April 23, 2012, by Automated User

Enrique Semo and the Limits of Neoliberalism II

Posted in International Political Economy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam David Morton

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