“If Progressivism Stops Its Egalitarian Spirit, It Will Become a Second-class Player”

Álvaro García Linera, vice president of Bolivia between 2006 and 2019, left-wing intellectual and author of books such as the plebeian power or what is a revolution believes that Latin America is facing a “second progressive wave” seeking stability rather than change.

“Progressivism is not facing the social disposition to create a new society beyond what was designed in the first wave, but instead seeks to restore and stabilize what was achieved in that first moment,” says the former vice president.

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For García Linera, the new progressive governments differ from the previous cycle in that they do not have the charismatic leadership of the beginning of this century, they are concerned about not losing rights instead of expanding them and, except for cases like Chile, their electoral victories they are not born of great social mobilizations.

At what point is the left and progressivism in Latin America?

The region is facing a second progressive wave that presents two parallel but differentiated internal currents. On the one hand, in countries like Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras and probably Brazil, we see a return to government with victories that have not been accompanied by large social mobilizations. On the other hand, in countries where the left triumphs for the first time, as is the case of Peru, Chile and probably Colombia, the electoral ascent rides on great social mobilizations against the old regime of ruling conservative alliances. Mexico is an exception in this Pacific arc of progressive victories. Although she belongs to the latter group, her social counterpart places her in the former.

Can they govern without the mobilization of their electorate in the streets?

The presence and density of large social mobilizations, which precede or accompany progressive electoral victories, is decisive for understanding the radical nature and margin of action of governments. Collective mobilizations are also cognitive openings and always push governments to bolder decisions. There is no better popular pedagogy than the threat of the revolted street to force presidents to be more radical.

You have said that the left is in its “passive phase” or “descending”. How do you analyze that the agenda of these governments is focused on not losing rights instead of expanding?

In the case of progressivism that does not come hand in hand with the collective action of society, the space for reforms that society demands and is willing to accept is much smaller and more moderate. In general, popular expectations are inclined to restore the rights and recognition achieved in the first progressive wave, those that were mutilated by the brief period of neoliberal restoration. In the case of Mexico, progressivism seeks to stop the chain of grievances and depredation of public goods from decades of conservative governments. Progressivism is not facing the social disposition to create a new society beyond what was designed in the first wave, but instead seeks to restore and stabilize what was achieved in that first moment.

Can the passive character weaken the relationship with the popular sectors?

There is a risk of betting on a naive tranquility of all social classes through a merely administrative management of state power, not only distances the subaltern classes from the government in the medium term, but also loses the condescension and support of the wealthy classes that prefer the theirs in government management. If this happens, over time, abandoned by those below who feel frustrated and rejected by those above for always representing a risk to their privileges, it will fall into a historical orphan that disorganizes the popular classes for a long time.

Is it time for progressive governments without charismatic leaders?

It is no coincidence that the return of progressivism to the government in countries such as Bolivia or Argentina has had moderate candidates at the helm and that this has been what allowed them to win the elections. The sign of the times is not that of the great reforms but the administration and redirection of those that began in the first wave. That is why, for now, this new stage of progressivism does not champion the conquest of a hopeful future, but only the defense of a less oppressive present.

Is there room in Latin America for a moderate left?

Progressivism can only be if it advances in new redistributive initiatives and social equality, even if for a time they are only entirely state initiatives. If he stops his egalitarian efforts, for the sake of an illusory social balance, he will become a second-class player in a political system and common sense that is increasingly leaning to the right as a result of his own defection.

In exceptional times like the one marked by the pandemic, is it appropriate to soften the discourse?

A moderate progressivism in times of pandemic, economic crisis and enraged neoliberal right is a transitory political event that could give rise to a renewal of progressivism as long as there is a rebirth of the mobilization and social protagonism of the subordinate classes. This is the pathetic experience of a suspended time in which neither the left has a disruptive project of expansive egalitarian transformations capable of giving birth to hopeful new universals, nor do the authoritarian and openly anti-democratic right have an offer of reforms capable of capturing the historical optimism of the society.

Can this new trait neglect the transformative drive?

If it remains in a merely “administrative” strategy, it can lead to progressivism losing its transforming streak and becoming a party of an increasingly unsatisfactory order. This scenario can give way to the retrograde forces covering their melancholy banners of the old neoliberal program with “breakthrough” and “change” glitter. The possibility of “admin istrative progressivism” going over to the left is more difficult because the popular political experience within charismatic progressivism has been the longest and most profound in the last 50 years. Getting rid of it requires a social and cognitive mobilization as intense and expansive as that which occurred at the beginning of the 21st century. As long as this new moment of historical rupture does not occur, it is feasible that the fracture of the national-popular bloc in several middle leaderships or in a gradual frustration and political disaffection that feeds the neoconservative bloc.

Do you identify any other difference between this new moment on the left and the previous one?

In the first progressive wave we did not have the recomposition of the neoliberal bloc. At the beginning of 2000, the neoliberal forces were stunned, disorganized and lacking historical initiative before a people in movement that embraced banners of change. On the contrary, now, after 15 years, the neoliberal expressions have overcome their paralysis, they have expanded their platforms of struggle to the streets and social networks, they have accumulated errors of progressivism to confront its weaknesses and have hardened the discourse no longer around to universal hopes but around punishment and revenge against those who put their privileges at risk.

Do you think that the left lacks to connect with the nonconformity of the present?

I think there are three types of dissent that the left is having trouble connecting with. The first is that of the reactionary rebellion that occurs in those countries where progressivism and the left have become a government, were able to embody the rebellious spirit of large segments of the subordinate classes and modified the social structure. This caused the traditional middle classes to see the emergence of a new middle class of popular origin, indigenous and salaried, which subverted the logical order of the world that had assigned them access to benefits, contracts, public positions and social recognition for decades, and that, now, they were occupied by “arribistas” who displace them. This decline of the old middle class has been met with a cruel moral crusting, increasingly racialized and authoritarian. This has given way to a reactionary rebellion of the lineage, which is the form adopted by a conservative mode of politicization.

What should be the response to this reaction?

This nonconformity is not negotiable for progressivism, since it would require going back in its program of reforms in favor of equality. What can be done is to isolate it, that it does not radiate towards the emerging middle social sectors, encourage policies of cultural and educational integration with the new ascending social classes and promote policies of recognition around deracialized and egalitarian identity axes.

You mentioned the rebellion in the traditional middle classes, what happens in the popular sectors that many times end up electing conservative or even extreme right candidates?

That is the second rebellion, the one resulting from the rising expectations of the rising popular classes. This social nonconformity emerges from the very virtues of the transformations carried out by progressivism. The set of their social expectations and discursive frameworks have been modified by the distance from their former immediate interests and the forms of organization used when they were poor popular classes. If progressivism does not understand the material magnitude of its work, the transformation of the interests of an important part of the popular sectors, it can lead it to anachronistic and outdated positions of the new objective and subjective condition of important segments of the popular classes.

In that case, what would be the answer to avoid this disconnection?

What progressivism is compelled to do in order not to lose the direction of the popular is to expand its project, its proposals for social transformation, in order to incorporate the collective expectations of equality and social justice of this new composition of the popular classes. Without abandoning the program referred to the most impoverished sectors of society that still remain in conditions similar to those of decades ago.

What is the third type of nonconformism that the left must attend to?

A third type of nonconformity is what we could call the rebellion of the times, it is the one that emerges in countries that have not gone through progressive experiences in recent years. We talk so much about what arises among the needy classes due to decades of neoliberal abuse and impoverishment, or in the middle classes due to frustration at the failed meritocratic social rise of the market. This rebellion is clearly anti-neoliberal and is the setting for the strengthening of leftist, progressive and transformative proposals. And the fact that they do not arise or fail is not a problem of society, of the lack of conditions or of collective conformism. Social dissatisfaction is there, it sprouts in a thousand ways and the fact that it is not channeled by progressive projects is the result of the ineptitude and clumsiness of those who claim to be leftist or progressive.

He called it “epochal rebellion”, how would you define this era?

We live in exceptional times of uncertainty and cognitive derangement. It’s a time liminal that has suspended people’s horizon of predictability. Domination goes through an alley of random stupors that have made it lose its optimism in the future. It is therefore a time for the left to help produce renewed hope for a future charged with equality, justice and community.

You say that the new progressivism is facing the exhaustion of “first generation progressive reforms”, what is the next step?

The pandemic and the economic crisis intensified by it have set the world and Latin America in particular back decades in terms of social equality. Progressivism did not cause this tragedy, but it has to take responsibility for overcoming it. And this can only be done by taking a set of bold governmental and social actions to democratize wealth and large property; exceptional actions for exceptional times.

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