Over recent years, and from opposite ends of the political spectrum, paradoxically similar theses have been put forward suggesting that Latin America belongs to its own cultural and civilisational universe, ie, one distinct from what is commonly referred to as the ‘West’. Whether from a nativist or indigenist Latin American viewpoint or from an Anglo ‘Midwest’ viewpoint, the idea of a distinct Latin American civilisation has been advocated by different parties, who remain seemingly unaware of their surprising coincidence.

The new Latin American indigenist movement rejects all things Western in the name of preserving the native essences and identities allegedly destroyed by colonisation in the first instance and subsequently by the Creole republics.2 Evo Morales’ Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities in Ecuador and the Movimiento Etnocacerista in Peru, apart from denouncing ethnic discrimination against the ‘first peoples’ (a charge not entirely without foundation), have gone from affirming the virtues of all things home-grown to a rejection of all things foreign. Thus, to cite one example, drawn from the MAS manifesto:

‘There have been 500 years of European presence and 176 of republican life. Over these 500 years we have been dominated by the cosmology of Western culture… The concepts of globalisation and the market economy are embedded in the Western cosmology, just like the old concept of progress that gave rise to the scientific paradigm of modernity… The so-called Western century of Enlightenment has gone past its sell-by date and no longer offers humanity any possibility… Our cultural roots, the Andean and Amazonian cultures, have triumphed over the founding principles of Western culture.’

As Evo Morales roundly declared, ‘12 October (1492) was a tragedy’.

But note that when President Trump sets about building a wall on the border with Mexico to stem the tide of Latino immigrants, when he endeavours (largely unsuccessfully, as it happens) to deport those who already reside in the US, when he insults both groups, calling them ‘bad hombres’ and accuses them of being rapists and murderers, all because he wants to ‘Make America Great Again’, he is engaging in a kind of symmetrical rejection and stigmatisation, not devoid of racism, but that, as will be seen in what follows, has the support of a considerable intellectual tradition. Thus, while the Columbus monument in Caracas was destroyed in 2004 by enraged followers of Hugo Chávez, another attack took place in the summer of 2017 on the Columbus monument in Baltimore, in this case perpetrated by ‘politically correct’ citizens in the name of the ‘campaign against hatred’.

The notion that Latina America does not form part of the West is not as outlandish as it might appear at first glance. It is part of a cast of collective representations –as Emile Durkheim might have put it– that are well-established and accepted in the Western intellectual universe. Some good examples in this regard are books about Latin American civilisation such as the History of Latin American Civilization, edited by Lewis Hanke,3 or Keen’s Latin American Civilization,4 a classic text published for the first time in 1955 and reissued many times since, and surely one of the most (if not the most) widely used. And I cite these two, among many others that could be added to the list, because Keen and Hanke conducted a famous debate about the nature of Latin America, although neither of them rejected (or even questioned) the appropriateness of the ‘civilisation’ label to refer to the region.

In contrast, it seems as if though the northern hemisphere exists within the Western framework such that it makes no sense to talk about a ‘(North) American civilisation’, but things change south of the Rio Grande and we enter a region of a ‘Latin American civilisation’, evidently linked to another ‘Hispanic civilisation’. What accounts for this lack of symmetry? Does it make sense? Can we talk of a separate Latin American civilisation as distinct from Western civilisation? These are the main questions addressed in this paper.

What are civilisations?

Arjomand and Tiryakian, in Rethinking Civilizational Analysis,5 have identified three waves of sociological interest in civilisations. The first is linked to the Webers (Max and Alfred), Durkheim and his nephew Mauss. Meriting particular emphasis is the Durkheim and Mauss publication of 1913, Note on the Notion of Civilization, in which they articulate the idea that certain social phenomena have a ‘coefficient of expansion and internationalisation’ that gives rise to civilisations and ‘civilisational complexes’,6 an idea akin to that of Weber and his ‘universal-historical’ phenomena. The second generation comprises Sorokin, Norbert Elias and Benjamin Nelson, as well as certain works by the young Merton. The third and last is represented by Eisenstadt, Huntington and Tiryakian himself.

Over the course of this evolution we find a subtle line of argument, already hinted at: the triumph of cultures, in the plural, over civilisation, in the singular. In the first generation it seems clear that there is only one civilisation (Western, naturally) but many cultures. But by the third generation civilisation has become, as Huntington notes, ‘culture writ large’. ‘Civilisation’ comes to be understood simply as a ‘cultural family’, devoid therefore of any normative sense. Now we do not have many cultures but only one civilisation, because the latter disappears beneath the concept of culture. It is the triumph of the historicist vision of diversity, the triumph of multiculturalism over assimilation. Such is the meaning of the term in the well-known books by the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington: ‘culture writ large’. Civilisation, says Huntington, ‘is the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species’. 7

As I do not wish to enter here into the distinct nuances and debates about the meaning of these two complex words, ‘culture’ and ‘civilisation’,8 I shall use the first in its habitual anthropological sense, the one that Edward B. Taylor gave it in his classic Primitive Culture (1871), in other words, as ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society’. And I shall take the second, ‘civilisation’, to refer to the grouping of diverse cultures into large families, an operationalisation of the concept that is nowadays more useful than that supplied by Alfred Weber, given that we normally have at least two clear markers or identifiers of ‘cultural families’ (or ‘civilisations’ in Huntington’s sense): first, the great religions, which always include a world view (a Weltanschauung) and therefore a particular ontology; and secondly, linguistic families normally linked to a particular type of script. Religion and writing are thus established as the main demarcators and markers of civilisations.

Having said this, the initial conclusion is that some people, especially from the Americas, North America above all, but also some from South America, argue that Spain and/or Latin America are a ‘cultural family’ distinct from Western culture and, consequently, that of North America. Hence the question: is Latin America another civilisation? Does it belong to another cultural family distinct from the Western family? Two of the greatest analysts of civilisations provide radically different answers to such questions.

Emilio Lamo de Espinosa
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, UCM

1 The author delivered a talk in Washington DC in 2007 titled ‘La frontera entre el mundo anglosajón y el hispano. ¿Es América Latina Occidente’?, which was subsequently published in Eduardo Garrigues & Antonio López Vega (Eds.) (2013), España y Estados Unidos en la era de las independencia, Biblioteca Nueva, Madrid, pp. 357-366. This working paper is an updated, expanded and revised version of that talk.

2 Luis Esteban González Manrique (2005), El “etnonacionalismo”: las nuevas tensiones interétnicas en América Latina, ARI nr 59/2005, Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid, 11/V5/2005.

3 Lewis Hanke (Ed.) (1969), History of Latin American Civilization, Methuen, London, 1969.

4 Benjamin Keen, Robert Buffington & Lila Caimari (Eds.) (2004), Keen’s Latin American Civilization: History & Society, 1492 to the Present, Westview Press.

5 Sage Publications, London, 2004.

6 See Durkheim & Mauss (1971), ‘A Note on the Notion of Civilization’, Social Research, vol. 38, nr 4, p. 812.

7 S. Huntington (1996), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster. New York, p. 48.

8 I did so years ago in ‘La globalización cultural ¿Crisol, ensalada o gazpacho civilizatorio?’, in Lo que hacen los sociólogos. Libro homenaje a Carlos Moya, CIS, Madrid, 2007, pp. 543-575.

Photo: the miss c (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).