Feast of inequality

Indelible Inequalities in Latin America: Insights from History, Politics and Culture
Edited by Paul Gootenberg and Luis Reygadas
2011, Duke University Press
228 pages

THE PROBLEM with democracy is that it can give the illusion of equality, especially, or perhaps exclusively, at the ballot box.

But the flaw that has both predisposed Latin America to undemocratic political solutions throughout its history while threatening the very survival of what too many scholars glowingly refer to democratic governance today, persists almost unabated.

Inequality remains such a stubborn feature of Latin American reality that it has invoked a dangerous scepticism that fuels the search for alternative ways to achieve political leverage by actors who have abandoned all pretence of democratic behaviour.

As Eric Hershberg points out in his eloquent Foreword to this important collection, there remains a plurality of deep and indelible inequalities in Latin America to rival and exceed the pluralism on offer in nominally democratic political systems – from the socio-economic inequality cherished by traditional sociologial analysis to the new inequalities of access to information or culture identified in younger disciplines. Embedded inequalities in the region are a “layered phenomena that endure as if printed on the region’s DNA”.

Given the inter-disciplinary and historical scope of inequality, it represents perhaps the single most important causative factor in the region’s political development, yet at the same time a theme of such vast reach – that has also generated a vast literature – that it becomes all but impossible to explain fully.

This book goes some way towards addressing this dilemma by bringing together, surprisingly for the first time, essays that seek to illuminate the many faces of this issue. Paul Gootenberg and Luis Reygadas have brewed such a potent mix of perspectives and disciplinary approaches to the theme of inequality that one would expect, like an experiment in a chemistry lab, some kind of small explosion or effusion of purple smoke to signal the beginning of a chain reaction that transforms the field.

At the heart of this embrace of diverse, yet nonetheless complementary, efforts to account for the same thing is a fairly straightforward theoretical observation that allows us to sit comfortably and proceed: inequalities are relative and produced then reproduced by social and institutional mechanisms. This observation requires us to look at who or what is creating inequality and how it is then reinforced over time.

Latin America provides many examples to satisfy the pursuit of answers to these questions – it is, as Paul Gootenberg points out, a critical region for the global study of inequalities as the world’s most unequal region – but also many examples of how social and political mobilisation has never relented in its pursuit of solutions to them either.

As Hershberg suggests, the quest for equality in all its many forms is evident across the sub-continent and there are many grounds for real optimism that it is making headway.

Nuanced picture

Gootenberg and Reygadas bring together a broad range of approaches to inequality in Latin America that together provide a nuanced picture of it.

In their introductory chapters they assess how inequality has been studied and the role it has played in politics, but also how it is not immutable or structural – a position that encourages a fatalistic pessimism – but is what Reygadas describes as “a mutable historical construction”, varying across countries and over time. The Mexican scholar’s refreshing adoption of a constructivist theoretical approach to this issue – and the book’s more general nod to the work of Charles Tilly – starts from the straightforward position of pointing to factors that make Latin America less equal than other parts of the world.

The volume proceeds with an examination by Christina Ewig of how health policy in Peru has reproduced class, race and gender inequality in Peru; Jeanne Anderson’s more grounded essay on how the examination by the middle class of inequality itself – in this case within the shantytowns of Lima – can constitute yet another area in which the oppression of subaltern groups takes place; and a fascinating account of informational inequality in Brazilian politics by Lucio Renno.

The following section incorporates transnational themes into the study. Odette Casamayor examines the old, but nonetheless increasingly prominent, saw of racial inequality in post-Soviet Cuba, and Margaret Gray takes us to the Latino community within the US, examining how Latin American inequality becomes Latino inequality.

Javier Auyero’s lucid Afterword employs the main threads that are used in the book to stitch together a way forward. He argues that the contributions to Indelible Inequalities identify two key challenges facing scholars: how to use the tools that they apply to the study of inequality across national contexts and categorical distinctions; and how to move the theme in more culturally and historically sensitive directions.

Auyero recommends that scholars pay more attention to Pierre Bordeau’s “genetic structuralism” in tandem with Tilly’s ideas in order to pull all the categories and distinctions into line before marching off.