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Thieves of Patria: Vertical Politics in Plurinational Bolivia


In this dissertation, I offer a materialist account of the relationship between nation, nature, and political economy in Bolivia. Using the history and politics of Bolivia’s tin “mining cooperatives” (cooperativas mineras) as a window, I rethink key concepts in political economy in relation to the matters of mining: strata and resource, mountain and class, tin and labor, machine and value, and dynamite and state. In so doing, I argue that the political economy of resource extraction in Bolivia cannot be understood outside of either the matter of nature or the historical intertwining of nation, race, and gender. Colonial encounters of rock and laborers created the conditions of possibility for the consolidation of capitalist extraction, and these histories are key to understanding the political formations of the contemporary era.

Understanding these formations is politically pressing beyond Bolivia. Since the 2005 election of Evo Morales, the country’s first Indigenous-identifying president, Bolivia has been hailed as a place of hope for progressives convinced that that the future of a world mired in economic, social, and environmental crisis depends on Indigenous political thought and action. In 2009, Morales ushered in a groundbreaking constitution that transformed the country from a republic into a “Plurinational State,” a change that signaled a reorganized relationship between the state and Bolivia’s many Indigenous, Afrobolivian, and intercultural nations and peoples. Given all of this, it might be assumed that resource extraction has been retooled to align with the goals of Indigenous territorial autonomy. To the contrary, the Bolivian state retains control over all subterranean resources, including but not limited to minerals and hydrocarbons, marking a vertical limit on Indigenous sovereignty. Through both direct and indirect involvement, the state has strengthened its control over the subsoil, often at the expense of surface-level communities.

Plurinational Bolivia is thus characterized by a tension between state-led (and state-authorized) resource extraction and a commitment to decentralizing resource governance in a way that prioritizes Indigenous territorial rights. Mining cooperatives embody this tension. With connections to both agrarian and market economies, these associations of small-scale miners have been involved in both defining the contours of the plurinational constitution and writing mining laws that facilitate resource extraction. Just as importantly, they have a long history of being in-between subjects, perpetually caught between both class categories of worker/peasant and racial categories of Indigenous/mestizo (mixed race). They have fallen on the outside of successive Bolivian nation-building projects, including this plurinational one. Usually interpreted as a conservative group that rose from the ashes of the country’s once famously progressive miners’ unions in the 1980s, cooperativistas are discursively figured as internal outsiders, a group of not-quite-rights whose very presence threatens the stability of national imaginaries. They are the fault lines of the Plurinational State, and following them allows me to rework political economy in ways that take seriously the material legacies of nation building and the production of social difference.

Drawing on over eighteen months of ethnography with small-scale tin miners, much of which was spent underground, as well as extensive archival research and over one hundred interviews with scientists, engineers, politicians, and activists, I argue that geosocial formations, forged in the vertical contact zone between miners and rock, perpetuate resource extractivism even in the context of putatively Indigenous nation-building. Bolivia’s subterranean was produced as a national ‘public’ space in the 20th century, imbued with masculinist and mestizo dreams of progress, and these nationalist ideals remain sedimented in the matter of the subsoil. These ideals shape cooperative miners in ways that reverberate on the surface when they take to the streets or run for political office. By tracing the influence of material nature and buried places on the more familiar terrain of resource extraction and contestation, this project rethinks the boundaries of political economy in Latin America and beyond.

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