Radical Politics and/or the Rule of Law in Mexico

Ivonne del Valle
U.C. Berkeley

Estelle Tarica
U.C. Berkeley

Volume 7, 2015

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

[H]oy México es un país sin ley, que ha desprotegido a los trabajadores del campo y la ciudad, así como sus grandes riquezas naturales, frente a la voracidad del capital trasnacional. … No se trata ahora de detenerse a imprecar o denostar a quienes así lo decidieron. Se trata de organizar con empeño, tenacidad y paciencia las fuerzas…para restablecer en este país la ley de la nación.

—Adolfo Gilly, “La destrucción de la Constitución de 1917”

What are the Stakes?

Understood at the most basic level, the rule of law is a check against the arbitrary exercise of power by all subjects, including those in power. Nevertheless, recent events in Mexico provide ample grounds for extreme pessimism about the value of holding the state accountable to the rule of law. From Acteal to Atenco, Oaxaca to Wirikuta, from the drug war to the neoliberal transfer of wealth up the social ladder—a reality that becomes more firmly enshrined in law with each passing day—the desires and interests of the strong prevail. The case of Ayotzinapa, which unfolded over the last months of 2014, has confirmed what many of those in Mexico and the international community already knew: that “the emperor has no clothes,” that the Mexican state carries out a double violence against the citizens it is supposed to protect, first by participating in their killing and disappearance, then by refusing properly to investigate these crimes.

To better understand the consequences of sovereignty by rule of force in Mexico, faculty and students at UC Berkeley formed a study group in early 2012, culminating in November of that year with a conference.[1] We were concerned with the figure of the sovereign exception, which when arrogated, puts the rule of law into crisis. Recent scholarship on this issue has posed stark questions.[2] Is this a crisis from which the rule of law can recover? Can a legitimate rule of law be restored after having been openly trampled by the public institutions responsible for upholding it? Or, following from Walter Benjamin, is it rather the case that the exception to the rule is the rule (“Theses” 257), while the crisis is merely a masquerade? Has the legal basis of state power, the rule of law, been so irremediably associated with violence that it can only be perceived as illegitimate from the standpoint of democratic politics?

As a group our discussions focused initially on developing a historical perspective to these questions, but increasingly we drew our attention to the current moment, when these issues take on new urgency and return us again to the question of crisis. It might be said that the state’s disastrous decision, following Felipe Calderón’s disputed win in 2006, to militarize its campaign against drug traffickers merely confirms what we already knew: that sovereign exceptionality is not an aberration but rather integral to Mexico’s history, as Gareth Williams argues (4). Yet the intensity of the violence sparked by the war, its disastrous effects on huge numbers of Mexicans from all walks of life as well as on Central and South American immigrants in transit through Mexico, and the emergence of armed “self-defense” groups, suggest a new chapter in the history of Mexican sovereignty.

Our approach to these questions concerning rule by force rather than rule by law seeks to bring out everyday crises of social inequality and marginalization. Seemingly an enduring feature of the social landscape, these elements nevertheless have a timeline that the examination of sovereign crisis must also attempt to capture. Beyond formalist or “thin” approaches to the rule of law, there lies a deeper question of social justice and the ability of the law to remedy it. In an oft-noted paradox, since the Mexican Revolution the state has aspired to confront injustice precisely through the sovereign exception, a perplexing legacy that is not easily overcome.[3]

One way to think about this dilemma is to return again to debates about biopolitics in Mexico. What is the link between socio-political equality and the implantation of biopolitical regimes? Liberal democracy and biopolitics have historically been intertwined, though in subterranean and contradictory ways. Yet this does not mean that, in order to address the situation of marginalization and exclusion suffered by so many Mexicans, a more complete biopolitical regime must be extended. Michel Foucault pointed out the inadequacy of reducing politics to biopolitics—to the disciplines, technologies, and knowledge that foster and prolong life—without questioning the basis of what life ought or could be. That is, once biopolitics is naturalized, the ideological foundations over which a “normal” life is fabricated and organized are rendered invisible—and it appears that socio-political struggles ought to fight for pre-determined and limited rights. One of the functions of radical politics would be to question these assumptions.

To collectively address this series of problems about sovereignty, violence and inequality, we brought together a diverse group of colleagues who from different disciplines and perspectives analyze the current challenges to the rule of law and offer historical perspectives on the dichotomy between the rule of law and radical politics. Before introducing their essays in this issue, we want to provide a context for their work: first, we offer a necessarily (given the constraints of an introduction) short diachronic perspective on the role of the Mexican state in producing the current crisis; and second, an analysis of the novelty of the current situation and the challenges it poses to what have been traditional modes of popular struggle against the power of the state.

Life at the Margins of the State

Partially due to its colonial origins, Mexico has never attained the social comforts of those countries in which a biopolitical regimen (in Foucault’s sense) has been thoroughly extended. In Mexico no government has ever provided most of its population the benefits of social services which traditionally have been the responsibility of the state, its very raison d’être, in fact.[4] From the most basic services such as running water, electricity, urban infrastructure, and health care, to issues such as education, land tenure, and workers’ rights, the Mexican state produced and maintained a profoundly unequal society. Indeed it can be said that throughout its history, and even despite such notable exceptions as the constitutional regimes inaugurated in 1857 and 1917, the Mexican state has never really attempted to make these benefits available to most of its population.[5] Following from Williams’s argument that Mexican modernity was not predicated “on the quest for the biopolitical organization of society” (12), and paraphrasing Foucault, the Mexican state has organized Mexican life only partially and incompletely.

Historically, the existence of indigenous and mestizo elites notwithstanding, the colony functioned as two separate states: the “república de indios” and the “república de españoles,” with very different legislation and rules for each that served to maintain the privileges of Spaniards, principally, and Creoles (Gibson, Cope).[6] After all, a colonial regime is grounded in a system of differences that needs to be maintained for as long as the colony remains. This reality clashed with those enlightened colonial governments that sought to promote the well-being and hygiene of the population (a common eighteenth-century concern) and thereby transform New Spain through important infrastructural biopolitical changes. One can point to the Count of Revillagigedo (Viceroy from 1784 to 1794), as well as many others who failed to perceive the disparity between the measures they wanted to implement and the dire conditions of life for many of Mexico’s inhabitants (Agostoni, Voekel). In many ways, Porfirio Díaz’s rule, which spanned the years 1877 to 1911, merely continued the work of Revillagigedo in terms of policies that, while aimed at implementing a biopolitical regime, remained entirely out of synch with the reality of everyday life for most Mexicans (Agostoni).

Eric Van Young reminds us how Lucas Alamán, the conservative nineteenth-century historian, had pessimistically concluded that after the wars of independence, Mexico not only had no Mexicans, but neither the institutions nor the political culture that could lead to what Van Young refers to as “the emergence of a nation and the consolidation of the state” (1-2, 7).[7] The “withering of possibilities” that Alamán reads in a nation collapsing before it could begin to exist as such (Van Young 12) has to do not only with foreign invasions, but with the lack of agreement among the different political factions as to what that nation should be. Citizens (as opposed to colonial subjects) could not be produced overnight, especially because the political and social institutions through which citizenship was to be formed did not exist. That is why, in spite of their ambivalence toward religion, liberals had to contend with the fact that after independence, the only thing “Mexicans” had in common was religion, which liberals were paradoxically forced to adhere to in order to promote a secular nation.[8] What was at stake in the long fight between liberals and conservatives throughout the nineteenth century was the type of institutions and citizens to be created.

One century after the expulsion of the Spaniards and because of the prolonged and painful colonial precedent, the Revolution of 1910 sought to correct the rampant inequality at the core of Mexican society. The Constitution of 1917 and some of its Articles in particular, which took up the language produced in other revolutionary documents of the period (as Lund and Sánchez Lopera discuss in their essay here), sought to provide the ideological and juridical ground for a more egalitarian republic. Along with many other socialist measures, the nationalization of the oil industry carried out in 1938 by President Lázaro Cárdenas sought to deliver the revenue necessary to secure Mexico’s economic future and fulfill the promises of a revolutionary program.

Nevertheless, the failures and collapse of this (very soon in quotation marks) “revolutionary” regime are well known, and until very recently they were among the most recurrent topics for historians and literary critics alike.[9] During the PRI’s long permanence in power, Mexico was governed by what Mario Vargas Llosa called a “dictadura perfecta” (“Vargas Llosa”). Meanwhile, the transition in 2000 to the PAN government of Vicente Fox has been widely recognized as a fiasco; it certainly did not constitute as radical a regime change as had been expected. On the contrary, the relationship between PRI/PAN has been cemented to the point that political and legal analysts such as John Ackerman talk about an alliance locked together in the pursuit of common interests. For Ackerman, the PRI/PAN coalition proves that the 2000 “transition” and its claims of democratization are myths:

No es suficiente simplemente agregar al sustantivo “democracia” adjetivos como “estancada”, “imperfecta”, “parcial” o “mediocre” para caracterizar a nuestro régimen político. Una “democracia imperfecta” es todavía, en esencia, un sistema “democrático” en el que la sociedad ejerce su soberanía y constituye la fuente originaria del poder público…México no cumple con los estándares mínimos para ser considerado como un régimen democrático.

One could conclude that in Ackerman’s assessment the dictatorship Vargas Llosa referred to, and that was supposedly left behind in 2000, has been reinforced and not obliterated, a fact to the detriment of the more than “50 millones de mexicanos en la miseria” and the country’s “total estado de indefensión” eloquently described by Ackerman. If social justice remained aspirational for some leaders of the Revolution, it has since been definitively abandoned with the arrival of conservative political programs, which in fact started decades before the PAN’s arrival in power.[10] The sexenio of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) has been singled out as the moment in which neoliberal economic policies, such as the signing of NAFTA with Canada and the United States and the amendments to Article 27 removing protections of ejido lands (one of the pillars of the 1917 Constitution), were made central to the country’s politico-economic functioning.

Despite the nominal goal of equality enshrined in the two Constitutions, Mexican political elites have repeatedly abandoned this goal. The most radical thinkers after independence were silenced time and again (Díaz, Vázquez), and the transformations promised by the Revolution were often times cut short by the very same people who were supposed to be pursuing them. In this sense, and at least concerning the well-being of its population, Mexico’s shortcomings in achieving something that could even remotely be considered egalitarian have made it a state of exception. Thus it is necessary to speak of at least two related crises. One has to do with the violence of the state against its citizens—whether the direct violence of cases such as Acteal and Atenco, and more recently Tlatlaya and, as the evidence increasingly suggests, Ayotzinapa, or the result of narco-politics and the narco-war in which the state is clearly implicated in the violence it seeks to eradicate. The other one, going back hundreds of years, has to do with the everyday mechanisms of exclusion that have created a country in which more than half of the population live in poverty, with the important consequences that accompany this fact (in terms of lack of access to basic health, urban, and legal services; differential access to cultural goods, education, rest). As Josefina Bórquez, the informant known as “Jesusa Palancares” in Elena Poniatowska’s Hasta no verte Jesús mío, makes clear, people like her have been excluded from the nation:

Al fin de cuentas, yo no tengo patria. Soy como los húngaros: de ninguna parte. No me siento ni mexicana ni reconozco a los mexicanos. Aquí no existe más que pura conveniencia y puro interés. Si yo tuviera dinero y bienes, sería mexicana, pero como soy peor que la basura, no soy nada.


Fictionalized or not, Bórquez’s words show that not just the rights and privileges of citizenship, but also the deeper sense of belonging to a national community are only available to people of a certain social class. She expresses the sense of profound alienation from the country for which she fought in the Revolution. Jean Franco has drawn attention to Bórquez’s desire that her body not be buried when she dies, but that it be left to the birds of prey. With this gesture, Franco argues, Bórquez withdraws from the normalized community to follow the fate of the thousands of anonymous dead left behind by the Revolution (181), an enormous group which one might be tempted to call the real community to which she belongs.

Violence and Epochal Change

In recent years the situation for the majority of Mexico’s inhabitants has been extreme not only in terms of the lack of security, but equally, or perhaps more importantly, in terms of the quality of everyday life which the system of taxation and other revenues, such as oil production, should be able to provide. The current situation brings to light the paradoxes that define and haunt the Mexican state.

While on the one hand the Mexican state has failed to secure a biopolitical regime that, for better or for worse, could reach most Mexicans, on the other, recent events have revealed its inability to guarantee its citizens basic security. For example, the abject failure of the government’s campaign against drug traffickers throws a peculiar light on the question of sovereign power. Is it possible that a deeper logic might be at work in which the apparent failure of sovereign power to contain threats and monopolize violence by claiming exception to the rule of law is a sign for its opposite: the success of a new and different kind of rule of law in which the rule of the strongest has become entirely and overtly normalized?

According to classical political theory, individuals become citizens at the moment of surrendering their right to defend themselves against all threats (including a total war of all against all) in the name of the protection achieved via a pact with the state. From then on the state has among its main responsibilities and prerogatives the protection and the punishment of its citizens (Hobbes). The case of the Mexican state is the opposite, since it not only does not protect its citizens from being killed (see Belausteguigoitia and Tarica in this issue), but in fact guarantees the necessary conditions for them to be killed. In view of the low rate of success in the investigation and punishment of homicides (less than one percent, see Herrera in this issue), one might be tempted to conclude that if Mexicans don’t kill more, it’s only because they don’t feel like it; and if they were to contemplate the idea, they could count on the ineptitude or disinterest of the authorities to walk free for the rest of their lives. In this sense, Mexico can be seen as a testing ground for morality and ethics.

The state is so absent that as Yuri Herrera provocatively suggests (in this issue), there seems to be a correlation between what by now amounts to mass killings—because even if perpetrated singly or in small numbers, the accumulation of murder has achieved “industrial” levels, as he remarks—and the establishment of a new order. In other words, the state’s absence is strategic. Indeed, the recent reforms to the Constitution in the matter of energy, education and labor show that the state can be very effective if it wants to. Time will tell what this new order will bring, but so far the parallel with the colonial period is remarkable: as in the early years of the conquest, the unleashing of chaos was followed by the consolidation of unequal legal regimes by which life was guaranteed in exchange for extreme labor conditions (del Valle, in this issue). In Herrera’s assessment of Mexico’s current situation, death on a mass scale appears correlated to a sinister economic logic. New legislation enacted during the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto secures the even greater transfer of wealth to capitalist corporations, grants even more police powers to the state, and eliminates ever more social rights. Yet these lamentable developments no doubt have less impact when citizens are busy dodging bullets. In this sense, chaos becomes the basis for the establishment of the new order, including the laws that will protect it.

These hypotheses lead to a difficult challenge. The Machiavellian unmasking of the state allows us to leave morality behind and thereby disable the state’s false moralism, which allows it to present a double face, decrying human rights abuses while at the same time creating the space for them. Such an unmasking might make the state assume the truth of its game, and acknowledge it. But just as with Machiavelli in the sixteenth century, either way the options are troubling. Would it be better for society if the Mexican state were to embrace its instrumental use of violence, its positive, productive capacity? What would such naked recognition obtain? Isn’t it always better for those in power to maintain, however hypocritically, their commitment to morality, since it thereby creates a shared discursive space available for intervention? But how effective is such an intervention? What is better, an ineffectual and hypocritical interest in rights, or a cynic’s admission of the way things are? Is the option between these two bad choices the only one available? These are not questions that can be easily answered.

A few years into a war on drugs (2006-2014) that has caused tens of thousands of deaths and chaos in several states across the national territory, new important laws are starting to be passed. Yet even though their consequences are still unknown, the prospects seem dismal. Recently, historian Adolfo Gilly wrote a newspaper article in which he warned about “un cambio epocal” for Mexico (hence this section’s heading). The article, entitled “La destrucción de la Constitución de 1917,” focused on the dismantling of Articles 3, 27, 28, and 123, beginning in 1991, during the government of Salinas de Gortari, and continuing until very recently. If the reforms to Article 28 reinforced the possibility of selling ejido communal lands already latent in the reforms to Article 27, those to Article 3, which guarantees education to all Mexicans, opened the door to a normalization of neoliberalism in the classrooms, since it promises an education that, “sin hostilidades, ni exclusivismos,” promotes the “aprovechamiento de nuestros recursos,” among other changes (Constitución, Article 3, section II.b). It also leaves behind the need for a secular education for private institutions (Constitución, Article 3, section IV.a), but more importantly it transforms all workplace conflicts of teachers into administrative rather than legal questions (Constitución, Article 3, reforms dated February 26, especially section IX). That is, it exposes the job security of the tens of thousands of teachers in the country to the whims of state officials, who are not obliged to participate in negotiations nor account for their decisions (Poy Solano). Meanwhile, the reforms to Article 123, concerning labor rights, have made informal hiring practices (ad hoc one-sided practices that benefit the hiring party and never the workers) into the accepted ruling system (Buen), at best. At worst, these measures have left workers with hardly any rights at all, undermining laws that were created after the Revolution to establish and safeguard workers’ rights (Buen).[11]

While it took at least ten years of brutal fighting and at least one million deaths during the Revolution to promulgate these laws that were supposed to improve the living conditions of all Mexicans, it took the Mexican Congress only a few weeks to undo them, a fact that proves the legislators’ efficiency in matters that interest them These changes, according to Gilly, constitute “un vuelco de dimensiones históricas aún difícilmente imaginables” (“La destrucción”). What is more remarkable is that these laws legalize an order that in many instances had already been illegally functioning de facto. And yet, as Gilly warns, the changes to the Constitution are very telling as to the future their designers envision for most of the country’s population. Because it is one thing to remedy the disparity between law and reality by having the state make the law a reality, and another to remedy that disparity by having the state correct the law so as to bring it in line with an illegal, de facto situation. That is, what until now was considered an unjust reality that needed to be transformed and improved in order to reflect the law, has instead been made law. To dismantle—as Gilly says—the legal order and to create a new one that would conform to the de facto situation in which most of Mexico’s people are made vulnerable to abuses and exploitation that, from now on, will not be considered abuses and exploitation but rather the legal order itself, is indeed a feat. The new legislation makes it impossible to aim at modifying reality to correspond to the rule of law because the rule of law has already been modified to reflect a hard core system of exploitation. This is a truly paradoxical twisting of legality, a debasement of it, by which institutions and law sanction illegality, leaving no distance now between law and its absence. “Hoy,” says Gilly, “México es un país sin ley, que ha desprotegido a los trabajadores del campo y la ciudad, así como sus grandes riquezas naturales, frente a la voracidad del capital trasnacional” (“La destrucción,” emphasis added). The “absence of law” Gilly alludes to here is true only in a twisted sense, as the paradoxical outcome of the neoliberal state’s law-making activities, and should not be taken as the sign of a failed state. The “failed state” analysis of Mexico is simply wrong, Ackerman argues, pointing out that Mexican institutions remain among the strongest and best funded in Latin America (“It’s Time”). The Mexican state “fails’ only where and when it wants to—in the area of justice.

To this we could add the energy reforms debated by Congress. Just as the recent reforms to the Constitution destroy the spirit in which it was created, these reforms to the oil industry, in addition to modifying legislation related to water, mining, and gas would reverse the decree of nationalization of 1938. As one of the editorials of the newspaper La Jornada put it,

la iniciativa tiene implicaciones devastadoras para todos los agentes económicos que no pertenezcan al sector petrolero: la minería, la industria, el comercio, el turismo, la agricultura, la ganadería y la pesca, entre otras, experimentarían, de aprobarse el documento, una tremenda presión legal. Los propietarios individuales no podrán negarse a vender, arrendar o ceder de alguna forma sus tierras a concesionarios petroleros. Al amparo de semejante ley, una infinidad de comunidades, pueblos y rancherías quedarían a merced de los vastos poderes de negociación, presión y chantaje propios de las trasnacionales petroleras, y las reservas ecológicas podrían ser eliminadas en aras de un interés social y orden público que, una vez consumada la desnacionalización de la industria de hidrocarburos, no serían ya ni social ni público, sino particular y privado.

(“Ley de hidrocarburos”)

For journalist Jenaro Villamil, the situation gets even darker if we consider the connections between the four initiatives—Ley de Hidrocarburos, Ley de Pemex, Ley de la Industria Eléctrica, and Ley de Ingresos sobre Hidrocarburos—debated in Congress in June 2014—and whose combined effects need to be examined. He explains this scheme as follows: “Se trata de un proceso de desmantelamiento de los bienes nacionales. Se abre a la inversión extranjera no sólo nuestro sistema de hidrocarburos y eléctrico, sino también el minero, el del gas, el del agua, el de las principales cuencas y reservas naturales de México” (“Decálogo”).

Thus, in two years, and without waging a political war like the independence struggle and the Revolution, and yet against the backdrop of tens of thousands of deaths,[12] the PRI/PAN alliance has managed to legally revert Mexico to the conditions of the Barbarous Mexico of 1910 that John Kenneth Turner wrote about.[13] For the current government, there are no more aspirations to democracy, no more dreams of undoing the evils of 500 years of exploitation, as the EZLN’s 1993 “Declaración de la Selva Lacandona” had demanded, or of using national resources to improve the life of its citizens. Mexican oil and minerals, and with them the land, oceans and waters, along with the labor of those who work to extract their riches, are legally put at the service of the demands of the global economy. There is no distance between the state and economic interests; in the Mexican case, the state used to function as a buffer— however ineffectual—between the infinite demands of capitalism and the population, but it has now opted openly to serve capitalism instead by carrying out what can be considered an ethnic and class war against its citizens that the new Constitution has legalized. Having converted most Mexicans into a large pool of labor without rights and having surrendered its territories to the highest bidder, can this state still be considered sovereign?[14] It is extraordinary for a government to turn the extreme war waged against its population in the name of capitalism from a de facto state of affairs to a de jure situation.

Apathy and Outrage

To recognize, following Herrera and Gilly, that this might constitute the beginning of a new order for Mexico, in which there is no difference between the regime of law and illegality, does not mean admitting defeat for an alternative politics. This is not a history in which the state is the sole player. The fact that society has been galvanized by the demand for justice for the families and classmates of the Ayotzinapa’s missing normalistas signals that there is still hope for an end to governement corruption.Whether it be transformation of the state or transformation against the state, these pressures from popular struggles are increasing. Even so, any analysis of the current political moment must grapple with the pervasive apathy that runs through society. The entangled events of early summer 2014, when coverage of political debates about Mexico’s energy resources competed with the World Cup, provide a bleak image of the mechanisms used by the state to demobilize its citizens and reaffirm the power of the mass media to shape public opinion.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s government refused to broadcast the congressional debates about the new legislation, which proposes a radical undoing of the current legal framework for the use of the country’s energy resources. The Secretaría de Gobernación denied the PRD’s request that the debates be shown on national television based on arguments of breathtaking cynicism: the government claimed that broadcast of the long debates would detract from citizens’ rights to be informed about other issues (“limitaría el derecho de información de la ciudadanía respecto al resto de los asuntos de interés general para la sociedad” [“Documento”]). In fact, the bigger issue appeared to be the conflict with the World Cup. Several congressmen had no qualms about admitting that they would not attend any energy discussions that took place on days when the Mexican team was playing. The arguments generated by these statements, which did receive a fair amount of media coverage, made for some entertaining political theater. The Congressman from Chiapas offered a small television set as a gift to his colleague from Michoacán, who rejected it, saying he would not take anything the “pueblo” from Chiapas had paid for (Arvizu and Morales). Laughter and jokes perhaps helped ease some frayed spirits and certainly gave journalists better copy: who had “scored more goals” during the exchange? (Arvizu and Morales) Yet levity aside, the public’s need for entertainment—or at least, the perception of this need—displaces a more serious collective engagement with legislation that concerns the economic and social future of the country.

This contrast could be clearly appreciated in the lack of media attention afforded those senators whose criticisms of the legislation did not lend themselves to political theater. Senator Manuel Camacho Solís stated that the way the reforms were being handled by Congress negated the rule of law and was destined to produce violence (“Reforma energética”). Days before the debate, Senator Manuel Bartlett accused Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI and PAN of shamelessness and betrayal; he poignantly refused to stop his arguments when reminded that he had gone beyond the allotted time, pointing out that in any case no one in Congress was paying any attention to what he was saying, a fact that could be corroborated by the anyone who saw the broadcast (“Manuel Bartlett”). As if this kind of speech were dated and out of place, or perhaps simply boring, no television network and only very few newspapers gave him space. Most focused on the World Cup and the “humorous” moments of the debate. Is it far fetched to remember another moment, in 1968, and the primacy given to a different international sporting event over another local event of national importance, also because of censorship by the government and self-censorship by the media?

In fact the comparison to Tlatelolco is only partially apt. For in 2014, unlike 1968, it is not clear whether the government’s wish to give the events as low a media profile as possible is motivated by fear or canny indifference. Fear: were the people to see the debates, they would understand what is at stake in the reforms and openly dissent. Or indifference: the government not only doesn’t care what the public thinks, it knows that Mexican citizens don’t care either, or if they do, they don’t bother to act on their opinions. Responses to Ayotzinapa are telling in this respect: even though political demonstrations about Ayotzinapa have been constant, massive, and widespread, a sizeable portion of the population appears to remain unmoved, thus allowing the Mexican government to withstand the accumulation of scandals, such as the colossal loss of face it has sustained domestically and internationally as scientists and journalists have challenged the government’s official version of the events of September 26-27, and the rampant corruption of some members of the cabinet, Enrique Peña Nieto included, that has come to light..

The government’s displacement of the public’s attention away from politically significant to politically insignificant events, showing a perfect alignment of the state with monopoly media interests, also calls to mind another scene from the not-so-distant past, when Televisa-founder Emilio Azcárrraga Milmo said in 1993: “México es un país de una clase modesta muy jodida, que no va a salir de jodida. Para la televisión es una obligación llevar diversión a esa gente y sacarla de su triste realidad y de su futuro difícil” (Villamil, “Televisión,” qtd. also in Paxman, 314).[15] Adding to the historical irony of the words themselves is the context in which he uttered them: in praise of the telenovela Los ricos también lloran, a highly melodramatic rendition of how the Mexican upper-classes redeem themselves through their love of the lower classes (or rather, through sapping their strength, as Slavoj Žižek would have it).[16] In reality what Azcárraga is celebrating is not the success of neutral, pre-ideological or non-ideological entertainment, but of ideology that manages to present itself as uninterested in the world of politics. And yet, on another level, Azcárraga is very clear when he states that he seeks to distract the public from the class war being waged on the Mexican public (“no va a salir de jodida”). Far from needing to defend his company’s role as a staunch mantainer of the status quo, he presents this as its moral duty (“es una obligación”).[17]

It would seem that the Mexican state, having expended considerable energy wresting cultural control from the Church over the past two centuries, has ceded it to the commercial media. The formation of “Mexican” subjects involved a long struggle against the Church, from the nineteenth-century liberals to the twentieth-century revolutionaries, whose project, at least until 1940, intended to break the Church’s monopoly in shaping collective identity. If perhaps simplistic in its goals, though not its designs, the cultural politics of the revolution achieved a relatively successful image and performance of what Mexico was and what Mexicans ought to be. Who wields the power of those cultural politics now? The mass media, certainly, but also the Church, which has made something of a comeback in the neoliberal age and regained some of the ground it had lost, along with other religious institutions.[18] If from the 1930’s until very recently, the government’s investment in education sought to provide an alternative to the cultural conservatism of the Church, this is no longer the case, as can be seen in the reforms to Article 3 of the Constitution. The federal government appears to have relinquished its investment in this most basic instrument of national subject formation.

The June 2014 series of entangled events—the Congressional debates, the World Cup, and the role of television monopolies in both—are an example of what is displaced from public opinion as out-of-date and therefore lacking any relevance (as Bartlett and Camacho’s words demonstrate), and what continues to be pressed as relevant. But if “good order” is the goal of the strategy that determines what is broadcast—the World Cup, soap operas, certain type of news programs[19]—and what is shut away from the public sphere, this does not necessarily translate into hegemony. In fact, the opposite may be true. If Mexican subject formation depends now on Televisa and other mass media, along with religious institutions, these have at least partially failed. If it is true that consent seems to exist to a certain degree, it is also true that there are miscalculations in and deviations from the control being exercised over the people, because in spite of the strong foothold of mass media and the Church in practically every Mexican home, dissent also exists, especially now.

As much as this special issue is the result of our interest in the state’s blatant disregard for the rule of law, it also emerges from our interest in social actions that run contrary to those of the state. Some of these may be seen as trying to bring about a “real state of emergency” in Benjaminian terms, as José Rabasa has argued with respect to the APPO in Oaxaca, and as might also be appreciated in the Wirrarikas’s fight for Wirikuta against mining companies, the very recent confrontation of San Bartolo Ameyalco with authorities they perceived as bent on taking away their water, the EZLN, the Otra Campaña, and the words and actions of the classmates and families of the 43 normalistas (see Petrich’s interview in this issue). These would be examples of a popular sovereignty that, as Rabasa might argue, “would in the end not aspire not to establish a ‘proletarian’ law but an affirmation of life that would lead to the withering of capitalist economic, social and legal structures” (260).

The recent case of Cherán (Ojeda, in this issue) provides an example (and a sense of hope) that perhaps allows one to see how localized controversies present structural paradigms that can be used more broadly. That is, if Cherán achieved its autonomy because the state government neglected to consult the people on matters it should have—which is what prompted Cherán’s community representatives to take legal action in the first place—then it may be just a matter of time before the Supreme Court receives more of these cases. After all, state governments with important indigenous populations rarely consult these constituencies, even though this is guaranteed by Article 2 of the Constitution.

The debates on the energy reforms present another interesting case that is legally similar to the case of Cherán. Camacho Solís announced during the recent debates that, along with a group of other senators, he was appealing the constitutionality of reforms on similar grounds, namely, the lack of popular consultation (“Reforma energética”). The outcome [of his appeal] has not yet been decided. These two cases represent an interesting intersection between radical politics and the rule of law. Through legal actions, they both aim to dismantle, to a certain degree, the rule of the state, or the federation, in the name of popular sovereignty.

Meanwhile, with respect to the state’s failed drug war, Mexicans have offered varied and ambivalent responses. These span a range of affects, from quietism to outrage, and contain a strong moral element, often centered on a discourse of the family and an affirmation of gender roles—fathers, mothers, innocent children—that is mobilized for political ends and that is simultaneously reactionary and progressive (see Tarica and Belausteguigoitia in this issue). What kinds of cultural narratives are being framed in the midst of this war? What kinds of politics have emerged in response to it?

In particular, grass-roots criticisms of impunity—the government’s failure to punish criminal behavior, including its own—have mobilized many Mexicans to protest the sovereign exception to the rule of law. Criticism of the state’s violence against its own citizens in the drug war has propelled these social mobilizations while also invigorating related movements protesting other forms of government violence and corruption, such as the “mothers” groups of Ciudad Juárez or the parents of children killed in the fire at Hermosillo’s Guardería ABC, who recently marked the fifth anniversary of the event with commemorative activities widely covered by the national media. These movements can be called “reformist” in the sense described by Rabasa, because they invoke the law to denounce government abuses and call for the preservation of the law, yet disregard the fact that the law itself permits state terror (255, 259). We might say that these movements operate in the belief that it is possible to return the sovereign exception to its exceptional status. Yet there are grounds to think that Mexican perspectives on the rule of law are more complex and contradictory. What to make, in any case, of the curious fact that Javier Sicilia, who lobbied the Peña Nieto government for new human rights legislation and is the leader of a national peace movement, has endorsed the right of Mexican civilians to arm themselves in self-defense against drug traffickers (“Javier Sicilia”)? Many recent examples, such as the case of Cherán, demonstrate that appeals to the law can have a transformative effect that far exceeds the law itself.

Mexicans are neither defeatists nor passive. Yet as Claudio Lomnitz has extensively documented, for too long death seems to have been Mexico’s sign (Death and the Idea). The struggle for independence, the nineteenth-century civil wars between liberals and conservatives (in whose wake we may still find ourselves today), the Revolution, every little improvement to life, to justice, has been paid for dearly. As Lund’s and Sánchez Lopera’s essay in this issue show, decisions between another armed struggle or alternative forms of political action are not to be taken lightly. It is worth remembering that among the largest street demonstrations ever seen in Mexico—a country where these are, as we know, very common—were carried out in 1994 to stop an armed response to the EZLN’s uprising in Chiapas, and more recently those demanding justice for Ayotzinapa (such as the march of November 20th which symbolically culminated in the burning of a giant effigy of Enrique Peña Nieto).

Contemporary political struggles demonstrate that not all Mexicans consent to the capitalist interests allied with the government. In manners that increasingly sidestep party politics, Mexicans continue to fight against dispossession and to call for a thorough transformation of Mexico’s political system, what Ackerman calls “la transformación integral del sistema de dominación y control.” He continues: “este país solamente avanzará si logramos transformar la estructura de poder social y política que subyace y controla desde fuera al sistema institucional formalmente constituido.” History permits one to predict that if, as Gilly has warned, recent legislation is about to initiate a new, bleaker order, new strategies for fighting will be devised. Will these be along the lines of Benjamin’s “revolutionary violence” that undoes the law itself? Or a restoration of the “law of the nation,” in Gilly’s suggestive words? Or a paradoxical combination of both, as can be appreciated in so many recent struggles? Calls for a new political foundation from which to imagine a different future resonate in Mexico across diverse ideological frequencies. 

Contents of this Issue

We have grouped the essays contained in this volume into two parts: “Constitutive Violence” and “Victims and Beyond / Luchas del presente.”[20] An “Appendix on Ayotzinapa,” added more recently, includes six essays that originally appeared elsewhere in the Fall of 2014 in response to the events; these offer special perspectives on the context and meaning of Ayotzinapa for the rule of law in Mexico.

Part One, “Constitutive Violence,” contains four essays primarily concerned with the violence that founds a new political order. In “Mexico’s Re-colonization: Unrestrained Violence, Rule of Law and the Creation of a New Order,” Ivonne del Valle draws attention to the structural parallels between Mexico’s current crisis and the beginning of the colonial regime in the sixteenth century. The similarities have to do with the contiguity between naked violence, legislation and the creation of a whole population that is neither friend nor enemy, but something murkier than these designations. Hernán Cortés’s narrative of the conquest and Motolinía’s history of its aftermath are her entry points to address the paradoxes Bartolomé de las Casas faced in his opposition to the Spanish colonization of America. If colonization was achieved through the constitution of spaces in which, as Carl Schmitt remarked, legality and ethics did not obtain, this situation called forth radical, never-before-seen measures. Nevertheless, given the institutional constraints of his time, Las Casas seemed undecided between two answers. He pretended there still existed a true rule of law—and appealed to the King to remedy the unjust situation—knowing full well that the King himself was one of the main beneficiaries of this lawlessness. But since what he wanted lay outside the limits of the legal world of his time, he had to conjure up radical solutions—such as his call for general restitution of everything taken from the Indies and his suggestion that God and the Indians had a perpetual right to destroy Spain.

With the article by Joshua Lund and Alejandro Sánchez Lopera, “Revolutionary Mexico, the Sovereign People and the Problem of Men with Guns,” we turn to the Mexican Revolution to examine the fundamental connection between land, violence, and sovereignty. In their essay, Lund and Sánchez Lopera examine the Military Convention of 1915 and a little-known text by José Vasconcelos published in that year. Their aim is to return to the foundations of a constitutional order from whose traces the decisive role of “men with guns” has since been effaced. They argue that Vasconcelos’s thinking on the revolution was, at that time, in keeping with the theories of sovereignty later advanced by Schmitt. In his defense of popular sovereignty and the Revolution’s goal of agrarian reform, Vasconcelos argued that possession of the land, that is, a sovereign claim to the land, requires a commitment to violence; he thereby justified the use of military force to bring about agrarian reform—thus might combines with right. Lund and Sánchez Lopera then bring this Schmitt-ian concept of sovereignty into dialogue with the work of José Revueltas. Working through the novel El luto humano (1943), the co-authors explore Revueltas’s experiment with another concept of sovereignty, which they call “generic sovereignty,” a term they derive from close readings of Spinoza. This kind of sovereignty is nonhierarchical and not founded on physical force; rather, it is embodied in each person’s inalienable existence, and it would maintain a connection to the land without appropriating it.

Ignacio Sánchez-Prado’s essay “Democracy, Rule of Law, a ‘Loving Republic,’ and the Impossibility of the Political in Mexico,” takes up a different set of questions concerning Mexico’s constitutional order, focusing on the power of liberal constitutionalism to affect even politics considered “radical.” He offers a consciously polemical account of recent Mexican history by arguing that the liberal basis of the constitutional order, which dates back to 1857, remains the unacknowledged basis across the entire ideological spectrum. He illustrates this point by comparing writings by disparate political voices, such as Enrique Krauze, Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the EZLN, whose apparent antagonisms, he argues, mask their underlying similarity. What he calls the “liberal matrix” runs through all contemporary political language in Mexico, regardless of political orientation, and therefore severely constrains the possibilities of alternative politics. Simply put, Sánchez Prado argues that Mexican political thought is incapable of going beyond the constitutional “rule of law.”

Yuri Herrera, in “El sentido de la omisión: sobre la impunidad en el México contemporáneo,” grapples with the deeper significance of Mexico’s crisis of impunity, that is, the inability of the country’s judicial system to bring criminals to justice. Where Sánchez Prado proposes that political thinkers cannot escape the rule of law as their framework, Herrera argues that the country’s business and political elites operate under no such constraint. Herrera proposes that, rather than seeing impunity as an aberration or a defect in the system, we see it as integral to the normal order of things. Massive violence, he suggests, has become “acceptable” in contemporary Mexico, and he further argues that the government sees this as a predictable by-product of the high-stakes global trade in drugs that flows through the country and that ultimately serves the interests of the country’s political and business class. Whether through the rhetorical operations of what he calls “active omission,” whereby the government simply keeps silent about the human cost to its policies, or the tacit condoning of violence against journalists and other watchdogs, or the refusal to investigate white-collar crime and corruption, the state has succeeded in normalizing the violence and indeed shaping it to its own ends. Impunity, in other words, is nothing other than the government’s strategy for fostering the growth of business, a strategy that operates by a moral discourse that differentiates those Mexicans who should be punished by the law, such as petty criminals, women, and indigenous people, and those who, such as political and financial elites, should not.

“Victims and Beyond / Luchas del presente,” Part 2 of this issue, moves away from examining violence as a system in order to focus on the perspectives of everyday social actors, which at times confirm, at times explode, broader systemic accounts. The three essays contained in this section take up different elements of the grass-roots response to the crisis to the rule of law in Mexico. Marisa Belausteguigoitia’s “Em-PLAZAMIENTOS. Estrategias políticas desde las narrativas del padre subvertido: de la plaza al aula” focuses on the social movement “Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad,” formed in 2011 and headed by Javier Sicilia. Belausteguigoitia explores how this movement “takes the plaza,” that is, takes possession of political speech and political space, yet does so in such a way as to constitute a different kind of political subject, one who is located at the margins of political parties and committed to anti-authoritarian practices and who might inspire us to “take” other kinds of spaces, such as the classroom. She examines the “citational” quality of the political speech that emerges from these movements and argues that it has an unprecedented capacity to make visible and make present those who have been silenced and excluded. Most importantly, she argues, Sicilia’s embodiment of the figure of the grieving father—he started this movement after the murder of his son—represents a needed alternative to the violent and “strong” father of traditional Mexican patriarchy. Belausteguigoitia then explores the links between the anti-authoritarian ethics of this social movement, centered on the political plaza, and the anti-authoritarian ethics of committed pedagogy, centered on the classroom.

Lorena Ojeda’s “Cherán: el poder del consenso y la solidaridad comunitaria,” also focuses on a contemporary social movement that gained prominence in 2011, though of a very different nature than the one headed by Sicilia. Ojeda examines the indigenous community of Cherán, in Michoacán, which initiated and won an important legal case guaranteeing its right to self-government under the Mexican constitution. The case was motivated by the community’s need to protect itself against incursions by the drug trade, which had had disastrous effects on the local economy and had led to an increase in violence and insecurity. Ojeda’s focus in this article, however, is not on the effects of the narco-war as such, but rather on the process of creating political consensus and ethnic solidarity in a community known for centuries for its fractious internal divisions. In a historical analysis based on her research into state and local archives and interviews with movement participants, Ojeda traces out the diverse factors that contributed to transforming the community’s “uprising” in April of 2011 against “narcotalamontes” into a cohesive indigenous social movement for participative democracy whose success has national repercussions.

Estelle Tarica’s “Victims and Counter-Victims in Contemporary Mexico” examines a new political discourse centered on the victims of contemporary violence, one that seeks to call attention to the human cost of the war on drugs. She calls this new discourse “counter-victimization,” which is not anti-victimization but rather an alternative way of conceiving of the victim that lends this subject position political power and dignity. Counter-victimization combats the stigma associated with victimhood that the state and the mass media have fostered when they imply that victims are not innocent bystanders (“algo habrán hecho”). Counter-victimization, Tarica argues, offers a moral critique of neoliberalism and government corruption. It calls on traditional family values and on Christian imagery to support its claims that all Mexicans deserve justice and the rule of law. Though it draws on Giorgio Agamben’s notion of zoe, bare life, counter-victimization proposes that zoe’s qualities of vulnerability are a source of political agency and subjectivity, rather than powerlessness. Tarica focuses on the activism of Sicilia, who is also discussed by Belausteguigoitia in this issue, as well as on grass-roots organizations led by victims and their family members whose message has been taken up Mexican journalists and other writers.

Finally, legal scholar John Ackerman’s “Three Birds with One Stone: Liberalism, Revolution and the Rule of Law” provides the Afterword to the essays. Ackerman reminds us of the multiple faces that legality assumes in Mexico, where the legal order can serve as a tool of domination, as a shield against the abuse of power, or as an instrument to subvert and transform itself. This last quality, he argues, is special to the Mexican case. Unlike most other modern societies, Mexico has enshrined legal principles that envision the possibility of the legal order “undermining itself,” through a process that Ackerman likens to “creative destruction.” The central thrust of his intervention here is to reaffirm the “polyvalent and polysemic” nature of Mexico’s legal order and of the revolutionary history that forged it. Taking up the key terms of “liberalism” and “revolution,” Ackerman stages a dialogue with the various authors who have contributed to this special issue and makes a powerful case for the “unstable” and “unresolved” nature of the legal order unpinning Mexican sovereignty. Whether it be appropriated to further entrench inequality or on the contrary to fight back against it, the rule of law in Mexico, as delinated in the 1917 Constitution, remains a potent instrument of transformation. For this reason, and invoking Mexico’s long history of resistance and civil disobedience, Ackerman affirms that “History has not come to an end.”

In this spirit, we note that this project has been guided by an interest in the changing present, in change in and to the present, and thus our perspectives on Mexico’s situation have been deeply affected by the contingencies of the now, not least the daily news reports that we have followed since beginning this project in 2012. In this Introduction we have sought to use the moment in which we write—summer 2014, spring 2015—as an opportunity to incorporate the view of the witness to the task of scholarly synthesis and analysis.

The rest of the essays published here have appeared elsewhere, in newspapers, magazines and blogs.[21] Rafael Lemus’s “Ayotzinapa, la multitud y el antiguo régimen” addresses the exceptional nature of the event and proposes that it signals a fracture that breaks Mexican history in two: a “before” Ayotzinapa and an after that should strive to bring something altogether different, new. In Blanche Petrich’s interview “Tras la noche de Iguala, el movimiento va para largo: normalista sobreviviente,” Omar García, who has emerged as one of the student leaders of the Escuela Normal Isidro Burgos, eloquently describes the aims of the student movement in light of the tragedy: “una oportunidad única para acabar con el estado de violencia e impunidad que hay en todo el país… Lo digo en el más absoluto ánimo de que esta rabia que sentimos se convierta en un movimiento organizado que comprenda a buena parte del país.” These words are in keeping with Lemus’s interpretation of Ayotzinapa as a watershed event that may herald the dawn of another Mexico.

In “Ayotzinapa: ¿fue el Ejército?” Sanjuana Martínez, one of Mexico’s bravest journalists, asks about the involvement of the army, an institution that historically has repressed other student and popular movements (1968 and Acteal, for example) and whose presence and actions in Iguala on the night of September 26th has been documented by the surviving students. Martínez suggests that the government’s official version, rebutted time and again by experts in forensic science, suggests its desire to cover up the responsibility of the armed forces. In this same line of thought concerning the lack of real investigation on the part of the Mexican government, Pablo Domínguez-Galbraith’s “El umbral de la detectibilidad: periodismo y ciudadanía forense en Iguala” concludes that journalists and scientists outside of the government’s payroll, along with ordinary citizens, are the ones who are really investigating the events. As the Ayotzinapa case has shown, to compensate for the neglect and carelessness of government representatives, “[l]e pertenece a la sociedad civil la tarea forense, el habitar como testigo y como detective. Estamos viviendo la época de los detectives salvajes: cada ciudadano un procurador. Normalistas, familiares, voluntarios y ciudadanos han creado sus propios equipos ciudadanos de ciencia forense. Ciudadanía forense escarbando fosas, tambos, lomas, ríos,” not only searching for the thousands of people disappeared in Mexico, but also putting together the facts to understand what happened and why.

David Pavón Cuéllar’s “Estado de Excepción: Marx y Lacan en Ayotzinapa” analyzes what the Ayotzinapa students might represent for some sectors in light of the Mexican revolution and the guerilla movements of the 1960s of which the student movements is a “remnant.” Pavón Cuéllar finds in the racist and classist beliefs and comments of politicians and official media newscasters (López Dóriga, Loret de Mola) an explanation for the events: by rendering the students an excess, a mere obstacle in the path to “progress,” these interest groups created the conditions of possibility that allowed the state crime to occur with impunity.

Finally, and to return to our reflections above on the government’s inability or unwillingness to provide the conditions that would create a real biopolitical regime for its population , we close with Marcela Turati’s “El dormitorio más triste y solo de Ayotzinapa.” Her essay provides a glimpse into the strong sense of community and commitment that characterize and unite the normalistas, and presents the difficult conditions of life at the Escuela Normal Raúl Isidro Burgos. These unacceptable conditions, we believe, explain the Mexico the normalistas and others aspire to change.


01. We would like to thank the graduate students who participated in our reading group, particularly Ivett López Malagamba, Manuel Cuellar, Karen Spira and Dexter Z. Hough-Snee, for their invaluable help in organizing the conference. Special thanks go to Ricardo López, an excellent and demanding editor.

02. Several recent works advance arguments about Mexico that seek to confirm Walter Benjamin’s eighth thesis on history, cited above in our epigraph. Gareth Williams, in his book The Mexican Exception, argues against the prevalent idea in Mexico that “the state of exception is indeed an exception” and proposes instead that we “consider sovereign exceptionality to be absolutely integral to our understanding of modern and contemporary cultural history” (4). Joshua Lund advances a similar view in his article “The Poetics of Paramilitarism,” arguing that “[t]he exceptionalism of paramilitarism… has not simply become confused with the rule but, in fact, has always been the rule;” it is rather organized armies and police forces that constitute the exception (62, emphasis in the original). José Rabasa, meanwhile, in his analysis of social movements in Oaxaca in 2006, proposes that the state “cannot be conceived outside its role of protecting and administering capital” (“Exception” 251); the rule of law is thus inherently violent and stabilizes an inherently unequal social system. Therefore, he argues, rather than choosing to “invoke the law” and engage with the state, as many progressive activists and social commentators did in 2006, we should follow those elements of the APPO who “aim to build forms of government that cannot be identified with the concept of the state” (252) and who decided “neither to assume the role of lawmaking… nor the role of enforcing the preservation of the law” (254). 

03. See for example Claudio Lomnitz’s recent examination of this paradox in his study of Mexico’s “ingrained hope of an unmediated relationship between the sovereign and its people,” one effect of which has been to portray as lawless all those who attempt to interfere in this “sacred connection” (“Mexico’s First” 86). Although this has been especially true since the Revolution, Lomnitz argues that it was already a feature of Mexican politics in the late Porfiriato. 

04. Foucault indicates that in the seventeenth century a series of changes took place that resulted in the radical transformation of one of the most basic privileges of sovereign power—its right to decide over life and death. More than the right to take life, biopolitics implies a complex mechanism for the production of knowledge and technologies with a double focus on the body: the body as a machine to be disciplined, and the body as a species. “Their supervision,” says Foucault, “was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controlsa bio-politics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed…a power whose highest function was perhaps no longer to kill, but to invest life through and through” (“Right” 262, emphasis in the original; see “The Politics” as well). The fact that this form of power was over time understood as the essence of every system of power (its reason for being) is problematic, as Foucault has remarked (“Right” 266-67). Though we recognize and concur with his assessment, we want to focus on the failing of a state that does not even achieve this. It might be argued that no nation, no state has ever succeeded in granting an egalitarian attention to its population in order to foster and regulate its life, and yet, in a very obvious sense, some countries were able to implement this more generally. For a thorough analysis of the very uneven implementation of measures understood to improve life in spaces historically inhabited by indigenous people, see the work of Ernesto Aréchiga Córdoba, focused on Tepito’s integration to the urban fabric of Mexico City. 

05. Among the exceptions, perhaps the only one, is that of Lázaro Cárdenas, president from 1934-1940. See Adolfo Gilly’s El cardenismo for a discussion of the nationalization of the oil industry by Cárdenas in 1938 and the strong connection, in Cárdenas’s view, of this measure to Article 27 of the Constitution, guaranteeing national sovereignty over the territory. For Cárdenas the protection of land and oil were necessary in order to promote the revolutionary goal of social justice. Alan Knight indicates that the Church’s and revolutionary elites’ fear of what they perceived as the Cárdenas government’s sliding toward Communism figures prominently among the reasons for the abandonment of revolutionary projects. Around 1937 and 1938, Cárdenas was increasingly pressured to moderate his reforms by a powerful turn to the right by even some of his fellow revolutionaries. It can be argued that the Constitutions of 1857 and 1917 were revolutionary indeed; the problem is that since no government ever tried to implement or perform the laws they outlined, they were only so on paper. Which brings us back to the motto of colonial government: “Obedezco, pero no cumplo.”

06. It is undeniable that as early as the seventeenth century there existed poor creoles and even poor Spaniards in New Spain, and that a new, ethnically mixed underclass had already been formed. This can be seen in the famous passage by Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora concerning the “plebe” who participated in the corn riot of 1692 (181). Nevertheless, as Sigüenza’s letter describing the events makes clear, and as Douglas Cope has demonstrated, it was hard for people and institutions to let go of these dichotomous categories—“Indians,” “Spaniards”—and the differences established between them in previous decades.

07. We thank Eric Van Young for sharing his unpublished article with us.

08. See Altamirano’s resigned acceptance of this fact and the ironic tone he uses when describing the celebrations of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Jorge Traslosheros explains how even people who, like Altamirano, combatted the Church, had to contend with and utilize religious beliefs for their own projects (125).

09. In a recent volume dedicated to understanding power in Mexico from 1938 to 1968, Paul Gillingham and Benjamin T. Smith conclude that it should be considered a “dictablanda, a hybrid regime that combines democratic and authoritarian elements” (Gillingham vii, emphasis in the original. We thank Eric Van Young for this important reference). Even though the editors and their contributors do not neglect to address state violence, they emphasize the ambiguities and complexity of Mexican state politics during that period: the paradoxes of a revolution that resulted in a “perfect dictatorship” and a “deeply inequitable capitalist regime” (Gillingham and Smith, “Introduction” 1-2). The semblance of democracy is precisely the aspect of recent Mexican state power we want to challenge in this issue. 

10. Regarding the conservatism of the PAN, Van Young suggests that the genealogy of this political party can be traced back to the ideology of Lucas Alamán (3). This suggestion, and the arrival of the PAN/PRI to power and to the many changes to the Constitution ever since, along with the recent abandonment of a clear separation of state and Church, might signal a revival of 19th century conflicts that were never fully solved.

11. As the documents archived in the Congress make very clear, PAN congressmen have long been fighting for their very peculiar understanding of labor to take center stage. It might be no surprise that their ideas about labor and value, and surplus value, are not Marxist, and yet, it is revealing that they saw Article 123 as leaning too much in favor of the workers. A proposal submitted to discussion by PANista congressman Guillermo Islas in 1989 undermines the Constitution’s tacit understanding of the employer-employee relationship as one of exploitation, which Article 123 seeks to prevent by granting workers rights. For Islas, in contrast, employers and employees are seen as equal partners, as if the laborers were not in fact producing the wealth of those who hire them. That is why, for him “el artículo 123 constitucional amerita a nuestro juicio una adecuación de equidad.” Labor is for him less a right than a duty (un “deber”) which “dignifica y permite realizarse al individuo.” Therefore, workers have the “deber social…de coadyuvar al engrandecimiento de la comunidad,” and this duty “debe elevarse a rango constitucional por su misma naturaleza e importancia.” This represents a very Christian interpretation of labor, in which normal citizens are primarily those who before any contract, already owe something to the community and to their possible employers: the duty not only to produce surplus value for the people who hire them, but also to directly contribute (Islas does not say how) to the “engrandecimiento de su comunidad.” According to this premise, laborers have to produce twice. In the same vein of notes 8 and 10, it would be interesting to study the influence of Christianity and nineteenth-century conservatism on recent developments. See Blancarte for an analysis of the role of the Church in fighting against Articles 3 and 27, among others, in the years immediately after the Revolution.

12. In March 2012, after meeting with the Mexican Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, then U.S. Defense Secretary, indicated the number was 150,000 (“Van 150,000”), a number immediately brushed aside as incorrect by Mexican officials. In 2013 the number was said to be 80,000 (“En 8 años”). If there are official numbers for this, they are not available. Kidnappings and disappearances run in the thousands as well, and just as in the case of the drug war, there do not seem to exist official counts for them.

13. Not that the PRD fares any better, as the recent events in Guerrero demonstrate.

14. It might seem strange to say this at a time when more Mexicans are becoming visible in international circuits of business and celebrity. The wealth of some very famous Mexican millionaires is almost legendary thanks to Forbes. It is predicted that in 2014, Mexico—along with Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey—will become one of the countries where the number of millionaires will have increased the most (by 7%). That is, by the end of 2014, Mexico will have 155,150 millionaires (Estevez), or 0.13% of its population of 117 million. There are also a host of artists and athletes who are very successful not only in Mexico, but on the world stage. Nevertheless, according to the Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social (CONEVAL) in 2012, 45.5% of 117 million of Mexicans lived below the poverty line (meaning among other things on a salary of approximately $180 a month per family in urban areas, and $115 in rural regions). In addition, 9.8% of Mexicans (11.5 million) were considered to live in “extreme poverty.” That is, 64.8% of Mexicans live either in poverty or extreme poverty. In fact, only 23.2 million people (not even 20%) can be considered to live well: “no son pobres ni vulnerables, cubren todos sus derechos sociales, mientras que el resto de los mexicanos enfrenta alguna carencia social o tiene problemas de ingreso” (“En pobreza”). It is important to remember that just as with any other statistics related to the government’s performance, those of CONEVAL might have been penned with what Gillingham and Smith, writing about mid-century statistics, refer to as “pronounced optimism” (“Introduction” 7). The sharp contrast between the 0.13 % who are millionaires and the 80% who cannot live a comfortable life, perfectly delineates the consequences of a failed state. It is probably not surprising that three of the states with the largest indigenous population—Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca—are also among the six poorest (along with Puebla, Tlaxcala and Veracruz). Of these, all but one (Tlaxcala) are ranked among the ten states with the highest percentage of so-called “monolingual” populations—meaning people who do not speak Spanish but an indigenous language. This means that in the case of the indigenous population, ethnicity and social class still converge in Mexico. 

15. The death of comic Roberto Gómez Bolaño in November 2014 is another example, beyond the World Cup of summer 2014, of how the government draws attention away from politically significant to politically insignificant events. 

16. See Žižek’s discussion of the love story in the movie Titanic and its relationship to class struggle (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology).

17. As Paxman reminds us, in a 2006 survey of 18 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Mexico ranked number 1 “in the percentage of leisure time spent watching TV, with 48 percent” (320). 

18. See Blancarte for the role of the Church in post-Revolutionary Mexico, and Paxman for the relations among government, mass media, and capitalists.

19. Such as that of Joaquín López Dóriga who serves almost as an official spokesperson for the government.

20. Of the various essays collected in this issue, nine derive from the conference “Radical Politics and the Rule of Law in Mexico,” held at UC Berkeley in November 2012

21. Our thanks to these authors for allowing us to republish their work. Four of the essays have been republished as they originally appeared (by Lemus, Petrich, Martínez, and Turati); two are here republished in longer, revised versions (by Domínguez-Galbraith and Pavón Cuéllar. Endnotes for each piece include a link to the original. 

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