliged to accelerate history, to transform and take risks. If they moderate themselves, the problems will not be solved. And then the “solution” will become dismantling the state, which means dismantling people’s rights because the state is what society has in common. It is the repository of what a society has built over decades and centuries of struggles and uprisings, of failures and mobilisations. That is why it is a hindrance to neoliberalism. 

Neoliberals want to replace it with “the private sphere”. But no nation is a simple sum of private owners — that is a market. A nation is the sum of our victories, our sport, our struggles, our wars, our emancipations, our mobilisations, our concerts, our collective satisfactions, which have been sedimented and accumulated as rights, as historical narrative, as heroes, as national tradition. In a country solely composed of property owners, the biggest wins out. The biggest property owner will always abuse smaller ones. But a country with things in common finds in the commons a way to resist the voracity of the biggest, to place brakes on the most powerful. Without these commons, the biggest devour you, pulverise you, crush you in order to become bigger. Because the one who has more property has more options to buy you. What stops this voracity is the commons, which is not property and belongs to everyone. Ambiguous, abused, sometimes misused, but the state is the brake that societies have to stop large property from crushing them. At the continental level, we are in a very complicated situation and it will become even more complicated if progressives fail. Authoritarians will be welcomed into government.

And if these authoritarians arrive and implement their agendas from the state, what is left for supporters of a progressive, left-wing, national-popular agenda to do?

These authoritarian, repressive neoliberals represent a kind of Jurassic Park. The world is moving in a different direction. Look at how Biden is governing: he has passed laws to subsidise industry and ensure the US has the power to challenge China in areas of biotechnology, microchips, artificial intelligence and national security. I’m not talking here about a subsidy of 0.1% of GDP, I’m talking about 3, 4, 5% of GDP a year. The US is implementing protectionist policies in order to compete with China. This is not a type of Keynesianism, but the US has realised that in geopolitical terms, if it does not boost its industry, it is going to become little more than a Chinese-run supermarket. Europe is also doing the same, dedicating 3.5% of its GDP annually to subsidise industries and planning to ban certain products. Europe and the US are turning towards protectionist policies while continuing to support their own capitalists. In Latin America, some countries (such as Brazil under Bolsonaro) wanted a return to the ’90s, but this proved to be archaic. That is why they are a kind of Jurassic Park: if authoritarianism comes to power, it will mean three or four years of extravagance that can do a lot of damage. They are a time warp back to the past. But I do not see much future for them. Structurally and globally, these Jurassic Park experiences have no future in a world that is combining free market policies with protectionism. 

What is left therefore for progressive forces? To do what they have always done but more boldly. They need to understand that it is time to fight, to struggle for what they consider their rights. I think Latin America has to understand that the third wave cannot be a melancholic memory of the first. The first wave fulfilled its function. Those of us who were part of it did our job. And that’s that. We need new leaders, with different ideas, with different proposals, with a different audacity. Because the world we faced at the start of 2005 is very different from the one we face now. What we did changed our countries, but we cannot keep repeating the same speeches, singing the same tunes. A colleague said to me: "We need new tunes.” I like that. We need another melody for the coming wave. That means new leaders who respect what we did in the past, but who can move on and go further. They can not be the same as us, they need to go down in history with their own personality. 

Those of us from the first wave who are alive should support them, because we are dealing with a new generation, a new historical moment, new needs and new anxieties. We understood what country we were in and we did what we could. People will remember that we did good things. But the country is different now. In Bolivia, we came to power with 60% poverty. Now we have 35% poverty. It is a different country with different expectations; a new generation of youth with different experiences. They have the internet, they have social media; I did not have that. The young people who are now between 15 and 20 years old do not know who I am. Their parents, who were very poor and could not afford to eat two meals a day, now eat three meals a day and have other expectations. The new leaders have to understand these young people who are looking for other things, different paths for social advancement, different types of consumption.

Societies have improved recently in terms of rights, but they have regressed in terms of formal employment status. We have to take these informal workers, who make up 50% of the workforce, into consideration. Inflation affects them. The new wave of progressives will have to speak to those who do not have formal employment, who do not have a union, who do not have a fixed income; to those young people who do not know what we did 20 years ago.

If conservatives and authoritarians return to power then we will have to fight, once again, from below and for all, just as we did before. But the “all” of today is different from that of 20 years ago. We need leaders who understand these new people and their most concrete anxieties when it comes to their dreams, recreation, food, remuneration, and we need to organise to build struggles, resistances, mobilisations around these. I am certain that authoritarian neoliberals are not going to solve people’s problems. They failed to do it 20 years ago and ended up having to flee in helicopters, so why would they be able to solve them today? What has changed in the neoliberal recipe book? Nothing. They will simply generate more suffering and injustice. We need leaders who have the capacity to bring together that suffering and convert it into collective action.

People will probably give these new rulers a blank cheque for one or two years. But that blank cheque has an expiry date. I am not talking here about a communist conspiracy — I am talking about ordinary people’s common sense.We will need to be there, at that moment, when the people tear up that bad government’s blank cheque and start expressing their desires for collective, rather than individual, improvements. The new leaders must be there to bring these struggles and expectations into a new program of progressive reforms. I believe my hypothesis that any rise of authoritarianism will be short-lived, like Bolsonaro’s, will remain true for this decade. This should allow space for the emergence of a new progressive project, one with new faces, new discourses and new organisational forms. The new generation of leaders must have the courage to assume these new challenges, without melancholy or nostalgia for the past. Respecting the past, but with enough audacity and creativity to undertake necessary transformations in the present that point towards the future they imagine.

That is why I am optimistic in the medium term. Because neoliberalism, even if it builds a lot of prisons, is not going to solve people’s problems. We already know that it failed before. People need to go through this experience, but they need to know how to find ways to channel their resistances and disappointments towards a new historical optimism, a new progressive wave that can resolve people’s anguish. Is it possible to resolve these anxieties with progressive solutions? Of course it is. Inflation in Bolivia (“we are populists, we are Indianists” they said) is 2% a year. Do you know at what rate our economy grew for 17 years? 4.5% a year. This is what populists and progressives can do. We reduced poverty by half. Populisms can solve people’s problems. That is what they exist for: to solve the real problems of the people, of the poorest, the most humble, the abandoned people. There is always a progressive alternative. We nationalised industries, we raised taxes, we took profits from the banks and invested them in industries. There will always be technical issues regarding political economy to resolve, but if you take the side of the poor and say, “It is not that the rich are my enemy, but that in these times of crisis it is up to them to open up their wallets so that the poor can eat”, then there will be better times when it will not be so necessary to do this. But when there are problems, the solution to the distress of the poor lies in the wallets of the rich. There needs to be leaders who dare to do this with audacity and strength. Are there progressive solutions to inflation and informal employment? Of course there is. We just need to seek them out, to invent them. What we cannot say is that there is no alternative. In times like these, it should be banned to say that.