Book Review – Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces
Here’s a review I did recently for Upside Down World. Zibechi’s book is fantastic, I definitely recommend it.
In his first book translated to English, veteran Uruguayan journalist and scholar Raúl Zibechi draws on the Aymara city of El Alto in Bolivia as source of inspiration and possibility, a unique example among the many important popular and Indigenous struggles unfolding throughout Latin America.
Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces cuts through the often uncritical praise of Evo Morales and his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) that has permeated progressive (and particularly North American) writing on Bolivia since Morales’s inauguration in January of 2006. Instead, Zibechi ventures that Morales’s inauguration in January of 2006 “presented an unprecedented challenge to Bolivian social movements.”
Zibechi is open about his own view that “despite the unimpeachable goodwill of so many revolutionaries, the fact remains that the state is not the appropriate tool for creating new social relations.” He states that “the state and capitalism are inseparable,” and stresses “there is no point in blaming the government or issuing calls of ‘betrayal.’” He also points out that among the intelligentsia of the MAS, there is support for “Andino-Amazonian capitalism.”
But Zibechi is far from a cynic. Instead, he offers an in-depth exploration and analysis of the many possibilities of movement building that exist outside of leftist organizing oriented towards taking state power. “The experience of the social movement in the city of El Alto should be observed carefully, because it suggests that large numbers of humans can live without the state: something that has not been apparent until now and which has been a stumbling block from the standpoint of social emancipation,” writes Zibechi.
Indeed, rather than dwell on critiques of the MAS or of Morales, Zibechi spends the bulk of Dispersing Power examining how the Aymara movement in El Alto has organized over the past decades, and especially since the first major Aymara uprising against neo-liberalism in 2000. He says the uprisings in Bolivia since 2000 represent the most important “revolution within a revolution” since the Zapatista uprising began in 1994. “The Aymara experience is not only linked with the continental struggles but it also adds something substantial – the construction of actual non state powers,” writes Zibechi.
Some of the forms that autonomous Aymara organizing takes in El Alto include the provision and organization of municipal works; the operation and maintenance of schools, parks, and radio stations; and conflict resolution and community justice systems. These non-state powers are most often realized through general assemblies, neighborhood council meetings, barrio community groups, and a unique character defined by Aymara sociologist Félix Patzi as “authoritarianism based in consensus.”
Zibechi explains that during moments of insurrection or uprising, “confrontation, even armed, does not require a special body separated from the community.” Instead, the mandatory and continuous rotation of tasks that exists in Aymara culture, social movements and non-state structures of everyday life extend to armed insurrection when the circumstances require.
One of the prominent themes in Dispersing Power is the way the movement in El Alto functions to do just that. El Alto is divided up into 500 urbanizations of between 300 to 1000 residents, meaning that these neighborhood assemblies remain small enough to allow for the non-delegation of power to a smaller coordinating body within the assemblies.
Zibechi contrasts this with the recommendations of a US AID report, which indicate that the agency would like to see the city divided up instead into neighborhoods of 3000 to 5000 people. The US AID report urges policy moves and incentives to centralize neighborhood organizations in El Alto, which Zibechi argues is because their dispersion “impedes the creation of an urban-political panoptic – political, but also social, cultural and organizational – that could encapsulate broad populations under the same umbrella of control.”
But the dispersion of power has another important element, according to Zibechi, which is the avoidance of creating hierarchical leadership structures. This is done in part through the continuous rotation of tasks, and through a requirement of reaching consensus in assemblies. “The institutionalization of social movements is one way of establishing state powers, in which the leaders – or the bodies of leaders – are separated from the movement as a whole,” writes Zibechi, indicating that a key success of the Aymara movement is the active avoidance of institutionalization and the separation of leadership from the movement.
Though Zibechi has written and published analysis and articles from almost every country in the continent, he doesn’t overwhelm readers by trying to draw parallels or contrasting the Aymara movement in El Alto with other organizing in the hemisphere, with two exceptions: Indigenous organizing in Ecuador and the Zapatista movement in Chiapas.
Of particular interest for first world activists and scholars, Dispersing Power describes how the presence of hundreds of development NGOs in Indigenous territories in Ecuador have generated significant stumbling blocks for Indigenous resistance. “For global elites who want to destroy the Indian movements, the strategy of development, and that of power or participation in the state (that are two sides of the same coin) can be interpreted as a sort of ‘low intensity warfare’ against Indians,” he writes. The role and aim of these development projects is particularly articulated in Ecuador, and Zibechi argues that it would be a shame if other movements, including the Aymara movement in Bolivia, fail to learn from this example.
Readers who want to get their feet wet with Zibechi can read his regular updates, translated to English for the CIP Americas Program http://www.cipamericas.org/archives/author/zibechi. Anyone who is serious about understanding power, organizing and social movements in Bolivia particularly, but with an eye to the hemispheric context of anti-capitalist struggles, would be well served to pick up his newest book.