A review of Upside Down by Eduardo Galeano.
Published in the Summer 2002 issue of New Politics.
TODAY’S APOLOGISTS for the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, the infamous training grounds for Latin American soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, do not try to deny their past sins. They no longer bother with disavowing their many graduates who went on to lead death squads in the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 80s. Instead they emphasize how much things have changed since the time when torture techniques were part of the curriculum. They charge skeptics who doubt their newly humanized mission with fixating on a bygone age: “People are focusing on the past,” says one General. “We are focusing on the future.”
One does not need to take the Pentagon’s spin-doctoring at face value to agree that the question of change is important. Few progressives would doubt that criticism of U.S. foreign policy is as important today as in Cold War times. But protesters at the School of the Americas, and dissidents more generally, need to question how thoroughly the analyses that back Left internationalism should change in response to the present world order. In a new “age of terror” this deliberation demands ever more attention: What politics from the past can be retained, and what must be formed anew?
The most recent work from Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano constructs an engaging, though ultimately incomplete, answer. Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World draws both from Galeano’s significant analysis from the era of the Latin American security state, and from his more recent creative writing. The examples that Upside Down uses to illustrate the topsyturvy logic of today’s neo-liberal world are not new to the author. Indeed, Galeano previously outlined the book’s worldview in his 1989 Book of Embraces, where he laid out the nature of “The System” in a poetic vignette of eleven theses:
Functionaries don’t function.
Politicians speak but say nothing.
Voters vote but don’t elect.
The information media disinform.
Schools teach ignorance.
Judges punish the victims.
The military makes war against its compatriots.
The police don’t fight crime because they are too busy committing it.
Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized.
Money is freer than people are.
People are at the service of things.
In essence these same reversals, fleshed out into chapters (and combined with a compelling section on racism and sexism in an international context), form the core of Upside Down.
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WHAT MAKES THIS WORK is a significant departure for Galeano is that it marks his return to political systematics after decades of more literary invention. Open Veins of Latin America, Galeano’s last work as a paradigmatist, was published in 1971. That book sought to provide a unified account of political economy in the Western Hemisphere in the five hundred years since colonialization. Its imposing text carefully evidenced an argument that a generation of “Dependency Theorists” was then elaborating: That “[u]nderdevelopment isn’t a stage of development, but its consequence;” that a single process produced both the fabulous wealth of the North and the tremendous poverty of the South. The book earned Galeano considerable celebrity in Latin America. It gained the distinction of being banned by military governments in Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, and of being selected by Isabel Allende as one of two indispensable volumes to carry with her as she was rushed into exile.
The type of analysis pursued in Open Veins is not abandoned in Upside Down. Though no longer as fashionable, the old tenets – that the same system treats its “rich kids as if they were money” while simultaneously turning its poor ones “into garbage” – remain intact, if understated. Like Che Guevara, who excused himself by saying “It’s not my fault that reality is Marxist,” Galeano exudes an off-handed confidence in the lasting validity of the theoretical constants underpinning his views. The changes reflected in the new book have more to do with the author’s subsequent work.
Galeano himself faced the fate of exile, and spent the late 1970s and early 80s living in Spain. There he took the same raw material he had unearthed in Open Veins and shaped it into a different type of history. Recalling John Dos Passos’s evocative “newsreels” and biographical sketches, Galeano used a series of beautifullywrought snapshots to piece together an expansive narrative of exploitation and resistance. The series was entitled Memories of Fire. In its last volume, devoted to the twentieth century, he marks various years by showing Isadora Duncan dancing with scandalous abandon for the students of Argentina, Pancho Villa reading the Thousand and One Nights as respite from revolution in Mexico, and Al Capone demanding that America “remain safe and uncorrupted” against the menace of communism.
The three-book epic remains Galeano’s most accomplished creation. But in the decade and a half since completing it, he continued to make striking turns. He produced a lyrical and surrealistic memoir, a book celebrating the joys of soccer, and a collection of folktales. Each of these broke new ground, and none gave warning that Galeano might return to again evaluate modern-day political structures, as he does in Upside Down.
Many writers might hesitate to move from creative work back to politically engaged nonfiction for fear of criticism condemning them as unnecessarily didactic. With Upside Down, Galeano playfully preempts this charge by flaunting his role as instructor. Didacticism, in fact, becomes the main literary conceit of the book. But the author then does somersaults with the premise: Galeano may be taking his readers back to school, but his textbook is filled with warped lessons (“Injustice 101”) and dancing skeletons (ink-prints from the early-Twentieth-Century Mexican artist Jose Guadelupe Posada). This lunatic classroom, he suggests, is the only one appropriate for teaching the “looking glass” tenets of contemporary capitalism.
The faux-academic framing of Upside Down serves Galeano well. Promising only the dull conventionalities of a school primer, he does not have to worry when his expressions of outrage about current affairs cannot match the artistry of his major works. Instead, he has positioned his book to be easily the most entertaining of the many scholarly surveys of globalization.
While he includes a now de rigueur citation of UNDP statistics (“the ten richest men on the planet own wealth equivalent to the value of the total production of fifty countries”), he then quotes a less well-used source, the anonymous writer of graffiti on a Buenos Aires wall that reads, “Fight hunger and poverty! Eat poor people!” If we get a pedantic description of Gap workers in El Salvador “breaking their backs in sweatshop hell,” we are soon relieved with some sharp sarcasm: “The World Bank calls education ‘an investment in human capital,’ which, from their point of view, is homage.” And when he introduces a sociological term, he riffs on its connotations: “By ‘Brazilianization,'” Galeano reports, “they certainly don’t mean the spread of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals, or music that awakens the dead… rather they’re describing the imposition of a model of progress based on social injustice and racial discrimination.”
Through this, Galeano does not bow to the fashions of contemporary criticism. Given that Upside Down sets out to describe international politics at the turn of the millennium, its dogged avoidance of the term “globalization” seems almost as surreal as Posada’s ink-prints. In one of a handful of cases where the word does turn up, the author equates its use with the refusal of polite society in Victorian England to “speak of trousers in the presence of an unmarried woman.” Galeano prefers “imperialism.”
Nevertheless, the idea that the author is returning to ground he had previously covered exhaustively suggests that he has something new to say. And in fact, when set against Open Veins of Latin America, Upside Down exhibits important alterations. The Marines appear less. The IMF appears more. Even literary stylings retained from the author’s past exploration show a political revision. While in his earlier text he maintained a tight economic focus, Galeano now includes in his analysis an eclectic variety of social, cultural, and political interactions. And this, by implication, opens the door for a wider range of social movements – for the media-savvy Zapatistas and culture jammers now claiming recognition alongside more traditional activist formations.
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WHY, THEN, IS UPSIDE DOWN’S response to changing times incomplete? Here it is worth stepping back to appreciate how, even if the center of U.S. foreign policy has held over the past thirty years, its mechanisms have matured substantially. How do we deal with the type of diplomacy first crafted by Clinton and Blair, in which the crass trilateralism of the Carter era has been finessed aside by “Third Way” triangulation? Who could be a more potent ally for American interests than Mexican President Vicente Fox, who can at once champion brute neo-liberalism and become a darling of democracy, charming even the liberals with his new-guard ascendancy? Fox did his executive training not at the School of the Americas, but at Coca-Cola. Why bother with clandestine Panamanian bases when you have Harvard Business School?
Avoiding these questions, keeping the contours of his Marxism implicit, and never entering the vexed debates about which qualities of today’s globalization (or modern imperialism, as the author would describe it) are truly unique, Upside Down fails to perform the key task of social theory – exposing the thinking that structures the numerous inequalities and humiliations that he documents. It becomes clear that Galeano’s bid is not for theoretical acumen. Judged instead by the standard of moral clarity, he triumphs. His racist politicians and unrepentant Generals rarely fail to provoke outrage. And it is as part of an on-going struggle to motivate action that Galeano can write, as a postscript to his last chapter, “This book was completed in August 1998. Check your local newspaper for an update.”
As fate would have it, today’s news poses a direct challenge to Galeano’s assertion of enduring relevance. “Everything has changed,” has been the pundits’ mantra since September 11th. Some of the more vivid forecasts of the attacks’ lasting impact come from those predicting a new Cold War. Here, the world remains divided into “friends” and “enemies” of terror, a new sense of danger allows for the reemergence of the national security state, and “Free Trade” regimes grow more militaristically regulated.
To the extent that this scenario materializes, the impact that it might have on an insurgent internationalism would be largely determined by whether dissidents affect a similar change – retreating into Cold War postures criticizing the bloodiest excesses of imperial intervention, rather than putting on display their own distinct vision of global relations. Because vision, in the end, is the weight of a shift in systematics: our framework for analysis limits what we dare to imagine when we, too, focus on the future. Galeano recognizes this in his conclusion. As he turns to conceive an antidote to the grim worldview he has presented in the course of the book, he embarks upon an exercise in dreaming. He conjures a world where cars in the street are run over by dogs, where the Church fixes the typos on Moses’s tablets so that the Sixth Commandment exhorts the celebration of the body, and where courts respect “The Right to Rave.”
The outlandish tenets themselves are less important than the fact that they express a hope beyond the containment of hegemony, beyond even the disbanding of the CIA. This is the type of wild ambition that abounded not long ago amongst stubborn activists who refused to accept the name “anti-globalization,” but that now seems endangered by calls for realism and retrenchment. It is a quirky utopianism, the kind we need least to forget.
Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
by Eduardo Galeano.
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000.
358 pp. $24.00.