Monday, March 21, 2005

Looking at the left

Left wing government in Latin America was on the agenda last Friday. It was a workshop run by the LSE and ISA jointly and ranged from the development of leftist thought to include the experience of governments like Lula’s PT, Chavez in Venezuela and Kirchner in Argentina. There was also time to examine the contrast between the Chilean and Uruguayan models of social democracy and the role of participatory democracy as a leftist project.

Some quite interesting themes came out. Fiona Macauley stressed that the PT and PSDB in Brazil were two quite different animals, both in terms of ideology, support base, history and organisation. But Edmund Amann and Alfredo Saad Filho both pointed out the continuity in macro-economic policy between the two governments. Given the importance of policy outcomes, wasn’t Fiona overstating the differences? I asked. Fiona’s response was to say that the two parties come to these decisions in a different way: broadly the PT is more internally consultative than the PSDB’s technocratic style. Maybe so, I replied; but we need to account for the difference in level of governance too. At the local level the PT has been more participatory in decision-making, but at the state and especially the federal government level, what mechanisms are in place to ensure this happens?

Rick Muir’s paper on the historical experiences which mark out the distinct ideological and programmatic taken by the left in Chile and Uruguay was stimulating. But I wondered whether he overstated the case too much; afterwards I asked him whether we should be less concerned with the two parties’ variation and commitment to negotiated bargains with labour or commitment to greater flexibility and instead focus on their general economic platforms. If so then it’s clear that both parties have accepted the globalisation agenda, indicating the primacy of broader economic trends on the two parties’ outlook over and above those of historical experience during the two dictatorships.

Finally, Gunther Schonleitner presented a paper on the different experiences of participatory democracy by the left in Brazil. What I took from his analysis was the importance of good background conditions being necessary if participation was to be meaningful. In fact he argued that the focus should be more on building up representative institutions as opposed to participatory experiments. But what remains unsaid, is how to build up those institutions if the conditions aren’t ideal. Presumably the impetus for this must come from outside, a factor which cannot be relied upon in many parts of Brazil and Latin America.

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