El Alto: Where Leftism Meets Laissez Faire

The New York Times has run a dispatch from El Alto, Bolivia, a former squatter settlement that is now a formally recognized city. The residents there are prone to leftist sympathies and radical anti-government action—and also, reporter William Neuman notes, to unfettered entrepreneurship:

Interesting book.for all its rebellious spirit, El Alto is far from being a typical bastion of the left. It is a hive of commerce, small-scale manufacturing, international trade and contraband.

"Lots of people describe El Alto as a revolutionary city, but it's the capital of capitalism," said Mario Durán, an activist who works to improve Internet access.

Home to about 220,000 residents in 1985, the city swelled as poor farmers and out-of-work miners poured in from the countryside. It is now bigger than La Paz, with an estimated size of well over one million. The population is overwhelmingly Aymara, one of the country’s main indigenous groups, and the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business.

The most prominent feature of El Alto is its vast open-air market, which fills mile upon mile of city streets every Sunday and Thursday. Here vendors by the thousands offer a huge array of goods: piles of used T-shirts and other clothing that arrive in bales from the United States; cars, new or used (and sometimes stolen); neatly arranged arms, legs and heads from broken Barbie dolls; electric guitars; mummified baby llamas; pickax handles; and myriad other items. Each week, millions of dollars pour through the market, which operates in an almost total vacuum of government intervention, taxes or regulations.

Residents describe El Alto as a nonstop city financed by immigrant dreams of a better life. Beyond the market, there are thousands of small businesses, including importers, manufacturers and garment shops that make knockoff brand-label clothing. The city seems to be in a constant state of construction, fueled by the commerce and, locals said, by money from Bolivia's drug trade. And there are language academies that give courses in Chinese for El Alto entrepreneurs.

One element of El Alto that Neuman doesn't cover, but which may help explain the mix of a militant protest culture with laissez faire, is the rich network of grassroots, community-controlled institutions that effectively govern El Alto: neighborhood assemblies, independent trade unions, parents' educational associations, the syndicates that own and organize the public markets. Such institutions shape the local economy, and they also allow the city's people to mobilize rapidly against government policies they oppose. As Raúl Zibechi wrote in 2005, El Alto's activism

has been carried out without the existence of centralized, unified structures. Perhaps the fact that the Aymara have never had a State has something to do with it. Nevertheless, the lack of existence of this type of centralized apparatus has not minimized the effectiveness of the movements. In fact, it could be argued that if unified, organized structures had existed, not as much social energy would have been unleashed. The key to this overwhelming grassroots mobilization is, without doubt, the basic self-organization that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous many forms of representation.

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  • Pro Libertate||

    "El Alto?" Doesn't that mean, "The High?" So this is a town of stoners?

  • rts||

    Or everyone is over 6'4". (Alto = tall as well).

  • A Serious Man||

    It means "The Heights".

  • Pro Libertate||

    What's that have to do with potheads? You're making no sense.

  • A Serious Man||

    And your uncultured failure to appreciate the nuances and complexities of the Spanish language is duly noted.

  • Pro Libertate||

    ¿Cómo se dice, asshole?

  • A Serious Man||

    Pro Libertate.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Ah, the master stroke. I concede defeat.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    You had me at "mummified baby llamas".

    But seriously, it is unpossible to believe these people can exist without the strong hand of the loving State to guide them, control them and shape them.

  • rxc||

    You forgot the part about protecting the most vulnerable, including the elderly, the disadvantaged and disables (for whatever reason), minorities, those with different sexual identities, and of course...

    THE CHILDREN!

  • sarcasmic||

    mummified baby llamas

    I guess llamas naturally abort their fetuses on a fairly regular basis. They just squirt the little thing out. So much so that in places the ground is just littered with them.

    Llamas are the envy of progressive women.

  • db||

    "La llama es una quadropedo"

  • ||

    As soon as I read that some people were selling mummified llamas, I knew exactly what direction the comments would be going.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    Where do there roadz come from?

  • trshmnstr||

    i refer you to sarcasmic's post right above yours.

  • A Serious Man||

    That's what happens when you live 10 years alone in Bolivia: you get colorful.

  • $park¥||

    neatly arranged arms, legs and heads from broken Barbie dolls

    Pieces sell, but who's buyin'?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    That's an omen. My wife and I are texting each other whether to buy tickets to see Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Testament, and Overkill on Friday Sept. 13th in San Bernardino. I think we have to. Thanks Sparky!

  • $park¥||

    That certainly sounds like a must-see show. Damn, you better buy those tickets.

  • db||

    Buffalo Brad, of course. Ken's onetime friend who disappeared mysteriously in 1970. Rumors flourish in the Barbiverse about Brad's secret lair where he strives to build the perfect Barbie from parts he ghoulishly "collects" from his victims.

    Note: I learned way more than I ever needed to know about the Barbiverse just looking at Wikipedia to find out if there was a Barbie character named "Bill."

  • prolefeed||

    the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business ... Each week, millions of dollars pour through the market, which operates in an almost total vacuum of government intervention, taxes or regulations.

    It seems quite a stretch to call anyone in favor of this "leftist".

  • Irish||

    I once heard someone claim that Chile is really a victory for the left. You see, the economy really took off once Pinochet was deposed. Since the people in charge afterwards were to the left of Augusto Pinochet, they were leftists.

    This is how they talk themselves into believing that a country with the lowest tax burden in the OECD, lax gun laws and privatized retirement funds is secretly left wing.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    I'd take a Chilean "Socialist" over an American Democrat any damn day of the week.

  • Irish||

    Chilean leftists are probably to the right of American Republicans on economic issues. The average income in Chile is like $13,000, and the lowest tax bracket is 5% for the first $15,000. That means that something like 60% of Chileans pay a 5% tax rate. 90% of them are paying under 20%, including the cost of Chile's value added tax.

    If that's leftist, then what constitutes right wing in Chile? Libertarian anarchy?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Chile can only be described as a nominal democracy IMO. It has structural aspects keeping the opposition party's legislative power almost on par with the majority party's -- this keeps the Socialists from doing anything too stupid.

    Besides that, Chile's Socialists are socialist in name only -- similar to the German Social Democrats in the interwar period, years of repression followed by legalization have made the party a much more moderate and widespread workers' party than anything else.

  • ||

    neighborhood assemblies, independent trade unions, parents' educational associations, the syndicates that own and organize the public markets.

    Anarcho-syndicalism is definitely of the left.

  • Irish||

    I'd argue that it's historically been on the left, but that today people would call that sort of thing 'libertarian.' The modern left, at least in the west, is so enamored with the state that I don't know how an anti-state organization can be considered left at this point.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    It's also maybe a little different because the syndicates are organized to essentially facilitate retail exchanges. So it's not exactly a labor syndicate, but more of a capital syndicate?

  • LTC(ret) John||

    I thought they were an autonomous collective?

  • Cytotoxic||

    Don't let this article fool you. These people supported the Bolivarian degenerate in charge of Bolivia and his drive to nationalize natural gas holdings. They aren't pro-capitalism they're just too simple to think about what they're doing versus what they politically support.

  • ||

    Pretty soon Thomas Frank will be writing What's the matter with El Alto?

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Poor people in third world countries are not leftist in a meaningful sense. They certainly want more than what they have right now, but they also sure as hell don't want someone taking what they have. Once those folks have stuff, they become capitalists pretty quick -- and if I lived in a country where the government was run by the rich for the rich and didn't respect my property rights, I'd probably be up in the hills with an AK right with the rest.

    Why do you think so many peasants were killed or had their rights dismantled once leftists had control in the USSR, anarcho-syndicalist Catalonia, Cuba, or any number of left-revolutionary states?

  • Tony||

    a country where the government was run by the rich for the rich and didn't respect my property rights

    You're there already.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    Thanks to the efforts of people like you, you're sadly correct.

  • ||

    Billionaire are ok, just so long as they fund the Democrat Party.

  • Irish||

    I thought you didn't believe in property rights, Tony?

  • ||

    If Tony doesn't believe in property rights, then how come he doesn't donate 90% of his income and wealth to the poor in the Third World?

  • pmains||

    Har har. All of that money belongs to Daddy Government, the bestest daddy in the world, who will never disappoint him the way his biological mommy and daddy did.

  • ||

    The refusal of so many on the left to actually put into practice what their philosophy seems to imply shows just how empty their cries of "social justice" are.

    They are more than willing to use the government to part others with their wealth, but often aren't willing to do much themselves.

    I've actually seen some complain about their tax bills saying that they are struggling and it should be up to a rich person to fund xyz. It's truly sickening that they resort to the violent and powerful state to enforce an enterprise they aren't willing to devote their own resources to.

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