The Bolivian state, the statist left

MR Zine has an informative article by Susan Spronk on the electoral aspirations of Bolivia’s MAS and its relationship with the country’s social movements and with the international left. Spronk criticizes MAS’s past capitulations and “increasing electoralism,” but she’s still entangled in familiar ways of thinking about movements, parties, and state politics—namely, that for Bolivia “the only way to achieve a more just society in the long term is to build strong mass movements from the bottom up that are willing to take state power” and that despite MAS’s problems, “it deserves the support of the international left” because it “is an anti-imperialist party fighting for economic independence.”

The relevant tension here is not between calling for a real, authentic social movement while supporting, albeit cautiously, a party that everyone admits is anything but; neither is it the tired debate over which is the correct path, seizing state power or acting autonomously of it. Rather, the tension is between the demands made by Bolivian social movements and how those demands are interpreted by, articulated by, and integrated into “Northern” discussions of Bolivia. Or to put it more baldly, it’s between what Northern leftists want and what Bolivians want.

In North America there has been some excellent leftist commentary and reporting on Bolivia recently. However, despite its ability to portray the complex political dynamics at play in the country, in the end most of it reductive, satisfying itself with two demands: Leftist Bolivians must unite and take state power, and then their first action must be to nationalize the country’s huge natural-gas reserves. Jeffrey Webber, for instance, points to the fissures in the social movements as a sign of weakness: “the popular forces—despite their capacity to mobilize themselves—remain divided and without a coherent political project to replace the ancien regime.” Instead of seeing the divisions as productive, or envisioning a movement that might use the lack of coherence to go in different, nonstatist directions, he wants to smooth out the rifts to achieve a higher unity. After all, “if the left doesn’t take power, … the right wins almost by default.”

Like Webber, Christian Parenti, who has written about Bolivia for The Nation, assumes that the only way forward is by electoralism and nationalization. He is even convinced enough that he feels compelled to deliver Bolivians a pointed, if polite, lecture:

Many in the social movements dismiss elections as a trap; they attempt to go around the machinery of government by turning protest into what Oscar Olivera calls self-management, and they critique Evo Morales and MAS for being fixated on the presidency. But making radical demands on the old political class is insufficient. Nationalization and a reconstruction of the political order are projects so massive that they may require the left to take power, ready or not.

Of the many problems with these imperatives by Northern leftists, the crucial one is that they don’t appear to be shared by the Bolivian social movements. Yes, the movements do call for the nationalization of hydrocarbons, but that’s just one of a long list of demands. (It’s more than a little interesting that Northerners focus so laserlike on Bolivia’s gas and oil, to exclusion of so much else.) And most of the popular groups seem content to let electoral, and even state, politics go on above them. Indeed, during the May-June oil wars, most of them saw the government’s electoral concessions as a way of diffusing the huge protests and co-opting the more moderate elements participating in the uprising.

This seems to have worked, as MAS is focusing on next month’s elections. Spronk points out that a MAS victory could act as a way to “disarticulate [the] movements,” which the social movements have already said. Too bad other Northern leftists don’t express such hesitations.

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