September 08, 2008

The Limits of the Bolivian Crisis

MABB © ®

The theoretical limits are becoming more visible in Bolivia as the crisis deepens. On the one side, the fundamental question (see Weber) about the right of the state to exert the legitimate monopoly of the use of force in a given territory is being severely tested. At the same time, the relative strength of the state is also under scrutiny. Has the Bolivian state become too weak? On the other side, once can see how far can discourse go or perhaps to what extent is discourse useful.

At the moment, the Young Civic Unions of Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Sucre and Tarija are directly challenging the state's authority. As we can see in the news, they are not only staging road blockades, but in their efforts to intimidate the state, are occupying state buildings and are even planning to shut down border entry points. This behavior raises the question about the weakness or strength of the Bolivian state. Is the state weak?

In my opinion, I think the Bolivian state is not weak, but is unwilling. Is not weak, in the sense that it has the means to exert legitimate violence to bring those events under control. Not only the Bolivian military is up and running and, as they say, firmly under civilian control, but the police forces are also there and capable of acting.

Now, some, for sure will argue, and I will tend to agree, unwillingness to act is a form of weakness.

I think the reason why Morales is unwilling to act is because he knows the moment he orders repression, the risk of deaths increases exponentially. He might also be reluctant because he knows what can happen, either due to his own experience or by simply observing recent past events.

Another possibility might be that Morales is unsure of the military's loyalty. It might just be that once he sets the military in motion, it might take a life of its own and start making own decisions. I think Morales has some good reasons why not to trust the military. An indication is the fact that Morales keeps publically calling on the military to support the change, i.e. his government. For its part, the military has repeatedly had to, also publically, voice its intention to act under the guidelines of the constitution.

So, one can say that the Bolivian state is weak, but not in the classical sense.

Another visible limitation is the extent to which the Morales discourse is useful. Morales has had a strong discursive element in his politics which has helped him maintain high levels of support. In fact, his discourse is made up of a complex plethora of terms. At the front is the anti-neoliberal banner, and following not too behind are terms such as powerful elites, empire, colonizers, equality, etc.

Of all the terms used by Morales, I think, neoliberalism and empire are the ones who are most useful for him. These are two terms which are already defined and those definitions come associated with many other concepts, countries and other things, which to a large extent, play at the feelings of MAS supporters. Supporters know these two terms are the enemy and anyone associated with them is the enemy.

However, if we observe the current events, one cannot help but notice the reduced effect of the discourse when used by Morales. For several weeks now, Morales and his VP have been calling on his supporters to 'defend' the process of change. So far, there have been only sporadic reactions in terms of marches, mainly in La Paz, and some confrontations against the road blockers (which I think these were more out of desperation than any allegiance to Morales).

The question arises then: What are the limits of discourse? Can a particular discourse be used indefinitely?

So far for my thinking out loud!

PS. This week I am in a conference and won't be able to update nor comment as usual. Having said that, I will continue monitoring Bolivia and will make the necessary posts and updates.