David Slater. Handbook of Cultural Geography. Editor: Kay Anderson, Mona Domosh, Steve Pile, Nigel Thrift. Sage Publications, 2003.
By Way of an Opening
Although critical human geography has witnessed a growing interest in the conceptual and thematic concerns emanating from the post-colonial turn (see, for example, Gregory, 1995; Sidaway, 2000), and although more analytical attention has been recently given to questions of the spatiality of democracy (Massey, 1995; Robinson, 1998; Slater, 1998), so far little work has been developed around the spatiality or geopolitics of democracy and democratization from a post-colonial perspective. For this chapter my use of the term ‘post-colonial perspective’ refers to three interconnected objectives: (1) to provide a critical approach to certain influential western visions of democracy; (2) to emphasize the mutually constitutive, although unequal, role played by colonizer and colonized or globalizer and globalized within the domain of west/non-west encounters, including here an awareness of the crucial links between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; and (3) within this same domain, to briefly touch on certain facets of the politics of conceptual knowledge, for example, how global are our geographies of reference, how ethnocentric are western theorists of democracy, and what can we learn from other non-western theorists? I shall return to these points at the end of the chapter.
The continuing critique of westocentrism or Euro-Americanism has been nurtured by post-colonial perspectives, but not infrequently these critical appraisals have tended to bypass the ways political theory in general and democratic theory in particular are constructed and deployed, and similarly political geography has tended not to be a predominant site for the application of post-colonial theory. In this chapter I plan to examine two interconnected issues. First, I want to discuss what might be meant by Euro-Americanism and how such a prevailing vision has become rooted in western social science; and second, I intend to illustrate the argument developed in this first section by briefly examining certain problems with the western theorization of democracy and democratization. These two sections will then lead me to conclude by drawing out one or two implications for the way the geographies of the cultural and the political might be reframed.
Towards a Specification of Euro-Americanism
To begin with I shall not differentiate Eurocentrism from Euro-Americanism, but rather marshall my points from the literature in general, a literature which overall tends to employ the former term much more frequently than the latter, and which often fails to specify the possible differences between the two, giving rise to the possible implication that the differences if discernible are not particularly significant. Before considering the distinction between these two terms, and in particular in the context of west/non-west relations, let us begin by specifying three constituent elements of Euro-Americanism which can give us a working definition of the concept.
First, Euro-Americanist theoretical imaginations or historical interpretations emphasize the posited leading civilizational role of the west in modern times by reference to some special and primary feature of its own socio-economic, political and cultural life. This positing of the special and the primary has been reflected in a variety of ways. From Max Weber western thought has inherited the notion that the occident is the ‘distinctive seat of economic rationalism’ (1978: 480) or that outside Europe neither scientific nor artistic nor political nor economic development entered upon that ‘path of rationalization, which is peculiar to the Occident’ (1992: 25). From the annals of critical Marxist theory we read in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks that European culture is the only historically and concretely universal culture (Gramsci, 1971: 416, emphasis added). More recently, and in a not dissimilar fashion, Zizek (1998), from a post-Marxist position, argues that Europe is the key home of democracy and democratic theory. From other sources, which focus on materiality, emphasis falls on the posited historical superiority of western science and technology (for a critique see Adas, 1990), and in the ethico-political realm, the west has been constructed as the cradle of human rights, progress, enlightened thought, reason and philosophical reflection. Specifically, in the domain of philosophy, western culture has been customarily portrayed as being the only culture capable of self-critique and evaluation (see, for example, Castoriadis, 1998: 94) or the only culture to claim an ‘experimental success’ through bringing people into some degree of comity and of ‘increasing human happiness, which looks more promising than any other way which has been proposed so far’ (Rorty, 1999: 273).
Second, the special or primary feature or essential set of features uniquely possessed by the west are regarded within Euro-Americanism as essentially internal to European and American development. This set of features or overall model is enframed in a way that assumes the existence of an independent logic and dynamism of Euro-American development. There is certainly no sense of such development being a copy or the result of a process of cross-cultural encounters. Moreover, and rather critically, there tends to be an ethos of superiority—neatly captured in Foucault’s notion of the ‘historical sovereignty of European thought’ (1973: 376-7) -which permeates the idea of an independent logic of western progress, or civilization, or more recently modernization and development. The sense of the superiority of the west was clearly reflected in the modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s where, for instance, particular definitions of industrialization, agrarian change, and social and political development were rooted in a certain interpretation of Euro-American experience and then modelled for export to the Third World. The ethos of superiority fuels the drive to expand, and this aspect of westocentrism has been carefully and critically evaluated by Blaut (1993) in his discussion of colonialism and diffusionist models of western development.
Third, the development of the west within a Euro-Americanist frame is held to constitute a universal step forward for humanity as a whole (for a critical discussion, see Shohat and Stam, 1994). Such a view has been reflected in both traditional Marxist views of a progressive succession of modes of production, and in the well-known Rostowian notion of the ‘stages of economic growth’ (Rostow, 1960) with the west offering a mirror of development for the future of non-western societies. At the end of the 1950s, in a symptomatic expression of this orientation, the prominent American social scientist Daniel Lerner, in his well-known text on The Passing of Traditional Society, asserted that Middle East modernizers would do well to study the historical sequence of western growth since ‘what the West is … the Middle East seeks to become’ (1958: 47). Such a standpoint finds a historical precedent in the nineteenth-century writing of the influential philosopher Hegel (1967: 212), who defined the principle of the modern world, i.e. Europe, as thought and the universal. And subsequently in the twentieth century Husserl stated that ‘philosophy has constantly to exercise through European man its role of leadership for the whole of mankind’ (1965: 178).
Taking these three elements as a whole, the primary, the internally independent and the universal, we also find that in the representation of the history of relations between the west and the non-west, the other, i.e. the non-west, is portrayed in ways which are pervasively negative, thus constituting a positivity for the west. The complexities and pluralities of both the west and the non-west are reduced to a driving vector of meaning that assigns to the west the key historical and geopolitical significance of being the essential and superior motor of progress, civilization, science, development and modernity.
On the negative essentialization of the non-western other, Mbembe (2001), in his thought-provoking text on the ‘postcolony’, reminds us that in the context of western representations of Africa, the negativity is always present and that the African human experience continually appears as an experience that can only be understood through a negative interpretation. Africa, he argues, is never seen as exhibiting attributes that are properly part of humanity or, when it is, these attributes are generally seen as of lesser value. Mbembe suggests that in western social theory African politics and economics only appear as the sign of a lack, while the discourses of political science and development economics have become characterized by the search for the origins of that posited lack. In this frame, war is seen as all-pervasive, and the African continent is seen as powerless, engaged in rampant self-destruction. These negative images and one-dimensional representations, present in the post-colonial period of separation from western coloniality, are traced back to the violence of colonialism which Mbembe treats as having three forms: (1) the founding violence of colonial sovereignty which created the space over which conquest was exercised and also the space within which colonial power could introduce its own laws, where its supreme right was also the supreme denial of the right of the colonized; (2) a violence of legitimation where the language and models of colonial rule were introduced as part of a universalizing mission to cement into place a new institutionalizing authority; and (3) a banal and everyday violence of cultural rule, expressed in a ‘gradual accumulation of numerous acts and rituals’ so that there was a cultural imaginary that the state shared with society as a way of reproducing colonizing power through the intricate web of social relations (2001: 25).
I have referred to these passages from Mbembe because they point to a rather important component of the discussion of Euro-Americanism: the place of violence and conquest in the history of relations, representations and positionalities when thinking about west/ non-west encounters. This point can be illustrated in the context of the conquest of the Americas and its close relation to western thought.
For example, the Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel (1998) strongly argues that the Spanish conquisto (or vinco), i.e. I conquer, must be given historical and ontological priority over the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum (I am thinking, therefore I exist) as the first determination of the subject of modernity. In this sense conquisto means to take possession of the land and the people of the conquered territory so that any subsequent formulation of thought and truth must already presume, implicitly or explicitly, a territorialization based on a self/other split which can only be properly understood in the frame of conquest. For example, whilst Hernán Cortés (1521), preceded the Discours de la méthode (1636) by more than a century, it is important to recall that Descartes studied at La Flêche, a Jesuit college with a religious order that, at that time, had deep roots in America, Africa and Asia, and in its teaching the ‘barbarian’ was the obligatory context for all reflection on subjectivity, reason and the cogito. For Dussel, modernity was born when Europe constituted itself as the centre of world history in 1492. Only with the invasion of the ‘New World’ did Europe enjoy a true springboard that allowed it to supersede other regional social systems. The idea that ‘I conquer’ constitutes the practical foundation of ‘I think’ has been taken up by both Moreiras (2000) and Spanos (2000) in their discussion of the crucial relation between geopolitical power and the territorialization of thought, and this linkage, as I shall show, is highly relevant for subsequent sections of my argument. In sum then Dussel makes three interesting points.
First, the Hispanic Conquest of 1492 provides an essential context for understanding the subsequent evolution of thinking on subjectivity, reason and culture. Second, a great part of the achievements of modernity were not exclusively European but grew out of the continuous dialectic of impact and counter-impact between modern Europe and its periphery, including the constitution of modern subjectivity. And third, for Dussel, Eurocentrism consisted precisely in confusing or identifying aspects of human abstract universality in general with moments of European particularity, which was in fact the first ‘global particularity’ (1998: 132).
This last suggestion, Dussel’s definition of Eurocentrism, leads me to the final element of this section of the chapter. What difference does ‘America’ make to our perspective on western universalism, or how might ‘Euro-Americanism’ be different from ‘Eurocentrism’?
These questions can potentially lead us into a long discussion of the historical, socio-economic and political differences between the United States and Europe. Along this pathway, one can mention Lipset (1991: 40) who, in attempting to define ‘American exceptionalism’, notes that the United States is the least statist western nation in terms of public effort, benefits and employment, and, inter alia, more religious, more patriotic, more populist and less law-abiding than other developed countries. Daniel Bell (1991), for his part, draws our attention to the lack of a feudal history, the relative absence of socialism, and the abiding sense of a moral purpose, expressed perhaps most emblematically in the notion of ‘manifest destiny’. Bell writes, for instance, that ‘from the start there had been the self-consciousness of a destiny that marked this country as being different from others … that the greatness was laid out like a magnetic field which would shape the contours of the nation from one ocean to the other, and finally, when it confronted the rest of the world from that magnetic core, this would become “the American Century”’ (1991: 48). Fundamentally, however, for Bell, it has been the strength of its civil society in relation to state power that has given the United States its exceptional nature. American civil society is couched in terms of an emphasis on the voluntary association, on the church and community, on the self-management of resources on a local scale, outside the bureaucracy and the state, and above all in terms of a transformation that has gone from a version of ‘republican virtue’ through to the contrasting but complementary practices of rugged individualism and radical populism.
These lines provide us with a flavour of one reading of the ‘exceptionalism’ of America, which contrasts with an earlier article by the political geographer John Agnew (1983) who outlined a more critical vision of ‘American exceptionalism’ in relation to US foreign policy. More recently, other writers have sought to place the ‘American Century’ in a relatedly critical context (see, for example, Guyatt, 2000; Slater and Taylor, 1999). However, for the purposes of my argument here I simply want to signal the existence of three specificities of the United States which are particularly pertinent to a consideration of the relations between the US and the non-western world, distinctions which are important for our understanding of ‘Euro-Americanism’.
The first specificity is that the United States, in contrast to west European nations, as well as Japan, has a history of spreading imperial power that is also rooted in post-coloniality. Today, the United States is not only the lone superpower, but also the only post-colonial imperial power, whereby a project of empire emerged out of an original anti-colonial struggle for independence from British rule. In the proliferating literature on post-colonialism the United States is customarily listed as a post-colonial country together with a whole range of Third World societies, but the ‘exceptional’ juxtaposition of post-coloniality and imperial power is often ignored. There are two facets to this juxtaposition.
First, in looking at the geopolitics of US inter-ventionism in the countries of the global south, the coalescence of these two realities, of a belief in the rightness of the self-determination of peoples, together with a belief in the global destiny of ‘America’, constitutes a salient and frequently contradictory specificity. Historically, the contradiction between a belief in the rights of peoples to decide their own fate and a belief in the geopolitical predestination of America has been ostensibly transcended through an invocation of democracy that is valid at home and abroad. In the 1960s, for example, in a context formed by military intervention in the Dominican Republic (1965), the war in Vietnam and a social crisis in the cities of the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson made it clear that the domestic and the foreign were two sides of the same coin, that promoting democracy at home meant securing it abroad, that the United States was a great, liberal and progressive democracy up to its frontiers, and ‘we are the same beyond’. Let us never imagine, he continued, ‘that Americans can wear the same face in Denver and Des Moines and Seattle and Brooklyn and another in Paris and Mexico City and Karachi and Saigon’ (1969: 7). This sense of indivisibility, of global preeminence in the proclamation of liberal democracy, carries a universality that is based in the particularity of the United States, and by providing a horizon for other peoples this kind of enunciation also attempts to encapsulate the struggles and destinies of non-American peoples within an American vision.
Second, the primacy of self-determination is important in explaining the dichotomy frequently present in American interventions where a split is made between the governed (the people) and the governors (the rulers). Given the historic differentiation of the New World from the Old, and the support for anti-colonial struggles, perceived threats to US security have not infrequently been accompanied by this kind of separation between an oppressed people and tyrannical rulers. For example, in the context of past revolutionary breaks that were associated by the US government with ‘communist subversion’, it was the people who needed to be rescued from their undemocratic rulers, as clearly represented in the case of US military intervention in Grenada in 1983. In the long-standing case of US hostility towards the Cuban Revolution, a strong distinction has been made between the Cuban people, who are portrayed as being oppressed by their communist rulers, and the Castro regime. For example, in the earlier sections of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, one reads that ‘the consistent policy of the United States towards Cuba since the beginning of the Castro regime … has sought to keep faith with the people of Cuba’, whilst ‘sanctioning the totalitarian Castro regime’. Further on, the document continues, ‘the Cuban people deserve to be assisted in a decisive manner to end the tyranny that has oppressed them for 36 years, and the continued failure to do so constitutes ethically improper conduct by the international community’. The Act specifically argues that measures are needed to restore the values of ‘freedom and democracy’ and, above all, the sovereign and national right of self-determination to the Cuban people. The mode of representation at work here can be explained in terms of the presumed right to be able to designate the political future for a people whose sovereignty is envisaged as being usurped by a posited unrepresentative and tyrannical regime.
These two elements lend specificity to a certain post-colonial nature of imperial power that distinguishes the United States from other western societies, and gives a significant vector of meaning to the term ‘Euro-Americanism’.
The second specificity is that, in the territorial formation of the United States, a formation that was intrinsically tied to war and the expansion of a ‘civilizing’ frontier, there were encounters with three significant others: the indigenous peoples of North America (the ‘Indian’), the Hispanic and Indian population of Mexico in the US-Mexico War of 1846-8, and the African American in the initial context of slavery and the Civil War of the 1860s. In the constitution of mission, destiny and an Anglo-Saxon Americanization of the continent, the identification of internal enemies and shifting frontiers came to play a key role in the formation of a new nation. In the example of the decimation of the native peoples of the continent, white America’s violent encounter with its Indian other came to form a deeply significant element of the nation’s collective memory. It not only figured in the production of films about how ‘the West was won’ but also found expression in twentieth century warfare and foreign policy. In the 1960s, for example, during the Vietnam War, American troops described Vietnam as ‘Indian country’ and President Kennedy’s ambassador to Vietnam justified military escalation by citing the necessity of moving the ‘Indians’ (the North Vietnamese) away from the ‘fort’ so that the ‘settlers’ could plant ‘corn’ (Slotkin, 1998: 3). More recently too, as Campbell (1999: 237) indicates in his analysis of the contradictions of a lone superpower, an American diplomat referred to Bosnian Serb territory as ‘Indian country’, whilst US units named their bases and areas using frontier references (for example, Fort Apache).
Since there is no space here to develop this argument in further detail, I simply want to state that my overall contention is that, notwithstanding the historical and cultural differences between them, these founding three encounters with internal others generated forms of subordinating representation and mechanisms of power that prefigured subsequent relations of power over Third World societies (Slater, 1999). Before the United States became a global power, these encounters provided an original reservoir of imperial experience that was not irrelevant to many of the interventions pursued by the United States in the twentieth century. In comparison to the colonizing nations of western Europe, in the case of the United States the internal territorial constitution of the nation-state comprised a series of violent encounters with other peoples that took place on its own soil and intimately moulded its evolving sense of empire and mission, which in many ways has been most acutely reflected in the continuing significance given to notions of ‘the frontier’.
The third specificity is that, historically, the United States has been portrayed by its leading political figures as the original haven of a New World. From the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 and Thomas Jefferson’s twin notion of ‘America’ having a ‘hemisphere to itself, and being an ‘Empire for Liberty’, through to the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904 and the Rio Pact of 1947, the United States has staked out for itself an original heartland that was clearly delineated as a separate domain from the Old World of Europe. This demarcation of geopolitical domains, or the establishment in the western hemisphere of a ‘grand area’ of geo-strategy, constituted what I consider to be the first phase of a US strategy of containment. This first phase, which dated from the Monroe Doctrine, was characterized by a strategy for the establishment of US hegemony in the Americas, and the setting of limits for European influence. The second phase of containment, which was initiated with the Cold War and the rivalry between the superpowers, saw the United States as a global power developing a strategy of containment for what was perceived to be the communist threat to the ‘free world’. This classic phase of containment was played out on the global stage from the late 1940s to 1989, with a short intermezzo in the late 1970s under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The final phase of containment, in which we are living in the current era, relates to the specific targeting of what are portrayed as ‘rogue states’ such as Iraq, North Korea and Libya—states which are considered to be the instigators and/or protectors of terrorist groups and organizations. The containment and isolation of these specific states is part of an American strategy aimed at ‘global preeminence’ (Klare, 2000), a strategy which has important implications for the way we frame our discussions of the global and the democratic.
The evolution of these interconnected phases in the development of ‘global America’ (Valladão, 1998) provides a further specificity to the treatment of the United States within a western context. In sum these three points, schematically presented above, capture the existence of important constitutive differences between the United States and the rest of the west, and I have introduced them as one way of underlining the need to give more analytical oxygen to the specificity or ‘exceptionalism’ of the United States, and especially in relation to the projection of US power. Furthermore, in any discussion of the difference between Eurocentrism and Euro-Americanism these three factors of delineation provide one relevant basis for understanding the contrasts as well as commonalities within the west.
There are two further elements here which because of the limits of space can only be swiftly ‘flagged up’. One concerns the need to further delineate the differences within the west, that is not only the need to give greater thought and attention to the particularity of the United States within the universe of the west, but also to realize that within western Europe itself there are other differences which relate to the historical specificities of colonialism—for example, the earlier historical cases of Spain and Portugal (see Coronil, 1996; Mignolo, 2000). A second element concerns what is meant by ‘America’ and how the multiple meanings and histories of this signi-fier can take us into a discussion of the place of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and their specification of what ‘America’ signifies in their histories and cultural foundations (see, for example, Brysk, 2000). The term ‘America’ also raises the issue of how Latin Americans are both ‘americanos’ and citizens of different nation-states in the Americas. In other words, as a general observation, it is important to be aware of the need to avoid conflating the United States of America with ‘America’.
Having outlined certain important aspects of Euro-Americanism, including a short section on the difference that ‘America’ makes, it is now necessary to take our discussion into the area of democratic theory, envisaged globally.
For a Post-Colonial Perspective on Democratic Theory
It can be suggested that democracy has become one of the most pervasive signifiers of political thought. Perhaps like Coca-Cola, democracy needs no translation to be understood virtually everywhere. But the ostensible universality of democracy can act as a screen behind which lies the complexity of its multiple meanings. Democracy is of course a classic example of a floating signifier, open to a variety of discursive frames. In this context, we have a veritable plethora of descriptors that vie for our attention: to take one selection we might think of ‘direct democracy’, ‘social democracy’, ‘liberal democracy’, ‘associational democracy’, ‘representative democracy’, ‘participatory democracy’, ‘popular democracy’, ‘radical democracy’, ‘cosmopolitan democracy’, ‘market-led democracy’ and so on. These adjectival markers testify to the continuing struggles over the meaning, definition, content and political direction of what is to be meant by democracy. How then do we connect with the limitations of Euro-Americanism discussed above? And how might we use the insights of an enabling post-colonial perspective to go beyond these constraints so that our thinking about the democratic and the global might be able to avoid the customary pitfalls of the ethnocentric universalism so characteristic of western thought?
In an important statement on the cultural particularity of liberal democracy, the political theorist, Parekh (1993: 167) made the point that western liberal democracy has often imposed on other countries systems of government that were not relevant to the skills and talents of non-western countries, and that this kind of imposition has tended to destroy the coherence and integrity of their ways of life, reducing them to mimics, unable or unwilling to be true to either their own traditions or those of the alien norms imported from outside. As Parekh appropriately concludes, ‘the cultural havoc caused by colonialism should alert us to the dangers of an over-zealous imposition of liberal democracy’ (1993: 167). Not only Parekh but other non-western writers and analysts (for example, Dhaliwal, 1996; Rivera, 1990; Sheth, 1995) have pointedly observed that western representations of democracy and liberalism frequently presume a universal relevance for institutional arrangements and cultural values that may not be equally applicable in other regions of the world. Moreover, the historical and contemporary context of the exclusionary nature of democratic societies in relation, for instance, to questions of race and ethnicity, as well as the geopolitical association of democracy with imperialism, define a rather salient but often neglected thematic focus. It is exactly these kinds of observations and critical interventions, emanating from the work of non-western social scientists, that can help us develop a series of questions concerning the geographies of our analytical reference as well as the prevalence of western ethnocentrism in the conceptualization of democracy.
As a way of structuring my commentary, I want to discuss five interrelated problems which are symptomatic of much analysis of democracy as a form of rule or political system and the process of democratization in its social and political dimensions. All five points relate to the way we think about democracy in a global context and they all impinge on the presence within any global frame of the significance of west/non-west encounters.
In the first place, it is worthwhile recalling that many significant historical and geopolitical events occurring away from the heartlands of the capitalist west, events which have had a profound impact on the course of social struggles, have not infrequently been excluded from western writings on global history. As one example, which connects back to the prioritization of the French Revolution, mentioned earlier, we might refer to the work of Trouillot (1995). Trouillot, in his examination of what he denotes as ‘the silencing of the past’, shows how, in much western scholarship, both Anglo-American and French, the Haitian Revolution, with its crucial connection to the struggle against racism, slavery and colonialism, has largely been either erased from theoretical treatments of democracy or trivialized in terms of its wider import. A long process of social rebellion from an initial slave uprising in 1791 through to the proclamation of independence in 1804 represented an indigenous struggle for freedom, dignity and autonomy. This rebellion played a central role in the collapse of slavery and it also placed on the political agenda the crucial connections between democratic struggles and opposition to racism and coloniality.
However, such events have been customarily overshadowed by a concentration on the founding importance of the French Revolution for the future of democracy, writ universally. But a global, post-colonial perspective can be deployed to connect the two revolutions, thereby questioning the sedimented centrality of the ‘European moment’. As Dubois (2000) argues, the slave insurgents claiming republican citizenship and racial equality expanded the idea of rights so that developments in the Antilles actually went beyond the political imagination of the metropole, transforming the content of citizenship and challenging the ethnocentric limits of western political thought in general. But the idea that a region of the periphery, where the agents of change are non-western and non-white, might actually have been more politically advanced than the centres of western civilization has been given, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly, little oxygen.
Although there are many other experiences from the periphery—insurgent movements such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, or experiments in participatory democracy as in Porto Alegre in Brazil—that hold out lessons for a global context, the example mentioned above is quite emblematic. This is so since the French Revolution is always taken as a key origin of the theoretization of democracy and human rights, especially in treatments of radical democracy, and yet that other Haitian Revolution of the same era tends to be shrouded in silence. One can be reminded of the Nietzschean point that at all ‘origins’ there is diversity, and in this example that diversity can be fruitfully used to disrupt and to displace one influential current of western political theory. Furthermore, this point applies not only to the French Revolution and the European experience but also to discussions of the origins of democracy in the United States, where of course the abolition of slavery followed on some time after the Haitian Revolution.
Second, when considering the established view that the west has diffused and continues to diffuse democracy to other parts of the globe, it is necessary to remember that the West, and in particular the United States, has intervened geopolitically in societies of the periphery to replace one government by another. Transgressions of national sovereignty have been well documented. Niess (1990: 208-9), for instance, records as many as 33 major armed interventions by the United States in Latin America alone from 1853 through to Grenada in 1983. It is important here to distinguish two elements: (1) interventions which have led to the replacement of one regime for another where the overthrown regime may not have been democratic, as in the case of the Manuel Noriega regime in Panama in 1989; and (2) interventions which have led to the replacement of democratically elected governments which were developing policies independent of the United States. This is not to implicitly condone the transgression of sovereignty when an undemocratic regime is involved, or to forget the enduring nature of US and western support for a variety of dictatorial regimes in the Third World (e.g. Chile, Indonesia, Zaire), but rather to underline the fact that US interventions have on a number of occasions led not to the creation of democracy but to its termination.
With reference to Latin America, that region of the Third World with the longest history of independent governments, the post-Second World War period was witness to a number of key US interventions that ended particular democratic experiments. Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973 and Nicaragua in the 1980s are all examples where interventions effectively terminated democratic processes. With respect to Guatemala, a particularly tragic example, in 1954 a democratically elected government was overthrown by a CIA-organized military coup (Cullather, 1999) that changed that country’s political landscape for ever. By the end of the 1990s an estimated 200,000 people had died in the civil war that followed the military coup d’ état. This figure represented approximately 2 per cent of the total population, the rough equivalent of around 5 million deaths in a war within the United States. In all these examples, the democratically elected governments that were overthrown (Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Chile) or undermined and destabilized through the financing of contraguerrillas as in the Nicaraguan case, were developing policies that sought to redistribute wealth and income, introduce land reform, and construct a nationalist programme of development. They were not one-party states as was Cuba, but they were regarded as a threat to the United States because they represented a democratic alternative and genuine ‘third way’ between capitalist underdevelopment under US hegemony and socialist revolution within the sphere of influence of the Soviet bloc.
In our times of geopolitical amnesia, it is not only important to continually recall these events, but also to think through their meaning, linked into the politics of memory. It is surely neither justifiable nor wise, especially writing after 11 September 2001, to indulge in what Trouillot (2000) calls the ‘abortive rituals’ of governmental apology when the conditions and ruling ideas that make possible western interventions have not been transformed. The rule of hegemonic western representation seeks to convince us that interventions from the centres of modern ‘civilization’ have always been marked by the pursuit of justice and democracy. The geopolitical record shows otherwise, but its reality must be continually reactivated and remarked.
Third, a particularly western notion of ‘democracy’ and the desire to defend it have provided a justification for a variety of geopolitical interventions, as was so clear in the Central America and Caribbean of the 1980s. Falk (1995) has referred to this phenomenon as the geopolitical appropriation of ‘democracy’, pointing to the pivotal significance of the continuing struggles over the meanings of democracy. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration launched ‘Project Democracy’ and the ‘Democracy Program’ to promote, as Huntington put it, ‘democratic institutions in other societies’ (1984: 193). Conversely, and during the same years, the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was attempting to develop its own combination of representative democracy with popular democracy, having won a resounding vote of confidence in the 1984 elections. Two visions of democracy and the unequal powers behind them came into open confrontation. The first, which was a market-led and US-friendly version, based on the Schumpeterian notion of the ‘democratic method’, whereby individuals are supposed to acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote, eventually triumphed owing to the greater geopolitical power of the United States. The second, which was a revolutionary model that combined electoral competition between political parties with the encouragement of popular organizations and an anti-imperialist strategy, lost out in the 1990 elections where a US-supported opposition acquired governmental power.
What needs to be stressed here is that a particular vision of western liberal democracy is used as a gauge or model for judging the success or failure of non-western societies to develop democratically. It is always worthwhile remembering that there are many definitions of ‘democracy’, a classic example of a polysemic term. A post-colonial perspective would underscore the particularity and limits of western visions which purport to have universal relevance, and which are frequently employed in discussions on aid and development as a kind of gold standard for what are seen as aspiring democracies in the global south.
Fourth, in any critique of Euro-Americanism one of the salient elements concerns the complex interweaving of cultural representation and geopolitical power. In the historical annals of western democratic theory, one can encounter defining examples of a strong universalist ambition which has prioritized certain cultural practices and invested them with spatial power.
Taking an example which is relevant for its general theoretical influence as well as for its roots in a western perception of the experience of the United States, it is instructive to refer to aspects of Tocqueville’s work on democracy in America. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century Tocqueville argued that the historical consolidation of what he referred to as the civic-territorial complex required the elimination of the Indian, the original American other who had the right of neither soil nor sovereignty and had to be cleansed from the founding of American democracy. For Tocqueville (1990) civilization had to be seen as the result of a long social process, which takes place in the same spot and is handed down from one generation to another. Consequently, peoples who are nomadic can never attain the status of being civilized, or as Tocqueville expressed it, ‘civilization began in the cabin, but soon retired to expire in the woods’ (1990: 342-3). Thus, as Connolly has helpfully suggested, Tocqueville’s depreciation of nomadic life forfeits insights into how the American state might modify its own tendencies to centralization and ‘fend off its cultural drive to sustain the purity of civilization through the extermination of the other’ (1994: 31). But such a forfeiting of insight is sharply conditioned by a racially prejudiced vision.
This is clearly shown in Tocqueville’s overall discussion of the ‘three races in the United States’, in which one reads that ‘ the most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory’ (1990: 356). This is seen as the case since the civilized European can scarcely acknowledge the common features of humanity in this stranger whom slavery has brought among us, and we Europeans are ‘almost inclined to look upon him as a being intermediate between man and the brutes’ (1990: 358). Such a viewpoint finds an echo in other writings of Tocqueville, including his interpretation of French colonialism in Algeria. His support for colonialism is expressed in clear and stark terms. He wrote, for example, that burning harvests, emptying granaries and seizing women and children are ‘unfortunate necessities that any people wishing to make war on the Arabs must accept’. He went on to argue that in Algeria there should be two quite distinct legislations for there are two very separate communities, the colonizers and the colonized, and it was only the colonizers who would have their rights legally protected. War, he added, was a science that had been well developed by the French in Africa. These short quotations come from a recent article by the French political scientist Le Cour Grandmaison, who refers the reader to Tocqueville’s complete works republished in 1991. Le Cour Grandmaison (2001: 13-14) asks the question: why is it that Tocqueville’s open support for French colonialism and his justification of violence against the Algerian population are very rarely if ever mentioned by French political theorists in their consideration of Tocqueville’s contribution to political thought? Whilst Trouillot refers to the ‘silencing of the past’ in the case of the Haitian Revolution, we might suggest that the racist and colonialist prejudice present in the writings of founding figures such as Tocqueville is also passed over in silence. Is it because contemporary writers think that such prejudices are no longer significant, simply being residues from a more racist age? Have such prejudices disappeared? Or must we preserve the honour and integrity of our founding western theoreticians?
In a similar vein to Tocqueville, and writing a little later, the liberal theorist J.S. Mill (1989) drew a connection between the right to social justice and liberty and the existence of a ‘civilized community’. For Mill, the principles of justice only applied to human beings in the maturity of their faculties, so that one could leave out of consideration ‘those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage’ (1989: 13). The ethnocentric ground on which Mill and also Tocqueville built their arguments was not unique for the nineteenth century, or for following periods, and the binary splits between civilized and barbarian, or peoples with history and those without, received later elaborations in the twentieth-century context of modern versus traditional and developed versus developing.
Overall, my point in this section is to re-emphasize that the way the temporal and geopolitical configurations of the democracy problematic have been and continue to be interpreted is centrally affected by an ethnocentric universalism that is profoundly rooted in the formation of occidental thought. And that anchorage is frequently avoided in the contemporary western literature. But if we are to construct more equal forms of cultural dialogue in times of acute political instability, it is crucial to be continually aware and critical of these historical roots if we are to ever go beyond them.
Finally, a post-colonial perspective ought to encourage us to cast a more critical eye on the evolving nature of western democracy from within. This is not a task only relevant to such a perspective since increasingly critical questions are being asked from a wide range of positions. For example, it has been noted that with the continual extension of the powers of surveillance (Boyne, 2000), coupled with the extension and deepening of the bureaucratization of social life, a notion of ‘totalitarian democracy’ might not seem too inappropriate (Fiske, 1998). Fiske exemplifies his argument by referring to the extension of electronic surveillance, particularly noticeable with the growth in coverage of CCTV, reflected for instance by the fact that the whole of the downtown in cities like Minneapolis, Newark and Detroit are now covered by cameras that can zoom in to read a credit card. But also relevant, for Fiske, are appeals to moral totalism, intensified policing and the appearance of charismatic leaders, a point perhaps that should not be overemphasized given the banality of much current political discourse. Along a related analytical pathway, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy (1997) make the point that the distinction between totalitarianism and democracy can sometimes be made too simple. It is true, they suggest, that ‘we do not have camps and our police … are not omnipresent political police’, but nothing guarantees that our democracy ‘is not in the process of secreting something else, a new form of totalitarianism’ (1997: 128).
We can suggest here that the visibility of the structures of democracy can conceal totalitarian undercurrents and at the same time this visibility offers a legitimation to those who want to defend the idea of the existence of an open and democratic polity as a continuing reality. In the 1950s, for example, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee launched a witch-hunt against a wide range of citizens who were accused of not being faithful to ‘American values’. This was a totalitarian initiative that unfolded within the structures of a democracy, being intimately interwoven with the international situation of superpower rivalry. The inside and outside were intertwined and a culture of containment permeated the arenas of both domestic politics and foreign policy. Interventions and invasiveness abroad were paralleled by the policing of difference and dissent at home. Here, a post-colonial perspective would encourage us to foreground not only the ‘totalitarian’ within the ‘democratic’ but also the imbrication of the internal and the external and the impossibility of understanding any western power as a self-contained entity.
Another example of the significant imbrication of the inside and the outside as well as the blindness that exists concerning the growth of counter-democratic trends can be illustrated from one of Fiske’s (1998) examples—that of ‘non-racist racism’. This, he contends, is a racism that has been developed by white-powered nations that avow themselves to be non-racist. In the United States this racism is recoded into ostensibly race-neutral discourses, such as those of economics, law, education and housing. Each of the social domains within which these discourses operate has racially differentiated effects for which the causes can always be made to appear non-racial. Indeed racism is illegal in most domains of US public life and many whites, Fiske goes on, profess to believe that racism is now a non-problem. Conversely, in black America there is a widespread knowledge that racism is waxing not waning, and clearly economic and educational indicators show that the gaps between white and black Americans are increasing not narrowing. This view finds an echo in Rae’s (1999) recent study, where he points to the development of a ‘segmental democracy’ with decisions made by and for relatively homogeneous populations in specific areas, and the emergence of sophisticated forms of discrimination in real-estate markets supplanting more vulgar practices made unlawful by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
The trends towards a diminishing of the openness required by democracy if it is to flourish are reflected in a variety of ways. Western democracies are far from being tyrannies, but the notion of a ‘totalitarian democracy’ does capture a disturbing trend whereby the institutions and formal arrangements of democratic rule may well remain in place but the participatory and empowering substance of those arrangements and mechanisms is being insidiously degraded. A recrudescence of racism, manifested in increased attacks on asylum seekers and ethnic minorities, and the attempts by democratically elected leaders to nurture a monoculture of political debate, supported by sections of the print media that consistently express xenophobic sentiments, both undermine key values on which the democratic process rests. A post-colonial view might seek to draw out the connections between the western undermining of democratic experiments abroad and the chilling of plurality and critical thought at home. There is too, especially visible in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, a resurfacing within the west of imperial sentiment and a reassertion of occidental supremacy. Both positions need to be continually confronted.
On the Politics of ‘The Beyond’
The title of this chapter invokes the need to go beyond Euro-Americanism, and suggests the potential relevance of a post-colonial perspective. The analytical scope clearly outstrips the confines of any chapter. All I have been able to do in these few pages is to alert the reader to some of the problems and challenges that we are all going to have to deal with in the future, and with far more rigour and attention.
One of the advantages of a crisis can be that the contours of debate are starkly clarified. Within the realm of the social sciences, Francis Fukuyama (2001), in a short intervention entitled ‘The West has Won’, gives expression to a virulent form of arrogance and ignorance that not only places the west at the heart of world civilizations, past, present and future, but at the same time denigrates the non-west and specifically Islamic civilization in a way that replicates the Hegel of the mid nineteenth century. In the domain of politics, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi asserts the supposed superiority of western civilization over all others and especially the Islamic world (see The Guardian, London, 3 October 2001, p. 18). There are of course many other examples of such views and my point here is to remind ourselves that a detailed and continuing critique of positions which proclaim the supremacy of the west remains vital, for scientific and political reasons.
In some ways it might be seen as natural, in confronting the above types of view, to proclaim the moral superiority of the non-west and the corruption and decadence of the west itself. We then have an unproductive exchange of different essentializations which can never lead to the kind of critical cross-cultural exchange and understanding that is so urgently needed. What is needed is the continual search for hybrid forms of knowledge and interpretation so that we avoid unhelpful essentializations and the economy of stereotype. In rethinking our views on the geographies of the cultural and the political, and in the specific context of the global and the democratic, the following three interconnected points strike me as being particularly relevant.
First, as one example, if we consider the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, we will find that the way the Zapatistas have conceptualized democracy does not flow out of the terminology of Euro-American political philsophy but rather emanates from Maya social organization, in which reciprocity, communal values and the validity of wisdom are seen as central. This does not mean that the Zapatistas have the ‘correct interpretation’, but rather that employing the term ‘democracy’ does not necessarily hold the Zapatistas to any one-dimensional interpretation. Instead when the term ‘democracy’ is deployed by the Zapatistas, it can become a connector through which liberal concepts of democracy and indigenous concepts of reciprocity and community can be related to each other in a process of respectful and critical dialogue. In this sense then the meanings of ‘democracy’ become hybridized, plural and culturally mixed, enriching our political vocabularies and enhancing our cross-cultural understanding.
Second, the significance of a broad cross-cultural understanding has implications within nation-states as well as across them. Thus, in the Bolivian case, where ethnic and cultural difference is such a crucial factor, the Bolivian anthropologist Rivera (1990) reminds us of the realities of ‘internal colonialism’. She argues that the ideal of equality has continued to be based on a western model of citizenship, where notions of being ‘modern’, ‘rational’ and ‘proprietary’ have prolonged a process of exclusion which is anchored in the colonial experience. Consequently, a genuinely democratic reform will have to contain some form of articulation between the direct democracy of the indigenous ayllu communities and the representative democracy of the nation-state as a whole. A key issue here is the conceptualization of citizenship in relation to a multicultural reality where the indigenous has been historically subjugated. Institutional reforms in this context also require profound changes in outlook and a ‘radical decolonization’ of Bolivia’s social and political structures. The question of decolonization relates not only to ‘structures’ but also to imaginations and, as Rivera indicates for Bolivia, profound changes of outlook are required if new forms of hybrid democracy can emerge—forms which will have the support of the majority of the population in a society increasingly riven by political turmoil.
Finally, and centrally, radical changes in outlook are also needed to think through the relevance of non-western forms of democratic practice. Notions of reciprocity in the sharing of resources, communal values and redistribution, cooperative forms of labour, the preservation of fragile environments and the prioritization of ethical values which elevate wisdom over epistemology, exemplify some aspects of indigenous approaches to democratic organization.
Reciprocity also has to be rooted in recognition and respect, and one of the key problems we face in the west is to find ways of expanding our geographies of reference and learning so we do not reproduce the arrogance and ignorance of self-contained visions of superiority. This does not mean that the meaning of the west begins and ends with such visions. Differences and struggles within are a key part of the continuing dynamic within both west and non-west and in their inescapable encounters. Going beyond the veil of Euro-Americanism is a continuing struggle itself and one that assumes increasing urgency in our contemporary world.