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Spaces of Uneven Development and Class Struggle in Bolivia

by Chris Hesketh on May 10, 2018
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From the years 2000-2005, Bolivia stood in a moment of potentially revolutionary transformation. Spurred by indigenous social movement activism protesting against the privatisation of water and natural gas, two successive governments were brought down, and a new political party with its base in these radicalised social movements, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS: Movement Towards Socialism), led by Evo Morales, came to power in 2006. How can this process of transformation and class struggle be understood and situated within a historical, sociological, geographical and spatial analysis of state formation?

In an article entitled ‘Spaces of Uneven Development and Class Struggle in Bolivia: transformation or trasformismo?’ , co-written with Adam David Morton and published in Antipode, we argued that history in Bolivia is in danger of repeating itself, in the sense that this could be a second time in the country’s history, following the period when the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR: Revolutionary Nationalist Movement) led a far-reaching revolution (1952), when revolutionary forces have been channelled back into the consolidation and expansion of capitalist social relations. Rather than achieving a revolutionary break with the logic of capitalism, Bolivia is in danger of becoming victim to the history of passive revolution in Latin America. This theme of passive revolution informs the first theoretical concern of our article, which we profile on Progress in Political Economy (PPE) for the first time.

Passive revolution, drawing from the thinker Antonio Gramsci, refers to processes in which aspects of the social relations of capitalist development are either instituted and/or expanded, resulting in both ‘revolutionary’ rupture and a ‘restoration’ of social relations across different scales and spatial aspects of the state. As Bob Jessop notes in his pivotal book State Theory, ‘the crucial element in passive revolution is the statisation of reorganisation or restructuring, so that popular initiatives from below are contained or destroyed and the relationship of ruler-ruled is maintained or reimposed’.

Processes of passive revolution in Latin America will clearly be different across state forms, but the condition of passive revolution does provide certain clues to the unity-within-diversity of Latin American history and thus the ‘nonclassical’ forms of transition to capitalist modernity within the region. Within these circumstances the politics of trasformismo comes to prevail (rather than genuine transformation), meaning the protracted absorption of class contradictions. To cite Gramsci, this may unfold through ‘molecular changes which in fact progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes’ (Q15§11). Part of the historical development of passive revolution, then, trasformismo is a process that attempts to exclude the subaltern classes from any protagonism in the process of social transformation by co-opting their leaders. Following Raúl Zibechi in his book Territories in Resistance, progressive governments in Latin America might therefore be developing new means to “govern” indigenous and workers’ movements, as a basis for co-option, by bringing the movements into state institutions. Hence the possibility in Bolivia that the politics of passive revolution and trasformismo, rather than radical transformation, may come to characterise the country’s contemporary history of state formation, including the most recent period linked to the Evo Morales administration.

A further concern pursued in our article is the issue of uneven and combined development and how this has informed and continues to shape Bolivian politics. David Harvey in The Limits to Capital prominently opined that historical materialism cannot exist without a solid appreciation of the dialectics of spatio-temporality, hence his agenda-setting advancement of historical-geographical materialism. One can add that much of the recent literature within historical sociology, despite spatial-temporal claims, fails to deliver spatial analysis of uneven and combined development. Historical sociology in this appearance can be recognised as aspatial meaning that geographical differences of spatial unevenness are squeezed into narratives of temporal sequencing through state trajectories of developmental catch-up. For example, Justin Rosenberg in a recent Review of International Studies article references the spatio-temporal character of uneven and combined development without examining the organisation of space, the spatial logistics of state power, or the contradictions of space. Space is ‘there’ but redundant and unexplored, a mere happenstance of developmental unevenness and combination.

Equally, David Harvey in Rebel Cities has levied criticism against Jeffrey Webber’s commendable analysis, in From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia, for its aspatial treatment of class power and social struggles in Bolivia in which Santa Cruz, El Alto and Cochabamba appear as ‘mere sites’ where the forces of class opposition and populist indigenous politics happen to play out. We add to this debate by arguing that just as historical materialism benefits from a solid appreciation of space and time in the form of historical-geographical materialism, then so too can historical sociology similarly gain from spatial-temporal insights, specifically by advancing what we term in our article as an historical geographical sociology. Therefore, in order to explore the current tensions and possibilities opened up by the coming to power of the MAS we provide the beginnings of an historical geographical sociology of state formation and spaces of uneven development in Bolivia, stemming from the National Revolution of 1952 onwards.

In so doing, our argument advances along two main axes covering the spatially interrelated dynamics of both uneven and combined development and passive revolution in Bolivia. First, we argue that current debates on Bolivian state formation can benefit from an appreciation of Antonio Gramsci’s highly fertile notion of passive revolution in order to capture emergent historical and contemporary class strategies and contradictions that have shaped and continue to shape the country’s state formation. Crucially, within passive revolutionary conditions, the tactics of trasformismo become vital, referring to the manner in which recalcitrant elements of radicalism are displaced to restore or maintain class dominance and diffuse class contradictions through the state. The class tactics of passive revolution are thus diffused through practices of trasformismo with the aim of establishing, following Gramsci, ‘an ever more extensive ruling class’ within the framework of the established order to eliminate the organising power of subaltern class movements (Q19§24).

Our second main axis asserts a theory of uneven and combined development as the conditioning situation in which these emergent class strategies and contradictions of passive revolution in Bolivia can be understood. Uneven and combined development seeks to capture how spatial differences are produced within the totality of the global political economy, creating contradictions and tensions that burst forth. Initially developed by Leon Trotsky to understand the dynamics of the Russian Revolution, uneven and combined development has been notably deployed within leading recent debates in historical sociology, as noted earlier. Yet, although a theoretical focus on the temporal unfolding of development has been delivered, this has been at the expense of revealing the spatial partitioning of unevenness in contexts of state formation. Uneven and combined development has therefore been mainly utilised as a concept to explain different temporal historical trajectories of ‘advanced’ and ‘backward’ processes of state formation. By contrast we argue that the concept must be extended to include the different spaces of inter-societal coexistence, or geographically uneven and combined development within and between state spaces, as it is this dynamic that also plays a crucial role in constituting the possibilities for revolutionary as well as reactionary (passive revolutionary) transformation.

While keeping these two main axes in mind, our argument proceeds by examining the legacy of the National Revolution in 1952. We argue that the outcome of this was a passive revolutionary process that was set in motion by important spatial logistics of uneven and combined development. Further we relate this historical geographical sociology to the contemporary context to explore the adaptive capacity of neoliberalisation processes, which to date have been articulated unevenly across places, territories and scales in Bolivia. One of the questions that goes to the heart of uneven and combined development and the difficulties inherent in trying to drive forward a process of developmental catch-up through the state partitioning of space is the ‘new extractivism’ of resource exploitation. As Vice President Álvaro García Linera puts it in his essay Geopolítica de la Amazonía: ‘is it not possible to use the resources produced by state-controlled raw materials export activity to generate the surpluses that can be used to satisfy the minimum living conditions of Bolivians?’

Once again, then, through an examination of the spatial-temporal ramifications of economic restructuring we chart the attempts to engineer a new and emergent process of passive revolution and the efforts to resist this through the activities of the MAS today. We also examine the state space of the MAS in power and argue that the prime difficulties it faces are precisely the contradictions of space, especially what Henri Lefebvre called the expression of differential space, or the right to new spaces of difference, embedded within the conditioning situation of uneven and combined development. We then conclude with a set of reflections on how conditions of class struggle are inscribed in spaces of uneven and combined development in and beyond Bolivia through the patterning of conditions of passive revolution.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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