From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide

From Subaltern to State: Toward a Left Critique of the Pink Tide

In February, scenes of protest began filtering out from cities all over Venezuela. Students threw molotov cocktails. Red banners waved in the streets. Barricades, made of old tires, burned high. After two years of intensified global protest from Cairo to Athens to Oakland, these images were somewhat familiar. President Nicolás Maduro had been in office for less than a year following the death of Hugo Chávez, and now the people seemed ready to give their judgment on his tenure. The Venezuelan government’s response appeared to mimic the actions of so many other states under threat; the National Guard faced off with demonstrators in the streets, and police arrested the movement’s most visible promoter for inciting violence.

For some outside observers, this series of events made for easy political positioning in support of the protestors. And it is difficult to blame anyone whose first impulse is sympathy with the streets. Yet most of the protesters, despite the evocative face masks and stone-hurling, are demanding little more than a return of the privileges they held in the pre-Chávez era.1 If the situation in Venezuela is, in fact, different from elsewhere, it is because political content matters: those on the revolutionary Left must reconcile their reflexive sympathies for protest with the fact that, at the moment, Venezuela represents just about the closest thing in the world to really existing socialism.

Of course, the purported political goals of the Venezuelan state do not automatically guarantee it a free pass. But it is difficult to ignore that the current government is the product of a massive and popular two-decade political transformation. Indeed, as people throughout Latin America react to the unsparing neoliberal policies that swept the region in the 1980s and 90s, Venezuela has become the hinge of a much broader leftward turn. This shift has impelled massive political transformations in Venezuela and Bolivia, stirred more moderate resonances in the Southern Cone, and in the cases of Paraguay and Honduras, aroused reactionary coups. As one of the few left political projects of its scale in the post-Soviet era, this Latin American marea rosada, or pink tide, is a material testing ground for the transition from capitalism to something else – leaving open for now the question of whether this something else is communism – and it demands substantive discussion on the Left.

To really grasp what is happening in Venezuela and elsewhere, however, it is important to rethink the concepts through which we approach new political scenarios. In the 20th century, the theme of guerilla warfare dominated the theoretical currents in and about Latin America; Che Guevara’s own work on the subject and Regis Debray’s foco theory of revolution are notable examples. But as cultural studies and international affairs scholar Sophia McClennen has suggested, “the currently existing forms of political activism [in Latin America] have taken on new modes of organization that no longer track to the idealized ideas of indigenous resistance movements and guerilla groups, and they no longer take place wholly within the nation state.”2 In other words, the old theoretical tools and political impulses are inadequate for the new terrain of the Latin American Left—particularly when one considers its entry into the state.

The challenge in assessing Latin America’s 21st century socialism, then, is twofold: first, it is necessary to formulate a conceptual framework that can explain the pink tide’s various processes of state-centered political change. And second, such a framework must serve as a political compass for those of us on the Left who favor the broader goals of the popular marea rosada states, and thus give us criteria by which to make serious political assessments as these projects unfold.

Sixteen years after Hugo Chávez’s election to the Venezuelan presidency, people have already begun to theorize these developments and supercede the guerilla-centered framework of Guevara and Debray. The main currents in this newer vein revolve around the theory of hegemony and the related concept of subalternity. But these ideas, focusing as they do on exclusion from state power, must now too be rethought, or at least relativized. The state itself must now fall at the center of the Left’s political analysis. As John Beverley puts it, “In a situation where, as is the case of several governments of the marea rosada, social movements from the popular-subaltern sectors of society have ‘become the state’… or are bidding to do so, a new way of thinking the relationship between the state and society has become necessary.”3 This new way of thinking the about the state is necessary in order to assess the achievements, weaknesses, and post-capitalist possibilities presented by the pink tide. One potential foundational source of a renewed state theory is a figure who was once central to any Marxist discussion of the political, but who is now rarely mentioned: Nicos Poulantzas. But before turning to Poulantzas, it is useful to examine the contributions and limitations of the theory of hegemony as it has been used to understand Latin American politics.


The theory of hegemony, of course, has a long, multi-threaded history. Though the term itself was important to some early Russian socialist political debates prior to 1917, its more famous conceptualization emerged within Italian communist Antonio Gramsci’s attempt to understand the position of Western European workers’ parties in the 1920s and 30s. The increasing popularity of Gramsci’s work over the course of the 20th century meant that hegemony theory soon found resonance outside of “Western Marxism”—the importance of the concepts of hegemony and subalternity for the South Asian subaltern studies school, for instance, is well known. Scholars of Latin American politics and culture within the North American academy, including many who originally hail from Latin America, have also made extensive use of this theoretical complex, and in 1993 the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group (which officially lasted until 2000) was founded on the model of Ranajit Guha and his South Asian colleagues.4

Literary scholar Gareth Williams was one of the latter-day members of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. In his 2002 book The Other Side of the Popular, Williams attempts to push onward with the group’s mission “to recuperate the figure of the subaltern” in order to challenge “elitist forms of conceptualization that have silenced Latin American subalternity within Latin America’s histories of nation formation.”5 He seeks to refine the notion of subalternity so as to unite the “philosophical-deconstructive” meaning of the term, which he associates with Gayatri Spivak, with a more sociological understanding ascribed to Guha.6 In its more “philosophical” role, subalternity “promises to interrupt” dominant political narratives—it is an ontological fragment whose very presence signals the limit of state politics. In its more concrete sociological meaning, on the other hand, it denotes the persistence of a sort of working-class or peasant political sensibility that stands outside, and in antagonism to, elite politics. With these two meanings taken together, Williams explains that “subalternity continues the possibility of, and yet promises to destabilize, hegemony’s often neo-colonial expansion of its universalizing logics… [it] is a limit to constituted power that is potentially constitutive of alternative forms of thinking, reading, and acting.”7 In other words, the oppressed and excluded quarters of society constitute a subaltern difference, which in turn stands in for the political possibility of a different future to come. Thus, politically, Williams’ synthesis means that one should take one’s cues from those outside what Gramsci called the historic bloc in power; philosophically, these outsiders are the bulwark of potential deconstructive difference holding back the totalizing threat of state and capital.

Williams’ argument is a representative example of Latin American Subaltern Studies: he offers some important insights, but he also comes up against characteristic limitations. His definition of subalternity clarifies some of the group’s more ambiguous work by arguing that subalternity cannot be reduced to simple identity politics. And he provides a compelling analysis of the dangers of such an approach by explaining how Latin American states in the mid-20th century used variants of subaltern identity politics in order to solidify the position of national capitalists and forge mass bases for elite political parties.8 Nevertheless, the incorporation of the “philosophical-deconstructive” reading of hegemony and subalternity means that Williams mistakes theoretical concepts for ontological categories—that is, he takes a set of ideas that correspond to a specific political issues and radically over-generalizes them.9 By using hegemon and subaltern as synonyms for “oppressed” and “oppressor,” Williams and other subalternists lose the ability to explain the particular relation that the former set of concepts is meant to illustrate. This mistake obscures the more specific sociological meaning in the work of Gramsci and Guha (relating to class alliances and ideological leadership), and the terms hegemony and subalternity become transhistorical stand-ins for an eternally recurring dynamic of unequal power relations.10

The consequence of philosophizing and generalizing hegemony theory is that as soon as the subaltern strata become hegemonic—which was, of course, the strategic goal underlying Gramsci’s own theory—subalternists run into a political dead end. Their conflation of subalternity and oppression does not permit the possibility that the newly hegemonic classes and groups are still oppressed and exploited. Such a political scenario destabilizes the entire relationship of subalternity and hegemony and should lead to a search for appropriate concepts.

To return to this year’s protests in Venezuela—it would be possible, on a certain view of the scenes there, to project onto protesters the status of a subaltern group, an oppressed minority who is excluded from the hegemonic bloc in power represented by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (a catch-all collection of pro-Chávez parties and movements). Such an assumption (protesters=oppressed=subaltern) might have been a safe bet for the Left in the last quarter century, but this political reduction is untenable in the case of Bolivarian Venezuela. One has to look instead beyond immediate power relations to the underlying social framework. It would be important to note in this case: the history of gentrification in the Venezuelan universities where many protesters came from; the relationship of these anti-Chavista students to the traditional power elite; the nature of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela itself as a state comprising a great number of social organizations that, in another moment, were clearly subaltern.11 In short, to define the relations of power, Left observers need to theorize the political situation in question rather than rely on the categorical oppositions of a social ontology of oppressed and oppressor.

In light of the new success of popular mass movements, some thinkers have begun the necessary reconceptualization. John Beverley sums up the question that I am trying to advance here:

What happens when, as has been the case with some of the governments of the marea rosada in Latin America, subaltern or, to use the expression more in favor today, subaltern-popular social movements originating well outside the parameters of the state and formal politics (including the traditional parties of the Left), have “become the state,” to borrow Ernesto Laclau’s characterization, or have lent themselves to political projects seeking to occupy the state?12

In other words, what happens when the state and subaltern cease to be in opposition? In answering this, Beverley, a founding member of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, abandons his previously strict anti-state orientation. He rightly notes that we cannot approach Latin American politics today within a merely philosophical or deconstructive framework— the pressing weight of political possibility, that is, “the resurgence of an actual political Left in Latin America,” compels us to take a stand beyond solidarity with those who happen to be out of power, and to pay attention instead to the political and social composition of the new left states.13 In doing so, one finds that far from reproducing an infinite alternation of hegemony and subalternity, the marea rosada represents a rarity: the agency of the subaltern passing through the framework of the state. Beverley is an thus an unabashed supporter of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and, despite many acute differences, all other left-leaning political undertakings in the region. Whatever their present weaknesses, he argues,the current state-centered Latin American Left can “keep alive the idea of socialism as the postcapitalist order of things,” and at the same time present the actual “‘transformative’ possibility” that “society itself can be remade in a more redistributive, egalitarian, culturally diverse way.”14

Beverley notes that it is not enough for the Left to simply take over the state; it must transform the state machinery as well. Yet his readiness to indiscriminately endorse any left-leaning state project, as well as his quick condemnation of left endeavors that aim away from state power (namely, the anti-electoral stance of Mexico’s Zapatista National Liberation Army), mean that he does not ask important questions that might help to drive such transformations. The imprudence of this nearly dogmatic support is clear when one considers the history of the Left-in-power, so full of mistakes, betrayals, and tragedies. The troublesome legacies of the German SPD and the USSR parallel the difficulties of Salvador Allende’s aborted term as president of Chile and the missteps of the ongoing Cuban Revolution. Each of these cases is unique, but then, as now, the institutionalized Left had more to gain from questions and challenges than from acritical admiration. It is essential to keep these questions alive: how can the Left consolidate power without falling into authoritarianism? What are the possible pitfalls that might derail a revolutionary project? And beyond abstract ideals, what do we hope that Left-leaning states actually do—and don’t do—in order to open up a set of post-capitalist possibilities?

Jon Beasley-Murray, like Beverley, argues for a renewed attention to the state, but his skepticism about state-centered projects gives his 2010 book Posthegemony a critical edge that Beverley lacks. He advances his argument through a critique of Argentine political philosopher Ernesto Laclau—one the most complex theorists of hegemony, and a waypoint of the theory’s proliferation within both British cultural studies and South Asian subalternist scholarship. A brief reconstruction of Beasley-Murray’s argument will thus illustrate another threshold of the present theoretical conjuncture.

Laclau, for his part, attempts to theorize the articulation of social antagonism through chains of equivalence between social sectors. His version of hegemony theory is meant to explain how a figure like Argentina’s Juan Perón, for instance, came to signify different things for his polarized base of both left and right political groups—an unexpected joining of students and militarists, trade unionists and capitalists.15 Laclau conceives of Perón himself as an empty signifier that took on different valences for each of these different factions. He discursively managed to bring them all together against the common enemy at the core of Peronist discourse, an always-shifting “anti-people” consisting sometimes of communists, at other times imperialists, and yet at other times, the old oligarchy. Conversely, Laclau uses this same logic to explain how excluded subaltern movements begin to make demands on a state, establishing an equivalence between them that can ultimately lead to the creation of a mass counter-hegemonic project.16 Though Laclau’s work is considerably more elaborate than this brief account might suggest, the point is that the concept of hegemony and the logics of equivalence and difference sit at the center of his theoretical world.

But for Beasley-Murray, this emphasis leads Laclau into the same error that I’ve identified in Williams: by ascribing an ontological status to particular concepts, Laclau reduces all of politics to a relation between hegemony and subalternity. Other manifestations of the political are categorically discounted; nothing can be explained except through the play of signifiers and discursive representations. As Beasley-Murray argues, “The basic flaw in hegemony theory is not [as some have suggested] its underestimation of the economy; it is that it substitutes culture for state, ideological representations for institutions, discourse for habit.”17 In other words, questions of representation displace all other mechanisms of power. All of politics becomes a game of who or what can best represent their hegemonic bloc, and the state itself—not to mention the constituents of hegemonic power—receives no theoretical elaboration.

Beasley-Murray, however, does not focus on to the state so as to better support it. Rather, his goal is to understand the way that the state restrains revolutionary potential by harnessing the constituent power of the multitude and stabilizing it in the constituted power of the state and its subject, the people. He thus aligns himself with movements that eschew such capture—again, Mexico’s contemporary Zapatistas come to mind—through the pursuit of autonomy and sporadic insurrection, occupying the boundaries of constituent and constituted power rather than attempting to simply replace one state with another. The real political test of a movement, for Beasley-Murray, is whether transformations manifest themselves in creative forms of collectivity and novel social practices outside the arena of the state.18

As Becquer Seguín points out, if Beverley is not critical enough of the pink tide states, Beasley-Murray’s theoretical positions lead him into an unsatisfying political ambivalence regarding state power itself. At best, his emphasis on insurgency and insurrection leads to the conclusion that the positive power of the state is largely irrelevant. And at worst, this route leads back into the same cul-de-sac as subalternism: an oversimplification of politics in which whatever is against the state is always deserving of political backing.19

While Beverley and Beasley-Murray therefore represent two opposite poles of a theoretical advance beyond hegemony theory and subalternism, neither gives us any political criteria by which assess the various actions and decisions of pink-tide governments. Seguín rightly notes that their accounts “all too quickly support or reject pink tide governments without being able to differentiate among them.”20 He asks instead what it would mean to present a true “left-wing critique” of the pink tide: “Can we critique these governments from within the realm of their theoretical enterprise precisely in order to make them more egalitarian, democratic, multicultural, multiethnic, and the like?”21 In other words, how can we contribute to and learn from the political projects underway while holding onto a Marxist theoretical framework and sharing the stated emancipatory goals of those governments? And how can we gauge the achievements, flaws, and trajectories of these governments without rejecting them or unequivocally backing their every move?


An oft neglected theoretical perspective presents itself as a stepping stone out of the mire: Nicos Poulantzas’ theory of the capitalist state.22 The most intriguing elements of this theory for a left-wing critique of the pink tide are found in State, Power, Socialism, published a year prior to the author’s death in 1979. Part of the difficulty with this text is that, as Stuart Hall noted in a commemorative 1980 article, many of its more exciting insights require further explication.23 Poulantzas opened a path that he himself did not live long enough to walk. Even his most basic insights, however, can shed some light on our central question of how best to evaluate 21st century socialism today. First, with Poulantzas’ concept of state power, it is possible to rethink what it means for a president like Chávez or a movement like Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to “take power.” And with the complementary idea of the institutional materiality of the state , we can reexamine key transitional questions—like the status of the nation, or the social division of labor—in order to grasp how different political changes may deepen the process of socialist construction. Together, these two concepts, state power and institutional materiality, form the nucleus of a general political orientation toward the pink tide.

For Poulantzas, Marx and Engels’ comment in the Manifesto of the Communist Party that the state is the committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie is a starting point, but it is incomplete. It aims at the first concept, state power, without recognizing that the state is “a special apparatus, exhibiting a peculiar material framework that cannot be reduced to given relations of political domination.”24 In other words, the flaw in Marx and Engels’ most commonly cited (but by no means only) formulation on the state is that it fails to specify the shape and role of the state machinery within the broader landscape of bourgeois class rule. Rather than speaking to its institutional materiality, it suggests that it is enough to qualify a state as a bourgeois state in order to understand it.

But even state power is more complex than it appears in the “ruling committee” formulation: important divisions traverse its configuration, meaning that the state cannot be reduced to the expression of a unified class. Class conflict, says Poulantzas, is “inscribed into the institutional structure of the state.”25 This means that, against the notion of class dictatorship emphasized by Lenin, the state is not the product of a victory by one class over another, but is rather itself “a relationship of forces, or more precisely the material condensation of such a relationship among classes and class fractions.”26 That is to say, the antagonism with which classes encounter each other in the economic realm reproduces itself politically on the terrain—though not only on this this terrain—of the state. Thus, even while a state may be bourgeois in the sense that it ultimately reproduces capitalist relations of production, Poulantzas’ argument suggests that no single class or class fraction can dictate the terms of this reproduction.27 The presence of social and political resistance by exploited classes is registered in the political architecture of bourgeois class domination.

Most basically, one can conceptualize by this the concrete presence of the working classes and other oppressed groups within state institutions. The capitalist state comprises massive numbers of workers whose obedience allow it to operate effectively, or not. In the case of Venezuela, for instance, left organizations have found some success organizing the many working class (and often racialized) members of the military. This class division within the armed forces led to a number of soldier-led rebellions and defections during the armed movements of the Left in the 1960s, and also spawned the clandestine Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement from which Chávez himself emerged.28 The internal divisions in the military also proved important during the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez, when number of junior officers decided to turn against the coup-plotters and join the masses of more or less organized workers and Caracas slum-dwellers who crowded the streets to demand his return.29 In short, state power in this context is conditioned by the status of class conflict: the ruling classes cannot simply possess or occupy it as if in separation from the the classes they exploit, since these classes are vital to the operation of the state itself.

Cutting across these class divisions, another set of fissures separates the many institutional components that frame the broader structure of state power. Side-by-side apparatuses with potentially clashing goals—the military, the bureaucracy of this or that department, even individual judges or legislators—engage in a complex, situationally dependent, and ultimately contingent interplay of decisions and priorities.30 These differing priorities may in turn be the manifestation of variable configurations of class contradiction within a given branch or department. Ultimately, says Poulantzas, developing Althusser’s account of the relative autonomy of the state, “the establishment of the State’s policy must be seen as the result of class contradictions inscribed in the very structure of the State.”31 That is, through the interaction of the various departments and branches affected in different ways by class relationships, the state takes on a number of potentially conflictive projects, and cannot therefore be thought as an instrument to be unilaterally directed by a particular class.

Here, Poulantzas’ non-unitary concept of state power provides some insight into the role and limits of charismatic leaders like Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and it can correct some misconceptions arising from an overemphasis on hegemony. If the theory of hegemony can explain how these figures became emblematic of their respective movements through the play of empty signifiers and subaltern demands, the concept of the relatively autonomous and internally divided state shows that the ideological prominence that led to their election does not translate into unfettered political power. The positions of such leaders are always both bolstered by and beholden to the contours of class struggle and the multifarious structures of the capitalist states they inherit. As Beasley-Murray correctly argues, hegemony theory tends toward a fetishization of both state and individual leader that finds its apogee in the ideology of populism. The result is either a hope- or fear-driven assumption (depending on your political position) of instrumentalism: the populist President appears to have complete control of the State. Poulantzas’ conceptualization of relative autonomy precludes such conclusions; “A change in state power,” he writes, “is never enough to transform the materiality of the state apparatus,” rather, “such a transformation depends on a specific kind of operation and action.”32 But what is this “specific kind of operation and action”? And what sort of transformations are we to expect or hope for in any case? To ask this is to bring into view the question of institutional materiality.


While the concept of state power designates how different positions of power are structurally related, institutional materiality designates the specific means and circuits through which these relationships crystallize in capitalism.33 To ask about the specifics of the institutional materiality of the state in a given scenario is to ask: what is the sedimented shape of political bodies and institutions in a given social formation, and by what mechanisms are they linked to the reproduction of capitalist relations of production and the classes that inhere in it? From this perspective, Poulantzas offers further inquiries—what is it about capitalism that has made so prominent the institutions of representative democracy, such as parliaments and legislatures? How might the separation between the governing and the governed be related to the larger division of manual and intellectual labor within capitalism? Why is the individual, and not some other unit, the object of power in such political circumstances? And why, more often than not, has nationality become the de facto binding agent of capitalist states?

Of course, not all of these can be directly addressed here, and the answers may vary in different concrete scenarios. But taken alongside the concept of state power, the concept of institutional materiality can set these questions into motion, so to speak, as questions of transformation—and perhaps even point toward the transition to a new mode of production. In other words, in understanding how the specific shape of the state relates to the distribution of power both within and outside of it, the measures by which that shape can change become clearer.

The transformation of the institutional materiality of the state, however, should be differentiated from minor policy shifts in response to popular demands. This distinction is what separates social democratic welfare states from potentially revolutionary ones. It is the difference between a supposedly socialist state that tries to create objective economic conditions for a perpetually deferred future socialist society, and one that sets itself to, as Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera says, “support as much as possible the deployment of society’s autonomous organizational capacities,” and to invite the masses into the political circuitry of the state.34

Poulantzas approaches this issue in terms of the social division of labor. He argues that the existence of a specific institution charged with social organization ( the state) is an instance of the division between intellectual labor and manual labor at the heart of the broader social division of labor within capitalism.35 This insight opens various options for left political projects. It would be characteristic of social democracy, for instance, to act strictly within the confines of the existing social division of labor, governing with an eye toward the masses, and toward a redistribution of wealth, toward regulating capital, and even taking on a more direct organizational role in some industries by nationalizing them. In contrast, a revolutionary perspective on this point would have to refigure this divide: if the science of government is an intellectual project of capital, then one thing that the institutionalized Left must do, instead of simply governing differently, is open up governing apparatuses to those who were previously excluded from this intellectual work with the hope that the types of knowledge they bring to social organization will displace that of a class trained in reproducing relations of exploitation.

To what extent are pink tide governments and the movements that propel them expanding the possibilities for regular mass engagement with the day-to-day work of governing, usually ceded to technocrats and representatives? How might workers, campesinos, neighborhood organizations, and others execute their own projects with resources that would otherwise travel through the upper echelons of the state? In short, to what extent is the state being restructured so as to encourage and make possible popular participation?

In the case of Bolivarian Venezuela, Article 62 of the 1999 Constitution articulates this goal: “The participation of the people in the formation, execution, and control of public administration is the necessary means to achieve its protagonism and guarantee its complete development, both individual and collective.”36 The state, according to Article 62, is to create conditions favorable to this possibility. A great number of programs have come into existence to this end, including Communal Councils that, as stated in the 2006 law implementing them, “allow the organized people to directly manage public policy and projects oriented toward responding to the needs and aspirations of communities in the construction of a society of equity and social justice.37

Also in the spirit of Article 62 is the a policy of worker-state co-management that actually blurs the lines between the political and the economic by redistributing the intellectual work of social organization across the boundaries of the productive sphere. Inveval, a worker-occupied valve producer in the coastal state of Miranda, is one of the more successful projects of co-management, operating not only under worker control, but in tandem with local community-based participatory structures in order to avoid the capitalist pitfalls that undo the best efforts of many workers’ cooperatives. The balance of worker power, community power and the state at Inveval creates a nexus of transformation in which the top-down social division of labor has no place.38 The realms of production, consumption, and distribution are bound together in a novel reconfiguration of the social division of labor.

Thus, against social democracy, the thing to pay attention to in the marea rosada is not so much a state’s intervention in the economy, as if from the outside, but rather the state’s efforts to transform its own role in the social division division of labor and refigure class relationships that otherwise exclude direct producers from decision-making. The above are just brief examples—deserving of more scrutiny—whose significance becomes intelligible within this Poulantzian theoretical framework. Without then succumbing to an abstract faith in participation, and without confusing these examples for the death throes of capitalism, this perspective illuminates the emphasis on participatory democracy that pervades the discourse of the institutionalized Latin American Left. The standard of this greater participation, from a critical left perspective, must be to leave open the political door to greater transformations down the line. Against economism or revisionism, the pink tide states can only create post-capitalist possibilities by building, as Marta Harnecker says, “spaces of popular protagonism that continue to prepare the popular sectors to exercise power from the simplest level to the most complex.”39

The importance of reflexive political transformation also becomes clear through the example of the nation. Nationalism is, of course, a recurring historical question for the Left, and one with important consequences for any revolutionary approach to politics. With respect to Latin America, John Beverley argues (contra Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) that the nation is still an indispensable political locus: “To construct the politics of the multitude today, under conditions of globalization and in the face of the neoliberal critique and privatization of state functions requires a relegitimization and reterritorialization of the nation-state.”40 In other words, with the apparent fragmentation and weakening of the nation-state vis-á-vis international capital, the Left needs to push back, emphasizing its importance and making it a site of struggle.

Beverley makes a fair point here, but wades into dangerous territory in the process: In the mid-20th century, the consolidation of mestizo national-popular identities throughout Latin America, alongside import-substitution economic models, offered an important way for various national capitals to strengthen themselves and to build corporatist arrangements through unions and political parties. The result of this political project in ostensible defense of the nation was largely a co-optation of fledgling worker’s movements and a refusal to acknowledge the persistence of racism and indigenous oppression.41 And as the wave of right wing dictatorships that followed in the wake of these projects shows, the contradictions within these national coalitions were always resolved in favor of capital.42

Acknowledging this history under the heading of “populist” nationalism however, Beverley hopes for something else:

What might be envisioned in the place of both classical nineteenth-century style nationalism and more recent populist forms of nationalism is a new kind of politics that interpellates “the people” not as a unitary, homogeneously modern subject, but rather in the fashion of [Otto] Bauer’s “communities of will,” as internally fissured, heterogeneous, multiple.43

This general call for pluralism allows Beverley to differentiate his hopes from those of last century’s nation building projects, yet he does not remark on the role of the state in actualizing his ideals, nor on the relationship of different internal fissures—namely class struggle—to nationalism.

Poulantzas can fill in these gaps on the heterogeneity of the nation. Like the state itself, “the modern nation is… the outcome of a relationship of forces between ‘modern’ social classes—one in which the nation is the stake for the various classes.”44 In other words, the fractures and divisions that traverse the state also cut through the nation. This is because, according to Poulantzas, the nation itself is a state project, built and defined through the construction of borders and the shaping of national histories.45 To construct the nation as an “internally fissured, heterogeneous, multiple,” then, is to play upon borders and histories as they relate to existing social divisions. Just as with the division of labor, the point is not to use the existing apparatuses to alleviate the ills of capitalism—for instance by smoothing over class or racial heterogeneity with a new discursive construction. Instead, a refiguration of the nation-state must bring those antagonisms into its very structure in order to open new political possibilities.

If, as Poulantzas says,“the state establishes the modern nation by eliminating other national pasts and turning them into variations on its own history,” then to what extent have the marea rosada states staked a claim for legitimacy by digging up these other pasts? What does it mean for a state to build upon an alternative and potentially divisive conception of subaltern history that explicitly challenges, and does not merely subsume, the historical narration of the dominant national framework? In other words, how do these states set the stage for transformation by bringing different claims to national legitimacy into conflict—in particular, by drawing on hidden discourses that locate the nation not in the past of the colonizers, or even of mestizo unity, but rather, of the oppressed, excluded, and exploited?

In Venezuela, the state’s acknowledgement of social conflict is itself a rebuke to a certain national history which has emphasized the “Venezuelan exception” in the second half of the 20th century. This supposedly exceptional history of Venezuelan unity and stability at a time when other South and Central American countries were divided by political strife was only achieved, in fact, through the strategy of puntofijismo, wherein Venezuela’s three major political parties agreed, following the 1959 introduction of formal democracy, to share power at the expense of both the radical Left and the remnants of the old rightist regime, and to enforce this pact through violent repression and exclusion of anyone who would question it.46 Chávez’s election marked the end of puntofijismo; with the support of the masses, political antagonism, which had erupted more than a few times even under that system, burst out into the open and achieved a presence in the state. The accusations that he was a divisive figure are correct in this respect: Chávez and the movements that brought him to power sought precisely to highlight the already divided status of the Venezuelan nation that had been obscured through 40 years of elite party rule. Thus, by acknowledging the existence of at least two Venezuelan nations, divided by class, the Bolivarian state took a giant forward leap in the founding of a new history and a new Venezuelan nation.

The theory of hegemony can, in part, explain this logic of equivalence wherein the social is split along increasingly clear lines, and one of Laclau’s great contributions is to reveal how these discursive demarcations (e.g., two Venezuelas) emerge. But Poulantzas introduces the question of how the state participates in and solidifies these reconceptualizations of the divided nation—i.e, to what extent these discursive constructions at the level of hegemony translate into changes in the state’s own nation-building role.

The case of Bolivia provides concrete examples of such changes. There, the rise of the Movimiento al Socialismo and the eventual propulsion of Evo Morales to the country’s presidency corresponded to a series of racial and class-based re-identifications of indigenous and national identity.47 MAS began as the “political instrument” of a grassroots coca growers syndicate, but with its 2006 entry into various key positions of state power, the battle it had been waging for social hegemony on the question of the nation—what is the Bolivian nation? what of the other indigenous nations that exist within the Bolivian borders?—entered the terrain of the state under the banner of plurinationalism. The 2009 constitution ended the Republic of Bolivia, a title and form of government predicated on national unity, and created the Plurinational State of Bolivia in its place; representatives from indigenous communities took seats alongside other deputies in the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly. That is to say, Bolivia gave up the very concept of the nation-state, and members of MAS, with massive participatory support, began to restructure both state power and institutional apparatuses on the basis of the Bolivian multitude’s internal divisions of class, race, and nationality.

The point here is not whether one is “for or against” the nation-state as a site of political mobilization—this matter is already settled in the case of the pink tide. One must ask instead how left-leaning governments can use the positive power of the state to transform the shape and content of the nation, even as they rely on it, and consider whether they are creating political space through which constituent power can push social transformation toward a decisive break with the capitalism. What should be clear, more broadly, is that beyond the questions of who is in charge and who they claim to represent stands the pressing matter of how those in power can reconfigure the various parts of the state, its institutional materiality, and change the terms of popular political engagement with an eye toward continuing struggle and future ruptures.


Changes in theoretical practice must match the changes in the political practice of those we support. Though the course of political developments must guide any ongoing analysis of the pink tide, and though hegemony theory has its uses, Poulantzas’ state theory offers a necessary orientation for the current conjuncture.

Once we recognize that state power is a variegated and contradictory phenomenon, and that the task of state power is not simply to “take over” the state machinery, as one takes over the driver’s seat of a vehicle, then the need to deeply reconfigure the already-divided structure of the state becomes obvious. But how can one know when the reconfigurations are moving in the right direction? The guiding question is this: to what extent are purportedly left-leaning states sharpening the divisions that inhere in the state’s institutional materiality? In other words, to what extent are they carrying class struggle into the structure of the state apparatus, not to tame or reconcile it, but to advance, on the political level, the possibility of a rupture with capitalism? Where the mandate of capitalist states is always to accommodate or repress antagonism, the mandate of 21st century socialism must be heighten it and bring it to its political, and not solely economic, conclusions.

The political processes underway across Latin America are something less than communism, but they are something more than reformism. As they move on, however, they have the potential to become either. Their momentum is difficult to gauge; at times it is hard to tell the difference between a genuine opening of a state’s political structure and a cynical attempt to garner popular favor. The proof can only be in concrete transformations. Further elaboration of Poulantzas’ theoretical intervention can, hopefully, serve as a guide for understanding these changes. If we are to be fellow travellers of any political project today, and if critical voices can lend any sort of support to these political projects, then we need to track new developments, to push onward to further political rupture, and to encourage the deepening of the class struggle both outside of state apparatuses and within them.

International solidarity, of course, will not make or break a revolution. But cross-border engagements have been the glue of the worker’s movement since the days of the First International, and the stakes now are as high as ever: for if the pink tide turns red, it may sweep the whole world into uncharted seas.

Posted By

Feb 17 2016 07:18


Viewpoint Magazine

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