Sunday, August 19, 2012

Benjamin Dangl, Dancing with Dynamite

This book deals with the dances between today’s nominally left-leaning South American governments and the dynamic movements that helped pave their way to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, and Paraguay. The discussion surrounding the question of changing the world through taking state power or remaining autonomous has been going on for centuries. The vitality of South America’s new social movements, and the recent shift to the left in the halls of government power, make the region a timely subject of study within this ongoing debate. Though often overlooked in contemporary reporting and analysis on the region, this dance is a central force crafting many countries’ collective destiny. (KL 153-158)

Benjamin Dangl’s 2010 Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America

offers an accessible overview of political struggles in seven Latin American countries as they’ve developed over the past few decades. It’s more a journalistic than a scholarly work, written for a general audience of activists and others on the Left and seeking primarily to respond to immediate practical and political rather than more abstract scholarly or theoretical debates. I recommend it for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with recent history and contemporary dynamics in this part of the world and to better understand what’s at stake within these nations and globally.

In a refreshing and much needed twist, the book’s protagonists are the (coalitions of) social justice movements in these countries as they negotiate a political landscape in which, following decades of rightwing rule, leftist or relatively more sympathetic populist governments have been successful.* I do wish he’d paid more attention to the role of the US in the internal politics of these countries - not only in support for the politicians, parties, movements, media, and repressive policies and actions of the Right, but also within the antistatist/antiauthoritarian Left itself (a situation which of course makes the choices for these movements even more complicated and perilous). It’s always a delicate balance for those who want to turn the focus away from the traditional subjects – Great Men (and occasionally Women), North and South – and show neglected local movements as real and effective political forces; on one side is the danger of underemphasizing the powerful influence of the US (and Canada) on domestic politics in these countries, on the other of implying that political actors in Latin America are mere puppets or capable only of reacting to powerful corporations and governments rather than independently shaping their history. Since there are a number of people writing about the role of the US, Canadian, and other foreign governments and corporations in Latin American politics, it’s probably best for Dangl to lean toward the former. (And I really like that he closes the book with a discussion of the relationship between these bold movements and activists in the US inspired by their aims and tactics.** More recently he’s written about connections with the Occupy movement.)

In any case, as an anarchist who’s made similar arguments over the years, I’m, unsurprisingly, right on board with his perspective and his thesis:

Many South American movements make revolution a part of everyday life, not something to be postponed for an electoral victory or the seizure of state power. While they may not define themselves as such, a number of these movements are anarchist in action and belief…. For movements in South America that engage the state, the relationship involves a tightrope walk between cooptation and genuine collaboration. Many times, however, cooperation with the state leads to the demobilization of social movements…. When facing such challenges, according to Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi, it is important for movements to remain true to their own agenda, and not water down their demands to align with the state. Movements must expand their power, potential, spaces, and capacities.13 However, expanding power doesn’t need to mean becoming a part of the state’s political or electoral process; rather, it can mean working to become a sustainable movement that can weather changing political climates. (KL 172-186)

(It’s important to note that he immediately makes clear that anti-poverty and other such government programs are valuable and important, and that he’s by no means endorsing a libertarian model: “This book is based on the belief that public-run services are by definition more accountable than commercial, for-profit businesses or corporate run services, and in many cases, vital for survival. The process of negotiating with current left-leaning governments has posed challenges to social movements; but the region’s history demonstrates that multinational corporations and right-wing governments pushing through neoliberal policies have typically been even more devastating” (KL 194-197).)

Especially relevant to this year’s US presidential elections, Dangl refers to a 2008 article by the late Howard Zinn, “Election Madness.” In it, Zinn writes:

No, I’m not taking some ultra-left position that elections are totally insignificant, and that we should refuse to vote to preserve our moral purity. Yes, there are candidates who are somewhat better than others, and at certain times of national crisis (the Thirties, for instance, or right now) where even a slight difference between the two parties may be a matter of life and death.

I’m talking about a sense of proportion that gets lost in the election madness. Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth.

But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.

Let’s remember that even when there is a “better” candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.

I miss Howard Zinn.

*The recent administrative coup in Paraguay signifies a retrenchment.

**I should note that these aims and tactics aren’t as new as many books suggest. The global history of radical activism spans centuries, over which tactics have been shared, modified, and adapted across movements and continents. I would love for this history to be better known.

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