Socio-economic composition of crisis
Before turning to the pathways that led to the crisis, it is necessary to sketch the socio-economic composition of the crisis, to dissect the historic blocs present at this moment. At the social base of the MAS are the peasant organisations of the Andean highlands [altiplano] and the semi-tropical valleys of Cochabamba, the Unified Syndicalist Confederation of Peasant Workers of Bolivia (CSUTCB) and the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba, respectively, as well as the Syndicalist Confederation of Intercultural Communities of Bolivia (CSC1B, formerly Trade-Union Confederation of Colonizers, CSCB). These organisations, which represent peasants and rural proletarian labourers, have an organic relationship with the MAS and as such all turned out to vote for and defend it on the streets (McNelly 2020c).3
This hard core of social support was complemented by sectors that had benefitted from the politics of the MAS. These included the swathes of the informalised petty commodity producers and hidden wage labourers found in the popular economy; sections of the cooperative and state-employed miners; and sections of the lower middle classes and professional classes who felt Morales had both reduced the stigma they confront in their day-to-day lives and offered them inclusion and representation within the liberal parliamentary system of democracy.4
However, despite this continued support, by 2019 the MAS had burned its bridges with many former social organisation allies during its time in power. During its first term (2006 2009). the central demands of the social movements (2000-2005) were incorporated into the political project of the MAS through technocratic means. So, in March 2006, the government put the wheels in motion for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution, whilst in May 2006 it proclaimed the nationalisation of gas. Organisation leaders were offered positions in Morales’ cabinet and swathes more joined the ranks of the swelling state bureaucracy. Many saw the MAS and Evo Morales as their government and so were more than happy to align as the social base of the MAS (I will touch on this further below). Nevertheless, this had contradictory consequences as social organisations lost the ability to respond to their bases as they became more and more driven by top-down directives.5 By late-2019, social organisations had become empty shells with little to no internal democracy or self-critique, morbid entities whose moribund state was plain for all to see when the MAS called for mass protests in defence of Morales during the run-up to his exit on 10 November and nobody answered.6
The opposition to the MAS was also comprised of multiple different—and contradictory—currents. First, there was a group concerned with the abstract notion of democracy—understood in its narrowest, liberal representative form—comprised of the urban middle-classes and university students largely under the age of 25 (Galindo 2020: 23). These ‘intermediary classes’ (see Braga 2019) were probably the largest oppositional group and was found in all nine departmental capitals. The second group were indigenous groups that did not share the productivist/developmentalist agenda of the MAS government and/or were in the pathway of extractivism or large-scale infrastructure projects. The lowland indigenous groups, particularly those in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), groups in the Chaco regions affected by hydrocarbon extraction, the groups in the Madidi national park opposing the mega dams Bala and Chápete and the ayllus of North Potosi were the most visible elements of this opposition. The prominent organisation matrices of this second oppositional strand were the highland indigenous organisation, Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), and the lowland organisation. Confederación de Pueblos Indígenas de Bolivia (CIDOB), both of whom had been in open conflict with the MAS since 2011 (Hylton and Webber 2019).
Finally, there was the regional opposition concerned with the distribution of power and resources within the country. The indigenous opposition to Morales in the city of Potosi can be categorised as part of this group, as can the civic committees of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz and Tarija (the Media Luna departments). There are similarities between this latter group and the autonomy movement of 2003-2008, which formed the major opposition to Morales during his first term. However, there are some important differences, with emergence of a hitherto little-known figure, Luis Fernando Camacho, from the backwaters of regional, right-wing politics in Santa Cruz to national politics. Along with Korean-Bolivian presidential candidate Chi Hyun Chung, Camacho spoke of‘bringing the bible to Bolivian congress’ and marked the first serious articulation of the evangelical Right (so present elsewhere in Latin America) in Bolivian national politics. He was one of the more prominent figures calling for military intervention, and helped created the conditions that allowed more extreme oppositional groups to burn down the houses of several prominent MAS allies and ministers during the night of 9 November (McNelly 2019).
There was, in the midst of this crisis, situated in-between MAS and oppositional factions, an important feminist current focused on breaking down the growing polarisation and opposing the racketing up of violence (Gutiérrez 2020: 10; Zibechi 2020: 33-34). Intellectually, this strand drew on the decolonial scholarship of Silvia Rivera (the most well-known of Zavaleta’s students) and ex-Comuna member Raquel Gutiérrez to try and breakdown the Manichean logic of the crisis. In other words, this feminist bloc worked precisely to destabilise the shared time of political crisis and to reassert the multitude and multiplicity of Bolivia’s sociedad abigarrada. The anarcho-feminist collective, Mujeres Creando, organised a women’s parliament, which provided a vital space for reflection on the causes of the crisis and the limitations of the political project of Morales. Here I want to take up this feminist blocs’ call to examine the dynamics of Morales’ tenure as president in order to fully grasp how we arrived at the moment under consideration here.
Capital accumulation and class formation in Bolivia
Arguably, no one has done more than Evo Morales and his government to transform the political economy of Bolivia. Under his tenure, the government captured more natural resource rent than ever before, thanks to the renegotiation of contracts with hydrocarbon producers and the (retrospectively) savvy signing of medium-term, fixed-price export contracts with Argentina and Brazil (Haarstad 2014; Kaup 2010;
Webber 2011a). The MAS government then directed this extra surplus into redistributive policies, including conditional cash transfers and higher formal wages, increasing the consumption of popular sectors and forming what political ecologist Eduardo Gudynas (2012) labels a compensatory state. The results on social indicators were positive: according to United Nations Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC 2017) calculations, absolute poverty fell from 38.2% in 2005 to 15.2% in 2017, and the index for income inequality, the Gini coefficient, dropped from 58.5 in 2005 to 44 in 2017. On the surface, at least, the Bolivian economy went from strength to strength during the Morales years.
Rather predictably, if we dig a little deeper, the picture becomes muddied somewhat. The political economy of Bolivia is still shaped by conditions of dependency and its peripheral place in the global market, having been inserted into the global economy initially as a source of silver, later a source of tin and, more recently, as a hydrocarbon-rich country. This means that hydrocarbons comprise around 50% of the value of all exports (despite only accounting for under 15% of GDP) before other mineral and metal material exports are considered (McNelly 2020b). The upshot of Bolivia’s position as a primary commodity producer is that it remains dependent on primary commodity extraction for the dynamism of capital accumulation (see Mendes Loureiro 2018), and, due to the relatively undiversified nature of its economy and the volatility of global commodity prices, it is comparatively sensitive to developments elsewhere in the global economy. The end of the commodity super cycle (2002-2011) placed increasing strain on the final two terms of Morales’ presidency, and the October 2019 elections took place among the backdrop of falling commodity prices globally (ECLAC 2019a: 24). This affected hydrocarbon and mineralexporting countries across South America and ate away at regional trade surpluses, as a fall in the value of exports eroded trade balances and contributed to growing balance of payment deficits across the region (ECLAC 2019b: 46).
Despite running a balance of payments surplus until 2014 (McNelly 2020b: 432), by 2019, Bolivia’s balance of payments deficit was USS860m, largely because the importation of capital goods (US$1.9bn), vehicles and machinery (US$L3bn) and consumables (USSl.Obn) continued to outstrip the exportation of hydrocarbons (US$2.8bn) (1NE 2020). The sluggish demand for Bolivian exports (ECLAC 2019a: 47)—itself a consequence of slowing global growth (particularly in the motor of the global economy, China) and the shockwaves emanating from the trade war between China and US that began in 2017—have been accompanied by a drop in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows, highlighted by a reduction of Net Foreign Direct Investment flows from a high of US$1.75bn in 2013 to USS344m in 2018 (ECLAC 2019a: 203). More worrisome still, natural gas production has also been declining since 2014, ‘plunging in the last quarter of 2018 by 24% compared to the same period of 2017, a decrease which has not been reversed in the first quarter of 2019’ (ECLAC 2019a: 46). This suggests that the reduction of hydrocarbon revenue is not only due to external factors linked to global commodity prices and Bolivia’s two biggest export markets (Argentina and Brazil) but also due to technical constraints on domestic production.
These conditions of dependency do not determine, but rather shape and intersect with, the socio-political structures and ephemeral political events in Bolivia. As such, they tell only part of the story of the political-economic trajectory of Bolivia under Morales. Even with an impressive formal minimum wage growth of over 100% in real terms between 2005 and 2015 (1LO 2017: 65), the growth in the share of GDP paid in wages was below the regional average (0.15% increase over the same period), which is hardly spectacular given the very modest share of GDP paid in wages in the first place (ILO 2017: 81). The effect of the rising minimum wage but not the overall wage share was to reduce the difference between the minimum and average wages but not to improve employment prospects for the population, which was a particular gripe of the increasingly well-educated middle-classes and aspiration working-class people.7 This would have political ramifications in the later years of Morales’ presidency, as these groups scrambled around for the few jobs that matched their educational attainment.
The absolute size of the economically active population (EAP) did not change under the Morales years, continuing to hover around 65% of the population (75% of men, 57% of women) over the 15 years he was in power (IN E 2020). Given that the size of the EAP as a proportion of the population captures the grade of dependence on wage-labour in a society, this is hardly surprising. Formal subsumption in Bolivia was, by and large, completed by the last massive wave of entry into the labour market during the late-1980s and early 1990s, when the EAP grew by roughly 50% in five years (Arze and Maita Pérez 2000: 37). During this period, the opening up of agriculture markets to the global economy undermined the ability of indigenous and peasant communities to survive, increasing market penetration in rural areas and forcing their increasingly degraded population into the labour market. Erstwhile peasants were joined by the wives and daughters of former state employees and miners tossed out of the home and into the workplace
The end of Evo Morales 67 by neoliberal restructuring (sees Gill 1994; Rivera 1996). Such is the degree of generalised dependence on wage-labour for survival after the violence of this moment, that there were not many more people to join the ranks of the EAP by the time Morales assumed office. The large swathes of people who worked in the popular economy were supportive of Morales for much of his tenure, identifying with him as hermano (brother) Evo, the country’s first indigenous president. They were also generally satisfied with their increasing incomes thanks to the massive expansion of capital circulating through informal circuits, as the growing resource rents captured by the state were recycled through increases in the national minimum wage and conditional cash transfers (see Tassi et al. 2013; Webber 2016). However, popular economy actors were not tied to Morales institutionally (like the coca growers were), and growing affluence, coupled with frustrated middle-class aspirations, undermined some of the support Morales enjoyed from this group during his later years in power.
Whilst formal subsumption appears all but complete in the 21st-century Bolivia, the stubborn persistence of the popular economy suggests that real subsumption remains partial at best in Bolivia. The continuing significance of the popular economy reveals the limited extent to which Bolivian social and economic life has been reorganised to fit the technological and organisational needs of capital. It is in a large part to the high instance of commercial and service activities orientated towards the (relatively) minuscule internal market. This is, undoubtedly, a condition of dependency, as large-scale capital investment continues to be in either extractive processes or large-scale infrastructure projects, both of which require very little labour, and have few forward and backward linkages with the rest of the Bolivian economy (see McNelly 2020b).
There are, nevertheless, other signs that real subsumption is creeping along in Bolivia. One possible indicator of the steadily increasing penetration of capital into all spheres of Bolivian society is the percentage of the population living in urban areas, which has grown from 61.8% of the Bolivian population in 2000 to 69.4% in 2018 (World Bank 2020). Many, if not most, of the people who make up this migrant stream are young people leaving rural communities in search of a better life in Bolivian cities, with the draw of the three central metropolitan areas of the country (La Paz/El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz) being such that they accounted for over half of Bolivia’s population by 2012 (INE 2012).8 These migration flows have been accompanied by the growing urbanisation of rural areas, as new city residents use surplus acquired under the bright city lights (or, in many cases, in their shadows) to construct new multi-storey brick houses and to wall off previously collectivised territory (Horn 2018). This has transformed societal and civilisational forms, as the social practices of organising and governing (for want of a better word) indigenous communities are disrupted by the exodus of young generations and clashes between commercial and collective use of land. The reliance of land for all food and subsistence goods has been weakened as communities become increasingly penetrated by market logics. These distortions to societal and civilisational forms have altered the composition of indigenous movements and what it means to be indigenous in the process.9
The other side of this creeping real subsumption is the encroachment of extractive activities into indigenous territories, either through the expansion of the agricultural frontier to quell the insatiable thirst of mono-crop production, or through the displacement of communities by the construction of megaprojects—be it highways, as was the case with the conflict of the T1PN1S (McNeish 2013), or hydroelectric dams, as is the case with the Bala and Chepete (Veliz 2016). The state’s dependence on primary resources reproduces the logic of coloniality: the commodification of nature, the marking of territory holding minerals, metals or hydrocarbons as dispensable and the disregard for the communities and human lives that lie in the way of capital’s pathway to these resources (Salazar 2015). That this was a feature of the Bolivian state fostered under the MAS government is clear from reading the accounts of the October-November crisis given by activists and scholars who have been politically engaged in the country for decades (see in particular Paley 2020). One of Morales’ principal limitations was that he reproduced the very same colonial logics he ostensibly opposed and the social conflicts that this generated under the MAS government—particularly between the government and numerous indigenous groups—marked the crisis as it unfolded in the tense days of October and November.
Drawing together the different political-economic threads outlined in this section starts to illuminate some of the obscured dynamics behind the crisis. Bolivia remained constrained by its peripheral position in the global economy as a primary commodity producer, and despite attempts to use the surpluses extractive activities generate to transform society, the results were limited. The structure of the labour force remained similar, and informal activities in the popular economy continued to assume centre stage both in the country’s quotidian life and in the labour market. Although the minimum wage rose and the average educational level of the workforce increased, the jobs on
The end of Evo Morales 69 offer remained the same. The middle classes saw increasing competition for the limited government and professional jobs they considered rightfully theirs and grumbled. The aspirant working classes groused when the growing educational attainment of their children did not lead them out of employment in the popular economy. And all the while, extractive activities continued to encounter indigenous communities, a dynamic which pitted the government of Evo Morales against the people he supposedly represented.