Transcript: Resource Radicals with Thea Riofrancos30 Jan 2021
It is no simple task for a poor country to escape its place in the world system. Global South countries like Ecuador, once known as Third World countries, have been consigned since colonial times to exporting primary commodities, from sugar and silver and bananas to oil and copper and low-wage manufactured goods, while capitalists in wealthy countries like the US control the most profitable top of the value chain. Not that First World capitalists share their spoils with First World workers—at least not since the neoliberal turn. Just as the capitalist system relies on a domestic order of class domination, within which capitalists exploit workers, it also fixes different countries in particular places in the global economic order. Ecuador, exporting goods like bananas and oil, is near the bottom. Those unequal domestic class and also racial orders are fundamentally linked to the unequal world system. Keeping that order in place is one reason that capitalism and imperialism go hand in hand.
As I recently discussed with Toby Chow and Jake Warner, it’s why the US is so furious about China breaking the so-called ‘rules’’ of the global economy. Latin America’s last era of left governments, the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ that began with Hugo Chávez’s 1998 election in Venezuela, accomplished major achievements in dramatically reducing poverty and including the excluded at the heart of revitalized democratic societies. But they were unable to escape their place in the world system, and also, to a degree that might be surprising, given all the scaremongering over creeping communism, they were constrained in their ability to remake domestic class orders. The case of Ecuador is a case in point. Rafael Correa, who took office in 2007, joined fellow Pink Tide presidents in taking advantage of soaring prices for commodities like oil, driven by China’s breakneck industrialization to ramp up social spending. When that commodity boom went bust in 2014, the fiscal basis for left governments across Latin America evaporated. But in Ecuador, conflict over the export-dependent model emerged earlier, at the commodity boom’s height. Correa’s push to create a large-scale mining sector and to expand oil drilling prompted fierce resistance from Ecuadorian social movements, led by the CONAIE, the legendary national indigenous federation.
That’s what my guest today, Thea Riofrancos, discusses in her new book,Resource Radicals: From Petronationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. The CONAIE, at its height the most powerful social movement in the Americas, had led the resistance to neoliberalism that took off in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for Correa’s election. At the height of the struggle against neoliberalism, CONAIE and social movements embraced what Thea calls “radical resource nationalism,” the demand that the exploitation of natural resources and the benefits derived from them be controlled by the people through a democratic state. But soon after Correa took office, the anti-neoliberal alliance fractured. Correa saw large-scale mining for gold and copper as a way to generate resources to reduce poverty.
Many Indigenous people and small-scale farmers, campesinos, however, viewed mining as a threat to their land, water, and territory. It wasn’t just that Correa had betrayed radical resource nationalism by continuing to allow foreign corporations to dominate mining and oil. Social movements attacked Correa’s continuation of the very extractive model, demanding an Ecuador without large-scale mining and indeed without any extraction at all. But social movements like CONAIE were unable to replicate the size and scope of their past mobilizations against neoliberalism. Many who might have joined the CONAIE in the past welcomed Correa’s redirection of commodity boom spending to the poor majority.
And so the rights of Indigenous communities and nature came into conflict with economic uplift for the majority, an impossible situation for a left that is charged with securing economic justice for people and also a habitable planet upon which people can live. This intra-left fight became incredibly bitter and polarized, and it raised key dilemmas for left social movements and left governments. Problems that are all the more obvious with climate change wreaking its most lethal and disruptive havoc on the world’s poor, painfully demonstrating that there can be no economic justice without ecological balance.
Thea Riofrancos is a professor of political science at Providence College and a Radcliffe Institute Fellow. She serves on DSA’s Green New Deal campaign committee and is a co-author ofA Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, and the author ofResource Radicals: From Petronationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. Thea is the Dig’s senior advisor.
DD: Why, in your mid-twenties in 2007, did you and I decide to move to Ecuador, and how did what we observed there help shape this book that you have written?
Thea Riofrancos: In 2007, as you said, we decided to move to South America, and our choice of Ecuador was a bit arbitrary. It was eliminating countries that we had already spent a lot of time in, and we had a list of a few, and among them we chose Ecuador because it was a place where a left-wing government had just come to power in this broader moment that scholars call the Pink Tide, which was a sweep of left-wing governments across the continent.
For years prior, both of us had been involved in what’s called Latin America solidarity politics — involved in visiting Latin America and coming into direct contact with social movements, and receiving delegations from social movements and labor unions in Latin America. This solidarity politics comes out of the late 1970s and 1980s, during Reagan’s dirty wars, where there was the emergence of the solidarity movement in the US, but it had shifted and changed, especially with the arrival of left-wing governments to power, starting with Hugo Chávez in 1999. As solidarity activists, we found ourselves in the interesting position of being in solidarity both with movements, with popular movements, workers’ movements, indigenous movements, women’s movements—but also with nascent left-wing governments who found themselves very much under the watch of empire, and were concerned about how imperial powers might respond to them. So we were in that interesting mix of solidarity politics when we decided to move to Ecuador.
Arriving in Ecuador, I think what we both learned right away—we knew already that the arrival to power of the left would be complicated, for the reasons I’ve just said. They’re arriving to power in a context of imperialism, and know that they’re under threat both from the domestic ruling class and from foreign powers. But it was complex in an additional way, which goes back to what I was just saying about movements and governments: how would popular movements interact with the governments that they had helped bring to power?
When left governments come to power anywhere in the world, social movements and labor movements face this question: Are we in strict alliance with the government? Are we defending the government against its enemies and our enemies? Are we holding the government accountable to its promises? Are we pushing the government to radicalize? I would say that all of those options were explored and enacted in different ways and in different contexts of left-wing rule in Latin America at that moment.
But Ecuador was unique in a way, because right from the beginning, conflict emerged between movements that had critically supported—and I mean critical in both senses of the term; they were critical in that they were crucial to the rise of Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador who had just been recently elected when we arrived, but they were also critical in the other sense of the word, which is that they did not lose their critical faculties once he came to power.
So we had this rise of the left to power after a long period of movement mobilization, which we’ll talk about a lot in this interview, and when you and I arrived in Ecuador, those movements were already in a process of critiquing and shortly thereafter coming into actual opposition with the government. As solidarity activists and, later on, myself as a scholar, that is exactly what was interesting but also fraught. How do I analyze intra-left conflict in a way that is objective but also generous and true to those principles of solidarity and internationalism that brought us to Ecuador in the first place?
The other thing that was quite interesting about Ecuador, in addition to the fact that conflict between movements and a left government started quite quickly after the left assumed power, was what the conflict was about. The conflict really hinged on the issues of resource extraction, socio-environmental contract around extraction, and indigenous territory sovereignty and self-determination. Those were the main points of conflict, not only between the state and movements, but also even within different factions of the state itself.
DD: And in terms of movements, Ecuador was and is home to the indigenous federation CONAIE, the most powerful indigenous movement in the Americas at certain moments and perhaps the most powerful social movement in Latin America at certain movements.
TR: Absolutely. Scholars have referred to the CONAIE at its moment of supreme strength in the 1990s especially as the most powerful movement in its mobilizing capacity and in its ability to topple multiple governments in Ecuador, as the most powerful movement in the hemisphere. It was a force to be contended with. By the time that Correa came to power, the movement had to some extent weakened, but was still an extremely important force, and re-emerged as an important articulator of popular protests under the Correa administration.
DD: You’re right about this debate under Correa, who was president from 2007 through 2017—that it “emerged in a regional context characterized by two processes: the electoral success of leftist governments and a sustained commodity boom.” Let’s start with the context of the rise of left governments in the Pink Tide in Latin America. Ecuador is one of the Pink Tide countries that has received the least attention in the US. What do Pink Tide leaders mean by what they called “socialism for the 21st century”? And where did Correa’s government fit into this broader set of leaders and governments that included Lula in Brazil, Chávez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Kirchner in Argentina, Vázquez in Uruguay? At the time at least, there was this conventional dichotomy drawn between good and bad, radical and moderate leftist governments in Latin America, but you argue that such categories don’t really hold up upon closer inspection.
TR: To answer this question, I want to set the context a little bit more and pick up with some of the things I was saying previously—emphasizing to listeners less familiar with Latin American politics how world-historic (important for the whole planetary conjuncture) the coming-to-power of so many left-wing governments at once was. It’s quite historically unusual. I think the only kind of parallel to make is the simultaneous rise of many social-democratic governments in Europe, but the rise of so many leftist governments in the Global South, in that context of empire, makes it additionally unique. Just to put it in perspective, in I think 2009 or 2010—what is the height of the Pink Tide—two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under left-of-center or more radically left-wing governments.
It’s a very widespread phenomenon of the left coming to power, and not only is it in terms of numbers or the number of countries or governments as you listed, but it’s also important in terms of the rupture that it marked. Prior to the Pink Tide, you had decades of neoliberal governments that had various shades of ideology, but all of them were committed to a neoliberal program. That neoliberal program is precisely what left-wing governments came to power to, in their own words, contest and dismantle, very much in response to, again, decades of social mobilization.
Prior to the democratically-elected neoliberal governments, there were dictatorships. One of the fascinating things about Latin America is this pendulum swing between different political paradigms and regime types in short periods of time—really dramatic shifts. You have a bunch of left-wing governments coming to power, and you mentioned several of them. Oftentimes scholars analyze these governments as good versus bad left. This is in academic journals and in the pages of the New York Times—it’s a common way to describe them. Generally, ‘bad left’ was the more radical left—that was how the scholars defined it, and the ‘good left’ was the more pragmatic left.
But these categories are extremely unhelpful. First and foremost, they’re not analytic categories; they’re normative categories, and they’re normative categories from a certain perspective, gazing on the Global South and saying, “What is the right and wrong path for governments in the Global South to take?” They immediately betray their normative positions, so I think they’re suspect for that reason. Let’s go to the figure of Correa in particular. Correa is classified as the ‘bad left,’ along with, generally, Morales and Chávez. Some of that is based on his rhetoric, which reproduces the tropes of Latin American leftism. It’s anti-imperialist, it’s about the state reasserting its power, it’s about meeting social needs.
DD: And anti-imperialist being anti-US imperialism, in particular.
TR: Exactly. That is why scholars have classified him as ‘radical.’ But on the other hand, Correa, unlike Morales, and unlike Lula (who is characterized as ‘good left’) doesn’t come from a social movement or labor background. He is a technocrat; he is an economist; he had previously served as a finance minister under another government. He is left wing; I am not doubting his left-wing credentials, although a lot of my book is about conflicts over how we define the left. But I think I would place him firmly on the left. He is a technocratic leftist with no history of social movement activity, and in no way is an organic intellectual leader like Morales was.
Automatically, these categories break down, because it would actually be more useful, as I think better scholars have done, to analyze how these leaders came to power; what their trajectories were, autobiographically; to analyze the trajectory of the political parties that they led. Were these parties grounded and rooted in social movements? Were these parties created as electoral vehicles in order to bring a particular leader to the ballot-box?
The last thing I’ll say on this granular point—the other big reason that I really dislike these broad generic labels, to label entire countries as good or bad left—is that in Ecuador, there was a tremendous amount of contention, conflict, also at times collaboration between movement and state actors. To label the entire country under one moniker really effaces the fact that what the left’s project was was up for debate. How to implement leftism in the context of the Global South under the thumb of empire was under debate. What tactics to use vis-à-vis a domestic ruling class that so recently had been politically hegemonic in the neoliberal period was up for question. And so these labels don’t do justice to the more interesting thing, which is the internal tensions, dilemmas, and tradeoffs that marked the period of left rule.
DD: Your book is about this intra-left conflict over mining that was really a central political conflict throughout Correa’s time in office. To what extent did these sorts of conflict over resource extraction emerge in other Pink Tide countries, and to the extent that they did not, why not? There are all of these different factors at play. Ecuador had a powerful indigenous movement, in contrast to, say, Venezuela, but Bolivia also had a massive indigenous movement. Environmental conflict was a feature, but I don’t think a defining thing, of Morales’s conflict with his base. Was Ecuador’s experience exemplary or unique, or was it more of an omen, foreshadowing the kind of problems that any kind of left government to deal with ecological crisis will face?
TR: I think it’s both exemplary and unique, but let me zoom out a bit and talk about the commodity boom for a moment. That was the other big process that you mentioned in your prior question. Two processes mark the political-economic conjuncture that I’m looking at in my book. On the one hand is the rise of the left to power, and all of the interesting questions and dilemmas that that posed, as I just discussed. That was a regional context. The other context is a global context. We can see that countries are nested in different political-economic scales. And the global context, economically, was marked by the commodity boom. That is an economic period, an economic cycle, that starts in roughly 2000 and ends in roughly 2014. It was driven primarily by China’s rapid industrialization, but also by the industrialization of other so-called emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India.
There was a sudden increase in demand for raw materials. Why? Because in order to industrialize, in order to manufacture goods, goods are made from raw materials that come from the earth. So all of the prices for those raw materials skyrocketed because there was so much demand for them on the global market. And what’s interesting about Latin America is that it is, as we’ll again discuss throughout this interview, a commodity and export-dependent region economically. So many of those goods are extracted or harvested in Latin America, and so at the same time that the left came to power, there was a tremendous flow of economic resources into state coffers because all of these governments ruled over national economies that exported these resources. And in Ecuador, particularly, the effects of the commodity boom were felt through a dramatic increase in oil prices. There was also a dramatic increase in mineral prices, which is part of what incentivized the Correa government to finally exploit these mineral reserves that had been untapped in Ecuador for its history.
Why then, in this context of left-wing power and the commodity boom, do we get such intense conflict over extraction and, in fact, emergence of militant anti-extractive movements, primarily based in the indigenous movement and in allied radical environmental groups? Why in Ecuador? You nicely lay out that there can be different causes for this. One of those causes you mentioned is a long history of indigenous mobilization in Ecuador. I’ve already said that the CONAIE—the national indigenous federation—was one of the most powerful social movements in the continent, and a lot of what it had mobilized around for a long time were the issues of land, of territory, and also the threats, especially in the Amazon, of resources extraction to indigenous territorial rights.
But I think what sets Ecuador apart from Bolivia is a couple of things. There was the addition of a completely new extractive sector in Ecuador. I said that Ecuador had long been an oil-producing state, and oil was one of the commodities that saw its prices increase a lot. Ecuador had exported oil since the early 1970s, but Correa’s gambit to diversify the portfolio of extractive sectors into large-scale copper and gold mining was a real game-changer. Scholars have noted across the world that when governments and corporations seek to exploit extractive sectors that are new in the national economic context, they expose ecosystems, territories, and peoples not previously in touch with extractive sectors to the fate of extraction, which involves environmental pollution, contamination, dispossession, threats to existing livelihoods. So introducing a new extractive sector really changes the politics of extraction. It makes extraction salient in a new way, compared to more institutionalized extractive sectors.
The last thing that sets Ecuador apart is its very strong indigenous movement with links to the environmentalist movement. We also have a new extractive sector, which makes extraction more contentious oftentimes; and in addition, Ecuador, more than Bolivia, is really tied to the boom-and-bust global cycle of the commodity boom, and tied to the Chinese economy. A lot of what Bolivia exports, primarily gas, is more regional in its economic ambit. As a result, China’s rapid industrialization phase coming to a close didn’t as directly affect Bolivia’s economic fortunes, and we can actually see that in that Bolivia’s gas exports were less tied to this global boom and bust cycle, and the fact that the economic fortunes of Morales’s government were much better than those of Correa’s or Chávez’s.
DD: And although Morales entered into a pretty major crisis and suffered a coup, MAS is now back in power as we speak.
TR: Absolutely. But that was a delayed response. Ultimately, Bolivia does feel the effects of global economic downturns, but it wasn’t as immediately affected by the close of China’s rapid industrialization period, as Ecuador was.
DD: This is a key paradox with the commodity boom. It operated within this pre-existing world system that marginalized countries like Ecuador, while at the same time, it created the fiscal basis for the Pink Tide’s left rule. But it ultimately helped send the Pink Tide into crisis. Was it the main cause of the Pink Tide’s crisis and decline, or were there other factors at play?
TR: There were other factors at play, but I think that you can’t just ignore the fact of timing. Across the region, these various Pink Tide governments, starting in around 2014, really entered into serious political difficulties, and there were different reasons and conjunctures in each case. There were different balances of class and political power. There were different relationships to social movements and questions over how democratic the relationship between the state and movements was.
I don’t want to simplify that too much, but I do want to say that the end of the commodity boom in 2014 sets into motion a series of insurmountable economic difficulties for these governments, and we have to understand that the political power and popularity of these governments was closely tied to their ability to spend massively on social services and public infrastructures, which helped lift up dramatically people’s life chances, developmental outcomes, employment possibilities, possibilities for forms of local economic development. Their ability to keep winning elections was closely tied to the economic scene.
With the end of the period of the commodity boom, there weren’t the fiscal resources in place in most cases. The World Bank lauded Bolivia’s macroeconomic management and their ability to smooth out some of those boom-bust cycles with forms of state saving and subsequent investment. But in general, their fates hinged on their ability to meet people’s needs, because they came into power responding to decades of social movements demanding that those needs be met, and they promised upon coming to power that they would, and they were re-elected multiple times. As you said, Correa was ten years in power. They stayed in power because of their ability to deliver on promises, and I think it can’t be understated how much the commodity boom undermined that possibility.
Part of the reason that these governments’ economic fates were so tied to the global economic scene was because of the prior period of neoliberalism. These governments didn’t come to power out of nowhere, or in a vacuum. They came to power in the thick of history, and in the prior decades of history there had been more and more concerted attempts by governing elites, by international financial institutions and by corporations and the domestic ruling classes to deeply integrate Latin American economies into the global economy, to deregulate, to liberalize markets, to become more expert-oriented, to lease and sell concessions for mining, oil, and other extractive projects to foreign companies.
And by the time the left came to power, Latin America had a different relationship to the global economy. It was rather seamlessly integrated into those global markets and deeply dependent on them for its economic fate. The Pink Tide couldn’t have immediately undone that relationship between the regional, national, and global, but it also didn’t really try to, because the very understandable incentive or temptation to make good use immediately of all of these economic resources flowing into their state coffers because of how well their exports were doing in global markets was too great. They had an immediate fiscal basis in order to address social needs of their populations, and they did renegotiate contracts with foreign firms. Sometimes this is simplified and called ‘resource nationalism’ in a simplistic way.
In many cases, they didn’t nationalize extractive firms or expropriate them. But they did forcefully renegotiate contracts with oil companies, mining companies, soy companies, gas companies, and with a strong democratic mandate behind them, in order to increase the taxes and royalties that are paid to the state. So they basically made the gamble to stay in the global economy, and to renegotiate contracts so terms are better for the state and for the people.
DD: But the commodity boom will also allow left governments to boost social spending without radically confronting their domestic class system, something also lost in the radical rhetoric of Correa or Chávez, which meant that when the commodity boom went bust, the upper class was very much still there in a powerful economic position.
TR: The other reason that ‘resource rents,’ as they’re called technically, are politically easy forms of financing social programs and public works is not just because the prices were high for the commodity, so a lot of money was coming in. They also avoided the question of deeper forms of class conflict, because if you have oil, mining, or gas money coming in, you can defer—punt into the future—the question of expropriating property of the wealthy. Or, less dramatically but equally challenging in Latin America, there’s the question of taxing the rich more.
It’s amazing that Latin America has very low taxation rates; that is because the ruling class, from the period of independence, has been unwilling to support the broader masses through taxation. These governments, for the most part, did not expropriate property or dramatically redistribute land. There were various attempts at land reform, and some of them were moderately successful, like in Bolivia—but there was not massive redistribution, so land tenure remains deeply unequal. Though Correa did make the tax program more progressive, and he should be lauded for that, some of his attempts to make it even more progressive—for example, with an inheritance tax—the right wing came out in the streets, and he withdrew it.
For anyone who hasn’t witnessed them in Latin America, elite protests are very strange spectacles. They came out in force, and Correa withdrew it. He had implemented some other tax reform that was positive, but he didn’t implement all the tax reforms that he wanted to.
DD: Before we get into a lot more historical detail about Ecuador, what are the standard ways that this resource dependency we’ve been discussing in the context of the commodity boom is analyzed in social science? How does this complex case of Ecuador’s intra-left struggle over extraction prove it to be insufficient?
TR: The standard way that scholars analyze resource extraction—the political economy of resource extraction—is through the lens of the resource curse, and related concepts like the rentier state or the petrostate. The resource curse idea is that resource dependency, the fiscal, economic dependency on the export of resources like oil, gas, or mining, results in two types of pathologies, one economic and the other political. The economic pathology is that there tends to be underinvestment in more ‘productive’ sectors of the economy; all of the investment flows to the resources sectors because they tend always to have a global market.
So why invest in more long-term productive, industrial, or manufacturing capital? That’s the economic problem, and that leaves governments vulnerable to those boom-and-bust cycles.Then the political piece is that, ostensibly, states that depend upon resource extraction and exports are more likely to be authoritarian, either outright authoritarian-autocratic or lower-quality democracies.
Immediately, there are lots of problems with this, because there are lots of governments in the world that have large resource sectors, but don’t seemingly fall prey to the resource curse. We are reminded that countries occupy different positions in the world system, and that that really shapes how extraction and export of resources will affect their political economy. It’s very different to be Norway than to be Ecuador, and those in turn relate to different internal trajectories of state-building and class relations. One problem is that there are too many exceptions to this rule for it to be a good guide to how resource politics will play out.
One way that I like to think about this particular problem—the fact that it doesn’t attend to the specific positions of countries in the global system—is Timothy Mitchell’s great line that all states are oil states. The resource curse states that the oil states are Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Ecuador—countries that have large oil sectors and export them. But Mitchell is saying that the entire global economy runs on oil, and hopefully not for much longer. To say that just the countries that happen to have oil in their countries are the ‘oil states’ is a real misunderstanding of the way that oil and capitalism relate to one another.
DD: It’s like the phrase ‘banana republic,’ which obscures which country is eating the bananas and which government is backing the banana-growers.
TR: Exactly. One issue is that it’s methodologically nationalist. It takes countries as these national containers, and doesn’t think about the relationships between them or their relationships to a global order. Now I’ll get a bit more into the case of Ecuador to get the texture of why the resource curse is not a very useful way to think about what happened in Ecuador.
As I said, the resource curse predicts that countries dependent on these resources will become authoritarian, and that’s for various reasons. One is that resource rents are a great way to fund military and security apparatuses. Another is the idea of the political resource curse: if you don’t have to tax your citizens, they won’t demand representation. This very simplistic idea of what caused the American Revolution is then generalized into this rule of politics.
This poorly describes what happened in Ecuador. I’m not at all saying that Correa didn’t attempt in various ways to concentrate power; many leaders attempt to concentrate power. We need only to look at our own recent history, not just of Trump but of Bush, Obama, Clinton, and of increasing executive authority in the US. That’s not particularly tied to resources; that’s something that happens often in presidentialist systems, particularly. But more generally, what Ecuador saw amidst a commodity boom, amidst the circumstances that scholars would say most likely causes the resource curse to be set in motion, is a proliferation of conflict over democracy, of different ideas about democracy, of local, directly-affected communities and indigenous movements claiming forms of direct, communitarian democracy, and saying that they should have control over their territories, and enacting new democratic practices in order to resist extraction.
You have the state paying a lot of lip service and policy reality to creating new participatory institutions for citizens to interact with the state. You have a constitution that dramatically expands collective rights, the rights that communities hold and that they can petition for. What you have is an efflorescence of practices and subjectivities on the terrain of democracy, and a fight over who is the, and how they enact their power. It’s not at all a situation which somehow resource dependency unilaterally determines, going down the road to authoritarianism.
DD: Let’s set some key historical context. Ecuador first became a petrostate under a military government in 1972, and that government saw oil as key to developing the country. What sort of military government was Ecuador’s, and how did it fit into the third-world oil politics of that era? How was it that the military government “left an enduring ideological legacy of resource nationalism, which would later be reappropriated and radicalized by popular movements,” as you write? That’s normally not the legacy we think of with Latin American military governments.
TR: This period of dictatorship runs from the sixties to the late eighties and early nineties, depending on the specific contexts, but there were two decades that saw a lot of military governments across the region. Many of them are right-wing, and many of them come into power specifically as a counter-reaction to the growth of popular labor and popular movement power under prior governments that were more leftist or progressive, or more nationalist. They’re specifically coming into power as reactionary forces. But not all military governments are the same, and at least in the cases I’m familiar with, which are Bolivia and Ecuador, there were military governments that came to power that were progressive in a sense, or at least had a nationalist developmentalist vision for the economy, and saw themselves as not primarily about repression—not to downplay the repression that those governments meted out, because they did—but more primarily about transitioning their countries up the ladder of economic development. This very much characterized the Rodríguez Lara government in Ecuador that came to power in 1972, and was in power until 1976. There was another military government right after that, and then in ‘79 you have democratization.
The Rodríguez Lara government—this will be familiar to folks who are aware of the politics of oil in the 1970s—came to power, was bookended by these two major oil booms, these booms in oil prices that have their own reason and trajectory that I won’t get into right now. The Ecuadorian government prior to Lara knew that there were oil reserves. They had recently been discovered in the late 1960s, and the military government came to power with the explicit aim of creating a petrostate in Ecuador, of creating a state that could oversee, assert its authority over the oil sector and attract and export that oil with the specific goal of national development. That was the ideology and the policy paradigm of the Rodríguez Lara government. They established a state-owned oil company that still exists today. They asserted much more state control over the territories where oil was found, and how the state related to foreign corporations. They also instituted some progressive and some unclassifiable reforms. In the progressive category, they instituted Ecuador’s most major land reform, but they also instituted a policy called colonization, which was a policy to incentivize people from the highlands of Ecuador to move into the Amazon to help ‘develop’ the Amazon. That sets off lots of conflicts with indigenous communities. They also, as you mentioned, took a leading role in OPEC, in the early 1970s politics of OPEC. OPEC has become more dominated by Saudi Arabia since, but in the seventies, OPEC was a forum for the proliferation of left-ish or developmentalist resource-nationalist visions coming out of the Third World. It was the idea that the Third World had the right to manage or assert authority over its resources, and that it should aid the development of those countries, rather than the world-system or foreign capitalists. This was the rhetoric that the Rodríguez Lara government used. It was a piece of that broader moment that you discussed in your interview on the New International Economic Order, this moment of Third World solidarity and assertion of Third World political-economic power. OPEC, in a way, was one of the most successful artifacts of that moment because the New International Economic Order sought to create multiple such organizations related to different commodities that the Global South countries export. But oil was the one that got the most institutionalized.DD: What happened to Ecuador’s oil politics under democratic and neoliberal governments that followed the military government? What role did neoliberalized resource politics play in provoking the rise of anti-neoliberal social movements like the CONAIE?
TR: You mentioned the resource nationalist ideology of the Rodríguez Lara government—this idea that the state should control its resources and use it for the benefit of the people. In addition to bequeathing an institutional legacy of a state-owned oil company, which outlives the military government, I’d also bequeath an ideological legacy of resource nationalism. It’s important to note at this juncture, because it can get a little subtle, that the version of resource nationalism that the Rodríguez Lara government, as well as governments in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, tended to have was not anti-capitalist. It was anti-imperialist, though. It was against the power of the core states, the industrialized states, the former colonial powers. It was not anticapitalist per se.
That’s an important distinction, because what happens under the period of neoliberal hegemony that occurs after democratization in 1979, starting in the early eighties and up until Correa comes to power in 2007, is that Ecuador is ruled under a series of democratically-elected governments, several of which are deposed from power by the indigenous movement and its allies, but that all shared a basically neoliberal orientation to the economy. In that neoliberal period, there were attempts at oil deregulation, privatization, building privately-owned pipelines—I use the word ‘intentionally’ because not all of these worked out; they were policy goals, but from the outset, they were deeply contested. They were contested under the banner of radical resource nationalism.
A lot of this came from the oil workers’ union; it came from the indigenous movement, at both the national and regional scale, and other popular movements that they were in alliance with. What they did was inherit this legacy of resource nationalism, its symbolic repertoire, the equation of the nation with its resources, the idea that those resources should serve the people, a popular sense of who the people are. They inherit that from the dictatorship and radicalize it specifically in conflict and in contradistinction with the neoliberal form of resource governance that, to varying degrees, rules over Ecuador and its oil sector for those decades.
They radicalize it in the direction of anticapitalism. They make the connection between the imperial world order and the capitalist mode of accumulation. What they call for is the expropriation of oil resources from private, foreign hands into the public for state-owned resource companies that will be dedicated to using resource rents to lift up the economic fortunes of the masses. They even get more radical than that. So far, I’ve put this in anticapitalist terms; they also think about it in democratic terms. It’s not only about having state ownership, but about democratizing—thinking about what a democratically managed oil company would look like, one that served the interests of the 99%, the people writ large.
The emergence of this radical resource nationalism is partly an inheritance from the past, but it’s also partly an innovation in resistance to a conjuncture of ruling-class elite forces that had aligned themselves behind neoliberalism.
DD: The history of Ecuador’s indigenous movement is also key here in terms of understanding how the indigenous movement makes this turn, under Correa, from radical resource nationalism to anti-extractivism. You have highland or Andean indigenous organizing beginning all the way back in the 1930s, when rural peasant organizations allied with urban leftists to fight what was then the dominantsystem, which then ends in 1964 under the military government, which then lays the groundwork for the 1972 foundation of the highland indigenous federation Ecuarunari, which remains the largest indigenous federation in the country.
But meanwhile, in the Amazon, there’s a distinct but parallel process of indigenous organization that emerges, in your words, “in response to the dual threats of colonization and oil exploration among the Sarayaku, Shuar, and Achuar peoples.” And that led to the creation of the first Amazon indigenous organization, the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza, or OPIP, in 1978. And then, in 1980, the Amazon-wide federation CONFENIAE. How did these parallel but distinct processes of organization compare to each other, and how did their merger, creating CONAIE in 1986, create such a powerful and unified force? How did it weave together both this radical resource nationalism and, from the Amazon, this nascent anti-extractivism?
TR: It’s a really interesting history of the parallel formation of two distinctly territorialized indigenous movements that come together, join forces to become, as discussed, the most powerful social movement in Ecuador and, at certain moments, in the hemisphere. In terms of the particularities of how the national indigenous movement came to formation in Ecuador, part of what made it so powerful was the way that class-based demands, relating to ownership, property, class relations and the means of production, and demands that center on ethnicity, language, and cultural self-determination, were at various moments interwoven. One maybe prevailed over the other, but the fact that we had both of these demands deeply embedded in the indigenous movement is an artifact of this parallel trajectory of the Amazonian and Andean movements, and an important part of its broader political power and eventual ability to articulate a broad popular bloc that went beyond self-identified indigenous communities to include neighborhood associations and labor unions, all sorts of popular movements that did not identify as indigenous.
In the Andes, in the mountainous region containing Quito—the region of the country that had been first and most deeply incorporated into the Spanish empire—you have a long history, as a result of the politics of colonialism, conquest, and independence, of tense, conflictual relationships between the indigenous masses and the American-born, Spanish-descended Creole elites. These conflicts had a political dimension to them because the masses were excluded, but they had a very important economic dimension, which was conflict over land access. Land tenure was extremely unequal, and there were conflicts over deep labor exploitation, a semi-feudalized system that tied people to the land through debt peonage and other means.
These conflicts had a clear class dimension to them, and peasant unions formed. Those peasant unions had relationships with ideologically left formations, socialist and communist. I recommend the work of the historian Marc Becker on this, providing a deep dive into the relationship between indigenous and ideologically left politics in Ecuador. There were various state reformist attempts to dismantle the system of extremely unequal, semi-feudal land ownership, and those attempts were not to create an egalitarian society, but instead to assert some kind of state presence and reduce the power of these landowners.
In the mix of this were the peasant unions, communities starting to self-organize, and those starting to self-govern at the local level. Out of that trajectory comes Ecuaranari, the highland indigenous federation with its deep roots in peasant organizing and in class-based formation. The whole time, weaving through the class demands is attention to forms of ethnic discrimination as well. Class was the primary category.
In the Amazon, there was a very different trajectory, where the indigenous movement arose not out of conflicts in the agricultural sector out of land and labor, but more as a response to this dual threat. On the one hand, as I mentioned previously, state-led colonization of the Amazon, which was the state’s attempt—first in the sixties, then in the seventies under the Rodríguez Lara dictatorship—to populate the Amazon more densely with highland people, some of whom wereand some of whom were highland indigenous people, to incentivize them to move with cheap land, credit, and loans.
DD: The process was called colonization.
DD: And the people who settled there were called colonists.
TR: Yes. These were not upper-class people at all. The majority of them were working-class or lower middle-class, but they were seeking economic opportunity in the Amazon with state support. As they arrive in the Amazon, they encounter indigenous communities, nations, peoples that had been relatively autonomous. Their communities lived in large swaths of territory for hunting, fishing, ceremonial purposes, agriculture, and living. They had these territorialized, well-developed cultural systems that were now coming into direct conflict with a colonizing force. It wasn’t the Spanish colonizing them, but it felt similar, and it was, as you said, called colonization.
Around the same time—again, this is under the military government with the expansion of oil extraction—a lot of extractive activity was starting. This includes oil extraction as well as logging and agriculture. It’s always important to keep in mind that with mega-agriculture and extractive activity, there are infrastructural requirements: road-building, new forms of transportation and communications, and more socio-technical infrastructure to support this, which also threatens the territorial ambit of indigenous peoples and nations. The radicalization of indigenous peoples in the Amazon is first and foremost about the territorial and cultural threat posed by extraction.
The way in which extraction undermines the territorial and cultural integrity of an indigenous people becomes very important in later militant anti-extractivism. These themes are articulated in the moment that began in the 1970s; out of that came the Amazonian indigenous federation. The leaders of the highland and Amazonian federations then came together to form the national federation.
Why is this national federation so powerful? Especially with the combination of Amazonian and Andean groups, it wove together class and ethnic demands, cultural and economic grievances, in a way that showed a holistic understanding of what the nature of indigenous oppression was. It had multiple facets; it was intersectional. Articulating that explicitly is a form of political power. That lent it some strength. Another source of strength is the way that the federation was literally built through the ground up, from peasant unions, from local forms of indigenous self-government, from the territories of the Amazon and the cultural systems therein. It was built from the base, and it built up to a provincial level; it then built to a regional level, and ultimately to a national level. Nothing makes a movement or a political party stronger than deep territorialization, having layers of multiple scales in internal governance, decision-making, and mobilizing capacity.
The mobilizing capacity became immediately clear. In just a few years after the national indigenous federation formed in 1986, there was the first nationwide indigenous uprising in 1990. In 1992, there was the next nationwide indigenous uprising; in ‘97 and ‘98, there were several more. One after the other, you see national uprisings that were able to mobilize across the country, both in situ and bringing people into the capital, in ways that European-descended elites had never seen before.
DD: Though the indigenous movement is putting forward what you call this “key conceptual innovation,” the idea of a plurinational polity, it’s also, in the 1990s, at the lead of a “broad bloc of the oppressed.” You write, “At this juncture, CONAIE’s political project was at once indigenista and popular-democratic. The federation claimed to speak on behalf of a broad bloc of the oppressed, conceived of in both democratic (the people) and class (the poor) terms, and defined against a class of political-economic elites, the oligarchy. The identity articulation was not purely aspirational. It reflected on-the-ground alliances between indigenous and non-indigenous groups.” You’ve already touched on this a bit, but what was it about the politics of the neoliberal nineties that allowed the CONAIE to emerge as such a force, not only on behalf of indigenous people but also on behalf of the oppressed majority of Ecuador?
TR: From the very beginning, that first indigenous uprising in 1990 put key demands on the table that were both ethnic and class-based in character. That is important because the class versions of those demands had a possibility of articulating with other groups, groups that also experienced the same forms of class oppression, though not the ethnic forms of discrimination and marginalization, as indigenous nations and peoples did.
So from the very beginning, before it even had organizational links with other popular-sector groups, the CONAIE was putting forth demands that other groups could see themselves in. As the CONAIE gained strength and political protagonism, bringing people into the capital and rocking political elites, the neoliberal hegemony was beginning to consolidate. Elites became more committed to neoliberalism; this story was both domestic and global.
Neoliberalism is a global phenomenon, but there were particular reasons that it was useful to Latin American domestic elites, who saw it as a way to undermine and dismantle the forms of popular power that had been achieved earlier in the century. This articulation of neoliberalism, of free-market deregulation was in alliance with international financial institutions like the IMF, which became strongly articulated in Ecuador by 1994. In that moment, the CONAIE began to formalize its alliances with a broader array of popular-sector groups that had their own alliance formation.
The CONAIE entered into a direct relationship with these other movements, and they became unstoppable. They deposed multiple presidents; they limited the ability of multiple neoliberal governments to implement their full program of neoliberalism. For example, some governments wanted to privatize the state-owned oil company, and they were unable to. It’s not that neoliberalism wasn’t achieved, but it wasn’t achieved to the degree that elites had hoped, and that was because of this broad public-sector alliance, mobilized under the banner of a broad popular identity, a heterogeneous bloc of the oppressed.
This alliance represented the idea that the oppressed have multiple forms of oppression, but that what they share in common is being excluded from the political system and from the economic system. They have in common their exploitation and their marginalization, although it may take different forms, depending on their social location. They can ally around that, and what is interesting and unique about Ecuador is the way that the indigenous movement identified multiple oppressions and articulated its own internal intersectionality. That was key to its ability to connect to a broad array of other popular movements. The point of intersectionality is not to isolate in discrete corners of identities, but rather to identify the conditions and possibilities of solidarity. That is what the CONAIE did so successfully over so many years.
DD: And the Ecuador experience is distinct from Bolivia’s, because in Bolivia, you see mass indigenous movements emerging often in the form of militant labor movements.
TR: Right. In Bolivia, the history of the indigenous movement is a little more closely tied to that of various types of labor unions. Further back in history, you have a very militant mine workers’ union. We know from US history how militant mining unions tend to be. They were Trotskyist, very in the thick of anti-imperialist and anticapitalist politics of the day. Later, these miners, who had been laid off when the state-owned mine company was privatized in 1985, went to the coca-growing region of Bolivia, and they replicated their militant, hierarchical, politically and economically effective union formation in the coca-growing sector. That is the precise sector and union formation that Morales emerged from. Bolivia has a fascinating history of miners carrying their collective memory of discipline, coordination, and anticapitalist unionism with them to other parts of the country and sectors of the economy once they were massively laid off by the formerly state-owned mining company.
DD: During this period prior to Correa, you write that there was “a nascent rejection of oil-led development that coexisted alongside calls to nationalize oil resources. The hegemony of neoliberal policies allowed for this provisional alignment of social movement organizations with such distinct political trajectories and positions on extraction.” What role did resource politics play in this period of social movement organization led by the CONAIE prior to Correa’s rise, and how was it that neoliberal hegemony allowed anti-extractivism and radical resource nationalism, which would later come into such conflict under Correa, to coexist productively?
TR: I’ve emphasized the role of the CONAIE’s discourse, tactics, and organizational forms, but I also could have emphasized the role of neoliberalism in constituting a unified target of various grievances. Elites rallied together under the banner of free-market reforms, which was ironically helpful in unifying popular forces because there were so many different things wrong with neoliberalism. Obviously, it created poverty and unemployment; it destroyed labor unions; it led to environmental devastation due to the forms of deregulation; it allowed foreign capital to control large swaths of the economy. Many different social positions could find a problem with neoliberalism, and they did.
Neoliberalism was part of what allowed for the provisional unity of distinct critiques of capitalism, distinct critiques of neoliberalism, and distinct critiques of extraction. One of the critiques of extraction is a resource nationalist critique that got radicalized, especially by the role of the oil workers’ union, which was quite militant. They put their bodies on the line to protest against the privatization of various aspects of the oil sector, to protest against the building of a privately-owned pipeline. One oil worker described it to me in an interview like this: Imagine a corporation owns the veins in your body. That is how they view the foreign control of the oil sector. These are dramatic terms, and it’s a dramatic rejection of capital’s control of the oil sector.
Radical resource nationalism was in its full form during the late nineties and early 2000s. But there was this other critique of extraction beginning to percolate. It wasn’t quite nationally resonant yet, but it was very rooted in the experience of Amazonian indigenous communities, peoples, and nations, like the Achuar and the Quechua, whom you mentioned earlier. They are getting into increasing and militant confrontation with oil companies and with the state, both state bureaucrats and state-owned oil companies. They are in conflict with everyone trying to extract oil.
This conflict sets off because in this neoliberal moment with various forces pushing in favor of expanding extraction—the IMF, the World Bank, governments and corporations—oil extraction moves from its traditional location in the northern Amazon to the southern Amazon. When extraction reaches a new sector or affects new people and ecosystems, it becomes contentious in a different way. That is exactly what happened in the southern Amazon, starting in the 1990s and 2000s. Groups that hadn’t previously been in direct contact with oil extraction face the threat to their territory, cultural integrity, and pre-existing livelihoods. They use all the militant tactics in the book, including the detaining of oil executives and government officials that tried to expand oil extraction in the southern Amazon.
More militant anti-oil activism emerged in the Amazon. It wasn’t initiated as a critique of the entire extractive model of development. It was more articulated as the specific threat of oil to indigenous cultural and territorial integrity. The demand was not necessarily an end to all oil extraction, but instead that indigenous peoples had a voice and veto power over oil extraction. Interestingly, every so often, new demands emerged, like “Maybe we should have a moratorium on oil.” These were the seeds of a more oppositional stance to extraction, in contradistinction to radical resource nationalism, which is more about the people owning and democratizing resource sectors, and removing them from the hands of capital. This stance focused on the idea of no extraction at all, and importantly, it was articulated not just against foreign companies, like resource nationalism, but also against the state, because it saw the state’s role in opening up new frontiers to accumulation by oil-driven dispossession.
DD: The CONAIE played a key role in ousting President Bucaram in 1997 and Mahuad in 2000. But then they suffered a huge blow to their power, influence, and credibility after they backed Lucio Gutiérrez, who first as a colonel had backed the 2000 coup against Mahuad but, after he was elected president in 2003, embraced neoliberalism and became extremely unpopular. CONAIE was on the margins when this movement known as the forajidos ousted Gutiérrez. This was the movement that formed the basis of Correa’s campaign.
You write, “Notably, neither CONAIE, which had hitherto been the main articulator of political discontent and coordinator of protest, nor existing leftist political organizations played a role in this particular rebellion.” Nonetheless, Correa went on to “re-deploy the very critique of neoliberalism voiced by CONAIE and their popular-sector allies over the past decade and a half.” What did it mean for the forajidos, rather than the CONAIE, to be the proximate push for Ecuador’s entry into the Pink Tide? What did that mean in turn for the sort of party Alianza País was founded to be?
TR: It’s a complex history, and a fast-moving one. Every couple of years, there’s a turning-point. In the late 1990s, there were a few years of deep economic crisis in Ecuador. There was a hyper-inflation crisis; there was widespread immiseration due in part to neoliberal reforms, but also to economic mismanagement. CONAIE decides to support a coup attempt against the government in power that presided over this hyperinflation crisis, and that also presided over the dollarization of Ecuador, which was intended to end the hyperinflation crisis. Ecuador uses the US dollar.
Lucio Gutiérrez wanted to do a coup against the government; the CONAIE supported it. It was a short coup; Gutiérrez didn’t take power, but it did result in the vice-president stepping in when the president resigned. This was the beginning of what the indigenous activist whom I quote in the book, Mónica Chuji, calls the most contradictory moment of the indigenous movement in Ecuador, because they supported a coup that didn’t work in the sense that it didn’t bring a left-wing government to power.
A few years later, the leader of that coup, Gutiérrez, ran for president on a popular, populist political program that was not explicitly neoliberal. Immediately, he bait-and-switched, instituting neoliberal reforms. The CONAIE looked bad first for supporting a coup and second for supporting the election of Gutiérrez, who then betrayed them, not only by instituting neoliberalism but for intentionally and successfully co-opting certain indigenous leaders, offering them positions in government—a government that would then come under criticism of the indigenous movement. Shortly thereafter, Gutiérrez was forced to resign.
This time, the government was forced to resign not primarily because of the CONAIE, which had lost some of its political capacity for some of the reasons just described, but by a somewhat inchoate set of street protests that lots of different people participated in, from more obvious left-wing forces to the mayor of Quito. Everyone was out on the streets because Gutiérrez was so terrible, and because he had betrayed his campaign promises so clearly. Out of that moment of working- and middle-class, left and establishment rejection of Gutiérrez and of neoliberalism, the possibility of Correa running for office emerged.
That lack of a clear ideological articulation, as well as a lack of a clear social base, was visible in what became Correa’s political party, Alianza País, which was less a political party than an electoral vehicle. For various reasons in Ecuadorian electoral law, it’s actually easy to form these parties that are not really parties, known more as political movements, that can appear on the ballot but do not necessarily have deeply institutionalized organizational forms. Alianza País was created so that Correa, a former finance minister who had a reputation for being heterodox and progressive, and for railing against the debt, US imperialism, and the lack of social spending, could come to power.
What was the indigenous movement doing at this moment? The indigenous movement was not very active in the leadership of the street rebellions that led to Correa’s rise to power. But they were not totally inactive at this moment. A few months after the forajidos’ rebellion, they helped organize massive protests in the capital against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which was the attempt to expand NAFTA to the entire hemisphere. The attempt failed. People came out in forceful protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, but they also couched that in anti-colonial language, given that it was a protest against the commemoration of Spanish conquest in October of 2005.
The CONAIE wasn’t really involved in the protests that led to Correa coming to power, but it was still active, and it was attempting to re-articulate and find its political voice after the period of its legitimacy crisis, caused by its support of the coup. Correa came to power with a broad backing of many parts of the population, with a promise to fundamentally shift Ecuador’s economic and political direction away from neoliberalism, and with the critical support of the CONAIE. He did not run through the indigenous political party; he didn’t come from the CONAIE; he is not indigenous.
But the CONAIE didn’t reject him. They had a critical stance toward Correa, and I discovered through my archival work that the CONAIE and Correa were planning on running on a ticket together. It fell apart, partly because of Correa’s personality; he doesn’t really work well with others, and he has a strong personality. He refused specifically to allow for primaries for candidate selection because he didn’t want the possibility of his being the vice-president if he got the second most votes. He wanted to be at the top of the ticket.
There was a moment in which the indigenous movement and Correa were going to run together on the ticket, and that fell apart for somewhat idiosyncratic reasons. History is always contingent to some degree. The CONAIE supported Correa; I would guess the vast majority of their members voted for him. But when he came to power, the CONAIE made their demands clear: “Remember, you promised to dismantle and transcend neoliberalism; you also promised a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution.” This had been a longstanding demand of the CONAIE.
The CONAIE had played a major role in politicizing the Constitution, meaning that they brought to popular attention the fact that constitutions are documents that support certain political and economic orders. The Constitution had been rewritten a decade prior, in ‘97 and ‘98, which was connected to that trajectory of indigenous uprisings; they had put the demand on the table for a new constitution. By no means did they get everything they wanted in it, but they left their imprint on it, and they decided that this was not enough; they needed a post-neoliberal constitution, one that would take Ecuador into a new political-economic period.
Correa responded to that demand, which had at that point, because of the CONAIE’s organizing work, become a widespread popular demand. He set up elections to install a constituent assembly, popular and democratically elected, and they got to work in 2007 in rewriting the Constitution and coming up with what constitutional scholars agree is one of the most, if not the most, progressive constitutions in the world, in terms of the way that it makes clear that popular sovereignty and democracy is the foundation of the state. It sets out a whole array of new collective economic, political, and cultural rights, applied to collectivities and not just individuals, in a departure from liberal constitutionalism. It also departs from all constitutionalisms because it gives legal standing to nature, empowering human individuals and communities to go to court for nature when its rights are violated.
DD: Before we get deeper into Ecuador’s constituent assembly, what role did constituent assemblies play in the Pink Tide in general? Three countries have them: Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela. As we continue to see in Chile today, why is Latin America exercising this form of constituent power, deemed such a consistent priority for the left?
TR: I want to recommend the work of another scholar: Angélica Bernal has written beautifully on constituent politics in Latin America, and specifically on the Pink Tide moment of those constituent politics. Part of answering your question is getting outside the blinders of American exceptionalism, which affects our viewpoints, even on the left. In the US it seems so unusual and dramatic to rewrite the Constitution, given that we have been living under this document for hundreds of years. Even on the left, there are rarely calls—not recently, at least—to rewrite the Constitution, even as people are calling for the abolition of the Electoral College and the Senate.
The US Constitution has this sacredness, and in many other countries in the world, it’s not that way. There have been more dramatic changes in regime type, which opens up the possibility to rewrite constitutions. Movements of various sorts have seen constitutions as living documents, and as documents that need to be scrapped and rewritten. Latin America is part of what is more common in the rest of the world. Because of the influence of the indigenous movement and the way that it articulated the foundations of oppression and exploitation for so many years, the movement was drawn to the idea of rewriting the Constitution as a way to re-found Ecuador in a way that would fundamentally break from its colonial Creole forms of elite power that had shaped it, but also break from neoliberalism, because they understood that it had a legal basis encoded into the regulatory state. That must be undone to create a social state, a democratic state.
As in Bolivia and Venezuela, they also saw the Constituent Assembly as an important venue to articulate a variety of popular demands. The occurrence and unfolding of the Constituent Assembly provided a forum to debate deep questions that movements had been bringing to public attention for many years. Something about the institutional setting of the assembly was appealing. We can debate how much the Constitution totally transformed Ecuador, but it did absolutely provide a new set of rights and political orientations that had a new legitimacy to them because they were encoded in the Constitution. It gave movements a new set of languages and symbols, as well as a new discursive repertoire, that had legitimacy because it was in the Constitution.
More so than totally re-founding the state of Ecuador, which it did in certain ways, the Constitution gave legitimacy to a lot of movement claims, and it allowed them to portray themselves, particularly the indigenous movement, as the defenders of the Constitution. This is interesting when you think of the dynamics of conflict between the state and movements—that movements put themselves in the position of being the defenders of a popular constitution.
DD: Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly “provided a venue for the articulation of two political projects: a nascent anti-extractivism and radical resource nationalism.” The final text of the 2008 Constitution retains vestiges of both. It empowers communities affected by extraction, and it grants rights to nature. It also asserts the state’s exclusive control over sub-soil resources and biodiversity itself. When the assembly was convened, resource extraction did not yet divide the left, but soon after it convened, it did.
How did this divide begin to emerge in the assemblies’ debates, and how did those debates shape the divides and conflicts that would follow, particularly over what it meant to exercise democratic control over Correa’s proposed creation of a large-scale mining sector?
TR: In contrast to some of the ways that other scholars studied these constituent moments — these moments of re-authorization, creating a new basis of political legitimacy — I think of these moments, particularly in the case of Ecuador, as opening rather than closing political questions. They create a new terrain, a new set of terms available, new sources of legitimacy that different actors can claim. It opens a new cycle of contention, rather than closing and settling a cycle of contention. This is very much the case in the Constituent Assembly in Ecuador, where these big questions were raised, and in large part because of the intellectual influence of the national indigenous movement.
Questions like “What is the relationship between the state and the nation?” might be answered by thinking of a single national people and a single political apparatus. The CONAIE disagreed with that. They said, “We live in a plurinational state. There’s one state, sure, but there are many different nations that it represents and interacts with.” Plurinationalism was a term that the CONAIE imported into the constituent assembly. Another concept, ‘sumak kawsay’ in Quechua (‘buen vivir’ in Spanish or ‘living well’ in English) is in opposition to and a critique of traditional forms of development and developmentalism—that the goal should not be economic growth or endless accumulation or consumerism. The goal should be living well, some kind of harmony within human communities and between nature and human communities. That was another big set of debates.
These terms made it into the final document, but they made it in through a set of political conflicts that in some cases divided members of Alianza País, Correa’s party, against one another. One of the interesting points of conflict that I dwell on a lot in the book, which split members of Alianza País, was the question of how much power local communities should have over resource extraction. Extraction became a divisive intra-left issue. Some members of Alianza País, and members of the indigenous party Pachakutik, as well as some other left parties, wanted a strong form of local, territorial autonomy in which directly affected communities would not just have to be consulted if an extractive firm wanted to extract resources in their territory; they would have to give consent.
But the majority of Alianza País supported what the president supported, and he intervened in this question. They believed that people should be consulted, but that the state should ultimately have the authority; that is how the clause is written. These fissures open up over the relationship between state and nation, humans and nature, locals and national. They increasingly hinge on the question of what movements begin to call extractivism, which is what they begin to name the political-economic system that they live under. They stop talking about neoliberalism and begin to talk about extractivism. For them, neoliberalism lost some of its critical traction when the Correa government self-identified not only as post-neoliberal, but as socialist. They felt that if a post-neoliberal government was going to push for extraction, which it did after the constituent assembly, then there had to be a deeper problem that could also infect left-wing governments.
That problem was extractivism. Several months after the Constituent Assembly closed and the Constitution was ratified, Correa pushed through a bill that became the new national mining law, setting the framework for the inauguration of large-scale mining in Ecuador. Just months after all of these rights had been won for nature, buen vivir, plurinationalism, and other things at the constituent assembly, the indigenous movement turns around and has to confront the threat of the massive expansion of extractive activity, and of a specific extractive sector that is extremely land-intensive, that would result in the dispossession of entire communities.
DD: They did so by embracing the Constitution as their own, even after the CONAIE only critically supported the referendum approving the Constitution.
TR: Yes, and I think this is a good moment to pause and return to the dilemmas, tensions, and tradeoffs of the left coming to power, and how movements responded. The CONAIE threaded this needle in various ways over time. Their initial response to having a left-wing government in power, one that did not come from indigenous movements or from any social movements, was critical support. That was how they responded to the election of Correa, and it was how they responded to the ratification of the Constitution. The Constitution didn’t contain all of their demands.
As soon as the Constitution is ratified, they dropped the critical part, because they realized very intelligently that the Constitution was an extremely powerful tool to defend their rights and territories against the encroachment of extractivism. So they put aside the fact that they didn’t get everything they wanted—for example, the placement of the indigenous language, Quechua, at the same level of Spanish as a national language; it’s designated slightly differently in the Constitution—and they didn’t win prior consent. They didn’t win everything they wanted.
DD: But they acted as though they had won prior consent.
TR: They acted like they won because they took the Constitution on as their own. They realized and knew how much the Constitution itself was the outcome of trajectories of popular struggle, and they were not going to let the government own the Constitution, even though it wasn’t entirely made in the image of the indigenous movement. They claimed it as a tool of legitimacy; they claimed it as a set of symbolic and discursive resources, of a new legal language. They took it to the streets and to the territories, using it tactically to defend territories against extraction. In doing so, they gave life to the Constitution. It was not a dead document; it was living, and it was not just any type of living document. It lived through the contentious activity of grassroots movements.
DD: Correa, of course, did not attempt to engineer a green exit from the world system, a system that confines countries like Ecuador to primary commodity goods and exports. Instead, he tried to take advantage of the commodity boom by expanding large-scale mining. But did Correa’s environmentalist opponents and indigenous opponents have an idea for how such an exit—an Ecuador without extraction—might happen? In your opinion, is such an exit even possible at all? Can you have green socialism in one country within an oil-fueled, capitalist world system?
TR: The answer to that last question is no, and I don’t mean that in a nihilistic, pessimistic sense, as though it’s not worth it to fight for such things. Rather, in order for Ecuador to transition out of so-called extractivism, changes at the regional and global scale would need to occur, and I think it’s important for the US left to think about this. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the US left has lost its internationalism and its orientation to the international, and lost the idea that a lot of what we are struggling for is something we struggle for both domestically and internationally.
It’s important to understand that the limitations of the Pink Tide were not just of their own making, not just of their own personal idiosyncrasies, but also came from the parameters and constraints that they found themselves in. First and foremost, they found themselves in national economies that had been thoroughly integrated into global economies, in which foreign capital was thoroughly implicated, and in which large swaths of territory had already been slated for extraction and for environmental ruin. There are always different choices that could be made; there were parts of the Correa government, some of the bureaucrats, that were deeply committed to a post-extractive transition, and that laid out extensive, detailed plans for what a post-extractive economy might look like.
But on the question of fiscal resources, especially under conditions of debt—Correa did default on some of Ecuador’s debt, but Ecuador remains an indebted country, debt that I consider illegitimate and unsustainable—there were limitations to what the government could do. When I talked to these bureaucrats who were interested in turning Ecuador into a post-extractive economy, oftentimes they would justify the expansion of extraction in the present. They would say, “Yes, we know mining is terrible, and we think it should be slowed down or limited, or rights should be more respected. But mining is our last chance. We have this commodity boom; the money is flowing in. China is interested in our resources. We need to take advantage of this so that we can store up the resources to invest in the knowledge sector”—things like ecosystem and biological research. Ecuador is an incredibly biodiverse place, and so that was appealing to them. Things in the service sector, like ecotourism related to Ecuador’s biodiversity, were also interesting to them.
They had visions for an eco-economy, but they felt like it was important to take advantage of the commodity boom in order to store up the resources. The problem is that once you commit to expanding the extractive frontier, you get hooked into it. It’s challenging, because of the nature of the boom-and-bust cycles. You can’t control when the boom is going to end, and all of a sudden, you find yourselves without financial resources, as happened under Correa; austerity was imposed.
DD: Latin Americans, leftists and otherwise, have long embraced something called ‘dependency theory”’ to explain their country’s place in the world-system. That was the intellectual analog to an economic development model called ‘import substitution industrialization,’ which, before the neoliberal turn, sought to move Third World countries up the value chain to break them out of this subordinate position within the world system. How was ISI displaced by neoliberalism decades ago, and why was it that the Pink Tide failed to revive that model, or something like it?
You write, “Fundamentally, if in the mid-century variant of developmentalism, the goal was rapid industrialization, which would progressively reduce the share of the economy occupied by extraction while climbing the ladder of economic sophistication, the neo-developmentalism of the Pink Tide made peace with service-sector dominated labor markets and prioritized extraction over manufacturing, coordinating to protect prices, enforce standards for revenue sharing, or jointly adopt labor and environmental regulations, have competed for investment. They thus betrayed promises of regional integration and mutually reinforced their peripheral status.”
TR: The question as to why the Pink Tide didn’t revive ISI or revive more developmentalist orientations that would have sought to industrialize is one that I’ve already answered in terms of neoliberalism having already undermined the state’s capacity to do so. It had already so invited the foreign capital domination of those economies, and had already so integrated those economies into global markets. And there was a commodity boom, so the temptation to use those resource rents rather than to do long-term capital investments to create an industrial base conspired against the resuscitation of developmentalism in its classical sense.
The reasons why that classical form of developmentalism took hold and came up against internal contradictions, as well as the extreme reactions of a global and domestic ruling class, have been covered in many books. I think Christy Thornton’s new book speaks to a lot of this moment of left-wing developmentalism coming out of the Global South, specifically in the case of Mexico. One of the global contexts that had initially helped ISI flourish in Latin America was a temporary cutting-off of Latin American countries from the world system, and temporary depressions in global trade. For example, there was the Great Depression, as well as the interwar and war periods. In these moments were the beginnings of this endogenous form of development in which Latin American elites, to varying degrees of success, tried to industrialize, positively using the opportunity to reduce trade with the Global North.
Immediately, the contrast with the neoliberal period is evident, where there was no protection from the onslaught of global capitalism or of the presence of global markets or foreign capital. With ISI, there’s a lot to say about why it ultimately foundered and why it was replaced by neoliberalism. Some of this is a political story, which is that the domestic ruling classes, in concert with the US and with foreign capital, eventually came to see ISI as a threat in certain contexts, because it resulted in a more organized working class with the development of manufacturing and of workers’ unions, as well as more popular economic and political power. That began to threaten ruling classes, and part of the story of those right-wing dictatorships was the story of a reaction to both developmentalism and attempts at social-democratic reforms, as well as outright socialism in the case of Allende. This is clearest in Chile and Argentina, which had right-wing dictators that broke with ISI tradition and switched to neoliberalism.
In other cases, in Brazil, there was also a dictatorship that came to power in 1964, but that dictatorship continued with ISI for a while; it came out of the upper echelons of the political and economic military technocracy that had implemented ISI. What happened in Brazil is that ISI entered into some of its own internal contradictions. It was about moving up the ladder of economic value and development, so that you eventually produce value-added, manufactured goods and capital-intensive, sophisticated goods like cars and steel. But you start with the lower-tech consumer goods, like processed foods or textiles. You move up the ladder.
And the issue with ISI is twofold. First, throughout ISI, you still need to import things, but what you need to import becomes increasingly expensive, because you need to import the technology and the capital goods in order to produce these more sophisticated products; you get yourself more and more into debt. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that is created by the conditions of global capitalism and the legacies of colonialism. You have that issue, and then you also have an internal dependency of the industrial sector on the agricultural and other export sectors. Those export sectors are important because they bring in the foreign currency that is then spent on capital imports. But if anything happens to those global markets, like we’ve been discussing, you suddenly don’t have the needed foreign reserves.
There are also difficult political relationships, because the agro-exporting elites tend to be more conservative; they’re not in love with being in alliance with the industrialists, because that puts them in indirect alliance with workers’ unions. There are all sorts of political dilemmas to the ISI coalition. There are external, internal, economic, and political reasons that ISI comes to a close, and the stage for neoliberal hegemony is then set.
DD: How do these more recent conflicts over whether to extract fit into a longer history that is so often for the neoliberal turn, including for the heyday of ISI, that made energy and extraction workers such a powerful and militant vanguard of organized labor? What does this reveal about the role played by energy or by extraction more generally in capitalism, or in any mode of production, and what accounts for oil workers and miners in the past finding themselves at the vanguard of such movements, while more recently, in your book, anti-extraction movements have found themselves boxed in and relatively marginalized, while extraction workers are relatively powerless?
TR: This is a really interesting question on the relationship between extraction and capitalism on the one hand, and on the other hand, extraction and militant forms of critique and resistance, both labor and indigenous. There is a long history in Marxism, throughout the twentieth century, of thinking about imperialism as a specific form of expansion of capital to territories not previously under its ambit, or not fully integrated into capitalism, and of the kinds of violence and political power that are implicated with economics at those frontiers or vanguard settings of the expansion of capital. Luxemburg’s writing on this is great, but so is Harvey’s analysis of accumulation of dispossession—that at these frontiers of capital’s expansion, we get some of the most violent forms of capital, often with state assistance.
By that token, we also get the possibility of forms of resistance and critique that identify the connection between the political and the economic, the connection between state violence and economic profitability. In all sorts of contexts in the world, we can see radical forms of politics in extractive economies. Sometimes these take the form of labor politics. Timothy Mitchell’s book Carbon Democracy is great here; it’s less about accumulation by dispossession in a physical frontier of capitalism, and more about how extraction and energy—coal, in this case—is such a central node of the industrializing capitalist economy in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Labor has a particular power because it’s working at the chokepoint of the whole system. That’s another way in which extraction can be politicized and serve as the venue for radical forms of grassroots power because of its importance to the system as a whole.
In Ecuador, unlike what Mitchell describes about oil in his book, oil was auspicious for worker power, but too much so, because elites really reacted to that. Oil workers literally put their bodies on the line, protesting against privatization and pipelines, articulating this radical resource nationalism that resonated along the broader population. They faced severe repression and criminalization, jailing, and accusations of terrorism. There was a way in which that elite reaction to radical resource nationalism undermined the political power of radical resource nationalism; it lost some of its most important leaders and articulators.
Over the next few years, in the early 2000s, Correa comes to power. He prioritizes large-scale mining; that opens up whole new territories to extractive dispossession and environmental ruin, and that politicizes a different set of actors around mining; it creates a slightly different coalition. It doesn’t involve workers as much, because mining doesn’t exist yet. It’s a plan, so there aren’t any mine workers at this moment, early on in Correa’s government. The territory is being leased, but the mines haven’t been built yet.
Local anti-mining groups also flourish, as well as coalitions between radical environmentalists, local anti-mining groups—sometimes indigenous, sometimes local farmers that are worried about the effects of mining on water and crops—and the indigenous movement, which had various longstanding critiques of extraction. Out of that new coalition that relates to the distinct territoriality and dynamics of a new extractive sector is a wholesale critique of extraction, a rejection of extraction. There is a shift from radical resource nationalism to anti-extractivism, drawing on those prior symbolic and tactical resources of the Amazonian indigenous groups that had began to protest oil more militantly in the 1990s, drawing on the new language of the Constitution that endows local communities, indigenous collectivities, and nature with new rights, and drawing on a transnational diffusion of radical environmentalism in Latin America.
Drawing on these discursive, symbolic resources, there emerges a wholesale and powerful militant critique of extraction that resets the terrain. Movements are in the protagonist role here, because they forced the Correa administration to respond—sometimes with co-optation, sometimes with attempts to say that it would invest in local communities, so that they should support mining, and sometimes with renewed forms of criminalization. Almost two hundred indigenous leaders defending land and water faced legal charges and sometimes imprisonment under Correa. The state had to respond, and sometimes the power of movements was visible in the state’s repressive response. But the repressive response was not able to squash these movements.
As you hint in your question, however, these movements were powerful with their militant, tactical, and clear critiques, resisting extraction at the sites of extraction, but also at the sites of decision-making in Quito, the capital. There were different territorial angles to their protest, as well as forging new alliances. There was a limitation on this movement, which was that it was deeply based in the experience and grievances of communities that would be directly affected by extractive projects. Those communities, whether indigenous or not, although they were mostly indigenous, were not the majority of society; they were in the rural peripheries of the state of Ecuador, in the southern highlands and in the southern Amazon. They were not located in the centers of urban political and economic power, where tactics of disruption can be quite successful, because you can grind the politics and economy to a halt.
They had a difficulty in re-articulating that broad, popular, heterogeneous bloc of the oppressed that had been so successful in not just resisting neoliberalism, but also putting forth positive visions of what an alternate economy and society and polity might look like. The anti-extractive movement was often caught in a corner of forcefully and sometimes successfully resisting extractive projects in a negative sense, focusing on the harms and grievances. But when they moved to what the positive vision of post-extractive society would look like, it was more difficult; it’s hard to imagine a formerly colonized place still constrained by colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism transitioning out of that on its own. Can you have eco-socialism in one Global South country alone?
The difficulty was not of their own making, but it was a difficulty. It limited both how many people got involved in the anti-extractive movement, but also the movement’s power to present the type of ideology and program that could come to state power. What would an anti-extractive political party look like if it took the reins of state power, got popularly elected, and embarked on its program? There are difficulties on the state side and on the movement side that parallel one another. The left-wing bureaucrats that wanted to transition to post-extractivism faced the difficulty of transition.
What does a transitional program look like? What does it look like to slowly dismantle the bad and to replace it with the good? This is something that leftists around the world have to think of, because you never arrive to power in circumstances of your own choosing. You arrive to power with constraints, with legacies, with forces that want to get you out of power. You have to figure out ways to get from Point A to Point B that involve gradation, transition, complex temporalities of policymaking.
DD: A core problem that we may have missed for anti-extractive social movements in Ecuador is that it was a relatively small number of people affected who lived near where the mining was going to happen, and a relatively large number of people in cities like Quito who were benefiting from increased social spending under Correa, which creates a real problem.
TR: Exactly. Thank you for bringing that up. A way to conceive of this is what I call the uneven territoriality of extraction, and it’s uneven in its harms, meaning that certain communities are marginalized, affected, and contaminated by the harms of extraction, but it’s also uneven in its benefits. Sometimes that takes the form of corporations getting all the profits, or the state getting the resources and not distributing them. But in this case it took a more politically complex form, where masses of Ecuadorians, including working-class and indigenous Ecuadorians, benefited materially from the increased social spending and industrial investments that resource rents funded.
They also were ideologically invested in this resource nationalist idea, which movements had promoted for years, that the state should use the resources to the benefit of the people. There was a supreme irony in anti-extractive movements coming up against their own successes — the successes of their prior radical resource nationalism, the success of their demands that resource rents be redistributed to the people. But in the face of those successes, anti-extractive movements radicalized around a new pole of conflict, which was the question of extraction itself.
DD: You cite a few examples of environmental struggles, with which this broader coalition that the CONAIE and social movements had been unable to recreate under Correa did somewhat emerge. One was in the southern highlands city of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, where a proposed mining project “would affect their shared water supply, which irrigates both dairy and vegetable farms, and slakes urban demand”—unifying campesinos and city dwellers.
Another example was the YASunídos campaign, which gathered signatures for a referendum to block oil drilling in the Amazon’s Yasuní national park. This emerged after Correa’s proposal to the international community to not drill in the Yasuní in exchange for $3.6 million in international donations to compensate for the ecological debt owed to Ecuador. This failed, and the international community did not pay up. What did these campaigns accomplish, and what does that signal about how central politics linking environmental and economic demands, urban workers and rural peasants, might operate at a larger scale?
TR: Scale is exactly the question here. The uneven territoriality of extraction enables the political power of directly affected communities. Those communities located at the immediate sites of extraction have political power that rests at the same place as the power that workers have at a factory. It is their leverage to disrupt the circuits of extraction at their source, just like when workers go on strike and disrupt the production and accumulation of capital at its source.
Local communities had that kind of power in this territorially uneven extractive economy. The flip side of this is the limit. You need more than local communities to create a mass program for a post-extractive left political force. In an unintended way, there was a reproduction of that uneven territoriality in the tactics of anti-extractive movements. They hemmed themselves in, in certain ways.
What the case of the mine near Cuenca—the movement was so successful that that mine is not happening—the planned mine near the third largest city of Ecuador and the campaign to have a massive citizen referendum on whether or not to extract oil in this extremely biodiverse rainforest have in common is that they go against the grain of that territoriality. They make the powerful claim that multiple scales and territories of the state are affected negatively by an extractive model of development. They can also show what an alternative looks like.
Both of these campaigns managed to do that, and in the case of Cuenca, there was a deep alliance made between the local and provincial indigenous federation, between water associations, which had the power of managing water irrigation for farmers in that area, and between urban environmentalists that, for varying but complementary reasons, all opposed a mine that might contaminate the water system that both farmers, consumers, and other economic sectors depended on. They had a strong enough coalition that they were able to stall and potentially stop that mining project.
You can see the different constituencies involved, the different types of arguments that they made, and the fact that it was not just in a locally-affected community, but went all the way to a large city. And in the case of the Yasuní, what’s amazing about it is how they brought a proposal, one that was originally Correa’s proposal but had failed because the international community refused to pay the money he asked for to prevent oil extraction, through a youth movement that emerged, recalling the promise to protect the ecosystem and the indigenous people that lived in it. They mobilized quickly, and they got enough signatures for a referendum. However, the state electoral agency disqualified enough of those signatures to stop that referendum from going forward.
But both cases had appeals to scales and territorially-defined constituencies that exceed the ‘directly affected community,’ or even expand the notion of who is directly affected by extraction.
DD: You also mention the 2019 mass revolt against Correa’s successor and erstwhile ally, Lenín Moreno, over austerity measures that he imposed as part of a deal with the IMF, which included, critically, ending a fuel subsidy. As you note, “Crucially, this provisional alliance was not anti-extractivist in orientation. It was, if anything, radical resource nationalist.” What does it mean that that frame continues to be such a better one for mass mobilization and creating left popular alliances at this scale that is necessary to win?
TR: Part of what it demonstrates is something I mentioned earlier, the way that neoliberalism can help provisionally unify different social forces and massify social protests in a way that is more challenging when the left is in power. Moreno was ostensibly a leftist; he was Correa’s vice president, but he came to power through a total bait-and-switch. He started implementing neoliberal reforms; he had a deal with the IMF, and one of the provisions of this deal with the IMF was that he eliminate the fuel subsidy, a very common thing in petrostates where diesel and gasoline are subsidized for ordinary people.
This sparked a major social crisis for Moreno. It was already in the context of a deepening economic crisis in Ecuador because of the fallout of the commodity bust. Amid the combination of his betrayal, the IMF, and the elimination of this popular program—though in a sense regressive, really important to working-class people living at the margins of their income—the CONAIE returns to its historic role as the articulator of mass popular protests of a variety of heterogeneous constituencies. It leads this several-day siege of the capital that results in Moreno completely backtracking, giving them the concession. The fact that an oil product is at stake here resonates with the history of resource nationalism, the idea that people should benefit from the oil economy.
It’s interesting to think about how this might be in contradiction with CONAIE’s avowed anti-extractivism, because at the same time, they fought Moreno on an anti-extractive front against mining and oil projects. They remained an anti-extractive organization, but in this case, they were fighting for the reinstatement of a hydrocarbon subsidy. What does that mean? One, it speaks to the enduring power of radical resource nationalism and its ideological power, its mobilizing capacity and its ability to stitch together a heterogeneous bloc.
I also think that they weren’t fighting for fuel, for more oil extraction. They were fighting for economic security and material well-being of the masses, and that is consistent; that is the type of transitional program that I discussed earlier. You can say consistently that for the time being, we are still extracting, and the benefits should go to the masses. But we should also be taking concrete political and economic steps, which would involve alliances with the rest of the Global South, calling for the cancellation of debt that crushes these countries and forces them into an extractive model of accumulation—that would involve all sorts of tactics at different scales and policies.
You can coherently have a transitional program that moves toward a post-extractive model of development. I think that, in a way, the CONAIE rediscovered that possibility in the heat of popular protest.
DD: You end your book, as you put it, on a “note of generosity to the left in power and the left in resistance.” We didn’t have time to talk about this, but the conflict between Correa and the CONAIE was particularly vitriolic because each side saw the other as betraying the left, as comrades who had betrayed their comrades.
You write, “Dilemmas are not feelings. They are the challenging choices in situations that any attempt to transform the world encounters. They are constituted by the entanglement of radical potentialities, concrete achievements, and disappointing limitations. These two forms of leftism confronted one another in a dispute that became so polarized that each saw the other as a political enemy more dangerous than neoliberalism. Lost in the internecine dispute was the radical promise of 21st-century socialism, collective democratic control over the conditions of socionatural existence. Such a program could have coherently demanded both the redistribution of oil and mining revenues and a transition away from the extractive model of accumulation that generates those revenues.”
To close out, what lessons can we learn from Ecuador about the politics of transitioning away from fossil fuels and extraction, given the setup of a very unequal world system and the fact that some form of minimal extraction, as you’re currently researching with regard to lithium, will always be necessary? Why do you think it’s important for us on the left to struggle over these sorts of questions as dilemmas, rather than presuming that our comrades on different sides of intra-left debates are enemies?
TR: There are a few different lessons. One is somewhat counterintuitive—the necessity of both the left in power and the left in resistance, the left in the streets. We can’t have a left program that just focuses on taking state power or that just focuses on a position of resistance. We actually need both, and we need them at the same time. Coming to power as the left should not signal the end of the street mobilization, or the popular power period of mobilization. We should think about this before we come to power, ideally—that’s not usually the case—to avoid the deep polarization and utter antagonism between these forms of leftism, which did occur in Ecuador.
The reason I say that they’re both necessary, as the case of Ecuador demonstrates, is that the left in power achieved a dramatic advance and uplifting of the material conditions of the majority of Ecuadorians, not seen in Ecuador ever before. Of course, that foundered, or at least got much trickier to maintain with the end of the commodity boom, which shows the problems with the extractive model of development. But major achievements were made. Just the fact of having a government with so much democratic legitimacy that kept getting elected was a victory for the left in power.
The left in resistance also had clear achievements, despite the limitations that we’ve discussed. It stopped some egregious extractive projects that were unnecessary to Ecuador’s well-being or economic development. It stopped some extractive politics. Importantly, it also bequeathed a radical critique and a repertoire of resistance that movements around the world have been inspired by, and that has diffused across Latin America. It’s hard to imagine Latin American indigenous and environmental politics today without some of the events that actually occurred in Ecuador. It’s a very unique case, in terms of how militant those struggles became.
We can make clear arguments on the generic level, that if the left is going to come to power in order to fulfill its promises, it needs to be held accountable by social movements. But more specifically, in a fraught case like Ecuador on the peripheries of the global economy, both movements and the state had some achievements, even if they were in tension with one another.
The dilemma point that you raised at the end, and that I get at in the conclusion of the book, is really important. I like the way you put it, which is that viewing the tasks of taking power from the position of the left, from the grassroots, precisely via the social forces that have been denied that political and economic power, is an extremely fraught process. You are occupying the halls of a state that was in many ways designed to serve the interests of the ruling class. You are occupying that state in a context where investors, bosses, and capitalists control the key levers of economic decision-making, and you’re also coming to power in a social context thoroughly imbued with the subjectivity and affective orientations of neoliberalism and capitalism, in which people are alienated from one another, taught to compete, taught to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
There are a variety of political, ideological, economic, and affective constraints and difficulties along the road to left power. I think that the more we think about those at the outset, the more we can debate those and understand how to deal with them together, rather than breaking down and fragmenting on the left on the shoals of how we answer those questions, getting into intense disagreements with comrades because we have a different way to approach some of those dilemmas. Rather than that, we should think of those dilemmas as shared ground, as the immediate terrain we will have to walk through on this path to transformative and emancipatory power, and think tactically and strategically about how to deal with each one of these.
I think the more that we can do that—I’m saying that as someone on the US left, as someone working a lot on Green New Deal politics, which is fraught with these questions, because the Green New Deal is a transitional program. The Green New Deal will get us from fossil capitalism to renewably powered social democracy. That is a path littered with dilemmas, contradictions, tradeoffs, and tensions, including ones that divide the class itself. The more that we can think in terms of shared dilemmas and multiple solutions to those dilemmas along the way, the more we can strengthen the left against its real enemies, which are not each other, but instead global capitalism, the ruling class, and imperialism.