There is no little irony in the fact that the national republics established in Latin America in the 19th century ended up, despite themselves, behaving precisely in line with a model they claimed to detest: that of their own modernity—a baroque modernity that took shape in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries. In the hope of ‘modernizing themselves’, the continent’s powerful strata abandoned their own model for one that was more commercially successful—if not the Anglo-Saxon model, then the modernity that originated in France and was imposed on the Iberian Peninsula by Enlightened Absolutism. This compelled them to set up republics or nation-states that did not, could not, turn out as they wanted them to, as copies or imitations of European capitalist states. They had to be something else: representations, theatrical versions, mimetic repetitions of the latter; constructions in which, in unmistakably baroque fashion, the imaginary tends to take the place of the real.

These attempts to imitate capitalist production were repeatedly blocked off by rejection on the part of the ‘invisible hand of the market’, which seemed dedicated to finding a special, ancillary role for Latin America’s ‘state enterprises’ in global capitalist reproduction.footnote1 Within the contested composition of the capitalist rate of profit, the role of these states was to reduce systematically the proportion that necessarily corresponded to ground rent, thus recuperating for productive capital a part of the surplus value it had apparently generated but then ‘diverted’ to pay for the use of the natural environment forcibly occupied by the landlords (whether private, like the hacendados, or public, like the republics). Thanks to those ‘state enterprises’ and their ‘living forces’, the world-market prices of raw materials and energy—which, together with the cheap labour at their disposal, formed the basis of their wealth—were notably reduced. In states such as those in Latin America, landowners were forced ‘by circumstances’ to trim their rent, and with it, indirectly, ground rent in the entire Western world-economy—to the benefit of productive capital concentrated in Europe and North America. In so doing, they condemned the mass of money-rent in their own republics to remain a form of mercantile capital, without ever reaching the critical threshold of money-capital required to make the leap into the category of productive capital. They themselves remained, despite the handful of examples of ‘great men of industry and progress’, simple rentiers disguised as merchants and usurers, condemning their republics to the subordinate existence they have always had.

However, even in this reduced form—a discreet ‘bite’ out of that devalued ground rent—the mass of money that the market placed at the disposal of Latin American enterprises and their states was sufficient to finance the vitality of those living forces and the ‘discreetly sinful’ wastefulness of the happy fewfootnote2 that gathered around them. The survival of the rest—the quasi-‘natural’ populace, the non-full members of the state, semi-citizens of the republic—was left in the hands of wild nature and the magnanimity of ‘those above’; that is, left to a miserly divine will. But above all, the profits of these enterprises and their states were sufficient to lend verisimilitude to the feeble imitation that allowed the latter to play at being what they were not, to behave as if they were states established by productive capital rather than gatherings of landowners and merchants at the service of the same.

Deprived of that key moment or phase in which the capitalist reproduction of national wealth passes through the reproduction of the technical structure of its means of production—its expansion, reinforcement and renewal—the republics that were erected on the territories and populations of Latin America have always been forced to have an overly mediated or indirect relation to capital—the ‘real subject’ of modern history, product of the alienation of human subjectivity. Since the ‘independence revolutions’, these republics have been dependent on other, larger states, closer to that determining subject; a situation which has meant a substantial reduction of their real power and, consequently, of their sovereignty. The political life that has unfolded in them has thus been more symbolic than actual; nothing that is contested on these stages has truly decisive consequences, or at least none that go beyond the cosmetic. In view of their economic dependency, the Latin American national republics have only been allowed to convey to the domestic political realm the decisions made by capital after these have been suitably filtered and interpreted in the states where capital has its preferred residence. They have been capitalist states adopted by capital only at arms’ length, fictitious entities separated from ‘reality’.footnote3

In any event, the question remains: is there not cause for celebration in the outcomes today of the foundation two centuries ago of the nation-states in which Latin Americans now live, and which define what they are? Should Argentinians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Ecuadoreans, etc. not be proud of being what they are, or simply of being latinos?

To be sure, even in the midst of the most calamitous loss of self-esteem it is impossible to live without a certain degree of self-affirmation, of self-satisfaction, and thus of ‘pride’ in what one is, although that satisfaction and pride may need to be so hidden as to be imperceptible. Self-affirmation means reaffirmation of identity; and we may well ask if the identity of which Latin Americans might be proud amidst their bicentenary celebrations is not precisely that trick identity, apparently capable of reconciling the insuperable contradictions between oppressors and oppressed, that was invented ad hoc by the creators of the ‘post-colonial’ republics after the collapse of the Spanish Empire and the ‘revolutions’ or ‘wars of independence’ that accompanied it. Moreover, this is an identity which, judging by the ostentatiously Bolivarian rhetoric of the mass media, seems to melt into another identity, which possesses the same essence but now with a continental reach: that of an all-embracing nation, the nación latina, which a Latin American capitalist mega-state still in the making would be able to set on its feet. Examined more calmly, any pride in this identity would have to be of a faltering, broken kind; for we are dealing with an identity suffering from ailments that turn it into a source of shame, provoking a desire to distance oneself from it.

The ‘revolution’ of independence, founding event for the Latin American republics that celebrated themselves in 2010, brought a ‘revised and expanded’ version of the abandonment by Enlightened Despotism of the practice of coexistence that had prevailed in American societies throughout the long ‘baroque century’—the practice of mestizaje.footnote4 Despite the strong hierarchizing effects of the monarchical institutions to which it was subordinated, this practice had tended towards a relatively open form of integration of the entire social body of the inhabitants of the continent. But then Enlightened Despotism arrived, imported from France. Welcomed by the Hispanicized half of creoles and rejected by the other, ‘indianized’ half, it brought with it the distinction between metropole and colony, with the former consecrated as sole bearer of civilization to its overseas branches. If it was to be consistent, the metropole’s way of life had first to be distinguished and separated from those of the natural, colonized populations, in order for these latter modes of life to then be subjugated and annihilated. This abandonment of mestizaje in social practice—the introduction of a Latin apartheid which not only hierarchized the social body but split it into two parts, one invited to participate and the other rejected—lies at the base of the creation and continued existence of Latin America’s republics.