BRICS from below: counterpower movements in Brazil, India and South Africa

Published on ZNet (first on open democracy), by Patrick Heller, May 2, 2015.

Much has been made of the recent wave of social movements against neo-liberalism and precarity. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements to the student protests against the educational system in Chile, commentators have detected a Polanyi-like wave of counter movements to neo-liberal globalization. But what exactly do these movements have in common?
The movements themselves are not specifically connected, are clearly rooted in domestic political fields, and have mobilized claims and framed grievances that are as diverse as they are localized. As the literature on moral economies has long argued, people don’t rise up against economic hardship but rather against injustice.

So, if there is clearly no mechanical logic that impels people to protest when economic conditions are tough, can we speak of a global counter-movement to neo-liberalism? Yes, but only if we can clearly identify the links between the politics of movements and the political conditions they respond to and specifically to the crises of legitimacy that drive contentious movements.

Counterpower movements:

Recent protest waves in Brazil, India and South Africa reveal clear patterns of what can be called counterpower movements, movements that explicitly challenge the instrumentalization of political power. The wave of protests that erupted in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil, the “anti-corruption” movement in India and the spread of “service-delivery protests” in South Africa took varied forms and have traveled different paths, but have three defining characteristics.

First, all three movements erupted in highly consolidated democracies where the procedural dimensions of democracy enjoy widespread support. These movements cannot as such be confused with movements against authoritarian regimes. Second, all three are attacks against perceived injustices and in particular elite usurpation of the state. Third, all three have clearly articulated critiques of institutionalized political society and seek to mobilize civil society as a form of counterpower.

The oligarchialization of power: … //

… South Africa: … //
… India: … //
… Brazil: … //

… A flourishing democrazy:

What lessons can we draw from these three different protest movements? First, for all the talk of how neo-liberalism has hollowed out democracy or pacified civil society, these movements remind us that wherever basic democratic freedoms can be accessed, the possibility for counter-hegemonic politics remains very real.

Second, as much as recent social gains in development in Latin America have been linked to the electoral success of left-of-centre programmatic parties, it is important not to confuse necessary with sufficient conditions. The ANC in South Africa has been an extraordinary disappointment on the social front and in its determination to maintain control has been more than willing to compromise democratic principles. The PT in Brazil has remained much closer to its traditional redistributive politics, but its tenure in power has shifted the balance from the mobilizational to the organizational wing of the party.

In India, the anti-corruption movement dealt what in retrospect may have been the fatal blow – massive electoral repudiation in the 2014 national elections – to a Congress party that long represented itself as the party of the people but degenerated into a rent-seeking cabal. Whether the political scaling-up of the movement into a political formation will produce a permanent electoral shift remains to be seen. But the movement has demonstrated the capacity of civil society to stand up to the implacable forces of political domination that have slowly been subverting democratic life in India.

Third, while all three movements have been fueled by unrealized socio-economic expectations that accompanied democratic transitions in Brazil and South Africa and explosive growth in India, what they have most in common is a rejection of the increasing nexus of political and economic power and the subordination of democracy to money.

Democracy is always messy, always in flux and always constrained. But it is nothing if it cannot block the translation of economic power into political power. In this respect, a permanently organized counterpower is a necessary condition for a flourishing democracy.

(full long text).


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