The end of transition: working notes

I wrote the following notes for the closing round-table of the symposium “Performing Human Rights: Contesting Amnesia and Historical Justice in Latin America and the Middle East”, University of Zurich, June 28-29, 2018. Because of the quite lively discussion these remarks provoked, I share them here as an invitation to think and discuss further. I thank the conference organizers, Liliana Gómez-Popescu and Bettina Dennerlein, for challenging me to return to the question of transitional justice and human rights.

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Anti-PT manifestation, Brazil, 2015 (photo: blog União da Juventude Socialista)

Coined in the legal and political sciences in the 1980s and 1990s, especially in the ambit of international organizations, the concept of transitional justice was tasked with managing governance in contexts of negotiated handovers of state power from “authoritarian” to “democratic” governments, in contexts that ranged from Latin America’s Southern Cone to the end of apartheid in South Africa to the rapidly disintegrating map of post-Soviet Eastern Europe. The very notion of a “return to democracy” frequently associated with discourses of democratic transition also framed the latter as a universal, normative standard that had been interrupted by authoritarian exception. Transitional justice, a label that was quickly being applied to postgraduate programs and government agencies the world over, offered a framework for comparing –that is, for measuring the relative success or failure within the quantifiable parameters of benchmarks, indices and goalposts held dear by governments and international institutions– processes of compartmentalizing the political contingencies of these “transitions” into discrete, and partially autonomous, institutional realms. Transitional justice, in short, ensured the reconfiguration of politics as administration, and it did so, centrally, in parsing out, on the one hand, more or less limited forms of legal prosecution of human rights violations (frequently reparative rather than retaliatory), and on the other hand the opening-up of institutional settings for the productions of testimony, where victims’ memory performances could be played out within “safe spaces”.

Admittedly, I’m offering a schematic, even caricaturesque, summary here of processes which, at a national or even local level always played out in much more complex and contradictory ways — but the point here is, precisely, that transitional justice, as an imaginary gold standard of such diverse processes, openly promoted itself as an enabling fiction, one to which the political itself had to succumb, it was suggested, in order to be able to unleash its potentiality and contingency once again once the “transition process” had been successfully completed.

In Latin America, this notion of transition and the historical narrative of normalcy and aberration it implicitly subscribed to, have been submitted from very early on to a radical critique and counter-narrative that has been associated with the concept of postdictatorship, that is, with the various modes of dictatorial afterlife the idea of transition both obscured and enabled. For what if not dictatorship has been the “transitional” moment that violently separates, in Latin American late modernity, the increasingly radicalized national-popular movements and governments of the 1960s and 1970s from the neoliberal regimes that succeeded, or perhaps rather, were ushered in by, military State terror? Against the origin myth of democratic continuity interrupted by authoritarian exception, tantamount to emptying history of politics, postdictatorship proposed a narrative of catastrophic defeat, of which the discourse of democratic transition was itself symptomatic: transitional justice, as the legal-institutional administration of (neoliberal) governance “after terror” confirmed the successful violent destruction, and inability to suture or reconstruct in the present, of the languages of decolonizing emancipation the dictatorships had violently cut short.

The rise and fall of center-left governments in Latin America after the millennium (the so-called pink tide) can thus also be understood, in retrospect, as a failed attempt to re-introduce the political into the empty time of neoliberal administration, constituted upon the discursive and institutional frameworks of “democratic transition”. Yet what this failure has presently unleashed is a wave of necropolitical vengeance that far exceeds the mere reinstatement of the neoliberal status quo ante. Instead, I suggest, the open instrumentalization of lawfare for political ends and the cynical tweaking or outright violation of constitutional norms (as in Honduras, Paraguay or Brazil) on behalf of a resurgent right mark the true “end of transition”, in the sense not just of the completion of a cycle but also, and foremost, as revealing the political and historical ends the former was always already transitioning towards.

The end of transition, if indeed we were to think of the present moment in Latin America under this heading, would then imply a range of challenges to critical thinking and the politics of resistance alike. I want to sketch out just two: firstly, beyond the critique of the political and legal underwritings of transitional governance the notion of postdictatorship has allowed us to perform, we would urgently need to expand our frameworks today towards a more systematic, longue durée point of view that would allow us to encompass (as fundamental) the economic dimension of “transition”. What “transition” will have turned out to have transitioned towards, what it literally prepared the ground for, would then take shape as a violent, even genocidal, neo-extractive cycle currently rolling across the Global South and beyond, and of which the racist, misogynistic, and homo/transphobic necropolitics of the dominant neofascism in the Americas are part and parcel. What we need is a reframing and retooling of our critical instruments in order to be able to name the way in which dictatorial terror and neoliberal accumulation-through-dispossession alike participate of an extractivist matrix that takes bodily and earthly surfaces –the living and the material– as “overburden” and as targets of its extractive bio- and necropolitics. It is no accident, after all, that indigenous persons and women have presently emerged as the principal agents of resistance, and as the main targets of fascist violence, as the assassinations of Heather Heyer, Bertha Cáceres and Marielle Franco in the United States, Guatemala and Brazil, or the illegal imprisonment, torture and assassination of Kolla and Mapuche leaders in Argentina and Chile show all too eloquently.

Secondly, perhaps the field of memory studies as presently configured has neglected for too long, and to its own peril, the way in which the neofascist resurgence has itself been underwritten by “memory performances”, from the various kinds of ritual homage paid to icons of white suprematism and slavery in the U.S. South to the mobilizations of perpetrators’ relatives and their political and mediatic allies in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, which once more openly defend military tortures and assassinations perpetrated, the story now goes, in the sacrificial defense of the nation against leftist “corruption”. In what ways, we need to ask, have the “subjective” and “performative turns” in memory studies, as developed within ethical imperatives of empathizing with the experiences and demands of victims, been neglecting these memory performances of the enemy? Has the privileging of memory over history, however important in contexts of recovering experiences of suffering and resistance, suddenly left us exposed against the fascist rewriting/reperforming of the past? The challenge for the Left today, it seems to me, is then about moving beyond extant critiques of the transitional consensus as outlined above, and towards a more comprehensive engagement with what transition was actually heading towards.