Dispersing Power in Bolivia: Tending the ‘Sacred Fire’ of Social Movements

Reviewed: Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, By Raúl Zibechi, Translated by Ramor Ryan, AK Press, 2010

“For those of us who struggle for emancipation, the central and critical challenges are not from above but from below. There is no point in blaming the governments or issuing calls of ‘betrayal.’ It is a daily task for all of us committed to creating a new world to care for the people’s power as the sacred fire of the movement.” – Raul Zibechi

Social Movements in El Alto, Bolivia have been the agents of political change in the country for much of the past decade, ousting right-wing presidents, rejecting neoliberal policies and ushering in a new political era with the election of Evo Morales in 2006.

Understanding how these movements have operated and sustained themselves in recent years is a key part of grappling with the questions of social change and state power in Bolivia today. Raul Zibechi, a Uruguayan journalist and author of many books on social movements in Latin America, focuses on social movements in El Alto in the new English edition of his book, Dispersing Power: Social Movements As Anti-State Forces, published by AK Press and translated from the Spanish edition by Ramor Ryan.

In Dispersing Power Zibechi writes that societies in movement force cracks in “mechanisms of domination” tearing at the “fabric of social control” while dispersing institutions; people only discover what they are capable of when acting. Zibechi writes, following developments in the Bolivian city of El Alto, that relations between neighbors, friends, and family, “are as important as those [with] the union, the party, or even the state…” The author, discussing German sociologist and social theorist Max Weber, reveals how “‘permanent'” political parties always embrace domination, and how among the indigenous people of Bolivia there is the non-Western idea of leading by obeying, not commanding. What we catch a glimpse of in El Alto is “social machinery that prevents the concentration of power or, similarly, prevents the emergence of a separate power from that of the community gathered in assembly.” Zibechi, again following Weber, writes that “solidarity and representation are in opposition” and further, that US Agency for International Development (USAID) reports look on with horror at these “undivided” Bolivian communities.

The USAID objective is to “destroy the social movements” in El Alto, particularly the “neighborhood councils.” El Alto was fed, and built up, by many forced internal migrations from the Bolivian countryside, and is comprised of hundreds of “urbanizations” which confound state control; a control which always demands a “center” and negates efforts based in “self-organization.” This dispersed, indigenous Aymara influenced city, must be overcome by the failed colonial elites of Bolivia, and their international backers. Another perceived problem, with the city, is that a majority of its workers toil in the informal sector, in family based shops, and “are not subject to [a] Taylorist division of labor.” Taylorism is an old school of business management which seeks to fuse the human body, its movements, to the violence and regularity of the assembly line. Zibechi believes that the history of union struggles that the migrants possessed, and the older resources of Aymaran culture, enabled them to survive, and later stage an incredible leaderless insurrection.

Accounts of struggles in Bolivia show decisions being made collectively, leaders being rotated, and an “outpouring from below” which greatly unsettled political representation. Zibechi characterizes these energies as “non-state powers” which tend to disperse, not unify. The success of the Aymara, and others, in El Alto, flies in the face of the idea that divided, specialized bodies are more efficient. The movement tactics employed included the nighttime blocking of roads (pulga/flea), efforts to distract police forces (wayronka/ground battle), community marches (sikititi/red ant), and mass actions used to freeze up cities (taraxchi/plumed bird). All of this comes forth from a “long memory” and is activated in times of need (like staging areas called “barracks”), with no separation from everyday life. During the period of the 2003 Gas War – a conflict against gas privatization and exportation to the US through a Chilean port which led to the overthrow of neoliberal president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada – an active communication, interactions not based in information and passive reception, kept indigenous communities mobilized.

The state seeks to weaken face to face control, and it does this by provoking separations which encourage leading by commanding. What has happened in El Alto, writes Zibechi, “suggests that large numbers of humans can live without [the] state”, and that an inability to realize this has been a major “stumbling block from the standpoint of social emancipation.” A non-state power is a “capacity to disperse or prevent the state from crystallizing.” The ability of a state to co-opt or neutralize movements can be greater or lesser depending on many circumstances. Social movements seek to “rupture” realities we are told cannot be changed, they refuse to remain condemned. History shows that “non-articulated and non-unified movements” are able to topple horrid governments, free large areas for different life ways, and fight for important rights. Zibechi sees a permanent “dispute” going on between communities and movements, which seek to bring together, limiting separation, and states and political parties, which seek to foster divisions, and co-opt and divide grassroots powers that challenge their influence.

In the Aymara city of El Alto, life-sized dolls can be seen hanging with their heads turned to the side, signifying death, or splashed with the color red for blood. These dolls are put on display in El Alto neighborhoods to intimidate would-be thieves are assailants.  They are an immediate form of self-defense, and “the consequence of a corrupt and morally deteriorated state judicial apparatus”, and failed policing, often in league with criminals. Under the colonial state, indigenous forms of conflict resolution were forced “underground” but in this later situation they came again into the light. Conflicts can be resolved by different groups, and this allows people to “defend themselves without creating a specialized separate apparatus, just as they do not create a specialized apparatus to mobilize and fight for their interests.”

Zibechi cites many sources which try to outline what a nation-state, or large region, would look like with power not separated from communities. Some of these documents, like the Achacachi Manifesto, drafted in 2001, at the height of a popular insurrection against neoliberalism, were importantly written in Omasuyos province, an historic Aymaran center. These documents underline, according to the author, the “collective expression of the concept of ‘to lead obeying'” and even of “the beginning of the end of representative democracy.” One source outlines a possible “ayllu” centered society; the “ayllu” is be a place-based grouping of extended families. This arrangement covers cooperation among “ayllu” families (ayni), reciprocity with ayllus (mink’a), with ayullas (mit’a) and even the environment (q’amana).

The author also brings up a cautionary tale about the experience indigenous movements in Ecuador had with political party entanglements. He writes about how “gains became prisons” and how movement “counter-powers cannot be converted into [state based] power without annulling … multiple potencies.”

Zibechi concludes, the book, with some reflections on community, which he sees as a “bearer of memory” and “know-how,” and an always-vigilant fighting force with which “to bring the common up to date.” He writes of communitarian movement efforts to “deepen the democratic flow of …the means of life and creation.” These words have great meaning in the context of the past decade’s resource wars in Bolivia over access to water, land and gas.

Overall, Dispersing Power demonstrates how powerful government forces frequently seek to undermine the deepening of radical social bonds. In this brilliant book, Zibechi demonstrates how and why organizers should spend less time blaming governments and more time expanding the “sacred fire” of movements.

John MacLean is an Industrial Workers of the World organizer in Burlington, Vermont and regularly writes book reviews for the Industrial Worker.