Democracy, Rule of Law, a “Loving Republic,” and the Impossibility of the Political in Mexico

Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado
Washington University in saint louis
translated by Ariel Wind

Volume 7, 2015

If we think about the subject of radical politics in Mexico, a radical politics that would escape the parameters of the liberal order so as to profoundly change the structure of Mexican politics – one of the first steps to take is to evaluate the reasons for its intermittent non-existence and its persistent failure. This acquires particular relevance when taking into account the political platform of the 2012 elections, which can be considered the end of the period still known as the “transition to democracy” because of the victory of the PRI and because of the growing distrust of those institutions that have been central to these processes, such as the recently defunct Instituto Federal Electoral. The year 2012 is a decisive moment because events like the reconsolidation of the corporatist PRI through strategies such as the “Pacto por México,” among others, indicate that a crisis in how to think about political opposition has emerged after more than two and a half decades of democratic “opening.” On the topic of Mexico’s recent historical experience, it is necessary to expose the limits and contradictions of the thinking that defined, from diverse ideological points of view, the languages of political action of the last three decades. The argument that I will present in the following pages rests on the premise that something that I call “the liberal matrix” (“la matriz liberal”) exists, and that it could be understood as the sum total of master signifiers that articulate the symbolic order of Mexican politics, independent of the ideological veneer assumed by its practitioners. Using this idea as a jumping-off point, in the short text that follows I am interested in reflecting on the surprising inescapability of the “rule of law” (Estado de derecho) as the horizon of contemporary politics in Mexico and on the consistent use of this term across all semantic spaces within the “liberal matrix.”

Critical analysis of a political process like the “transition to democracy” must first involve a comparative reading of the manifestos written by its different actors. Undeniably one of the foundational texts of the process at hand was “Por una democracia sin adjetivos” (1984) by Enrique Krauze. This essay was central to the gradual breakdown of Mexican liberal intellectuals within the PRI. Many things stand out in this text, but for the moment I would like to highlight a particular passage titled “El recurso a la Constitución.” In this section, Krauze revisits the book Estudios de Derecho Constitucional by then-president Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), who devoted an impressive number of pages to the question of popular sovereignty and the separation of powers. From these essays, which de la Madrid began to publish in the 70s, Krauze posits that the promise of de la Madrid’s burgeoning presidency depended on a return to nineteenth-century constitutionalism, which in this context basically meant “limitar, racionalizar y depurar al Estado mexicano” (9). Curiously, the precise constitutional topic that interests Krauze is the delamadrista position of establishing popular sovereignty based on article 39 of the Constitution of 1917, which, as the ex-president reminds us, does nothing more than reproduce the same article of the 1857 Leyes de Reforma, thereby suggesting the existence of an unfulfilled political promise that dates back to the nineteenth century. Regarding a point that Krauze omits, de la Madrid takes the idea even further: he reproduces the ruling cited in the Diario de Debates del Congreso constituyente de 1917, which states that:

La Comisión no desconoce que en el estado actual de la ciencia política, el principio de soberanía popular comienza a ser discutido y que se le han hecho severas críticas, no solamente en su contenido propio, sino aún en su aplicación; pero en México, menos que un dogma filosófico es el resultado de una evolución histórica, de tal manera que nuestros triunfos, nuestras prosperidades y todo aquello que en nuestra historia política tenemos de más levantado y de más querido se encuentra estrechamente ligado con la soberanía popular.

(Citado en De la Madrid 120)

In other words, popular sovereignty is the fundamental point of inflection in the unfolding of history and the promise of modernity in Mexico, which was true as much during the Reform as during the Revolution, ultimately turning article 39 into a central reference point for the politics of Mexico’s “liberal matrix,” into a categorical imperative for Mexico.

In Miguel de la Madrid’s texts, Enrique Krauze finds a paradoxical strategy of political articulation that will proliferate across the subsequent two decades. On one hand, Krauze separates the political act of the Revolution and the foundational ideals of Mexican liberalism from the priísta model of the “Total State” – a product, Krauze says, of the PRI’s “inútiles prestigios hegelianos” (its transcendental and totalizing character), and endorses a democratic government that would opt to “no desdoblarse en sociedad civil” (10). On the other hand, though, political intervention in Mexico is implicitly defined in Krauze’s argument as a restorative and nostalgic process: a restoration of historical values located in particular moments of the past, and a nostalgia for political forms and figures that, at some point, lost their way. Enrique Krauze contributes to inaugurating the idea of the “rule of law,” properly speaking, seen not as the realm of legality but rather as the need to contain any political intervention within the extant constitutional order. The idea Krauze proposes is that it is possible to resist the State within the constitutional legal order, in fact as a vindication of the same.

On this subject, Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen, perhaps two of the most consistent theorists of civil society, remind us that in a constitutional regime, even civil disobedience that occurs in a constitutional system functions well within the confines of majority rule and the rule of law, due to the supposed protection of citizens’ right to protest and to public opinion (567). For his part, the very manner in which Krauze invokes the idea of popular sovereignty by way of de la Madrid’s texts allows him to argue, simultaneously, for the idea of a rule of law defined on the basis of popular sovereignty and for the State’s claim to a monopoly on violence, displacing civil disobedience, just as Arato and Cohen do, to the status of a mere expansion of rights within a pre-established normative framework. From this perspective, it is clear that the foundational discourse of Mexico’s transition to democracy runs parallel to the Habermassian idea of inclusive modernity, which is in part a consequence of the publication of Habermas’ text in the May 1981 issue of Vuelta magazine, on the eve of the presidential election when de la Madrid ascended to power. Krauze’s essay points to a profound redefinition of notions of democracy, the rule of law, and civil society in the Mexican transition-in-the-making, given that he rearticulates the goal of a post-PRI Mexico more towards the recovery of the principles forged in the historical chain-of-events spanning the constitution of Apatzingán (1814), the Reform Laws, and the carrancista Constitution of 1917. Although the movement towards democracy started to emerge in the 1970s, Krauze’s essay is closer to the language of the Mexican transition, in which the opposition from both left and right unite against the State. And in so doing, he underscores the impasse that, as I see it, has defined all political protests of consequence in Mexico: a form of politics that, rather than putting emphasis on the country’s deep sociocultural antagonisms, reifies the idea of popular sovereignty into a model of infinite demand that reduces politics to the mere expansion of the concepts and values of the liberal-constitutional process. “Radical” politics (like the “radical democracy” coined by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe) is precisely that which makes antagonisms visible, whereas the notion of popular sovereignty too easily turns into the symbolic homogenization of the social body.

This is the reading that will define a large sector of the intelligentsia, especially after the leftist alliances that backed Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as alternatives to salinismo lose elections in which there appears to have been massive voter fraud. The two crucial books that came out of this electoral defeat, Después del milagro by Héctor Aguilar Camín and La utopia desarmada by Jorge Castañeda, propose along similar lines the implementation of the rule of law and the strengthening of constitutional values as a means of confronting what was, from their perspective, the left’s inability to bounce back from the stalemate that had kept it stuck in the dogmatic Soviet paradigms of the 1960s (Sánchez Prado 31).

However, the most significant moment of the 90s is not to be found in these two books, but rather in a text that decisively marked the direction of the country and that seemed to many – both then and now – to be the origin of a way of thinking that exists outside the parameters of the modern liberal State in Mexico: the first “Declaración de la Selva Lacandona.” In light of what I have said up to now, I want to call attention to one particularly significant passage:

Para evitarlo y como nuestra última esperanza, después de haber intentado todo por poner en práctica la legalidad basada en nuestra Carta Magna, recurrimos a ella, nuestra Constitución, para aplicar el Artículo 39 Constitucional que a la letra dice:

«La soberanía nacional reside esencial y originariamente en el pueblo. Todo el poder público dimana del pueblo y se instituye para beneficio de éste. El pueblo tiene, en todo tiempo, el inalienable derecho de alterar o modificar la forma de su gobierno.»

Por tanto, en apego a nuestra Constitución, emitimos la presente al ejército federal mexicano, pilar básico de la dictadura que padecemos, monopolizada por el partido en el poder y encabezada por el ejecutivo federal que hoy detenta su jefe máximo e ilegítimo, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Conforme a esta Declaración de guerra pedimos a los otros Poderes de la Nación se aboquen a restaurar la legalidad y la estabilidad de la Nación deponiendo al dictador.

The rhetoric of this excerpt is unusual: the aim of the declaration of war is to “restaurar la legalidad” in alliance with “los otros Poderes de la Nación” to depose Salinas de Gortari, whose very problem is his “illegitimacy,” that is, his lack of respect for the rule of law. And if there were any doubt about the central value accorded to the rule of law and constitutional ideals that lies at the heart of the Zapatista demands, one need only jump to the “Tercera Declaración de la Selva Lacandona,” from January 1st, 1995, which says, verbatim: “Se declara válida la Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos original, expedida el 5 de febrero de 1917, incorporando a ella Las Leyes Revolucionarias de 1993 y los Estatutos de Autonomía incluyente para las regiones indígenas, y se decreta el apego a ella hasta que se instaure el nuevo constituyente y se expida una nueva carta magna.” Or, as Arato and Cohen would put it, civil disobedience is valid only within a constitutional framework and the fundamental purpose of protest is to expand rights. One could skip ahead even further and look at the Fourth Declaration, which clearly states that the new constitution and the movement’s proposed reforms rest on their compliance with article 39.

I am also interested in mentioning two notions here that I believe do a good job of explaining the points that underlie the political impasse known as the “transition to democracy.” First, there is the constant presence of constitutional law implicit in the Zapatista discourse, and second and more importantly, the centrality of the same article 39 to the movement’s legal and military demands that Miguel de la Madrid and Enrique Krauze had emphasized, two public figures whom no one would identify with neozapatismo. Both points indicate that the fundamental discursive limitation of politics in Mexico resides in the inability to suspend the very legitimization of the liberal State, even in those forms of politics that appear to be radical. One could almost say that the Zapatistas and Krauze are bad Giorgio Agamben devotees avant la lettre: if the suspension of the rule of law by the state of exception is the way in which the Total State functions (think of the illegitimacy of Salinas de Gortari or the Hegelian excess of the PRI), then the logical move would be to affirm the rule of law as a means of abolishing the totality of the State and constructing civil society. The problem is that such a symbolic restoration of the rule of law as the discursive and ideological foundation of any sort of political change implies, in turn, a discourse in which a return to the political past is the only viable option. The decision to call themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the reestablishment of juarismo and maderismo as defining moments for the future of the nation both embody the same gesture, namely, an attempt to construct politics out of what Svetlana Boym terms “restorative nostalgia,” a motion to recapture a past that never was (41-48). The return of article 39 puts at the center of the politics of democratic transition a problem that Beatriz Urías Horcasitas has suggestively traced to the nineteenth century: an identification forged between power and society that, as Claude Lefort analyzes in his essay about Etienne de la Boëtie, leads to a passionate identification between the masses and the sovereign subject (which he calls “the name of the One”), one of the theoretical bases of the theory of voluntary servitude (107). Although it is not my intention to deny the vital contributions of zapatismo to common currents of thought among indigenous cultures in Mexico and, especially, in the global sphere, it is also important to recognize that the current insignificance of the EZLN in the Mexican political arena most likely stems from the fact that, at least in its manifestation prior to the year 2006 and “La Otra Campaña,” its discursive and formal structure never abandoned the constitutionalist vindication of the past on which the majority of the discourses of the Mexican transition rest. The EZLN is, ultimately, a movement whose devotion to the rule of law subjected it to the same political, social, discursive, and ideological limitations that have plagued any other movement emerging from the last thirty years. The paradox here lies in asserting that a political movement founded at the margins of the State is the one that has actually put the “rule of law” into practice, given that the government has been unable fully to do so.

If 2012 tells us anything, it is that the PRI’s electoral win is in part the electoral deployment of the same nostalgia for a liberal politics that has never sided with a population beset with violence and uncertainty. For this reason, it is not surprising that, faced with the death of the transition announced by Peña Nieto’s victory, the only political alternative on the electoral stage was a radicalization of constitutionalism and faith in the rule of law. In his article “Fundaciones de una república amorosa” (2011), Andrés Manuel López Obrador advocates for something we could call “ultraconstitucionalism,” an archaeological return that not only brings the cartas magnas of 1857 and 1917 back into consideration, but also the very foundational discourses of modern constitutionalism:

Quienes piensan que este tema no corresponde a la política, olvidan que la meta última de la política es lograr el amor, hacer el bien, porque en ello está la verdadera felicidad. Baste señalar que, desde 1776, en la Constitución de los Estados Unidos de Norteamérica, se propone como uno de sus objetivos fomentar la felicidad, a fin de formar una unión más perfecta. En el artículo primero de la Constitución francesa de 1793 se menciona que el fin de la sociedad es la felicidad común. Asimismo, en nuestra Constitución de Apatzingán de 1814, se estableció el derecho del pueblo a la felicidad.

For López Obrador, then, the “loving Republic” is nothing but the ultimate restoration of the rule of law within modernity itself. Therefore, Obrador argues that “estos fundamentos para una república amorosa deben convertirse en un código del bien” and proposes “la elaboración de una constitución moral.” And it goes without saying that the restorative nostalgia that Boym describes is at the center of the proposal, considering that “La decadencia que hemos padecido se ha producido tanto por la falta de oportunidades de empleo, estudio y otros satisfactores básicos como la pérdida de valores culturales, morales y espirituales” and that the solution is based on a “México profundo [donde] se conserva aún la herencia de la gran civilización mesoamericana y existe importante reserva de valores.” This proposal seeks a solution that would activate the values of a “deep” past and restore them, but these values never corresponded to de facto Mexican history. Of course, something that hasn’t yet been commented on but is necessary to keep in mind is that this notion of love located within “deep Mexico” is not an idea originally coined by López Obrador. In the closing chapter of Los grandes momentos del indigenismo en México by Luis Villoro, from 1950, love appears as the ultimate encounter between the native and the mestizo in post-revolutionary Mexico as a way to resolve, through solidarity, the conflicts of the colonial era (272-84). The fact that Villoro was one of the organic intellectuals of neozapatismo and that his book has been considered a fundamental text for the discourse of the EZLN is not trivial in the slightest: after all, the constitutionalist faith held by the Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle and by the “loving Republic” is more or less the same.

These examples, which could be expanded with relative ease, allow us to understand the vocabulary of the transition to democracy in a whole new way: “the rule of law” becomes a restoration of a foundational yet lost moment of pure politics and also a manifestation of the inescapability of liberalism as the creator of the symbolic order of national life. “Civil society” becomes a space of articulation of the popular subject, a space sanctioned by the same rule of law in the construction of a pure and “political” solidarity seen as the simple restoration of a promise of modernity that “corruption,” “dishonesty,” or some other ethical deviation had impeded. In short: from Krauze to López Obrador by way of zapatismo, the fundamental claim has been juarismo without Juárez or, even worse, priísmo without the PRI: the maintenance of a social consensus that only legitimizes an “outside” to the rule of law if it is sustained by a hegemonic or sovereign subject.

The analysis that I have just presented should make it clear that the very question of the future of radical politics in Mexico must start with a substantial reimagining of a future that would disrupt the role of the rule of law as master signifier and the liberal matrix that supports it. Some strides have already been made in crucial research conducted by those in cultural anthropology. Monique Nuijten in Power, Community and the State demonstrates that, contrary to López Obrador’s contention, corruption has been a vital factor in the constitution of the modern state in Mexico and that, in fact, there is no rule of law without its deviation. In this way, Nuijten reminds us that a politics based on an acritical analysis of the relation between the sovereign subject and civil society, or an analysis completely grounded in the acceptance of the concept of the Total State, misses the point: the consolidation of the State occurs, above all else, in the ever-present manifestation of both its aporias and antagonisms. Accordingly, Wil Pansters has demonstrated recently that what we call the “rule of law” in Mexico is not compliance with laws, but is rather the interaction of two spaces that can be distinguished heuristically in terms of a hegemonic zone and a zone of violence and coercion. With all this in mind, Pansters illustrates the fact that violence, just like corruption, is nothing other than a constitutive phenomenon of the Mexican state, one that the notion of the rule of law, which governs Krauze and López Obrador’s ideas, renders invisible. What all the politics of transition to democracy have done is understand these constitutive elements of Mexican modernity as deviations from the political norm, and defend, even in situations of civil disobedience, a legal framework that acts at every turn as a constraint on any supposedly radical articulation to be found in the country. For this reason, the most recent iteration of this sort of politics, the YoSoy132 movement, presents its “general principles” in a document, dated July 14th, 2012, that makes the same appeal to the rule of law: “a la luz de los Derechos Humanos y con base en los términos establecidos en el artículo primero constitucional, se enuncian a continuación los Principios que rigen el movimiento.” And, just so there remains no doubt, and consistent with ideas about the role of the internet in the movement, a hyperlink following the reference to the first article of the Constitution redirects to the full text of the same constitutional article, hosted on the webpage of the Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas of the UNAM. If we are to discuss the promise, or the impossibility, of radical politics in Mexico, I think that here we encounter the biggest obstacle, namely, the impasse caused by an absolute rule of law that, through its persistent and infinite justification, tames any and all other political thought.

Works Cited

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