Cochabamba: Beyond the Complex: Anarchist Pride - Dariush Sokolov

Dariush Sokolov looks at the politics of the Cochabamba climate summit. Can anarchists ever ally with states? Originally published in May 2010.

We saw the hole in the heart of the anti-capitalist movement gape more clearly than ever last December in Copenhagen, when the “Reclaim Power” demo gave up its assault on the Bella Centre after twenty minutes and sat down in a windswept road outside to hold a “Peoples’ Assembly”. So this was what non-violent mass direct action came to in practice. Inside the conference centre the “representatives” of the worlds’ nations chattered and stalled. Outside we duplicated their representative politics on a budget. Flown in tourist class from Bangladesh and Bolivia, “community leaders” and NGO apparatchiks, some elected by someone, some by no one, self-appointed, salaried or sponsored or who was asking, made their righteous demands as spokespeople for the “Global South”, to the applause of the white European activists.

That day’s events leave a bunch of wilting questions. One being: what is this uneasy relationship between privileged European activists and the representatives of the “Global South”? What kind of magic does it have to trump the usual commitments, dazzle away prized anti-hierarchical safeguards? So, following up on this Copenhagen pattern, Climate Camp approved its two “delegates” to the “Peoples Climate Summit” in Cochabamba called by Evo Morales, president of the “plurinational republic of Bolivia” — cue Daily Mail long haul flight outrage. And a similar proposal was even raised (though ejected) at the last No Borders network gathering. Could it be that an Aymara indigenous president in a stripy jumper is something other than a president; that a “plurinational” state is something other than a state; that a top-down NGO run by brown people from the South is something other than a top-down NGO; or that the politics of representation stops being a problem across the equator? Doesn’t Bolivia still have borders, an army, and prisons — prisons where our comrades still rot behind bars?

I can’t help feeling this relationship indeed fingers a hole in the heart of this movement — or to put it less dramatically, a lack of confidence in our beliefs, a lack of feeling in our principles. In Copenhagen it was as if we were saying: we privileged European activists, we’re not able to act and fight for ourselves, in our own names, with our own anger, for our own desires — so we have to represent, you could even say colonise, the demands of others more needy, more worthy. Of course, we wouldn’t everclaim to speak for the South … but we can make alliances with those who all so happily make those claims, politicians, “community leaders”. So the symbiosis of the white activists and the brown activists, united in our representation of the teeming unknown multitude below, bound together
in careerism and middle class guilt.

Pink tide

It could also be that some people are genuinely excited about what’s going on down in South America. There is a real shift in power taking place in the continent, a real movement away from the existing pattern ofdomination. Morales’ election victory in December 2005 may not, as he claimed, end 500 years of colonial power, but it may be one in a number of steps away from a century of Yankee power in the South.

Other tidemarks in the Latin American “Pink tide”: Hugo Chavez, ex-military coupster, elected president of Venezuela since 1999, survived a US-backed coup in 2002, and now with a second constitutional change in 2009 entitled to keep on running indefinitely, using the revenue from nationalised oil company PDVSA for aid “missions” in Cuba and Bolivia aswell as the slums of Caracas. After the Argentinian crisis in 2001-2 effectively destroyed the hold of the IMF and the “Washington Consensus” on regional economics, Nestor Kirchner’s government, elected in 2003, defaulted on international debt and ran a cheap peso policy to rebuild export industry. Brazil, the biggest, richest and most powerful South American state by far, fell into the centre left with Lula’s victory in 2002: orthodox market economics, a booming consumer economy, together with anti-Yankee rhetoric and the beginnings of a welfare safety net. Bolivia and Ecuador — where Rafael Correa was elected in 2006 – newer and smaller members of the pink club, have gone fastest along the road of “21st century socialism”.

Nationalisations, growing independence from global financial markets, indigenous rights, basic welfare policies – as well as plenty of gloating and fist-waving at the US. Social democratic governments are moving South America towards some of the welfarist rights European workers squeezed out of capital after WWII. Behind the scenes are global economic shifts: on the one hand the boom in commodities (oil in Venezuela and Brazil, Bolivian gas, industrial Soya plantations in Argentina and Brazil, etc.) fuelling China’s rapid industrial expansion; on the other, the bubble bursting in the decrepit debt and service economies of US and Europe. The power of global capital shifts to the East and South, wealth is being redistributed, and some crumbs are really finding their way to the “people” – though plenty more, for sure, to the elites in Sao Paulo and Caracas.

This redistribution is taking place well within the state/capital system. The new Bolivian constitution of 2009 recognises the rights of la pachamama, mother earth – alongside the army, the courts, a beefed-up Senate, and all the usual institutions of a republic. The new pink Latin states are more popular, more inclusive, that is - stronger states. Populist economies are better distributed, more stable, that is - stronger market economies. Economies based on the same model of petroleum, industrial agriculture, extraction, and growth before everything. This is the message behind the rhetoric that doesn’t make it to hopeful English-speaking radicals. When Evo Morales announces in Copenhagen that capitalism is “the worst enemy of humanity” Anglophone media of both left and right hype up the rebel pronouncements. But there’s minimal coverage, left or right, when vice-president Álvaro García Linera quietly repeats that Bolivia is building “Andean-Amazonian capitalism” (albeit as a Marxist “intermediary stage”); or when Morales, back at home, praises “nationalist military” and “patriotic entrepreneurs”. This truth, which doesn’t key into the hopes or fears of either side, isn’t news. Though he certainly got more coverage for his ideas, in the Cochabamba summit opening speech, about a link between homosexuality and hormones in chicken feed.

Of course anarchists on the ground know what’s going on. In January 2006 anarchist organisations from across Latin America published the “Caracas Libertarian Declaration”. They wrote: “it seems that a new historical cycle is opening up in Latin America in which the people deposit their anguish and hopes in social-democratic and populist governments … Consequently we reaffirm, with the backing of rich historical experience, that there are no statist or vanguard paths towards a socialist libertarian society. To be credible, such a society must be based on the direct participation of grassroots social movements and their non-negotiable self-managed ascent.”

While “Northern” radicals look away from Chavez’ militarist posturing, the anarchist publication El Libertario keeps on denouncing the army murderers in safe government positions, and “Venezuela of the multinationals”. Or in La Paz, anarchofeminists Mujeres Creando are sticking up murals of Evo wanking over the Miss Universe pageant he’s hosting in Santa Cruz. Even in South America states are still states, and anarchists are still anarchists.


Of course the point of activists going to Cochabamba wasn’t to work with the state, or to help draw up yet more demands, wishlists, fantasy bodies — UN covenants, peoples’ commissions, climate justice courts, new human rights treaties, global economic funds, … Rather, it was about hooking up with the radical groups of all kinds hanging around at the fringes. And no doubt it was a great networking opportunity. But what opportunity did Cochabamba represent for the government organisers? What were we doing for them?

The advances of the 21st century Latin pink tide resemble the 20th century gains of European social democracy. There are strong parallels in means as well as ends. Chavismo in Venezuela is closely tied to the military, but the forces behind Lula or Morales are more genuinely popular, newly created left parties built out of alliances of labour and “social movements”. See the history of the UK Labour party, which built a political play out of the power of trade unions and the co-operative movement plus Fabian left intellectual leadership. The story is old but it goes on: when weak popular movements challenge the state, they get crushed; when they get too strong, the state invites them in. Anyone who’s ever been involved in workplace or community organising knows how it goes, and the rules are just the same in Britain and Brazil.

According to the philosopher Spinoza, when a body encounters another body with which it agrees “in nature”, they can join together in a “joyful meeting”, forming a more powerful joint body. In an anarchist relation built from affinity, individuals or groups come freely together to mutually advance each other’s work. But if the two bodies are of opposing natures, the weaker may simply be destroyed or decomposed by the stronger. When a grassroots body meets up with a fully functioning State Leviathan, the best result we can hope for is incorporation or assimilation. Only the State comes off with increased power, because whenever we recognise its terms we legitimise it, and the basis of every State is the acceptance of its legitimacy, its right to rule.

This is the other side of the political pink tide. Whatever happened to the Brazilian MST, the world’s biggest landless movement? With over a million members, a 20 year history of mass direct action for real, of grassroots organisation and popular education, the movement’s demands for land reform are stalled for good, caught by its friends in government in a double bind of officialisation and continuing repression. What happened to the Argentinian piqueteros and factory occupiers, great revolutionary hope of the new millenium? Spontaneous movements of the dispossessed were soon channelled into political dead-ends, the Trotskyist movement which peaked and dwindled, or official Peronism behind Kirchner. The tested populist mix of national capitalism, protectionist industry mixed with soup kitchens and noisy demos, did the trick once again.

Minority, without the complex

As Uruguayan anarchist Daniel Barret (Rafael Sposito, passed away last August) writes in 2008: “it’s not news to anyone that anarchists are a tiny minority in Bolivia, just like everywhere else on the planet … and as, except for a few countries in the prime of anarchosyndicalism, we always have been.” But what does this minority status imply? If anything, rather than abandoning our principles, it means holding even tighter to them. “To be an anarchist, without ‘minority complex’, is an act of savage self-orphanage, of proud conviction, adopted by those who individually and/or collectively refuse to be followers of processes controlled by others, and whose basic disposition is to give life to self-owned and genuinely emancipatory practices.”

Anarchists are freaks. Do we seriously believe in a world without the state, without capital, without property, god, the family, borders, without all these time-honoured rules and norms and institutions that hold society together? In living self-organised lives, in free associations of affinity, creating new types of relationships as yet undreamt of, challenging domination and hierarchy on every level? Crazy or not, what’s undeniable is that as anarchists our desires and beliefs are largely out of step with those of just about everyone else we ever meet. How do we work with others without being assimilated, without compromising our freakish ideas?

Rather than pining for some imaginary multitude — because we’re not going to build a mass movement, not any time soon — we celebrate what we are, what we have, what we can become. There are minoritarian joys and powers — freedom of movement, spontaneity, creativity, flexibility, invisibility, daring. We can create, provoke, irritate, inspire, and above all, infect those around us with new desires and practices. When we position ourselves in the thick of grassroots struggles — rather than in sticky liasons with their leaders and assimilators — we can have effects well beyond our numbers. And we speak, and more importantly act, for ourselves, anarchists without apology.

Dariush Sokolov is an anarchist and no borders activist. He blogs at