"Busting Track in the Americas: How U.S. Hegemonic Derailments Are Wrecking the Neighborhood.”

By Gonzalo F. Santos

[Paper presented at the Plenary Session “Spreading World Disorder, Growing World Polarization: The Case of the Americas,” at the 2004 Conference of the Peace & Justice Studies Association, The Challenge of Globalization. Incorporating Peace, Justice, and Human Rights, October 15 – 17, 2004, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, California]

Be an ontological Zapatista wherever you are! – Anonymous

In discussing* the particular way the Western Hemisphere – the Americas – affects, and in turn is affected by, the present global condition of spreading world disorder and growing world polarization, it is necessary to begin by situating this global condition analytically as well as historically. Analytically, I take as a point of departure Giovanni Arrighi’s conceptualization of the discontinuous, yet scale-cumulative, life history of the modern capitalist world system, periodized in three sequential “systemic cycles of accumulation” over the past four or five centuries. Each of these cycles is conceptualized as having consisted of a phase of continuous change followed by a phase of discontinuous, turbulent change; each cycle was reconstituted after a period of systemic chaos; each then institutionalized new structures and processes in the inter-state system and in the inter-enterprise system with new kinds of governmental and business agencies that sustained a new regime of accumulation at a vastly larger scale than before; and finally, each cycle occurred under the leadership of a world hegemonic power.

In looking at the world’s turbulence in the late 1990s, Arrighi et al. explained their research approach in this way:

The expansion of the modern world system to its present global dimensions [has occurred] through a series of fundamental reorganizations. These reorganizations have occurred in periods of hegemonic transition defined as moments of change both in the leading agency of world-scale processes of capital accumulation and in the political-economic structures in which these processes are embedded (Arrighi et al., 1999: 22)
The discontinuous, novel, and scale-cumulative nature of each reorganization of the world system, and the unique direction each world hegemonic power gave to it, is illustrated using a railroad metaphor and incorporating a key insight by Terence Hopkins (1990):

The formation and expansion of the modern world system is thus conceived as proceeding, not along a single track laid some four to five hundred years ago, but through several switches to new tracks laid by specific complexes of governmental and business agencies. To borrow an expression from Michael Mann (1986, 28), these leading complexes – the Dutch complex in the seventeenth century, the British complex in the nineteenth century, and the U.S. complex in the twentieth century – have all acted as “tracklaying vehicles”. In leading the system in a new direction, they also transformed it. Under Dutch leadership, the emergent system of European states was formally instituted by the Treaties of Westphalia. Under British leadership, the Eurocentric system of sovereign states moved to dominion globally. And under U.S. leadership, the system lost its Eurocentricity to further gain reach and penetration. (Idem; Hopkins, 1990).
In this paper we simply extend the metaphor of the “tracklaying vehicle” used to describe what each successful hegemonic power had to do to launch, seeking world consent and displaying force, a bundle of new structures and processes to resolve the systemic chaos engendered by their immediate predecessors in their period of decline. We can likewise describe the behavior of the declining hegemon as akin to a “trackbusting vehicle.” Not that declining hegemons are the only ones that do this to their own established world order, rather aggressive challengers of all sorts, including disaffected powers and all subordinate, oppressed, and exploited social groups, do it as well. It’s from their dominant-yet-eroding position that declining hegemons opt to undermine their own leadership and failing structures of world governance and capitalist accumulation, with more calamitous consequences. Beyond a certain point, past the peak of hegemonic power, the more a declining hegemon acts to shore up its hegemony, the more it contributes to systemic chaos and accelerates its demise. One can enumerate all the things the British did to precipitate the two world wars of the twentieth century, and the world economic chaos preceding them, for instance. One could make the same case for all the U.S. Administrations since President Lyndon Johnson, though it’s undeniably more obvious today, under President George W. Bush.

Seen in this way, the U.S. period of tracklaying can be traced as far back as the end of the nineteenth century, going through the two world wars, followed by the U.N./Bretton Woods agencies for global governance, and culminating in the establishment of the Cold War order. The trackbusting period, on the other hand, can be traced symbolically to 1968 in various ways – the Vietnam war, the OPEC-led oil embargo, the unpegging of the dollar to the gold standard and the deep world recession that ensued, etc. Systemic chaos can be seen as having been truly inaugurated by the abandonment of what Philip McMichael (2004) calls the Development Project and the worldwide imposition, after 1980, of the Globalization Project, or the neoconservative “Washington Consensus” – a short lived and highly coerced “consensus,” indeed! And politically, systemic chaos is inaugurated by the 1989-93 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War order, though initially, in an orgy of triumphalism in the West. Neither of these momentous events were understood as such, not even after the first Persian Gulf War – a New World Order, a return to the multilateralist formulas of 1945 sans the Soviets, was envisioned in the 1990s, perhaps with a few corrective structural adjustments to align the political process more in line with the prescriptions of neoliberal economic doctrine and its transnational business agencies, and perhaps to make the requisite concessions to certain ascendant world powers (China, Japan, EU). This optimism vanished in the first decade of the twenty first century. Systemic chaos is the coin of the global realm today, much of it due to the visible and acknowledged trackbusting the U.S. governmental and business agencies have engaged in with gusto – from U.N. busting to war-making, from financial speculations that have bankrupt countries, to neglecting the AIDS pandemic, to the globalization of informal, illegitimate violence (terrorist attacks, ethnic violence, narco-violence, etc.).

There are good reasons to believe that the scale-cumulative aspect of the successive systemic cycles of accumulation has reached its asymptotic limits, economically, politically, socially, and environmentally. Immanuel Wallerstein (1995) sees the current period as one of systemic transition from a capitalist world-system into an entirely indeterminate new social system, a process he describes, borrowing from chaos theory, as “bifurcation”. Arrighi seems convinced that the end of capitalism as a system of endless accumulation is at hand, and that whatever comes next, it won't include the tracklaying activities of another would-be world hegemonic power centered on any given mega state, much less on a collective network of global business agencies such as the multinational corporations some thought in the 1990s were replacing the inter-state system altogether. That notion went away with the instant, formidable reassertion of the U.S. state following the attacks of September 11, 2001. This time around, any such mega state would quickly lead to the scenario envisioned by Max Weber and Karl Kautsky of a profit-choking world empire (ultra imperialism); or, alternatively, any truly self-regulated market of unfettered global business agencies would lead to the scenario envisioned by Adam Smith and Karl Polanyi of dwindling profits, on the one hand, and ever stronger social counter movements of resistance and self-preservation, on the other. Neither is a sustainable capitalist solution. That’s precisely the asymptotic nature of this last capitalist cycle of systemic accumulation, leading it to the demise of historical capitalism and the advent of a yet-to-be-envisioned, yet-to-be-constructed new world system based on a logic other than endless accumulation. Of course, the world’s anti-systemic movements sense this asymptotic moment, too, and are now seriously attempting to conceptualize, as in the World Social Forum, an alternative, non-capitalist, non-imperial world order (“Another World is Possible”).
The Self-Busting Activities of the Biggest Neighbor, the United States

How then, has the trackbusting activities of the current – and last – global hegemon of the capitalist world system, the United States, affected since the 1970s the Western Hemisphere, the “neighborhood” as it were? Well, one can start with the U.S. itself, as a society, and list some of the most salient negative trends today, in no particular order:

I could go on – this country is going to hell in a hand basket on all sides except on the military side, at least its strategic weaponry, where it still reins supreme. We all know today the new strategic posture of the United States is entirely based on taking advantage of this sole aspect of superiority. But superior force is not the sole, or even the main, aspect of global hegemony; it is based much more on sustained economic supremacy, scientific innovation, and moral/political leadership, and most importantly, having the others perceive that the hegemon represents and acts in the general interest of the world, that it holds a vision of the future and hope for a better world – the “vision thing,” as the first Bush president use to call it. And on all those other aspects of hegemony it has gone through a rocky road, leading to today’s complete loss of even the appearance of supremacy.

Hence, as the United States “busts tracks” worldwide in a desperate effort to shore up and preserve its dwindling moral/political and economic powers as much as possible, it is wrecking itself domestically pretty badly, too. This is in sharp contrast to the British late Victorian Belle Epoque, and is more reminiscent of the behavior of past failed hegemonic contenders, like France and Germany, who imploded into “revolutionary” or fascist terror as they lost out in the hegemony race. This level of internalization of the declining global power cannot be sustained indefinitely. It is not an exaggeration to envision the continent-size United States imploding into fascism or breaking up into pieces, as it romps and shatters the world in pursuit of that elusive, vanished hegemony it once enjoyed. Many Sovietologists and Cold War warriors were caught entirely by surprise when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and disappeared, having treated it until the very end as a permanent ontological reality. The fascist scenario, though, seems to be gaining ground in the quest for global empire.

The Wrecked Latin America and Caribbean Neighborhood

I would like to merely note here that Canada is in an advanced state of melting into the North American regional state in-formation, with nowhere close to the level of social conflict and economic dislocation its neighbors to the south are experiencing – the only relatively unscathed region of the Americas so far.

The story for Latin America and the Caribbean is an entirely different one. As the first region gradually hegemonized by the young aspiring U.S. world power from the 1820s, when the Monroe Doctrine was first enunciated, to the 1920s, when the takeover from Britain was practically complete, Latin America and the Caribbean became the key region of the periphery and semiperiphery articulated to the United States prior to 1945. Everything the United States would later do in the emergent Third World was first tested in this region, for better and for worse – invasions, gun-boat diplomacy, good-neighbor policies, strategic corporate investments, democratic stabilizing and destabilization schemes, etc.. As a result, Latin America, coming out of the terrible interwar period of extreme economic dislocation and authoritarian regimes, the result of British models of oligarchic rule and agro-exporting growth, began to exhibit, in the new U.S.-led world order, the earliest “economic miracles”, the first inward-oriented national industrializations, the first urbanizations, the earliest wave of democratization, in short, the first national developmentalist success stories in the nascent Third World under U.S. tutelage. Flawed and dangerous as U.S.-sponsored “modernization” theories and projects were perceived by oligarchic and radical critics alike, it was welcomed and “dependent development” by intermediary social strata and thinkers like Brazil’s Fernando Cardoso, who would later become its neoliberal president. It also led to the first major dislocations – massive urban impoverishment, rural-urban imbalances, peasant rebellions after failed agrarian reforms and urban student rebellions after insufficient democratic advance, unstable political systems that almost without exception relapsed to ruthless military dictatorships, now imposed by the U.S. not just in pursuit of self-defined Cold War zero-sum geopolitical victories, but to keep a lid on the social unrest its modernization policies had provoked. Latin America and the Caribbean was convulsed with revolutionary movements demanding social justice, real national sovereignty, and deep economic reforms to effect national development, from the late 1950s on, and again and again the U.S. response was to drown – or attempt to drown – these movements and install dictatorships. So the democratic spring and sustained economic growth Latin America enjoyed during and after World War II was brief, and by the late 1960s almost the entire region was under authoritarian regimes at the bidding of the global hegemon.

What happened next is full of irony: just as the U.S. entered its period of frank decline as the world’s hegemonic power, especially in economic terms, Latin America did not have the linkages with either Western Europe nor Japan to change gears and sustain its national developmentalist projects still under widespread bureaucratic-authoritarian state management. Peripheries are not in a position, or are allowed, to easily lay their own tracks in directions of their own choosing.

So the region artificially sustained itself relying exclusively on huge foreign loans that the U.S. commercial banks issued profusely in the 1970s to re-circulate their massive idle deposits of eurodollars and petrodollars. The bill arrived in the 1980s, the precise moment in which the U.S., now the world’s largest debtor nation itself, abandoned the entire national developmentalist project for the Third World and demanded compliance, via its Bretton Woods institutions – who absorbed the private bank debts – to the globalization project of complete surrender of national economic sovereignty to global economic forces, dismantling of the welfare state, re-liberalizing trade and investment, etc. – the so-called Washington Consensus. It is precisely at this point that democratization is re-sponsored by the U.S. – peacefully where possible, at the point of ballots and bullets in places like Central America, if necessary.

Peripheral elites, on the other hand, tend to echo the world-view of the economic, political, and cultural elites of the global hegemon, and apart from brief incursions into revolutionary nationalism in places like Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Nicaragua (and their defeat and exile from Cuba by a socialist revolution), Latin American elites embraced by the early 1980s the Washington Consensus and help install “technocratic” regimes led by U.S.-educated Latin American neoliberals.

The effect was disastrous: Latin America’s fragile democracies ended up holding the bag of having to pay an unpayable accumulated foreign debt, imposed draconian measures on its popular classes – pauperizing even its middle classes – and opened wide their economies for their wholesale take over by the foreign multinationals. The economies of the region have now surpassed their second decade of absolute and relative contraction, all the while experiencing the world’s greatest income and wealth polarization.[4] Latin America is no anomaly, but rather is in sync with all other areas of the world in terms of the extreme polarization of wealth that has occurred, under the “Washington Consensus” in the last two decades.[5]

The democratic states are thoroughly de-legitimized and confront renewed social turmoil in the absence of a viable project. The Latin American & Caribbean social order is in shreds. Latin America’s main response has been the largest ever international migration flow to the United States and within the region, exporting its labor power to sustain its failing economies. That’s a desperate, losing proposition, like eating your seed grain reserves to avoid famine in the short term. There are now over 35 million Latinos in the United States, millions of them stigmatized for their undocumented “illegal” status. In the pauperized Dominican Republic we find tens of thousands of stigmatized Haitians; in Puerto Rico we find tens of thousands of stigmatized Dominicans; in Miami and New York we find hundreds of thousands of the three stigmatized groups. The Mexican-descent population in the United States now produce one-and-a-half times the GNP of Mexico. Most countries of Latin America and the Caribbean now rely more on the remittances of these stigmatized, persecuted immigrant populations than on any other source of national income, surpassing exports and tourism, only on par with oil exports in the few countries that do it.[6]

The other survival response has been the rise of the informal economy – both in its myriad domestic forms, and in the form of narcotraffic. Entire countries, foremost Colombia, now depend on the latter, not un-coincidentally also the country with the highest rates of violence and a permanent state of civil war (Amnesty International, n.d.).

In the aftermath of the bloody suppression of organized dissent in the 1960s and 1970s all over the continent, the overthrow of the peaceful socialist government in Chile in 1973 as well as the brutal counterinsurgency wars of the 1980s in Central America, Latin America – with the sole exception of defiant Cuba, and then not even it, really – did nothing to invite the wrath of the declining hegemon in the 1990s and hunkered down for a long winter of “democratic chaos”. Latin America and the Caribbean walked on eggshells the last ten to fifteen years.

No more in the new century. Today, most new Latin American elected leaders have been left of center and have openly defied the policies of the United States and its international institutions. Brazil, under President Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, has led the newly formed group of 22 countries from the world’s South to defy the world’s North within “global places” like the WTO and IMF. Venezuela is in open rebellion against the American status quo under immensely popular president Hugo Chavez, who has survived a coup attempt and a recall election already. The Argentineans seem to have finally found their voice with president Néstor Kirchner, after a decade of the most obsequious and degrading – and futile - pandering to the U.S., and began to demand regional debt forgiveness. In Uruguay, two days before the re-election of U.S. President George W, Bush, the Left won the national elections for the first time in its history, electing Tabaré Vázquez as president, and soundly rejecting, via a plebecite, a plan to privatize all the water in Uruguay. Even Mexico, which finally but cautiously did away with its seven decades of “perfect dictatorship” – a neoliberal-controlled PRI that was a shadow of itself by the time it was rejected by the electorate – by electing a right-of-center, pro-U.S. president, immediately confronted the U.S. with the immigration issue and demanded a new, better deal. If we are going to have free trade and be true “socios”, let’s do away with the shameless pretense we have economic borders only when it relates to labor mobility and iron out a new immigration deal by the end of 2001, Vicente Fox lectured George W. Bush on the lawn of the White House. That was the week before September 11. Ranchero Fox never heard back from his cowboy Texan buddy – their much-trumpeted “Marlborough Summit” was quickly forgotten. Mexico itself has been on a sharp economic decline ever since and “exported” 400,000 workers to the U.S. economy last year (INEGI Website; Balboa, 2004). Wall-Mart, meanwhile, the poster child race-to-the-bottom employer, became Mexico’s number one private employer and as if to demonstrate who’s really in charge, began building a big box warehouse right next to the pyramids of Teotihuacán, adding insult to injury to Mexican nationalism. The state sector has shrunk to a minimum. The U.S. insists Mexico ought to sell its two remaining state sector companies, its oil and electric companies. It remains to be seen how long Mexico can continue in this path barely breathing, squeezed by the NAFTA bear hug and having so thoroughly surrendered the country’s sovereignty without any visible signs of social and economic development.

Sad to say, Mexico is, nevertheless, one of the few lucky countries within the region as a whole, because at least it is glued – if not entirely swallowed – to the global hegemon, declining and all, but still the world’s largest consumer and labor markets; compared with down and out Argentina, the devolving Andean countries, war-torn Colombia, destitute Central America, Mexico’s misfortunes look not as calamitous, though that is small comfort to the 40 million Mexicans living in extreme poverty today.

So under such appalling conditions, what’s in store for the region? The problem with Latin America’s options after September 11, when the U.S. adopted its new strategic posture of busting its previous world order, shedding even its globalization project, and going straight-out for global empire, is that there’s nothing in it for the region except:

a)     heightened regional neglect by the U.S. – as evidenced in the recent presidential debates, when not once was the region mentioned – so long as Latin America continues its downward spiral outside the perceived “axis of evil,” that is, under protesting but not threatening democratic regimes, and dies a relatively quiet thousand deaths;

b)    full regional incorporation into the U.S. economy à la NAFTA – the Free Trade for the Americas proposal – with the prospect that, at most, the region will “rise” to the level of Mexico, and the probability that it will turn out to be a complete fiasco for lack of real economic capacity by all concerned, including the U.S. or collapses out of its own wealth-polarizing tendencies.

c)     regional implosion into such levels of chaos and violence, and protracted revolutionary challenges, that it will attract the attention of U.S. geo-strategists for devastating military intervention – the Iraq scenario.

d)    alternative autonomous regions undergoing experiments in non-capitalist sustainable social/ecological development – somehow Latin America weathers this period of systemic chaos and, through its own experimentation with alternative modes of social existence and ecological renewal, survives, even thrives; and in so doing contributes to the eventual construction of an alternative successor world order to the present one. This is the only scenario which would certainly necessitate the development of a strategic alliance with U.S. social forces willing and able to engage in precisely the same explorations in their own neck of the hemispheric woods, out of an equally urgent sense of survival, or at the very least stand as a barrier to all predictable U.S. governmental and financial attempts to violently suppress all such alternative, non-capitalist, social formations from coming into being.

It is never easy to predict large-scale, long-term historical social change. Most analysts aim for the short-term and national-scale. But one thing is beginning to slowly dawn on watchers of our hemispheric neighborhood, Americans of the North and of the South: neither a solution to the global and domestic conundrums of the U.S. hegemon, nor a regional solution to the conundrums of its most strategic sphere of influence, the Americas, can be found in isolation with each other, much less at the expense of each other. This is true for the world as a whole, but it is especially true in the Western Hemisphere vis-à-vis the United States. Latin America and the Caribbean cannot “go at it alone” any more than the U.S. can, despite all its current aggressive attempts. The time when we could analytically compartmentalize the study of, and design public policies for, the United States, on the one hand, and Latin America & the Caribbean, on the other, is over.

Planting Gardens of Resistance in the Neighborhood

Despite the current appearances of asymmetrical agendas, incompatible aims, and diverging destinies, the fact is that neither the world will become a U.S. empire, nor will a U.S.-led complex of corporations run for too long the world system through pure market dynamics; the sooner the U.S. faces up to this and reconciles itself to joining its neighbors as one among many, the way the Dutch and the British had to do it in Europe, the better.

Once the current adventures in empire-building, systemic track-busting, and wounded-hegemon lashings-out, exhaust themselves in far away lands and at every world governance institution, to no avail, the situation described above will become increasingly clear to everyone in our hemispheric neighborhood. In the meantime, it is already in everybody’s interest to help arrest the destructive fury of this last “hyperpower” in the historical life of world capitalism until a new and better social system may be born and take root – as opposed to the distinct possibility of joining the imperial bandwagon out of a false sense of security and advantage, allowing things to degenerate to the point of implanting a much worse social system than historical capitalism itself. Certainly an alternative, but much worse world is also possible!

All of humanity, then, has a huge stake in how far we let the world hegemonic power run amok, but especially us Americans of the Western Hemisphere must take action, for the simple reason that our hemispheric neighborhood is being extensively wrecked, from its richest areas to its poorest, and not just by the self-destructive, chaos-inducing actions of its most powerful neighbor, but by all its powerful economic and political elites in the neighborhood as well – they are well coordinated, and thus need to be challenged by the region’s antisystemic movements jointly, too. Hemispheric social action is the order of the day, within and across the increasingly meaningless political and ideological boundaries that now pen us in like sheep corralled by straw fences; that works only if we are scared enough to not leap and insist in waging our struggles guided by purely nationalist and sub-nationalist imaginations. But now we can break loose any time we dare and embrace a “cosmopolitan localist” imagination, as many social movements have begun to do, acting locally, but thinking and networking globally.

In summation: in response to the track-busting activities of the declining world hegemonic power and its allied regional elites, the vast majority of Americans of the north and the south not affiliated with the states, global institutions, and multinational corporations in control of our increasingly dysfunctional formal economies and national political systems, must proceed to lay cobble stones within and between our respective, social and territorial, autonomous, non-capitalist, gardens of resistance, just as the Zapatistas have been doing for over a decade in Chiapas (Vodovnik, 2004), and millions of others are doing in the abandoned rural areas and within the vast urban slums encircling all major Latin American cities.[7]

Why cobblestones, why grow gardens of resistance? Why not work to reconstitute the capitalist world order under a new systemic regime of accumulation, albeit along new capitalist “tracks” like it has happened before? The option of putting together another hegemonic block of governmental and business agencies to revamp the capitalist world system has now been historically closed by having reached the asymptotic limits of accumulation politically, economically, environmentally, and culturally this last time around. We are now at the “end of the line” of historical capitalism and all attempts to go further will only wreck the engines, derail the train, and injure the passengers!

The only way we can ever hope to recover our collective strength and bearings to where, with others, we can get the world back on its tracks of world governance and a world sustainable social order, is today to proliferate our gardens of resistance to the point where we may eventually be in a position to lay new, non-capitalist, world tracks, but this time around and through well-developed, autonomous, egalitarian, more nourishing, beautiful social and ecological gardens of resistance. It is time to be ontological Zapatistas wherever we are.

Amnesty International, n.d. Web list of reports on violence in Colombia:

Arrighi, Giovanni, Beverly J. Silver, et al., 1999. Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Balboa, Juan, 2004. “De acuerdo con datos oficiales, este año se desplazarán unos 400 mil connacionales”, La Jornada, México, 10 de octubre, 2004.

Cano, Arturo, and Tania Molina, 2004. “Diez años de muerte en la frontera ¿Cuántos más?” La Jornada,
México, 3 de octubre de 2004.

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De Ferranti, David, Guillermo E. Perry, Francisco Ferreira, Michael Walton, 2004. Inequality in Latin America: Breaking with History? World Bank: Washington, D.C.

DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Robert J. Mills, 2004. , Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-226, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Hopkins, Terrence K., 1990. “Note on the concept of Hegemony,” Review 13, 3: 409-11.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografia e Informática (INEGI). Web portal for statistical information on Mexican migration: http://www.inegi.gob.mx/est/default.asp?c=2348

Kochhar, Rakesh, 2004. The Wealth of Hispanic Households: 1996 to 2002. A Pew Hispanic Center Report, October, 2004. Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center.

LeDuff, Charlie, 2004. “Just This Side of the Treacherous Border, Here Lies Juan Doe,” The New York Times, September 24, 2004.

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McMichael, Philip, 2004. Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective, 3rd Ed..Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, 2004. World Wealth Report, 2004. New York and Madrid.

Polanyi, Karl, 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press.

Vodovnik, Ziga, ed., 2004. ¡YA BASTA! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising. Oakland: AK Press.

Wacquant, Loïc, 2002. “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘race question’ in the U.S.” New Left Review 13 (Jan/Feb 2002).

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* The author wishes to acknowledge Alem Seghed Kebede, Jeffrey Paris, DeAnna Tibbs, and Phil Silverman for their review of earlier drafts of this paper and their many helpful suggestions.

[1] In 2003, there were 2.5 million millionaires in the United States and Canada (a 13.5% jump over 2002), amassing a combined wealth of 8.5 trillion dollars (a 13.6% jump over 2002). (Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, 2004). Meanwhile during the same 2003, 35.9 million people were in poverty in the United States, up 1.3 million from 2002; 45 million people were without health insurance coverage, up 1.4 million from 2002; and in terms of income, the bottom fifth of the population received 3.4% of the national income, while the top fifth received 49.8%, a measure of income inequality not seen since the 1920s (DeNavas-Walt et al., 2004).

[2] The median net worth of Latino households in 2002 was $7,932. This was only nine percent of $88,651, the median wealth of non-Latino White households at the same time. The net worth of Non-Latino Blacks was only$5,988. Between 1999 and 2001, the net worth of Latino and non-Latino Black households fell by 27 percent each while the net worth of non-Latino White households increased by 2 percent. As of 2002, the wealth of Latino and Black households was less than one-tenth the wealth of White households. Twenty-six percent of Latino, 32 percent of non-Latino Black and 13 percent of non-Latino White households had zero or negative net worth in 2002. The wealthiest 25 percent of Latino and non-Latino Black households own 93 percent of the total wealth of each group. Among non-Latino White households, the top 25 percent own 79 percent of total wealth. (Kochhar, 2004)

[3] For fiscal year 2003-04, which ended this Oct. 1, more than 1.1 million people were apprehended along the border with Mexico, up 21 percent from last year, and 314 bodies of dead border-crossers were recovered from the deserts and river banks; over three thousand “innocent civilians,” more than the total casualties of the September 11 attacks, have died trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border in the decade since Operation Guardian was launched on Oct. 1, 1994 (Cano & Molina, 2004; LeDuff, 2004). Millions more have been psychologically and socially dislocated.

[4] According to various reports from world institutions, more than 90 million people in the region fell into poverty over the last twenty years; 50% of today’s 400 million Latin Americans live in poverty: 226 million live on less than $2 dollars a day and 102 million live on less than $1 dollar a day. Latin America has become the continent with the worst distribution of wealth, income, health, and education in the world, surpassing even Eastern Europe and most of Asia (De Ferranti et al., 2004). At the same time, Latin American economic elite – made up of close to 300,000 millionaires – has amassed a net wealth calculated at 3.7 trillion dollars as of 2003, with expected wealth growth in the next five years of 7% per annum (Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, 2004).

[5] Merrill Lynch and Capgemini (2004: 4) matter-of-factly estimate a most rosy picture for the world’s millionaires just ahead: “We expect HNWI [high net worth individuals with at least US$1 million] financial wealth to grow by 7% per annum and to the exceed US$40.7 trillion by 2008.” This unfathomable amount, which exceeds the combined GNP of all countries on earth, is a vivid demonstration of how historical capitalism has reached the asymptotic limit of systemic accumulation – economically and ideologically. A more sociological historical approach would consider this alarming concentration of the world’s wealth in private hands unsustainable and a recipe for unleashing what Polanyi (1957) referred to as the self-protecting mechanisms and counter-movements of society against the further extension and dominance of the self-regulated market, solely based on the increasingly absurd, fictitious commodification of labor, land, and money itself.

[6] In 2003, more than 10 million Latin American immigrants in the United States sent in excess of $30 billion to their families back home. That computes to more than $2,500 per year for each Latino household in the U.S. (Kochhar, 2004).

[7] Bolivia’s cocaleros, Brazilian movements such as the sem terra (the landless) and sem teto (the roofless), Venezuela’s Bolivarianos, Argentina’s piqueteros (picketers), and Peru’s Humala rebels are all examples of new grassroots movements challenging entrenched elites and states and creating autonomous spaces of resistance.