Moving towards socialism

Bolivia, from the perspective of power. Can these flags, these ideas, these people and actions cross to the other side of the police line without trtansforming into something else?

It’s great to hear that the right wing bigots that seized power in Bolivia last year seem willing to respect the outcome of the election and step down. Their government never had any legitimacy, nor was it going to help the working class, the indigenous, the women of Bolivia, and the many otherwise marginalized groups in the country.

At the same time, it is easy to forget how and why the situation arose in the first place, and how MAS, Movimiento al Socialismo, ended up in a weak enough position for this to happen to begin with. First, there are of course great financial and political interests that want to see any ostensibly leftist governments throughout central and south America fail – not least the USA. This is a given, but it is also not enough of an explanation. Blaming everything on external factors is a sure fire way of not learning anything from the mistakes and processes that most certainly contributed to the crisis.

When MAS formed at the end of the 1990s, Bolivia already had a checkered past in terms of social movements and electoral politics. So MAS was not a naive attempt at parliamentary politics, but a conscious attempt to try doing it while avoiding the pitfalls of co-opting and paralyzing social movements. MAS was supposed to be the “political instrument” of the social movements, not their replacement.

How did it go? To start with, it is important to acknowledge that even given its limitations, MAS was able to do what no neoliberal government has managed in terms of actual improvements in the living standards of Bolivian people. Poverty rates decreased, including for the indigenous population, access to healthcare improved, infrastructure was developed, a new constitution acknowledging indigenous rights was passed into law, and the country managed to soften or at least delay the fallout of global crisis of 2008. In this regard MAS is a shining example of what was dubbed “the pink wave” of leftist governments across central and south America.

It is also, unfortunately, instructive of what went wrong with the pink wave in general. While measures like nationalization of natural resources, dismantling of various “free trade” agreements, new constitutions proclaiming the rights of indigenous populations, economic redistribution, and so on, all seemed in line with what was needed and on the surface did indeed improve the situation, the deeper, structural implication of *how* this all came about, and its effect on social movements, would play a big role in the downfall of not only the Bolivian pink tide, but much of the pink tide countries across the continent.

The process of institutionalizing the social movements began almost immediately for MAS. In what might seem as the most democratic thing to do, leading figures from all across the social movements were incorporated into the government. But instead of giving the people more power over their own lives, it only strengthened the government, which, supposedly, would act on behalf of the people. Any structural analysis would show, though, that taking over a ready-made state machinery, as is, and the myriad of institutions within it, is not only a process that will change those that do so, but also a process in which they immediately take on the interests of this state apparatus as their own.

When you’re suddenly in charge of the police, or of nationalized industry, the “stability” of the country, of the economy, and notions such as “law and order” become more important than anything else. As MAS itself became increasingly institutionalized, its ties to the social movements had the ironic effect of more easily dismantling and subsuming them under the umbrella of the state. Instead of inciting a vibrant counter-power that would hold the government to their promises and pose a real working class grass roots politics against what at best could be a politics of compromise from those in power, the figureheads incorporated in the state served to legitimize it, and cast doubt over those that were not happy with its programs and actions. An increasing cult of personality around Evo Morales did not help the matter either.

But what then, more concretely, were the problems with all this? Alongside the political incorporation of the social movements, went an economical counterpart. It is true that inequality was decreased through redistribution, and this in itself is great, but the way this was done served to further paralyze the social movements. The leaders and movements were bought off by subsidies, resources and jobs, rather than given power to self organize. They became economically dependent on the government, rather than encouraged to build and expand their own strength and autonomy.

Side by side with these readjustments, MAS also moved from the radical slogans of its pre-election days to increasingly far-reaching compromises with the Santa Cruz-based Bolivian latifunda – the rich land owners. This process completely derailed the earlier efforts of meaningful land reform. In line with the other developments, rather than empowering people and give them resources to organize their own life, it sought compromise with land owners and resource extractors, consolidated power in the government, and kept people happy enough with resource redistribution programs from above.

This also led MAS from a position of radical ecological reforms and a pro-indigenous position, to one which was largely in line with the interests of the landowners and the extraction industries. In some regards, these industries – some now owned by the state itself – could gain greater benefits than under earlier neoliberal governments, because the resistance of the social movements was contained. This is all strikingly similar to the so-called “national developmentism” which the Brazilian workers party, PT, administered during roughly the same time.

The commodity boom of the early 2000s, with extractive and export industries such as soy, iron ore, etc, generated money and resources which could be used for social programs. The method for keeping the population content thus depended on local as well as global economic growth, which in turn was largely based on environmentally detrmimental extraction. For many, the final straw was TIPNIS, the huge highway project that would take indigenous land, as well as parts of a national park for the purpose of building a highway. Protests against this project were met with repression in 2011.

This left-wing extractivism, with its resource redistribution and economic growth, also created a new growing middle class, which ironically did not feel great allegiance to the social movements or really even to the MAS, and in a way undermined part of their electoral and social movement base. When the economic boom was over, pink tide governments tied up in global extraction markets found it hard to keep up their social programs, and thus started to lose support even in their former core sectors within the population.

These are some of the processes that led to the situation in Bolivia, which serves as an example of a larger trend within the pink tide governments. So as MAS seems to come back to power, what have we, or they, learned, and what can we expect going forward?

Movimiento al Socialismo means, quite literally, Movement towards socialism. To me, such a movement or activity is best defined in the words of the old Solidarity group, as:

Meaningful action [is] whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others – even by those allegedly acting on their behalf.

Understood in these terms, a meaningful movement for socialism can never exist in parliaments. There, only a distorted image of it can take hold, and if social movements aren’t watchful, they will take that image for their own appearance, and trade their own subjectivity for the subjectivity of the distortion. Seen that way, MAS is not the solution, it is not even the road. It is simply the restoration of at least some basic human dignity, and a call to action in order to organize the actual movement towards socialism, in our streets, neighbourhoods and places of work.

References and further resources: (The Intercept podcast on the 2019 coup and crisis)

The impossible promise

In the shadow of the ongoing covid pandemic, Bernie Sanders has withdrawn from the US primary race, leaving Joe Biden as the presumed Democratic presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. The same week the UK Labour party elected a new leader, Keir Starmer, clearly signaling a departure from Corbynist politics. This marks the end of a recent cycle of left electoralist pushes in these two countries and beyond. Their version of the pink tide is over, but unlike the south american one, it got swallowed by the sea before it even reached the shores.

Less noticed, but perhaps even more telling, was the formation of an initiative called Forward Momentum a few weeks ago. For those that don’t know, Momentum is a group within the UK Labour party formed in 2015 with the aim of pushing the party to the left, and to connect it to the Labour grassroots as well as to social movements. Now, apparently, a faction is needed within this faction, to push Momentum itself towards the grassroots.

Meanwhile it has also been revealed that staffers within the Labour party worked against Corbyn and for a Labour defeat in the election – a story as revealing as it is under-reported in the mainstream media, who have buried Corbyn once and for all, and presumably moved on to greener pastures.

This Monty Python-esque development directly relates to a dynamic that south african labor activist and anarchist Lucien van der Welt described as follows: Electoralism is not a way for social movements to get a foothold in the state, but a way for the state to get a foothold in social movements.

We’ve witnessed the development of ”leftist” parties historically, from the broad trajectory of social democracy as such, to specific instances of socialist or communist parties across the world, and how the closer they are to power, the more they morph into the thing they seemingly set out to change, reform, or defeat. From the aforementioned pink tide in South America, to Syriza, Podemos or Green Parties across Europe, to countless other examples.

There is a common theme here, a dynamic that plays out as these parties march through the institutions of the state.

I’ve recently tried to conceptualize these things in terms of a society where all decisions are made by a small amount of people around a very high table. Theoretically, anyone is allowed to join in the decision making, as long as they have stilts so that they can reach up to the table. However, stilts are very hard to come by and require a lot of resources. Now, people come together to try to acquire stilts for “one of their own” so that they can represent the rest at the table. Instead of putting work and resources towards directly trying to improve their conditions by acting for themselves, or putting pressure on the stilted elite – and in the longer run cracking and abolishing the stilts – energy is diverted towards this “pragmatic” project of elevating someone to the table, where, apparently, the real change happens.

A lot of the time this is enough to send meaningful organizing into a quagmire from which it cannot really recover, all without achieving any tangible results, but even if by chance the people succeed and the stilts are acquired, things tend not to pan out the way they were supposed to. This is because at the moment of “ascension”, the chosen representative has to make what I’d like to call the impossible promise: They must promise the others that they will not look down on them, while raising above them on their new stilts. In other words, the issue is not so much about intentionality, as about the structural conditions of the situation that these people put themselves in.

This of course goes far beyond individuals, as Peter Gelderloos put it, in an article discussing localist parliamentary parties in Spain:

Institutions are structurally immune to changes of heart precisely because they operate in complex, mutually reinforcing arrays, because they develop their own subjectivity and identity—their own interests—and the power they deploy can only be used in an authoritarian, centralizing way. Even an entire institution that managed to adopt revolutionary goals would erode the basis of its own power, and eliminate its ability to influence the other institutions, the moment it tried decentralizing power.

This “institutional subjectivity” also stretches beyond the national level, which can be seen in case after case where more or less leftist parties step into state power, like Syriza capitulating to the troika (European Comission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) or the Workers Party of Brazil (PT) accommodating agribusiness as well as international financial institutions and backing down from some of their most ambitious policies even before taking power, in order to become more “electable”. As a telling sample of the resulting political situation, the landless workers’ movement (MST) in Brazil managed to reclaim less land under the PT than under their right-wing predecessor, because their tactic shifted from direct action towards waiting for the PT to solve their problems – something which, in power, they were unwilling to do, because they had to consider the interests of the large land owners and businesses in order to maintain power.


In a short Jacobin piece trying to come to terms with the defeat of the Bernie campaign, Paul Heideman acknowledges many of the pitfalls of electoral politics, but then draws a telling conclusion:

It is, of course, true that electoral politics in the United States are institutionally biased against socialists, and that the Democratic Party is run by a corporate-backed establishment that will do everything in their considerable power to stop socialists from succeeding on their ballot line.

But it doesn’t follow from this that electoral politics are uniquely hostile to the Left. After all, if there is anywhere employers have more power than the Democratic Party, it is surely the workplace, and the Left isn’t about to write off struggle in that field.

Yes, class struggle takes place in many spheres of society. However Heideman compares electoral politics with workplace organizing, without noting that the issue at hand is not only where, but also how, and along which lines, we fight back. The workplace equivalent to the electoral strategy of the Sanders campaign is not organizing militant and independent workplace organizations – it is trying to get elected or get someone else elected to the board of directors of the company, or backing a “nicer” person for becoming the next boss, and hoping that these people will enact more benevolent policies from their new position of power.

Just as we should reject such workplace approaches as a surefire way of getting trapped within the existing framework, logic, and power dynamic of the system, we have to struggle in the realm of so called “politics” in a way that doesn’t misdirect and debase our potential power. And this is perhaps they key issue that Heideman misses in his eagerness to as quickly as possible dismiss the threat of anarchism and other libertarian socialist theory and practice in the face of another electoral setback.

Electoral politics are by design an arena in which workers don’t have tangible power, and instead pits them against each other based on superficial ideological divisions. Meanwhile, in our places of work, in our neighborhoods and homes, in the schools, and in all places where our very lives are part of the reproduction of capital, we not only have a material common interest with other working class people, we also have the power to pursue said interest, because in those places we are the ones who make the system run. We are already the ones that make all the stilts.

To return to our “high table” analogy, and as we have already hinted at, the perils of electoralism go far beyond the problems of getting elected. Soon enough, the others at the table will also find ways to sow division between the newly-stilted and the people left on the ground. They will demand that the stilted representative controls the crowd, and tells them to keep calm in exchange for some mild concessions. The people end up fighting for improvements by means which reproduce their oppression and subordination, and those that want to abolish stilts and organize where their real power is at, will be ostracized and painted as purist, irresponsible, and impractical, laying the groundwork for splitting the movement and providing a justification for repressing the part of it that actually threatens the system.

Heideman also contrasts some nebulous concept of “anarchism”, exemplified by running co-ops and dumpster diving, with mass politics. This humorously desperate attempt at discrediting anarchism aside, there is a point to this line of thought if we dig deep enough. Clearly, any political organizing aiming at changing society will have to grapple with tasks of not getting stuck in or breaking out of subcultural or isolated political and ideological bubbles. In fact, almost all uprisings and even revolutions start with a particular spark (increased prices for public transport, food, or gas, austerity measures, etc) and then get generalized as they spread and intensify. But when using the phrase “mass politics” concerning the Bernie Sanders campaign, Heideman only gets it half-right.

Canvassing and voting happens on a mass scale, so much is true. But it is not politics, if by that we mean acting for ourselves to change our lives. Trying to convince people to vote for a particular candidate is not organizing. It doesn’t build any working class capacity to combat and sustain itself against the state and the capitalist class. After the election – no matter who gets elected – the canvassers go home, and we have not necessarily added one single bit of infrastructure to support workplace or community organizing going forward. Even while “winning”, it is possible that this capacity has actually decreased. No wonder russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin called electoralism the “safety- valve” of bourgeois society already 150 years ago.

Mass politics is when we organize to change our conditions where we are at, on a mass scale. In our neighborhoods, as well as in our places of work, and sometimes in the streets. It is not automatically great or successful, but it is crucial in order for us to be able to build actual power outside and against state and capital.


But what about the fact that the people of the high table actually make decisions that affect our lives – at times even in a positive way? What about the labor laws, the protections for tenants that exist in some places, anti-discrimination acts, and other positive legislation or meaningful allocation of resources?

Yes, it is true that since they’re monopolizing power, by carrot and by stick, they make decisions that affect us. It is easy to understand how the idea that power and agency originates at the high table can be prevalent in a society where those at said table have control over media, education, infrastructure (and inversely, those in control of these things have their people at the table) and other things that help underpin their position. But it is fundamentally a reversal of cause and effect – it is like thinking that a thermometer causes rather than reflects changes in the temperature.

In similar fashion, electoral politics are largely a reflection of the power relations and stirrings in society at large. They are a reflection of the strength of social movements, and of the balance of power between social classes. The reforms might be signed at the high table, but they are won by class struggle and social movements. Even for relatively worker-sympathetic voices at the high table, positive reform becomes possible to push for while under the uncontrollable threat of well-organized movements of those without stilts.

Or in other words, as another piece critical of electoralism puts it:

Libertarian socialists generally argue that it is the balance of class forces, not the party composition of the political class, that determines legislative and policy outcomes under the capitalist state. If we want reforms in our favor, we must shift that balance through popular organization and mobilization, regardless of who is in power. (Often a wave of new, further left elected officials is a lagging indicator: a resultof that shift, not its cause.)

For those of us that never were big supporters of Corbynism, the Sanders campaign(s) or initiatives like Momentum, it is easy to gloat as they all seem to fall apart or loose their bearings. I however don’t really feel any enjoyment in this particular moment. To me it is disheartening seeing so much energy that could be used to build grassroots organizing which could help us here and now as well as make the stilts obsolete long term, instead spent on rebuilding them and granting them legitimacy, time and time again. The old french slogan from 1968 might go “Be realistic, demand the impossible”, but this is not the kind of “impossible” it meant. It said to be realistic for us, and demand the impossible from them. So can we please stop making impossible promises to ourselves?