Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Pitfalls of Democratic Revolution in the Andes

"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the old heaven and earth had passed away, and the sea was no more...."

I've been delayed in posting on this subject, but I must do so now. Tomorrow is the day of a very important election in South America: Bolivians will be voting on whether or not to recall Evo Morales, the ruling socialist president, and also eight of the nine departmental prefects. It is necessary at this juncture for us to pause to remember who Evo Morales is, why his movement is so significant, and what the tumult of the last few years says about the failings of liberal 'democracy' in a country like Bolivia.

Let's remember first of all that Evo Morales is a socialist in a much more meaningful and legitimate sense than the social democratic parties in, say, France, Norway or Spain use those terms. Morales' Movement to Socialism doesn't want to better administer capitalism, or to make the system more responsive to the poor, with more social spending and better social services. They want to overthrow capitalism itself, and re-establish what they see as the old Incan communitarian-socialist model. Morales' movement has already nationalized the oil and gas industries in Bolivia, raising the government's share of revenues from the two largest fields from about 34% to 82%. Quite apart from the salutary demonstration of principle that private individuals should not be able to own basic natural mineral resources, the increased government share of revenues will allow Bolivia to redirect more resources to its poorest citizens. Morales' subsequent nationalization of a large metal-processing company and his initiation of a plan to redistribute 13% of the country's land to 28% of its citizens who are landless or nearly so, have shown that he believes that the hoarding of a country's resources by a small and parasitic capitalist class is unjust, immoral, and must be ended. Already the large landowners- many of whom got their lands through fraud or theft from the commons, and whose tenant farmers live in absolute misery- have begun to feel the pinch as Morales seizes their lands and hands it over to the people who actually do the farm labor.

Morales has made it clear, too, that he wants the Bolivian economy of the future to be dominated by workers' and peasants' cooperatives, by individual small-holders, and by the state, not by capitalist ownership. Like Hugo Chavez, Morales' movement is intent on nothing less than a social revolution that will deliver the coup de grace to capitalism in the Andes. And like Chavez, and other Latin-American socialists of the past, Morales realizes that socialism can never be built on a foundation of private greed and self interest. Morales' socialism is essentially a moral endeavor, and his revolution is first and foremost a moral revolution. This is as it should be. A good society can never be created on the basis of self-interest. Rather, it's necessary for governments and other social institutions to encourage the best impulses within our hearts and suppress the worst ones. It will never be possible to eliminate things like greed, pride, and lust from the human heart, but societies can and should try to encourage self-sacrifice, cooperation, and selflessness, while discouraging their opposites. Since these virtues are most likely to flourish in small associations where people know each other, it's important for a socialist government to encourage institutions like workers' cooperatives, as well as ideas like voluntary labor, the inculcation of cooperative and self-sacrificing values in the educational system. As Che Guevara, one of Morales' personal heroes, once said, socialism is not just the fight against misery but first and foremost the fight against alienation. The greatest achievement of the Cuban revolution happened in its first two years when a poll of junior high school students found that for the first time a majority of young boys and girls said that it wasn't one of their prime life goals to make a lot of money.

Morales' revolution is embattled, though. In large part it is embattled by the same forces that will always set themselves at the throat of any revolution in Latin America. The large landowners, the capitalists, the cosmopolitan upper middle classes, and those whose ideological identity is tied up with Westernization and liberal capitalism. But as so often, these malign forces have been able to win over other, well-meaning people through lies and manipulation. Although Morales himself is a (syncretistic) Christian socialist and most of his supporters are devout Catholics, the right wing forces have been able to win over some segments (not all!) of the Catholic hierarchy with the lie that he is an atheistic Marxist who seeks to undermine Christianity (It can be argued the root of all that was wrong with Marxist regimes of the past was their atheism, and that a socialism open to the possibility of divine providence would be both more modest about its abilities and more charitable to its opponents; Chavez and Morales certainly seem to have learned that lesson). They have won over the working classes of the eastern departments with nationalistic, bordering on secessionistic, propaganda. They have won over the middle classes with the lie that Morales seeks to nationalize the smallholder's property. They have won over some Mestizo citizens with the lie that Morales seeks to privilege pure-blood Quechua, Aymara and Guarani over mestizos. Like other right wing forces in the region they have no doubt won over the votes of impoverished and powerless people by convincing them to vote the way their employers want them too. (This can be done through very subtle emotional manipulation, as Nancy Scheper-Hughes showed in her classic study of Brazilian shantytowns.) And of course they've won people over by invoking the threat that revolution poses to law and order and social stability- even if you agree with the goals of that revolution. Most people want justice but they want food and employment first and foremost, and are unlikely to risk those in the short term for the sake of justice in the long term.

With all those lies, and with all the natural advantages that evil always has in every act of the drama of human history, the Bolivian oligarchs have not been able to win over a majority of the Bolivian people. Morales, God willing, will most likely win this election. Recent polls suggest he has 59% popular support- people may not be pleased with the glacial pace of his reforms, gridlocked and stalemated at every turn by its enemies, but they hate the oligarchic classes even more. Morales could win the referendum, of course, with as little as 47% popular support since he is favored by the electoral rules. But that still wouldn't solve the basic problem. The problem is the same one that faces country after country in the region. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina....and several outside South America as well. Simply put, a country like Bolivia is stuck in constant gridlock because both the far Right and the far Left are just strong enough to prevent the other from governing effectively, but not strong enough to govern effectively themselves.

Liberal democracy isn't a political system I have any particular fondness for. But to be fair, it works at least reasonably well in the United States. It doesn't work so well in Bolivia, because in a country like Bolivia you have people who lack the economic security to be able to vote freely, you have no common consensus on the ideological direction that the nation should take, you have large numbers of people attracted to revolutionary ideologies (for better or worse, I think for better of course) and you have a long tradition of political authoritarianism. Political liberalism, to put it bluntly, has bogged down in the Andes and currently looks incapable of allowing development along either capitalist or socialist lines. We are currently witnessing the difficulty of carrying out a social revolution without infringing on the 'freedoms' of those who care nothing for the common good, and are willing to resort to propaganda, social upheaval, and terrorism to maintain their own economic privileges and their own monopoly over the wealth of society.

Ah well, we shall see how this recall referendum turns out tomorrow. I'll post more when I know how it goes. In the meantime, may the grace of God be with Evo Morales, with those who support him, and with all those throughout South America who strive for social justice, for fairness and equality, and for a society in which men deal with one another inspired by love and fellowship instead of greed and pride; and in the fullness of time may He have mercy on our species, which for all of its evil tendencies is capable of good as well, and may He bless our efforts to build a better society, one brick at a time. Amen.

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