Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Tale of Two Strategies

As Obama plans his bid for a second Presidential term, there are two contrasting strategies he may wish to consider. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Left has been making concessions to corporate elites for decades while becoming increasingly timid in standing up for the poor and vulnerable minorities. Its common strategy is to move right – embracing economic liberalism and social conservatism (i.e., soft on bankers and other billionaires; tough on the jobless and immigrants). South of Mexico, by contrast, the Left across Latin America has been bold in demanding that business powers must serve society, and those with the least should be given priority help as a matter of principle. Its strategic position is to stay true to leftwing political aspirations and engage the majority who are not super-rich to build a better future. What will President Obama make of these different approaches?

In Europe, the Left has not been doing too well. Between 1989 and 2010, looking at the ten most populous countries then in the European Union, social democratic parties took control of the most senior political office in their country 44% of the time while their opponents were in power 56% of the time. If we look at the most recent decade, coinciding with the rise of post-9/11 Islamophobia, the trend is even more disheartening – social democratic parties in power 40% of the time, their opponents 60%. Indeed in the five national elections which were held in these countries in 2010-11, the Left did not manage to win a single one.

By contrast, in Latin America, where plutocratic rule, often allied with the military, had for decades dominated, the Left took advantage of the growing democratisation in their countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and reached out to the general population in developing a vision of what a fairer society might look like – less exploitation by the rich, more investment to help the poor. The Left went on to win the majority of elections they contested, with Leftist parties or coalitions coming to power in Venezuela (1998), Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2005), Chile (2006), Ecuador (2007), Peru (2007), and Paraguay (2009).) In the latest electoral battle on that continent, the Left won again (in Peru).

Of course there are many factors we can examine in more detail in comparing the different electoral fortunes of the Latin American and European Left. But it is notable that whereas the Left in Europe have steered to the Right on the assumption that the only viable redistribution has to be from the poor to the rich (because the rich would buy enough influence – via the media, lobbying, campaign donations – to scupper any other political move), the Left in Latin America makes a public virtue of redistribution from the rich to the poor, and they counter the plutocratic influence of the wealthy through widespread direct engagement with their citizens in dissecting the socio-economic problems they needed to solve together.

While the European Left stays behind closed doors plotting how to deal with public opinions manipulated by the corporate elite and their media allies, their Latin American counterpart actively goes out to the country and involves citizens in shaping public opinion and policies. Participatory budgeting, a technique which has subsequently spread across the world as a citizens-led approach to prioritising the spending of public funds, began in Brazil in 1989. Other practices which emphasised the use of dialogue and deliberation took roots in Uruguay, Venezuela, and other countries on the continent.

Obama, with his background in community organising, should be no stranger to the participatory politics of the Latin American Left. Hopefully, he will embrace it and avoid the mistake of the ‘Right mess’ the European Left has got itself into.

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