Blueprint for Revolution

Blueprint for Revolution

Srdja Popovic was a leader of the Serbian youth movement Otpor!, which organized non-violent opposition to President Slobodan Milošević in the late 1990s. Otpor! was, by all accounts (not least Popovic’s own), remarkably successful: less than two years after the group was formed, and in the wake of the Kosovo war and NATO airstrikes, Milošević was overthrown amid mass demonstrations and at the cost of surprisingly few casualties. After a brief foray into parliamentary politics, Popovic helped to found the Belgrade-based Centre for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies, a kind of consultancy for non-violent activism that has advised activists from Egypt, Venezuela, Syria, the Maldives, and elsewhere. Now, with Blueprint for Revolution, he offers us all the lessons he’s drawn from a decade and a half of global protest, from Burma to Yemen, Occupy to the Arab Spring. For as he repeatedly tells us, the principles he proposes “are universal, and they apply no matter who you are and what your problems may be” (244). You, too, he insists, can overthrow a dictatorship and even (or “simply,” as the book’s subtitle has it) change the world.

The book is presented, then, very much as a popular and practical guide. Popovic makes no pretence to be a deep thinker or theorist, and his style is resolutely jocular, sometimes gratingly so. His stress is as much on style as on substance: the very first step for a would-be revolutionary, he tells us, is to come up with a decent logo; as he says of Otpor!, “branding was important to us” (7). And branding is important because protest has to be presented as “cool,” even “sexy.” Popovic reports that Otpor! was so successful at crafting a hip image for revolt that their “little demonstrations became the hottest parties in town” (10). So in line with this dictum, Popovic’s own style (and let’s pass over the presence of a ghost writer, Matthew Miller) is all about being down with the kids. Almost embarrassingly so, though he saves himself by recognizing that at his age he’s probably not as cool as he once was, and by self-deprecatingly acknowledging that ultimately he was never really all that cool anyway. After all, as he repeatedly tells us, he’s a huge fan of Lord of the Rings. So the key is to be hip, but not too hip. Because you don’t want to scare people away. You need to appeal to the broadest cross-section of society possible.

For Popovic is unabashedly populist. And though he doesn’t use the term (which might smack too much of alienating theoreticism), he provides perhaps the best practical definition of populism I have seen:

Take a piece of paper–even a napkin can do the job–and draw a line. Mark yourself on one side of it, and then try to think who could stand together with you. If the answer is just a few people, start over–no matter how committed you are to a cause, or how troubled you are by a problem–and try again. When you’ve managed to place yourself and your friends and just about the rest of the world on one side of the line and a handful of evil bastards on the other, you’ve won. (52)

What this means is the specifics are almost always beside the point. Who cares what the issue is, so long as you can draw that line, construct a “people” in opposition to an evil elite? It might (as in the examples he provides) be a rallying call for cheaper salt (Gandhi) or less dog shit on the streets (Harvey Milk). But then what if the cause that unites people on your side of the line is opposition to immigrants or (Heaven help us) a crackdown on separatism in a breakaway republic? As with all populists, Popovic has little if any means to distinguish between different forms of populism; he’d be at a loss, for instance, if he had to justify supporting Sanders over Trump.

To put this another way: this is a book that’s for revolution, but against politics, “because politics is boring, and we wanted everything to be fun” (11). And in the end, in part because of this, it’s not clear how very revolutionary it is, either. Popovic tells us that a successful movement for social change has to have a vision, because “it’s never enough just to throw a party” (67). But it turns out that the vision that Otpor! had for Serbia was more backward-looking than progressive: “We just wanted a normal country with cool music. That’s it. We wanted a Serbia that was open to the world, as it had been under Tito” (70). For under Tito, Yugoslavia’s official record label had provided young Yugoslavs a steady diet of “the Beatles, David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Whitesnake, and Deep Purple. Growing up in the 1980s, my friends and I barely felt the yoke of dictatorship, busy as we were with great music from around the world” (69). Indeed, if there’s anything revolutionary in Popovic’s proposals, it is a revolution against politics. It’s a call for more bread and (especially) more circuses, more Heavy Metal. It’s a plea for the return of hegemony, or at least its simulacrum, as nostalgically remembered in an idealized childhood homeland that no longer exists.

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

postcoloniality

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.

works cited

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.

posthegemony

The University of Minnesota Press asked me to write a brief entry that would be a sort of “introduction to Posthegemony” and that would ideally touch on current events. This should soon appear on the Press’s blog, too.

How do we explain the success of the “Tea Party” movement within the US Republican party?

Its supporters claim that it is very simple: the American people, they argue, are fed up with unwanted government intrusion in their lives and the slide to socialism (or something like it) under the presidency of Barack Obama. The “Tea Party Patriots”, for instance, address the “Citizens of our Nation” who “were disgusted that your government ignored your will so egregiously.”

Or in the words of of the founder of “Regular Folks United: The Bully Pulpit for Regular Folks” (whose contributors include the now iconic “Joe the Plumber”), he started the website

after many years of feeling like real people were getting lost in the shuffle of political battles. Republican talking points. Democrat talking points. What about Regular Folk talking points? I was tired of elitists (yes, they are on both sides of the aisle) pretending they were doing things to help “regular folks” while they were really, most often, trampling on regular folks’ freedoms and taking their money for some bloated inefficient government program.

In short, we see an almost classic case of populist insurgency: ordinary people rising up against the distortions and manipulations of “politics as usual.”

But there is nothing particularly simple about even classical populism. And as liberals are surely by now tired of pointing out, there is no shortage of distortion or manipulation on the part of the Tea Partiers: it is almost bewildering to realize, for example, how many still believe that Obama is a Moslem born outside of the United States. When there is such disagreement over the basic premises of the discussion, there seems little opportunity to have the kinds of debate usually associated with political discourse.

More significantly, many of those who are funding the movement are far from ordinary in any sense of the term. Jane Mayer in the New Yorker recently wrote a long piece about the reclusive billionaire Koch brothers who have piled millions into the cause. With friends like these, it is no wonder that the “regular folks” of the Tea Party find themselves campaigning to continue the Bush-era tax cuts on the very wealthy (those who earn above $250,000 a year). In other words, we also have a classic case of people fighting fervently for their own exploitation as though it were their liberation.

The theory of hegemony is designed to untangle such complications. It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who first elaborated the notion that capitalism’s survival relies on the fact that people willingly give their consent to political movements that work against their best interests. Social domination depends, he argued, upon consent as much, if not more, than upon brute force or coercion.

In the mid to late 1970s, Gramsci was rediscovered and hegemony theory was further refined by the Argentine Ernesto Laclau before it was taken up with great enthusiasm by British Cultural Studies. Soon “hegemony” became cultural studies’ core concept. It is not surprising, moreover, that the concept came into vogue during another moment at which populism seemed to rule the day: with Peronism in Argentina, and then Thatcher and Reagan in the UK and the USA.

Laclau’s motivation was to distinguish between a progressive populism of the left from a populism of the right. For surely the left could not give up on the self-declared “ordinary” people that were the focus of cultural studies’ own iconoclastic anti-elitism. (Recall that for Raymond Williams, the founding principle of the discipline is that “culture is ordinary.”) And yet ultimately hegemony theory fails in this task: most recently, with On Populist Reason, Laclau simply abandons the project by identifying populism with politics as a whole.

My argument in Posthegemony is that hegemony theory mirrors populism and is therefore unable fully to understand (let alone oppose) it. In parallel, I also show that civil society discourse has a similar relationship to the neoliberalism that it claims to critique. We therefore need some other way to think about politics, if these two foremost instances of progressive social theory are incapable of grasping the two major political movements of the past thirty years.

I call this new way to think about politics “posthegemony.”

Posthegemony turns from the Gramscian dichotomy between coercion and consent, to look instead at the subterranean influences of affect, habit, and the multitude that underlie all so-called hegemonic projects.

It should be obvious enough that the Tea Party has more to do with affect, that is with the order of bodies, and with habit, that is with their repetition and resonance, than with any attempt to win the consent of “hearts and minds.” And it should be equally clear that the notion of a “people” (of “regular folks” or the “Citizens of the Nation”) is a construction that enables interested parties (the Kochs or others) to appropriate the power of a multitude that would otherwise threaten them as much as it unsettles any representative of constituted power.

Posthegemony, then, is a novel form of political analysis (which draws on the work of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, Antonio Negri, as well as Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben). But it also perhaps points towards a new political project, whose aim would be to liberate the multitude from its own subjection to the popular.

kirchnerismo

My friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo has started a blog, entitled “Space and Politics” (“Espacio y política”). I highly recommend it.

To date, Gastón has been mainly concerned with what he calls the “birth of Kirchnerism,” that is, the multitudinous energies unleashed in the wake of the death of Argentina’s ex-president Néstor Kirchner, and the way in which Kirchner’s ghost now haunts (and energizes) Argentine politics.

In a post comparing Peronism’s mythic 17th of October 1945 to the day of Kirchner’s death on the 27th of October 2010, Gastón writes:

Just as after 1945 it was clear that Perón was not alone, the principle message of the 27th of October is that from now on Cristina Kircher is not alone. There is a multitude mobilized behind her, that within hours showed that it could take over the country’s main public spaces when it felt that the government was in danger in a moment of possible weakness. Obviously this energy didn’t just appear out of thin air, but it was only with the emergence of a multitude that occupied public space that such popular support was transformed into a political vector worthy of respect.

It’s worth reading the whole thing, though in short I’d say that Gastón’s tone is a little more celebratory than mine would be. In the UK over recent years there have been a series of high profile deaths (from Diana to John Smith or Robin Cook, or even David Kelly) that at the time seemed to change everything… but looking back at them now, the public affects that they provoked seem strangely anomalous. Indeed, if anything any changes that they provoked have been only for the worse.

None of which really goes against Gastón’s thesis that the death of Néstor Kirchner has provided a space for the multitude to appear in a new way. My doubt is not so much about that, but rather about the way that (as Gastón himself suggests) such affects are all too soon and all too easily re-channeled for the sake of constituted power.

neo

William Rowe and Vivian Schelling’s Memory and Modernity is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone else who has tried to replicate it: they aim to provide a guide to Latin American popular culture that covers both the gamut of theoretical positions (from within Latin American Studies and outside) as well as detailing, often in quite some detail and historical or sociological depth, an extraordinary range of popular cultural practices. Just in chapter two, “The Faces of Popular Culture,” they move almost seamlessly from Peru to Mexico to Brazil to Argentina, and from Andean oral narratives of Inkarrí to Mexican artesanía to Candomblé to telenovelas to football. It’s astonishingly erudite and impressive, while also remarkably readable; their accounts of critics from Adorno to Taussig to Martín Barbero to Arguedas are deft and decisive. They give a real sense of the texture and complexity both of Latin American popular culture and of the debates that it has provoked.

This book should have the status of a classic of Latin American cultural studies, and it’s a crying shame that Verso seem to have allowed it, along with the other surveys in its Latin American series such as Gerry Martin’s Journeys through the Labyrinth, to go out of print.

Of course, Rowe and Schelling’s approach also has its pitfalls. Especially when it comes to their accounts of critics and theorists, there can be no space for detailed textual analysis, and so their brief judgments are also potential hostages to fortune. Is it really true, for instance, that Michael Taussig’s project can be reduced to “finding in pre-capitalist cultures a source of resistance to capitalism” (73)? Likewise, their analyses of specific cultural histories, though they often extend over several pages, are also dependent on ex cathedra pronouncements rather than sustained argumentation. Their tone tends towards encyclopedic synthesis that threatens to overwhelm their own critical and conceptual narrative.

This narrative is driven by a conception of the popular as counter-culture: “The term popular culture, according to common usage in Latin America, evokes the possibilities of alternaties to currently dominant cultural practices. [. . .] To be of use, the term ‘popular’ must be distinguished from the products of the culture industry and the mass media” (97). And yet in practice they are forced to recognize that difficulties of trying to cordon of the popular as a space for political resistance and creativity. At the same time as they argue for a definition of the popular “in terms of the possibility of a counter-hegemony,” they also have to recognize the intimate coexistence of popular practices with the mass media: “popular cannot mean purity nor the culture industry its loss” (113). Yet it seems to be precisely in the name of at least a vestigial version of such purity that at times they put the popular in scare quotes, so as to indicate practices that are popular but not really they way they would have them be so. For instance, in their discussion of the samba, which “becomes a ‘popular’ and profitable form of entertainment transmitted together with commercial advertisements by radio” and which “was transformed into a ‘popular’ massified genre and an exportable symbol of national identity” (135).

So Rowe and Schelling want both to champion and to distance themselves from the popular, to separate out their own neo-populism from historical and state-supported populisms of Vargas, Perón, or the PRI. In short, they want to differentiate their counter-hegemony from hegemony per se. But it is precisely this gesture that they share with historical populism, which always wants to portray itself as embattled and oppositional, even from a position of state power.