LATIN AMERICA, STATE POWER AND THE CHALLENGE TO GLOBAL CAPITAL:An interview with William I. Robinson
William I. Robinson is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches and writes on global capitalism, Latin America, social change, and democracy. His recent publications include Promoting Polyarchy (1996), Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Globalization and Social Change (2003), and A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, State and Class in a Transnational World (2004). Robinson is currently finishing a new book on globalization and Latin American, which will be released in the coming year. In September of 2006 Honor Brabazon and Peter Brogan interviewed Robinson for Upping the Anti (www.leftturn.org). In this interview Robinson traverses a wide terrain, from an in-depth historical summation of the sweeping structural changes that have occurred in Latin America over the past few decades to a critical assessment of movements in Bolivia and Mexico. Additionally, attention is paid to the lessons movements in North America can draw from these vibrant and inspirational struggles.
Peter: Why do you think it's so critical at this juncture to write a book on Latin America and globalization? Considering the many resistance movements that have emerged in the past decade do you think that Latin America is at a special historical juncture in its resistance to global capitalism?
William I. Robinson: Latin America is at a special historical conjuncture in terms of resistance to global capitalism. The neoliberal model became the dominant model. It achieved hegemony in the Gramscian sense, when it became a consensus among global elites. Elites which might have been opposed to neoliberalism succumbed to the program, and even among some popular forces there was a resignation, a sense that there was no alternative to neoliberalism. But that hegemony cracked in the late '90s and into the early 21st-century. Really one major symbolic turning point is the Argentine crisis. From that point on, neoliberalism is moribund, its hegemony is cracked, it's in crisis. It is moribund worldwide but particularly in Latin America. Thus, when we look worldwide at resistance to global capitalism we can see that Latin America is in the forefront of that resistance and of the breakdown of neo-liberalism's hegemony. It is also in Latin America that the origins of possible alternatives are emerging in the struggles against neoliberalism. Latin America is in the forefront of the upsurge of social movements, of revolutionary movements, and challenges to the neo-liberal state and to the dominance of global capitalist groups. This is the structural background and what's at stake in Latin America right now. What will replace the neoliberal model? Will it be some type of reformed global capitalism which will allow global capital to gain a new lease on life? Or will neoliberalism be replaced by a more radical alternative, such as what might be under construction in Venezuela or in Bolivia? It's too early to say.
Honor: Wherever we look in Latin America popular movements still seem to be facing that classic question of how to engage the state. Given the deep structural changes that have occurred in these countries since the 1970s with the rise of neoliberalism and a truly global capitalist economy can you discuss how contemporary movements have been dealing with these changing dynamics and how they're engaging with the state and international institutions? Do you see the nation-state as a viable vehicle for revolutionary change today?
William I. Robinson: If I jump to the last thing you said, no, the nation-state does not provide a viable alternative. It's not Bill Robinson saying that, it's the leadership of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. What they have figured out is that their survival, the survival of the popular project of transformation in Venezuela, must be a wider South American and Latin American project. They might not articulate what I'm saying in the same theoretical terms, but the idea that there would be a popular transformation of global capitalism that develops in Venezuela without linking that project to ongoing continental coordinated transformations throughout South America is an idea which doesn't correspond to reality. I think that Venezuelans, by way of example, would agree with this.
Peter: The Venezuelan case is a very interesting one because in it you see the development of dual power structures outside of the nation-state while at the same time people at the executive level and military are building connections with Bolivia and Cuba in an effort to develop a regional bloc. So in a sense they understand that you can't simply use simply your own national state to create radical change in the global system, but you can use it to create a regional resistance block. What do you think about that?
William I. Robinson: It's not my position that the nation-state is irrelevant. The reality is that we have a global capitalist system which has entered a new phase in the last couple decades which has changed the terms in which we understand the system. Yet, challenges in this new phase are still organized along nation-state lines in terms of political authority and in terms of formal state power. And that's the contradiction.
What this means is that social forces and political forces still need to challenge state power at the national level, to make a bid for state power at that level, and then from there to continue to challenge the global capitalist system. One of the things that's changed fundamentally in Latin America is that the earlier revolutionary strategy took the organizational form of the vanguard party and was aimed at bringing together politically various classes, particularly workers and peasants. It would then use that mobilization to overthrow the state and then implement a revolutionary transformation of society. We know that this model failed. Yet, in its place grew a similarly failed understanding of what's required to transform society: that there would be no need any more to talk about state power, to talk any longer about political organizations that could operate not just in civil society but also in political society. The height of this kind of thinking is expressed theoretically in John Holloway's book Changing the World Without Taking Power, the idea that we can transform fundamentally capitalist social relations and overcome relations of domination and subordination without honing in on the state, just changing things at the level of civil society. Of course I'm caricaturing Holloway a bit, but the thing is that that's the essential argument, and that argument has been bought by some leaders of social and political movements around the world.
So, we have two extremes. The first is the old model of social and political forces mobilizing through political organizations - through a vanguard - in order to overthrow the existing state, take power, and transform society. The other is that you don't need to think about state power at all. But, as Venezuela and Bolivia demonstrate, the key question remains how can popular forces and classes utilize state power to transform social relations, production relations, and so forth. And once you raise that question, you have to talk about what type of political vehicle, what type of political expression, will interface between the popular forces on the one hand and state structures on the other. That's the big question raised by the current round of social and political struggle in Latin America: what's the relation between social movements of the left, the state, and political organization? Previously there was a vertical model, but the emphasis for the last 15 or 20 years has been on horizontal relations among different social groups. The indigenous organizations in Latin America have spearheaded the new model of networking and horizontal relations, building much more democratic relations from the ground up. That's great, and I support that politically, and we can analyze its importance, but at some point you need to talk about how vertical and horizontal intersect. This is precisely one of the problems, for example, with the autonomous movements in Argentina, among others. In attempting to overcome the old vertical model of vanguardism and bureaucratism, it's gone to the other extreme. Without any political hammer or political vehicle you can't actually bid for state power, synchronize the forces necessary for radical transformation.
I want to find a balance between these two positions. Take the models of Brazil and Venezuela: in Brazil you have a situation where popular forces, revolutionary forces, represented in the workers' party take state power. But there is no mass autonomous organization from below. With this lack of autonomous organization from below the popular classes could not exert the mass pressure, exercise the necessary control, over the Workers Party government so that it would confront global capital and implement a popular program. The Brazilian model shows that, even when revolutionary groups take state power - absent the countervailing force from popular classes below to oblige those groups to respond to their interests from the heights of the state - the structural power of global capital can impose itself on direct state power and impose its project of global capitalism. In other words, global class struggle "passes through" the national state in this way. And the experience of Brazil shows us what happens unless there's a mass mobilization from below that places permanent pressure on the state even when it's taken over by revolutionary forces.
Now, counterpose Brazil to Venezuela. In Venezuela, you have a situation where similarly radical forces have come to state power and there are tremendous pressures from the global system to moderate and undermine any fundamental structural change. Yet in Venezuela, unlike Brazil, there's mass mobilization from below and that mass mobilization pressures the revolutionaries in the state not to succumb to the structural pressures of global capital but rather to carry out a process of social transformation. Of course this is on ongoing process, and both the forces of global capital and those of popular majorities are constantly in struggle around the direction in which these states will move. You have to have permanent independent pressure of mass social movements from below against the state but at the same time you can't talk about any project of transformation without also taking state power.
Peter: More than being an incredible inspiration to movements across the world, the popular uprisings in Latin America are serving as an experimental ground where you have Bolivia on the one hand and Venezuela on the other, two very different models of dealing with state power and mass mobilization from below. Then you have what's happening with the Zapatistas in Mexico right now with the "other campaign," which reflects a quite different way of trying to deal with this national issue in the midst of the election scandal and the mass mobilizations advocating a recount of the presidential election backed by the PRD. What do you think of these three examples, especially considering the social forms resistance takes in each case and how power and agency are being conceptualized and transformed in these three cases?
William I. Robinson: I, along with hundreds of millions of people around the world, am a great admirer of the Zapatistas and have taken tremendous inspiration from the Zapatista struggle. But we need to be realistic about something. The Zapatista project has taken the Holloway argument to the actual real-life, political-historical arena. The problem over the last couple years is that the Zapatistas' principle strategy of mobilizing from below and not wanted to get corrupted with the matter of state power - which might have been a correct thing to do in the early '90s, or even up until a couple years ago - is not the correct thing over the last six months. In the current historical moment, the politically necessary thing to do - the only thing to do - was to participate in the struggle that the PRD and Manuel L