Bolivia’s VP on building plebeian power in a neoliberal age

Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera.

Plebeian Power: Collective Action & Indigenous, Working-Class & Popular Identities in Bolivia
By Alvaro Garcia Linera
Haymarket Books, 2014
345 pp, US$28.00


Alvaro Garcia Linera, twice-elected vice-president of Bolivia, is the continent’s most prominent theoretician-politician to place 21st century Latin American left thought in a Marxist framework.

All but one of 10 chapters in his book Plebeian Power were previously published between 1998 and 2005. Their topics include Marxism, the indigenous movement, social movements, the labour movement and the state. In spite of the time span, the essays present a consistent whole.

Garcia Linera’s thinking represents a synthesis of Marxism, with its class analysis and structural focus, and indigenismo (“Indianism”), based on the celebration of longstanding indigenous cultural practices and communitarian relationships. Garcia Linera’s own trajectory reflects the convergence of Marxist and indigenous components.

As an activist in the Katarista guerrilla movement, he was captured, tortured and jailed for five years in the 1990s. The Kataristas put forward an indigenista critique of the leadership of the nation’s 1952 revolution as well as the traditional left.

According to this view, which Garcia Linera articulates throughout the book, the revolutionary government after 1952 sacrificed purely indigenous demands and aspirations to promote modernisation and assimilation.

In addition to indigenismo, Garcia Linera became a leading advocate of Marxism, which he studied extensively during his stay in prison, beginning with a close reading of Karl Marx’s Capital. While an adamant critic of the traditional left, Garcia Linera points to the emergence in the 1990s of a “dialogue, admittedly tense, between the Indianist current and … critical-Marxist intellectual currents”.

He asserts that this “mutual enrichment” is likely to produce “the most important emancipatory conceptions of society in Bolivia in the twenty-first century”.

Garcia Linera not only helped bring together indigenismo and Marxism, but also served as a “bridge” (as the introductory essay by journalist Pablo Stefanoni puts it) between the peasant and indigenous populations, on the one hand, and the urban middle class on the other. For this reason, President Evo Morales, an indigenous leader of the coca growers union, selected him as his running mate in 2005.

In reaching out to urban sectors, Garcia Linera distanced himself from the more extreme indigenista position represented by Felipe Quispe, a former Katarista leader who called for the Indianization of Bolivian society and an indigenous-led Bolivian government.

Garcia Linera views Morales’ Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party as a realistic alternative to Quispe’s approach in that MAS favored “an electoral route of gradual, institutional changes”. Indeed, just days after becoming vice-president in 2005, Garcia Linera called MAS a party of the “centre-left”.

Garcia Linera analyses in detail the social impact of the economic transformations in Bolivia starting in the 1980s. During these years, large-scale, export-oriented agriculture, along with the hydrocarbon industry, both located in the eastern lowlands, displaced tin mining and agricultural production for internal consumption.

This shift, along with neoliberal practices such as outsourcing and downsizing, fragmented, dispersed and reduced the size of the traditional industrial working class. It all but crippled the formerly powerful workers’ confederation, the Bolivian Workers’ Centre (COB).

The resulting subjective conditions in Bolivia, as in the rest of the world in the age of globalisation, were not conducive to workers’ combativeness, but rather “conservative consciousness” and “bargaining over the concessions and rights framing their subordination”.

Garcia Linera’s pessimism regarding the prospects for socialist revolution during the current period rests on his acceptance of the Marxist premise on the decisive role played by the proletariat acting from within the system of production. Not surprisingly, he refers to the “long process” of thoroughgoing change, which begins in “each labor centre”.

At the time of the 2005 elections, Garcia Linera declared that “Andean capitalism” and not socialism was destined to become the dominant economic system in Bolivia in the 21st century. Some leftists sharply criticised him for relegating socialism to the far-distant future, but he was hardly defending capitalism dominated by monopoly or multinational corporations.

He points out that family-based economic structures generate 70% of the nation’s urban employment, while a large percentage of the rural work force is based on communitarian relations. Thus the state needs to “coordinate in a balanced way” the community-based economy (in the countryside), family-based production and the modern industrial sector, rather than prioritise the latter as it has up until now.

According to this vision, the state allocates hydrocarbon-derived revenue to facilitate self-managed enterprises, which are the essence of what Garcia Linera calls “Andean” and “Amazonian” capitalism.

Although pessimistic regarding current workers’ struggles, Garcia Linera highlights the revolutionary potential of the indigenous population. Through most of the 20th Century and especially after 1952, unions and other social movements espoused “mestizo ideology”. They were the “product of the economic modernization of the business elites”.

In contrast, by the end of the 20th century, the movements “with the greatest power to challenge the political order” in Bolivia were those of the rural-based indigenous population outside of the modern economy. Especially significant for Garcia Linera is that indigenous voters, who had traditionally supported mestizo politicians, voted “en masse for Indians” in the 2002 elections. Crucially, social leaders also now tend to be indigenous, while political movements on the left are indigenous-led.

He also considers the “predominantly political and ethno-national nature” of rural struggles in the early 21st Century a positive development, especially when compared to the economic focus of the peasant struggles of previous decades.

Garcia Linera’s pessimism regarding the working class and optimism regarding the indigenous population has to be placed in the context of globalisation. Writing during the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s, he rejected the technological determinism defended by neoliberals who asserted that recent advances in technology and organisation had a predetermined outcome.

In this vein, he attempted to refute the “conservative and pseudo-leftist arguments” emerging from the “framework that fetishizes technology”. Defenders of technological determinism of both neoliberal and mechanical Marxist varieties tend to denigrate the importance of indigenous community organisation and subsistence agriculture as well as the struggles of the indigenous population, which they consider to be anachronistic.

In effect, for Garcia Linera the technical changes associated with globalisation weakened the working class and thus ruled out socialism in the near future, but did not signify the predominance of any specific capitalist model.

In championing “Andean capitalism”, Garcia Linera supported a very different type of capitalism than that of the multinational-dominated global economy that the neoliberals claimed was inevitable on grounds “there is no alternative” (TINA).

Garcia Linera identifies himself with a “new left” in Bolivia that emerged at the turn of the century and that, according to him, had little in common with the old left. Throughout the book, he lashes out at the nation’s traditional left for its “modernist” worldview that “created a cognitive block and an epistemological impossibility with respect to two realities — Bolivia’s campesino and ethnic issue”.

But in putting forward this critique, he fails to establish distinctions between different parties or currents on the left. The criticism is more valid with regard to the social democratic Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), which spearheaded the 1952 revolution, than to Marxist left groups, but Garcia Linera lumps them all together.

Surprisingly the book makes no mention of Peruvian communist leader Jose Carlos Mariategui, who viewed the Inca heritage and indigenous communitarian practices as assets in the struggle for socialism.

Throughout the book, the dogmatic left becomes a straw man, as Garcia Linera states or implies that leftists in general adhere to reductionist and positivist notions.

An example is his assertion that the “Marxist Left” expressed contempt for the peasantry and “identified the agrarian reality as an indicator of the ‘backwardness’ that would have to give way to the ‘progress’ of industry”. He adds that “agriculture appeared to be a liability for the subjects of the social revolution — the proletarians — who had to find the best way to ‘drag along’ the small landholders”.

Elsewhere Garcia Linera makes reference to “the condescending attention that the Left awarded to the indigenous movement”.

Garcia Linera’s celebration of the demands of the indigenous population and its community-based economy makes him very much a 21st Century Latin American left thinker. Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the 21st Century Latin American left is its prioritisation of marginalised sectors as opposed to the proletariat.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, for instance, declared that as president he was committed to acting on behalf of Venezuelans of all classes, but that he extended priority treatment to the very poor because they needed his help the most. Liberation theology, which exerted a major influence on the 21st century Latin American left, preached a similar message and claimed it was embodied in the bible. 

Garcia Linera, like other 21st century leftists, envisions a clear break with the past. The problem with this narrative is that it fails to establish a meaningful contrast between reformist and neoliberal governments.

A more nuanced analysis is in order. A more rigorous account of the positive and negative features of the different leftist groups in Bolivia would go a long way toward placing the rise of the 21st Century left in historical perspective.

[Reprinted from Socialism and Democracy.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.