Global warning

Transnational Conflicts constructs a potent theoretical model with which to explain the bloody turbulence of Central America since the 1980s


Transnational Conflicts:
Central America, Social Change,
and Globalization

William I. Robinson
2003, Verso
400 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

BENEATH THE colourful social fabric of Guatemala, from which is woven for the casual visitor a tapestry depicting a timeless Central American way of life, lies a much more complex and rapidly changing reality. Uncovering that concealed process is no easy task, and may require new theoretical equipment to pick apart the threads. The Indian uprising of the 1980s and the Guatemalan state’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign can, therefore, be explained in two ways: through their proximate causes, not least a dramatic growth in poverty associated with a particular model of development; or through their relationship to a broader, global trend – an epochal reorientation of that model in a rapidly changing world economy.

William Robinson has unpicked the threads of the Central American conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s by using a ground-breaking theoretical approach that places globalisation at the core of analysis. By this approach, Guatemala’s spiral of coercion and resistance, the guerrilla war and the counterinsurgency campaign – and the other civil wars that raged across Central America in this period – can be understood as the social response to the exhaustion of a particular model of political economy. The manifest function of the state’s counterinsurgency campaign was the suppression of the Indian insurrection and the revolutionary challenge; its latent function, however, was the application of state terrorism to modify socioeconomic structures. As Robinson writes, “…state terrorism became the instrument of capitalist globalisation in Guatemala”.

Theoretical focus

Transnational Conflicts is an absolutely essential introduction to students of Central American economics, politics and sociology, and will also be of great value in comparative economic and political studies, and development studies more generally. Robinson develops from the vantage point of Central America a theoretical focus that will be applicable across the Third World and that has significant implications for debates about the meaning of development itself. He begins by delineating a novel theoretical focus for analysing development and social change whose point of departure is globalisation and which eschews all nation-centred analysis. Globalisation, Robinson states baldly, means the nation-state is no longer the organising principle of capitalism, but theories of globalisation remained imprisoned in the straightjacket of an earlier nation-state framework of analysis. “Many social scientists are still trapped in outdated notions of international relations as a phenomenon whose principal dynamic is interaction between nation-states,” he laments.

Globalisation does not imply an absence of global conflict, but a shift from inter-state conflict to more explicit conflict between transnational classes. This has significant implications for our understanding of the term development, which should now be defined in terms of social position rather than geographic location. Robinson then examines political, economic and social dimensions of the transnationalisation of Central America’s five republics: Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. He identifies comparative phenomena within each that support the notion of a broad transition to a new model of political economy.

Lastly, Robinson outlines the characteristics of the new, transnational model in Central America, arguing that the region has been rearticulated to the world economy in the aftermath of the political-military upheavals of the 1980s based on a new set of economic activities. Traditional exports such as coffee, bananas, cotton, sugar and beef have declined in importance as non-traditional exports and activities such as winter vegetables, spices and tourism have grown. This transition has had an imact at political and social levels, spawning new social groups such as the “technopols” – political technocrats – and new political forms more amenable to the new model, such as polyarchy. But it remains riven with contradictions, and Robinson diagnoses continuing and indeed worsening exclusion and inequality for vulnerable sectors of society in the region. In particular, under globalisation national states have lost the ability to capture and redirect surpluses through interventionist mechanisms that acted in earlier periods to offset the tendency within capitalism towards polarisation.

Although some of Robinson’s academic language is at times forbidding, he has striven hard to explain the steps he takes at every turn, and this book will be accessible to general readers interested in globalisation or of a progressive demeanour. It will be of particular value to those confused by the many theories of globalisation, explaining in a systematic way the terms used and introducing the debates that surround them. One, dominant overarching theoretical approach that brings together the many strands of globalisation and its impact upon regions such as Central America has long been wanting. Robinson has taken an important step towards providing it.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books