Three factors define the functioning, stability and representative capacity of a state. The first is the overall framework of social forces: the correlation between the different coalitions, both dominant and subordinate, contesting the reconfiguration of what Bourdieu called ‘state capital’—the ability to influence decisions on matters of common import. Secondly, there is the system of political institutions and rules that mediate the coexistence of hierarchical social forces. In effect, this institutional framework is a materialization of the founding correlation of forces that give rise to a particular state regime, and the means by which it legally reproduces itself. Thirdly, every state depends upon a structure of common categories of perception, a series of mobilizing beliefs that generates a degree of social and moral conformity among both ruling and ruled, and which takes material form through the state’s cultural repertoire and rituals.

When these three components of a country’s political life are visibly healthy and functioning, we can speak of an optimal correspondence between state regime and society. When one or all of these factors is suspended or ruptured, we are presented with a crisis of the state, manifested in the antagonism between the political world and its institutions on the one hand, and the opposing actions by large-scale social coalitions on the other. This is precisely what has been happening in Bolivia in recent years. The successive uprisings and popular upheavals that have rocked the country since 2000 may best be understood as symptoms of a profound state crisis.

This crisis has a double character. In the short term, it is a crisis of the neoliberal model, and the social and ideological basis on which it has been constructed in Bolivia. But it is also, to paraphrase Braudel, a crisis of the longue durée: an institutional and ideological crisis of the republican state, premised since its foundation on a colonial relationship to the indigenous majority of the Bolivian people. Let us examine how these aspects are manifested at the social, institutional and ideological levels in Bolivia today.

The starting point for analysis of the balance of social forces in Bolivia since the mid-1980s is the political and cultural defeat of the labour movement organized around the cob.footnote1 For decades after the popular revolution of 1953, this had articulated the needs of a wide front of urban and rural working classes, representing popular demands regarding the administration of the social surplus through structures such as union membership and workers’ joint management. After the dispersal of this labour movement, a social bloc consisting of business fractions connected to the world market, elite political parties, foreign investors and international regulatory bodies was consolidated, which then took centre stage in the definition of public policy. For the next fifteen years, these forces became the sole subjects of decision-making and initiative in public administration, reconfiguring the economic and social organization of the country under promises of modernization and globalization—first and second-generation structural reforms, privatizations, decentralization, tariff-cutting and so forth.

Since the turn of the millennium, this relationship of forces has been challenged from below, and the guaranteed elitism of the ‘neoliberal-patrimonial state’ thrown into question, as new forms of organization and politicization have reversed the footing of the subaltern classes. The protests and road blockades of April and September 2000, July 2001 and June 2002 signalled a regional reconstitution of social movements capable of imposing public policies, legal regimes and even modifications to the distribution of the social surplus through the strength of their mobilizations.footnote2 Laws such as No. 2029, which sought to redefine ownership of water, and laws enabling the sale of state enterprises into private hands, tax increases, etc, were annulled or modified under pressure from social movements and popular uprisings. Presidential decrees such as that closing the coca market or mandating interdiction in the Yungas had to be withdrawn for the same reason. Financial legislation was amended in line with the national demands of organized popular groups (indigenous communities, retirees, coca-growing peasants, co-operative miners, policemen), demonstrating the emergence of social blocs which, at the margins of parliament, and—following the mas successes in 2002—with support from within it, have the strength to stop the implementation of government policies, and impose the redistribution of public resources by non-parliamentary means.

The important thing to note about these popular groupings, hitherto excluded from decision-making, is that the demands they raise immediately seek to modify economic relations. Thus their recognition as a collective political force necessarily implies a radical transformation of the dominant state form, built on the marginalization and atomization of the urban and rural working classes. Moreover—and this is a crucial aspect of the current reconfiguration—the leaderships of these new forces are predominantly indigenous, and uphold a specific cultural and political project. In contrast to the period that opened with the 1930s, when the social movements were articulated around a labour unionism that held to an ideal of mestizaje, and was the result of an economic modernization carried out by business elites, today the social movements with the greatest power to interrogate the political order have an indigenous social base, and spring from the agrarian zones excluded from or marginalized by the processes of economic modernization. The Aymaras of the altiplano, the cocaleros of the Yungas and Chapare, the ayllus of Potosí and Sucre and the Indian people of the east have replaced trade unions and popular urban organizations as social protagonists. And despite the regional or local character of their actions, they share a matrix of indigenous identity that calls into question what has been the unvarying nucleus of the Bolivian state for 178 years: its monoethnicity.

In addition, the elite coalition is itself showing signs of fatigue and internal conflict. The economic programme of the past twenty years—privatization of public enterprises, externalization of profit, coca eradication—has resulted in a narrowing of opportunities for some sections of the national bourgeoisie, exacerbated by the shrinking of tax revenues owing to the growth of the informal sector. As their long-term outlook has darkened, the different elite fractions have begun to pull apart, squabbling over the reduction of profits transferred to the state, the refusal by foreign refiners to adjust the purchase price of petrol, the renegotiation of gas prices with Brazil,footnote3 land taxes, etc. Their shared project of the last decade is over.