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Liberalism, democracy, and socialism.

It's common these days to talk about liberal democracy. Yet it wasn't that way in the past. At least until the mid-19th century, the terms liberalism and democracy were in conflict. The first called attention to liberties and gave special emphasis to economic freedom. Liberalism's defenders rejected democracy because they believed that the search for equality under governments of the majorities would call liberal principles into question.

Democracy and liberalism were only able to join hands on the basis of mutual concessions, but it was democracy that conceded the most ground. Liberalism was forced to accept universal suffrage and, later, the fact that the limits of the minimum state would be surpassed as social policies were formulated and a significant number of public enterprises emerged. For democrats, the bloodletting was far greater. Democracy was reduced from a conception of social organization based on ethical principles, in which equality played a central role, to a set of rules or procedures for the distribution of political power.

Nevertheless, at first glance it appeared that the liberals suffered the greatest defeats, having lost even the name itself, as they took refuge under the simple denomination of democrats. The lost prestige of the industrial revolution, because of the atrocities committed by the defenders of laissez faire, was an important factor in the liberals' retreat. A little later, faced with the rising influence of socialist ideology, liberals and democrats ended up joining forces against what they considered the common enemy. From that point on, democrat tended to be synonymous with liberal and liberal tended to be synonymous with defender of laissez faire. Locke, Montesquieu, Hobbes, de Tocqueville, and even more so Rousseau, would be abandoned for Adam Smith.

The imprecisions of the last century are still with us. To define oneself as a democrat can mean at least two very different visions: either a defender of liberty with the accent on economic freedom, or a defender of liberty with emphasis on equality. I think the positions of George Bush, when he applauds Latin America's advances in terms of economic freedom and democracy, are closer to the first vision, while the democratic demands of "Lula" in Brazil or of the FMLN in El Salvador are identified more with the second.

Liberals will accept democracy so long as universal suffrage does not call into question the social organization of the economy or development projects. The majority should not interfere in the key point of all freedoms: the economy. Thus the paradox of peoples who vote and elect, and vote and elect again, yet never achieve any influence over substantive questions that would improve the conditions of their lives.

The problems between liberalism and democracy tend to sharpen when social demands grow and civil society manages to broaden social benefits and reduce inequities in the distribution of wealth. From the liberal perspective, these are moments when democracy becomes ungovernable. We are faced with an "overload" that the system must remedy by limiting democracy, social benefits, and wages. As the population comes to understand and accept the new situation, liberalism and democracy will again join hands. Otherwise it is liberalism -- a liberalism bold in economics and conservative in politics -- that will impose itself.

Against these positions there are others within liberalism that are more concerned with social and political problems and that do not view this concern as conflicting with democracy. Moreover, they consider democracy to be a desirable political goal, although limited to procedural issues. They seek a "minimal" democracy. They are also concerned about crude liberalism's view of the market as the ultimate judge in determining the distribution of material wealth.

Progressive sectors of liberalism even go so far as to express sympathies with socialism. Democracy becomes the bridge that allows one to cross back and forth between liberalism and socialism, reformulating both while taking the good points from each. Yet the task is not easy when liberalism (and now more than ever in its neoliberal version) reclaims its identity in terms of economic freedom, a freedom that demands ever fewer limitations and that generates serious social costs. In this sense, one would have to question the truths hidden behind such phrases as "the lost decade" [the Economic Council for Latin America's (CEPAL) description of the economic debacles of the 1980s -- Eds.]. The enormous amount of money displayed in Latin America's current festival of privatization shows clearly that those who lost in the 1980s are the same ones who lost in the 1970s and the 1960s, and they are surely the ones who will lose in the 1990s.

The relationship between liberalism and socialism has also been a confrontational one. Certain efforts, which should not be put down, have been made to reconcile the two, but with less success than was achieved in reconciling liberalism and democracy. There are historical and theoretical reasons to explain this situation. Historically, because liberalism has been the fundamental source of inspiration for the development of capitalism, while socialism emerged as the basis for creating a new order to supersede capitalism. Theoretically, because liberalism emphasizes the individual and relegates social problems to a secondary status, while socialism privileges society. One could say these are the key points of each ideology.

Amid the current theoretical and ideological crisis, new positions are emerging that call attention to the political contributions of liberalism in developing more just, free, and egalitarian societies; they emphasize liberalism's formulations about political and civil rights (freedom to assemble, freedom of thought, beliefs, information, etc.) in order to achieve a new societal order.

Socialism is also being rethought, taking into account the serious problems of the experiences known as real socialism. Thus, there is a reevaluation of the individual and the private sphere, not to mention other fundamental aspects such as limitations by society on the power and functions of the state or the role of the market in socialism.

One basic prerequisite for the success of these new reflections is a recognition of the distances that separate the different ideological camps, distances that are theoretical and historical, but also social. Consequently, in the current historical conjuncture, it does not seem possible to "fuse" liberalism and socialism. The social interests identified with each of these ideologies are at opposite poles. The nucleus of each of these doctrines demands hegemony. Nor does the current conjuncture seem to allow for the concretization of alternative projects or social orders different from those now known. Yet no one believes that a history pregnant with revolutions suddenly became infertile.

The collapse of socialist experiences did not put an end to history. For enormous social contingents, for the millions of poor and exploited, history has not even begun. Capitalism in its portentous advances continues to marginalize these masses and refuses to invite them to its table. As they have done before, these sectors will again demand new social orders, societies in which their labor will assure bread, freedom, and dignity. Who can doubt that the failure of authoritarian socialism affects them? Yet hunger and injustice affect them more.

The Individual: A Point of Departure

Latin American political science has not escaped the theoretical crisis fed by the economic, social, and political processes that have caused humanity such commotion in recent years. Today it is attempting to create a space by rejecting both messianic rationalism -- which found history's ultimate meaning encoded in all human activity -- and post modern irrationalism -- for which there is no possible history.

Of all the events that have exposed the ballasts of theoretical reflection, the most immediate referents for Latin American political science are:

1. The debacle of so-called real socialism in Eastern Europe;

2. The crisis of the dictatorial regimes in Latin America;

3. The crisis of real capitalism in our region, with its scandalous poverty;


4. The inability of neoliberalism and the new export model to meet the

majority's most elemental needs for survival.

Within this context, new political thinking has emerged and its nodal point is a reevaluation of the individual. As on many other occasions, today's thinking has followed real events, because a series of phenomena has made clear the increased importance of the individual as political actor.

The reevaluation of the individual is expressed in the importance of the citizen in political processes. One possible lesson from the events that brought an end to the military regimes in Latin America and the authoritarian socialist regimes in Eastern Europe derives from the appearance on the scene of men and women demanding respect for their right to elect and decide in the political arena. This phenomenon also manifests itself in the emergence of social movements demanding the right of sexual choice, defense of the environment (reflecting concern for deteriorating conditions of life), generational movements (such as youth gangs, punk groups, and others) -- all of which, in one way or another, express identity-based claims.

This new political culture -- which should not be confused with its deformed expression as individualism -- supposes, in turn, a reevaluation of civil society vis a vis the state. The demand is for less state, so as to allow autonomous social, political, and cultural organizations to develop.

This demand in turn implies a reevaluation of the private sphere and of the limits on the public sphere. In its extreme versions, the public sphere dominated, reducing the private arena to nothing. The state (or the party, union, or corporation) decided everything, or almost everything -- including the number of children one could have, one's use of free time, what one could read, which marches one could participate in, etc.

Big-business interests also demand less state in order to impose the laws of the market under the neoliberal vision. But here the demand converts itself into the negation of citizen action that, based on respect for individuals, could allow for the realization of social interests. Under neoliberalism, respect for the individual is perverted into a gross individualism, in which the law of the jungle rules -- survival of the fittest -- or the view that supposes that the human being acts as a wolf toward other human beings. Yet neoliberalism is not the only enemy of the new political culture. Under the guise of offering alternatives, rather than encouraging heterogeneity, the action of some of the mass media tend to strengthen homogenization of the population.

In a region where more than 40% of the population lives in poverty, a reevaluation of the individual comes up against objective limits. That is why a real democratization of Latin America demands a solution to this problem. Otherwise, we will have an elitist democracy, closer to that of Aristotle's Greece than to the democracies of modern Europe.

Morality certainly is not the only imperative; another is political realism. There cannot be stable democracies, heterogeneities, or political pluralism worth anything when the bulk of the population is condemned to the homogeneity of misery and hunger. Heterogeneity, diversity, and pluralism reaffirming the individual (which demand reflection about the notion of social classes and their "tasks") are concepts that recognize the new state of things in terms of political culture at the end of a century that witnessed the most varied ways of negating all of the above -- from authoritarian socialisms, fascism, corporatism, left and right formulations of populism, neoconservatism in politics, and neoliberalism in economics, to the fundamentalisms of our times.

The new culture that places the individual at the center of its attention, that modifies state/civil-society relations, that claims new spaces for the private and wrests space from the public, will necessarily, in turn, alter political parties and question corporatist organizations. Omnipresent states, parties, and guilds are formulas that run contrary to the new tendencies maturing in society. Individuals who gain rights and autonomy within a context of growing social responsibility -- there is a valuable source of support for new utopias.

Triumph of Capitalism?

Even though common sense would seem to corroborate it, I think it is worth discussing the hypothesis that we are witnessing the triumph of capitalism. What is true about this assertion and what should be placed in relative terms such that we can establish its accurate historical dimension? White House propaganda and its repetition throughout the most far-flung comers of the planet have been successful. Even the simple act of doubting this affirmation seems genuinely sacrilegious.

Yet the problem isn't a simple matter of propaganda. There are real data that give credence to the notion that the collapse of the Eastern European regimes means the superiority of capitalism. It is said that the market and the liberal conception of politics have imposed themselves over the centralized, statist economy and authoritarian regimes.

For starters, I could say that I share the opinion that in Eastern Europe the market and political liberalism have shown their superiority. However, market and political liberalism are not synonymous with capitalism, even if it is within that system that they have reached their broadest development. To confuse them has been one of the most serious errors of the socialist projects.

With capitalism, markets expand, production of goods for the market is generalized, and trade multiplies, tending to revolve around the labor that is socially concentrated in a product (a phenomenon defined by Marx as the law of value). There is more, however. Under capitalism, there develops a new form of appropriating the labor of others: it is not now a human being as the property of another human being (slavery), nor the payment of tributes or tithes, but rather surplus value (someone else's labor appropriated in the form of money in the market). The exchange of goods based on the social labor they embody (the law of value), the market, and capitalist exploitation are different phenomena, even if they overlap in capitalism.

One of the errors made in the countries of so-called real socialism was to think that it was possible to run the economy while disregarding the law of value and the market. That is, they thought it was feasible to assign resources without considering the labor that society must expend to produce the goods. Any new economic order that seeks to overcome the deficiencies of capitalism will have to be made in accordance with the law of value and have the market as its point of reference. To say that does not mean accepting the neoliberal creed, which refuses to discuss the existence of actors in conditions of social inequality (sustained by exploitation).

Viewed from this perspective, what is occurring in the countries once called socialist is no more than the universalization of the world economy and its regulation by laws in which commodity exchange should take place on the basis of necessary social labor. We are witnessing, therefore, a new stage in economic organization, which is developing with the deviations and stamp given by capitalism to these discoveries.

The generalization of labor as the criterion of value constitutes a principle more paramount than any other yet known for organizing the economy, which allows the economy to sustain itself not on the good faith of human beings, but on tendencies that flow with the real dynamics of the processes. It is in this sense that Marx asserted that his socialist proposal was superior to other proposals (such as those of utopian socialists) and that it was sustained by the course of real tendencies and not by simple desires unrelated to the movements of society.

Thus, we contend that applying the laws of the market to the economies of Eastern Europe is a step that brings us closer, in a less voluntarist way, to the possibility of creating a future socialist society that -- I repeat -- must recognize the laws of value and the market, but not exploitation. However, Eastern European societies have begun to discover these laws and tendencies as they operate under the capitalist version of the market. We face a historic process of advance and retreat. Capitalism is winning, but so is the real course that makes socialism possible.

A parenthetical comment is in order, to avoid possible misunderstanding. By what I've written above, I do not mean to suggest that socialism will arrive by way of the simple maturation of capitalism. Until the contrary is demonstrated, I think there will continue to be processes of rupture -- or of revolution, without committing myself now to the forms that might take under these new conditions.

Another question remains: is socialist construction possible in societies that have not profoundly experienced the law of labor-value? Recent experiences seem to suggest the contrary.

Capitalism is winning, but so is the real course that makes socialism possible. This assessment can be applied in turn to the advance of political liberalism in Eastern Europe. The juridical recognition of the equality of human beings or the discovery of the principle of "one citizen, one vote" are values given life by bourgeois revolutions; yet they are values that go beyond those revolutions and form the cement of any new social order. To think about creating new societies without those elements is like wanting to advance through history by walking backwards.

These liberal principles were ignored in the experiences of so-called real socialism even before the revolutions, and where they did show some life, they were suppressed, labeled as bourgeois. Thus were they rejected -- throwing out the baby along with the bath and water. It would seem difficult for the societies of Eastern Europe to avoid moving toward the market and political liberalism. The real problem is that no actors or projects have appeared that might have made such a move viable without getting tripped up by capitalist solutions.

Thus, capitalism is winning, but the socialist project is no less a winner. Reference is not being made to the socialism that was propitiated prematurely by the barbarities and backwardness of capitalism, which combined with conceptual errors to bring about its collapse, but rather to one that will develop on solid grounds -- grounds that are being prepared, though in a distorted manner, by capitalism itself.

Latin America and the Crisis of Society's Projects

1. The current reorganization of the world economy is taking placing within a framework of crisis in the two great societal projects of our time: capitalism and socialism. This situation, which could also be defined as a crisis of civilizational projects, has provoked a twofold movement in the social sciences and humanities. On the one hand, the idea of human history as a sustained progression through ever higher stages has been called into question, initiating, as Octavio Paz pointed out in a recent issue of Vuelta, a vision of time that privileges "the now, the present." On the other hand, the rationalism that crystallized during the Enlightenment and that has been the basis for the development of Western science is tending to give way to visions of human beings and of society in which a sort of irrationalism predominates, an aspect that characterizes what has come to be called postmodernity.

2. The current irrationalism thus appears as a response to the absence of future projects and its rise is therefore framed within these limits. Nevertheless, valuing the here and now means more than skepticism and irrationalism, making way for consideration of problems that were forgotten or ignored by the great societal projects. Such is the case, for example, of concerns with the environment, or the most diverse activities centered on the body [and/or desire, e.g., sexual liberation, anti-pornography and anti-"obscenity" campaigns, the gay and lesbian movement, reproductive rights, anti-abortion -- Eds.] (many of which are presented with a cast informed by questionable philosophies or ethics).

3. The collapse of the so-called socialist countries made clear the limits of bureaucratic and authoritarian socialism, of undemocratic socialism. Yet with their fall, the very idea of socialism is in crisis, so that now a new process of legitimating the socialist project is required.

4. Western conservative forces acclaimed the collapse of authoritarian socialism as the triumph of capitalism, by pointing out that what had really triumphed in Eastern Europe were the ideas of liberal democracy and the market. In doing so, they presumed that liberal democracy and the market are synonymous with capitalism.

5. Only a narrow view could accept such conclusions. Although it is true that democracy and the market are processes that occur under capitalism, they are not exclusive to capitalism and, in fact, far exceed it. One need only think of the difficulties with which capitalist societies coexist with democracy and the efforts made in many of these societies to reduce the sphere of action of democratizing processes.

6. Nor can it be asserted, from another position, that any liberal view of the individual is reduced to conservative and neoliberal visions, or that it is identified only with its individualist expressions. The field of individual liberties demanded today by the population in many countries is much broader than the fringe of economic freedom and far more extensive than the even narrower economic freedom professed by neoliberalism and other conservative visions. In this sense, Paz is correct when he argues that "the secret of the construction of the perfect society" is not to be found in Marx, Adam Smith, Locke, or Rousseau; instead, the new political philosophy should take sustenance from the liberal tradition and the socialist tradition.

7. The neoconservative offensive begun in the early 1980s in the core countries, which also extended itself to Latin America, among other regions of the "periphery," appropriated as its own the values of democracy, the market, and the individual. Yet neoconservatism's very partial view of these processes gradually became clear.

8. Neoconservatism's proclaimed defense of the individual was reduced to converting him/her to a shadow, subjected to the fluctuations of the market that remained out of the individual's control. Individual initiative remains ensnared in an economic field that is undermined by individual irrationalisms that -- in spite of official views -- do not turn into rational effects benefiting society as a whole. Adam Smith's invisible hand is incapable of performing miracles. In this way, the reevaluation of the individual has become an individualistic caricature. Capitalism, like real socialism, has not managed to solve one of the key dilemmas of our time: how to make individual interests compatible with social interests.

9. In the neoconservative view, democracy should only be thought of as an aggregate of procedures, but never as a project that equates politics with seeking resolutions to the needs of the great majorities. Thus, politics tends to distance itself from the daily life of the people, converting democracy into a choice between parties or candidates, but never as a means of realizing development or national projects.

10. The market -- in the most classical conservative tradition -- has been reduced to a jungle ruled by survival of the fittest. What was once a gathering place has become exclusively a place of marginalization and exclusion.

11. Within this framework, it is not difficult to understand the social and political problems generated by real capitalism and its increasing loss of credibility among broad social sectors, as a societal project, as a future project. Exhaustion of the political projects that accompany neoliberalism is one sign of this situation. Social eruptions in both the North and the South are another.

12. From this perspective, the collapse of the Eastern European regimes was more a triumph of a military project, in the Cold War context, than of a societal and civilizational project.

13. Contemporary Latin America is perhaps the site where the civilizational project of capitalism reveals its main problems. Enormous segments of the population have been thrown into poverty and extreme poverty; democratization processes are attempting to legitimate themselves on the basis of large percentages of the population who lack full citizenship, due to economic, cultural, and political exclusion.

14. These ancient uncertainties were accentuated during the past decade by the implementation of economic projects that sought an opening up of the region to the outside world under the parameters of neoliberal policies. Under current conditions, Latin America's integration into the world market, which today seems an almost unavoidable imperative, constitutes a project that, rather than binding society together, divides it, fragments it, and foments social cleavages. The democratic spring experienced by the region during the late 1980s and early 1990s today reveals the fragility of constructing consensual politics on such disruptive bases.

Jaime Osorio, a Chilean sociologist, is a professor at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana-Xoch (Division de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Calzada del Hueso 1100, Col. Villa Quietud, Coyoacan, C.P. 04960, Mexico, D.F.). Sections of this article appeared originally in Mr. Osorio's regular column in the Mexico City daily newspaper, La Jornada. Translated by Ed McCaughan.
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Title Annotation:Latin America Faces the 21st Century
Author:Osorio, Jaime
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Dec 22, 1992
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