Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Mythical Beasts of the Colombian Violence: Leviathan and the Billy Goat

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

Mythical Beasts of the Colombian Violence: Leviathan and the Billy Goat

Article excerpt

Mythical Beasts of the Colombian Violence: Leviathan and the Billy Goat A REVIEW BY PAOLO VIGNOLO Violencia pública en Colombia. By Marco Palacios. (Bogotá, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2012, 218 pp.)

Another book about violence in Colombia? At first glance, it would seem superfluous to add one more title to the already extensive bibliography that spans the "violentology" dating from the 1960s and 1980s up to an endless number of recent studies on the armed conflict. Moreover, Colombia moved abruptly from the denial of the existence of a low-intensity conflict during the Uribe government to a rhetoric of post-conflict under the Santos administration: until just a few months ago the conflict seemed to have leftthe public agenda.

However, this is precisely why this book by Marco Palacios is important-even necessary. Conceived as an "interpretive synthesis in historical perspective," it places the unresolved knots of Colombia's past at the center of the debate: concentration of land ownership in large estates, continuities between colonialera contraband and contemporary illegal trafficking, issues of domestic agricultural colonization and the persistence of clientelism in the nodes of the power network.

In contrast to the tendency of present-day historiography to focus on case studies and local situations, Palacios still dares to present a wideranging narrative of what has transpired in Colombia during the past six decades.

A powerful metaphor recurs throughout the book, like Ariadne's thread that permits readers to orient themselves in the labyrinth of the Colombian conflict: that of the "imaginary Leviathan." Palacios writes, "The monster that Colombians face is not Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, which requires that all be equal before it, but an imaginary Leviathan, precisely because this environment of equality does not exist nor has ever existed in Colombia."

What is at stake is the question of the legitimacy of the Colombian state and its corollaries, control of territory and monopoly of the use of force. If from the beginning of the Republic the dominant classes adopted the Anglo-Saxon political myth of Leviathan as their own, their practices have reflected more those of The Billy Goat. In that work, Juan Rodríguez Freile, a Bogotá writer contemporary with Hobbes, "relates archetypical situations of a conquered society already in the process of colonization. A society forged by parasites who make their living from the exploitation of indigenous people and black slaves brought from Africa, whom they have subjugated culturally and politically, basing their domination on a fictional theory of state and a faraway king" (p. 38).

Since then, Colombian public violence has fed on the struggles between these two mythical monsters: an imported Leviathan and a creole Billy Goat. "The central point of reference," continues Palacios, "is the national state as seen in a double tension: first, that of the raison d'etat 'reason of state,' baroque and colonial in nature, and that of rule of law, the functioning of which is prefigured in 1819-1821; second, [the tense] functioning of the Colombian state (1958-2010), with its flagrant deficit of legitimacy and sovereignty throughout the national territory and in the international system" (p. 21).

In this fashion, Palacios moves beyond the interminable debates about a weak state-failed or the verge of collapsing. The comparison of the Billy Goat with the Leviathan gives a literary-philosophical platform to his theory about "three countries": 1) "islands of legitimacy" in the metropolitan areas, where two-thirds of the population live today under the protection of Leviathan; 2) scarcely populated colonized zones where the agricultural countryside frontier continues to exist under the control of the illegal armed actors, equivalent to the Hobbesian state of nature; and 3) the rest of Colombia, "a country in the middle," made up of small municipalities caught between forced urbanization and negotiation with actors outside the law: the kingdom of the Billy Goat. …

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