Collective Rights to Life and New Social Justice:
The Case of Bolivia
Paulo Henrique Martins
Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Brazil
Bolivia provides a pertinent case for the study of political pluralism and community rights. Liberalism’s failure to resolve systemic imbalances, entrenched violence and inequality has given way in this Andean country to broader struggles for alternative, communal futures. The Bolivian case provides a window on how a new hierarchy of social justice prioritizes collective and natural rights and inspires innovative public policy. The following discussion focuses on four key aspects: (1) the transformation of colonial peasant life into an ethnic and social movement; (2) the elevation of Pachamama as a central political principle; (3) the transformation of the polity; and (4) the rethinking of modernity beyond market limits.
(1) The Transformation of Colonial Peasant Life into an Ethnic and Social Movement
Between 1980 and 1990, Bolivian movements’ focus on ethnic and community identity obliged the State to pay increasing respect to the country’s multiple ethnicities, indigenous rights, and self-representation. In a changed political order, new local authorities imposed interethnic relationships as an objective condition and interethnic organizations assumed important local administrative functions. The change in the power system gave rise to new collective rights (derechos colectivos). The new claims differ from traditional citizenship rights as collective and community property were seen to have priority over private property. The Bolivian case represents a departure from the failed struggles of anticolonial movements during much of the twentieth century. Its recognition of the importance of collective rights for democratic renewal serves as an inspiration for movements elsewhere.
During the last decades, particularly after Evo Morales’s election in 2002, Bolivian interethnic movements advanced significant political and institutional reforms turning a de facto autonomy into the legal autonomy that was enshrined in the 2009 Bolivian Constitution. Today, the principle of “Well Living” (bien vivir) implies that “the constitution must be respected” (hay que aplicar la constitución). Epistemological disputes over the collective meaning of “development” are not merely of linguistic but also of crucial political importance.
Postcolonial Bolivian consciousness progressively took the form of a social and intellectual movement directed at the new collective rights that imply State and Nation reforms. The tension between private and public was addressed by a legal system that favors collective rights and participation in political decisions, especially the right to life that inspires other rights such as ethnic recognition, republican citizenship, and self-management. This helped to strengthen participation at multiple levels of political decision-making. Private rights were not prohibited but reshaped to suit the new legal system of collective rights.
(2) The Elevation of Pachamama as a Political Principle
The notion of Pachamama (Mother-Earth or World-Mother) inspires a rethinking of postcoloniality in two ways: symbolic and political. Its symbolism is rooted in images and ritual interactivity with nature. Though now the archaic and mythical representations of nature are augmented by new postmodern political meanings stressing a plural epistemology. Its deep ecological connection suggests a moral organization of society other than the existing capitalist system.
The notion of Pachamama entails a rethinking of nature not only as something physical but also a symbolism with pluralistic meanings central to the maintenance of communal bonds. It represents a rupture with modernist notions of nature and suggests a search for political and social change.
The concept of Pachamama is not new. Similar notions were widely shared among many ancient cultures. However, today’s Bolivian discourse of Pachamama has a particularly sharp edge in formulating a radical critique of colonialist thinking and societal models based on mere economic growth. It questions the privatization of resources such as land and water, which are considered to be the very basis of material and spiritual collective survival.
Pachamama has thus many implications. It is the living memory of indigenous traditions. It is a symbolism that gives meaning to collective movements. It is an argument against the privatization of collective resources. It differentiates ethnic movements from other social movements regarding reforms of the Nation-State, as seen in the dispute over the 2009 Constitution that transformed the Bolivian State into a Plurinational State.
(3) The Transformation of the Polity
Indigenous postcolonial thinking challenges the neoliberal development model along with the policies promoting privatization of public goods. It offers a new understanding of rights, exposing the limits of coloniality and modernist individualistic views of life. It inspires postcolonial criticism and a shift in the understanding of social struggles from economistic reductionism to a more encompassing approach that embraces communities. This new thinking draws on old and complex communal traditions to inform an anticapitalist approach that does not deny markets or systems of exchange but that claims the right to self-government and the construction of new forms of communal life. It does not claim a return to the past but it seeks to refresh the political system and to engage in the struggles over the mode of globalization and the reorganization of relations between the local and the global. It transcends the economic reductionism of neoliberalism through a recognition of the ecological connection between nature and the moral and social practices of communities.
(4) Modernity beyond Market Limits
Bolivia’s political experience does not represent a pre-modern or anti-modern reaction to the postcolonial system. Instead, it is quite modern because its ethnic movements deny neither civil and political rights nor the State role as a development agent. The Bolivian experience is also quite original because its social movements were born from a renewal of traditions, opening themselves to a pluralism of identities.
The novelty of the Bolivian case consist in the collective political decision to review rights in the Liberal and Republican traditions vis-à-vis human rights to life and survival, that is to rethink modern rights from the perspective of how indigenous traditions understand their relation with nature, well-living, and collective rights. The right to a good life prioritizes the collective right and universal sharing of natural resources for human survival over private capitalist right to accumulation. The market economy is not rejected but reinserted into a broader legal system that subjects private rights to collective rights. The priority given to collective rights is meant to preserve the material and symbolic conditions of social life.
Bolivia thus presents an alternative to crisis-plagued conventional modern systems. The Bolivian State has been redesigned to fit a postcolonial society with complex ethnic and cultural differences. The Bolivian case is far from being without conflicts, ambiguities and contradictions. Multiple social groups, movements, elites, and alliances struggle over the public policies that are to define the shape of Bolivia’s future.
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Paulo Henrique Martins is a Professor of Sociology at the Federal University of Pernambuco (Brazil) and a distinguished researcher of Brazil’s National Board of Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Martins did his doctorate and post-doctorate studies in Sociology in France. He was President of the Latin American Sociology Association (ALAS) from 2011 to 2015. He is currently Coordinator of the Latin American Institute at the Federal University of Pernambuco (Brazil). He is the founder and editor of REALIS (the AntiUtilitarian and PostColonial Studies Journal) and a member of the Editorial Board of the Revue du MAUSS (Anti-Utilitarian Movement in Social Sciences) and other Brazilian and international scientific journals. His research and publications focus on development, democracy, public policies, social network and sociology of health from antiutilitarian perspectives, Mauss’s Gift Theory and Postcolonial Theory. Web: https://lattes.cnpq.br/6218095707596245, phone: +55 81 3265.0732 / 8755.2355, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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