On being a dude from the Midwest, watching the example of MAS and the Bolivian people.
This piece was originally published in the author’s newsletter Local Boy Writes!
Growing up and becoming a young person with socialist inclinations, you learn early on that the Left is full of losers. Big ones. You are taught about the glorious struggles and the martyrs of our causes, 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 being killed or a leftist government 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 description of some of the Left. 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, doesn’t help many people, and DSA tends to be a place for serious-minded political activists. But it’s undeniable that this sentiment has been present.
Discomfort at the thought of self-identifying as a droopy-faced martyr has led many on the broad American Left to embrace what we might call “Matt Bruenig Thought.” It’s the tendency, shared by the one and only Bernie Sanders, to refer to oneself as fully a socialist, but to point towards pragmatic rather than strictly revolutionary examples of leftist governments assembled by working class power—usually, this means deifying the shining example of the Nordics as countries with socialist institutions, which redistribute wealth via social programs and have a tendency towards collectivization of capital via wealth funds, nationalized industry, large government employment programs and public sectors.
I love the Nordics. But detractors will accurately point out 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 at odds with empire. Where then could one find a country that, despite struggling against hostile relations with the world’s wealthiest democracies due to their left wing policies, managed to govern and build with equal success?
As a youngin, I found that example 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 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 sparse English-language news I could find on the government’s policies and achievements. I watched as other left wing countries like Venezuela endured coup attempt after coup attempt and vicious American sabotage, alongside poor luck and poor decision-making. While those projects stalled, Bolivia thrived.
Morales’ tenure was by no means perfect, and it 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 Smart Men in the U.S. will smugly inform you is impossible for a socialist government. The Nation laid 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 the lauditory defeat of 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 and Corbyn’s Labour. 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 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, MAS is poised to return to power by a landslide, with Evo Morales’ former Minister of the Economy Luis Arce as President.
Even Jeanine Áñez, the current coup president, has conceded in the face of this popular rebuke.
As a dude from Michigan, I had relatives in my family tree who worked in the auto industry. I heard stories of the former miltancy 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 achieved 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.
These sort of victories are precious and unfortunately rare, and they should be cherished.
On election night I sat at my computer and watched as exit polls were released, MAS declared victory, and a win for MAS seemed assured. A video was tweeted onto my timeline: a clip of a large group of MAS supporters, ecstatic and chanting “Somos mayoria carajo!” I speak only English, but several friends informed me that it is a longtime MAS rallying cry from Evo’s time as president, that roughly means: “we are the majority, dammit!”
Beautiful losers, they are not.