"We Are The Majority, Dammit!"
On being some dude from the Midwest, watching the example of MAS and the Bolivian people.
Growing up as a young person with socialist inclinations, you learn early on that the Left is full of losers. Big ones. You learn about the glorious struggles and the martyrs of our various causes, about how brave men and women took up their principles and often laid down their lives for the rights of the marginalized and everyday working people. You learn to puff out your chest with pride at the thought of some wonderful, decent-minded person or government being killed or toppled for doing the right thing, for whatever good it did.
Not only this, but you realize quickly that the Left has developed a kind of pathology about losing. Sam Adler-Bell describes the dynamic well in his essay for Commonweal, Beautiful Losers:
“I’ve been a leftist my entire adult life. I know these stories. I’ve participated in failed union drives, failed electoral campaigns, failed social movements. I’ve watched left governments come to power and lose it, or keep it and be corrupted. Many times I’ve sublimated defeat into conviction; mourning into organizing. But when it comes to practical politics, melancholia is not always a helpful disposition. Conditioned by history to expect defeat—to see it as inevitable, the product of malevolent forces beyond our control—we welcome its arrival with something like relief.”
That’s a quote that stuck with me, because it’s an accurate descriptor for many self-proclaimed socialists. It’s a disposition that is beginning to shift—and knowing the political outlook of my friends and readers who actually might make it to the third paragraph of this thing—it’s a disposition you probably don’t share, because losing isn’t very fun. But it’s undeniable that it’s been present.
Disdain for self-identifying as the droopy-faced martyr have led many to embrace what we might call “Matt Bruenig Thought.” It’s the tendency, shared by Bernie Sanders, to pivot towards the shining example of the Nordics as countries with socialist institutions, that redistribute wealth via social programs and have a tendency towards collectivization of capital via wealth funds and government employment programs. When you need an example of successful Left governments and policymaking, you point there.
I love the Nordics. But detractors will accurately object that they are intensely resource-wealthy and in the global north, adjacent and on friendly terms with the imperial core in a way that has never put their socialist proclivities or robust social democratic institutions at odds with empire. Where then can you find a country that, despite struggling against hostile relations with the world’s wealthiest democracies due to their left wing policies, managed to govern with equal success?
As a youngin, I found that answer in Bolivia, Evo Morales, and his party, the Movement for Socialism (MAS).
When you admire a country and its political movements but have absolutely no organic connection to them, you inevitably feel like a voyeur. I read some books on the social movements and unions that found their political formation in MAS. I read what English language news I could find on the government’s decision making. I watched as other left wing countries like Venezuela endured coup attempt after coup attempt and vicious American sabotage (alongside some poor luck and poor decision-making). While those projects stalled, Bolivia thrived.
Morales’ tenure was by no means perfect, and deserved the pushback he received from his own base for some of his environmental decisions. But he governed as the first Indigenous president of one of the poorest countries in South America with remarkable success, success that many Smart Men from the U.S. would smugly inform you is impossible for a socialist government. The Nation lays some of those wins out:
“Once in office, Morales passed a law seizing tens of thousands of square miles of land deemed unproductive or illegally held, and redistributed it to landless peasants. He placed the natural gas, oil, telecommunications and electricity industries under state control. And he continually raised the minimum wage, which has tripled since he entered office.
Morales also dramatically increased social spending. He poured money into building roads, schools, and hospitals, an expansion of infrastructure that was particularly transformative in the countryside. And he established modest but deeply popular cash transfer programs: a universal noncontributory pension system for Bolivians over the age of 60; assistance to households with elementary school–aged children who can demonstrate their children are attending school; and funds for pregnant women or mothers with children under the age of 2 without health insurance.
It’s now clear that a redistributionist agenda has not been ruinous to Bolivia’s economy. Far from it: During the Morales era, the economy has grown at twice the rate of the Latin American average, inflation has been stable, the government has amassed substantial savings, and an enterprising and optimistic indigenous middle class has emerged.”
When the right-wing coup broke out against Evo Morales upon his election win last year (a coup that, while supported by most elite institutions in the U.S. at the time of its happening as a welcome defeat for a wannabe strongman, is now even being questioned by the New York Times), it was a blow perhaps even worse than the losses of Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign and Labour under Corbyn. Here we didn’t just fail to take power; the global Left had lost their power in one place where they had long enjoyed popular support and massive economic success.
Since then, I have watched with other interested Americans as Bolivians mobilized against their coup government. Repression has been brutal; most of the Bolivians killed by the state in the past year have been MAS supporters, revolting against an unelected government that claimed to be a caretaker of democracy, but that has wasted no time in taking out huge IMF loans and planning to sell off state assets. Through this, and the COVID-19 crisis, MAS and the Bolivian people mobilized, generated chaos, and forced new elections that the coup government has stalled and pushed back for months. Now, if exit polls are to be believed, MAS is returning to power by a landslide upwards of 20 points, with Evo Morales’ former Minister of the Economy Luis Arce as the new President.
Even Jeanine Áñez, the current coup president, has all but conceded in the face of this overwhelming popular rebuke.
As a dude from Michigan, I had relatives in my family tree who worked in the auto industry. I heard some stories of the former militancy of auto worker unions. But those days are long gone. Watching the example of the Bolivian people, their unions, social movements, and the government they have built through their struggle from up here in the U.S., it all looks like a fairytale. But sometimes, when the good guys keep fighting, the good guys win.
Last night I sat at my computer, on Twitter (where else?) and watched the results. At around midnight exit polls were released, MAS declared victory, and a win seemed all but assured. A video was tweeted onto my timeline: a recording of a large group of MAS supporters, ecstatic and jumping up and down, chanting: “Somos mayoria carajo!” I speak only English, but several friends informed me that it is a longtime MAS rallying cry from Evo’s tenure as president, that roughly means: “we are the majority, dammit!”
Beautiful losers, they are not.