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 Capitalist Crises and Populist Exits in Latin America: 1930-2021

Jeffery R. Webber


I want to characterize in the broadest possible terms the dominant features of three periods of the so-called Pink Tide in Latin America: a period of movement resurgence (1993-2003); a period of state occupation (2003-2013); and a period of uneven retreat (2013-present). These three political cycles, in turn, loosely, if not mechanically, map onto respective economic periods of regional recession, a commodities boom, and the delayed reverberation of the global crisis (economic and later viral) into Latin America. The purpose of my paper is to think through each of these periods in terms of the interacting dynamics of three elements: the anti-systemic left and the populist left (and to some extent the populist right); crisis; and state forms. The basic argument here is that populism, in both its left and right guises, has been the preeminent exit route from various crises in Latin America since the 1930s. Left populism, while a preferable outcome to the varieties of right-wing forms domination has assumed in modern Latin American history, needs to be seen as a competing strategic horizon to the anti-systemic left.


Left populism, even while providing temporary material gains to the laboring classes, has repeatedly tempered, channeled, and moderated their autonomous and antagonistic activity and potential. Left populism, through the contradictions of its multiclass foundations, has also repeatedly laid the foundations for its own crisis, and the emergence of various articulations of the right to take advantage of that crisis. The resilience of populism in Latin America since its inception in the 1930s is closely related to the persistent structural heterogeneity of the laboring classes, together with extreme general inequality, across different modes of capitalist accumulation in the region’s history – import substitution industrialization, neoliberal orthodoxy, neo-developmentalism, and so on.


Populism in Latin America is characterized by four predominant features, drawing in part on a framework developed by Philip Oxhorn: (1) asymmetrical multi-class coalitions, which replace the fundamental labor-capital antagonism with an ideologically ambiguous, multi-class framing of “the people”; (2) mobilization of broad popular support, because populism depends on the mobilization of the laboring classes, even as it seeks to control, channel, and temper that mobilization so as to avoid amplifying its autonomous capacities and radicalization beyond strict parameters: (3) paternalism and top-down leadership, which classically involved charismatic, relatively unmediated leader-mass relations, but which in subsequent iterations did not depend on charisma; and (4) an instrumental use ideology, because the reproduction of the multiclass heterogeneity of the populist coalition depends on a concealing and nebulous ideology of the common people, who are the genuine expression of the nation. Redistribution of some kind must play a role, but populism is premised on tempering class conflict, focusing instead on integration through national development. Populism seeks both concessions and cooperation from the capitalist class, rather than its abolition. 


Jeffery R. Webber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at York University, Toronto. His latest book is The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the Latin American Left (Haymarket, 2017). He is-co-author, with Franck Gaudichaud and Massimo Modonesi, of Impasse of the Latin American Left (Duke University Press, forthcoming).