THE PASSIVE AGRESSION OF EDUARDO GUDYNAS: An Analysis. By Japhy Wilson, Estefanía Martínez, Thomas Purcell and Carla Simbaña

27th November 2015

One of the less agreeable characteristics of the passive-aggressive personality disorder is the tendency to insult others in an underhand, ambiguous manner, and then to react with shock and dismay when the target of the attack responds with a direct and pointed rejection of the insult. Claiming to be the injured party, the passive-aggressive individual points to his enemy and cries out in wounded disbelief: ‘Why are they being so unreasonable? I never meant to insult them!’

Eduardo Gudynas would appear to be suffering from a condition of this kind. Gudynas recently wrote an article, published on several leftist websites, in which he accused radical Latin American intellectuals of participating in a ‘friendly colonialism’ through their endorsement of the ideas of the British Marxist David Harvey. In one version of this text, the opening paragraph noted that Harvey has “visited [Ecuador] on various occasions, giving conferences and… animating a research group,” before going on to claim that “the governments of Rafael Correa and Evo Morales invite [Harvey to their countries] and use his concepts to reinforce their images of radicalness”.

As members of the research group in Ecuador ‘animated’ by Harvey’s ideas, we naturally read Gudynas’s article as an attack on Harvey’s activities in Latin America, and by implication on our own work. This interpretation was shared by everyone we know who has read the article. We therefore responded to Gudynas in an uncompromising manner, clarifying his misinterpretation of Harvey, explaining the nature of our own work, and rejecting the accusation of ‘friendly colonialism’.

Following his thinly-veiled attack on Harvey, Gudynas has now responded to our defence in a distinctly passive-aggressive manner, by denying that he never meant to insult Harvey, and by claiming that it is he who is now the victim of our unwarranted aggression. Overlooking the tone and content of his entire article, Gudynas draws attention to a single carefully placed qualification, in which he suggested that “we are not faced by a problem with Harvey, but rather with our own limitation as Latin Americans”. In our previous response we noted that it is extremely patronizing for Gudynas to accuse his fellow Latin Americans of being victims of ‘a friendly colonialism’ in their appropriation of Harvey’s ideas. But it is also entirely disingenuous to claim that his critique is solely aimed at the ‘colonized’ in this case, while absolving Harvey of his implicit role as ‘colonizer’.

According to Gudynas, this single disingenuous qualification demonstrates that he never had any “interest in a personal confrontation”, entitling him to protest, in a tone of weary persecution, that “Despite these caveats what had to happen has happened: I received criticisms that insisted that my focus was on questioning Harvey”. He goes on to claim that “We are once again confronted by a classic problem of ‘reading comprehension’, in which one says ‘A’, but receives criticisms as if one had said ‘Z’”, arguing that our alleged deployment of this strategy is “typical of dogmatic postures, and is used as much by neoliberal as by progressive fanatics”. Despite having insisted that he is not accusing Harvey and ourselves of colonialism, Gudynas then spends the remainder of the article attacking our research institute, and concludes by repeating his original insult in less ambiguous terms, noting that “It is necessary to break with these kinds of colonialities and construct a critical Latin American approach under an independent Left”.

Over the course of his two articles, Gudynas has therefore executed the classic passive-aggressive manoeuver, in which he insults someone, receives the appropriate response, and then behaves as if he were the victim of an unwarranted attack, while simultaneously repeating the insult that he denies ever having made in the first place. Clearly there is no point in attempting to maintain a rational dialogue under such circumstances. However, given the wide readership that our exchange has received, and the political stakes of the difference between our positions, it is important to correct some of the more glaring fallacies in Gudynas’s latest article, and to draw attention to some of his political and theoretical limitations, which this article once again reveals.

We wish to make it clear that we are responding under our own names and not under the name of CENEDET or the IAEN.

Gudynas accuses us of reading ‘Z’, when he has said ‘A’. But it is in fact Gudynas himself who is guilty of this. Take for example the suggestion that Harvey has little to say on the question of ecology, despite the fact that Harvey wrote an entire book on the subject (Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference), and includes ‘capital’s relation to nature’ as one of the three potentially terminal contradictions of his ‘seventeen contradictions of capitalism’. (In this regard it is also worth noting that, despite claiming that Harvey’s presence in Latin America is providing ideological cover for ‘extractivist’ policies, Gudynas’s only concrete example of Harvey’s political involvement in the region is his signing of a letter opposing the exploitation of the oil fields in Yasuni.)

Gudynas’s stubborn interpretation of ‘Z’ as ‘A’ also leads him to claim that our article “does not rest on a defence of the ideas of Harvey”, but rather on an attack on his theory of extractivism. This despite the fact that the majority of our article was explicitly concerned with an exposition of Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession, in order to emphasize the critical power and originality of this concept, against its crude reduction by Gudynas to a simple repetition of Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation. Instead of engaging with our argument in his response, Gudynas simply restates his original position. On this occasion, however, he supports his interpretation of Harvey with reference to a similar argument allegedly made by the Italian world-systems theorist Giovanni Arrighi. In this context it is important to emphasize that Gudynas selectively makes use of the fragment of Arrighi’s argument that serves his own agenda. When Arrighi refers to primitive accumulation and accumulation by dispossession in the text cited by Gudynas, he emphasizes that they are different concepts that he is going to treat as synonymous only for the sake of the argument that he is making in this particular article. Nevertheless, Gudynas chooses to claim on this basis that authors like Arrighi “assume similar positions to the one taken in my article”.

If we take Gudynas’s argument concerning ‘friendly colonialism’ and apply it to his appeal to Arrighi, we cannot help but observe that this would appear to be a distinctly ‘colonial’ example of a Latin American academic claiming legitimacy on the basis of citing a European intellectual. In this regard, it is interesting to note that, in contrast to several detailed rejections of his attack on Harvey, the only intellectual to have come out in support of Gudynas has been the Spanish ecologist and anti-Marxist Joan Martinez-Alier. Like a hacendado defending his peon against the allegations of a rival landowner, Martinez-Alier begins by reproaching the Uruguayan for having been “too brief and not sufficiently analytic” in his engagement with Harvey, before attacking him on the basis that he has “maintained a silence on Yasuni ITT… Caramba (????)”. This despite the fact that, as we have seen, Gudynas acknowledged Harvey’s activism in this regard in the very article that Martinez-Alier is supposedly defending. All of which prompts us to observe that, with ‘friendly colonialists’ like Martinez-Alier, Gudynas has little need of enemies…

But let us return to Gudynas’s compulsive reading of ‘A’ as ‘Z’. In our first article we noted that, despite Gudynas’s condemnation of Latin American intellectuals for drawing on ideas from ‘the north’, his own theoretical approach is based on the ´northern’ concepts of ‘the resource curse’ and the ‘Dutch disease’. These concepts, as we pointed out, are derived from institutionalist arguments and neoclassical economics – that is to say, from bourgeois thought – a limitation that we consider far greater than geographical origin for any theory with pretensions to mobilizing an anti-capitalist politics. Rather than engaging with our argument in this regard, however, Gudynas has once again read ‘A’ as ‘Z’, making the completely baseless claim that we regard “opposition to mega-mining and oil exploitation in the Amazon [as] the fruit of bourgeois thought”, and making the equally unfounded allegation that we endorse “megamining [as] an anti-capitalist strategy”. At no point in our article do we say anything that could plausibly be interpreted in these terms. Here we repeat our invitation, made in that article, to consult the working papers published on CENEDET’s website. We note that Gudynas has clearly failed to take up this invitation, and yet considers himself qualified to make unsubstantiated public pronouncements concerning the political content of our work.

We can only conclude that Gudynas has chosen to deliberately misinterpret our argument in order to avoid confronting the bourgeois foundations of his own theoretical approach. Unfortunately, his seemingly willful misinterpretations do not end there. In his initial article, Gudynas accused Harvey’s theoretical approach of operating at “a high level of abstraction focused on the dynamics of a planetary capitalism”, which is incapable of engaging with “what happens in the Amazon”. We responded by pointing out that one of the great strengths of Harvey’s theory of accumulation by dispossession is precisely its capacity to mediate the dialectical relation between global and local processes, using the example of the relationship between capital overaccumulated in China and the dispossession of indigenous communities in the Amazon. Now Gudynas has shifted his position, acknowledging that Harvey’s approach is useful in this regard, but pointing out that such processes of dispossession also involve the local and national state, which Harvey allegedly overlooks, while falsely claiming that “this was the point of my article”.

In other words, Gudynas makes an argument, we respond to it, and then he changes the terms of his original argument and claims that we have failed to respond. This game could go on forever… but as our final word on the subject, we will simply point out that the most basic reading of the concept of accumulation by dispossession confirms the centrality of the state in this process.

Finally, it is important to draw readers’ attention to Gudynas’s persistent misreading of the Marx’s theory of value. In his first article, Gudynas claims that “according to the classical Marxism of Harvey there is only value in humans and their work”, and that “this leaves no room for the Rights of Nature”. Here Gudynas is conflating the immanent critique of the value form in capitalist society with an ethical assessment of competing value systems, concluding that Marx ’valued’ human labour in the moral sense of the term. This is simply not the case.

The point of Marx’s theory of value is to demonstrate how exploitation is possible in a society governed by formally equal relations of exchange. Under ‘normal’ conditions of exploitation, the labourer really does receive the full value of her labour power – that is to say the cost of its reproduction. In this exchange, the capitalist purchases the use value of the labourer’s creative power for a given period of time. But labour power has the unique capacity to produce more value than the cost of its own reproduction. This ‘surplus value’ is the source of capitalist profit, and this is the way that exploitation can occur under conditions of formally equal exchange. Meanwhile, the mediation of direct relations of exploitation by exchange value opens the possibility of ‘endless accumulation’, and the competitive pursuit of surplus value production drives capitalist society towards ‘accumulation for accumulation’s sake’, without regard for the social or ecological limitations of this increasingly automatic process.

This understanding of value has nothing whatsoever to do with ethical values, beyond the inescapable fact that under capitalism all moral orders are ultimately subordinated to the abstract rule of money. It is for this reason (among others) that an anti-capitalist politics must base itself on the transition from a society dominated by exchange value to a society based on the collective appropriation of use values. Gudynas’s failure to grasp this fact leads him to the bizarre conclusion that Harvey’s endorsement of a shift “from exchange value to use value” is “reminiscent of the discourse of various governments that claim, for example, that they have to continue to be extractivists because there is no alternative to global capitalism”. Try as we might, we cannot see any similarity between these two diametrically opposed positions.

Gudynas seems to believe that a future non-capitalist society must necessarily be based on a spiritual relationship towards ‘Nature’ inspired by the ‘indigenous’ notion of sumac kawsay or Buen Vivir (‘Good Living’). Even if this were the case, it would not exceed the Marxist concept of use value, as Gudynas repeatedly insists. A use value is simply defined as something meeting a human need or desire. This obviously includes spiritual and emotional needs and desires, such as Gudynas’s own romantic longing for the lost object of a benevolent and harmonious ‘Nature’. We will not comment here on the philosophical coherence or political viability of Gudynas’s assertion of the ‘Rights of Nature’. We only note that this concept has been utilized by the very same progressive governments that Gudynas claims to oppose. (Indeed, it would appear to be of greater utility in this regard than the allegedly ‘friendly colonialism’ of David Harvey and CENEDET).

We have no doubt that Gudynas will feel compelled to respond to this article with further protestations of innocence combined with the repetition of veiled insults. We have no interest in pursuing this debate, and will not be responding to any further provocations. In conclusion we will limit ourselves to one final observation. Gudynas closes both his articles with a call to “break the siege of modernity”. We have no idea what this means, and we doubt that Gudynas does either. Rather than breaking out of modernity, Gudynas’s rejection of Marxism and his embrace of an obscurantist synthesis of bourgeois political economy and the romantic fetishization of a non-existent ‘Nature’ is symptomatic of the ‘baroque modernity’ critiqued by the Ecuadorian Marxist Bolivar Echeverria. Like the modern baroque, Gudynas’s ‘critical baroque’ amounts to little more than a confused pastiche of fragmented modern forms, which, in Echeverria’s words, has “no capacity to inspire a radical alternative to the political order of capitalist modernity”.

Original article in Spanish: