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Enrique Semo and the Limits of Neoliberalism II

In the second and final part of his essay entitled ‘Los límites del neoliberalism’ in the Mexican weekly magazine Proceso (14 April), the historian Enrique Semo has delivered an excoriating critique of the iniquities of capitalism.

As detailed in my earlier blog entry, Semo has crafted the rise of neoliberalism in Mexico as the latest in a series of revolutions from above or, drawing from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, as successive passive revolutions that have shaped Mexican state formation. Instances of passive revolution involve a contradictory combination of forces – merging processes of revolution and restoration – to result ultimately in the continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist accumulation processes.

According to Semo, neoliberalism is the latest epoch of passive revolution in the history of Mexico (1982-2012), following the eighteenth century era of Bourbon reforms from 1780 to 1810; and the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in the years 1880 to 1910. ‘Like in the past’, Semo writes, ‘Mexico continues to be a dependent country in which the great impulses of change do not come from its internal reality, but are subordinate to the movements whose epicentre is the developed countries’. Perhaps there is an echo here of Gramsci’s own comment in the Prison Notebooks on the condition of passive revolution as a situation when ‘the impetus of progress is not tightly linked to a vast local economic development . . . but is instead the reflection of international developments which transmit their ideological currents to the periphery – currents born of the productive development of the more advanced countries’.

The criticisms proffered by Semo on the limits of neoliberalism are wide-ranging and incisive. The present period is witness to the indisputable worldwide hegemony of financial capital; the dominance of transnational corporations and the increased power of capital vis-à-vis labour; global networks of criminality and drug trafficking; an informal economy that has acquired a structural character – transformed into a ‘hallucinating chronic surplus of workers’ – with some 50 per cent of the Mexican workforce located in precarious conditions; and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has signalled the death knell to collective land rights and the end to agrarian reform. Mexico has been put up for sale and sold to transnational capital; something graphically captured in the cartoon accompanying Semo’s second essay in Proceso – reproduced above – of the statue of the Angel of Independence in Mexico City (completed in 1910) ignominiously bundled into a contemporary shopping trolley.

Just as Stuart Hall recently relayed and demolished the geopolitical and country-specific long march of the ‘neoliberal revolution’ in the UK, then Semo has equally presented with both skill and sophistication the main contours and injustices of neoliberalism in Mexico.

For Semo, one of the main challenges to this revolution from above called neoliberalism is the popular expression of democracy, despite massive electoral fraud in Mexico in 1988 and 2006. Indeed, one of the key findings in my book Revolution and State in Modern Mexico: The Political Economy of Uneven Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011) which also raises the relevance of passive revolution, is that so-called “democratic transition” is actually a specific expression of passive revolution, linked to the organisation and reproduction of dominant class practices. What is Mexico’s pathway out of the stalemate between its neoliberal technocrats and popular sectors?

On this conundrum radical politics becomes somewhat diluted. For Semo, progressive change through the electoral route is advocated by supporting the presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and initiating widespread social mobilisation before and/or after the July 2012 elections. ‘A Left that is as heterogeneous at present as that in Mexico or Latin America’, Semo writes, ‘cannot go beyond modifying the functions of capitalism’. According to this view, fighting neoliberalism does not mean transcending capitalism.

In a region in which Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and her administration announced on 16 April the nationalisation of YPF, the former state oil firm, Semo sketches similar populist and leftist policies. Corruption and clientelism are to be restrained; a new agrarian politics based on food sovereignty is to be ensured; fiscal exemptions for large corporations are to be reduced; social welfare policies are to be introduced; the reform of NAFTA is advocated; and the free movement of migration is proposed.

But as David Ruccio, one of the leading heterodox economists on Latin American development and globalisation has summarised, what needs to be put on the agenda more explicitly is the simple idea that those who actually produce the surplus of capitalism should be allowed to take control of the appropriation and distribution of that surplus.

As the backbone of my book on Mexico attests, radical social movements propelling new cycles of class struggle are at the forefront of urban and rural resistance contesting state power in Mexico and Latin America. Yet little attention is cast to these forms of class struggle in Semo’s synopsis. A resulting perilous oversight is that the radical populism of leftist governments in Mexico and Latin America might actually result in new restorative strategies of passive revolution rather than the creation of non-capitalism or socialism.

It is, therefore, to creating new ways out of the historical structure of passive revolution by conceiving and putting into practice anti-capitalist social organisations in concrete sites and spaces of struggle that attention should now turn.

Adam David Morton

Published inInternational Political Economy


  1. Chris Hesketh Chris Hesketh

    1) By claiming that passive revolution can be understood as a revolution from above (as Semo seems to do) I think misses out on the crucial dynamic and momentum that is given initially from below by subaltern forces. In other words, although ultimately passive revolution refers to a state-led process of renewal that absorbs discontent, this must be understood as a reactive strategy on behalf of the powerful to the activities of the subaltern (albeit one in which the powerful are able to shape the overarching field of force more decisively as Gramsci reminds us).

    2) Ironically, the very strategy Semo proposes (backing AMLO and going down the electoral route), would seem precisely to conform to potential conditions of passive revolution or its associated concept of trasformismo. In other words it is the ‘statisation’ of discontent, leading to the displacement of the objectives set by social protest.

  2. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    I would agree Chris!

    Semo equates (or conflates) the notions of “revolution from above” and “passive revolution”. But Gramsci makes a distinction in his definition. First, a passive revolution might refer to a revolution without mass participation, or a “revolution from above”, involving elite-engineered social and political reform that draws on foreign capital and associated ideas whilst lacking a national-popular base. Neoliberalism in Mexico is a good example here and that is the undoubted power of Semo’s essay.

    At the same time, however, the notion of passive revolution should not be limited to this understanding. It can equally be used in a linked but alternate, second, sense to capture how a revolutionary form of political transformation is pressed into a conservative project of restoration. In my book, I understand the outcome of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) in this light as a “passive revolution”. In this second sense, passive revolution is linked to insurrectionary mass mobilisation from below whilst such class demands are restricted.

    A passive revolution therefore becomes a technique of statecraft which an emergent bourgeois class may deploy by drawing in subaltern social classes while establishing a new state on the basis of the (re)constitution of capitalism. There is the possibility that AMLO in Mexico comes to replicate the radical populism of leftist governments elsewhere in Latin America, potentially resulting in new restorative strategies of passive revolution.

  3. Chris Hesketh Chris Hesketh

    Indeed, but even in the case of the neo-liberal transition in Mexico would you not want to assign a role to the importance of social forces from below? For example the forms of social protests from 1968 onwards, independent peasant organisation in places like Chiapas or indeed the COCEI in Oaxaca. Have these forms of social protests not crucially informed the trajectory of passive revolution in this era of state formation? e.g. through practices of democratisation, neo-liberal multi-cultrualism etc.

  4. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Yes, Chris, I would always stress the struggle-driven process of neoliberalism. Semo writes in his second essay on Mexico: ‘From 1982, the economy and the society has experienced deep changes left by a coup in the State peacefully orchestrated by a technocracy formed in the United States’.

    This week former Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has been charged in a Finnish court for the murder of two activists – Beatriz Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola – in 2010; see La Jornada: They led a caravan in support of the community of San Juan Copala when they were attacked by paramilitaries affiliated with the Unión de Bienestar Social de la Región Triqui (Ubisort), a group financed by Ruiz.

    So, whether it is in relation to figures at the local level, or national level, the contestation of state violence should be at the forefront of analysis of neoliberalism.

    Of course, your own tracking of the regional politics of passive revolution linked to Ulises Ruiz in Oaxaca, that was directly challenged by the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) from 2006 onwards, leads the way in this regard!

  5. Ertan Erol Ertan Erol

    This is indeed a really exciting engagement, and particularly seeing how studying the state formation is relevant to the analysis of the contemporary social changes and resistance. In my view what makes the passive revolution a very strong conceptual tool is its power to explain a specific historical process –the formation of the capitalist nation state in peripheral spaces. As much as this conceptual tool –like any other concept- been uprooted from its spatiotemporally specific origins it becomes to be treated like a philosophical category itself and loses its explanatory power. In that sense I believe by stretching the concept backwards and onwards -towards the neoliberal rescaling- we would lose its powerful explanation of a historical and spatial specificity.

    I think focusing on the differences rather than similarities between the post-passive revolutionary process of consolidation of peripheral capitalist spatiality and the processes of neoliberal rescaling would help us to differentiate the incompatible characteristics of these two periods where the common denominator is capitalist development. The neoliberal rescaling in the periphery is a part of a worldwide restructuring of capitalism as long ago Lefebvre had pointed out. There is no doubt this worldwide restructuring takes different spatial and temporal forms (and contestations on different scales) –which might inaccurately be interpreted as passive revolution. On the other hand the passive revolutionary process was rather a specific stage in the consolidation of capitalist social relations which had been conditioned by another spatiotemporally specific process of uneven and combined development. Thus, post-passive revolutionary period signifies this very limited but extremely crucial process of the consolidation of the dependent development (uneven but not combined any more) of the peripheral capitalist space.

    In that sense, I find quite intriguing the engagement with those three great periods which I also try to focus in my research on the development and transformation of the peripheral capitalist spatiality in Mexico and Turkey. Therefore, I find Semo’s starting point for his periodisation rather meaningful than his brief engagement with the concept of passive revolution. And I believe what connects those three important periods in Mexico (and in Turkey) is their peripheral positioning within the international division of labour which took different forms throughout the development of capitalist social relations where the ‘modernisation from above’ remained as the inevitable product and the stepping stone of the continually deepening peripheral capitalist spatiality. So what I argue is we should build upon this continuum of uneven development of the peripheral capitalist spatiality where the passive revolution marked a significant moment of its consolidation.

    The last point I want to make is on Semo’s argument on the historical role of the left. I also find this argument disappointing and incorrect but at the same time politically necessary in the context of presidential elections in Mexico. Semo is also aware of the fact that the capitalism-friendly politics of AMLO could not go further than modifying the malpractices of Mexican capitalism. But in the current historical conjuncture there might be a useful function that this heterogonous left coalition could generate which is relieving the marginalised and brutally oppressed in other words both in material and ideational terms suffocated social movements. This could make the social movements more capable to produce real socialist alternatives to the noeliberal hegemony rather than limiting itself to the futile attempts to modify capitalist social relations.

  6. Adam Morton Adam Morton

    Dear Ertan,

    A great and detailed message! Your stress on the peripheral positioning of states within the international division of labour is extremely important and how this configures different forms of capitalist development is spot on.

    The crux, though, is the definition of capitalist social relations. The point of difference that I have with Semo is that he commits to a “pan capitalist” thesis meaning that the social relations of capitalism are regarded as always nested within a mercantile system of commercial market relations.

    More in line with Alan Knight, I hold that post-colonial Mexico was bequeathed a centralised state but one that reflected the essential hallmarks of “feudal” social property relations. This means that in my argument (Chapter 2) the passive revolution of capital is an outcome of the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and not something that occurs earlier. For, in my view, it was not until the C20 that capitalism as a mode of production was consolidated.

    Finally, AMLO might be cast as some sort of Left-leaning “war of position” but Semo does not really make that argument clear enough. Workers and campesinos – outside the populism of AMLO – are of course also struggling for their own autonomous anti-passive revolution spaces of resistance; which is the element missing from his analysis of the limits of neoliberalism.

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