Álvaro García Linera: ‘We face a period of short-lived popular and conservative victories and defeats’
Published at La Haine in Spanish. Translation by LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
Former Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera spoke to Tamara Ospina Posse during his trip to Colombia to inaugurate the series of talks, “Imagining the future from the South”, organised by the Colombian Ministry of Culture and philosopher Luciana Cadahia. García Linera spoke about the political and social situation in Latin America amid the “liminal time” or interregnum he says will remain for the next 10-15 years, until a new world order is consolidated. This dark uncertainty has enabled monstrous ultra-right-wing forces to come onto the scene. To a certain extent, these are a consequence of the limits of progressivism. In this new period, Linera argues progressivism must gamble on greater audacity. This is needed to respond to the deep demands arising from its popular support base and, also, neutralise the siren songs of the new rightist forces. This requires implementing deep reforms around property, taxation, social justice, wealth redistribution and taking back common resources for society. Only by starting with resolving society’s most basic economic demands and advancing towards real democratisation, Linera says, will it be possible to confine the ultra-rightists to their niches.
The 21st century began with a wave of progressive governments in the region that changed Latin America’s course. But this dynamic began to stagnate after Mauricio Macri’s victory in Argentina in 2015, leading many to predict the end for regional progressivism. A wave of conservative governments followed, yet, at the same time, we saw a return of progressivism in Brazil, Honduras and Bolivia. What is your reading of the existing tension between popular or progressive governments, and conservative or oligarchic ones?
This historical period — which began 10-15 years ago and will continue for the next 10-15 years — has been characterised by the slow, agonising and contradictory decline of the existing economic model together with the delegitimisation of contemporary capitalism. At the same time, there is the absence of a new stable model capable of enabling economic growth, economic stability and political legitimacy. This is a long period — we are talking about 20-30 years — of what I term a “liminal time”, or what [Antonio] Gramsci called an “interregnum”, in which there will be multiple waves and counter-waves attempting to resolve this impasse.
Latin America — and now the rest of the world, because Latin America was ahead of the times — experienced an intense and profound progressive wave, which failed to consolidate itself. This was followed by a regressive, conservative counter-wave and then a new progressive wave. We may yet see more waves and counter-waves of short victories and defeats, of short hegemonies, in the coming 5-10 years. This will continue until the world settles on a new model of accumulation and legitimisation capable of restoring stability for the next 30 years. Until then, this maelstrom will continue. We will see progressive waves, their exhaustion, conservative counter-reforms that also fail, a new progressive wave...
And each counter-reform and progressive wave will be different from the previous one. [Argentine president Javier] Milei is different from Macri, even though he incorporates part of his politics. [Former Argentine president] Alberto Fernández, [Colombian president] Gustavo Petro and [Mexican president] Andrés Manuel López Obrador are different to the leaders of the first wave, although they carry with them part of their heritage. I think we will see a third wave and counter-wave until, at some point, the world order is settled because this instability and anguish cannot continue in perpetuity. Basically, much like the ’30s and ’80s, what we have is the cyclical decline of a regime of economic accumulation (liberal between 1870-1920, state capitalism between 1940-80, neoliberal between 1980-2010). This historic decline has generated chaos and a struggle to establish a new and lasting model of accumulation-domination that can restore economic growth and social legitimacy.
We have seen the right implementing practices that were thought belonged in the past, such as coups d'état, political persecution and assassination attempts... You yourself suffered a coup d'état. How do you see these practices evolving? And how can we confront them?
A feature of this liminal time, this interregnum, is divergences within the political elites. When things are going well — as they were until the 2000s — elites converge around a single model of accumulation and legitimation, and everyone shifts to the centre. The left itself tends to temper its politics and become neoliberalised. There is always a radical left, but it remains marginal, without an audience. Rightist forces also tend to fight among themselves, but only over circumstantial changes and tweaks. When all this enters into an inevitable historical decline, differences begin to emerge and rightist forces split, leading to the emergence of extreme rightist forces. The extreme right then begins to eat into the support base of the moderate right. And the more radical left emerges from marginality and political insignificance, begins to acquire a hearing, and grows. In the interregnum, divergences over political projects is the norm, because there are divergent attempts to search for a way out of the crisis of the old order. Amid a discontented society that no longer trusts or believes in the old “gods”, the old recipes, and the old proposals that guaranteed moral tolerance towards rulers, the extremes become stronger.
That is what we will see on the right. The centre-right, which governed the world for 30-40 years, no longer has any answers to the obvious economic failures of liberal globalism. Given people’s concerns and anxieties, an extreme right has emerged that continues to defend capital but believes the good manners of the old days are no longer enough and that the rules of the market must now be imposed by force. This means domesticating the people, if necessary through repression, in order to facilitate a return to a pure and pristine free market — without concessions or ambiguities because, according to them, those were the causes of failure. So, this extreme right tends to consolidate itself and gain more supporters by talking about “authority”, “free market shock therapy” and “reducing the state”. If a social uprising occurs, then force and coercion must be used, and if necessary a coup d'état or massacre, to discipline those wayward elements who oppose this moral return to the “good old ways” of free enterprise and civilised life, where women cook, men are in charge, bosses decide and workers toil in silence. A further symptom of liberal decline is the fact that they can no longer convince or seduce, but need to impose their will, which only shows that their time is running out. But that does not mean they are not dangerous, particularly given their radical authoritarian nature.
In the face of all this, progressivism and the left must not behave in a condescending manner, trying to please all factions and social sectors. The left will emerge from marginality in this liminal time if it can present itself as a popular alternative to the economic disaster caused by corporate neoliberalism. Its role cannot be to implement a “green” or “progressive” neoliberalism with a “human face”. People do not take to the streets and vote for the left in order to tinker around the edges of neoliberalism; they mobilise and radically shift their previous political allegiances because they are fed up with neoliberalism, because they want to get rid of neoliberalism as it has only succeeded in enriching a few families and companies. If the left does not fulfil this role, and instead seeks to coexist with a regime that impoverishes the people, people will inevitably choose to drastically shift their political allegiances towards extreme right options that offer an (illusory) way out of the collective malaise.
The left, if it wants to consolidate itself, must respond to the demands from which it emerged. If it really wants to defeat the extreme right, it has to structurally resolve poverty and inequality, as well as deal with the precarious nature of services, education, health and housing. To concretely do that, it has to implement radical reforms in terms of property, taxation, social justice, wealth redistribution and taking back common resources for the benefit of society. Failure to do so will only feed social crises — in the face of a serious crisis, moderation only encourages and feeds the extremes. If the right adopts moderation, the left grows; if the left does, the extreme right grows.
Therefore, the way to defeat the extreme right and confine them to their niches — they will continue to exist but without broader social support — is through the expansion of economic and political reforms that make visible and sustained improvements in the living conditions of society’s popular majorities; through democratising decision-making and access to wealth and property. In this way, containing the extreme right is not just a discourse, but is supported by a series of practical actions that resolve peoples’ key anxieties and demands (poverty, inflation, precarity, insecurity, injustice...) The extreme right is a perverted response to these anxieties. The more you redistribute wealth, the more you will affect the privileges of the powerful, obviously. But they will remain a minority, rabidly defending their privileges, while the left consolidates itself as the ones who care about and resolve peoples’ basic needs. Yet the more the left or progressivism behaves in a fearful, timid and ambiguous manner when it comes to resolving society’s main problems, the more the extreme right will grow, leaving progressivism isolated amid disappointment. The extreme right will be defeated through more democracy and greater wealth redistribution; not moderation and conciliation.
Do these new rightist forces exhibit new features? Is it correct to call them fascist or something else? And are these rightist forces preparing a post-democratic laboratory for the continent (including in the US)?
Undoubtedly liberal democracy, restricted to the mere replacement of elites who decide for the people, inevitably tends towards authoritarian forms. If, at times, it contains elements of social democratisation, this is due to the impulses of plebeian forms of democracy that develop alongside it: trade unions, agrarian communities, urban multitudes. These various and varied forms of collective democracy can give liberal democracy a certain universalist appearance. But this is only possible when it is being surpassed and dragged from in front. Yet if one leaves liberal democracy to be a mere process for selecting rulers, it inevitably tends towards the concentration of decision-making; towards its conversion into what [Joseph] Schumpeter called democracy as simply a competitive choice over who will decide for society — which is an authoritarian form of concentrating decision-making. The extreme right is characterised by its monopoly of decision-making through authoritarian means — including, if necessary, by eliminating the process of selecting rulers. That is why the extreme right and liberal democracy can coexist. There is an underlying collusion between the two. The extreme right can coexist with this purely elitist process of democratisation that feeds liberal democracy. That is why it is not uncommon for them to come to government through elections. But what liberal democracy only reluctantly tolerates, and the extreme right openly rejects, are the other forms of democratisation. These represent forms of democracy from below (trade unions, agrarian communities, neighbourhood assemblies, collective actions...). They oppose them, reject them and see them as a hindrance. In this sense, today’s extreme right forces are anti-democratic. They only accept that they can be elected to rule, rejecting other forms of participation and democratisation of wealth, which they see as an insult, an attack or an absurdity that must be fought with force and coercive discipline.
Now, is this fascism? It is difficult to decide. There is a whole academic and political debate over what term to use and whether it is worth evoking the terrible actions of fascism of the ’30s and ’40s to describe it. Amid the precious sensitivities of academia this digression perhaps makes sense, but it has very little political effect. In Latin America, people over the age of 60 may recall the fascist military dictatorships and such a definition may have some effect on them. But for the younger generation, talk of fascism does not mean much. I am not opposed to this debate, but I do not see it is particularly useful. In the end, social acceptance or rejection of the extreme right’s proposals will not come about due to the old symbols and images they evoke, but from their effectiveness in responding to existing social anxieties — along with the success or otherwise of the left's attempts to resolve them.
Perhaps the best way to describe these extreme rightists, beyond applying labels, is by understanding the kind of demands they respond to. These, of course, are different to those of the ’30s and ’40s, even if there are certain similarities such as the presence of economic crises. Personally, I prefer to speak of the extreme right or authoritarian right; but if someone uses the concept of fascism, I will not object, though I would not be too enthusiastic about it either. The problem can arise if, from the outset, they are labelled fascist while the question of what kind of collective demands they respond to or what kind of failures led to their emergence are left aside. That is why, before labelling and thinking we already have the answer, it is better to ask oneself about the social conditions in which [the extreme right] emerged, the type of solutions they propose and, on this basis, choose the appropriate descriptor: fascist, neo-fascist, authoritarian…
For example, is it right to say that Milei is a fascist? Maybe, but first you have to ask why he won. With whose vote? Responding to what kind of anxieties? That is the important thing. And also ask yourself what you did that contributed to this outcome. Today, it is more useful to ask ourselves this question than to stick easy labels on others that might represent a moral condemnation, but does nothing to help us understand reality or transform it. Because if your answer is that Milei spoke to the anguish of an impoverished society, then it is clear that the issue is poverty. If Milei spoke to a youth that has no rights, then there is a generation of people who do not have access to the rights granted in the ’50s, ’60s or the 2000s. There lies the problem that progressivism and the left must address to halt the extreme right and fascism.
We must detect the problems that the extreme right has used to gain traction in society, because their growth is also a symptom of the failures of the left and progressivism. They did not come out of nowhere. They emerged after progressivism did not, could not or would not try to understand — or perhaps did not even see — the realities of [the working] class and precarious youth; [they emerged] after progressivism did not grasp the significance of poverty and the economy over and above issues of identity. There lies the core of the present situation. This does not mean we should not talk about identity, but we need to understand that the fundamental problem is the economy, inflation, money missing from peoples’ back pockets. And we cannot forget that identity itself incorporates a dimension of economic and political power, one which anchors subalternity. In Bolivia’s case, for example, indigenous identity won recognition through, first, assuming political power, and then, gradually, economic power within society. The fundamental social relation of the modern world is money — alienated but still the fundamental social relation — that eludes you, which dilutes all your beliefs and loyalties. That is the problem the left and progressivism have to resolve. I believe that the left has to learn from its failures and be self-critical, before we can come up with the best descriptors to denounce or label a political phenomenon such as the extreme right.
Returning to [the left], what are the main challenges for progressivism in overcoming these crises and failures? Is the extreme right gaining ground just a question of the left not understanding or interpreting citizens’ needs and demands?
Money is, today, the elementary, the basic, the classic, the traditional economic and political problem of our times. In times of crisis, the economy rules, full stop. Solve that problem first and then the rest. We are in a historic time in which progressivism and the extreme right are emerging, and the classic neoliberal, traditional, universalist centre-right is in decline. Why? Because of the economy. It is the economy that occupies the command centre of reality. Progressivism, the left and the proposals coming from popular forces have to resolve this problem, first and foremost. But those societies, whose economic problems were resolved by the old left of the ’50s and ’60s or the first wave of 21st century progressivism in some countries, are different to today’s societies. The left always focused on the formal, wage-earning section of the working class but, today, the non-formal section of the working class is a complete unknown for progressivism. The world of precarity grouped under the concept of “popular economy” is a black hole for the left; it does not know it, it does not understand it, and it has no proposals for it other than simple welfare palliatives. In Latin America, this sector covers 60% of the population. And it is not a transitory sector that will someday be incorporated into the formal sector. No, the social future will have an informal sector, composed of independent workers, small-scale farmers, small entrepreneurs and informal wage-earners. It will have within it a mixture of family relations and very curious ties of local or regional loyalty subsumed into capital-labour relations that are not as clear cut as in the formal sector. This world will exist for the next 50 years and incorporates most of the Latin American population. What do we have to say to these people? How do we concern ourselves with their lives, their income, their wages, their living conditions, their consumption?
These two issues are key for contemporary Latin American progressivism and the left: solving the economic crisis, while taking into account the informal sector, which is the majority of the working population. What does that mean? With what tools can this be done? With expropriations, nationalisations, wealth redistribution, expansion of rights, etc. These are tools, but the objective is to improve the living conditions and productive fabric of the 80% of the population — unionised and non-unionised, formal and informal — that make up the Latin American popular sector. And we need greater participation of society in decision-making. People want to be heard, they want to participate. The fourth issue is the environment: environmental justice with social and economic justice — never separated and never ahead of the other.
You are in Colombia to participate in a series of talks being coordinated by the philosopher Luciana Cadahia for the Ministry of Culture. What changes are you seeing here, since the triumph of the Historic Pact and under the leadership of Gustavo Petro and [vice-president] Francia Márquez? Do you think Colombia could play a leading role for progressivism in the region?
We have to take into consideration the historical background of contemporary Colombia, where at least two generations of social fighters and left-wing activists have been assassinated or exiled, where legal forms of collective action have been attacked by paramilitaries, and where the US has attempted to create not only a military base but cultural co-optation at the state level. Given this, it is more than heroic that a left-wing candidate has been elected into government. And when one observes the powerful sediment of the deepest Colombia that springs up in the neighbourhoods and communities, one understands the social explosion of 2021 and the reason for this victory. When a progressive electoral triumph is preceded by collective mobilisations, it produces a social openness towards implementing reforms. That is why, despite the limits it faces in parliament, President Petro’s government is now the most radical of this second wave of progressive governments in the continent.
Two actions place Petro’s administration at the vanguard of left-wing presidents. On the one hand, the application of a progressive tax reform, which imposed higher taxes on those with more money. In most Latin American countries, the most important source of tax revenue is GST [Goods and Services Tax], which clearly imposes higher taxes on those who have less. Secondly, progress in energy transition. Evidently, no country in the world, not even the biggest polluters such as the US, Europe and China, has abandoned fossil fuels overnight. They have put forward the idea of a few decades of transition, which even include a few more years of record fossil fuel production. However, Colombia, along with Greenland, Denmark, Spain and Ireland, are the only countries in the world to ban new oil exploration activity. The Colombian case is all the more relevant because oil exports represent more than half of its total exports, which makes this decision all the more audacious and forward thinking at the global level. These are reforms that certainly look to the future in a way that is committed to life, and that set out a path for other progressive experiences in the short term.
However, for these decisions — and others that are needed to create conditions for economic equality — to be sustainable over time, we must not neglect the continuous real improvement in incomes of the Colombian working classes. Any climate justice without social justice is nothing more than liberal environmentalism. This will require new income sources that it will have to guarantee through other exports, higher taxes on the rich and tangible improvements in the living conditions of the popular majorities.
I would like to end with your reading of the role that Latin America and the Caribbean will play in the world. What political role could we occupy in a scenario of radical transformations such as those we are experiencing?
At the start of the 21st century, Latin America sounded the first bells of the exhaustion of the global cycle of neoliberal reforms that began in the 1980s. It was here that the search began for a hybrid regime between protectionism and free trade. From 2018, this has gradually begun to be tested out in the US and various European countries. At this point, despite the occasional melancholic relapse into a paleoliberalism that has little future, such as in Brazil with [Jair] Bolsonaro and Argentina with Milei, the world is in transition towards a new regime of accumulation and legitimacy that will replace neoliberal globalism.
At this point, however, the continent is in a somewhat exhausted state when it comes to leading on global reforms. It appears the post-neoliberal transition will have to advance first at the global level before Latin America can renew its forces and regain its initial momentum. The possibility of second-generation, or even more radical, post-neoliberal structural reforms that could help the left and progressivism regain transformative force at a continental scale, will have to await greater global changes. And it will also require a new wave of plebeian collective action capable of modifying the field of imagined and possible transformations. As long as this does not happen, the continent will remain an intense scene of pendulum swings between short-lived popular victories and short-lived conservative victories, between short-lived popular defeats and equally short-lived oligarchic defeats.