The Ideology of Progress in Latin America – Revista Argelaga

The Ideology of Progress in Latin America – Revista Argelaga

An essay “written on the occasion of the premier of the documentary film, ‘Asfaltar Bolivia’” [Paving Bolivia] in Barcelona (2015), denouncing the destructive impact of capitalist development and its hypocritical rhetoric of “progress”, “development” and “modernization”, in the context of the recent nationalist upsurge based on extractive industries and a modified form of globalization that has swept over Latin America as the new populist leaders attempt to impose “modern, consumerist, individualist and predatory lifestyles” to create a “social base” so the “extractivist bureaucracy can consolidate its power” at the expense of indigenous communities and “collective ways of life”.

The Ideology of Progress in Latin America – Revista Argelaga

In the capitalist world, that is, in the world, the words “progress”, “development” and “modernization” constitute the ideological shell of capital accumulation and economic growth; they shape the discourse of the ruling class because they comprise its articulating framework. In Latin America, as long as the neo-colonialist agro-export model prevailed and the oligarchies that benefited from it were in power, these concepts had a clear meaning: progress was the progress of others, of foreign capitalism. Global development of the productive forces took the form of local underdevelopment, and capitalization abroad was manifested as de-capitalization at home. As long as the big landlords and comprador bourgeoisie were in power, the immense “wealth” of the earth, that is, the value of its resources on the world market, implied the most abject poverty for the majority of its inhabitants, proletarianized by force and existing under the permanent threat of unemployment. In the absence of a flourishing middle class and a middle layer of entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, industrialization was delayed, isolated and weak. In the meantime, the role of technology in economic development acquired increasing importance and the oligarchy had to import its components, passing their cost on to the masses of wage workers. The system was falling apart and sinking into intense social crises. The paradox of an imperialist capitalism that was the enemy of local capitalist development led to the formation of a nationalism of resistance, represented, curiously enough, by conservative politicians and military dictators who crushed the independent working class movement and the declining radical middle class. Their program of industrialization and development employed the State as its main agent, in an attempt to play the historical role that the bourgeoisie had failed to perform.

It was the task of the State to bring an end to political-economic “dependency” on foreign capital by reinforcing the national banking system and raising protectionist barriers, although this was done in such a way as to not injure the interests of the local elites upon which its power was based, as well as to avoid entering into conflict with the geo-strategic interests of American capital, against which all opposition was futile. In an unequal contest, American imperialism was victorious and the authoritarian, “Prussian” road of capitalist development was the one that prevailed during the phase of globalization: the U.S. Treasury, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were the institutions that imposed policies based on macroeconomic stability and the stimulation of foreign investment, at least until the end of the 1990s, in Latin America. The insignificant amount of capital obtained with the New Structural Adjustment, the remittances of emigrants and the privatization of State and municipal enterprises, was rapidly absorbed by the economic crisis, but the main product of deregulation and neoliberal development was an avaricious and corrupt bureaucracy which exacerbated the political crisis. In this context of multiple crises new social forces of a social-populist type emerged that, availing themselves of the existing political structures, would eventually assume political power. Despite their old-fashioned leftist rhetoric, they do not intend to abolish capitalism by way of a socialist “revolution”, but rather to stimulate the creation of capital on the basis of a program of re-industrialization and resource extraction. They seek to break with the most brutal forms of globalization without actually renouncing globalization itself. The State was therefore supposed to be the instrument of an economic and technological renewal that would make possible the redistribution of profits and the creation of a broad social base. The new bureaucracy is progressive, not in the liberal sense, but in the social sense, since it is composed of the leaders of the recent social movements, former leaders of the movements of the past and cutting-edge technocrats. It is furthermore avidly in favor of economic development and also the spearhead of material progress, understood as a high capacity for consumption of commodities, because it believes in the socially beneficial virtues of market-based economic development.

It is obvious that economic progress is fundamental for the proper functioning of a society subject to the laws of the world market, and such a society seems to depend above all on the exploitation of mineral, forestry, hydrological, agricultural and petroleum resources. It seems that there are no other alternatives: either the disintegration of the old social structures linked to obsolete forms of capitalism; or the destruction of the territory and the disintegration of the surviving communities. The new ruling class is trying to stabilize class society by imposing an extractive model based on the exploitation of the natural patrimony as the principal motor force of growth. It is using the old reformist tactic of the social democrats, introducing “social welfare” one step at a time, at the same time that it is therefore reproducing the old export-based model, the only one that will allow it to proletarianize, without a struggle, the sectors of the overwhelmingly peasant population that remain on the margins of the market, a status that causes them to merit inclusion in the category of the “poor”. According to the canons of progress, popular “well being” consists in the possession of fetish objects such as cars, household appliances, computers and cell phones, the use of pesticides and credit cards, and buying things online or at shopping malls, exactly the type of misery characterized by the abundance of useless commodities that proliferates in the fully capitalized countries. Progress, the banner of the new class, is ultimately nothing but the industrialization of the territory and the monetization of all social activity. Therefore, traditional, agrarian and collective ways of life must yield to modern, consumerist, individualist and predatory lifestyles, so that the current class equilibrium can be preserved and the extractivist bureaucracy can consolidate its power.

In Latin America, governments are now the key players in globalization, and their governments have assumed responsibility for its infrastructure. Highways, dams, urbanization and electric power plants prepare and condition the territory for the penetration of the economy: they are undertaken in order to “give a skeleton and a circulatory system to the country”, that is, to facilitate the transformation of the territory into capital. This process is indifferent to the real needs of the population and its environmental impacts, because it pursues exclusively capitalist goals. And it is precisely the indigenous communities, uncontaminated by Progress, who stand out as a barrier to developmentalist barbarism, paying the price of the criminalization of their protests, abuse at the hands of the police and the bribery of their representatives. Defense of the territory is not simply an act of resistance against the expropriation of their resources; it is a defense of their identity, their culture and their ancestral patrimony. It is the defense of a way of living that, while far from being ideal, is much more free and healthy than the one that is established by the globalization of finance. And this is why it has become the beacon of the colonized urban masses, trapped in neurotic, toxic and depersonalized ways of life, repressed, unhappy and extremely dependent. In the metropolitan suburbs and in the parasitic conurbations, the idea of Progress has come to express its most macabre meaning in the form of the senseless pharaonic projects with which the new progress-worshipping caste is punishing the territory and its inhabitants. The struggles do not stop at haggling over services, demanding more loans or more jobs, demands that limit and hamstring the urban movements. They are anti-State and anti-capitalist struggles, struggles for the right to ignore the Capital-State and to live outside of it. And it is precisely this which no State can tolerate, in this epoch when the State has so completely merged with Capital. They are demanding justice, but justice of a kind that no mercenary court can deliver.

Revista Argelaga, March 13, 2015; written on the occasion of the premier of the documentary film, “Asfaltar Bolivia” [“Paving Bolivia”], produced and directed by Marc Gavaldà.

Translated in March 2015 from the Spanish language text available online at: