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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Teetering on the Rim: Global Restructuring, Daily Life, and the Armed Retreat of the Bolivian State. By Lesley Gill. New York: Columbia University Press (2000), 222 pp.
Reviewed by Robert Albro, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Wheaton College, Massachusetts.
In her relatively compact urban ethnography of El
Alto, Bolivia (a peripheral migrant city in Bolivia of at least half a
million people) Lesley Gill asks a question we should all be asking: "what
is wrong with the global economic order" (p. 181)? She asks this
question in provocative ways, as well, encouraging us to think hard about
the costs and benefits (if any) for people living in the onetime 3rd and
4th worlds. Cutting to the quick, for El Alto, at least, she detects virtually
"no" benefit whatsoever for alteños, forced to come to
terms with a draconian legacy of fifteen years of neoliberal structural
adjustment. Therefore, her ethnographic goal is a study of "the complexity
of local experience and the ways in which pain, loss, and desperation
shape daily life" (p. 185) in El Alto, a marginal place of increasingly
bleak prospects, forced to absorb the blows of neoliberalism as best it
can, which is to say, often not very easily and with dire costs for those
left to muddle through.
Given the increasing ubiquity and seeming inevitability
of so-called "neoliberal democratization" in Latin America,
detailed studies of what we might tactfully call its "fault lines"
are surprisingly few and should be welcome. Gills analysis and critique
"from below" of the fallout of Bolivias neoliberal regime
for daily life in El Alto takes aim both at lacunae in the ethnographic
attention to the aftermath of structural adjustment, and in the urban
anthropology of the Andes. One reason why there has not been the sheer
quantity of ethnography one should justifiably expect with regard to this,
the most pressing global issue shaping turn-of-the-century Latin America,
is the often bedeviling challenge of just exactly how to go about it.
Given the intimate stock in trade of ethnography (that is, prolonged participant-observation
by a single researcher in a "place"), it is a daunting task
to confront such a scale and complexity of wholesale macro-level social
transformation. Where to begin and how to describe the systemic effects
of reform are not questions with singular or simple solutions.
In Gills reckoning, "neoliberalism"
is less an optimistic set of policies embodying the "magic of the
market," and more a plenipotentiary "field of force" of
ominous shape. If neoliberalism begins as mere economic doctrine, as applied
it is nevertheless polyvalent (rather than synthetic). The ethnographer
explores the deployment of this polyvalent field in El Alto as an encompassing
and infecting set of economic, political and cultural-moral practices,
as a whole, both a site of "struggle" and a form of domination
shaping "social relationships of inequality" (p. 20). This recognition
of neoliberalism as much more than just an economic solution, and as a
set of cultural-moral practices with the potential to wreak havoc on intimate
lived worlds, is a key step in any critique.
Gill pursues how the deeply corrosive effects of neoliberal
reform aggravate "urban spoliation" (p. 50). This refers to
the states disregard for its own responsibilities toward peripheral
urban neighborhoods. Urban spoliation amounts to an assault upon the very
integrity, stability, and wellbeing of familial and other traditional
and intimate social relations (of "class," "gender,"
and "ethnicity"), now fundamentally reordered as a result. As
a contribution to what can be called cultural anthropologys corpus
of the critique of "modernity," such an analysis is certainly
what we would hope to see from an ethnographic approach grounded in what,
for political scientists and economists, might be the almost irrelevant
minutiae of daily life. And this is just the point. Such issues are far
from irrelevant, but rather fundamental. That they must be our point of
departure (rather than, say, the boons of foreign investment) lies at
the very heart of Gills undertaking.
Gills solution, a damning "critique"
of neoliberalism as an ongoing process of social dislocations and cultural
conflicts, reflects her choices for the description of the problem. She
provides the reader with a "multi-sited" series of snapshots
of key sectors of life in El Alto (using the methods of such "postmodern"
ethnographers as George Marcus). In conspicuous contrast to the by now
long-established tradition of intensive "community studies"
in Latin America (in the past used to explore similar issues, as with
June Nashs landmark study of Bolivias tin miners), Gill uses
the "multi-sited" approach in diverse considerations of relocalized
miners (chapter 4), plights of public educators (chapter 5), the role
of the military (chapter 6), NGOs (chapters 7 and 8), and the ways
family economies have had to diversify in the face of economic necessity.
The abiding concern throughout is a commitment to understand "how
changing forms of state rule are affecting the lives of vulnerable people
in El Alto" (p. 4).
As a cohesive critique of neoliberal hegemony, the
array of cases presented in this ethnography coexist only uneasily at
times. At its best, Gills multi-sited aperture convincingly takes
in how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are frequently ineffective
as palliatives to poverty, in representing the poor, or as engines of
grass-roots development. More often than not, she suggests, NGOs have
come to work within the neoliberal context (rather than countering it)
as a means for selective class mobility, to support the private sector,
and to recreate clientelistic ties, all contrary to the interests of poor
alteños. In short, Gill persuasively examines how the proliferation
of NGOs in the Bolivia of "popular participation" amounts to
an emerging front in a "neoliberal class war against the rights and
interests of ordinary Bolivians" (p. 143), an insight applicable
to other nations as well.
On the other hand, while Gills discussion of
the military is insightful particularly in sketching out the ways
that popular notions of masculinity are produced in collusion with dominant
national institutions like the military it is disconnected from
the matter at hand, to whit, the question of how social rifts have been
exacerbated or inculcated by recent neoliberal reform. Gills discussion
of the rifts between the armed forces and the poor is not really "time
bound" in her argument as an aspect of structural adjustment, so
much as an expression of hegemony in a paternalist state, a rather different
matter with a distinct context. The case for neoliberalism as contributing
to what Gill calls Bolivias "low intensity version of militarized
democracy" (p. 106) is not convincingly established in this short
ethnography. It is also at such moments that thin ethnographic description
and interpretation give way to polemics about the categorical impossibility
of a humane capitalism, a view often treated in a matter of fact a priori
sort of way.
With such a multi-sited, if occasionally scattershot,
approach, one can wonder what happens to ethnographic thick description
under a neoliberal regime. If Gills work suggests anything, thick
description is easily victimized in the "displacement" of ethnography
both by the multi-sited technique itself and by the destabilizing effects
of the structural adjustment process, the very object of Gills analysis
here. When inadequately framed or underdeveloped, such ethnographic detail
becomes monochromatic as cipher for the polemic. One such instance is
the discussion of kharasiri (pp. 51-54), a supernatural figure widely
noted in the Andes, and which can take many forms. Gill briefly summarizes
a single instance of kharasiri, and concludes, "The tales graphically
depict feelings of vulnerability among those who are losing control of
their lives as well as their bodies" (p. 54). The implication is
that the desperate straits of state-sponsored health care under the neoliberal
regime have either created or exacerbated such a loss of control among
poor alteños. As implication, such imputed connections help create
the ethnographys texture of critical indictment, while leaving the
thick description of those connections for readers to infer. A multivocal
figure if ever there was one, kharasiri has been interpreted in a variety
of ways, though not here. It is thus not clear what kind of response kharasiri
might be, if a response at all, by the "margin" to neoliberalisms
refiguration of social relations.
Gills reading of the predicaments facing former
miners once members of a highly militant union movement and now
casualties of privatization is also telling. She emphasizes the
established history of "worker solidarity"(p. 80) and mobilization
against state-sponsored injustices, and contrasts this to the present
decline of the Fordist system of labor regulation, which has created the
miners unemployment and undermined their heroic basis for struggle.
Gill makes the good point that lessons of the past are not always applicable
to the present. She explains how ex-miners, now primarily tenuously surviving
in the informal economy, have had to distance themselves from the struggle
of collective mining unionism, something she laments.
In a funny sort of sleight of hand, "collective"
resistance in the mines is aligned with the "community" currently
being dismantled by neoliberal reform. And yet, the state-sponsored miners
life of past decades was clearly not an enviable one, but instead characterized
by the extremes of family hardship, isolation, and vulnerability to not
infrequent government oppression. Collective action amid misery and fractured
communities are both bleak choices, but Gills framing of the history
of miner activism serves as heroic past counterpoint to grim current reality,
where collective mobilization against unjust capitalist practices seems,
in her words, "extremely difficult" (p. 183).
And yet just this has happened in Bolivia, in spectacular
fashion, and with an unexpectedly successful outcome. In a series of confrontations
between an inter-class and inter-ethnic coalition movement and the Bolivian
government between April of last year and April of this year, "ordinary
Bolivians" won a major victory over global capitalism, forcing the
Bolivian government to renege on a deal it made with the Bechtel corporation
to privatize the water system of the department of Cochabamba. Since called
the "Bolivian Water War," in effect participants were able to
give the boot to a multinational corporation, Bechtel, while reasserting
their local autonomy, and inalienable right to the precious resource,
water. Not surprisingly, perhaps the key figure unifying and mobilizing
the movement, Oscar Olivera, cut his teeth on the same style of "radical"
worker union politics as the militant mining unions. It seems the outcome
for a post-neoliberal Bolivian is not a totally grim and foregone conclusion,
and nor is the story yet written.
In El Alto, the City of the Future, whatever might once have been "community" (and this includes the community of erstwhile "community studies) has become a "sick joke" (p. 27), an "extremely unstable amalgam of social relationships relative to the conflicts and contradictions that generate, sustain, and often dissolve it" (p. 35). Evoking and interrogating this unstable amalgam amidst neoliberal reform is no easy task, given the difficulties of tracing out its manifold and often alarming effects. We should thank Lesley Gill for taking it up.