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Ibsen Martinez

Unproductive Progress

Ibsen Martinez*

" La mordida" (literally "the bite") is a Mexican Spanish idiom for "traffic police bribe." Eventually, it came to designate all kinds of government officials's corruption.

The Greek word for bite is "dexis." Recently this root was used by Gabriel Zaid in his newly-coined literary term, "dexiology." Mr. Gabriel Zaid, a brilliant Mexican poet and essayist, uses the term to address the issue of the public servant's corruption as one of the most demoralizing by-products of Latin American statism.

Mr. Zaid, who holds a degree in Engineering and is now 72, has made a decisive contribution to diminish the monopolies of social and political thought, not only in his own country, but also in the rest of Latin America.

Zaid's knack for relatedness finds a way for statistics, bureaucratic anecdotes, erudite quotations and glaring metaphors to come into his writing. This enables him to discuss the shortcomings of, say, tariffs and exchange controls, without frightening readers away.

In one of his best essays he asserts that "La mordida marketplace is a modern market because a) it is an eminently monetary market, b) "merchandise" and money are almost always exchanged immediately, c) relationships tend to become impersonal and c) it accepts resale, wholesale, and retailing of the 'concessions'.

Mr. Zaid's real family name is "Díaz" which is quite a common Spanish surname. "Zaid" is only an arabic-sounding anagram of "Díaz", Mr. Zaid's jocular and often misleading pen name. A reserved person who has shunned interviews for years, he copyrighted his own image a long time ago.

His elegant prose and idiosyncratic judgment of both cultural and economic matters have earned him a unique place among Mexico's foremost writers.

"He is a jewel of Latin American letters, which is no small thing to be, read him—you'll see," writes Paul Berman, someone who is well-acquainted with many things Latin American. The sad news for English-speaking readers is that although Mr. Zaid's poetry, essays, and social and cultural criticism have been widely published in Spanish, only one of his books have been translated into English so far.

So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in the Age of Abundance (Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2003), superbly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is just one of Zaid's illuminating forays into the uncharted territories that extend beyond globalization. Here Zaid travels fast through landscapes of cultural criticism, though he also excels in long-range economic forecasting.

 

In the late 1700s T. R. Malthus famously contrasted geometric versus arithmetic growth rates to illustrate average population increases versus average agricultural increases.

This provocative and compact little book—only 144 pages—deals with the future of books and intellectual life and derives from one single, ironical remark that Mr. Zaid makes with a "Malthusian" slant to it: "Worldwide book publishing grows in geometric progression while readers can only grow arithmetically."

"Just like writers," Mr. Zaid says, "who make things out of words that are not their own, inventive publishers, booksellers, librarians, anthologizers and critics gather texts that are not theirs into meaningful and appealing assemblages."

"Los demasiados Libros"—its title in Spanish—echoes the despair of any reader at the avalanche of books falling on him and the impossibility to read them all. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, says of this truly original book, "this is how Montaigne would have written abut the dizzy and increasingly dolorous age of the Internet."

"The great barrier to the free circulation of books," affirms Mr. Zaid, "is the mass of privileged citizens who have college degrees but never learned to read properly." According to Zaid, one paradox—and not a minor one—of our time lies in a unsettling notion: "college graduates are more interested in publishing books than reading them." This fact alone would account for a large share of the "so many books" that go into the marketplace every day never to be read by anyone.

At one point of his conversation—he conceives the writing and reading of books as conversation by other means—Zaid suggests, "What matters is how we feel, how we see, what we do after reading; whether the street and the clouds and the existence of others mean anything to us; whether reading makes us, physically, more alive."

Rebuking the proteic delusions of populism, nationalism and statism with arguments made up of scholarly wisdom and common sense can be a trying experience for any Latin American intellectual.

Submissive and dependent on Government giveaways, many Latin American intellectuals, be they Marxists or not, have gladly acquiesced in the past to the orthodoxy of State's intervention in social life. But this has been more so in Mexico, where for a long stretch of the 20th century, few left-leaning intellectuals—with quite a few economists among them!—showed any will to defend themselves against the temptations and invitations of the Government.

 

In most Latin American countries, Marxism became a dogma among middle class left-wing intellectuals ever since the early Twenties. But governments' economic technocrats were a different breed. They usually worked for military dictatorships or, as in Mexico or Venezuela, for a populist presidential regime that favored the "tariffs, subsidies and overvalued exchange rates" orthodoxy after WWII.

This orthodoxy came to be known as cepalismo, after CEPAL, the Spanish initials of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America whose very influential head was the Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch. Mr. Prebisch thought that the terms of trade and investment in the postwar favored the industrial nations of the "centre" as against the developing nations of the “periphery”. Cepalismo recommended stark land reforms and emphasized on economic diversification and import substitution and industrialization.

Back in the early 1980s, Zaid wrote a national bestseller titled "La Economía Presidencial" ("Presidential Economics", 1987), still essential reading to understand the Mexican vine of "patrimonial State." But his most outstanding achievement is "El Progreso Improductivo" ("Unproductive Progress", 1979). A French commentator found it remindful, in style, of Murray Boockchin and Ivan Illich. I would add that it is so but only in style, not ideas.

These essays were originally written in the Seventies, at the request of Mexico's "Vuelta" magazine director, 1990 Nobel Prize winner, Octavio Paz. Though "Vuelta" was unmistakenly committed to literary and political issues, Zaid—who is a Catholic—asserts that faith in progress is a Christian idea that, in time, became secular only to merge with the Enlightenment's faith in man's reason and progress. "The fact that Christian faith and faith in progress cloud each other, "he says, "is a sign of their affinity." He steps back, however, at both faiths and, while believing that change does exist, he rejects the idea that mere change automatically brings on improvement.

Zaid contends that "you have to distinguish among progress, a conscience of progress (be it laudatory or critical), a faith in progress (conceived as a result of either divine providence, natural law or historical law) and a will to progress (be it blind or self-critical)."

All this is relevant to Zaid's contention that this faith in progress pervades Latin American's economical beliefs as a faith in the State's capacity to foster conditions for the creation of wealth. In Latin America, as elsewhere where welfare states thrive, you don't have to be a Marxist to rely on the State's charities—and feeling entitled to demand State's charities—from cradle to grave.

Land reform, subsidies, tariffs, massive education and "five-years-ahead" planning were tenets of the cepalista thought that perfectly fitted with the aims of both military dictators and/or nationalist populist party's leaders that sprouted in the region during the Fifties and Sixties.

As we know now, these policies were inconsequential when it came to fostering economic growth and diminishing poverty. So they are deemed "unproductive progress" ideals in one of Zaid's most inspiring essays.

Here is my (poor) English rendition of a handful of paragraphs of "Para Una Ciencia de la Mordida" ("A Contribution to La Mordida Science".) Enjoy.

"Where shall we find anthropologists who study la mordida as seriously as potlach has been studied? Who shall psychoanalyze the schizoid life of public servants who gets rich while thundering against public servants who get rich?

[…] Who shall elaborate a theory of the State that takes into account the private interests of public servants?

[…] Where are the daring specialists in public management who shall concede that la mordida, as well as traffic infraction tickets, foster respect for traffic lights and so must be legalized whereas driver's licenses—that, after all, can be obtained without having to pass any test simply by paying a moderate mordida— serve no good at all and so should be eliminated? Where are the computing engineers who can infer that corruption generates complexity precisely in those systems supposed to fight corruption and that this complexity elevates costs, distorts operations and multiply the opportunities for corruption? Where is the economical analysis of corruption? By this I mean not only an analysis of its volume and growth and elasticity curves but of its indirect and invisible costs (such as information distortion, agenda distortions, investment and expectation distortions) and of its redistributive effects that only serve more concentration?"

[...] "La mordida marketplace is a modern market because
a) it is an eminently monetary market.
b) "merchandise" and money are almost always exchanged inmediately.
c) relationships tend to become impersonal.
d) it accepts resale, wholesale, and retailing of the "concessions". Generally speaking, la mordida market allows all kinds of intermediation such as price scales according to volume, commissions percentages as well as a tendency to centralize concessions."

[…] "The essence of corruption is charging twice, officially and unofficially. It is selling obedience and not delivering the order. It is in acting on one's own by means of an investiture that implies giving up acting on one's own."


* Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.
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