Bolivia: The MAS, the state, and the social movements

Mike Geddes[1]

My previous post ‘The MAS hegemonic project and its tensions’ highlighted some of the fault lines in the MAS project.  This post explores further the tensions between the conception of the MAS government as a government of the social movements, and the development of a strong state, with centralized state power as the driver of counter-hegemonic strategy.

‘Refounding the state’ is central to the MAS hegemonic project.  The phraseology of ‘refounding’ expresses the conviction that the colonial, neoliberal state needs to be totally reshaped, not merely ‘modernised’.  The MAS is committed to the exercise of state power, but in a way which reflects its self-description as the ‘political instrument’ of the social movements, thus accepting the electoral and representative components of democracy but subordinating these to grassroots participative and deliberative democratic processes. For the MAS, the new constitution, generated through a broad constituent assembly and validated by referendum, is the essential foundation for a refounded state in which political power lies in the hands of the indigenous and popular majority. 

For critics, however, the management of the constituent assembly by the MAS was an initial important signal of the limits to change.  For them, the demand by the social movements was for a revolutionary Constituent Assembly which would transform economy, state and society, through the ‘organic participation of the main social movement organisations in the formation and execution of the assembly....(whereas) ....’the assembly actually introduced by the MAS government  has precluded all such revolutionary and participative elements’ and appeased the eastern bourgeoisie, allowing the right wing opposition to regroup’.[2]  In the event though, the hold of the right in the eastern provinces has become less secure, both as a result of in-migration of campesinos supporting the MAS from the Andean highlands, and also because the government has had some success in detaching the economic elite in the east from the separatist political elite.[3]  But while the threat from the right to MAS hegemony has thus been neutralised, the elimination of this threat, by removing a key reason for unity within the hegemonic bloc, has created a climate in which sectional interests have been freer to assert themselves.

Behind disputes about the ‘revolutionary’ epoch of 2002-2005 lie different understandings about the social/class composition of the popular movements which brought down the neoliberal regime, and the nature of the demands of these movements. For left critics of the MAS government, the rebellions of this period were a ‘combined liberation struggle in which mass movements of indigenous proletarians and peasants’ fought ‘an anti-capitalist and indigenous-liberationist liberation struggle’[4]  For others however, the organisations of indigenous people ‘do not think of themselves as left wing, but as indigenous and pro-decolonisation’,[5] a ‘plebeian culture’ rooted in an only partially industrialised society.[6]  A related issue is the nature of popular participation in the activism of the social movements in the 2002-5 period.  There is some evidence that, in El Alto, at the core of activism, popular participation was a mixture of willing involvement and a degree of authoritarian coercion by the leadership of the social movements, questioning any assumption of a fully cohesive and revolutionary ‘base’ betrayed by the MAS party elite.[7] 

Since the ratification of the constitution, questions about the ‘refounded’ state and its role in the MAS project have multiplied.  What is meant by a plurinational state?  What is the relationship between the state and the social movements, between electoral and representative democracy, and between deepening democracy and strengthening the state?  These are key questions in relation to the MAS’s hegemonic project and bloc.

The constitution replaces the previous unitary state by a new plurinational state which institutes not only municipal, departmental and regional autonomies but also indigenous autonomy, so that ‘election of local authorities would be permitted on the basis of customary norms, and a communitarian justice within the “native indigenous peasant” juridical framework would be introduced’[8]  The constitution thus recognises the cultures and traditions of the various indigenous ‘nations’ of Bolivia.  This is a major step towards cementing the position of the indigenous population as the core of the hegemonic bloc. 

However, not only are there questions about how geographical autonomies will mesh in practice with indigenous ones, but also about how ‘plurinational’ the constitution actually is.  For some, neo-colonialism is still entrenched in the state, and the constitution does little more than include an element of indigenism within a more conventional state form.  Genuine plurinationalism, he suggests, would involve a complex unity of different peoples, nations, actors, logics and practices of social and economic life and organisation’.  It would embody multiple versions of seeing the world, ‘a space-time of multiple manners of being, seeing and living in the world’.[9]  Further, what the new constitution actually establishes may actually be a more fully liberal state, with a veneer of multiculturalism, especially in relation to equality of opportunities.[10] The close and enduring links between Bolivian state personnel and transnational capital lend substance to the argument that the Bolivian state remains essentially a capitalist state.[11]

Entwined with the above issues are questions of the relationships between the state, the MAS government and the social movements, and between electoralist and direct or participatory democracy.  It is widely argued by those to the left of the government that since 2005 there has been a ‘decline in the self-organisation and activity of the popular classes/indigenous in the wake of Morales’ victory. The MAS .....originated as a cocalero anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal indigenous peasant movement, structured on assembly-style rank and file democracy, extra-parliamentary activism (but has) since 2002 however prioritised electoral politics ...(and) increasingly influenced by urban mestizo middle class intelligentsia in upper leadership layers, (and) courts the urban middle class vote’.[12]  Similarly, ‘the Bolivian government has effectively ignored or denigrated the logic and form of communitarian-popular politics – the very force that brought Morales to power in the first place – while privileging traditional forms of representation and participation’.[13]  From this perspective, radical social and economic goals have been subordinated to the construction of a national-popular bloc, with indigenous centrality but under party control, in order to carry out reforms from above: the more or less explicit goal is to integrate some of the cadre and leadership of the movements into the party-state nexus.  ‘Morales and the MAS have ruled over movements and have attempted to substitute for them and, when necessary, to confine their mobilisation within the tightest of officially sanctioned channels’.[14]

These arguments are of course contested by the government and its supporters, but such ongoing tensions between the party and social movements highlight the difficult choices for the MAS between widening the hegemonic bloc and responding to its core base. One suggestion is that, rather than the concept of the MAS as the instrument of the social movements, we should think of a pact between them, a pact which is increasingly under strain as different social interests and organisations within the hegemonic bloc assert their own sectional/corporate interests.[15]  What is clear here is the commitment of the MAS government to a strong state.  What is at issue is whether this implies an authoritarian, integral state rather than a state of the social movements. 

The tensions are not only between the government and the social movements, but also between and within social movements and the indigenous population and its organisations.  The rhetoric of vivir bien brings a danger of idealising a communal, egalitarian traditional indigenous society living in harmony with nature in contrast to modern, Western individualism and consumerism.[16]  This is particularly problematic in the context of the rapidly changing class composition of Bolivia, and the contradiction between rapid urbanisation processes and the formation of an Aymara bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the dominant position of rural/campesino interests and values in the government.[17]  Growing conflicts, exacerbated by the TIPNIS dispute, are apparent between campesinos from the highlands in the eastern lowlands, and the ‘original indigenous’ lowland tribes.  These tensions also exhibit themselves over land reform, where many of the former are pressing for individual titles while the latter want communal ownership. 

Such conflicts undermine the cohesiveness of the hegemonic bloc and indicate the real danger of passive revolution: the fragmentation of the hegemonic bloc, the disintegration of a radical hegemonic project, and confirmation of the views of those on both right and left that the MAS government provides a more sustainable context for capital than the foregoing neoliberal regimes, albeit an ‘Andean capitalism’ with a new indigenous bourgeoisie and middle class.

In this conjuncture, the question of the state is becoming central.   Critiques of the growing ‘statism’ of the MAS call to mind Gramsci’s conception of an ‘integral state’ in which an increasingly coercive state dominates civil society.  Such a statisation of civil society stands in opposition to the radical vision of the MAS as the ‘political instrument’ of the social movements, and its occupation of the state on behalf of the social movements – ‘integral civil society’ perhaps.  The realisation of this vision will depend on an active dialectic between state and social movements.  The period in which the social movements led the process of change has given way to one in which the leadership has passed to the MAS government.  We must surely hope for a continuing alternation between these two ‘moments’. 

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


[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] Webber J R (2008) Rebellion to reform in Bolivia.  Part I: Domestic class structure, Latin American trends, and capitalist imperialism.  Historical Materialism 16, 23-58, pp26-27.
[3] Crabtree J and Chaplin A (2013) Bolivia: Processes of Change.  London: Zed Press, Ch 10.
[4] Webber J R (2008) Rebellion to reform in Bolivia.  Part II: Revolutionary epoch, Combined liberation and the December 2005 Elections.  Historical Materialism 16, 3, 55-76, p68.
[5] Tapia L (2008) Bolivia: The left and the social movements.  In Barrett PS Chavez D and Garavito CAR (Eds) (2008) The New Latin American Left: Utopia Reborn.  London: Pluto Press, p230.
[6] Dunkerley J (2007) Evo Morales, the ‘two Bolivias’ and the third Bolivian revolution.  Journal of Latin American Studies 39, 133-166, pp161-162.
[7] Lazar, S (2006) El Alto: Ciudad Rebelde: Organisational bases for revolt.  Bulletin of Latin American Research, 25, 2, 183-199.
[8] Fontana L B (2013) The “Processo de Cambio” and the seventh year crisis: Towards a reconfiguration of the relationship between state and social movements in Bolivia.  Bolivian Studies Journal 19, 190-212, p197.
[9] Ramirez P M (2012) Estado Plurinacional: entre el nuevo proyecto y la factualidad neocolonial.  Revista de Estudios Bolivianos, 19, 132-158, p138.

[10] Tapia L (2010) Consideraciones sobre el Estado Plurinacional, in Fundación Boliviana para la Democracia Multipartidaria , Descolonización en Bolivia: cuatro ejes para comprender el cambio. La Paz: Vicepresidencia del Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, 135168, p166.

[11] Tsolakis A (2011) The reform of the Bolivian state: Domestic politics in the context of globalization.  Boulder and London: First Forum Press.
[12] See note 2, p26.

[13] Aguilar R G (2011) Competing political visions and Bolivia’s unfinished revolution.  Dialectical Anthropology 35, 275-277, p277.
[14] Hylton F (2011) Old wine, new bottles: In search of dialectics.  Dialectical Anthropology 35, 243-247, p246.
[15] Zegada M T, Arce C, Canedo G and Quispe A (2011) La democracia desde les márgenes: Transformaciones en el campo político boliviano.  La Paz: Muela del Diablo Editores, pp314-317.

[16] Fontana, L.B., 2013a. On the perils and potentialities of revolution: conflict and collective action in contemporary Bolivia. Latin American Perspectives, 13 February. doi:10.1177/0094582X13476003, p14.

[17] Stefanoni P (2012) Y quien no querria “vivir bien”?  Encrucijadas del proceso de cambio boliviano.  Critica y Emancipacion, 7, 9-25, pp16-18.

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