One could, if one had confined one's horizon to North America in 2010, be forgiven for the (mistaken) impression that a serious project aimed at the concrete negation of the state was of little relevance in today's world-historical political conjecture - that the kinds of politics that describe themselves as anti-state or anarchist in, for instance the United State, are, at their best, precarious, small experiments, inspiring flashes of real revolt from below making unexpected or unlikely appearances in the interstices of late capitalism, and are, at their worst, farcical distractions from real struggles. The experiences of, for instance, the Greek anarchists over the past half a decade have taught us in order to understand what a real challenge to state power, grounded in popular movements and able to shake the foundations of the global economy, might look like, we should remember to look outside our own immediate geographical context, that if, here, in the heart of Empire, anarchism might be mistaken for a beautiful dream; elsewhere it lives and breathes and fights and makes history.
Raul Zibechi's book Dispersing Power teaches us that we also should remember, when we look across the globe to see where anti-state struggles are taking place, that the most successful, vibrant, and instructive of these struggles may not proceed under the name of anarchism, may not fly the black flag, and may lay outside of the horizon of European modernity altogether. The book, the first work of Zibechi's to be translated into English, is a theoretical and sociological examination of the struggles of the indigenous Aymara people in Bolivia (or rather, against Bolivia), where some of the most inspiring victories against neoliberalism have been realized. Zibechi himself is no anarchist, but rather a Marxist with a strong proclivity towards the valorization of self-organized class struggle, a position which he has developed in his investigations of the past decade of revolt and social movement in Latin America.
The protagonists of Dispersing Power are the Aymara who over the past few decades have, faced with an often catastrophic process of modernization that made traditional rural life increasingly impossible, turned El Alto, a tiny suburb of La Paz which had only 11,000 inhabitants in 1952, into today a city of nearly a million people, the overwhelming majority of indigenous descent. Here the experience of migration and urbanization has collided with traditional forms of Indian self-determination and self-governance, producing an overlapping patchwork of communities in resistance that have proved capable of waging mass struggles against neoliberalism and the Bolivian state. Zibechi argues that one should not view the real social movement in Bolivia as one in which the aim is to take over the State, to humanize it, turn it's power towards the construction of socialism—for Zibechi, the election of Evo Morales is a distraction or even a threat to the radically anti-state struggle being constructed on the ground in El Alto and elsewhere. The power of the communities, he insists, stems from the way in which, to borrow Clastres' phrase, not only fight against the state, but “ward it off”, organizing themselves in such a way that they are able to fight (and win) without giving birth to a new state within their social movement. Here “state” means not just the parliament, executive, the palaces and official apparatuses of government, but any power which is separated from the people, which stands above it.
The Aymara alternative instead develops communities, units of self-governance, where this process of self-rule is indistinguishable from the material self-reproduction of the community, where mandatory rotation and other techniques forestall the emergence of hierarchy and separation, where leaders “lead by obeying”. One minute the community is managing its own economic affairs and building its own urban environment, and the next it turns itself, without any centralized command but rather through a micropolitical process of self-activation, into an army ready to wage war on neoliberalism. These remarkable communities, for Zibechi, represent a form of political life that, in dispersing power rather than embracing it, is entirely outside the horizon of the concept of the political state in the European tradition.
What's perhaps best about Zibechi's book is that he doesn't fail to deliver something genuinely useful to someone really seeking to wrap one's head around what makes the Aymara experience so different. This is not a theoretical flight of fancy, but a rigorous examination of a real history that's unfolding, and Zibechi makes us understand that the “communities” he describes are not pure, located in some sort of innocent radical space totally outside the power of the State, but rather that the State continually threatens to reemerge, that cooptation and neutralization (for instance within a kind of social democratic pluralism) always remain possibilities, and that the real story of the struggle against the state is a continual process of self-transformation, an impure and messy conjunction of movements in both directions at once. And, as his incredibly frank discussion of the way in which these indigenous communities employ the death penalty as a tool of non-state justice makes clear, the Aymara experience poses as many questions as it answers.
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