Neo-Extractivism, Populism, and the Agrarian Question in Bolivia and Ecuador

13 October 2017

The confluence of globalizing neoliberalism and national developmentalism, particularly in the case of China, has facilitated the appearance of monopolistic firms in the sub-imperium. These companies, usually state-owned in the case of China, are competing against the imperium for access to natural resources, land, and food supplies.

The new economic flows ushered in across the South by this development have permitted some to circumvent the imperial debt trap, notably the ‘pink tide’ states of Latin America. These states, exploiting this window of opportunity, have sought to revisit developmentalism by means of ‘neo-extractivism’. The populist regimes in Bolivia and Ecuador are exemplars of this trend and have swept to power on the back of anti-neoliberal sentiment that, this paper argues, comprises two principal class constituencies: a ‘counter-hegemonic’ constituency comprising the semi-proletarian peasantry, proletarians, and indigenous groups; and a ‘sub- hegemonic’ constituency comprising small commercial farms, the ‘upper peasantry’, and the nationally-oriented bourgeoisie. The latter take their reformist cue, in part, from previous developmentalist episodes, such as the MNR in the case of Bolivia, and have an imaginary of food sovereignty as ‘farmer road’ productivism. This paper suggests that the populist regimes of Morales in Bolivia and Correa in Ecuador articulate this sub-hegemonic discourse of national developmentalism, whilst forging alliances with counter-hegemonic groups, united by a rhetoric of anti-imperialism, indigenous revival, and livelihood principles such as buen vivir. But this rhetorical ‘master frame’ hides the class divisions and real motivations underlying populism: that of favouring neo-extractivism, via sub-imperial capital, to fund the ‘compensatory state’, supporting small scale commercial farmers and national capitalists through reformism while, at the same time, largely neglecting the counter-hegemonic aims, and reproductive crisis, of the middle/lower peasantry, and lowland indigenous groups, and their calls for food sovereignty as radical social relational change (via egalitarian land redistribution) and territorial autonomy. This reformist obfuscation of class and class fractional division and interest, the paper argues, has been facilitated by the ‘master frame’ of food sovereignty discourse itself, as exemplified by populists such as McMichael (2013) and van der Ploeg (2008), in its fatal elision of ‘progressive’ (Polanyian) and ‘radical’ (Marxian) positionalities (Tilzey 2016b). Thus, in Ecuador, for example, affiliates of LVC, all advocates of food sovereignty, display markedly different class positionalities, with small commercial farmers and the upper peasantry, members of the petty bourgeoisie, favouring market-based definitions of this concept. The populist, neo-extractivist regimes of Correa (Ecuador) and Morales (Bolivia) have exploited these ambiguities within food sovereignty to the full. The agrarian question of the subaltern classes and the environment refuses to go away, however, and it seems only a matter of time before the Faustian bargain of neo-extractivism is called to account, ‘politically’ and ‘ecologically’.