The Heuristic of Fear

Apr 17 2008

Pablo Dávalos

There is a relation between the notion of “the right to preemptive self-defense” that allowed, legitimated, and justified the US invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq, that was announced by the hawks of the Bush administration, and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s doctrine of Democratic Security. In both cases, war is deterritorialized in the search for a ubiquitous and almost abstract enemy: the terrorist.

Politics takes on a belligerant and surveillance role that turns all of us into suspects who must demonstrate that we are innocent. It converts criticism into a dissident act that implies becoming enemies to destroy under the cover and legitimacy of the terrorism discourse. The admonishment that those who are not with us are necessarily against us, of the Bush doctrine, becomes a strategy of intervention and militarization of political conflicts on a global level.

Plan Colombia (now the Patriot Plan), is fully aligned with the totalitarian drifts that late capitalism assumes in its neoliberal and speculative moment. The Colombian incursion in Ecuadorian territory, under the argument of “legitimate defense”, reminds us of the invasion of Iraq that occurred under the same pitch. The discourse of terrorism reveals itself, in both cases, as an effective means of covering diverse strategies of intervention, control, and domination. In effect, thanks to this discourse that has acquired a particular significance after the conflict between Ecuador and Colombia, the way in which the media begin to generate an environment of fear and guilt under the cover of terrorism has come to light.

Progressive governments in the region who in some way wanted to distance themselves from the dictates of neoliberalism and US influence, now have to demonstrate that they have no relation with terrorism. Accosted by the semiotic strategies of the media—which for the most part are owned by financial groups that are always aligned with the American agenda—governments, social movements and opinion leaders that question and criticize Plan Colombia, neoliberal policies and the American imperialists’ geopolitics, now have to demonstrate their innocence and separation from terrorist groups, renounce their ideas and proclaim their loyalty to the dominant ideas of the era.

The same discourse of terrorism has constructed an argument and a legal practice, in which the status of terrorist allows for the political de-ontologization of the Other. The terrorist is an enemy that does not even have basic rights and therefore must be eliminated wherever they are found. Colombia repeats the Bush administration discourse: “We fight terrorists wherever they are.” The terrorists have lost their status as political interlocutors. They have become ontological pariahs in which their Being has been put between parentheses as a prerogative of power. Power has not defined what characterizes the terrorists or who they are: in its identikit, any face can fit, including our own.

It is evident that, inherent in this strategy and discourse of terrorism as a tool of political power in late capitalism, there is an underlying heuristic of fear that functions as a political resource of domination, control and subjugation. The reference to terrorism is not separate from geopolitical needs, which in turn are part of the necessities of political and military control. In the same way the Bush administration used terrorism domestically as an argument of dissuasion and generated a series of alerts that maintained US society on tenterhooks, scared and under permanent tension, now the recourse of fear is being used as a geopolitical tool in the war on terrorism.

Fear paralyzes, destroys social solidarity, and produces defensiveness and suspicion of others. To evade the glance of the panopticon of power, self-confinement and self-censorship take hold. Fear depoliticizes, fragments, corrodes, disarms, immobilizes. Power uses the monopoly of violence to manage and control social fear. It practices a heuristic of fear whose coordinates are always inscribed in the political. War and politics overlap and their borders are blurred.

Thanks to this heuristic, power can construct and maintain what Gramsci called hegemony. This heuristic of fear can be understood, in contemporary times, in three major historic processes in Latin America. The first refers to the process of industrialization after the last post-war period, when industrialization and endogenous development concurrently strengthened the working class and communist parties in the region became important political actors, above all in those countries with the most advanced development and generally located in the Southern Cone of the continent.

In effect, in Chile, the Communist Party could win elections with Salvador Allende and embark on a peaceful transition to socialism. Through the CIA, the United States intervened directly in Allende’s overthrow and supported the repressive policies and crimes of the Pinochet regime. In Argentina, the US supported the military coup against María Estela de Perón. Similarly, the US was behind the military coups in Uruguay and Brazil. The Southern Cone of Latin America became a territory of experimentation for using State terrorism, under the figure of a “dirty war,” to exterminate any kind of social, popular or union organization with connections to socialist or communist ideas.

The “dirty war” was a social and political experiment that used fear as a resource and technology of power. The societies that lived in the last circle of hell at the hand of the military dictators emerged traumatized from the experience. The thirty thousand disappeared Argentineans, as well as the victims of repression in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, were the sinister outcome of the “dirty war”. Left-wing politics almost disappeared from the political map and ceased to be a real enemy of the system. Thanks to this heuristic of fear, any possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism was dismantled. The “dirty war” saved the liberal political system from any communist contamination, in the time of the Cold War and of East-West confrontation.

A second moment in this heuristic of fear and of the utilization of the strategy of terror can be seen in Central America during the seventies and eighties. Nicaragua and the Sandinista Revolution was the center of gravity. The US directly intervened in the region, financing the counter-revolutionary guerrillas in Nicaragua and intervening with logistical support and military bases, above all from Honduras.

The military front also covered Guatemala and El Salvador. The Sandinista Front of National Liberation of Nicaragua (FSLN), the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) of El Salvador, and the Guatemalan Revolutionary Union (URNG) became military enemies that needed to be defeated through warfare. It was not only a question of the power of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or the threat that the FMLN in El Salvador or the URNG in Guatemala might come to power; in reality the political content of the entire continent was at stake.

In the same way that the defeat of the Communist parties of the Southern Cone of the region caused a domino effect in the continent and made it possible for the liberal political process to deal with social conflicts without choices or radical alternatives to the capitalist system, the defeat of the Sandinistas was also thought out on a continental level. What was at stake was the substance of democracy. If the Sandinista revolution consolidated, the return to democracy in Latin America would have been different. The liberal forms of democracy would have had to contend with the Sandinista experience over the meaning of politics. They therefore had to destroy the political content of the new democracy that was being built in Nicaragua outside of the mold of liberalism, above all in a context in which the global capitalist system was plunging into a period of speculation and the external debt financial crisis, and Latin America was submerged into the long neoliberal night.

The United Status applied the concept of “low intensity warfare” to legitimize intervention and to provide the political content to this intervention. The “low intensity warfare” fractured Latin American societies. The Guatemalan genocide, the violence of the Salvadorian civil war, the war in Nicaragua that led to the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas, opened the path for a return to democracy in the continent. The democracy that substituted the military dictatorships and other alternative projects only could be admitted within the framework of neoliberalism. The fear as heuristic of terror suffered by Central American societies broke their dreams to obtain even their national liberation. The “low intensity warfare” destroyed alternative projects as real options for power and opened political space for the neoliberal “Social state of law,” that would become the only path for the return to democracy on the continent.

We can distinguish a third period starting in the mid-1990s. In this period, the Andean region is the primary military and political focus. The center of gravity is in Columbia, and includes Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. In all of these countries, the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) have intervened in state and social institutions to disarm resistance to the neoliberal transformation.

While the “dirty war” was the political form of intervention against the working class in the Southern Cone during the sixties and seventies and “low intensity warfare” was the form of military intervention against the Sandinistas in the seventies and eighties, now the fight against terrorism and democratic security, have become the new form of military intervention in the region.

Democratic security and the fight against terrorism are devices in a discourse constructed to legitimate the appropriation of land in one the most diverse regions in the world: the Amazon basin and the Andean Chocó, and where the most important source of fresh water on the planet is found: the Guaraní aquifer. The bellicose enemies that must be defeated in the new geopolitics of intervention are the indigenous people and the social movements of the region.

The policies of neoliberal adjustment that dismantled the State, facilitated the emergence of strong social movements with the capacity for national and continental mobilization. The indigenous organization CONAIE in Ecuador, the MST in Brazil, and the convergence of a series of Bolivian social organizations in the MAS, in addition to other organized expressions from the continent, like the CONACAMI of Peru, and the Mapuche organizations in Chile, opened a political space in the region to dispute the meanings of democracy, of the State, of socialism and of resistance. They developed an alternative discourse and innovative proposals, such as “mandar obedeciendo” (to command with obedience), “nothing for us, everything for everyone”, or the “plurinational State.”

These social movements generated new political practices in the region, such as the World Social Forums, disputed the ideology of liberalism such as the end of history, and recovered the meaning of social utopia with the proposal “another world is possible”. The emergence and consolidation of social movements in the continent takes place in a moment of radicalization of the neoliberal period in the region, when the neoliberal structural reform that the World Bank developed in intricate detail in almost all of the countries in the continent is being reinforced by the proposal of territorial privatization called the Integration Initiative of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA). In reality, the multimodal integration axes of this proposal are the most advanced expression of neoliberalism.

Social movements, and within them indigenous movements, are the most direct threat to the initiation and execution of the IIRSA. The disarticulation and destruction of the mobilizing capacity of these movements can only occur if their political practices are equated with terrorism and are militarily neutralized as part of the global fight against terrorism. In the future, it will not be difficult to “discover” the ties that social organizations of the continent have had with the Colombian guerillas or with any other organization or person that has been stigmatized as a terrorist. It is short step from establishing these ties, to classifying them as terrorist movements and to subsequent military persecution.

In the Colombian-Ecuadorian conflict, not only is the sovereignty of a country at stake, but also the geopolitical strategy that involves the privatization of territories and their link to global financial speculation. Land privatization takes the form of: agro-industry (biofuels), commodities, water, bio-piracy, multimodal integration axes, etc. Fear as a heuristic of power is constructing the new enemies and laying the foundation for arguments that will permit their physical destruction. The true enemies in this neoliberal period of territorial privatization are the ancestral holders of those lands, that is to say, indigenous peoples, that will have to be moved out, persecuted and criminalized for defending their land, that is to say, as “terrorists”.

– Pablo Dávalos is an economist and university professor in Ecuador.

(Translated by Fran Hartmann and Thea Riofrancos.) ALAI, Latin America in Movement

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