On the Trail of Latin American Bandits

Joseph, Gilbert M. 1990. “On the Trail of Latin American Bandits: A Reexamination of Peasant Resistance,” Latin American Research Review 25(3): 7-53; & Various Authors. 1991. “Debate on Banditry in Latin America,” Latin American Research Review 26(1): 145-174.

Gil Joseph argues that scholars have focused too narrowly on Hobsbawm’s definition of social banditry as a “primitive form” of peasant rebellion that often lead into the blind alleys of “inconclusive taxonomic debate” (18). The model has become too constricting and Latin Americanists would do well to turn toward then-newer work being done by scholars in the realms of peasant resistance, consciousness and social action, as in the work of Ranajit Guha and James Scott. If Hobsbawm’s critics have taken him to task for ignoring the larger socio-political universe in which peasants exists, particularly their relations with elites, then the banditry revisionist deny or underplay the peasant-bandit connection. Joseph’s conceptual framework seeks to provide an approach that answers the following questions: “How can social scientists place peasants at the center of bandit studies without marginalizing elites? And what inspiration and models does recent comparative discourse provide?”

Bandits and Primitive Rebels is summed up nicely: “In essence, Hobsbawm has continued to argue that social bandits were typically peasant outlaws who followed the familiar practices of the bandit trade but represented unconscious, primitive forms of popular protest that were devoid of any explicit ideology, organization, or program” (8). But the evolutionary progression toward more “modern” insurgent movements is doomed, says Hobsbawm, due to banditry’s amorphous qualities and the superior force of the state and the loss of local support. Anton Blok reappears as Hobsbawm’s most formidable critic.

Blok argued that the English historian had exaggerated the element of protest in social banditry, emphasizing the bandit’s ties to the peasantry while minimizing important other structural dimensions of his sociopolitical role. Focusing instead on the “interdependencies between lords, peasants, and bandits,” Blok emphasized bandits’ violent defense of their personal interests, more often than not through alliances and bargains with powerful elite factions. (9)

Joseph surveys the work of Latin Americanist bandit revisionist claiming they all not only deny or downplay allegiances between peasants and bandits, but also see bandits in a much more negative light as self-interested actors who are more often than not in the pocket of elite classes, arguing against Hobsbawm’s idea of banditry as a form of social protest. Historian Richard Slatta notes, “More types of banditry existed in Latin America than are captured with a simple dichotomy of just social bandits and common criminals” (11). Slatta defines the revisionist critique as three-fold: “First, bandit-elite ties are found much more often than bandit-peasant solidarity. Second, the figures cited by Hobsbawm as exemplary social bandits do not meet his own criteria. Finally, his linear depiction of banditry giving way to more organized political protest is flawed” (1991:146).

Gonzálo Sánchez and Donny Meertens’ work on political banditry in Colombia is drawn on by both Joseph and his opponents in the debate. Their work shows that “partisan political conflict, led (and often effectively manipulated) by elite political configurations, confounded peasant solidarity, stripped bands of peasant insurgents of their legitimacy, and ultimately reduced once-popular bandits to criminal status on the margins of national and regional political life” (12).

Part of the problem is that Hobsbawm’s work is often caricatured. He is well aware that bandits are not proto-class warriors across the board, but he’s particularly interested in uncovering forms of banditry that could be explicitly characterized as a form of social protest and rebellion. Hobsbawm makes clear:

At the same time the bandit is, inevitably, drawn into the web of wealth and power, because, unlike other peasants, he acquires wealth and exerts power. He is “one of us” who is constantly in the process of becoming associated with “them.” The more successful he is as a bandit, the more he is both a representative and champion of the poor and a part of the system of the rich. (13)

Joseph presents a qualified defense of Hobsbawm’s thesis. Agreeing that scholar should not be reductionist in interpreting Latin American criminality, acknowledging a “complex, multivariate phenomenon governed by sociopolitical, cultural, and ecological determinants” while submitting the peasant-bandit link to empirical query (14). Banditry needs to be understood within the ecology of criminality as well as peasant and agrarian class relations, and he cites the British historians. And bandit studies need to go beyond the simplistic dichotomy between “elite collaboration and peasant rebellion.”

Joseph’s solution is twofold: Drawing on Guha, he suggests scholars explore “how the relationship between banditry and the law (or the way in which social groups define criminality and perceive social deviance) provides a window on forms of social control and popular resistance in the countryside.” And drawing on Scott, he suggests scholars explore “how banditry and other strategic peasant options reflect the dynamic larger social environment” (19). Joseph concludes, “An adequate social history of bandits and of peasants in general will be crafted only when a history of protest and resistance from below is effectively integrated with a history of power and interests from above” (35).

Slatta replies that what Joseph dismisses as mere taxonomic exercises actually signal radical differences with important political implications and how we think about bandits and peasant politics: “Unlike social bandits, political bandits show clear partisan (rather than class) leanings. Unlike the prepolitical social bandit, political bandits are conscious of and loyal to a larger political movement” (1991:148). Christopher Birkbeck offers a harsh critique of Joseph, saying that the author merely ends up in the same rut he’s trying to get other researchers out of: namely, whether or not banditry is a social form of political protest. Without defining “social” or “political,” says Birkbeck bandit scholars are merely spinning their tires.

Joseph responds that what he’s trying to get at, and what’s important about studying banditry, is the dialectics and cultural politics of protest and accommodation within agrarian social environments. While noting Hobsbawm’s shortcomings, his point is that the revisionists have gone too far afield, bringing in elites and the outside world, while leaving the peasants out. An important part of the Joseph’s alternative is viewing peasant criminality within a sort of Thompsonian “field of force” and “moral economy,” which is masterfully presented in Everyday Forms of State Formation.

This entry was posted in Agriculture, Bandits, Boundaries, Dialectics, Hegemony, Historical Materialism, Historical-Geographies, Illegality, Insurgency/Counterinsurgency, Land, Law, Marxism, Nation/Nationalism, Political Ecology, Political Economy, Terror, The State, Violence. Bookmark the permalink.