Like Oil and Water….Land and Labor…Then and Now

1. The Persistence of Memory

Revolutions are born, so to speak, in the breach, the rupture between the means and relations of production, the struggle between private property and collective labor. And the birth itself is often breech, the delivery being ass-backwards, feet first; so that the revolutionary agent sees its future in the unfulfilled wishes of the past.

The old relations of production cling to emerging revolution like an umbilical cord, and a tether. So that the opportunity for the success of a new society, for the triumph of the ruled, the dispossessed, the expropriated, appears to reconstruct the failures of the old society, to repeat past defeats, to confirm the impossibility of revolution, to re-form the collapsing relations of capital, of private property.

Where labor has been collectively indentured to landed property, where capitalism has proven itself capable of absorbing, but not breaking the archaic relations of land and labor, the revolution imagines a solution in the fragmenting of estates, the individual ownership of small parcels, the transformation of tenants, and landless, into peasants and peasants into farmers.

In the first page of his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx analyzes just this reverse self-projection of the revolutionary forces, their compulsion to cover themselves with the cloth of the past. There Marx writes, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Nightmare it is and the nightmare weighs in as a dream– a dream of happy pastoralism, of rural democracy, of “subsistence-plus” agriculture providing just the right things in the right amounts to markets of just the right size; a dream of farmers’ communism.

2. Terms and Conditions

At origin capitalism distiguishes itself from its predecessors, and from coincident modes, through the enforced separation of land and labor. A specific relationship is established in this specific form of separation. Ownership, private property, exists as a condition of production. Ownership appears as a value in itself, as wealth in itself but essentially, ownership only has value to that degree that it transforms itself, is “lost,” into the production of exchange values. The separation, expulsion of labor from land, is the source of that exchange value. Labor finds itself without use. The “owner” of the labor finds it useless, save for its value in exchange for the means of subsistence. Ownership of land, its organization as production for exchange, the expulsion of labor, and the engagement of labor power are the necessary, and coincident, opposites forming the totality, the identity of capitalism. Each exists only in the other.

Agriculture is transformed from a means of survival to a method of accumulation. Land becomes a value to be exchanged, piecemeal as products, or in total and all at once in outright purchase and sale; and in the assumption of debt.

Land as capital maintains its value as private property to the extent that it reproduces the expulsion of labor and the appropriation of labor power. And in this process, capital necessarily undermines ownership itself.

Property is private, sanctified, beatified even; but exchange, and the production of exchange, is a vulgar, profane, social process. Production, as private property, has to prove itself, never once but always eternally in the markets as social, as necessary, as useful. Ownership is subject to social validation, a validation that carries directly to the bottom line, a validation that materializes as profit. Simultaneous with the reemergence of capital as socially necessary, as certified, as profit, the profit loses its divine status. Profit must be restored to the organization of capital– to the expulsion of labor from use, from ownership, from land, from the means of production.

It is not the markets that drives this process forward. It is this “genetic” make-up of capital, this metabolism of expulsion and engagement of labor, that drives production and the markets; that drives production into and even against the limitations of the markets.

Production for exchange subordinates consumption to the process of reproduction of capital. Where before markets are itinerant, transitory, limited by geography and climate, capital pushes them forward as permanent, universal, supra-natural, and supra-national. Surplus is transformed from a happy accident, a gift of nature, into the purpose, the subject of production. Accumulation of the realized surplus values becomes its object.

Capital, at once narcissistic and universal, sees itself in every moment of exchange, in every article of exchange brought to the markets. But the actuality of capitalist development is uneven, particular, mediated. Capital absorbs into itself, and embeds itself within, the pre-existing, archaic modes of expropriation. At one and the same time the bonds of private property and exchange tie capital into the preservation of landed property, the maintenance of indentured, “unfree,” undispossessed labor, while the needs of capitalist production require the access to and expulsion of “free” labor, and thus the undermining of that same property.

History and Class, Bolivia Then and Now

The legacy of colonialism in Latin America is the legacy of indentured labor. The legacy of Spanish colonialism in Bolivia is the indentured labor of the indigenous peoples, the systems of the encomienda in the countryside, of the mita in the mining centers, of the alcabala . The legacy of the Bolivarian Revolution of the 19th century is the failure overturn and destroy the legacy of indentured labor; preserving instead the hacienda system, and its complementary opposite, subsistence agriculture, each and each other manifested in pongaje, peon labor.

The failure of the national revolution and the rule of the MNR from 1952-1964 was in its attempt to establish “idealized,” “free,” capitalist agriculture in the countryside through the conversion of the indigenous rural laborers and peasants into small capitalist farmers.

Upon seizing power, the MNR undertook extensive land tenure and political reform programs to enfranchise, and “property” the rural populations. Universal suffrage without property or literacy requirements was enacted, quintupling the size of the electorate.

The mines of the three major companies, Patino, Hochschild, and Aramayo, were nationalized.

The MNR took its main political inspiration not from the Russian Revolution, but from the Mexican Revolution; not from the Bolsheviks, but from the PRI. The hacienda system was attacked, with land distributed to rural tenants, but the hacienda system was not expropriated. Owners received generous compensation. Transfer of title to land was never made complete as most indigenous people did not have “suitable” documentation of either their own identities, or their historical claims to land.

Most importantly, production was not managed collectively. The hacienda system itself never created a developed, sustained, agricultural output. Indeed its survival was based upon a poorly developed infrastructure, isolation from internal and external market forces, and the absence of advanced technical inputs like irrigation and electric power.

Division of the hacienda system into small parcels only made the development of the supporting structure for agricultural growth more difficult, more expensive, for the MNR.

On a deeper level, however, this legacy of underdevelopment is intractable in the face of individual, peasant ownership. Capitalism at its origin, in its whole history, has never been established on the basis of individual peasant ownership. Just the contrary, capitalist agriculture begins with the expulsion of the peasantry from ownership, the expropriation of the land and its conversion from means of subsistence to means of exchange.

In Bolivia, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of technical development, combined with the individual parceling of the landed estates, pushed the rural populations back to subsistence production, without product or access to markets.

The indigenous rural populations of Bolivia had never been organized around individual, peasant production. The original, pre-colonial forms of agriculture had been based on communal ownership and communal production. The “settling” of the indigenous people as tenants on haciendas was rooted in more than the destruction of those communal forms. It was rooted in the decline of the colonial mines, a “pre-deindustrialization” so to speak, that forced the indigenous workers into the hacienda forms of tenancy, peonage, indentured labor.

During the MNR 1952-1964 tenure, the fragmentation of large estates into parcels of direct ownership and self-labor, without adequate infrastructure development debilitated agricultural output, and exhausted the land.

The MNR’s policy, this agricultural oxymoron, to make subsistence production and labor the basis for capitalism, when capitalism is based on the expulsion of labor as the means to the end of subsistence production, fed into the economic collapse that engulfed Bolivia.

In desperate attempts to control the rural population in the countryside, and the workers in the mines, the MNR turned to the US to resupply, retrain, and reorganize Bolivia’s military. Thus the democratic revolution of 1952 organized its own overthrow in 1964.

Like Oil and Water…and Land and Labor… and Santa Cruz

Between 1971 and 1978, the Hugo Banzer’s military government in Bolivia distributed some 30 million hectares of publicly owned land in the Santa Cruz and Beni departments. The land was distributed in large units to few individuals, creating what has been called the “neo-latifundismo.”

In Santa Cruz and Beni, extensive tracts, given extensive financial credits and technical support, have resulted in significant expansions in soybean, cattle, cotton, and timber production. These areas of “true” “modern” capitalist agriculture are the product of international penetration, rather than “national revolution.” The Banzer regime relied upon two pillars for support, the bayonet and the international banks to protect and subsidize its economic policies.

And who received these subsidies, these credits, this support for a truly modern capitalist agriculture? The new latifundistas of Santa Cruz are not the offspring of the old latifundistas, the offspring of the haciendistas. The modern farmers of Santa Cruz are Mennonites from North America, Japanese, Okinawan migrants, and Brazilian investors.

As the oil companies and their agents in Santa Cruz are international in production, in ownership, in exchange, so is the capitalization of agriculture in Santa Cruz. Soybean production has transformed itself from simple export of the primary product into increased imports of soybeans, and processing of both imported and local production into oils and cake for export exchange.

Oil, soybean and petroleum, describes the “modernization” of Bolivian bourgeoisie.

Both sections, the “modern sections” of the Bolivian bourgeoisie are demanding “autonomy” from La Paz. In reality, they are demanding separation from the indigenous peoples, from the rural landless, from the unemployed and dispossessed miners, from those who have felt the failure, the impossibility of the national revolution; from those who know that the only path forward– for development, against exhaustion of the land, destruction of the environment– is the elimination of subsistence through the collective expropriation of the means of production

S. Artesian

address all comments to: sartesian@earthlink.net

Reproduction of this article may be made freely provided the source is acknowledged.

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