Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book review: Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality

Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality by José Carlos Mariátegui

José Carlos Mariátegui is one of Peru's most influential left intellectuals. He had poor health from a young age, though he managed to work his way up the ranks of the newspaper industry, becoming an influential and astute social critic. His paper's opposition to the government of a former New York Life Insurance Company executive gained him the animosity of the military coup-installed government, and he was comfortably exiled on government salary to Europe (lucky he was born in 1895 and not 1945!). There he absorbed himself with the political developments of the continent, which he brought back to Peru years later.
This book explains the history of Peru from the Incas to Mariátegui's time (he died in 1929). He describes the Incas as administering a kind of theocratic communism - clearly bucking the orthodox Marxist line that communism is a stage of development reached only after intermediary steps. Then came the Spanish. "The colonial regime disrupted and demolished the Inca agrarian economy without replacing it with an economy of higher yields. Under the indigenous aristocracy, the natives made up a nation of ten million men, with an integrated government that efficiently ruled all its territory; under a foreign aristocracy, the natives became a scattered and anarchic mass of a million men reduced to servitude and peonage."
Mariátegui goes on to criticize the Spanish for bringing "to America the effects and methods of an already declining spirit and economy that belonged to the past:" feudalism. Whereas with capitalism in "the North, there were no kings to dispose of another's land as though it were their own. Without any special favors from their monarchs and in a sort of moral rebellion against the kind of England, the colonizers of the north proceeded to develop a system of private property under which each one paid the price of his land and occupied only as much as he could cultivate" (as put by a non-Marxist writer Mariátegui quotes).
The stage of economic and political development of Peru during Mariátegui's day was called "gamonalismo," or bossism. Gamonalismo represented but a tiptoe step beyond colonial feudalism - the Spanish king was no longer sovereign over Peru, but the same large landowners who used to be his most powerful subjects now ruled. And they ruled in much the same way that the Spanish had, except the surplus extracted by the ruling parasites off the backs of Indian laborers now went to the parasites themselves, rather than being shared with the capo di tutti capi, the king of Spain. Capitalist development in Peru was stunted from the beginning by extreme concentration of wealth and the inefficiencies it creates.
It is interesting the degree to which what Mariátegui writes about the oppression of the Indian under Peruvian gamonalismo can be applied to oppressed ethnic minorities all over the world; African-Americans under U.S. capitalism, for instance:
"The moral and material misery of the Indian is too clearly the result of the economic and social system that has oppressed him for centuries. This system, which succeeded colonial feudalism, is gamonalismo. While it rules supreme, there can be no question of redeeming the Indian.
"The term gamonalismo designates more than just a social and economic category: that of the latifundistas or large landowners. It signifies a whole phenomenon. Gamonalismo is represented not only by the gamonales but by a long hierarchy of officials, intermediaries, agents, parasites, et cetera. The literate Indian who enters the service of gamonalismo turns into an exploiter of his own race. The central factor of the phenomenon is the hegemony of the semi-feudal landed estate in the policy and mechanism of the government. Therefore, it is this factor that should be acted upon if the evil is to be attacked at its roots and not merely observed in its temporary or subsidiary manifestations."
"Gamonalismo is fundamentally opposed to the education of the Indian; it has the same interest in keeping the Indian ignorant as it has in encouraging him to depend on alcohol. The modern school - assuming that in the present situation it could be multiplied at the same rate as the rural school-age population - is incompatible with the feudal latifundium. The mechanics of the Indian's servitude would altogether cancel the action of the school if the latter, but a miracle that is inconceivable within social reality, should manage to preserve its pedagogical mission under a feudal regime. The most efficient and grandiose teaching system could not perform these prodigies. School and teacher are doomed to be debased under the pressure of the feudal regime, which cannot be reconciled with the most elementary concept of progress and evolution."
And applicable to Peru in the 1920s, but fascinating nonetheless:
"Gamonalismo or feudalism could have been eliminated by the republic within its liberal and capitalist principles. But for reasons I have already indicated, those principles have not effectively and fully directed our historic process. They were sabotaged by the very class charged with applying them and for more than a century they have been powerless to rescue the Indian from a servitude that was an integral part of the feudal system. It cannot be hoped that today, when those principles are in crisis all over the world, they can suddenly acquire in Peru an unwonted creative vitality."
Even while describing Peruvian reality - in this case the aristocratic rule of Nicolás de Piérola - Mariátegui could be timeless - or very timely today: "The democratic caudillo, who for so long had thunderously aroused the masses against the wealthy, now took pains to carry out a civilismo administration [supportive of the status quo]. His tax system and fiscal measures removed any possible doubts that might have been raised by his phraseology and metaphysics. This confirms the principle that the meaning and shape of men, their policy and deeds, are more clearly revealed on an economic than on a political level."

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