The first Bolivian revolution rarely threatened to take such a course. I would date it from
It is something of a paradox that the emblematic figure of this revolution is Andrés de
The second revolution, that of April 1952 and led by the MNR, possesses its own mausoleum. It contains the ashes of Col. Germán Busch, the driving force behind the first nationalisation of oil in 1937. Another occupant is Gen. Juan José Torres, army commander in 1969 (when Gulf Oil was nationalised) and president in 1971 when the establishment of the radical Asamblea Popular provoked Hugo Banzer’s coup that definitively ended the political process begun nearly twenty years earlier. Before too long the very MNR, a party which owed its origins to the Chaco War and its political schooling to the Constituent Assembly of 1938, would revert to the operational ‘default’ of a military alliance, now backing Banzer’s dictatorship of the noche triste. For Fernando Molina, Evo Morales and MAS are taking Bolivia back to the ‘revolutionary nationalism of the 1950s’, when, in another paradox, it was the tin companies that were nationalised and the oil industry opened up to market forces.
For Morales himself, the MNR regime was a shadow exercise, a kind of mestizo manoeuvre whereby land was distributed, but not in Santa Cruz, and the masses enfranchised, but with votes as tradable items in a strictly regulated market. The MNR leadership was a tie-wearing fraternity, for a while invigilated to the left by the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) miners’ union, itself influenced by anarchosyndicalist and Trotskyist currents. That relation, however, barely touched the countryside and was largely played out as a parochial Cold War exchange. According to Jaime Paz Zamora (long-time leader of the MIR), his party was founded in 1971 in an effort to uphold the ‘authentically popular’ inheritance of 1952 and to adjust it to an era in which the promotion of democratic freedoms was now paramount. It could be said that such an entronque histórico with the early MNR has now been taken up much more effectively by the MAS, which, in direct opposition to the late MNR, is seeking to revive not just the core features of 1952–64–nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, agrarian reform, formal democracy–but also other elements of the longer revolutionary process of 1937–71. Amongst these we might mention the Constituent Assembly of 1938, the Congreso Indígenal of 1945, and the experience of rural organisation and struggle in the 1940s that has only recently been retrieved by scholars.
That more recent historical legacy is sufficiently idiosyncratic to complicate any idea of Bolivian politics simply internalising and reflecting a regional tide of radical populism. The influences beyond the physical frontiers of the republic are indeed vitally important. It is impossible to understand the period 2000–06 without consideration of IMF pressure over the budget deficit, the international price of oil, or US pressure over coca. It is, moreover, very hard to imagine the initial months of the MAS taking the course they did without Cuban and Venezuelan support, which was far more critical than anything that Perón did for the MNR in the 1950s. At the same time, the paucity of academic attention to the regional impact of the Argentine crisis of 2001–03 badly needs redressing. Nevertheless, even for a state so small and weak that it can usefully be tutored by
Forward with the usable past?
How is it possible that since
The response of Roberto Laserna (echoed by Fernando Molina) to these questions would be that
because its existence is predicated on the persistence of the past …, a group that defines itself by racial and cultural means, by what they are, and not by what they have a right to be (citizens) nor what they do or propose to do.
For Laserna, the market reforms from 1985 did produce growth and change but only in the market-related circuit:
It is clear that the stagnant sectors of the economy, which are composed of the natural and familiar economies, were and remain really successful in resisting the discipline and logic of the market. There are millions of campesinos and informal workers who use the market and at the same time block its expansion … This is the structural ch’enko.
From such a perspective–notwithstanding its almost equally negative appraisal of the political elite–it is not the neoliberal reforms but the traditional, autochthonous society of
99 per cent of the MAS programme is a project for the industrialisation of a backward economy under the control of a ‘strong state’ that will eliminate undesirable elements and the constant conflicts of interest created by the private sector.
Yet Molina admits that MAS is quite incapable of imposing itself, either by technology or by force, on the majority. Moreover, it will not get rid of the institutions of liberal democracy because it was precisely through them that it eventually came to power, even if it succeeded by other, direct means in stopping first particular policies and then all government by forces that it opposed. Molina also sees clearly that by 2000 most Bolivians were exhausted by the loud claims and poor performance of liberalism, despite it paying tribute to local culture by denominating its privatisations as ‘capitalisations’, as if the property it was selling remained in the public sector, and by coupling it with genuinely popular and redistributive decentralisation. Here, curiously, there is some common ground with García Linera:
The MAS is in no sense seeking to form a socialist government. It is not viable because socialism is built on the basis of a strongly organised working class … Socialism is not constructed on the basis of a family economy, which is what dominates in Bolivia, but on large industry … What is the model for Bolivia? A strong state, and that is capitalism … It isn’t even a mixed system … What I do as a Marxist is evaluate the actual potential for development in a society.
Table 1 shows only very broad categories of work, and so on reading it one might think it makes a case against both Molina and García Linera. However, most of the manufacturing jobs are small-scale and workshop-related, just as the large number of service workers are generally linked to the domestic economy. We might also note the very few jobs in the hydrocarbons sector, from which so much is expected over the coming period, making an economic strategy ‘beyond gas’ imperative. These figures yield an open unemployment rate of 14 per cent (330,000 people) against a Latin American average of 11 per cent. 100,000 of the jobs in manufacturing were attributable to the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) treaty that suspended US import tariffs in exchange for eradication of coca crops and which was due to expire at the end of 2006; they were, then, extremely vulnerable.
A policy team working for the United Nations Development Programme has developed a diagnosis that is less pessimistic but somewhat similar to that of Fernando Molina. It extracts from three principal obstacles (‘diversificación sin especialización’; ‘solidarios, pero solitarios’; and ‘institucionalidad para algunos pocos’) a blueprint for a pluralist ‘popular Bolivian economy’, albeit with quite sober expectations as to the degree of complementarity between family- and firm-based production and the degree of institutional support for individual initiative. Perhaps the fact that García Linera was accompanied on his first trip to renegotiate ATPDEA by Javier Hurtado, the radical head of the Irupana organic foods firm, signalled a more perspicacious approach to economic policy than many outside anticipated after the precipitate nationalisation of gas, but the lobby of the US Congress proved to be distinctly disappointing. In any event, García Linera’s references to ‘Andean and Amazonian capitalism’ increased markedly over the first months of the government.
The plebeian perspective
Let me draw to a close by making a three-stage discursive manoeuvre of my own: first, by taking up the analytical revision that has attended ‘class politics’ over the recent period; next, by seeking to prise the ch’enko from an entirely deterministic association in an evocation of eighteenth-century
Although he died before the present political cycle had begun, René Zavaleta identified many of its latent features in his analysis of the crisis of 1979–80. Instead of the term ch’enko, he used the phrase ‘formación abigarrada’ (multicoloured formation) to describe
because you find in her economic stages (those of common taxonomic usage) placed upon each other without very much interaction at all, so whilst feudalism belongs to one culture and capitalism to another, here they are still appearing in the same space, one country being feudal and another capitalist … Who, then, would be so bold as to say that this heterogeneous combination might end up with a uniform matrix of power? … The only shared time for these forms is the general crisis which affects them …
For Zavaleta the substantive social democracy of 1952 lay in the distribution of land, which provided some linkage between the two modes of production as well as between the collectivity and the individual: ‘ … land is not just Pachamama. Holding a plot of land is the requirement of personal independence.’ This is a theme that García Linera is careful to uphold, as in his description of the Coordinadora that led the
If it does from the outset possess organisational forms that might be classified as of a traditional type, because they are founded on pre- or non-mercantile logics of access to land, water or public resources …, personal and group adherence to the movement is still voluntary and in the style of modern social movements.
Likewise, García Linera distinguishes between ‘the mob’ (muchedumbre), which ‘combines individualities without any affiliation or dependency other than the euphoria of immediate action’ and ‘the multitude’, which ‘articulates autonomous organisational structures of the subaltern classes’. For García Linera the rioting of February 2003 was mob action, the bloqueos of October the work of ‘the multitude’. Although he never quite makes the claims for it as expansively as do Hardt and Negri, the vice-president of
What, then, is the ‘disorder’ about? Here the lack of historical sedimentation noted by Zavaleta is complicated by at least one further important element. That is the reversal of ‘normal’ historical evolution in the collapse of the tin mining industry in the 1980s, deindustrialisation in an only very partially industrialised society throwing ‘modern’ wage workers back into social circuits associated with other historical epochs. Their legacy of proletarian organisation, enforced engagement in agriculture, and modern market rationality have all combined to make coca production not just a means of survival but also a symbol of ‘tradition’ and a highly politicised issue. Little wonder that MAS is fragmented or that Evo Morales so frequently shifted his position in opposition, especially when the local actors were so emphatically joined by the North Americans, for whom all this appeared to be a cut-and-dried issue of morality and legality, and who paid good money to have the police and army sort it out for them.
Although, as we have seen,
He’s right to complain about American imperialists criminalizing a substance that’s been used for centuries in the
Here, then, the irrationality and obtuseness so conducive to conflict and violence are not Bolivian at all, but imposed on that people by foreigners who, as so often, first think they know best and then complain about the consequences.
Then there is the more straight forward anachronism in the continued existence of a plebeian culture to which we are unaccustomed because it is now virtually extinct in ‘the north’ where 200 years ago it prevailed quite extensively:
The brief, bawdy, violent, colourful, kaleidoscope, picaresque world of pre-industrial society, when anything from a third to a half of the population lived not only on the subsistence line but outside and sometimes against the law … In their conception of democracy, their attitude to leadership, property, social morality, their idea of unity and correspondence, their suspicion of the ‘respectable’ …, their continuous expectation of betrayal, above all in their feeling for equality and craving for recognised manhood, sans-culottes and artisans are so similar that they sometimes seem identical. The differences in tone and temper–quite radical–can be explained by the brute distinction between a situation which was revolutionary and one which was not.
In such a world, as E. P. Thompson notes, ‘some customs were of recent invention, and were in truth claims to new rights’–an eminently usable past and not one petrifying people, ‘immobilising’ them without rhyme or reason.
This sense of a plebeian condition, rather than any sharper ideological character, might best be grasped through a combination of naturalism and political behaviour. Roger Ekirch calls plebeians ‘masters by night’, and Thompson notes, ‘[i]t is exactly in a rural society, where any open, identified resistance to the ruling power may result in instant retaliation … that one tends to find the acts of darkness.’ That might not be a world so far away from the one to which Evo Morales referred in his inaugural speech, noting that electricity had only reached his home school in 2003, or from the one of Felipe Quispe, who, for all that he is a militant ‘child of the sun’, still ensured that military activity in Achacachi was prepared under cover of night.
We might equally find a shared prominence of public festivities, dance and the carnival in poor societies dominated by the seasonal cycle and attached to spectacle:
Many weeks of heavy labour and scanty diet were compensated for by the expectation (or reminiscence) of those occasions, when food and drink were abundant, courtship and every kind of social intercourse flourished, and the hardship of life was forgotten.
In the same vein, the contemporary life of the city of
These events are important for the countries of the
Albeit sometimes expressed with a patina of post-modernity, such phenomena surely constitute what Max Weber called ‘the authority of the “eternal yesterday” … of the mores sanctified through the unimaginably ancient recognition and habitual orientation to conform’. The other two legitimations of domination on which Weber lays stress are the legal and the charismatic, this latter being a gift of grace held by individual warlords, prophets or ‘plebiscitarian rulers’:
Plebiscitary democracy–the most important type of leadership-democracy–is in its genuine sense a kind of charismatic authority which conceals itself under the form of a legitimacy which is derived from the will of the ruled and only sustained by them.
In this vein, ‘plebiscitary’ has become one of those familiar adjectives interposed before ‘democracy’, most often to denote a form of populism where the rule of law is practically but not formally subordinated to the executive power, which habitually feigns constitutionalism and displays a palimpsest of the multitude in the holding of plebiscites. Hugo Chávez and Tony Blair have been depicted in such manner.
Evo Morales manifestly is not Hugo Chávez, and Weber’s tripartite model needs some adjustment to work for the case of
I want to ask you, with much respect to our indigenous authorities, our organisations, our amautas (wise ones): control me, and, if I cannot advance, you push me on, sisters and brothers … Correct me all the time; it is possible that I might make mistakes, I can make mistakes, we all make mistakes, but I will never betray the struggle of the Bolivian people …
Here we have much less a demand for ratification than a request for checks and balances. That, S. E. Finer argues, was the fundamental quality of the original plebis scitum, won through two ‘secessions’ (little less than bloqueos) of 494 and 287 BC by the plebeians of the early Roman Republic. On the second occasion these led to the Lex Hortensia, whereby the concilium plebis could, irrespective of the Senate, vote a resolution into law with a ‘binding quality over the entire community … definitively acknowledged’. Those powers were also limited–the organised plebeians themselves lacked formal judicial power or the right to vote on peace and war–just as in their contemporary form, under the de facto, half-written ‘mixed constitution’ of 2000–06, they have similarly proved to be.
I think, then, that the recent Bolivian experience may from this perspective also be usefully understood as ‘plebeian’ in nature. The Constituent Assembly, in early session when these words were written in September 2006, has already shown strong signs of counter-testing the classical traditions of patricians and plebeians, reflecting the simple but vital point made by Trevor Smith for the United Kingdom of the 1960s: ‘consensus, whether real or imagined is ultimately prejudicial to democracy whose main foundation is organized conflict’. If that sounds just too rowdy and pious for the present circumstances, it might be noted that it was not until MAS came into office that any Bolivian government had a coherent policy, with real support from the office of the presidency, to save the 22,000 infants who die needlessly each year from malnutrition. Now, under Desnutrición Cero, a policy reliant upon the combination of clinical skills and popular organisation, this invisible tragedy is finally being confronted. Democracy may cost lives, but it saves them too.
James Dunkerley is Director, Institute for the Study of the Americas, School of Advanced Study, and Professor of Politics, Queen Mary,
First published at Journal of Latin American Studies
57 C. Méndez, ‘Incas Sí, Indios No: Notes on Peruvian Creole Nationalism and Its Contemporary Crisis’, JLAS vol. 28, no. 1 (1996), pp. 197–225. I am most grateful to Natalia Sobrevilla, preparing a new biography of
58 R. Barragán and J. L. Roca, Regiones y poder constituyente en Bolivia (La Paz, 2005); L. Gotkowitz, ‘Revisiting the Rural Roots of the Revolution’, and B. Larson, ‘Capturing Indian Bodies, Hearths and Minds’, in Grindle and Domingo (eds.), Proclaiming Revolution; L. Gotkowitz, A Revolution for Our Rights: Indigenous Struggle for Land and Justice in Bolivia, 1880–1952 (Durham NC, forthcoming).
60 Interview with Miguel Gómez Balboa: www.geocities.com/laserna. The term might, in this connotation, incorporate two phonetically similar Quechua verbs–ch’in kay (to be silent) and ch’anqay (to throw stones, which is the favoured means of the bloqueo).
64 Gray, La economía más allá del gas. The other four models assessed by the UNDP teams are: ‘informalidad y ejército industrial de reserva; la subsunción o subordinación; microempresas; distrito industrial, clusters y aglomeraciones productivas’.
68 Hardt and Negri see the multitude as ‘all those who work under the rule of capital and thus potentially as the class of those who refuse the rule of capital’: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Harmondsworth, 2005), p. 106. In his critique of this position Malcolm Bull provides a useful historical tour d’horizon of theories of the masses and mass action, maintaining that ‘from
75 La Razón,
78 For general discussions, see P. Tamás, ‘Socialism, Capitalism and Modernity’, Journal of Democracy, vol. 3, no. 3 (1992); D. Collier and S. Levitsky, ‘Democracy “With Adjectives”. Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research’, Dept. Political Science,
80 S. E. Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times (