An Interview with Massimo Modonesi
--translated by Joel Ruggi
Interview by Mariana Bayle and Nicolas Allen
A year after the historic election that brought Andrés Manuel López Obrador to power, the first tentative balance sheets of his Morena administration are starting to appear.
López Obrador’s approval ratings remain high, around 70% by recent reports. And the discontent that does exist – among the local oligarchy, disgruntled middle sectors and international capital– was to be expected. However, as reflected in a recent interview with the Mexican head-of-state, it is becoming clear that with the passage of time the veteran politician of the Mexican left will also have to square off with a challenge from his own base: the specter of disenchantment, lurking wherever the overwhelming desire for systemic change meets with the limitations of Morena’s own programme.
Some have argued that López Obrador needs to bring the country’s diverse social movements and leftist groups into the fold if he’s to accomplish the more radical elements of his programme. On that point, however, difficulties abound.
The permanent standoff between AMLO and the neo-Zapatistas has a long history and does not suggest any easy solution for the near future. But beyond that historical bad blood, a deeper fault-line exists where two important forces of the Mexican left tend to diverge: the national revolutionary tradition, embodied in AMLO and his historical predecessor Lázaro Cárdenas, and the diverse autonomous groups – indigenous, peasant, student, feminist, environmentalist – that often respond to different political coordinates.
Where AMLO is looking to advance a programme of “national regeneration” based on the defence of public interest and wage a top-down battle against corruption, there are many other currents of the Mexican Left that set their hopes on autonomous decision-making and more collective forms of managing the social commons. Although not always antithetical tendencies, their alliance is anything but a forgone conclusion.
Massimo Modonesi has been studying these tensions on the Mexican Left for the last two decades. He is the Chair of Political and Social Sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the author of a near-dozen books, two of which are available in English: Subalternity, Antagonism, Autonomy: Constructing the Political Subject (Pluto Press) and The Antagonistic Principle. Marxism and Political Action (Brill-Historical Materialism). One of the leading Marxist scholars of Latin American social movements, his work brings a more complex class-analysis to bear on the region’s diverse forms of collective political action. In the following interview with Mariana Bayle and Nicolas Allen, Modonesi concentrates on the potential and limits of the current Mexican government as a vehicle for large-scale social transformation.
We’d like to begin by asking about your characterisation of López Obrador and Morena as a form of “delayed” or “belated progressivism”. Beyond its obvious chronological implications with respect to the Pink Tide, what do you mean by that?
The chronological question alone is worth taking note of, because that belatedness produces real effects.
Belatedness, as I use it, is in reference to both the domestic and the regional context. In the first sense, Morena’s arrival to power is late with respect to Mexico itself. The current progressive government should have been born in 2006, when there was electoral fraud.
It should have been born then because, at that point, it was the fruit of an extended process of anti-neoliberal struggle coinciding with the peak of the larger continent-wide anti-neoliberal cycle. At that stage, in 2006, the Mexican struggle was actively producing effects at the electoral level and shaking up the political and ruling classes.
So, we might say that the current progressive government is late with respect to itself – late in relation to its own foundational moment and its own progressive impulse, which contained a strong social movement component and a distinctly anti-institutional dynamism.
Clearly, it’s also late with respect to the Latin American progressive cycle, which was a phase characterised by struggles from below, but also by an opening for political opportunities encouraged by a favourable economic climate.
The current Mexican government is having to pay the price for these two time-lags: the first, its belatedness with respect to the initial propulsive momentum of social struggles, which could have pushed certain issues to the top of the agenda and altered “the relation of forces”. Currently, in Mexico, we don’t find the relation of forces altered in the same way as they were in other Latin American countries, or even as they were in other moments in Mexican history.
In other words, the current government can’t be viewed as the outcome of a struggle from below. And, obviously ,Morena is coming to power in a climate, both nationally and regionally, that is much more adverse to progressive projects than in the last decades. The current economic climate is clearly not favourable, and, on top of that, the issue of violent organised crime in Mexico tends to overshadow every other question.
In essence, the López Obrador government is swimming against the current. The present political situation, with its continent-wide rightward drift, is clearly different from before, and that is what I mean when I speak of a “late progressivism”: a progressive movement that by virtue of its lateness is less progressive.
And you don’t feel that there are any potential benefits to AMLO’s belatedness?
Being late doesn’t have many advantages, apart from allowing for a form of critical retrospection where the contradictions and shortcomings of other progressive governments could be better appreciated.
The problem in Mexico is that most people are not interested in thinking about those issues. There exists what we might call a “nationalist epistemology”: a line of thought according to which Mexico would be utterly unique and can only be thought on its own terms. Not everyone thinks this way, of course, but the government likes to think in these terms.
That kind of thinking has a certain political utility too: it shields the government from the inevitable accusation – mostly from the right wing – that AMLO is a “Chavista”. The government simply responds: “No, we are Mexicans.” As if that were the end of the discussion.
Regardless, that kind of thinking doesn’t help the government to critically analyse the contradictions of progressivism or move beyond the simple repetition of progressive gestures.
Speaking of limitations and possibilities: despite its evident limitations, AMLO’s government has inspired a wave of hope among popular sectors that could possibly be the spark that reignites new social struggles. How likely do you see this happening?
I’d like to emphasise that I see the potential, and not necessarily likelihood of it happening. There has definitely been an awakening of hope, especially in the more impoverished layers of society. It’s just as important though to recognise that this same sense of hope over time could turn into frustration, and the right wing will be waiting in the wings to make the most of that frustration.
But it is also possible that an eventual frustration could encourage more autonomous and independent mobilization, and increased politicisation. I don’t necessarily see this happening in the short term, but it’s on the horizon.
In terms of the relative success or failure of the government, there are, again, certain limits that will almost inevitably lead to frustration. The expectations for this government are incredibly high, precisely because of the long-term accumulation of discontent and the desire for something different. Once again, the government’s own “belatedness” is a key factor in this type of analysis.
In the current climate, where neoliberalism has reached such an advanced stage and the contradictions have accumulated to such a great extent, the government is playing a risky game by raising expectations, by making declarations like “neoliberalism has come to an end”. The entire talk of the Fourth Transformation, during and after the campaign, creates an incredible sense of expectancy.
The limits of López Obrador’s progressive politics could eventually give way to either right-wing or left-wing reactions, or both simultaneously, as was the case in other Latin American countries, where, in a political context dominated by the Left, the Right started to gather strength at the same time as mass mobilisation was at its peak. Ecuador and Argentina are perfect examples, where the hegemony of progressive movements began to collapse and break-off into tendencies on either side of the political spectrum. We’ll have to see in the case of Mexico which side will benefit the most from that eventuality.
What I don’t observe today is any type of independent Left capable of working from below to drag the entire process leftwards. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
I’ve recently published an article that deals with exactly this question, about what exists to the left of the “4T”. As for the Mexican Left, even while we are seeing a significant degree of fragmentation and dispersal, there remains intact a significant level of activity: youth movements, women’s movements, popular movements, non-governmental organisations, and so on.
This part of the Left is watching from the side-lines though, waiting to see what will happen next. I’m referring to those sectors of the Left that are beyond the hegemonic intentions of “Obradorismo”, beyond its plans for co-optation or assimilation. They clearly represent an insurmountable barrier for the current administration.
The fact that they didn’t join AMLO before means they won’t be joining him in the future. They might support certain measures when it suits them, but they won’t recognize themselves as belonging to Morena or respond to the leadership of López Obrador, which would mean acquiescing to a completely vertical structure that is foreign to them.
You spoke of raised expectations: it’s clear that by calling his government the “Fourth Transformation” López Obrador has set a high benchmark for himself. Surely there must be some grounds for comparison with the other historical transformations – Independence, Reform and Revolution?
There are grounds for comparison in the sense that the Fourth Transformation truly aspires to be as transformative as those other watershed moments. It is a question of historicity: neoliberalism has penetrated so deeply into Mexican society, configuring the entire social order along such oligarchic lines, that the present moment does indeed have an air of rupture about it. Where Independence broke with a principle of order and hierarchy, and the Reform and later the Revolution also broke with a certain type of capitalist class-hierarchy, in that same sense there is good reason to speak of a transformation.
But the problem is that neither the project nor the forces behind it are capable of carrying out the desired transformation.
I think the current government has a certain necessity to think of itself in those terms, as a rupture with neoliberalism and a recuperation of a certain national historical sensibility. And, here, it is important to stress that this is not just a question of propaganda; Lopez-Obrador truly believes in the project and that it is his historical duty set down by some national destiny.
But the project itself exists mostly at the discursive level. At the level of an actual programme, there is no suggestion of how López Obrador plans to achieve the objectives of the Fourth Transformation, no intention of breaking with the current order. It’s an extremely moderate programme designed to achieve a compromise with dominant sectors.
López Obrador proposes moderate reforms within a broadly neoliberal consensus, but those reforms are upheld as being radically transformative. So, again, there is a discrepancy between the transformation proposed and the transformation in practice, which, again, opens the door to frustration.
Compared with other recent Latin American experiences, nothing López Obrador is proposing would go beyond what Lula did in Brazil or the Uruguayan Broad Front (Frente Amplio). It is the same progressive politics.
It will remain then for future historians to tell us if this “transformation” is on par with the Revolution and Independence; for the time being, it doesn’t seem to be a real possibility, all the more so because the transformation is not reflected in concrete practices.
What did take place with AMLO’s victory was a change in the general political mood, by which I mean not just a sense of hope, but also a shift in certain key areas. There have been real advances made in terms of combatting corruption and reasserting the idea of the general public interest.
But, again, this type of transformation doesn’t come anywhere near the deep change in power dynamics and processes of capital accumulation associated with the previous transformations. The Independence and the Revolution were decisive in altering the inner workings of Mexican society.
We can argue over whether the Mexican Revolution was or was not a true social revolution. But there was a constitution adopted there that modified the relation of forces, between those above and those below, between the popular classes and the dominant class.
This is all to say, the current government has re-established a new social pact of domination; a pact which, we might add, is more backwards than forwards looking.
Can we really speak of a “transformation” when the only project on the horizon is to return and restore the pre-neoliberal, post-revolutionary equilibrium? My sense is that a true transformative project would be more assertive of a new vision.
I think that we can expect a change in attitude: greater openness to political protest, a sincere attempt to tackle corruption, a new political class that begins to take shape around the defence of the general public interest and some type of national renewal. And there is absolutely something regenerative about the new government in that sense, but when we speak of “transformation” I would be more inclined to use a lower-case “T”.
Morena likes to call itself a “party-movement”. Do you see any evidence of this in terms of appeals to a more engaged citizenry, more “intense” forms of democracy, or other manifestations of a classic movement-based political platform?
Morena became an electoral apparatus shortly after it was born. Within its ranks one doesn’t find a diversity of leadership positions, a variety of different political currents or a great range of debates. However, many people have deposited a great sense of hope in Morena, becoming in the process strong sympathisers or even occasional participants.
The point is that Morena is an electoral apparatus and doesn’t have within its toolkit the capacity to play the role of an independent, autonomous political force. As an electoral platform it serves to distribute government posts, without any type of base to draw on.
There’s very little internal party life and, perhaps more to the point, Morena is manifestly the party of López Obrador. It’s not as if AMLO emerged from Morena. The party was fashioned from his rib.
It’s clear enough how this dynamic tends to work: it is one thing if a leader emerges from a relatively autonomous organisation, and another if that organisation is born from the leaders’ own initiative. AMLO is standing over the whole process in a relation of total verticality.
As for those who voted for López Obrador – the masses of supporters that basically appeared out of nowhere – I believe there is a chance we will see more dynamic developments among that base. But that dynamism, rather than being overtly politicising, I believe will be more disorganized, because the most politicised elements are those that have been sidelined during the current process.
I also do not think it’s really feasible to speak of a “left wing” of Morena, although there are several left-wing intellectuals and political leaders involved in the government. There are leftist voices among the party leadership coming from the Communist Party and other left groups of the 70s and 80s (that joined the PRD in the 1988-89). But the left-wing components are not reaching downwards towards the base; they’re oriented upwards and are interested in exerting influence over López Obrador.
Some left groups have joined Morena, while others – youth groups, feminist organizations, and other autonomous sectors – continue organising, agitating and struggling outside the party. I place my faith more in these groups, which are not yet organised mass movements. It remains to be seen how they will expand in the current climate.
Of course, everyone voted for AMLO – some with a more a critical distance than others–, and that, in a sense, is the more relevant question: how did trade unions, social movements, environmental movements and other organisations position themselves vis-à-vis the elections; who called for AMLO’s support, who voted in silence, who began to negotiate for positions, and so on?
Again, there’s a whole sector that opted out of forming part of the government. This side is biding its time, looking to intervene around particular issues like labour reform, human rights or gender issues. This type of opposition from the left is not a broad, general opposition, but rather one that is waiting to criticise the government around certain issues where the government is perceived as falling short. For example, the education reform has lodged a wedge between the government and the independent teachers’ movement, which, until that point, was in the process of negotiating certain candidates with the government. So, while not openly opposing the government, around the issue of education, for example, certain rifts have begun to open up.
The only group whose opposition to the government is completely unconditional is the Zapatistas, and perhaps some smaller Trotskyist groups. The type of antagonism represented by the Zapatistas is not limited to certain conflicts – the demand for an indigenous consultation around large-scale construction projects, for example. They maintain that the current government is just another kind of overlord, no different from previous governments.
Another possibility, looking more towards the long term, is that the critical wing of the Left, with its concerns over particular issues, could begin to form a more generalized opposition.
You mentioned the trade unions. Can you say something about the government’s connection with the labour movement and its relation to so-called “charrismo”, i.e. the bureaucratic tendencies within the labour movement?
It’s an ambiguous relation. The government is juggling between conflicting interests so as to not break relations with anyone.
In that spirit, the AMLO administration is pushing – peacefully, without causing waves – for a labour reform that in practice would mean a democratisation of the trade-union sector. But that same initiative also seeks to contain broader labour unrest.
At the same time, the government is trying to send a message to the business sector that the proposed measures will not upset the current balance of powers within the trade-union sector. The measure calls for greater pluralism within the trade unions, but only insofar as it doesn’t affect the interests of the larger trade unions. So the government is involved in this type of juggling act, trying to make everyone happy.
Once again, we find ourselves back with the issue of raised expectations: a great sense of hope has blossomed around the call for the democratisation of the trade unions.
But, on the other hand, the clout of the larger trade unions is what makes possible the kind of deal-making we’re seeing. And that type of negotiation is easier when the rank-and-file, in the public sector particularly, has been pacified by trade-union management.
In other words, it’s not as if Lopez Obrador’s labour reform is trying to take on the union bureaucracy that historically has played the role of domesticating and containing labour conflict in Mexico.
And what about in the cultural field? It seems like AMLO has been pursuing some important cultural initiatives – we’re thinking here about the designation of left-wing author Paco Ignacio Taibo II as the director of the Fondo de Cultura Económica (the Mexican state-funded, Latin American-wide publishing house). Taibo’s appointment was announced, provocatively, as the arrival to power of the “wise apaches”. What do you make of these overtly plebeian gestures that suggest a rupture with a certain intellectual elitism, of culture as a privileged consumer item, promoting instead a more radical understanding of national patrimony?
That change has been fantastic, and it is what I’m referring to when I speak of a shift in the political mood – which I don’t mean disparagingly at all! There are people like Taibo coming from a very serious political tradition who are onboard with AMLO and who are going to do important things in power, things that go against the existing bureaucratic structure of the state and appeal more directly to the popular layers.
So, I have tremendous respect for Paco (Taibo). But we should look more closely at the matter: Paco over time has positioned himself as the spokesperson for the left wing of Morena, even daring to question certain aspects of Morena, which is something that almost no other party member would have the nerve to do. What they’ve done now by giving Paco control of the Fondo is provide him with a space of his own, somewhere where he will be very successful, but also where he can work without upsetting the internal power balance within Morena.
Which is by no means to say that Paco was threatening to lead an insurgent opposition within Morena. There’s no such thing as an insurgent tendency, and, moreover, Taibo doesn’t have the kind of personality or influence to lead that type of movement. But Taibo represented a point from which to articulate a more critical viewpoint of Morena, where it seemed possible to question some of the party’s articles of faith.
Paco himself has a tendency to blur the lines between discipline and indiscipline, and what they’ve effectively done is given him a safe space to play with those boundaries. He’ll do very well there in the Fondo, and I’m just as certain of that as I am that he’ll quit if one day he feels that he can no longer do what he wants there. And if that moment should come to pass, I hope for Taibo, as well as other sectors that are accompanying Morena, that they will be able to recognise that they’ve done all they can and walk away.
This is basically what took place across the continent with the different progressive governments. Certain leftist forces eventually recognised that there was no more room for them to steer the process and they stepped down.
What I’m trying to say, with respect to Taibo and the Fondo de Cultura, is that we absolutely need to appreciate that the Mexican government is encouraging these types of dynamics. But, at the same time, we need to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that these proposals are the outward sign of the project’s deeper radicalism, when in fact Morena itself, in its very programme, has no intention of pursuing such radicalism.
If we can change topics a bit, we’d like to ask about the tensions between AMLO and those parts of the left that are critical of his government. López Obrador sometimes accuses the critical Left of colluding with the Mexican right wing to undermine Morena. What is your response to such an accusation?
It’s a big problem, because with that type of discourse we see a certain polarity begin to set in: a rigid opposition between progressives vs. the right wing, which has really been the privileged polarity throughout all the different Latin American progressive governments.
Remember what Cristina Kirchner in Argentina used to say: “To my left, the wall”. The idea is that there is no possible contradiction or polarity with respect to an existing Left, or a potentially existing Left; where the left-wing groups are concerned – those protesting López Obrador’s large public works projects or fighting the education reform bill – AMLO simply writes them all off as “conservatives” and useful idiots for the Mexican right-wing “fifi”. So, from López Obrador’s perspective, the only relevant antagonism is between his own party and the right wing. There is no left wing beyond that polarity.
And he is right in a sense: the right wing is in fact the government’s enemy. There are obviously very powerful interests arrayed against him, but there are also plenty of other social layers, middle-class sectors, for example, who find his national-popular style of governance distasteful, if not outright horrifying. In his manner of speaking and behaving, AMLO represents a cultural clash that provokes a sense of unease among Mexican society’s middle sectors.
There is another sector – essentially that of the dominant economic interests – that is waiting to see how AMLO’s project will translate into state expenses; basically, whether AMLO will be pushing a model of governance reconcilable with the neoliberal model, or if he will be pushing for the type of big deficit spending that could pose limits to profits.
The same political and social interests that prevented López Obrador from winning in 2006 have essentially allowed him to win in 2018. And now they are testing the waters to see to what extent they can negotiate and interfere in his administration. Tomorrow or the day after, they may come to realise that they prefer their own direct class representatives in government and reconsider their available options.
With respect to these types of interclass relations, these negotiations and attempts to avoid conflict in the name of consensus, it remains to be seen how they will ultimately play out. While the Mexican right wing may not have made a demonstration of force, it is still very active, particularly in the press, and it is starting to identify certain areas of conflict that over time will become more open and direct.
In that sense, we are finding the same problems in Mexico as we saw in South America: the problem of how to insure that left-wing criticism doesn’t end up favouring the right wing. And there is a related challenge for the Left, which is to recognise that there is a real dispute taking place between the progressive forces and the right wing.
López Obrador’s progressivism – even where his own position bears traces of a deep-seated conservatism – is going to be defined in relation with Mexico’s conservative forces, in terms of which sectors are satisfied and which are dissatisfied with his administration. The resulting political fault lines will emerge from the particular balance that is struck there. It remains to be seen whether Morena’s government will be able to satisfy the conservatives, although simply displeasing Mexico’s right wing is not enough, in and of itself.
One thing Morena lacks though is the kind of long-term vision that other Latin American progressive governments had, where they managed to cover their bases by satisfying, in part, both the Left and the Right.
And what about AMLO’s relation to the United States? López Obrador has been criticised in recent days for his apparent willingness to follow Trump’s lead on migration policy. How do you view matters?
I have only one brief comment to make on the issue, because on the question of migration and the United States I know about as much as any other reader of the daily newspaper.
My overall impression is that the international arena is of secondary interest for the current government. AMLO is looking to create a climate for national renewal and is concerned with domestic affairs. He wants to avoid conflict on the international stage and is looking to keep a low profile.
In fact, that low profile was on display when AMLO refused to support US intervention in Venezuela. It may have seemed like a high stakes position, but it was actually the most obvious and natural position, completely in keeping with a longstanding Mexican tradition of non-intervention.
And that non-interventionism is in López Obrador’s nature: he is looking to avoid conflict. And, of course, any type of conflict with the US would imply, in addition to serious commercial problems, a level of geopolitical tension that Mexico is not equipped to handle. AMLO’s project is heavily dependent on a positive economic cycle to support all of his social policy, the strengthening of the state, the exploitation of oil and natural resources.
Of course, López Obrador comes from a political tradition that champions human rights and also believes in protecting the sovereignty of the Mexican territory, so certain matters are non-negotiable. But AMLO will never appeal to a version of Mexican nationalism as defined by its opposition to the United States. His idea of national renewal is completely divorced from any type of anti-imperialist imaginary, which is in strong contrast with what we saw in many other Latin American governments during the last two decades.
One of the more striking aspects of López Obrador’s first months in office has been his use of plebiscites and other “direct” forms of public consultation to test his most controversial, large-scale policy projects. What can we make of this style of governance?
AMLO is constantly appealing to these types of polls and consultations he’ll be conducting, whether it be about a particular construction project or even his own permanency in the executive office. This exercise is clearly guided by the logic of the plebiscite, what in more theoretical terms we might call AMLO’s Bonapartist tendencies. Some will view these measures and see a more or less covert attempt to practise a kind of direct democracy, but matters are more complicated.
First of all, who is going to stand up and say they reject direct democracy? As if direct democracy were limited exclusively to the specific format offered by the government. And this format does not include any prior process of the kind whereby people would be equipped to participate through political education and training, where they could be prepared to initiate political change from below.
The particular format of the plebiscite, where the leader summons the people to offer an opinion regarding issues that come framed in a certain way, this is clearly meant to obtain legitimacy for a measure that the government wants to pursue.
And I’m not against these instances of popular participation, but I don’t think they can be issued in a vacuum and serve as ad hoc legitimations for decisions already made regarding public policy. And that is the difference between the logic of the plebiscite and direct democracy, where the latter begins from below with autonomous forms of participation that do not restrict participation to questions formatted by the governing class.
And what about the question of organised crime and the so-called “narco-state”? Do you see the issue as being one where the government can make some progress, or, does it suggest a limit to the current administration’s possibilities for transformation?
I think the issue can only be tackled in a partial manner by a government such as AMLO’s. Paradoxically, the government’s ability to make progress on the issue is going to be a fundamental yardstick by which it is measured. Beyond whatever we could say about the relations between progressive and conservative forces, the particular types of class relations that might adhere in a given moment, my fear is that the real assessment of Morena will centre on its ability to combat the overwhelming violence that exists in Mexico.
That Morena can rise to the occasion, and do so with progressive policy, strikes me as a very tall order. Looking at what López Obrador has done up to this point, I think it was completely reasonable of him to refuse to totally demilitarise zones of conflict, because doing so would leave areas vulnerable to further violence. What he has done is create a National Guard that is in fact military in nature, but that does not respond directly to the army, and will, hopefully, be able to replace the armed forces.
López Obrador also claims that violence can be combatted with social policy, but this will take time, and even then, the issue becomes one of what type of social policy is being implemented. And, here, I’m of the opinion that the type of social policy being offered cannot possibly make a significant impact on the existing levels of violence, because it’s too little money for too short a span of time.
There is a strong push to see this type of transformation take place through educational initiatives: the programme being offered calls for hired guns to become students with scholarships (“sicarios en becarios”).
Another project that attempts to tackle the issue of organised crime is being implemented through the creation of new state schools. Again, the problem with that initiative is that it ignores the work of public, autonomous educational institutions. In practice, this has meant imposing cutbacks on university spending (many of the country’s universities, such as the National Autonomous University of Mexico, are governed autonomously) and redirecting funds to government educational plans. And this is a hotly debated issue: it’s, of course, a good thing to invest in education, but it is taking place through a heavily statist lens that ignores the importance of public autonomous education.
At the end of the day, this government has a profound distrust of any type of autonomous organisation. And I don’t mean autonomy necessarily in the sense of organisations from below, distant from the government; I’m referring to any general type of autonomous initiative. But this is no surprise: Morena’s ambition is to regain and reassert state control, and centralise all decision-making in the state.
Would you say that this type of state-centric model follows in the mould of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional)?
Not so much. What’s at stake with Morena is an attempt by the state to regain control, whereas the PRI was more interested in negotiating with every type of interest group imaginable: legitimate, illegitimate, legal and illegal. It has been decades since the PRI had any intention of governing from above; for decades now, it has been nothing more than a confederation of legal and illegal interest groups.
In that sense, López Obrador’s mission to reassert state control, to resume state oversight over the entire public apparatus, is in direct opposition with the existing form of governance inherited from the PRI, with its “caciques” and other forms of private accumulation.
López Obrador intends to revert what under the PRI had been a historical tendency towards the privatisation of the public sphere – the PRI managed the public sphere under a completely proprietary logic.
We might say that AMLO is following in the footsteps of Lázaro Cárdenas, in the positive sense of pursuing a popular project that involves expropriating and nationalising certain parts of the economy. But that same project can’t see beyond the expropriation of public goods, it can’t envision the autonomous sectors that play a vital role in Mexican social life: social movement, NGOs, university movements, all these types of autonomous movements that are being ignored rather than called upon to be leaders of the transformation.
The groups leading the current transformation are located elsewhere. They are the cadres working for the government in the public sector and, of course, the leader himself, since it is his movement.
To close with a more theoretically informed question, we were hoping you could explain your use of the Gramscian term “passive revolution” to understand the broad historical arc of the Latin American Pink Tide.
To be brief, I’ve tried to adopt a broadly Gramscian perspective in order to understand the last fifteen years in Latin America, and to see if that model can also apply to the current situation in Mexico.
The theoretical perspective is basically the following: Gramsci proposes that we consider the idea of a “passive revolution”, to which I would add the related concepts of “Caesarism”, “Bonapartism” and “transformism”, which help to flesh out the broader conceptual applications of passive revolution. The type of revolution in question is basically a transformation with a deeply conservative dimension: a non-revolutionary revolution, a revolution with a restoration, or a revolution that is also a conservation of old social forms.
As the name suggests, this revolution is fundamentally passive; it’s not just a transformation whose ultimate objectives are in some sense modest, but whose dynamics are fundamentally passive. These transformations, which call themselves revolutions and often intend to be authentically revolutionary, contain within their genesis a deeply conservative component.
Where things get interesting is around the question of popular mobilisation and participation, because everything I’m describing does not mean that there is no popular participation and activity. When Gramsci is characterising a revolution as “passive”, he means that it is a revolution led from above and not below, a revolution steered by the dominant and not the subaltern classes.
And this is the key concept: it is a revolution premised on the subaltern position of its participants, consisting in a process that either maintains or actively places its support in a subaltern position. This type of passive revolution, according to Gramsci, takes place when there is a challenge from below that produces a crisis within the hegemonic order; that order quickly mobilises to restore hegemony by conceding some terrain to the counterhegemonic challenge, in the name of demobilising the movement’s larger political potential.
So, the passive revolution is essentially describing a historical movement overseen by the dominant classes that also incorporates certain demands of the subalterns in order to demobilise their movement. And this is often also called “Bonapartist” or “transformist”, because the resulting situation is a historic stalemate, a political impasse with potentially catastrophic consequences, where it is only through the emergence of a charismatic figure standing outside the fray that a new social pact can be established and hegemony can be restored.
Transformism also suggests that the leadership of the social organisations, of the subalterns, ends up being siphoned off into a new administrative layer of the state apparatus, which is construed as being the satisfaction of demands but in actual fact is the process by which those demands are deactivated.
Obviously, the entire theoretical vision is more complex than I can possibly summarise here. For those interested in learning more, I’ve written a book called Revoluciones Pasivas en América (Passive Revolutions in America).
My point is that the Latin American Pink Tide can be broadly understood in these terms, while naturally respecting the specificities of each national situation. Some progressive governments were more revolutionary, others more conservative, but the idea is to use this type of analytic criteria in order to grasp what types of transformations have taken place, what has been conserved, what elements have been demobilised and what sectors remain active, how the subaltern leadership was assimilated into the state apparatus and what kinds of caudillismo – that is, what types of mediating forces – have emerged from that process.
This model allows me to appreciate both the specificities of particular processes as well as common elements across the Pink Tide. To put it differently: it allows the political analyst to read the dynamics of neoliberalism, post-neoliberalism and anti-neoliberalism within a framework that also ties back to struggles for democratisation and popular participation.
In the larger debate around the Latin American progressive cycle, those two questions – anti-neoliberal struggles and democracy – are too often treated as if they were separate issues. Questions about whether or not said government was neoliberal or post-neoliberal are rarely framed by questions about whether or not they were democratic, which is in essence a question about whether they exceeded the liberal, electoral framework. At its heart, this is a question about whether the political form itself was altered during the progressive cycle, or if there was simply a shift in the patters of accumulation and redistribution of the social surplus.
There are obviously specific cases in Latin America that fit the model better than others. With respect to Mexico, I think the model would apply fairly directly were it not for one significant discrepancy: the strength, or lack thereof, of the struggle from below. To be a passive revolution, there must exist some struggle from below that is subsequently pacified. In Mexico today, to state matters rather crudely, there is very little left to pacify. And this is different from 2006 in Mexico, when there were forces that could have produced such a passive revolution. What is missing in Mexico’s political climate today is the give and take between active and passive dynamics.
Image derived from https://massimomodonesi.net/video/