Turning the Tide: Revolutionary Potential and the Limits of Bolivia’s ‘Process of Change’

Robert Cavooris


Have the achievements of the various left-leaning states set stage for further revolutionary breaks with the current order, or have they reached a dead end? To answer this, we might look beyond the state, to movements, margins, and social practices offering alternatives to capitalism. Raquel Gutiérrez, participant alongside García Linera in the Bolivian group Comuna, a onetime forum for theoretical work on and among Bolivian social movements, approaches the issue from an angle opposite her former collaborator. She cites ‘an exclusive epistemic disjunction between State-centered politics and autonomous politics’. In this view, the revolutionary potential of Latin America was never encapsulated by states or charismatic leaders, and still less by their rhetoric. The possibilities for an alternative to capitalism have always been strongest at the grassroots. This distinction, says Gutiérrez, presents itself as an irreducible political choice: on the one hand, to ‘“occupy” public posts in order to “consolidate” what has been won’ and ‘change some of the most oppressive social relations’, or on the other, ‘to develop and expand the range of autonomy in everyday life as to propel struggles and impose limits on the capitalist devastation of life in general’. She places herself squarely in the latter camp. Her formulation, however, likewise suggests reduced expectations. To enter the state and seek reform, or to seek reform at the level of everyday life? The shared moderation between two otherwise divergent figures casts doubt on the prospects for revolution. Where, if anywhere, are the possibilities for a further political and economic rupture?

In the following, I examine the Bolivian case more closely in order to address these questions. Bolivia is arguably the most successful example among the Latin American countries that have made a left turn, facing neither economic crisis nor national right-wing political opposition. But even there the ruling Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) faced a recent defeat when their attempts to alter the constitution and permit Morales to run for a fourth term were upset in a referendum. A deeper exploration of recent Bolivian history that outlines its objective political obstacles, as well as subjective failures and missed opportunities, will permit some observations on the issue of revolutionary viability in Latin America today, as well as the meaning and strategies of revolution more generally.

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