Thursday, July 12, 2007

Brinks reviews Godoy, Popular Injustice: Violence, Community and Law in Latin America

Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, Popular Injustice:Violence, Community, and Law in Latin America (Stanford University Press, 2006) is reviewed for H-Law by Daniel Brinks, Departmentof Government, University of Texas at Austin. Brinks writes:

In this compelling and disturbing book, Angelina Snodgrass Godoy offers a nuanced analysis of a phenomenon that strikes at the very heart of democracy: mass popular uprisings which often led to the violent murder of people suspected of usually relatively minor crimes in post-civil war, democratic Guatemala. According to the UN mission to Guatemala, nearly five hundred such events were recorded in Guatemala from 1996 to2002, leading to the death of 235 people. The preferred lynching method in Guatemala is fire,rather than the rope: victims are doused in gasoline and burned alive. Often entire communities participate in elaborate ceremonies of public shaming and abuse before putting the suspected offender to death. The practice is not restricted to Guatemala, but seems especially prevalent there.
The lynchings Godoy describes raise the kind of fears discussed by Fareed Zakaria: fears of what might happen when popular sovereignty turns some measure of authority to "illiberal societies."[1]Godoy's book is richly ethnographic and theoretically informed, presenting in chilling detail and heartbreaking immediacy the depth of inhumanity and the deep normative struggles of participants in these elaborate rituals of death and violence. Moreover, Godoy points out,lynchings are just one of a panoply of hyper-punitive crime control tactics championed by elected politicians and publics across Latin America. The book pointedly raises a question that has considerable currency: what does it take to establish a rights-observing democracy in societies stripped of their social capital by the physical violence of internal war and brutal atrocities, and by the structural violence of a modernity that promises but does not deliver a dignified existence?

The facile analysis from outside Latin America is that these are backward societies, simply unprepared for democracy, and that popular sovereignty in such a society is something to be feared rather than welcomed. The equally facile analysis from inside Latin America is that these societies are merely responding to the failure of the state to impose order, by availing themselves of self-help mechanisms. Godoy goes a step further, arguing that these lynchings are expressive acts undertaken by communities battered by modernity. In her view, lynchings are attempts to send the state a message and simultaneously re-establish agency. They take place in communities thrown into a near perpetual state of fear and stripped of long term social cohesion by violence and neoliberal globalization. In her vision, these are not so much democracies to be feared, as democracies soaked in fear.
There is a recent quantitative analysis of this same phenomenon, which merits reading together with Godoy's. Carlos Mendoza, in a slim volume entitled Absence of the State and Collective Violence in Mayan Lands (2007), makes an important observation. The presence of collective violence in a municipality, he notes,is associated (positively and significantly) with the presence of a majority indigenous population.Mendoza argues, rightly, that these are collective acts, and therefore that the communities that engage in them must retain the capacity for collective action. Indeed, he theorizes that it is precisely the higher capacity for collective action of indigenous societies that enables violent collective responses, in the absence of state-backed order.He points out, for example, that non-indigenous communities have fewer (collective) lynchings,but vastly more (individual) homicides--indeed,the homicide rate in indigenous municipalities in Guatemala is lower than that in the United States. He argues, therefore, that it is not anomie and the lack of cohesion that produce mass violence, but their opposites; and that their counterpart in non-indigenous communities is not resort to the criminal justice system, but murder pure and simple. For Mendoza lynchings are also expressive acts, but he sees them as a message to potential transgressors, rather than the state:behave or you will be burned alive.

But Godoy also notices something important, which is missing from the quantitative analysis. Much of the collective violence against individual transgressors is accompanied by violence against whatever state presence does exist. Thus lynchings are accompanied by the destruction of municipal property, attacks on police or judicial officers, and so on. The justifications offered by community members tend in the same direction.The point seems to be not so much that the state is absent but that the state is against the local community; that the state is as much a problem asthe individuals being punished. Even worse, the point seems to be that it is the "liberal constitutional" part of "liberal constitutional democracy" that is the problem.
To continue reading this interesting review, click here.

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