The El Cumbre conference report: 4) neotraditionalist degrowth vs. left developmentalism

Conference: People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

We are finalizing our serializing of an extraordinarly stimulating report by Massimo de Angelis:

Today, how the contradictions of “Bien Vivir” where at play in the Mesa 18 alt.conference:

“This aporia between bien vivir as relational field of commoning outside capitalist markets, and the process of development that the Bolivian state has to engage with in order to survive within the global political economy — which sees the development of exports, especially of extractive industries but also the development of manufacturing capacities — is a contradiction that has been manifested in the mesa 18, the so called “rebel mesa” that was not authorised to be inside the conference by the official organisers and that has been set up by CONAMAQ (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu,, to highlight the socio-environmental conflicts that the process of Bolivian development is sparking in spite of the anti-capitalist rhetoric. Its conclusions however are linked in the official site and can be found here ( Last accessed 25 April 2010).

The government dismissed the mesa on socio-environmental conflicts as only being relevant to a national audience, and justified by self-referentials NGOs and foundations. However, the international relevance of socio-environmental conflicts in Bolivia is obvious, in that the nature of these conflicts here are quite similar to what is happening in other parts of the world (for example, communities struggles against mine companies destroying water sources and polluting rivers) and it would have been crucial to problematise these conflicts in relation to processes of political change and constitution of alternatives, as it is the one that is supposedly occurring in Bolivia.

On the other hand, the mesa proponents seems to me are making too rushed parallels between the Bolivian government policies and developmentalist policies of the past. In their final documents, proponents of mesa 18 explained that the mesa “was established as a necessary space for reflection and denunciation. . . with the goal of deepening the reading on the local effects of global industrial capitalism. We take responsibility to question the so called popular Latin American regimes and the predatory and consumerist logic, the logic of death of developmentalism and neo-extractivism.” In this sense, the role of the mesa is to denounce that “the development plans of these governments, including Bolivia, only reproduce the developmental pattern of the past” and argue that “to address climate change humanity must meet with their communitarian collective cultural roots; this means building a society based on collective ownership and community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories.” The means through which this path will be carved is through learning the lesson of history: “History teaches us that there is only one effective way to transform society and to build a socialist alternative to capitalism: social mobilization, learning and linking our struggles.”

Now, we can broadly share the vision, a society of self-determined commons in association with one another, if this is the society that meet Marx’s dictum of a society in which “the free development of one individual is the condition for the free development of all”. And we can also share the accent on the “need to make visible the contradictions” of current “popular” government development policies as “reflected in the socio-environmental conflicts.” But I think it is a bit too early to accuse Evo Morales government of being “reproducing the development pattern of the past” and “based in industrial development and consolidation of translational corporations, based on private property, individual profit and consumerism.” Just because oil and minerals are extracted and some form of industrialisation is part of the government agenda, does not mean to go back to the forced endless industrialisation of developmentalist governments. Especially if we consider that many of these programmes of industrialisation — like the development of lithium in the South — is something that campesinos communities have been demanding for years. In the short term, the real test will be the new law on mining that the government promised will soon substitute the existing neoliberal law of the late 1990s. If the new law will embed the right of consultation and participation of communities in defining the mining projects, as the new constitution (february 2009) promises, and whether these rights are interpreted as giving communities decisions and control powers, rather than simply as a way for them to negotiate compensations for decisions that have already been taken centrally, then we may have a situation in which both the development of the mining industry and communities enforcement of a limit to this on the basis of social and environmental considerations will coexist.

One of Evo Morales reaction when he was asked about the issues around mesa 18 was this: “they’re telling me that I should shut down oil wells and gas wells. So what is Bolivia going to live off of? So let’s be realistic.” ( Being realistic actually implies to recognise at least two things of processes of transformation. First, as the government claims, some “mega” projects and hydrocarbon extraction are welcome by communities and are necessary precisely to give communities more social power. Of course, necessary but not sufficient (the other element being communities participation in their definition and control). This runs counter the principled position that emerges from the global movement such as “leave oil on the ground” or “no to mega-projects”. These slogans do not allow “flexibility”, they do not say: “the greatest polluters must leave oil on the ground while the other are allowed to use (and/or extract more) as long as we reduce the overall amount of oil extracted”. They do not say “we must stop the growth of extraction and reduce it to a substantially lower level”. They do not say “this mega project is socially necessary as well as welcome by communities”, while “this other is a waste of resources and socially and ecologically devastating”. In other words, they do not allow for operational flexibility, something that is not only necessary to capitalist or socialist developmentalist governments, but also to communities with needs and aspirations. Indeed, many of the controversial projects like lithium or hydrocarbon development have been demanded by communities for many years.

Not to talk about the fact that in Bolivia, schools and hospitals need to be built and maintained, that social security needs to be extended, and that all this need access to resources that in current conditions are largely (but not uniquely) dependent on some access to global markets. In the current context, for Bolivia selling on the global markets means selling minerals. In other words, as you could not have “socialism in one country”, you cannot have today “bien vivir” in one country. Second, as emerging from the works of the mesa 18, being realistic also means that “socio-environmental” conflicts are also inescapable in any process of transformation, whether these processes are promoted from the top, are developed from the bottom, or both (as it seems to me to be the case today in Bolivia). This because the “class”, the social composition of the agents of transformation, is structurally divided into hierarchies of powers that differentiate the access to resources, and pluralise needs, desires and aspirations. So for example, in many circumstances, the communities struggling against mines’ uses of water are not the same than the communities of mining workers, especially if the miners are employed by large private and state firms (in Bolivia there are also many coop mines, whose small scale of operation and little use of technology generally does not affect community waters). What the struggles of the former point at is a limit to the operation of mining as this is the only way to limit their use of water. On the other hand, from the perspective of income and employment generation, mineral production and export must be maximised. Thus, given the structural hierarchy of the class, the question I guess is to problematise how conflict could be constituent of the new, of a new common ground, and not to use conflict simply as indicator that the process of change goes on the wrong direction.

It must also be said that if the government where to flatly and abruptly decreed the principles proposed by mesa 18 of “community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories”, then large urban areas would have big problems feeding themselves and would be ridded with conflict of all types: bottom-up, top-down, bottom-bottom, middle-bottom . . .and so on. This because they have little natural resources to decide for, and they have largely lost the self-organisational capabilities that here are instead rooted in the countryside and practised by indigenous people. The “association of free producers” must be constituted through a historical process, with preconditions that are shaped by the objective and subjective detritus left in different circumstances by capitalist relations, and cannot be proclaimed by government decree, however leftist and radical that government may be. Thus we have to keep in mind that as this process of constitution unfolds with its own rhythms and times creating the conditions for some communities to self-produce bread and roses, some other people instead are only in the condition to demand bread and roses. Thus, at any time before the constitution of the “association of free producers” as a totality, demands may clash with one another even horizontally and at the bottom, and the illusionary community of the radical state must bring some form of reconciliation among them if the struggling subjects cannot find a common constituent ground. How is the state going to do so, is obviously crucial element of our final judgement on its role, but it has got to do it nevertheless. Ultimately, the acknowledgement of this necessity is a basic element of being “realistic”. Bien vivir is ultimately a process that obviously depend on bottom up struggles and a project that can only be actualised through people’s empowerment and autonomy. However, the hypothesis I want to put forward here is that given the conditions we move from, the state of social fragmentation, the urban aggregations, the structural hierarchy of power and access to resources, the degree of alienation of people from one another, social wealth and nature, implies that to start from, the development of empowerment and autonomy require some means that are developed outside of empowerment and autonomy, namely within the alien socialisation modes of states and markets. Just as capital developed from not only enclosing commons but also from coupling (and subordinating) commons to accumulation (as in the case of domestic labour or, indeed, any moment of formal subsumption of labour), thus the development of alternatives requires access to means of socialisation that, from the perspective of singularities in structural isolation from others, can only be achieved through existing dominant modes of socialisation, i.e. states and money. This statement is not a movement away from autonomy and commoning, it is simply a recognition of some basic preconditions for their development. It also requires us to travel full circle, from commoning to the state, and from the state to commoning, and in so doing embrace the big problematic posed by the need to increase the scale of commoning. So for example, Bolivia’s history shows how commoning struggles (like the water war, but also the 500 years indigenous resistance) has developed through the phases of protest, proposal, and political power. But this is not the end of it. Not only Bolivia is at a moment now that requires the problematisation of the relation between internal socio-ecolgical struggles and the government project of “bien vivir” — project that has its roots in processes of transformation and commoning. Also, the scale of current socialisation of labour and global warming, makes this political power even more insufficient and ineffective as a source of transformation, unless it is coupled more strongly to commoning of greater scale, that is beyond its borders. This commoning of greater scale with which political power needs to couple with in order to bring about change in Bolivia has at least two sources. One, is the global social movements (and the coupling has started right here at the cumbre). The other, is the missing commoning that we absolutely require to develop in the global North, if there is any hope to contrast the “shadow of the future” cast by capital and global warming. Let me clarify this by returning to the results of el cumbre.”

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