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Dealing with the devil

Bertie Russell is sceptical as to whether states can ever be used to move beyond capitalism

September 26, 2010
8 min read

The improvements in the lives of the majority of Bolivians, including the redistribution across the county of a significant proportion of the wealth derived from the country’s resource-rich soils, are clear. What is less clear is whether the Bolivian state is, or is capable of, being used to chart a transition away from capitalism. To explore that question, we must elaborate upon the acknowledged contradiction that underlies Mike Geddes proposition that the state can be the site where capital is both managed and contested. Can activists really be both ‘in and against’ the state? Or does the revolutionary tendency lie elsewhere?

To fully understand the implications of the Bolivian experience, it is crucial that we interpret the MAS as a product of the uprisings that began in 2000. The election of the MAS was not an end in itself, nor the aim of the numerous mobilisations, but a product of the struggles between people and capital – between people and the privatisation of hydrocarbons, the use of fertile land to underwrite investment instead of providing campesino farmland, the attempt to treat water as a source of profit instead of life. The election of the MAS had nothing to do with choosing between politicians and everything to do with movements looking to institutionalise their gains.

The role of the MAS in Bolivian politics can be compared with the New Deal brokered in the turmoil of the Great Depression in the mid-1930s. In the case of the latter, the economic crisis meant capitalism was failing to guarantee access to basic necessities for large parts of the population. This crisis led to F D Roosevelt literally brokering a ‘deal’ between the interests of capital and a strong and rebellious working class, guaranteeing concessions such as social security in exchange for tying wages to productivity.

Less cynical

Whereas the introduction of the welfare state was arguably a conscious move on behalf of the US government to pacify an agitated working class, the election of the MAS was far less cynical. In the case of Bolivia, large proportions of the population were being denied access to the basic necessities of life not because of a failure of capital, but because 20 years of unchecked privatisation had torn millions of people from their land and livelihoods. Furthermore, the coca eradication programmes, part of the US ‘war on drugs’, led to an estimated 50-70,000 job losses annually during 1997-2002.

These included many people who had become cocaleros (coca growers) after being forced out of the tin mines following their privatisation in the 1980s. When the World Bank demanded the privatisation of the water services in 2000, appropriating the infrastructure and more than doubling water bills, the people fought back.

In contrast to the US Great Depression, when the government was able to broker a liberal deal that would both pacify the working class and lead capital out of its crisis, there was no capital-friendly solution to the unbearable conditions that had been created in Bolivia. The neoliberal ideologues that had ruled for 20 years were wholly incapable of providing such a deal – at least not one that the people would stand for – and successive presidents were forced to resign. The election of the MAS came as the solution to this impasse, but rather than arriving with the aim of pacifying the workforce in the interests of further capitalist accumulation, the MAS was an avowedly anti-capitalist response.

While Morales and the MAS offered a clear break with the neoliberal regimes that came before, the similarity of the Bolivian project with the New Deal lies in the fact that both rely fundamentally on the health of capitalism to function. In this sense, Roosevelt and Morales both ultimately occupy the role of guarantors of further capital accumulation. But where the former was concerned with doing just enough to ensure a compliant workforce, the latter aims concretely to improve people’s lives in the process of a ‘move towards socialism’.

This contradiction between needing to maintain the health of capitalism while at the same time desiring revolution is not lost on the Bolivian vice president, Álvaro García Linera, who recognises that: ‘As much as you are the state, you need resources and growing surpluses in order to meet the basic needs of all Bolivians . . . and there, obviously, tension arises.’

What we seek to learn from the Bolivian experience, then, is whether we can improve our immediate living conditions by gaining concessions from capital mediated by the state, while at the same time freeing ourselves from our bonds to the capitalist system. Has the MAS succeeded in overcoming this tension, developing its anti-capitalism within capitalism, or despite the best of intentions, is it merely the New Deal dressed up in radical rhetoric?

New extractivism

The MAS project is based on harnessing a proportion of surplus value and using it to support and expand ‘processes of campesino, communitarian and small-scale modernisation’. In other words, it is hoping to use ‘more capitalism’ to create more ‘non-capitalism’. What this means in practice is a reliance on mineral extraction – especially hydrocarbons – in what Eduardo Gudynas, a senior researcher at the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology, has termed a ‘new extractivism’. The state takes direct control of resources or imposes large royalties on foreign corporations so as to generate the ‘surplus’ necessary to fund government redistribution projects. As in the case of the lithium industry (Bolivia is home to almost half the world’s known lithium reserves), the plan is to further divert a proportion of this surplus towards the industrialisation of Bolivia.

This project leads to two interrelated dangers, raising significant questions about the capacity for the state to be used in challenging the dominance of capital. First, extractivism demands the physical enclosure of lands and livelihoods that otherwise exist predominantly outside of the capitalist sphere. For example, as one campesino explained to me at the third Feria Internacional Del Agua, an event held in April to mark the tenth anniversary of the ‘water wars’, many campesinos are being displaced from their rural subsistence economies because of the pollution of rivers they rely on for potable water. Indeed, while she was telling me her story, miners were occupying the offices of the Japanese-owned San Cristobal mine and overturning freight trains in protest at the contamination of their communities’ water resources with waste water from the mine.

As a result of this displacement, often to already overcrowded city slums, many are forced out of their ‘plural economies’ and into an urban, capitalist economy. Other examples of enclosures include the case of indigenous groups in the Gran Chaco region, who have declared themselves in a ‘state of emergency’ and demonstrated against the government’s authorisation of oil extraction in their territories, a violation of their constitutional rights. Elsewhere, the building of the Inambari hydroelectric dam in the Peruvian Amazon, under the auspices of the regional development agency UNASUR, of which Bolivia is an enthusiastic member, will flood 45,000-plus hectares of forest and displace numerous indigenous communities. Far from protecting and bolstering non-capitalist economies, this development model is inadvertently leading to a process of proletarianisation, as people are being forced off their lands and into selling their labour.

Second, there is a real danger that this reliance on surplus value (and the subsequent distributive projects) is creating an economic subjectivity, whereby discussions become less concerned with whether land and labour should be appropriated and more about who should do the appropriating and what the percentage should be for various parties.

Widespread criticism

While this development model has support from many of the Bolivians who benefit from this exploitation, the government faces widespread criticism. The final declaration of the Mesa 18, a working group excluded by the government from being an official participant at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, concluded that while the Bolivian government entertains ‘a critique of capitalism . . . the development plans of these [ALBA] governments, including the Bolivian government, only reproduces the development model of the past’.

We can only draw tentative and partial analyses of what is occurring. In this respect, Bolivia has shown us that neoliberal regimes really can be overthrown, and there really is an alternative to the neoliberal management of capital. However, it remains an open question as to whether the state can go beyond the role of managing the excesses of capitalism, whether it really can be used as a ‘political instrument for the sovereignty of the peoples’ or whether it is structurally bound to serve in the interests of capitalism.

Bertie Russell is co-author of Space for Movement: Reflections from Bolivia on climate justice, social movements and the state, available online at http://spaceformovement.wordpress.com/

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