Bolaño and NAFTA: Free Trade, Structural Violence, and Genocide in the Americas

The history of free trade in Latin America must be understood as a history of violence: violence committed by the Global North against targeted governments in the form of coups, forcible underdevelopment, and wealth-sapping structural adjustment policies; violence against these countries’ self-sustaining rural economies and the livelihoods of their urban working populations; and violence against the millions who suffer due to inadequate housing, lack of access to food and clean water and healthcare, and vulnerability to murder, assault, and other crime. Although this brutality began long before the advent of neoliberalism as a global economic project, the spread of free trade agreements (FTAs) championed by North American capital, in particular the passing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), represent a seminal epoch in this violent history.

Ronald Reagan first proposed the idea of a North American free trade zone in 1980, but it was ultimately negotiated by his successor George H.W Bush, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. On October 7, 1992, the day on which the preceding heads of states signed NAFTA’s initial draft, President Bush stated that “today the United States, Mexico, and Canada…are creating the largest, richest, and most productive market in the entire world.”[1] In December of the previous year, the Soviet Union collapsed and its neoliberal inheritors inaugurated the period of market transition. The privatization of the post-Soviet states was the defining mark of Western capitalism’s victory in the Cold War, the beginning of US unipolarity, and the advent of a seemingly unstoppable expansion of capitalist globalization which George H.W. Bush dubbed “the New World Order,” and Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” During the subsequent decade, NAFTA’s signatories pushed for an even broader agreement known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA would have expanded the NAFTA model across the entire hemisphere, opening the markets of every Latin American and Caribbean country (except Cuba) to exploitation by Global North capital. The FTAA proposal collapsed at the 2005 Mar del Plata summit, by which time the Venezuela-led model of regional integration embodied by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was posing a major obstacle to the proliferation of neoliberal capitalism across the Americas.

The passing of NAFTA and the failed negotiations for the FTAA should not be understood as rational diplomatic decisions, undertaken by sovereign states for the mutually beneficial goal of establishing a hemispheric market from which capital could invest and extract without the needless friction of worker protection policies, environmental regulation, or statist governments keen on maintaining control over their own resource wealth. Rather, these free trade initiatives must be recognized as agreements between the elite rulers of the capitalist world — agreements which occurred alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union, the most salient global alternative to the emerging market fundamentalist model.

Around the same time that NAFTA was ratified by Canada, Mexico, and the US, a celebratory privatization binge was ripping the last shreds of meat from Soviet-era public services in Russia, leaving the bones of a barely functional state over which the neoliberal Boris Yeltsin ruled with complete disdain for his peoples’ needs. In 1999, a study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme found that the neoliberalization of the former Soviet Union had resulted in the excess deaths of 5 million Russians, and 9.6 million deaths in the post-Soviet region as a whole. The massive increase in mortality rates was the result of an abrupt and merciless market transition which was breathlessly championed by the Western capitalist world at every phase of its imposition. Wages collapsed (in 1988, 4% of the Soviet Union’s population lived on $4 a day, while by 1994 that number was 32%), public services disintegrated, and alcoholism and depression rose exponentially, a trend which brought skyrocketing suicide rates. Omar Noman, an economist for the UN Development Programme, said that “What [the UNDP is] arguing…is that the transition to market economies [in the region] is the biggest…killer we have seen in the 20th century, if you take out famines and wars.”[2] Although “shock therapy” in the former Soviet Union is a particularly brutal example of neoliberalism in action, the basic precepts that justified its existence — the primacy of the market, the need to reduce state involvement in the economy, the inherent good of private enterprise at the expense of public investment — also form the epistemological foundation of US-led free trade policies in Latin America.

When studying the mass death of the post-Soviet market transition and its relationship to the free marketization of Latin America, it is imperative to introduce the concept of structural violence into one’s investigation. Structural violence, defined as “the avoidable limitations that society places on groups of people that constrain them from meeting their basic needs and achieving the quality of life that would otherwise be possible,” is responsible for the deaths of between ten and twenty million people every year.[3] There is no more appropriate term for the preventable deaths in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and the forced impoverishment of the Global South by Northern capitalism. One may argue that structural violence is not a purely capitalist problem, and that any number of actually existing socialist or communist states have maintained and continue to maintain unnecessary barriers to the well-being of their citizens. This is inarguable — but in our present era, in which economic inequality is increasing around the world and further entrenching the causes of globalized structural violence, one must look for the roots of this preventable suffering in the dominant international philosophy for organizing social, political, and economic systems. In the post-Cold War era, that philosophy is US-led neoliberal capitalism, and in the Latin American context, the first important step toward regional integration into the neoliberal model was the implementation of NAFTA in 1994.

Prior to negotiating NAFTA, Mexico was suffering from a catastrophic recession as a result of its inability to meet its international payments on loans accrued during the preceding decades. The subsequent debt crisis “brought the rise…of the so-called technocrats, an internationally educated elite, who had the credentials and the contacts to negotiate about the state’s debt with private banks, international financial institutions, and other governments.”[4] As a result, the International Revolutionary Party (PRI) administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) embraced free market policies aimed at stimulating foreign trade and incentivizing international investment in the Mexican economy. In accordance with these goals, he negotiated Mexico’s entry into NAFTA. The PRI ruled for six more years before public dissatisfaction with the party’s neoliberal policies brought an end to its seventy-one-year grip on the presidency. In the 2000 election, Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency and quickly consolidated the PRI’s agenda.

One of the key aspects of the Mexican technocracy’s strategy to increase foreign investment was to provide low-cost labor to multinational companies based predominantly in the US. To this end, they developed a vast system of maquiladoras along the US-Mexico border, around one-fifth of which are concentrated in Ciudad Juarez. Maquiladoras are assembly plants which offer inexpensive labor to multinational companies. These companies increase their overall profits by outsourcing this important stage of production to cheap, non-unionized, and expendable (in their manager’s view) workers in Mexico. “Drawing foreign investment to the labor-intensive, export-oriented industries of the maquiladoras figured prominently” in the PRI’s economic program, an agenda which also “involved specific measures to control wages downward.”[5] This deliberate disempowerment of domestic laborers for the benefit of multinational investors always occurs when underdeveloped countries in the Global South spurn what Samir Amin calls “autocentric,” or self-contained, development “delinked” from global capitalism, and instead sacrifice their labor market and resource wealth to the logic of international neoliberal trade.

The passing of NAFTA served an important purpose for the ruling classes of the United States and Mexico. US companies wanted access to low-cost offshore labor in order to compete with other capitalist powers whose economic rise had ironically been funded by America in the aftermath of the Second World War (namely Germany and Japan), while the Mexican elite wanted to stabilize the economy following the turbulent debt crisis without redistributing power, privilege, or wealth to the country’s lower classes. Far from an equitable redistribution, NAFTA led to a greater disenfranchisement of Mexico’s working classes than at any time in the country’s post-revolutionary past. It was a looting of productive resources akin to a globalized Porfiriato. Millions of Mexican farmers were displaced and their lands purchased by private companies, while the country’s industrial sector weakened as it reorganized in service of US capital. Mexican GDP fell considerably from 1980 to 2005, and the export sector has fallen several places in the World Bank’s global rankings since 2000.[6] At the same time, the wealth of the Mexican elite soared by 500 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Presently, the top 20% of Mexicans control around 67% of the economy, while almost 70% of Mexican families endure poverty in their daily lives.[7] The outcome of free trade for US labor has been less severe than that of Mexico (overall, Mexican workers earn about 30% of US wages), but their current conditions represent an easily identifiable post-NAFTA trend. Because hundreds of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs in the US were outsourced to the maquiladoras, US workers have struggled with decades of stagnant wages, the widespread destruction of benefits and worker’s protections, and a wholesale “upward redistribution of income, wealth, and political power.”[8] Apologists for NAFTA tout that it has increased “labor-market flexibility” for workers by unburdening them of cumbersome benefits that tied them (unfairly, according to the managers) to their place of employment. In practice, however, it is obvious that “labor-market flexibility” is nothing but a euphemism for “labor-market disposability.” Nowhere is this disposability clearer than the Mexican maquiladoras.

Approximately half of Mexico’s manufacturing jobs are located in the maquiladoras, and the city of Ciudad Juarez has become a metonym for the social, political, and economic relationships that develop around this form of productive organization. The city is often described as both “the laboratory of the future” and “the murder capital of the world,” but prior to the passing of NAFTA, Juarez did not occupy such a preeminent position in conversations about the necropolitics of globalization. In the 1990s, the city’s population grew by over 50%. Most of the newcomers were from rural areas whose traditional productive modes had been devastated by multinational investment. The majority of these migrants now live in ramshackle neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, which are often denied even the basic human dignity of functional sewage systems. The creation of these living conditions was not an accident — as Gay Young writes, “low-income settlements are actively produced and integral to maquiladora development and the formation of a low-cost labor market.”[9] For many workers, the choice is between low-income squalor and no-income death. Philip Caputo describes his visit to a maquiladora slum thusly:

…as we enter one slum, Anapra, convoys of buses are arriving to drop off the day shift and pick up the night shift: Scores of buses, the names of the factories they service — Delphi Corporation, Siemens, RCA — displayed in their front windows. Hundreds of people get off and on…Everyone appears worn-out and dispirited. A feeling of hopelessness lingers in the air with the stench of raw sewage and bus fumes. The squalor here is as bad as anything I’ve seen in Africa or southeast Asia.”[10]

More than 80% of maquiladoras are US-owned, and most are managed by electronics companies which produce televisions, computers, phones, and other devices for the consumer bases of the Global North. One can easily draw a parallel between the imposition of poverty on the maquiladora workers and the misery and disorder that has been thrust upon the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country which is cursed to contain one of the world’s largest supplies of coltan ore, an essential component in modern electronics. The Congo itself was forcibly integrated into the global capitalist economy during the Cold War, when elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba sought friendly relations with the Soviet Union and was overthrown and murdered by Katangan separatists working alongside Belgian and American authorities. The African continent’s neocolonial rulers then supported a 1965 coup that brought the brutally violent but reliably anti-communist Mobutu dictatorship to power. The Congolese mining industry reached a new level of hyper-exploitation around the time of the First Congo War and Mobutu’s toppling in 1997. The electronics boom in the Global North demanded a steady supply of coltan, and the continuing mayhem in the eastern Congo has allowed multinational companies to acquire the mineral for next to nothing while treating poor and often displaced Congolese laborers little better than the Belgian Force Publique did.

From a global perspective, the maquiladora workers and the victims of the resource conflicts in the eastern Congo represent two stages in the production of electronic devices which have become increasingly necessary for the management of the international financialized economy. The first step is extraction, the next is assembly, and the final stage is purchase by comparatively affluent consumer bases in the Global North. Furthermore, these two examples are representative of the violence that the world’s colonial metropoles perpetuate in order to maintain their favorable position in the hierarchy of global capitalism. In both cases, one can see the words of Karl Marx ringing true once again: “capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.”[11]

Just like the mineral conflicts in the Congo, NAFTA must be viewed as a crucial stage in the execution of a worldwide capitalism program of elite profitability which is sustained through violence both physical and structural. The logic of profit trains the managers of this globalized status quo to see low-cost laborers in Asia, Africa, and the Americas as disposal revenue generators who become superfluous the second their exhaust their maximum efficiency. In the case of the maquiladoras, managers literally calculate the “work life” of their employees. They have determined that after two to three years, their workers lose the speed and dexterity that generates the highest level of profits for the company.[12] After they surpass the peak of their performance potential, they usually discard the employees back into the black hole of abject poverty from which this precarious employment represented the most temporary and dehumanizing of escapes.

More than 55% of maquiladora workers are women. Their average age is twenty-two. Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute, says that the managers prefer women because “they [are] seen as more punctual than men, as well as less likely to commit crimes or consume drugs and alcohol.”[13] During their period of limited usefulness to foreign companies, the young women are extremely vulnerable to violence from the men of Ciudad Juarez. The deliberate underdevelopment of these communities by the Mexican state has created a situation in which rape, murder, and impunity are widespread institutional problems. As a result, the maquiladora-rich Ciudad Juarez is not renowned as a global champion of “labor-market flexibility” today. Instead, the city is known for its epidemic of murders against women and girls, recognized internationally as “femicides.”

Around the time of NAFTA’s implementation, journalists began reporting on a wave of femicides within the city that was being championed as a jewel of the hemisphere’s free trade policies. Some speculate that male resentment toward working women is a contributing factor to the violence, but Payan argues that machismo is only one constituent factor in a complex web of “economic exploitation, weak government institutions and organized crime [which] have created a ‘perfect storm’” for gendered violence in Juarez. Between 1993 and 2005, there were approximately 400 reported femicides in the city, although the amount is likely much higher given the startling number of missing women cases that remain unsolved. The violence is only worsening: between 2014 and 2019, gender-based homicides rose 137%. Almost nobody is punished. Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution asserts that “the homicide impunity rate is in the high 90s, with the number frequently given as 98 percent.”[14]

As a workplace which both its detractors and defenders cite as a model for capitalist globalization, Grant Farrad puts it vividly: “the maquiladora instantiates the neoliberal state that incarnates death.”[15] This understanding of the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juarez as an instantiation of neoliberal structural violence is the central conceit of Roberto Bolaño’s maximalist opus 2666. The novel’s breadth of content makes it notoriously difficult to explicate, but the axis around which all of the work’s disparate characters revolve are the femicides in Santa Teresa, Bolaño’s fictionalized version of Ciudad Juarez and his concretization of the exploitative hellscape of North-South labor relations in the modern world.

Bolaño’s criticism of this economic model is notable in the closing scene of “The Part About Amalfitano.” Oscar Amalfitano is a professor who has accepted a teaching position at the University of Santa Teresa. His seventeen-year-old daughter Rosa has accompanied him to the city. Over the course of the chapter, Amalfitano’s sanity begins to slip as he contemplates a wide range of topics revolving around the femicides, the vulnerability of his young daughter, and the inability of artistic or theoretical heuristics to capture the meaning behind the horrific violence in Santa Teresa. The chapter ends on a dream in which Amalfitano encounters “the last Communist philosopher of the twentieth century,” who is walking toward a “crater or latrine” in a pink marble courtyard. When Amalfitano nears, he discovers that the philosopher is none other than Boris Yeltsin, a neoliberal and one of the most prominent gravediggers of Soviet-style communism. Before falling into the aperture, Yeltsin says this to Amalfitano:

Life is demand and supply, or supply and demand, that’s what it all boils down to, but that’s no way to live. A third leg is needed to keep the table from collapsing into the garbage pit of history, which in turn is permanently collapsing into the garbage pit of the void. So take note. This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it’s also sex and Dionysian mists and play.[16]

Yeltsin’s description of magic as “the third leg of the human table” — that which grants humanity purpose beyond the mere allocation of resources — does not shine any light onto the supposed benefits of the economic system of which the former Russian president was an ardent adherent, benefits which its supporters often list as individual freedom, consumer choices, the incentivization of innovation, etc. However, what is important about Yeltsin’s definition of meaningful existence is that it is emotional and immaterial: it exists outside of the allocation of resources, and it is therefore depoliticized. In other words, it is superstructural. Magic prevents humanity from collapsing into history, and in turn from collapsing into the void, because it provides an emotional escape from “who gets what, when, how” into “epic” narratives and lustful satiation and spontaneous merriment. Bolaño illustrates the inanity of superstructural justifications for capitalism’s gross inequality: Yeltsin is not saying “supply + demand + labor-market flexibility,” but in terms of the correspondence between his justifications and the actual material relationships undergirding neoliberalism, he may as well be.

Yeltsin’s faith in magic recalls Joseph Conrad’s assertion that “what redeems [imperialism] is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea — something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to.”[17] The idea behind the unipolar world, behind NAFTA, behind the disastrous privatization of the former Soviet Union and behind the maquiladoras, is the free market. The idea’s proponents cling to it with such vigor that, as Yeltsin says, it erases history — in other words, it erases the idea that human society can be organized on the basis of any alternative principles. Francis Fukuyama’s treatise on the sublime excellence of global capitalism, The End of History and the Last Man, demonstrates Yeltsin’s point with its title alone. Fukuyama’s thesis states that Western liberal capitalism is not just an exemplary mode of human organization, but the literal epitome of human governance. In essence, he argues that Western liberalism represents the crystallization of humanity’s most enlightened qualities into an immaculate societal structure that transcends simple matters of resource allocation — and therefore transcends history — to finally conclude the “epic” teleology of humanity’s benighted slog toward the glowing ideal of pure liberal democracy as exemplified by the post-Cold War US. This is the dominant global belief with which anybody striving to imagine a more just world order must contend. It is the idea to which the global ruling class in the West and often in the West’s allied countries, or the “collective imperialists” to use Samir Amin’s terminology, constantly offer sacrifices — between ten and twenty million every year, not to mention those killed in wars waged at the behest of international capitalism.

“The void” which one evades by hiding behind fatuous idealism is the knowledge that this system, the supposed peak of human governance capability, is the same system which killed millions during the post-Soviet market transition; the same system that immerses the Congo in an endless whirlpool of violence and exploitation; the same system that condemns hundreds (possibly thousands) of innocent young women to death in the maquiladoras. Bolaño’s characters, even those who are well-intentioned, suffer from a desire to elude awareness of the void, and by doing so the structural violence that haunts Santa Teresa is dispersed into an abstract, diffuse horror that permeates the text even though its source is never named.

When the journalist Oscar Fate asks Chucho Flores how the women are killed, he replies, “Nobody’s sure. They disappear. They vanish into thin air, here one minute, gone the next. And after a while their bodies turn up in the desert.”[18] Later, when detective Albert Kessler (based on FBI criminal profiler Robert Ressler, who investigated the real-life femicides in Ciudad Juarez in 1998 and concluded that the Mexican state’s assertion that the crimes are the work of one or more serial killers was not possible) tours a slum of low-income workers, he describes them as “people living in another dimension.”[19] Both Fate and Kessler feel sympathy for the inhabitants of Santa Teresa, but they ultimately distance themselves from any sort systemic awareness. Fate returns to the US with Rosa, having saved her from Chucho Flores, and Kessler moves on with his career and leaves the city behind.

This unwillingness to face reality is not just true of Fate and Kessler. The majority of the novel’s characters glimpse the horrors of the femicides in Santa Teresa to some extent, but they all stop short of recognizing the historical processes that reproduce this structural violence and their own complicity in its reproduction. As Farrad writes, “everyone, from European professors…to self-amputating English artists, from African American journalists…to anti-Nazi Nazis…is, more or less, in on the scam of capital and death,” but they are unable or unwilling to apprehend their own lives as productions of the same historical processes that materially reward some human beings while reducing others to “irrelevancy.”[20]

Bolaño is deeply interested in the fact that Ciudad Juarez lies in such close proximity to the metropolitan core of global capitalism but is continuously expunged from the consciousness of the Global North consumer. When an interviewer asked him about his conception of hell, he answered that it is “like Ciudad Juarez, which is our curse and our mirror.”[21] Bolaño means that Juarez is the most advanced, undisguised representation of neoliberal structural violence in the hemisphere, the existence of which is necessary in order to maintain the standard of living in the developed Western world. His use of the word “mirror” is particularly evocative. This metaphor illustrates that anyone who looks critically at the living conditions in Ciudad Juarez will find their own life reflected back at them: in the laptop on which they work, in the appliances which refrigerate their food and wash their dishes, in the smartphones on which they wile away their recreational hours. By the same token, anyone from Ciudad Juarez who looks at the Global North will see the inverse of that dynamic. They will see the standard of living which they are forced to export staring back at them in cold indifference to their suffering — which is a much worse fate than ignorance or the discomfiture of knowledge.

Hell for Bolaño is a mirror reflecting complicity in structural violence on the one hand and callous detachment on the other. He concentrates his hellish vision not just in one geographical space (Juarez), but in the social structure which characterizes that space (maquiladora labor). A similar conception of hell can be found in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the final film of Italian communist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini. Like 2666, Salò polemicizes against the logic of capitalism by concentrating on the horrors of a single setting which does not geographically encapsulate the brutalities of the system to which it alludes, but “instantiates” them. Bolaño uses Juarez to embody the discontents of post-NAFTA globalization; Pasolini uses Salò to rail against the “neo-capitalist” consumerism of postwar Italian society.

Pasolini famously described the deleterious cultural effects of urbanized postwar capitalism as a “cultural genocide.” Consumerism, he argued, “is violently tearing away at ancient ways of life, at the age-old values that are really at the source of Italian culture as a whole. It is imposing its own models and values and destroying in the process a way of life.”[22] He added that this “new Fascism…has not only scratched the soul of the Italian people but has lacerated, raped, and besmirched it forever,” changing utterly how individuals engage with their environment and each other, expelling from their consciousness any commitment to the creation and maintenance of an equitable social order and instead creating a culture of disposability which always disproportionately benefits the capitalist class.[23] In his 1973 play Calderón, a work which many believe to be the thematic precursor to Salò, the protagonist Rosaura describes a dream in which she is tortured by the Nazi SS in a concentration camp. She states that “they are no longer men; we no longer have even the wild life of an animal; we are only things that others can dispose of.”[24] Later, while promoting Salò, Pasolini explained that the culture of disposability which flourishes in a consumer-capitalist society is one in which the body is transformed into merchandise in the social imagination and its labor relationships — a state of affairs which he compares to the worst atrocities of Nazi Germany. In his second-to-last interview, he stated that there is “a sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism” in terms of their biopolitics, a confluence in which the human body is rendered into an object that is wrung of its value and tossed aside at the whims of the powerful.[25] This link between the development of postwar Western capitalism and the most genocidal regime of the twentieth century may appear hyperbolic, or even a cynical attempt to provoke controversy, but it is a connection which Bolaño elucidates as well, albeit in a more oblique fashion.

According to Pasolini biographer Stephen Snyder, Salò does not display its spectacle of horrors in order to vacuously plumb the depths of individual depravity; rather, the film “locates the source of evil within the social structure itself.”[26] Juan Velasco and Tanya Schmidt emphasize that 2666 undertakes a similar project, locating the source of Santa Teresa’s evil not within isolated pathologies but inside the broader social dehumanization of neoliberal labor relations. In this way, 2666 is not a murder mystery. The killer is known. However, the culprit cannot be stopped “without the full commitment of the state to understanding and acting against the violence done to the women, the neoliberal disenfranchisement and the exploitation.”[27] The obstacles in the way of this commitment are the multinational companies whose degradation of the maquiladora laborers is supported by the state, and the culture of disposability which plagues the minds of neoliberal subjects and precludes organized social action against the status quo. Farrad notes that in the “necropolitical boomtown” of Santa Teresa, “everyone — more or less, of course — accepts the killings as the cost of doing business.”[28] This apathy is engendered by the technocratic mechanisms of neoliberalism, which perpetually defers responsibility for inhuman actions to the logic of profitability and the market, arguing that if one does not take advantage of the low-cast labor system on the US-Mexico border, somebody else will beat one to the punch. This apathy may be described as an “inhumanization” of individual consciousness which replicates the dehumanization of the laboring class and therefore promotes selfishness and isolation over mutual understanding and endeavor.

In his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes that “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable [until] the fact that capitalism has colonized the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.”[29] He argues that since the proliferation of neoliberal capitalism across the West, it has become almost impossible for individual subjects to conceive of alternative ways of social, political, and economic organization, even as one is aware of the inequality the present structures generate. This is an inherently depressive subjectivity, since, as Alain Badiou writes

the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible…Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.[30]

2666 posits that, in fact, modern capitalism does inflict violence of the sort which the depressive capitalist subject cordons off into discrete historical episodes such as Stalinist Russia or the genocides in Bosnia or Rwanda — but in order to comprehend the existence and scale of this atrocity, one’s conception of violence must be broadened to include structural violence as well as conventional war and political repression. The subject must therefore break out of the restrictive patterns of thought which Fisher calls “capitalist realism” and imagine a social structure in which this global violence can be brought to a definitive end.

This is something that the characters of 2666 are not able to do. Herein lies a potential meaning for the novel’s infamously cryptic title. The simultaneous inhumanization and dehumanization fostered by neoliberal labor relations create a situation in which ordinary human empathy is crushed between the gears of deeply entrenched market mechanisms which, without a true challenge, will continue grinding on for hundreds and hundreds of years, perpetuating themselves through their own internal logic while intensifying the structural violence they inflict disproportionately upon the laboring classes of the Global South. “No one pays attention to the [Santa Teresa] killings,” a character tells Oscar Fate, “but the secret of the world is hidden in them.”[31] No one pays attention because, as Farrad and Fisher explain, the femicides are “the cost of doing business” in a capitalist-realist world in which there are no conceivable alternatives to the existing social order.

Bolaño locates the origins of the femicides in capitalist labor structures which, as Fisher notes, “[people] have been induced into believing do not really exist.”[32] This is the secret of the world which the characters inhabit: the murderer is the system which clutches all of them in a complex and intertwined web of economic production and consumption, and which all of them would be able to see if they could only blink away the blur of capitalist realism. The closest a character comes to realizing this reality is midway through “The Part About Fate.” In this scene, Kessler explains that some victims of violence are “legible,” while others are not. He says:

In the seventeenth century…at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who were on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas [the others]…were.[33]

Kessler states that “everyone living in [Santa Teresa] is outside of society.” Their suffering is not legible because neoliberal labor relations have reduced them to social disposability, and therefore they are not considered worthy of newspaper space by those who do inhabit society — specifically, those of an appropriately privileged socioeconomic standing. According to Kessler, they are the victims of the same erasure that was inflicted upon enslaved Africans and the Communards. A similar point is stressed in “The Part About the Crimes,” when the head of Santa Teresa’s Department of Sex Crimes fumes that there are four thousand rapes in the city every year, equal to ten every day. “When it comes down to it,” she says, “no one remembers, not a word, and no one has the balls to do anything about it.”[34] “Not a word.” Nobody of importance writes about the victims of violence in Santa Teresa, who can also be described as the victims of NAFTA and therefore the victims of US-led free trade policy.

Bolaño’s description of the illegibility of enslaved Africans and the dependency of their legibility on their colonial overlords is included in order to stress the similarity of their erasure and that of the maquiladora workers. The suffering of these two groups is not separated by an unbridgeable epochal gap — in truth, the slave trade and the maquiladora system are simply two ways of organizing global labor in order to increase the wealth of the global ruling classes (concentrated predominantly in the Global North) at the expense of those who are at any given moment “outside of society.” At the same time that these economic, political, and social factors erase certain humans, those who reside within society — in other words, those who have the power to write the distorted ideological history into which their subjects are indoctrinated — either do not realize the conditions of the maquiladoras or do not want to learn about it. As a result of their apathy, a genocide of structural violence whose casualties rival the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and the Third Reich combined is allowed to continue unabated, potentially for centuries and centuries to come.

The comparison between the Third Reich and the victims of modern structural violence may seem overblown, but it is a correlation which Bolaño deliberately incorporates into his work. The connection, described in the most direct terms possible, is the following: there is a former Nazi soldier turned writer named Hans Reiter (pseudonym Benno von Archimboldi) whose nephew, Klaus Haas, has been arrested as a prime suspect in the Santa Teresa femicides. His guilt is never confirmed, and the novel ends as Archimboldi leaves for Santa Teresa to assist his imprisoned nephew at his sister’s request. This detail is the clearest connection Bolaño offers between the illegible genocide of modern structural violence instantiated by the maquiladoras and the Holocaust in which Reiter participated as a draftee.

The word “genocide” is applied advisedly in this case, borrowing from the studious work of several Bolaño scholars who have argued that 2666 constructs the destruction of rural Mexican economies, local ways of life, and the consolidation of global capital as a continuation of the Nazi genocides of the 1930s and 1940s. Grant Farrad is a notable advocate of this interpretive framework. He writes that

…for Bolaño, it is only through genocide that the maquiladora deaths can be properly understood in their analogical relation to the history of large-scale violent death that preceded it…Archimboldi is the figure whose writing, through the ‘wishful’ search for the author, binds a historic, unarguable genocide (in Europe) to another that is in the making (in Central America).[35]

Velasco and Schmidt also argue that “Bolaño’s personal experience of Chile under Pinochet’s fascist regime and his subsequent exile underlies the interconnectedness of both worlds.”[36] In short, the author’s holistic approach connects Nazi Germany, postwar fascism in Latin America, the perpetuation of these regimes’ economic practices after bourgeois-democratic transitions in the 1990s.

There is a moment in his 1996 novel Distant Star that succinctly captures this connection. The novel focuses on another elusive artistic figure, this one a Chilean nationalist named Carlos Wieder, whose early art involves sky-writing nationalist slogans but whose later work becomes increasingly sadistic and gruesome. While the protagonist, Arturo B., is interned at a camp for political prisoners following the Pinochet coup, Wieder appears in a WWII-era Messerschmitt fighter plane and begins to skywrite his slogans. While watching the German-made plane weave Chilean nationalist dictums onto the firmament, a fellow prisoner declares that “the Second War World is returning to the Earth. All that talk about the Third World War was wrong; it’s the Second returning, returning, returning. And it has fallen to us, the people of Chile, to greet and welcome it.”[37]

Within the context of 2666, the “repetition” of the Second World War should be understood not as a continuation of deliberate extermination programs, but as a “coincidence” of dehumanizing factors (to use Pasolini’s term) which results in the removal of certain groups from society and their victimization by a system of whose violence the constituent technocrats remain unknowingly or willfully ignorant.

Alfred J. López writes that “the murdered women [of Santa Teresa]…represent the most disposable part — the literal waste product — of a legal and economic world order that draws workers in, consumes them, and discards their abject bodies as part of a naturalized, self-regenerating life cycle.”[38] This is the essential horror of 2666. The perpetrator of this terrible violence is not an individual or a state, but a death-machine which sustains itself firstly through the disposability of the maquiladora workers and secondly through the apathy of the depressive capitalist subjects who comprise privileged society.[39] This reality means that the reasons for the femicides are not easily grasped or rebelled against by the characters in the novel. Chucho Flores says that “according to the legend, there’s just one killer and he’ll never be caught” — and yet, none of the characters are able to pronounce its name. But the name of the killer is free trade. This legally immune system of transnational capital is complex and multifaceted, imperialist and neocolonialist — and it is the hell which Bolaño identifies in Ciudad Juarez, the mirror of privileged society and the site at which a veritable genocide of modern-day illegibles is occurring all day, every day, while remaining largely unwritten.

[1] Hartman, ‘NAFTA, the Controversy’, The International Trade Journal, December 2010, pp. 6.

[2] Ciment, ‘Life expectancy of Russian men falls to 58’, BMI 319, 1999, pp. 468.

[3] Bandy X. Lee, Violence: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Causes, Consequences, and Cures, Hoboken 2019, pp. 123–124.

[4] Gay Young, Gendering Globalization on the Ground: The Limits of Feminized Work for Mexican Women’s Empowerment, New York 2015, pp. 56.

[5] Young, Gendering Globalization, pp. 56.

[6] James M. Cypher, ‘Mexico Since NAFTA: Elite Delusions and the Reality of Decline’, New Labor Forum 20, 2011, pp. 62.

[7] Cypher, ‘Mexico Since NAFTA’, pp. 67.

[8] Jeff Faux, ‘NAFTA’s Impact on U.S. Workers’, Economic Policy Institute, December 2013, https://www.epi.org/blog/naftas-impact-workers/.

[9] Young, Gendering Globalization, pp. 72.

[10] Alfred J. López, ‘Scenes from the Global South: Women’s Bodies as Waste in Bolaño’s 2666’, Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 7, 2020, pp. 5.

[11] Sharae Deckard, ‘Peripheral Realism, Millennial Capitalism, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666’, Modern Language Quarterly 73, September 2012, pp. 358.

[12] López, ‘Scenes from the Global South’, pp. 10.

[13] ‘Disappearing Daughters,’ The Seattle Times 2020, https://projects.seattletimes.com/2020/femicide-juarez-mexico-border/.

[14] ‘Disappearing Daughters’, The Seattle Times.

[15] Grant Farrad, ‘The Impossible Closing: Death, Neoliberalism, and the Postcolonial in Bolaño’s 2666’, Modern Fiction Studies 56, December 2010, pp. 695.

[16] Roberto Bolaño, 2666, New York 2005, pp. 228.

[17] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Auckland 2009, pp. 12.

[18] Bolaño, 2666, pp. 287.

[19] López, ‘Scenes from the Global South’, pp. 11.

[20] Farrad, ‘The Impossible Closing’, pp. 692.

[21] Juan Velasco and Tanya Schmidt, ‘Mapping a Geography of Hell: Evil, Neoliberalism, and the Femicides in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666’, Latin American Literary Review 42, January-June 2014, pp. 100.

[22] Roberto Chiesi, ‘Salò: The Present as Hell’, The Criterion Collection 2011, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/513-sal-the-present-as-hell.

[23] Chiesi, Salò: The Present as Hell.’

[24] Gian Maria Annovi, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Performing Authorship, New York 2017, pp. 46.

[25] Celluloid Liberation Front, ‘The Lost Pasolini Interview,’ MUBI 2012, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/the-lost-pasolini-interview.

[26] Velasco and Schmidt, ‘Mapping a Geography of Hell’, pp. 107.

[27] Farrad, ‘The Impossible Closing’, pp. 699.

[28] Farrad, ‘The Impossible Closing’, pp. 699.

[29] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester 2009, pp. 8.

[30] Fisher, Capitalist Realism, pp. 5.

[31] Bolaño, 2666, pp. 348.

[32] Mikkel Krause Frantzen, ‘A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health’, The Los Angeles Review of Books, December 2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/future-no-future-depression-left-politics-mental-health/.

[33] Bolaño, 2666, pp. 267.

[34] Bolaño, 2666, pp. 563.

[35] Farrad, ‘The Impossible Closing’, pp. 706,

[36] Velasco and Schmidt, ‘Mapping a Geography of Hell’, pp. 105.

[37] Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star, London 2020, pp. 29.

[38] López, ‘Scenes from the Global South’, pp. pp. 6.

[39] Bolaño, 2666, pp. 287.

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