The Magical State. – Review

The Magical State. – Review – book reviews

Ben Phillips

Fernando Coronil. The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997. xvii, 446pp., illust., tables, index. US$19.95 (Pb.), ISBN 0-226-11602-6.

The deceptively simple phrase ‘unity in difference’ underpins Fernando Coronil’s wide-ranging, thorough, and important study of modernity, nature, and the formation of the state in contemporary Venezuela. Citing Oilman, and against ‘the customary separations between the inner and the outer, the local and the global, geography and history’ (p.387), Coronil proposes a relational approach which admits the ‘dialectical constitution of related entities rather than the interaction between separate entities’ (p.26).

Coronil’s historical ethnography of the state in Venezuela is an account of the complex inter-relations between oil, the state, and global capitalism. In a Third World nation economically dependant on the export of a single primary product, the process of state formation in Venezuela has been inextricably linked with the ownership of national, natural resources. Oil-money transformed Venezuela, dominating its domestic economy, and locating political and economic power in a State made independently wealthy with petro-dollars. The State promised progress and modernity conceived as emulation of the metropolitan centres, to be bought with the money magically produced. from nature. The catastrophic collapse of this ‘model’ democratic State and the transformation of wealth into debt, however, unmasked the Myth of Progress, prompting Coronil to raise significant questions about the nature of modernity, world capitalism and the analysis of societies regarded as marginal in these processes.

While drawing appreciatively on the insights of recent post-colonial critiques, Coronil’s relational approach enables a critical recognition of the sharp separation of the West and its periphery on which this literature relies. What makes this marginalisation possible is what Coronil calls ‘Occidentalism’: as a kind of flipside to Said’s conception of Orientalism, Coronil draws attention not only to the ‘implicit assumptions of Self contained within representations of the Other’, but more importantly to the interrelatedness of the two. With the concept of Occidentalism, Coronil makes the strategic decision to neither refigure the Other, nor to focus alternatively on the Self: instead, he seeks to investigate how this customary opposition expresses a power-laden ‘forgetfulness’ in writing the history of capitalism and modernity. With this focus on a historical rather than an ontological constitution of both material reality and subjectivity, the author defines a position from which he offers significant contr ibutions to an impressive number of current debates.

One such issue concerns the question of constructed space, and the spatial determination of social relations in terms of capitalism’s centre and periphery. This separation is entailed by a historiography which has the expansion of modernity emanating from the centre, the West, and enveloping marginal communities. The recognition of the crucial role peripheral societies have had, and do play, in the constitution of the West as co-participant in global capitalism enables an account which does not reduce local specificity to merely resistant, reactionary action nor to passivity.

A characteristic insight derived from Coronil’s relational approach concerns the agency of nature, an agency conceived in terms of ‘internal relations’, which disallows the customary separation of society and nature. Despite the prolific deployment of the spatial metaphors of centre and periphery, Coronil notes a general tendency in social theory to relegate space and ‘nature’ to the ‘inert stage’ (p.23) on which the events of history occur. The focus on the specificity of oil in Venezuelan history, and especially on the legitimisation of the State through the figuring of oil as progress, recalls the crucial place of nature in the historical formation of capitalism. Oil, as ‘nature’, played an active part in the historical constitution of the Venezuelan ‘petrostate’. Coronil’s contribution in ‘remembering’ nature lies in the opening possibility for an analysis of global capitalism not in terms of unequal exchange value which obscures asymmetrical relations of power, but in terms of a global division of labou r and nature. The relational approach that Coronil brings to his analysis insists on the mutually constitutive relations between dominant and subaltern regions. Recasting this separation in light of the related notions of space and time allows an approach to ‘capitalism as a global process that mutually forms centres and peripheries rather than as a self-generated system that expands from active modern regions and engulfs passive traditional societies’ (p.8). A conception of modernity thus emerges where the metropolitan centre is a dominant form rather than a universal standard, and where peripheral societies can be seen as subaltern, yet related instances of the same modernity.

The Magical State is a refreshing work by a cultural anthropologist profitably and comfortably engaged with the ‘big picture’. It provides a complex, innovative and genuinely interdisciplinary framework which draws on insights from a variety of sources while maintaining the integrity and unique contribution of Coronil’s own position.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Australian Anthropological Society

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