Considerations on
in Latin America

In recent years, exponents of radical thought have formulated deep criticisms of developmental theories, questioning extraction and growth-at-any-cost models. They have especially underlined the devastating effects of agro-export and open-pit mining in Latin America. Both of these activities constitute central pillars of the regressive economic policies implemented in the second half of the 1980s. This pattern of accumulation reinforces the region’s dependent condition and its peripheral (or semi-peripheral) insertion into the international division of labor. It consolidates the dispossession of the majority of the population, reinforces unemployment, and favors those businesses that profit from making labor more and more precarious. The ongoing depredation of the environment reinforces innumerable social conflicts. Many opponents of development actively participate in popular resistance against plundering the subsoil, desertification, the destruction of rainforests, and the disappearance of woodlands, offering detailed denunciations of the consequences of this destruction. Popular mobilizations to preserve natural resources have largely begun in earnest over the course of the last five years. Roughly one-third of social movement actions have been related to the environment, and in 2012 alone, more than 184 confrontations of this type were recorded in the region. Five of these protests achieved cross-border dimensions.1 Criticism of extractive policies has been offered from a wide variety of ideological positions. Some theorists question the disasters based on a reformist point of view, promoting stricter regulations from the state. Others see the deterioration of the environment from a Marxist perspective, as a side effect of competition for profits arising from exploitation. A third group of authors postulate postdevelopmental ideas.2

Objections to development 
Many critics in the fight against extractive policies utilize the generic term “postdevelopment.” They identify this concept with an alternative project opposed to the current model of accumulation that comes at a cost to nature. But from the beginning of the 1990s, this notion also carries a different connotation, questioning all concepts of development. Arturo Escobar synthesizes this vision, putting forward a characterization that is very influential in the Latin American landscape.3 His writings polemicize against the “eurocentric” foundations of development and tie this concept to the restrictive universe of modern theories. He argues that developmentalists do not recognize the existence of other ways of human coexistence and proposes a “deconstruction of development.” His work would substitute reasoning, which is dependent upon Western thought, for approaches centered on the revaluation of local cultures. His point of view renders the old questions about the periphery’s underdevelopment useless and proposes to investigate the various ways in which Asia, Africa, and Latin American have been represented as backward regions.

Escobar justifies this analytical shift by rejecting the traditional preoccupation with the growth and advancement of the forces of production. He considers it more fruitful to evaluate the discourses and representations that have emerged from social resistance, proposing to study these protests as practical knowledge or as acts of subverting consciousness. Escobar’s views not only examine traditional questions about a certain sort of development, but also object to the very ideas of economic and social development themselves from the position of challenging totalizing worldviews. He argues that such ideas obstruct the perception of differences and the clarification of problems. In order to overcome these obstacles, he considers it necessary to abandon the old attachment to a unified analytical perspective. He advocates for a multiplicity of focuses and polemicizes with the Marxist rejection of this diversity, asserting that the symbiosis of totalizing theory with modernity has robbed us of our interpretive capacities. He attributes this impoverishment to the preeminence assigned to the search for a particular kind of truth.4

Other authors apply a similar focus to the problem of dependency. They affirm that this notion suffers from being tied to the modernist project that generates functionalism and mechanical modes of thought. They criticize the confusion that comes with modernizing beliefs and with the expectations of progress anchored to the unfolding of certain social laws.5

The reality of underdevelopment
Escobar accepts the structural regression of Latin America, but questions the need for development. This contradiction is derived from his peculiar characterization of the region’s socioeconomic deficiencies. He recognizes the qualitative differences that divide the whole area from the advanced economies, but substitutes the common understanding of this gulf—as a fracture between the center and the periphery—for a contrast between two types of modernity. He counterposes the fully developed and dominant version of this model in the central countries with the colonial and subordinate version that operates in Latin America.6

Stemming from this focus, he emphasizes the region’s cultural, political, and ideological misfortunes rather than its dependent insertion into global capitalism. He plays down the impact of economic underdevelopment and loses sight of the consequences of the extraction of resources, the hollowing out of wealth, the transfer of value, and the specialization of producing raw materials for export. This kind of dispossession created a scale of economic backwardness similar to other peripheral zones on the planet. 

Escobar rejects the usual appeals for developing Latin America, considering that they will only recreate the “invention of underdevelopment,” which was constructed by the colonialists and then repeated by the colonized.7 But this vision leads him to present the objective status of Latin American backwardness as a simple imaginary, disseminated by the powerful and accepted by the subordinate. He forgets that underdevelopment isn’t merely a belief, a myth, or a discourse, but brings with it the terrible reality of hunger, lack of education, and poverty. His failure to recognize these facts allows him to evade the gravest problems facing a region pushed to the margins. 

For centuries, the most important Latin American intellectuals have studied this problem. They have not prioritized development because it is somehow tied to a theme emanating from the West, but because of the grave social problems facing each nation in their region. Escobar dances around this reality, limiting himself to evaluating discourses without connecting these pronouncements to the guiding principle of underdevelopment. By divorcing his verbal exposition from its direct material manifestations, he omits the specific needs of Latin America.

The region must not only—like all societies on the planet—find a path of development that preserves the environment; but must also increase its general ability to satisfy its people’s basic needs and deploy development in such a way as to reduce the gap which separates it from the advanced economies. Preventing ecological disaster is a goal of the first magnitude as much for Haiti as for Switzerland, but eradicating backwardness is not a common task facing both countries. 

Escobar clearly denounces the destructive consequences of contemporary capitalism, but his response does not succeed in measuring the differential impact of this deterioration on the system’s center and on the periphery, nor is he able to deduce the necessary course of action for avoiding the attendant catastrophes. Like the rest of the periphery, Latin America must combine environmental protection with an increase in growth. If underdevelopment is seen merely as a narrative of modernity, there is no way to find proposals that synthesize the twin mandates of ecological sustainability and the overcoming of economic backwardness.

The deficiencies of localism
Escobar prioritizes local and community initiatives. He dismisses totalizing projects and prefers work in more restricted areas. His rejection of development coincides with his rejection of large-scale proposals formulated by nation states and regional organizations. His focus considers only those experiences conducted at the local level by social movements and nongovernmental organizations, emphasizing the advantages which spring up from this level of intervention and counterposing them to big projects which require the participation of various social classes.8

His attention to the details of community action does help rehabilitate the principles of solidarity and cooperation. But the undertakings that embody these values only achieve greater relevance when they move beyond an immediate area. If these initiatives are not part of strategic projects for social transformation, they lose their strength and consistency. The narrow localist perspective does not allow for the gestation of the sort of initiatives required to solve the region’s greatest problems. These issues necessitate actions across a wide array of areas such as energy, finance, and industrialization, and these cannot be implemented strictly on a local level.

A modern communitarian vision is akin to the old cooperative utopianism. In its classical form, this vision sought the eventual dissolution of exploitative relations as the end goal of a prolonged expansion of self-managing cooperatives. These sort of schemes effectively foreshadowed an egalitarian future, but turned out to only provide a few scattered seeds for a future society. Any real flowering of an economy based on solidarity requires overcoming the rules of competition and profit that dominate under capitalism. Experience has shown that an equitable society cannot be built around isolated islands surrounded by the oceans of the current system.

Escobar explicitly distances himself from neo-Luddite proposals and challenges attitudes that romanticize the local sphere. But his conceptions owe a great deal to the utopian forefathers. He confirms this proximity when he defends the centrality of community experiences as the most important path for social transformation, emphasizing that it is only at this level that the universal culture necessary to advance toward political empowerment can be forged.9

But he fails to provide a historical balance sheet for such ventures. Many centuries of experience illustrate the impossibility of eradicating capitalism through an accumulation of local efforts. None of these modalities have challenged the continuity of the current system of competition, profit, and exploitation. Many countries have seen particular moments when there have been big expansions of agrarian communes, kibbutzim, industrial cooperatives, and self-managed factories. However, in no case have we witnessed the hoped-for trajectory toward social change. Of course, the turn toward an economy based on solidarity must be prepared by building up an alternative universal culture and by amplifying the political forces of the oppressed. Yet, to be successful, social transformation requires the conquest of political power, a goal that is commonly rejected or shunned by localist theories.

The best-known formulation of this conception—postulated by Holloway—explicitly calls for circumventing state structures in order to “change the world without taking power.” He asserts that capturing state power will merely recreate the current misfortunes, replacing one ruling elite for another in the administration of the state.10 But the continuity that Holloway denounces is due to the preservation of capitalist interests by the elites who continue to manage the state. If these classes and privileged layers are dislodged from power and replaced by representatives of the oppressed, then it is possible to build another sort of state and begin construction of another society. Restricting sociopolitical action to the local level so as to avoid the conquest of government and state management only leads to perpetuating capitalism. An alternative path toward emancipation requires initiating a long transition toward such egalitarian forms of management that would allow for the gradual extinction of the current state structures.

For the foreseeable future, localism cannot replace the state as the target of popular demands and as the center of political action. No matter the multiplication of alternative counterpowers, it will be impossible to develop an effective social struggle by ignoring the state. Localism refuses to see this reality and, therefore, can offer no postcapitalist strategies applicable to the peculiarities of Latin America.11

The extractive yardstick
The existence of a wide variety of progressive governments has put to rest the consistency of localist theories over the course of the last decade. These have created transformative scenarios that have gone beyond the boundaries of local communities. However, the biggest problem facing these experiments has been their general reliance on extractive industries, as is the case with various Latin American governments. This is true whether the administrations are right-wing, center-left, or radical. Each of these has engineered the reinsertion of the region into the international economy as a supplier of raw materials. But can we then lump them all together in an extractive economy box?

Some supporters of postdevelopmentalism tend to highlight this uniformity in their challenges to the presidents who support the primary goods export project.12 Escobar takes an intermediate position. He rejects the developmental option pursued by all administrations, but declares his sympathy with the Good Life proposals promoted by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa and with the general policies implemented by Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, José Mujica in Uruguay, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina.13 His ambivalence demonstrates the difficulty of elaborating political responses solely from the point of view of the environmental problem. The ecology constitutes an important element in the regional context, but cannot adequately define the political postures adopted by each government. In order to characterize that physiognomy it is necessary to consider their social base, class interests, and the geopolitical alliances promoted by each administration. These factors are more influential than the orientation each follows in the management of raw materials.

A simple characterization of these governments based on their relationship to the extractive agenda generates multiple inconsistencies. The prime importance of their common export economies does not transform the neoliberal presidents of Peru and Mexico, the neodevelopmentalists of Argentina, the radicals of Bolivia and Venezuela, and the revolutionaries of Cuba into neat equivalents.

The political and economic systems that motivate the rightists Álvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia find their antipodes in the radical reformism led by Chávez and Maduro, despite the commonality of fuel extraction in Colombia and Venezuela. The contrast is even greater between Alan García and Ollanta Humala in Peru and Fidel and Raúl Castro, despite the similar importance of certain mining activities in Peru (gold) and Cuba (nickel). The categories of neoliberal and neodevelopmental refer to economic and political orientations more comprehensive than the relative weight played by petroleum or various metals in each country. In my characterization of governments as right-wing, center-left, and radical, I have assigned primary analytical importance to their relation with the dominant classes, imperialism, and the popular masses. These criteria allow us to understand how Chávez and Evo contrast to Sebastián Piñera of Chile and Uribe, despite the fact that they carry out somewhat similar policies with respect to managing petroleum and mining.14

If we simply apply the extractive yardstick, we will inevitably struggle to clarify these relations because it does not provide the elements necessary for distinguishing between the right, center and left, or the pursuit of elitist, populist, or anti-imperialist mobilizations. I argue for an approach based on Marxist fundamentals in order to interpret the tendencies of each government. Starting from this point of view, we can evaluate not only the importance of extractive methods for the exploitation of natural resources, but also the end uses of the surpluses obtained by these activities.

Variety of governments
The generalized extractive focus that predominates in Latin America plays out differently in each country. The neoliberal administrations share a slice of the profits so obtained with the banks, the transnational corporations, and the local agro/mining capitalists. The neodevelopmental leaderships balance revenue between the industrial bourgeoisie and investments in the domestic market. The radical nationalist governments limit this type of profit-sharing in order to try to improve social conditions through income redistribution policies. 

For the neoliberals, the exploitation of natural resources is fully adapted to free trade, financial deregulation, and privatization. Any popular resistance to the depredations of the environment is met with brutality at the hands of the police or military. Peru presents the clearest picture of this type of reaction. Since 1993, the mega Conga mining project in Cajamarca has wrought tremendous natural devastation while enriching the concessionaires of the largest gold mine in South America. Local campesinos have mobilized against this open-pit exploitation, which has destroyed their water supply, launching a fierce battle against expanding the mine. Its expansion would destroy four lakes and leave them only a small artificial reservoir, which would be managed by corporations who would control utilities worth $15 billion. After fifteen years of sucking treasure from the subsoil, Conga’s exploitation hasn’t generated any social benefits. Fifty-three percent of the regions inhabitants live in poverty. The struggle against these abuses has already led to several deaths and the leader of the resistance is currently in jail, despite the huge number of votes he received when standing for office.15

By contrast, under the neodevelopmental approach pursued in Argentina, extractive policies have concentrated on soy production. The expansion of this crop has gobbled up whole forests, led to the fumigation of massive areas, displaced cattle, and destroyed diversified agriculture. The official intent of all this is to increase the state’s portion of the soy profit—through higher taxes—but this provoked a huge conflict with the agricultural sector in 2008. The government lost that battle and thereby lost a key source of funds for its attempts to reindustrialize. This explains why, after the post–2001 recovery was exhausted, the developmental engines have sputtered.

That failure also has much in common with the destructive environmental policies in mining and oil. But it is important to highlight the failed attempt of the Argentine neodevelopmental industrial model for understanding its significant differences with the Peruvian neoliberal scheme.16 This same distinction could be extended to Ecuador, which is following a course closer to that of Argentina than Peru. Its version of neodevelopmentalism did not aim to reestablish the weight of the industrial sector in its economy, but it did intend to stabilize a capitalist accumulation process.

Unlike Argentina, the question of the environment has been a central concern for Correa’s government and significant conflicts continue with the social movements over the handling of natural resources. This confrontation stems from the official decision to drill for oil in the Yasuní National Park, home to an extraordinary range of biodiversity.

The initial attempt to keep the oil in the ground under the auspices of international environmental protection projects failed as the government confronted, in turn, each opponent to extracting the crude, combining authoritarian language with conservative arguments.17 The severity of these messages underlined the official decision to use the petroleum resources to reinforce the stabilization of the capitalist model by pursuing greater state efficiency and social spending. The reduction of poverty, infrastructure improvements, and the perfection of the tax system were all intended to cement a model that included free trade agreements with the European Union and international financing monitored by the IMF.18

In contrast to the neoliberal schema and its neodevelopmental counterpart, there is a third, more redistributive orientation. Venezuela is implementing a policy using petrol profits to finance community missions, increase consumption, and reduce social inequality. The contrast with the policies of the preceding governments is remarkable, despite its continuity with them as demonstrated by the predominance of the petrol economy. Chávismo also attempted to diversify production, but this failed when confronted with the divestment strategies of the capitalist class and by the limits of the government in confronting their rejection. 

A similar model of state-led recovery that prioritizes hydrocarbon profits for social reforms has been implemented in Bolivia. In this case, the schema has stabilized without transforming the economy’s unproductive structure or changing the country’s severe underdevelopment. The predominance of investment in primary goods in the Altiplano region is as obvious as the underwritten commitments to large transnational corporations. But the purely extractive evaluation criterion does not clarify why the political, economic, and social scheme in Bolivia and Venezuela differs from the one prevailing in other countries.

Industrialization and ecosocialism
The evaluation of the regional scene based exclusively on environmental factors impedes a recognition of industrialization as a priority. This objective demands, before all else, discarding strategies for environmental protection based on growth reduction. All countries in the region must urgently intensify the rhythm of productive expansion. This acceleration requires using a portion of the existing natural resources for export, which will allow for the financing of development. Discussion with the neodevelopmentalists should revolve around which protagonists and which social systems may fulfill these goals. Many postdevelopmentalist authors forget this priority in their criticism of the “productivist ideology of the left.” These challenges should be presented with greater care. 

Of course, there certainly is a soviet tradition of industrial Taylorism that ignored the contaminating impact of intensive growth. But this model was dominant before a clear recognition of the danger posed to the environment arose, and it was not based on a desire for profits or because of competitive pressure. Furthermore, this precedent is not unimportant for the example it provided with respect to the potential for accelerated processes of industrialization pursued by countries on the periphery.

Latin America must promote a productive model that can overcome its economic and social deficiencies; recognizing the urgent need for industrialization does not imply necessarily endorsing extractivism. But it does imply aligning policies aimed at environmental sustainability with strategies for growth. Ecological protection must be made compatible with the creation of employment and the generation of the multiplicity of requirements needed to sustain a model based on growth. In order to implement this schema, it is necessary to establish distinctions with respect to how natural resources are processed. In light of this, the research carried out by several authors have established a difference between mining in general and extractivism in particular. They demonstrate that dynamiting mountains in open-pit operations or contaminating aquifers with cyanide are not the only way to secure minerals.19

The biggest controversies have been generated in response to the most extreme concepts that deny the dire necessity for industrialization. Based on this rejection, these sorts of proposals limit themselves to the promotion of initiatives for community economics and raise questions about centralized development and the importance of state-run enterprises. These visions often fall back into imaginary utopias, which attribute god-like qualities to nature and mystify the rural world. They exalt traditional agriculture and forget that any type of economic activity necessarily impacts the environment. Moreover, plans like this fail to recognize the fact that progressive alternatives based on selective growth do, in fact, exist. For instance, it is already possible to begin substituting nonrenewable fuels for solar energy. This turn could begin reducing the production of environmentally destructive products and limiting wasteful individual consumption. The pinnacle of this transformation could be the gradual replacement of individual automobiles with public transportation. These sorts of proposals are part and parcel of the elaboration of what has been called ecosocialism. Various Marxist authors are promoting this sort of vision, contrasting it with the capitalist destruction of nature as well as naïve localist responses to this destruction. 

Ecosocialism has demonstrated how it is possible to reconcile environmental protection with development, redefining the meaning of commodities, differentiating necessary products from superfluous ones, and creating public information systems that can replace advertising. These initiatives lay out a perspective based on social control over resources and the democratic selection of alternatives for production and consumption. They advocate the establishment of democratic planning on a global scale, which points toward a socialist future.20 Anticapitalist visions like these make it possible to overcome the sterile opposition between extractivism and philanthropic endeavors with Indigenous communities, such as the Pachamama Alliance, which operates in the Amazon rainforest. Ecosocialism allows us to resolve this tension, combining postcapitalist proposals for expanding production with social equality and the good life.21

Postmodern heritage
The localist and naturalist theses that question the very idea of development do not postulate replacing it with any equivalent principle. As they reject totalities and historical comparisons or purpose, they reject the utility of guiding concepts. Yet disregarding these sorts of orienting notions makes it impossible to clarify the issues at stake in the debate. These basic concepts (totalities, etc.) allow us to bring order to our analysis and overcome spontaneous perceptions of reality, which surges around us and can appear as an incomprehensible chaos. In order to define the meanings, implications, and consequences of extractivism, it is necessary to adopt analytical patterns and use them to explain objective reality. The same is true when using comparisons. If this method is declared useless for resolving these debates, then it is impossible to develop deeper understandings of these problems because the explanations we seek may be closely linked to our ability to conceive of contrasts with similar or opposing processes. 

Latin American social theory has always recognized the push and pull between certain goals (such as development) and the existence of certain impediments to reaching them (such as dependency). Rejecting these parameters makes it impossible to know which obstacles prevent the achievement of the objectives that are up for debate. Escobar questions these principles, but, curiously, uses them in his own analysis, such as when he posits clear standards such as protecting the environment and the fight against extractivism. Don’t such objectives constitute a clear purpose, which is itself inserted in a totality with historical aspirations? Doesn’t an ecological equilibrium imply a certain sort of finality? As it turns out, any defense of these sorts of aims must use arguments based on comparisons. Escobar can’t find any substitute for the methods to which he objects and, in fact, is forced to simply reject certain end goals (development), while accepting others (ecological equilibrium). 

This is why his double-sided criticism of liberalism and Marxism is inconsistent. He argues that both of these schools of thought advocate certain long-term purposes; however, all schools of thought (including his own) accept end goals. The important thing is not simply recognizing certain general commonalities, but in understanding the vision that each school of thought maintains for their programs. Liberals and Marxists both talk about development, but from points of view which are diametrically opposed, nor do they share a common modern conception of progress. Of course, both systems of thought recognize the objective that is in dispute, but one theory postulates a strident defense of capitalism while the other questions the system itself with the same intensity.

Escobar tries to place himself above this controversy, asserting that the debate is useless. Instead, he suggests the means to simply avoid it. But he fails in this and, in fact, only comes back to the same problems. His work challenges liberal and Marxist attachment to totalizing and centralizing concepts, yet he fails to understand that the use of such criteria is not determined because of some supposed tie to essentialist thought, but rather because of the simple process of defining priorities. This sort of ordering is established by all analysts in order to define the importance of the themes which are under consideration. All such efforts make use of certain properties, principles, and points of view in order to investigate any phenomena, since rejecting these basic pillars impedes our ability to understand it. 

No one attributes magical properties of clarification to these concepts, nor does anyone believe that all problems can be solved with simple references to development, progress, and modernity. It is enough to accept the need for points of departure, goals, and primary categories in order to reveal the content of the topics under discussion. Accepting the importance of development does not imply adopting teleological precepts, imagining inexorable end goals, or dreaming of road signs that guide the unfolding of history. The problem is simpler than that and can be reduced to finding out if there are propositions (such as development) that have a certain validity and deserve to be analyzed. If the response is affirmative, then we must also clarify the historic conditions which may favor or obstruct said goals.22 Without this approach, it is very difficult to understand the logic of events. The scenarios we are seeking to explain then remain a muddled universe of innumerable forces and random points. 

In this context, it is impossible to tell how individuals and social classes can push in one direction or another in order to influence the future of human life. There would be no way to take action, nor any potential for preserving the environment which is, after all, what the postdevelopmentalists want to do in the first place. These deficiencies are very common in all postmodern points of view and Escobar falls into this mode of thinking. His method allows for descriptions, but not for an evaluation of the vexed problem of development. He presents detailed pictures of certain processes, but cannot offer any clues as to how to lay bare the underlying dynamics. His point of view impedes his ability to evaluate if the models under discussion are better, worse, viable, impossible, egalitarian, or elitist. Moreover, this approach avoids a precise characterization of capitalism itself, which is the most important concept when trying to understand the problems of development. When capitalism is placed on the same analytical plain as modernity, criticisms of neodevelopmentalism and environmental protection lose their consistency.  

Excessive discourse
Escobar bases his vision on a methodological criticism of the materialist basis of Marxist approaches. He questions attempts to analyze Latin American underdevelopment, yet his studies merely analyze various forms of discourse that have been employed to study the region. His writings underline the importance of analyzing rhetorical forms, counterposing them to studies centered on modes of production and social structures. He asserts that these points of view flow from the same epistemological antagonisms as the liberal-positivist paradigm, focusing on evaluating markets and individual behavior.23 Yet the focus that he proposes leads to a narrow evaluation of discourses related to the different theories in question without investigating the processes that underlay these disputes. As should be clear, this sort of analysis is of little use when it is limited to investigating the various expositions discussing development.

Using this approach, all analysis of neoliberalism or neodevelopmentism is reduced to objecting to the formulations adopted by one ideology or
another, and discrepancies are recorded without evaluating the social contents of the conflicting programs. Escobar doesn’t realize that problems of development involve more than discourse. These expositions merely constitute one dimension of the objective processes proposed, challenged, or resisted by different social classes as a function of their divergent material interests.

The subjects which intervene collectively in these processes do not adopt outlooks simply because they are attracted to discourses. They group themselves together to defend their shared interests and these commonalities determine their conservative, progressive, or revolutionary attitudes toward development. Marxism seeks to clarify how particular perspectives benefit or harm different social classes by evaluating the theories under discussion and observing these advantages or problems. It investigates, for example, the points of intersection between each neoliberal or neodevelopmentalist program and those of agribusiness, finance, and industry. Furthermore, it analyzes the characteristics of dependency, focusing on the core interests of exporters, bankers, and manufacturers. Based on these criteria, analysis of texts is not limited to their own content, but also extends to studying the predominant social relations in each context. In this way, Marxism avoids obscuring understanding real phenomena by simple word play. 

In opposition to this approach, Escobar asserts a poststructuralist viewpoint, centered on an analysis of signs and meanings. He situates all research into development on the plain of representation and discourse.24 But his approach assigns powers to language that go beyond its purview, extending the principles of literary analysis to all fields of study, imparting to these parameters the ability to arrange social analysis. This framework leans on an excessive reliance on language and on the extrapolation of linguistic concepts into spheres alien to their environment. He forgets that language is not an appropriate model for studying others kinds of human action. In fact, historically, language itself moves slowly from place to place, it is not subject to material restrictions, and it operates with unlimited inventive possibilities.25

Escobar’s focus recreates the textual difficulties that he himself attempts to evaluate without offering us any guidelines for attempting to understand reality. He assumes that speech creates the ground for its own interpretation based on other meanings, transforming multiple disciplines (economics, politics, sociology, history) into sub-genres of literature. Conceptions put in place by the Empire of discourse presuppose that nothing exists outside the text, adopting a contemporary modality of idealism, imagining the world as a rhetorical construction. Economic and political structures that shape society’s future are ignored and our ability to interpret social processes is obscured. Explanations are diluted by a chain of signifiers which themselves arise from the absolutism of language.26  

Rebellion and knowledge
Frameworks that understand development as texts tend to avoid judgments on these processes themselves. The evaluation of successes and failures remains suspended in midair because these approaches are not interested in analyzing the efficacy of behavior and the appropriateness of decisions taken by the different conflicting interests. This posture is consistent with a rejection of the search for truth. Escobar questions this objective, emphasizing the futility of providing a more precise characterization of reality, which depends on a eurocentric framework focused on discovering logical truths as the sole arbiter of knowledge. Instead, he simply proposes questions and hypotheses in order to avoid unified concepts and the hierarchical subjectivity of the Left.27

But this focus displaces the centrality of truth and the importance of rationality for understanding any phenomena. It ignores the required premises for understanding the dynamic of development. Omitting the distinction between true and false leaves us with no way to integrate our research. This contested search for truth provides an indispensable impulse for clarifying the historical processes that lead to development (or its opposite, underdevelopment) and dependence (or its counterpart, autonomy).

Discarding this objective means abandoning the study of the causes, determinations, and results of social processes. The sequence of events that led to Latin American backwardness is converted into a succession of unfortunate accidents. The analysis of events is dissolved into the reign of contingency and the random is substituted for the study of the conditions, limits, and possibilities of historical progression.28

This poststructuralist abandonment of historical clarification explains the weight assigned to classification at the expense of interpretation. The aversion to rational inquiry also promotes a growing temptation to equate comprehension provided by science with the insights provided by any form of knowledge. Escobar’s approach is marked by these conceptual problems. 

These mistakes do not negate the contribution he makes in his work. He is a critic of capitalism who takes action alongside social movements and communities. His writings include illuminating coverage of the exclusion, repression, and cruelty imposed by imperial oppression in the Third World. He stands beside the rebels struggling for social equality, but to achieve these goals, it is necessary to refine our characterizations, theories, and proposals.

This article first appeared in Herramienta web 16. Indice (February 2015). It is published here with the author’s permission. Translated by Todd Chretien.

  1. Maristella Svampa, “El consenso de commodities y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina,” February 5, 2013,; Monica Bruckmann, “Una estrategia regional para la gestión soberana,” November 2012,
  2. For a detailed review of these various positions, see: José Seoane, Emilio Taddei, and Clara Algranati, Extractivismo, despojo y crisis climática (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Herramienta, 2013), 257–79
  3. For a brief intro to Arturo Escobar, see Simon Reid-Henry, “A Post-Developmental Thinker to be Reckoned With,” Guardian, November 5, 2012,
  4. Arturo Escobar, “El “post-desarrollo” como concepto y práctica social,” in Políticas de economía, ambiente y sociedad en tiempos de globalización (Caracas: Universidad Central de Venezuela, 2005), 17–30.
  5. Ronaldo Munck, “Dependency and Imperialism in the New Times: A Latin American Perspective,” The European Journal of Development Research 11, 1999.
  6. Escobar, “Entrevista,” November 2013,
  7. Escobar, “Contra el neo-desarrollismo,” 2010,
  8. Escobar, “El “post-desarrollo” como concepto y práctica social,” 17–30.
  9. Ibid.
  10. John Holloway, Cambiar el mundo sin tomar el poder (Buenos Aires: Herramienta-Universidad de Puebla, 2002), 122–43.
  11. Claudio Katz, Las disyuntivas de la izquierda en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Luxemburg, 2008), 129–47.
  12. Pablo Dávalos, “Entrevista,” 2013,
  13. Escobar, “Entrevista,” November 2013, and “Contra el neo-desarrollismo,” 2010,
  14. Katz, Las disyuntivas de la izquierda en América Latina, 39–64.
  15. Carlos Noriega, “Gobernador, activista y reo,” Página 12, October 14, 2014; Eduardo Gudynas, “Cinco hipótesis sobre el caso Conga,” July 17, 2012(a),
  16. Katz, “La economía desde la izquierda: una mirada sobre Argentina,” Cuadernos de Economía Crítica, año 1, n° 1, La Plata, 2014.
  17. See Boaventura Sousa Santos, “¿La Revolución ciudadana tiene quien la defienda?” May 19, 2014,; Alberto Acosta,“Puntos de separación,” October 1, 2012,; Juan Cuvi, “No hay revolución, este proyecto es la modernización del capitalism,” 2013,; Pablo Stefanoni, “Ecuador: una meritocracia nacional y popular,” April 4, 2014,
  18. Diego Borja, “Entrevista,” 2014,
  19. Eduardo Gudynas, “Los gobiernos progresistas justifican,” December 23, 2013,
  20. Michael Lowy, “Changement climatique: contribution au debat,” La Breche n°553–554, (September–October, 2009), and “Ecosocialismo: hacia una nueva civilización,” October, 2009), Revista Herramienta n° 42 and; Daniel Tanuro, “Energy Transition and Anticapitalist Alternative,” Third IIRE Seminar on the Economic Crisis, Amsterdam, February 15, 2014.
  21. Atilio Borón, “Introducción,” in José Seoane, Emilio Taddei Emilio, and Clara Algranati, Extractivismo, despojo y crisis climática (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Herramienta, 2013), 9–14.
  22. See: Terry Eagleton, Las ilusiones del posmodernismo (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 1997), 141–93; David Harvey, La condición de la posmodernidad (Buenos Aires: Amorrortu, 1998), 359–89.
  23. Escobar, “El ‘post-desarrollo’ como concepto y práctica social,” 17–30.
  24. Ibid.
  25. See: Terry Anderson, Tras las huellas del materialismo histórico (Madrid: Siglo XXI, 1983).
  26. See: Alex Callinicos, Social Theory (London: Polity Press, 1999), chap. 11; Claudia Cinatti, “La impostura pos-marxista,” Estrategia Internacional n° 20, Buenos Aires, September 2003.
  27. Escobar, “El ‘post-desarrollo’ como concepto y práctica social,” 17–30; “Pachamámicos” versus “Modérnicos, May 25, 2010,
  28. Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New True Socialism (London, Verso, 1986), chaps. 4, 5.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story




  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz