With the legitimacy crisis of neoliberal development in Latin America as a key contemporary feature and ‘postneoliberalism’ gaining traction in the region, this eleventh contribution to the Thesis Pieces series, by Philip Roberts, turns attention to one of the latest and most prominent attempts to theorise the continental history of Latin America. How can we place Latin America within the history of capitalist modernity, struggles for hegemony, and social counter-movements within the twenty-first century?

It was once common to assert that poorer countries could read their futures in the development of early-industrialising nations. Growth, wealth and prosperity were a continuum on which all states rested. Adoption of responsible national-level policies would bring Latin America, for instance, into line with forms of state and economy seen in Europe and the USA. However, since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, developing zones increasingly define the future of the global economy, whilst the West appears backward-looking and insular. Lacking a viable alternative, Europe and the United States seem condemned to a continuation of neoliberalism, according to the insights of figures such as Philip Mirowski or Colin Crouch, whilst Latin America in particular embarks on post-neoliberal political-economic projects. The prior framework is thus set upon its head, as the past of Latin America may indicate the future of the West, and analysis of the future of the global economy must emerge within rising nations rather than outside them.

Ronaldo Munck’s Rethinking Latin America: Development, Hegemony and Social Transformation is a timely publication in this global climate. As the title suggests, the book deploys three core concepts, appearing in renovated forms, to examine Latin America’s meaning in the global political-economy. Chapter 1 attempts to ‘place’ Latin America by interrogating development theories, defined by how each assigns the continent a spatial location within its conceptual geography. Munck questions whether Latin America is an underdeveloped part of the West; part of the East, being Asiatic, despotic and Oriental; or betwixt each space, both post-colonial and post-modern, but not reducible to either. Opting for this last view, Munck settles upon an analysis of how Latin America, ‘experiences mixed temporalities leading to multiple modernities’. Development and social change are thus not linear processes, but fecund and differentiated. Chapters 2 through 6 then proceed chronologically, giving a continental view of Latin America from 1510 to 2010. Finally, Chapter 7 provides an overview, based on a call to examine how, ‘Latin America has “always-already” been globalised’.

mariategui

José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930)

Rethinking Latin America is a nuanced, complex theoretical engagement with the global role of the continent. Munck is open about his intention to ‘Latinamericanise’ Antonio Gramsci using José Carlos Mariátegui, shaping a Marxist analysis which avoids class reductionism. Karl Polanyi also plays a significant role in the theoretical framework, alongside Francisco de Oliveira’s background influence, and Michel Foucault’s introduction at key conjunctures. The scope of the text is prodigious, using both anglophone and Latin-language works in depth and detail, both for theory and empirics. Nonetheless, a clear thread weaving through Latin American history is picked out. Passive revolution is a central concept for understanding the various national struggles for independence, just as hegemony is key to analysing neoliberalism from 1973-2001. Polanyi’s concept of a social counter-movement is central to analysis of the move beyond neoliberalism, defined by the ‘Pink Tide’ which swept Latin America. These two theories are blended deftly, drawing also from Michael Burawoy on the convergence of Gramsci-Polanyi within the rubric of ‘Sociological Marxism’. For Munck ‘while Gramsci was the theorist of hegemony par excellence, we could say that it is Karl Polanyi who has most clearly articulated a theory of counter-hegemony fit for the global era’. However, Munck is careful not to force reality to fit with theory. He concludes that though Latin America can be considered ‘post-neoliberal’, this does not entail coherence nor convergence in the existing alternatives. The text does not, therefore, offer a comprehensive theory of the post-neoliberal state.

Polanyi

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964)

Though continental in vision and considerable in depth and range, Rethinking Latin America is occasionally victim to its own scope and rigour. Whilst some theorists are happy to develop a central thesis, then use it as hammer to which every problem is a nail, Munck shows a great theoretical flexibility and a varied conceptual toolbox. However, this entails that some acuteness of analysis is lost as disparate perspectives are combined. Description of Polanyi as a European Marxist, for example, may sit uneasily with readers who view Polanyi as concerned with exchange rather than production. Equally, the suggestion that Latin America has been defined by struggles for hegemony since the 16th century, is probably an over-extension of the concept. Gramsci states in the Prison Notebooks that hegemony is an innovation of the bourgeoisie, the first dominant group able to ‘construct an organic passage from the other classes into their own’, assuming intellectual and moral leadership over these groups. Accordingly, Latin America could not see hegemonic struggles until the later emergence of this class. However, such objections are in danger of missing the point; in Rethinking Latin America, Munck has provided a varied and fertile analysis which encourages the reader to look beyond the continuous re-application of well-worn theories in familiar ways. In offering new directions, the text would therefore be a strong foundation for courses on Latin America being taught at an advanced level.

A version of this review is forthcoming in Capital & Class.

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