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Democracy, social movements and ‘protest State’

The question of democracy has been central to the public political debate, crystallized in the question of whether the fall of Morales in November 2019 was the result of a ‘citizen revolution’ or a ‘coup’. Understood as a kind of relation between the State and society, one in which the first one acts mainly in response and conformity to the latter (Tilly 2007), there are roughly two positions concerning the role and effect of social movements for democratization: negative and positive. The State-social movements’ relation is conceived as part of the interaction between citizens, social movements, the political party system and the State (Craig Jenkins and Klandermans 1995). On the one hand, the political party system ideally organizes and regulates access to State power by different groups in society (Mainwaring and Scully 1995). In consequence, strong social movements could not only be perceived as indications of a deficiency in the functioning of democratic institutions but they are also seen to undermine the political party system to the detriment of the consolidation of formal representative democracy. On the other hand, from a ‘cultural politics’ perspective, social movements have an important role in democratization as they question the ‘political culture’ that excludes and oppresses certain groups of society. This is expressed in the struggle to democratize the whole of society and not only the political regime, including the cultural practices that embody the social relations of exclusion and inequality (Calderón et al. 1992; Alvarez et al. 1998). Social movements would play an important role in pressuring and stimulating the political system to be more responsive to the needs of (segments of) the citizenry, not only democratizing the political system but the society at large.

Both stances position social movements in opposition to the State as the realm of institutional politics, which basically limits the types of State-social movement relation to two: repression or manipulation. This is the base preoccupation in the often-used analytical categories of‘autonomy’ and ‘co-optation’ in the characterization of the relation. Social movements’ autonomy is seen as necessary to counterbalance the alienation and authoritarianism from a presupposed elitist and repressive State (Steyn 2012). However, a more nuanced view sees a level of rapprochement as indispensable. Coy and Hadeen state that it is practically impossible to discern between cooperation and co-optation in situations of imbalance of power, but that social movements should aim to maintain a fluctuating position relating to State power (2005). In the same vein, Earle has suggested that social movements need to find a ‘delicate balance’ in order to maximize the benefits of collaboration while avoiding falling into co-optation (2013).

Particularly in the case of Bolivia, the characterization in terms of ‘autonomy’ and ‘co-optation’ seems too reductionist, obscuring its complexity. According to Goldstone (2013), the range of State-social movements’ relations is much wider, especially if the heterogeneity within State institutions is acknowledged, rendering the frontier between ‘institutionalized’ and ‘non-institutionalized’ politics vague and permeable. This line of thought has found resonance in several studies that have looked at the elusive barriers separating social movements from political parties (Schónwálder 1997, Roberts 1998, Desai 2003, Glenn 2003, Deonandan and Close 2007, Van Cott 2005, 2008, Kitschelt 2006, Dufour 2008, Anria 2013). The various and varying relationships social movements maintain with political parties and the State could even ask for a different conceptualization of the phenomenon. As de Bakker, den Hond and Laarmanen (2017) show, more recently social movements have found new ways to organize, connect and enact collective action, particularly as a result of technological

Protest State and street politics 35 and communicational innovation, leading to more volatile forms of organizing. Although ‘social movement’ and ‘social movement organization’ retain elucidating value for the analysis, acknowledging the fluidity and continuity depending on the level of organizing as a process allows us to appreciate how that organizing process flows over the (analytical) borders that separate social movements (organizations), the State and political parties as distinctive entities.

Last, given the relatively high levels of social protest in the Latin American region, in a recent publication Moseley (2018) has proposed an innovative theoretical approach around the concept of ‘protest State’ that attains high explanatory power for the case of Bolivia. According to the author, the high levels of protest result from the dual process of political dysfunction and economic prosperity. Political dysfunction refers to the poor levels of performance of the State institutions that result in low levels of confidence. In parallel, the economic development has increased citizen awareness and organizational resources, producing a stronger and more engaged civil society. Moseley identifies four elements explaining the high levels of social protest: grievances, representation, repression and mobilizing structure. Grievances are necessary but not sufficient to trigger collective action. Too high levels of repression will inhibit social protest and so a minimum level of openness (democracy) is necessary. Moseley sees ‘grievances’ and ‘repression’ as fairly constant in Latin America, ascribing ‘representation’ and ‘mobilizing structure’ as the highest explanatory power. ‘Representation’ refers to the promise of viable vehicles of representation and its failure to deliver, whereas the mobilizing structure refers to the availability of organizational resources to citizens to engage in social protest. Where the political systems have become devoid of effective representative institutions, social protest becomes a conventional form of political participation for citizens, including the elite. As institutions remain weak, protest becomes a very likely option to a diversity of sectors in society. Interestingly, this is not limited to protest against the government, but also includes social mobilization in support of it. According to this author, in ‘protest States’ clientelist parties invest in building ‘contentious power’ by linking to organizations of civil society to enable and maintain street-based activism. In such scenarios, levels of protest remain high, regardless of the level of grievances.

On the basis of these theoretical considerations, in the remainder of the chapter, I trace the evolution of the State-social movement relation in recent years as key to the political process in Bolivia in general, and to the political crisis that started in October 2019, in particular. For the sake of clarity in the analysis, I will often refer to social movements (organizations) as ‘actors’, but I am building on its conceptualization as ‘organizing processes’ around specific issues. Also, the term social movement encompasses both popular (indigenous) social movements as well as the middle class, ‘elite’, ‘right wing’ or ‘civic’ social movements. This clarification is necessary as in the Bolivian public debate (and sometimes in the academic debate) the term social movement is almost ‘exclusive’ to the (indigenous) movements that form the base of support of the MAS.

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