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Book of the Day: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st April 2012


Zibechi traces the interaction between the forces of dispersion and liberation and those tendencies that move toward forms of the state, new dynamics of centralization and cooptation through representation. In Bolivia, like in New York, Oakland, and elsewhere, the process is unfolding and is far from settled. For those who are looking for inspiration, new ways to think about self-organization in urban contexts, “Dispersing Power” is an important book.

* Book: Raúl Zibechi. Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces. AK Press, 2010.

Publisher’s Summary:

“an historical analysis of social struggles in Bolivia and the forms of community power instituted by that country’s indigenous Aymara. Dispersing Power, like the movements it describes, explores new ways of doing politics beyond the state, gracefully mapping the “how” of revolution, offering valuable lessons to activists and new theoretical frameworks for understanding how social movements can and do operate independently of state-centered models for social change.”

Excerpted from a review by Chris Carlsson:

“While travelling in Yucatan I was reading an interesting book recently published by AK Press in Oakland, a translated work by a Uruguayan writer Raúl Zibechi (and ably translated by Ramor Ryan) called “Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces”. It’s not a long book, only 140 pages, but as the double forewords from John Holloway and Benjamin Dangl emphasize, Zibechi’s look at the rebellions in Bolivia during the past decades is an incredibly important contribution to the wider political moment encompassed by everything from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados to Occupy Oakland and the rest. Zibechi is well-versed in the broad shift to the left that has been unfolding across Latin America during the past two decades, and has been an important critic of that process—not from the right though, but from the point of view of the social movements that pushed the states across the continent to move leftward, and then found themselves isolated and marginalized as the old hierarchies and political parties institutionalized and defanged the movements themselves. Not in Bolivia though, and this is why this is such an important book.

The Aymara of the altiplano (the indigenous of Bolivia’s highlands) have managed to create social movements that remained active, creative, and resilient even after Evo Morales and his socialist party came to power in 2006. Moreover, the epicenter of their movement has been El Alto, a sprawling urban zone of several hundred thousand adjacent to the nation’s capital in La Paz. John Holloway (author of “Crack Capitalism” and “Change the World Without taking Power”) says it well in his foreword, juxtaposing the urban Bolivian movements to the rural, peasant-based Zapatista movement that inspired so many in the 1990s:

– “The question for us who are not peasants is how we create an urban Zapatismo. How can we create autonomous, anti-capitalist, anti-state spaces or moments in the city? El Alto offers us many suggestions… The real forces for social change are not where they appear to be. They are not in the institutions or in the parties but in the daily contact between people, the daily weaving of social interactions that are not just necessary for survival but the basis of life.”

Zibechi traces the history of Bolivia back through earlier social upheavals based on the once-powerful tin miners, visiting the insurrections that arose in response to the privatization of water (by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation) in the city of Cochabamba in 2000, and the natural gas war that gave birth to new community (self-)organization in 2003 to refuse the multinational appropriation of Bolivia’s hydrocarbon wealth. With great understanding of the nuances of the Bolivian context, Zibechi shows how the community itself became a “machine of dispersal,” refusing centralization, refusing to allow its new-found powers to disappear into political parties, state-based patronage machines, or even into the organizations they built themselves at earlier moments. Insisting on recallable and rotating delegates they have developed social mechanisms where individuals “lead by following,” ensuring that power keeps devolving back to the grassroots.

The Occupy movements that swept the U.S. in fall 2001 instituted the General Assembly as the main decision-making institution, with its often ponderous inefficiencies and frustrating problems with people learning an entirely new way to do politics in the heat of the moment. The form, while new to many Americans, is far from new in history, and community assemblies were and are the bedrock of the Bolivian social movements that have kept even Morales’ government in a state of constant reaction. Zibechi’s book is a fantastic in-depth look at how they’ve done it, without overly romanticizing or distorting the actual histories he describes. To be sure, the Bolivians have not unburdened themselves of the crushing weight of the state and the world market. Zibechi traces the interaction between the forces of dispersion and liberation and those tendencies that move toward forms of the state, new dynamics of centralization and cooptation through representation. In Bolivia, like in New York, Oakland, and elsewhere, the process is unfolding and is far from settled. For those who are looking for inspiration, new ways to think about self-organization in urban contexts, “Dispersing Power” is an important book.”

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