The left is in crisis. It has not figured out how to reorganize as an institutional and political project that captures imaginations and votes, despite a surge in social mobilization and the growing currency of leftist ideas. Gianpaolo Baiocchi explores this paradox in his book We, The Sovereign (Polity Press 2018) through the lens of popular sovereignty, a political doctrine that insists on people as an egalitarian collective and on people’s rule to effect social transformation.

Popular sovereignty is an emancipatory project to link the democratizing impulses of social movements to institutional politics. Drawing on examples from Latin America, the book provides a set of coordinates for activists to navigate the complications of engaging with formal institutions and political parties. It ultimately seeks to democratize leftist thinking. Read Chapter 2, “We, the Sovereign,” here. Read an interview with the author below.

Public Seminar [PS]: Popular sovereignty is both a theory of democracy as well as a transformative project to links grassroots demands to political power. In your book you expand on the transformative aspect through examples such as the Workers’ Party in Brazil, the Podemos party in Spain; the MAS in Bolivia; and the Zapatistas in Mexico. What makes these particular movements spaces of bottom-up democracy? How do they combine radical change and institutional engagement?

Gianpaolo Baiocchi [GB]: I think that the Latin American examples, in particular, stand in pretty well for a range of experiences in the region in the 1990s and early 2000s that exemplify a kind of novel leftist politics that refuses our usual dichotomies of inside/outside of institutions, reformist/revolutionary, and so on. Up until the 1980s, left politics might have been characterized by the choice between armed struggle, on one hand, and communist and reformist parties pursuing electoral politics, on the other. Partially because of authoritarian regimes in the region that decimated and exiled so much of the left, a new politics emerged that combined the energy of “new” social movements and occupying and transforming institutional spaces. This was a very potent mix that deviated from a narrower vision of the imagined revolutionary subject while aligning very many different groups under a broad socialist umbrella. In time, these movements eventually led to formations like the World Social Forum as well as to the wave of left-of-center national governments that dominated the region for a few years.

One of the reasons these cases are important to discuss is that you can look at the longer arc. I, in particular, wanted to make the point that there is something especially valuable to learn from the earlier stages, prior to winning national power in the cases of MAS and the PT, for example. In those moments, you had a theory and practice of radical politics that combined movement energies with an institutional strategy. They reimagined political parties altogether and reimagined what institutions, particularly local institutions, could do. This imaginary of popular sovereignty, this radically democratic version of “people-power” was instantiated in a variety of ways, which I discuss in terms of the choice of inside/outside/alongside of institutions, for example.

PS: You write that the tragedy of the left is that it thrives in the world of social movements, but finds little echo in political parties. This is particularly true in the United States, where there are multiple transformative social justice projects with little to no political representation. How is this playing out in the current electoral landscape, especially with the more progressive candidates of the Democratic Party?

GB: I think we are living an interesting, and at times very hopeful, moment in the United States. As you say, there is a rich tapestry of movements and projects in the United States that has been activated and re-energized, particularly since Trump. Whether it’s the Movement for Black Lives, the wave of teacher strikes, or housing movements like Homes For All, or the DSA, there is a lot of ferment and energy behind transformative projects. And we have had a number of very progressive elected officials, not only in congress, but in city councils and other offices across the country. Many of the elected officials come directly out of social movements, many of them are close to social movements, and we hope, all will, in time, remain accountable to social movements. One thing that is emerging is that movements that might have otherwise not engaged elections are treating these electoral processes as important but not as ends unto themselves.

But another discussion that is more incipient is whether the Democratic Party can over time remain a vehicle to represent social movements. I think after the next national election this question will acquire more urgency. I am of the opinion that the Democratic Party is so deeply hierarchical and technocratic, and so wedded to the free market, that it is fundamentally incompatible with representing any kind of social justice or social movement projects. And I think here we need to look around the world for inspiration, like the cases I write about in the book, new political-party like structures of representation modeled on social movements. Whatever one thinks of Podemos in Spain, they changed the electoral landscape nearly overnight in a political system everyone imagined was unchangeable.

PS: This book was completed in 2017, which you describe as “one of the darkest political periods in recent memory.” Since then, there have been even darker turns – perhaps more significantly Jair Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, where you are from. What are some of the battles progressive activists can fight in this hard right-wing turn?

GB: The situation in Brazil is very dire. We have an effort to rapidly dismantle social benefits and democratic institutions coupled with witch-hunt politics. In a span of a few years Brazil has gone from a country that received political exiles to country that exports them, something that would literally been unthinkable. And the situation is evolving. Bolsonaro is an ultra-rightist president trying to govern over an essentially continuous political crisis; he is unable to exert leadership over the bloc that brought him to power – business and the corporate media seem ready to abandon him; meanwhile a huge trove of shocking evidence has been brought to light about the malfeasance and conspiracies that led to Lula’s jailing and Bolsonaro’s victory. This kind of government almost seems more dangerous when it is weak because the appeals to extremism and violence are more prevalent.

I think progressives need to fight defensive battles while somehow finding a way to look forward. There are many urgent issues in Brazil – protecting the Amazon, protecting vulnerable populations like the indigenous people and peasant communities on the frontlines of those struggles but far from international visibility, defending democratic participatory institutions, defending academic freedom, denouncing and preventing attacks on LGBT individuals – and international solidarity work continues to be extremely important in these battles. And I think this needs to be combined with somehow re-imagining progressive and radical politics going forward. In the case of Brazil – whatever faults one may find with national PT governments or whatever role WhatsApp and fake news may have played, there has been a disconnect between left politics and the popular. In the case of Brazil the next renewed left that emerges to offer a counterpoint to this right wing madness will have to solve that. And I think this is true nearly everywhere else as well. We need to look and figure out what happened. How did we lose that terrain to the right??

PS: You were involved with 1990s activist movements in Porto Alegre that pushed significant leftist institutional transformations, and have written about them. What are you working on now?

I am excited about an ongoing project with some collaborators, the Political Participation Project, that is working in partnership with radical and progressive grassroots groups here in New York City that are trying to build political power and mobilize what political scientists would call underrepresented constituents, people of color and immigrants. Among our interests is the question of critique – how do activists mobilize energies to participate in a system that we understand as broken? How do people navigate that line of inside and outside of a political system? We are hoping to work with these groups through to the next presidential election.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi is a New York City-based scholar and activist. He directs the Urban Democracy Lab at NYU. We, The Sovereign is available for purchase on the publisher’s website, here.

Guillermina Altomonte is a journalist and a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at The New School.