Interview With François Houtart: ‘Post-neoliberal’ or ‘Progressive’? Governments and social movements facing the crisis. Part I

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By: Salvador Bello / Source: Rebelion / The Dawn News / August 15, 2016.

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Based on recent political turning points such as the defeat of Chavism in the legislative elections in Venezuela, Macri’s rise to power in Argentina, Evo’s defeat in the Bolivian referendum, and the impeachment against Dilma Rousseff and the institutional coup in Brazil, some intellectuals have proclaimed “the end of the progressive cycle”. You, instead, have spoken about the end —or the exhaustion— of the post-neoliberal project. Can you explain this approach?

I believe that progressivist countries in Latin America (the only continent where this sort of process has taken place, with some exceptions, such as Indonesia, but to a lesser degree) are post-neoliberal but not post-capitalist: they have reorganized the State, specifically the social functions of the State, which had been destroyed by neoliberalism. This translated to a certain amount of wealth redistribution towards more equality, better access to public services such as education, health, etc, and public investments. These were the central characteristic of the most progressive regimes in Latin America which we may call “post-neoliberal”.

There are people, especially some economists, who deny the existence of post-neoliberal aspects, and affirm that these governments share the same neoliberal nature of their predecessors. But I believe that they say that because they approach the subject merely from an economical point of view. I think that, because I’m a sociologist, I tend to be more aware of other factors, besides the economic, such as the political factor: the re-construction of the State, towards is a more classic State, usually highly centralized, where the Executive power absorbs many legal and parliamentary functions, led by a charismatic leader, often related to the danger of “caudillismo” but reconfiguring State functions.


Why can’t we affirm the end of the post-neoliberal project?

I’m not saying it’s the absolute end, but at the very least it’s an exhaustion. Above all, because of the economical crisis, they don’t have the material means to continue this sort of policy, but the exhaustion also is related to internal effects. For the last 10 or 15 years Latin American countries have had a favorable context due to the prices of commodities and this allowed governments to fund social policies to fight poverty, etc. Now, the international crisis has suddenly cut the influx of resources and the situation seems to be almost impossible to handle. On the other hand, as there was no qualitative transformation in the model of accumulation, there was only a cosmetic change of capitalism to a more “modern” form, but the capitalist logic in the organization of economy remains the same. Evidently, the crisis of the capitalist system affects the progressive regimes immediately. Due to these two reasons we can affirm that there is an exhaustion. Dilma said it herself at the UN, last September, when she affirmed that “our model has now been exhausted” and when she returned to Brasilia she stated “we must take new measures, and open more to markets”, meaning, returning to a neoliberal economic policy. Other countries in the region don’t state it as explicitly but in reality they see no other way to solve the problems caused by the crisis than to vehemently return to the markets.


In this analysis, for example, I would like to include the case of Colombia, which is now negotiating the peace process, which will affect the participation of civil society, and on the other hand, Chile is experiencing some cracks of the neoliberal project: potentially, any of these two countries could make a “turn to the left”. How would this affect the diagnosis you make, in the current situation of a global crisis?

These are two countries that never defied the neoliberal logic in any way, and, if the left regained the political power, there would surely be potential for a deeper transformation, but there are two factors we must take into account: firstly, the general crisis that is affecting the whole continent, which affects both Colombia and Chile, precisely due to the drop of the prices of commodities: the continent in general has faced a new process of primarization of its economy and a relative yet strong deindustrialization in the past years, and if the left could accumulate more power in these two countries: how is it going to face this phenomenon?. And secondly what model does the left propose? Do they have a clear vision of the steps that must be taken towards post-capitalism or not? And in both cases I have some questions and doubts on the impact that the crisis might have on the potential of the left to reach power —I don’t see a vision of what the main goal is, not only in these two countries, but also in the continent in general. For example, I attended the Sao Paulo Summit, in San Salvador, two months ago, and there were around a hundred different political parties: there was a total lack of political vision, repetition of the old speech, impossibility of self-criticism, especially in those progressive countries. They only repeated their solidarity with Dilma, Lula, etc, without —maybe it was not the right place— a more profound reflection to redefine the objectives and to redefine the steps to take towards a change of paradigm and I believe that’s a problem that exists also in Colombia and Chile but only in those two countries, it’s a continent-wide issue.


Due to this situation, many of these progressivist projects have been strongly supported by social movements: What is your outtake regarding the relation between social movements and governments, based in the experience of the past 20 years?

As you say, at first there was a massive support from social movements and in some cases, such as Brazil for example, or Bolivia, the political power was the result of the action of social movements and evidently they expected that a part of their demands would be fulfilled at the political level, with new policies. There was, after a few years —and in some of these countries it was very fast— a strong feeling of disappointment at the same time that there was a process of weakness of social movements. Of course, this is a global problem, there is a problem regarding the decreasing strength of social movements, and we should analyse the reasons of this situation, but also in the most progressive countries, many leaders of social movements moved on the political sphere —which is definitely valid— but this has resulted in a weakening of social movements. Lastly, the fact that progressivist governments were post-neoliberal but not post-capitalist is another factor that has caused disappointment among social movements, and that increased the distance between them and the administration. It varies in each country, in some it has translated into a critical position, or even in direct actions against them. In Brazil, for example, where the political tradition —except in times of the Dictatorship— enables a certain degree of dialogue, there was not a distinct breaking point between the most important social movements such as the CUT, the MST and other movements, with the PT, but there were increasing amounts of criticism, especially towards the government, and in particular towards Dilma, since they couldn’t accept the fact that the process that is often referred to in progressivist countries as the ‘conservative restoration’ was in fact carried out by the progressivist government itself. The conservative restorations began during the progressivist governments, in all of them, and there are examples of this.  

Thus, in Brazil, there breaking point was expressed purely through criticism but in other countries such as Ecuador, there was a ture rupture. In Ecuador there was a major break up between most social movements and the government. These social movements were weakened: the indigenous movements, the working class and women’s movements, teachers, ecologists, etc, each one had their own reasons to break up. Also, the government had a policy to create new movements —aligned with the government— and that caused a strong division among the grassroots and I believe that has not been successful because the social grassroots of these movements are quite weak. And also in Bolivia we are facing a situation of breakup between grassroot movements, some of which had supported the government at first, and now define themselves as “opposition”. They didn’t veer to the right, except for some members of these movements that due to political naivety do not hesitate to align themselves with the right, maybe because of the despair caused by not being able to accomplish their goals with the current administration, and that’s negative.

I remember that five years ago, I had an interview with Rafael Correa and Samir Amin, and Samir Amin told Rafael: “The history of Latin America is extremely interesting because the role of social movements in political change has been key and the most important thing is to safeguard a certain degree of unity —not a fusion, but a collaboration between new political movements and social movements, because if this doesn’t continue, the situation will be very serious”. I believe he was absolutely right. So, to me, the future is a new process of reflection with the experience of social movements and also political movements to redefine objectives and transitions for a real transformation of the accumulation model, meaning, a real transformation of the economic system that evidently can’t be done from one day to the next and redefining the political goals that allow this kind of step forward: I’m not saying that there are no left-wing forces within progressivist governments, in fact there are, but  they are progressively less influential and the right continues to increasingly influence governments.

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