Pub date June 30, 2009
WriterBen Terrall
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


REVIEW UC Santa Barbara sociology professor William I. Robinson was recently in the news for having the temerity to criticize the Israeli military’s assault on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Right-wing groups including the ADL orchestrated a campaign attacking Robinson with the implication that any criticism of Israel’s military abuses in the occupied territories somehow equates to anti-Semitism.

It would be nice if Robinson also received some press for the incredibly rich body of work he has produced in his career. His current volume Latin America and Global Capitalism (Johns Hopkins University Press, 440 pages, $55) is an important book for anyone interested in where our imperiled planet is headed. Robinson, author of the brilliant 1996 study of U.S. foreign aid Promoting Polyarchy, is admirably thorough in his overview of the direction capitalism has taken in Latin America since the 1970s. Robinson uses research from years of on-the-ground work, and sifts through rafts of data to map out how neoliberal trade agreements and other mechanisms for greasing the machine of global commerce have increased profits for global elites while deeply disrupting traditional patterns of life and balance with the natural world.

One glaring example Robinson focuses on is the shift toward intensive farming of soy, which has massively displaced small farmers and production of dairy, fruit trees, horticulture, and other grains. Soy production is now much more profitable than food production for local consumption — hence malnutrition is on the rise in soy producing areas.

Plans for expansion of biofuel production, Robinson writes, "could well obliterate small and medium producers and consolidate a new empire of corporate agribusiness, biotechnology, chemical and pharmaceutical TNCs [transnational corporations] in South America. The ecological devastation would undermine any gains in terms of a reduction in carbon-based fuels, and we would face a situation — absolutely absurd from any social logic yet consistent with the logic of capital — in which cars would replace human beings as the main consumers of world cereal output."

In addition to these new agro-exports, Latin America and Global Capitalism analyzes the spread of maquiladoras, the transnational tourist industry, exported labor, and remittances from abroad sent home. Robinson makes no bones about being a politically engaged academic, or of shaping his thorough, rigorous work with the intent of it being useful for popular progressive struggles. His sentiments are clearly with the indigenous resistance movements he chronicles in Latin America, as well as the immigrants’ rights movement in the United States and the continuing Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela. The ruling elites have their well-funded, right-marching think tanks churning out public intellectuals cultivated to defend the status quo. Grassroots radicals need more like William Robinson.