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Mexico on the edge of a dystopian cliff

Mexico is on the edge of a dystopian cliff. What is at stake in the upcoming presidential elections is the remnant of the country’s eroding social, economic and political stability. Español

A Mexican citizen who exercises his right to vote in the presence of some electoral observers and representatives of political parties in the 2012 elections. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved

On Sunday 1st of July 2018, Mexico finds itself at a crossroads. It faces three main scenarios: 

1) A continuation of the status quo and the metastasizing of the neoliberal capitalist logic in all areas of public and private life. This would entail the bleak, gradual demise of all forms of political community which are necessary for the survival of democracy.

2) A violent disorganized, disoriented and fragmented collective outburst, lacking any sound progressive ideological vision, which would be confronted by an increasingly militarized corporate State.

This would engender a cataclysmic situation: the complete failure of Mexican institutions and/or civil war.

The way in which the Mexican State has hitherto brutally criminalized, repressed and ostracized social mobilization and resistance, and persecuted all forms of grassroots dissent - from teachers, students, peasants, indigenous peoples, the unemployed and economically dispossessed to the families of the disappeared, women and the young people who do go to school and do not have a job (the so-called Ni-Nis) -, indicates that this could indeed happen.

3) A landslide victory and the coming to power of an economic and political progressive national platform, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his recently-founded (2014) National Regeneration Movement (MORENA).

This platform, à la manière de Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, has the potential to contest and challenge the bourgeois establishment that has historically ruled the country. On the other hand, a victory of AMLO, à la manière de the Latin American Pink Tide, could lead to the advent of a Southeast Asian-type neo-developmentalism – akin to the economic models implemented at the turn of the century in Argentina by the Justicialist Party (PJ) and the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil.

In any case, with AMLO as president, Mexico could expect to witness the return of the State as a key player in areas such as education, healthcare, social security and income redistribution.

It is certainly paradoxical that in a country with 53.4 million impoverished citizens, out of which 9.4 million endure conditions of extreme poverty, the most controversial scenario is the electoral victory of AMLO.

That is to say, a potential wave of nationalizations in the economic sectors privatized from 2000 onwards by the neoliberal administrations of the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which facilitated Mexico’s integration into global capitalism.

Despite the prevalent fear-mongering by conservative and reactionary elites who insist on comparing AMLO to “populist” and “Socialist” labeled Latin American political figures, AMLO’s project simply aims at introducing social democracy in Mexico.

It is certainly paradoxical that in a country with 53.4 million impoverished citizens, out of which 9.4 million endure conditions of extreme poverty, the most controversial scenario (the electoral victory of AMLO) is the latter.

The continuation of the status quo

The dismantling of the Mexican State has been going on at a gradual but steady, vigorous pace. Once perceived as the guarantor of its citizens’ welfare, the State has now been reduced to a rather porous political structure ruled by the symbiotic PRI-PAN association (PRIAN).

Defending the interests of national and foreign oligarchies, this despotic binomial has uncompromisingly pursued the neoliberal project initiated by Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) and continued by Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000).

In just over three decades, Mexico has succumbed to the privatization fever that has swept Latin America. Diverse and even ingenious euphemisms have been used and deployed by the Mexican government to try and legitimize and normalize the disastrous effects of neoliberalism, through the use of a “humanizing” and “collectivist” rhetoric in presidential campaigns.

This is the case of “Consolidation and economic progress” (Miguel de la Madrid), “National solidarity Program” (Salinas de Gortari), “Family welfare” (Zedillo), “Modernization” and “Public-private association” (Vicente Fox), “Structural reforms” (Felipe Calderón), and the more recent “Pact for Mexico” (Enrique Peña Nieto).

Through these neoliberal ventures Mexican citizens have witnessed the advance of unfettered capitalism in its distinct phases - decentralization, deregulation, liberalization, privatization -, as well as the outright withdrawal of the State from the economic sphere.

This new framework has made away with the State’s leading role in the production and distribution of goods and services which characterized the import-substitution industrialization model.

In only five years, 741 of state-owned enterprises were deregulated and gradually privatized: a staggering 64.1% of the total.

According to data published in 1988 by the now extinct Secretariat of the General Controller of the Federation (SCGF), in December 1982 there were 1.155 public enterprises in Mexico - the State had a majority stake in 724 of them and a minor participation in 75, 103 were decentralized organisms, and 223 were trusts. In only five years, 741 of these enterprises were deregulated and gradually privatized: a staggering 64.1% of the State-owned enterprises.

With the argument of preventing bankruptcy among privately-owned big sugar producers, Vicente Fox’s government (PAN) invested 15.373 million pesos in taxpayers’ money to “rescue” 27 sugar mills. Unsurprisingly, the Mexican neoliberal administration rewarded in this way a long record of corporate greed, bad management, corruption and lack of investment.

After the publicly-funded infrastructure modernization and financial stabilization processes were completed, these “rescued” sugar mills were sold back to private corporations – all 27 of them. Similar neoliberal policies were adopted during Felipe Calderón’s (PAN) presidential term, albeit these were mostly aimed at weakening labor rights, dismantling trade unions (namely the Mexican Electrical Workers Union - SME) and fostering the emergence of a more “flexible” labor force.

Take the case of the reform of the Federal Labor Law, enacted in November 2012: this was a regressive reform which legalized “flexible” job contract terms such as pay by the hour, probationary and training periods, and outsourcing.

In addition, it established that promotions and pay rises would no longer be determined by years of service in the company but rather by each employee’s productivity ratio - thereby bluntly cancelling long-fought-for labor rights of the early 20th century. As a result of these policies, trade union membership dropped from 25% in 1980 to 16.83% in 2005 to 13.64% in 2014.

From 2012 onwards, and under the same orthodox neoliberal ideological agenda, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) further cemented the foundations of the neoliberal State by championing policies aimed at transforming Mexican society at its core. The best example is of this is the 2012 “Pact for Mexico”, a nation-wide political agreement signed by all the main establishment parties: PRI, PAN, the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and the Green Ecological Party of Mexico (PVEM).

This “Pact” included a series of reforms across a number of sectors including energy, healthcare, education, telecommunications, and water, among others. The idea behind it was to transform the Mexican people from citizens to consumers.

What is alarming about the aforementioned reforms which signal the advance of neoliberal capitalism in Mexico is their potential to undermine not only democracy but also the horizontal societal relations which provide the basis for any political community. The menace of neoliberalism lies in its potential to turn democracy into a marketplace, thereby undoing the rule of the demos.

It is a scheme which trades equality for competition, and political participation for individual self-interest. Neoliberals believe that “all behavior is economic behavior, and all spheres of existence are framed by and measured in economic terms and metrics”. In neoliberalism, we are all reduced to John Stuart Mill’s homo oeconomicus: a utilitarian and entrepreneurial being who focuses on maximizing gains and on capitalizing on all aspects of social and political life.

This is why endorsing pro-establishment and pro-neoliberal actors from the PRI-PAN binomial, like José Antonio Meade and Ricardo Anaya, means maintaining the status quo. At its core, the continuation of the status quo in Mexico means perpetuating the subversion and commodification of all social relations.

It means further impoverishing, alienating and subordinating society to the whims of the market. In this sense, the logical dystopian corollary is the emergence of a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes (a war of all against all) and the rise of a capitalist-statist

Leviathan enjoying monopoly over the use of violence, in a context in which economic institutions - gradually, yet intensely - erase the remaining capital resources, human capabilities, and forms of innovation, as well as any meaningful expression of social life and dissent. We would then have a social and political sphere very similar to the arid and lifeless Chihuahuan desert - a space devoid of any progressive political forces or principles.

Institutional collapse or civil war

It is certainly difficult to get them down to doing it, but Mexicans need to face up to the fact that Mexico is a de facto failed State.

Today, the judiciary has lost all its credibility, self-defense groups, armed civilian police forces and militias are spreading throughout the country, and local, regional and national narco-gobierno networks keep on strengthening and expanding. One of the main causes of State failure is drug-trafficking, and yet this problem has been continuously misdiagnosed by the establishment.

Since the inception of the so-called “war on drugs” in 2006, State intellectuals and bureaucrats have been promoting strategies and policies that have so far included militarization (the new Home Security Law), structural reforms of the police forces, and the outlawing and disarming of the community self-defense groups - among others. T

hese policies aim to alleviate the symptoms and consequences of the prevailing, generalized state of violence. They overlook the fact that the issue is however, at its core, an economic question.

Drug trafficking can only be addressed with social, political and economic policies designed to eradicate the abject poverty and the increasing dispossession overshadowing Mexican society. After all, it is precisely the mass of unemployed, impoverished, alienated and marginalized people who cannot find any opportunities – the conditions for which should be State-provided – and see in the cartels a way out of poverty, hunger and distress.

Poverty is the de facto recruitment agency for the cartels. It is thus absolutely necessary to prioritize solutions targeting the root problem (poverty) rather than merely addressing its violence-related by-products.

In addition to misdiagnosing the problem of drug-trafficking, the PRIAN status quo continues to come up with policies which blur and mystify the issue through moralizing and its personalizing. Current pro-establishment presidential candidates often speak of “values” and “virtues” when addressing the question of cartel expansion and overall violence in Mexico.

Take the case of the right-wing reactionary candidate, Margarita Zavala, who is proposing to “recover values” as a means to fighting drug-related violence and to building a “better Mexico”—as if the current crisis was the result of an alleged “loss of values”.

What this individualistic and moralistic framework does is create an artificial duality between “good” and “bad” Mexicans, overlooking the sharp material distinctions among Mexicans and reducing the issue to a personal decision by “valueless” Mexicans as to whether to join or not to join a criminal organization.

From 2006 to March 2018, 240.000 homicides related to the war on drugs were recorded in Mexico. This figure does not take into account the “disappeared”. From 2006 to March 2018, 240.000 homicides related to the war on drugs were recorded in Mexico. This figure does not take into account the “disappeared”.  A logical corollary to this situation of generalized violence and de facto ungovernability is the potential expansion of lawlessness and mayhem from the states of Michoacán and Guerrero to the rest of the country.

This scenario would entail the violent splitting of towns and cities between warring factions, mass killings and disappearances, occupation by militias, and martial law decreed by the State’s military apparatus. So, if this were the context, Mexico could see more and more violent incursions by State forces into local communities, nominally to put an end to the activities of criminal organizations.

As a response to these incursions and to the foreseeable ensuing chaos, Mexico could see an increase in fragmented and antagonistic violent mobilization, which would ignite further social unrest. This three-way conflict opposing citizens, criminal organizations and the militarized corporate State could then lead to two possible scenarios: further fragmentation of an already failed State or outright civil war.

The future at stake

Louis Althusser theorized that the media is an ideological State apparatus which legitimates the status quo through ideology and inhibits the revolutionary potential of the masses. In Mexico, where media corporate groups like Televisa, TV Azteca, El Universal and Reforma wield monopoly power over electoral coverage, it is no surprise that the population is both skeptical and fearful regarding AMLO’s progressive national project.

This is a textbook example of how mainstream media, as theorized by Noam Chomsky, use symbolism, images and ideas to manufacture consent. Clearly, Mexico faces much bigger structural problems than the possible coming to power of AMLO. After all, are not Mexicans already suffering from chaos under the form of institutional violence, feminicide, militarization, flagrant abuse of power and authority, and endemic corruption?

“The State should neither be weakened nor subordinated to the rule of the market with the argument that this is the only driver of growth.”

The corporate media and the PRIAN binomial insist on describing AMLO’s platform as belonging to the “radical left” tradition, even though AMLO’s economic project does not in fact share much with the radical left, except its mention of the idea of egalitarianism. MORENA’s National Project for 2018-2024 and the party’s political vision can best be defined as soft Keynesianism with some of the characteristic features of social democracy.

The project emphasizes the need to transform the State into a promoter of political, economic and social development. It affirms that “the State should neither be weakened nor subordinated to the rule of the market with the argument that this is the only driver of growth” (p.26).

Other key elements of the project include: tackling the root cause of violence and crime (poverty, unequal distribution of wealth, lack of opportunities, and lack of social mobility; “republican austerity” (a reduction in government expenditure by cutting top bureaucratic and managerial classes’ salaries, cancelling the former presidents’ pensions), and fighting endemic corruption. AMLO’s core message is: “there can be no rich government with an impoverished people”.

Needless to say, AMLO’s platform is by no means the panacea for Mexico’s ills. It is, however, the only national project proposed by a candidate in the upcoming presidential elections that seeks to re-establish the basic premises of the eroding social contract in Mexico, as well as to put up a fight against two of democracy’s nemesis: economic inequality and rampant insecurity.

About the author

Alejandra Gaitán Barrera es catedrática en la Escuela de Gobierno y Relaciones Internacionales en la Universidad de Griffith, Australia. Es miembro del Centro de Gobernanza y Políticas Públicas (CGPP) y Candidata al Sistema Nacional de Investigadores (SNI) del CONACYT, México.

Alejandra Gaitán-Barrera is a Lecturer at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia. She is also member of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy (CGPP) and a National Researcher Candidate SNI-CONACYT, Mexico.


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