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Capital Fictions

by Ericka Beckman on February 28, 2017

Between 1870 and 1930, Latin American countries were incorporated into global capitalist networks like never before, mainly as exporters of raw materials and importers of manufactured goods.  “One of the major sources of articulation and legitimation of free market expansion, as explored in my book Capital Fictions, came from Latin American writers and politicians, in a set of what I call “capital fictions” of the Latin American Export Age, or fictions of and about capitalist modernisation as lived from the export-driven periphery”.

These capital fictions are found in banknotes, advertisements and economic treatises, but also in sonnets and novels.  Their trajectory runs from the enthusiastic and optimistic endorsement of production and consumption for the global market, to ever-more desperate attempts to explain why Latin American countries—in spite of following economic science—could be so rich in natural resources, and yet still so poor.

At the centre of the production of “capital fictions” during the Latin American Export Age stood the letrado or man of letters, the European-identified elite subject par excellence in nineteenth-century Spanish America.  A multivalent and hybrid figure, the letrado was a key figure in the creation of new nation-states across much of Spanish America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, equally at home writing novels and neoclassical as writing constitutions and drafting diplomatic accords.  Letrados were also the political economists of their age, writing tracts defending free trade, envisioning new export sectors, and plumbing the mysteries of public credit.  As economic elites, they also straddled what we today consider separate realms of art and commerce, simultaneously operating as novelists and landowners, or poets and stock market speculators.

As a result, economic treatises from the Export Age inevitably highlight the imaginative and aesthetic dimensions of political economy, just as literary texts underscore the economic dimensions of aesthetics.  As an initial example, we can turn to what I call “export reverie,” a mode of writing that melded political economy, civic rhetoric and aesthetics to present dream visions of free trade.  In an article entitled “Las riquezas de Bolivia” (“The Wealth of Bolivia”) a title that plays off of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations appeared in the New-York-based, Cuban-owned newspaper La América Ilustrada published in 1872, the anonymous author confidently identifies Bolivia as “one of the richest countries of this rich land of América”: “The fertility of its soil is incomparable, its products are varied and infinite, and its entrails hold an abundant store of man’s most valuable minerals.”  For the author, Bolivia’s wealth lies in its untapped mineral resources; unlocking them meant that Bolivia could become one of the richest nations on earth, a fantasy rendered as aesthetic wish-image.  Similarly, in the Cuban writer and patriot José Martí’s little-known pamphlet Guatemala (1878) waxes poetic about coffee, which was quickly becoming the country’s main export crop in the aftermath of the Liberal Revolution of 1871. Figured as the “rich, generous gift (don) of America”, and as “sublime juice” (jugo excelso), coffee grows like a “dream”, “fantasy,” and “sensual caprice”.

The extreme inequality and volatility of export-driven economies are not apparent in export reveries of the 1870s.  Later letrados, however, were faced with the task of making sense of the disastrous aftermaths of the financial busts that inevitably followed commodity booms.  After the so-called Baring crisis of 1890 in Argentina (so named for the British bank whose loans sparked a speculative bubble), at least a dozen novels appeared to tell the story the most devastating stock market crash the country had yet experienced.  The best known of these novels was Julián Martel’s La bolsa (partially inspired by Emile Zola’s naturalist novel L’argent), which traces the rise and fall of an Anglo-Argentine speculator, Dr. Luis Glow.  First published in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación, where Martel had been reported on the stock market, Martel’s novel denounced the “fictitious prosperity” of the speculative bubble.  Rather than identifying British loans as the problem, however, the novel locates the “real” source of the crisis in an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers, as well as in the unquenchable thirst of Argentine women for luxury.  British capitalists, on the other hand, are considered heroes, “bringing us loans with a confidence that honours us.”  At this moment in history, the liberal letrado remained in the grip of the fantasy that continued participation in the ‘free’ market is the only way forward for Argentina.  Any deviation from progress must be the fault of Jews or women (or any other “other”) and not the economic model itself.

But by the 1920s, as the export model itself entered into crisis, Latin American literature began to produce images of peripheral modernisation not as a dream, but as a nightmare. This is the case of José Eustacio Rivera’s La vorágine (1924), a novel set at the height of the Amazonian rubber boom. Trained as a lawyer, Rivera visited the rubber region to resolve a border dispute between Colombia and Venezuela: though the rubber boom had long ended—with world production transferred to plantations in Malaysia—memories of it were alive and well. In addition to stories about the fabulous wealth of rubber traders—men who lit cigars with bank notes and sent their laundry to Europe for cleaning—Rivera was shaken by the stories of the torture and enslavement of the indigenous people forced by traders to collect rubber. These stories became the basis of his novel. As if to highlight letrados’ previous blindness to exploitation, Rivera makes his main character a poet who enters the jungle singing odes to its power, but ends the novel writing the story of enslaved rubber tappers in an accounting ledger. The poet, like the tappers, doesn’t make it out alive: as in La bolsa, that of the poet being “devoured,” not by the stock exchange but by the jungle of the rubber trade.

Ericka Beckman
Ericka Beckman is Associate Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America's Export Age (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), and is currently writing a book on capitalism and rural societies in 20th-century Latin American literature.

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