Rethinking Community from Peru

[Crossposted from Posthegemony.]


What kind of political philosophy should one expect of a novelist? Irina Feldman’s fascinating Rethinking Community from Peru: The Political Philosophy of José María Arguedas prompts this question, as it proposes to present us with the political philosophy of José María Arguedas, the Peruvian author of Los ríos profundos, Todas las sangres, and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (among much else). Her starting point is the (in)famous 1965 Mesa Redonda sobre Todas las Sangres, in which (as she explains) Arguedas’s vision of Peruvian society was “severely questioned by a group of progressive scholars” (p. 3). His interlocutors felt that Arguedas had spurned class analysis in favor of an atavistic (if not reactionary) attachment to indigenous cultural forms such as the ayllu. For Feldman, what they missed was that Arguedas saw in such forms “an alternative project of community” that might carry over to a socialist society. But the more fundamental problem with this discussion was that the social scientists reading the novel had overlooked the fact that ultimately it was literary artifact, not sociological analysis. And to some extent Feldman replicates that mistake in seeking to squeeze a full-flown “political philosophy” from Arguedas’s fiction.

The bulk of this book is a reading of Todas las sangres highlighting the failures of the Peruvian state to achieve anything like hegemony in the highlands. What we see instead, we are told, is something more akin to what Ranajit Guha terms “dominance without hegemony” (p. 85). But in fact, in the Andes the state is not even dominant. As Feldman shows, Arguedas’s novel documents at least three other competing powers: the traditional hacendado system of large landowners with quasi-divine authority over “their” Indians; the indigenous ayllu, with its rotating leadership of varayok’s; and the forces of multinational capital, represented here by the Wisther-Bozart mining consortium. And though the haciendas are in decline–also, if more arguably so, the ayllu–the pressures of capital investment and resource extraction are such that the state can hardly carve out space to institute a liberal civil society, even if it wanted to do so.

Arguedas has a surprisingly positive view of the landowning class, perhaps because–like the varayok’s–they manifest the “solid bodily presence of the figure of authority” in contrast to the absent, “ghostly state” (p. 33). Hence the novel presents us with Don Bruno, a landowner who mobilizes his authority on the Indians’ behalf. But he can do so only by means of a self-sacrifice that destroys any chance of an effective alliance with the indigenous, and that further undercuts the state’s claims to sovereignty, rendering ordinary people all the more defenseless in the face of the mining corporations.

The saving grace of Andean culture, Feldman tells us, is its refusal to grant a “negative connotation” to physical labor, enabling “the indigenous serfs [to] escape the process of alienation” thanks to “the ritual appropriation of work in the mine [. . .] which signals a possibility of symbolic appropriation of the means of production” (p. 116). It is not clear, however, how much the real owners of the means of production are concerned about such symbolic reappropriation, so long as the workers continue to do their jobs without grumbling. In other words: is this not the most minimal, even self-defeating, revolution imaginable? Yet this is a phenomenon that Arguedas repeatedly depicts in his novels, from the communal road-building in Yawar Fiesta to the procession demanding a Catholic mass in Los ríos profundos: even in hegemony’s absence, the indigenous continue to struggle for their own servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation.

This may indeed be (as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest) the fundamental problem of political philosophy, but it is not clear that Arguedas grasps it as such. Should he? I am unconvinced that Arguedas ever satisfactorily rethinks the concept of community. His work is more symptom than solution, and if anything its weakness is that too often he does think like a social scientist, not least in his anguished concern for a Peruvian national project. The fact that Feldman’s examples of an Arguedan “political philosophy” in action all come from Bolivia, not Peru, shows the error of taking the nation-state as political horizon. More fundamentally, rather than trying to extract a political project from Arguedas’s fiction, it is more rewarding to see it as among the best mappings of Andean infrapolitics; that is, as an exploration of the conditions of possibility (and impossibility) of politics tout court.


3 thoughts on “Rethinking Community from Peru

  1. Pingback: Rethinking Community from Peru | Posthegemony

  2. Could one say that Arguedas is read within the contemporary Bolivian horizon of communitarian or communal socialism? Any intersection with AGL?

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