Tocqueville on the Shores of Titicaca

by Adam K. Webb on August 10, 2009 · 2 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Economics & Empire,Politics & Power,Region & Place

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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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Russell Arben Fox August 10, 2009 at 10:23 am

Another brilliant contribution, Adam. You have been giving us first-rate posts, and this one is no exception, with a series of well-rooted observations about the rural poor, and a thoughtful consideration of the connection between the activism found amongst many poor rural populations and the health of “civil society.” I really must thank you for these (I’m printing them off and saving them) and add that I hope these posts are glimmers of some book project you have in the works.

In this relatively short visit, I have seen many peasant marches, including demonstrations in La Paz on one or another issue.

What have been some of the issues and causes you’ve seen them demonstrating on behalf of? At some point, we must descend from meta-level reflections, and ask what indigenous and poor people really want–that is, we must inquire into what the actual substance of the populist action so essential to a healthy civil society consists of. You seem basically dismissive of “leftist populism” and “short-term redistributive policies,” but I can only assume that in dismissing such, you are acknowledging their potential strength and appeal in Bolivia. Is that–higher taxes on the wealthy, land redistribution, more roads and hospitals and schools in the countryside, etc. (you know, the whole Huey Long package)–for the most part what you have seen pesant groups demonstrating on behalf of? If not, then what? And if it is, then we confront one of the central dilemmas of an active civil society: do we, in fact, trust the people to demand what they truly, and what is truly best for them? (And if we don’t, then why are we bothering with democracy and citizenship in the first place?)

I ask these questions not to play gotcha, but because posts as excellent as yours, it seems to me anyway, make avoiding them impossible. In any case, do keep up the good work.

avatar David D. Yang August 12, 2009 at 1:08 pm

A very eloquently argued piece as usual, Adam. But an argument so cogent surely deserves a retort. I will not be so trite or misguided as to say that everything is merely a different shade of gray, but I do wonder whether in your penchant for perceiving the world in dualist terms you over-extrapolate.

I never underestimate the ability of the so-called “yokels” to speak for themselves. No doubt there are differences between the Bolivian and Peruvian sides of the Titicaca, but at the risk of being a tedious institutionalist I would personally look first for differences in the two regions’ institutional contexts. I freely admit I do have a philosophic bias against culturalist explanations – I am willing to concede the point when other explanations fail, but for me they have two strikes against them from the start, so yes they do start out behind on the count so to speak.

The first strike against explanations of this type is that even when they do contain a certain kernel of truth, they only serve to excuse bad behavior, do not lend themselves to practical solutions, and too easily careen to the bottom of that slippery slope where people simply “deserve” whatever (mis)rule they live under. The second strike is simply that in many cases such explanations do not stand up to scrutiny and have been proven wrong time and again. Taiwanese farmers are meek and quiescent because their Confucian habits of mind are too deferential to authority and they lack class consciousness because of their petit-bourgeois aspirations you say? Well, lift the martial law and be astounded by the explosion of farmer protests. I wonder what one made of those allegedly submissive habits of mind clambering over the mountain of rotten cabbages dumped on the steps of the Legislative Yuan.

As much as I am heartened by your reports of Bolivian civic energy, I wonder whether this says more about the responsiveness of the country’s political institutions than about the exceptional hardiness of the Bolivian peasantry. Vivid imageries of the Manichean struggle between orderly consumers and active citizens notwithstanding, as Frances Piven and Richard Cloward (1977; p.24 – if you wish) pointed out in their seminal study of poor people’s movements, the poor resort to disruption not for the pageantry of the barricades, but only when disruption is the last recourse they have.

Speaking to a veteran Dangwai activist in Taiwan I remarked on the relative placidity of Taiwanese society since the heady days of the late 80’s, compared to, say, the constant ferment in the Philippines. That’s because the government in Taiwan works, he shrugged. Mind you, he was an otherwise trenchant critic of the political system. What he meant was simply that the government in Taiwan was responsive enough to resolve some of the most glaring, most long-pent-up complaints, so that society could return to its normal state of affairs, which is to say that the powerful get away with what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

But the choice is not so stark as one between heroic barricade-manning and sheep-like consumption. Elated though I’d be by such a ready excuse for all manners of tardiness, most people would like to find predictable parking even as they plot their novus ordo seclorum. Perhaps when the Bolivian peasants are genuinely more empowered, when they have a genuinely more equal say in their country’s political, social and economic institutions, they will be busy redirecting the legislations in Parliament, rather than the traffic in the streets around it.

Finally, a word on your equally eloquent post from last week. With the passage of time I gain an increasing appreciation for Kateb’s assessment of you as an “aesthete”. There is of course nothing wrong with being an “aesthete”. In fact it’s highly commendable and worthwhile for one to promote one’s aesthetic vision. The problem with aesthetic standards, however, is their very elastic nature. So once again, I repeat my earlier call, raised in my comment on your first article, to identify those values central to your vision. Without doing so, any project to promote the virtues of tradition too easily slides into some pointless and entirely subjective campaign against rock, rap, jazz, or some other sinister invention of modernity. Such campaigns rarely do justice to the very diversity of traditional cultures or the robustness of traditional virtues themselves. And they often fail to recognize the continuity of contemporary cultural forms with key elements of traditional culture.

It’s unfortunate that traditional Andean folk music is finding it difficult to compete against modern pop music. Should it be supported? Probably. Should modern music be banned? Certainly not. After all, Beethoven was wildly popular in his days, and his very popularity was met with clucking disapproval from the musical elders of the era, who found his bravura vulgar compared to the cerebral intricacies of Baroque counterpoints. On the other hand, is the tattoo-covered, booze-loving Chinese punk rocker Bian Yuan a typical modern nihilist with no sense of connection to the Chinese past? Well, he considers the famous Tang Dynasty poet Li Po his artistic hero, and can recite lengthy passages of Li’s poetry, as well as commentaries on Li’s poetry through the ages. Li of course was a notorious carouser and alcoholic in his days, and even died a death worthy of a true rock-star by falling out of his boat in a drunken stupor. None of these details is apparently important to the legions of suburban Chinese-American parents who send their children to Chinese language schools where they learn to recite reams upon reams of Li’s immortal verses.

My point is certainly not that such behavior is to be encouraged or even that it’s harmless. Rather, I merely wish to point out that much of the parade of human follies that we witness today has long been with us and that the core of traditional virtues has proven remarkably resilient through history’s up’s and down’s. It’s a Pyrrhic price to pay to take oneself “off the grid” on account of Jerry Springer – To borrow your road building metaphor, all roads lead to Rome for the simple reason that road-building is an expensive proposition, and without some means of paying for the road it will be a very, very long time indeed for the road to be built. And just as surely the legions can march out to the villages along the roads, the peasants can also march on Rome along the same roads in the other direction, and the peasants are much greater in number. And this is no mere idle banter in this information age when communications technology makes small-scale local industries (not to mention IT-based enterprises in the future) closer to reality than ever. Jerry Springer is surely distasteful, but is his freak show really that different from the village-idiots-cum-carnival-kings of an earlier era? I doubt anyone would consider the parade of freaks to be anything other than objects of mockery – At any rate, surely not worth throwing an adobe brick into somebody’s hard-earned television set over.

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