Colombia: The Common as an Alternative to Neoliberalism

Joahann Sebastian Reyes Bejarano
Sustained resistance and social mobilization have made possible the emergence of relationships of solidarity and collective care that rebuild the social fabric and forge new expressions of organized popular radicalism from the streets.

The protests that began last April 28th in Colombia have reached an unprecedented extent in the country’s history. Although a sector of the mobilized people is identified in the unions and organizations grouped in the National Strike Committee, there is an important sector of those resisting in the streets that does not recognize this figure and that supports demands ranging from access to basic rights to the call for a constituent assembly.

The sui generis characteristic of this movement raises many questions about its character and scope. In what follows we will try to show how the prolonged mobilization makes possible the emergence of subjectivities that rescue the common as an alternative to neoliberalism and institutionalized violence, constituting what could be the basis for a new political radicalism capable of provoking a turn in Colombia’s history.

The state of war as an institutional arrangement for capital accumulation
In the global peripheries and the frontiers of commodities, capitalist accumulation imposes itself by transforming the social and production relations that have remained outside the sphere of capital. The expansion of accumulation is made possible by the destruction of the commons, those systems of social relations based on cooperation through which we sustain our shared livelihoods and care work. The transformation of these relations leads to the imposition of an idea of individuality that separates us from others and nature, condemning us to a type of solidarity mediated by mercantile exchange. All this to guarantee the private appropriation of natural goods and other rights to convert them into merchandise or services.

In Colombia, the accumulation of capital has taken particularly violent forms. The existence of civil wars since the beginning of the republic has been a constant. The state of latent armed conflict has served to guarantee the dominance of the oligarchic elites, whose power derives from the hacienda regime established in the late colonial period. The prolongation of the internal armed conflict has become part of the institutional agreement of the elites to guarantee the accumulation of capital, preserve their privileges and provide the political and social conditions for the expansion of transnational capital in the territory.

War constitutes the political capital of the most backward sectors of the elites who, based on the doctrine of national security, promulgate the existence of an internal enemy to justify militarization and authoritarianism, as well as to stigmatize expressions of opposition, social organizations and human rights defenders and to treat protest as war.

In the social sphere, prolonged war naturalizes violence, deepening cultural traits such as distrust, individualism, machismo and the devaluation of life, attacking the social fabric and community cooperation strategies. In the economic sphere, the war guarantees the violent dispossession of land and the growth of large estates, which allow the advance of agro-industrial monocultures, mining and energy projects and the production of illicit drugs.

The state of war linked to violent accumulation in the framework of neoliberalism has led Colombia to record the highest number of victims of forced displacement in the world since the 1980s. Some of the millions of dispossessed people in rural areas have fled to the main cities, gathering in the outskirts of the cities to form what are known as “invasion neighborhoods”. This “invasion” of the dispossessed nourishes the popular neighborhoods on a daily basis. In turn, unemployment, job insecurity and the lack of basic rights, together with structural racism, condemn these populations to absolute abandonment, causing a vacuum that is often filled by the criminality that abounds in the corners of informality.

Deepening inequality fuels cycles of violence through the reproduction of what Marx called “surplus population”. In Colombia, as in other parts of the Global South, this population corresponds to people dispossessed of their livelihoods who are unable to access formal jobs and are forced to survive in the midst of absolute precariousness and informality. Thus, the slums where the poor are concentrated are turned into factories that produce the figures of violence: murders, disappearances and arrests. In a country where 42.5% of the population lives in the slums of the poorest neighborhoods.

More than a year after the pandemic began, the social gap has only deepened. And discontent has exploded. The mobilization of the last month in Colombia is unprecedented in the country’s history: it is precisely those faceless young people from the slums who become the protagonists of the resistance.

The pandemic exposed the failure of neoliberalism. The already desperate inhabitants of the working class neighborhoods lost the meager income they were able to obtain in the informal sector, being condemned to hunger and death by a State policy where there is no room for social or prevention programs. In the confinement, the impoverished population was even deprived of solidarity. Due to the difficulty of finding each other, the social outburst became not only a manifestation of rage and discontent, but also the only instance to generate strategies of cooperation and collective care in the midst of the crisis.

The resistance of the youth of the popular neighborhoods, which for more than a month has endured the brutal attacks of the Army, the Police and urban paramilitarism, is characterized by symbolisms that reflect a break with the order that condemns them to be the cannon fodder of the institutionalized war. These symbols are the reflection of a social process of recovery of the common that can provide principles for the construction of an alternative to systemic neoliberalism and violence.

The common as an expression of a new popular anti-neoliberal radicality
The “front line” has become the symbol of the national strike. These are groups of young people from the popular neighborhoods who, armed with helmets and homemade shields, contain the attacks of the police in order to protect the other demonstrators. In addition, they are in charge of the community protection and the maintenance of the blockades in the streets, guaranteeing the continuity of the mobilization and with it the reappropriation of urban spaces, which become points of confluence for the development of cultural, political and common care days based on cooperation.

Each advance of the first line on the streets is followed by processes of collective reappropriation of space. This has been the case of some police stations that, after being incinerated in the framework of the protests, have been readapted by the mobilized population to turn them into libraries and self-managed cultural centers. In recent days, the indigenous guard awarded the title of “community guard” to the members of the first line in Bogota in a ceremony. This highlights the points of confluence that emerge between rural and urban expressions of resistance and organization, aimed at the reconstruction of the commons as an alternative to capitalist violence.

Behind the front line there are other groups of demonstrators who support the containment of the police. Among them are those who rescue the wounded to take them to health centers self-managed by health professionals and other volunteers. In cities such as Cali, these health centers have attended people who come for events unrelated to the protest but who do not have any type of medical insurance, becoming the only opportunity to receive basic medical attention.

To sustain the protest there are collection points for food and supplies donated by other sectors of the population. This food is used for cooking in community pots collectively managed by people from the neighborhoods surrounding the points of resistance. They are in charge of cooking large quantities of food to feed those who participate in the protests and cultural events, even allowing the families of young people on the front line (as happens in some neighborhoods in Cali and Bogota) to go to the community collection centers to stock up on food on a daily basis.

These are just a few images that show how resistance and sustained social mobilization have led to the emergence of relationships of solidarity, collective care and cooperation that rebuild the social fabric damaged by the war through the appropriation of urban space as a common good. Spaces of resistance have become centers of collective care, where people have access to basic needs such as food, as well as scenarios where social relations are reconstructed, forging new political subjectivities that rescue the communitarian as opposed to the individualization and competition promoted by neoliberalism.

Far from being just an anecdote, these scenarios are the result of the social struggle of the dispossessed against the disaster of neoliberalism. There emerges the common as an alternative to the crisis, and a window of opportunity opens for the transformation of the institutions that perpetuate the war in favor of accumulation.