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The Desencuentros of History: Class

and Ethnicity in Bolivia
Patrick Dove
Published online: 01 Sep 2015.

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Culture, Theory and Critique, 2015

The Desencuentros of History: Class and Ethnicity in

Patrick Dove

Abstract This essay looks at the history of the Bolivian Left in the light of a
repeated desencuentro – a pattern of misunderstanding and missed opportu-
nities – between conceptual categories proper to Marxism and indigenism.
This structure of missed encounters can be traced at least as far back as the late
eighteenth century, when Andean indigenous insurrections against Spanish colo-
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nial power preceded criollo (of European descent) independence by a mere few
decades. It also figures prominently in twentieth century Bolivian history,
when Marxian-inspired national popular movements tended to subjugate racial
and ethnic categories beneath the concept of class. In the recent uprisings
against the neoliberal state of privatisation, meanwhile, indigeneity emerges as
an important political signifier at a time when Marxism appears to be incapable
of contesting the power of global capital. The work of Álvaro Garcı́a Linera is one
attempt to engage with this history of missed encounters between Marxism and

In his 2005 essay ‘Indianism and Marxism: The Missed Encounter Between
Revolutionary Logics’, Álvaro Garcı́a Linera, a long-time political activist,
public intellectual and (at the time of this writing) Vice President of Bolivia,
examines a history of misunderstanding and missed opportunities that have
prevented class-oriented revolutionary projects and ethnically-focused deco-
lonisation projects in Bolivia from joining forces against an oligarchic order
founded on racially-coded logics of exclusion, domination and exploitation.
As conceptual categories, ethnicity and class have all too frequently been
treated by contestatory movements as if they belonged to separate and irredu-
cible worlds or, even worse, as if they were the two poles of an opposition in
which one term was synonymous with truth while the other was equivalent
with false consciousness or bad faith. This is a problem that has divided the
Bolivian Left for most of the past century or more, and it illustrates why
efforts to apply Marxist theory to Latin America in a way that subjugates
ethnic and racialised elements of colonial experience to a general economic
rationale are bound to fail.

# 2015 Taylor & Francis

2 Patrick Dove

The purpose of this essay is two-fold. In the first part, I provide an over-
view of Garcı́a Linera’s discussion of the factors that have split the Bolivian
Left since the beginning of the twentieth century. I also propose that the his-
torical narrative of desencuentros could and should be extended further back
than the time period he examines. In the second part, I explore an alternative
theoretical approach to the desencuentro topos, one which supplements the
temporal framework of Garcı́a Linera’s discussion – desencuentro is literally
a non-encounter – with a spatial frame. For this I turn to the Bolivian
Marxist thinker René Zavaleta Mercado, who developed a concept of abigarra-
miento [a heterogeneous or disorderly arrangement of things: colors on a
sweater or flag, or races and ethnicities] in order to think about social and
ethnic heterogeneity in Bolivia. It is only when we bring Zavaleta and his
spatial metaphorics into the picture that we begin to see how the problem of
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desencuentro is not limited to the Left or the twentieth century but is in fact
coterminous in Bolivia with modernity and its ways of understanding histori-
cal time. Finally, Garcı́a Linera understands desencuentro as an unfortunate
consequence of the shortsighted academicism that has afflicted Latin
American receptions of Marxist political thought, but which could in principle
be avoided or corrected given the proper measure of good faith and respect
for the other. By contrast, this essay proposes a view of desencuentro as a
structuring law of untimeliness and dis-jointure that may indeed define all his-
torical experience – or, if one prefers, any event – as always already different
from itself.
The Spanish term desencuentro has a greater reach and resonance than any
of its possible English translations. Literally a non-encounter, desencuentro is
commonly translated as ‘misunderstanding’, ‘discrepancy’, ‘disagreement’,
‘falling out’ or ‘missed appointment’. In Garcı́a Linera’s text, the term refers
first and foremost to the stubborn incomprehension that has historically pre-
vented the Marxist Left in Bolivia (but it is not just Bolivia) from finding
common ground with indigenous communities and movements. Because
Garcı́a Linera views Marxism and indigenism as potential allies, this failure
of understanding also constitutes a missed opportunity or a falling out, a
series of emancipatory possibilities that repeatedly culminate in the disap-
pointment of mutual incomprehension and mistrust. While the term desen-
cuentro does not appear in the body of Garcı́a Linera’s discussion, the
structure of the essay shows that at least three of these possible meanings
are in play: ‘misunderstanding’ or conceptual impasse; ‘disagreement’ in the
sense that Jacques Rancière gives to the term: a conflict within a community
over what constitutes meaningful speech and what counts as belonging
(Rancière 2004); and ‘missed opportunity’.
Let us now look at the epistemological and ideological underpinnings of
this historical desencuentro of the Bolivian Left with itself. The cycle appears to
begin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with the first emer-
gence of radical labor movements in Bolivia. These urban-centered projects
were grounded in intellectual traditions borrowed from European contexts,
and they almost reflexively accepted the idea that the only possible subject
of emancipatory or revolutionary action was the working class. Although
Garcı́a Linera’s essay title employs the short-hand ‘marxismo’ to describe
these proletariat-centered perspectives, the same teleological template is
The Desencuentros of History 3

present in a range of ideological perspectives: anarcho-syndicalism (late nine-

teenth and early twentieth century); Marxism (first appearing in the 1920s but
only making serious inroads in the 1940s following the disastrous Chaco War
of 1932–1935) and finally the national-popular revolution of 1952–1953, which
brought to a close a long history of oligarchic rule while establishing the social
and political legitimacy of a new popular subject defined in working-class
terms. The national-popular revolution differs from the other ideological ten-
dencies discussed by Garcı́a Linera on several important counts: it is a nation-
alist project that accepts the legitimacy of the republican state as guarantor of
rights and equality; it reaffirms the capitalist system while envisioning a regu-
latory state that could ameliorate its contradictions and it demonstrates a will
to power which, as in much of Latin America prior to the 1960s, was largely
absent from Marxist discourse in Bolivia.
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Ideological differences notwithstanding, these urban working-class dis-

courses inherited the same developmentalist view of capitalist industrialis-
ation and proletariat struggle as the only viable historical course for social
transformation. In so doing, however, they actually reinforce the semblance
of necessity or inevitability that accompanies capitalist forms of social organ-
isation. By the same token, these radical projects tended reflexively to equate
indigeneity – the conceptual category of ethnicity as well as the practices, out-
looks and discourses of actual indigenous communities – with a delayed form
of awareness whose ‘backwardness’ offered little more than an obstacle to his-
torical consciousness, progress and emancipation. The indio, from that per-
spective, was either a potential worker in need of political education or a
forgettable remainder of Bolivia’s colonial legacy who would forever prove
refractory to revolutionary interpellation.
‘Indianism and Marxism’ is first and foremost a self-critique of the histori-
cal reception of Marx’s thought in Bolivia, of a tendency which Garcı́a Linera
describes as ‘primitive Marxism’ (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 478ff) and, even more
derisively, as ‘marxismo de cátedra’ (roughly speaking, ‘academic Marxism’, a
haughty Marxism that remains immersed in the realm of abstraction and cut
off from the real world) (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 479).1 While he dates the first
reception of Marxist thought in Bolivia to the 1920s, it does not truly begin
to flourish until the 1930s and 1940s in the wake of the disastrous national
experience of the Chaco War. As is the case in many other Latin American con-
texts, the dominant reception of Marx in twentieth century Bolivia was predi-
cated on a very literal reading of the limited range of Marx’s writings that had
been translated into Spanish. The available archive in Spanish was limited for
the most part to texts dealing with English, French and German historical con-
texts. As Garcı́a Linera points out elsewhere in La potencia plebeya, it did not
include any of Marx’s or Engels’s later reflections on how the epicenter of
revolutionary activity had shifted away from Western Europe or, for that
matter, how emancipatory praxis might need to be rethought and recalibrated
in other latitudes where social composition – demographics and relations of
production – does not achieve the relative degree of homogeneity found in

All English-language translations in this essay are my own.
4 Patrick Dove

industrialised European societies.2 The reception of Marx in Bolivia, beginning

in the 1930s and carrying through the advent of neoliberal privatisation and
austerity under the Paz Estenssoro regime in the mid-1980s, tended to take
what Marx had to say about historical processes in Western Europe and trans-
form those observations into rigid ontogenetic templates. It thus tended to
adopt a view of Bolivian history as a kind of delayed train running on the
same tracks as European history.
This dogmatic, self-limiting reading of Marx was based in part on pro-
blems of limited translation, circulation and archival accessibility. Bolivian
readers had no access to, for example, Marx’s correspondence with the
Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich from the 1880s or his ethnographic
studies of non-European contexts in texts such as the ‘Kovalevsky Notebook’
(1879), or to Engels’s Preface to the Russian translation of the Communist Mani-
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festo. In the letters to Zasulich, for example, Marx criticises the tendency on the
part of certain readers to reduce his analyses to stagist and deterministic his-
torical laws. It was on the basis of partial readings of Marx’s thought, then, that
the relevance of ethnicity and indigenous practices for radical political praxis
were systematically discounted and treated either as epiphenomenal ‘super-
structure’ or as evidence of how the vanquished cling stubbornly to the
past. Bolivian Marxism has historically displayed a fundamental incompre-
hension toward the realities of campesinos and indios, which together posed
‘a cognitive block and an epistemological impossibility’ for this orthodox per-
spective (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 482).

The [indigenous] community and its productive relations simply did

not exist in the interpretive horizon of this Marxism, and the same
can be said for any other social identity not based on economic criteria,
such as the campesino. The cultural resources of a given social class,
the diverse identities found in society, or the existence of indigenous
nations or peoples would all constitute a non-place in the literature
and strategic thought of this Leftism. (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 482)

With very few exceptions, Bolivian Marxism of the republican epoch regarded
the cultural practices of indigenous communities as backward relics of an
archaic past that would need to be modernised and homogenised before the indi-
genous could be considered social and political subjects capable of making their
own history. By implication, any political claim or discourse that might emanate
from indigenous communities could only be understood by this ‘academic
Marxism’ as inchoate babble or as melancholic adherence to the past.
The theoretical and practical problems described by Garcı́a Linera are
interrelated and presuppose one another. For one, if Bolivian Marxism
aligns its theoretical practice with a stagist and deterministic philosophy of
history that effectively discounts the experiences and ways of life of more
than half of Bolivia’s inhabitants, this ‘academic Marxism’ turns out to be
the uncanny double of the republican state. Garcı́a Linera’s essay illustrates

See Garcı́a Linera’s ‘Introduction to the Kovalevsky Notebook’, included in the
first part of La potencia plebeya (Garcı́a Linera 2009c: 31 – 52).
The Desencuentros of History 5

this uncanny doubling without actually articulating it. A second problem

involves the conceptualisation of the urban, industrial working class as the
proper and only viable revolutionary subject in Bolivia. This overly literal
reception of Marx’s thought led Bolivian Marxism to ignore the real differ-
ences between Bolivian and Western European realities and to write off the
possibility of recognising political potentiality in social forms and relations
not defined exclusively by industrial capitalism. Moreover, it also led this ‘aca-
demic Marxism’ to internalise the very social logic it was trying to oppose. In
reifying the Western European history of industrialisation as the only legiti-
mate course for anti-capitalist practice, Bolivian Marxism could not avoid
ingesting precisely the technical rationality (specialisation and the real sub-
sumption of labor in commodity production) and the forces of abstraction
(the abstraction of time, the abstraction that is valuation) proper to industrial
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capitalism. It is no small irony that in doing so it turned a blind eye to what

was right in front of its nose: the presence of communal forms of life in
which use value traditionally predominates over exchange value.
With the breakup of the large latifundios and redistribution of small
parcels of land to indigenous peasants following the 1952–1953 national-
popular revolution, Bolivian Marxism reactively defined this new land-
owning class as ‘petite bourgeoisie’ (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 480). In so doing it
simultaneously discounted newly-landed campesinos as potential revolution-
ary actors while also forgoing an opportunity to bring to light the specific tech-
nical rationale at work in Bolivia’s agrarian economy. It thereby also missed an
opportunity to historicise one of the dominant logics of production in the
region, i.e., by illuminating a distinction between formal and real subsumption
of labor in the countryside. ‘For this Marxism there were neither Indians nor
indigenous communities’, Garcı́a Linera concludes, ‘and as such one of the
richest seams in classical Marxist thought remained blocked and rejected as
a possible interpretive tool for Bolivian reality’ (Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 481).
In view of the academicist refusal to acknowledge the moral or political
legitimacy of ethnically-defined interests or to engage with its positions, Boli-
vian indigenous movements – whose vocabularies, outlooks and practices are
rooted in Aymara and Quechua traditions – more often than not concluded
that their own aspirations and projects were opposed not only to traditional
forces of racist domination and oppression (the Catholic church, the landed
oligarchy) but also to the Marxist Left. This is the other side of the tragedy
of desencuentro: the critique of exploitation comes to be seen as foreign in the
eyes of the critique of domination if not downright hostile to its outlook.
In tracing this tragic history of the Bolivian Left and its desencuentros
Garcı́a Linera holds out hope that a new conceptualisation of the relation
between ethnicity and class may be possible today in wake of the defeat of neo-
liberal privatisation measures and the electoral triumph of the MAS Party. The
anti-neoliberal movements of the early 2000s were spearheaded, he notes, by a
confluence of local movements that included both urban working class and
professional neighborhood alliances together with rural indigenous and cam-
pesino movements, all of which rallied in opposition to governmental efforts
to privatise natural resources: water in Cochabamba in 1999–2000 and natural
gas in El Alto in 2003. Finally, in May 2005, Aymara peasant farmers from the
El Alto area joined urban protesters in La Paz in a massive demonstration that
6 Patrick Dove

prompted the resignation of President Carlos Mesa. The stunning collapse of

the neoliberal regime in Bolivia was followed by the election of Evo Morales,
the son of migrant workers and a former coca-harvesting union leader, in
December 2005. This confluence of actors and perspectives – urban and
rural; campesinos, working class, small business owners and professionals;
Aymara and mestizo – holds out the promise of a new dialogue based on
mutual respect and a desire to listen and understand. That promise is no
doubt what Garcı́a Linera would like the post-2005 MAS Party to represent.
In the time since the essay was published, however, significant doubts have
become apparent about the MAS Party and its claim to have dissolved the
structure of desencuentro between Marxism and indigenism.3 By the same
token Garcı́a Linera has at times opted for a surprisingly traditional rhetoric
in his responses to the criticisms coming from indigenous and popular
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sectors concerning the MAS state’s support extractivism.4

As Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson point out in their 2007 book Revo-
lutionary Horizons, Bolivian historiography has tended to organise republican
history around three central revolutionary nodes or moments. Each of these
moments can, it seems, be said to reflect its own specific desencuentro, a discre-
pancy or non-agreement over how the social is constituted: who is authorised
to define the criteria for social membership, who belongs where and is author-
ised to do what, what counts as intelligible speech and so on.5 The first of these
three nodal moments belongs to the immediate prehistory of the republic. It is
found in a series of sympathetically-aligned indigenous uprisings in the
Andes during 1780 –1781, which began in Cuzco (present-day Peru) under
Tupac Amaru II, a descendant of Incan royalty, and then spread to the area
around El Alto in what is present-day Bolivia, where an indigenous commoner
named Tupaj Katari led an Aymara and Quechua insurrection that temporarily
liberated the surrounding countryside from Spanish colonial control. Katari’s
indigenous army soon arrived at the walls of La Paz, and although they laid
siege to the colonial city for five months, they were unable to breach its
walls. They similarly failed to muster support among the urban creole and
mestizo populations, who are described by many historians as recoiling in
horror from the spectre of an Indian uprising. Katari’s rebellion was finally
put down by Spanish reinforcements sent from Buenos Aires in late 1781.

See, for example, Jeffrey Webber’s account of how the Morales administration
has adopted neoliberal austerity measures while also prioritizing the fostering of
foreign and transnational investment in extractivism over the concerns of Bolivia’s
peasant and indigenous sectors in Webber 2012.
In an interview with Pablo Stefanoni, Garcı́a Linera is asked about persistent cri-
ticism from indigenous groups. In his response he characterizes dissident groups as
being behind the times, and in his recourse to this metaphor of temporal delay he
silently invites the question of just how far the Bolivian left has advanced in its think-
ing since the time of its ‘academic Marxism’: ‘it seems likely that some social organiz-
ations are still somewhat behind the times in terms of their historical situatedness.
They are still resisting against the State and it’s hard for them to put themselves in
this new time of occupying power structures’ (Stefanoni 2006: n.p.).
I am of course alluding here to Rancière’s notion of the distribution of the sensi-
ble (Rancière 2004).
The Desencuentros of History 7

As Thomson points out, recent Aymara-led protests that culminated in

popular marches on La Paz and its civic and political institutions – in Septem-
ber 2000 to protest against the privatisation of water, in October 2003 and May
2005 to protest against the privatisation of natural gas – have been interpreted,
on the part of both popular participants and elites, as ‘returns’ of earlier indio
insurrections. By the same token, the non-response on the part of urban mes-
tizos and criollos in 1781 finds resonance approximately two centuries later in
the attitudes of twentieth and early twenty-first century Bolivian elites,
whether in the form of racialised denigrations of indios or in the academicist
tendency to discount ethnicity as an epiphenomenon of class.6 It may be
that the primordial fear of the Indian horde constitutes a fundamental
fantasy that gives consistency to the Bolivian res publica throughout its
history, ideological differences notwithstanding. As René Zavaleta writes,
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The horror of the Indian multitude is perhaps the most primordial of

all sentiments present in those sectors of Bolivia who do not identify
as indigenous. One could even say that, although there is no consen-
sus over such matters as the independence of the State or the imper-
sonal nature of the law, preventing the self-constitution of an Indian
multitude is by contrast a resolute and undebatable objective
shared by all parts of this society that has been built upon the
Indian’s shoulders. (Zavaleta 1986: 145)

It is the locating of fear and horror at the thought of an Indian uprising at the
foundation of Bolivian modernity that best explains why it is that the Bolivian
republic has always been colonial in nature. The second nodal point discussed
by Hylton and Thompson is the national-popular revolution of 1952. Sparked
in part by militant factory workers and miners under the leadership of the
Nationalist Revolutionary Party (MNR), the 1952 –1953 popular revolt over-
threw a long-standing seigniorial oligarchic regime while promoting a range
of social reforms including universal suffrage, free public education, land
reform facilitated by the breakup of latifundios in the altiplano, nationalisation
of tin mines and the formation of the Centro Obrero Boliviano (COB), which
would quickly establish itself as one of the most militant labor organisations
in all of Latin America. The official discourse of the national-popular revolu-
tion showed little interest in social problems associated with race and ethni-
city, and explained the need for land reform in a socio-economic language
of worker’s rights while ignoring the colonial – and hence racial or ethnic –
origins of expropriation and accumulation of land. However, the fact that
the national-popular revolution promised full citizenship and social mobility
to historically-marginalised indigenous groups while also inserting itself as a
mediator of historical structures of domination and exploitation helped to
install the national-popular imaginary as a new epochal horizon for the
entirety of Bolivian society. This was the case regardless of the fact that the
revolution’s democratic character was compromised by a series of military

For examples of the racial denigration of indigenous-led popular social move-
ments see Webber 2011, especially Chapter 5.
8 Patrick Dove

interventions in the 1960s and 1970s.7 By the 1960s, indigenous campesino

sectors had become increasingly aligned ideologically with Bolivia’s authori-
tarian military regimes, in opposition to radical labor movements that were
once again promoting more far-reaching visions of social transformation.
Although representative democracy in Bolivia was repeatedly inter-
rupted by dictatorships and electoral corruption during the 1960s and 1970s,
the national-popular revolution held onto its hegemonic status until 1986
when the Paz Estenssoro administration, under the economic tutelage of
Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs and Bolivian Minister of Economy Gonzalo
Sánchez de Losada, implemented neoliberal reforms that included privatising
the nation’s most productive tin mines and laying off or ‘relocating’ thousands
of miners. In his essay ‘The Demise of the 20th-Century Working Class: The
Miners’ March for Life’, Garcı́a Linera describes the confrontation that
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ensued between displaced miners and the Paz Estenssoro regime in terms
that suggest yet another desencuentro, although Garcı́a Linera himself does
not use the term in this essay. In 1986 the missed encounter does not occur
between one emancipatory rationale and another. It arises in a scene struc-
tured by conflicting and radically dissymmetrical powers of perception and
signification; it is a scene into which one party enters, expecting dialogue
and negotiation while the other party enters knowing that its response will
be the bellicose threat of naked violence and annihilation. Following Paz
Estenssoro’s initiation of neoliberal reform, the laid-off miners met in Oruro
and Potosı́ during August 1986 to organise a massive protest march that
dubbed itself ‘The March for Life’. The plan was for the protestors to converge
on the Presidential Palace in La Paz, where they expected that the state would
feel obliged to begin negotiating a new labor pact – just as it had been doing
since the early 1950s. What actually happened in August 1986, however, was
something for which the working class history of the COB offered no pre-
cedent. Paz Estenssoro responded to the protests not with the expected
initiation of official negotiations but with a declaration of state of siege (once
again, an echo of 1781?). This act of war was announced by low-flying
fighter jets that Paz Estenssoro sent roaring over the long lines of marching
miners as they approached La Paz. Faced with this unexpected threat of
war, the miners concluded they had no choice but to return to Oruro with
their demands unmet. Their ignominious retreat importantly left no space
for working class heroism or martyrdom, announcing instead what Garcı́a
Linera dubs the end of the proletariat and working-class struggle as political
signifiers in twentieth century Bolivia (Garcı́a Linera 2009d: 231–32). Interest-
ingly, the neoliberal counter-revolution of 1986 does not have a place in Hylton
and Thomson’s account of the revolutionary moments in Bolivian history. But
I can see no compelling reason why it should not be considered as another one

As Garcı́a Linera describes it, the post-1953 period was defined by the ‘de-ethni-
cization of campesino discourse and thought, in favor of imagined inclusion in a cohe-
sive mestizo cultural project of the State, together with the conversion of nascent
campesino unions into a base of support for the nationalist State in its mass democratic
phase (1952 –1964) as well as its dictatorial phase (1964 – 1974)’ (Garcı́a Linera 2009b:
The Desencuentros of History 9

of the nodal points in which we find traces of a profound reinscription of the

structuring nomos and organising logic of Bolivian society.
The third revolutionary node discussed by Hylton and Thomson is found
in the popular uprisings of the new millennium, which began as protests
against neoliberal privatisation of water (1999–2000) and natural gas (2003
and 2005), and soon transformed into a widespread movement against the
neoliberal state. The anti-neoliberal movement forced the resignations of
Sánchez de Losada (2003) and Carlos Mesa (2005), which later was followed
by the election of Evo Morales and the MAS Party in December 2005. In
addition to the urban working-class and professional alliances mentioned
earlier, the anti-neoliberal movement drew on rural-based cocalero protests
against Bolivia’s participation in the US-led Plan Colombia, as well as a
broader Aymara-led movement seeking greater participation of indigenous
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communities in national affairs. For many of the actors in this alliance –

and not just indigenous groups – popular opposition to privatising natural
resources in the early 2000s found a readily available alternative signifier in
the Indianist-influenced ecological ethos of buen vivir.
Although the events in Cochabamba and La Paz appear to have provided
the sparks that precipitated the rapid collapse of the neoliberal state in 2005, in
his ‘Indianism and Marxism’ essay, Garcı́a Linera (2009b) reminds us that the
events of the early 2000s did not come out of the blue. He documents a long
trajectory of intellectual debate and activist work associated with Fausto
Reinaga and the Katarista movement, a movement in which he himself at
times participated and which over the course of several decades (1980s and
1990s) laid groundwork for the revitalisation of contestatory politics and chal-
lenges to the sovereignty of the republican state. Garcı́a Linera credits Katar-
ismo with the reinvention of ‘indianness’ [indianitud] as a category divested
of its former stigma and transformed into a signifier of social and political sub-
jectivation. Katarismo brings about an indigenist renaissance, a reclaiming and
reinvention of Indian histories and pasts, of cultural practices, of travails and
virtues, all of which generates a symbolic archive from which new forms of
political awareness and collective organisation can draw their material
(Garcı́a Linera 2009b: 486). In that light, Garcı́a Linera portrays the events of
2000 –2005 as the culminating articulation of a double crisis that had been
brewing for some time: the crisis of neoliberal consensus and its specific pol-
icies (privatisation, austerity, opening of the national to global capitalist
markets) is also the crisis of Bolivian republicanism, which can now be seen
as having sustained a mono-ethnic and mono-linguistic state form based on
racism, coercion and exclusion. What I am describing here is a new dominant
narrative that seeks to legitimate the MAS state an authentic representative of
the popular sentiments and will that brought down the neoliberal state in
2003 –2005. I am far from proposing that this legitimating narrative should
be accepted as a fair account of what the MAS state is actually doing today.
Indeed, it seems far from clear that the new plurinational state does in fact con-
stitute a break with the old neoliberal order.8

See Webber 2012 for a forceful account of how the MAS state does not do away
with neoliberalism in Bolivia. In Webber’s view, neoliberalism continues more or less
10 Patrick Dove

By supplementing Garcı́a Linera’s self-critique of Bolivian Marxism with

Hylton and Thomson’s discussion of a broader range of revolutionary nodal
points in the history of modern Bolivia, we can see that incomprehension
and disagreement between social and political rationales begins well before
the twentieth century and is not peculiar to Marxism. It is only by extending
the historical scope that we can appreciate that the historical reception of
Marxist thought in Bolivia in fact repeats and reinforces fundamental elements
and principles of modernity and modern traditions of thought. In what
follows, I turn to the work of the Bolivian Marxist thinker René Zavaleta
Mercado, whose untimely death in 1984 preceded the neoliberal counterrevo-
lution by just two years.
Zavaleta’s posthumous 1986 book Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia, unfin-
ished at the time of his death, is ambitious in its aim to provide a sweeping
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account of how the dominant social and economic logics of nineteenth and
early twentieth century Bolivia constituted an obstacle for the production of
a popular political subject – or of a Bolivian people. In contrast to Chile,
Argentina and Mexico, Bolivian society was defined, up until at least 1952,
by the structures of power that had been in place since the colonial era. The
development of political reason in post-independence Bolivia remained
stunted by a quasi-feudal form of social organisation (gamonalismo) that pre-
vented the emergence of the forms of totalisation and universality associated
with the modern nation. Under gamonalismo, the democratic idea of equality is
simply inconceivable. Scholars typically categorise the work of Zavaleta into
three periods: early writings defined by the nationalism of the 1950s; a
middle phase in which disillusionment with the PRN and the authoritarian
state prompted Zavaleta’s turn to orthodox Marxist revolutionary thought
and a final period defined by an unconventional version of Marxism
through which he sought to take seriously the specific forms of social and
ethnic heterogeneity found in Bolivia (Antezana 1991: 117 –18). Rather than
accepting the axiomatic equation of the forms of social heterogeneity found
in Bolivia as an obstacle for the alliances and interpellations required by
radical politics, Zavaleta’s later work looks at how the history of capitalist
modernisation in Bolivia over the past two centuries or more brings together
structures of exploitation and domination, and how the racial politics of this
colonial system go hand in hand with the form of accumulation specific to
Zavaleta used the terms sociedad abigarrada and formación abigarrada to
describe and theorise the heterogeneous tapestry that is Bolivian social
reality. There are resonances to be found between abigarramiento and desencuen-
tro. In its customary usage, the Spanish term abigarrada delivers a negative aes-
thetic judgment. It could be used to refer, for instance, to colors that clash or to
a jumbled and motley mixture of elements that does not add up to a coherent

unabated in Bolivia today, albeit under a different name, in the form of austerity pol-
icies, the aligning of national development with the interests of global capital and the
opening of the national economy to global markets and, moreover, the recodification of
this opening to global capital as a pre-political decision that cannot be opened up to
public debate.
The Desencuentros of History 11

whole. Zavaleta’s use of the term is decidedly idiosyncratic; it establishes a site

for thinking heterogeneity as something more than a mere residual deficiency
that could be corrected or overcome through the proper application of devel-
opmental formulas (liberal, national popular or Marxist). Abigarramiento
names a social context in which totalisation has been impeded or blocked.
Just as importantly, it marks a profound difference with respect to other
national contexts in which one particular social category, such as class, may
have been able to assume a hegemonic role in bringing about societal trans-
formation despite similar impediments. In a context of abigarramiento, a politi-
cal logic based on class struggle alone would be unable to give order to this
motley arrangement of elements because it would be incapable of accounting
for the experiences of indigenous populations without minimising the pro-
blems of colonisation, racism and slavery. In what follows I pursue the exist-
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ence of a theoretical analogy between desencuentro and abigarramiento and

their respective uses in Garcı́a Linera and Zavaleta.
The Bolivian scholar Luis Antezana clarifies a key theoretical distinction
between ‘sociedad abigarrada’ and ‘formación abigarrada’ in Zavaleta’s
thought. The clarification helps us see how a seemingly negative assessment of
Bolivian social order – one that takes the form of an aesthetic judgment no less
– could enable a rethinking of the conditions of possibility for a democratic or
emancipatory politics. Antezana notes that the term sociedad abigarrada [‘motley
society’] has a descriptive function, establishing an association between the econ-
omic form that is gamonalismo and a social heterogeneity that cannot be sutured
by any hegemonic procedure. Gamonalismo blocks the kind of collective interpel-
lation that is presupposed by the modern state form. How so? As the Peruvian
thinker José Carlos Mariátegui famously described it in his 1928 Siete ensayos de
interpretación sobre la realidad peruana, gamonalismo enforces a semi-feudal form
of social organisation in which labor is organised through coercion and domina-
tion (no or few ‘free markets’) while the political sphere is absorbed by clientelis-
tic hierarchies of power.9 Thus the dominant social order in nineteenth and
twentieth century Bolivia does not provide the conditions in which it would be
possible to envision or posit universal equality among all Bolivians as a condition
for democratic politics.
For Antezana, the term formación abigarrada meanwhile seeks to provide
precisely the concept – that is to say the totalising potential – that is
missing in every sociedad abigarrada. While sociedad abigarrada describes the
phenomenal coexistence of a diversity of social forms and logics that cannot
easily be mapped onto a single historical temporality or be brought together
under one political rationality, formación abigarrada offers a conceptual alterna-
tive to a traditional Marxian understanding social relations based on a

The term gamonalismo designates more than just a social and economic category:
that of the latifundistas or large landowners. It is a much broader social system, rep-
resented not only by the gamonales but by a long hierarchy of officials, intermediaries,
agents, parasites, etc. The literate Indian who enters the service of gamonalismo turns
into an exploiter of his own race. The central factor of the phenomenon is the hege-
mony of the semi-feudal landed estate in the policy and mechanism of the government
(Mariátegui 2007: 26, note 1).
12 Patrick Dove

philosophy of history that is inherited from Hegel, i.e., based on the supposi-
tion that every time is defined by its own characteristic mode(s) of production,
and that there is a logical sequence to be followed in moving from ‘lower’ to
‘higher’ stages in world history. Antezana understands this alternative con-
ceptualisation as seeking to accomplish what Trotsky’s ‘uneven and combined
development’ sought and failed to bring about: a break with, or at the very
least a hiatus within, the Hegelian narrative of development. The limitations
of ‘uneven and combined’ development are exposed through its inability to
avoid reproducing the very teleological structure of evenness that it purports
to call into question.
We can gain a more detailed perspective on how the sociedad/formación
conceptual juxtaposition works in Zavaleta’s late thought by turning to one
of the key historical scenes explored in Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia: the War
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of the Pacific (1879–1883) that was waged between Chile and a Bolivia –
Peru alliance, in which Chile triumphed decisively despite significant demo-
graphic and economic advantages held by its opponents. Following its disas-
trous defeat, Bolivia was forced to cede to Chile the mineral-rich region of
Antofagasta, which also happened to be the Andean country’s only access
to the ocean. Zavaleta explains the Chilean victory and Bolivian defeat
through an analysis of the different colonial experiences that informed each
country’s post-independence trajectory. Peru and Bolivia were dominated by
the “gamonalist” system, which divided land into parcels or fiefdoms and
maintained indigenous populations as indentured servants or slaves. This
system did not foster any of the institutions and practices through which a
principle of commonality or equality was established in many nineteenth
century contexts: no free labor markets, no universal education, no universal
suffrage, no biopolitical determination of society as a population that could
be counted and statistically administered. Nineteenth-century Bolivian elites
made no effort to assimilate the majority indigenous populations into a
common social and cultural milieu. Social organisation therefore remained
profoundly hierarchical with exclusion, subjugation and naked exploitation
justified through images and narratives of the Indian’s racial inferiority. In
Chile, by contrast, Zavaleta asserts that a fundamental assumption of equality
did emerge and establish itself as part of the dominant social logic – at least
among the majority criollo population – during the colonial era. He attributes
the principial emergence of equality to the historical experience of the Arauco
War, which the Spanish colonial order waged against the Mapuche during
more than four centuries of colonisation. It was on the basis of this Indian
war that all Spaniards and criollos in Chile came to see themselves as equals
regardless of social station: equals because soldiers of the Crown in a just
war waged against infidels and barbarians (Eim 2010). The contrast between
distinct colonial experiences gives rise to different modernities. It is on the
basis of this same colonial war, which continued to simmer well into the nine-
teenth century, that the independent Chilean Republic was able to include a
principle of equality among the white or mestizo Spanish-speaking majority
(Zavaleta 1986). The stark contrast between Chile and Bolivia–Peru illustrates
the difference between a group that is united by the idea of a national space
–an idea for which one is willing to risk one’s life – and another group that
has no reason to consider thinking of space as ‘national’ because their
The Desencuentros of History 13

experience of space has always been defined by the parcelisation of land

amidst persistent social hierarchies (Zavaleta 1986: 30–31).
In this same juxtaposition of colonial and post-colonial legacies, we also
find a subtle conceptual operation which illustrates the important contribution
that Zavaleta’s book makes to Latin American political thought. For Zavaleta,
the distinction between the Chilean and Bolivian contexts comes down to
different ways of conceiving of space and territory. Territory in his vocabulary
is not an empirical concept synonymous with ‘space’ and ‘land’. It names a
totalising operation through which land and space are organised – or pro-
duced, mapped and signified – as demarcating a totality: ‘Territory is the
place (locus) where intersubjectivity is produced. It is the non-spatial determi-
nation of space, and it is here that matter begins to have a history’ (Zavaleta
1986: 38). Territory designates the geographical production of national
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space, of a space that has been unified under a specific name, a specific
history and a specific social pact. As the non-spatial origin of all determined
spaces, territory is a name for spacing. Perhaps analogous to what the
Italian political thinker Carlo Galli calls the ‘political geometry of modernity’,
territory for Zavaleta names a production of space that serves to organise
social relations while regulating the conflicts that arise within this space
(Galli 2010: 36–68).
In the short passage just cited, Zavaleta also asserts that territory is the
origin of history, the mechanism that enables the inert matter of our world
to acquire a past and which relates that past to the present. It is here that we
can see how the concept of formación abigarrada might be able to give rise to
an alternative form of social totalisation in a context where modern totalising
logics (liberal, populist, Marxist) have fallen short. Not surprisingly, his unfin-
ished book does not provide a clear explanation of how this would work. But it
does offer a hint about what the connection between territory and history
might look like some twenty pages later when he asserts that

the trick of being able to concentrate all of one’s being into a single
instant reveals one’s superiority, because all of the evidence concern-
ing Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific is that they were unable
to bring everything together in such a way. The concept of national
mobilization was foreign to those countries . . . (Zavaleta 1986: 58)

Territory, then, also facilitates the totalisation of discrete temporal moments. It

is territoriality that enables nineteenth century Chileans to conceive of their
lives not just as linked with those of other Chileans, but also as part of a his-
torical process that has a past and a future. It enables the articulation of dis-
crete temporal moments or ‘Nows’ into a coherent totality, such as one
might imagine taking place when one decides to risk one’s life in the name
of something like the nation.10

On the totalisation of time see Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and
the Avant Garde (Osborne 1995). To illustrate this idea of temporal totalisation, Osborne
refers to Heidegger’s meditations on ‘being toward death’ in Being and Time. For Hei-
degger, ‘death’ is not synonymous with the end of biological life; rather, it names both
14 Patrick Dove

Similar to Garcı́a Linera’s reflections on desencuentro, the conceptual

development of formación abigarrada marks a self-critical moment in the
history of Bolivian Marxist thought. It breaks with a long history of incompre-
hension toward questions of indigeneity and inaugurates an effort to take
ethnic difference and its concerns seriously. (Just as quickly, however, this
potential contribution was silenced – at least for a time – by the withering
of Marxist thought, and then it was engulfed by the rationale of neoliberal con-
sensus.) Abigarramiento is a knot that cannot be untied by the deterministic
tools of class (or ethnicity) in the last instance. Not only does the conceptual
work on abigarramiento take questions of race and ethnicity seriously instead
of writing them off as the epiphenomena of economic factors – broadening,
for example, the economic analysis of gamonalismo to include a consideration
of how ethnic and racial discourse serves to legitimate expropriation and
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exploitation (Zavaleta 1986: 21–95)–it also situates these factors as necessary

considerations for any emancipatory political practice. Zavaleta never wavers
from his belief that the nation constitutes an indispensable ground for con-
testatory, anti-capitalist politics. In the Bolivian context that means politics
must begin by redressing the constitutive exclusions that are the colonial lega-
cies of the res publica and at the same time by taking into account the existence
of abigarramiento as a heterogeneity that precedes (and ruins) any possible uni-
fication of social totality. A political praxis that takes seriously what Zavaleta
has to say about abigarramiento would need to begin by abandoning the idea
that democracy could become synonymous with the overcoming of everything
that is motley and incongruous. As I suggested in my earlier comments about
the post-2006 MAS state and Garcı́a Linera’s approach to post-neoliberal dis-
sensus, however, it is far from clear that hegemony and abigarramiento may be
made compatible with one another, as many of Zavaleta’s readers would like it
to be.
The fact that Zavaleta’s use of the term abigarramiento does not give rise to
a theory is significant. Far from seeing this as a shortcoming, we should recog-
nise this as part of the book’s enduring interest. Abigarramiento haunts Zavale-
ta’s book as a limit for theorisation – Marxian or otherwise – and indeed for
any modern epistemology of the social. As I have already noted, the final
version of Lo nacional popular en Bolivia that we have inherited is that of a
still-unfinished project; but even then it seems questionable whether or not
Zavaleta anticipated that abigarramiento would eventually function as a
concept available to be put to work for radical politics. The role that this term
plays in Zavaleta’s late writing is similar to what I am proposing may be
done with the term desencuentro: it enacts a shift in register from the descrip-
tive, the empirical or the merely negative to something else. But what? This
other register cannot be that of ontology because neither abigarramiento nor

the possibility of anticipating such an end (a possibility which, for Heidegger, is proper
to the human and which therefore designates not just a biological end but also the end
of all human endeavors, desires, awareness and so on) and the impossibility of ever
relating directly to death qua event. Death, in other words, is the constitutive limit
of human Dasein for Heidegger. It is this notion of the constitutive limit that I am inter-
ested in bringing forth in the discussion of abigarramiento and desencuentro.
The Desencuentros of History 15

desencuentro would seem to be capable of functioning as an essence or an iden-

tity. They are names for misfits and incongruous mixtures that precisely
unravel the stable and seamless, or apparently smooth, determinations
required by both social ontology and hegemony theory. Each term points to
a difference that traverses Bolivian society, splitting it even before it could
have conceived of or imagined itself as a single, unified entity. It might be
that abigarramiento names something of that order which Alberto Moreiras
calls the infrapolitical: an ‘underside’ to political thought that theoretical prac-
tice cannot do without, but which is also irreducible to political ontology and
which predictably gets effaced whenever it enters into the conceptual vocabu-
lary of this ontology.11
By way of a conclusion, I develop a little further the still-germinal idea
that Zavaleta’s analysis of abigarramiento as the irreducible and non-negatable
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heterogeneity of Bolivian modernity can be drawn into dialogue with the

desencuentro theme. If abigarramiento is a spatial metaphor for thinking about
heterogeneity and the internal difference of totality without falling into a nor-
mative, unidirectional developmental understanding of historical time, desen-
cuentro might provide a temporal metaphor for thinking through the
disjunctive simultaneity of what are ordinarily assumed to be distinct histori-
cal temporalities in Bolivia. I do not attempt to provide an exhaustive demon-
stration of this link here, which would require a much more sustained
engagement with Zavaleta’s text. Garcı́a Linera’s account of the desencuentros
between Marxism and indigenism in Bolivia is clearly indebted to Zavaleta’s
thought, in the sense that this Marxism – with the rare exception of thinkers
such as Zavaleta – has consistently avoided its responsibility (which is also
to say, its opportunity) to engage precisely with the social reality that is abigar-
ramieto. Based on what has just been said about sociedad and formación abigar-
radas, let us now consider what would happen if we extend the twentieth
century context explored by Garcı́a Linera in order to say that the history of
modern Bolivia in its abigarramiento is the history of desencuentro. To say this
would be to approach the limits of any confidence in the possibility of a theor-
etical resolution to the uneasy conceptual relation between class and ethnicity
in Bolivia. The impasse or the desencuentro may well be irreducible. As Zava-
leta shows, the fault line runs all the way back to the threshold of the modern
Bolivian Republic. Extending the thematisation of desencuentro would be an
important first step in promoting a deeper understanding of what it means
to say, with Garcı́a Linera, that the republican state form in Bolivia has
always been colonial in nature, regardless of how the authority of its specific

Infrapolitical critique starts on the notion that there is always an underside to
political thought that gets necessarily erased by all conventional understandings of
the political, and yet it is most fundamental. On the basis of a reading of Derrida’s
1964 seminar on Heidegger: The Question of History and Being (Derrida 2013), we may
be prepared to say that the infrapolitical dimension of all political thought, and of
every kind of political practice, is connected to the thematization of the so-called
ontico-ontological difference in the political region. In other words, we are prepared
to entertain the thought that an infrapolitical step back from politics is also necessarily
a step back from the ontotheological understanding of the political we have inherited
from the traditions of modernity (Moreiras 2014: n.p.).
16 Patrick Dove

forms is consolidated – e.g. through brute force, coercion, hegemony or a

mixture thereof.12 By the same token, it would contribute an important tem-
poral component to the spatially-oriented analysis carried out by Zavaleta
in Lo nacional-popular. The temporal is not just a complement for the spatial
logic of national geography and the political geometry of modernity. Time
may well be the unthought of all modern political geometry, the real in relation
to which the cartographic production of space is the symbolic, because it is
only with the thought of time that we can begin to think how political geome-
try and its ways of producing social space also generate the kinds of conflict
that give rise to contestatory social movements.
Desencuentro in the broad sense that is being proposed here does not
exactly have a history so much as it is itself a fundamental impasse that
gives shape to national history. A pattern of desencuentro can be detected in
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the long history of encounters between the conceptual vocabulary of moder-

nity in Bolivia – in its liberal, conservative and radical forms – and a part
of the social totality that has always been discounted as a non-part, as either
not yet fully modern or as the abject remnant of the past that is destined for
erasure.13 But just as Zavaleta found himself compelled to develop the
concept of formación abigarrada as a theoretical supplement to the empirical
concept of sociedad abigarrada, desencuentro cannot be reduced to a negative
descriptor of what should have taken place but did not, or of an occurrence
that distorts the truth of Bolivian social reality. This history of misunderstand-
ings and cognitive impasses is also part of Bolivian social reality and historical
memory. Desencuentro as I am using it here names both a missed encounter or a
non-relation and a dis-jointure that occurs between and within thought and
action, theory and practice. To recount history as the history of desencuentro
would be to bring historicism into contact with what is not properly historici-
sable; it would be to narrativise what cannot be narrated because it only ever
takes place as a non-relation.
Desencuentro understood as the non-identity or non-coincidence of total-
ity, as the dis-jointure of the social prior to any possibility of its unification,
cannot and ought not be dismissed too hastily as an unfortunate tendency
or stage that will soon be overcome. Alongside Garcı́a Linera’s account of
failed understanding and missed opportunities – which is, make no
mistake, important and absolutely necessary – desencuentro also names an
unthought at the heart of historical attempts to conceptualise emancipatory
social struggle in Bolivia under a single theoretical language. It is thus a
name for the resistance of the real, which defies systematic knowledge but
without which there can be no thought worthy of the name. In that sense it
is also a name for what calls for action – for intervention and redress. This

The Republican State, whether it is conservative or liberal, protectionist or free-
trade, is essentially a system of trenches and traps set against indigenous society,
against the ayllus and the peasant communities. There is not even a semblance or simu-
lation of incorporating the indian, because what defines this State and the social
sectors that have united politically within it as governing power, is precisely a perma-
nent conspiracy against the indigenous multitude. (Garcı́a Linera 2009a: 177)
On the social count and the appearance of the part that is not a part, see Rancière
The Desencuentros of History 17

is not to deny that abigarramiento and desencuentro also designate unfortunate

failures and forms of violence that might have been avoided. I am far from pro-
posing that desencuentro, abigarramiento and disjointure should simply be cele-
brated. However, just because something does not give cause for rejoicing does
not mean that it can be reassuringly categorised as a mere epiphenomenon
that could be overcome given sufficient reason and good will.
The extension of desencuentro that I am proposing would presume that
every moment in Bolivia’s history is irreducibly different from itself. It
would presuppose the non-identity of time itself. Time cannot be not identical
to itself because, if time comprises a series of seemingly independent moments
or ‘Nows’, every one of these present ‘Nows’ turns out to be contaminated
twice over.14 First, the present is contaminated by the past and by memory
traces that may not always manage to see the light of day but which nonethe-
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less are at work at some level informing perception, thought and practice. By
the same token, every present is contaminated by what is still to come. Every
‘Now’ has the capacity to be illuminated and impassioned by a glimpse of the
future, of a future that promises something other than a mere continuation of
the past – for instance, the promise of a democratic formación abigarrada to
come. If that were not the case, then there would be no way of breaking
away from the determinisms that inform so many modern philosophies of
There comes a moment in Zavaleta’s posthumous book where, seemingly
out of the blue, he inserts a thought of Bolivian history that runs in a similar
direction. The passage appears to be a reformulation of Marx’s assertion, in
the Eighteenth Brumaire, that ‘men make their own history, but they do not
make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen
by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and
transmitted from the past’ (Marx 2008: 15). In his commentary on the 1952–
1953 national-popular revolution, Zavaleta takes aim at two explanatory ten-
dencies in Latin American sociology and historiography. As we will see
momentarily, he proposes in their stead the image of an aberrant temporal
logic that would call into question modern accounts of historical time as a
linear sequence of events defined by causes and effects or as a sequence of
self-contained Nows, each of which remains in possession of its own being
or essence. The first of the two explanations that he confronts looks at the
national-popular revolution through a deterministic lens that Zavaleta associ-
ates with dependency theory. This view is analogous to what Garcı́a Linera
calls ‘academic Marxism’. According to that account, whatever is produced
under the conditions of dependency can only ever reproduce more depen-
dency. Thus the national-popular revolution was always-already destined to
fail and its historical essence is nothing more than this failure, because it
was constitutively unable to transform the fundamental structures underlying
the relation between state and society. There is no memory, no promise and no
future to be unearthed and revitalised at that site. While Zavaleta did not have
access to any material that would have allowed him to assess how the event of

On the non-identity of time see Jacques Derrida, ‘Ousia and Grammē’ (Derrida
1982) and, more recently, Specters of Marx (Derrida 1994, especially Ch. 4).
18 Patrick Dove

the national-popular revolution could be resignified after the fact – in the early
1980s he was still thinking and writing from within the revolution’s hegemo-
nic period – it may be that we are now in a position to ask whether and to what
extent the national-popular revolution and its impact can be said to contribute
to, or at least open up conditions of possibility for, the popular uprisings of the
early 2000s. In other words, we can ask whether or not the anti-neoliberal
insurrections of Cochabamba, El Alto and La Paz could have happened had
it not been for an earlier event that posited the underlying existence of equality
among all Bolivians regardless of their social and ethnic statuses. The other
tendency, which we have already looked at in the discussion of Garcı́a
Linera, attributes whatever happened in 1952–1953 – anything of historical
substance – to the combined agency of the Revolutionary Nationalist Party
(MNR) and the working class while categorising campesino groups as relatively
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passive participants who allowed themselves to be interpellated by a working-

class project. The fundamental problem in both cases resides in the expla-
nation’s over-reliance on the concept of a political subject that would be the
cause capable of accounting for historical effects.
The dominant interpretations of the 1952–1953 revolution that are criti-
cised by Zavaleta prove to be equally blind to the possibility that, while
people make their own history, they do not necessarily do so in the way that
they anticipate or imagine they are doing it. These interpretations are incap-
able of conceiving of the possibility that an event could be received and inter-
preted otherwise than what is intended or understood here and now, or they
are incapable of conceiving that the possibility of mutation and transformation
would not be synonymous with the failure of a historical project but instead a
condition of possibility for any event and therefore any history.15 ‘It is interest-
ing’, writes Zavaleta in the Prologue to Lo nacional-popular en Bolivia, ‘to note
the contradictory development of these factors [the historical occurrences sur-
rounding the 1952–1953 revolution]. It is as if men intended to do one thing
and reality unfailingly took things in a different direction’ (Zavaleta 1986:
14). If things have a way of going off on trajectories that could not have
been anticipated by the actors themselves this is not necessarily a bad thing
for democratic politics; it would only by definition constitute an insurmounta-
ble problem for a political theory or rationale based on the presupposition of a
subject. In a similar way it may be that desencuentro, in addition to the negative
meanings it possesses – missed encounter, failed opportunity and disappoint-
ment – may also help illuminate how that which does not have a place in
history can return to incite and mobilise new aspirations for equality and

As Jacques Derrida notes in ‘Signature Event Context’ (Derrida 1988), a sign
cannot become a sign unless it carries with it the possibility of being understood dif-
ferently in another place or time, or by another interlocutor. There can be no communi-
cation, no event or speech act, unless I allow my original intention to be framed in a
recognizable, repeatable form. If repeatability is the condition of possibility for all
communication, because it is there at the origin of any sign, then there can be no
event that is not already haunted by repetition and by the possibility of being under-
stood differently.
The Desencuentros of History 19

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

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Patrick Dove is Associate Professor in Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana Uni-

versity. His research explores intersections between literature, philosophy and
politics in Latin America, especially the Southern Cone. He is author of The
Catastrophe of Modernity: Tragedy and the Nation in Latin American Literature
(Bucknell UP, 2004) and is currently completing his second book, Literature
and ‘Interregnum’, an investigation of literary responses to the crisis of aesthetic
and political modernity in recent Southern Cone narrative. He has also written
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on political violence, dictatorship and literature and democracy, among other