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Outside the Logic of the State: Dancing With Dangl

If you were delighted that Hollywood finally took the new political turns of South America seriously, but were disappointed that Oliver Stone, in “South of the Border,” offered only the standard fare of “superstars” in a tired and untrue narrative of “Big Men Make History,” then you should read Ben Dangl’s “Dancing with Dynamite.”

If you were delighted that Hollywood finally took the new political turns of South America seriously, but were disappointed that Oliver Stone, in “South of the Border,” offered only the standard fare of “superstars” in a tired and untrue narrative of “Big Men Make History,” then you should read Ben Dangl’s “Dancing with Dynamite.” Dangl, founding editor of www.upsidedownworld.org, journalist and teacher of Latin American history and globalization at Burlington College in Vermont, brings his attention to the real actors overlooked in the “Big Men Make History” narrative, the participants in the social movements. In doing so, he also offers us sharp analysis and vivid writing, as in this opening to the chapter on Venezuela:

“The sounds of car horns, salsa music, children in playgrounds, barking dogs and occasional gun shots rise out of Catia, one of the largest slums of South America. Catia is a sea of multi-tiered, tin-roofed brick shacks that cling to the mountains around Caracas, Venezuela. Uncollected garbage rots in the streets and tangled wires pirating electricity weave from house to house. Sporadically rising out of this neighborhood are dilapidated concrete apartment buildings with laundry flapping from the balconies like flags. Much of the support for President Hugo Chavez… comes from neighborhoods like Catia.”

Many chapters of the book open similarly, with poetic imagery that captures the street-level reality of the South American revolutions as he sets about interviewing social movement activists to find out what’s really going on with the so-called “Pink Tide” rising over the continent. Not surprisingly, Dangl has written a very different script from Oliver Stone, whose material is filtered through translators, refracted by a Hollywood lens and drawn exclusively from interviews with the presidents in their government palaces.

“Dancing with Dynamite” enters a growing field of books on South American politics, so it will face competition for space on the bookshelf. Nevertheless, this is a daring, you could say “explosive,” little book, and it stands out in a big way from other volumes on the subject, especially since the latter tend to follow the same Great Man narrative that Stone develops in his film. For example, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” by Tariq Ali (who co-authored the “South of the Border” script, along with Mark Weisbrot, co-director of Center for Economic and Policy Research, CEPR) focuses almost exclusively on the so-called “leftist” presidents of the region: Chavez, Castro, Morales and Correa.

A much better book is Nikolas Kozloff’s “Revolution!: South America and the rise of the New Left.” While Kozloff tends not to be too dazzled by the Great Men of History to investigate the social movements, the influence of the dominant narrative still shows through: “Though many social movements pressure governments from without, some have also merged with political parties themselves, creating a potent coalition to spearhead social change.” Dangl challenges and ultimately refutes this popular assumption, widely held on the left outside of South America, that there is a common interest between the governments and the social movements of the region. The assumption is based, it seems, on very little but hope: hope that things are different in South America than they are here in the U.S, where a president elected as a “progressive” has proven himself to be, at best, entirely indifferent to the people struggling for justice, and at worst, their enemy.

What becomes increasingly clear to the reader of “Dancing with Dynamite” is that there are many striking parallels between the US and its southern neighbors: in South America, particularly Argentina, Ecuador, Paraguay and Brazil, sharp conflicts are commonplace between left social movements and “progressive” governments that often only differ nominally from their right-wing predecessors. A confluence of interests between governments and organized movements in the region is the exception rather than the rule and Dangl goes so far as to argue that the governments of the region are “dancing with dynamite” because “the logic of social movements competes with that of the state.” By contrast the assumptions made by Kozloff, Ali and others, Dangl’s conclusion is that “the state and governing party is, by its nature, a hegemonic force that generally aims to subsume, weaken or eliminate other movements and political forces that contest its power.” The book is offered as evidence to back up this statement, and it’s convincing.

Nevertheless, despite his sympathies toward the “autonomist” movements, Dangl shows himself willing to tip his hat to the state when appropriate: “While autonomist movements and actions are a focus of this book, the importance of state-created initiatives, social programs, and development projects aimed at empowering people and curtailing poverty should not be underestimated.” Dangl works in the tradition of the great historian Howard Zinn, keeping his focus on the common partners in this “dance” as he reveals how social movements have been more or less demobilized, set back or, in Ecuador, under direct, and sometimes violent, attack by many of the “progressive” governments.

Dangl’s earlier book, “The Price of Fire,” brought Bolivia’s struggles into focus, so it’s no surprise that he would pick up where he left off by dealing with this very complex political situation in the first chapter of “Dancing with Dynamite” entitled, “Bolivia’s Dance with Evo Morales.” Social movements played a major role in the election of one of South America’s first indigenous leaders, a man who also was a protagonist in those same movements. Dangl reveals through his interviews with social movement activists, community leaders and party militants of the official MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) Party, a problematic, complicated and contradictory relationship with the social movements.

Part of the problem is situational and structural, a simple result of what happens to the exercise of popular power when mediated by the State. If your community is organized to bring water to each home, a degree of “demobilization” is natural when that function is taken over by the state.

What was a work built on personal, neighborly relations now becomes an anonymous enterprise and the personal bonds of neighbors are no longer “necessary.” As Pablo Mamani, an Aymaran sociologist at the Public University of El Alto framed the problem in an interview with Dangl, “Movements organized autonomously and created forms of self-governance before the MAS took power. If the party now directs those energies toward the state it contributes to a level of demobilization.” Other activists Dangl interviewed argue that it also contributes to a certain level of political apathy.

Another factor contributing to that apathy, however, has been for members of the social movements to see their leaders jockeying for positions and high-paid sinecures in the new government. Many leaders of social movements have been seduced by power and money, “seeking better jobs, and more money in the government now, instead of focusing on meeting the demands of their bases.” As a result, Dangl notes that the MAS government “imposes direction and policy on coopted movements that are then used as part of a political machine to simply maintain centralized power and churn out votes.”

This also reflects what many argue to be a strategy from the beginning of the Morales government for the deactivation of the social movements. In fact Morales’s ambivalence toward the social movements has been evident since the beginning of his presidency. When I visited Bolivia just months after the Morales inauguration, a number of indigenous and social movement leaders expressed to me having felt, at best, ignored, and in some cases, betrayed by the new government. In Cochabamba, Oscar Olivera, a main organizer of the infamous gas and water wars which brought down previous governments, told me, with a note of bitterness in his voice, that Evo had called him daily, often several times a day, before becoming president, but in the four months since he’d come to power, Oscar had yet to hear from him. Already in April of 2006 rumors were abounding of government attempts to bribe, with money or power, or otherwise deactivate, the leadership of the movements.

In the intervening years more evidence of these conflicts has emerged, causing a great unease that mixes with the optimism of the Bolivian social movements. In interviews with members of the MAS, activists in various movements, and government officials, Dangl concludes starkly that Bolivia’s future depends on “how the movements navigate a rocky road filled with nepotism, corruption and cooptation, and how well they can rise above party politics and the adoration of a single leader.”

In Ecuador, another nation with a “progressive” president and a large indigenous population, the social movements are facing not cooptation, but frontal attacks by Rafael Correa, a president fond of the language of the “Socialism of the 21st Century” for dressing up his 21st century capitalist politics. “Correa turned his back on the indigenous people and Ecuadorian left almost immediately upon taking office,” Dangl tells us. This coincides with US journalist Daniel Denvir’s wry observation that Correa is only known as a leftist outside of Ecuador. Also unknown outside of Ecuador are his authoritarian, controlling and insulting comments and behavior toward members of the social movements, particularly the environmentalists and indigenous people, both sectors that present obstacles to his extractivist capitalist policies. Correa commonly refers to members of both groups who refuse to go along with policies they consider reckless, invasive or destructive as “infantile.” In response, the social and indigenous movements have offered Correa tepid support, as noted in the recent “coup” or police uprising. Correa’s attacks on indigenous movements such as CONAIE has had the effect of pushing them “out of the political debate and calling on police repression to crack down on their dissent, Correa has worked to undermine the indigenous movement,” in Dangl’s words.

From Ecuador Dangl takes us to Argentina where a few years ago workers rose up against the neoliberal governments when the economy imploded in December of 2001. Workers began taking over factories, hotels and other businesses in direct actions. “Piqueteros,” groups of unemployed workers who had previously organized themselves into powerful popular organizations to demand justice, were exercising a growing power through the 1990s and through the crisis of December 2001. When President Nestor Kirchner (who died October 27 of this year) came to power on a progressive platform, he set out to coopt those movements he was able, and wear the others down by simply ignoring them, when possible, in what journalist Federico Schuster calls “ a strategy of wearing out the resistance” and dispersing it. Kirchner’s dual strategy worked and in Argentina today “one of the most expansive and momentous grassroots uprisings of the 21st century dissipated” and the groups that comprised it have mostly become, according to Dangl, “shadows of what they were in 2001 and 2002.”

Dangl examines Uruguay under the Frente Amplio (FA), a stunning example of coalition building and grassroots organizing for an electoral campaign (as is the Worker’s Party in neighboring Brazil), in his aptly titled chapter, “Turning Activists into Voters in Uruguay.” On the positive side, some democratic structures such as base committees and communal councils (Dangl doesn’t clearly distinguish these two) came into being through the electoral organizing, yet “when the logic of electoral politics takes precedence over the urgent demands of a population, the role of social movements as powerful political protagonists can be lost or confused.” As a result, the social movements of Uruguay are viewed by many as stagnant. Moreover, while base committees of the FA offer possibilities for citizens to participate more fully in their government, Dangl concludes that they can “also constrain the autonomy of communities.”

Dangl agrees with most observers that social movements have prospered and increased under the Chavez government in Venezuela, saying “a number of government initiatives and policies have empowered the grassroots in unprecedented ways and created space in which social movements can flex their muscles.” He visits health clinics, community radio stations, video collectives and, impressed as he is by what he sees, Dangl still wonders if “the Bolivarian Revolution can outlast Chavez.”

A centralized system such as Venezuela’s also tends to breed patronage. Many analysts have taken note of this and attribute it to the country’s dependency on a single resource administered by the state: oil. The problem antedates Chavez by some eighty years, and it’s one he’s alternately used to his advantage and also attempted to resolve by organizing communal councils and other decentralizing structures. Unfortunately, as Dangl notes, there is an ongoing resistance to these attempts from within the Chavez government itself, and the majority of Venezuelans are dependent upon the government for some form of employment or assistance, making the development of autonomist movements very difficult.

Nevertheless, autonomist organizations and movements do exist in Venezuela and Dangl has included three of them in this chapter, although briefly and not always by name: the factory workers who took over their valve-manufacturing plant (Inveval), campesinos who occupied and gained title to land in Cojedes, and Wayuu indigenous activists who fought against coal mining in Zulia. From what Dangl offers us, these are isolated events and not manifestations of vital and powerful autonomous social movements representing distinct, independent sectors of Venezuelan society. Certainly to delve into that would have required time and space beyond the twenty-five pages Dangl allotted to the chapter on Venezuela, but it would have been quite valuable to connect those dots.

In his chapter on Brazil Dangl examines one of the most significant and successful social movements as well as one of the more neoliberal governments among the South American nations he’s selected to analyze. Lula, praised by moderates and conservatives alike, left office with enough popularity to help bring his successor, Dilma Rousseff, to power. But the social movements haven’t been very happy with Lula, nor do they seem to be convinced of any further leftward movements on the part of his successor, Rouseff. Dangl affirms the wisdom of the Landless Movement (MST, for their initials in Portuguese) in its decision to maintain a distance from electoral politics, especially given that, as he points out, land reform actually slowed under the Lula administration. The MST comes off as exemplary for the way they have maintained a focus, energy and clear organizational strategy without being pulled away into electoral politics.

Dangl ends his examination of South America in Paraguay, where he opened his introduction. Fernando Lugo, a bishop formed in Liberation Theology, became president of this country in 2008 after an unending succession of presidents and dictators from the ruling Colorado Party, most notoriously Alfredo Stroessner. Despite the enthusiasm that greeted Lugo’s victory (my Argentinian friends and I drove all night to attend the inaugural celebrations, and were met there by joyous activists from all over South America), the new Paraguayan president has proven to be a great disappointment. One Paraguayan from the Frente Social y Popular, an organization which came into being to elect him, told me that “Lugo isn’t a fighter. He tries to make peace with everyone.” Unfortunately, he has made peace primarily with the great Brazilian soy farmers, the oligarchy, the notorious mafias that trade in black and gray market goods, and the Colorado Party, which maintains hold on the congress and most of the apparatus of the state, including security and military. Lugo, it seems, has made peace with everyone in the country but the social movements that continue to struggle for justice with very little aid or comfort from the man who was formerly known as “the Red Bishop of the Poor.”

By the end of the book, or from the vantage point of the US, it all looks so familiar: progressive presidents who usurp the energy of the social movements and channel it into their electoral campaigns turn out to be just another capitalist brand against whom the movements, if they maintain their clarity and independence, must engage in a new struggle. The story line repeats all over the Americas, and that’s just the point. “When connections are made across borders to identify both the systems of oppression and the strategies to overcome them, a better world will indeed be possible,” Dangl argues. With such parallels between the political situation in the US and in many South American countries, it’s fitting that Dangl would end his book in the US, with a focus on activists applying strategies and tactics from Latin America. Dangl examines the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, the anti-water privatization activists, particularly in Highland Park, Michigan, and the housing activists organized by Max Rameau in Miami, each engaged in struggles mirroring those taking place over the past decade in South America.

“Moving beyond traditional concepts of democracy and acting outside the logic of the state,” Dangl tells us, “has been beneficial to movements throughout history.” He continues: “Working toward Utopia within the autonomous territory of the movement means a new world can be created without the blessing of the state or capitalism, but according to the movement’s logic and reality.” By the final chapter of “Dancing with Dynamite” and after a tour through a South America in upheaval, or resurrection, the reader might find these words convincing, even in the absence of massive concrete evidence of the existence of an actual social movement in the US. Those of us who lived through the ‘60s know that movements can appear almost overnight in an illuminating flash of self-conscious recognition when the constricting fabric of long-held delusions and stupefying apathy rips open as the result of a crisis to reveal a long-repressed reality.

“Dancing with Dynamite” is more than a simple romantic fascination with far-off, exotic revolutions. It offers a glimpse of what we might find beyond the crisis that has paralyzed us, the first inklings of that process that, should it come to fruition, is guaranteed to strike terror in the hearts of the Great Men of History.

Clifton Ross is the director of the film, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” and author of “Translations from Silence,” a book of poetry which won this year’s Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN. Ross teaches English at Berkeley City College and can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com.