The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social
By Ben Dangl
AK Press, 2007, 240 pp.
Anyone who has had the privilege to travel or live in
Presented as a people’s history, Dangl describes the panorama of social struggles both past and present, starting from the indigenous uprisings against Spanish rule and ending with an account of the first year in office of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). The book is the story of struggle around what Dangl calls the price of fire: “access to basic elements of survival— gas, water, land, coca, employment, and other resources.” He argues that the struggles over the “price of fire” in
The first chapter provides a brief history of anti-imperialist and anti- colonial struggle in Bolivia, which began when miners discovered a vein of almost pure silver in Cerro Rico (literally, “Rich Hill”) in the altiplano region of PotosÃ. Since then, the richness of the Bolivians subsoil has never translated into wealth for the majority of its people. Dangl reminds the reader of the “open veins” of
Such collective memories have informed contemporary calls for nationalization of natural resources, such as oil, gas, and water. Dangl provides the historical roots of this demand. After the popular revolution of 1952, the reformist ruling party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), paid millions of dollars in compensation to the “tin barons” who were ousted by the revolution in order to secure the favor of capitalist imperialism, notably
Dangl describes the fierce popular resistance as a welcome sign that the left has re-organized after 15 years of neoliberalism. He writes that the first priority of the neoliberal government that assumed office in 1985 was to smash the militant miners’ unions, which leads the popular class struggle for the post-Second World War period. This was achieved by closing the state-owned mines and laying off over three-quarters of the work- force. Other privatization programs and austerity policies were also imposed with force. Debilitated by neoliberal restructuring, the left was weak and divided. In the absence of an organized opposition, neoliberal governments deepened reforms over the next two decades, slowly stripping the state of its administrative capacity and productive infrastructure. Foreign-funded NGOs flooded in to fill the gap. Despite the government’s promises that neoliberal reforms would increase freedoms, raise the standard of living, and create economic prosperity, however, they left average Bolivians worse off than before.
In chapter two, Dangl describes how the embers of the militant miners’ unions were scattered all over the country as miners and their families migrated to places like the coca-growing areas of the Chapare and shantytowns like El Alto in search of new ways to make a living. In the Chapare, for example, former miners applied their organizational skills to build sindicatos, which “organized work cycles, and distribution of land, and mediated disputes,” as well as communal work brigades and participation in political protests. The growth and maturation of these organizational structures eventually culminated in the foundation of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba, the political precursor of MAS. Dangl describes how, in its early days, MAS articulated an “anti-imperialist,” “anti- neoliberal” platform that “advocated the decriminalization of coca production and putting natural resources, such as gas and oil, under state control.”
After the water war, social movements focused on two basic issues—the demand for radical social change through a politics of “basic needs” and the nationalization of natural resources—which culminated in the gas wars of October 2003 and May-June 2005.
While Dangl is keen to demonstrate the creativity and vitality of the Bolivian social movements that helped to elect MAS in December 2005, he also provides a cautious assessment of the possibilities and limitations of MAS’s electoral strategy.
At the heart of the dilemma are strategic questions about the relationship between the social movements and the political party and whether it is possible to execute radical change through parliamentary channels. Dangl clearly sides with the “movimientistas,” such as Oscar Olivera of Cocha- bamba’s Coordinadora, who fears that if social movements identify too closely with Morales’s party, “It will be more difficult for people to mobilize…. If Evo fails, it will be a failure for the social movements. The gains of six years of struggle will be lost.” Dangl, similar to Olivera, is skeptical about participating in the traditional political system while also expressing his sympathy for MAS’s victory.
One of the central problems confronting a “social movement party” like MAS is that its legitimacy is now derived in part from its agreement to play the “rules of the game.” It came to office through parliamentary channels so it is not likely to eschew them. In its bid for office, however, the party has used a radical rhetoric, but taken more moderate policy stances than the social movements on the streets. In its first year in office, the Administration has also been very cautious to build consensus so as not to provoke a violent reaction from the right, as exemplified by the Constituent Assembly.
Indeed, MAS is not really as radical as it sometimes sounds. The re-nationalization of the oil and gas sector in autumn 2006 basically amounted to a renegotiation of the terms of public-private partnerships between the state and multinational corporations. Dangl describes in the last chapter entitled “Bolivian Moment” that the plan has also been highly criticized by the radical social movements who took to the streets in 2003 and 2005 demanding expropriation without indemni- fication.
In the following chapter, Dangl writes, “Putting resources into government hands is far from a foolproof alternative to corporate control. Though YPFB offers hopeful examples for state control of gas, the government-run industry has the potential to be just as exploitative, corrupt, and inefficient as corporations. Much would depend on the YPFB management.” Indeed, one of the first tasks confronting MAS administration is to rebuild the state’s administrative capacity and build a “different kind of state” after it has been gutted and corrupted from years of neoliberal reforms.
The more troubling question for further debate is whether the social organizations in
The aftermath of the water war raises similar questions about social movement strategy and organization. Dangl observes, “Corporate control of water horribly affected a majority of the population, and yet, after Bechtel was kicked out, the subsequent public control has also left much to be desired.” In part this is due to the fact that the much-celebrated ad hoc coalition known as the Coordinadora, an unorganized structure par excellence, could not sustain the high level of mobilization needed to follow through with its vision of reform. The coalition eventually split into different factions representing competing interests between, for example, organized workers and poor water consumers. Social movement leaders were faced with the task of managing a complex bureaucracy, but with the social movements weak and divided at the local level, international funding agencies and elites were able to set the conditions for reform, rather than the Coordinadora, whose leaders envisioned a truly democratic management. If organization is the weapon of the weak, a lack of organization and leadership can be debilitating. In short, some structures of representation and democratic accountability within any social organization are necessary to counter any form of power and it is not clear that ad hoc coalitions such as the Coordinadora offer an alternative to mass parties or other experiments that have been tried, such as soviets, councils or democratic trade unions.
Dangl is correct to observe that much depends on the ability of autonomous social movements to push MAS in the right direction. In the words of political analyst, Helena Agirakis, “The [54 percent by which Morales won] isn’t a blank check; it’s a loan.” Fortunately, what makes MAS so different from previous governments is Morales’s invitation to the social movements to keep him in check and to help his administration defend what some have called the “third revolution” from being highjacked by the right, which remains an imminent possibility.
Dangl’s book reminds us that one of the most positive outcomes of the MAS’s electoral victory is that it has raised peoples’ expectations, both in Bolivia and abroad, fomenting the belief that creating another world is not only possible, but necessary. Anyone interested in the inspiring social movement struggles in
Susan Spronk is a post-doctoral fellow at