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The Anti-Political Politician

Reflections on Bolivia

by NEWTON GARVER

Bolivia is blessed not only with gorgeous scenery that ranges from Amazonian rainforest to the High Andes but also by being generally ignored by the press of the northern hemisphere. Searching for "Bolivia" in the New York Times online, I often go months without having any new hits, save for an occasional item where Bolivia is included as one of a number of Latin American countries. The past 18 months has been different. In October 2003 the elected President, Gonzáles de Lozada, was forced to resign: using the army to break a campesino blockade of the capital backfired. The Indians all around the country, not just around the capital, responded with mass demonstrations and peaceful marches, exhibiting discipline and determination for which the President had no response.

He fled the country and was replaced by his vice-president, Carlos Mesa. Carlos Mesa has proved to be an imaginative anti-political politician, surviving longer than any of the pundits conceived possible.


POLITCS AND ANTI-POLITICS

I had better explain my terms. Politics has to do with securing, exercising, and retaining power, where power is understood as domination and control of the institutions and resources of a nation-state or other political entity, by what means are available. It is in the spirit of such a conception of politics that Clausewitz said that war is an extension of politics by other means. In gaining control of a nation-state, a politician gains control of powerful instruments of coercion, including the treasury, the army, the police, the secret service, and the prisons. In totalitarian states the press, the churches, and the judiciary are included among the instruments of political power, and even in the United States we often see a yearning by the administration for control these institutions that our Constitution separates from the seat of political power. It is normal for Presidents and other political leaders to employ whatever instruments of persuasion and coercion are available.

Philip Pettit, the Australian philosopher, has said that we cannot understand the working of modern society, particularly the workings of democracy, unless we supplement this basic conception of politics and power with an understanding of anti-power. Anti-power has to do with limits on the use and employment of the ordinary instruments of political power. It comes in two main forms, limitations on what politicians actually do, and limitations on what politicians are authorized to do. The U.S. Constitution not only establishes political powers but also establishes limits on political powers, particularly through the separation of powers, States’ Rights, and the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights). These provisions have led to the independence of the judiciary, the press, and religion, the courts becoming an instrument for ensuring and elaborating these limitations. Our democracy has also been blessed by the establishment of independent institutions, such as the ACLU, whose whole purpose is to promote anti-power, that is to be anti-political. Just as politics is the exercise of power, anti-politics is the exercise of anti-power.

None of our Presidents, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Jefferson, has been anti-political. If we look at recent elections, we see that the attempt to secure power is highly partisan and involves intensive and detailed work by political parties at every level. Carl Schmitt has said (in The Concept of the Political) that politics begins with a distinction between friends and enemies. He had nation-states in mind, but we can see this phenomenon clearly in the partisan character of electoral politics. Washington became President without a partisan campaign, but nothing similar has happened in the past 200 years. The election of 1800 between Jefferson and Adams was highly partisan and divisive, and today we cannot imagine a democratic election that does not involve political parties and all the divisive partisan activity they entail.


THE UNELECTED PRESIDENT

Let us return to Bolivia. Carlos Mesa is President of a democratic country, but he was not elected to be President. Nor does he lead a political party that might constitute his political base. He has no political base. There are numerous political parties in Bolivia, half a dozen that have played a significant role in recent elections. None of these parties put forward Mesa as a candidate for the presidency, each having put forward instead its own candidate. Gonzáles de Lozada chose him as a running-mate in 2002, probably as a way to attract support from outside his party and from outside politics. Mesa had been a historian and a television journalist, and he was known to the public through his writings and through television. He had led no party, he never held any political office, nor had he any experience as the executive of any large institution. No one expected him to become President, and few thought him capable of it. He therefore came into politics from outside of politics – non-political but not yet anti-political.

As the events of October 2003 unfolded, Mesa immediately deplored the use of the army to break the blockade, and the next day withdrew his support of Gonzáles de Lozada. He did not, however, resign. When Gonzáles resigned, Mesa therefore came to power by right of constitutional succession. He did not seek the endorsement of the outgoing President’s party or of any other party, but remained as President with no ability through party affiliation to wield a block of votes in parliament. Many people doubted whether he would long remain in office, since in spite of his constitutional legitimacy he lacked both democratic (electoral) legitimacy and political support.


CARLOS MESA AND THE INDIANS

It was the Bolivian Indians who had done in Gonzáles, and Mesa undertook three significant measures to try to stave off Indian opposition to his policies. The first was to promise a referendum on the exploitation of the huge resources of natural gas, and the referendum was duly held last year. The second was to undertake to improve the infrastructure in the indigenous city of EL Alto. He has not succeeded in finding a way to provide drinking water and sewage because of the high capital costs, but both the main roads and the side streets in EL Alto have been significantly improved in the past eighteen months. In November 2004, I visited a Quaker school on one of those side streets, and the formerly dirt roadway was being replaced – expertly and expeditiously – with an impressive cobblestone street. This project uses only local materials, and it not only improves the appearance and accessibility of the neighborhood, but also is a labor-intensive project that helps reduce unemployment. Mesa’s third undertaking was anti-political: he vowed not to use the army or the police to break up roadblocks or peaceful demonstrations.

When Bolivia hit the front page of the New York Times again in February/March 2005, it was because of a confrontation between President Mesa and Evo Morales, the most prominent Indian politician in Bolivia, leader of a socialist party known as MAS, leader also of the unions of miners and of coca farmers, and the candidate who came in second to Gonzáles de Lozada in the 2002 elections. The issue, besides being a contest of power, concerned the exploitation of the reserves of natural gas.

For at least two years, Morales has demanded that the royalties on the extraction of natural gas be raised to 50 %, and the roadblocks of 2003 were meant to enforce that demand. President Mesa found this demand unacceptable, but he did believe, especially following the referendum, that the revenues to Bolivia for the exploitation of the gas needed to be raised. He therefore held extensive discussions with officials of the International consortium and others, and proposed a law enacting a new energy policy. The new law proposes no change in the division of royalties, but proposes a dramatic increase in the tax on profits from the exploitation of gas, to 32%. It was at this point that Morales withdrew his support from President Mesa.


THE TRIUMPH OF ANTI-POLITICS

So far, everything is normal relatively politics.

Bolivia made the news when President Mesa responded with an anti-political gesture: he sent a letter to the legislature submitting his resignation. In some sort of broad fuzzy sense of politics, such a letter might be thought a political gesture or tactic. When one regards it seriously, however, one sees that it is not an exercise of power or a utilization of the instruments of power but a resignation from power and the instruments or power. In the event it did secure for President Mesa declarations of support from all the major political parties with the exception of MAS. Evo Morales and his supporters among the impoverished Indian population on the Altiplano restored the roadblocks that has been their most effective political instrument over the past five or six years, a powerful form of coercion . In the face of this confrontation, President Mesa steadfastly refused to become political. He reiterated his refusal to order the army to clear the roads, declared that he had done everything that he knew how to do and that the country was ungovernable with its main roads blocked, and so he would ask Congress to call early elections to find someone as his replacement.

At this point Morales began to see his power ebb away. During a two-day strike he had called to protest the new energy law, teachers continued to meet their classes although they constitute the third or fourth largest union; so his base shrunk. In addition Morales did not want Mesa to leave the presidency, recognizing that any replacement would use armed force to break the blockades and open the roads. So the roadblocks were removed by the Indians who had put them in place. President Mesa withdrew the bill to establish early elections and he remains in office with a remarkably high approval rating in the polls, about 60%.

If Bolivia were not such an obscure country, Carlos Mesa would be a good candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Politics is inherently divisive, and although we cannot do without it, it can never lead to peace. Nor can we expect that there will be very many, if any, anti-political politicians in positions of authority. Simone Weil said that it is a natural necessity that politicians should employ political power, and therefore a miracle when a politician acts anti-politically. Perhaps it is. Certainly we cannot expect other politicians to follow the example of Carlos Mesa. But he does deserve recognition and admiration.

NEWTON GARVER is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and UB Professor of Philosophy Emeritus. He is co-author of Derrida & Wittgenstein (1995) and a frequent contributor to Buffalo Report.