Dispersing Power: New Book on Bolivian Social Movements

The following is an excerpt from the foreward I wrote to the English edition of Raúl Zibechi’s book, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, translated by Ramor Ryan and recently published by AK Press. Dispersing Power, Zibechi’s first book translated into English, reports on and analyzes social struggles and indigenous community organizing in and around El Alto, Bolivia.

I hope this is the first of many of Zibechi’s books that are translated into English.


Excerpt from the Foreward to the English Edition of Dispersing Power by Raúl Zibechi

Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces offers an exciting account of why social movements in Bolivia are so resilient and powerful, making the publication of this book timely; it focuses on the most vibrant social movements that preceded the election of one of the most dynamic and intriguing presidents among the region’s new left.

So much of what Bolivians have organized against, particularly schools of economic thought, originated in the US. Readers in the US need to understand not only how these elements of imperialism work, but also what people in countries like Bolivia are working toward as alternatives to neoliberalism. It is that building of a better world that is dealt with in this book; many lessons and helpful strategies for activists around the world can be found in these pages.

The centuries-old debates surrounding indigenous power, community and the re-founding of Bolivia to reflect its indigenous culture were rekindled after the passage of Bolivia’s new constitution in January of 2009. The changes in this constitution, along with much of the rhetoric and policies of the Morales administration, focus in part on empowering indigenous forms of decision making, governance, community justice, and social relations. Dispersing Power examines this ongoing process of “decolonization” by drawing from what indigenous societies and thinkers have been living, proposing, and working toward for centuries.

El Alto is currently far from a utopia; poverty, corruption, exploitation—the common challenges that plague many urban areas—are widespread in this city. But El Alto’s legacy of revolt lives on. The Gas War of 2003 was a transformative period partly because it drew from a history of indigenous and popular revolts. This book is an invaluable resource on a rebellion that deserves to be read about and researched extensively. Dispersing Power examines not only the roots of this uprising, but also the solidarity, collaboration, support networks, tactics, and strategies that were used by the people of El Alto, and others, to make their revolutionary work successful not only during the Gas War, but in everyday life.

In this sense, Dispersing Power is a wonderful example of Zibechi’s contributions to understanding social movements in Latin America. As one of the foremost writers and analysts on social movements in the region, Zibechi has influenced activists, social movement participants, writers, thinkers, and journalists around the globe. The nine books he has written have been translated into six different languages including French, Italian, Turkish, Greek, German, and now English. His articles have appeared in over a dozen languages, and he has given talks and participated in conferences in nearly twenty countries across Latin America, Europe, and beyond.

Zibechi’s analysis and focus resonates with a growing number of people concerned with social change from below. Central to much of his writing has been the anti-capitalist relations within movements; how territories of resistance and autonomy exist outside of dominant economic, political, and social models; popular assemblies, and community decision making, relations and actions that build a better world outside the taking of state power.

Like his writing, Zibechi’s activism, work, and experience has traversed much geographical and historical ground. As a student in Uruguay from 1969 to 1973, he was a participant of the Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario (Revolutionary Student Front), a student movement linked to the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional Tupamaros (Tupamaros National Liberation Movement). He participated in movements against the dictatorship in Uruguay, and went into exile in Madrid, Spain in 1976, where he was active in the Communist Movement (a Maoist, feminist, and pacifist collective at the time) in rural literacy and anti-military work. In the 1980s he became acquainted first-hand with the liberation movements in Central America, and wrote for various newspapers including Página Abierta, Egin, Liberación and Página/12 in Argentina and Mate Amargo in Uruguay.

From 1986 onward he has traveled and worked throughout all of Latin America as a writer and activist. Zibechi is now an international analyst at one of the best weekly publications in Latin America, La Brecha, and regularly contributes to the Americas Program, La Jornada, and many other publications.  In 2003, he won the José Marti Journalism Award for Genealogy of the Revolt, Argentina: Society in Movement, a book on the social movements in Argentina during that country’s uprising and crisis in 2001. He is the author of many books, including most recently, Territories in Resistance: Political Cartography of the Latin American Urban Peripheries. In addition, he is currently a lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina (Fransiscan Multiversity of Latin America), and participates in popular seminars on various topics with social movement groups around the region.

As readers, we are lucky that such a brilliant thinker is also an engaging and accessible writer. In an eloquent arrangement of history, theory, analysis, and reporting, Zibechi offers unique ways of understanding social change. The transformational capacity of his work is not limited to our perceptions; by presenting new ways of seeing, we’re also provided with fresh, empowering ways of changing the world we live in.

Zibechi artfully transmits the views of great philosophers, economists, and theorists to his work without bogging the writing down with academic jargon. In his articles and various books, whether writing about the Mapuche in Chile, the Zapatistas, or the Argentine piqueteros, unconventional sources are drawn from and under-reported news shared. His writing, like the movements he writes about, is horizontal and participatory; it draws predominantly from the voices and views of those most affected or involved.

Through much of his writing one feels a strain of hope; not some misleading tonic or pair of rose-colored glasses, but hope that embraces the challenges inherent in possibility, the work necessary for liberation, and the self-determination of people over parties, governments, and doctrines.

As Zibechi writes in Genealogy of the Revolt, “To defend the new world implies expanding it, deepening it, enriching it.” With the publication of Dispersing Power in English, this new world has expanded.

The book is available from AK Press.