“Plastic delights, plastic dreams. In the paradise promised to all and reserved for a few, things are more and more important and people less and less so. The ends have been kidnapped by the means: things buy you, cars drive you, computers program you, television watches you.”
— Eduardo Galeano, from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
Local Futures wishes to pay tribute to the Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, who passed away on April 13th. In a style that was at the same time polemical irascible and accessible, Galeano exposed the hidden brutalities of colonialism and corporate globalization – as well as the unsung beauties of the humble, the vernacular, the quotidian across Latin America.
“No computer could count the crimes that the pop culture business commits each day against the human rainbow and the human right to identity. But its devastating progress is mind-boggling. Time is emptied of history, and space no longer acknowledges the astonishing diversity of its parts. Through the mass media the owners of the world inform us all of our obligation to look at ourselves in a single mirror.
“Whoever doesn’t have, isn’t. He who has no car or doesn’t wear designer shoes or imported perfume is only pretending to exist. Importer economy, impostor culture: we are all obliged to take the consumer’s cruise across the swirling waters of the market. Most of the passengers are swept overboard, but thanks to foreign debt the fares of those who make it are billed to us all. Loans allow the consuming minority to load themselves up with useless new things, and before everyone’s eyes the media transform into genuine needs the artificial demands the North of the world ceaselessly invents and successfully projects onto the South.”
Galeano was one of earliest writers to popularize an understanding of the structural relation between great affluence and accumulation in some parts of the globe and amongst a small stratum of society within every country, and the suffering and deprivation suffered in the vast “backyard” of this narrow but tremendous privilege:
“To turn infamies into feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe that wealth is innocent of poverty.”
It is not a pleasant relationship to acknowledge, since doing so politicizes poverty, shows it to be caused rather than an unfortunate but nevertheless timeless or genetic condition. Galeano constantly reminded his readers that affluence and opulence are incompatible with fulfillment of ethical duties. His book, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, is a marvelous, kaleidoscopic historical survey of the absurdities and vapidity of consumer culture, and fulmination against the needless exploitation and incalculable neo-imperialist violence undergirding that culture. He saw the globalization of this absurdity and recoiled in horror: the flattening of the richness and diversity of the Earth itself and its tapestry of cultures is lamentable enough, but by a commercial system that rewards venality and produces misery even in the hearts of its putative beneficiaries, is appalling.
“The invisible violence of the market: diversity is the enemy of profitability, and uniformity rules. Mass production on a gigantic scale imposes its obligatory patterns of consumption everywhere. More devastating than any single-party dictatorship is the tyranny of forced uniformity. It imposes on the entire world a way of life that reproduces human beings as if they were photocopies of the consummate consumer.”
He was one of the few writers, from either the global North or South, to understand that “development” as emulation-of-the-rich was not just objectionable because of environmental limits and constraints, but also because even if the project were physically possible, to succeed at it would be a Pyrrhic victory of the worst sort. Global industrial-consumerist growth and development aren’t just physically impossible, they are undesirable, even deadly. He wrote:
“The leaders who promise to take the countries of the South into the First World by an act of magic that will turn us all into prosperous subjects of the kingdom of waste ought to be tried for fraud and as accessories to a crime. For fraud because they promise the impossible; if we all consumed like those who are squeezing the earth dry, we’d have no world left. And as accessories to a crime because the lifestyle they promote – the huge orgasm of delirious consumption they call happiness – sickens our bodies, poisons our souls, and leaves us without the home the world wished to become long before it existed.”
But Galeano didn’t just pillory this dismal system. His was also, at core, a liberatory project, toppling the narrative of the inevitability of the status quo, the limpid notion that however bad things may be, it’s the best of all possible worlds, so get used to it. Even to read his Upside Down is to be inoculated against officially approved resignation to consumerist dystopia. He only had to train his historian’s and journalist’s eye on actual people, in actual communities, in the actual world, to breathe life into this project of alternative possibilities:
“Official history, mutilated memory, is a long, self-serving ceremony for those who give the orders in this world. Their spotlights illuminate the heights and leave the grass roots in darkness. The always invisible are at best props on the stage of history, like Hollywood extras. But they are the ones – the actors of real history, the denied, lied about, hidden protagonists of past and present – who incarnate the splendid spectrum of another possible reality.”
Through story, experience, people’s history, poetry, and a trenchant, sarcastic sense of humor, Galeano bequeathed us an indispensable critique that grows in relevance with every passing day.