Book Review: The Price of Fire in Bolivia

The book is a triumph in every respect… skillfully interweaving abstract theory, political and social history… [The author] is thorough, but not boring, colorful, without reducing his subjects to the level of vicarious objects for the benefit of literary tourism.

Source: American Leftist

As noted last December, AK Press is a remarkably inventive publisher of radical books. Known for its anarchism, it emphasizes the release of works by people with first hand experience of social movements, resulting in a relatively unmediated and refreshingly non-academic presentation. It aspires to the ambition of relating the histories of the present day that the corporate, globalized media ignores, while simultaneously excavating the buried experiences of marginalized peoples of the past.

In February, it published Benjamin Dangl’s, The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia. The book is a triumph in every respect. Technically, Dangl is one of those rarities, a writer blessed with the gift of the economical use of language, capable of skillfully interweaving abstract theory, political and social history and the personal experiences of the people who have lived and transcended it. He is thorough, but not boring, colorful, without reducing his subjects to the level of vicarious objects for the benefit of literary tourism.

For Dangl, The Price of Fire describes the cost of access to the basic elements of human survival, which in Bolivia means gas, water, land, coca, employment and other resources, and it is this struggle, a struggle that has persisted for centuries, that explains what has recently transpired in Bolivia. Ruthlessly abused by the feudal Spanish, neglected by the liberal nationalism of the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and, finally, relegated to the shadows as irrelevant and dispensable because of their inability to participate in the credit and consumer economy of neoliberalism, the indigenous majority of Bolivia faced cultural extinction.

But something quite incredible occurred, truly incredible, given the small size of Bolivia in terms of territory and population. Instead of allowing themselves to be atomized, separated from one another in a Hobbesian world of subsistence, they fought back, drawing upon a tradition of collective action and creative social organization. Faced with the prospect of perpetual repression by the US financed paramilitary War on Drugs, the loss of communal water supplies to multinational corporations, grinding poverty as consequence of the implementation of IMF structural adjustment plans and the extraction of their hydrocarbon wealth, such as natural gas, without little, if any tangible benefit, they rebelled.

Dangl has spent a lot of time in Bolivia, often during many of the protests against these policies imposed by the US for the benefit of transnationals, the Pentagon and private military contractors, and his experiences, and especially those of the people that he interviewed, infuse the book with an intimacy normally associated with oral history. His subjects, coca farmers, shantytown residents, urban police officers, students and the deindustrialized proletariat describe the inhumanity of neoliberalism in terms of their day to day life, explaining how resistance became the only means of survival available to them.

Readers therefore understand seminal events like the Cochambamba Water War in 2000 and the Gas War of 2003 through the voices of the participants themselves. Along with the burgeoning movement in support of coca production, they brought down a succession of neoliberal governments, paving the way for the political victory of Evo Morales in 2005.

For Americans, Dangl’s examination of the culturally essential role of coca in the lives of the people of Bolivia is especially enlightening. Beyond its medicinal value and the ability of indigenous people to make a subsistence living from its harvest and sale, it provided a refuge for people who lost jobs in more conventional agriculture and the mining sector. As one woman told Dangl: I produce coca for my children, because if I die tomorrow they will be able to continue to eat thanks to this bit of coca.

If there is a thread that runs throughout, it is the ability of Bolivians to organize communally. Coca growers formed unions, and participated in numerous road blockades and protests to defend themselves against the US mandated paramilitary eradication effort. Migrants to the high altitude, impoverished city of El Alto, many of them miners and farmers, like their brethren who survived by growing coca, brought their methods of social organization with them, creating a sense of solidarity through unions and neighborhood councils that enabled them to construct their communities and govern themselves.

As one miner who lost his job in the 1980s explained: When we came to El Alto from Potosi, all the miners put their money together to buy land . . We knew how to demand things and how to organize. We knew how to work together. That’s how we got things like water quickly. We had to use our own tools, buy our own cement, everything. The state wasn’t around at that time. I had the luck to have 25 companeros from the mines there with me. It’s our neighborhood, we made it . . Even today we don’t have help from the state.

Inevitably, the participants in such forms of communal organization, which evoke the mutual aid philosophy of anarchism, were going to come into conflict with the state. They prevailed, it seems, because, while they were being victimized by neoliberal social policies, these very same policies were simultaneously eroding the effectiveness of the state’s instruments of social control. Such policies also rendered them literally expendable, as there was no role for them in the Bolivian economy other than on the margins within the informal sector as vendors or as coca growers and sellers. They were not being subjected to the workplace oppression of 19th Century capitalism, but rather, treated as the refuse of a credit oriented consumer society from which they were necessarily excluded for insufficient funds.

It is hard not to contrast the communal life of many Bolivians with the atomized individuality of the US. How would we respond if confronted with the hardship suffered by Bolivians in recent decades? Would we recover our history of collective direct action and save ourselves, or would we be overwhelmed by the forces of international finance capital? Would we join together, or turn upon one another? So far, the apparent answers are not encouraging, but then, people have a way of surprising you when they recognize that the struggle can no longer be avoided.

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