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 ques­tionslike the sta­tus of the nation, or the social divi­sion of laborin 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 ter­rainthough not only on this this ter­rainof 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.

  1. For more on the con­tent of the protests and social com­po­si­tion of pro­test­ers see: George Cic­cariello-Maher, “Venezue­lan Jacobins,” Jacobin, March 13, 2014. See also: William Neu­man, “Slum Dwellers in Cara­cas Ask, What Protests?,” The New York Times, Feb­ru­ary 28, 2014. 

  2. Quoted in Béc­quer Seguín, “Pos­thege­mony in Times of the Pink Tide,” Post­mod­ern Cul­ture 23, no. 2 (2013). 

  3. John Bev­er­ley, Lati­namer­i­can­ism after 9/11 (Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011), 9. 

  4. For more on the Latin Amer­i­can Sub­al­tern Stud­ies Group, see their “Found­ing State­ment,” bound­ary 2 20.3 (1993): 110-21. 

  5. Gareth Williams, The Other Side of the Pop­u­lar: Neolib­er­al­ism and Sub­al­ter­nity in Latin Amer­ica (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2002), 84. 

  6. Ibid., 10. 

  7. Ibid., 11. 

  8. Ibid., 1-23.  

  9. As Louis Althusser put it, philo­soph­i­cal cat­e­gories are under­stood rela­tion­ally and dual­is­ti­cally, and can be use­ful for estab­lish­ing broad the­o­ret­i­cal ori­en­ta­tions. Con­cepts are more con­tex­tu­ally speci­fic, and are cre­ated as part of a shift­ing the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work through which objects of study can be defined so as to pro­duce knowl­edge. See Louis Althusser, Lenin and Phi­los­o­phy, and other essays, trans. Ben Brew­ster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 28-9. 

  10. Along these lines, see Sumit Sarkar’s crit­i­cal overview of how Spivak’s philo­soph­i­cal turn affected the orig­i­nal Sub­al­tern Stud­ies project in Sumit Sarkar, “The Decline of the Sub­al­tern in Sub­al­tern Stud­ies,” in Map­ping Sub­al­tern Stud­ies and the Post­colo­nial, ed. Vinayak Chaturvedi (New York: Verso, 2012), 300-23. 

  11. On the anti-Chav­ista Venezue­lan stu­dent move­ment, see Chap­ter 4 of George Cic­cariello-Maher, We Cre­ated Chávez: A People’s His­tory of the Venezue­lan Rev­o­lu­tion (Duke Uni­ver­sity Press Books, 2013), 105-25. 

  12. Bev­er­ley, 110. 

  13. Ibid., 55. 

  14. Ibid., 115-16. 

  15. The begin­nings of this analy­sis of Perón are in Ernesto Laclau, “Towards a The­ory of Pop­ulism,” in Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­ogy in Marx­ist The­ory: Cap­i­tal­ism, Fas­cism, Pop­ulism, Reprint edi­tion (New York: Verso, 2012), 144–98. It is a recur­ring theme how­ever in Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (New York: Verso, 2007), as well as Ernesto Laclau, On Pop­ulist Rea­son (New York: Verso, 2005). The most com­pre­hen­sive devel­op­ment of the broader hege­mony the­ory, with­out direct ref­er­ence to Perón how­ever, is in Ernesto Laclau and Chan­tal Mouffe, Hege­mony and Social­ist Strat­egy: Towards a Rad­i­cal Demo­c­ra­tic Pol­i­tics. 2nd ed.(New York: Verso, 2001). 

  16. Laclau’s turn toward the­o­riz­ing hege­mony is both unsur­pris­ing and a bit ironic given his own cri­tique of Nicos Poulantzas in his 1975 essay “The Speci­ficity of the Polit­i­cal,” which can be found in Laclau, Pol­i­tics and Ide­ol­ogy in Marx­ist The­ory (op. cit.). There, Laclau argues that Poulantzas includes too much in the con­cept of state power when the lat­ter clas­si­fies ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions as state appa­ra­tuses. Laclau sug­gests that class power, as found in ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions, needs to be thought of sep­a­rately from the state so as to main­tain the speci­ficity of the polit­i­cal. It is there­fore unsur­pris­ing that Laclau turns toward an analy­sis of this class power in ide­ol­ogy and hege­mony, rather than state power, in Hege­mony and Social­ist Strat­egy, as well as his fol­low up essay “New Reflec­tions on the Rev­o­lu­tion of Our Time,” in Ernesto Laclau, New Reflec­tions on the Rev­o­lu­tion of Our Time (New York: Verso, 1990). It is per­haps ironic, how­ever, that Jon Beasley-Mur­ray and other crit­ics can rightly point to Laclau’s own ten­dency to ignore state power as a speci­fic cat­e­gory and, per­haps bend­ing the stick in the other direc­tion, end up the­o­riz­ing only class power at the expense of state power in his the­o­ries of hege­mony and pop­ulism. 

  17. Jon Beasley-Mur­ray, Pos­thege­mony: Polit­i­cal The­ory and Latin Amer­ica (Min­neapolis: U of Min­nesota Press, 2010), 60. 

  18. Beasley-Mur­ray speaks of affect and habit, or what Seguín calls the “pre-social, pre-ide­o­log­i­cal, and even pre-cog­ni­tive modes of social dom­i­na­tion.” See op. cit. 

  19. For an alter­na­tive view of the rela­tion­ship between con­stituent and con­sti­tuted power, or mul­ti­tude and pueblo, in the Latin Amer­i­can con­text see Enrique Dus­sel, 20 Tesis de Política (Méx­ico D.F.: Siglo XXI, 2006). Avail­able in trans­la­tion as Enrique Dus­sel, Twenty The­ses on Pol­i­tics, trans. George Cic­cariello-Maher (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2008). For a strong the­o­ret­i­cal com­par­ison of the con­cepts of pueblo and mul­ti­tude and an account of how the Boli­var­ian Venezue­lan state dis­cur­sively medi­ates these ideas, see Don­ald Kings­bury, “Between Mul­ti­tude and Pueblo: Venezuela’s Boli­var­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the Gov­ern­ment of Un-Gov­ern­abil­ity,” New Polit­i­cal Sci­ence 35, no. 4 (Decem­ber 1, 2013): 567–85.  

  20. Seguín, “Pos­thege­mony in Times of the Pink Tide.” 

  21. Ibid. 

  22. Poulantzas was, in part, respond­ing to the polit­i­cal demands of his own con­jec­ture and the emer­gence of Euro­com­mu­nism. It would be inter­est­ing to fur­ther com­pare that move­ment with the pink tide gov­ern­ments under dis­cus­sion in Latin Amer­ica, as both move­ments involved a greater reliance on par­tic­i­pa­tion in state power and an attempt to steer away from the Soviet exam­ple. Par­tic­u­larly, it might be instruc­tive to study the even­tual chal­lenges and even­tual short­com­ings of Euro­com­mu­nism that pushed it back in the direc­tion of tra­di­tional social democ­racy. 

  23. Stu­art Hall, “Nicos Poulantzas: State, Power, Social­ism,” New Left Review 119 (1980): 67. 

  24. Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, trans. Patrick Camiller (New York: Verso, 2013), 12. 

  25. Ibid.,125. 

  26. Ibid., 128.  

  27. Ibid., 133. 

  28. Cic­cariello-Maher We Cre­ated Chávez, 33-4, 98. 

  29. Ibid.,171-73. 

  30. Nicos Poulantzas, “The Cap­i­tal­ist State: A Reply to Miliband and Laclau,” New Left Review 95, no. 1 (1976): 69-71. 

  31. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 133. 

  32. Ibid., 131.  

  33. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 49. 

  34. Pablo Ste­fanoni, Franklin Ramírez, and Maris­tella Svampa, “El ‘Des­cubrim­iento’ Del Estado,” in Las Vías de La Eman­ci­pación: Con­ver­sa­ciones Con Álvaro Gar­cía Lin­era (Méx­ico D.F.: Ocean Sur, 2009): 74-88. Trans­la­tion by present author. 

  35. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 55-56. 

  36. Trans­la­tion by present author. Orig­i­nal text of con­sti­tu­tion avail­able here. 

  37. Cic­cariello-Maher, We Cre­ated Chávez, 244. 

  38. Ibid., 196-98. 

  39. Marta Har­necker, “Cinco Reflex­iones Sobre el Social­ismo del Siglo XXI,” Rebe­lión, March 26, 2012. Trans­la­tion by present author. 

  40. Bev­er­ley, 42. 

  41. This process did, of course, have the con­tra­dic­tory effect of cre­at­ing mass national-pop­u­lar resis­tance move­ments to both impe­ri­al­ism and, at times, to cap­i­tal­ism.  

  42. Sara C. Motta, “Old Tools and New Move­ments in Latin Amer­ica: Polit­i­cal Sci­ence as Gate­keeper or Intel­lec­tual Illu­mi­na­tor,” Latin Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics and Soci­ety 51, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 40. 

  43. Bev­er­ley, 41. 

  44. Poulantzas, State, Power, Social­ism, 115. 

  45. Ibid., 105. 

  46. Cic­cariello-Maher, We Cre­ated Chávez, 25. 

  47. For some back­ground on this process, see Robert Albro, “The Cul­ture of Democ­racy and Bolivia’s Indige­nous Move­ments,” Cri­tique of Anthro­pol­ogy 26, no. 4 (2006): 387–410. 

Author of the article

is a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz.