Adam David Morton’s superb review of the publication of a new book by Carlos Nelson Coutinho, one of the foremost interpreters of Gramsci’s work in Brazil (and, for that matter, in the world), reminded me of a research project I started (but never finished) a few years ago.
The goal of my research was to use Gramsci’s work to make sense of the rise of a whole host of new left-wing governments in Latin America (e.g., in Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela) as a a result of the crisis of neoliberalism. And, for that, I decided I needed to make sense of the rise of the neoliberal state and its perceived crisis, which meant going back to an earlier period when capitalist hegemony was first being established in Brazil (as well as Bolivia and Venezuela) prior to neoliberalism.*
My preliminary findings were more or less in accord with what Morton argues: the rise of the developmentalist state in those countries was based on a series of “passive revolutions” (to use one of Gramsci’s key concepts), revolutions without revolution from below, without mass mobilization (with the exception of Bolivian miners, a tiny percentage of the population). These were revolutions in and through the State, and from there decrees (against the opposition of traditional elites) for universal suffrage, agrarian reform, the organization of trade unions and the regulation of formal sector work rules, and so on.
Later, in the 1970s, starting with the Chilean coup of 1973, the “exhaustion” of import-substitution ushered in a period of authoritarian regimes and neoliberal political economy, based on a complex alliance of social forces (from a domestic capitalist class demanding to “open up” for access to foreign markets and foreign capital to State technocrats, often with degrees from U.S. universities, attempting to solve the “fiscal crisis of the state”). If the goal of import-substitution industry was to shift the center of gravity from agriculture to industry, from feudal latifundistas to capital, from rural peasants to agricultural and industrial wage-laborers, and from independent artisans to a middle class employed in both the private and public sectors, neoliberalism was an attempt to shift the center of gravity from the State to the private sector and from traditional manufacturing to services, finance, and lowest-cost exports (to finance increased imports).
My argument was that the rise of neoliberalism did not represent a new set of passive revolutions but, instead, a revolution within the revolution, a “passive transformation” (to use, again, Gramsci’s language), a transformation of the existing hegemony but not a new hegemony. Nor, for that matter, did the crisis of neoliberalism lead to an alternative hegemony. Rather, what we have seen is a “losers’ alliance” or “alliance of the excluded” that has been able to elect nominally anti-neoliberal governments. However, without an alternative hegemony, it’s been impossible to enact a program of economic and social transformation beyond neoliberalism. Instead, they’ve been stuck with ensuring the rules of the neoliberal game, with each group trying to get some piece of the economic and political pie. “I’m going to get mine”—which leads to the expression of corporate interests and corruption and not the universalization of a working-class project.
Thus far, this has been the trajectory of left-wing governments in Latin America. But it is not their ultimate fate, no matter how “large and terrible and complicated” the world actually is.
*So, quickly, the project spiralled out of control and, unfortunately, other pressing projects prevented me from finishing it.