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Indigenous Struggle in Latin America: The Perilous Invisibility of Capital and Class

From: Latin American Politics & Society
Volume 49, Number 3, Fall 2007
pp. 191-205 | 10.1353/lap.2007.0035

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In 1997, Slavoj Žižek published an attack on the ideology of multiculturalism, urging leftists to recognize the futility of particularistic struggles over identity. In his words, "The politicization of the series of particular struggles which leaves intact the global process of capital is clearly not sufficient" (1997, 49). Analyzing the Latin American context, the American anthropologist Charles R. Hale provides a more empirical supplement to Žižek's abstract critique of neoliberal multiculturalism. Hale was one of the first to point out that the decade of the 1990s was characterized both by massive indigenous mobilizations and neoliberal capitalist expansion. He examines how Latin American states have, in constructing an "authorized Indian," set the parameters of acceptable cultural recognition of indigenous peoples: "certain rights are to be enjoyed on the implicit condition that others will not be raised" (2004, 18). Class inequities have been sustained or exacerbated during the neoliberal period. Hale observes, "Since the culturally oppressed, at least in the case of Latin America's indigenous people, occupy the bottom rung of the class hierarchy in disproportionate numbers, they confront the paradox of simultaneous cultural affirmation and economic marginalization" (2002, 493).

The point of this introductory aside is to highlight the necessity of considering indigenous struggles in contemporary Latin American within a greater system of domestic capitalist social relations, class struggle, and an imperialist world order. We need to recognize the material reality underpinning the ideology of neoliberal multiculturalism. The gains made by indigenous peoples in achieving recognition by and selective incorporation into the state are real; however, these should not be celebrated uncritically when the material well-being of these same peoples has continued to deteriorate. Any meaningful emancipation of indigenous peoples on the continent will bear fruit only through a combination of popular class and antiracist struggles that tackles at one and the same time the devastations of neoliberal capitalist expansion and the historical legacies of colonial and postcolonial racism.

Skepticism about what Marxism has to offer the discussion of indigenous struggle is understandable, given that the tradition has sometimes been applied to the Latin American context in crude and Eurocentric ways. I contend nevertheless that the best of historical materialism can help us understand key dynamics and obstacles in indigenous struggles and their relationships to class struggle. Similarly, the tendency of mainstream academe (especially in North America) to ignore the Marxist tradition—in favor of postmodernism, discursive analysis, and liberal institutionalism—has inhibited understanding of the complexities of indigenous struggles. In a provocative introductory essay to a new, abridged edition of Oliver Cromwell Cox's 1948 classic Caste, Class, and Race, Adolph Reed, Jr. asks us to "recognize that race is the product of social relations within history and political economy" (2001). While none of the five books reviewed here in this essay roots itself in the Marxist tradition, some recognize better than others that we treat indigenous struggles best within a broader system of historical social relations.

Case Studies: Stepping Back from Crude Generalization

The Struggle for Indigenous Rights in Latin America offers individual chapters devoted to the particular cases of Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. Postero and Zamosc's introductory essay is among the best interdisciplinary research on the "Indian Question" in Latin America. Unfortunately, the rest of the essays in the volume are highly uneven. Here, I will focus on extrapolating the best from the introductory essay while pointing to the strongest and weakest of the remaining contributions.

Postero and Zamosc argue that initial studies of indigenous movements in Latin America, with their collective search for common trends across the region, were important in revealing that indigenous peoples had maintained a strong presence in Latin America, far from the presumptions of some dominant nationalist myths in the region. Thus the early scholarship restored and recognized the resilience and agency of indigenous peoples. Postero and Zamosc observe that this affirmative perspective tended to "overlook critical questions that arise from an examination of the movements' particularities" (3).

The chapter sets out to discuss "the crucial issue of what kinds of rights indigenous people should be granted as citizens of democratic nation-states" (5), otherwise known as the Indian Question. This includes the...

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