The dynamite dance of social movements, from Latin America to Wall Street

A review of Dancing with Dynamite, by Ben Dangl, AK Press, 2010

By Sasha, for the Earth First! Newswire

If it has taken me a long time to review Ben Dangl’s latest book, Dancing with Dynamite, that is probably because the topics he handles are so very sensitive. Award winning journalist and editor of Upsidedownworld.org Ben Dangl’s book about modern social movements in Latin America’s progressive states brings home the revolutionary movements against what Eduardo Galleano called the “open veins of Latin America.” The nation states of Latin America over the past two centuries have seen liberation and they have seen crushing oppression. Military coups, international exploitation at the hands of capitalist bankers and industrialists—torture, disappearances, dispossession and brutal massacre—these are the words that only begin to describe the suffering of Latin America and its people.

After decades of struggle, this generation of Latin American radicals have obtained and maintained hegemony over much of the land. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez seized power through popular elections, and reinvested oil wealth into the economy to drive a government that saw itself as truly representative, if not a manifestation of, the people. Even more radical, perhaps, was Raphael Correa of Ecuador’s declaration to keep the oil in the soil—to sit on Ecuador’s oil reserves in order to maintain environmental and popular integrity. Nestor Kirchner rejected the International Monetary Fund’s demands over Argentina; Bolivia’s Evo Morales stopped unregulated exploitation of Indian lands; Brazil’s Lula allowed landless movements to take back swaths of unused land; Paraguay’s Lugo brought anti-pesticide consciousness into politics; the Sandinistas of Nicaragua succeeded finally, along with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front of El Salvador and a left-leaning government in Honduras—all of which sought land reform for a demographic distribution that has retained much of its colonial architecture.

It seemed like a new world had been wrought out of the timeless imagination and tireless effort of the people when, only a little over a year ago, a US-backed coup overthrew the government of Honduras, and earlier this year, Free Trade Agreements were passed with Colombia and Panama, renewing the nightmarish prospects of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. In the maelstrom of the present moment, as the populous continues to push for economic and territorial equality, at times against the leaders that have brought the Left into the Latin American lime-light, comes Dancing with Dynamite. The  struggles of popular movements for land and space under the rule of the Left emanate through every page of the book, and Dangl’s writing, research and personal experience brings out their most nuanced aspects.

There is no easy way for an author to criticize a government that has ascended to power through democratic elections and has attempted to carve out a niche for consensus, but there remains much to be criticized. Dangl’s method is to walk the walk—he goes to South America, and speaks with representatives of the governments that have come to power as well as the social groups who have emerged with new, important demands. His findings reveal that, under Leftist governments, social movements encounter unique hardships in maintaining momentum and being heard.

Part of the problem is that the Left in Latin America is still very ambiguously defined. “Defending a self-described leftist government just for the sake of preventing the right from taking power has a demobilizing effect,” Dangl states, “but it also has an undeniable appeal for those who understand the death and destruction wielded by the right and the past dictatorship.” As with Populism in general, where the unifying figure of the People can often elide the distinctions between social struggles, leftism has the habit of opening a discursive field where internal opposition can be obscured by a homogeneous patina of opportunism and cooptation.

Scathing critiques of President Correa’s expropriations of indigenous lands in Ecuador and President Lugo’s do-nothing approach to land reform in Paraguay expose the worst problems. More hope is found in pragmatic analyses of the interplay between the problematic role of the singular leader of Evo Morales’s in Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and the diverse, horizontal components of the Bolivian revolution that brought MAS to power. Uruguay’s recent production of microgovernment-style communal councils also figure into the mix—in more horizontal terms, perhaps, but not without an intriguing degree of critique: “The creation of the communal council structure, among other initiatives and movements, however, leaves in Uruguay a cultural understanding of community participation in politics and social issues. Given a dire situation, the framework exists for grassroots organization and action. Such popular infrastructures, whether created by the state or a political party, can reap undeniable benefits; they can also constrain the autonomy of communities.” Similar is Dangl’s understanding of Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution; chavistas are attacking problems of poverty from an ambitious grassroots structure, but state control remains an obstacle often enough to make it a tangible problem.

From case study to case study, Dancing with Dynamite reminds the reader of the leaps and bounds being made in Latin America, economically as well as with regards to gender and racial equality, while picking apart the difficult structural realities of inclusion and representation. Often, social movements succeed by remaining autonomous of the state; other times, they fail by being subsumed within the nepotistic hierarchies of the state. Can a world of social movements working together on a horizontal field of egalitarian heterogeneity without the overdetermination of a central state power? This is the question that has been asked many times before, and Dangl gives us some space for optimism without losing a perspective that emanates from the perspicuous gaze of antioppression.

If there is one word I would use to evaluate this book, it is balance. Although there is no love lost between the leftists of Latin America and the hegemonic forces of the US empire, the influences and structures of the rising Latin American movements must not be critiqued using the analysis of its historic oppressors. Instead of studying Latin America through the lens and scope of US politics, Dangl digs into the hierarchies and ideologies of differing voices, bringing home a clear message: “The dance in South America… is instructive regarding the question of tying movement horses to electoral or state carts. The lessons learned from South America of cooptation, demobilization, opportunism, and repression are all applicable in the US.”

As people come together throughout the US and around the world to join forces in the #occupy movement, it is particularly easy to see through Dangl’s analysis the importance of making distinctions between different groups, while acknowledging the importance of the cohesion of these groups together. No single group can claim responsibility for the space created. We have all worked collectively over the generations to see that this form of movement is manifested as a multitude and not as a totality. The efforts of some—particularly the Democratic Party—to coopt #occupy have already damaged its internal cohesion, but more damaging may be the selective integration of some of the movements’ more manageable parts into the establishment, along with a subsequent alienation of the smaller sectors that have helped bring the movement to the fore. EF!ers are throwing down in occupations all over the country, because the financial surface of the movement is not the thing that makes up its heart, and if we’re going to defend the possibilities of this movement, it’ll have to be by throwing a monkey wrench in the works of the system that tries to coopt it. The rhythm of #occupy beats to a different drummer than that of the elites, and EF!ers are dancing a precarious pattern of inclusion and exclusion that is making movement possible.

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