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The Left, Divided Over the Extraction Economy
10th December 2020 • The Rhodes Center Podcast with Mark Blyth • Rhodes Center
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On this episode Mark talks with Thea Riofrancos. Thea is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College, and author of two essential reads on the challenges facing global left movements today: 'Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador' and 'A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.'

Mark and Thea discuss why the Left in Ecuador fractured under the progressive Correa government starting in 2007, and the role resource extraction played in those divisions. As Riofrancos explains, this intra-left conflict isn’t just about political strategy or economic inclinations -- it’s also about competing visions of modernity, and it has lessons for progressive movements around the world.

You can learn more about 'Resource Radicals' and 'A Planet to Win' here and here.

You can learn more about the Watson Institute’s full network of podcasts here.


DAN RICHARDS: Hey there. I'm Dan. I'm the producer of the Rhodes Center Podcast. So the Rhodes Center is part of the Watson Institute at Brown University. And if you like this show, we recommend another podcast from the Watson Institute. It's called Trending Globally. And in every episode, we go deep on an issue in the world of public policy and politics with some of the world's leading experts.

Recent episodes have looked at the politics of climate change, America's housing crisis, and, of course, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. You can find the show by searching for Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts. Again, that's Trending Globally. Thanks. All right, here's Mark.

Hello. My name Mark Blyth, and I'm the director of the Rhodes Center for International Economics and Finance at Brown University. The Rhodes Center's mission is to bring a truly interdisciplinary approach to bear on those issues and finance and economics that most demand our attention.

Today, I'm delighted to welcome to the Rhodes Center professor Thea Riofrancos, who teaches just up the road at Providence College. She's just published a wonderful book called Resource Radicals from Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. She is also the co-author of A Planet to Win-- Why We Need a Green New Deal.

Professor Riofrancos' latest book is a deep ethnography of Ecuadorian politics, and a period when the left came to power as part of the so-called pink tide of left governments coming to power in Latin America in the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands. What is particularly interesting in the case of Ecuador, as how what happened there foreshadows in many ways the struggles over who gets what, and how do we do it, and the emerging politics of decarbonization in the United States and elsewhere. Reading this account of struggles within the governing left in Ecuador gives us many insights into how these struggles will play out elsewhere. Welcome, Thea.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Thanks for having me.

MARK BLYTH: One question to begin-- why Ecuador?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: I went to Ecuador for the first time in Two-Thousand-Eight. And I went there like right after Correa had come to power the year previous. In Two-Thousand-Eight, the constituent assembly began. They were rewriting the Constitution.

It was a very kind of heady moment and a very inspiring moment of like the left just came to power, and the government is doing everything that social movements demand. Social movements demanded the deepest thing that you can demand in a polity, which is like, let's scrap the Constitution and rewrite it. And Correa's government said, yes.

And the constituent assembly produced, by all accounts, the most progressive Constitution in the world. It gives nature political rights and legal rights. I mean, that is beyond what any Constitution does, right? And I was just like, wow, this is so cool.

In the course of my six months there-- this was prior to my dissertation, prior to grad school. I wasn't even accepted to grad school yet-- in that six months, that began to untangle, right? I started to see movements become skeptical of the Correa government because it was clear how deep the commitment to mining was going to be. I had never thought about the extractive model of development as something that could this deeply divide the left.

And I had never thought that there were actually multiple left positions on the topic of extraction and environment and all of these things. And not only that they existed in theory, but in political praxis, that they could become the sort of crux of deep dispute. And what I learned from that moment carries me all the way through to the Green New Deal.

I mean, in the sense that now I understand that these resource politics, these environmental policies, these climate politics are terrain's of political and class conflict, and they will only be more so as time goes on. So that that's kind of what attracted me to it, and then what has been enduringly interesting to me about it since that moment.

MARK BLYTH: There's a book by a political scientist called Sarah Watson. I don't know if you know this book, called The Left Divided.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: No. But I feel like I should.



MARK BLYTH: Yeah. No. It's great.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Already learning.

MARK BLYTH: It's about Spain and Portugal. And what she does is she makes the point that basically the left feels because it turns on itself. So when I picked up your book, and I start locking, I thought, oh, this is a bit like this, right? But it's actually not. It's much deeper than that, because what you point to is a situation whereby the left win power electorally.

But then the very forces which brought it to power, the social movements that were driving it to power, stop, pivot, and say, actually, no, no this is not what we were after. And it's not because of any sense of classic class betrayal or because they've sold out; it's because of very different and very different competing versions of modernity and development that underlie this.

This is much more profound in that regard. To me, essentially, the leftist state as a technocratic state trying to rebuild capacity after years of hollowing out under neoliberalism. And they see the redistribution of rents either from extraction, oil, et cetera, et cetera, as the way forward. So mining, in Ecuador's case, was the way to reduce poverty.

But then this coalition of Indigenous and other actors united by this critique of extraction, which I was totally taken by, as being just this continuation of 500 years of people who are not Indigenous coming and taking stuff, literally just extracting from the body, and then no good coming of it. And essentially undermining not just ways of life, but the very sustainability of Ecuadorian society becomes this incredibly powerful critique that's partly about imagining an alternative future, but is also a deep critique of its standard leftist project coming from the left itself.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: You extracted-- no pun intended-- some maybe broader political lessons from the particular form that Intralec conflict took in Ecuador. But I think that sort of raises the question of what were the conditions of prior left unity, right? Because prior to the left coming into power, there is broad left unity that is broader than the anti-extractive coalition and also broader than the Correa model because it, to some extent, encompasses the social bases of both of those, right?

So why is it that once you get to power, that splits? Why didn't these divisions already exist before? That's one question we could ask and I could get into.

And then the other I think is where the book concludes, which are looking in tandem at the dilemmas and contradictions that the left in power faces, but also that the anti-extractive resistance faces, which is not to sort of get us to a cynical point of like, we come to power, we're screwed; we stay in the streets, we're screwed. That's not my point. My point is just to think complexly about both of those modalities of left politics.

MARK BLYTH: No. Part of it is-- and I think this is fascinating because I think it speaks very much to kind of the emergence of populism around the world. You find the Correa government doing exactly this, which is you depoliticize. You turn everything into a technocratic problem.

So there's that great phrase about beggar sitting on bags of gold, right? So I was so much thinking of the Democratic party trying to talk to the Midwest here. Essentially, it's the what's the matter with Kansas problem.

You people don't recognize your own interests-- strategy number one, which never goes well. And then strategy number two, is, no, no. This isn't really politics. We are the experts. Trust us. We know what's going on here.

And it was very much that type of, you don't understand the benefits mining that will bring. You don't understand mining. The problem is you. Is that kind of hardwired into the way that politics has to work when you're dealing with these problems, that you go for this depoliticizing technocratic solution? Because we see a lot of that.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Yeah. When I started doing the interviews with bureaucrats and got a sense of how pervasive this anti-political kind of ideology was, I was reminded of James Ferguson's-- I think is the name his book-- The Anti-politics Machine, which is an amazing book about that as a sort of discursive formation.

Where I depart with him and some other scholars that analyze sort of depoliticization or anti-politics-- and this includes [? moof ?] and others-- is that I don't think it works. I mean, meaning, that you can't depoliticize politics, so you just create new political arenas. And in this case, knowledge and expertise both among bureaucrats and between bureaucrats and activists became this contested terrain.

Who really knows what's wrong? And what is wrong? And what should we do, and what would be the right and rational thing to do became a source of contention.

But I was struck by how thorough the commitment to rationality and expertise on an explicit discursive level was, and how much it was tied to how they, the state actors, defined neoliberalism, which they defined it not as a class project, not as the latest incarnation of capitalism, but as the lack of state capacity to court. That was their definition of it. And so recapacitating the state under a rubric of expert knowledge was anti-neoliberalism for them.

MARK BLYTH: And if we think historically about projects of redistribution, social democracy, et cetera, that in a sense has always been hardwired into the DNA. It's just that we've never really noticed it, right?


MARK BLYTH: If I think of sort of the classic sort of Swedish social democracy in the nineteen-fifties, it really was five white guys my age sitting in a room. One was called capital. One was called labor. One was called the state, and it was probably two others. And that's who made decisions.

There's very little Democratic about it, but they may have been social. But to the extent that there was a kind of legitimacy discourse, it was expertise. How do we do this one we're facing an incredibly uncertain world that is a climate-shocked world, and it has all of the sort of the fraught politics associated with the deep uncertainties that go with that? How does a leftist project respond to that?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Yeah. Well, I think that what doesn't work very well is extremely technocratic explanations of climate change or extremely technocratic policies to address climate change. And I'm thinking of things like carbon prices or a carbon tax, which I'm not opposed to. I do think we probably need a carbon tax, so something much higher than maybe these centrist think tanks would have in mind, right, something that would actually create conflict with the fossil fuel industry.

But I think that this is kind of the genius of the Green New Deal is to say that actually the climate crisis is everywhere, and it's increasingly easy to make that argument with the wildfires and the hurricane season that we're living through, and that these improvements that would address climate change would also address all sorts of other problems in your life. And I think that is just a real paradigm shift in terms of the form that climate policy takes.

I don't think that it's-- I mean, it hasn't won yet. We're at the beginnings of this new political era in which at least we can fight for climate change on terms that resonate on a popular level. But we know what doesn't work because it's been decades of what doesn't work. And it's a mix of what doesn't work 'cause centrists don't have good strategy. And also a mix of the extreme influence of fossil fuel money, basically channeling how climate politics works.

MARK BLYTH: One of the things that you said in your talk and you say in the book, and is very important, is, is a common way of thinking about extractive politics, particularly because of oil, which is the rentier state/Dutch disease or slash-- what do they actually call it again?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Yea. Resource curse. Yeah. It's all of that.

MARK BLYTH: Exactly, exactly. And one of the things that you point out is that actually there's about obviously this one particular governmental formation in Ecuador. But leftist governments don't really have the resource curse and the classic way, do they?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: No, no. I think that they have a resource dilemma, which is different than a resource curse, which are those different time horizons around sort of, do we spend in the short term? Do we transition out of this so that we're not continually in this vicious cycle of the boom and bust thing?

The political effects are supposed to be that you go from resource rents to authoritarianism. And A, that doesn't really happen, I don't think. And to the extent there is concentration of power in some of these Latin American left-wing governments, which there is, it's not because of the resource dependency. It's because of a specific dynamic that we are discussing in general, which is the relationship between social bases and the leader and the way those are politically mediated. And that's not any kind of direct outcome of the specific resource that is dependent on financially.

But I'll just say one last thing about this, which is, what I saw in-- I think one of the main problems with the rentier state theory is the second part about where it's the state. I mean, I think states are fascinating to study, but if your entire understanding of politics is the formal institutions of the state, you don't really understand politics because you're ignoring the economy. You're ignoring global capitalism, and then you're ignoring non-state, non-elite actors.

And what we saw in Ecuador is that the commodity boom occasioned, as we've discussed, this deep debate over who rules? What's the Democratic subject? What are the Democratic practices? It didn't eliminate democracy. It actually repoliticized democracy in certain ways.

MARK BLYTH: The struggle in Ecuador was essentially an extractive state the want to use extractive for traditional redistributionary goals opposed by a social movement that basically had a very different version of what development and life itself is. And that's kind of existential. There's no way that the two of them-- one of them has to win.

And I wonder the extent to which serves as a good sort of lens for thinking about the United States, in the sense that you have a huge number of states who all happen to be red, who happen to be the ones that are part of what you could call the Carbon Coalition, right? That's steel and extraction and oil refinement, transportation, plastics, chemicals, whatever, right?

Alaska, all the way down, take a left at Texas, come back up to West Virginia. That's the core of the Republican heartland. Then on the coasts, you have the blue states. And the blue states, it doesn't matter if our servers are run off of solar, or if of our servers are run off of oil, we want them run off solar because we want a sustainable future.

That's not just a technical change. That's nothing that can be depoliticized. That's your business model has to stop, right? And that strikes me as very similar to the way that, in a sense, the left was saying to the state in Ecuador, this isn't it. This is absolutely not it. This has to stop right now. Can we take that as a lens to understand our contemporary moment?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Yeah. And I think that we can. There's little distinctions that immediately occurred to me. But I going to put the distinctions to the side for now.

I think that in the case of the anti-extractive political economic program, how do you broaden that to include the rest of the working class and middle class that is not moved on a deep and existential level, as you said, to oppose extraction because they don't see its immediate harms because they live in cities or they work in sectors that, of course, they depend on the fossil economy probably in some way or they relate to it, but they just don't its harmful effects? And what would be a political program that combines the sort of mass base of the extractive state with the economic model of the anti-extractive coalition?

And I have ideas, but I think that they would take us away from only focusing on extraction, meaning, the anti-extractive movements didn't have a lot to say about, for example, the structure of taxation in the state. And sometimes they would, but they could have made a much bigger deal out of how unprogressive the fiscal model of the state really was, right?

And so I think that the mutual opposition model is helpful to clarify the sources of polarization. But I wonder where it gets us in terms of creating wedges within them that win over bigger masses, right? Because in theory, we do want-- I mean, I'll speak for myself.

I do want to win over, to the extent that it's possible, recalcitrant fossil fuel workers-- the ones that see their interests as more bound to a dying industry than to a future possibility. And how do we actually do that? What kind of just transition appeals would peel them off from the extractive state coalition?

And those are where I think that the simplification is helpful, but then for program, we actually need to desimplify a little bit, see the different class fractions within those coalitions, and not paper over them.

MARK BLYTH: No. Absolutely. You mentioned justice in there, and that's a strong theme that runs through your book and through your analysis of Ecuador because it's not just different economic models. It's not neoliberalism and something else. These are kind of philosophical differences in a very deep level as well in terms of what does justice mean? Who is being denied justice?

It seems that the Indigenous protesters had a very clear sense of what justice was. And it was very broad. It encompassed the one, that self as an agent. It was an encompassing conception of justice.

Whereas traditionally, left justice has been our people, and there's a class enemy, right? And it is very exclusionary. When we're thinking about climate change, politics, and building coalitions, and recognizing the limits of those coalitions, again, we have a language of the just transition. But it's essentially contested as to who is included and who is excluded from that.

So is a focus on justice something that, in your analysis of Ecuador, helped those people get what they want, or did it hinder them? And is it the same when we think about the struggles over climate change in other places? Is justice actually a useful way of doing it, or does it hold you back?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Well, yeah. I think it's context-dependent, but I think it can be useful. So one thing that I thought about-- this is a little bit of a tangent, but I think it answers very much your question about, is justice a useful frame for thinking about a green transition in the US-- is this front lines concept.

So the front lines is a common concept in climate politics, which is the most affected by climate change, right? And I think that one of the things that would benefit the climate movement is to think as expansively as possible as what the front lines are, because I think sometimes the tendency is the opposite.

To think of in granular specificity about the literally most marginalized communities in terms of pollution and sea rise, level rise and storms and wildfires. But I think that what the world is increasingly and unfortunately demonstrating to US is that the front lines are sort of everywhere, meaning, none of us is protected from the worst of climate change.

And everywhere those who are race or class or gender or otherwise marginalized are worse off, right? And so I think that thinking about front lines expansively is an interesting way to sort of broaden the coalition of those that would benefit from rapid decarbonization.

MARK BLYTH: So going back to a focus on Latin America, you were mentioning earlier sort of extracting oil as part of general commodity production and the problem of riding commodity booms that Latin America always does.

So alongside this very powerful critique of extractive politics as something that's been going on for 500 years in different forms, which basically has destroyed Latin America that needs to be restored, which was so powerful about the critique of this Indigenous movement, there is this other side of this, which is what that has created, is an economy, which is pretty much entirely dependent on selling stuff called commodities to the rest of the world, which is a terrible position to be in because then you're importing demand from everywhere else.

If demand everybody else is in there, there's not much you can do. Is there any way in which that Latin America, in a sense, can get off the bus, right? And it's that in a sense-- that perhaps that was the missed opportunity of the critique at that level, was to say we need to get off this bus, right? This is not working. We need to do something else.

And maybe there's a way to scale up. You mentioned scale in your talk as well-- to scale up the ambition of these governments. We really need to diversify our economies. We really need to actually think about growth coming from within Latin America itself. Was thought something that was going to bottom out, or something that can be returned to? Is another focus of, if you will, Latin American left rebuilding?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Absolutely. I mean, one of the biggest ironies or tragedies or whatever of the pink tide was, despite the major changes in policies compared to the prior neoliberal governments, they really championed full-market integration. And that stage had been set by prior neoliberal policies, but they didn't really do anything to sort of disembed or disentangle from the global economy and focus on sort of regional development and regional supply chains.

In Ecuador, there was some effort put into a knowledge economy and a research economy. There was some new state research institutes developed. There was this kind of reframing of Ecuador's natural resources and biodiversity as sites of biological research potentially. And there was some real money and effort put in there, but it paled in comparison to petro economy and to the mining economy.

To answer the rest of your question, I think that absolutely there is a turn from the center left to the more radical left in Latin America right now to really rethinking the economic model. And its indebted to these anti-extractive movements. It's indebted to the failures of the pink tide to do so-- I mean, to learn from that.

And it's interesting how it spans the left, talking about sort of conditions of left unity. So on the more centrist technocratic part of the left, you have the UN agency, ECLAC, CEPAL, that is developing this big push, which is like a green growth model, right? So they're believers in green growth, but it is what it is. It's very much about renewable energy and job creation.

Then you have the Our Green America, which is a bunch of left parties and MPs around the region have signed on to. And then you have the new Ecosocial Pact, which is like a slightly more radical Green New Deal. These ideas could maybe have a bit more basis now than they did under the pink tide.

MARK BLYTH: So we've mentioned the Green New Deal. And going back to the critique of extractivism, again, as well as being rhetorically politically powerful, et cetera, it really does speak about a kind of continued articulation between northern and southern economies, in the sense that let's say that the EU gets their act together. Let's say that China really decides to do kind of a technologically informed greengish top down thing, whatever it is, that gets to net zero and put the caveats with net zero all at one side, right?

All the happened, right? And then Biden actually manages to get some-- let's imagine the whole thing. Is there a scenario in which this is bad for Latin America, this is bad for countries like Ecuador? Because, of course, what is it that we are going to want?

We're going to want lithium. We're going to want copper, right? Are we just going to basically turn extractivism into another sector? We're not actually going to allow these people to get off the bus?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Yeah. I mean, there's two different ways. It could be bad. And one of them is the one you've just mentioned, which is expanded metals and mineral extraction to serve the green economy. They're interesting charts. People can look on Google.

How many more minerals are critical to a renewable energy system and green technological system compared to a fossil fuel, just like the range of metals that are needed, right, for these various technologies, whose role is to mitigate climate change or decarbonize or do whatever they do, right? So one dystopian, let's say, path is increase extractivism in global South under the ambit of this renewable energy transition.

Another bad thing though could be what the economic geographers Jennifer Behr and Margaret Warner call disarticulation. So there's this old Marxist adage-- the only thing worse than being exploited is being not exploited, meaning, being marginalized from in the surplus population, right?

So this is something there's something similar on the global scale, which is that it can also be bad to be excluded from those extractive chains altogether, right? And I'm simplifying a lot here just to lay out two different negative scenarios. But the reason I'm bringing up the second one is because the EU and the US, and to some extent, China-- though, it's a bit different there-- don't just want to transition to this new green economy; they also want to quote, "reshore supply chains."

And those supply chains are not just manufacturing, which is the obvious thing, because that's a job creator. It's good for politics. Everyone loves manufacturing. It's also extraction.

So in the EU, there are multiple lithium projects right now. There's one in the UK. And then turn to the US, which is a natural resource. I mean, there's lots of it. And we know this, the US is major oil and gas producer, but it used to be even much more of a minerals producer before some of that got shut down and off shored, right because of environmental and other concerns, right?

But the US used to be the number one rare earth minerals producer. There's a lot of lithium in the US. So there's different ways this could go badly for the global south. I'll put it that way.

MARK BLYTH: But under that second scenario, isn't that kind of the shock that's needed to change the kind of export-dependent commodity-dependent model?


MARK BLYTH: I mean, we're saying earlier, the point is we can't keep doing this. And in a sense, if the global North stops demanding that, then they do have to focus inside. So that could end up being net positive. No?

THEA RIOFRANCOS: It could. It could. The question is these other major constraints of the global South economies are under. So let's just go to Latin America because it's the worst on some of these. The economic devastation in Latin America, from COVID is unparalleled in the world. I mean, it's really not even talked about as much in the international press as you might think.

But it is just they're totally screwed because of how many workers are in the informal economy. They have no income support, no social protection. I mean, it's really bad.

And all of their economies are export-oriented. Global trade has been depressed. I mean, we won't get into it, but if you wanted to create a list of what would make an economy vulnerable to this moment, Latin America ticks all those boxes. So they're very screwed in terms of just having now basic economic resources to invest in a post-COVID moment.

On top of that, they're among the most indebted place in the world in terms of sovereign debt loads. And so between sovereign debt and economic collapse, there's not a lot of fiscal room. And I think that there are things that could be done in theory, like tax the rich.

I mean, Latin American wealthy are some of the worst in terms of this tax haven fiscal paradise stuff, right? So bring the resources back home, tax them, et cetera, but they've been politically very resistant to that. So I think we have to be sort of realistic about what the economic limitations are in Latin America, precisely to demand from the global community that some of those strangle holds are loosened because they're imposed to some extent externally.

But I do think if the global North really does-- who knows if this will happen-- reshore some of this extractive stuff, then I think it even forces the question even more clearly, as you've said, are we going to do a post-extractive transition and how? And clarity around that would probably be better than not.

MARK BLYTH: Thank you so much for coming on and talking about your work.

THEA RIOFRANCOS: Thanks. That was a great conversation.


MARK BLYTH: This episode was produced by Dan Richards. If you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on Apple Podcast. It really helps others find us. You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcast by following the link in our show notes. We'll be back soon with another episode of the Rhodes Center podcast. Thanks for listening.