The Paradox of the Void at the End of Hegemony: on Maristella Svampa’s Debates Latinoamericanos: Indianismo, desarrollo, dependencia, y populismo. Notes from Presentation & Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. By Gerardo Muñoz.

debateslat2017Maristella Svampa’s most recent book Debates Latinoamericanos: Indianismo, desarollo, dependencia, y populismo (Edhasa 2016) is truly a significant book. It is the result of more than a decade of archival research and theoretical elaboration, with deep implications in the sociological and political scholarship of the region. In a recent workshop held at the University of Pennsylvania this week, Prof. Tulia Falletti referred to Svampa after the publication of Debates Latinoamericanos and Maldesarrollo (2014) as a “new Guillermo O’Donnell” given the long-lasting impact that her systematic work will produce for so many fields of investigation both in the United States and in Latin America. Framed through four competing analytical problems – indigeneity, development, dependency theory, and the Latin American populist tradition – Debates Latinoamericanos engages and assesses the limits of the political reflection of the region in the last half a century. Furthermore, the book is beneficial for both specialists and students, since it covers a large bulk of historiographical debates in a polemical fashion. And I say polemical here not just in terms of its heterodoxy, but also in terms of a polemos relief that moves thought forward, inviting further reflection and contestation.

In the space of a brief commentary on the book, I cannot attempt the impossible, and offer an substantial summary of such a massive book. Rather, I want to take this opportunity to advance some of the questions that we juggled a few days ago when I presented this book in a workshop. I also want to have in mind Maristella Svampa’s brilliant keynote on populism and the end of the Latin American Progressive Cycle, which she delivered the day after and that was linked to relevant problems elaborated in the book [1].

Svampa writes Debates Latinoamericanos facing the ruinous space of the political in the Latin American tradition. But what and where is the origin of this catastrophe? To what extent can we offer a counter-imperial explanation for imperial domination against a marginalized locality in the world system of modern capitalism? Svampa does not say that the counter-imperial position is insufficient as a model to explain internal expropriation and continuous democratic deficit, but she runs a scan through the different four paradigms that shed light to what is, certainly, the meaty question of Latin American political reason: why has there not been democratic legitimacy in the region for the last two hundred years? I want to pause briefly in a moment that seems to provide a good starting point for conversation, and that I think should be cited at length:

“En ambos países [Argentina y Chile] el espacio ocupado por los indígenas era visto como “desierto”, “espacio vacío”, o para utilizar libremente la imagen de David Viñas, como la “contradicción de lo vacío que debe ser llenado” (1981:73). En Argentina, la metáfora del desierto creaba así una determinada idea de la nación, que tanto había obsesionado a la Generación del 37: más que una nación para el desierto, se trata a de construir un desierto que justificara la expansión de la nación. En Argentina, la expansión del capitalismo agrario y la consolidación del Estado nacional (mediante la estrategia de control territorial y afirmación de la frontera con Chile), se realizaría a través de la violencia genocida contra las poblaciones originarias en diferentes campañas militares, en la Patagonia y en el norte del país, entre 1870 y 1885. Dicha violencia tuvo un efecto demoledor sobre los diferentes pueblos indígenas.” (Svampa 43)

At first sight, it could well be that this passage is just a strict gloss of Tulio Halperin Donghi’s Un nación para el desierto argentino (1989) juxtaposed with David Viñas ’ Indios, Ejercito, y Frontera (1983). But I want to suggest that Svampa is doing something else here too. Whereas for Halperin Donghi the Dessert Campaign commanded by General Roca was the consolidation and crowning of the national state, for Svampa it marks the void at the center and origin of the political in Argentina. The extermination of the indigenous population as a form of ongoing originary accumulation, to say it with John Kranaiuskas, is what is common to the historical development in neoliberal times. But I do not think that Svampa is in agreement with David Viñas’ thesis either. According to Viñas’ narrative, the military defeat of the indigenous community is equivalent, a mere repetition, to the desaparecidos of the military dictatorship during 1976-1983. This repetition points to an originary and symmetrical violence that must be overcome by revolution. As I have studied in my work on Viñas, this critique of historicism of the Argentine state remains within the horizon of revolutionary violence as transcendental excess for liberation [2].

Svampa seems to tell us that this paradox or contradiction at the void makes us aware of a different problem, but also of an alternate reasoning beyond national consolidation and subjective militant liberation. A few pages after this moment, Svampa writes: “Cierto es que la “invisibilización no los borró por completo, sino que los transformó en una presencia no-visible latente y culturalmente constitutiva de formas hegemónicas de la nacionalidad”. Tan hegemónico ha sido el dispositivo fundamental en la representación de la Argentina como nación que muchos argentinos que se lamentaron de la brutalidad de la Campaña del Desierto, incorporaron el dispositivo invisiblizador, contribuyendo a reproducir la idea de que lo indígena ya no es parte de la nación” (Svampa 45). This is telling for a number of reasons. But I mainly want to suggest that the paradox of the void is integral to the labor of hegemony, both as an apparatus of exclusion, but also in its function as a spectral and residual transport.

Whereas both Halperin and Viñas, one from the side of Liberalism and the other from Sartrean Marxism, subscribe a hegemonic closure of history, Svampa’s paradox of the void concerns the very articulation of hegemony as what is installed as the central problem of accounting for the democratic deficit of the region as well as for the exceptional and fissure legitimacy of sovereignty. It is in this way that documents as important as Alberdi’s axiomatic principle of “gobernar es poblar”, Rodolfo Walsh’s “Carta Abierta a la Junta Militar”, or even Ernesto Laclau’s theory of the empty signifier of populist theory, are just different variations the same problem; that is, heterogeneous ways of coming to terms with the paradox of the void, but only to legislate the time of its ruin. What is Laclau’s theory of hegemony if not the assumption that there is a void, but only to the extent that we must find an equivalent filling to constrain the cavity that is constitutive of its origin? Take, for instance, what Laclau says in a moment of his posthumous The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (2014):

“”…the precise relationship between ’empty’ and ‘floating’ signifiers – two terms that have had a considerable currency in contemporary semiotic and post-structuralist literature. In the case of a floating signifier…while an empty signifier on the contrary, would ultimately be a signifier would a signified. All this leads to an inevitable conclusion: understanding the workings of the ideological within the field of collective representations is synonymous with understanding this logic of simplification of the social field that we have called ‘equivalence’.” [3]

In her talk on the end of the Latin American Progressive Cycle, Svampa mentioned three analytical models of populism. First, there is the weak version associated with Loris Zanatta’s analysis which obstinately, and in my opinion erroneously, conflates populism and theological irrationalism. This allows for outrageous comparisons, such as that of Eva Perón with Marie Le Pen, or even Juan Domingo Perón with Trump or Eastern European fascism. Secondly, there is Laclau’s model as first elaborated in his early Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1977) and later in his On Populist Reason (2002), which tried to advance a coterminous elaboration of hegemony theory with the political vis-à-vis discourse theory and lacanian topologies. Third, is the sociology of populism, which Svampa inscribes herself, in particular elaborated in her book La plaza vacía: las transformaciones del peronismo (1997). This model is also shared by political scientists such as Margarita Lopez Maya, Carlos de la Torre, and in a different way with Benjamin Arditi. This third option is what Svampa offered as a model of “ambivalent populism”, which is in constant struggle with the problem of democracy. But just like the label suggests, ambivalent populism remains just that: ambivalent, which amounts to an impasse and limit. Can we move beyond it?

I read Debates Latinoamericanos as a timely opportunity to pose this problem, and think further. In response to my question about the possibility of a democratic populism without hegemonic closure and charismatic leadership, Svampa mentioned that in Latin America there has been only populisms of hegemony and nothing else. It is also clear that in Latinamericanist reflection, the narrative has been thoroughly populist, but only disguised as “cultural studies”, which was argued already late nineties by Jon Beasley-Murray. It is time to move beyond hegemony theory, in particular if it has proven catastrophic in short and long terms across the political spectrum. Populism with hegemony cannot fly very high, and there is no need to carry heavy burdens of a time long gone [3]. It is time to abandon it. If times have changed, and the composition of the national popular or integral state is no longer the main restraint of politics in the external global networks or even in the internal expansion of the administrative law, it only makes sense that we move towards a demotic populism for posthegemonic times.

This displacement will make a crucial difference between, on one hand, a posthegemonic populist experiment, and on the other a reactionary populism. Whereas right-wing charismatic leaders such as Le Pen or Petry promise a popular nationalism, they do so on the (false) premise that something other than factual globalization is still possible and better. The same could be argued in terms of the rule of law. According to Bruce Ackerman, there are moments of popular expansion of unmet social demands, and there are reactionary constitutional moments that restrain or betray these goals (take the Shelby County vs. Holder case of 2013 decided by the Roberts Court against the constitutionality of two key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965) [5]. Neither delinking from the global economy nor a remote imperial past is desirable as the political fate for millions of citizens and social communities of the West. Such a demand, if called upon, could only be part of a decolonial neo-imperial fantasy. On the reserve of reaction, we could think about Errejón’s important political program “Recuparar la Ilusión”: here we have a great populist proposal that is based neither on charismatic presidentialism, nor in delinking from the Eurozone. Errejón openly sketches a program based on democratic transversality and European integration. In fact, the defeat of Errejón in the Second Congress held in Vistalegre earlier this year was a political catastrophe for those hoping for democratic revival in the European zone.

But we can also look at the so-called emergence of the Right in Latin America. Svampa correctly pointed out that Mauricio Macri’s government has not defunded the main welfare programs of the state during kirchnerismo. This is consistent with Pablo Stefanoni’s hypothesis a couple of years before the meltdown of the progressive cycle, that suggested that after a decade out of power, the Right might have learned to move around the structures of the state in tandem with global multinationals, avoiding the conditions of possibility that early in the millennium, led to the overthrow of several presidents in Argentina, and to the political rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela [6]. In a strange way, the Right knows better than anyone that the situation is no longer that of the 30’s or 40’s (or even the 90’s!), and that in order to foster new and stealth forms of domination, there is a need for constant adjustment. It is time for the Left to also learn from its mistakes if it wants to avoid the pendulum movement that bestows the dismantling of the social gains of the regulatory state in a time of decentralized administrations. Thus, it is not exaggerated or immodest to say that only by affirming a posthegemonic politics does a new progressive project have the capability for a democratic reinvention in Latin America, and across Europe where the future is even gloomier.





  1. Maristella Svampa. “Latin American Populisms at the End of the Progressive Cycle”. Talk given at the University of Pennsylvania, April 5, 2017.
  2. See my “Gloria y revolución en David Viñas: sobre “Sábado de Gloria en la Capital (Socialista) de América Latina”. La Habana Elegante, Mayo de 2012. . Also, John Kraniauskas, “Gobernar es repoblar: sobre la acumulación originaria neoliberal” (2003).
  3. Ernesto Laclau. “The Death and Resurrection of the Theory of Ideology”, in The Rhetorical Foundations of Society. London: Verso, 2014.
  4. The idea of hegemony as heavy weight that leads to disaster has been recently posed by Moreiras when reading Podemos in Spain, See, Alberto Moreiras. “The Populist Debate in Spain after 20-D”.
  5. Bruce Ackerman. “Reactionary Constitutional Moments: Further Thoughts on The Civil Rights Revolution”. Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies (2016) 13: 47-58.
  6. Pablo Stefanoni. “La lulización de la izquierda latinoamericana”.

*This a commentary related to a two-day discussion with Maristella Svampa that took place at the University of Pennsylvania, April 4-5, 2017. The two events were organized by the Latino and Latin American Program & Political Science Dept. This is a work in progress for a forthcoming publication [DNC].


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