By James Petras
The role of the class struggle has been the most slighted dynamic dimension of Latin American development. The most influential writers have at best paid passing reference to the class struggle in discussing the capital accumulation process, while the high priests of underdevelopment, dependency and world systems have relegated it to the status of a ‘byproduct’ of global processes.
A search of the major development journals and yearbooks over the past thirty years fails to turn-up a single systematic study of the role of the class struggle in the formation of the state, productive structures and class relations.
In taking the class struggle as the central point of departure we demonstrate that the class struggle in its diverse forms and geo-economic locations has been, to quote Karl Marx, the driving force in the rise and decline of development models.
Focusing exclusively on Latin America over a time period of a quarter of a century, we formulate a framework that identifies two types of class struggle: one that springs from the ruling classes that we denote as class struggle from above; a second that reflects class warfare by workers, peasants and other popular classes, which we classify as class struggle from below.
Recognizing the internal dynamics of these variants we highlight the importance of the intensity of class struggle in determining the direction and advances of the dual antagonists in the accumulation and disaccumulation (crises) process.
Operationalizing our class struggle framework to six case studies in Latin America, (Peru, Paraguay, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela), we identify how the shifts in the class struggle impact on the rise, demise and resurgence of neo-liberal regimes. Likewise, we identify how the post-neo-liberal regimes in Argentina, Venezuela and Brazil emerged in the midst of economic crises and intensified class struggle from below.
We found an inverse relation between high intensity class struggle from above and redistributive and welfare policies; conversely we identify high intensity class struggle from below and positive regime changes favoring a greater share of national income for wage and salaried workers.
In more general terms we found that periods of class conciliation between rulers and popular classes are temporary and a prelude to the re-emergence of intense class struggle. In strategic terms we found that the wage and salaried classes make short or even middle term quantative gains in periods of conciliation but that the ruling classes benefit in the long-run, using the period to regroup and re-launch the class war.
While orthodox classical, neo-Keynesian and Marxist economists rely on economic categories divorced from class struggle, we illustrate how different rates of private investment, income shares, budgetary expenditures are profoundly influenced by the class struggle. High private investments tend to coincide with successful class struggle from above – which results in lower wages, environmental regulations and corporate taxation. Increased social expenditures, greater public investment and increases in progressive taxation results from intense levels of class struggle. The latter is found in the Venezuelan experience between 2003-2013; the former is found in the Paraguayan, Peruvian and Colombian experience over the past two decades.
The class struggle from above is strongly influenced and in some cases initiated and directed by ‘outside actors’ namely the US MNC and especially the military and special forces embedded in the imperial state. In other words’ we can speak of the class struggle from “above and the outside” – taking account of imperial interventions, boycotts, coups and financing of domestic ruling class parties, ONG, press and paramilitaries as we demonstrate in the case of Venezuela. Similarly, the US financed Plan Colombia, especially during the 2001-2010 period was decisive in the advance of class warfare from above, displacing four million peasants and killing thousands of social activists engaged in the class struggle from below.
The advocates and practioners of class struggle from below have no comparable support on the ‘outside’. Venezuela’s successful class struggle from below which defeated a US-ruling class coup (2002) and petrol boycott (2002/3) created the social foundations for Venezuela turn to nationalist-populist policies and re-allocation of oil rents to socially progressive reforms.
Most of our case studies focus on the dynamics of the class struggle in the countryside (Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Paraguay) because that has been the epicenter of struggle in the era of extractive capital.
Especially with the astronomical rise of agro-mineral demand, prices and profits, the ruling classes launched a class war to dispossess peasants and indigenous communities provoking a class war from below.As we note in the text, but it bears repeating, the composition of the class forces acting from below, vary from country and region: in Paraguay and Peru indigenous communities are the moving forces, while in Brazil and Colombia, the struggle involves rural landless workers and displaced and uprooted peasants.
The long term, large scale class struggles from above and below, have had a profound impact on regional and international alignments. Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina have favored regional integration and political associations that exclude the US. While Colombia, Peru and Paraguay, where the ruling class struggle has been successful, they have supported free trade agreements and political alliances centered in the United States.
The most immediate period is one of great uncertainty. The previous alliances between the center-left and the popular movements has declined while the ruling class advances under the umbrella of an aggressive class struggle from below. However, the demise of the commodity boom, the sharp decline of soya and oil prices, erodes the capacity of the ruling class to sustain their economic advance. The peace negotiations in Colombia and the framework agreement may favor the ruling class, but declining exports and revenues, limit the possibility of consolidating the extractive based economic model. The emerging ascendancy of the right, as our analysis of the cyclical nature of the class struggle shows, will probably not be of long duration. As the rapid and widespread growth of class struggle from below in Argentina demonstrates, hard right President Macri may not serve out his tenure in office and certainly private investors will face great uncertainty.
While the class struggle plays a decisive role in shaping development regimes and processes of capital accumulation and while it follows a cyclical pattern, there is no certainty that each turn in the cycle repeats the previous configuration of power. While the previous turn in the class struggle from below led to the emergence of progressive extractive regimes and changes in budget allocations, the next turn may lead to structural transformations in which sustainable development, socialization of the financial, productive and commercial systems will be undertaken.
It is our fervent hope that our modest text will help academics and scholars shed their blinders, recognize and take account of the centrality of the class struggle, in all its variants, and how it influences the formation and decline of regimes, development models, productive systems and variations in the way countries insert in the world economy. We call attention to the failure of almost all development writing to take account of this all pervasive social reality.