Santos Ruesga on SASE/RISE Regional Meetings and More

Santos Ruesga is the incoming President of SASE 2022-2023.  He has been in academia for four decades, teaching at the Autonomous University, Madrid on issues related to Europe and Latin America, where he has traveled extensively. In addition to courses and lectures, he has developed numerous research projects with colleagues from both sides of the Atlantic, and particularly in Latin America, focusing on topics related to the world of work. In recent years, his research has focused with greater intensity on the topic of informal work.

Santos also has significant management experience, both in the university (for a decade, he was a member of the Superior Council of the European Institute, a pan-European entity for postgraduate education based in Florence) and in business (he served as CEO of the Spanish Radio Television Corporation for six years).

In the past five years, Santos has returned to his academic work, with a particular focus on teaching and research relationships between Latin American and US universities. A planned stay of several months in various American universities was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic, and will go ahead in the near future if conditions allow.

He is the driving force of the past four in-person regional meetings that took place in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica, as well as of the next meeting, which will take place virtually (1-3 December 2021, with virtual host institution the National University of San Marcos).  It will include a timely array of offerings including presentations and featured speakers from all over the planet. Please join us!

Interview conducted by Martha Zuber, SASE Executive Director Emerita


What got you interested in organizing regional SASE events?

Two things: my work with Latin American universities and with colleagues from the USA who study socio-economic relations in the South, and my involvement in SASE, which goes back to 2005. I felt it would be interesting to strengthen connections among researchers from the Latin world: although we come from different formal academic disciplines (economics, sociology, law, etc.), we converge in our scientific and particularly in our methodological perspectives, which are inductive and multidisciplinary. It seemed interesting to me to open a space for reflection and debate to a wide group of Latin American academics who share this vision of the social sciences, including from the perspective of economics. I have always rebelled against the logic of the academic schools of deductive methodological principles, which are far removed from social reality.

What are the main differences between the annual meeting and the regional meeting?

SASE/RISE and the SASE annual meetings share the same analytical perspective, which we call socio-economics, as a scientific approach. The point of difference is the object of analysis, which is the socio-economic reality of Latin American countries.

Latin America a geographical space, but not a homogeneous one: there are enormous social, political, administrative, and economic disparities among the different territories that compose it. Some countries, such as Chile, have reached a state of socio-economic development that places them among the middle-income countries, while others, such as Haiti or Nicaragua, are among the poorest countries in the world.

The topics discussed are not very different from those discussed at the general meeting, but there is a concentration of specific works on topics unique to Latin American countries, such as tourism and its economic and social consequences, environmental and territorial imbalances, or the role of cultural services in sustainable development, to give a few examples.

Is there such a thing as an Ibero-American perspective? Is research conducted differently? Do scholars work differently? What have you noticed over these past four regional meetings?

From a scientific or methodological standpoint there is no strictly Latin American point of view: currents and influences are similar to those observed in other geographical environments. There is a certain kinship in the socio-economic sphere, in a good part of the academic world, linked to a critical vision, for example, of interventions in the region over the past decades by international organizations such as the IMF or the World Bank, along with an intense and singular concern for socio-economic phenomena such as poverty, inequality, or informal employment.

Certainly, the structuralist or “cepalino” school of thought—due to its connection to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America—has had and still has a special relevance in the field of social sciences in Latin America, particularly in economics.

Since its inception in the 1960s, this school of thought has been very critical of the neoclassical economic discourse, with postulates that draw on theoretical and epistemological elements of Keynesian, institutionalist, and Marxist thought, with some specificities of their own. The influence of this school has gone, and continues to go, beyond the discipline of economics, and its analytical methods are present in other fields such as sociology.

A neo-structuralist current is currently developing, with close links to post-Keynesian discourse and new neo-institutionalist formulations. We will have the opportunity to listen to some of its most prominent thinkers, including Professors Cordera from Mexico and Ffrench-Davis from Chile at the 5th SASE/RISE meeting.

This 5th regional meeting will be a virtual edition, as opposed to the four previous iterations, which were in-person events. Do you think this will change attendance demographics—its “flavor,” so to speak?

There may be a greater presence of Europeans; but perhaps, to the contrary, it will intensify the regional flavor by reducing other types of incentives to attend, such as face-to-face meetings with new colleagues or even extra-academic drawcards such as travel opportunities.

Did you follow any of the many debates during the 2021 SASE annual meeting over whether neoliberalism waning, or even a thing of the past?

Yes, of course—that’s a debate that reaches far beyond SASE and even the academic field. To the extent that prevailing economic thought determines the ideological meaning and the content of economic and social policies, this debate is one for all of society: it isn’t exclusive to the academic or professional world of economics, sociology, or other social sciences.

Personally, I think it is a bit naïve to say that neoliberalism is on the decline or even ending—it seems more a wish than a reality. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter pointed out more than a decade ago (referring to Colin Crouch’s The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism), “neoliberalism has combined with the power of large corporations to irrevocably change the respective roles of state authorities, political parties, corporate agreements, and the media.”

Neoliberal discourse has been facing broad criticism of its epistemological foundations and the gaps in its interpretation of socio-economic reality, and it has changed considerably over the years. But because of the influence it exerts on the intellectual and political elites, it seems to have assured its own survival.

We have heard the expression “the end of neoliberalism” many times, but as Tony Judt pointed out, “there is something deeply wrong with the way we live today [at the mercy of neoclassical discourse]. However, we seem incapable of imagining alternatives.”

Would you say that China is considered a menace to the economies of the South in the same way it is to North America?

No, to the contrary, China is seen as a counterweight to the economic—and political—dominance (direct or indirect) in US-Latin American relations in past years.

Today, economic and trade relations with the Asian countries are not seen as a threat to the Latin American continent. There may be tensions or challenges—in Mexico, for example, Chinese industry can be seen as competing with Mexican industry—but in general, relations with China are considered to be a means of escape from long domination by and dependence on countries considered to be the “center” of capitalism (i.e., the USA, the UK, and Europe), lessening the economic and political pressure that comes from these relations. Tensions between the USA and China are not generally seen as being of direct concern to Latin American countries—the global expansion of China is largely seen as beneficial or a relief. Something like loosening the “corset” of globalization with the entry of another giant competing for hegemony in the international division of labor.

How are international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF viewed?  Is this a popular topic in the regional meetings as well?

Yes, of course. They are a key source of information (through databases, publications, and public statements), and they are part of an institutional framework with decision-making power over the development and implementation of economic policies in the world. Until very recently, in Latin America and beyond, they were seen as architects of austerity policies with negative effects on the balanced development of societies. It was not strange, even, to find graffiti in the cities of the subcontinent that protested these institutions and their policies and ideologies: “IMF out of …….” These institutions have changed in recent years, however, and are more attuned to issues such as inequality, poverty, and the environmental crisis—which may be one reason for the decline in animosity towards them across Latin America.

Has any of the upheaval of the pandemic changed things for you, or caused you to shift your point of view?

No, not generally. We do not yet have a clear view of its longer-term effects, though. Currently, in countries—or geographical areas—emerging from lockdowns, there has been a resurgence of economic activity and a strong expansion of consumption. And unlike other financial crises, such as the 2008/09 recession, there has been no more or less intense destruction of different parts of the productive fabric. The business crises caused by the lockdown were crises of liquidity; only in some cases have they turned into solvency problems. And with the help, in the more developed countries, of expansionary economic policies—unlike what happened in the previous crisis, which was fought with austerity policies—consumption and production have grown as lockdowns have ended. There have been major bottlenecks in supply chains due to the persistence of the crisis in less developed countries, ultimately affecting employment, but public subsidies have kept this at bay so far.

Today, it’s as if we were returning to the moment right before the pandemic began, without any profound structural changes in the productive and social fabric. It is true that during the pandemic it was possible to accelerate some processes of change that were already underway: telework and a move online in many sectors of the economy have accelerated, for example. But beyond this, the return to normality does not show a trend of deep change, one that offers alternatives to the current model. There are no major proposals for transformation on the table now that weren’t already there two years ago. The “new normal” is basically the same as the old one.