Class Struggle Postponed

An interview with
Lesley Gill

In the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja, a century of violence has disintegrated working-class power.

Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Agencia Prensa Rural

In October, a popular referendum narrowly rejected the peace accords that could have signaled an end to guerrilla fighting in Colombia, where left-wing insurgencies have struggled with state forces and paramilitaries for fifty years — the world’s longest armed conflict.

The peace accord would have provided amnesty for former combatants and allowed demobilized guerrillas a limited voice in government. But the Colombian right mobilized a forceful movement against the agreement, eventually succeeding in blocking its progress and delivering a severe setback to the peace process. Meanwhile, neo-paramilitaries continue to terrorize working people and their allies with impunity.

A stunning new book by anthropologist Lesley Gill helps make sense of Colombia’s dire circumstances. A Century of Violence in a Red City: Popular Struggle, Counterinsurgency, and Human Rights in Colombia describes the history of capitalist development and class struggle in one embattled enclave — the port city of Barrancabermeja, in Colombia’s oil-producing Middle Magdalena region.

Gill’s detailed account follows the history of Barrancabermeja from its formation as a privately controlled export enclave in the early twentieth century through the tense stand-off between insurgents and paramilitaries in the twenty-first.

The book explores the formation and disintegration of the city’s working class, demonstrating that decades of right-wing terror have placed severe limits on working-class politics in Colombia. In a period when any mention of class struggle can invite right-wing terror, activists today are left with only the limited concept of human rights to defend the lives of their supporters.

Provocatively, Gill interprets the rise of human rights activism as a product of working-class defeat, a defensive posture that embattled unionists and peasant activists were forced to adopt in the face of relentless violence. While human rights activism helps sustain Barrancabermeja’s battered social networks, Gill argues it’s ultimately a poor substitute for the forms of working-class self-activity that came before.

Jacobin spoke with Lesley Gill about the recent referendum, Colombia’s disorganized left, and the prospects for a revitalized working-class politics today.


JW

The “red city” in your title is Barrancabermeja, Colombia. What kind of a place is this?

LG

Barrancabermeja is an oil-refining center in the Middle Magdalena region of northeast Colombia. It was established as an export enclave in the early twentieth century, after the Tropical Oil Company — a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Corporation — received a concession from the Colombian government to drill for oil.

The growth of the oil industry drew migrant workers to the tropical frontier region from many parts of the country. Over the course of the twentieth century, diverse groups of people — peasants, shantytown dwellers, oil workers, and petty merchants — made and remade their relationships to each other, the oil corporation, and the Colombian state, forging a militant class culture that nurtured oppositional politics.

Barrancabermeja represented an outpost of working-class power in a conservative country that was overwhelmingly rural for much of the twentieth century. Like other early twentieth-century export enclaves in Latin America, such as mining centers in Bolivia and Chile, its working class formed the radical bedrock of the national labor movement and its influence was felt well beyond the geographically isolated zone of commodity production.

Moreover, working people in Barrancabermeja periodically obliged the oil company to deal with more far-reaching demands than what company executives encountered from workers in the United States.

JW

Still, some people have suggested that class analysis is no longer the best way to understand cities like Barrancabermeja in the twenty-first century.

LG

Capitalism is a violent and ruthless engine of accumulation that forces working people to constantly remake their relationships with each other and with more powerful groups, as well as the understandings that shape these relationships. Class is an emergent social relationship that arises from the inequalities generated by capitalist production. But it’s also a way for people to understand themselves, a way of being in the world.

An analysis rooted in class highlights the ways that people in Barrancabermeja built alliances across different categories of work (industrial, agricultural, commercial), established institutions — particularly a powerful union — to voice their concerns to the state and the oil corporation, and attempted to build solidarity with working people beyond the boundaries of the enclave.

But if class was “made” in this way, it was also periodically “unmade” — first by the oil company and the Colombian state, and then, in the context of early twenty-first century neoliberalism, by a violent far-right alliance of paramilitaries, drug traffickers, sectors of the security forces, landlords, and traditional politicians.

This violent unmaking of working-class Barrancabermeja in the early 2000s was an extreme example of how dispossession, displacement, and disorganization were unraveling the institutions, relationships, and ways of life of working people around the world, from Chile and Bolivia to the American Midwest and British coal country.

Today, the insecurity and social fragmentation of contemporary Barrancabermeja makes it difficult for some to understand why class remains an important analytic category. The challenge for contemporary analysts is to wrap our minds around the social chaos that frequently follows in the wake of capitalist restructuring and counterinsurgency, without getting stuck there and waxing eloquent about “difference,” “complexity,” and “multiplicity” — which are descriptive terms that are disconnected from a theoretical perspective that explains how societies move through history.

If one takes a step back and embraces a historical view of class formation, it is possible to appreciate that social fragmentation, precariousness, and the dispossession of working people are not new phenomena — we have seen them all in the past.

The point is not to wait for the revival of past movements and relationships, but to keep the ways that different kinds of working people come together (and are driven apart) in the process of capitalist development at the center of analysis. Doing this can help us support new political movements when they arise, if and when we are asked.

JW

You argue in your book that the rise of human rights activism is a product of this “unmaking” of the working class, and of the Left’s defeat.

LG

Human rights activism arose in Barrancabermeja during the late 1980s and 1990s — a time when political terror and ascendant neoliberalism were dealing profound setbacks to working people. Paramilitary repression and economic restructuring dissolved social movements, transformed the urban social fabric into a patchwork of individual survival strategies, and created the kinds of vulnerable individuals about whom human rights claims could be made.

But while human rights activism provided the opportunity for new kinds of alliances and a new politics of rights to emerge, it could not contend with the violent, right-wing power aligned against working people, when radical uncertainty was the central experience of their lives. Compared to class struggle in earlier periods, human rights activism operated within a narrower field of political possibilities, in which activists could do little more than appeal to international law.

To be credible in the eyes of international organizations and the government, activists also had to separate themselves from left politics, which further separated human rights from any notion of collective liberation or societal transformation, constraining the development of progressive politics even more. Not surprisingly, human rights remained a defensive strategy that never moved beyond the condemnation of individual acts of terror.

The counterinsurgent war destroyed a way of understanding and acting on the world rooted in class identities and organizations. The class concerns and organizations of an earlier period were silenced or marginalized, and human rights agendas never coalesced into a political force that could reunite the pieces of Barrancabermeja’s once vibrant working class in a way that could articulate a vision of rights that included justice, economic equality, and the guarantees of citizenship.

JW

What does the Colombian left look like today?

LG

After decades of counterinsurgent dirty war — in which some 220,000 people died and 6 million were forcibly displaced from their homes — it should come as no surprise that the Colombian left is quite fragmented.

In a country as violent and regionally divided as Colombia, the popular sectors — trade unions, insurgencies, social movements, left-wing political parties — have never built political power beyond particular regions of the country. They have mostly cohered on the left flank of the Liberal Party, but when scale-spanning forms of solidarity have emerged, such as the Patriotic Union party in the 1980s, they are quickly and violently repressed.

Strategies adopted by armed guerrilla organizations — like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — only intensified this kind of repression. The combinación (combination) strategy, developed most problematically by the FARC, combined legal and illegal forms of resistance, placing individuals operating on behalf of the guerrillas in popular organizations, such as trade unions, peasant movements, and neighborhood associations.

This strategy was deeply controversial, because it seemed to justify military accusations that people in such organizations belonged to the insurgencies — when in fact many, if not most, did not. Consequently, it allowed the security forces to justify targeting civilians. Ironically, it was the paramilitaries in Barrancabermeja who used the combinación strategy to particularly deadly effect against the Left.

Today, the ferocity of neo-paramilitary rule is manifest in contemporary Barrancabermeja, where impoverished young men — often the children of the rural displaced — provide the foot soldiers for drug-trafficking operations and other illegal activities, as well as the ongoing repression of political dissidents.

For surviving social movement leaders, any expression of concern about human rights, labor issues, public services, agrarian problems, or LGBT matters is immediately met with death threats and other forms of intimidation, making it very difficult for them to expand political alliances.

The legal left and the armed insurgencies have generally ignored the urban working class, even as Colombia’s urban peripheries exploded with displaced peasants over the last half of the twentieth century. Still, organizing the refugees of capitalist restructuring and civil war has not been a priority of the Left, which has abandoned them to evangelical churches and, as Forrest Hylton notes, to the criminal gangs and neo-paramilitary mafias that rule on the urban fringes.

A reconstituted left needs to take seriously the plight of poor urban neighborhoods, where a great many people live nowadays, and link their need for jobs and public services to struggles unfolding in the countryside.

Recently, it has been very heartening to see the possible beginning of new alliances in the massive protests that followed the rejection of the peace accords. These protests have forged temporary links between a range of disparate groups — including rural producer movements, student groups, women’s organizations, and trade unions, as well as Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and LGBT groups — who are demanding the immediate enactment of the accords signed by the FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

JW

What does the result of that referendum mean for ordinary people in Barrancabermeja?

LG

Like other parts of Colombia where the violence of the last fifty years dramatically transformed social life, the residents of Barrancabermeja voted to approve the peace accord. But the state of Santander, where Barrancabermeja is located, voted against the accord, as did a thin majority of the 38 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in the national referendum.

With the referendum defeated, it is not clear what will happen next. The peace process has been thrown into turmoil. But what is clear is that the far right — led by former president Álvaro Uribe — refuses to cede anything that it won in the war, and its political maneuvers are likely to weaken any renegotiated agreement in the coming months.

Despite its numerous shortcomings, the accord holds out hope of a broader political space that allows more breathing room for popular organizing and political agitation. This political space is very important in a violent, deeply unequal society, which has been fractured by decades of war and neoliberal reforms.

Yet the accord barely touched many of the deep-seated problems that gave rise to the conflict. A lasting peace will depend on whether the conditions that fueled the conflict — land concentration, political exclusion, poverty, insecurity, and state violence — improve.

The unequal distribution of land was one of the major reasons that the FARC formed in 1964, and the problem has only grown worse since then. Beginning in the late 1970s, drug traffickers began purchasing the country’s most fertile properties in the Middle Magdalena region and elsewhere. A decade later, paramilitaries, who emerged from the drug cartels, drove peasants from the countryside and appropriated their lands, worsening the already severe concentration of land ownership.

Although difficult to calculate, an estimated ten to fifteen million hectares of land changed hands illegally during the conflict. A United Nations study found that 52 percent of rural properties were in the hands of just 1.15 percent of the population.

Today, the neo-paramilitaries are a major obstacle to peace. They operate in regions once dominated by mercenary armies tied to the extreme right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which demobilized in 2006 after negotiations with the government that did not include either the FARC or the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second-largest guerrilla organization.

Nowadays, however, the government largely ignores these paramilitaries, preferring to locate paramilitarism in a past that officially no longer exists. Yet reconfigurations of new and old mercenaries continue to use violence to suppress dissent, defend the destructive ecological activities of multinational corporations, dominate the illegal cocaine traffic, and accumulate wealth on behalf of a retooled right-wing alliance of politicians, entrepreneurs, and drug traffickers.

Even though the intense violence that gripped Barrancabermeja in the early twenty-first century has died down, persistent threats and attacks against popular movement leaders leave open the possibility that the neo-paramilitaries will block any future peace agreement, making it impossible for demobilized FARC combatants to form a political party, participate in politics, or even integrate into social life.

Indeed, the neo-paramilitaries are well positioned to unleash more violence, if democratic advances threaten their power. The passage of the referendum would not have changed this dark reality, because neo-paramilitary groups operate with impunity.