Bolivia: The MAS hegemonic project and its tensions


Mike Geddes[1]

The many actions – and inactions – of the MAS government continue to inspire a torrent of debate, both critical and supportive.  In this context, it is worth asking to what extent the MAS came into government in 2005 with a clearly defined (counter) hegemonic project, and if so how has this programme developed since?

Certainly, the Vice-President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, who has spoken and written extensively in Gramscian terms about what the MAS government is trying to achieve and both the successes he would claim and the problems encountered, presents a picture of a clearly defined project. From his position as Vice-President, without departmental responsibilities, Garcia Linera plays a critical role in enunciating strategic perspectives and mediating between different tendencies within the government – indigenist, socialist, populist.  While of course he has his own views, his analysis can perhaps be seen as broadly reflective of the MAS government’s project.

Garcia Linera grounds his analysis in the crisis of the neoliberal Bolivian state in the period from around 2000, and the shift by the MAS to move from localized to general mobilization and build a popular bloc capable of sustaining a new popular consensus to ‘refound’ the state. While the MAS came to power on the back of a mass popular movement, it still faced serious opposition from right wing forces, allied to large scale capitalist agribusiness, in Bolivia’s eastern provinces. Spatial socioeconomic factors have thus been a key element in MAS strategy.

In Garcia Linera’s analysis, the MAS deployed an ‘encircling strategy’ against this opposition, ‘using both the coercive mechanisms of the state and social mobilisation’.[2] The defeat of the ‘regionalised right’ and an alignment with the indigenous-popular axis of social sectors, including middle classes and small and medium sized business interests, were confirmed by a presidential recall referendum in which Morales increased his vote from 54% to 67%. 

Nonetheless, Garcia Linera argues, while the right has – for now at any rate – lost political power nationally, and has no alternative political project for society capable of gaining national support, it retains very significant economic power rooted in the agrarian, commercial and financial sectors and a consequent ability to block change in some areas.[3]

The defeat of the right paved the way for the new constitution, drafted by a broadly based constituent assembly and ratified by a national referendum. This, in principle at any rate, and despite significant concessions, entrenches a range of rights and guarantees, especially but not only for the indigenous majority, and starts to disembed the colonial (neo) liberal state. In Garcia Linera’s view, the Constituent Assembly was essential in order to ‘anchor in enduring state institutions and relations of command the new correlation of forces reached by the indigenous popular movement in the 2000–2005 cycle of mobilisations’.[4]   Without the new constitution, it would not have been possible to reach the ‘point of bifurcation’, or the moment when the crisis of the state would be resolved either through a restoration of the old state power or through the consolidation of the new bloc of popular power, ‘by an act of leadership, of hegemony in the Gramscian meaning of the word’.[5]

Today, he claims, ‘the subjects of politics and the real institutions of power are now found in the indigenous, plebeian arena’:

Today, to influence the state budget or to know the government agenda, it does not help at all to rub shoulders with senior officials of the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank or US and European embassies. Today the state power circuits pass through the debates and decisions of indigenous, worker and neighbourhoods assemblies [6]

The actions of the MAS in government have been rooted in the overriding  prioritization of decolonization: whereas before ‘indigenous people were condemned to be peasants, toilers, informal artisans, porters or waiters, now they are ministers (both men and women), deputies, senators, directors of public companies, constitution writers, supreme court magistrates, governors, and president’.[7]

Economic decolonization – breaking with the outward flow of the surplus – has been advanced, he argues, through nationalization, foreign exchange policies and tax policies governing remittances of earnings and profits. The leading example is the government takes on oil and gas revenues from 27% to between 65% and 77%, providing the material basis for economic sovereignty. The MAS is also seeking to reorient Bolivia’s external economic relations, working for example through the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America) grouping of left-leaning Latin American states, to increase regional economic links: ‘Let’s act as a regional state with respect to utilization and global negotiation of the great strategic wealth we possess (oil, minerals, lithium, water, agriculture, biodiversity, light industry, a young and skilled workforce)’.[8]

In the cultural field, the colonizing paradigm was first broken by the election of an
indigenous president, and is now being pursued through the implementation of the
principle of a plurinational state throughout the state administration. In fields such health care, indigenous traditional practices are being introduced alongside Western medical practices.

Garcia Linera defines the MAS program as a ‘post-neoliberal model’ and a ‘postcapitalist transition’. Currently,

the state is the main wealth generator in the country. That wealth is not valorised as capital: it is redistributed throughout society through bonuses, rents, direct social benefits to the population, the freezing of utility rates and basic fuel prices, and subsidies to agricultural production. We try to prioritise wealth as use value over exchange value. In this regard, the state does not act as a collective capitalist in the state-capitalist sense, but acts as a collective redistributor of wealth among the working classes.[9]

The government is supporting communitarian institutions, and initiating debate around ‘the campesino and communitarian productive logic based on a type of productive rationality that is locally sustainable with nature’ …. ‘as opposed to the processes of depredation peculiar to the civilisation of surplus value’.[10]

Thus today

the organisational forms of the contemporary indigenous movement – communal, agrarian, and union – with their style of assembly deliberation, traditional rotation of posts, and in some cases, common control of means of production, are the centres of political decision making and a good part of the economy in Bolivia.[11]

Garcia Linera recognises though that any transformation away from capitalism will be a long historical process, and sees the emergence of an ‘Andean capitalism’[12], inflected by the Bolivian indigenous context, as an initial step.

The MAS hegemonic project, as presented by Garcia Linera, thus foregrounds decolonization as an umbrella beneath which several elements can be brought together – deepening democracy, redistributing wealth, supporting alternatives to capitalist relations, ecological sustainability – in a way which can appeal to a broad hegemonic bloc within Bolivian society.

What are we to make of Garcia Linera’s formulations? 

In the first place, there have been concerted criticisms, mostly but not exclusively from the left, which question whether the MAS programme has involved the transformation and supersession of economic neoliberalism or in fact represents a fundamental continuity with it.  For some, ‘the liberal capitalist model, albeit one slightly modified in favour of national development, has survived. By Bolivian standards, it could even be said to be thriving’ in a ‘reconstituted neoliberalism’.[13] From this perspective, the Morales government is not implementing a counter-hegemonic project but overseeing a passive revolution. Secondly, many would seriously question whether the MAS government has in fact pursued anything like as coherent a strategy as that which Garcia Linera suggests.[14]

It is important however to recognize the importance of context. This is the global South, a postcolonial and peripheral context, a country with a fragile and externally-dependent economy and weak state. Bolivia is a country with a majority indigenous population but which is socially polarised, especially around issues of race. Decolonization is thus at the core of the MAS hegemonic strategy, and the hegemonic bloc is built around the mobilization and empowerment of the indigenous population, privileging race over class. Moreover, important currents within and around the MAS government question Western concepts of modernity, including left conceptions of social change and struggle, and instead look back to indigenous social, economic and political forms.

It is in this sense – rather than primarily in the sense of a rejection of capitalism - that for some commentators this is a period of profound change, the

‘crisis of one historical cycle and the beginning of another signalled fundamentally by a hegemonic transformation, the replacement of political elites, a new configuration of the state and mutation of the relation between state and society’[15]

In this perspective, the MAS government is the culmination of a centuries-long historical struggle against colonialism and neo-colonialism.[16]

The question, of course, is how the priority of decolonization interacts with other elements in the MAS strategy, and how diverse and conflictive social interests – both within and beyond the indigenous population - are reconciled within a hegemonic bloc. In addressing this issue, it has been suggested that the period of MAS government since 2005 has comprised three phases.

The first was defined by political polarization between the Morales government and the right wing ‘media luna’ opposition, and characterized by a war of position conducted in parliament, the constitutional constituent assembly and on the streets. The second phase, the ‘hegemonic moment of MAS’, followed the ratification of the position of Morales as president in the recall referendum of 2008 and was characterized by the defeat of the right. At this point, therefore, the MAS project moves decisively from oppositional to dominant status.

The third and most recent phase however is characterized by splits in the hegemonic bloc since 2010, exposing fault lines in the MAS project: between modernity and tradition, between  universal and particular interests, between visions of development and progress versus those of vivir bien and ecological sustainability, and between the concentration of power versus decentralization.[17]

In particular, this recent phase has seen the rise of tensions between the conception of the MAS government as a government of the social movements driven from the grassroots, and the development of a strong state, with centralized state power as the driver of policy. A following post will explore these tensions.

Mike Geddes is an Associate in the School of Comparative American Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK

Notes

[1] This blog is derived from a longer article: Mike Geddes (2014): The old is dying but the new is struggling to be born: hegemonic contestation in Bolivia, Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2014.904645.
[2] Garcia Linera, A., 2009. Bolivian Vice President defends MAS Government’s record in office.Interview by M. Svampa, P. Stefanoni, and R. Bajo, translated by R. Fidler, Bolivia Rising,11 September, p2.

[3] See note 2.

[4] See note 2, p2.

[5] Garcia Linera, A., 2008. Catastrophic equilibrium and point of bifurcation. Available from: http://links.org.au/node/484/1313: and see note 2, p2

[6] Garcia Linera, A., 2012. Moving beyond capitalism is a universal task. Interview by L. Hernández Navarro, translated by F. Stuart Cournoyer. Available from: http://links.org.au/node/2753., pp1-2

[7] See note 6, p2

[8] See note 6, p3

[9] See note 6, p2

[10] See note 2.

[11] See note 6, p3

[12] Garcia Linera A 2005.  Interview by Pablo Stefanoni, International Viewpoint, 20 December

[13] Hylton F (2011) Old wine, new bottles: In search of dialectics.  Dialectical Anthropology 35, 243-247.doi:10.1007/s10624-011-9250-x, p244; Webber, J.R., 2010. From rebellion to reform: Bolivia’s reconstituted neoliberalism. International Socialist Review, 73, September–October. Available from: http://isreview.org/issue/73/rebellionreform’.  I discuss these issues more fully in the article referenced in Note 1

[14] Farthing L C and Kohl, B H (2014) Evo’s Bolivia: Continuity and change.  Austin: University of Texas Press

[15] Zegada, M.T., et al., 2011. La democracia desde les márgenes: transformaciones en el campo político Boliviano. La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, pp303-304

[16] Camacho, O.V., 2010. Estado Plurinacional: elementos para el debate. In: Fundación Boliviana para la Democracia Multipartidaria, ed. Descolonización en Bolivia: Cuatro ejes para comprender el cambio. La Paz: Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 109134; Canqui, R.C., 2010. Proceso de descolonisación. In: Fundación Boliviana para la Democracia Multipartidaria, ed. Descolonización en Bolivia: Cuatro ejes para comprender el cambio. La Paz: Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 3762

[17] See Note 15, p305

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