Amid Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings on revolution in France, there is a passage that rings true for those of us who have spent time in the countryside. He observed that however lively affairs of state might seem, it is often hard to get a peasant to take much interest in them. The remote happenings in a national capital rarely seem to have much practical import for one tilling the soil. But propose to run a road past a peasant’s property, Tocqueville added, and he will promptly take a deep personal interest in the matter and join forces with his neighbours either to ease or to thwart the undertaking. Local interests trump grand political abstractions.
The image crops up in unexpected places. With various tasks to accomplish and people to see, I have spent the last three weeks going back and forth between La Paz and an archæological dig site at a village that lies on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. One afternoon a few days ago, I noticed that a few dozen of the locals had gathered on a village basketball court for a meeting that went on for a couple of hours. A few were gathered around a small wooden table, taking notes and apparently presiding over events. Most were sitting a short distance away on the concrete steps, getting up one by one and holding forth with some fervour. Most of the debate was in Aymara, so I had to ask one of the dig’s cooks what it was about. She explained that the state was at last going to pave a road out to the village. But since the old dirt road ran between some impressive old trees, the new road would have to cut across farmland into the community. The heated debate was over who was going to be inconvenienced as a result.
I have only paid a couple of visits to Bolivia, but have spent much more time in Peru, which one can see across the lake. Both sides of this very old and very cold lake have the same poor soil, the same thin air and freezing nights, and the same hard life of farming and migration. They also have the same tapestry of peoples—Aymara and Quechua speakers, as well as the mixture of indigenous and Spanish influences—on both sides of the border. The Bolivian side is slightly poorer and more sparsely inhabited.
On my first visit to this part of Bolivia in the mid 1990s, I was struck by the tough self-confidence and self-organising capacity of the Aymara peasantry. I attended a village meeting at which a representative of one or another NGO got up to speak. Apparently of an urban background, he launched into a speech in Spanish. A few sentences in, one of the farmers in the back row put his hand up and shouted that given the venue, he should speak Aymara instead. I remember thinking at the time, after quite some time on the other side of the border, that one would rarely hear such a remark from a peasant in the Peruvian highlands. Indigenous identity there is much weaker politically, and there is a rather more pervasive history of the peasantry being trampled on by the interests of the cities and high politics.
Some Bolivians tell me that the self-confidence on this side of Titicaca is merely a trait that runs deep in the culture of the Aymara. They have always been a difficult people to master, as learned the hard way by those of grand political ambitions from the Inka emperors, who conquered them late, to the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas, who had no luck spreading their carnage over the border from Peru in the 1980s.
But it cannot be only the toughness that distinguishes highlanders in many corners of the world, much as inspired F.A. von Hayek to muse that “the mountains breathe freedom.” I also see an impressive density of civil society here in the countryside near Titicaca. One of the more striking examples is the proliferation of evangelical religious groups of all stripes. For a variety of reasons, some converts in Latin America tend to withdraw from traditional community life and speed up the emergence of an elbows-out individualism. Hearteningly, I see quite the opposite in these villages. Some of the most committed community leaders that I have met on both visits to Bolivia have been converts. The various currents of rural civil society seem to reinforce one another in fruitful ways here.
I had the opportunity to talk with some of these locals. They had been hired for a day or two to sort through some of the ceramic fragments, fishbones, and other such things that come out of the ground at an archæological site. As a basis for conversation, I sat down at the table and helped them sift through the gravel with tweezers.
Unlike in Tocqueville’s description of eighteenth century France, these people are quite aware of Bolivian national politics and care a good deal about it. This goes back to our perennial theme of how a vital local community, often of a traditional bent, can connect with the larger scale and political forces of modernity. Poor though they may be, the folk who were sitting hunched over the sorting table, chatting about politics with me and joking about throwing each other’s hats over the nearby adobe wall, seemed to have a wide range of what is necessary for humane living and for defending their interests when they must.
The most obvious aspect of their engagement with larger politics is their support for the current president. The Bolivian highlands in general, and the shore of Titicaca in particular, are well known to be Evo country. Evo Morales is the first indigenous president of Bolivia, and comes from much the same rural background as his voter base here. He made his way to the presidency in 2006 after a tortuous route through the coca-leaf-growers’ associations and other movements of the rural poor. In many ways, his election has had a significance for the Bolivian countryside akin to that of Andrew Jackson for the backwoods farmers of America in the 1820s. One of the women at the sorting table kept saying that now they felt more “awake” than before, more politically assertive in their own country. She noted that for the first time, one could walk into the palaces of state in La Paz wearing indigenous clothing, without being turned back at the door as a yokel. And on a more abstract plane, Morales arranged a rewriting of the constitution to rename the country as “The Plurinational State of Bolivia,” in recognition of its several peoples.
Between the village and La Paz, I have heard a range of views on Morales and what he represents: everyone from fervent supporters like those around the table, to the politically well-connected who have told me of cabinet-level corruption and self-destructive policies and wish they could retract their votes for him. But it does seem fair to say that he is, by inclination and by association, probably the most pro-peasant of leaders in power in the Americas today.
That may not be saying much, given the general tone of high politics in our time. And any broad view would suggest that he is far from perfect. There has been little sustained economic development, alongside the modest spending on the poor that higher mineral prices have permitted. His presence may be more symbolic than economically and socially transformative in the long run, as a few of his supporters have admitted to me when I suggest as much. His government has also flirted with the usual temptations of leftist populism, including with the antics of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who comes across as much more opportunistic and less rooted in an autonomous civil society among the poor. That these temptations abound in a country as poor as Bolivia should not surprise us. Pressure for short-term redistributive policies is only natural when the voter base is mired in severe poverty and has seen generations of the powerful with their hands in the till.
The difference in Bolivia is that, even if Morales wanted to be a heavy-handed populist, he probably could not be. Civil society among the peasantry is home-grown and has enough backbone to thwart any grand conceits coming from the cities. In this relatively short visit, I have seen many peasant marches, including demonstrations in La Paz on one or another issue. These derive their energy from the bottom—energy that shows no signs of deflation, and indeed many of gathering momentum, even with a well-liked president in office. Here is the crucial contrast with the usual leftist mode of political mobilisation, which gets far more of its direction—and its agenda and eventual beneficiaries—from “new class” doctrinaires. If there are any lessons from the shores of Titicaca, they will have much to do with this capacity of the rural poor to speak for themselves, through a lively civil society that is organically connected with the best of their own traditions.
This ability is hard-won. It is the product of a traditional culture that has sustained itself fairly well over the last half century, and of rural organising from the bottom up on a host of what might seem like trivial issues. One does not build it overnight with political abstractions. Nor does one build it on anything other than the bedrock of vibrant communities, while they still exist.
On a personal level, it has also been as refreshing as the crisp highland air, after the last year of living in the anæemic ambience of contemporary urban China. A politically well-connected Bolivian friend remarked, when I was arranging where to meet him, that parking in La Paz is always so unpredictable because demonstrators regularly close the streets. But such energy, when it truly does come from below, does have a redemptive quality in a world ever more given over to the convenience of the comfortable.
Indeed, a sign of our times is the two very different visceral reactions I encounter to protest from below. Among most of my Chinese students—as among their well-adjusted counterparts around the world—the kind of public protest that abounds here is deeply unnerving. Among those with experience of a vibrant civil society brimming with political energy, it is simply part of being alive. On one of my trips back to La Paz from the countryside, I got into conversation with a fellow who came from the area but had spent some years doing heavy work laying pipes in Buenos Aires. To him, it seemed the most self-evident fact in the world that one would get nothing if one were unwilling to go out into the streets and demand it.
So we may have two deeply opposed subcultures emerging in the late modern world, each of which cuts across nations. One is of orderly consumption, the other of active citizenship. One subculture sees protest from below as a rattling of the smooth machinery that allows getting more and getting on. The other subculture not only suspects that such machinery has a whiff of degradation and bad faith about it. It also assumes—typically without articulating it—a very different view of human fulfilment, based on participation and pushing politically for what one holds dear.
The French political philosopher Pierre Manent remarked that, for all the sound and fury about their differences, the Arabs and the Americans have one thing in common. They have not been politically neutered. Unlike in many societies—he had present-day western Europe particularly in mind—they still believe in the legitimacy of a well-armed people. I might slice his psychological landscape up a bit differently. Much of urban America is more neutered than Italy, by some such measures. And I have never seen an Aymara peasant carrying a rifle. I also would broaden the issue beyond a view of violence and politics. The bullet holes that still pepper the wall of La Paz’s presidential palace—left over from a police versus army shootout in 2003—are not a sign of the strengths that I see here. But the vigour of civil society and the view of human flourishing tied up with it certainly are.
Indeed, I suspect an important reason why so many of the world’s prosperous and well-adjusted are unnerved by the kind of things that happen in La Paz and the surrounding countryside. It has to do with the preconditions for the political vigour of the rural poor here, and the form their energy takes when it comes out. Readers of FPR will probably not think it amiss if I attribute much of this strength to the still-live model of the traditional communities that sustain it. The villagers who were standing up on the basketball court and giving speeches in Aymara, and the community leader who was sitting at the table sorting fishbones with me, bridge the local sense of duty of centuries past and the political force that surges through the streets and squares of La Paz today.
These people unnerve a certain type of onlooker because they are not what the latter think of as the image of modern civil society. Building “civil society” is, like “governance” and “economic reform,” among the touchstones of today’s political class in nearly all countries. But we should not expect such terms to imply any diminution in the power and esteem of those who are to lead the way in realising them. A modern civil society is supposed to emerge wholly from the Enlightenment project. It is supposed to overcome traditional rural life, not build on it. It is rather like what C.S. Lewis once said many liberal-minded people assume is the definition of being informed and politically engaged: “reading newspapers and jeering at colonels.” The more the rural poor along the shores of Titicaca, and in millions of such hamlets across the globe, manage to “awaken” without “forgetting,” the more they will turn such a complacent view of the world on its head. Whether they still have the critical mass to do so—and where we might revive that energy where it has already faded—is an open yet pivotal question.