latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Thea Riofrancos’ Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador presents a rich contemporary history of how anti-mining social movement activists tarry with the socialist Ecuadorian state and corporate elites. In doing so, Riofrancos helpfully guides us through the emergence of a variety of political arguments concerning resource governance, resource sovereignty, dependency and anti-imperialism, socialist redistribution, and environmentalism and anti-extractivism. These are both specific to the Ecuadorian context as well as forged along lines of alliance and conflict alike with various other actors in the Latin American left, the Americas, and the global economy more widely. This review considers the progressive construction of “the people” as the subject and participant of constituent power during the construction of a new constitution in 2007-08, and in subsequent debates concerning how that document was differentially interpreted and enforced. My question can be easily summarized: do “the left in resistance” and “the left in power” to roughly correspond to the distinction between constituent and constituted power? And if so, does the distinction between power-as-capacity (potentia) and power-as-authority (potestas) help clarify the significance of the bind that Riofrancos describes?
The Constituent Assembly of 2007-08 was elected in a September 2007 vote to draft a new constitution; this situation emerged from assessments that the 1998 constitution had “not fundamentally altered Ecuador’s political-economic structure” (82), and was thus in some sense responsible for the series of crises precipitated in the early 2000s. The PAIS Alliance of Rafeal Correa won a large enough plurality to replace the prior congress, which it proceeded to deem illegitimate along with most of the remaining delegates. In the process, it quite explicitly claimed constituent power: “the collective capacity of self-authorization that at once undergirds, exceeds, and limits the power of constituted governments” (78). While such power clearly exists, the concept has bedeviled political and legal theorists for centuries because unlike other forms of power which referentially circle back to an already-established state, constituent power emerges ex novo — anew, out of nothing. How, then, ought constituted power consider it? As a transcendent moment, an immanent force, or an integrated, coextensive continuity (Negri 1999, 4)? Because and so long as its participants and elsewhere authorizers agree to believe in it (and in its enforcement), constituent power can be deeply efficacious.
This is why the debates Resource Radicals tracks concerning the potential right of consulta previa — prior consultation — are so compelling. While certain forms of prior consultation for Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian, and all communities, existed in the 1998 constitution, Monica Chuji, Alberto Acosta, and others argued for enumerating a stronger “prior consent” convention concerning mining and other projects with potential environmental impacts. The debate that ensued was of a classically politically-geographical character, with a primary question becoming: at what scale does democratic power exist, and who is an “affected” community (Barry 2013, chapter 4)? For the supporters of prior consent, every community ought to be able to authorize or deny a proposed project. For the supporters of prior consultation, the people had already authorized the constituent assembly (and by extension, the nation and the state) to represent them. While the latter position eventually won, constituent power was not exhausted in the moment. Detractors advocated for a “critical yes” strategy for voting for the Constitution while (in that moment and subsequently) deploying its text “as a tool of resistance” (89). Riofrancos argues that it is the power of citation and interpretation that gave one the sense that “the Constitution lived among us” (88) in a two-week March for Water, Life, and the Dignity of Peoples in 2012. In effect, people —especially those among the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) — sought to interpret enumerated clauses of “prior consultation” as if they operated like prior consent. Thus when the state granted oil concessions after performing consultations, the latter were seen to be insufficient and thus constitutional violations (94). Similarly, the state and the people disagreed as to who needed to be consulted andwhat participation in such consultation ought to look like.
I say “the state” and “the people” as if these were discrete self-same subjects which came to disagree, but it is to the supreme credit of Resource Radicals that it instead demonstrates that both the people and the state (as well as the contested relationship between the two) do not precede but are in fact constructed through pervasive tensions amongst actual human relationships. Chapter 4 in particular demonstrates how “figures of ‘the people’ proliferated” (117). UNAGUA, a collective of regional water board organizations, seized the authority to plan and conduct a consultation prior to a proposed large-scale gold mine in the region. This political performance consisted of holding a vote on a simple yes or no question, in effect redefining political participation in consultation as a somewhat more active process than the state considered, as well as at a more inclusive scale of “directly affected” peoples the state would not accept. Correa in particular vociferously denied the legitimacy of the consultation, arguing in effect that “if they want to govern the country, they must win elections. This is called dem-o-cracy” (131). In effect, Correa argues that constituent power has been extinguished. “By pitting indigenous and environmentalist activists against the beneficiaries of state spending,” Riofrancos concludes, Correa and the administration “exacerbated the fragmentation of the ‘social bloc of the oppressed’ that had spearheaded anti-neoliberal protest” (169).
As repulsive as it is, Correa was right because he had power — at least for the time being. This fragmentation of constituent power by constituted power was more material, more powerful — not least through “vilification and criminalization of anti-extractive protestors” (169) but also outright state violence and murder (164). Hence my question: is it not clarifying to consider the “left in power” and “the left in resistance” through the concepts of potentia and potestas? The former term indicates a kind of power as a capacity to act, while the latter a power to realize authority. The problem is not whether constituent power continues or not, but how it can be put into a generative and iterative relationship with constituted power. Hence, while Riofrancos marshals much evidence to demonstrate how activists attempted to reinterpret the constitution, their power (potentia) of interpretation and associated actions remained exterior to the constituted power (potestas) of the state. The latter clearly had more force (given its apparatus of violence, access to the media, etc). This was no accident. If a person can control such institutions, they can become “formidable multipliers of their own potentia, effectively making them capable of ruling over others and minimizing, to the point of almost eliminating, the need to find compromises or to make themselves accountable” (Nunes 2021, 36–37). Interpretive critique is an insufficient bulwark or limit against this power unless it is organized into its own enduring institutional apparatus. How to do so without betrayal is one of the deepest problems for the revolutionary left around the world.
While it is tempting to solidify the contrast in the figure of Bad Correa versus the Good People, it is in fact a contrast with the juridical apparatus — rather than the bureaucrats that followed here — that is most clarifying (100). If a constitution enumerates that the judicial branch has reserved for it the power of interpretation, then critique’s capacity is transformed from potentia to potestas and moved from a mass project to a quite reserved one, thus insulating institutions from discursive acts. To me it seems that the juridical branch need not take up the “logic of substitution” wherein it can be found “circumventing the constitution and supplanting it with technocratic relations” (97). It can use technical, legal, moral, or whatever language. The juridical decision, of course, must be accepted and enforced for this power (potestas) to hold. But that is the point: juridical power is interpretation backed by realization, reducing the space of constituent interpretation to juridical revision. Tragic as it is, this perspective would see the creative, interpretive powers of people to marshal interpretations as doomed to be ineffective. As Negri puts it, “What if the very condition for maintaining and developing the juridical system were to eliminate constituent power?” (1999, 10). Though we must admit that constitutional interpretations still occur in “a relational field populated by competing political projects” (96), that field is polarized precisely by the difference that potentia and potestas enumerate and the institutional sites where they occur. The constitution cannot really be “made and unmade” (96) through political struggles unless and until counter-interpretations can actually be leveraged into institutional potestas. Since the left-in-resistance did not seem to have the power to make this so, critical interpretation was articulated from a position of weakness and resentment. Hence extractivismo.
Yet if alliances can be built into critique — especially at different scales — it can re-emerge as a force to be reckoned with. This is what has made extractivismo an ambivalent ideology. While it can dress itself in anti-imperialism, it seems to have been able to gain purchase in part by appeals to international institutions and academics, sometimes unsettlingly eager to demonstrate the failures of socialism, which they equate with state power (potestas) as such. To be clear, that is not what Riofrancos is up to: the narrative here is one of “generosity” (182) to both “the left in power” and “the left in resistance.” Yet when locked in an irresolution between potentia and potestas, both are situated in further weakness with regard to international capital, imperialism, and — it turns out — reactionaries closer to home. Hence the subsequent failures of the left in Ecuador since this time.
“A web of a thousand threads defines the originary radicalness of constituent power,” writes Negri poetically. “The coherence of the weave, however, is always in danger” (1999, 24). In order to sustain it, constituent power needs a vibrant relation with revolution, and a revolutionary subject with a power of coherence greater or different perhaps than either “the nation” or “the people.”
Barry, Andrew. 2013. Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Negri, Antonio. 1999. Insurgencies: Constituent Power and the Modern State. Translated by Maurizia Boscagli. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Nunes, Rodrigo. 2021. Neither Vertical Nor Horizontal: A Theory of Political Organization. London and New York: Verso Books.