Correa Ochoa on López-Pedreros, 'Makers of Democracy: A Transnational History of the Middle Classes in Colombia'

A. Ricardo López-Pedreros. Makers of Democracy: A Transnational History of the Middle Classes in Colombia. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. 360 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0285-7.

Reviewed by Laura Correa Ochoa (Harvard University)
Published on H-Nationalism (December, 2022)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version:

On July 17, 2022, Colombians elected the first left-wing government in the country’s history. Throughout the campaign and since the election, the middle class—its socioeconomic status, political aspirations, and role in the future of the country—has been contested. Many from the Right and Center argue that the triumph of the Left is a threat to this class and democracy itself. By contrast, the new administration insists that leftist policies, including expanding the middle class, are necessary to deepen democracy. After all, Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world and class mobility is practically nonexistent. According to a 2018 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), it would take the poorest 10 percent a staggering eleven generations (or about 275 years) to reach the middle class. These debates are of course not unique to Colombia. In the United States every election cycle stirs up discussion about the anxieties of the middle class and speculation about its electoral inclinations. Ricardo A. López-Pedreros’s Makers of Democracy: A Transnational History of the Middle Classes in Colombia elucidates how this social stratum has come to occupy such a prominent place in understandings of political change and democratic rule. Specifically, he charts how the fate of democracy has been linked to the fate of the middle class.

The book examines the transnational formation of the middle classes in 1960s and 1970s Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. López-Pedreros, a professor of history at Western Washington University, goes beyond attempting to define what the middle classes are in Latin America. Instead, he is interested in tracing “the material circumstances, discursive conditions, collective subjectivities, social struggles and political battles” of middle-class women and men as they positioned themselves as the makers of democracy (p. 4). The book aims to understand how the middle classes came to “represent what democracy was supposed to deliver” and how US imperial power in Latin America (in the form of development programs and modernization theories) shaped middle-class formation. Ultimately, López-Pedreros argues that middle-class actors in Colombia (professionals, white-collar employees, and small-business owners) envisioned a hierarchical definition of democracy. This definition simultaneously challenged and naturalized class and gender oppression. Middle-class actors positioned themselves as superior to popular sectors and the oligarchies, which they deemed to be unfit for democratic rule. Middle-class men also saw themselves as the true vanguards of democracy, above working-class men and all women, while viewing middle-class women as superior to their working-class counterparts. This focus on class and gender is the book’s most significant contribution. The author persuasively reveals the centrality of gender to middle-class subjectivity and political imagination.

López-Pedreros is responding to what he perceives to be problematic accounts of democracy and the middle classes. First, he critiques approaches that frame democracy as “transhistorical” (p. 4), a “gift from the West” (p. 18), or “utopia without hierarchy” (p. 5). He argues that the Colombian case demonstrates that democracy in the 1960s and 1970s was a heterogenous, contested, and stratified political process. Second, López-Pedreros is writing against those who conceive of the middle classes in Latin America as a “myth” (p. 4), as “co-opted by oligarchic rule” (p. 8), or as a “deviation … a proper Latin American subalternity” (p. 7). He suggests that to understand class struggles and modes of oppression in Latin America, it is imperative to “historicize power relations from the middle” and go beyond only, or mainly, investigating conflicts between popular classes and oligarchies (p. 13). In my view, the author overstates his claim about democracy being viewed in opposition to social hierarchies. For example, historians of race and nation across the Americas have long shown that democracy has been stratified along racial lines and has been a politically contested and exclusionary project. Still, the call for theorizing class relations from the middle is convincing. López-Pedreros shows that middle-class women and men led a political fight against oligarchies and working-class sectors and successfully defined democracy in relation to themselves. To do so, he draws from a wide range of sources and archives, some recently made available, including of transnational development organizations, private companies, Colombian state agencies, and middle-class political organizations.

Makers of Democracy is organized chronologically and has two parts. The first part, “Conscripts of Democracy,” focuses on the knowledge debates about middle-class formation from the late 1950s to the 1960s. It examines the role of the Alliance for Progress and of state policymakers in equating democracy with the middle classes. For instance, chapter 3 demonstrates that small-business owners, mostly men, came to see themselves as the “productive wealth” of the country, unlike the large industrialists and workers, whose masculinity was antidemocratic (p. 66). Chapter 4 shows how office workers in the service sector were imagined as representatives of democracy because they were a new kind of worker, or “laborer-capitalist” that transcended typical labor antagonisms (p. 91). In this sector, middle-class women were celebrated because of their ostensible patience and willingness to serve, unlike working-class women. Here López-Pedreros approaches middle-class actors as workers and not just as consumers, as most recent studies of the middle classes in Latin America do.

Part 2, “Contested Democracies,” argues that the middle classes in 1960s and 1970s Bogotá constituted a social movement of their own and were not simply co-opted by the Alliance for Progress or domestic elites who wanted to contain communism. Chapter 6 traces the emergence of various middle-class political organizations and shows that private property, savings, and education became central demands of middle-class people. It also explores the ways in which the middle-class family was defined along heteropatriarchal lines and women’s work was reduced to “help” (p. 242). Chapter 7 examines the contradictory participation of middle-class people in revolutionary politics and movements of this time, including in armed groups. The author shows that petit-bourgeoise men and women challenged oligarchic power and made calls for redefining education and healthcare as a common good, while still positioning themselves as the “revolutionary educators” of the masses (p. 199). Within this process, men argued that the demands of women, including for bodily autonomy and equal pay, were a distraction from broader revolutionary politics. Meanwhile, middle-class women insisted that working-class women were victims of patriarchal domination, and it was their duty to educate them about how to overcome their oppression.

While the book’s analysis of class and gender is innovative and compelling, it generally overlooks the role that race played in the formation of the middle classes in Colombia and the trajectory of middle-class politics outside of Bogotá. Chapter 3 mentions that one Colombian anthropologist associated middle classness with whiteness and suggested that Blackness and Indigeneity were incompatible with democracy (pp. 71-74). Yet López-Pedreros does not consider in depth how notions of racial difference, including whiteness and mestizaje, shaped the hierarchical definitions of democracy that middle-class actors espoused. It would have been clarifying to at least learn why the author does not see race as a relevant aspect of middle-class formation in Bogotá and Colombia at large. Furthermore, in the book Bogotá functions as a stand-in for Colombia, which can reinforce centralist narratives of the country. While it would be unfair to expect the book to cover the entire country, it would have been helpful for the author to explain why Bogotá became the focus and how its history of middle-class formation compares with that of other parts of Colombia.

Makers of Democracy is an important contribution to twentieth-century Colombian and Latin American history. For specialists of Colombia, it offers a novel interpretation of the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, including the role of gender in class formation and political struggle. It will also appeal to a broader audience interested in histories of democracy, class, gender, and US empire in Latin America and the global South.

Citation: Laura Correa Ochoa. Review of López-Pedreros, A. Ricardo, Makers of Democracy: A Transnational History of the Middle Classes in Colombia. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2022.

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