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


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