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Capital, inequality and injustice in Latin America.

More than two decades ago, two Latin American social scientists - Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto - produced what soon became a classic analysis of the economic, political and social development of Latin America. In the preface to the English edition of this much-acclaimed book, they stated the fundamental basis of their perspective as follows:

We seek a global and dynamic understanding of social structures instead of looking only at specific dimensions of the social process. We oppose the academic tradition which conceived of domination and sociocultural relations as "dimensions," analytically independent of one another, and together independent of the economy, as if each one of these dimensions corresponded to separate spheres of reality. In that sense, we stress the sociopolitical nature of the economic relations of production, thus following the nineteenth century tradition of treating economy as political economy. This methodological approach, which found its highest expression in Marx, assumes the hierarchy that exists in society is the result of established ways of organizing the production of material and spiritual life. (Cardoso and Faletto, 1979, p. ix.)

This article is based on the same perspective as that employed by Cardoso and Faletto.(2) Over the last three decades, many scholars have produced analyses of the prevailing conditions and historical development of the region based upon a similar perspective (see, for example, Marini, 1974; Bambirra, 1976; Vasconi, 1978; Chilcote and Edelstein, 1986; Petras and Morley, 1992; and Halebsky and Harris, 1995).

To analyze and make sense of the complex and changing conditions that are shared in whole or in part by the societies that make up the Latin American region, I have chosen to select three key organizing concepts that permit an integrated and global conceptualization of the major structures, processes and relations that characterize and prevail across societies in the region. These three concepts are capital, inequality, and injustice. They share in common certain important analytical qualities: They permit a multidimensional, multilevel, and comparative analysis of the complex set of conditions that prevail in Latin America. They also facilitate an integrative and inclusive analysis of the interdependent societal structures, processes and relations underlying contemporary Latin American economic, political and social affairs. In addition, they are compatible with the intellectual tradition of comparative, structural, historical, and critical analyses mentioned above.

These concepts are employed in this article in full recognition of the postmodernist critique of metanarratives and metaconcepts. According to the conventional postmodernist perspective, the metaconcepts and theories developed by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have created a false consciousness of reality based upon a belief in the myth of modernity and unilinear social progress. Thus, from a postmodernist perspective, these concepts and theories are regarded as invalid and outmoded images for understanding the complex nature of the "postmodern" societies of the late twentieth century (Schuurman, 1993, pp. 23-29).

According to the postmodernist critique of modernist thought, the events of the closing decades of the twentieth century have revealed the erroneous nature of the previously constructed "metatheories" or "grand historical narratives" that were developed on the basis of concepts such as social progress, modernization, capitalism, socialism, imperialism, development, underdevelopment, industrialization, human emancipation, and internationalism. For the proponents of this perspective, the incredibly complex, diverse and unpredictable nature of contemporary life cannot be explain by such metatheories and grand historical narratives, nor can contemporary reality be adequately perceived through the use of the universal concepts upon which these theories are based.

The main problem with this perspective insofar as its applicability to contemporary Latin America is concerned is that there is scarcely any evidence that the region consists of "postmodern societies" or that it has moved into a "postmodern era" (Schuurman, 1993, p. 27). Most of the problems and issues addressed by the so-called obsolete metatheories persist in contemporary Latin America. In fact, many of the inhabitants of the region live under conditions which can be more accurately described as "uneven modernity" rather than postmodernity (Beverley, Oveido, and Aronna, 1995, p. 4). The complex social reality of contemporary Latin America is perhaps best thought of as a complex hybrid of "premodern," "modem," and "postmodern" ideologies, practices, and conditions.

The "globalization" or increasing integration of the region into the global capitalist system has not propelled the Latin American peoples into a new era of post-modernity. Many of the "old" problems and issues continue to be contemporary problems and issues. In fact, the contemporary effects of globalization (the expansion of "postmodern" or "late" capitalism) have aggravated the most chronic problems of the Latin American region. These problems include the pronounced degree of economic exploitation, social and economic inequality, and social and political injustice that have characterized the region since the first indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere were by force subjugated to European colonial domination in the sixteenth century.

The striking degree of extreme inequality that has existed for the last several centuries between the privileged minorities and the impoverished majority in Latin America cannot be adequately explained from a postmodernist perspective. However, viewed from a global perspective and through the conceptual lens provided by the three concepts employed in this article, it is clear that the nature of the region's contemporary integration into the global capitalist economy has reinforced, if not accentuated, this extreme inequality as well as the unjust relations of subordination and domination that maintain and complement this inequality.

Thus, the conceptual framework employed in this article is offered in a sense as a defense of the continued validity of such metaconcepts as capital, inequality, and injustice. However, I am well aware of the limitations of these concepts and the biased manner in which they have generally been employed in the past. For this reason, the mode in which they are employed in this article is tempered by the critique of such concepts by postmodernist intellectuals, who have correctly criticized the past use of such concepts as having been flawed by the Eurocentric, rationalistic, deterministic, and universalistic biases imbedded in the ideologies and analyses in which they were employed.(3)

In this regard, it is worth noting the justification that Cardoso and Faletto gave for their use of the concept of capital in their historical analysis of Latin America's social, economic, and political development. They argued that this concept was necessary because they needed a concept that was "able to explain trends of change ... [and] opposing forces" (Cardoso and Faletto, 1979, p. xiii). In addition, they argued that "it was necessary to relate these forces in a global way, characterizing the basic sources of their existence, continuity and change, by determining forms of domination and the forces opposed to them." Finally, they contended that "without the concept of capital as the result of the exploitation of one class by another it is not possible to explain the movement of capitalist society."

In this essay, I use the theoretical concept of capital to draw attention to the inequitable and unjust manner in which wealth has been, and continues to be, accumulated in Latin America through exploitative relations of capitalist production and exchange. As Catherine MacKinnon notes in her work Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, this theoretical tradition, despite its limitations:

confronts organized social dominance, analyzes it in dynamic rather than static terms, identifies social forces that systematically shape social imperatives, and seeks to explain human freedom both within and against history. It confronts class, which is real. If offers both a critique of the inevitability and inner coherence of social injustice and a theory of the necessity and possibilities of change. (MacKinnon, 1989, p. ix.)

The application of the concept of capital to the analysis of the historical development and contemporary affairs of the Latin American societies reveals the fundamental social relations of exploitation and domination that are primarily responsible for the pronounced degree of inequality in material conditions that prevail among the contemporary human inhabitants of Latin America. It also permits a critical analysis of the unjust structures and practices of social domination, subordination and discrimination suffered by the impoverished majority of the inhabitants of the region.

Inequality and injustice have similar conceptual and analytical properties as the concept of capital. They are similar to the concept of capital in that they facilitate a critical analysis, both systematic as well as normative, of the dynamic relations, structures and processes that underlie the contemporary conditions of human existence in Latin America.

Applied broadly to the analysis of social reality in Latin America, the concept of inequality focuses our attention on the "unequal access to power, to resources, and to a humane existence" that prevails in the Latin American societies (Schuurman, 1993, p. 30). Thus, at the microlevel of social reality this concept can be applied to the inequality between men and women within the family unit, at the midlevel it encompasses the unequal access of different categories of the population to the basic necessities of human existence, and at the macro- or global level the concept encompasses phenomena such as the unequal economic relations between the Latin American economies and that of the United States. In fact, because social, economic, and political disparities are so ubiquitous and extreme in Latin America, it is possible to argue that inequality should be the main explanandum (i.e., focus of explanation) of any intellectual effort that seeks to explain the historical development and contemporary conditions of the Latin American societies (Schuurman, 1993, p. 31).

As for the concept of injustice, it focuses analysis on the numerous forms of unfair, discriminatory and injurious treatment suffered by the majority of human beings in Latin America. This concept directs analytical attention to all those structures, practices and relations that involve the subordination, domination, persecution and repression of human beings through the use of exploitation, acts of violence, and/or intimidation. In an earlier issue of this journal, Pat Lauderdale and Annamarie Oliverio have pointed out that the indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere and throughout the world continue to experience "the full presence of injustice in the form of poverty, landlessness, dispossession, political and religious oppression, and genocide" (Lauderdale and Oliverio, 1995, p. 141). They also point out that the prevailing conception of jurisprudence "claims that law and order creates justice, [but] ignores the inequitable use of punishment" in the same way neoliberal ideology claims capitalist economic development creates freedom while in fact it results in "the punishment of inequity in all areas of life."

The concept can be applied at all levels of social reality in Latin America. At the microlevel, the concept can be applied to the paternalistic subordination and domination of women within the family unit (Larguia, 1995); at the midlevel to the use of violence and intimidation by the police and armed forces to repress groups and communities who seek to organize politically and express their grievances (Nef, 1995, pp. 100-101); and at the macro- or global level to the coercive influence and intimidation which international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the transnational corporations and the United States government exercise over the Latin American governments to secure favorable policies and gain concessions that promote their interests at the expense of the majority of the population governed by these governments (Henwood, 1995).

The Integration of Latin America into the Global Capitalist System

Any serious attempt to explain the extreme inequalities and ubiquitous forms of injustice that characterize the Latin America societies inevitably leads to a critical examination of the exploitative relations of capitalist production and distribution that predominate throughout the region. As Cardoso and Faletto noted in their classic study, "the system of production and institutions of appropriation" in Latin America are closely linked with "the strong inequalities" and "processes of domination" in the region (Cardoso and Falleto, 1979, p. x). Therefore, these interdependent linkages can best be analyzed if the concepts of capital, inequality and injustice are applied in an integrative manner to the analysis of contemporary Latin America.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the primary cause of the extreme social and economic inequalities in Latin America and elsewhere in the world is the result of the worldwide expansion of capitalism (Amin, 1992). The classical Marxist perspective on this question is convincing. The motive forces associated with the accumulation of wealth that underlie the capitalist system drive individual capitalists and capitalist ("private") enterprises to expand their accumulative activities and overcome all geographic, cultural and political barriers that obstruct their path to accumulating wealth (Magdoff, 1992). These same forces also motivate individual capitalists and capitalist enterprises to concentrate and centralize their control over the various means whereby wealth is accumulated. As a result, individual capitalists and capitalist enterprises have extended their efforts to accumulate wealth to every comer of the planet and they have increasingly integrated the world's economies into a single global economic system as a result of their continuing attempts to concentrate and centralize their control over the accumulation process.

The nature of the Latin American region's integration into the global capitalist economy has reinforced the extreme forms of inequality and widespread injustice that prevail in this part of the world. A critical analysis of the effects of capitalism reveals that it has created extreme inequalities in the region as well as in the entire world. In fact, the globalization process stimulated by the worldwide expansion and development of capitalism has consistently favored only a limited proportion of the Latin American population while the vast majority have had to suffer the adverse effects of this process.

In the last two decades, nearly every major aspect of contemporary economic, political and social life in Latin America has been affected by the region's accelerated integration into the global capitalist system. The contemporary Latin American economies have become integral components of a global economic system that is dominated not by nation-states, but by the large transnational corporations that constitute the main global actors in this system. Since the 1960s, the global expansion of these transnational corporations has greatly undermined the former national organization of economic relations and contributed to the global concentration and centralization of the capital accumulation process. The Latin American economies are being integrated into the global capitalist economy as "captive markets" and the source of cheap human and natural resources for the North American-based transnationals, which find themselves increasingly challenged at the global level by the major European- and Asian-based transnational corporations (Henwood, 1993, pp. 23-28). Efforts to develop national capitalism (capital accumulation within the territorial confines of a single nation-state) and/or improve "national" competitiveness are still possible. However, such efforts face increasing difficulties since they run counter to the increasingly global nature of the world economy and the global interests and actions of the transnational corporations (Radice, 1989, p. 68).

The contemporary capitalist class in Latin America are what can be called a "weak bourgeoisie" (Fiori, 1995, p. 98). The close ties of these local entrepreneurial elites to the global capitalists who control the transnationals operating in their countries make it extremely unlikely these local business elites will undertake any kind of national capitalist project. Moreover, the only "competitive advantages" the Latin American capitalists have at their disposal to compete in the world economy are cheap labor (maintained by keeping wages low through high levels of unemployment and political repression) and certain valuable natural resources. They lack the technology, skilled labor, large domestic consumer markets, and financial capital possessed by capitalists in the major capitalist countries of the world. Since they lack the means to compete on equal terms with the transnational capitalists, they have had little choice but to join with them as their local junior partners. Thus, the Latin American business elites have thrown open the doors of their economies to the transnational corporations who are interested in the cheap labor, natural resources, finance capital and consumer markets in the Latin American countries (Petras and Morley, 1992, pp. 16-29).

Together the local elites and the transnational capitalists have promoted major structural changes in the Latin American economies in order to facilitate the increased integration of the region into the global capitalist economy. These structural changes and the mutual interests of this alliance are cloaked in "neoliberal" ideology, which has its ideological roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth century thought of liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith and John Locke. However, the promotion of this ideology is in fact primarily a product of the contemporary global strategy of the transnationals as well as the policies of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations in the United States, and the Thatcher and Major governments in the United Kingdom (NACLA, 1993, p. 16). This ideology has been used to justify the strategy of economic "restructuring" and the "adjustment" policies followed by most of the Latin American states since the 1980s.

As a result of the debt crisis experienced by countries such as Mexico, Bolivia, and Argentina during the 1980s, the IMF, the World Bank, and other international lending agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) - imposed "free market" structural adjustment policies on the Latin American governments to make sure that they dedicated sufficient funds to the payment of their international debts (Weeks, 1995). These neoliberal adjustment policies have involved completely opening up the domestic markets of the Latin American states to transnational capital, the promotion of so-called nontraditional exports to earn as much foreign exchange as possible to pay off the debts, and the deregulation of local capital and commercial markets. They have also involved unpopular fiscal "austerity measures" aimed at reducing public services and privatizing many public utilities and enterprises so that public funds can be diverted to debt payments.

These policies have in general slowed the rate of economic growth and brought about a drastic reduction of government services as well as public employment. They have resulted in the wholesale denationalization of these countries' major utilities and public enterprises, and abolished the protective tariffs and other forms of support previously enjoyed by local industries. National currencies have also been devalued and pegged to the U.S. dollar, and the growth of exports (particularly the so-called nontraditional exports such as fruit, vegetables, flowers, and some manufactured goods) have been promoted at the expense of the production of food crops for domestic consumption. As a result, even though the upper classes and their government agents incurred the huge debt burden amassed in the 1970s and early 1980s, the lower classes have been saddled with paying for these debts in the 1990s (Weeks, 1995, p. 125).

Harsh austerity measures have been adopted by most of the governments in the region in order to reduce their expenditures on education, health and other social services so that they can service the combined private and public sector debts of their countries. These measures have adversely affected the income and living standards of not only the lower classes but also important sectors of the middle class. The consequences of these policies, in tandem with the effects of the global economic recession of the 1980s and early 1990s, have been graphically described by Juan de Dias Parra, head of the Latin American Association for Human Rights:

In Latin America today there are 70 million more hungry, 30 million more illiterate, 10 million more families without homes and 40 million more unemployed persons than there were 20 years ago ... There are 240 million human beings who lack the necessities of life and this when the region is richer and more stable than even, according to the way the world sees it. (Halebsky and Harris, 1995, p. 4.)

In addition to the human suffering caused by the neoliberal economic policies, these measures have also jeopardized the limited process of political democratization that has been taking place in the Latin American societies since the end of the 1980s. These unpopular, "neoliberal" policies were initially introduced in most cases by the repressive military regimes that held sway throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the elected civilian governments that succeeded these regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s have continued these unpopular measures. Their continuance of these measures, along with other factors, has prevented these regimes from implementing policies to combat the more obvious inequalities and injustices suffered by the impoverished majority of the population in these countries (Nef, 1995, pp. 101-104).

Even a cursory examination of countries such as Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico, which have faithfully followed the IMF's and IDB's policy guidelines, reveals that their publicized achievements in macroeconomic growth have been accomplished at the cost of holding down the real wages of their salaried work forces, the downsizing of their public services, the reduction of social benefits, as well as the rapid growth of the "informal" sector in their economies composed of self-employed street vendors, hired hands, workers in small workshops, day laborers, repairmen, prostitutes, domestic servants, and the like (NACLA, 1993, p. 17).

Export-oriented modern capitalist farms and agro-industrial complexes, many of which are tied to transnational corporations, have replaced most of the former large estates and plantations that dominated the Latin American countryside for centuries (Kay, 1995, pp. 22-25). In addition, the traditional peasant sector is declining as a result of the peasantry's increasing reliance on wage-earning sources of income and their migration to the cities. The increasing integration of Latin American agriculture into the global capitalist economic system has benefited only a privileged minority of the rural population, while the peasantry have been largely excluded from the benefits (Vilas, 1995, pp. 140-141). Thus, the exclusionary nature of the capitalist transformation of Latin American agriculture has increased the impoverishment of the rural population and accelerated the migration of the rural poor to the cities in search of employment.

The presence of the large informal sector helps to keep wages low and the costs of reproducing the urban labor force to a minimum for both the local businesses and the transnational corporations. Thus, the capitalists are able to maximize their profits by paying low wages to their workers and few if any benefits (Vilas, 1995, pp. 140-141). In this regard, the so-called informal sector of the economy represents a type of subsidy for the capitalist enterprises in the formal sector.

The global process of capitalist restructuring and integration and the neoliberal reforms undertaken by the Latin American governments have reconfigured the labor market, increased the transfer of income from the lower classes to the upper classes, and greatly weakened the position of the working class in Latin America (Vilas, 1995, pp. 146-150). In general, the working class and other lower class elements (i.e., the peasantry, lower middle class strata, the impoverished participants in the informal sector, etc.) have been forced to bear the costs of the economic crisis of the 1980s and the global process of capitalist restructuring that has been taking place since the 1970s.

An analysis of the ecological effects of capitalism in Latin America makes it clear that the global capitalist system has not only placed large numbers of Latin American workers, peasants and informal sector income earners in a precarious situation it has also placed the natural environment of the region in danger (Dore, 1995). In order to repay their international debts and comply with the neoliberal dictates of the international lending agencies, the Latin American countries have followed economic development strategies which have been antithetical to the preservation of their natural environment. In fact, the so-called free market strategies advocated by the World Bank and other international development agencies, despite the lip service they give to environmental protection, have accentuated the degradation of the natural environment in Latin America.

The contemporary emphasis on exports in order to service the international debt of the Latin American countries, the neoliberal efforts to deregulate the economy in these countries and the reduction of government expenditures on programs such as reforestation have contributed to the already well-established pattern of environmental despoilation characteristic of capitalist agriculture, mining, and manufacturing in Latin America. Under the present conditions of deregulation and so-called free market economics, the transnational corporations are attracted to Latin America because they can pollute, dispose of wastes, and extract natural resources with little fear of state interference (Kelly, 1995). Thus, the degradation of the ecology of the Amazon Basin as well as many other important environmental crises in Latin America are the direct result of the expansion and intensification of global capitalism in the region.

Inequality in Contemporary Latin America

One of the most disturbing realities of contemporary Latin America is the extreme degree of economic, political, and social inequality that characterizes the societies of this region. The previous discussion has attributed this inequality for the most part to the nature of capitalist development. The extent of this inequality in contemporary Latin America is perhaps best revealed by the distribution of income between the upper and lower income-earners in the Latin American societies.

The highest 20 percent of income earners account for between 40 and 70 percent of the total annual income earned in the Latin American countries, while the lowest 40 percent of income earners account for between 5 and 20 percent of the total income earned in these countries (Vilas, 1995, pp. 154-155). Moreover, the polarization of the population between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is increasing in most parts of Latin America. A concomitant of such income disparity is the fact that 40 percent of all Latin American households live below the poverty line - defined in terms of the income required to satisfy basic needs for food, housing and clothing (Cardoso and Helwege, 1992). In fact, half of this group does not have an income sufficient to satisfy even their basic food needs.

Between 1980 and 1990, the number of poor people in Latin America increased from 120 to 200 million, and in Central America 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line (Nef, 1995, p. 96). And between 1990 and 1993, the poverty rate in Honduras increased from 68 to 78 percent, while in postrevolutionary Nicaragua over 70 percent of the work force are unemployed. This change can be attributed to the restructuring of the Latin American economies and while the rural and urban poor have suffered the most from these structural adjustments, the middle class is disintegrating as the gap between the superrich and the superpoor grows.

The growing spatial and social polarization that exists in the urban areas of Latin America stems from the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the privileged elites who typically reside in the cities and from the continuing migration to these urban areas of impoverished members of the rural population. Sixty percent of the rural population in Latin America are poor, and over a third of the urban population live in poverty (Halebsky, 1995, p. 54). The extent of poverty has increased in the largest cities as a result of recent wage declines, downsizing in the private sector, the reduction of the public sector work force, and the decline of public services and subsides.

Moreover, rates of illiteracy and infant mortality, although they have improved somewhat over the last several decades, are still unacceptably high - particularly in the rural areas. Generally speaking, the rural population exhibits rates of illiteracy that are 50 to 75 percent greater than the population in the urban areas (Wilkie and Contreras, 1992, Table 900). And somewhat more than one out of every 20 children who are born in Latin America die within a year of their birth, a rate six times as great as that in the advanced industrial nations (United Nations, 1992, Table 15). For most of the population, access to doctors, medicine, and hospitals are severely limited. Disparities are especially striking between the rural and urban areas. Basic services such as running water, sewage, and electricity are unavailable for much of the rural population (Grindle, 1986, Tables 6.5 and 6.6).

Another striking condition of inequality in Latin America is the sharp disparity in land holdings. These are deeply rooted in historical inequities and exploitative institutions, and they have been aggravated by the expansion of capitalist market relations, the widespread commercialization of agriculture, the development of agro-industries, and the concomitant displacement of large numbers of small farmers and poor peasants from the land. The general picture is one of a very small number of landholders who possess a very large proportion of the land. For example, in seven Latin American countries, less than one percent of the landowners (all with landholdings of 1,000 hectares or more) own 42 percent of the land, whereas 62 percent of the landowners (with landholdings of ten hectares or less) own only four percent of the land (Cardoso and Helwege, 1992, Appendix D).

As previously indicated, probably no other sector of the Latin American population has suffered more inequality and injustice than the indigenous peoples of the region (Kearney and Varese, 1995). For the last five centuries, the indigenous peoples of Latin America have suffered almost every indignity and abuse imaginable. Since the European conquest of the region, Latin American societies have been based on the maximization of labor exploitation along ethnic lines, and the differential treatment of ethnic groups by both capital and the state has created a complex "ethno-class" structure. The indigenous peoples have generally occupied the lowest rung of this structure of extreme economic and social inequality, and until very recently they have been excluded or marginalized form the political process.

In sum, economic and social inequality is extreme throughout Latin America, and recent transformations in the global capitalist system and the economies of the Latin American states have for the most part contributed to the already polarized structure of class, gender and racial/ethnic differentiation in these societies. However, in spite of unfavorable economic conditions, there is opposition and resistance to the maintenance of the existing ethno-class structure from an increasing number of social groups and organizations - including the new social movements organized by women, indigenous peoples, the residents of the urban shanty towns, gays and lesbians, workers opposed to the traditional clientelistic trade unions, and middle-class environmentalists.

Social Injustice in Contemporary Latin America

The use of force is the main form in which domination and subordination have been exercised in Latin America (Nef, 1995, pp. 82-92). The historical origins of the contemporary Latin American societies lie in military conquest, the forced subjugation of the indigenous peoples of the region under European colonial rule, and the subsequent authoritarian domination of the population by dictatorial regimes. Thus, the contemporary politics and social life of the region are to a large extent the legacy of European colonial domination, the ideological domination of the Catholic church, a tradition of militarism and armed conflict as well as the institutionalization of numerous class, gender and racial/ethnic inequities.

Contemporary Latin Americans have inherited state structures based on political authoritarianism and the exclusion of large sectors of the population from the governmental process, as well as chronic forms of political violence, frequent military coups and dictatorships that both provoke popular insurrections as well as brutally suppress them (Boron, 1995, pp. 13-24). In other words, the political and social hierarchies in Latin America are inherently unjust, and these hierarchies are preserved by structures and practices that are unjust in terms of both universal and local standards of fairness and justice (which are frequently espoused but not practiced).

The ruling elites in Latin America have generally served as intermediaries between the dominant external power and the local population (Nef, 1995, pp. 83-89). Paternalistic, authoritarian, and clientelistic relations of subordination between the local elites and the masses at the national and subnational levels have gone hand in hand with the subordination of the Latin American societies to external colonial or neo-colonial elites interested in the exploitation of the natural resources, labor and capital of these societies. Moreover, military dictatorships, military repression of popular protests and insurrections, foreign military invasions, and the frequent intervention of the military in the governmental process have been a continuing and prominent feature of the political scene. In fact, the importance of the military and the use of military force have been the natural outgrowth of a system of social relations based largely on the subordination and exploitation of the majority of the population.

The apparent demilitarization and democratization of the Latin American states in recent years have been viewed by many observes as a welcome sign that the region is overcoming its past and undergoing a democratic political transformation. However, the civilian regimes that have replaced the former military dictatorships "have been neither truly democratic nor sovereign" (Nef, 1995, pp. 91-104). Although they possess the formal trappings of democracy and sovereignty, the current civilian regimes in Latin America for the most part exclude the popular classes from effective participation in the political process. Their decisions are also subject to the de facto veto of the military as well as the external dictates of the IMF, the World Bank, the U.S. government and the transnational corporations (Petras and Morley, 1992, pp. 179-198).

The Prospects for Social Justice in Latin America

The role of the state in regulating the economy has significantly declined as a result of the privatization of state assets, the deregulation of many economic activities, and the drastic reduction of government expenditures and public employment. Nevertheless, a considerable degree of centralized state power and an authoritarian governmental bureaucracy still remain in all the Latin American countries. Moreover, the neoliberals' rhetoric about limiting the role of the state in the economy in fact redirects the state's role in the economy away from serving the needs of the popular classes toward the special interests of the upper classes. As one astute observer has put it:

We are witnessing efforts to alter the direction of state activity, and not in fact a movement to liquidate the centrality of its "economic function" [and] ... this shift in direction may well be paralleled with more openly activist roles for the state in the process of economic concentration and the further hierarchicalization of economic and social relations. Already measures have been taken to reduce the role of the state in providing welfare, basic needs, unemployment relief, and so on. This legitimizes the social and economic inequality of capitalism under the guise of disinvolvement. (Thomas, 1989, p. 344.)

Despite the neoliberal rhetoric in contemporary governmental and business circles in Latin America, there is "a necessary interdependence and complementarity between state and market" in these countries as in all capitalist societies (Thomas, 1989, p. 344).

The elected civilian governments that have replaced the military dictatorships have restored the formal aspects of political democracy and freed civil society from the more repressive and brutal forms of political injustice that existed during the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s. There has also been a notable decline in the level and extent of political violence. Governmental stability has apparently begun to take hold, although deviations from this pattern occur with disturbing frequency.

One of the most disturbing features of the contemporary political scene is the lack of governmental responsiveness to the needs of the majority of the population even though the formal mechanisms of democratic politics have been established throughout most of the region. As one astute Latin American intellectual has observed:

policies aimed at deregulating markets, at privatization and liberalization, have had as one of their consequences the extraordinary reinforcement of the bargaining power of a handful of privileged collective actors, whose demands gain direct access to the upper echelons of the government and the central bureaucracy. Therefore, the quality of democratic governance is not only impaired by the deterioration of the material foundations of citizenship: these fragile democratic experiments are also endangered by the fact that, deaf to the reasonable and legitimate expectations of the underlying population, they tend to magnify the strength of the dominant classes and, as a result, to further reinforce the role of naked, noninstitutionalized power relations. (Boron, 1995, p. 211.)

In most countries, the urban working class, the peasantry, rural workers, the lower sectors of the salaried middle class, the members of the large informal sector, and the indigenous communities have been largely excluded or marginalized from the political arena. Taken together, these various classes and sectors represent anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the population, depending upon the demographic profile of each country.

Past efforts to organize and unite these classes and sectors for the purposes of representing their interests in the centers of state power have proved politically difficult and quite dangerous. In addition to the violent reaction of the military and right-wing paramilitary groups, the political mobilization of these sectors of the population has been obstructed by traditional forms of political co-optation - such as clientelism, patronage and corporatism - which the political elites have used quite effectively in most cases to subordinate and divide the members of these classes and sectors of the population.

Many of the former progressive members of the intelligentsia in Latin America have in recent years assumed a relatively moderate political position. As a result, they have distanced themselves from the popular classes and sectors mentioned above, and they have often accommodated their views to the prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy (Petras and Morley, 1992, pp. 145-175). Many of the former leftist political parties and organizations (such as the unions) have assumed a low profile on the political scene (although there are notable exceptions such as the Workers Party in Brazil). Other leftist organizations and movements have fallen into considerable organizational and ideological disarray.

Revolutionary movements and insurgent groups such as those which existed in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1970s and 1980s have been forced to give up their anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggles for national liberation, popular democracy and social justice. The revolutionary regime in Cuba has endured the collapse of the Soviet Block and the continued economic and political embargo of the United States, but it has been forced by the end of the Cold War and the "triumph" of global capitalism to seek increasing accommodation with the main actors in the global capitalist system (Blanco, 1995). In fact, were it not for the uncompromising hostility of the U.S. government, the Cuban regime would probably have already succeeded in accommodating itself to the global capitalist economy.

The direction that Latin America will take in the coming decades of the twenty-first century is not clear. The region could continue to follow the current course of increasing integration into the global capitalist economy under the continuing influence of neoliberal ideology and moderate-conservative civilian regimes. On the other hand, there are also indications of growing discontent with these regimes, both among the popular classes who have received few if any benefits from them as well as among the right-wing critics of these regimes, and their allies in the armed forces, who fear that even the limited democratization that has taken place in Latin America has gone too far.

The Left and other progressive forces in Latin America have been weakened and disoriented by major developments at the global level, such as the demise of the revolutionary movements in Central America and other parts of Latin America, as well as their own failure to develop an effective strategy for mobilizing the population against the neoliberal project of the right-of-center civilian regimes throughout the region. The unsuccessful outcome of the Nicaraguan revolution and the revolutionary movements in Central America during the 1980s appears to have foreclosed, at least for the time being, a strategy based upon a popular revolutionary insurrection. However, the progressive political forces in the region could change Latin America's current course of development in the direction of greater political democracy, rising standards of living and social justice, if they could devise an effective strategy that would allow them to successfully mobilize the majority of the population in this direction (Harris, 1995, pp. 293-296).

Most of the progressive parties and movements in Latin America recognize that they are seriously handicapped by their failure to offer an effective alternative to the reigning neoliberal project. As a result, they have established an ongoing cross-national dialogue aimed at developing a new identity and strategy for the contemporary era. The main impetus for this dialogue was the Sao Paulo Forum which was formed in July 1990 by representatives from over 40 leftist political parties and organizations (Robinson, 1992).

The globalization process has provoked the active resistance of many previously passive communities and groups who now see their survival increasingly threatened by the economic and cultural effects associated with the accelerated integration of their societies into the global capitalist economy. The global media have contributed to this phenomenon through the international diffusion of information about the political mobilization of traditional communities and ethnic groups in different parts of the world, e.g., the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and others (Robertson, 1992, pp. 130-131, 166-172). This global diffusion process has created a demonstration effect in the sense that the activation of an increasing number of groups has been inspired by what they learn from the global media about other groups like themselves. Thus, globalization has stimulated the political mobilization of oppressed groups and communities that have been previously subordinated, suppressed, and/or marginalized.

Throughout Latin America one can find grass-roots movements that have arisen among formerly quiescent ethnic groups, indigenous communities and the most exploited sectors of the population. Some specific examples are the increasing ethnic awareness and mobilization of Afro-Brazilians, the political mobilization and rebellion of the indigenous population in the Mexican state of Chiapas, and the organization and resistance of the rubber tappers led by Chico Mendes in the Amazonia region of Brazil.

Like the more conventional political parties, trade unions and peasant organizations, the new social movements in Latin America have established themselves as a force with which to be reckoned on the local and national levels (Hellman, 1995). However, many of these movements tend to be based upon clientelistic and hierarchical relations that are a reflection of the larger political environment based upon patronage and bossism. Thus, in most cases they have not succeeded in transforming the day-to-day nature of power relations or contributed as much as might be hoped to the construction of a more just and democratic social order.

On the other hand, many of the new movements have departed from the older movements and parties by using new tactics and by seeking the support of international public opinion. Thus, Judith Hellman notes that: "human rights as a transnational concern in which domestic and foreign activists work together to influence international public opinion is not only new in its conception, but like the feminist, gay and green movements, relies to a large extent on a network of international communications that has only become feasible in the computer age" (Hellman, 1995, p. 174). Some of these new social movements not only maintain international linkages with movements like themselves in other countries, they also maintain linkages with progressive political parties, international nongovernmental agencies and international religious organizations who are willing to form alliances with them in order to promote their specific issues as well as the more general goals of social justice, economic redistribution and political democratization. These alternative structures and relations of power have emerged in opposition to the existing structures, processes and relations of global capitalism, inequality, and injustice in Latin America.


In the previous pages, I have attempted to provide a global perspective on the major structures, process and relations that have shaped and are shaping the course of political, economic, and sociocultural development in contemporary Latin America. Using an integrative conceptual framework centered on the "metaconcepts" of capital, inequality, and injustice, I have identified and critically examined the interrelationships between certain basic structures and processes of "uneven modernity" in Latin America, the influence of past occurrences on contemporary circumstances, as well as the effects of global conditions and local forces on the direction of current developments in the region.

The conceptual perspective provided by the combined use of these three key concepts reveals the exploitative relationships, social inequalities, and unjust relations of dominance and subordination that predominate in contemporary Latin America. This perspective also has identified potential forces of progressive change that could transform the existing structures and relations of capital, inequality, and injustice in Latin America, and replace them with a new social order based on equitable and sustainable development as well as genuine popular democracy and social justice.


1 This article is a revised and updated version of the author's contribution to a volume of original essays he recently coedited with Sandor Halebsky (Harris, 1995).

2 Cardoso, who is now the President of Brazil, has distanced himself from this perspective. See Fiori (1995, pp. 98-99).

3 For a discussion of the diversity of postmodernist viewpoints in Latin America, see the essays in Beverley, Oveido, and Aronna (1995).


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Richard L. Harris is Associate Professor of Global Studies at the Center for Collaborative Education and Professional Studies, California State University at Monterey Bay. He is one of the coordinating editors of the quarterly academic journal Latin American Perspectives, and he has published numerous books and articles on African politics, Latin American political and economic development, Marxism, socialism, democracy, revolution, and comparative public administration. His most recent publications are Capital, Power and Inequality in Latin America (Westview: 1995), and Marxism, Socialism and Democracy in Latin America (Westview: 1992).
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Author:Harris, Richard L.
Publication:International Journal of Comparative Sociology
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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