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Enrique Semo and the Limits of Neoliberalism


The renowned historian Enrique Semo recently published an intriguing essay in the Mexican magazine Proceso entitled ‘Los límites del neoliberalism’ (8 April 2012). The text is a summary of a conference presentation he delivered on 27 March 2012 organised by the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), led by Andrés Manual López Obrador who is also the 2012 Mexican presidential candidate of the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Semo’s argument is that both the past history and the current period in Mexico can be defined by resorting to the concept of passive revolution developed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

According to Semo, a passive revolution is a form of “revolution from above” in which social and economic change is designated by ‘the authoritarian intent of a strongman, dictator or king, supported by a dominant bureaucracy and sectors of a hegemonic class’. The result is the introduction of reforms in a “backward” country—with this term referring to a sociological designation of backwardness—in an attempt to induce a form of economic catch up comparable to the levels of “developed” countries.

Semo’s hypothesis is that there have been three periods that mark the history of passive revolution in Mexico: (1) the eighteenth century era of Bourbon reforms from 1780 to 1810; (2) the fin de siècle dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in the years 1880 to 1910; and (3) the ill-fated era of neoliberalism from 1982 to 2012. His brief excursus on the relevance of passive revolution to Mexican historiography updates his 1997 essay ‘Revoluciones pasivas en México’, which has the same periodisation.

What is common to all ‘three’ passive revolutions, following his argument, is a form of modernisation from above linked to the expansion of capitalism. In the first two cases, the processes of modernisation from above finished in ‘waves’ of social revolution. Of course, we do not yet know who will be the gravediggers of neoliberalism. Overall, Semo is perhaps trying to capture here Gramsci’s comment in the Prison Notebooks that in Europe the birth of modern states proceeded by ‘“successive waves” [that] were made up of a combination of social struggles, interventions from above of the enlightened monarchy type, and national wars [so] . . . restoration becomes the first policy whereby social struggles find sufficiently elastic frameworks to allow the bourgeoisie to gain power without dramatic upheavals’.

However, as I argue in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) there is potentially a serious problem with Semo’s transhistorical extension of passive revolution beyond modern capitalist relations of production. This is because stretching the concept from the eighteenth century to the present runs the risk of asserting a law-like generalisation, which then stands outside of, or prior to, history held as valid across all circumstances irrespective of time, place, or space differences. It is this transhistorical dimension that is captured in graphic form by the cartoon accompanying Semo’s essay in Proceso—reproduced above—depicting former Mexican president Carlos Salinas, the arch neoliberal Prince in the era of globalisation, contemplating his reflection as Carlos III, King of Spain, in the age of absolutism.

Yet, rather than as some transhistorical affirmation, the relevance of passive revolution to the study of state formation in Mexico is asserted in my book within historically specific limits encompassing the twentieth century transition to and transformation of modern capitalist political space that was partly the outcome of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). As I note in my book, if one heeds Eric Wolf’s opinion, in Europe and the People Without History, that ‘there is no such thing as mercantile or merchant capitalism’ and that ‘capitalism, to be capitalism, must be capitalism-in-production’, then quite simply there are serious limits to jumbling together different eras and periods that have distinct social relations of production. Outside of modern capitalist relations of production can such different historical eras all be considered as connected forms of passive revolution?

My view is that it is better to assert the continuum of passive revolution in a his­torically specific sense in relation to transitions to and transformations of the social relations of the capitalist production process, and not as some transhistorical affirmation.

Rather than a transhistorical generalisation, then, instances of passive revolution in Mexico or elsewhere should be understood and analysed as distinct moments within a singular phenomenon that is the world-historical process of capitalism. And it is the latter that is taken to refer to the historical condition in which the owners of the means of production meet in the market with “free” labourers who only have their labour power to sell. It is therefore the passive revolution of capital marking state formation processes and the modern state in twentieth century Mexico (or elsewhere) that should be the central subject of study.

Adam David Morton

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  1. Neil Burron Neil Burron

    Dear Adam,

    This is a fascinating debate and one that has the potential to redirect our attention to the importance of the concept of passive revolution to historical materialism and open up new avenues for research on its relevance to the current conjuncture. The special issue of Capital and Class linked above in your post under ‘continuum of passive revolution’ provides fresh insight on how the concept can be deployed historically to make sense of state-led projects reconfiguring social relations of production in response to the conditions of uneven and combined imposed by the world-historical process of capitalism.

    Keeping in mind your contention that passive revolution should be asserted in relation to transitions to and transformations of social relations of the of the capitalist production process, it would be interesting to explore the relevance of the concept in relation to current left turns in Latin America. I have recently written about so-called inclusive neoliberalism as a hegemonic practice linked to passive revolution in Peru and Bolivia prior to the presidency of Evo Morales. In light of Marxist critiques of left governments across the region (with the exception, perhaps, of Venezuela), however, I wonder whether the concept can shed light on the modalities of capitalist reconstitution as a new restorative strategy following the period of neoliberal transformation and democratic transition (which your work has also referred to as a form of passive revolution). There is also a need to theorize the concept in relation to ‘inverted hegemony’ in Brazil, which seems to constitute a new form of passive revolution (see Perry Anderson’s essay on lulismo: I would be interested in hearing (or exploring) some of these issues in more detail. In the meantime, thanks for a great post!

    Neil Burron

  2. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Dear Neil,
    Great comments and many thanks for the engagement! I agree it would be useful to analyse, as you put it, the new modalities of capitalist reconstitution in Latin America as a restorative strategy under conditions of neoliberalism and how this might relate to the continuance of passive revolution.

    Álvaro Bianchi and Ruy Braga capture one aspect of this rather well in their joint article in Social Forces (2005) when referring to Brazil and capitalist transition. Capitalism á la mode brésilienne was enabled through the state as part of a broader succession of processes of passive revolution in the history of the republic.

    In my book, the history of capitalist development in Mexico is marked by a condition of “permanent passive revolution”. Certainly Bianchi and Braga argue something very similar in relation to Brazil. So, distinguishing the constituent elements of passive revolution in Latin America in an historically specific sense is work to be done.

    Your own work on the state’s project of passive revolution in Peru and the hegemony of inclusive neoliberalism in Bolivia is certainly contributing to that aim in a really significant manner. Your voice is at the centre of understanding the “left turn” in the region. I have yet to read Perry Anderson’s piece but it does seem that the debate on passive revolution has much to contribute to understanding Latin American politics past and present!

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