If there is a guiding principle to Latin American postcoloniality, it is surely that which is encapsulated in Juan Bautista Alberdi’s famous phrase, “Gobernar es Poblar”: “To Govern is to Populate.” As the Argentine jurist put it in Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina, a book which outlines the structure of a future constitution of the country, the point of this maxim is to ensure that the constitution is not empty: “What name would you give a country, or what name would it deserve, if it comprised two-hundred thousand leagues of territory and eight-hundred thousand inhabitants? A desert. And what name would you give to the Constitution of such a country? The Constitution of a desert. Well, that country is the Argentine Republic, and whatever its Constitution may be, for years it will be nothing more than the Constitution of a desert” (525-526) Hence the exhortation to immigration, and not just any immigration, as Alberdi was at pains to explain even years later: “To populate is to enrich when you people the country with folk who know what they are doing when it comes to industry and who are accustomed to work that is productive and enriching. To populate is to civilize when you people the country with civilized folk, that is, with settlers from civilized Europe. That is why I have said in the Constitution that the government should encourage European immigration. But to populate is not to civilize, indeed instead it leads to brutishness, when one peoples the country with Chinese or Indians from Asia, or with blacks from Africa” (“Gobernar es Poblar” 271). Population has a qualitative aspect, as well as a quantitative one. It matters who or what constitutes the population, who or what gives flesh or life to the constitution.
In the first place, Alberdi’s remarks indicate clearly that at least from the standpoint of those who charged themselves with envisaging the constitution of the new Republics that resulted from independence from Spain, Latin American postcoloniality involved less the region’s decolonization than its recolonization. Argentina, Alberdi tells us, has still yet to be properly colonized; it needs to be colonized again, but now on the North American model, rather than along Spanish lines. Settler colonialism was to replace administrative hierarchy, wiping out the rigid division between a ruling caste on the one hand, whose roots were not truly in the country, and a vulgar mass on the other hand, who lacked all social or political responsibility. For in the second place, it is clear also that the act of population, for Alberdi, also implied the process of forming a people. “Gobernar es poblar” could equally be translated as meaning “To govern is to construct a people.” Only the presence of a people would ensure that the new republic’s constituted power was more than mere facade, deserted and empty.
And so the history of Latin American populism begins: as the injunction to construct a people that would give life to the otherwise hollow institutions of the new Republic. The people are never separate from constituted power; indeed, it is the architects of the constitution who dream them up and call them forth to take their (supposedly) rightful place. The problem, of course, is that the region is hardly in fact unpopulated. Nobody believes for instance that Argentina is truly a desert, truly devoid of population: Domingo Sarmiento would provide, in Facundo, what is in some surprising ways a remarkably sensitive anthropological account of at least some of the human settlement that already occupied the Argentine pampa, the uncivilized and (quite literally) unsettling gaucho who were an obstacle to true settlement, proper settler colonialism. The fiction of a terra nullius is always self-consciously just that: a fiction. And elsewhere in Latin America (Mexico, Peru, and so on), the notion that the territory was mere “desert” was always much more untenable still. The problem was that the population was not yet a people, no more than Asian or African immigrants could ever (in Alberdi and others’ eyes) constitute a people and redeem the deserted constitution. The pre-existing population of Latin America were, rather, variously an unformed mass, barbarous hordes, or recalcitrant and atavistic Indians whose principle of (dis)organization did not fit easily with the political organization imagined for the postcolonial settlement. So the history of Latin American populism is not merely that of calling forth a people to flesh out the constitution: in recolonizing the territory, claiming it back in the name of the new Republics, the framers of political order would also have to deal with the multitude that always already precedes them.
The basic trope of populist rhetoric invokes what is apparently a primordial social division. Indeed, as Yves Mény and Yves Surel indicate, we can define populism precisely by its rhetorical maneuvers: first, it demarcates a fundamental cleavage between “the top and the bottom, the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled,” in short, between “the good, wide, and simple people” and “the corrupt, incompetent, and interlocking elites”; second, “elites are accused of abusing their position of power instead of acting in conformity with the interests of the people as a whole”; and third, populism then insists that “the primacy of the people has to be restored.” Direct democracy is encouraged: “The ideal populist political system comes close, at least on paper, to a ‘pure’ democratic regime where the people are given the first and final word” (Mény and Surel, 12, 13). So populism combines: a framework of an overriding distinction between people and elite; an analysis that presents this distinction as antagonism rather than mere difference; and a gesture of solidarity with the people, against the elite. And yet we will never fully understand the populist impulse if, like so many and not least Ernesto Laclau in his celebrated analysis, we are content simply to trace its rhetorical gestures, its apparent antagonisms and solidarities. For populism is, in the end, the attempt to construct political unity by positing the people as the basis of political legitimacy, and therefore by displacing or conjuring away a pre-existing multitude. The populist sleight of hand consists in recasting the multitude as people while at the same time presenting itself as somehow anti-institutional and progressive; in short by appropriating and converting constituent into constituted power.
And this, ultimately, is the history of Latin American postcoloniality, which is therefore fundamentally structured by populism even in those periods or places where populist movements are in abeyance, seem not to have the upper hand, or even appear to be definitively absent. From the nineteenth century to the present, with rare exceptions (and the neoliberal period of the 1980s and 1990s may arguably be one of those), governance in Latin America has involved the projection of unity in the face of the legacy of a Spanish colonial regime that had always been content (not least in its division between creole and Indian republics) to live with difference and duality if not multiplicity. Latin American postcoloniality has been an attempt to undo the basic structures of Spanish imperialism while preserving its constituent institutions (as well, of course, as its class and racial privileges) by recasting them along North American lines as somehow by (if not for) the people. To this end, it has projected a whole series of spurious hegemonies of integration, mestizaje, development, and so on, of which classical populism has merely been the most successful (perhaps because it was its purest incarnation) if only at the same time its most miserable failure. For the rock on which this project has founded has been the continual insistence of the multitude, the fact that the dream of a wholesale neocolonial resettlement could only ever be wishful thinking. The multitude has ensured that constituted power in postcolonial times has remained unsettled, hollow and deserted.
Alberdi, Juan Bautista. Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina. Obras completas. Vol. 3. Buenos Aires: La Tribuna Nacional, 1886. 371-558.
—–. “Gobernar es Poblar.” Escritos póstumos de J. B. Alberdi. Vol. 8: América. Buenos Aires: Cruz Hermanos, 1899. 266-276.
Mény, Yves, and Yves Surel. “The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism.” Democracies and the Populist Challenge. Ed. Yves Mény and Yves Surel. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. 1-21.