In his fantastic, gripping, and haunting book, ’68 (Seven Stories Press), the writer and historian Paco Ignacio Taibo II (aka PIT) surveys the tumultuous upheaval of the ‘68 Movement in Mexico. It makes compelling reading today. He recounts the student solidarity demonstrations that gave birth to brigadismo – the mobile action groups that would incite rallies across Mexico City. There is the retelling of the occupation of schools and the creation of libertarian common spaces based on assemblies. Reference is made to the fragile workers’ committees that emerged in the sectors of electricity, oil refining, and railroads that then faded away. Then there was the shadow of the tanks moving in. The city that the students had roamed was lost in the aftermath of the government massacre of hundreds of students at Tlatelolco on 2 October 1968. Ghosts remain. There are the ghosts of the student dead and suicidal as well as the ghosts of traitors that fed the subsequent “dirty war” (La guerra sucia) in Mexico. The outcome, PIT argues, was a decaffeinated democratic transition in Mexico. How can Mexico’s neoliberal transition to democracy be understood?
The latest issue of NACLA Report on the Americas is entitled ‘Elections 2012: what now?’ and covers the elections last year across the Americas in Venezuela, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, the United States of America, Mexico and more. Contributors include inter alia Fred Rosen, Dan La Botz, and Gregory Wilpert while the special issue also contains my essay on the neoliberal (or decaffeinated) transition in Mexico.
The argument in my essay is that we need to abandon reliance on mainstream comparative political science frameworks to explain “democratic transition” in Latin America. The focus here relies on a sharp separation of politics from economics within the gradual extension of formal associational life through democratisation measures under elite control. A major problem is therefore the very division imposed between state (politics) and market (economics). As one mainstream canonical text edited by Larry Diamond, Juan J. Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset summarises, entitled Democracy in Developing Countries:
“We use the term democracy…to signify a political system, separate and apart from the economic and social system…. Indeed, a distinctive aspect of our approach is to insist that issues of so-called economic and social democracy be separated from the question of governmental structure”.
This institutionalist definition presents a hollow notion of democratic (or decaffeinated) transition in which social struggles for popular democracy and emancipatory demands are removed leaving political contestation among elite class factions competing over formally “free” elections. A more critical approach understands this restricted notion of democracy as the attempt to secure institutional arrangements limited to state power through dominant class struggles. William Robinson refers to this as Promoting Polyarchy where liberal democracy and capitalism are seen as natural laws rather than the result of historical conditions of conflict and the pursuit of class interests.
One response, though, to the prevalence of the forms of co-optation and social control through the practices of decaffeinated democracy (or the promotion of polyarchy) has been the resurgence of popular forces renewing struggles over/against state power in Mexico. Specifically, the enduring relevance of the Zapatistas’ struggle for autonomy has come to the fore recently, as detailed by Chris Hesketh.
Earlier in 2012 the student movement #YoSoy132 gathered momentum to protest Peña Nieto and wider issues of media manipulation surrounding the presidential election. These included affirming the movement as anti-PRI and anti–Peña Nieto, as anti-neoliberal, as nonviolent, as a “horizontal” organisation without centralised leadership, as a unified movement stretching across public and private universities, and as a mobilisation that aimed to encompass wider social participation beyond student involvement.
The ghosts of the past haunting the present that have been called forth by #YoSoy132 include the massacre of hundreds of students by the Mexican state on 2 October 1968 at Tlatelolco as well as the Corpus Christi Massacre on 10 June 1971 at the hands of a state-financed paramilitary group known as Los Halcones and the struggles during the “dirty war” (La guerra sucia), as detailed by Fernando Herrera Calderón and Adela Cedillo. As PIT wrote earlier in his book ’68:
“Every time someone declares it forgotten, transcended, resolved, or dead and buried, it comes back. The ’68 Movement is just plain ornery that way”.
As I argue in my NACLA contribution, the process of formal democratic (decaffeinated) “transition” in Mexico can therefore be exposed as one element in a class strategy aimed at shaping the ongoing reorganisation and expansion of capitalism. As a restorative strategy, democratic “transition” is an aspect through which the class relations of capitalism are reorganised on a new basis within the conditions of uneven development shaping state space. Whether popular forces can enact a shift in basic class relations and command spaces of resistance is the major challenge now facing democracy in Mexico.
Or as PIT put it on the ’68 Movement: ‘When is revolution not revolution but reform?’