Fantasies aside, it's reconstituted neoliberalism in Bolivia under Morales

Bolivia today: an exchange

Jeffery R. Webber’s article, “Bolivia’s reconstituted neoliberalism” (International Socialist Review 73, September–October 2010), drew a dissenting response from Federico Fuentes, editor of the Bolivia Rising blog and a regular contributor on Latin American politics for Green Left Weekly. Find Fuentes's contribution, "Government, social movements, and revolution in Bolivia today," also in this issue. Below is Webber's rejoinder.

FREDERICO FUENTES has done important work in Latin America over the last number of years, bringing to the Anglophone world regular updates and translations from Caracas on Venezuelan developments, maintaining an important news resource on Bolivia,, and providing analytical dispatches to the Australian newspaper, Green Left Weekly. In Caracas, he has worked closely with Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker and the Canadian Marxist Michael Lebowitz—both of whom have acted as advisers to Hugo Chávez—at the Centro Internacional Miranda. Fuentes also recently joined the editorial board of Marea Socialista, or Socialist Tide, in my estimation the best single source of commentary on the unfolding political processes in Venezuela under Chávez. As an activist, furthermore, Fuentes has participated in vital educational work on the Bolivarian process through lecture tours in Australia and Canada, and probably a host of other destinations of which I am unaware.

I have every respect, then, for the passion and commitment that Fuentes brings to our discussion of the Bolivian conjuncture. It is all the more regretful, given this background, that in his response to my article, Fuentes frequently levels petty charges of intellectual dishonesty against me, and alleges that I willfully conceal evidence when and where it contradicts my pre-established views of Morales. I am also, apparently, guilty by association with “autonomists”—and others on the far left with whom Fuentes clashes—of naive politics that lack the sort of strategic clarity that Fuentes brings to the table.

The initial two paragraphs of Fuentes’s response constitute the opening salvos of a polemic informed by historical amnesia and, at its worst moments, parochial sectarianism. He claims, at the outset, to introduce my view on class struggle under Morales, which is then juxtaposed with his more serious alternative. Three problems quickly emerge.

First, the quotation of my work in the first paragraph of Fuentes is selective in the extreme. It seeks, furthermore, to lay the basis for a problematic that then runs throughout Fuentes’s piece—the notion that I somehow overestimate the potentialities of a revolutionary left emerging spontaneously, or even having already emerged in full form, outside of the MAS [Movement Toward Socialism] in contemporary Bolivia. Here is how Fuentes quotes me:

While Morales’ government implements “reconstituted neoliberalism,” Webber believes hope lies in the “episodic strikes and other social movements” which “signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS.” Any serious analysis of the dynamic of class struggle under the Morales government clearly contradicts Webber’s view.

Here is the original passage in my article (with emphasis added) from which Fuentes has selected:

Class contradictions inherent to the development model are slowlygenerating cracks and conflict, expressed in episodic strikes and other social movements such as those in the Colquiri mining district in 2009, and the teacher, factory worker, miner, and health care worker strikes of May 2010. These may signal the renewal of collective action from the left of the MAS, something that could very well grow in the near future so long as the Morales administration continues to pursue an economic model based on reconstituted neoliberalism.

The relevance of this context is that I am quite explicit in avoiding exaggeration—“slowly generating,” “may signal,” “so long as,” etc.—regarding the strength and immediate potential of existing popular class capacities to forge an independent path to the left of the MAS, while at the same time highlighting the real—and, indeed, obvious—conflicts that the MAS’s reconstituted neoliberalism has begun to generate, and is sure to deepen in the future if it does not change the course of its political economic strategy. Where does Fuentes stand in relation to the waves of strikes I mentioned, on the side of the workers or on the side of Morales? It cannot be both.

Along similar lines, Fuentes later draws out the logic he has inventively inserted into my analysis through selective quotation, implicitly suggesting that I believe there is currently an articulated revolutionary and socialist project to the left of the MAS. If only this was the case! Fuentes notes, as though challenging my perspective, that “there is no evidence of the emergence of any political challenge proposing a more ‘revolutionary’ or ‘socialist’ strategy opposed to that of the MAS leadership.” Footnote 21 purports to offer an example of my delusions in this regard. In the note, Fuentes is skeptical that the Potosí revolt was in any way a “break” with the MAS on the part of those protesting. I wonder how he would better describe a massive, politicized general strike that shut down a strategic corridor of the country for an extended period, and which was rooted geographically in a department where 80 percent of the citizenry had voted for the MAS in the last elections, but which subsequently felt betrayed by various neoliberal continuities in MAS economic policy. I can report that at the height of that particular crisis, the masista officials involved in negotiating an end to the strike, with whom I was sharing an SUV ride across La Paz, certainly saw it in those terms. Still, neither the masistas nor myself ever described this as a revolutionary or socialist break.

With this in mind, the rest of footnote 21 is simply disingenuous. “It is hard to see,” Fuentes reports, “how this represents a break with ‘populism,’ let alone capitalism.” Fuentes’s readers could be forgiven for assuming that in the article he is citing I had actually argued that the Potosí rebellion broke with “capitalism.” Of course, I did nothing of the kind. There is a disturbing tendency here, repeated elsewhere in Fuentes’s text, whereby we witness a creative extension into fantasy from kernels of my actual theoretical and political positions. These ethereal creations of Fuentes then become his central theater of battle, in which he courageously smashes arguments I’ve never made.

Returning to the opening paragraphs of Fuentes’s response, the second problem that presents itself is a banal truism, posing as theoretical innovation, with which I am in ostensible disagreement: “The trend,” after Morales assumed office, Fuentes writes, “has been one of a continuation of class struggle, albeit under different conditions.” Literally, not a single Marxist would disagree. Nor, obviously, do I pretend this isn’t the case.

A voice from the palace
But a third problem raises its head in these opening paragraphs, an area of real discord between myself and Fuentes, when he attempts to explain those “different conditions.” Fuentes’s first analytical move is an inexplicable shift to depoliticized number-crunching. He introduces figures of “conflicts”—whatever that means—collated by the CERES [Centro de Estudio de la Realidad Economica y Social] think tank, figures which are supposed to reveal a steady uptick in popular class mobilizations since 2000, indeed increasing in intensity under Morales. These figures obscure more than they unveil without a clear political analysis and contextualization. A crude empiricism is also evident in footnote 4, where we learn of 2,374 meetings between Morales and undifferentiated social organizations, and 75 percent of “agreements” with social organizations being carried out by Morales. There is no substance here whatsoever as to the nature of the meetings or the class character of the agreements, and I would argue this marks a first low point in his response to my article, where Fuentes becomes little more than an uncritical spokesperson for the Presidential Palace in La Paz. These are precisely the kind of empty statements we hear from every trivial address of state officials to the Bolivian public.

Moreover, while Fuentes wants to tell a story of perpetually rising class struggle since 2000, albeit under different conditions, he is at the same time wedded to the idea that the MAS plays a pivotal leadership role from above to an otherwise rudderless band of localized social movements. Thus, he argues that the “conflicts” cited by CERES are indicative of what is still “fragmented, dispersed and corporative” popular struggles in the Morales epoch. In a bid for consistency, this is how Fuentes describes the preceding 2000 to 2005 period as well—as fragmented, dispersed, and corporative—apart from the inexplicable anomalies of the 2003 and 2005 Gas Wars.

There are layers of confusion and internal contradiction to this approach. To put it bluntly, Fuentes is out of his depth in this entire section, as he attempts to chart the last decade of Bolivian politics. There is quite literally no evidence in the historiography of the period that supports his casual assertions—dismissals in large part—of the unprecedented left-indigenous insurrectionary cycle between 2000 and 2005. It makes sense, then, before proceeding, to revisit this history very briefly.

What really happened in Bolivia between 2000 and 2005?
In my original article for ISR, I accurately described the 2000 to 2005 cycle of insurrection as follows:

Bolivian popular movements have been at the cutting edge of resistance to neoliberalism in Latin America in recent years. Latin America, in turn, has been the region of the world most militantly opposed to the social depravities of neoliberalism. Radical left-indigenous movements rose up in an insurrectionary cycle with a breadth and intensity unparalleled in the Western hemisphere in the first five years of the current century. The popular upheavals of the Water War against privatization in 2000 turned the tide against the previous fifteen years of right-wing assault.... This was followed by the ousting of two neoliberal presidents in the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005, through mass extra-parliamentary insurrections—Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa, respectively, were tossed out in the course of these street battles. All this laid the basis for Evo Morales’s successful bid to become the country’s first indigenous president, as leader of the MAS, in the December 2005 elections.

This is not the stuff of fragmentation, localism, or corporatism. However, readers need not take my word for granted. Perhaps there is no better authority, no authority that Fuentes could have a more difficult time dismissing as an outsider to his camp politically, than the current vice president of the country. “Since the turn of the millennium,” Álvaro García Linera contends, “this relationship of forces has been challenged from below, and the guaranteed elitism of the ‘neoliberal-patrimonial state’ thrown into question, as new forms of organization and politicization have reversed the footing of the subaltern classes.” García Linera goes so far as to (correctly) characterize the period between 2000 and 2005 as a revolutionary epoch in Marx’s terms:

It was Marx who proposed the concept of the “revolutionary epoch” in order to understand extraordinary historical periods of dizzying political change—abrupt shifts in the position and power of social forces, repeated state crises, recomposition of collective identities, repeated waves of social rebellion—separated by periods of relative stability during which the modification, partial or total, of the general structures of political domination nevertheless remains in question.... The present political period in Bolivia can best be characterized as a revolutionary epoch. Since 2000, there has been a growing incorporation of broader social sectors into political decision-making (water, land, gas, Constituent Assembly) through their union, communal, neighborhood or guild organizations; there has been a continual weakening of governmental authority and fragmentation of state sovereignty; and there has been an increasing polarization of the country into two social blocs bearing radically distinct and opposed projects for economy and state. 

García Linera’s view on these matters is widely representative of serious scholarship on the period. Sinclair Thomson, Forrest Hylton, James Dunkerley, Adolfo Gilly, and Oscar Olivera are just a few of the authors whose work—from different perspectives—is available in English and broadly corroborates the framework outlined in the passage above. Again, there is no doubt that we can continue the debate on these matters, but Fuentes will have to do better than simply to ignore the existing scholarship.

Nefarious silences
As if to inoculate his position against critique from the left, Fuentes presents his anti-imperialism and anti-fascism as if they are somehow much purer, much less diluted, than my own tenuous allegiance to, or understanding of, these matters.

I am accused, for example, of silence regarding the September 2008 right-wing coup attempt in Bolivia. I must have known about it, Fuentes surmises, but deliberately concealed the information from ISR readers. “Webber is completely silent” on right wing protests and “the September 2008 rebellion” Fuentes complains. “Webber ignores all this,” furthermore, “because it completely contradicts his argument.” The conspiracy of omission I orchestrated in this regard will be news to readers of ISR, as well as Counterpunch and Znet, the main media outlets for which I detailed the rearticulation of the bourgeois autonomist right in the eastern lowlands—for which the MAS bears considerable responsibility—and vehemently condemned it in August and September 2008, i.e. before, during, and after the coup attempt. These issues are also discussed in depth in my new book, From Rebellion to Reform (Haymarket, March 2011).

No novice to the constraints of journalistic analysis, Fuentes could be expected to know that the failure to cover this or that issue in a single article does not necessarily condemn the author to willful deceit—particularly when the author has dealt with the issue at length elsewhere, in articles freely and widely available.

The economics of reconstituted neoliberalism
If historical accuracy is wanting in Fuentes’s response, any precise delineation of Bolivia’s political economy proves equally elusive. This does not prevent him from admonishing me for “misleading” people on Bolivia’s economic realities under Morales, and categorically rejecting my conclusion that Bolivia’s political economy today represents a paradigmatic case of reconstituted neoliberalism.

He dismisses that argument without so much as a word on my extended discussion of international trends toward neostructuralism and neoinstitutionalism and Bolivia’s positioning within these patterns. Obviously I don’t claim to have closed the case, and there are ample debates to be opened and developed further. However, the level of seriousness has to rise several notches above Fuentes rhetorical hand-waving.

“Contrary to Webber’s claim that poverty has not been reduced,” Fuentes notes in footnote 9 of his response, the “poverty rate dropped 2.3 percent (3.8 percent in rural areas) and extreme poverty dropped 6.3 percent (10.2 percent in rural areas).” Here, Fuentes draws on data unavailable to me at the time my text was composed (I had reliable figures only up to 2007). I wrote the following in my original article, in footnote 21: “It is possible that poverty levels have improved since 2007, and it should also be noted that these figures do not take into account improvements in the social wage of workers and peasants—i.e., any improvements in social services for the poor.” So was it me then, or is it Fuentes now, who is “misleading”?

In any case, the new figures Fuentes provides only substantiate the central claim I made in my original article on the question: “The social consequences of reconstituted neoliberalism...have almost no change in poverty rates under Morales, and deep continuities in social inequality. Both of these axes persist as monumental obstacles standing in the way of social justice in the country.” Unless Fuentes believes Kirchner in Argentina was a revolutionary—poverty rates in that country decreased much more rapidly than in Bolivia, as a result of precisely the same commodities boom that affected Bolivia between 2003 and 2008—we can hardly be impressed at the performance of Morales, whose government is said by Fuentes to be playing a “vanguard role” in the Bolivian people’s liberation.

Fuentes simply has no reasonable response to the Morales regime’s commitment to fiscal austerity, low inflationary growth, central bank independence, labor market “flexibility,” inconsequential “agrarian reform,” vast accumulation of international reserves, low social spending, alliance with transnational capital across all sectors of the economy, alliance with “patriotic” sections of the eastern lowland bourgeoisie, export-oriented capitalism premised on low-wage labor, documented increases in rates of exploitation of the working class, state investment amounting to only 32 percent of total investment, with a maximum official goal of 36 percent, and so on and so forth. This, as I explain in my original article, is reconstituted neoliberalism. Fuentes’s discussion of mining is incorrect in every dimension, apart from my error at calling Vinto a mine rather than a smelter. I devote an entire chapter to struggles for nationalizing the mines in From Rebellion to Reform. The alleged nonexistence of these struggles in Fuentes’s view is about as convincing as his understanding of the 2000 to 2005 period of left-indigenous insurrectionary revolt.

Autonomist deviations
Fuentes descends into bottom-feeder sectarianism in footnote 22, where, in a dismissive puff of pretension, we are asked effectively to ignore the work of some of the leading radical intellectuals of indigenous liberation, heterodox Marxism, and classical Marxist political economy working on Bolivia. Their weaknesses stem from “currently living outside of Bolivia”—including Raquel Gutiérrez who, in spite of spending five years in a Bolivian prison for her guerrilla activities with Álvaro García Linera and Felipe Quispe, apparently doesn’t count as sufficiently Bolivian to be a part of the domestic intellectual scene—their association with “anarchism” or “autonomism,” or their alleged “NGO” linkages. Fuentes is either ignorant or deliberately engaged in obfuscation on these issues. He relies on the epithet “NGO” in order to avoid an asymmetrical encounter with the systematic Marxist political economy generated by leading intellectuals in sociology and economics at the Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (Centre for Labor and Agrarian Development Studies, CEDLA). A reader relying on Fuentes could be forgiven if they imagined CEDLA to be a World Bank, USAID connected, promoter of micro-finance, rather than a hotbed of Marxist intellectual production with organic links to the rank and file of the Bolivian labor movement.

I am said to belong to a cohort of autonomists who don’t understand, or who are uninterested in revolutionary organization. “But the issue of revolutionary organization is another thing that Webber,” Fuentes suggests, “like his autonomist cohorts, is silent on.” First, unlike Fuentes, I don’t dismiss entire traditions because I disagree with them on some central strategic questions. There is much for revolutionary Marxists to learn from Latin American anarchism and autonomist Marxism. Second, Fuentes crucially misunderstands the fact that I don’t see the MAS as a revolutionary socialist party for a position against revolutionary socialist parties per se.

Again, I didn’t have the space to tackle everything in the article for ISR, but elsewhere, on the 2005 Gas War, for example, my position is quite clear. Are these the words of an autonomist inattentive to revolutionary strategy?

Despite its impressive capacity to mobilize and its far-reaching anticapitalist and indigenous-liberationist objectives, however, the left-indigenous bloc lacked a revolutionary party that might have provided the leadership, strategy, and ideological coherence necessary to overthrow the existing capitalist state and rebuild a new sovereign power rooted in the self-governance of the overwhelmingly indigenous proletarian and peasant majority. As a consequence, the fallout of the extraordinary mobilizations and profound crisis of the state witnessed during the gas war was not a revolutionary transformation but a shift in popular politics from the streets and countryside to the electoral arena as elections were moved up to December 18, 2005.

What does anti-imperialism look like?
Lastly, there is the issue of anti-imperialism. My position is clear in the original article:

From my perspective, the first priority of activists in the Global North should indeed be to oppose imperialist meddling anywhere. This means, concretely, opposition under any circumstances to imperialist-backed destabilization campaigns against Morales. But the political situation is too complicated to end our discussion at that stage. Our first allegiance ought to be with the exploited and oppressed themselves, rather than any leaders or governments who purport to speak in their name.

Fuentes seems to want, instead, to end the discussion just when it starts to get complicated. Better to ignore the reproduction of established patterns of reconstituted neoliberalism and capitalist class rule in Bolivia in his view. If you bring it up, you’re liable to face charges of playing the role of intrusive outsider. “Our role is not to tell the Bolivian masses from afar that they are doing it all wrong,” says Fuentes (I’ll let the readers of my original article judge for themselves if that was what I was doing), “or that their process is not revolutionary enough; our priority must be to defend the gains of the Bolivian process and help to create the necessary space for its continued advance.” Fuentes sees agency in the state, with Morales and his government as the vanguard of change. I see, on the contrary, agency toward socialism and indigenous liberation coming from below, from the self-activity of the oppressed and exploited themselves. When the latter runs up against the capitalist logic of the state apparatus currently occupied by the Morales administration, my perspective is to align myself with the workers, the landless, and the poor peasantry. That’s a stronger anti-imperialism, and the only realistic route to internationalist anti-capitalism.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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