Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thoughts on Bolivia and "Socialism for the 21st Century"

After recently reading this (and this, and watching this as well) in addition to seeing the most recent post at Lenin's Tomb (on Bolivia), I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the current situation in that country. It’s extremely interesting for several reasons.

First of all, for anyone on the Left, the nearly continent-wide resistance to the Washington Consensus and the ascendancy of popular Left-wing governments of various stripes (in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay as well as Brazil, Argentina, Chile) is an inspiring development within the context of otherwise unchallenged, corporate global capitalism. It’s inspiring because in this region of the world at least, ideas about “change”, “hope” and slogans like “another world is possible” actually stand the chance of meaning something.

In 2005 in Bolivia, propelled to power by a groundswell of social movements, Evo Morales was elected as the first indigenous president with 53.7% of the vote (a rare absolute majority in Bolivian presidential races). As Tariq Ali summarizes nicely:
Bolivia has a large Indian population: 62 per cent describe themselves as indigenous; 35 per cent live on less than a dollar a day. It has a turbulent history: wars, coups, revolutions… and numerous uprisings. There were 157 coups between 1825 and 1982 and 70 presidents, half of whom held office for less than a year. Neoliberal slumber lasted throughout the 1990s, before anti-government protests culminated in the ‘water wars’ [over the neoliberal policy of privatizing water.] The government sold the water in Cochabamba to [the huge corporation] Bechtel, who told people it was illegal to collect rainwater. There were clashes with the army, a young demonstrator was killed and the protesters won. The municipality regained control of the water. Such unrest created the basis for the triumph of Morales and the Movement for Socialism in the elections of 2005. Not only was Morales on the left, he was an Aymara Indian, and his victory ended a century and a half of Creole rule. The rich were furious.
Recently, Morales won a recall referendum with more than 67% of the vote, giving his movement a strong mandate for “deepening the process of change”. Like elsewhere in Latin America where neoliberal hegemony is being fought head-on, the process of change has not been met without considerable obstruction, violent resistance and sabotage by the ruling classes, the affluent and business elites unaccustomed to power being exercised by popular democracy.

The US, following a long-standing tradition, has not played a passive role in the changing political climate in Latin America. It thus comes as little surprise that the US Ambassador in Bolivia has allegedly voiced support for US intervention in Bolivia and has been caught by TV media conspiring with violent Right-wing elements that have been assaulting public officials, blocking highways and destroying natural gas pipelines in attempts to destabilize the government. But as Lenin’s Tomb points out: “Still, if the US is reduced to sponsoring only regional rightist coups, there may be some cause for hope in that.”

For me at least, there are other reasons why these developments are interesting. I have been reading a great deal lately about the Russian Revolution, pouring through Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on 20th century history, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, Trotsky’s 1920 book Terrorism and Communism, as well as polemics between Lenin and Karl Kautsky on the question of gradual reform versus revolutionary change. In this context, I begin to wonder to what extent recent Latin American developments are ‘revolutionary’ and what chance they stand of creating a serious alternative to global capitalism.

It’s undeniably true that radical social and economic changes are occurring in the region (nationalizations of resources, decentralized “Bolivarian circles”, land reform, massive increases in social spending, some exploration of non-capitalist forms of production, etc). However, there is plenty in this recipe of social/economic change that is not new. Although the social/economic conjuncture was vastly different, similar developments occurred in Western Europe during the post-war era: nationalizations of key industries, heavy progressive taxation, strong trade unions, public provision of health care and education, etc. This is not to collapse the recent Latin American leftist developments into the experience of European social-democracy during the 20th century; however, it’s important to place these events in a broader historical context. There are movements professing to have some kind of socialist alternative to capitalism as their goal, however, it remains to be seen how far the oligarchs and conservative business elites (still quite powerful) will let the process of democratic change proceed. Violent overthrow has already been attempted once, with US backing and aid (and the blessing of the NYTimes, incidentally).

There is a long debate on the Left about whether socialism can be built through a gradual, parliamentary path. If socialism means anything, it must have something to do with bringing production under democratic/social control, which means expropriation of the productive holdings of the capitalist class. Socialism wouldn’t be a kind of balance of power, a negotiation between progressive democratic institutions and an equally powerful capitalist class (as was the case in the ‘managed capitalism’ of Scandinavian social-democracies). Socialism must have to do with transforming capitalist social and economic relations, not merely attenuating their worst excesses.

Thus the road to economic democracy must entail wresting the complete control of investment, productive planning and ownership of the means of production from the hands of entrenched and powerful corporate elites. As history has shown, this class will fight viciously against even the modest social-democratic ideal of cooperation with progressive government and labor organizations. And in cases where more radical change enters into the realm of possibility, they will resist by whatever means they deem necessary, often with foreign military aid (the brutal suppression of the Paris Commune, the violent struggles of the Russian Civil War, the murderous coup against Allende in 1973, US interventions in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador...the list goes on and on).

Whatever one might say about Venezuela or Bolivia, however, it would be difficult to argue that their governments are mere conciliators, resigned to accepting as given the tremendous economic power still held by business elites. In Bolivia, Morales is already using his fresh mandate to begin building a publicly-run cement industry to rival the country’s corporate cement sector which is owned by a powerful figure in the opposition. In this way, he is allowing for progressive projects to continue into the future unabated by the politically-fueled obstruction of rich opposition elites.

There are broader questions, no less important, which center on what a socialist economy would look like, and whether it’s possible to build one in an environment of global capitalism. Although the top-down, coercive military-like command economy of the Soviet Union was for most of the 20th Century synonymous with ‘really existing socialism’, this is clearly not what any of the movements in Latin America or what the global Left aspires to create. They’re calling it “socialism for the 21st century” for a reason.

...bringing these thoughts into some sort of a US context: wouldn’t it be nice if we could even hope for the possibility of modest social-democratic reform? Instead of having two ossified masses connected to the ruling classes by an umbilical cord of gold, obstinately committed to the worst features of the status quo… wouldn’t it be something if we had, here in this country, an actual Left to vote for, a serious alternative that even gestured towards the possibility of substantive change?

No comments: