Beyond Resentment: On Imperial and Indigenous Return | Carlos Perona-Calvete

The arrival of the Zapatistas was barely noticed. On June 11, after 47 days at sea, a group of delegates from what we may describe as a confederacy of Maya communities in southern Mexico, whose militias occupied the capital of the state of Chiapas back in the 90s, arrived at the Azores islands. From there, they set off for Vigo, Spain. They have since been to several of the continent’s capitals, and are now back in their indigenous country (their “autonomous municipalities”).

Some outlets, those that did cover the story, tended to describe it as a symbolic counter-conquest. This would contradict Zapatista ideas, but it is fair to say that a certain symbolic symmetry was indeed being sought: in their inaugural declaration, the newcomers gave Europe an Indian name (“Slumil K’ajxemk’op”, precisely – and quite generously – meaning something like unconquered land), just as America has a European designation. 

To understand the point of the operation, we need to cite last year’s statement in which the group first announced the trip.  It was released on the heels of the Mexican President’s request that Spain and the Catholic Church apologize for the conquest of Mexico 500 years previous. It is important to highlight that the Zapatistas, whatever their faults, do not engage in apologetics on behalf of the Aztec empire, being quite allergic to the kitsch of Moctezumist nationalism currently in vogue. The most obvious legacy of European intervention, then, namely the end of that theocracy and its economy of human sacrifice, is not rejected:

“… We do not want to go back to that past, neither alone, nor, much less, led by the hand of those who sow racial resentment and intend to feed their outdated nationalism with the supposed splendour of an empire, that of the Aztecs, whose expansion came at the cost of the blood of their fellows. Of those who want to convince us that, with the fall of that empire, the original peoples of these lands were defeated. 

Neither the Spanish State nor the Catholic Church have any reason to ask us for forgiveness for anything…What would Spain apologize for? Having birthed Cervantes?…Antonio Machado? Lope de Vega? Bécquer?…”

Here we have an explicit repudiation of the politics of resentment. An indigenismo that does not subsist off the tropes of the Black Legend, that centuries-long propaganda campaign against Spain and her works. Equivalents to the Black Legend abound in the context of other overseas empires, notably the British, but the articulation of pre-imperial, native identity in terms that explicitly push back against identity cum resentment are not often highlighted. That the latter exist, however, should encourage defenders of the record of European empires to reciprocate and not engage in one-sided apologetics, looking favourably upon modern assertions of pre-imperial cultural forms.

British readers may find it interesting to know how this is playing out in a fellow Euro-Atlantic cultural continuum. After the rise of anachronistic political brands based on refuted myths against the empire on both sides of the ocean, most recently and vociferously in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, or in Obrador’s gambit, and by Podemos in Spain, a reaction is afoot. Political Hispanismo – the idea that ​​the Hispanidad, the Spanish-speaking world, should constitute a geopolitical block, alike a rehabilitated British Commonwealth – is gaining popularity, cultivated in Spain by a certain loss of enthusiasm for the EU, and in central and south America by the long-standing failure of established political options.

Even if one supports this, however, it is worth making an effort to become aware, and grow appropriately weary, of its more spurious elements. For there is a tendency among its proponents to think of the Hispanidad as an exclusive work, at once anti-European and anti-indigenous American, producing a kind of identarian spectre for an otherwise legitimate enterprise. We cannot but see parallels elsewhere, especially as the UK charts its post-Brexit future in terms that often sound more like an identity-crisis than a question of geopolitical strategy.

To begin with, the imperial past should not function as a national identity. It is trans-national.  Already in the 14th century, Alfonso de Cartagena defined empire as a coordination of states, not really a state in itself, and Spanish intellectual tradition (father Vitoria, etc.) did not articulate the rights of indigenous peoples abroad as Spaniards in potentia, but as human beings and as members of pre-existing political communities. Pretending that Spain’s political trajectory is not fundamentally European (from the reign of Alfonso X to those of Charles I and his son) is as dissonant as celebrating the empire – with its early production of systematic grammars for native languages, making these co-official in her viceregencies, and recognizing land rights to indigenous states, such as the Tlaxcala, fierce rivals of the Aztecs – while also being hostile to people describing themselves as “Indios” instead of “Hispanos”.

I often think of the imposition of a demerit by king Philip II upon the viceroy of Peru when the latter executed Túpac Amaru, last of the Inca monarchs. The king is credited with what can be read as a declaration of intent for America: “I sent you to serve kings, not to slay them.” Philip apparently considered Túpac a king, and the Incanate a kingdom. Indeed, the difference between a Spaniard and a modern Quechua villager from Bolivia or a Nahua-speaker from the Mexican Veracruz is, in part, testimony to imperial pluralism and non-assimilationism. It is this quasi-medieval associationism that best reflects the legacy of empire. Writes Milbank: “Nation states…by monopolising sovereignty in the centre…are less subsidiarist and less pluralistic [than empires].”

Yet exponents of political Hispanismo often lapse into assuming that the character of Spain is not to be sought in her villages, in what remains of a once robust commons, in St. Isidore’s Etymologies, popular poetry, Cervantes…but in the Americas. The Spanish demographic sinkhole is therefore to be plugged in more or less the same way as prevailing policy goes about it, that is, through immigration, only this is to be rigorously Spanish-speaking. Consider, for example, the conclusion to Argentine professor of Political Science Marcello Gullo Omodeo’s recent “Madre Patria”, Motherland (a book I recommend, but which has yet to be translated into English):

“It is undeniable that Europe’s population pyramid is funerary…Given this circumstance – one we do not think is alterable – it is evident that only the mass immigration of Hispano-Americans could perform the miracle of allowing Spain to remain Spain…Dear reader, for Spain to continue to be Spain it is necessary for you and all European Spaniards to remember now – and never again forget – that no Hispanic American…is a foreigner in Spain…” and vice-versa.

The only legitimate national identity is to be that of empire redivivus. The Spaniard whose national feeling is not transatlantic and the native American who does not define himself as Hispanic are twin obstacles.

To be clear, I support political unity for Hispano(Ibero)-America, commercial ties, joint R&D, etc., all with Spain and Portugal’s participation. However, that such a project ought to correspond with the local and personal identity of an Aymara in the Andes, or that a Spaniard should cease to consider himself part of a European civilizational sphere and conceive of his identity as a vector towards Mexico City or Buenos Aires instead, is as impertinent as it is irrelevant. Further, this project is complicit with whatever dynamics lead to low birth rates in richer countries and emigration-generating economic deprivation in poorer ones. If there is a solution to this – and ultimately there must be – it should apparently only be sought after the desirable feat of social engineering has been brought to term.

We encountered something similar during the Brexit campaign. Along with specific arguments against the EU, there was the notion that the UK is culturally displaced in its geography, and at home in the Commonwealth. Correspondingly, its woes were to be reversed in part through Commonwealth immigration. Nigel Farage considered Polish immigration more culturally distant from modern Britain than that coming from India, and contended that the UK would receive more (anglophone) African immigration after leaving the EU. Part of this was to be a means towards a more meritocratic points system, but it would also expand the population of Britons with some familial memory of empire. This has been replaced now by the need for a “global Britain” to operate in political orbits not formerly its own. As Novalis’ wrote of another era, “[w]hat had been lost in Europe they sought to regain multifold in other continents, in the furthest Occident and Orient”.

This kind of empire revivalism suggests that Spain, or Britain, or any country with an overseas legacy to draw on, can save itself from being a mere periphery of world order. It is a means towards becoming a centre for prevailing global dynamics, not towards reversing these. If successful, it would likely raise GDP and bolster exports, but many of the pathologies now at play – the reliance on global inequality facilitating the concentration of qualified (or cheap) labour, the eroding quality of life of working people, pressures on the middle class, and so on – would remain in place.

But another use of the imperial past is possible: one that does not collapse empire into nationality, that assumes overlapping rather than contradicting spheres, and that seeks economically and socially sustainable arrangements – not just economic competitiveness – when rendering post-imperial cultural ties politically relevant. John Milbank expresses this general idea in his theses on empire:

“We need…stronger pan-Latin American and African groupings, and these need to be systematically linked to European and North American cross-border federations. The British Commonwealth and Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie can play important mediating roles here.”

Such systematic linkage, suggesting, for example, that Britain can be an overlap between Commonwealth and Europe, is a macro-expression of the same ethos that should render a critical defence of the imperial past compatible with Anglo-Asante reconciliation, Indian patriotism, and so on. We have a test before us, a test of the imagination, to proceed without resentment either of the past or of present political rivals, to name and be named by the foreigner (recall that Maya dubbing of Europe with which we started), and thereby rediscover the place of the imperial principle and the indigenous prerogative both.

Photo Credit.

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