Uncivil democracy

Mexico in Transition surveys the damage caused to the social fabric by neoliberal policies and how civil society is fighting back


Mexico in Transition: Neoliberal Globalism, the State and Civil Society
Edited by Gerardo Otero
2004, Zed Books
274 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE EUPHORIA that greeted the emergence of civil society in Latin America with the return of civilian rule was quick to subside in the 1990s, as the negative consequences of neoliberal economic reform began to put the true limitations of these new “democracies” under the spotlight.

While the aspiration of achieving a “democracy without adjectives” was probably always over-ambitious, it had seemed that this third wave of democratisation – that would culminate in Mexico with the transition into a genuinely competitive party system after 1997 – this time contained the promise of real change for the many milllions hitherto excluded by the political inequality associated with poverty.

Democracy of a fashion has, self-evidently, endured in Mexico, although the criteria by which formal democracy is measured suggest it may be ailing, and in some pockets of Latin America it may in fact be terminally ill. Yet the quality of Mexico’s democracy has become the subject of furious debate as the high expectations generated by the long overdue displacement of the Institutional Revolutionary Party have not been met, and attention has turned firmly towards the possibilities of other models of participation promising meaningful social change for their participants.

Optimistic assessment

In that respect, this excellent collection of investigations into different social and popular movements – from trades unions to environmentalists to the Zapatistas – is an optimistic assessment of the potential social movements offer for participatory democracy and the mechanisms they can provide for resisting the depradations of globalising neoliberal economic policies.

The point of departure of the 14 chapters in this book, part of Zed’s Globalisation and Semi-Periphery Series, is the damaging impact of neoliberal policies on the social fabric, and the organised challenge to this from below. Its normative position is clearly stated by the editor Gerardo Otero from the outset: rejecting the historical inevitablility of globalisation and arguing instead that this is a political project facilitating a new economic and ecological recolonisation of the globe under the American model of capitalism.

At the same time, however, this collection can also be interpreted as expressing a far more pessimistic outlook reflecting both the continuing battle over mass participation in systems that have now, apparently, fulfilled the criteria of procedural democracy to the satisfaction of the global capitalist economy, and real disenchantment with the possibilities offered by the formal political process. In other contexts, such disenchantment has led to the rise of alternatives such as populism and anti-system activity. In short, this book itself mirrors a shift to and thence beyond institutional concerns in the study of the limitations of democracy in its procedural form.

This is, to an extent, reflected in the editor’s theoretical synthesis, which hints at a rigidity redolent of the “old” left that aspired to capture the leadership of the many-headed hydra that is civil society and direct it according to an essentially class-based analysis. Otero, for example, deploys a framework based on Gramscian precepts to synthesise a theory of political class formation (PCF) by which to give direction and strength to civil society groups. He refers to “the struggle for democratic socialism” and asks how subordinate groups and classes can organise to advance their demands without being coopted into “bourgeois hegemonic discourse”.

While there is no suggestion here that Otero or any of his contributors have a formal political axe to grind, it remains the case that it is precisely the disorderly drift, the diversity of interests and the ability of former class enemies to come together in common cause that is the strength and hope of civil society – the real “dialectic of the diverse” in which its promise resides.

Writing Utopia Unarmed a decade ago in an effort to make sense of the myriad challenges facing the Latin American left following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Jorge Castañeda similarly placed emphasis on the responsibility of the political left to empower grassroots groups, but he coupled this with a warning: “How to provide political expression to social movements without betraying them, altering their nature or destroying their originality is an ancient quandary… Imposition and manipulation of the social left by the political one will no longer function in Latin America” (1993, pp. 363-4).

This book provides excellent and nuanced material by which to understand the condition of civil society, the impact of neoliberal reform and the aspiration for a more participatory democracy. But the effort to forge civil society into a hegemonic stick with which to beat a fragile political process in need, above all, of its vigour and originality is misconceived.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books