Reform or Revolution? And the Left’s Ethical Challenge
The neoliberal states we live in constrain
all leftist projects of social justice and democracy.
But there’s some room for maneuver if we’re clear about
our principles, objectives and rhythms, and we act ethically.
Our ethics must be much broader than just being anti-neoliberal.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano
In February I had the chance to share ideas on the present and future of the Latin American Left with a group of friends and colleagues from the region during a long and intense workshop organized in Mexico City by Mexican academic Beatriz Stolowicz. We discussed the main experiences of the Left in today’s Latin America and explored some of the primary dilemmas it is facing in this complex new century.
The long and rich discussions we had in that workshop nourished many of the ideas I’ve been publishing in envío in recent months. A revised version of those articles will soon be appearing in the form of a book intended to help pull the Left closer together, which needs to happen if we are to bring about the possible Nicaragua and Latin America. In this article, I want to reflect on two of the dilemmas explored in the book.
The first grows out of the tension generated by the Left’s participation in political systems designed and organized to reproduce the logic of capital and negate or minimize the importance of democracy with social justice in the region’s countries. Can the Left transform the power structures that generate poverty and inequality working from within them? In particular, can it do so from within states designed by neoliberalism over the last quarter of a century?
The second dilemma has to do with the ethical means and social ends of the Latin American Left’s political action. Should, or even could, these always be congruent? What ethical parameters should the Left use in its fight for social justice in a world increasingly dominated by the amorality of capital? Does the Left’s social end justify the use of any means to achieve and/or maintain power?
What can be done?The political panorama of the world and Latin America today appears closed to the possibility of generating quick and radical social changes like those achieved by Cuba in 1959 or Nicaragua 20 years later. The vast majority of the continent’s progressive organizations have come to accept that the framework of political action provided by the region’s neoliberal democracies is the only option open to the Left for promoting its objectives. This option is not free of danger because neoliberalism has attained a large degree of institutionality in Latin America and the rest of the world.
Neoliberalism must be seen as a model of society organized through a set of institutions, norms, principles and values that legitimize certain economic, political and social practices. It’s a model of state-market-society relations in which the market functions—both legally and legitimately—as the independent variable to which all other variables that form part of the social equation must be adjusted.
Talking about the institutionalization of neoliberalism implies talking about the materialization of that ideology in a totally market-centered state and public administration model. It means talking about the crystallization of that ideology in the norms, values and principles we use to organize social life. And it means discussing the maturing and solidification of those ideas with which we consciously or unconsciously determine and define what is socially good or bad, just or unjust, legal or illegal, and what is considered politically utopian or feasible. More concretely, those ideas are used to determine who eats and who doesn’t, who’s going to be poor and who’s going to be rich, who’ll live in abundance and who’ll die of starvation, all in accordance with the principles and values of the global market.
Living and dying according toSomething that is hardly questioned today, for example, is the system of social incentives that moves higher education to adjust to the demands of the neoliberal capitalist model. There is no discussion—certainly not with the intensity and urgency the region’s brutal social conditions merit—of the values and fundamental priorities used to formulate economic policies and development plans. Worse yet, no alternative models of social organization are being proposed and discussed.
the global market’s whims
Even the protests against neoliberalism have increasingly tended to turn into a reformist protest that doesn’t question the fundamental values of that ideology, but rather seeks to counteract its most damaging effects. During the recent elections in Nicaragua, we observed that certain leftist—and therefore presumably anti-neoliberal—candidates adopted the neoliberal discourse and conceptual vocabulary to articulate their positions. One argued, for example, that the fight against poverty was “a good investment.”
Such a vision of poverty is articulated within an instrumental market rationality rather than a substantive leftist, humanist or Christian one that perceives poverty as a fundamental ethical problem because it denies people dignity and affects the social solidarity essential for the development of the human condition. Seeing the fight against poverty as an “investment” reduces that painful human condition to a problem of economic efficiency. Within such a logic, the fight would be curtailed when it stops being efficient, when it stops being a “good investment” within the practices and values of the prevailing neoliberal model.
The levels of institutionalization achieved by neoliberal-ism have allowed capital to remove its discursive masks and reveal its true nature with unprecedented clarity. So many of the premises and tendencies that capitalism previously had to dissimulate to maintain legitimacy are today revealed without concern and justified as necessary and normal. Market efficiency is thus proclaimed, for example, as the only way of evaluating the state’s role and the quality of a given society’s life, and the social implications of that evaluative mechanism are defended as morally valid and acceptable.
The invisible hand of the market no longer needs to don silk gloves. It can openly smack in the face the over 1.3 billion people in the world currently living on less than a dollar a day; or the 213 million poor living in Latin America; or Nicaragua’s 2.5 million poor. Because in the normality imposed by capital, we must live and die—legally and legitimately—in accordance with the ups and downs and demands of the global market.
Straightjacketed into the logic of capitalThe market rationality has been legitimized because the neoliberal culture has managed to cloak the market-generated inequalities and injustices in a theoretical and discursive dignity that pushes large sectors of humanity to accept the law of capital as inevitable and natural. The consequences of that rationality have been dramatic.
In the state sphere, the organization of public administration and the processes involved in formulating public polices in Latin America and the rest of the world have been radically adapted to the logic of neoliberal capitalism. In the Mexican meeting we extensively discussed the effects of autonomizing the region’s central banks and of the administrative culture that conditions the functioning of the state bureaucracy.
This culture tends to reproduce the norms and values predominating in the international financing institutions, particularly those responsible for formulating and implementing economic policies. Across Latin America, for example, there is a visible tendency to name people who have worked in organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to national institutions responsible for managing the economy. Conversely, another visible tendency in Latin American bureaucracies is for many public officials responsible for economic policy to seek a post in the network of international organizations after they finish working in the state apparatus. The administrative restructuring of these state apparatuses has transformed the Latin American states into “straightjackets” that force those administering them to act, and in many cases think, within the logic of capital.
Pre-determined prioritiesThe neoliberal state apparatus predetermines its priorities and operating logic. Put another way, it works like a rifle that determines the direction of its own bullets. Some might say that the same thing happened with the pre-neoliberal capitalist state. In fact, all state models predetermine the results of their management to make them congruent with the social balance of power they express and represent. The neoliberal state, however, has a greater capacity to do so. Furthermore, the policies predetermined by that state have been transnationalized, reorganized to respond fundamentally to the pressures and influences of the global market and the organizations that participate in organizing that market.
and operating logic
Any political group that achieves power must thus govern in harmony with the logic of capital. That logic is most clearly expressed in the conditioning imposed by the national and transnational laws that protect and foster the transnational neoliberal capitalist dynamic. The free trade agreements and the Free Trade Area of the Americas predetermine the functioning of both state and economy and reduce the effect of the demands expressed by the population in the national political processes.
Is it enough to This brings us to the question of whether it is possible to break the power structures expressed in neoliberalism’s institutional and legal framework using the same political, administrative and legal instruments offered by the region’s neoliberal democracies. Can the nature of the region’s prevailing economic, political and social regime be transformed working from within the system?
“humanize” the system?
Some leftists argue that the fight for a system centered on the principle of social justice cannot be waged from inside the neoliberal model, because it is a market-centered model of social organization structured to subordinate the sense of justice to the logic of capital. Thus the social reforms that the Left can promote within this system, particularly from the state, simply turn into means to “palliate the misery of the exploited masses somewhat,” thus promoting the “humanization” and therefore legitimization of the system itself. From that perspective, the only way to transcend neoliberalism is through revolutionary action against the system of private property.
Is Latin America The classic debate between such reformist and revolutionary positions acquires particular importance in the current Latin American context, due, among other things, to the atrophy that has set in regarding the reforms promoted by the Left in countries like Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, as well as the persistence of neoliberalism in Bolivia and Venezuela, despite the progressive and revolutionary discourses of their current governments.
swerving to the left?
Leftwing intellectual James Petras, for example, has rejected the idea that Latin America has taken a “swerve to the Left.” He has even criticized Presidents Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez for not having gone any further than modifying the tax rates under which the transnational companies that exploit Venezuelan and Bolivian oil and gas formerly operated. According to Petras, what both men have done to date is simply to modernize their countries’ capitalist systems. Rather than a swerve to the Left, what exists is a conflict “between democratically elected nationalist leaders who support the development of mixed economies to finance social welfare programs, and US and European governments and corporations that would like to extend the ‘Golden Age’ of neoliberal pillaging.”
Petras and others argue that Latin American leftist governments are fundamentally reformist. They aren’t revolutionary because they don’t promote the elimination of the market or the system of private property. They simply practice “neoliberalism with a social face.”
Can the private propertyBut, can the private property system in Latin America be transformed in today’s world? What is the time frame within which an attempt could currently be made to produce a profound and truly revolutionary transformation of Latin America’s economic model? Is such a transformation possible and it be desirable to attempt it in the current conditions? What guarantees that the inequality generated by the private property regime isn’t going to be replaced by other inequalities, such as those that existed in the experiments of what was known as “real socialism”?
system really be reformed?
Exploring such questions is one of the Left’s most urgent tasks. Any leftist movement that proposes the immediate elimination of the private property regime has to be able to explain and justify the system that would regulate the distribution of power in the regime it is offering as an alternative. Because as Allain Caillé so rightly pointed out, “It’s not a question of replacing the capitalist market economy with another unfindable or inexistent one; it’s about inventing and imposing another kind of economic relations; of modifying the subordinated economic institutions to extra-mercantile ends and thus limiting their control over our lives and our minds.”
It has to be clarified that while the existence of a democratic alternative to the system of private property is an issue of debate and reflection, the anti-democratic nature of neoliberalism is not in doubt. This system has demonstrated itself to be theoretically and historically incompatible with the idea of democracy, citizens’ rights and social justice.
Given that, the most urgent task facing the Left is to articulate the thinking and strategies for action needed to drive back neoliberalism’s power. But, as some of the participants in the Mexico meeting rightly pointed out, the Left’s struggle must not be limited to the fight against neoliberalism. It must also be against the social inequalities generated by the market and the logic of capital, as far as humanity’s biological and cultural development allow. In other words, the Left’s fight is against any form of social inequality that limits human beings’ integral development.
Just against povertyWith this perspective, the meaning of the Left’s struggle transcends the fight against poverty, which is why many refuse to classify the Concertación governments in Chile as left-wing. Those governments have managed to reduce the levels of poverty, but haven’t been able to counteract the growing social inequality reigning in that country. And that inequality generates injustice, because the degree to which it is institutionalized predetermines the life opportunities of different sectors of Chilean society. As one of my colleagues in Mexico put it, the structuring of a system of inequality tends to produce in Chile a “neoliberal Fronde” in the style of the “aristocratic Fronde” that controlled the country during the 19th century.
or against inequality as well?
In this sense the Left must contemplate the elimination of the market and the private property system as an objective or, if you wish, a necessary utopia, because it obliges us to advance indefinitely against inequalities. In this struggle, the role of thinking and social theory must be to illuminate the framework of historical limitations and possibilities within which organized political action can be developed. More concretely, thinking and social theory must facilitate the determination of the nature, time and velocity of the reforms that can and should be introduced within the prevailing capitalist system.
Reform or revolution?For many, the word “reform” denies the possibility of promoting in-depth transformations in the dominant system. I would like to argue, however, that a profound contradiction between reform and revolution exists only when these terms describe the final objectives of the political practice we are promoting or defending. There is a fundamental contradiction, for example, between those who think that the “humanization” of neoliberalism is the most to which humanity can aspire and those who think that history not only offers the chance to dismantle neoliberalism, but also to subordinate the logic of the market until we achieve the objectives of democracy, social justice and equality.
There is not, however, any contradiction between reform and revolution when the reformist practice is aimed at gradually expanding society’s capacities to domesticate the logic of capital and begin to consolidate justice and liberty as far as each society and each phase of history allow. In this sense it is very important to distinguish, as did Rosa Luxemburg, between social reforms as a means of action and social revolution as an end. There is no contradiction between reform and revolution if the objectives of the reform are aimed at transforming society’s power structures; in other words, if the objective of the reform process is to create the right conditions for a revolutionary change.
The intensity and velocity of the changes will depend on their feasibility and their contribution to democracy and social justice. And their mode of operation will depend on the historical conditioning factors within which political practice occurs in each society. For example, nobody should expect Evo Morales’ government to push for a total and immediate transformation of Bolivia’s structures. To be truly revolutionary, however, the central goal of his government’s reforms would have to be the institutionalization of a system that for starters reverses the 500 years of exploitation suffered by Bolivia’s indigenous populations. In this sense, as the Cuban Celia Hart states, Bolivia’s challenge is not to make the country’s prevailing structures of power and domination disappear immediately, but rather to “keep the process moving and permanently pushing towards socialism.”
How should we organize the time,Appropriate management of the timing and speed of the reforms demands that society’s poorest and weakest sectors participate in the decisions on how and at what rhythm to proceed with the gradual changes to the prevailing system. The decision-making process of a leftwing movement—in power or in opposition—must be impregnated with the urgency imposed on the poor by the existential drama of their misery.
speed and rhythm of change?
A leftist movement can’t decide on the moments and speed of the fight against poverty and inequality based on a strictly intellectual understanding of those conditions. An ethics of solidarity with the poor and marginalized, no matter how solid, is not enough to internalize what a prostituted mother, an unemployed father, a glue-sniffing child or a maltreated indigenous person feels. It is absolutely indispensable for the poor and weak to participate in the decisions related to their poverty and social condition.
Their real and decisive participation in the running of leftwing movements demands clarity and transparency in defining the short-, medium- and long-term objectives being pursued. In this sense, a movement is leftist because of what it is doing today and what it is attempting to obtain tomorrow. The poor and marginalized sectors of society will be willing to support the time and velocity of a process of reforms if they are clearly informed of the objectives it is pursuing over the long run.
The articulation of a reform process that seeks the transformation of society must be conscious of the normative weight of the prevailing neoliberalism. The neoliberal model forces people to work with a timeline that doesn’t correspond to the urgency of the difficult social conditions within which the region’s poorest and weakest struggle to survive. The poor’s “impatience” must be respected because—as Bernardo Kliksberg pointed out—the “patience” they are sometimes asked to display to protect the prevailing order is a fallacy if we consider that poverty and malnutrition impose irreversible physical, emotional and mental damage.
But it could also be a fallacy to propose revolutionary solutions that ignore or hide the social cost that an immediate and radical transformation of the prevailing power structures could have for the poor. Isn’t it perhaps necessary to question the ethical and political value of proposals that condemn a reformism that could offer marginal improvements for the poor, waiting for the right conditions for a radical transformation in a long, undefined term? What is the human cost imposed on the poor by positions expressed in the phrase “all or nothing”?
The Left cannot abandon the fight to partially and immediately improve the living conditions of the poorest, waiting for the opportunity to find a total solution to the problems of justice and social inequality in our countries. It must exploit the spaces for action offered by capitalism while at the same time fighting to supersede that model and must exploit the spaces offered by neoliberal democracy while at the same time fighting to dismantle it. In short, it must move towards the future but without avoiding the present.
Domesticating the neoliberal Democracy is a model of relations between state and society that gives the citizenry a certain degree of control over state management. The efficacy of that model depends on state-market-society relations and on the existence of a minimum social consensus on the role the state plays. The strength and legitimacy of this consensus depends on the state’s capacity to incorporate the interests and aspirations of the society’s different sectors into an effective framework of citizens’ rights.
state with human rights?
In Central America, Costa Rica has had the most success in constructing a democratic social consensus that has served to consolidate the civil rights of Costa Ricans and therefore reduce the inequalities the market generates in that country. Costa Rica’s social consensus, now strongly eroded by neoliberalism, has served as the basis of that country’s democracy and political stability for more than half a century. The real weight of Costa Rican democracy and citizens’ rights is currently expressed in the strong opposition movements operating against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States. In Nicaragua, the profound weaknesses of our democracy are expressed in the capacity of the top FSLN and PLC leaderships to approve Nicaragua’s entry into that same trade agreement without ever taking society’s participation into account.
Citizens’ rights provide a counterweight to the market’s rationality and dynamic. It has been possible to domesticate the market, at least partially, in those countries that have managed to institutionalize effective rights structures.
Citizens’ rights should not be glorified, but neither should they be trivialized, as in many cases people’s lives and deaths depend on them, particularly the lives and deaths of society’s weakest. Despite the enormous social, political and economic limitations suffered by Ecuador’s indigenous peoples, they do at least enjoy greater protection against the state’s coercive power and the market’s injustices and arbitrariness than the indigenous peoples of a country like Guatemala. And although poverty is always a painful condition, the poor of Costa Rica are better protected against the risks and uncertainties of history than those of Nicaragua. The proof lies in the fact that poor Nicaraguans cross the border in search of Costa Rican poverty. In these two examples, the fundamental difference lies in the level and effectiveness of citizens’ rights in Ecuador and Costa Rica.
The state of human rights in Latin America...In its 2004 annual report titled “Democracy in Latin America: Towards a democracy of citizens” the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) offers a sad panorama of the state of what it defines as “integral citizenship”—the full recognition of political, civil and social citizenship—in Latin America. The report says that although there has been progress regarding electoral functioning and constitutional reforms in support of democracy in recent years, serious deficiencies persist with respect to citizens’ ability to exercise control over state actions. It adds that the representation of broad population groups is generally low and attendance at the ballot box irregular. With respect to civil citizenship, the UNDP recognizes that there have been important legislative achievements, but expresses concern over the states’ limited capacity to guarantee those rights in practice.
Finally, the report demonstrates the weakness of social rights in Latin America, warning that the trends regarding social citizenship are really worrying, because the groups most excluded from the full exercise of social citizenship are the same ones that suffer deficiencies in the other dimensions of citizenship. These trends represent the main challenge for Latin American democracies.
...and in Nicaragua?The UNDP report places Nicaragua among the 5 countries with the least democratic parties of the 18 studied and assesses the condition of social citizenship in Nicaragua as among the worst in the region. The report also names it as one of the countries with the worst malnutrition levels and one of the worst illiteracy rates in Latin America despite the great advances achieved by the Sandinista revolution during the eighties—in fact, the illiteracy level of its population under 15 years old (33.5%) is the highest of all the countries studied. In the same report, Nicaragua figures among the 50% of countries with the highest rates of infant mortality, open unemployment, social inequality and poverty.
As a Nicaraguan quoted in the report puts it, the freedom to die appears to be the only freedom guaranteed by Nicaraguan democracy. This dramatic situation is even worse for women, who are now affected by the National Assembly’s criminalization of therapeutic abortion late last year with the votes of the Sandinista bench and both Liberal benches. This measure effectively condemns to death women whose lives are at risk by their pregnancy, particularly those who don’t have the money to go to another country for an abortion.
Given the lamentable condition of citizens’ rights in Nicaragua, a leftist program would have to promote the political organization of our population to generate a social power able to democratize both the power of the state and, through the state, that of the market. Nicaraguan democracy must stop being a simple electoral exercise and become an ongoing process of constructing collective aspirations. Only from this process will emerge the real social consensus Nicaragua needs: a consensus that transcends the elitist visions of the groups that currently control power.
What rights to promote?The struggle for citizens’ rights in Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America cannot be limited to the political and civil rights recognized by liberal democracy. There is no predetermined limit to the kind of citizens’ rights to which a society should aspire. The Left must fight to defend and ensure the enforcement of the citizens’ rights formally recognized in the current neoliberal system, at the same time fighting to extend the structure of effective rights within which society functions.
What are the limits of citizenship?
It is important to point out the potential value of what are known as economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) for the struggle of the Latin American Left. Those rights form part of the International Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted by the United Nations on December 16, 1966, and ratified by 152 countries, including Nicaragua.
This pact establishes the right to an adequate standard of living (food, housing, clothing, etc.), the right to education, the right to work in fair and favorable conditions, union rights and the right to strike, the right to health, and the right to security and to social security. It also establishes “the right to participate in cultural life and benefit from scientific progress.”
These rights are a dead letter in most Latin American countries. However, the Latin American Left should exploit their formal existence to develop society’s power and build a democratic consensus with enough force to domesticate the market’s action.
In another discussion two years ago, which also took place in Mexico, I had the chance to exchange opinions with Mexican colleagues about the possibilities the ESCRs offer for developing citizenship in Latin America. One of the conclusions we reached during that meeting was that they appear to offer the possibility of incorporating broad social sectors that are not politically represented, of representing a broad majority currently devoid of rights, which requires the construction of a complex state. We weren’t talking about a return to populism, but rather a rule of law, although not one devoid of real contents, of substantive aspects. We were talking about a state that also generates economic and social results as a guarantee of its citizens’ rights.
“Society’s power to develop,” we wrote, “is marked by the creation of new rights. This would allow us to think of an alternative model of state reform that differs from the neoliberal one. In the case of incomplete states, such as in Latin America, some way would have to be found to continue with the formation of the state. A leftwing party would have to set the development of the state and formation of civil society as a long-term task.”
Social justice with democracy?Promoting citizens’ rights within the existing political systems implies accepting the need to confront the evident and inevitable tensions and contradictions between market freedom and social justice. Facing up to those tensions is to accept the fundamental challenge of democracy.
Like all challenges, promoting and defending democracy from within the neoliberal models operating in the region implies risk, because the market rationality imposes priorities, times and behaviors that can restrict and even distort the Latin American Left’s horizon of social aspirations. That rationality is blind to social injustice, degradation of the environment and the loss of human dignity.
Finally, it is important to stress that the idea of social consensus and the fight for citizens’ rights cannot be seen only as instruments to facilitate the fight against market rationality. The democracy and action of a true civil society with citizens’ rights must also be accepted as a necessary source of democratic legitimacy required for the institutionalization of a leftist project. In this sense, democracy must be seen as both a means for achieving social justice and an end in itself.
The Left’s ethical challengeThe tremendous challenge involved in fighting the empire of market rationality should not make us forget that the Left’s ethical and moral objectives transcend capitalism and neoliberalism. The Left’s values cannot be defined simply in opposition to the Right or to capital’s values. One can be anti-capitalist and at the same time a rapist or even an enemy of the values that guarantee respect for the humanity of others. One can be anti-neoliberal and at the same time promote or practice forms of behavior that contribute to the impoverishment of the human condition.
The Left’s struggle precedes and transcends the market because capitalism is not the only thing that contributes to human degradation. The Left’s struggle against the market rationality is essentially justified because that rationality denies the human aspirations of society’s poorest and weakest members, not because it’s the only one that materially and morally impoverishes society.
The market rationality doesn’t represent the totality of forces conspiring against humanity’s integral development. Fighting for justice and democracy implies fighting against any kind of behavior and any model of social organization that obstructs the emergence and maturing of social conditions that favor the development of an intelligence that respects the intelligence of others; of a happiness that doesn’t limit the happiness of others; and of sensibilities that enrich the sensibilities of the rest of society.
Symbols and examples are fundamentally important in any process to transform reality that seeks to achieve justice and freedom for humanity. The leaders of leftist movements must be able to use not only their speeches but also their actions to express the principles and values they claim to promote. Democracy cannot be built by acting anti-democratically. Nor can justice be promoted by practicing injustice. Corruption cannot be fought effectively from a position of corruption. A morality that rejects lies can only be institutionalized by constantly sowing the ethics of truth.
Against all forms of injustice To talk of ethics is to refer to the value system that individuals or organized groups of individuals within a community use to define their own sense of good and bad. The ethics of those groups or individuals will inevitably be conditioned by a social morality that is reproduced through the socialization process.
and against neoliberal morality
The concept of socialization refers to the process through which individual members of a given society internalize a set of values, principles and forms of perceiving and experiencing reality. The family, schools, churches, the media, political parties and the state all participate in that process.
A society’s morality conditions the ethics of the individuals within it but does not necessarily determine them. There is always room for freedom of action and thought between the individual and society that allows people to define and decide on their own behavior. If this were not so we would never have seen a Ghandi, a Rosa Park, a Mandela, a Simone de Beauvoir, a Sandino, a Sorojini Naidu, a Romero or a Jesus of Nazareth. All these historical figures stood out because they were capable of challenging the dominant social values, and society and humanity have benefited from their courage.
Without the possibility of developing and experiencing an ethics that could be independent of the values imposed by social order, it would be impossible to talk of a leftwing project organized to extend the limits of existing reality. The Left’s power depends on its capacity to confront any morality that justifies injustice and blocks freedom with an ethical position and a morality consistent with its social objectives; consistent with the objective of elevating the human condition as far as history and biology allow.
The Left’s ethics coincides with Christian ethicsThe Left must confront neoliberalism with an ethical and moral position that helps dismantle the values currently imposed by the rationality of capital, according to which, the goodness or badness of an action is determined by the material results achieved according to the market’s rules. The human implications of that action or the consequences it might have for social justice and the promotion of the common good is not a problem that enters into the market’s morality.
Neoliberalism can thus celebrate a society’s macroeconomic successes when they favor the development of capital, independent of the cost imposed on society’s weakest and most vulnerable by the measures typically used to achieve those successes—the slashing of social spending, the weakening of labor rights and the like.
The Left’s essential values are set within a substantive rationality opposed to the pragmatism and utilitarianism that neoliberal morality feeds off. In this sense, the Left coincides with many of the substantive principles and values of Christianity and other religious thinking. One such value is that “Respect for a human being involves respect for the principle that all of us, without exception, must consider our neighbors to be another ‘me,’ caring first and foremost for their lives and for the necessary means for them to live with dignity.”
Economic models must be formulated in accord with human dignity. In the neoliberal rationality, however, the market does the formulating in accord with efficiency, profitability and economic growth...
A socialist morality cannot beThe Left’s fight transcends neoliberalism and even capitalism itself. The Left must take and defend an ethical position against any form of injustice, abuse, falsehood and corruption, although many organizations and leaders self-defined as leftist limit and even obstruct this obligation by assuming that being leftist simply involves defending an economic alternative to neoliberalism.
built on despotism and corruption
That limited, economistic vision has frequently led Latin America’s Left to practice relativist and malleable political ethics, often falling into pragmatism to justify its fight against capitalism. That’s why it has tolerated the suppression of liberty in the name of freedom and tolerated its leaders’ corruption in the name of the urgent need to access power. But a socialist morality cannot be built on despotism and corruption.
The Left tolerated the vices and excesses of “real socialism” and only timidly criticized that model until history revealed its profound misery to the world. It still resorts to silence to avoid critiquing the Cuban experiment, which needs to be expressed precisely to protect its undeniable achievements.
Important and representative sectors of the Latin American Left also tolerate the vices and errors of the Sandinista government and party in the eighties and even those the FSLN practicing today. Hugo Chávez—considered by many the flag-bearer of “21st-century socialism” in Latin America—praised Daniel Ortega during the Sandinista leader’s presidential inauguration in January 2007. Chávez called this former guerrilla leader “one of the indispensable ones of the Latin American Left” despite his political practice in recent years: illicit enrichment, collaboration with the most reactionary sectors of Nicaragua’s Catholic church, approval of the neoliberal CAFTA agreement, decisive support for the penalization of therapeutic abortion—which has already claimed the lives of several poor Nicaraguan women—and a political pact with Arnoldo Alemán, internationally recognized as one of the most corrupt governors in recent Latin American history. What is Chávez’s vision of the Left that makes this political behavior and the values that permit it indispensable?
The Left must either articulate and defend a position that is compatible with its objectives or stop calling itself leftist altogether, because being leftist is not like having a tattoo or a party affiliation, and certainly not like belonging to a youth gang. In Nicaragua, being leftist means taking an ethical stance against all unethical behavior by President Ortega and former President Alemán.
Against electoral pragmatism: The Left represents the ethics, the morality expressed by Cuban Communist Party militant Celia Hart in her now famous critique of the FSLN. Among other things, Hart’s letter condemned the FSLN’s utilitarian and electioneering pragmatism, which was also expressed in its vote to criminalize therapeutic abortion shortly before the elections. She quoted the very arguments Rosario Murillo used to defend that vote, then responded with an ethical lesson that is both leftist and Christian.
Celia Hart vs. Rosario Murillo
Rosario Murillo: “Precisely because we have faith, we have religion, because we are believers, because we love God above all other things, is why we have been able to endure so many torments without being perturbed! Only by learning from each difficulty the lesson the Lord has wanted to send us. That’s why we also defend and agree fully with the Church and the Churches that abortion is something that fundamentally affects women, because we never recover from the pain and trauma resulting from an abortion! When people have or have had to resort to this, they never recover.”
Celia Hart responds: “No, Mrs. Murillo! What we women never recover from is not deciding about our bodies and our priorities. We never recover from the fact that a 12- or 13-year-old girl can be raped and have to give birth even though she’s not in a fit state even to look after herself. What will never be recovered is the life of a young girl who died before the eyes of doctors without medical assistance due to a pregnancy that, even under the most basic ethical norms, needed to be interrupted. I don’t know how they can sleep at night if that young girl and the baby died pitilessly. Hippocrates will surely condemn them for not having saved her.”
Personal ethics is notThe Left must maintain an ethical position opposed to the opportunist and pragmatic ethics prevailing in Nicaragua and most other Latin American countries, but without falling into the trap of false moralisms. Furthermore, it must be able to recognize the existence of a sphere of private and personal action in which neither party nor state should interfere, while also establishing that personal behavior stops being personal when it violates the moral principles of its social proposal. It must constantly recognize the need to maintain consistency among its words, actions and the morality it claims to defend because it is a fallacy to argue that the Left’s true ethics will be practiced after it reaches power. Today’s ethics are the prologue to the future’s social morality.
removed from social morality
It is also a fallacy to separate personal ethics from social morality, assuming that the personal conduct of the Left’s leaders is independent from their contribution to a socialist and revolutionary morality. The personal ethics of leftist leaders develop within society and therefore condition its values.
What comes “first” for the Left:One example of this fallacy is contained in a letter published by Belgian priest François Houtart shortly before Nicaragua’s presidential elections last November:
François Houtart vs. Mónica Baltodano
“The Nicaraguan elections allow us to reflect on the central importance of ethics in politics, which can be placed on three levels.
“The fight against neoliberalism is the most important moral imperative. This is the ethical level that must orient all the others and that constitutes the basis of any Left.
“The ethics within political systems (parties) are a second level that also has its importance. Popular opinion is severe in this sense. The lack of political ethics has had its price, both in Brazil and for the FSLN in Nicaragua. It’s a question of both internal democratic organization and the rejection of all corrupt practices or of alliances that contradict principles.
“The third level is the personal ethics of the political actors. We have seen in many cases, particularly in Nicaragua, that these ethics also matter and that the political price for their absence can be high.
“Nobody doubts that all three levels of ethics count in terms of a leftwing position. But it is the first level that must form the fundamental basis of all political judgments. The other two must be permanently demanded, but in subordination to the first.”
As Mónica Baltodano pointed out in her response to his arguments, Houtart finds the current FSLN leaders guilty of sins relating to the last two levels (their personal ethics and the party’s internal ethics), but ends up absolving them because of their consistent positions “in the fight against neoliberalism,” which is “the most important moral imperative.”
Baltodano concludes: “In other words, according to this unfortunate article by our friend Houtart, it is of limited relevance or secondary to revolutionary ethics if the maximum leader of a party that proclaims itself revolutionary was accused by his daughter-in-law and his maid of rape and prolonged sexual abuse. It is also of little importance that the FSLN leaders have transformed themselves so they can enter the class of our country’s richest men. Entering into a pact with the most corrupt, thieving governor and politician in our country’s history—Arnoldo Alemán—is justified as ‘a lesser sin.’ The abolition of the rule of law as expressed in the many judicial decisions adopted in our country according to the political or economic interests of Arnoldo, Daniel or their allies is of secondary importance. And the FSLN’s pact with Cardinal Obando, that former staunch enemy of the Revolution and supporter in Washington of the counterrevolutionary war, is also of little importance.”
Forget ethics today for a future morality?Houtart’s fundamental mistake is to assume that the analytical distinctions he uses in his piece correspond to the way that ethics and morality actually function. A responsible left movement cannot sacrifice the ethical principles that must govern its leaders’ behavior because that behavior is one of the conditioning factors that forge society’s morals. The ethics of an organization like the FSLN contribute to the structuring of Nicaraguan morality. It does not operate in a self-contained space, as suggested by the analytical classifications Houtart uses.
The Left must not classify its leaders’ ethical obligations according to two moments: the one of the fight—in which it must act pragmatically—and the one of triumph—when it should start practicing revolutionary socialist ethics. Today’s ethical principles cannot be sacrificed in practice in the name of a future morality, because today’s ethics ends up being incrusted in tomorrow’s political morality. A thousand lies cannot stop a single truth. The corruption of a leftist organization before it takes power is invariably an announcement of its corruption when it governs.
Houtart’s piece also expresses a political and ethical vision limited by a theoretical schematic that makes him forget that the Left’s horizon must transcend the limits imposed by the fight against neoliberal capitalism. That fight is justified because neoliberalism attacks human dignity. But neoliberalism isn’t the only threat to humanity’s dignity. Lies and corruption also undermine society’s integral development. Houtart’s position is profoundly conservative in that it reduces the Left’s struggle to the fight against a particular economic system.
Iosu Perales takes up this theme in his reply to Houtart: “The conservative spirit in the Left is usually manifested in the inability to cultivate a sense of crisis, ongoing critical attention to what is happening in real life. It prefers to avoid the facts, always encasing them in a functional explanatory frame to save certain, now obsolete, ideological and political categories. This conservative spirit is not prepared to purge ideological legacies and produce richer ideas and images adjusted to new situations. It converts what is revolutionary into an archeological artefact rather than make it a lever for starting anew, if need be. It’s true that the idea of critique doesn’t have a very long history and critical thinking an even shorter one, but we on the Left need to take a road that frees us from intellectual prisons we ourselves have built, influenced by our own fears.”
The FSLN views ethics Finally, Houtart’s proposal expresses a pragmatic vision of politics. For Houtart, the fight against neoliberalism justifies anything and everything. But the behavior of the Latin American Left’s leaders cannot be pragmatic, if by pragmatism we understand a vision of politics as a practice that adapts to the existing morality or to anything else that seems convenient.
as “a bourgeois prejudice”
Pragmatic behavior contradicts the purpose of building a society based on democracy and social justice because both democracy and social justice are principles designed to moralize politics and the struggle for power. In other words, social justice and democracy are expressions of a political philosophy that imposes requirements, limits and conditions on human behavior. Pragmatism, in contrast, is a way of living on the margins of all ethical or moral conditioning.
It was precisely to justify the FSLN’s pragmatism that one of its ideologues, Ricardo Coronel Kautz, wrote that “ethics is a bourgeois prejudice.” The FSLN was able to take power—in Coronel’s words—by the use of “demagogy, manipulation, handling, deceit, the peddling of illusions, traps, little games, trading in people’s willingness, extortion, cynicism, bribes, pacts based on privileges, nepotism, so-called corruption, the abuse of promises, influence peddling, half lies, half truths and all the rest of it.”
The FSLN’s case is dramatic: Coronel Kautz doesn’t even hide the lack of leftist ethics in its struggle for power. He took it upon himself to “theorize” that political organi-zation’s naked pragmatism. So how can so many distinguished Nicaraguan figures and intellectuals have responded to the FSLN’s victory by giving President Ortega “the benefit of the doubt”? What facets of our political culture are reflected in that response? These questions will be explored in the next article.
Andrés Pérez Baltodano is a political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and an envío collaborator.