Democracy or institutional fetishism?

The daily newspaper Reform counts among its columnists the smartest critics of the movement for democracy led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Federico Reyes Heroles, Jorge Castañeda, Enrique Krauze, Sergio Sarmiento, and Andrés Oppenheimer (who also writes for the Miami Herald). Each of them has his particular take, but they all share some commonalities worth discussing here.

Rather frequently, these critics admonish the movement as if they were deeply and personally concerned about the fate of the left in Mexico, as if the raison d’être of the left — namely, the unity, organization, self-education, and progress of Mexico’s working people — had been betrayed by López Obrador’s radicalism and it were their mission to show him and all leftists the correct way to advance their cause. They often decry the absence of a “modern left”, more intelligent and reasonable.

I think somebody should disabuse them (and their gullible readers) of such presumption. Judging them by their personal, professional, and — in at least one case — political trajectories, there’s nothing in them that reveals a genuine current interest in the unity, organization, enlightenment, and progress of Mexico’s working people. Nothing! If anything, the opposite can be shown. So, their lives stand in stark contrast with López Obrador’s. Flaws and all, AMLO has devoted his adult life to helping the working poor. He’s been an activist and organizer since he was in his twenties. And once in power, as Mexico City’s mayor, he has persuaded a large number of poor workers, with deeds, that he is on their side. So, no, they are no López Obrador.

The critics question López Obrador’s democratic credentials, because — instead of abiding by the rules of Mexico’s political game — he has refuse to give them the benefit of the doubt. He has been most skeptical of the most important rule — that which governs the transfer of public power. This, the critics believe, proves that López Obrador is “duplicituous” and has an “instrumentalist” view of political institutions (and people), where they are to be taken seriously only to the extent his own personal interest can be advanced through them and discarded otherwise (see today’s column by Castañeda in Reforma).

But, let’s be clear here: Who in Mexico doesn’t have an instrumentalist view of the political institutions? Who believes that Mexico’s political institutions are ends in themselves? The rich? The political parties? The media? The columnists of the newspaper Reforma? The Catholic hierarchy? Can I stop laughing now? Here’s a fact: Political institutions — in fact, all social organizations — are instruments for the people who make them up. People, real people with real interests and needs, use their political institutions, their social organizations, etc. to negotiate their interests, to accomplish their goals — individual and collective.

Political institutions and social organizations come and go. The fundamental needs and the economic interests of people tend to have more permanence. Clearly, reasonable people prefer social organizations that can withstand and settle conflicts. Dissolving them, disobeying their rules, or overthrowing them forcefully has a hight cost, so these measures are usually viewed as a last resort. Yet, not infrequently political organizations and social organizations fail miserably, and people have to tolerate them begrudgingly, reform them, or build altogether new ones. That happens in Mexico and everywhere else.

If we limit ourselves to the narrowest definition of democracy (say, as defined by legally-free vote), Mexico has a long history of political failure. Now, if we only look at the surface of political life and believe the Reforma columnists (or the New York Times for that matter), Mexico has experienced steady democratic progress in the last 8-10 years. After all, the seemingly eternal PRI was evicted from the federal executive power and replaced by the PAN, peacefully. Yes, that happened.

However, if we look down to the underlying social and economic fabric and take — say — a 20-23 year retrospective, what we observe is the stagnation if not continuous deterioration of the living and working conditions of a very large portion of the Mexican population. There are all sorts of disturbing symptoms: unemployment, informal employment, emigration, broken families, crime in all its manifestations, drug use, drug abuse, drug traffic, mafia wars, homeless children, demoralization, health crisis, urban and environmental decay, a guerrilla insurgency, a long series of labor and local or regional political conflicts.

Recent poverty statistics have given us a hint of the size of the disaster: 50 million Mexicans live in poverty (in a country where a few have fabulous world-class wealth)! And here I ask: how many among Reforma’s columnists would like to live with, say, 25 or 30 dollars a day — five times Mexico’s poverty-line income? Point is, actual poverty afflicts a lot of people who are not officially poor. And what use do Mexico’s political institutions have for all these people? And in this light, what confidence or assurance do the critics believe Mexico’s majority feel towards their country’s “democratic” institutions?

Here’s a clue: An overwhelming majority of Mexicans have strong reasons to feel utterly and completely disenfranchised, alienated from, and angry at their country’s political institutions. Why? Because these political institutions have failed them. They have not stopped — in fact, they have accelerated — the horrendous decline in these people’s lives and livelihoods. Therefore, the “democratic” character of these institutions is to be proved, not assumed. (Remember: “demokratia” from the Greek “demos” or regular people and “kratos” rule or governance; democracy is the rule of, by, and for the regular people.)

They distrust the institutions of “democracy” for understandable reasons. So, the only way these people can begin to be incorporated into Mexico’s institutional political life is not by asking them to believe in the IFE and TRIFE a priori, regardless of outcome. They won’t believe in them a priori. They need to see results first. They need palpable evidence that their collective will is respected and that they can advance their interests by negotiating them through these political institutions. Otherwise, why bother?

The critics of the democratic movement place the cart way ahead of the horse, only to complain that the cart is not pulling the horse. If over half Mexico’s population is excluded, historically marginalized from institutional politics, is there any mystery that a politician who appears committed to promote the interests of the working poor is skeptical about the honesty, cleanliness, and equity of the political institutions? Isn’t it clear that if López Obrador showed even the slightest measure of blind confidence in these political institutions, the working poor would desert him and deem him an idiot? And for good reason.

It is most remarkable (something the critics tend to ignore) that López Obrador has done a great deal of heavy lifting in helping the working poor insert themselves in Mexico’s institutional political process. Yes, it’s been with a large measure of doubt and skepticism. But, again, that is understandable and justified. The fact is that he has persuaded a significant number of poor working people (not only, but that is clearly his main constituency) to seek an improvement in their social condition by civic, peaceful means.

He has persuaded them that it is worth the shot. And he has outlined an economic plan that, mixing fiscal pennypinching with well targeted public and social investment, could reasonably lead — some of us believe — to a gradual improvement in their social condition, barely at the expense of the rich as a class, although certainly at the expense of a few fat fiscal parasites. However, the dirty war — from the “desafuero” to the campaign in the media in which the critics in Reforma are taking part to the recent IFE and TRIFE fiascoes — has pushed things in the opposite direction.

There is no way around this: Fundamental economic and social changes are required before Mexico sees stable political institutions. For the working poor to feel included in the political process and trust the country’s political institutions, they need to win first. Yes, win first. And win, not only in the sense of voting a president or a congress sympathetic to their plight, but in the sense of having a government in whose conduction they effectively participate and whose policies and outcomes advance their interest.

In the long run — and even in the short run — it is unlikely that a leader more acquiescent to the traps of institutional politics would be better for Mexico’s political viability. The pundits lean towards the comforting belief that López Obrador, or a group of resentful old leftist who have not digested the lessons of history, are driving the tactical choices made by the movement. To repeat myself, distrust and alienation are the default mode of Mexico’s working poor, and a large number of them have vested themselves in López Obrador’s candidacy. And these people’s natural inclination is to lash out at a political system that refuses to do them justice. And for good reason! The least these people can expect from a political movement is the courage to fight deceit and abuse.

The source of Mexico’s historical gridlock is not the radicalism (real or imagined) or the political cunning of López Obrador. It is the country’s social inequality. The opportunity for the political system to begin to incorporate the working poor in the political process and gain long-term viability is about to be wasted by the powers that be. There’s still a chance though. But nothing short of a full recount will do.

At this point, if López Obrador wants to remain a champion of the working poor and the enlightened middle classes, he’s going to have to show a steely resolve. As he suggested it in one of his recent speeches, there’s no tactical free ride. Whatever the movement does will entail a political cost. There is no way to conduct an effective protest, even within the confines of peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience, without disrupting normal social life. Ultimately, regardless of the fetishism of political institutions, the ultimate source of sovereignty, flawed and all, is the people.

Resignation and submission to injustice is not to be confused with social peace. The working poor don’t want violence. They are disarmed. But they are also determined. And there are times when political stubbornness is a political virtue. Let’s get ready for a long fight. Civic and peaceful on our side, but let it be a real fight. López Obrador has said that, like Juárez, he’s willing to go as far as the people who placed him where he is want to go. Those people are speaking clearly with deeds and at a high personal cost. They want to defend their vote until their vote counts or until the bitter end. They view political institutions as either instruments of or obstacles to their interest. And so do the rich and the privileged. And if the rich and privileged don’t respect the political institutions that have served them so well, why should the working poor — who have got nothing of value from them — honor them and submit to them? This is not a call to violence to people who don’t have means or disposition to wage violence. It is a call to seriously and stubbornly disobey and resist the imposition within the peaceful, non-violent limits agreed on by the movement.

Vote by vote! Polling place by polling place!


4 Responses to “Democracy or institutional fetishism?”

  1. Hugo Estrada Says:

    That entry talks about those polite leftists/liberals that seem to be in abundance in Washington D.C. It is the reasonable and gentlemen liberal: principled, but with his hands tied in the back by his own elaborate etiquette.

    These are the ones who find a problem with populism–yep, democrats having a problem with appealing to “the people”. They have a problem hearing the term “class warfare”. They are the one’s who encourage candidates to give up contested fights to appear polite than to commit the social mistake of fighting to the end.

    In the case of Mexico, I can understand how some of these polite leftists would rather sacrife truth for a peaceful transition. It has worked so far in Mexico, and the lack of violence has at least helped it to not be worse off than it could be.

    However, some of them have crossed the line of the pragmatic democrat and become corporatists intellectuals.

    I am especially upset with Enrique Krauze, a person whom I had a deep respect before he wrote that terrible opinion piece published in the Washington Post.

    Enrique Krauze, and maybe some of the other anti-recount intellectuals, see in Lopez Obrador a low class caudillo who could push back Mexican democratic transition for a few years. He is dangerous in their view.

    Of all people, these intellectual should know that a recount would be the best to prevent violence in Mexico. But they also seem afraid that a recount will give the win to Lopez Obrador.

    So now Krauze, a historian that spent a major time of his life studying leadership in Mexico, the historian who wrote a major work about Diaz, falls into the same ideological mistake of the cientifico who supported Diaz, 100 years ago: Mexico is not mature enough for democracy. Maybe it will be in a few years, but not now.

    He corrupts his pen writing a text-book sample ad hominem attack against Lopez Obrador, refusing to admit that I recount would help solidify Mexico’s democratic institutions.

    I doubt that there will be violence in Mexico, but there will be a very angry sector of the population who will have its faith in the Mexican institutions shattered if there is no recount. And ironically, it is not Lopez Obrador who is turning back the democratic clock in Mexico, it is Krauze and his ilk.

  2. panchovilla Says:

    Thank you, Hugo. I couldn’t have said it better.

    I do share your feelings on Krauze. I also respect him for his stupendous work as a historian. But the logic of his kind of liberalism, more comfortable dealing with abstractions than with actual people in motion, has led him not so much to an illusory “democracy without adjectives” as to a “democracy without its substantive.”   Or, as I’ve called it in this blog, a “democracy without the demos” — although perhaps a better name for it would be a “mockracy.”

    It was my reaction to Krauze’s hit-man op-ed piece against AMLO in the New York Times that tipped me off and made me start this blog. The link below leads to the piece I wrote in reply to his article. (I sent it to the NYT that very day. It didn’t get published there, but it was self-published here. And the rest is history.)

  3. panchovilla Says:

    This is a follow-up note that Hugo Estrada e-mailed me. It is interesting. He authorized me to post it here:


    Is this the opinion piece where he uses the loaded
    word of “terrorism” to describe Lopez Obrador, or is
    this another piece?

    The one that I was talking about was published in the
    Washington Post under another title. It may have been
    the same one.

    I stopped reading Vuelta when it became Letras Libres,
    not for any ideological reason, but because I moved
    and the local library didn’t carry it. I tried
    subscribing a few times, but their online subscription
    interface was too buggy, so I gave up.

    I do remember that in the mid 1990s, which was the
    time when I read it month by month, that most of the
    people around Octavio Paz were thinking about two
    1. Regrets for supporting leftist tyrants
    2. A concern that Mexico’s transition towards
    democracy had to be done peacefully for it to stick

    Both concerns were valid. The fall of the Soviet Union
    due to economic incompetence made it very clear that
    the Communist project, which many of these
    intellectuals had adopted at some point, was horribly
    flawed. Looking back, it was horrible that people gave
    up personal liberties for the promise of a economic
    paradise that never came.

    And historically, Mexico seems to be reset to a
    dictatorship at the end of every major revolt. Of its
    200 years of independence, PRI was one of the most
    democratic solutions for a peaceful Mexico by creating
    this complex system of client-patron relationships
    that made most sectors of society gain something in
    exchange of more or less peaceful authoritarianism.

    However, now these intellectuals seem to have fallen
    on their same ideological mistakes of the past.
    Instead of having communism promising a great future,
    you have neoliberalism. And just like the communists,
    neoliberalists claim that abundance is just a few
    years in the future.

    And people like Krauze forget that it was the economic
    inequalities that made the Mexican Revolution so long
    and bloody. In my family, political repression never
    was a cause for why the revolution started. Economic
    inequality was.

    If Krauze were really worried about peace in Mexico,
    he could be using his talent to advance the case of a
    new redistribution of wealth in Mexico, to prevent the
    creation of the same conditions that sparked the

    It is sad to see brilliant minds that just 10 years
    ago talked about how the actual wellbeing of
    individuals had to matter more than ideologies trapped
    again in the ideological exchange that we must
    sacrife liberty and economic well being for a brighter

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