Nation, People and Politics in the Perspective of their Becoming

Horacio Legrás
University of California, Irvine

Volume 4, 2013

Latinamericanism after 9/11 is a provocative, far- reaching and fascinating book. In responding to it, I was first inclined to select a single chapter or a well-defined problem only to find my argument spilling over into other areas of the book. I decided finally to confront some aspects of the book at the same programmatic level at which they are enunciated because, if I am not misreading Beverley, there is in his argument an implicit assumption that political options are inextricable from theoretical and methodological principles. Knowledge produced about Latin America creates particular power effects but also, and for the same reason, holds strategic political value. Latin America as a site of political commitment is also the displaced question of an object of academic discourse.

The moment in Latin America and Latinamericanism that Beverly tries to delineate calls to mind the now forty-year old statement with which Martin Lienhard urged literary critics to totally reinvent their critical apparatus if they really wanted to come to terms with José María Arguedas’s last novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. I underline both this date and this genealogy because it seems to me that to some extent we are still on the outer edges of that challenge. The first proposition in the book is that Latinamericanism is at a crossroads (“Latin America itself has become a politically volatile signifier” [Beverley 5]) and it is only as a secondary movement that the author inscribes his own intervention as a kind of balance sheet of fifty years of involvement with this object. As a notion, Latin America has constituted a site of endless hermeneutical battles almost since the beginning of its independent life. I doubt that the idea of Latin America has a history, or that Latinamericanism exists, outside and beyond these perpetual skirmishes over the meaning of the Latin American thing.

In a sense, Beverley’s book is another episode in this continuous battle for the definition of the present. In Beverley’s eyes this present is best grasped by the idea of a post-neo-liberal condition—of which the pink tide is one manifestation. For Beverley, this condition has acquired enough historical condensation to deserve to be analyzed on its own terms. But here is where problems begin because by definition a subaltern location like Latin America is almost never analyzed on its own terms. This is so for a number of reasons. First, because the development of the periphery seems necessarily condemned to reproduce the historicist path of metropolitan locations. Although we are all well schooled in the intrinsically Eurocentric or Orientalist nature of this thinking, it is an attitude that permeates all approaches to Latin America either negatively (Latin America is on the road to something) or positively (we have to respect Latin American exceptionality). Second, because the knowledge of Latin America is compromised by the specific location of production of such knowledge. Although I find the whole polemic around a U.S. vs. Latin America-situated Latinamericanism irrelevant and even naive, one has to concede that positive knowledge about Latin America—the knowledge produced in sociology, the political sciences, and to a lesser extent history departments in the U.S.—often reflects little of current realities and is happy to just pave the way for a prescriptive discourse of what a Latin America aligned with overall global designs should look like. Critical Latinamericanism—historically related to the humanities—seeks to produce its own diagnosis of the present and harness it to a set of different political projections. Critical Latinamericanism is often attentive to its own conditions of enunciation and struggles to erase its imperial mark, which it can do but only to some extent. (The imperial mark is not strictly territorial. There is plenty of imperialist discourse produced in Latin America). Needless to say, I align Beverley’s book with this critical, committed Latinamericanism.

The reality that Beverley seeks to coalesce around the notion of a post-neo-liberal moment can be described as one in which an ample coalition of past social identities and new subaltern identities have managed to become the state, bringing with them forms of knowledge and actions that, according to the reputable left, lacks ideological soundness and social insight. For Beverley, the reputable left has lost a sense of the present and in its confusion threatens to drift to conservative positions. I don’t have a quarrel with these assumptions since they all seem like valid working hypotheses—to put it in the positivist language of our “uncritical” colleagues. Where I disagree with Beverley is on the level of the radicalism of his gesture. In other words, how far should we take the reinvention of the critical apparatus if we really want to give an account of the resilience of the post-neo-liberal moment? How volatile does our own thinking need to be in order to pay due respect to the volatility of the signifier “Latin America”? A question that arises immediately anytime we consider paradigmatic changes has to do with the rules governing the applicability of the paradigm to the actual places under scrutiny. In a sense, this is the problem that the opposition from/about Latin America tries to solve, but at a level that remains too general to be effective. Although I cannot enter into this question here, I would like to make two observations. First, the rules of applicability have changed in the last twenty years in part because of the emergence of sophisticated scholarship made possible by the stability acquired by Latin American institutions in the period following the dictatorships. My second point is closely connected to the first. This scholarship is not interpretive in nature -in the old venerable tradition of the Latin American essay- but rather descriptive. The demand for description is inextricable from the volatility of the signifier “Latin America”. The opposite of description is not, however, interpretation but rather prescription.

I believe that Beverley’s book participates in this push for a descriptive moment as the precondition of its analytical operations. There is at least the general claim that his interpretation of the Latin American present is grounded in a careful observation of the conditions of production of cultural and material life in the region. But even at the necessarily theoretical level at which his discussion moves, there are some mismatches that may be useful to discuss in some detail. In his book, Beverley intertwines his own history of political solidarity with Latin America with the different modalities that the object “Latin America” has taken through the last decades. But the desire to do justice to the resilience of the present appears compromised by an alternate desire to sustain some conceptual notions. The fact that socialism is still at least a rhetorical possibility in Latin America, or that social movements play a central role in many countries, or that the state works as a redistributive tool, leads Beverley to paradigmatic associations in which rhetorical possibilities evoke armed struggle, the disintegration of formal politics brings to mind the rainbow coalition, and the redistributive efforts of the pink tide concretizes a notion of the state that is perhaps unrecoverable. I believe that by insisting on these equivalences Beverly undermines his own argument. The resilience of the post-neo-liberal condition demands perhaps a more daring look at the set of conditions that determine our general political situation.

Of all political signifiers perhaps none has become more volatile than the signifier “nation.” Both global post-neoliberalism and new social movements have deeply reshaped the traditional forms of the national pact. The nation matters to Beverley’s argument because it is the terrain on which the political can be created and sustained. There is no such thing as a global politics yet. The reason is quite simple: the nation continues to be the only form of constituting a practical sphere of universality even when people (increasingly) act and create outside the nation. Beverley does not have any quarrel with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s description of the dynamism of popular agency in terms of its “capacity to construct places, temporalities, migrations, and new bodies” (28). But he objects to the idea of abandoning the nation as the necessary mediator of these processes. Without a nation there is no people and without people there is no politics—Beverley suggests that much in a passing comment on Machiavelli. However the specter of Empire cannot be so easily dismissed. Even if we want to maintain the nation as the general frame that makes the political possible, we cannot ignore the deep erosion that the contemporary forms of the state have been suffering everywhere. It is the state and not the nation that guarantees the autonomy of the political in the last instance, and it does so through the infamous notion of sovereignty. What kind of polity can we aspire to when the nation-state is in the process of losing its centuries-old claim to territorial sovereignty? Who or what can guarantee the autonomy of the political and its universal purchase? Principles will not do it. Different constitutions need to arise at different points to guarantee the political space that the nation-state can no longer guarantee by itself. The social movements so vindicated by Beverley are one of the places for this constitution. However, social movements can play that role in a zero sum game with the state. In this sense, the idea that social movements have become the state lacks in descriptive power. The ability of the social movements to “become the state” depends on the weakening and transformation of state forms that were made possible by globalizing forces in the first place. At the same moment that social movements became the state, the state became less state.

It is not just the signifier Latin America that has become volatile. What does it mean that Latin America is one of the areas of the world in which the word socialism is at least a rhetorical possibility? It means, I believe, that the governments of the pink tide have assumed capitalist globalization as the unsurpassable limit of their own historical horizon. The possibility of socialism is going down the same gutter that is taking away the fatality of prescriptive forms of capitalist development. This position allows the representatives of the pink tide to embrace capitalist globalization while rejecting its neo-liberal incarnation. In doing this, they produce a genuine contribution to our understanding of the present by showing that globalization is “a modality of action, production, and cultural elaboration that involves and determines all levels of existence” (Galli 102), while neo-liberalism is just an epiphenomenal manifestation of the same present. The only reason we experience neo-liberalism as the truth of capitalist globalization is because of the neo-liberal conviction to suture the gap between the economic and the political that has been constitutive of the modern world. Political sovereignty has always been predicated upon the need to subordinate the economic to the political. Neo-liberalism sought to ride the globalizing wave as the first political doctrine in modernity that did not seek such a reduction but rather the synchronization of both realms. Neo-liberalism attempted to do so by “economicizing” the realm of the social: we are all entrepreneurs, owners of our own means of production which need to be used now along the lines of ideals of efficiency, optimization, creativity, risk management etcetera. This prescriptive bio-politics differentiates neo-liberalism from the type of libertarianism that is rampant in many of the most radical social movements in Latin America. To a large extent, neo-liberalism’s failed bid for hegemony was situated precisely at a specific bio-political level. It was a result of an inability to re-code the overflow of social life into forms of self-possessive entrepreneurialism. The relative failure of neo-liberal biopolitics paved the way for the emergence of a myriad of social movements feeding on different traditions. Some of these traditions look outmoded such as the appeals to the counsel of the ‘ancients’ in an indigenista vein for instance. On the other hand, we know that few things are more modern or fashionable than this invocation and exhibition of cultural differences. The flattening of time and space proper of global times have eroded the prescriptive meaning of temporalizing adjectives such as ‘outmoded’, a process beautifully illustrated by Neil Stephenson in his dark sci-fi novel The Diamond Age. Does this mean that we can all live now in our own utopia? (Some characters in Stephenson’s novel live in an English Victorian society, others in a techno-nightmare of perpetual surveillance). Not at all, it just means that history—and consequently change—can now work independently of the processes of cultural codification, global bio-political regulations excepted. In other words, capitalist reproduction has reached a level of indifference towards its actual forms of incarnation. Capitalist development continues to be, of course, a highly policed terrain. Some modalities of capitalist development are more profitable than others and class struggle continues to be the dominant form of organizing social dynamics. But all these are battles inside capitalism, not about it.

The paradoxical status of the nation in the global present was first experienced by the neo-liberal wave itself, where it takes the form of a demand for increasing governmental discipline (fiscal discipline in most cases) and a radicalization of economic libertarianism. Neo-liberalism needed to weaken the state for its own political viability and economic profitability, but it simultaneously needed to strengthen the state since the state was to be constituted as the last and only guarantor of all investment through the notion of sovereign debt. Neo-liberalism tries to solve this impasse through the creation of international juridical instances like the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), only to run up against the same paradox: only states—which the ICSID is supposed to supersede—can enforce its verdicts.

Does this mean that the nation is proving too resilient for globalization? Not really. It just means that we have to accommodate our notion of the nation to the present context. Neither the local nor the global exists in isolation. The problem however is to figure its points of imbrication. As Saskia Sassen—whom Beverly quotes—repeatedly remarked, globalization does not happen through the erasure of national institutions in favor of global ones but through the rekindling of the institutions of the nation-state to serve the ends of global financialization.[1] The autonomy of central banks remains the best example: these banks are put outside the sphere of influence of local governments but made completely open to the influence of global financial institutions like the IMF. Several of the governments of the pink tide have reversed this function of the central banks with, as a rule, what Beverley describes as the “respectable left” (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay) protecting the autonomy of the central bank (from their own states) while the disreputable left prefers to increase political influence over these institutions. The imbrication of the local and the global points to the difficulty of sustaining a strict opposition between nation and Empire because the nation cannot be a site of resistance to Empire without being simultaneously a site for its constitution. The very idea of a “resistance to globalization” is paradoxical and at some level untenable. To oppose globalization would be like opposing the condition of possibility of the historical moment. Social movements and the pink tide can oppose neo-liberalism because neo- liberalism was never synonymous with the global order but rather an attempt to give to the global flow some type of directionality.

I want to go back now to the question of sovereignty because it is so deeply implicated in everything Beverley writes and especially in his claim that Latin America is today one of the few places in the world where socialism is at least a rhetorical possibility. As a signifier, socialism belongs to a chain whose immediate neighbors are nation, state, capitalism and in the end, sovereignty. It would be easy to show that social movements hardly fit in the inner circle of this signifying chain. Social movements lived years of glory in the aftermath of the 2001 crisis in Argentina as they came to the rescue of a socius in a state of quasi-dissolution, and were acknowledged to be society’s contribution to the reconstruction of the country. Now, if we take the most emblematic of these movements we will see that all of them are characterized by a self-attribution of a sovereign function of the old state form: piqueteros and social protests disputed the legitimate use of force attributed to the state; barter clubs replaced state commercial regulations in a secluded space sequestered from taxation and state intrusion either in the form of money or mechanisms of commercial control; the asambleas barriales wrested from parliament the principle of political representation and the movement of fábricas recuperadas questioned the whole legal system at one of its crucial points of inflection: the regulation of ownership. The loss of political sovereignty of modern states may be due to conditions that are both external and uncontrollable, but it registers more pristinely in the chronic crisis of the liberal regime of representation and in the ceaseless constitution of sites and modalities of engagement that the state finds it difficult not only to survey but even to address, as the recent cycle of protests in Brazil has made clear once more.

It is the inextricability of external globalization and the internal emergence of new political subjectivities that makes Beverley’s attack on Hardt and Negri’s Empire problematic for me. I believe that Hardt and Negri point to a real configuration of the present when they perceive the multitude as superseding a national politics centered and dependent on a traditional notion of state sovereignty. Simultaneously, I share with Beverley and others some qualms regarding the specific level of political subjectivation at which the multitude would operate. We are deep enough into the history of the post-national to know that nothing in the realm of political subjection can really be superseded and that the demise of one concept cannot by itself bring a new one into existence. The nation was part of the disciplinary apparatus of a certain state form and it cannot survive the disaggregation of such an apparatus. The affective modalities created by the nation, on the other hand, may enjoy a long afterlife. In other words, and to advance a subject that I will broach again apropos Beatriz Sarlo and neo-conservatism, despite the references to nationalism and the people, it is doubtful that politics concerns the common of the community in most of Latin America, especially in those cases that interest Beverley the most. Politics appears instead as a constant vying for state power, which is then used as a tool to satisfy the different demands of a notoriously disseminated corpus of individual polities. The motley nature of social movements is given by their actualization of different traditions of political subjectivation, the condition of possibility of which is not the identification of the individual with a given cultural position (which is the pre-requisite in my view of a rainbow politics) but rather the slow but steady erosion of the state’s ability to name and manage the sites of constitution of the political. Of course, all this is experienced in paradoxical terms on the ground. Let us take the case of class, for instance. Class has almost disappeared from the political map both in the rich North Atlantic and the mixed bag of poverty and luxury that is Latin America. This does not mean that there are no longer workers. Industrial workers are at an absolute historical height at the end of the twentieth century in both relative and absolute terms.[2] The waning of class simply means that class is no longer a point of identification able to ground a political action. So in the cases of Brazil and Argentina, the middle class will be rabidly oppositional to the governments of the pink tide despite the fact that it has been the main recipient of the recent economic boom. The same classes, on the other hand, will on average favor the neo-liberal policies that almost wiped them out of existence. How to explain this contradiction of millions of people speaking and sometimes voting against their class interests? The middle sectors misperceive their own collocation in the social battlefield because this is too neatly aligned along the lines of a privileged minority and a populist mob, by both the rhetoric of political parties and the world-view favored by the international corporate media. We are not confronting here the traditional blind spot of an aspirational class, but rather a marked murkiness of the social, which is the condition of possibility of what Beverley calls neo-conservatism. If the left can go astray into conservative positions, it is because reality itself has become “unreadable” in terms of left and right, progressive and anti-progressive, pro and anti-capitalist and so on and so forth.

This is the unreadability in which Beatriz Sarlo is caught. Sarlo denounces, apropos the testimonial literature on the desaparecidos, a situation in which politics has become a sort of reality show where the predominant values are emotions and identifications rather than critical judgment of the political past. Even the progressive position that denounces these atrocities is caught up in a sentimental rhetoric that produces the immediate semblance of pain and repentance rather than firmer convictions derived from a properly political consideration. While I agree with Beverley that Sarlo’s argument is directed as much against the treatment of human rights violations as it is against the affective modalities of Kirchnerist political discourse, I disagree with his perception that such a critique is the reaction of an intellectual elite before its loss in political capital. On the contrary, I believe that Sarlo is describing a real problem, and that at some level her error was to read as a specific populist production what is in fact the general organization of the public sphere in the age of media domination. Beatriz Sarlo herself writes for different publications in Argentina and she runs now and then a column in the newspaper La nación. Mindful of the situation, she tries to play the role of a critical intellectual that is opposed to the government but not from the point of view of economic self-interest. What is striking here is her failure to obtain such a position of enunciation. It does not matter what Sarlo says, her position is always constructed in terms of the same “media show” she is denouncing. The media meanwhile has developed into an entirely corporatist logic that makes it difficult to imagine how a public sphere such as the one desired by Sarlo could ever be viable. One has to be clear on this point: the regular columns that Mario Vargas Llosa runs in a reputed newspaper like El Pais and in which the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner sells his pen to whatever cause is in vogue in this or that recalcitrant center of “conservative thinking”, would have been unimaginable twenty years ago. And this is not so in virtue of the often retrograde positions defended in these columns, but on account of the more or less total closure of the critical posture. In order to appear in the media, the intellectual has to abjure what Lionel Trilling called “the moral obligation to be intelligent”. And if the intellectual herself does not abjure that position, the medium will obliterate it. We are as caught up in this machinery as Beatiz Sarlo and Vargas Llosa are. Thinking the opposite may just be a way of turning our public marginalization into critical positions.

For Giorgio Agamben—in an argument that has been condemned as often as it has been secretly or inadvertently repeated—we are all homo sacer to the eyes of the state. On the one hand, this does not seem like a big deal since states themselves are in decline; on the other, this seems terrifying since the sovereign state is the only possible guarantor of individual rights. These rights themselves can only come about as the result of a political relationship. What I find intriguing about the present of Latin America is not that the social movements became the state, but rather that neither social movements nor the state name a visible and describable form of political subjectivation. Neither does the press, although it desperately attempts to play that role. Under these conditions, which are to some extent the conditions described by Hardt and Negri in Empire, society seems to unfold in what Beverley calls, accusingly, “a post-political register altogether” (28). It seems to me that the site of politics, the site of its production, accumulation, and transmission has become something of a mystery in Latin America today. In other words: there is politics but we find it increasingly difficult to find the exact location at which this politics is produced. This is of course a side effect of what Sassen (1996) calls the coming apart of sovereignty and territoriality—a coming apart that Hardt and Negri do not register because for them sovereignty itself is nothing but a convenient fable in the first place.[3] In this context, what happens to the notion of class happens to the idea of political subjectivity at large—it is involved in a struggle that does not name it as such, but which, simultaneously, will not leave it beyond its purview. In many cases, politics has shifted to either a non-public space or to small public spaces that replicate the dissolution of the sovereign bond. What are the forms through which political power is constituted and accumulated? Who has this power and through which mechanisms? Of all that we know appallingly little, and such ignorance may constitute an immediate agenda for both a critical and a positive Latinamericanism.


01. See, for instance, Sassen (2007 1-24). 

02. See Comaroff and Comaroff (11). 

03. Also see Brown (23). 

Works Cited

  • Beverley, John. Latinamericanism after 9/11. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
  • Brown, Wendy. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 2010.
  • Comaroff, Jean and John L. Comaroff. Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
  • Galli, Carlo. Political Spaces and Global War. Trans. Elisabeth Fay. Minneapolis: The U of Minnesota P, 2010.
  • Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.
  • Sassen, Saskia. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. New York: Columbia UP, 1996.
  • ———. “Introduction”. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. 1-24.