This way to modernity: whites only

The story of industrialization in Peru confirms that nation-state formation is premised upon de-Indianization – with significant implications for the future


The Allure of Labor: Workers, Race,
and the Making of the Peruvian State
Paulo Drinot
2011, Duke University Press
310 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ATHREAD that has often run through historical treatments of countries in Latin America in recent years has sought to understand how modernity was understood and emulated by the elites that dominated political systems which excluded the vast majority of the population.

So, Mexican elites in recurrent eras – from the 1870s to the 1980s – took US free-market ideas and norms and transposed them on a society ill-prepared for their consequences, alienating them from their lands and traditions in search of an elusive progress.

In Cuba, social elites welcomed the US military occupation after 1898 not just because of the stability and growth it offered the sugar industry – but because to be American meant to be modern, to speak English was to communicate modernity.

In Argentina, Peronism was built on an interplay among cultural traditions, official policies, commercial imperatives and popular perceptions among the working class responding to the regime’s rhetoric about national and collective identity.

In Peru, as Paulo Drinot suggests in this excellent examination of labour policy in the early 20th-century period of state formation, industrialization was not just an effort to construct a modern economy, it was a cultural crusade coloured according to the fundamental fault-line of society: race.

The Allure of Labor argues persuasively that industrialization in Peru was as much a cultural policy as an economic one, through which intellectuals and policymakers came to believe the country would be turned into a civilized nation.

Peru was a land of mainly indigenous Andeans yet the modern, efficient worker, according to their understanding, was white, a perspective that harked back to the scientific racism and positivism that had driven the export boom and laissez faire liberalism for much of the late 19th century.

Labour question
Drinot examines the state agencies created to address the labour question in Peru in the 1920s and 30s and implement new labour regulations. He recreates the narratives generated by these agencies, and the counter-narratives of workers, employers and parties.

These narratives reflected how Peruvian elites understood industrialization in racialized terms as a project of national redemption and racial improvement creating a new man from the country’s indigenous – and backward – past. Referring to the book’s striking cover image of a white worker inviting an Indian towards a factory belching out smoke, the author writes:

“The image of the Indian and of the worker, as representing the past/present and the future, articulates the elites’ belief in the transformative power of industrialization but clearly locates that transformation not in the sphere of the economy but in the sphere of race/culture. The power (magic?) of industry, the image suggests, resides in its capacity to transform Peru’s backward indigenous peoples into civilized white/mestizo industrial workers.” [pp. 3-4]

The incompatibility of indigenous society with modern industrial labour is clearly reflected in the 1920 constitution which established separate regimes for labour and indigenous sectors, and was also clearly demarcated in subsequent legislation.

Drinot examines these narratives and regulations in terms of their historical impact on the state formation, but points out that the indigenous would challenge their exclusion and have continued to do so to this day. Recent conflict between the Peruvian state and indigenous groups only serves to underline the enduring conflict at the heart of the modern idea of nation. He writes:

“…what the study of state agencies that targeted labour counterintuitively reveals, is that the exclusion of the Indian from projects of nation-state formation was not the consequence of the Peruvian state’s ‘failures,’ as is often argued. Rather, the exclusion of the Indian has been and is immanent to the project of nation-state formation, which was and in many ways continues to be premised on the overcoming of indigeneity, that is to say on the de-Indianization of Peru.” [p. 15]

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

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