Ica to Lima

24 January 2012


A sign pointing the way to Lima along the Panamericana.

Even a brief look at Peru reveals a society, which though burdened by a great disparity of rich and poor as is commonplace throughout Latin America, nevertheless shows clear signs of increasingly distributed prosperity — it would not be going too far to call this process of increasingly distributed prosperity economic democratization.

The day's drive began at the wonderful El Carmelo Hotel and Hacienda in Ica, a former pisco distillery.

The highways in Peru are my Exhibit “A” for economic democratization — the roads themselves are well maintained and well traveled, but more importantly there is the dependable police presence and the regular weigh stations along the Panamericana, which are signs of the kind of rule of law that touches on the ordinary business of life (in Marshall’s famous phrase), i.e., commerce. It must be emphasized that this manifestation of the rule of law is the antithesis of that sense of the law mordantly expressed by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The Peruvian desert as seen from the Panamericana -- a photograph cannot do it justice, nor communicate the surprise and passing a gray and barren dune and suddenly coming upon a green and fertile valley.

Rule of law can be an excuse for the powerful to exploit the powerless (thus exemplifying the infrastructure/superstructure dichotomy), as in the Anatole France quote, but rule of law at its best provides a level playing field in which all enjoy equality of opportunity, not equality of exploitation. Also regularly visible along the Panamericana are billboards advertising consumer goods of every familiar kind, which suggests that consumers have disposable income and a choice in how to spend it. It may sound perverse to praise the emergence of a consumerist economy as a virtue, but in comparison to the quasi-feudal economy that preceded it, this represents remarkable progress.

Panamericana: Pacific Ocean on the left, sand dunes of the desert on the right.

My Exhibit “B” for economic democratization in Peru is the city of Ica. Ica is not well known to tourists, and I did not see another tourist while I was there. If you stay on the Panamericana and breezed through Ica it might strike you as just another dusty town in the desert, and not much different from Nazca. But Nazca, which appears to live almost exclusively off the tourist trade, is quite small, and really appears to be a dusty desert town, whose streets are filled with watering holes for tourists. In Ica, on the other hand, where tourists are not in evidence, the downtown core (some distance from the unattractive aspect presented on the Panamericana) is busy and bustling with locals patronizing all manner of local businesses. While many of the historical buildings in Ica have not been repaired since the last severe earthquake, some traditional facades and arcades are filled with small businesses, attractively placing contemporary commerce in a traditional setting.

My anecdotal account of the Peruvian economy would be no surprise to those who follow statistics and know that Peru’s economy has been growing steadily for many years. When I was last in Peru, in 1994, it had not yet been long that “Presidente Gonzalo” (Manuel Rubén Abimael Guzmán Reynoso) had been captured and Sendero Luminoso demoted from an existential threat to the state to being an occasionally deadly irritant. Fujimori was still in power at that time, but since then several popularly elected presidents have both served their terms in office and have then peacefully handed their power of that office to their successors. There were some worries in the business community when Ollanta Humala was elected, on account of things he said in the past and his political friendships with leftist leaders, but his term so far has brought no destabilizing changes or radical initiatives and the Financial Times has had good things to say about him.

All of this can be gotten from statistics and newspapers; what cannot be gotten from statistics and newspapers is the temper of the people and tone of life. Well, in Peruvian cities the tone of life is loud. Everyone in traffic honks all the time. If you go straight, people honk; if you go right, people honk; if you go left, people honk. Speed up, honk; slow down, honk; stop, honk. You get the idea. But beyond this nerve-wracking clamor, people were spontaneously helpful. Several times, without being asked and without expecting a tip, bystanders helped me to pull out of a tight spot, to maneuver in traffic, and get where I was going when I was not at all certain as to how to do this. There are many cities in the US where you would not encounter this.

In fact, not long ago (in What’s with the attitude?) I wrote about the increasing rudeness of traffic confrontations in Portland. Now, I cannot imagine Peruvian drivers lining up neatly as drivers sometimes do in Portland when there is an obvious traffic queue due to construction or an accident, but I certainly can imagine Peruvian drivers demonstrating spontaneous acts of generosity in the midst of a non-queue. Neither social custom is superior; each simply reveals a distinct manner of acknowledging the humanity of The Other, and this is necessary to a healthy society. Elsewhere I have called this Social Gift Exchange.

I almost forgot... there is an oasis very near Ica, set in the midst of towering dunes of sand.

Perhaps you think that I have gone on rather too long about in too great detail about roads and traffic, and that this reveals more about myself than about Peru. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. But I will defend my discussion on objective grounds. The model of development that prevails in the Western Hemisphere is predicated upon intermodal transport disproportionately relying on truck transport across highways. Trains are important, but trains will never have the tradition or the economic centrality that they have had in the Old World. In the New World, the truck and the highway are the economic ties that bind.

More than a little tired on the plane ride back to Oregon.

Elsewhere I have defined (what I call) a Stage 1 civilization as a civilization in which transportation has been globalized so that persons, goods, and services move throughout the world without respect to the geographical obstacles that defined the character of Stage 0 civilizations — when the human diaspora resulted in isolated pockets of civilization, each ignorant of the other. Today, a functioning transportation infrastructure is the price for participating fully — not merely peripherally — in global industrial-technological civilization.

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I had some great views of the inter-mountain west on the flight home.

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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Nazca to Ica

23 January 2012


A short distance north of Nazca, along the Panamericana, and situated between the designs of the “hands” (“manos“) and the “tree” (“arbol“), there is a tower (the “Torre Mirador”) that can be climbed, probably about 40 or 50 feet in height, in order to view some part of the lines of Nazca without flying over them. This close-up view of the lines clearly reveals the construction methods that I quoted yesterday (in Lines in the Desert) from Mason’s The Ancient Civilizations of Peru — stones have been removed from within geometrically defined areas and the removed stones have been piled at the edges of the designs. The piled stones not only represent the space cleared, but the piles themselves serve to make the demarcation between cleared and non-cleared areas all the more obvious, making the distinction more visually striking.

This construction technique was also used at nearby Palpa, and continues to be effective in the present day, as driving along the Panamericana (once outside the archaeologically preserved area) one sees a variety of messages spelled out in the desert, from the initials and names of individuals to fairly elaborate advertisements for small roadside stores.

In my naïveté I though that any intrepid visitor of sufficient curiosity might walk out into the desert and and look at the construction of the lines for themselves, but the desert has been fenced off along the Panamericana to prevent further damage to the lines, and once made aware of the threat it becomes immediately obvious how damaged many of the lines and figures are, which accounts for some of the difficulty in seeing some of the patterns from the air. Some — but not all.

Much is revealed by a close inspection (as one can gain from the tower along the Panamericana) that is lost in a distant view from the air, just as much is revealed in a distant inspection from the air that is close in the close-up view from near the ground. This is a perfect concrete illustration of what I was recently writing about in relation to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive thought (in P or not-P). In this post (on my other blog) I employed an image taken from Alain Connes to illustrate the constructive/non-constructive distinction such that the constructive perspective is like that of a mountain climber while the non-constructive perspective is like that of a visitor who flies over the summit of a mountain laboriously climbed by the other.

Any thorough investigation will want to make use of both perspectives in order to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible — even though each perspective has its blind spots and its shadows that compromise our perspective on the whole. Indeed, it is precisely because each perspective incorporates deficits specific to the perspective that one will want to supplement any one perspective without another perspective with a different set of specific deficits. Between two or more fundamentally different perspectives on any one state-of-affairs there is the possibility of constructing the comprehensive conception that is excluded by any one perspective in isolation.

The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the imagine of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.

Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.

This reflection gives us yet another perspective on utopianism, which I have many times tried to characterize in my attempts to show the near (not absolute) historical inevitability of utopian schemes transforming themselves upon their attempted implementation into dystopian nightmares — the utopian planner attempts to design from a purely non-constructive perspective without the benefit of a constructive perspective. This dooms the utopian plans to inevitable blindspots, shadows, and deficits. The oversights of a single perspective then, in the fullness of time, create the conditions for cascading catastrophic failure.

Historically speaking, it is not difficult to see how this comes about. After the astonishing planned cities of early antiquity, many from prehistoric societies that have left us little record except for their admirably regular and disciplined town plans, Europeans turned to a piecemeal, organic approach to urbanism. Once this approach was rapidly outgrown when cities began their burgeoning growth with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was a natural response on the part of Haussman-esque planners to view organic urbanism as a “failure” that necessitated replacement by another model that envisioned the already-built environment as a tabula rasa to be re-built according to rational standards. Cities henceforth were to be wholly planned to address to inadequacies of the medieval pattern of non-planning, which could not cope with cities with populations that now numbered in the millions.

I have observed elsewhere (in my Political Economy of Globalization) that many ancient prehistoric societies were essentially utopian constructions over which a god-king presided as a living god, present in the flesh among his people, and indeed some of the most striking examples of ancient town planning date from societies that exhibited (or seem to have exhibited) this now-vanished form of order. For only where a god-king is openly acknowledged as such can a social order based upon living and present divinity within the said social order be possible.

Nazca, however, does not seem to have been based on this social plan of a divinely-sanctioned social order which can bring utopian (and therefore likely non-constructive, top-down) planning into actual practice because of the physical presence of the god in the midst of his people. The book that I cited yesterday, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, has this to say of Nazca society:

“…the general picture seems to be one of a sedentary democratic people without marked class distinctions or authoritarianism, possibly without an established religion. There is less difference in the ‘richness’ or poverty of the graves, and women seem to be on an equality with men in this respect. The apparent absence of great public works, of extensive engineering features, and of temple pyramids implies a lack of authoritarian leadership. Instead, the leisure time of the people seems to have been spent in individual production, especially in the making of quantities of perfect, exquisite textiles and pottery vessels. This seems to indicate a strong cult of ancestor-worship. Cloths on which an incredible amount of labor was spent were made especially for funerary offerings and interred with the dead. The orientation seems to have been towards individualized religion rather than towards community participation, dictation, coercion, and aggression.”

J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 85

Such egalitarian societies focused on the satisfaction of consumer demands were rare in the ancient world, but we should not be surprised that it was an egalitarian society, organized constructively from the bottom up, that produced the astonishing lines in the desert of the Nazca. Without an aerial perspective, the making of these lines was a thoroughly constructivistic undertaking, not even counter-balanced by a non-constructive perspective, which has only been obtained long after the Nazca civilization has disappeared, leaving only traces of itself in the dessicated sands of the desert.

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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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