Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 302 | Septiembre 2006



How Can Consensus Be Reached When the Conflict Is Denied?

A non-conflictive vision of politics predominates in the electoral promises of all of Nicaragua’s political parties today, urged by the international financial institutions and cooperation programs. This sixth and final article in the author’s series on Nicaragua’s political parties, asks whether the social consensus the country so sorely needs can be articulated when the conflicts are merely swept under the rug. Isn’t the Left obliged to make them visible in order to build a genuine consensus in which democracy can take root?

Andrés Pérez Baltodano

In her book On the Political (2005), Chantal Mouffe offers a lucid analysis of what she calls the “post-conflict” vision of politics, but which we will call “non-conflictive,” to address the difference between this phenomenon in the countries of the North, which are the object of Mouffe’s study, and those of the South, especially Nicaragua. Our fragmented society, in which premodern, modern and even postmodern elements coexist, prevents us from using the category “post” for anything referring to our development or our history.

Postmodernity is a multidimensional historical phenomenon that affects both the material life and the artistic, literary and philosophic expressions of society and history. Mouffe’s central argument is that postmodernity has fragmented and individualized society in the North. To speak of postmodernity, then, is to recognize that the modern sense of social life has abraded to give way to a multiplicity of identities and stories that devalue—and on occasions annul—the categories, narratives and values that until a few decades ago served as articulating focal points of societal order and history.

Reasons for concern or for joy?

Many view postmodernity as a danger. For example, many intellectuals and activists perceive the globalization of capital associated with this phenomenon as a threat to the possibility of creating societies rooted in the principle of social justice. Some authors, including Fredric Jameson, David Harvey and Pablo González Casanova see the anti-foundational post-modernist discourse as a way to legitimize the devaluation of social justice as a normative axis in the struggle against poverty and inequality in the countries of both the North and the South.

But many authors, activists and organizations view postmodernity with optimism. Some believe that it has created the right conditions for building new consensuses that transcend class, cultural identity, racial identity, nationality, etc. Martin Albrow, for example, celebrates postmodernity and warns that intellectuals must abandon their pessimism and embrace the possibilities that postmodernity and globalization offer us for building a Global Era for humanity.

Some interpret postmodernity as the definitive sur¬¬¬¬moun¬ting of the class-based tensions and social contradictions that modern sociology was studying from different theoretical and ideological perspectives. In Marxist sociology, for example, modern capitalist society was fundamentally divided into a bourgeois class, which owned the means of production, and a proletarian class, which had to sell its labor power to survive. This class relation was perceived by Marx and Marxism as necessarily conflictive because it was based on exploitation.

The main figure of so-called bourgeois sociology was Max Weber, who recognized the inevitability of social conflict, without accepting that it was determined by the productive structures of society. Weber believed that social classes should be conceptualized according to the relationship between individuals and the “means of distribution” of the “opportunities of life” and not the material means of production. From that perspective, social power derived from the capacity of individuals and groups to hoard power and social status. For Weber, power and status could have an economic base but might also have an intellectual, religious, professional or other base. Weber’s vision of power was more elastic than Marx’s.

Marxist sociology criticized the “ambiguity” and “elasticity” of the Weberian vision of power while Weber’s followers criticized what they perceived as the “economic reductionism” of Marxist theory. Neither position should be ignored because doing so would mean losing half of one of the most enriching debates in humanity’s intellectual history.

What interests us here about the debate between these two exceedingly rich intellectual traditions initiated by Marx and Weber is rescuing the conflictive vision of history expressed in both positions. Weber believed in liberal democracy as a mechanism that could organize the tensions and contradictions he felt were inherent to any social formation. Any complex social relation, he said, is necessarily one of domination, a relation of power marked by real and potential conflict between dominators and dominated. From this perspective, order is only possible through the exercise of coercion, or the creation of legitimate power structures.

For Marx, class conflict was inevitable until communism could put an end to the inherent exploitation of the system of class domination. For Marx, liberal democracy only hides and dissembles the social exploitation on which capitalism feeds.

The collapse of modern certainties

Postmodernity has generated the emergence and prolifera-tion of multiple social identities and interests that do not fit easily into Marxist and Weberian categories. This new reality is expressed in the emergence of “new social movements”—environmental, feminist, indigenous, countercultural, etc.

The fragmentation of modern identities is largely the result of a “compression of time and space” growing out of advances in communications, the internationalization of production and the mobilization of capital. These phenomena have significantly reduced the power of the “old” social movements and of the identities conceptually contained within the class categories studied by modern sociology. Unions, for example, no longer have the force they once used to oblige the state to condition capital’s activity to form what came to be known as the welfare state. The new technologies have given capital the capacity to transcend the territorial space of the nation-state to which the organized working class continues to be limited.

The postmodernist discourse reflects—as well as promoting and legitimizing—the dislocations and fragmen-tations generated by postmodernity, fundamentally associated with the globalization of the economy. It does so because many of the “crises,” fragmentations and ambiguities expressed in postmodern literature, philosophy and sociology are real and form part of the world in which we live. At the same time it legitimates the dislocations and fragmentations of current social life because it denies the value of principles such as democracy, liberty and social justice that played such a central role in the construction of modernity and its institutions. That discourse also denies the value of the “meta-narratives” that previously served to construct the historical interpretations that guided political and social action in the formation of democracy and the state. Postmodern thinking thus legitimates the social fragmenta-tion and loss of the “certainties” previously generated by modernity.

The illusion of non-conflict and of dialogue

The post-conflict vision of politics arises out of the optimistic interpretation of the crises mentioned above. The term “post-conflict” is used because it is assumed that the identities and differences that previously separated individuals and sectors of modern society have ceased to exist or are no longer determinant. According to this vision, the social projects and hegemonic politicians representing contradictory interests have disappeared, while the differences that remain or the new ones that have emerged with postmodernity are marginal and can be resolved through dialogue.

The “centrist” vision of politics, popularized by Anthony Giddens in Europe and misinterpreted by Humberto Ortega, former head of the Sandinista Army in Nicaragua, is a manifestation of the optimism generated by postmodernity in some circles. For Giddens, the class concept of social conflict in Europe has ceased to make sense, since the intensification of modernity—postmodernity for others—has resulted in the disarticulation of the social relations that previously gave meaning to the concept of social classes. The proliferation and fluidity of the new social identities have reduced the social conflict to marginal differences. These differences, argues Giddens, can be resolved within a “centrified” political framework that transcends the old concepts of Left and Right and once serviced to organize the social demands and political identities of society’s antagonistic sectors.

Chantal Mouffe argues that Giddens’ post-conflict vision of politics is illusory, as it doesn’t resolve but simply denies the main tensions and contradictions that are still part of postmodern society, although their form and expression may have changed. The post-conflict vision of politics is also dangerous, she adds, because these social tensions and contradictions find no solution in the centrified political representation. They thus tend to emerge only in non-political and certainly non-democratic expressions of the social conflict, such as racism.

Mouffe concludes by proposing the revitalization of politics as the articulation and confrontation of hegemonic projects representing contradictory social interests. She argues that democratic politics should continue to be seen as an effort to provide order to the confrontation of such projects by means of a minimum social consensus that establishes both rules of the game for reaching power and guarantees the force and effectiveness of the rights of all participants in that game, independent of their position within society’s balance of power. Democratic politics, says Mouffe, must be capable of transforming into political adversaries the social actors and sectors that could otherwise act as enemies because of the antagonistic interests they represent.

The challenge for today’s social sciences, according to Mouffe, is to reconfigure the traditional categories of class to clearly express the tensions and contradictions operating within the postmodern framework. In the book she wrote with Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe points out that politics and the social sciences that participate in it must be seen as practices that seek to “fix meanings” in an intrinsically chaotic, formless world without objective underpinnings. Laclau and Mouffe don’t deny the crisis of postmodernity, but simply argue that the Left’s responsibility in the contingent world in which we live is to create meanings that structure the social subjects, their goals, the sense of what is possible and the horizon of history. All this, aware that political activity occurs in a world in which nothing is stable and the Left’s hegemonic proposals have to compete with others that will seek to signify and structure the world in different and even contrary directions.

Consumers of foreign visions

The non-conflictive vision of politics has also been popularized in the South. And not because the historical development of our countries has created the same forms and levels of social fragmentation that postmodernity has created in the North, but rather because the countries of the South, as subordinated and dependent societies within the global economic and political system, are invariably affected by changes in the countries that dominate that system. Postmodernity has thus become a new element in the historical development of the South’s countries. In other words, it is multiplying what Carlos Fuentes calls the multiple and fragmented times within which the societies of the South have lived their histories.

Nicaragua has experienced a partial modernity mixed with important premodern components in its economic, political and social organization. The postmodernity reached by the North adds a new temporal dimension to Nicaraguan reality, which mixes confusingly and contradictorily with the modern and premodern elements that already coexist within our territorial space. We aren’t removed from postmodernity. Even if we aren’t postmodern societies, we suffer transforma-tions derived from it.

For example, we receive the cultural influences that it generates in the North, and are influenced by the social visions and theoretical thinking that legitimize the non-conflictive vision of politics in those countries. For example, we have our imitators of Anthony Giddens’ centrist thinking, even though a country like Nicaragua doesn’t have the organized ideological polls that allow some European societies to talk about the search for the “center.” We also adopt the premises underpinning the new visions of the state in the North’s societies and incorporate them into our development plans, notwith-standing our profound institu-tional weakness. Today, as in the past, we consume foreign opinions and import social theory.

The IMF, World Bank and IDB design discourse

The North’s influence is exercised through the multiple circuits of communication and control that condition the normative frameworks within which the state functions and public policies are formulated in the South. The circuits controlled by international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank should be high-lighted, given their importance. John W. Meyer points out that these agencies work not only in the field of finances, but also in the construction of discourse. Their labor includes generating visions and interpretations of reality that facilitate and legitimize their regulatory economic role.

The North’s influence on the South intensified with the collapse of the Soviet Union and failure of real socialism, which marked the end of the Cold War. The loss of the most important political reference point for the leftist parties in the South created the impression that both Marxist theory and the reality it was trying to represent had lost its meaning and validity. The vacuum created by this loss of referents was filled by visions and positions that, with varying degrees of pragmatism and resignation, respect the framework of historical possibilities imposed by capitalism.

The international financial institutions facilitate the legitimization of that framework of possibilities through the articulation of models and visions congruent with the needs of triumphant capitalism. They thus promote a pragmatic political discourse adjusted to the reality of today’s globalized world that helps delegitimize those actors and political positions opposed to the logic of the market.

Governability vs. chaos:
The new equation of “harmony”

In this new intellectual atmosphere, the classic issue of “social order,” which in the traditions initiated by Weber and Marx forced us to think of “social conflict” as the flip side of “order,” has been replaced by the useless and sterile concept of “governability,” which imposes a normative vision of society that is very functional for a market society.

But the flip side of governability isn’t political conflict or social change, let alone revolution and the structural transformations that until recently were considered stages in the historical dynamic of any society. The opposite of governability is chaos and disorder, which must be avoided at any price because they perturb the normalcy required for the development of capital.

The “disorder” counterpoised to the concept of governability has a moral rather than political connotation. It doesn’t correspond to the “conflict” that was previously contrasted to the structures of established power, and that the social sciences critically analyzed to establish its legitimacy or illegitimacy. Conflict was accepted as legitimate if the order it opposed was, for example, that of Nazi Germany or South African apartheid.

Governability and its connotation of harmony, transpar-ency and peace is only rivaled by ungovernability and its connotation of corruption and chaos. Within that depoliti-cized vision of society, there is only room for the struggle between good (neoliberal) and evil (anything else that opposes the empire of market rationality).

Hence, any attempt to expand the state’s responsibilities in societies marked by hunger and malnutrition is seen as “statism,” a vice that must be eradicated. Any effort to enrich the political discourse with representations of the needs of the poor is “populism,” a defect of the past that neoliberalism has either buried or must bury. There’s no attempt to recover the social visions and aspirations contained in what is referred to as “statism.” It’s simply an obstacle from the past that must be annulled.

Civil society: Another piece for “social peace”

With the idea of social conflict eliminated from the visions of society imposed by the major international financing institutions, the emerging order in the countries of the South needed a neutral concept to describe the organizations of representation and participation that would help maintain and reproduce the governability demanded by market society. Hence the reemergence of the concept of “civil society,” defined by the World Bank as a broad gamut of nongovern-mental and nonprofit institutions that have a place in public life, express the interests and values of both their own members and others in accord with ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations. The term “civil society organizations,” according to the World Bank, thus covers a large variety of organizations: community groups, NGOs, unions, indigenous groups, charity organiza-tions, religious organizations, professional associations and foundations.

All of society’s interests are supposedly included in this concept of civil society, and in the organizational arenas in which the concept is materialized. What, then, is the difference between the concept of “civil society” and the old concept of “society,” which was previously conceptualized as made up of social classes or of elites and masses in relations of conflict?

The difference is that the concept of civil society promoted by the international financing institutions represents a harmonic society—or the illusion of one—made up of actors who operate within a basic consensus that transforms all of its conflicts into marginal differences.

How is civil society harmony achieved in fragmented and polarized societies? Through the construction of a hegemonic vision of society in which the market becomes the “legitimate” distributor of the benefits and costs of life in society. When the market is institutionalized and legitimated as the guiding force behind the organization of life in society, ideologies are devalued, the Left and its banner of social justice stop making sense, the transforming social struggles are demonized and the market becomes a secular God. More concretely the market becomes the independent variable to which all other variables in the social equation must adjust.

The “market harmony”
constructed in the IDB offices

How is the discourse that gives rise to this profoundly anti-humanist and anti-Christian vision of society articulated and implemented? The construction of this market-centered vision is no accident. It’s the result of the systematic and detailed work of many international foundations, universi-ties and, above all international financing institutions, which for decades have been expanding their operations to promote the generation and spread of knowledge to build the social consensus demanded by the reproduction of the global market. The IDB, for example, has a research center in its central offices that coordinates with around 300 researchers across Latin America who analyze Latin American reality based on the premises in the terms of reference the IDB uses to contract them. The research promoted by the IDB is different to that developed by the universities, since there’s no “academic freedom” in the IDB. Its research is geared to supporting the Bank’s mission and policies, to promoting and facilitating a predetermined economic and social development model, which varies according to changes in the nature of capitalism around the world.

With the globalization of capital, the IDB has been promoting a neoliberal economic and social development model that has led to its current conceptualization of state-market-society relations. Note the preponderant and unconditioned role the market plays in articulating these relations in the following IDB text: “The market is an area of the economy whose widening and improving depends on sustainable growth and an effective fight against poverty. Market development has been very uneven among and within the countries in the region: major segments of the population and property remain outside the market economy, and rent-seeking situations persist, which limit the development of productive capacity. It is necessary to develop government institutions and public policies that will create the conditions and incentive systems conducive to the efficient, competitive operation of a market economy, which is a core requirement for dynamic growth and job creation, in a context of increasing worker productivity.”

The IDB and other international financial institutions have learned that consolidating an economic system requires constructing and institutionalizing a social consensus that legitimizes it. In another of its official documents the IDB says: “…the reforms necessary to improve and widen markets with the two-pronged objective of increasing their efficiency and inclusiveness, cannot be achieved without implementing wide partnership mechanisms between the different economic and social agents. The development of wider markets, that favor the inclusion of sectors of the population that are at present excluded, but that are also more efficient and capable of competing in the global economy, is the double objective of the policies and institutions that are referred to in this section.

The creation of the “concertation mechanisms” the IDB talks about requires organized citizen participation to make it functional to market development. Hence, the participation promoted by the IDB through the organization of the region’s “civil societies” isn’t designed to question the prevailing economic regime, but simply to improve and legitimate it.

This is something acknowledged by the IDB itself in its vision of participation: “‘Participation’ is understood to denote the set of processes whereby citizens, via their governments or directly, can influence the decisionmaking process relating to these activities and objectives. Thus interpreted, citizen participation does not mean deciding but rather having the possibility of influencing decisions that will fall to the responsible authority in each instance.”

Democracy and participation:
“Distanced from confrontational visions”

The legitimizing function of the participation models promoted by the IDB is clearly expressed in its document, “Strategy for Promoting Citizen Participation in Bank Activities”: “...it is essential that public policies be shaped through dialogue among national actors and be underpinned by broadbased, durable consensuses. This fits with the concept of democracy as the articulation of mechanisms of political representation and civic participation. Indeed, by contributing to the continual renewal of the legitimacy of democratic institutions, participation complements democracy-building processes.”

The IDB sees democracy as a formal model for resolving marginal conflicts that operates within a social consensus structured in line with the logic and values of capital. The social consensus model the IDB promotes isn’t the product of any confrontation among different models of society representing the plurality of interests and social aspirations coexisting within a national political arena. It is predefined, before civil society and its participation mechanisms are constituted. Civil society and citizens’ participation aren’t organized to define a societal model that responds to the aspirations and needs expressed by a national population but rather to legitimize and functionalize neoliberalism’s economic and societal model.

Civil society and civil participation can only express demands and recommendations that don’t question the neoliberal regime. The state stops being an arena in which social tensions and contradictions are manifested to become instead an institutional mechanism that, along with civil society, operates to reproduce the neoliberal capitalist model.

That vision of the state and society ignores the tensions and contradictions derived from the inequalities and power differences that are part of social life, dissimulating them with controlled political participation and the promotion of a non-conflictive vision of politics that rejects and delegitimizes any form of “confrontation.” The IDB itself expressly states this: “Modernization of the state—one of the Bank’s institutional strategy priorities—entails a ‘reciprocal and complementary process of strengthening civil society.’ The adoption of such a cooperative, mutually complementary approach between the state and civil society, away from confrontational views, and its implications for public participation in the Bank’s operations work, is especially important given the limited cooperation (and in some instances mistrust and misunderstanding) that has existed between these two spheres in decades past owing to the prevailing political climate.”

The non-conflictive discourse
universally swallowed in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, the non-conflictive vision of politics is expressed in the importance attached to civil society and governance support programs by the national governments, the international financial institutions and international cooperation. The conceptual vocabulary and ideology associated with those programs have had a profound effect on the discourse of most Nicaraguan politicians.

In his inaugural presidential speech and speaking from a rightwing perspective, Arnoldo Alemán stressed his “profound commitment to the rule of law,” promised “the decentralization and modernization of the state in all of its institutions,” expressed his intention to promote the country’s “governance” and “privatization” of the economy and manifested his concern over “protection of the environment and natural resources.”

In the 2001 elections, retired General Humberto Ortega, from a supposedly “leftwing” perspective, ignored the country’s social tensions and contradictions and proposed a harmonious and romantic National Accord whose objectives included “a self-sustainable Nicaragua with civil society as its driving force,” the consolidation of a “market economy with justice and social equity,” “Nicaragua’s firm integration into the international economic scenario,” recognition of humanity’s “common destiny,” and respect for “the global environment.” He also argued for the adoption of “values held up by the United Nations,” such as “the equality of all human beings, the defense of human rights and basic dignity, freedom of expression, collective social responsibility, the defense of civic diversity as a source of wealth and not conflict, the promotion of individual and group initiative in harmony with common responsibility, and the rule of law with participation and social sensitivity.”

The MRS Alliance:
Is the conflict between decency and indecency?

The non-conflictive vision contained within the conceptual vocabulary imposed on Nicaragua by the international financial institutions is accentuated in the 2006 elections and has permeated the discourse of the leftwing parties. The MRS Alliance’s government program, for example, doesn’t acknowledge social tensions and contradictions, despite the fact that Nicaragua has one of the worst levels of inequality in Central and Latin America. The only conflicts it does recognize are those that can be morally expressed. So its main banner is the fight against the “dirty pact” and corruption perpetrated by the FSLN and PLC.

The MRS Alliance’s program doesn’t differentiate itself from those of the rightwing parties in its vision of the nature of the tensions and contradictions in Nicaraguan society. The Alliance’s presidential candidate, Edmundo Jarquín, recognized this in the following statement: “All the government programs look as alike as drops of water... The difference lies in two factors: first, the credibility of the messenger and, second, how they will be done. For example, transforming the Nicaraguan Investment Fund and accumulating all the existing resources to do so is something concrete.”

Like prioritizing the fight against the “dirty” FSLN-PLC pact, the idea of the “credibility of the messenger” expresses a moral rather than political vision of the current conflict in Nicaragua. This vision was confirmed by an Alliance leader who stated in a private message to me that for the coming elections the social conflict in Nicaragua was defined by only two categories: “decency” and “indecency.”

FSLN: The power of love

And the other leftwing party? The campaign strategy of reconciliation based on love promoted by the FSLN is one of the most ridiculous and extravagant versions of the non-conflictive vision of politics ever seen.

Rosario Murillo, the party’s campaign manager and wife of party leader Daniel Ortega, is the main exponent of this vision. Her discourse fails to mention class contradictions, conflict or social injustice. For Murillo, everything is reduced to resentment and hatred that can be overcome by “reconciliation” and “love.” Murillo’s doctrine proclaims that “if we’re together as Nicaraguans, as sisters and brothers, as disciples and teachers, if we’re together to affirm Life, then there are no ghosts that can scare us or provocations or manipulations that can continue assaulting our future.... If we’re aware of Evolution and Love, we’re the Ark of the Alliance, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Encounter and Commitment, a cry in Jericho, movement, prophecy, trumpet, united to bring down the walls of arrogance, selfishness, indifference, separation and vulgarity, those terrible walls that when they fall will leave open to us a passage, change, Life in the Promised Land.”

The conflict is now between “good” and “evil”

In addition to ignoring the profound social tensions and contradictions operating in Nicaragua, the FSLN’s non-conflictive vision of politics promotes the depoliticizing and disqualifying of social conflict, its negation as a normal expression of the confrontation of interests in any social formation. To exclude conflict from what is deemed politically legitimate, the non-conflictive vision of politics moralizes it. As a result, the existing order or the dominant positions that are defended assume the representation of “good” and any challenge to that order or to any dominant position is interpreted as an attack from the forces of “evil.”

But how did Rosario Murillo react when faced by what would have to be seen as a legitimate political conflict between the FSLN leadership and the aspirations of a dissident like Herty Lewites? She never politically rejected Lewites’ position, preferring instead to demonize her husband’s rival. Here’s what the FSLN’s main exponent of “reconciliation” and “love” had to say: “Herty Lewites is a coward. An obscene manipulator. A walking swamp. He’s a servile instrument of putrid interests, of the aberrant and perfidious interests of the empire and of the empire’s slaves, of the reptiles and leeches that live by groveling before that empire and sucking the innocent and heroic blood of Nicaraguan women and men. I accuse that gelatinous star of imposture, that mediocre, twisted and vile figure that saturates our screens in the greatest media claptrap we have suffered in recent times.” What can be done in the face of a cowardly and manipulating reptile that sucks innocent and heroic blood? How can one resolve conflicts with a vile and twisted leech? The Nazis resorted to similar name-calling to strip the Jews of their humanity before exterminating them.

Hegemony isn’t synonymous with
authoritarianism or dictatorship

Sandinista sociologist Orlando Núñez has also internalized the non-conflictive vision of politics promoted by Rosario Murillo. In his piece on “The reconciliation of those excluded from the system” (July 31, 2006), Núñez argues that the struggle against neoliberalism must be at the core of the “reconciliation” of those affected by that system. After all, Núñez tells us, “What difference is there between a Sandinista peasant and a Liberal peasant when it comes to fighting for the legality of their lands?”

He at least recognizes that “reconciliation neither excludes nor eliminates the existing social contradictions in a class-based society like Nicaragua’s,” but makes no effort to identify the basis of any new balance of power that might incorporate the common interests and aspirations of those sectors affected by neoliberalism. There’s a moralistic sense to his proposal for reconciliation, which is reduced to overcoming the emotional differences supposedly dividing those affected by the current capitalist model: “Reconcilia-tion has fertile spaces and spaces smothered beforehand by resentment, hate and aggressiveness.”

Núñez also rejects the construction of hegemonic projects as they contradict the romantic idea of politics and governance that now dominate the FSLN’s political discourse. In another opinion piece, Núñez says that “one of the particularities of Nicaraguan political life is that the country has always been governed under hegemony or the force of a political party, without stopping to reflect on the great opposition impeding it. The result is all too familiar: coups d’état, civil wars, revolutions, social deterioration and ungovernability.” It is worth noting in the above quote the tremendous confusion generated by the dominion of the non-conflictive vision of politics in Nicaragua. Núñez assumes that “hegemony” means the absolutist exercise of party power, a theoretical and conceptual confusion confirmed by another of his quotes: “Governing from a party perspective sounds comfortable and consistent, but it doesn’t sound feasible. If someone proposes governing from their own conception of the world, it sounds very consistent, but no less arbitrary and authoritarian, and they would end up like all of those who’ve tried it: completely alone.”

But exercising party authoritarianism isn’t the same as constructing a hegemonic system. After all, Liberal democracy may be inconsistent with party authoritarianism, but it functions within a hegemonic vision of society. In other words, hegemony isn’t synonymous with authoritarian-ism or dictatorship; it refers instead to the existence of a framework of values that has succeeded in institutionalizing itself, that has come to be internalized and accepted by the members of a society.

Neoliberalism is now regarded as
“common sense” in Nicaragua

Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony to highlight the role played by ideology and values in organizing, reproducing and transforming society. Despite the recognition his work received, Gramsci was unable to substantially modify Marxist orthodoxy, which continued to cling to the determinist materialism proposed by Marx.

Gramsci articulated a powerful explanation of why capitalism had lasted so long and was able to absorb the social tensions and contradictions that according to classic Marxism would lead to its dismantling. Weber would surely have agreed with his proposal that one of the keys to understanding capitalism’s resistance was its capacity to impose the values of the dominant class as the “common sense” within which society functions.

From a Gramscian perspective, what we call “common sense” isn’t a system of neutral values divorced from power, but invariably expresses a hegemonic vision that has institutionalized and legitimized as normal the values of a given society’s dominant groups or classes. Applied to Nicaragua, the reigning common sense is a neoliberal one that normalizes and legitimizes the marginalization and exclusion of those who can’t play the market game. An alternative, leftist hegemonic project would have to transform Nicaraguan society’s common sense to prioritize the fate of the neediest.

A leftist hegemonic project?

Gramsci helps us understand capitalism’s subjective dimension. He helps us understand that capitalism—and neoliberalism as the prevailing capitalist model—is a rationale that defines our way of viewing and understanding the priorities that should govern state-market-society relations. Under that rationale, the goodness or badness of an action or state policy is determined by its consistency or inconsistency with the market’s rules and values. For example, the struggle against poverty in a neoliberal system is only justified if it’s within the parameters of actions seen as valid under the concept of market efficiency. The IDB subordinates solving the problems of poverty to market success, arguing that sustainable growth and the effective fight against poverty depends on extending and perfecting the market.

A hegemonic leftwing project for Nicaragua should be an effort to reverse the causal relations the IDB expressed above. In other words, it must try to establish social justice as the independent variable to which the market’s logic should be subordinated. The articulation and institutionali-zation of a hegemonic project can be achieved democratically; it doesn’t have to be totalitarian, but it does have to respect and include all sectors, actors and social classes in a framework of coexistence based on what Xabier Gorostiaga called “the logic of the great majorities.”

Democracy and consensus:
Neither cutting deals nor gathering allies

Democracy is both a formal electoral mechanism for conflict resolution and a form of social consensus related to the functioning of the state, the market and national society. Explaining the idea of social consensus as the indispensable basis for the suitable functioning of formal democratic processes, Robert Dahl argues that what we’re referring to when talking about “democratic politics” is simply the manifestation of superficial conflicts. For Dahl, democratic political processes are surrounded, and therefore restricted and conditioned, by a consensus reached by an important part of society’s politically active members. Without such consensus, democratic electoral processes could have a negative effect, as they tend to facilitate social division or simply legalize existing divisions.

How does Nicaragua’s prevailing non-conflictive vision of politics affect the construction of an effective social consensus? At first glance, the non-conflictive idea of politics seems attractive precisely because it suggests the possibility of achieving the stability and peace represented by the idea of social consensus. But a little more reflection soon reveals that, to be effective, social consensuses must recognize the existing tensions and contradictions in a given society. Based on this recognition, democratic processes can develop the capacity to articulate a structure of rights and obligations that responds to two principles: the social justice that should govern any society that claims to be civilized and Christian; and freedom, which translates as the need to include all social sectors in the country’s political life.

This means that a social consensus dominated by the most powerful economic classes would have to recognize the rights of the poor. And vice versa: any grassroots social consensus must include the privileged economic sectors. Any democratic balance of power demands that the actors and sectors struggling for control of the state recognize that rights are always limited and that they must be rooted in a shared national vision in order to be durable and effective.

Building a national vision implies penetrating the subjective dimension of power. It implies recognizing that social consensus is not simply a formal deal, nor is it the physical tallying up of political actors within a given “alliance” or “coalition.” Social consensus is to a large extent a normative scheme that defines a balance of power and, more concretely, a way of balancing the principles of freedom—including market freedom—and social justice.

Political parties play a fundamental role in constructing the normative frameworks and social consensuses on which democracy is based. A “political party” is understood as an organization of citizens that facilitates the articulation and aggregation of demands and aspirations nourished by the existing social reality, using a political philosophy, an ideology, a discourse and an action strategy. In other words, parties reflect the social tensions and divisions that emerge from an unequal reality in which contradictory economic interests coexist.

Any grassroots leftist party whose philosophy defends the principle of social equality as the independent variable to which the principle of individual freedom has to be subordinated will attract and organize the social demands and pressures of those who favor, for example, the idea of the state as a re-distributor of social wealth. A rightist party whose philosophy defends the principle of individual freedom as the central value in the normative ordering of a given society, on the other hand, will attract the demands and pressures of those who favor the idea of the market as the main distributive mechanism of social wealth.

How does neoliberalism
resemble totalitarianism?

Political parties also fulfill an integrating national social function. Starting from recognition of the interests they represent, parties help build social consensuses that define the balance that should exist between market freedom and social justice.

We’re talking about a balance that recognizes that the value of democracy lies not in its capacity to end the social tensions and contradictions caused by the existence of contradictory interests, but rather in its capacity to recognize and manage them. Totalitarianism and neoliberalism, on the other hand, are social strategies that aim to resolve the tensions and contradictions generated by the combination of these principles once and for all. These reductionist forms of absolutism have always had pernicious results: totalitarian thinking “resolves” the tensions between individual freedom and social justice by sacrificing freedom, while neoliberal thinking does so by sacrificing justice.

The non-conflictive vision of politics ignores and dissimulates the tensions and contradictions that are part of social life. As Chantal Mouffe points out, such a vision doesn’t resolve social conflict, but rather diverts it outside of institutionalized political channels. Thus, hiding tensions and contradictions that could be managed and organized by democratic politics can end up swamping a country’s institutionality and generating clashes of visions and interests that can only be placated through the use of force.

As well as covering up social tensions and contradictions, the non-conflictive vision of politics moralizes the nature of any challenge to the existing order within a national society or a given political party. From this perspective, adversaries become enemies who must be crushed because the different interests and aspirations they represent are interpreted as expressions of evil.

An ethics of conviction ends up being imposed over an ethics of responsibility, which in a democratic system obliges the state or a given political actor to recognize the legitimacy of its adversaries. Moralizing the conflict—transforming it into a fight between good and evil—means that the only acceptable solution is the annihilation of the other or of its positions.

Three tasks for the left

The social consensus that Nicaragua needs can’t be built by concealing the diversity of contradictory interests that inevitably generate and will continue to generate conflict in the country. To be democratic and effective, the social consensus must establish a balance of power that favors and represents the interests of the country’s great majorities without denying the rights of society’s privileged minorities.

Nor can an effective social consensus be based on the moralization of the conflict, as this would lead the country to confrontations that could only be resolved through the use of force. The dangers of moralizing politics in Nicaraguan are vastly inflated by the country’s backward religious culture and the Catholic Church’s weight in defining the state’s agenda and laws. Depoliticizing conflict and moralizing politics could even end up including God in the social dynamic through which we express our differences. Unfortunately, this is exactly the trend currently observed in national politics.

If this is to be avoided, three tasks lie ahead of the Nicaraguan Left in this conflictive century in which we live: work on defining and conceptualizing the conflict in Nicaragua; define a hegemonic project that privileges the lot of the country’s weakest sectors; and promote that project while respecting the rights of all sectors of Nicaraguan society within the rules of the democratic game.


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