From Populism to Participation: Transformative Nationalism and Democratic Mobilisation in Latin America

Article excerpt

Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of the left in Latin American political thought. After more than two decades of economic stagnation and social devastation felt across much of the region the desire and need to define an alternative political model was acute. Increasing instances of popular resistance to further privatisation and liberalisation evidenced growing discontent throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. This article considers how President Chávez in Venezuela and President Morales in Bolivia have sought to channel this sense of defiance into a purposive movement for political change.

Chávez and Morales are certainly two of the most controversial figures in contemporary world politics - often portrayed as lunatics, authoritarian throwbacks from Latin America's brutal past, or doomed socialists. A full assessment of the successes, failures, dangers or downfalls of these regimes is not the purpose here. But what cannot be denied is that they have both managed to alter the political cultures in their respective societies such that the plight and needs of the impoverished and marginalised majorities are now firmly on the political agenda. The nature of politics has been expanded beyond the preserve of the elite to an arena for cross-class action and protest. What is under consideration here is how they managed to open the space to bring about and consolidate such a dramatic change.

The importance of the nation

Many social theorists report the 'end of the nation state', with national communities and their affiliated institutional arrangements seen as an outmoded and declining form of societal organisation (Ohmae, 1995). But contemporary social reality attests to the enduring power of the nation as both 'symbolic system and as societal structure' (Picket, 2003, 114). The national remains the predominant level at which politics functions, with many supposedly 'global' developments better characterised as the rise of regional blocs, in which nationstates remain the primary actors (Hirst and Thompson, 1996). Functionally, the nation remains a workable arena within which to address problems and to organise politically and socially (Mayerfeld, 1998).

Furthermore, nations remain the form of social organisation to which people feel attached and identify themselves with. One of the most striking findings of the World Values Survey, which questioned people on their personal attachments, was that, currently, local and national identification by far outweigh any sense of communal global membership (Morris, 2003). The 'potency' of the nation as a context for identification stems from its deep-rooted, visceral appeal as a historical community (Held and McGrew, 2003, 16). While in certain circles ties of nationality have been deemed vulgar and sentimental, belonging in the past, the globalist theories and hopes of Western elites do not equate with the popular desire for 'moorings in place and time' (Kaufmann, 2007, 79).

On this basis nationalism should be distinguished from political doctrines such as statism or protectionism, and seen instead as a pervasive process, present in every societal context (Barrington, 1997). This process has a dual character: with both structural and agential, organic and deliberate, aspects. Structurally, there is the historically rooted 'cultural script' that defines and shapes the national community and its identity, which operates as a frame of reference through which members of the nation function socially and build solidarity (Itzigsohn and Vom Hau, 2006). On the other hand, the process is one of conscious articulation by various actors, involving the construction and dissemination of discourse which attaches meanings to 'the nation' and national membership, and dictates perceptions of national interests (Miller, 1995).

Viewing nationalism as a process captures its fluidity, variance and transformative potential. While historically path-dependent, the national 'cultural script' is not structurally monolithic, but open to reinterpretation by a variety of agents. …