Standing in the centre of Plaza Murillo (La Paz) in the middle of September of 2019, I faced towards the National Congress of Bolivia. In front of the building, alongside the traditional Bolivian tricolour of red, yellow and green, flew the wiphala, the multi‐coloured, chequered flag that represents the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Since 2009, when the new Bolivian constitution was ratified, the wiphala has been recognised as a joint symbol of the Plurinational State of Bolivia. Turning ninety degrees to the right, I observed the new Casa Grande del Pueblo, at 29 stories high, rising above the old Presidential Palace (Palacio Quemado) and Cathedral of La Paz. As I stood, surveying my historic surrounding, a gust of wind blew. Catching the breeze, the tricolour unfurled to full length, obscuring for a time the wiphala. This snapshot, caught in my mind as a moment in time, seemed to encapsulate the contradictions and tensions involved in the proceso de cambio (process of change) in contemporary Bolivia. The new, chic, $42million building festooned with indigenous symbols, towers above the surrounding area as a symbol of Bolivia’s contested modernity. Meanwhile, the progress represented by indigenous inclusion remained overshadowed by older, traditional modes of representation. Two different imaginations of Bolivia were on display, but sat uneasily side by side, not quite synthesised, and still open to change, depending on the prevailing (political) winds.
My latest article in the Journal of Historical Sociology addresses this contested process of social change. It explores both the historically-rooted dynamic of indigenous struggle to overturn the colonial order versus the state-led desire to expand capitalist forms of modernity. In doing so I examine the contested meaning of indigenous liberation, and ask, where now for the country’s indigenous social movements?
Like many international observers of a leftist orientation, I was delighted (and relieved) to see the recent electoral victory of Luis Arce of the MAS in Bolivia’s fraught presidential election. This victory overturned a brief right-wing interlude that had taken place following the disputed elections held in October the previous year, when Evo Morales had sought to gain a fourth term in office. The contested aftermath of this election plunged the country into crisis, with allegations of fraud, rising levels of violence and the increasing emboldening of right-wing, revanchist social forces. However, in the intoxicating euphoria of Evo Morales’ return from exile there is a danger of erasing some of the critical, leftist voices in the country, who, prior to the interlude in the rule of the MAS, were raising serious concerns about the ‘process of change’ taking place. These concerns centred on issues of extractive development, respect for indigenous territorial integrity and the demobilisation of social movements leading to the decline of their independent agenda.
The central argument I make in this article (written prior to the return of the MAS) is that Bolivia remains caught between two major sociological dynamics that have long resonance within the country’s history. These are: the search for an overturning of the colonial order on the one hand (pachakuti); and the preservation of class rule tied to the expansion of capitalism (passive revolution), on the other. One of Bolivia’s most prominent intellectuals Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui captures this dynamic when she writes,
The present is the setting for simultaneously modernising and archaic impulses, of strategies to preserve the status quo and of others that signify revolt and renewal of the world: Pachakuti. The upside‐down world created by colonialism will return to its feet as history only if it can defeat those who are determined to preserve the past, with its burden of ill‐gotten privileges.
My key arguments of the article are articulated as follows. First, I situate the history of indigenous exclusion within Bolivian state formation and introduce the key terms of Pachakuti and passive revolution. I then explore how these dynamics intertwine via three constitutive moments in Bolivian history. The first moment is grounded in the subterranean nature of indigenous struggles following the supressed anti‐colonial uprisings of 1781. The excavation of this historical period is essential to highlight the role of collective memory in driving forward the search for the Pachakuti. The second constitutive moment is the National Revolution of 1952. Here I introduce the term passive revolution to define both the Revolution’s character and to introduce a new dynamic, whereby the state captures and neutralises radical, insurgent demands in order to facilitate capitalist modernisation. The later period of the MAS in power is then analysed through these opposing logics of Pachakuti and passive revolution as a third constitutive moment. This final section, which draws upon interviews conducted with representatives of key subaltern social forces in La Paz and Santa Cruz, aims to synthesise the two key dynamics of historical change that have been discussed hitherto. It does this by showing how, at the beginning of the century there was a renewed struggle to overturn colonial structures of domination and remake social space. Secondly, how subsequently, owing to the weakness of an independent and united hegemonic project from below, this search was once again co‐opted into a passive revolution on behalf of the MAS.
For the sake of brevity, I break down my analysis of the MAS rule into the following three interrelated areas: the struggle for dignity and recognition, the contradictions of the economic model of development and, finally, conflicts over indigenous autonomy and territorial rights. The purpose is not to deny that many progressive changes have taken place in Bolivia. Rather, it is to highlight the contradictory nature of that process of change that has served to limit the horizons of the possible, most notably in terms of the radical impulses that began the insurrectionary cycle (2000-2005). However, I also highlight the tensions within indigenous movements and their differentiated understandings of emancipation and the ultimate failure to solidify a subaltern hegemonic project that maintained unity within these divisions.
Prior to the return of the MAS to power, there was a growing consensus among critical left voices, that the reinvigoration of the process of change, if it came, would have to be from subaltern indigenous social movements. As Arze and Gómez prophetically argued, despite some setbacks for indigenous movements, revolutionary aspirations ‘will persist and could reappear under explosive and destabilising conditions.’
Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui long ago opined that, ‘When expropriation and redistribution seem about to liquidate the “community,” indigenous socialism always finds a way to reject, resist, or evade this incursion.’ In the present conjuncture, we must hope that he is right. Hope, however, should not be dismissed as an empty cliché. Rather, the struggle for Pachakuti remains intrinsically a utopian one, in that sense that it is the search for the good place that is still no place. Whilst profound mobilisations may have indeed opened a new horizon of desire, the struggle to realise an indigenous sovereignty that fundamentally breaks with colonial cartography has remained a vanishing point on that horizon. However, this is no elusive search for El Dorado. Rather there exists a powerful set of collective memories of alternative praxis, not only in a long‐term horizon, but also in more recent forms of struggle that included the proliferation of communal assemblies, rotating representatives and a re‐grounding of power in the community. If collective memories can indeed inspire processes of change, then likewise critical reflection on recent periods of history, examining how the weakness of autonomous initiatives led to their capture by constituted power and subsequent demobilisation can also serve as a powerful lesson for the past.
Taken together these antagonistic memories of collective experience can provide the basis for a renewal, once again, of the rhythms of the Pachakuti.