Three Birds with One Stone: Liberalism, Revolution and the Rule of Law

John M. Ackerman[1]
Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Unam / Editor-in-chief, Mexican aw review.

Volume 7, 2015

The essays collected in this issue of Política Común demonstrate that Mexico is an ideal site for the study of the contradictions and paradoxes which undergird the “rule of law” in post-colonial contexts. We should not be fooled by the disaster of contemporary Mexico: the gruesome “drug war” carnage, rampant poverty, increasing inequality, fraudulent elections, environmental destruction and runaway corruption. Even after three decades of relentless neoliberal attack, Mexico today still has one of the most progressive and powerful Constitutions in the world. And the legacy of the social revolution of 1910, partially embodied in the 1917 Constitution still with us today, continues to resist and subsist embedded in the “common sense” of millions of contemporary Mexicans.

In Mexico, the demand for the restauration of legality is therefore simultaneously a search to resurrect revolution and to mobilize society, or at least it can have such a subversive character. Legality always and everywhere potentially has at least two faces, as a tool of domination and as a shield against the abuse of power. But in Mexico it has a third: that of subversion and transformation of the status quo.

It is not common for law and legal discourse to hold the seeds of the creative destruction of the legal order that they simultaneously hold in place. Many legal systems, and almost all of those in the Americas, can trace their origins to revolutions, independence struggles or popular uprisings. Nevertheless, their central role today is to consolidate, institutionalize or otherwise fix in place the real or perceived achievements of the victorious struggles of the past. Incremental, or even profound, legal change is permitted in so far as it is necessary to respond to changing international, demographic and social conditions, but the legal order only rarely directly undermines itself.

In Mexico things are different. Here law is still of course “law” in so far as it can and is systematically used both to repress and to protect. But the radically unresolved and indeterminate outcome of post-revolutionary state building has created an internal rupture within the “rule of law” or “Estado de derecho” itself which opens up enormous possibilities for self-effacing creative destruction.

It is therefore a mistake to understand the constant return to the Constitution of 1917 and the legal framework, which Ignacio Sánchez Prado (this volume) correctly identifies as characteristic of Mexican political practice, as an indication of the failure of leaders and movements to escape from the “liberal matrix.” To the contrary, the simultaneous use of the grammar of the “rule of law” by such a broad diversity of political and social actors, from right-wing “liberals” such as Enrique Krauze to revolutionary indigenous peasants such as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), demonstrates the polyvalent and polysemic nature of this concept within the Mexican context of contestation.

Over the more than two hundred years of existence of Mexico as an independent nation state, the concept of liberalism itself has been stretched so broadly that it no longer indicates a specific ideological, political or social orientation, but has become the very canvas on which an enormous diversity of approaches have left their mark. To be a “liberal” in Mexico has come to mean, in different contexts and historical circumstances, to be a nationalist, an imperialist, a democrat, a socialist, an anarchist, a neoliberal, a feminist or an autocrat. National figures as different as Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz, Ricardo Flores Magón and Carlos Salinas de Gortari all have proudly waved the “liberal” banner.

One of the most effective ways to destroy something is by stretching it so far in multiple directions that it is literally ripped apart. During the Middle Ages this was known as “drawing and quartering,” which Michel Foucault so effectively uses to open Discipline & Punish. Such practices are more effective and symbolically powerful than simply shooting or burying a criminal or an adversary.

To attack liberalism head on, or try to corral it behind a fence as Sánchez Prado seems to encourage, is only to invite it to dialectically respond with greater strength. Two hundred years of extensive use and abuse of the concept of liberalism, on the quartering horse of history as it were, is precisely what makes Mexico a privileged site for truly uprooting and discarding this ideology. Mexico is therefore not a unique example of the victory of liberal thought at setting the agenda of political debate, but a rare case of the self-destruction of the liberal horizon.

The hegemony of liberal thought is a reality throughout the world today, and especially in the self-defined “west.” Mexico is not an exception to this broader trend. But perhaps nowhere else is this hegemony as vulnerable to displacement and destruction as it is in Mexico. This is excellent news for those interested in actually overcoming, and not just ignoring, circumventing or burying, the hypocritical and fundamentally violent and inhuman legacy of the liberal framework.

We can tell a similar, although inverted, story with regard to the theory and practice of revolution. Just as Mexican history rips apart liberalism it also radically redefines revolution. The Mexican Revolution has long been looked down upon by traditional historians and neoliberal ideologues for its lack of “theory” because of its supposed dearth of grand ideologies, revolutionary plans or elocuent ideologues. While the French Revolution had Robespierre, the Russian Revolution was inspired by Lenin, the Chinese Revolution was led by Mao and the Cuban Revolution by Ché Guevara, the Mexican Revolution was supposedly nothing more than a chaotic struggle between ignorant peasants and landowners. Or so the story goes.

It is true that the Mexican revolution is different, but not because of an absence of “theory” or charismatic figures but as a result of the multiple and contradictory presences of diverging theories and leaders. The Mexican revolution was never definitively resolved in favor of one faction or theory. It is still today an open book through which we can articulate an enormous range of different approaches.

Joshua Lund and Alejandro Sánchez (this volume) correctly point out one important internal theoretical-practical tension between “two restless sons of the Mexican Revolution,” José Vasconcelos and José Revueltas. For them, Revueltas is the more fertile of the two since his defense of “generic sovereignty” apparently helps us escape from the “delusions of Revolution” based on traditional, Hobbesian approaches to popular sovereignty which “equate social justice with the legitimate force of men with guns.”

There is no denying the innovative power of Revueltas’s approach, but it is a mistake to imagine that his vision somehow cancels or supercedes Vasconcelos’s framework either in the theoretical or the historical realms. The Mexican Revolution was not just a “hurricane-force upheaval” which “brought forth real political and social transformation” as well as “a creative dynamism,” as Lund and Sánchez argue, but it was in fact a Revolution which radically, if also polysemically, transformed the coordinates for the exercise of political, economic, cultural and social power. There were, for instance, clear losers of the Mexican Revolution, with the Catholic Church the first among them. And this transformation was achieved, whether we like it or not, by “men with guns.”

But it is not necessary to take sides, in this or other similar debates, in order to demonstrate the central point: what makes the Mexican Revolution special are the paradoxes and contradictions which lay at its core. And this internal fracture produces an effect on the idea of “revolution” which is radically opposite to the impact that Mexican history has on “liberalism.” While liberalism is ripped apart on the shores of 200 plus years of Mexican contentious politics, the polyvalent nature of the Mexican Revolution provides a unique path for recuperating the idea and the practice of Revolution in the contemporary world. This is particularly important today given the dominant anti-revolutionary fashion, on both the left and the right, which encourages brushing aside such phenomenon as ideological artefacts of the past.

The possible resurrection of the Mexican Revolution today is helped by the fact that we now occupy a much better strategic position than did Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. The forces of violence and greed are remarkably similar in the 21st century as they were in the 17th century. But, as Ivonne Del Valle (this volume) points out, de las Casas’s appeals to the rule of law could only be directed towards the King of Spain who was himself personally and directly responsible for the inhuman practices taking place in the territory which would eventually become Mexico. De las Casas’s efforts were therefore profoundly contradictory and even self-defeating.

Traditional liberals would claim that the arrival of the age of popular sovereignty throughout the Americas, in either electoral or revolutionary dress, allows us to overcome this historical contradiction. Under a supposedly “democratic” state, those who wish to use the rule of law to bring about social change do not need to appeal to an imperial sovereign, but can instead speak to and for “the people” themselves. Nevertheless, in contemporary societies this theoretical displacement of authority is normally nothing more than a ruse used to legitimate the exercise of the same old despotic power of the few.

What is special about the Mexican context is not the principle of popular sovereignty itself but the unresolved character of its meaning. It is important to remember how Article 39 of the Constitution explicitly encourages revolutionary action: “La soberanía nacional reside esencial y originariamente en el pueblo. Todo 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” (Capítulo I).

Nothing like this can be found in the United States Constitution. There we find a detailed outline of the procedures needed to reform the Constitution, but instead of a broad reaffirmation of popular power, the “Founding Fathers” preferred to embed the principle of popular sovereignty only in its opening line: “We the people of the United States.”

The Mexican Constitution legally sanctions a permanent readiness for transformative action. The “people” here are not conceived of as a homogenous mass of obedient subjects to the king as in the old imperial model, or as passive constituents of public authority as in the contemporary “democratic” framework, but as active participants both in the daily exercise of power and in the transformation of the way public power is exercised through government. The Mexican Constitution is radically unstable in so far as it holds within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Perhaps it is precisely this radical substrate for the “rule of law” in Mexico which pushes the ruling classes and politicians to so completely empty this concept of meaning and to actively promote chaos. Their awareness, either conscious or unconscious, of the dangers which an “authentic” rule of law would pose to their interests pushes them towards extreme forms of hypocrisy and impunity. As Yuri Herrera (this volume) points out “la impunidad no es un defecto de nuestro sistema político ni una insuficiencia de las instituciones encargadas de la impartición de justicia.” To the contrary, “la impunidad sugiere que hay que resignarse a que [nuestros derechos] han desaparecido por la fuerza de la realidad y a que un nuevo Estado de Derecho regularizará este estado de cosas.”

Mexico’s protracted “transition to democracy” has in fact been a period of hollowing out and purging of the transformative contradictions which lie at the heart of the conceptions of the rule of law, liberalism and revolution inherited from the past. This process came to a climax during the first two years of the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, whose bloody ascension to power took place on December 1st, 2012. As Del Valle and Estelle Tarica (this volume) argue: “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, the PRI/PAN alliance has managed to legally revert Mexico to the conditions of Barbarous Mexico of 1910 that John Kenneth Turner wrote about.”

The central objective of the flood of neoliberal legal reforms promoted by Peña Nieto and his “Pacto por México,” which not only includes the old-guard Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) and the Christian-Democratic Party of National Action (PAN) but also the supposedly left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has been to reduce the cognitive dissonance built into the system inherited from the Mexican Revolution. But instead of transforming reality so that it fits with the exhalted ideals of the 1910 Revolution and the 1917 Constitution, the ruling classes have decided to transform the law so that it fits with the reality of inequality, impunity and corruption which today reign in Mexico. In other words, the central objective of “democratization” and the “rule of law” in the contemporary Mexican context is to smooth over and get rid of bothersome tensions and frictions which stand in the way of the consolidation of the rule of the few over the many.

One of the key struggles in this regard was the energy reform of 2013-2014 which opened up the oil, gas and electricity sectors to the unbridled intervention of international oil companies as well as to the power of financial speculation. The oil expropriation-nationalization of 1938, conducted by then President Lázaro Cárdenas, had been considered the high point of the consolidation of the post-revolutionary state and an untouchable legacy of the past. The organic intellectuals of the present regime interpret the fact that there was not widespread popular resistance to the privatization of oil as an indication of the definitive end of the revolutionary legacy. Some members of the PRI have even compared it to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But there are signs on the horizon which suggest that the supposed total victory of the powerful will once again be fractured from below, as has been the rule throughout Mexican history. Del Valle has reminded us that Cuauhtémoc never did formally surrender to Hernán Cortés: “Better to hold on, to at least enjoy the fleeting respect and dignity conceded by the Spaniards to fierce, warring enemies than to sink into the degradation to which the new masters’ eyes and the actions they would take would relegate the Indians, once the dice were cast.” The rebellious legacy of the Mexican Revolution will be just as difficult to annihilate today as were the Mexicas centuries ago.

For instance, despite Peña Nieto´s enormous “success” in achieving his neoliberal reforms and receiving accolades in the international press, today Peña Nieto has the lowest public approval rating of any president in recent Mexican history. Only 37% of the population approves of his performance, even according to pollsters close to the sitting government (México 34). In Mexico City, his approval rating drops to 19%, according to independent surveys (“Evaluación’). These numbers are particularly important because Mexican citizens are well known for their presidential reverence. One of the inheritances of almost a century of authoritarian one-party rule is that presidential approval ratings only rarely dip below 50%.

In general, those concerned with the plight of Mexico today can count on a powerful ally: the Mexican people. Mexicans consistently rank among the highest in Latin America with regard to their level of dissatisfaction with the functioning of their political system. For instance,  only 32% believe that Mexico has “strong institutions” and 47% think it is a democracy, down from 51% and 59%, respectively, only six years ago (“Pierde”). And according to Latinobarómetero, 73% of Mexicans are “dissatisfied” with the functioning of democracy, putting the country in a tie with Guatemala for last place in Latin America (“Informe” 16, 19).

Such skepticism is healthy. If Mexico were a functioning democracy then the profound distrust in politicians and disapproval of the President would be cause for alarm. But given that this is not the case these numbers reveal a positive utopian consciousness among the Mexican people with regard to the possibilities to improve in the future. And this popular utopianism can be attributed to the high expectations generated by the contradictory but in the end progressive legacy of the Mexican Revolution.

The important case studies included in the second half of this issue of Política Común, by Tarica, Ojeda, and Belausteguigoitia also confirm the permanence of a rebellious Mexican population bent on resistance and civil disobedience. The struggles of the victims of the drug war, and of indigenous communities in Cherán, demonstrate that the dominant political-economic coalition has by no means achieved total victory on the ground.

History has not come to an end. We can expect the continuation of exemplary counter-hegemonic struggles, both violent and non-violent as well as legal and illegal, to continue long into the future in Mexico. The emergence of a powerful societal coalition in response to the massacre of students in the city of Iguala, Guerrero on September 26th, 2014 is a clear example of this. This movement has constructed bridges in a particularly innovative way between rural and urban activists as well as between domestic and international solidarity. As old barriers crumble, new opportunities emerge which give hope for finally achieving the transformation of the Mexican regime.

In general, as we gain historical distance from the Cold War, it increasingly becomes clear that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not close down but has opened up opportunities for strengthening progressive politics in the world. The disappearance of the bureaucratic-authoritarian referent for the critique of neoliberal capitalism has enabled this critique to flourish in new directions. Meanwhile, the failures of “liberal democracy” to address key issues of economic inequality and political inclusion have revealed the hypocrisy of this system’s claim to promote freedom and prosperity.

This is the context for both the surge of popular uprisings throughout the globe, from Egypt and Brazil to Turkey and the United States, and the series of historic security leaks from within the US military establishment. The structural lack of legitimacy of the dominant system of control and legitimation has emboldened opposition forces from without and critics from within to take history into their own hands. Nevertheless, this wave of civic action has yet to fully develop new coordinates for thought and action. The contradictory but pregnant legacy of the Mexican revolution can be of great help in the search for new directions.


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Works referenced

  • “Capítulo I. De la Soberanía Nacional y de la Forma de Gobierno. Artículo 39.” Constitución Política de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Folio 8831. Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas. Web. Oct 2014.
  • “Evaluación al Gobierno Federal.” GII 360. Grupo Impacto. Web. Oct 2014.
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish. The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.
  • “Informe 2013.” Corporación Latinobarómetro. Web. Oct 2014.
  • “México: Política, Sociedad y Cambio. Escenarios de Gobernabilidad.” Grupo de Economistas y Asociados (GEA) – Investigaciones Sociales Aplicadas (ISA). 9 Apr 2014. Web. Oct 2014.
  • “Pierde aprecio la democracia en México.” Parametría. Investigación estratégica, análisis de opinión y mercado. 2011. Web. Oct 2014.