The People’s Tide: Revolution, Electoralism, and the State in the Pink Tide


Photo by Carlos Figueroa

By Duncan Riley


The world, today, is caught in the grips of a great revolt. On streets and in plazas across the globe, the world which bureaucrats, generals, and multinational corporations have so carefully constructed over the past five decades is increasingly threatened as the long-smoldering embers of popular discontent burst into a furious blaze. From Latin America and the Caribbean to Africa and Asia, massive popular mobilizations are challenging the prevailing neoliberal economic order, and, on a more fundamental level, the inequality and injustice inherently produced by the capitalist system. However, this is by no means the first time in recent memory that a wave of popular protest against neoliberalism has swept the globe. At the turn of the last millennium, popular discontent with economic and social conditions led to uprisings across Latin America, ultimately resulting in the electoral triumph of left parties across the region in what became known as the Pink Tide. Thus, in this important historical moment, it is vital that we look back at that earlier era of rebellion, studying the lessons it has to offer both on the immense power that lies in the self-organization of the masses, and the dangers that a focus on the conquest of political power poses to movements for social transformation.

Any analysis of the Pink Tide must begin with a discussion of neoliberalism, the model of capitalism that has become dominant across the globe since the 1970s and 80s. Arising amidst the economic crises of the 1970s, neoliberalism was a response to the dominant role that the State had played in economic affairs since the Great Depression and the Second World War. It advocated for deregulation of the economy, privatization of public services such as electricity, water, and telecommunications, alongside cutting spending on social welfare programs in order to promote balanced budgets. Neoliberal economists and politicians contended that these changes, by encouraging competition and free markets, would reduce government corruption and promote social mobility, ultimately promoting a freer society. Despite this concern for freedom, however, the neoliberal model was imposed on Latin America, and indeed the entire globe, through decidedly undemocratic means. US-backed mlitary dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s, like those of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina, and Hugo Banzer in Bolivia, played a key role implementing neoliberal policies through privatizations accompanied by state terror.[1] Furthermore, international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank often require countries to make neoliberal reforms in order to receive aid, resulting in public services falling into the hands of multinational corporations.[2] This history of the plunder of Latin America’s resources and the declining work and living conditions that accompanied it has been admirably summarized by the Chilean rebels who are presently struggling in the streets – “It’s not about thirty pesos, it’s about thirty years.”

Thus, neoliberalism represented a reaction against the social democratic model of capitalism that had been prominent, both in Latin America and across the world, since the end of the Second World War. The State, which for decades had played an interventionist role in the economy while seeking to provide for the public welfare through social reforms, thus shed any pretense of egalitarianism while continuing to fulfill its basic function of the application of violence and coercion in order to uphold the social order. At the same time, it most be noted that the idea that the move towards neoliberalism truly represented a shift away from State involvement in economic affairs can only exist in the minds of the most committed ideologues of neoliberalism. The State is part and parcel of the modern capitalist system, as it is used by elites to promote policies that serve their interests while its legal system exists as the primary bulwark of private property. Indeed, the mass-privatization of public services and the deregulation of the economy, all primarily for the benefit of monopolistic multinational corporations, are as much an intervention into market structures as price controls or anti-trust laws.

On the other hand, the view of many on the left that the social democracy that proceeded neoliberalism constituted a progressive alternative which must be resurrected is equally flawed. The case of Bolivia after the National Revolution of 1952 is instructive in this regard. That revolution ended the legal (but not de facto) segregation between the indigenous majority and white minority that had characterized Bolivian society up until that point, and brought the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a coterie of nationalist reformers, to power. In order to meet popular demands, the new MNR government radically expanded the State’s role in economic affairs, nationalizing mines and decreeing land reform, forging a state-capitalist economic model designed to promote national development. While these reforms were certainly popular and did lead to improved economic and social conditions for the working classes, they never challenged the logic of capitalism, private property and the market remaining the basic foundations of the economy.[3] What truly defined the revolution and gave birth to its greatest advances was the decisive participation of the popular masses, as peasants in the country’s Andean highlands seized land from haciendas and forced radical land redistribution, while miners from across Bolivia fought and defeated the army in the streets of La Paz.[4] These revolutionary actions carried out by the masses themselves working through their own unions and organizations, rather than the MNR’s state-capitalism, constituted the true progressive step forward in history towards human emancipation.

The limitations of social democracy and its ultimate incapacity to fundamentally challenge capitalism are encapsulated in the person of Victor Paz Estenssoro, the leader of the MNR and President of Bolivia after the 1952 revolution. As Álvaro García Linera argued, in those days Paz Estenssoro, through his efforts to expand the State’s role in the economy and as a provider of social welfare, perfectly represented the nationalistic and developmentalist bent of capitalism in post-war Latin America. However, when he returned to power in the 1980s, it was as the champion of a neoliberal project, his administration cutting back on social welfare and state control in order to make way for foreign investment. Just as before, Paz Estenssoro was serving exactly the role that global capitalism demanded of him. In the face of Paz Estenssoro’s sudden turn around the established Bolivian unions and left parties, shaped as they were by decades of collaboration with the social democratic State, were unable to do more than reiterate “their demands for state-capitalism to the capitalists themselves, who were abandoning it as obsolete.”[5] The alliance between social movements and the state that the 1952 revolution inaugurated thus ultimately smothered the revolutionary nature of those movements, compromising their ability to formulate, let alone realize, an alternative to capitalism. This dynamic, in which alliances between “progressive” governments and social movements result in the loss of the revolutionary spirit and independence from political power that initially made the movements successful, has been repeated again and again throughout recent history, and would come to be one of the defining features of the Pink Tide.

Neoliberalism’s triumph in the 1980s would not be long-lasting. Indeed, as its policies were implemented across Latin America, they invariably worsened inequality and provoked social strife. After President Carlos Andrés Pérez of Venezuela implemented an IMF recommended structural reform package in the late 1980s, all it took was an increase in bus fares in 1989 to set off the mass riots of the Caracazo, which were brutally crushed by the army and police. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Argentina sank into a significant depression and ultimately defaulted on its debt, causing significant political instability and mass protests and factory seizures by workers across the country. In 2003, Bolivia saw prolonged conflicts over tax policy and natural resources that would ultimately result in the collapse of the Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada administration amidst the “Gas War.” These popular struggles, and the delegitimizing effect of the crisis on the established political parties in each of these countries, paved the way for the electoral triumph of left parties and candidates across the region, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999), Néstor Kirchner in Argentina (2003), and Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006), a trend collectively known as the “Pink Tide.”

Throughout the decades of dictatorship and economic crisis that Bolivia experienced in the latter half of the 20th century, it was the everyday practices of mutual aid and assistance that held working-class and peasant communities together and improved living conditions. These practices would go on to inform the social movements that arose in response to neoliberal economic policies. In the city of Cochabamba and the surrounding area, where the public water network has long failed to reach many residents, workers and peasants worked together to build their own wells and operate them collectively, providing cheap water for their communities. When, in 1999, the government attempted to privatize the city’s water and sell these community-built wells to the multinational corporation Aguas del Tunari, working people from across Cochabamba and Bolivia came together to resist the sale, organizing within their neighborhoods to create a dynamic and militant protest movement. Besides organizing protests, the new social movements that emerged also created neighborhood soup kitchens that provided food for the demonstrators, helping to sustain the movement. The “Water War” also gave rise to new organs of self-government and direct democracy within Cochabamba’s neighborhoods, as popular assembles in which citizens freely debated what actions and direction the movement should take sprung up. These local assemblies merged seamlessly into the larger cabildo; town meetings held in local plazas that deliberated on the decisions of the assemblies. This powerful, democratic movement, coordinated by an umbrella organization known as the coordinadora proved itself more than a match for the military and police forces the government sent to crush it, ultimately forcing the privatization plan to be abandoned.[6] Ordinary working people themselves, relying on their own organizations in place of a political party, successfully stood up to the State and forced it to make concessions.

In rural Bolivia, the peasantry played a leading role in resisting the neoliberal turn. Learning from similar models and organizations in Brazil and Paraguay, the Bolivian Landless Movement (MST) organized occupations and seizures of idle land by landless peasants. Once land was seized, peasant families divided work amongst themselves and farmed the land collectively. Despite threats from large landowners and the state, peasants were able to successfully cultivate the unused land, providing subsistence for their families, and forging stronger communities.[7] Thus, in defying private property and the State, and relying only on their own expertise and capacities Bolivian peasants were able to improve both the land and their own lives, making something positive out of what would otherwise have been simply another unproductive reserve of the idle rich.

In Argentina, as economic crisis led to factories and businesses shutting down across the country and rising unemployment, workers took matters into their own hands. Across Argentina, workers occupied shuttered factories and businesses and started them up again, operating them as worker’s collectives – that is to say, without a boss. The new cooperatives were thus operated not through top-down directives from management, but by an assembly of all the workers, democratically deciding both on how to run the factories, and on their broader strategy and community relations. Furthermore, the profits, rather than going to a distant boss, are shared equally amongst the workers.[8] Some of the worker-controlled enterprises also became cultural spaces, providing rooms for community events such as film screenings, dances, and art exhibits.[9] In this way the cooperative movement began to break down the barrier which capitalism arbitrarily constructs between work and the rest of life, culture, art, and community becoming inseparable from labor within the new worker-run enterprises. Of course, as these enterprises grew up within the framework of a capitalist economy, and thus still had to obey its general rules of profit and loss, in an economic sense they did not portend the overthrow of capitalism. However, on a more profound level, the act of workers illegally seizing control of factories and operating them democratically for the common good of both themselves and their communities constituted a profound challenge to the hierarchy and centralism inherent in capitalism.

Similar to Bolivia, popular protest in Argentina against the political and economic system that had led to economic collapse gave birth to new forms of organization and social life within communities. Barter systems and other alternatives to formal currency, devalued as it was by inflation, sprung up to facilitate exchange and address poverty and unemployment. In the midst of the crisis, neighborhoods pulled closer together, organizing assemblies and finding ways to get food to those who needed it most.[10] Thus, the crisis provoked greater cooperation and solidarity amongst the Argentine working class, which created its own form of social safety net which prevented an even greater humanitarian disaster. In this profoundly creative movement, both for and of the working class, we can see the seeds of a new society based on liberty and equality, and a true alternative to capitalism.

In many ways, the mass movements and political struggles of the late 1990s and early 2000s were confrontations between Society and the State. Society, in this sense defined as the series of relationships which bound neighbors, coworkers, and protestors together in solidarity, faced with economic collapse and political instability, developed its own independent institutions to ameliorate conditions. However, the assemblies, mutual-aid networks, and worker-controlled factories should not be seen simply as reactions to the crisis, but also as indicative of a movement towards a new set of social relations and conception of society. This new conception of society, based upon direct democracy at the local level, addressing social problems through cooperation and solidarity, and a general disregard for private property, thus directly opposed itself to the State’s centralizing instincts and its traditional role as the guardian of capitalist property relations. As such, Argentines and Bolivians were, in deed if not in word, rejecting the maxim of capitalist society which Kropotkin summarized so aptly as “every one for himself, and the State for all.”[11] Indeed, at a historical moment when the inherent contradictions of class society were so apparent, when state policies that were driven entirely by the interests of the wealthy and multinational corporations had provoked economic ruin, and when the only hope for working people was to be found in their own solidarity and cooperation, the absurdity of the liberal notion that the State exists to serve society was laid bare for the world to see.

However, as was noted earlier in this paper, popular revolt in turn of the millennium Latin America was accompanied by electoral victories by left parties which pledged to use state power to oppose neoliberalism and imperialism and bring about social justice. These new governments, typified by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia, were legitimately popular and brought about some major advances, including the creation of new social welfare programs that helped lift millions out of poverty and new constitutions which granted far more rights and autonomy to indigenous peoples. However, at the same time, the new left governments, following the centralizing logic of the state, sought to expand their control over the social movements, taking from them the very independence that had defined the popular revolts which the parties rode into power. The increasing subordination of the popular struggle to the State thus caused it to lose its vitality and paved the way for the steps taken towards popular autonomy and local direct democracy to be walked back.

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” was particularly defined by the way it collaborated with social movements to create new educational and aid programs to assist the nations poor. Interestingly, while the government may have provided funding, the successes of the programs relied on the dedication of volunteers at the grassroots level, working in literacy programs and organizing free community dining halls. Furthermore, the intense and personalistic focus around the figure of Chávez that was promoted by the government had a negative impact on these social programs, as the portrayal of Chávez as a savior figure undermined their democratic and participatory aspects.[12] The move away from independent movements based on organizations created by the workers themselves, and the consequent shift towards electoral campaigning, thus encouraged reliance on the “progressive” State, rather than the construction of an alternative to capitalism by the working class themselves.

Had the new left governments truly constituted a progressive step away from capitalism this would be less of a cause for concern. However, despite their passionate rhetoric against the injustices of capitalism, the “pink tide” governments never truly constituted a challenge to capital. Programs to redistribute wealth and land to the poor, while certainly beneficial, don’t actually challenge the basis of capitalism, private property. Thus, while poverty levels may have been reduced, since the landlords and bosses still owned the factories and the fields, workers still had to sell their labor to them to survive, allowing the capitalist class to continue to make a handsome profit off the exploitation of labor. Consequently, while the economic and social conditions of the workers may have improved, the material bases of inequality in society went untouched. The best that can be said of these governments is that they constituted a return to the social-democratic model of capitalism, as they nationalized key sectors of the economy and used profits from exporting natural resources to fund a growing welfare state. However even this was half-hearted. The Chávez government continued to collaborate with multinational companies to exploit oil and mineral deposits in the country, continuing the extractivist policies associated with neo-liberalism. These economic ventures caused serious environmental damage and violated indigenous peoples’ land rights, but despite this the Chávez government remained deaf to protests from environmentalists and indigenous peoples.[13]

In Bolivia, after the prolonged social conflicts related to water and natural gas, Evo Morales was swept into power in 2006, becoming the first indigenous President of Bolivia. Significant steps forward were taken under the Morales administration, as a new constitution in 2009 for the first time fully recognized the cultures, languages, and land rights of Bolivia’s indigenous majority. It also initiated land reforms that recognized the right of indigenous communities to collectively own and farm their lands and oversaw a period of economic growth that led to significant reductions in the national poverty rate.[14] However, just as had occurred in Venezuela, the Morales government also centralized power, incorporating social movements into state and party structures. This move would have dire consequences in 2011, when the government, in a clear violation of the land rights guaranteed to indigenous peoples by the new constitution, sought to build a highway across the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS). The plan provoked major protest by indigenous communities, somewhat undermining Morales’s image as a defender of the nation’s indigenous peoples. Following the protests, the Government actively promoted schisms within the social movements, using the police to help government-affiliated groups within the movements to seize leadership positions. These power grabs led to a feeling of general demoralization amongst the social movements, a shift which significantly contributed to the recent military coup against Morales.[15] Empowering the state at the expense of the working classes thus weakened the potential for revolutionary change in Bolivia, and ultimately created space for reactionary elements to seize power and roll back the progress that was made.

Equally, the extent to which the Morales government truly broke with the legacies of neoliberalism is questionable. The rationale behind the TIPNIS highway project was to facilitate expansion of the region’s agricultural potential, a proposal which protesters feared could lead to deforestation and environmental degradation. Furthermore, it was only a few years before, in a further flagrant violation of both the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment, the government began to encourage hydrocarbons exploration in protected areas.[16] While the government did initiate the most significant land reform in recent history, it fell far short of the expectations of the peasantry, largely due to the government’s unwillingness to challenge the powerful ranchers, landowners, and agribusinesses that dominate Santa Cruz province and the Bolivian lowlands.[17] Indeed, Morales’s government would eventually forge an alliance with the agricultural and ranching elite of the eastern provinces, allowing them to clear the Amazon rainforest in order to expand the agricultural frontier – a policy which culminated in the devastating wildfires throughout the Bolivian Amazon earlier this year.[18] Thus, despite the aura of indigeneity and environmental friendliness which surrounded the Morales administration, it continued many of the same neoliberal policies which had characterized previous governments, at great cost to indigenous peoples and the environment.

Both of these governments thus demonstrate the limitations of electoralism and the seizure of State power as paths to social revolution. While Chávez, Morales, and their supporters no doubt truly did wish to bring about revolutionary change and make their countries better and more equal places, by seizing the State they ultimately put an end to the revolutionary popular movement that had been germinating since the turn of the millennium. The State, in its modern form, arises out of capitalist society, born of the upper classes’ need for an effective and centralized power base, from which, through coercion and cooptation they could maintain their control over society. Thus, when leftist parties seize the State, they are tacitly accepting the present economic and social order and its drive towards the concentration of power and wealth. For this exact reason those parties become increasingly alienated from the masses who brought them to power, as they find that maintaining power within the State system has far more to do with forging alliances between different sectors of the elite than it does with mass popular support. As popular influence diminishes and elite influence grows, the new government’s policies increasingly come to reflect the interests of the elite, ensuring that the capitalist economic system, and all the inequality and injustice it entails, will remain in force. Meanwhile, when the workers and peasants, frustrated by the lack of realization of their revolutionary aspirations, protest and rebel, the “progressive” government, warped by the privileges that come with power, view these calls for revindication as treason, and deploy all the old tactics to repress them. As the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, observed more than a century ago, “Such is the nature of political power ever since its origin in human society… men who were the reddest democrats, the most vociferous radicals, once in power become the most moderate conservatives.”[19]

As Latin America, and, indeed, the entire world explodes once again into popular revolt, we would do well to remember the lessons of the “Pink Tide.” Above all, we must remember that in those days of struggle and hope, the most revolutionary agent for the transformation of society was not a political party or government, but the people themselves, who seized factories, convened assemblies, and constructed new social institutions based upon solidarity and equality. While this revolution was ultimately not able achieve that new society, swallowed as it was by the push towards electoralism and the deleterious influence of the State, it did build the capacity and self-confidence of the masses, as they demonstrated to the world that they were capable of building alternatives to capitalism without the aid of bosses or politicians. We see this process yet again with the local assemblies that have been influential in pushing the protest movement in Chile forward, and the unity of labor and social organizations in Colombia’s November 21st General Strike. What will take these movements and protests to the next level, pushing them towards revolution and the end of the capitalist system, is greater coordination between them, both nationally and internationally. This will be achieved not through the artificial impositions of a political party, forcing all to obey a central authority, but organically, as workers, increasingly confident in their own abilities, forge alliances between town and country, north and south, and across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries. However, these conclusions are provisional by their nature. The social revolution is a gargantuan task, and its success will depend not on formulaic adherence to the limited conclusions of any one thinker, but on the participation of the grand mass of the people, organized in their own, independent organizations. Indeed, if one thing can be said for certain about revolution, it is that for it to truly succeed, it must be achieved by the workers themselves.


[1] Benjamin Dangl, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2007), 25-29.

[2] Ibid., 59-60.

[3] Álvaro García Linera, and Eugenia Cervio, Plebeian Power Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia, (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 123-124.

[4] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 21.

[5] García Linera and Cervio, Plebeian Power, 123-124. Despite Linera’s Left Communist roots, in a twist of irony he would eventually become Evo Morale’s Vice President, a position he continued to hold up until the recent coup.

[6] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 58-60; 63-68.

[7] Ibid., 96-97.

[8] The Lavaca Collective, Sin patrón: Stories from Argentina’s Worker-Run Factories, (Chicago Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2007), 38-39.

[9] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 103.

[10] Ibid., 83-84.

[11] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid – a Factor of Evolution, (Dover Publications Inc., 2006), xvii.

[12] Dangl, The Price of Fire, 130.

[13] Ibid., 130-131.

[14] Emily Achtenberg, “Bolivia: The Unfinished Business of Land Reform.” NACLA, March 31, 2013.

[15] Raúl Zibechi, “Bolivia: The Extreme Right Takes Advantage of a Popular Uprising,” Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, November 12, 2019.

[16] Emily Achtenberg, “Why Is Evo Morales Reviving Bolivia’s Controversial TIPNIS Road?” NACLA, August 21, 2017.’s-controversial-tipnis-road.

[17] Emily Achtenberg, “Bolivia: The Unfinished Business of Land Reform.” NACLA, March 31, 2013.

[18] Emily Achtenberg, “Will Evo Morales Survive Bolivia’s Fires?” NACLA, October 16, 2019.

[19] Mikhail Bakunin, “On Representative Government and Universal Suffrage,”, September 1870.

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