Friday, February 10, 2017


Talk I will be giving at Pomona College on March 21

Monday, January 23, 2017

My Book Review of Alvaro García Linera's "Plebian Power"


Alvaro García Linera, Plebeian Power: Collective Action and Indigenous, Working-Class and Popular Identities in Bolivia (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014), 345 pp., $28.00. 

            Alvaro García Linera, twice-elected vice-president of Bolivia, is the continent’s most prominent theoretician-politician to place “twenty-first century Latin American left” thought in a Marxist framework. All but one of the book’s ten chapters were previously published, between 1998 and 2005. Their topics include Marxism, the indigenous movement, social movements, the labor movement and the state. In spite of the time span, the essays present a consistent whole.

            García 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. García 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 García Linera articulates throughout the book, the revolutionary government after 1952 sacrificed purely indigenous demands and aspirations in order to promote modernization and assimilation.

            In addition to indigenismo, García Linera became a leading advocate of Marxism, which he studied extensively during his stay in prison, beginning with a close reading of Capital. While an adamant critic of the traditional left, García Linera points to the emergence in the 1990s of a “dialogue, admittedly tense, between the Indianist current and… critical-Marxist intellectual currents” (315). He ends the book by asserting that this “mutual enrichment” is likely to produce “the most important emancipatory conceptions of society in Bolivia in the twenty-first century” (321).

            García 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, Evo Morales selected him as his running mate in 2005. In reaching out to urban sectors, García 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. García Linera sees Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party as a realistic alternative to Quispe’s approach in that MAS favored “an electoral route of gradual, institutional changes” (280). Indeed, just days after becoming vice-president in 2005, García Linera called MAS a party of the “center-left.”

            García Linera analyzes in detail the social impact of the economic transformations in Bolivia beginning 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, and all but crippled the formerly powerful workers’ confederation, the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB). The resultant subjective conditions in Bolivia, as in the rest of the world in the age of globalization, were conducive not to workers’ combativeness but rather “conservative consciousness” and “bargaining over the concessions and rights framing their subordination” (45). García Linera’s pessimism regarding the prospects for socialist revolution during the current period rests on his acceptance of the Marxist premise regarding 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 center” (75).

            At the time of the 2005 elections, García Linera declared that “Andean capitalism” and not socialism was destined to become the dominant economic system in Bolivia in the twenty-first century. Some leftists sharply criticized 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 percent 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 prioritize 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 García Linera calls “Andean” and “Amazonian” capitalism.

            Although pessimistic regarding current proletarian struggles, García Linera highlights the revolutionary potential of the indigenous population. Through most of the twentieth century and especially after 1952, labor unions and other social movements espoused “mestizo ideology” and were the “product of the economic modernization of the business elites” (270). In contrast, by the end of the twentieth 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 García Linera is that indigenous voters, who had traditionally supported mestizo politicians, voted “en masse for Indians” in the 2002 elections (275), and that social leaders now tend to be indigenous while political movements on the left are indigenous-led. He also considers the “predominantly political and ethno-national nature” (313) of rural struggles in the early twenty-first century a positive development, especially when compared to the economic focus of the peasant struggles of previous decades.

            García Linera’s pessimism regarding the proletariat and optimism regarding the indigenous population have to be placed in the context of globalization. Writing during the heyday of neoliberalism in the 1990s, García Linera rejected the technological determinism defended by neoliberals who asserted that recent advances in technology and organization had a predetermined outcome. In this vein, he attempted to refute the “conservative and pseudo-leftist arguments” emerging from the “framework that fetishizes technology” (30). Defenders of technological determinism of both neoliberal and mechanical Marxist varieties tend to denigrate the importance of indigenous community organization and subsistence agriculture as well as the struggles of the indigenous population, which they consider to be anachronistic. In effect, for García Linera the technical changes associated with globalization 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,” García 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).

            García 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” (308). In putting forward this critique, he fails to establish distinctions between different parties or currents on the left. While the criticism is more valid with regard to the social democratic Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), which spearheaded the 1952 revolution, than to Marxist left groups, García Linera lumps them all together. Surprisingly the book makes no mention of Peruvian communist leader José Carlos Mariátegui, 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 García 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” (308). Elsewhere García Linera makes reference to “the condescending attention that the Left awarded to the indigenous movement” (151).

            García Linera’s celebration of the demands of the indigenous population and its community-based economy makes him very much a “twenty-first century Latin American left” thinker. Indeed, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the twenty-first century Latin American left is its prioritization of marginalized sectors as opposed to the proletariat. Hugo Chávez, 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 twenty-first century Latin American left, preached a similar message and claimed it was embodied in the bible. 

            García Linera, like other twenty-first century leftists, envisions a clear break with the past. The problem with their 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 twenty-first century left in historical perspective.
Steve Ellner

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Winter 2017 Issue

In the article I argue that the characterization of Venezuela as a “failed state” facing a “humanitarian crisis” intensifies political polarization, plays into the hands of the opposition’s radical fringe, and hinders efforts, promoted by Pope Francisco, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and others, to establish a national dialogue over pressing issues

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Read this moving interview with Robert Meeropol, the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and then sign the petition calling on Obama to exonerate his mother. The proof of her innocence is overwhelming; beginning with the fact that her main accusers (her brother and sister-in-law) swore in their grand jury testimony that she was completely innocent, only to change their story later on. This, according to Meeropol (based on documents), was due to pressure from, among others, the notorious Roy Cohen, the pathological liar and mentor to Donald Trump. KGP files assigned code names to both accusers but not to her. Listen to the interview and then sign the petition.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Some thoughts of mine on the broader implications of the Trump phenomenon

Many analysts have belittled the seriousness of Trump's anti-globalization rhetoric and even such jingoistic proposals as the construction of a wall along the Mexican border. They point to Trump’s  appointments of such global players as Rex Tillerson and Steven Mnuchin as evidence that Trump cannot and will not turn his back on global commitments and realities.

Along these lines, Bill Robinson (whose work I have always admired and used extensively in the classroom) argues that Trump represents the rise of neo-fascism, but in no way threatens to put a halt to, or a break on, globalization. As proof, he points to the global dimensions of Trump’s own capitalist holdings.

In contrast to Robinson, I argue that globalization is still basically a tendency rather than an all-encompassing reality and that the nation state is a fundamental element, which has to be at the center of any analysis of the world’s political economy. The Trump phenomenon demonstrates that the ruling class of the world's most powerful nation is very much divided as to the pluses and minuses of globalization, in two ways. First, the hardened opposition to Trump’s candidacy by much of the U.S. elite indicates the degree to which the nation’s ruling class is fractured. Second, the willingness of former adversaries within the establishment to make their peace with Trump puts in evidence the ruling class’s ambivalence regarding globalization. Had Bernie Sanders been elected president, the ruling class in its totality would have carried out an all-out campaign against him both before and after his election. The fact that Republicans and business leaders who doggedly opposed Trump’s candidacy have toned down their rhetoric, and are seeking an understanding with the new president, is a reflection of the ambivalence of the nation’s elite regarding globalization. Furthermore, even before Trump’s nomination as Republican Party candidate, he counted on the unwavering support of such important political actors as Fox News and Newt Gingrich, who undoubtedly represent the interests of sectors of the nation’s bourgeoisie.

Trump's anti-globalization discourse cannot be discarded as mere bluster. To completely turn his back on his main campaign offer of reversing free trade policies would be political suicide. By doing so, Trump would forfeit his largest social base of support – that is, the white working class – and leave himself vulnerable to the revengeful actions of powerful political actors who he had insulted during the campaign, who would then give encouragement to and abet popular and progressive sectors opposed to his reactionary positions. There is a consistency to Trump's positions. His racist statements particularly against Mexicans are designed to underpin and provide credibility to his promises to put a halt to the exodus of jobs and to renegotiate NAFTA. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that two major targets of Trump's attacks are Mexico and China, while he has at least until now had kind words for Russia's Vladimir Putin. Mexico and China, unlike Russia, have been major recipients of U.S. investments in the area of production for the U.S. market.

Trump’s aim is not to return to pre-globalization times or to insulate the U.S. economy from global pressures. If that were the case he would not have chosen Tillerson and Mnuchin for such top cabinet posts. However, for reasons I state above, he will probably go beyond mere symbolic gestures to counter aspects of globalization; such actions will have an important impact on the economy, given the volatility of financial markets.

 What the Trump phenomenon tells us is that globalization writers of all stripes underestimate the degree to which the U. S. bourgeoisie is concerned about the deteriorated state of affairs in the nation. Humanitarian considerations are obviously not in the forefront of its concerns. Regardless of the degree to which their business interests are tied to the global economy and the intricacy of those ties, U.S. businesspeople are affected in major ways by decisions taken at the level of the nation state. And the U.S. bourgeoisie has infinitely greater clout in Washington than in any European nation, and even more so in the case of China. The importance of this political factor is the most convincing explanation as to why the U.S. bourgeoisie is receptive, to the extent that it is, to Trump's proposals to "make America great again."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Felipe Carrillo Puerto and the socialist legacy in Mexico

The presence of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the socialist governor of Yucatan who was executed in 1924, is everywhere in Merida, Mexico. There is a park, statue and district (“colonia”) with his name, as well as the Teatro Felipe Carrillo Puerto that is part of the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán that he founded as governor of the state. Carrillo Puerto was allied with Zapata (and later Obregón and Calles) and attempted to apply the agrarian reform to Yucatan. He also promoted worker unionization, the diffusion of the Mayan language and defended women’s rights. He was executed in a right-wing revolt that spread to the rest of Mexico in an attempt to overthrow the government of Obregón and Calles. The veneration of the socialist Carrillo Puerto in Mérida serves to refute the half truths and stereotypes promoted by those who vilify the socialist tradition and legacy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Pluses and Minuses of Jobs

The movie Jobs about the life of Steve Jobs is worth seeing. I liked it in one sense but felt it fell short in another. I liked it because it relates Jobs’ personal life to the type of company he made out of Apple. His relationship with his ex-wife (or ex-partner) and especially his daughter was really sick. He was a control freak who hurt the only person he loved (his daughter) in order to control her. And that’s exactly what his business strategy was. Google uses open source, and Microsoft doesn’t force Windows users to buy exclusively Microsoft programs. But Apple is different. It’s as if tires on GM cars have to be GM-produced, and their cars could only run on GM-gasoline. In short, the movie shows how Jobs was a control freak in both his personal life and his business life.
The downside of the movie is that it dwells too much on the personal drama, and there is little about what was really going on in the company with regard to the development of cutting-edge technology. And the movie ends with ipods: nothing about tablets, iphones, mobile technology, and the like. Throughout the move, scenes hark back to a decision that was made back in the mid-80s with regard to Apple 2 and Macintosh.

Worth seeing, but don’t hold your breath.