- The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post-Neoliberal Politics by Marcos Mendoza
Over the last two decades, a wave of left-leaning governments in Latin America known as the New Left has come to power by contesting neoliberal development. Promising counter-reforms to the reforms delivered by the Washington Consensus, these governments have experimented with post-neoliberal development alternatives that emphasize greater state control over the economy, higher rates of corporate taxation and social welfare spending, and key overhauls to labor and environmental institutions, among others. In many cases, post-neoliberal development has been coupled with a doubling-down on older models of resource extraction and primary commodities export through newer models of neo-extractivism and re-primarization.
In his new book The Patagonian Sublime, anthropologist Marcos Mendoza asks a novel and timely question of the New Left: how are conservation and the green economy being governed under post-neoliberalism? Mendoza explores the intersection of environmental sustainability and economic development with one particular post-neoliberal alternative in Argentina, known as Kirchnerismo. Kirchnerismo describes a political movement led by former Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a husband and wife who served consecutive terms in office from 2003–2015. Mixing ideologies of twentieth-century Peronism and twenty-first-century globalizing [End Page 368] capitalism, Kirchnerismo advocates economic nationalism, political sovereignty, social justice, foreign market competition, and natural resource exploitation. Mendoza's main argument is that the green economy, which is "most closely associated in Argentina with protected area conservation and ecotourism" (p. 8), is integral to Kirchnerismo. A major reason for this association is the Kirchners' personal and financial ties to the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, where they began their political careers. Santa Cruz specializes in two very different commodities: oil and ecotourism. The Kirchners have helped expand both industries through a political-economic agenda that Mendoza calls green productivism. While serving in the short term to stimulate growth and legitimize Kirchnerismo, green productivism also generates a series of contradictions undermining the long-term viability of post-neoliberalism in Argentina.
The book draws on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in El Chaltén, a mountain town in Santa Cruz located just outside Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and known as the trekking capital of the nation. Mendoza follows a diverse set of actors – alpine mountaineers, adventure trekkers, tourism entrepreneurs, seasonal service workers, park rangers, land managers, scientists, and environmental activists – in order "to acquire a multiperspectival understanding of the politics of the green economy" (p. xiii). The Patagonian Sublime consists of eight chapters divided into four parts, three of which examine the various spheres of El Chaltén's green economy (tourist consumption, tourism service production, and the conservation state), and one of which assesses green productivism and Kirchnerismo. This structure helps Mendoza articulate the green economy as a conjuncture of forces involving capital, labor, nature, and the state. He argues that in El Chaltén, these forces combine to produce a green economy built on rent capture, place branding, and land monopolization.
Mendoza anchors the book around the master concept of green productivism. Green productivism is theorized in layers, as a logic of capital accumulation, a strategy of political rule, and a cultural project of national identity. These layers converge around a public-private alliance between the National Parks Administration and local entrepreneurs to control how protected areas are accessed and valued by tourists through territorial and symbolic monopolies. Mendoza refers to this alliance as the semiotic estate, arguing that Argentine post-neoliberal conservation is a form of rentier capitalism generating "expanding sources of revenue for the conservation state and the tourism industry" (p. 12). Consequently, he sees conservation and agro-extraction as complements, not opposites, and equates the green economy to other domains of natural resource exploitation. He suggests that Patagonia is the crown jewel of Argentina's semiotic estate because it embodies the alpine sublime: an exclusive...