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Theory, history and temporalities: thinking with René Zavaleta

René Zavaleta (1937-1984) is considered by many to be Bolivia’s greatest thinker (see Thomson 2019; Webber 2011a). It’s hard to argue with this contention, as Zavaleta’s approach traverses old divides— structure/agency, theory/history, the particular/the universal—to build a conceptual framework that is simultaneously spatially and temporally sensitive to specific historical conjunctures and able to speak to other historical and geographical contexts (see Freeland 2019: 276; Lagos Rojas 2018). Although at times labyrinthine and open (see Dunkerley 2013), the body of Zavaleta’s work provides powerful conceptual tools to tie together the multiple dynamics leading to, and at play during, the crisis during October-November 2019 in Bolivia.

Zavaleta’s method contains ‘both specific historical-political and general conceptual angles’ (Thomson 2019: 84), and bridges the gap, as he himself says (Zavaleta 2008: 80), between the Marx (1982(1867]) of Capital and the Marx (1978(1851]) of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Drawing on Fernand Braudel (2009), one of Zavaleta’s

The end of Evo Morales 59 great interpreters, Luis Tapia (2019: 132), proposes that rather than thinking about this divide in Zavaleta’s work as one between history and theory, it is more productive to consider the different layers encountered in Zavaleta as an analysis of ‘how longue durée conditions cut across medium-term structures’. On the one hand, Tapia (2019: 132) contends that over the longue durée, Zavaleta’s central concern is the ‘operation of the law of value, that is, the processes of generalisation of the abstraction of labour, or of the expansion of the capitalist mode of production on a global scale’. The longue durée conditions determine ‘the epistemic constraints of structural position within a global order [that] are taken for granted’ in Zavaleta’s work (Freeland 2016: 278). Over this temporality, on the most abstract level Zavaleta evaluates modes of production, that is to say, the aggregate social relations of production that form the economic structure of a society and ‘the social, political and intellectual life process in general’ that emanate from such arrangements of social relations (see Marx 1977).

On a more concrete level (yet still over the longue durée), Zavaleta turns his attention to civilisation and societal forms. Civilisational forms, explains Tapia (2016a: 19-24), are determined by historical time and the transformation of nature (Thomson 2019: 90), whilst societal forms are ‘determined by the mode of articulation between the mode of production, type of societal structures, forms of government and types of organisations and cultures’ (Tapia 2016a: 21). Whilst societal and civilisation forms initially appear as abstract formulations, they capture the persistence of indigenous social and political practices and relations within Bolivia today, even as all indigenous communities are subsumed under the logic of capitalism. However, even though the market has penetrated indigenous communities and forms the economic basis for their reproduction, capitalist relations ‘do not prevail thoroughly and effectively’ and other social relations based on alternative logics—such as the reciprocal logic of ayni and mink’axcontinue to play an important part in shaping Bolivian society (Thomson 2019: 89). Societal and civilisational forms help capture the longer trajectories of coloniality at play in Latin America and position indigenous communities (as well as movements) as central political actors.

On the other hand, ‘structures of medium-term duration ... correspond to national histories’ and in particular the changing interactions between nation, state and civil society (Tapia 2019: 131). This is one of the exciting elements of Zavaleta: despite recognising Latin America’s dependent position within the global market and system of nation states, he stresses the salience of ‘political self-determination’ (Zavaleta 2008: 12) and ‘the possibility of rupture and of a reorganization of [dependent] conditions, which are necessarily both limiting and enabling’ (Freeland 2016: 278). Zavaleta is particularly interested in what, in his esoteric vocabulary, he labels primordial forms and constitutive moments. The primordial form captures the local historical determinants within each, particular social formation, whilst concurrently accounting for the structures of regional and global power that shape the terrain over which these local factors play out (Tapia 2002: 282-285; Zavaleta 1982). As such, it addresses the ‘relation between state and civil society in the history of each country ... and allows us to think [through] the articulation of the different dimensions of social life in particular territories and at particular times’ (Tapia 2019: 131).

The constitutive movement addresses the foundational moments of social change (nationalising moments), when there is a willingness or receptiveness to new ideas and ideologies across society (Zavaleta 2008: 37). Evaluating constitutive moments is so fertile precisely because it entails the examination of the interplay between the processes constructing social blocs with a ‘national reach’ (Zavaleta 2008: 11) and a society’s readiness to embrace change—something that requires a shared history [aconteciminetos communes] and a shared psychology to work in tandem to produce a new society (Zavaleta 2008: 37). Zavaleta calls this willingness disponibilidad, which encompasses ‘a society’s readiness (a cognate would be “disposition”) to receive or respond to the interpellation of a new hegemonic project,2 to fundamentally alter its conception of the world and of itself’ (Freeland 2016: 272).

There are three elements of constitutive moments: (1) primitive accumulation; (2) formal subsumption; and (3) real subsumption. Zavaleta (2013a: 620) re-reads Marx to conceptualise each of these moments as political transformations. Primitive accumulation is the creation of legally equal individuals through their detachment from the land. Formal subsumption is the moment when ‘interpellation can take place, that is, the suppression of the hollowing-out [moment] from a determinate viewpoint or character’ thanks to the subordination of labour to capital. Finally, real subsumption is ‘the application of the conscious gnosis as well as of the masses’ power—and other high-quality powers—to the previous factors: capital as effective command and free men [sic] in a mass-status’. For Zavaleta (2008: 36), the sine qua non of capitalism is the juridically free person, that is to say, a (new) political subject. Primitive accumulation, formal and real subsumption, in Zavaleta’s framework, do not just capture the economic transformation of productive relations by capital but also the new political subjectivities and collectivities—particularly the nation—which emerge through these changes.

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