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The long goodbye of social democracy in Latin America


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In the context of Latin America, “social democracy” has a different meaning than it does in the context of, say, Europe, where it refers to welfare-state benefits like universal healthcare and unemployment insurance. As Matthew Whitley writes in the October 2016 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, in Latin America “social democracy” refers to left-wing movements and parties that have sought to realize socialism through electoral politics and a gradual transition away from capitalism. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his allies are one recent example. But this model of social transformation is in crisis in Latin America, writes Whitley. In countries like Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile, domestic and international pressures are driving the Left from power, throwing into doubt the future of Latin American social democracy. Here’s an excerpt from Whitley’s article:

To throw another cliché into the mix, history is written by the victor, in this case by the neoliberal press, as they sermonize over the ruins of the South American left. But it is not the left itself which has been defeated, but rather Social Democracy which has died another death in its long and pernicious zombie campaign.

By Social Democracy we do not mean the reformist, center-left parties that now often claim the name. When we say “Social Democracy” we mean it in its original sense, encompassing revolutionary, anti-capitalist movements that look to electoral politics and legislative and judicial maneuvers as their primary means of struggle. This is a path that has been described by its originally Marxist adherents as an “evolutionary” or “peaceful” road to socialism. If we are to inject new life into the anti-capitalist project it is necessary for the radical left to offer its own critique of Social Democracy.

It is an unfortunate reality that it takes crisis to produce radical consciousness. We have a surplus of crisis, surrounded as we are with war, poverty, inequality, and ecological catastrophe. In the wake of global austerity, the financial crisis, and the rapid rise of populists and protest candidates on both sides of the political spectrum, this is a moment pregnant with possibility, which cannot be wasted on the likes of a Corbyn or a Sanders who at worst represent the reformist and opportunistic center-left tendencies of European Social Democrats and at best embody a sincere belief in the original idea of a revolutionary Social Democracy. This idea is fatally compromised. The ambition of this article is to look to Latin America to evidence our critique. Latin America serves as a useful object lesson specifically because it is one of the last and most persistent bastions of revolutionary Social Democrats, with leaders who show a sincere desire to transition from capitalism to socialism through representative democracy. We in the “global North” should learn the lessons of the “global South.”

Image: Marchers for Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile. September 5, 1964. Via Brooklyn Rail.