The Allure of Labor

Over the course of the last four decades, workers have undoubtedly been one of the chief casualities of neoliberal economics. The recent conspicuous battles waged by unions against Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio are but a microcosm of efforts implemented by both the state and capital to weaken workers’ ability to unionize, bargain collectively, and generally organize to redress their grievances. In the United States, labor has rarely been able to rely on the state to serve an as unbiased meditator and this has only worsened with the hegemony of neoliberal orthodoxy. However, the state-capital-labor nexus has had numerous historical iterations. In the conservative-corporatist Latin American regimes of the pre-neoliberal epoch, these relations were dramatically different. Indeed, in the case of Peru, workers were generally seen as an important agent of progress, not as an impediment to capital accumulation or barrier to curbing budget deficits. The Peruvian state in the 1920’s and 30’s engaged in an intensive bio-political project of governmentality in order to advance the ability of workers to impel Peruvian development. As I will discuss below, this effort was deeply problematic, yet it represents a wholly different conception, perhaps radical in a contemporary context, of the role of labor in economic improvement and progress.

In his book The Allure of Labor Paulo Drinot examines the role of labor policy, race, and state formation in Peru during the 1920’s and 30’s. During this period, Peruvian leaders implemented an assemblage of policies and constructed a host of institutions intended to constitute the role of workers in the Peruvian state. According to Drinot, Peru essentially was a “labor state.” Drinot suggests that Peruvian elites and leaders saw the role of the state as bi-fold and this reflected the duality with which Peruvian leaders viewed labor. Workers were at once viewed as a source of material progress and a potential pernicious source of Marxist labor militancy. Indeed, the Peruvian state mediated between capital and labor and most importantly provided manifold services to workers. These services, ranging from mediation in labor disputes, adequate housing, cheap nutrition, and social insurance, were an exemplar of a bio-political project of Foucauldian governmentality. Drinot’s chief contribution is to rebut much of the previous historiography, which suggests that the Peruvian labor state’s policies were meant simply to militate against labor militancy. I will examine Drinot’s discussion of the racialized Peruvian labor state and the policies aimed at the de-Indianization of Peru. Despite some critical elisions related to the discussion of democratization and the nebulous nature of Peruvian leaders’ effort at progress, Drinot provides a compelling revisionist account of the Peruvian labor state.

For Drinot, the Peruvian labor state and its policies were highly racialized and gendered. The state strictly delineated what defined “workers” and regarded the indigenous as obstacles to the project of Peruvian industrialization and advancement. The assemblages of labor policies of the state bio-politically constituted human capital, that is, workers as the historical agent of progress in Peru. Workers were envisaged as and actively promoted to be mestizo (white), virile men. The “allure of labor,” as it were, was that while labor militancy presented obstacles to the erstwhile power structure, a carefully crafted project of governmentality could constitute workers that could impel Peruvian industrialization and development.

Appropriating from Foucault, Drinot notes that governmentality is “a project of rule focused on ‘the way in which one conducts the conduct of men.’” (Drinot, p.8) Drinot privileges this approach, and I would argue that it is extremely pertinent, because the policies and agencies he discusses “are neither mechanisms for cooption nor simple expressions of autonomous bureaucratic traditions, rationalities, or elite interest,” rather “the agencies and the state they constituted, are best understood as elements in, or dimensions of, a project of rule, or a governmental aspiration by broad range of social actors.” (Drinot, p. 9) Indeed, the intention of this governmentality was to engender the historical progression of Peru, utilizing the bodies of workers as the medium through which to industrialize.

Drinot provides an interesting content analysis of the various speeches of Peruvian leaders, editorials in newspapers, and propaganda that demonstrate the Peruvian elites’ conception of workers and their effort to constitute them. Elites across the board subscribed to the historical importance of workers and most also adduced the racialized, gendered conceptions of the worker. Even the important Peruvian Marxist intellectual Jose Carlos Mariategui espoused a policy of de-Indianization. Drinot notes, “For Mariategui to the Indian qua Indian, as opposed to the Indian qua worker, was incommensurable with his vision of Peru’s socialist future.”(Drinot, p. 47) The views of Francisco Alayza Paz Soldan, a minister of state, perhaps best encapsulate the views of Peruvian elite concerning the indigenous peoples of Peru: “Peru’s Indians were a source of backwardness, national weakness, and embarrassment. They constituted a race ‘left behind on the march to progress, alien to our sentiments, indifferent to our ideals, inert to our needs and suffering.’” (Drinot, p. 44) As discursive “otherization” often does, the Peruvian elite predictably depicted the indigenous as licentious, capricious, indolent, and wholly incommensurable with the project of governmentality that aimed to interject Peru into the developed world.

In order to constitute workers, the Peruvian state not only militated to suppress labor militancy, but constructed a policy and institutional edifice that aimed to provide an avenue for capital and labor to resolve disputes, encourage protein-laden, masculine diets, domesticate workers, and provide for the medical maintenance of workers’ bodies. Indeed, the Peruvian state utilized these tools, or “technologies of government,” as part of the larger effort to economically develop Peru and these institutions and policies affected the growth and formation of the Peruvian state.

Peru’s racialized, gendered labor state in the 1920’s and 30’s is particularly redolent of what Esping-Anderson calls the conservative-corporatist welfare regime. The Peruvian case is also relevant because of the role Catholicism in the Peru. For Esping-Anderson, a strong influence of Catholicism is likely to engender, particularly in the absence of strong left party power, conservative-corporatist welfare regimes. This model arguably works very well, but only for those who are included in the structure of the system, typically labor, capital, and the state. Germany is a salient present day example of a relatively successful corporatist system. However, as Estevez-Abe notes in her discussion of Japan, those who are not included in this system, such as the unemployed, often face an extremely difficult task in efforts to receive government services or redress grievances. The indigenous people of Peru were an exemplar of an “outsider” in the corporatist system. Access to mediation in labor disputes, adequate housing, cheap nutrition, and social insurance were largely institutionally and legally blocked. Indeed, even the conception of what the term “worker” meant was biased against the type of rural, agricultural production that the indigenous typically performed.

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The exclusion of the Indian from the Peruvian labor state, going so far as to promoting a policy of de-Indianization through miscegenation, Drinot notes, can be understood by examining Agamben’s work on bio-political projects of governmentality. For Agamben, “bio-politics operates through the reduction of certain categories of people to ‘bare life,’ to a ‘life devoid of value,’ or to a ‘life not worth living,’ or indeed to the status of homo sacer.” (Drinot, p. 235) “Homo sacer, is “he or she who although alive as a human being, is not part of the political community,” notes Zizek. (Zizek, p. 91) In other words, homo sacer is he or she who can be killed with impunity. (Drinot, p. 235) One needs look no farther than American history, early or contemporary, for salient examples of this concept. The pilgrims engaged in genocide against Native Americans and today under the guise of the “war on terror” the American president can kill or detain anyone labeled under the moniker of “terrorist” without any transparent judicial proceeding. The efforts of Peruvian presidents like Augusto Leguía and Óscar Benavides to actively encourage a policy of de-Indianization in order to promote the industrial progression of Peru provide another example of homo sacer. The racist rhetoric of Peruvian architects of the labor state, efforts to constitute workers as mestizo, factory laborers, and even suggestions of de-Indianization through miscegenation cultivate an image of Peru’s indigenous as people with “life devoid or value” or with a “life not worth living.” Indians were allowed to become workers, but in doing so they would essentially have to cease being Indians. In other words, the “workerization” of the Indian meant his or her self de-Indianization.

Of course, the homo sacer status of Peruvian Indians is not a solely Peruvian phenomenon and Peruvian Indians continue to struggle compared to indigenous movements in other parts of Latin American. Yashar notes how indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia have been comparably more successful than efforts of Peruvian indigenous. (Yashar, p. 278) While Peruvian Indians were not simply systematically slaughtered and physically erased, as in Argentina, Chile, and the United States, the Peruvian labor state’s efforts to marginalize Peruvians has perforce continued to affect the trajectory of the Peruvian indigenous movement’s own success (or lack thereof) at redressing grievances. The Peruvian Indian’s homo sacer status continues to be affected by its “quasi-ontological status as a non-productive being.” (Drinot, p. 237) Drinot argues that Indians are still subject to efforts at “cultural erasure” and “are valued qua Indians only in so far as they can be reduced to archeological or museum pieces.” (Drinot, p. 237)

The labor state in Peru built an impressive, albeit dysfunctional, infrastructure to physically support labor in the 1920’s and 30’s. The allure of labor for Peruvian leaders and intellectuals, as Drinot notes, was that only through their efforts could Peru be ushered into a new era of development. In combating the generally accepted historiography, Drinot asserts that the Peruvian labor state was not constituted simply to suppress labor militancy, although that certainly played a role. Drinot even devotes a chapter to discuss capital’s backlash and discipline of labor when it began to demand too much. Nonetheless, the governmentality project to constitute, racialize, gender, domesticate, feed, and heal labor was primarily undertaken in order to impel Peru toward industrial and historical progression. Housing projects like the “barrios obreros,” nutrition projects like the “resturantes populares,” or hospitals for workers created as part of the Seguro Social (social insurance) program instantiated the labor state’s governmentality. Of course, these policies can also be viewed as an effort to undermine leftist parties, but Drinot argues that it is too reductive to conceive of these policies as simply part of a political effort to maintain power. Indeed, he adduces a voluminous amount of primary sources to buttress his argument.

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Drinot largely leaves questions of democratization out of his account of the Peruvian labor state. Moreover, it is largely left unclear what Peruvian leaders fully intended in their project of governmentality. In other words, if workers were the agent of historical progression in Peru, where was this progression to take Peru? Was the project intended simply to encourage the industrial and economic development of Peru? What are the political implications of this development? Peruvian leaders were undoubtedly influenced by transnational trends regarding racial superiority and eugenics and their project was clearly not democratic. As O’Donnell argues, “in a properly functioning democratic order…legality is universalistic: it can be invoked by anyone, irrespective of his or her position in society.” (O’Donnell, p. 1360) This is the diametrical opposite of the institutional structure manifested by the labor state in Peru. Constitutionally, Indians were forced to redress grievances through other avenues and provided differential, often subpar, services. Indeed, what can be more undemocratic than an effort at “cultural erasure?” If the Peruvian Indian was to be a part of Peru’s future he or she must have necessarily acquiesced to de-Indianization. Overall, the discussion of democratic or political development is largely left relatively untouched. While democratization is certainly not the primary focus of Drinot, it would have been useful to discuss and further explicated the intentions of Peruvian leaders’ project of governmentality.

Despite the relative absence of discussion of the long-term political ramifications of the governmentality of the labor state in Peru, this book provides a useful discussion of the state efforts to intervene in capital-labor relations. Marx acknowledged that the state or capital would always provide for at least the bare minimum level of subsistence for workers. Workers are human capital and as such basic provisions must be made for their sustained role in production. The labor state in Peru militated to provide beyond that for labor. However, this process, a project of governmentality, was highly racialized and gendered. Moreover, it affected the formation of the Peruvian state as we still see the marginalization of Peru’s indigenous denizens today. The Peruvian state’s effort at economic and industrial development took place through marginalization and cultural erasure of the homo sacer, the Peruvian Indian. Drinot compellingly makes this argument and provides a useful template for examining racialized projects of governmentality.

Further Reading

Drinot, Paulo. The Allure of Labor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Esping Andersen, Gøsta. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Estevez-Abe, Margarita. Welfare and Capitalism in Postwar Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

O’Donnell, Guillermo. “On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries.” World Development 21 (1993): 1355–1369.

Yashar, Deborah J. Contesting Citizenship in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002.