Latin America: Towards a new sense of history

by Anibal Quijano

FEDAEPS, 17 March 2011

First published in Civilizational change and Good Living, FEDAEPS, Quito, August 2010

Translated by Bob Thomson, 7 April 2012

We are in a raging crisis, which at the same time brings together global climate change and the fiercest capitalist financial crisis, which is essentially confused with the global crisis of the capitalist system itself. These two major crises, climate – i.e. what is happening to what we call nature – and the global financial system, which strikes at the whole apparatus of capital accumulation, are neither separate nor “natural.” What is happening to nature, so-called “global climate change” is a product of what our species has been doing on Earth, i.e. a process of destroying the very conditions of life on the planet.

This isn’t an accident, it’s an example of the power matrix within which we live, and which also lives in us; of how capital and world capitalism have been developing, a increasingly perverse trend, ever more technocratic, in which what only and finally counts is how to use everything, absolutely everything, as a commodity and, as a resuklt, to make profit the sole and exclusive end: every view of history focused on commodities and the profits from them.

It is thus that in a relatively long cycle, a model was consolidated that involves the use and exploitation of nature, now sharpening on a daily and rapid basis. So what happens to nature is not natural, it’s historical, it’s what happens with power between us, a type of power that is not only destroying our common home, the planet, reducing, eliminating living conditions on it, but also making us kill each other as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza; as happened before in the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Nigeria; as happened in the Balkans and will soon start in Latin America if we let them.

This is really an exceptionally critical situation of our species. It’s not just any moment, it’s not just a crisis or a cycle of the crisis. It’s true that capitalism has been marked by cycles of crisis, but this is not another cycle, it’s something else.

Why not just another cycle of crisis? Very sketchily and briefly, from the mid-60′s we began to see a very profound change in the relations between capital and labour, not only the workers that were expelled during the cycle of contraction, but also the new workers who entered the workforce and were not absorbed by capital. This is what we conceptualize in Latin America as the marginalization of new labour, the living individual labour force which began increasingly to be left out of the productive apparatus and hence employment. This developed at full speed, so that by mid 1973 it came to a moment of explosion.

In that year there was a culmination of the process of changes between capital and labor. The growing exclusion of labor and the crisis – this stagnation and inflation in America was called stagflation – the stagnant of production at the level of virtually all the world and rising inflation; a phenomenon that had never happened at any previous time in history. Each stagnation meant deflation, falling prices and for the first time in 500 years of history we had the stagnation of world production and rising inflation. From that moment what is called structural unemployment was formed, which generated a virtual disintegration of the movement of workers of the world, a virtual disintegration of their social instruments, the dispersion of large manufacturing conglomerates. This moment marked the transition to another stage.

Capital as such appears divided into two very precise parts: one growing, which needs virtually no living individual labour force, because the whole process of computerization and technification allows anything to be produced, anytime, any amount, without resort to living labour. This means that what we’re talking about being produced here can virtually – if you will – be distributed freely because it doesn’t use living labor, it uses accumulated labour and socially accumulated; it uses the intelligence gained from all of us, but does not use the individual living labour of most of us, thus its rate of profit trends, at times, to come to nothing.

An example of this is how, in the big stores, they can give away a cell phone, but the buyer is enrolled in a service network and has to pay a monthly fee. This happens because the production cost of this device is zero or less than zero. The commodity, which is the mainstay of accumulation, is the head of whoever buys the product: subjectivity, the mentality. In this situation, workers excluded from these dynamics have to accept impossible conditions, insecurity, flexibility or exit the unit of capital as capital and accept or be be forced into other forms. Slavery is in full re expansion worldwide, not only in Brazil, not only in the Amazon basin, but all over the world. Personal servitude is back, small mercantile production is back and, back of course is reciprocity, in much of the world.

This situation implies three things that are very important to understand, to see not only what might happen, but what is already beginning to happen:

1. The relationship between capital and labour has changed dramatically, to the point where the dominant part of capital not only has no capacity, but has no interest in producing employment; on the contrary, we must delete jobs. So we can no longer expect capital to create employment, never again.

2. For this reason, neither can it be expected that capital would produce the minimum of civil liberties associated with the market, as was part of previous processes. So, political democracy is being reconcentrated, the public is constantly being re-privatized from the center to the periphery.

3. Therefore, the changes of the very basis of capital is no longer simply the buying and selling of labour power, but rather the control of our subjectivity, of our minds. In this control lies the main dispute of this moment.

This latter process doesn’t happen only because the capitalist is a bad person or because journalists are inexperienced. No, this is the current structure which needs to increasingly control minds, control information, control thoughts, because otherwise it could not exist.

We’ve just witnessed and been actors in, recently, what is called the great financial crisis of capital. But there is no such financial crisis; it is the largest and most scandalous financial fraud of all contemporary history, absolutely premeditated and planned. Does anyone in their right mind think that a banker, especially in the United States, will lend money to someone he knows perfectly well cannot pay? Obviously not. But in this case, the bankers were not only lending to those they knew could not pay, but were encouraging applications for credit knowing they would not pay. The mechanism was: a bank that has thousands of these loans sells them to the next insurance company and makes money; this insurance company sells it to a larger company and makes money, and this insurer – the largest, say the American International Group (AIG), negotiates with the State, as banks began to default.

They were able to organize all this, to make the State, before Bush left, not just any moment, give them the maximum amount of money, from where?: from the taxpayers, the population of the U.S. and we who are somehow contributing to the capital of the empire.

This is a scandalous financial fraud, systematically organized and promoted. Once the Bush administration managed to give 700 billion dollars in the first instance to the bankers, they had a great celebration at a restaurant in San Francisco, the bill for which was several hundred thousand dollars. What were they celebrating? Exactly this!. The same in England, when Brown gave an almost equivalent figure in Pounds sterling, bankers went to celebrate at an expensive restaurant and the bill was again several thousand Pounds. Obviously, they were not celebrating the crisis but the way they managed to create a massive financial fraud on their own behalf. And each member of each of the bankrupt companies took home tens of billions of dollars in compensation.

We’re not talking about a natural financial crisis, a cyclical crisis, because there is a part of the capital where virtually no individual living work force is used. So, financialization is the only way to make these returns in the market; without financial capital, i.e. without active and constant speculation, encouraged by the fabulous media, this would not be possible.

All the world’s gross weekly product passes through all financial channels of communication and mechanisms, just in New York City. There are ttrillions and trillions of dollars! Who really believes that that kind of money exists? Who believes they are producing this physical quantity of money, that this is real? No, if the United States had no military and war powers that give it the ability to print money and circulate it around the world, this country would be bankrupt.

We’re therefore facing something else; this is a new financial capital that has little to do with the previous, because this doesn’t involve cycles, it is solely and strictly for speculation and to ensure that this trend to low earnings can be offset by all means possible, requiring the control of awareness, of the commodification of conscience, not of living labor.

We are going through a major historical change

I want to insist not in the idea, but in the historical fact that we are in a very different world than we had only 30 or 35 years ago; that there is a major historical change, which is another historical period, not in a rhetorical sense but real.

From about mid-1973 of the previous millennium and the end of the eighties, there was a set of processes that literally blew up what there was before. That year there was an unprecedented combination in the history of the world of stagnation of productive activity with rising inflation. It had always been the opposite in every major crisis, especially after 1870, 1912, 1914, 1929, 1940, i.e. in every major crisis, the stagnation of production was accompanied by lower prices. It was the first time that stagnation of productive activity came with rising inflation worldwide. This created, at the same time, the formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the creation of so-called petrodollars, also unexpected: a giant financial mushroom, a new financial capital whose size made it virtually independent of any Central Bank, including even the most powerful, beginning with the United States. We were experiencing the crash of a very central part of the structure that there was at that time.

But the sixties of the last century closed with the great defeat of what seemed to open up a horizon that was to bear fruit: ending May 68, Tlatelolco 68, the hot autumn of Italy 69, the execution of the Shanghai commune ordered by Mao himself. The Sixties closed with these large losses.

How did the so-called neoliberalism begin? How does one begin to confront that combination of stagnant production, high inflation and growth of an innovative new financial system? With Pinochet. What we call neoliberalism began precisely with Chile and their Chicago boys. It was then taken up by Mrs. Thatcher in Britain, and then by Reagan in the United States.

That, too began in Latin America and not by accident, because it was here that a new form of change, also unprecedented. There was not, unfortunately, despite our songs of international solidarity, any association between the Bolivian process of 71 to 72 – the most radical and profound historical change in Latin America at that moment, and the other important parallel change in Chile, there was nothing in common. The defeat of one was a prelude to the defeat of another, but the other didn’t understand, never wanted to understand.

But back to the economic moment: how to manage this new giant financial mushroom and generate a speculative accumulation in the center of all the rest? The stop inflation produced a huge process of deindustrialization, of global unemployment, i.e. the defeat of labour, the breakup of the huge U.S., European and other trade union worlds.

A defeat of labour first, but that was also associated with disintegration, incredibly fast, of what was called the socialist camp which fell apart in a few years and ended with the implosion in a week – not even a year – no war, no bombs, no earthquakes, no major disasters. That powerful thing that seemed solid, immutable, called the Soviet Union evaporated in a week. Then we had two parallel processes of global defeat, that of stopping inflation and its crisis and the defeat of the other camp. It was an entire historical horizon that was eclipsed.

For five hundred years we had a historical horizon that was emerging from the new pattern of power and its new center. The new historical identity we now call Western Europe is followed America, indeed, it was the latter which gave it its first source of identity as a centre, from there it stole the power to define so-called modernity, which is almost purely Eurocentric. Then came anti-colonialism, nationalism and socialism.

But the defeat of this historical horizon seemed so complete, it allowed Fukuyama, a shadowy official from an obscure bureaucrat’s office, making a gross interpretation of a wing of Hegelian and post-Hegelian thought, especially that of Alexandre Kojève in his famous French seminars, to achieve world celebrity saying, ‘history is over.

We come from that defeat, the same that implied labour’s defeat, and that of all opponents of imperialist power, but also of its antagonists, and all its critics.

This allowed the owners of the new capital to move ahead at full speed. There was a brutal acceleration and deepening of trends in the existing pattern of power. There was a global reconcentration of state political authorit. The bookstores filled with publications on the crisis of the nation state, even winning celebrity for a book called “Empire” by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose point is precisely that there is no more nation-state, and what we have is an empire such as that described by Polybius. That is, that not only the structure of prior social existence was ending, the industrial working class was ending, the old bourgeoisie was being exhausted, an entirely new bourgeoisie was being generated, with its own characteristics and tendencies.

This advanced almost without resistance during its first thirty years, but the first resistance began in Southeast Asia; the European or Eurocentric press said it started in Seattle of course, but it wasn’t. It started in South Korea, in Indochina. It was the great popular uprisings that not only brought down the government of South Korea, but generated a restructuring imposed on that bloody satrapy of U.S. imperialism in Indonesia, with General Suharto, which produced half a million dead in three months. A CIA report said literally that blood flowed in the rivers!.

Now in Latin America there is much more than resistance, not only in the processes occurring in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Latin America is new for various reasons. It’s the center of global resistance. First, because this deepening and acceleration of basic trends, control over labour, not only has produced a very large polarization, but also has produced two limits that have no reverse and that is where we are: the new approaches takes into account those limits relating to the conditions of existence of life on the planet and, secondly, address the limits of relations of social existence based on the perverse combination of two mental constructs: race and gender.

There is a subversion of so-called race. The victims of the coloniality of power are creating an entire subversion; without this we cannot understand what is happening in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru. In other horizons, in the World Social Forum in Mumbai (2006), the Adivasis, the indigenous of India and the Dalits, the untouchables of India, had a presence which shows similar concerns.

Secondly, it is here where the lack of viability of such theses as the end of history started to become evident. The end of history meant: now all you think is useless, were great tales; the so-called postmodernists stated that modernity is over and with it the ideas of liberation that were regarded as great tales, pure stories, power is no more than a question, is a “fact of life”, like it or not, they said.

The radical critique of Eurocentrism

In Latin America today we are producing the most effective and profound critique of Eurocentrism, which is a way of producing subjectivity, imagination, historical memory, a way of producing knowledge that lets you see some things and not see others.

What we call capitalism European was formed not with but on the basis of slavery, on the basis of servitude, because together they constitute a means of production of goods for the new world market. This led to the global market for precious metals and precious plants of the Americas. The Atlantic became a privileged basin of the world market instead of the Mediterranean.

If we review the history of the map, what we call Western Europe is a peninsula of Asia, but if we ask how many continents there are, then we tell ourselves five and we always start by saying Europe. That didn’t exist before 1500, the northern centre appropriated the legacy of the southern Mediterranean and later America, and it was from the latter that it was established as such, i.e. the centre.

So today in Latin America the most radical and effective critique of Eurocentrism is emerging – as a way of producing subjectivity, imagination, memory, knowledge-, the proposal of coloniality and coloniality of power, which works on the basis of the rediscovery and a challenge to the racist esteem, which was secularized along with it medieval-Christian theology, which generates this radical dualism that we are still prisoners, with its positivist evolutionism, since the late nineteenth century.

We are not simply proposing anything new against this, what is happening is that new rationalities are reappearing, from those which were colonized, even producing other new ones. Probably what we’ll have in the future is not so much a common rationality for all decreed by some God, but many rationalities, i.e. various ways of producing meaning and explaining which, however, have a common sphere, so as to communicate. We talk of something new, where people can communicate, learn from each other and even opt to leave one cultural identity for another, or have several plural identities. Many of us have multiple identities plural, not one.

It’s of this that we speak when we say a radical critique of Eurocentrism and this is happening in and from Latin America. There is a deep critique of authority which is emerging all around the world, but Latin America is its centre, because there is a perverse subversion of perverse combination mounted by the system of social for 500 years: the combination of race and gender, two mental constructs that have been associated and have been imposed to the extent that they seem almost real, almost natural. It is a system of understanding, an episteme, an admission implicitly that it is natural and must be thought of as such. This is being subverted, and along with that subversion there is a subversion of authority.

Contrary to what Hardt and Negri propose, that there is a rule as Polybius described, there is no such thing, what there is an imperial block. When meeting in Davos, not only the most powerful states, but their large financial corporations, professionals, politicians and presidents, make decisions that affect us all. This is imperial. So it’s a global imperial bloc made of states and nonstate entities, intergovernmental and some merely private but powerful. This allows the exercise of control of authority.

In Latin America, we never democratized society to the point of making all seem to be social, legal and political equals, although we were uneven, as happens in absolute bourgeois democracy. I take the example of the most advanced, Switzerland, which does not come from the tradition of the Magna Carta but the tradition of the Helvetic communities, which in the thirteenth century revolted against the empire and founded the Helvetic Republic – which explains why they have no army or professional police, and why they have the referendum and consultation as permanent mechanisms. But even there. where there is the most profound legal and political equality before the law, you cannot hide the real inequalities of the population in other terms. The democracy that we call liberal bourgeois the judicial-political equality of the law of unequals in every sphere of power. But in Latin America, or elsewhere, it is not only that inequality, but is larger: race – gender, which became the very basis of social classification of people and how their place in power was distributed. Therefore, only subverting the authority’s control, thus subverting the State that was imposed, not produced by that society but imposed, may one have another political authority.

If we forget for a second the word State and talked about political authority – which may or may not include the State – there are other ways that are indeed emerging and competing with the State. The Mafia is a political authority in the world today. It is in Brazil, and takes over the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo whenever it wants. Its President, who is called the first commander in Sao Paulo, gave an interview in the Folha de Sao Paulo, went into prison illiterate, now reads five languages, quotes all that we quote in our meetings, all the structuralists, quotes Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, even of course, Hardt and Negri. He quotes them with great realism, but from the perverse side, and tells them: you are our agents – and it’s true, the police, many parlimentarians, the military – hence we co-exercise authority, and he’s right.

This idea that the state has the monopoly of violence ended long ago. Therefore, when we speak of the State we cannot continue to do so from the past historical period; when we say social classification, we’re not talking about the social classification of the past; when we speak of capitalism we don’t speak of the capitalism of the past. There are now capital, servitude, slavery, small mercantile production, all operating together the same market. And when we say capital, we must remember that in the most technologically sophisticated part as you move up, the presence of the individual living labor force declines, and the end is virtually insignificant.

How is it possible that, nevertheless, it not only dominates the whole, but also can continue to earn the profits they earn? There is no such declining rate of profit, you can still earn much more than before. Not because they cannot produce and distribute for free, today you can – much is distributed for free- but because it has control of authority, and because it has control of subjectivity. If all of us cannot have a different imagination, if our imagination is a prisoner of what it was in the previous historical period, it’s not possible. But this is another period, we are in other processes, so we are producing, in Latin America, not just a critical subjectivity, new, but a new political imaginary.

The subversion of race / gender and subversion against Eurocentrism, are associated with the production of another form of social existence, where diversity is in all things, and to begin with that of reciprocity, exchange of labor and workforce , not necessarily passing through the market, except you cannot produce without the market today, or disassociate yourselves from it. This is new: no more self-subsistence anywhere in the world, less so in Latin America. So you can not live without the market, but, how can you live with only the market? It isn’t possible. No one can live without the State, but you can not live without it. Thus, a new form of social existence is emerging.

Reciprocity and the community are things that are articulating, creating another social ethics. Whether in that society there were fascists, leftists, or ‘caviar’ as they say in Peru to the former, with good reason. This new social relationship creates a new subjectivity, creates a new social ethic, so Latin America is another, because the world we inhabit is another.

The facets of power

What we call power, the word power, usually evokes the place in the State and the place is called the economy, but it’s just that. When we ask what other model of economic development, what other economic model may be produced, the implicit assumption is that on an emerging economy model the rest emerges. This wasn’t always thus and certainly isn’t the case today. Power is much more complicated, probably there was dominance in the species before any exploitation;, probably – if archeology and paleoanthropology count for something – the first mechanism of domination occurred between the sexes before anyone exploits the work of anyone, before anyone produced, it was getting to reproduce the species, because the control of sex is just that: allowing the reproduction of the species.

Today’s technology allows reproduction in other ways, we can clone, you can actually produce “real races” with such and such characteristics to suit the client, and we will perhaps later. But control of every aspect of social existence, control over sex, over resources and products, over nature, is the logic that was installed; control over work, its products and its resources, control over subjectivity, over the imagination, historical memory, knowledge, control over collective authority, the greatest today, the strongest, is the state.

We almost cannot imagine being able to live without a state, but the State was imposed from above. The State finances its management with the contributions of taxpayers, all of society pays with their taxes, with their consumption, with exploitation at work, at home and outside the home, we all pay for public services. The release of free public services is intellectual and political contraband. It would not be possible if there were no control of subjectivity, imagination, of the ways to give meaning to experience.

It’s time to end these forms of control, especially with those associated with nature: the body, the body of the dominated. It is said that the body is not the divine reason, but it is the body that is exploited, tortured, which feels pain, fatigue, hunger, desire. There is a nineteenth-century liberal formula that says “barbarians, ideas cannot be slaughtered.” Of course, ideas can not be slaughtered, what they kill is the thinker.

Power is a structure of disputed control in each of its fields, that is its pattern of exercise. But that which has colonial origin and character, is that which is catching fire, and the main center of the combustion now is Latin America. This is new because in every dispute of power we’re not doing another thing.

In each power pleat it is the control of sex that is trying to be reimposed. Fundamentalisms of all kinds – of Christianity, Islam, Judaism – are insisting that their codes prohibit sexual life, prohibit sexuality. It is very interesting, for example, that in the so-called constitutional debates these issues are absent, almost deliberately, only the other side say: there should be no abortion, there should be no homosexuals, love is only between a man and woman, between male and female, and so on; all this obviously was never so, that it is not, and will not be, simply. They seek again to produce control of sex, because it is the very basis of control over the so-called ‘natural’, not over reason but over the body. The body, however, is precisely the body that thinks, dreams, that feels, that wants, makes love, is hungry, etc..

What is in dispute today, that which is called capitalism, which is now less about salary, the share of wages is increasingly depressed and, therefore, precapitalist forms are back, which were always contemporary and part of capitalism. This is leading to a brutal social polarization which means the risk of extinction of a growing proportion of the species. In Africa, south of the Sahel, 150,000 children die daily from hunger, while what is spent in the U.S. and Europe on perfume could give clean water to the entire planet’s population.

The control of labour, like the control of sex, subjectivity and the authority are burning. It is not only resistance, we are making alternative proposals and practices. After 500 years, it is the first time in the history of this pattern of power that we start not only to expect a future, but to work for that future. We are, in some ways, living with the future we need, because we are sketching it today. This idea is not merely an image, not just an expression of hope and perspectives, is not in the classical sense a mere utopia, something that has no place in the universe. This takes place in the universe, is here, so that it makes sense not only as an image but as a phenomenon, as a real and necessary tendency of this reality.

For the first time after 500 years of defeat – defeat of all, not of only some – what emerges not just a speech but another historical sense, another horizon of historical sense in which the goods and profit are no longer the center of the proposal. When the huge movement called indigenous, which is not homogeneous, is quite heterogeneous and which begins to use even a name from the colonial period but which assumes it, emerges not only speaking, but organizing, acting to say our forests, our fields, our water cannot be goods, cannot be sold, they are referring to the defense of the final conditions of their existence, their ultimate survival conditions in the world. They can not live without the forest, without oxygen, without water, without the materials that allow them to produce cultural goods for their existence. This is the first time that another proposal with historical sense is emerging..

This is coming together, also, the fact that a large part of contemporary intelligence, especially the contemporary scientific community, is insisting on the destruction of the living conditions on the planet. Then both the movement of the most dominated in this world, those who if they sell their means of living could not exist, as those who realize that if it ends, no one can survive, they come together in a common analysis.

Finally another horizon of historical sense emerges, now it’s here, already beginning, and not just speeches and assemblies; communities are reorganizing and combining; creating another form of political authority that will have to compete with the State, while it is still there. This is not just a utopia, we are beginning to live with the future, and until we can be defeated, and even the world may end, but this has no turning back.

Publicado en: Sumak Kawsay/Buen Vivir y cambios civilizatorios, 2da Ed., Coord. Irene León, FEDAEPS, Quito, 2010, p. 55-71

One Response to Latin America: Towards a new sense of history

  1. Pingback: Latin America: Towards a new sense of history | Slowcialism

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