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«STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Stanford, California 1986 Modern Latin American Historiography and the Labor Movement Twentieth-century Latin American ...»

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Charles Bergquist


Comparative Essays on Chile, Argentina,

Venezuela, and Colombia


Stanford, California 1986

Modern Latin American

Historiography and the Labor


Twentieth-century Latin American historiography suffers from two

very grave deficiencies. It has failed to recognize the decisive historical

role of organized labor and the labor movement in the evolution of the societies of the region. And it has failed to account for the very different ideological and political trajectories of the various Latin American labor movements—Marxist in some countries; neo-fascist in at least one; liberal, until now, in several others. Both of these deficiencies have a common root: neglect of the full social implications of the ways Latin American economies were integrated into an evolving world capitalist system in the century after 1880. After that date, the maturation of the industrial societies of the North Atlantic Basin created the enormous capital and technological resources, and internal social and political imperatives, that propelled a massive export of European capital to the rest of the world.

In Latin America, elite social groups took advantage of these conditions to transform their own societies. One by one, Latin American nations came to specialize in the production of one or more primary commodities for export.

Latin American humanists and anthropologists writing in the 1930's were the first scholars to recognize and evaluate the importance of this export-oriented transformation. But it was structural economists, associated with the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America, who most thoroughly explored its implications for what they called the dependent (or reactive) economic development of the region. In the decades following the Second World War they constructed systematic typologies of export economies and brilliantly traced the implications of each for national economic development in the Latin American periphery of an evolving world capitalist system. Meanwhile, other Latin American social scientists and historians explored the social, political, and culHistoriography and the Labor Movement tural dimensions of the region's economic transformation. All of this work, however, curiously neglected the role of organized labor and the labor movement. 1 This failing seems especially surprising given the march of historical events in the region in the postwar period. The once seemingly c o m m o n sensical argument that industrial workers were relatively unimportant in societies whose main function in the modern world was to produce primary commodities for export lost its logical appeal after 1945. T h e major Latin American nations emerged from the crisis of world depression and war with rapidly industrializing economies and relatively powerful organized labor movements. In subsequent decades they became primary recipients of foreign manufacturing investment in the underdeveloped world. Yet even as the manufacturing sector in these economies came to overshadow the primary sector, most Latin American scholars insisted that industrial workers were an insignificant force for historical change in the region. Such workers, they argued, were a favored group in national labor markets. Winners a m o n g a surplus of urban workers competing for a small and very slowly expanding n u m b e r of jobs in capital-intensive manufacturing industry, industrial workers were a politically conservative and socially conformist labor aristocracy. This notion was developed systematically by Latin Americanists in the 1960's2 and persisted well into the 1970's. It was confirmed by the bulk of contributors to a major review of Latin American labor studies published in 1977. 3 By that time the most developed societies of the region were manifestly in crisis. Rapid industrialization, under the aegis of foreign capital, entailed the progressive denationalization of domestic manufacturing industry, along with an increased dependence on imported capital-intensive

1. The most important of the works by these humanistic social scientists is the brilliant essay by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (New York, 1947), originally published in 1940. Mature statements by the Latin American structural economists are Celso Furtado, The Economic Development of Latin America (Cambridge, Eng., 1970), and Osvaldo Sunkel, with the collaboration of Pedro Paz, El subdesarrollo y la teoria del desarrollo (Mexico City, 1971). The most important of the other works referred to are Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Falleto, Dependency and Development in Latin America (Berkeley, Calif, 1979), originally published in 1969, and Tulio Halperin Donghi, Historia contempordnea de America Latina (Madrid, 1970).

2. Influential formulations of this position are a pair of books edited by Claudio Velez, Obstacles to Change in Latin America (London, 1965), and The Politics of Conformity in Latin America (London, 1967), and the contributions of Henry Landsburger, especially "The Labor Elite: Is It Revolutionary?," in Seymour Martin Lipset and Aldo Solari, eds., Elites in Latin America (London, 1967). Exceptions to the rule are the works of Robert Alexander.

Writing from a liberal, anti-Communist perspective, he consistently stresses the importance of organized labor on the modern historical development of the region.

3. Ruben Katzman and Jose Luis Reyna, eds., Fuerza de trabajo y movimientos laborales en America Latina (Mexico City, 1977). Exceptions to this generalization are the notable contributions to the volume by Elizabeth Jelin, Silvia Sigal, and Juan Carlos Torre. Their work pointed in the direction of the reassessment discussed below.

Historiography and the Labor Movement 3 technology and machinery and on expanded imports of industrial raw materials and fuel. It quickly created serious balance-of-trade difficulties and chronic inflationary pressures. Governments relied on large-scale international b o r r o w i n g to overcome these problems and to build the economic infrastructure vital to industrial expansion. Then, as they were required to meet stiffer and stiffer conditions for the renegotiation and expansion of these loans, they adopted austerity measures that were designed to be borne primarily by the w o r k i n g class.

That solution—the one most attractive to domestic capitalists as well— gradually drove the w o r k i n g class into opposition to the state, revitalized the left, and, in the open political systems typical of the major Latin American nations in the early postwar period, stymied the effectiveness of the austerity programs. Far from surmounting the problems posed by industrialization, the new strictures soon threatened the very viability of the whole process of economic expansion, and led progressively to the breakdown of open political systems, to a massive repression of organized labor and the left, and eventually to a partial abandonment of the drive toward industrialization itself. This process was discernible as early as the mid-1950's and ran its course in the relatively more advanced societies of the Southern Cone and Brazil in the 1960's and early 1970's. By the mid-1980's it was threatening to envelop the political systems of such other major countries as Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. 4 The w o r k i n g class was thus manifestly at the very center of the crisis of postwar Latin American economic and political development. Yet so broad was the consensus over the relative unimportance and the conservative nature of organized labor among scholars of Latin America that for a long time they focused their efforts to explain what was happening everywhere but on the w o r k i n g class. Outstanding contributions e x a m ined the economic imperatives of " d e e p e n i n g " capitalist industrialization, and stressed the role models of middle-class and technocratic groups. 5 O t h e r scholars explored the dynamics of corporativism and the state, or sought explanations of the crisis in the cultural and institutional legacy of Iberian colonialism. 6 These contributions were important, and the best of them recognized the significance of organized labor to their analysis. N o n e of them, however, focused attention theoretically and empirically on labor itself. O n e book that did, a major reinterpretation of

4. A fine analysis and summary ot the literature dealing with this process and its implications for organized labor is Paul W. Drake's unpublished manuscript, "Journeys Toward Failure? Political Parties and Labor Movements Under Authoritarian Regimes in the Southern Cone and Brazil, 1964-83" (1983).

5. Guillermo O'Donnell, Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism (Berkeley, Calif., 1973).

6. A handy overview of this work is James Malloy, ed., Authoritarianism and Corporativism in Latin America (Pittsburgh, 1977).

Historiography and the Labor Movement the labor history of the region published in 1977, concluded that organized labor's role in the modern history of Latin America was a limited one indeed. 7 T h e reasons for this lag between historical developments and social science theory are in themselves w o r t h y of investigation. Did it reflect the sociology of Latin American social science, the increasingly repressive conditions for research in Latin America, the priorities of funding agencies, or the weight and prestige of theory and research agendas constructed in the developed world?

This last proposition appears to have been especially important. To a generation of scholars in the developed West writing in the decades following the Second World War, the weakness and unimportance of organized labor seemed a plausible supposition. After the war, combative Marxist-led labor movements that had been strengthened all over the West during a decade and a half of crisis in the world order were quickly contained. In country after country labor unions were transformed into relatively docile, compliant, bureaucratic organizations that were fully integrated, under the watchful regulatory eye of the state, into the legal and political life of their respective societies. The success of this general capitalist offensive against organized labor owed much to the outright repression of the political left, to the skillful manipulation of the issue of nationalism as the rivalry between the major capitalist and socialist wartime allies degenerated into the Cold War, and to the h e g e m o n y of liberal cultural values and ideology in the postwar West. 8 Most fundamental to the success of this offensive, however, and the key to the durability of its results was a historic compromise between labor and capital. T h e terms of that compromise are n o w well known, even if the importance of its long-term implications has yet to be fully c o m prehended. Capital, in principle, recognized the right of workers to organize, to bargain collectively, and to strike for higher returns for their labor. Organized labor, for its part, either explicitly (as in the United

7. Hobart Spalding, Organized Labor in Latin America (New York, 1977). The best and most recent survey of Latin American labor history, Spalding's work differs fundamentally from the approach pursued in this volume. It emphasizes how changing external, international ties affect the common experience of the labor movements of the region, as against my stress on the meaning for labor of the internal dynamics of Latin American societies. It focuses on the relative cohesiveness of the ruling class rather than on the experience of workers in explaining the differences in the various Latin American labor movements. Most importantly, it stresses the relative lack of labor influence on national history, whereas I argue for its decisive importance.

8. The restoration of liberal cultural hegemony after the war was a direct result of the outcome of the fighting, which left the liberal capitalist powers victorious. But it was achieved only through philosophical and social concessions to domestic popular forces spawned during the world crisis that Karl Polanyi identified in The Great Transformation (1944). The most important of those was the compromise with organized labor discussed below. As with the labor initiatives, the contradictions within all of the social institutions of the capitalist welfare state have now become manifest, their future uncertain.

Historiography and the Labor Movement j States and much of Latin America) or implicitly (as in Western Europe and parts of Latin America) renounced the goal of socialist transformation, and acquiesced to the capitalist logic of perpetual revolution in the forces of production. In particular, labor gave ground on the issue of control in the workplace in exchange for a major share of productivity gains.

Capital thus eliminated the principal immediate obstacle to economic expansion in the postwar era. It tamed powerful, disruptive organized labor movements that threatened to undermine the process of capitalist accumulation. In effect, capital turned organized labor into a partner. U n i o n s joined management in disciplining the w o r k force and in regularizing and containing industrial conflict. In exchange, organized workers preserved their unions and watched their real wages and material benefits rise.' This historic compromise has structured much of the subsequent history of the world capitalist system. H o w it did so is still very imperfectly understood. But that it has had enormous economic, social, political, and intellectual implications—each manifested differently over time in the various parts of the world system—is n o w apparent.

The viability of the postwar compromise between capital and labor in the West depended on the continual expansion of capitalism, both on a world scale and in all the separate societies where the compromise was effected. T h e first condition, expansion of the system as a whole, was met spectacularly over the course of the next three decades. Success in meeting the first condition, however, inevitably compromised achievement of the second. T h e economic implications of capital's c o m m i t m e n t to organized labor in developed, high-wage societies forced it to shift the base of its productive operations to lower-wage economies abroad. 10 T h e effects of this process, which ultimately undermined both economic

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