Noam Chomsky in his office, 1967

Liberal Imperialism, a classic definition

“Three years have passed since American intervention in a civil war in Vietnam was converted into a colonial war of the classic type. This was the decision of a liberal American administration. Like the earlier steps to enforce our will in Vietnam, it was taken with the support of leading political figures, intellectuals, and academic experts, many of whom now oppose the war because they do not believe that American repression can succeed in Vietnam and therefore urge, on pragmatic grounds, that we “take our stand” where the prospects are more hopeful. If the resistance in Vietnam were to collapse, if the situation were to revert to that of Thailand or Guatemala or Greece, where the forces of order, with our approval and assistance, are exercising a fair degree of control, then this opposition to the Vietnam war would also cease; in the words of one such spokesman, we might then ‘all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government.’ If we are forced to liquidate this enterprise … the liberal ideologists will continue to urge that we organize and control as extensive a dominion as is feasible in what they take to be ‘our national interest’ and in the interest of the elements in other societies that we designate as fit to rule.

Noam Chomsky, Introduction to American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969.

The term liberal imperialism makes two distinctions: liberal imperialists are not radicals and are not always hawks. They accept exercising national power over other societies, whereas radical critics of war are simply against that goal, and the military mean of exercising it. Liberal imperialists make themselves against this or that war, precisely and only when the costs are too great, which boils down to when the resistance, abroad and at home, is too great. At the height of the Vietnam War, radical critic Noam Chomsky wrote a devastating moral challenge to the American public acceptance of their country’s power over others. He laments that his opposition to the war “ten or fifteen years too late” once American boots began to be on the ground in 1965, and not when the US military support began. He observes that “The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured.”

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NYC lecture, October 26: Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics

On Monday, October 26, I’ll be giving a talk on “Dense and Nimble Activisms in Bolivian Radical Politics,” hosted by the Department of Anthropology at Queens College-CUNY. The talk will be in the President’s Conference Room 2 at the Rosenthal Library (campus map) at 12:15pm. If you’re in New York City or someplace nearby, please join me.


This paper explores the radical political values that circulate and develop across Bolivia’s dense and nimble forms of activism, with a focus on the increasingly indigenous metropolis. Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical organizational structure and a countervailing ethic that subordinates leaders to the grassroots bases from which they emerge. This worldview separates an enduring, morally legitimate world of community organization (“the organic”) from a corrupted world of political parties, staffed by self-advancing, individualist politicians who engage in transactional, corrupt practices (“the political”). Inside the organic domain, unions and other mass organizations replicate and extend the ayllu, an Andean structure for community self-management of the lands inherited from ancestral spirits. They valorize ethical principles of complementarity, solidarity, anti-individualism, and obligatory participation, blending ethical and political life.

Conversely, other organizations structure themselves horizontally, without a formal hierarchy or official leadership. People join these efforts voluntarily and individually without a joint decision of the others with whom they live or work; the organization is defined by ideological and social affinity, its common purpose. They achieve their political effects by networking: that is, by interacting with a far larger numbers of people than just its membership, through public spectacles, training, writing, and open gatherings. While less internationally visible, these nimble activists participate in the global circulation of practices of decentralized decision making, ideas like the de-commodification of water, and transnational movement networks.

Rather than mutually opposed poles, organic grassroots and participatory network organizations interchange ideas and collaborate in common efforts. A former Marxist union militant in the mines explains, “Solidarity is what is called ayni, right?,” offering a translation between languages for political visioning. Across town, an urban anarchafeminist collective embraces an indigenous identity while pointing out patriarchal attitudes within both revolutionary movements and traditional communities. For at least a generation, Bolivian activists have conceptualized radical political values as of form of decolonization, as a return to ways of living that are inherently opposed to the colonial and capitalist state. At the same time, liberatory political praxis involves the incorporation of new ideas, in silent contradiction to rhetoric of cultural revival. Drawing on multiple experiences, I describe both the recovery and the innovation of ways of doing politics.

On Allegra: Can a gas pipeline heal Bolivia’s wounded geo-body?

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.41.42 PMMy latest essay on Bolivia was published by Allegra Laboratory. It looks at the deeply felt woundedness around Bolivia’s loss of coastal territory to Chile, and the surprising notion that exporting natural gas from a Peruvian port could heal that wound.

Allegra is a fascinating site dedicated to the anthropology of politics, law, and art. You can read about them here, and check out their Academic Slow Food Manifesto on the same page.

Men and women rake and shovel a plie of garbage into bags as part of the Kariobangi Waste Management Allianc

“Every day the poor people dig, scavenge, and gather.”

Poverty is there, however, unbearable and discreet. On every page it manifests itself, in three elementary actions: carrying, scavenging, pilfering.

In all the capitals of poverty, the poor carry bundles. They always keep them close by. When they sit down, they place them by their side and watch over them. What do they put in them? Everything: wood gathered in a park, hastily, crusts of bread, bits of wire pulled off a fence, scraps of cloth. If the bundle is too heavy, they drag it along, in wheelbarrows or handcarts.

Peasants rest at the foot of the ancient walls of Nanking after collecting lotus roots for fuel. In the background: Jade Mountain, and the lake where sailors received their training during the days of the Ming Emperors. In all the capitals of poverty, people scavenge. They scavenge in the soil and the subsoil; they gather round refuse bins; they slip right into the rubble: ‘What others throw away is mine; what is no longer of any use to them is good enough for me.’ On waste ground near Peking, the rubbish piles up. This is the refuse of the poor; they have sifted through everything, they have already rummaged through their own rubbish; they have only left, reluctantly, what is uneatable, unusable, unspeakable, revolting. And yet the flock is there. On all fours. They will scavenge all day, every day.

In all the capitals of poverty, there is pilfering. Is it stealing? No, just picking things up. These bales of cotton have just been unloaded. If they stay an hour longer on the dock, they will disappear. No sooner have they been put down than the crowd rushes forward and surrounds them. Everyone attempts to pull off a handful of cotton. Many handfuls of cotton, gathered day after day – that makes an item of clothing. I recognize the look on the women’s faces, I have seen it in Marseilles, in Algiers, in London, in the streets of Berlin; it is serious, quick and hounded, anguish mingles with greed. You have to grab before you are grabbed. When the bales have been loaded onto a lorry, the kids will run after it with outstretched hands.

Every day the poor people dig, scavenge and gather.

Jean-Paul Sartre
Preface to D’une Chine à l’autre,
by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jean-Paul Sartre,
Paris, Editions Robert Delpire, 1954.
(a book of photographs taken in China by Cartier-Bresson)

The image above is from the Kariobangi Waste Management Alliance in Nairobi, Kenya, over 300 young Kenyans who have made a waste collection system for the slum of Kariobangi; photograph borrowed from this 2013 article. The image below is a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson taken in Nanking in April 1949. Original caption: “Peasants rest at the foot of the ancient walls of Nanking after collecting lotus roots for fuel. In the background: Jade Mountain, and the lake where sailors received their training during the days of the Ming Emperors.”

Marchers raise their hands on first day of CONAIE March, Tundayme, Zamora Chinchipe

Demands from Ecuadorian indigenous movement CONAIE’s August mobilization

A major protest mobilization by Ecuador’s indigenous movement, led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador, CONAIE | website facebook twitter) began on Sunday, August 2. The following is my translation the document produced by the organization’s July assembly spelling out its demands.

Resolutions of the Annual Ordinary Assembly of CONAIE
Salasaca, Tungurahua
July 17 and 18, 2015

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, meeting in its General Assembly with the participation of official delegates from grassroots organizations and from the regional affiliates CONFENIAE, ECUARUNARI, and CONAICE, faced with current political conjuncture and the situation of the indigenous movement, resolve:

EcuadorMarchMap-Aug20151. To convene the grassroots of all the peoples and nationalities of Ecuador to the Great Indigenous Uprising, in unity with sectors of society and the Ecuadorian people in all the provinces of the country, on August 10, 2015. Putting forward the national demands of our people and our own agenda as an indigenous movement. We ratify our firm position of No to the Dialogue [as proposed] with the national government.

2. To recover the autonomy of Intercultural Bilingual Education and to demand the immediate reopening, instead of the closure, of intercultural bilingual education schools, teaching institutes, colleges, Childhood Centers for Good Living (Centro Infantil del Buen Vivir; [an early childhood education program for poor children]), and the Amawtay Wasi University [an indigenous university co-founded by CONAIE in 1989], free access to public education, as well as the creation of research centers at the regional level to strengthen the process of autonomous education on the part of the nationalities and peoples.

3. To halt the plunder of the land and territories that government promotes by means of the new land, water, and mining laws; and thus, we call for the land law to be shelved and for the repeal of the laws that affect the development and rights of indigenous peoples. To strengthen control over our territories and to not permit the entry of any government functionary nor of a single transnational corporation.

4. To shelve the proposal to amend the constitution, which promotes the restriction of the rights which we, by our struggle, managed to have included in the Constitution.

5. To stop political persecution and the judicialization [of politics; i.e., using court cases to pursue political opponents] implemented by the government of Rafael Correa against the leaders of social movements, and the leaders within indigenous peoples, students, doctors, retired people, defenders of nature, and of human rights, and other organized social sectors. To do away with institutionalized corruption and the state of repression so as to build plurinational democracy.

6. To strengthen a unified agenda together with the other sectors of society. To organize the mobilizing process that begins with the great march of the peoples from Tundayme-Zamora Chinchipe on August 2, the Indigenous and Popular Uprising on August 10, and the national strike organized by the Unitary National Collective on August 13.

7. To ratify our full commitment to defeat the capitalist economic model built upon oil and mining exploitation implemented by this government and to establish an alternative community-based economy coherent with the [concept of a] Plurinational State.

Mistrial ruling text

Jurors, Rape, and #TheEmptyChair

  • Was an acquaintance or someone you know closely the victim of an unwanted sexual touching or assault?

In January 2015, jurors being impaneled for the rape trial of former Vanderbilt students Brandon Vandenburg and Corey Batey were asked this and similar questions. This turned out to be a pivotal issue because although the jury convicted both men of multiple counts of aggravated rape and sexual battery, the jury foreman’s impartiality was called into question based on his answer to this question. The foreman had had sex as a sixteen-year-old with an older man, who was prosecuted for statutory rape and did not mention this fact during jury selection. On June 23, Judge Monte Watkins found the juror ought to have disclosed his past and ruled that the juror’s “credibility had been tainted and brought a presumption of bias to the jury.” (His ruling did not imply that the juror intentionally withheld the facts or that he sought to influence the outcome.)

There’s experimental evidence that victims of a particular crime are more likely to convict defendants charged with that crime. This evidence backs up the common legal idea that such jurors must be probed for bias and may be removed by the defense. (On the other hand, withholding is very common practice: a study using follow-up interviews found that 25% of jurors in 31 trials were victims of a crime and 30% knew a law enforcement officer, but did not reveal these facts in voir dire.)

The sheer frequency of sexual assault and the stigma surrounding being its victim, however, raises a more complex problem. Being a survivor of sexual assault is very common: to take one data source, the CDC, 18.3% of US women and 1.7% of men report having been raped; between 5 and 6% of both men and women report having been sexually assaulted in some other way. If someone has just ten women they “know closely” there’s a 13% chance none of them have been raped. If someone knows twenty people, the chances of none of them being sexually assaulted are less than one in six. Even with these conservative ideas of people close to you, no conceivable jury would have fewer than two people saying yes.

With greater honesty (and bigger friend circles), the truth is there are only two answers to the jury question above:

  • Yes.
  • Yes, but they haven’t taken the initiative to tell me.

Empty chair next to title of NYMag article, "Cosby: The women. An unwelcome sisterhood."You certainly know someone who has survived rape. If you can answer “yes,” you probably know the emotional weight attached to the widespread impunity for rape. If you have to answer “yes, but…,” then it’s possible that this person is one of the many survivors who doesn’t come forward publicly. (There are plenty of good reasons.) New York Magazine recently symbolized the many “women who couldn’t come forward mostly (because) we, as a culture, wouldn’t believe them” with an empty chair. Social media has  made #TheEmptyChair a symbol of socially produced silence around rape and sexual assault.

But then again, maybe the problem is not just that “we, as a culture,” won’t believe them. Maybe its personal. And here’s the conundrum for jury selection. “Yes, but” isn’t a neutral category; it’s the sum of social and individual choices that mean no one came to you with one of our society’s most common traumas. One juror like that might be a coincidence. Twelve is a problem.

Lliquimuni drillsite arises out of a cleared area in a cloud-shrouded forest

Lliquimuni: The petroleum threat in Bolivia’s northern Amazon

The Lliquimuni oil block could be the beginning of oil extraction in the northern Bolivian Amazon. This video, circulated by Alerta Amazónica, surveys the environmental dangers that accompany the project:

That beginning could come sooner than expected. On June 22, the Bolivian–Venezuelan consortium Petroandina announced “encouraging results” partway through the exploratory drilling at well LQC-X1. Company representatives expect to deliver a full report on the test well, which is operated by in  September.

Seismic studies carried out from 2008 to 2010 provided an estimate of 50 million barrels of oil in the area. Already last December, President Evo Morales was naming the underground oil reserves as reason enough to develop a large-scale petroleum industry presence in the northern part of La Paz department, a forested and mountainous area that lies to the north of the capital city of the same name.
“One the study is done, then comes the exploitation. I have said, if we find oil in La Paz, it will be our obligation to install a refinery here in the north of La Paz. Una vez hecho el estudio, perforación, vendrá la explotación. Yo lo decía, si encontramos petróleo en La Paz, será nuestra obligación instalar una refinería acá en el Norte de La Paz.
LQC-X1, the current center of exploration is near the community of Inicua, in Alto Beni municipality, part of Caranavi province (the municipality of Teoponte, in Larecaja province is nearby, and a border conflict driven by possible royalties was already active in 2014). Creating even this bit of petroleum infrastructure required something of an epic effort, perhaps inspiring the cinematic soundtrack for a promotional video from Petroandina. (You can see the government-owned oil company’s rather more heroic view of the project in the first two videos shown here.) Building either a refinery or oil pipelines out of the region would be a far greater challenge, which is perhaps the greatest factor holding back the transformation of the northern Bolivia rainforest into an oil-producing region.