Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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