Mexico reinvented

A contemporary study of nationalism in Mexico reveals fascinating theoretical links between the ideology and political economy


The Reinvention of Mexico: National Ideology in a Neoliberal Era
2010, Liverpool University Press
hardback, 302 pages

Reviewed by Jay Kerr

NATIONALISM is a chameleon, shape-shifting to blend in with the flora across time and space in order to speak to the political needs of the moment and give the audience what it wants to hear. Like Janus, as Tom Nairn so fittingly pointed out, it can have two heads, facing opposite directions at one and the same time.

What that means in practice is that nationalism has no real class affiliation and belongs, in the true sense, to neither left nor right. It can and is employed by either or both simultaneously to mobilise and unite often disparate forces under one discernible banner.

This makes it particularly useful at a time of great change and uncertainty – a kind of secular altar at which all can kneel without fear or favour. Thus, it has been employed by the bourgeoisie – the bourgeois nationalists derided by Marx and Lenin – as well as by popular forces engaged in anti-colonial struggles. Both can swear allegiance to liberalism and the discourse of political rights on which a fragile mass politics has been positioned, while saluting the flag.

This also makes nationalism hard to grasp fully for the scholar, its slippery skin changing colour in accordance with the background, its many contradictions concealing the unnerving fact that it does not have to be coherent in order to be useful.

Ideological poles

In Latin America, where entrenched divisions of class and race have generated the seemingly irreconcilable ideological poles that have only ever really been eroded in a few societies such as Chile and Brazil – by dint of profound authoritarian trauma or of unmanageable territorial expanse – nationalism has always been the great beneficiary. Indeed, one could say that the true ideology of modernity in Latin America has been nationalism, in its mosaic of variants. This is because no other ideology has functioned quite like nationalism to bring stability in otherwise endemically unstable societies.

From Argentina to Mexico, recourse to nationalism or broader and less overtly political national ideologies – those that merely place the achievement of nationhood at the heart of the argument, such as “nation-building” in ethnically complex or “multi-national” societies – is an instinctive collective reflex.

Gavin O’Toole has taken this understanding of a society in which the discourses of national ideology are, in comparison with others on offer, by far the most potent – eclipsing socialism, conservatism (if that is an ideology) and even indigenism – and applied it to Mexico in the unique and fascinating context of neoliberal reform; that is, in the context of a reassertion of the liberalism mined by economic elites to justify capitalism.

What The Reinvention of Mexico shows, like Nairn’s The Break-up of Britain, is that national ideology in Mexico – and by extension Latin America – is an ever-present factor in all political calculation that seeks to ensure stable conditions for a new round of capitalist development and that the wise, reforming politician is mindful of this.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the diminutive, balding and spoiled son of Nuevo León, was indeed wise beyond his years, a suprisingly charismatic individual who understood that his compatriots needed to be convinced that the most radical reforms in the history of modern Mexican politics were truly nationalistic if he was to succeed in his objectives. But we are not just talking about Salinas here: Menem did something similar in Argentina, a country also dominated by a corporatist political tradition, and there are other examples.

In these cases, those objectives were privatisation, trade liberalisation and deregulation on a mass scale, and with them the dismantling of a statist economy. O’Toole shows that Salinas saw it as essential to characterise his reforms as nationalist in order to ensure stability, demonstrating beyond all reasonable doubt the fateful relationship between nationalism and capitalist development in the country.

The Reinvention of Mexico is a fascinating and original examination of how those bourgeois elites so derided by Marx and Lenin understood and employed nationalism and to what end: how they can “reinvent” their nations in a highly creative way to nurture social stability in the greater task of ensuring optimal conditions for capitalist development.

There are very few examinations of nationalism in Latin America of this kind, concentrating on the hard evidence of “discourse” – what politicians and commentators said and wrote – and even fewer that look at the contemporary period, making this book something of a ground-breaker. Unlike so many studies that examine nationalism, the author puts empirical meat on a plate before us and does not just rely on the sauce of theory to make our meal appetising.

O’Toole has examined how the salinistas within the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) understood nationalism in Mexico and sought to reconcile it with their own radical liberal positions. He then examines this in the case of such themes as free trade, the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), privatisation, sovereignty and the reform of Article 27 of the constitution that imposed limits on private property and, as such, gave discursive birth to the Mexican nation.

The author then goes on to explore how the discourses of the opposition left-of-centre Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) and rightwing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) chimed with those of the PRI reformists. The great failure of the PRD in this period, according to O’Toole, was not to undertake a reassessment of national ideology in the way that the PRI and PAN had done. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the PAN has so far been the beneficiary of Mexico’s limited democratisation: doctrinal flaws, and not just political obstruction, lie at the heart of the PRD’s inability to make waves.

If the book is at times dense and the analysis over-ventilates, it is because the author has spared no effort in attempting to get to the bottom of each theme. If O’Toole does not give us as clear a view of the fate of national ideology in Mexico as he says he will, it is largely because his complex argument does so en passant, revealing the continuing value of nationalism in Latin America to contemporary elites who, in other countries and circumstances, would be identifiable most closely with denationalising and globalising positions

It is the way The Reinvention of Mexico traces the concrete contours of the relationship between political economy and ideology that is of enduring value: O’Toole offers us an insight into the link between ideas cherished within liberalism, such as prevailing attitudes to property ownership, and the notion of social inclusion that continues to exist in the beating heart of Mexican nationalism.

As the author writes: “Economic liberals can harness national ideology in support of broader political economy objectives at a given historical conjuncture by employing it in the determination of citizenship attributes that reflect their preferred equilibrium between state, society and the individual.”

Jay Kerr is an aid worker and is writing a book about the history of Latin American anarchism

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