by Richard Fidler
The following article, based on a speech given in December 2007 but only recently transcribed and published, is an important statement by a leading member of Evo Morales’ government on the political situation in Bolivia in the wake of the Constituent Assembly’s vote on a draft Political Constitution. The draft Constitution is to be put to a popular vote for adoption later this year.
Álvaro García Linera, Bolivia’s Vice-President, is a former leader of the Tupac Katarí guerrilla army, subsequently employed as a university sociologist. He is also a prominent Latin American Marxist strongly influenced by post-World War II European non-Stalinist Marxist currents inspired by the ideas of the Italian communist leader and political theorist Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci, who died in 1937, was an innovative Marxist thinker who wrote extensively on the concept of cultural hegemony and its role as an ideological mainstay of capitalist societies.
Some readers may be surprised by García Linera’s frequent invocation of Gramscian “hegemony” in the Bolivian context, as that concept is often associated primarily with Marxist attempts to explain the particular problems of mass consciousness as they arise in the complex class societies of the imperialist countries. However, there is a long line of thinking among Latin American Marxists influenced by Gramsci; it goes back to José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian communist, who lived in Italy for a period during the 1920s and was acquainted with Gramsci’s writings. These Latin Americans, like Gramsci, also drew on the early Communist International’s use of the concept of hegemony in analyzing the relationship between the minority proletariat and the non-proletarian (largely peasant) masses in the colonies and semicolonies. That theoretical legacy was explained more than three decades ago by Perry Anderson in a seminal article in New Left Review, “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” (NLR 100, November-December 1976), which bears re-reading today. (See especially pp. 15-18.)
García Linera’s title, in the original Spanish, is “Empate catastrófico y punto de bifurcación.” He attributes the expression “empate catastrófico” to Gramsci. The “empate” (blockage, standoff, deadlock, or impasse), as García Linera uses the concept, appears to refer to Gramsci’s use of the concept of “equilibrium,” often conjoined with the adjective “catastrophic,” in his Prison Notebooks; it denotes a sort of stasis in the configuration of the class struggle, when neither of the major contending class blocs has the ability to establish its hegemony over the other, a situation that can endure (as García Linera says) for months or even years. See also the interview with García Linera in the Argentine on-line periodical Renacer: “Del empate catastrófico al desempate conflictivo.”
Suggestions for further reading: “Neo-liberalism and the New Socialism — Speech by Alvaro Garcia Linera,” Political Affairs, January-February 2007; and Álvaro García Linera and Jeffery R. Webber, “Marxism and Indigenism in Bolivia: A Dialectic of Dialogue and Conflict,” ZNet, April 25, 2005.
Catastrophic Equilibrium and Point of Bifurcation
by Álvaro García Linera
Presentation in the Escuela de Pensamiento Comuna, December 17, 2007
I will provide a short explanatory outline of some events of recent years in this country that, I believe, will help to link and give some sort of intellectual coherence to these events, which are infinitely more complicated than what can be processed by our thinking. It is possible to define at least three major stages (perhaps a fourth, ultimately) in a process of state crisis that is transforming the organization of the state in its content, its social nature, and its institutionalization.
The State Crisis and Our Ability to Visualize It
A number of Comuna comrades have been working for some time on the idea of the crisis of the state. In various writings in 2000 or 2001 we characterized what was going on in Bolivia as a crisis of the neoliberal state. There were distinct interpretations of how to understand the crisis, but fundamentally we argued that this crisis occurs when there are problems in the correlations of forces within the state, that is, in the structure of forces with a capacity for decision-making, in the set of dominant organizing ideas in the political life of the society that allow a moral correspondence between the dominated and the dominators, and in the range of institutions (procedures, norms, offices) that objectify the correlation of forces and ideas.
We were beginning to experience this crisis of the state in 2000. The correlation of forces with decision-making capacity was beginning to come apart. The dominant ideas of the business bloc that is linked to foreign investment interests, the agro-export industry, banking, and the political elite formed around them were losing the capacity to define the public policies of our country in a stable and straightforward way.
That was also the year in which we entered a crisis, and the dominant ideas that present foreign investment as the engine of the economy, globalization and exports as an unassailable horizon for our modernity, and the coalitions of political parties as a condition sine qua non in defining governability, understood as the common sense of politics, were no longer attractive to the whole of the society. The same thing was occurring in the institutions. The Parliament was no longer a place for political debate, which had been expropriated by the executive power. The executive, in turn, was being expropriated by the foreign business lobbies and hard-line political elements. And in turn this intransigent core was finding itself expropriated by foreign investment and a pair of embassies that were defining the situation in the country. An initial stage in the state crisis, in 2000, was its visibility.
A state crisis does not necessarily lead to a new state; there may be internal adjustments in forces, alliances, and policies, and there may be a reconstitution of the old state. For example, the national revolutionary state of 1952 had stages of internal mutation and reconfiguration that enabled it to survive a bit longer, amidst the military authoritarianism of the nationalist state. It was the same nationalist state, with only a few adjustments, internal linkages, and partial changes in content.
Catastrophic Equilibrium and Construction of Hegemony
Any state crisis, then, may be reversible, or it may continue. If the crisis continues, a subsequent stage is the catastrophic equilibrium. Lenin spoke of a revolutionary situation, Gramsci of catastrophic equilibrium, both referring to the same phenomenon albeit in distinct languages. The catastrophic equilibrium is a phase in the state crisis, if you wish, a second structural moment that is characterized by three things: a confrontation of two national political projects for the country, two perspectives for the country, each with a capacity for mobilization, attraction, and seduction of social forces; a confrontation in the institutional sphere — it might be the parliamentary arena or the social sphere — of two social blocs shaped by a will and ambition for power, the dominant bloc and the ascendant social bloc; and, thirdly, a paralysis of the upper echelons of the state and a failure to overcome this paralysis. This equilibrium might last weeks, months, years; but a moment will come when a breakthrough, a way out, is achieved.
The way out of the catastrophic equilibrium or deadlock would be the third step in the state crisis, which we will call ascendant hegemonic construction. This is characterized by unrest and, generally speaking, upsurge. Marx’s writings on the political crisis of 1848 and 1849 are highly illustrative of this idea of waves of unrest that come and go: stability, unrest, stability, unrest.
This ascendant hegemonic construction, in turn, will have three stages and four other substages. The first is the preponderance or partial victory of a national political project with a capacity for attraction and social mobilization. In the case of Bolivia, this preponderance presents various moments or sub-moments; the consolidation of the October agenda1 is one, because it marks a social horizon that can attract the support of plebeian, indigenous, peasant, community, worker, and middle-class elements. And the institutionalization of the October agenda, so to speak, is the election victory of 2005.
This crisis, of necessity, must end at some moment; no society can live permanently in mobilization (as the anarchists hold) or permanently in stability (as Christians believe). There may be instability, struggles, but at some point an orderly structure must be consolidated, which will continue to experience internal conflicts, of course, but later it will be possible to say: “From this moment on, we have a reconstituted neoliberalism or we have a national, indigenous, popular, revolutionary state.” We have termed this historical, precise, datable moment the point of bifurcation.
The point of bifurcation means that either there is a successful counterrevolution and a return to the old state in new conditions, or a new state is consolidated, with conflicts still but in the context of its stabilization. The counterrevolution, to obtain international support or a collapse of the command structure and leadership of the revolutionary bloc, will require a hegemonic rearticulation of regional resistances with a capacity for regional or national expansion.
I would illustrate this idea of the point of bifurcation with the crisis of the latifundist mining state, which actually began in 1944 or 1945; the Movimiento Nactionalista Revolutionario (MNR) won the elections in 1951, but its point of bifurcation is not in that year but in 1952. The April insurrection is the moment of bifurcation in that the state, with the characteristics and qualities of the worker, productivism, homogenization, was consolidated and was to enjoy a relative stabilization until a time of internal renewal, internal metamorphosis, with the presence of the military. But the nationalist state lasted until 1985.
A second moment of point of bifurcation may have been in 1986. The national-popular state went into a crisis in 1977. Coup d’état, elections, coup d’état, elections, elections, coup d’état, democratic government, problems, early elections. The right won the elections in 1985, but the point of bifurcation occurred in 1986, with the March for Life,2 when the nucleus of the old state, the social nucleus and the social thinking of the old state, collapsed, surrendered, in the face of the force, the vitality, the discourse and the coercive and cohesive capacity of the new neoliberal state.
The points of bifurcation may be insurrectional, they may be a display of force, or (as a working hypothesis) they may be resolved democratically. In any case, the idea of the point of bifurcation is the following: first, it is a moment of resolution of the stabilization of the structure of the new state; secondly, a point of bifurcation is inevitably a moment of force; and thirdly, it is a moment in which politics actually becomes the continuation of the war by other means. It is a moment in which Nietzsche and Foucault are right.
A point of bifurcation is, basically, an act of force in the practical mediation of things. It is an act of leadership, of hegemony in the Gramscian meaning of the word, of moral leadership over the rest of society. Thus, if the Indigenous want to consolidate themselves as a nucleus of the state, they have to demonstrate that they are capable of handling and advancing the interests of the middle class, of the Bolivian business world, and isolating a very few, the implacable ones, but depriving them of their social base. To do this, it is important to talk with the adversaries; the Indigenous were required to talk with them.
In the case of Bolivia, it seems that we are coming closer to the point of bifurcation. It may be a question of months or days — this is merely a reflexive intuition — but it cannot drag on much longer. The interesting thing is that today, in 2007, when we see ourselves confronted by the new Political Constitution of the State and the autonomy statutes, when the Constituent Assembly is being challenged by the autonomy referendum, it may seem that we are repeating the history of 2005; it may seem that history is repeating itself, but in reality this is not the case. In 2005 the Constituent Assembly confronted the state as a demand by the society and the response of the decadent bloc of the state to the society was the autonomy referendum. Today the reverse is the case.
Society’s proposal to the society mediated by the state is the new Political Constitution, and the response of the bloc of the displaced, now coming not from the State but from a part of the society, is the autonomy statute. It may appear to be the same thing, but the location of the social subjects has altered by 180 degrees.
Theoretically, then, we must be approaching the point of bifurcation. In the last 100 years, the primary experience with a point of bifurcation has been armed insurrection. The second experience of a point of bifurcation, the March for Life, was not an armed experience, but an exhibition and a measurement of political, military, and moral forces between the contending blocs and, without firing a single shot, the point of bifurcation was consolidated, a new state was stabilized.
In actuality, the government is betting on another, a third form of point of bifurcation, which would be a sort of democratic resolution through a form of iteration, that is, of successive approximation. The idea is that through various democratic actions the tensions between contending forces will be resolved. This is one of the possibilities that has opened up and the one that the government will be trying to promote. The idea is that the point of bifurcation will be resolved neither through insurrection (the hypothesis of civil war, which is always latent) nor through a show of force and the political and moral defeat of the adversary, but through the repeated manifestation of the sovereign power based on the relocation of powers, of local and regional forces, and the use of surpluses.
A referendum will determine how many prefects [governors] remain, or a referendum will determine whether the President and the Vice-President continue to govern. A referendum will determine the viability of the new Political Constitution, which is reorganizing the state. Another referendum will determine the type of autonomy that will be implemented in the country. In other words, the three moments of force — how to resolve the state architecture between the national and subnational levels, how resources are to be redistributed, and how the institutional level of the state is organized — will have to be determined through electoral action, if it comes to that.
Now basically I would say that this is a time of truce that may be broken when the time comes to implement the Renta Dignidad, which redistributes the 60% of the IDH [Impuesto directo a los Hidrocarburos — direct tax on hydrocarbons] from the prefecturas [departmental governments]. Or, depending on the particular strategy of the right wing, it may not be until the referendum on autonomy, on their autonomy statute, is held. That referendum must go to the Parliament, and if Parliament amends or rejects it, they are going to try to hold a referendum for a decision by their regional autonomous assembly; and if this happens, they are going to want to apply their statute, and in trying to apply it without the corresponding legality, they are going to come into confrontation with the structure of the state. That may be another moment.
What else can happen in the days to come? A territorial counter-offensive in two dimensions, which is already happening in fact. The central government with the departments, and the confrontation between the departmental level and the subdepartmental, regional, and municipal levels which, under the new Political Constitution, have the right to a type of autonomy in which resources and powers will be subordinate to the Departmental Council.
The indigenous peoples will therefore look for their powers to the central government and will have to draw on it for their resources, while the regional and provincial autonomies will have to derive their resources and powers within the departmental limits. Hence there is going to be rising tension from regional forces and local elites that will extend to the prefecturas and, in turn, to the central government. So there will be rising tension among the territorial levels of the state.
In some of these moments, the deterrent capacity of the new social power bloc will probably be put to the test, and this will illustrate its ability to make decisions based on its capacity for social mobilization at the national, departmental, and fundamentally regional levels, which in turn will reveal its capacity to maintain command, control, and compliance with the structures of legitimate coercion in the hands of the state, that is, the national police and armed forces.
That is more or less the panorama for the months to come. I am sure this initial reading will be modified week by week, because this is a time in which politics has again assumed a condensed form, and the correlation of forces is changing to a large degree within a very short timeline. Again, there is a condensation of politics in space and time, and this will oblige us to modify our modes of interpretation.
New Political Constitution of the State
The reading Raúl Prada has made of the Constituent Assembly as a social project and a collective myth3 should really be fully incorporated here. But I am picking up what he said and simply situating it at a merely instrumental level of objectification of the new programming of forces. In its own way, this new Constitution provides for an indigenous popular nucleus, but it adds other sectors as well. The concerns of the middle class. Will I or will I not be able to send my son to private school? I can. Will I be entitled to hold my religious beliefs? I have that right. Can I inherit? I can. Can I invest in the country without the risk of being nationalized? If I pay taxes and comply with the rules, I have that right and no one should expropriate me.
The business person, too, can feel he or she is recognized in the new Constitution. This sector may have preferred the old Constitution and the old bloc, when, in order to negotiate a line of credit, there was no need to wait six months to have a meeting with Evo Morales. In the past, deals were settled over a weekend coffee or in a tennis game; now this is no longer the case, because Evo Morales never goes to tennis games or the embassies and he does not do deals in that way. But this Constitution incorporates them, as well.
I think this is a demonstration of the possibility of exercising moral and intellectual leadership over the rest of society. As Raúl Prada says, it is a Constitution of transition that has had to be adaptable, that has had to incorporate other things without which it would be a Constitution solely for the poorest of the indigenous and without appeal to the average indigenous person. To be a Constitution for the mestizos, the middle classes, the business people, as well, and not for only one group, it had to be adjusted accordingly.
What group is not incorporated here, in the decisive referendum? The referendum question says: Do you agree that the extent of the lands be five thousand or ten thousand hectares? Who own more than five thousand hectares? Eight thousand families. But only 400 families have upwards of ten thousand hectares. It is a powerful blow against the large landowners; clearly there is not much to negotiate with these gentlemen, so let’s proceed with the referendum. I am sure the option of not extending it to more than five thousand hectares will be adopted, defining the irreducible core that will not be renegotiated.
It is possible that by the time the referendum is called, the Congress will negotiate five thousand or ten thousand, but it is clear that there is a core of major landholdings that have been defined in isolation from the rest of society. However, attempts were made to dialogue with them, because politically one should exhaust all channels for dialogue before making a tough decision. As any military strategist will say, take all possible steps, and once they are exhausted, the next step is justified. And here we have had to try again and again, not out of weakness but because we are obliged to dialogue and to listen, and in the worst of cases, after having exhausted all options, it is possible to define things by another route. That is why we have to dialogue.
On the subject of natural resources, we have given constitutional protection to the nationalization of hydrocarbons. This means that no one can legally reprivatize above- or below-ground gas and petroleum, the refineries, or the ability to make decisions about, to market, and to set the price of hydrocarbons; this is now under lock and key. Sánchez de Lozada, with the old Constitution, which declared that the deposits (but nothing else) belonged to the state, privatized everything. With that experience, we say here: the gas and oil in the deposits and in any of the states where they are found belong to Bolivians through the national state.
The state determines the volumes, the marketing, the prices and terms of export. No one can adopt a reprivatization law without changing the Constitution, which would take 15 years. So if Sánchez de Lozada were to return in 2010, God forbid, but if he were to return, it would take 15 years to go back to privatizing the resources. It cannot be done instantaneously, as he did. And the same applies to the forests, water, and minerals. Concerning the protection of national resources, the Constitution is very strong.
Applying the new Political Constitution of the State to the fight against corruption, we establish for the first time that the law is retroactive, that not only is there no limitation period on prosecutions for stealing from the state but such prosecutions can go back in time. No one is immune, all the presidents, vice-presidents, and ministers preceding the new Constitution are subject to investigation and, if subsequently convicted, are subject to imprisonment for their corruption.
So no one is immune now from prosecution and incarceration for stealing a fountain pen, or a million dollars, from the state. I think this is the only legislation in Latin America that allows for this kind of retroactivity, because the present Constitution is retroactive in regard to workers’ rights and prisoners, as long as it favours them, but never in regard to the fight against corruption.
Missing from this analysis are the nature and characteristics of the consolidation and articulation of the new right-wing forces in the country that have now displaced Podemos as a project and that have new leaderships such as Branco Marinkovic, Mario Cossio, Rubén Costas,4 as well as the civic committees, a nucleus of mass mobilization, and a youth strike force that we have to get to understand. This is not explained in this outline. It would require an analysis of the new right in its capacity for social mobilization, but I think that in general terms the chessboard is moving in that way.
In any case, looking at this from the government’s point of view, the following steps have to be taken in its ability to articulate social mobilization around very concrete objectives such as, for example, the new Constitution, and the ability to maintain control over the structures of legitimate coercion in the hands of the state: Justice, Police, Armed Forces. And it also depends on what moves the right wing makes. Whatever the case, either this point of bifurcation is resolved through public support and its pressure in the voting and the referendums that settle the consolidation of the new state, or there will be some type of confrontation and a test of forces for which, I hope, we are prepared.
1 October agenda: The main demands of the social movements arising from the October 2003 rebellion that removed Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada from the presidency: nationalization of gas, constituent assembly, and trial for those responsible for the massacre of over 60 civilians during the uprising.
2 In 1986 the Bolivian workers central (COB) sponsored a mass “March for Life” to frustrate government plans to restructure Comibol, the nationalized mining company, and to halt mass firings and raise salaries. A deal under which the government conceded many of the COB’s demands subsequently collapsed, the mining sector was restructured, and the radical labour leaders were ousted at a COB convention.
3 Raúl Prada is a sociologist and professor at the Universidad Autónoma Gabriela René Moreno and the Universidad Mayor Real. He is also a MAS delegate to the Constituent Assembly from La Paz and a member of Comuna. See, for example, his essay “Encrucijadas de la asamblea constituyente (un balance necesario).”
4 Respectively, President of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, Prefect of the department of Tarija, and Prefect of the department of Santa Cruz.
Published in Bolpress, May 12, 2008. Translation, notes, and introduction by Richard Fidler.