Latin America’s comeback and the feathered thing called Hope

The coming back of the Amerindians,the struggle for liberation in Latin America and the way in which human action influences the geological balance of the world has transformed the definitions of capital, property and state. Oscar Guardiola-Rivera comes up with a different understanding of hope that represents Latin America even as it struggles in its”grey present” …

We all know that the liberal spirit of modernity is dying. Two overlapping processes, globalisation and global warming, threaten to kill it. Hope seems like a scarce commodity these days. It is an endangered species. If hope is, as they say, a feathered thing, then it turns out that the bird seems to have flown away in desperation. Where are we to look in this world for some much needed hope? My answer has been, for some time now, Latin America.

Two remarkable things have been taking place in Latin America since at least the beginning of the twenty-first century. I will term the first, the comeback. The second goes by the grand sounding name of permanent liberation and decolonisation, but it’s in fact just the rekindling of an interrupted conversation with some vibrant and creative things that Latin Americans and others began inventing in the 1970s, but were violently stopped. Creativity and the multiplication of the multiple were replaced during the 1980s and 90s with conformity vis-à-vis a One-World vision. Now the feeling of invention is back. And it’s good. If you put the two together, the comeback and permanent liberation, you’ll understand why the Latin American bird of hope nowadays is red.

In a sense, this new hope has been a response to the set of individual disorderly behaviours that turned globalisation and global warming into a threat to us all. But in another sense they are more than just a response. Latin Americans have stepped outside of their own disorder, I don´t need to press your imagination too much to convince you that we’ve been a very disorderly bunch, to bring forth a new order. I find it very fitting that in 1973, when one of the most beautiful and creative of all the Latin American experiments going on back then was destroyed, the Chilean Way, it’s representative’s final words, those of Salvador Allende, were for the people to step into the future and look for a new sense of orientation. That’s precisely what Latin Americans have found.

Since our behaviours during the 1980s and 1990s represented disorder -dictatorships and transitions, violence, financial impositions, revolutions and invasions, drug-trafficking, mass displacements and so on- the emergent hopeful order contains them, in the two meanings such a word possesses in the English language. But in the case of Latin America, order does not, as mainstream understanding would assume, contain disorder while at the same time being its opposite. Certainly, the hope  of today’s Latin America can be tamed if, as some mainstream analysts do, a context for it is provided in terms of a now dwindling boom in the global market of natural resources, perhaps fuelled by China, the overstretch of America’s military power, and the financial crisis. All these things may be more or less true. However, I contend that the context is in this case of little help, for what has happened in Latin America is, rather, a context-shattering event.

As it happens in those Greek stories about the appearance of the great god Pan, it is as if Latin American context, our perennial disorder, stepped outside of itself and now stands in a different relation to itself, creating along the way a more autonomous system. This is precisely what’s conveyed by the notion of “permanent liberation and decolonisation”, as well as by the set of institutions firmly geared towards further integration and self-government, from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and Unasur to the Pacific Alliance, Alba and Mercosur. Whatever their differences and limitations, they all stand for a desire for further integration and autonomy in the future, which stands in stark contrast with the dependency of the days when Latin America was assumed to be “America’s backyard”.

Enough of the dark past and the rosy future, let’s come back to our rather grey present. According to the 2013 Fifth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, the total anthropogenic radioactive forcing, which quantifies the changes in energy fluxes due to changes in the man-made drivers of climate change for our time relative to 1750, “has increased more rapidly since 1970 than during previous decades. The total anthropogenic RF best estimate for 2011 is 43% higher than that reported in AR4 for the year 2005”.[1]  As a result the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia”, and “there are likely more land regions where the number of heavy precipitation events has increased than where it has decreased”.[2] The evidence seems conclusive. But if you need more evidence, just look through the window. The conclusion, based on the best available science, is forthcoming: at present “human influence on the climate system is clear”.[3]

This means that the same processes that made possible the dream of progress, development, freedom or national liberation during the so-called ages of progress and enlightenment, have also turned us into something larger and more destructive than the singular biological and historical agents that we always have been: sometime between the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first century we became geological agents of destruction, climate changers and extinction/genocide perpetrators.

Crucially, we became geological agents very recently, and only collectively. Recognising this entails that we must also take stock of the fact that a fundamental assumption in our current socio-political thinking and practice-methodological individualism, and its obverse, subject/object co-relationism-has come undone.  Confronted with an associated but different conjuncture –the crisis of Western European naturalism-German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued in despair that only a god could save us. But this time around not even divine intervention could guarantee our salvation.

This is not because god is now dead, but rather, because god became thoroughly modern: god did not die, but was transformed into money. An uncomfortable truth that has been taken seriously in today’s Latin America is that that we’re not and have never been secular. This in the sense that, on the one hand, money and capitalism are the one true world religion, but also in the sense that it’s best to take a closer look at the origin of most of the political institutions of the industrialised world in religion.

The resulting point is that not all religions have the same relationship with belief in God, King and Law, that being present in all variants of monotheism also grounds our current beliefs in fiat money, credit, or the omnipotence of markets. Hence, Latin Americans concluded, the conflict between those who believe too much, the so called fanatics and religious orthodoxy, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or otherwise, on the one hand, and those who believe too little, liberal seculars, on the other, is a red herring. At bottom they’re complicit, in that they prompt the kind of violence that paves the way for market domination.

That lesson was learned in 1980s Chile, the birthplace of neoliberalism. Ultra-Catholic conservatives led there the putsch against socialist president Allende and the Chilean Way in the belief that the socialism was evil, and such evil was represented in the government’s attempt to establish a social sector of the economy alongside the private and public sectors, as well as its move to control prices, rein in  inequality, and promote workers’ self-governance. In their eyes, such were attempts against natural law and sacrosanct property, and as such justified the violent overthrow of the elected government as a sacred duty. Put simply, to these religious zealots, the economy, conceived as the space where God-given liberties reign free, created the public and not the other way around. Any attempt by a ‘big government’ to limit these God-given liberties in the name of furthering democracy meant that it was not only just but a religious duty to use all necessary means to protect the market, including destroying the public. That’s what happened in Chile during the 1970s. “In the future”, read a cable sent from Hoechst Chemical Chile to its Frankfurt headquarters in 1973, “Chile will be an ever more interesting market for our products”. Subsequently, during the 1980s, the market was “set free”.

That theological nugget has been the powerful kernel of neoliberalism. Fast forward to today’s America, and you’ll confirm the truth of that observation. If that’s the case, then there’s no point in setting believers against non-believers. What’s needed is a different relationship with belief itself. What’s needed, once more, is for belief to step outside of itself and in this way create a new order free form the strictures that attach God, King and Law or Markets.

Crucially, that was the kind of relationship present in the cosmologies and cosmopolitics of Amerindian aborigines. It’s no accident that the rekindling of Latin America’s conversation with its 1970s avatars on the subject of liberation and decolonisation coincided with the comeback of aboriginal peoples, especially after the 2000 Water Wars in Bolivia. But the latter, unlike the former, isn’t a specifically Latin American phenomenon. It’s continental. It expands from Canada to the Mapuche lands of the Chilean south.

For some time now, Amerindian people have been making a comeback from a terrifyingly low point of existence, legal respect, and civilisational instability. A comeback to a position of power, influence, and civilisational creativity, as John Ralston Saul says for the case of Canada. It’s best represented in the fortunes of Bolivian Evo Morales, who went from being a union member in a cocoa-grower indigenous community to becoming the recently re-elected and massively popular President of Bolivia. In the process, together with his Vice-President, the Marxist sociologist Álvaro García Linera, and the social movements, Morales has shown to the world that a revolutionary government does not necessarily wreck the economy but can transform the relationship between the state and the people at its base. Something similar has happened in Ecuador, in the south and the pacific coast of Colombia, in Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil.

Amerindians are still being killed in Colombia, Chile and Brazil, and the relation between Morales or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and the indigenous peoples isn’t always rosy. But the point not to be missed is the intrinsic appeal of a truth about these countries that’s related to the comeback of aboriginal and peasant peoples, whatever its difficulties: that the nations of the Americas aren’t and have never been societies of European inspiration –British, French, Spanish or Portuguese- but métis, creolised societies that can find political as well as economic Aboriginal inspiration. This is where such notions as “to live well”, and “to govern while obeying” come from, now enshrined in constitutional documents throughout the region. The truth that Latin Americans have begun to tell themselves and others is that to insist on describing their societies as something they’re not is to embrace existential illiteracy.

This is the basis of the proposition I’d like to put to you in this piece, as the substance of the feathered thing called hope. It’s the basis of my response to the question whether resources are a blessing or a curse in Latin America: we need a different concept (or rather, a different state) of nature. And since such a state is precisely what Amerindian perspectivism has to offer –what I have called in my book What If Latin America Ruled the World? “the dream of the Indians”- I’m going to say that only Amerindians can save our modern soul.

This isn’t the place to unpack Amerindian perspectivism, for that you’ll have to wait my next book. For now, it’ll suffice that I use the dream of Amerindians to offer an answer to the question concerning Latin America’s natural resources. First, given the undeniable connection between the wealth locked in our nature and the violence that in countries such as Colombia has resulted from the clash between rival economic and political interests, it would be easy to say that resources and their boom are a curse. Such was the position taken in the 1970s by Eduardo Galeano in his classic Open Veins of Latin America. Reasonably, he concluded that“Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into … capital. Everything: the soil, its fruits and its mineral-rich depths, the people and the capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources (…) the history of Latin America’s underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism’s development. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others … in the colonial and neo-colonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”[4]This argument represented the predominant approach at the time, the structuralist approach developed by economist André Gunder-Frank, historian Etic Hobsbawm, and Brazilian anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, among others. The latter was a close advisor of Salvador Allende in Chile, as well as a critic of what he called “the left that lost its way” during the tumultuous years of the Chilean Revolution, recently chronicled in my Story of a Death Foretold.

But, second, there’s some reason too in the response given by those who argue that the appropriation and exploitation of natural resources constitutes for Latin American countries a source of prosperity, not only for some but also for entire nations. Such has been the reason given by English and French economists from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries onwards, when they try to immunise property against religious and common obligations derived from the right of subsistence. Their answer, a precursor of the economic theology developed by the ultra-Catholic Chilean young conservative referred to above, the famous “Chicago Boys”, was based on the economic theology developed during the Age of Empires in Spain as well as in Adam Smith’s Britain.

Here lies the crux of my answer: these two positions, albeit seemingly opposed, in fact share a similar conception of nature as indisputable wealth.

In contrast, I believe that to reinterpret fruitfully the debate between structuralists and Smithians from the perspective of our time of crisis, as it has been happening in Latin America, is to shift from such a conception to one that sees nature as a highly local and historical topic of inquiry. The terrain of a conflict, rather than merely a reservoir of resources. In this point converge Amerindian cosmopolitics, now taken seriously by left-leaning governments in the region, and the most advanced results of climate change science.

Seen from this novel viewpoint, the conflict that has ravaged places like Mexico or Colombia in recent times can no longer be described as a clash of ideologies. Rather, these are violent battles, fought with the sole aim of introducing even more nature into our concept of property. And to conclude, if the latter wins not only Latin Americans but all of us will be the ultimate losers.



[1]PCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 11.

[2] Ibid. 2-3

[3] Ibid. 13. There is now enough evidence to support the thesis that unless the scientific consensus shifts in a major way, which is unlikely, there is a large measure of truth to anthropogenic theories of climate change. Historian of science Naomi Oreskes of UCSD, has reported that upon examining the abstracts of 928 papers on global warming published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, Oreskes found not a single one intent on refuting such consensus. After 2003, the consensus has been strengthened by new evidence and improved climate models.

[4]E Galeano, Open Veins of LatinAmerica. FiveCenturies of thePillage of a Continent, trans. By C Belfrage, London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009, 2.

Oscar Guardiola-Rivera is the author of the award-winning What If Latin America Ruled the World? and more recently Story of a Death Foretold (Bloomsbury). Both were included on the Books of the Year list in 2010 and 2013 published by the Financial Times and The Observer, respectively. He's a columnist for The Guardian and El Espectador, and teaches Law and Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Be first to comment