The Multinational State and the People, an Unprecedented Construction in Bolivia

In January 2009 Bolivians adopted a New State Political Constitution, in which converged many histories and memories that coexisted during different cycles: the crisis of political parties, representative democracy and the neoconservative economic model caused pleas for the nationalization of resources and social control that echoed the 1952 Revolution -when miners, peasants and the middle class mobilized against the anti-nation (the conservative miner State). But also the memory of the anti-colonial struggles that transcended and confronted the Bolivian nation-state emerged with an unprecedented force:  Tomás Katari, Tupac Katari (1781), Zárate Willka (1899), Guarayan leader Andrés Guayocho (1887), the battle of Kuruyuki de los guaraníes (1892), the movement of the empowered leaders (1900-1930), the Indigenismo and Katarismo (1970s), the demand for land and territory by lowlands indigenous people (1990s), etcetera.

Evo Morales embodies the intersection of the national-popular scope that emerged from within the nation-state during the Chaco War (1932-1936) and condensed during the 1952 Revolution, and the anti-colonial scope, whose resistance began during the conquest’s early years and had its highest point in 1781, with incidents that were profound -because they emerged from outside of the nation-state-, but have not been so geographically widespread during the two hundred years of republican history, until now.

Is this an unprecedented intersection, in the sense that both scopes have been running in a parallel way without touching? If so, what is this intersection in reality and what are the alternatives of political construction open to us nowadays? The uprisings we mention have never been “pure” since they took place within the colonial context to which the national context latter superimposed, a fact that continued and intensified old contradictions in new ways; but certainly there was more symbolic weight in one scope or the other depending on who was leading the uprisings and forming the alliances, and if they were indigenous or mestizo. However, both scopes had to face the “colonial-national situation” that had created the clutter, that is, individuals experiencing different (ethnic, class, gender) dominance conditions within the system, and whose relationship with one another was one of a chained (self)denial (everyone on top of and against each other).

Thus, the expressions of anti-colonial resistance opted for subordinated alliance strategies with mestizo groups, villagers, artisans, miners, workers, and intellectuals. These alliances could dissolve due to their internal contradictions, until reaching a state of total confrontation. Similarly, national movements needed to address and organize the indigenous people as subordinates in order to achieve the proposed changes. Although these mestizo alliances in the national-popular scope had better success because they built new political systems, they ended up reproducing the modern nation-state that continued the colonial and capitalist dominance: the Republic’s Independence, the Conservative State of 1899, the Nationalist State of 1952, and the Neoconservative State of 1985.

What are the possibilities of building something unprecedented, that is, to break the routine of the historical determinations and the gradual racial dominance that appears with unequal insertions under capitalism and modernity? What kind of organization among the groups that make up the motley of Bolivia will allow the achievement of hegemony without domination, but with enough strength to build a new political system? The challenge of this historical period seems to be the transformation of the clutter or the national-colonial situation into a complex organization without domination, an intersection between the indigenous and national-popular scopes strong enough to build something unprecedented. Neither decolonization understood only as “restitution” of the indigenous cultural identities nor realization of the modernity’s unfulfilled promises. But what then?

The new Bolivian constitution raises this project -that still requires a political theory, an institutional engineering, and most importantly, the formation of new political subjetivities- of a multinational state. The preamble of the constitution recognizes these memories of resistance in order to build a new state: “The Bolivian people, of plural composition since the depth of history, inspired by past struggles; anti-colonial indigenous rebellion; independence; popular liberation struggles; indigenous, social and trade union marches; water and October wars; struggles for land and territory; with the memory of our martyrs, we build a new State.”

The alluded depth of history refers to the sources of resistance we had pointed out, both popular and indigenous; that is, it lies as a vertical rupture that crosses the layers of dominance: those of the colonial times that also burst into national cycles, and those of the national times that responded to the continual metamorphosis of dominance, but at the same time built new and shared senses of resistance.

But if the memory of the popular and indigenous past reactivates in the present as a power capable of paralysing the established order as it was by 2003 and building a new state as proposed in the constitution, an exercise of creation of alternatives appears. We think of this exercise as a relationship between people, state and pluralism that uses the nation-state as the general framework although reconfigured, because it considers the heterogeneity from an indigenous social and symbolic organization, that is, from a scope that is not modern.

The separation of scopes

The separation between what Zavaleta Mercado called “national-popular” and the anti-colonial rebellions occurred between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but as a posteriori interpretation, that is, an interpretation made by the republican historiography that defined -under the frameworks of meaning at the time- which were and which were not pro-independence movements. The recognition of the struggles for independence in 1809 in what is now Bolivia, but which took place across the continent, separates from the anti-colonial indigenous tradition due to the concept of emancipation that it proposed. While Tupac Amaru and Tupak Katari were thinking about returning to a time prior to the Spanish colony, the pro-independence figures chose the project of the American Independence and the French Revolution: the establishment of a modern nation-state.

However, this separation is to be reviewed in our historiography -even the critical branch- because, for instance, Tupak Katari’s rebellion cannot be considered only an attempt to return to a time before the Spaniards; it should be seen as the search to continue the civilizing development stopped by the conquest. But this continuity meant a rupture -even of the prehispanic tradition-, a democratization of the indigenous communities that broke not only the Spanish dominance but also the precolonial system of hereditary chiefs that had been included into the Spanish state machinery. It was not an archaic response, but something novel for the time. During this rebellion cycle in Upper Peru it was proposed that everybody “can rule through the king” and -probably for the first time- a rotation system to democratize the political power within the communities was installed -even before the French Revolution and without having had any contact with the independence ideas in the United States, since Tupak Katari did not speak or read Spanish, and therefore he could not have been familiar with such texts.

The profound questioning of this indigenous rebellion against the colonial and precolonial political systems, and its network of relations with the mestizo population was denied by the Creoles, who assumed (following the death and exclusion of popular pro-independence sectors) the leadership of the republic. Since then, the official perspective considered the cycle of indigenous rebellions as a “war of races” and not as a precedent for independence that aimed to achieve  freedom from the colony, although with a scope that was different from the modern nation-state.

Following this early exclusion of the indigenous people, and until the second half of the twentieth century, a political system of citizenship for a Creole, literate, male and proprietor minority was built. This state lived off the tax imposed on indigenous people, enabled the usurpation of communal lands (which had even survived the Spanish colonial state) and, since the heyday of tin mining, joined the international market and system under construction through the exploitation of raw material and the disciplining of the workforce.

The 1952 Revolution, as a second national constituent moment, emerged under this context of dominance. The miners, sons of the tin capitalist enclave, managed to organize the indigenous people that had been mobilized to recover their land, and the middle class and urban workers who had been excluded from citizenship and the wealth they produced. The nationalization of mines, the declaration of universal citizenship, the destruction of ranches and the agrarian reform, and universal education had been achieved by the popular and indigenous movement, although it did not have its own political project. The revolution was offered to the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR), a political party that built a state capitalism, an agroindustrial bourgeoisie in the East, and an homogeneous nation through the mixing of races.

The colonial rule (denial of the indigenous people) and the capitalist domination (formal subsuming of labour and disruption of “precapitalist” economies) were reproduced in new ways. The indigenous community ended up being conceived as fragmented peasants with individual land deeds, hereditary fragmentation and consequent migration toward the cities; its new political form, the trade union, was corrupted by the military-peasantry pact. This political form legitimized dictatorial governments, the repression of miners and their insertion in the nation as mestizos, that is, the insertion required the denial of their origins and ways of life. The continuity of the state capitalism was only possible under military dictatorships that victimized the miner movement, privatized the land in the east of the country and, since 1985, dismantled the state enterprises. State capitalism, through dictatorship, ended in neoconservatism.

This history of social mobilizations that end up being functional to the dominance was repeated in this neoconservative cycle. The miner actor from the national-popular line had disappeared after the closure of the mines and the anti-colonial indigenous line was initially co-opted by the multicultural discourse. The privatization of state enterprises and of the Bolivian economy sought legitimization through multicultural social reforms, although these were subordinated to the transnational capital.

The end of the story in this country appeared as the abstract inclusion of the citizenship in diversity, individual and collective rights, standardized education -although bilingual. It was the image of a minimal state and of a nation as an amorphous mass of individuals organized by the markets, with the promised recognition of their economic, social, cultural and ethnic capitals as means of social advancement. In reality, producers and consumers numbered the fewest; the rest  -in cities and in the countryside- were the indigenous people, and the poor and informal mestizos who could be disposed by the system.

The political crisis (that began in 2000 with the protest against the privatization of water, continued with the indigenous mobilizations against the excluding multiculturalism and the affirmation of both sides of Bolivia, and brought together all the indigenous and popular sectors behind the demand of gas nationalization), was the result of old and new unresolved contradictions. With different characteristics, the indigenous movement addressed and organized the popular sectors and faced its own political project: the construction of a multinational state.

How could the indigenous movement amalgamate other actors under a common project that was strong enough to topple the former order, overcome the opposition that was determined to end up in civil war and separatism, and adopt a new constitution? The long and painful path to the Constituent Assembly and the approval of the text demonstrate that, for the first time in republican history, the indigenous actor was able to organize the national-popular line with its scope of self-government in the construction of a new state. This unprecedented capacity of indigenous representation of the Bolivian nation (within the framework of a modern nation-state) had two conditions: the depletion of national representation, achieved by the decompopsition of the traditional national actors -mestizos and Creoles- and the rise of a new social relation within the clutter, viewed from the indigenous perspective. Let’s see.

The depletion of national representation

The transformations in the political system that took place during the republican life were achieved through either popular or indigenous massive mobilizations; however, they always ended trapped in the reproduction of the colonial and capitalist contradictions. It seemed that while the questionings to the political system were made within the nation-state, the Creole mestizo leadership, that represented this political form since independence, was able to reposition in power. That is, despite the questioning of the elite actors (organized in conservative or protectionist versions, in regions as Chuquisaca and then La Paz, in different political parties), a new Creole-mestizo actor was able to channel the mobilizations and to achieve the representation of a national project.

Zavaleta Mercado uses the term “majestic paradox” to describe this “unprecedented ratification capacity of the ruling class across different state phases, immense social changes and even several modes of production. Thus, the same way a national revolution is similar to a bourgeois revolution made against the bourgeoisie, its own development places the factors at the service of the oligarchical-majestic reposition. The majestic charge is a true constant in the development of the history of Bolivia.”

However, something that could not have been foreseen until 2000, but had been born in the 1952 Revolution was the fact that this oligarchical-majestic reposition stopped being national-wide. When the MNR, and then Banzer’s dictatorship gambled on the construction of a national agroindustrial bourgeoisie in the Bolivian East and a unifying miscegenation they did not imagine that this bourgeoisie would end up denationalized, unable to build a national project; in other words, there is a majestic recreation through regional, but not national miscegenation (cruceñidad -from Santa Cruz). That is why, although the political opposition to Evo Morales initially tried to organize several regions by demanding autonomy (the Media Luna -half moon-), it became a separatist project, a project to constitute a new nation-state.

This decomposition of the traditional national actor, and its inability to represent -not even in an apparent manner- a new national project, configures an unprecedented call to the indigenous actor to take charge of the nation. Based on the analysis we conducted, this call is the possibility of organizing actors under the national-popular scope (miners, workers, intellectuals, middle classes, teachers, regional identities) in a common project. This is the context of the rise of the multinational state.

Two important lessons of the history of social movements in the twentieth century are that there are no social laws or inevitable processes, that is, no changing process is guarantied; and secondly, that there is not only one actor -one collective actor is not enough to make transformations, especially in cluttered contexts as the Bolivian one where several ways of world organization, modes of production, constitution of subjetivities, political forms and heterogeneous (or not completely subsumed to capital) social densities coexist in contradiction. Thus, the multinational state is an attempt to build a political system that is able to coordinate these modes of world organization, these indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, beyond the capitalist colonialism. But this attempt, captured in the new state political constitution, is a starting point -not an ending point- that needs enough strength to become hegemonic, in the common sense of the majority, to be able to build a political institutionalization and to preserve in time (education). This strength is only possible if the indigenous actor does not think of itself as the only actor; in other words, if instead of becoming self-referential it is able to congregate other actors, worldviews, exclusions and needs, and so on, around the multinational state project.

Now the problem is that the organization of several actors in Bolivian history has taken place in moments of resistance -when the established order loses its legitimacy and becomes violent in its response to criticism- but gets weak and fragments once it has managed to construct a new political system. This happens also due to the fact that the moments of massive mobilization cannot be permanent because actors organized and mobilized around unifying questionings (nationalization of resources, land recovery) return to their private spheres, to their daily survival and specific demands. This demobilization allowed the majestic recreation in previous political cycles. So, what kind of aggregation would allow a more stable organization among several actors that could be maintained? We think that one possibility would be the coordination that has been done between the new multinational state and the autonomies as local communal and civic governments (in the regions). This constant organization, which does not consider the state as the synthesis of society, could be the contribution from the self-government indigenous scope.

However, before considering how we understand this scope, it is necessary to take up the lesson about the non-inevitability of history once more; not only because of the capability of reproduction that the dominance has, but also because it is possible to construct alternatives. I appeal to this lesson to avoid any static or dogmatic interpretation of the nation-state as a modern political form, dominant on its own right.

The modern nation-state -that had been born also from social revolutions against the Western feudal dominance, and from anti-colonial revolutions in the “Third World”- became the central political device to constitute the industrial capitalism world system, but today the nation-state (that sometimes even blocks globalization) is no longer needed by globalized financial capital. The global and local orders show this metamorphosis of capital, which tends to constitute strong political blocs and small political units that are defenceless against capital circulation.

This means that it is necessary to rethink the nation-state against capitalism and colonialism in the global context. Not doing so could result in a dangerous extrapolation (the mechanic application of the functionality of the nation-state for industrial capitalism to financial capitalism) that can be used by the right in Bolivia and Latin America. But we also believe that a way to rethink the nation-state is by overcoming the ethnocentrism that built it from a single and universal (bourgeois, proletarian, western) actor, and that projected the total homogenization of society by capital, and a single cultural and civilizing pattern.

Source: Cuadernos del Pensamiento Crítico Latinoamericano, Mariategui