Of all the left-leaning governments elected to office in recent years in Latin America, the 2006 election of Evo Morales, head of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, most clearly resulted from popular struggle from below. Among the so-called “pink tide” governments, Bolivia has been deemed by critics and proponents alike to be among the most radical. Just a few months after Morales took power, The Economist, referring to Morales and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, declared that, “A specter has arisen [in Latin America], one of anti-American leftist nationalism.”
Leftists have looked to these governments as beacons of hope and evidence that it is possible to successfully challenge neoliberalism and imperialism at a time when war and economic crisis are ravaging the lives of poor and working people around the globe. Morales’s election was especially inspiring due to the fact that he is the first indigenous president of an overwhelmingly indigenous country and has called out developed countries for their environmental crimes.
While there has been active debate among Bolivian leftists about what position to take toward the MAS party and Morales government, leftists outside Bolivia often see their role as supporting and celebrating rather than deeply understanding the rise of Morales and the MAS. In From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia, Jeffery Webber challenges the international left to look more critically at what the rise of the MAS and the first term of the Morales government represent for struggles against oppression and planetary destruction. The book offers an accessible introduction to the trajectory of Bolivian political developments since 2000, and undertakes a deeper analysis of social, political and economic change and continuity than is found in most progressive writing on Bolivia.
Revolutionary Epoch: 2000-2005
Webber begins by tracing the events of the 2000 to 2005 period, bookended by the 2000 Cochabamba “Water War” that expelled the transnational corporation contracted to administer the city’s water and by the 2005 election of Evo Morales. Webber argues that this period was a “revolutionary epoch” in which “Left indigenous forces” engaged in a “combined liberation struggle that clarified the overlapping of racial oppression and class exploitation and was rooted in the experience of the traditional Bolivian working class, the urban informal proletariat, and poor and/or landless indigenous peasants.” The Water War, the 2003 “Gas War” waged against the effort to export unprocessed gas through Chile and the subsequent fall of two neoliberal presidents in the face of massive popular mobilizations in 2003 and 2005 were the high points of this revolutionary moment.
As Webber explains, these struggles emerged in response to two decades of neoliberal economic restructuring. Popular movements made clear their rejection of neoliberal “reforms” that involved the privatization of publically-owned industries like mining, gas, and telecommunications; the dismissal of tens of thousands of public sector workers; dismantling labor protections; and eroding union strength.
The “October Agenda,” the demands that came out of the Gas War, included nationalization of gas reserves, punishment of those responsible for the over 70 deaths during the uprising, and a constituent assembly based on social movements and organizations to rewrite the country’s constitution and refound the country in the interests of the indigenous majority.
However, in Webber’s estimation revolutionary upheaval did not result in social revolution. Rather, it was effectively channeled down an electoral path to moderate reform by the MAS party leadership.
The MAS was born out of a split in the 1990s peasant movement between the highland Aymaras led by Felipe Quispe and the coca-growers of the Chapare region of Cochabamba. It was originally the Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (IPSP). Webber emphasizes that the IPSP was founded not as a political party but as a political vehicle for social movements that wanted to keep their autonomy from political parties. This attitude stemmed from widespread disenchantment with the traditional parties of both the left and the right. Nevertheless, the IPSP took on the name of a defunct political party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), in order to compete in elections. Webber argues that the MAS came to the fore in the revolutionary period because it “was the only popular party able to articulate some of the sentiment of the organized masses beyond a local or regional basis.” He attributes its success in part to its ability to “indianize” revolutionary nationalism.
Morales’s election in 2005 was an enormous achievement made possible by the mobilization of indigenous movements, organized peasants and coca growers, unionized workers and the urban informal sector and poor. Morales’s very election represented a massive blow to the traditional political and economic power structure of the country and deeply entrenched anti-indigenous racism, and the reforms he has implemented have helped to reverse some of the worst effects of neoliberal policies.
The government raised taxes on the gas industry, increased the minimum wage and introduced new subsidies to retirees and families with school-age children, among other reforms. Webber recognizes the weight of these developments but focuses on the limits to these reforms out of a sense that Morales was elected with a mandate to carry out much more radical restructuring, and that much more fundamental change was possible.
The central aim of the book is to demonstrate that the MAS steered a revolutionary movement back into the clutches of the dictates of globalized capitalism, and to explain how and why. Rather than replace neoliberalism with a new more equitable model, Webber argues that Morales has overseen a process whereby neoliberalism has been “reconstituted.” This is most evident for him in the Morales government’s efforts from the beginning to guarantee corporations optimal conditions for realizing profits.
The MAS in Government
Webber is especially critical of the fact that Morales very quickly forfeited control of financial policy to the Bolivian Central Bank, based the National Development Plan (2006-2010) on exports of non-value-added natural resources and failed to truly resurrect the state gas company (YPFB) or reconstruct the state mining company (COMIBOL). And while the government repeatedly attempted to make peace with the right-wing forces based in eastern Bolivia, it made little effort to move from party-based to social movement-based politics as the MAS had promised — and as the social movements had demanded.
Webber traces the MAS’s increasingly moderate reformism to its shift toward electoral politics and the changing class character of the party. The rise of current Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera represented the incorporation of white urban middle-class intellectuals into the party leadership and ideological retreat on the question of revolutionary transformation. Garcia Linera’s “Andean Amazonian Capitalism” model hews closely to a Stalinist program of revolution in stages, arguing that Bolivia will not be ready for socialist transformation until it undergoes at least several decades of capitalist development. These shifts as well as the effort to market itself to more moderate sectors help explain why the MAS was absent from the streets during the most important battle of the revolutionary period in October 2003. Instead, Morales was behind the scenes, attempting to negotiate a solution to the crisis with the neoliberal government.
Webber is not alone in pointing out the continuities between the neoliberal policies of past governments and the MAS’s economic program. Many Bolivian leftists have been making these links since the first months of Morales’s tenure. But few leftists outside Bolivia acknowledge the government’s moderation, and those who do are usually quick to explain and defend it. Even within Bolivia in-depth political-economic analysis of these continuities is rare. So what is reconstituted neoliberalism?
The short answer is that international investment and raw-material-export-oriented growth are still the name of the economic game, but with increased taxes on transnational corporations doing business in Bolivia, greater state intervention in the economy and some increases in social spending.
As Webber writes, while the Morales model “represents a modest push beyond neoliberal orthodoxies, it nonetheless continues to conceal the inherent components of class conflict, alienation, dispossession, and state coercion inherent in the capitalist system. Whatever the pretenses of transnational ‘partners,’ as opposed to ‘bosses,’ the capitalist state’s principal role of facilitating the conditions for the ongoing accumulation of capital has not been interrupted by the Morales government’s new development program.”
The MAS has tried to resolve the contradiction between indigenous liberation and neoliberalism by separating “the indigenous revolution against racist oppression from the socialist revolution to end class exploitation.” This is a key point. It is precisely the earlier unity of these struggles that was so novel and promising, and that leads Webber to characterize the 2000-2005 period as a revolutionary epoch.
The MAS and State Power
At their root, the contradictions of the MAS project flow out of its theory of the state. As Webber explains, for the MAS the state under capitalism is a set of benign institutions that can function outside and above capitalist priorities. The MAS’s ideology is based on a long-standing left-nationalist hope that the national capitalist class will become progressive if leftists push them. This explains why the MAS has been so conciliatory not only to transnational and local capital but also to the right-wing in the East.
Some of the MAS’s defenders claim that this stage is transitory. They argue that the masses need state power first before socialism can be constructed, so the MAS leadership has opted for an electoral “route” to socialism and decolonization of the state. Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera and MAS loyalists believe that electing their representatives to power is one of many possible strategies that the popular movements can choose among to move toward socialism.
But what they conceive of as a choice among strategies is in reality a question of goals. Leftist popular movements have found time and time again that trying to use the existing state to revolutionize society has led to the cooptation of leaders and the defeat of social movements. Both the MAS and these observers fall prey to the conviction that capitalism can be good for everyone: Latin America and the “developed” world, peasants, workers and capitalists.
The relevance of Webber’s intervention has only become clearer in the months since the book was published earlier this year. When indigenous communities marched in opposition to a government-promoted highway project that would cut their territories in half, the government denounced them as rightist and imperialist agents and sent the police to attack the march. Without a critical framework, activists outside Bolivia cannot understand this conflict, let alone take a position of solidarity with the marchers. Months before this conflict ever erupted, Webber offered prescient words: “Taking a position of uncritical loyalty to the MAS government will likely put many well-intentioned progressives on the wrong side of indigenous peasant and proletarian struggles for justice in many instances.”
Webber reminds us that as leftists outside Bolivia, our first alliance should be with the oppressed and exploited themselves and not with leaders and governments that claim to speak in their name. He also challenges the idea that socialist revolution is not possible in underdeveloped countries like Bolivia until after a long period of capitalist development. As Argentine socialist Claudio Katz argues, “it is evident that the impediments to developing a competitive capitalist system in countries such as Bolivia are at least as great as the obstacles to initiating socialist transformations.”
The social movements that reached their revolutionary apex in the 2000-2005 period were steered into reformist electoralism and partially demobilized, but they have hardly disappeared. In fact, the highway conflict brought critical leftist movements and individuals within Bolivia out onto the streets, began to radicalize a new layer and helped to initiate dialogue and organizing initiatives among diverse organizations and individuals. As this process continues to unfold in the coming months and years, Webber’s book is a critical tool for understanding the limits and possibilities of the current political situation.
Sarah Hines is a socialist from the United States living in Bolivia.