Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Bolivia’s Organic Grassroots

Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]

No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, the country’s pioneering work on all these issues also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will
be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio

Chris Dixon’s Another Politics: A vital introduction to North American radical politics today

I’m reposting my review of Chris Dixon‘s excellent Another Politics: Talking Across Today’s Transformative Movements. If you want to understand my politics, and the activist experiences it grew out of, reading this book would be a good place to start. The review originally appears here in WIN Magazine. WIN just published its final issue, which includes an amazing look back at debates within organized nonviolence in the USA over the past 90 years. Another Politics is available directly from the publisher.

Book Review

Another Politics 9780520279025Over the past two decades, a certain kind of radical politics has surfaced and resurfaced, most recently within the whirlwind of activism that made up the Occupy movement. As the movement spread and encampments grew, occupiers sought to deepen their critiques and build democracy amongst themselves. Participants looked beyond a single demand to a systemic challenge, through which “all our grievances are connected” — confronting a multiplicity of forms of power, while insisting that the very process of confrontation must be rethought as well. Chris Dixon has assembled a number of self-conscious practitioners of this critical, bottom-up, and egalitarian politics, which he calls the anti-authoritarian current, in a remarkable and many-voiced synthesis of their praxis.Read More »

Martin Luther King Jr., revolutionary

446px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_4A revolutionary is one who self-consciously advocates collective action to remake a society’s defining institutions through unconventional action, from below. Not just in the last years of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was one such revolutionary.

Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait, 1963:

Summer came, and the weather was beautiful. But the climate, the social climate of American life, erupted into lightning flashes, trembled with thunder and vibrated to the relentless, growing rain of protest come to life through the land. Explosively, America’s third revolution—the Negro Revolution—had begun.

For the first time in the long and turbulent history of the nation, almost one thousand cities were engulfed in civil turmoil, with violence trembling just below the surface. Reminiscent of the French Revolution of 1789, the streets had become a battleground; just as they had become the battleground in the 1830’s of England’s tumultuous Chartist movement. As in these two revolutions, a submerged social group, propelled by a burning need for justice, lifting itself with sudden swiftness, moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger, created an uprising so powerful that it shook a huge society from its comfortable base.

Never in American history had a group seized the streets, the squares, the sacrosanct business thoroughfares and the marbled halls of government to protest and proclaim the unendurability of their oppression. Had room-sized machines turned human, burst from the plants that housed them and stalked the land in revolt, the nation could not have been more amazed. Undeniably, the Negro had been an object of sympathy and wore the scars of deep grievances, but the nation had come to count on him as a creature who could quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. He was well trained in service and, whatever the provocation, he neither pushed back nor spoke back.

Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper. The storm clouds did not release a “gentle rain from heaven,” but a whirlwind, which has not yet spent its force or attained its full momentum.

Martin Luther King, 1968:

There is a second group of young people, presently small in number but dynamic and growing. They are the radicals. They range from moderate to extreme in the degree to which they want to alter the social system. All of them agree that only by structural change can current evils be eliminated because the roots are in the system rather than in man or in faulty operations. This is a new breed of radicals. Very few adhere to any established ideology or dogma: Some borrow from old doctrines of revolution, but practically all of them suspend judgment on what the form of the new society must be. They are in serious revolt against old values and have not yet concretely formulated the new ones. … Ironically, their rebellion comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. They tried to build racial equality and met tenacious and vicious opposition. They worked to end the Vietnam war and experienced futility.

In their concern for higher social values [the radicals] were thwarted by a combination of material abundance and spiritual poverty that stifled a pure creative outlook. And so they seek a fresh start with new rules in a new order. … Their radicalism grows because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only its social system but the evils it contains. … Whether they read Gandhi or Fanon, all the radicals understand the need for action—direct, self-transforming and structure-transforming action. This may be their most creative collective insight.

This second passage comes from “A New Sense of Direction,” one of King’s last overall strategic reflections before his assassination. It was delivered at a SCLC staff meeting and its private audience allowed for additional candor. If you want to read one piece on MLK’s strategic thinking, after a lifetime of organizing, this is it. On the other hand, if you want to read a whole book, buy Michael Eric Dyson’s I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr, and donate it to a library when you’re done.

See also: Martin Luther King on Riots and Property Destruction.

Marriage is a political binding spell…

Marriage is a political binding spell. It obliges the state to not ask you to testify against one another, the boss who doesn’t respect your love to provide health care for your partner, the florist and the venue owner to treat you equally, the immigration inspector to see you as family. No love should be denied these powers.

And,

These protections should be spread far more widely. Collectivities of dissent should be spared grand juries. Health care should be for all, gay or straight; married or single; salaried, waged, or unemployed. Love in all its forms should be regarded as a blessing, celebrated by neighbors and friends, and honored by strangers. People should find their homes regardless of borders.

This week’s demands on marriage equality are just small asks compared to these. But they’re so easy to say yes to.

xo

I don’t usually repost my comments in the world of social media, but since a couple people asked… I live between a circle that has come to celebrate LGBT equality, with this week’s cases as a big symbol, and a circle where the priority of marriage for LGBT movements has long been rightly questioned. I hope this very short piece challenges people in the first circle to expand their demands and visions, and those in the second circle to embrace the limited but daring requests being put forward this week.

p.s. See also: Caitlin Breedlove, Thoughts on the Supreme Court & Gay Marriage: “I believe the way forward is not the same old fight of picking sides. The question, instead, becomes: how do we move from the push for a US-based civil right for some, to the struggle for liberation for all?” Shay O’Reilly, LGBT Activists Look Beyond Marriage To A Bigger Gay Agenda. Laura Flanders, Take the Oath: A Critic of Marriage Gets Teary: “…if we care so much about loving and honoring and comforting and cherishing someone else, what if, as a society, we took that oath to one another?”

Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

Read More »

The most powerful forms of worker action, illegal in the USA

The worst active anti-union law in the United States was not Scott Walker’s recently passed assault on collective bargaining by state employees, but a law that makes many of the most powerful ways for workers to fight back against such a law illegal: the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act (wikipedia). That law makes many practical collective responses used by unions around the world illegal acts (technically “unfair labor practices”) in the United States. Nearly all of these are recognized as part of the fundamental right of freedom of organizing, recognized by international conventions to which the United States is a signatory. Among these actions are:

  • Jurisdictional strikes—A strike to demand that work be performed by members of the union
  • Wildcat strikes—Strikes called from the workplace floor, for new demands or in direct response to events
  • Solidarity strikes—A strike by one workplace in solidarity with a strike at another
  • Political strikes—Strikes in support of demands that extend beyond a single workplace, such as the minimum wage, overtime rights, or national health care
  • Secondary boycotts—The refusal of workers at one company to handle goods from another company during a strike there
  • Secondary picketing—Picketing (say be striking workers at one workplace) intended to get workers at a second shop to engage in a secondary boycott

If you haven’t worked for union or gone out on strike, you probably have never heard this list, and the first items that are illegal probably sound like basic elements of free speech. Harry Truman, whose veto of the Act was overriden, would agree with you. He called the law a “dangerous intrusion on free speech.”

Today, as union members, people who believe in the right of workers to represent themselves, and people who hope for a better life for themselves and their communities debate how to respond to Scott Walker’s union-busting bill in Wisconsin, far too many effective forms of nonviolent collective action require formally breaking the law. Increasing numbers of union activists have brought up the general strike, a coordinated work stoppage by multiple unions, and ideally the public at large, as a means of exerting pressure. General strikes are in fact ideal ways for workers to press demands on a government: Spanish and Italian workers have repeatedly pressed for wage increases through general strikes; Bolivians have used general strikes for a broad range of goals; the French used them to oppose raising the retirement age; and most of Western Europe established the worker protections they enjoy under threat of general strikes. It is indeed an exciting time now in Wisconsin because this extremely powerful tool is being broadly considered. However, incorporated unions have to consider the legal risks in not just calling a general strike, but in taking steps beyond wearing a common color in solidarity (one of the other proposals being planned right now). Meanwhile, right-wing opponents are covering this debate under the headline, “Socialists, Unions Plotting Illegal Strike in Wisconsin.”

We should remember that illegal does not mean immoral, or wrong-headed. Like the right to bargain collectively, the right to strike and the right to strike together to press common demands are basic forms of democracy; they are rights that everyone has, as even our government has recognized at the international level. Rolling back laws that turn rights into crimes should be on our agenda, whether those laws are from 2011 or 1947.