Reflection following our event 'Building a left Alternative'

19 May 2023

By Niall Crowley

Debt and austerity reigned. The market was king and even social sector institutions were being restructured around market principles. The left seemed to be dead and change appeared to be impossible. The left had no answer and was consigned to the margins. It all sounds sadly familiar to us. But, this is Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s.

The rest of the story sounds much less familiar for us in Ireland. People mobilised around flashpoints. A counter movement developed. There was a resurgence of the left. Left led governments came to power in Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. This is the story charted by Eduardo Silva, author of ‘Challenging Neo Liberalism in Latin America’.

Eduardo Silva was in Dublin last week and was hosted at a lively Claiming Our Future meeting on ‘Building a Left Alternative’. He emphasised that this is a story over a long time frame involving cycles of mobilisation, increasing cooperation between social movements, and, later, a growing engagement with political parties.

He was clear that the issue of motivation to mobilise was different between Latin America and Ireland. Protected economies in Latin America were being turned into market economies. This involved widespread privatisation and deregulation. A market society was being built where all social relations were being submitted to market principles. There was collusion with this project across all political parties. People demanding change were up against a strong political exclusion and had no influence.

Unemployment rose to high levels, inflation increased, and there were no safety nets. The system disadvantaged whole communities. This marketisation benefited 25% of the population and the rest were left defenceless. This generated huge pressure for reform and forced people to mobilise. This was helped by the presence in some areas of a highly organised and combative civil society.

It was clear from his presentation, however, that the tactics developed by the left in Latin America does have learning for Ireland. This is particularly so in relation to what he referred to as brokerage, framing and agenda setting.

There was an additive process in the evolution of social movements. New groups formed around issues. New demands were developed for change. Civil society was transformed and renewed with these new organisations, alongside change and evolution in existing organisations. There was an ever increasing coalitional capacity within civil society.

People were showing up at the same flashpoints. They chose to bury their differences. Brokerage mechanisms and platforms were deployed to build organisational power through networking and coalition building. Parallel streams of contestation began to connect. Protest by individual movements was slowly transformed into a nationwide demand for change.

Congresses and assemblies were convened as brokerage platforms. These were used to make connections, to discuss common positions and to explore the nature of the common foe. They were deliberative spaces with a collective determination of the outcomes that emerged.

Leaders acted as brokers in making connections with different groups. Connections were developed between the core and the periphery. Grievances were linked to a broader political purpose. This brokerage involved a leadership committed to building coalitions, leaders who were members of diverse groups, and leaders that encouraged open style deliberation.

The framing of the demands from civil society were a focus for considerable effort and creativity. Framing issues shifted perceptions about issues and enabled people to better understand the issues. There was an activist core across organisations that could make the cause of problems visible. Issues could be traced back to neo-liberalism and the Governments responsible for implementing neo-liberal policies.

Framing was also important to bond people to organisations. Framing ensures issues resonate with people’s culture and values. An echo chamber is established through framing that picks up the issue and presents it effectively to a wider population. Everyone could recognise themselves and their interests in the issue through the manner in which it was framed. Framing is also important to build solidarity between organisations and to establish bridges between them.

Alternative agendas had to be developed. Galvanising issues were identified that went beyond what people were against to set out what people might be for. Claim making was essentially reformist. There was concern that claims made were substantially different and were really an alternative. However, the claims made were significant without seeking to over turn the system.

The claims made were seen as creating the possibility for more radical reform. They were rooted in demands for an economic nationalism, an increased role for the state to protect the defenceless from market society and to engage in the economcy, and for more participatory forms of democracy.

We have much to learn from this Latin American experience and the practices of brokerage, framing, and agenda development. This is an approach that shifted party political dynamics as leading candidates took up the alternative agenda, stimulated new left parties to emerge and grow, and provided a policy platform for these new or renewed parties when they came to power.