Between Market Democracies and Capitalist Globalization: Is There Any Prospect for Social Revolution in Latin America? (Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 16, No. 2)

Mike Friedman mikedf at
Wed Jan 8 10:14:09 MST 2003

Between Market Democracies and
Capitalist Globalization: Is There Any Prospect for Social Revolution 
in Latin America?

Carlos M. Vilas

Social revolutions are massive progressive processes confronting from 
below the whole arrangement of power structures. If success- ful, 
they involve profound changes in class relations, as well as changes 
in the material and symbolic dimensions of individual and collective 
life. Social revolutions are the contingent outcome of political, 
ideological, social, and economic factors at both the national and 
international levels, resulting from political agency. Revolutionary 
situations tend to develop when: 1) political oppres- sion and 
illegitimate rule (i.e. dictatorships, autocratic rule, systematic 
electoral fraud) combine with regressive social and economic changes, 
fostering new social inequalities or deepening ongoing ones; 2) 
political organizations waving the banners of social revolution win 
over the active support of large segments of the population; and 3) 
internal conflicts in the ruling elites and/or specific international 
conjunctures improve chances to seize state power to build a better 
society. The combination of all of these conditions sets up what is 
usually called a revolutionary situation. This explains why social 
revolutions occur so infrequently.

Examining the prospects for social revolution in Latin America 
involves questioning the ability of the area's current democracies 
and progressive political forces to cope with the most socially 
perverse dimensions of economic backwardness: capitalist rule and 
globalization. The following discussion focuses on the nature of 
existing democratic regimes and their recent evolution towards what 
have been called "market democracies." It then offers a very brief 
assessment of the impact of recent capitalist globalization in 
reshaping power relations at both the national and international 
levels, in determining the living conditions of large segments of the 
Latin American population, and in provoking new strategies of social 
mobilization and protest. Finally, I advance some preliminary 
conclusions on revolutionary prospects in these institutional and 
structural settings.

In sharp contrast to most of the twentieth century, the current Latin 
American landscape is one of representative democracies, with 
left-of-center parties as active participants in institutional 
politics. Democratic polities have never been conducive to 
revolutions. A democratic government may be ineffective in advancing 
progressive reforms. Yet democracy provides, at least in theory, 
institutional resources to peacefully change things. This tends to 
convince many that if they create the proper means a progressive 
political party, a broad enough political coalition, a talented 
leader, a social security systemthings can be improved. Even if, 
from a Marxist perspective, the democratic capitalist state is 
nothing more than a veil for bourgeois dictatorship, revolutions have 
occurred only when the dictatorial aspect became blatant. Social 
unrest motivated by harsh living conditions and government 
policiessuch as high cost of living, environmental pollution, police 
brutality, or downsizing social services-is widespread in today's 
Latin America, not infrequently involving violent reactions and 
subsequent state repression. Yet these are mostly defensive struggles 
usually linked to issue-targeted negotiations with government 
agencies. Revolution is not seen as either a necessity or a 
possibility, even by the most powerful confrontational social 

Democracy is not an obstacle to structural changes from either a 
theoretical or a historical standpoint. As a matter of fact, the 
relationship between political regimes and structural change is 
rather loose. Structural change can be implemented or attempted by 
government agencies and bureaucratic actors not supported by or 
resulting from revolutionary struggle, as in post-1948 Costa Rica, 
the 1968-75 Peruvian military regime, Chile's Unidad Popular 
(1970-1973), or even in populist or social democratic experiences 
such as Argentina's early Peronist phase (1946-55) or Michael 
Manley's government in Jamaica in the 1970s.2 Whereas some of the 
attempts could not withstand fierce opposition from conservative 
coalitions of domestic and foreign forces, others proved extremely 
efficient in bringing about long-term restructuring. In turn, there 
is no direct correlation between political revolutionary efforts and 
social or economic outcomes. Despite their commitment to far-reaching 
restructuring and the widespread social mobilization and violence 
that these revolutionary efforts usually involve, revolutionary 
performance in terms of structural change frequently relies on a 
different set of alliances, resources, capabilities, and power 
arrangements than those that propelled confrontation with the old 

Throughout the 1990s a disjunction developed between the way a great 
many Latin Americans approached democratic regimes, and the way 
really existing democracies performed. People's criteria for viewing 
a particular government as legitimate or democratic revolved not just 
around legal or institutional issues but also around concrete daily 
ones. They focused on democracy as the combined product of 
institutional tools and policy outcomes, pointing as much to a 
particular institutional system for decision-making as to the content 
of the decisions made. Grassroots and middle-class concepts of 
democracy evaluate institutional procedures on the basis of their 
ability to implement progressive socioeconomic and political changes 
(Alarcón Glasimovich 1992, Franco 1993, Lagos 1997). By contrast, 
what we have today is a number of polities subordinating democratic 
procedures and institutions to market goals what former US president 
Bill Clinton branded as "market democracies," that is, democracies 
whose legitimizing principle and main goal is the advancement of 
capitalism.3 Thus, "market democracies" go back to crass eighteenth- 
and nineteenth-century definitions of state/ capital relations as 
they put emphasis on such specific outcomes as securing property 
rights, fostering the conditions for capital accumulation, and 
widening the involvement of market forces in the allocation of public 
goods (World Bank 1997).


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