NYC lecture, October 26: Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics

On Monday, October 26, I’ll be giving a talk on “Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics,” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Queens College-CUNY. The talk will be in the President’s Conference Room 2 at the Rosenthal Library (campus map) at 12:15pm. If you’re in New York City or someplace nearby, please join me.

Abstract:

This paper explores the radical political values that circulate and develop across Bolivia’s dense and nimble forms of activism, with a focus on the increasingly indigenous metropolis. Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. This worldview separates an enduring, morally legitimate world of community organization (“the organic”) from a corrupted world of political parties, staffed by self-advancing, individualist politicians who engage in transactional, corrupt practices (“the political”). Inside the organic domain, unions and other mass organizations replicate and extend the ayllu, an Andean structure for community self-management of the lands inherited from ancestral spirits. They valorize ethical principles of complementarity, solidarity, anti-individualism, and obligatory participation, blending ethical and political life.

Conversely, other organizations structure themselves horizontally, without a formal hierarchy or official leadership. People join these efforts voluntarily and individually without a joint decision of the others with whom they live or work; the organization is defined by ideological and social affinity, its common purpose. They achieve their political effects by networking: that is, by interacting with a far larger numbers of people than just its membership, through public spectacles, training, writing, and open gatherings. While less internationally visible, these nimble activists participate in the global circulation of practices of decentralized decision making, ideas like the de-commodification of water, and transnational movement networks.

Rather than mutually opposed poles, organic grassroots and participatory network organizations interchange ideas and collaborate in common efforts. A former Marxist union militant in the mines explains, “Solidarity is what is called ayni, right?,” offering a translation between languages for political visioning. Across town, an urban anarchafeminist collective embraces an indigenous identity while pointing out patriarchal attitudes within both revolutionary movements and traditional communities. For at least a generation, Bolivian activists have conceptualized radical political values as of form of decolonization, as a return to ways of living that are inherently opposed to the colonial and capitalist state. At the same time, liberatory political praxis involves the incorporation of new ideas, in silent contradiction to rhetoric of cultural revival. Drawing on multiple experiences, I describe both the recovery and the innovation of ways of doing politics.

Cropped cover of Eduardo Gudynas' book _Extractivismos_

Bolivia in the age of extractivism (a field report)

This is Bolivia 2015.

Unprecedented ambition is transforming the landscape into a source of new exports, an ambition that is measured more in dizzying numbers than individual projects. A feasibility study begins for a dam, El Bala, that would submerge the heart of Madidi National Park to produce 1600 to 4800 MW of electricity, but in announcing the contract, President Evo Morales speaks of a potential 48,000 MW of new projects across the country. Government aspirations for energy production also include investing US$2 billion in a nuclear power plant in Viacha, a still-hypothetical prospect that would place the vast El Alto–La Paz metropolis at risk in the event of a major accident. When exploratory drilling in the Lliquimuni petroleum block in the northern Bolivian Amazon is inaugurated, Morales proposes building an improbable but possible oil refinery to commoditize oil from a cluster of oil fields underneath the rainforest. At an agricultural policy forum, co-hosted by the government, the peasant confederation CSUTCB, and big agribusiness (the Chamber of Agriculture of the East), the government proposes quintupling the land under cultivation in the next decades, mostly by expanding mechanized monoculture. While the peasants are partners in the summit, it is the Chamber who drafts the legislation that follows. Speaking to the European Union, the president vows that global South governments “will not be park rangers” on behalf of the global North. He returns home to sign a decree authorizing oil and gas extraction in National Parks as a national strategic priority. In public speeches, Morales has also pledged that NGOs and foundations that stand in the way of using Bolivia’s natural resources face expulsion from the country.

This was the country I visited for the past three weeks. I’m at a point of inflection in my research agenda from studying how movements build power and exert pressure to looking at the how conflicts between indigenous peoples and extractive industries will evolve under the Plurinational State. In part because of the power built by indigenous movements, Bolivia is a place where indigenous territories and rights have some of the most extensive protections in written law. Those legal commitments contradict equally formal commitments by the government to fulfill oil, mining, and logging contracts, and the government’s drive for new revenues to fund its anti-poverty social agenda. Conceptualized from afar, this should be a complex story of uncertainty and contradiction, of the indigenous state official who is pulled in two directions, of hard choices and ambivalences. But as the list of extractivist plans makes clear, the government of the Plurinational State is anything but ambivalent on this issue.Read More »

The day my patriotism began to unravel…

Twenty-five years ago today, I brought a copy of the paper to a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Illinois. I was 12, this was summer camp, and the news was not good. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down a civilian airliner. As Wikipedia now remembers the event:

Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from TehranIran, to DubaiUnited Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down by United States missiles fired by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished.

As best I recall, there was not the slightest acknowledgment during the festivities of the attack on the commercial jet. President Reagan expressed “regret” on that July 3. No US president has ever apologized.

Before that time, I had innocently wondered why it was that the news habitually announced the death toll from lethal events overseas, followed by “including X Americans.” I remember my parents’ explanation being unsatisfying. On July 3, 1988, no Americans were killed.

Nor was a single soldier killed. Just civilians crossing to or from a neighboring country. While US ships operated in the waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, it was our government who notified theirs that “any approach to an American warship would be dangerous unless the intent was clearly peaceful.” I can only imagine the Airbus pilot’s—his name was Mohsen Rezaian—steely terror as he maintained course during the planned 28-minute flight that morning.

I remember little of the parade or even my feelings during it. What I would remember for years is four tween boys sitting on the grassy roof of the student center waiting for the fireworks to begin that night. As one kid closed his eyes, the other three of us “brainwashed” him, chanting the government slogans from George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. … Freedom is slavery. … Ignorance is strength.” We were at an age when play and reality were not fully distinct, when not a one of us had a basis to imagine what brainwashing would actually look like. Our play was more novice hypnotism than The Manchurian Candidate, but the twelve-year-old me (who had never heard of the Manchurian Candidate, but knew all about the prospect of dying in a nuclear war) wondered if it was working.

Our brainwashed friend improvised the part perfectly. Rousing himself, as if from a long sleep, he conveyed confusion and grogginess. His first words were tentative and out of sorts. He ventured slowly, “Daddy … daddy … Are nuclear weapons bad, daddy?” The fireworks must have began soon thereafter.

As it happened (as the news from the Gulf told our unlistening ears), our peace was war. The mourning we ought to have had was a celebration. Children—us—were properly disturbed by all of this; adults were impervious.

To be good American adults, we would be obliged to learn to feign a continuous innocence. To imagine that our missiles did not lead to their graves, that our government’s intentions were noble, that (US) American lives were more deserving of mourning.

In the end I could not make this transition.

A good US American could never compare July 3, 1988, to the bad downing of civilian jetliners that have so terrorized Americans and their allies in recent decades. Such terrorist acts are meant to be unforgivable, while there is endless time to analyze the thoughts and empathize with the fears of men like Captain William C. Rogers, the officer who gave the order to fire.

Perhaps he did not mean to shoot down a civilian jet. Perhaps he valued Iranian lives as much as his own family’s lives. In the end there was little need to inquire into his motives. He shot down one airplane. US government policy prolonged the Iran–Iraq War for years, providing arms and intelligence to both sides, led by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranians and Iraqis buried hundreds of thousands of young soldiers each, and over a hundred thousand civilians. The US goal was simple: “We wanted to avoid victory by both sides,” a senior State Department official told Seymour Hersh in 1992. Shooting down an airliner looks like terrorism. Planning for the pointless deaths of thousands upon thousands is terrorism.

There was a long gap between my disillusionment at twelve years old, and the college years I spent reading quotes like that from US officials and American papers. The disconnect between the image of American benevolence and five decades of history grew clearer with each thread I followed and pulled at. It would take nearly a decade of tracing, pulling, and following before I would stop being surprised, shocked, and sickened, rather than just saddened. Nearly a decade before I would start to assemble an understanding of the United States as an empire like any other. And by that time, through that process, it could no longer feel like mine.

Change will come from us, when and where it comes…

It’s 19° here in DC this morning, where I will be joining some six or seven digit number of people outside for the inauguration. Washington is an old hometown to me, but it does have a different feel when it’s claimed as a front yard by people from across the country. Walking around last night, I saw more people on the street than I ever have, black folks selling “I was there” sweatshirts, and other black folks dressed to the nines out partying, a big time reception or three in different night spots, people dressed to be dropped off in limos (and clearly used to that too) walking through the cold because of the security perimeter, and a cleared out and brightly lit Pennsylvania Ave. surrounded by security fencing but nonetheless open to the public.

And in the past month, I’ve seen a disastrous war, bought, paid for, armed, and endorsed by my country but carried out in Gaza. I’ve called my black, Democratic Congressman from Brooklyn, Ed Towns, only to hear the exact Israeli line from his legislative aide, calling the deadliest assault in Palestine in three decades an act of “self defense.” Now over 1300 people are dead, and 50,000 are homeless.

I’ve also seen on video a black man shot in the back in Oakland, while waiting to be cuffed by BART police. And Oakland was my city, and New Year’s is my holiday in the Bay, and I had helped break up a fight earlier in the week, so I can sure imagine being swept up when the cops arrived. Oscar Grant could have been me.

These causes for despair can be healed, but it will be us, our actions that heal them by standing up and challenging injustice. I’m proud of so many people for standing up to these two in recent weeks (on Gaza | on Oscar Grant). They are what I have to celebrate today.

A couple months ago, I signed on to a call for a Bloc to be present at today’s inauguration called “Celebrate People’s History, Build Popular Power.” Given today’s mega-concert like feel, it might not be the action with the greatest impact. But I’m grateful for a way to set myself a bit apart today, to say the words “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” in a way that can never be the same as listening to the same words. To make the future we want, we all need to produce rather than consume our politics. See you in the streets, celebrating and fighting.

Bailout Protest on Wall Street

Responding to an open call circulating in the city, some 300 protesters against the bailout plan gathered in New York’s financial district and marched to the New York Stock Exchange at Wall St. and Broad yesterday afternoon. The crowd was loud, diverse and fed up. Video coverage of the rally is part of today’s Democracy Now! The Indypendent has a live blog archive of the protest. Click on the picture below for more Indymedia photos.

Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall
Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall

Apparently, we weren’t the only people pissed off, either. TrueMajority.com is hosting a bulletin board for coordinating protests, with over 250 planned or carried out already, as covered her by CNN.

Being on the streets, there was a happy thrill to be back in force, in a protest taking over Wall Street for my first time since the J18 protest against the G8,* when a Reclaim the Streets protest flooded that intersection for nearly an hour. Of course, this time, our connection to most Americans was much more organic, as everyone from New York anarchists to Montana’s governor are raising big questions about this handover of government loans for junk securities.

What was strange, though, was to look so many Wall Street traders in the eyes. While many waded into the crowd to snap photos with their IPhones, others were visibly unnerved at the display of public opposition. And is the unfortunate nature of public protests we weren’t being the most articulate in our chants (see Tom Tomorrow from 1992 below), even if we were some times hillarious saying things like: “You break it, you bought it” and “You fucked up. Suck it up.” Above all, we needed to be loud and unequivocal in just the right physical space. Thankfully the media was the outlet for my desire to be articulate, and apparently for others desire if you listen to Democracy Now!

How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison
How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison

*Some of you may remember I worked on another more recent protest there, but I spent the morning working phones off-site.

Now screening on the East Coast: In-depth look at Anti-war Shutdown of San Francisco

SF Chron Cover on Day X
SF Chron Cover on Day X

SHUTDOWN: The Rise & Fall of Direct Action to Stop the War is an in-depth documentary exploration of a piece of the continuous struggle towards
social justice. Using the March 20, 2003 occupation and disruption of the San Francisco Financial District as a case study, the film casts a thoughtful eye on one of the most successful actions of the current anti-war movement, facilitated by Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW). Created to gain insight, inspire, and draw lessons the movie tells the story of how social justice organizers and everyday people came together to plan and shut down the financial district of a major US city.

Created by people directly involved with the organizing, SHUTDOWN utilizes on-the-street footage, news clips and interviews with 17 key participants. It is a people’s history made in support of the movement against war and
empire, aiming to galvanize resistance and further critical analysis in cities and towns throughout the country.

Join the film makers for a presentation & discussion on the future of mass direct action strategies to end the war.

**Upcoming East Coast Screenings**
Wednesday, July 09
7:00 PM
Bluestockings Booikstore, NYC
172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington

Thursday, July 10 7:00PM
St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, Rochester
402 South Ave.

Saturday, July 12 7:30PM
Wooden Shoe Bookstore, Philadelphia
508 s. 5th street

Monday, July 14 6:00 – 9:00 PM
Hartford, CT
Location TBA

For a promotional flyer, preview, and more
check out the website at www.shutdownthemovie.com.
For more info or questions please send an email to daswvideo@riseup.net
[Full disclosure: I’m one of the “17 key participants” interviewed in the film]

More background on the SF antiwar movement in 2003-04: From Piece Movement to Peace Movement: San Francisco Self-Organizes to Implode Empire by Patrick Reinsborough