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States of Violence

States of Violence

by Fernando Coronil (Editor), Julie Skurski (Editor)

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This extraordinary collection of essays recasts prevailing understandings of the role of violence in the formation of the modern world. By illuminating the links between exceptional ruptures and the routine maintenance of social order, the collection expands and redefines our understanding of political violence.

By means of a combination of detailed historical


This extraordinary collection of essays recasts prevailing understandings of the role of violence in the formation of the modern world. By illuminating the links between exceptional ruptures and the routine maintenance of social order, the collection expands and redefines our understanding of political violence.

By means of a combination of detailed historical studies and imaginative reflection, this book explores the often unrecognized violent foundations of modern nations. Focusing on the relations between the state and the domestic order, it directs attention to contests over the establishment and representation of meanings and addresses the impact of state-centered categories and narratives on the organization and collective remembering of violence. The essays cover a wide range of regions, time periods, and processes, including the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America, the United States, and Europe, and span violent uprisings as well as the quotidian administration of the law. As its title suggests, States of Violence brings together the stable and the transient, the institutional and the experiential, the state sanctioned and the insurgent, inviting recognition of the multiple intersections of practices of governance and processes of feeling.

"Few scholars have managed as effectively as these to denature the place of violence in modern social life and thought. They make it abundantly plain that the frank brutality, often associated with colonial contexts, is inseparable from less acknowledged forms of "peaceful violence" that pervade much of our contemporary political life."
-Jean Comaroff, Bernard E. and Ellen C. Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

Fernando Coronil, a Venezuelan citizen, is Associate Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. His research focuses on contemporary historical transformations in Latin America and on theoretical issues concerning the state, modernity, and postcolonialism. His numerous publications include The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela; "Beyond Occidentalism: Towards Non-Imperial Geohistorical Categories"; and the introductory essay in Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, by Fernando Ortiz. He is completing a book on the coup against President Chávez of Venezuela.

Julie Skurski teaches in the Departments of Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan and is the Associate Director of the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. Her research concerns the intersections of national, racial, and gender relations in Latin America, with a focus on popular religiosity. Her publications include "The Ambiguities of Authenticity in Latin America: Doña Bárbara and the Construction of National Identity," in Becoming National, G. Eley and R. Suny, eds. She is currently completing Civilizing Barbarism, a book on gender, mestizaje, and the state in Venezuela.

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University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
The Comparative Studies in Society and History Book Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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States of Violence

Copyright © 2006

University of Michigan
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ISBN: 978-0-472-09893-4

Chapter One Civilization and Barbarism: Cattle Frontiers in Latin America Silvio R. Duncan Baretta and John Markoff

In looking at yesterday's frontiers (or at today's industrialized world), social analysts tend to see violence as a straightforward and uncomplicated phenomenon: when openly used, it is a direct way of settling disputes; when it is not used but available, it is a necessary-and, at least in the short run, sufficient-condition of domination. As a background condition violence is readily forgotten. Such is the case even in the study of the various affronts to authority that are lumped under the rubric of "collective behavior." One speaks of violent "episodes" arising from the "breakdown" of various routine social mechanisms. By the same token, all the interesting problems in political theory seem to lie in the area of how to control people in every other conceivable manner: through the establishment of a normative consensus, through ideologies, through the creation of common interests, or through bargains and deals. Sufficient consideration is not usually given to the varied and subtle effects of these ways in which the capacity for violence is structured in social life. But consequences follow for any society from the presence or absence of full-time military specialists, from the forms of their organization, from the regional distribution of control of organized violence, from the advantages and disadvantages associated with the use of force, and from the norms associated with such use.

Cattle frontiers in Latin America provide a good context for developing these general considerations. The tradition of violence in New World frontiers is usually simply taken for granted. In this essay we will show that violence was complex in structure and closely linked to the ways in which, in large areas of Latin America, centers and peripheries formed each other. We shall take up the economic, political, and cultural environments within which the cattle frontiers of Latin America developed their remarkable forms of social life. The physical characteristics of the regions were important, but so were the moral categories used to describe the people of the frontiers, the degree of control of peripheral landholders by central administrators (and vice versa) and the changing nature of the European market. We can then examine the frontiers themselves and the ways in which these regions attracted, produced, and supported specialists in violence. This regional specialization at first suited Iberian administrators, whose resources for the direct control of large areas were severely limited; but well before the twentieth century the way of life of the people of the frontiers became an obstacle to would-be state-makers.

We shall begin with a sketch of the development of the cattle industry, which exhibited broadly similar political, economic, and social patterns across the diverse geography of areas ranging from northern Mexico to portions of Argentina. Underlying the similarities in regions so far apart was their character as pastoral frontiers. The early colonizers introduced the cattle that rapidly proliferated into vast herds of wild animals during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In northern Mexico, on the plains around the Orinoco and on the vast grasslands that cover the southernmost part of Brazil, Uruguay, and a large part of Argentina, horsemen-variously called gauchos, llaneros, vaqueros-created a society based on the hunting of cattle. Raising cattle was at first far less important than hunting them; careful breeding was impossible in the unpoliced, unfenced, and thinly populated territories. In at least some regions, an estancia scarcely referred to a ranch at first, but only to a vaguely defined area encompassing grazing rights. Property rights over grazing lands began in different ways and at different times on the various frontiers; strict enforcement of these rights, however, was always accompanied by attempts to rationalize production and was related to the development of internal or external markets. The most dramatic example of this process appears to be the rio-platense region of southern South America. There the passage from the hunting to the raising of cattle was stimulated in the first half of the eighteenth century by administrative measures to protect the depleted herds. Nonetheless, the major impulse for the emergence of large-scale ranches had to wait for the eighteenth-century liberalization of mercantilist trade restrictions and the final collapse of these restrictions with independence. Rationalization of production resulted from the rising prices of hides in the international market and from the prominence of jerked beef as an export industry in the first years of the nineteenth century.

As part of the rationalization drive landlords and states sought to tame the independent frontier populations, and the settled ranchhand increasingly predominated as the cattle-hunting nomad disappeared. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the completion of this process as the barbed wire fence began to define unambiguous ranch boundaries and permitted the systematic breeding of tamer (and tastier) cattle that eclipsed the wilder longhorns. The development of refrigerated ships and railroads expanded the possibilities of edible exports beyond the jerked beef made from the original tough animals-close kin to the fighting bulls-and, as often, the structure of production accommodated itself to the opportunities of the market. The introduction of barbed wire effectively closed the heroic era of cattle frontiers by destroying the freedom of movement essential to the forms of social organization that had grown up in these areas.

This rough sequence varied; Rio Grande do Sul, for example, adopted wire fencing somewhat later than neighboring Uruguay. This implies that there was a considerable overlap of the different periods: cattle hunting coexisted with well-defined ranches for a long period as did fenced and unfenced properties.

Creating Frontiers

Frontiers and the Cost of Protection

Frederic Lane observes that one cost of an economic activity is the cost of its protection from violent disruption. One of the major activities of a government is to supply this protection through control of violence, a service paid for by taxation. Historically, it may frequently be unclear to what degree a particular government was engaged in a protection racket, in which enterprises had to ward off governmental violence by payments of some sort. The protection industry is a natural monopoly, at least on land. Competition impairs the quality of the service, since no single protector can completely guarantee the security of a client against a powerful rival. Competition also makes protection much more expensive.

From Lane's analysis a fruitful conceptualization of frontiers can be derived. As he points out, they are places, where no one has an enduring monopoly on violence. At a given level of technological development, an optimum size exists for an area being protected. Below this size resources are inefficiently used and above it governmental control tends to vanish. There may or may not be another political unit "on the other side." If so, the two political centers may raise each other's protection costs drastically. Uruguay is an area which Spain and Portugal (and later Argentina and Brazil) found too costly to protect against the other party (and the Uruguayans). Frontiers are, then, boundaries beyond the sphere of the routine action of centrally located violence-producing enterprises, although they may well be within the range of isolated attacks.

For the governments of Spain and Portugal protection, or more precisely their capacity to produce and sell it, was a scarce resource which had to be wisely allocated. Naturally, it was allocated to those regions that could yield maximum returns for the cost of governing. The process of selection favored areas with dense native populations whose labor was allocated to Spaniards (under encomienda), such as central Mexico or the South American altiplano; it also favored regions with mines, like northern Mexico. Cattle raising in Mexico started in the empty spaces between mines; it was promoted by the Spanish government with the specific purpose of securing the roads against nomad raids through some form of settlement. It is not surprising that diminishing returns from mining in the seventeenth century, together with financial need, led the Crown practically to relinquish control over the northern territory to powerful private citizens. It simply did not pay to govern the semi-arid region once the silver had been extracted. This process was not unique. Buenos Aires was a backwater in the early colonial era because it had neither settled natives nor mines of silver or gold; consequently, the Spanish Crown had little immediate interest in controlling that region.

Cattle frontiers were largely the result of economic choices made by governments. Factors taken into consideration were the quality of the physical environment, particularly land; the presence of a relatively dense native population; and the existence of mines. Regions with marginal land, no mines, and low population density tended to be those in which governments delegated their authority to private citizens more often than in other regions. These men paid the costs of colonization and defense, but they were compensated through the acquisition-by legal and not so legal means-of huge tracts of land.

Cattle tended to concentrate precisely in these areas for a variety of reasons. Herds were driven out of more densely settled land by intervention of political authorities, who were concerned about the welfare of the Indians, or at least about the Indians' value as an exploitable resource. Such was the case in sixteenth-century Mexico. The eventual destination of the herds was usually land that could not have supported large agrarian populations in any event (at least prior to the development of modern agricultural technology). In addition, ranching required only a small labor force. Moreover, the mobility of cattle made these animals an obvious resource to bring along on military expeditions in advance of other forms of European penetration, putting cattle herds on what Morissey has called "the cutting edge" of the conquest. Finally, given a territory where no monopoly of violence existed, the ideal investments were those-like cattle ranching-that required small amounts of fixed capital.

Once the formation of a cattle frontier was far advanced, it tended to become a self-locking process. For one thing, the animals themselves modified their physical environment; heavy and hungry beasts made potential cropland marginal and reduced prairie to scrub. More important, in our view, than these physical transformations were the effects on the social environment. The expansion of cattle raising had the effect of uprooting the few settled Indians living in those areas. These Indians, as well as those who had been nomads before the Europeans arrived, quickly learned the use of horses. The result was a native population capable of surviving and waging continuous warfare in areas such as Argentina, southern Chile, or northern Mexico. The Indians' ability to handle cattle, moreover, was soon comparable to that of Spanish or mestizo cowboys. Finally, the low population density, the abundance of wild cattle in the early colonial period, and the absence of an organization that had a monopoly on violence attracted criminals and vagrants to frontier areas, as Góngora observes. Adept in the rough skills of cattle raising, which as we shall see, were very similar to those of premodern warfare, these men could easily make a living by plundering and by smuggling cattle; they were another source of the continuous turmoil of these regions.

This brief overview illustrates, in Owen Lattimore's fine phrase, the degree to which civilization was the "mother of barbarism." The imperial expansion of strong centers, he has argued (most forcefully for the case of China), may itself create the dangerous and supposedly primitive mobile raiders who menace outlying areas. Contact with the Indian populations of the Empire's frontiers was made through cattle, through vagrants, through military incursions, and through Catholic missions, the latter being the only "civilizing" influence on the native populations. The result was a kind of continuous warfare, as mentioned above, which was also systematic. The Crown could not, in the short run, occupy immense marginal areas filled only with herds. The Indians had, therefore, time to probe the Spanish organization and attack the least protected cattle raisers and the weakest military outposts. We would suggest that an important part of this process was the inevitable formation of ties between natives and white or mestizo vagrants. The latter were men who knew the Spanish much better than the Indians did and had no bonds of loyalty to the political center. They could make a profitable living by assuming the role of mediators-today conducting the natives in war raids and tomorrow negotiating peace with Spanish officials.

Violence and political negotiation were then at the center of the social and economic life of Latin American cattle frontiers. In the economic sphere, it is apparent that a frontier cattleman also had to be a diplomat and a captain of war. Business success certainly depended on skill with weapons and on military leadership. But it very likely also depended on having informal contacts with regular bands of nomads, on choosing the right occasions to fight or to buy protection from such bands, and on having the right connections with smugglers. Gaining wealth depended on finding adequate solutions to the problem of the control of violence in a society in which many had access to military skills and military tools. Such solutions could consist, as pointed out above, only in the establishment of one's own armed group or in bargaining with others who also had a degree of control over the use of force. In the political sphere, a major problem for Crown officials was to maintain peace in the absence of a clear military superiority over nomadic bands, Indian or otherwise. This implied negotiations, and probably tacit agreements that guaranteed these bands a fair economic gain. Without ever mentioning it, officials were probably good buyers in what one might call the protection market.

Mestizo, Vagrant, Barbarian: The Moral and Legal Status of Frontier Populations

We have considered above how the locations of Latin American cattle frontiers were constrained by the physical environment, the level of technology, and the overall goals of the Spanish conquerors. But, as Lattimore observes, an unchanging physical environment can acquire changing meanings for a changing society. A new discovery can make a mountain range irrelevant as a "natural" limit for expansion. Modifications in policy can turn marginal areas into civilized ones if the policy is sustained for long enough. That social change produces frontier change leads to the axiomatic statement that frontiers are of social, not geographic origin. Only after the concept of a frontier exists can it be attached by the community that has conceived it to a geographical configuration. The consciousness of belonging to a group, a group that includes certain people and excludes others, must precede the conscious claim for that group of the right to live or move about within a particular territory....

The "consciousness of belonging to a group" recalls of course other, nonterritorial forms of social exclusion. Kai Erikson has proposed that communities need to produce negative models systematically, so as to demarcate for their members acceptable behavior. The dislocation produced by the clash between Spanish and Indian civilizations challenged the norms which defined membership in the Spanish (and Indian) communities. Church and Crown authorities were therefore concerned with enforcing and reinforcing these norms. At the same time, the clash produced a number of individuals of mixed cultural and racial status who were ideal targets for hostile accusations of deviance. It is not surprising that some of these individuals moved away from the territory controlled by the political center and became an important element in the formation of frontier societies. A full understanding of the moral and legal status of frontier populations demands therefore a brief general examination of the history of social exclusion in Latin America. Racial and cultural mixtures, as major concerns of the ideologies that the conquerors constructed to justify colonial domination, are central to such a history.


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