The Mexican political system was shaken on 1 July 2018, when Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his new party MORENA achieved a resounding electoral victory, winning 53% of the votes in a four-way race – a thirty-point lead over his closest contender. This was by far the widest margin since the country’s ‘transition to democracy’ at the turn of the millennium. The parties that had dominated the political field throughout the neoliberal period were suddenly reduced to rubble. Today, the president’s approval ratings remain in the sixties, despite a relentlessly hostile press, a global pandemic, its accompanying economic crisis and inflationary pressures. Longstanding rivalries between the opposition parties have been shelved, with the PRI, PAN and PRD forced to come together or forfeit any possibility of succeeding at the ballot box.
The idiosyncrasies of AMLO’s left-populist presidency have pitted him not only against the neoliberal right, but also against the ‘progressive’ cosmopolitan intelligentsia and neozapatista-adjacent autonomists. These groups have variously accused him of ‘turning the country into Venezuela’, peddling ‘conservativism’ and acting as a ‘henchman of capital’. Yet as his six-year term reaches its final lap, a closer look at AMLO’s record reveals a much more complex picture. His overarching project has been to move away from neoliberalism towards a model of nationalist-developmentalist capitalism. To what extent has he succeeded, and what can the left learn from this endeavour?
As a general rule, transitions from neoliberalism must take place in a structural setting shaped by neoliberalism itself: the erosion of the working class as a political agent and the dismantling of state capacity. It follows that the basic historical task of the contemporary left is the reignition of class politics and the relegitimation of the state as a social actor. We can therefore assess AMLO’s administration based on three fundamental criteria: the reinstatement of class cleavage as a primary organizer of the political field; the effort to reconcentrate the power of a state apparatus hollowed out by decades of neoliberal governance; and the break with an economic paradigm based on institutionalized corruption. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
In May 2020, as the first right-wing protests erupted against AMLO’s government, a viral video made the rounds on social media. It shows throngs of upper-class demonstrators engaged in a march-by-car on a major avenue in Monterrey, Nuevo León. From the window of a public bus, an anonymous passenger begins to harangue the motorists: ‘This is what moves Mexico!’ he says. ‘The workers…the workers move Mexico!’ For many, the scene captured the return of class politics to public consciousness after a long absence.
Just a few months into his presidency, AMLO declared the death of Mexican neoliberalism. It was a bold statement, more of an aspiration than a fait accompli. The first signs of its realization were rhetorical. Previously, political discourse focused on the division between a vaguely defined ‘civil society’ and the state. Public officials increasingly conceded the necessity of increasing ‘citizen control’ over ‘governance’. Class antagonism had all but disappeared from mainstream commentary. Yet under AMLO it reemerged in Laclauian guise: as a confrontation between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ (fifis and machuchones as he mockingly calls them), the latter defined by their wealth, meritocratic self-delusion and disdain for working-class culture.
This verbal shift was matched by a stark process of party realignment. In the 2018 election, working-class votes were scattered across different parties, including the neoliberal bloc, while AMLO had an edge with middle-class professionals. At that time, 48% of voters with a college degree supported MORENA’s congressional candidates. In the 2021 mid-terms, by contrast, that figure fell to 33%. The inverse occurred at the bottom end of the educational attainment bracket: 42% of people with only elementary school education voted for MORENA in 2018, while 55% did so in 2021. Recent polling shows that those most supportive of AMLO are ordinary workers, the informal sector and peasants, while his most vociferous opponents are businesspeople and college-educated professionals. The ‘Brahmin Left’ phenomenon, which increasingly characterizes voting patterns in Europe and the US, has evidently been reversed in Mexico.
What explains this turnaround? The past four years have seen an avalanche of pro-worker reforms. The formal rights of domestic workers have been recognized for the first time, and precarious hiring practices have been eliminated. As a result, last year saw a 109% increase in reparto de utilidades: profit-sharing payments to which all workers are formally entitled, but which employers could previously circumvent by ‘outsourcing’ their hires. Under AMLO the process for forming new unions has been considerably simplified, statutory vacation days have doubled, and legislation is currently on the docket for a forty-hour work week (down from 48 hours). His administration has instituted the largest minimum-wage increase in more than forty years. Before the economic crisis that followed the Covid-19 shutdown, the poorest section of the population saw their income grow by 24%.
These shifting sands have resulted in the tentative re-emergence of the working class as a political actor. Perhaps the clearest evidence is the maquiladora workers’ uprising in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, where tens of thousands of employees launched the largest wild-cat strikes in the sector’s history. Energized by minimum-wage hikes, they demanded increases to other benefits, refusing to accept the employers’ attempts to stop bonuses from rising in line with salaries. The movement yielded new and successful unionizing efforts, and propelled one of its leaders, Susana Terrazas, to a congressional seat on MORENA’s ticket.
AMLO’s focus on social programmes has further strengthened this new class politics. Cash transfers now reach 65% more people than under previous governments. In 2021, despite the economic crisis, social spending as a percentage of total government expenditure reached its highest level in a decade. This welfare model operates under a wholly different logic to the previous neoliberal one, moving away from micro-targeting and means-testing towards a more universal approach. While cash transfers are still reserved for broad subgroups (people over 65, students, the disabled, and so on), conditions for accessing them are minimal. Welfare programmes have been enshrined in the Constitution, cementing their status as entitlements rather than ‘hand-outs’, rights rather than charity.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the parties displaced by MORENA have formed a coalition that openly proclaims its fealty to big business. Tycoons like Claudio X Gonzalez and Gustavo de Hoyos, former head of the employers’ confederation, have played a crucial role in financing the opposition and dictating its talking-points. As well as denouncing AMLO’s labour laws, the business sector has fiercely resisted his new approach to taxation. Although the government generally takes an orthodox line on macroeconomic issues, it has made a concerted effort to increase the state’s tax collection capacity, which has historically lagged behind OECD and LAC averages. Without altering the current tax structure, these enforcement measures have had a significant redistributive impact. According to official figures, the government increased tax collection from the richest in the country by more than 200%. (Hence the FT’s description of Raquel Buenrostro, AMLO’s former Secretary of Tax Administration and current Secretary of the Economy, as an ‘iron lady’ cracking the ‘whip on multinationals’ taxes’.)
At the same time, the loss of sections of the credentialled middle classes from AMLO’s support base reflects their symbolic demotion in the grand narrative of the nation, which the president has been constructing in his daily press conferences. Whereas under previous governments, a cabinet stocked with elite-university-trained figures signalled respectability and authority, appeals to ‘expertise’ are now seen as empty political marketing ploys. Ministers are praised for ‘being close to the people’, not for their titles and accolades.
AMLO has come in for criticism in socially liberal circles, predominantly composed of the credentialled classes, for his lack of interest in advancing the rights to gay marriage or abortion. He has refused to take a position on these issues, proposing instead that they be put to popular referendums; yet this is mostly a moot point now that there has been significant progress on such matters at the state level (interestingly, the most meaningful gains have been made in areas where MORENA controls the local legislature).
The president also stumbled in response to the combative feminist movement that emerged in 2019 to contest Mexico’s persistent femicides. From the outset, AMLO seemed more interested in ‘unmasking’ it as a campaign orchestrated by the right (which has indeed tried to highjack the uprising) than in listening to its demands. He has criticized the direct-action tactics of recent mobilizations and praised the work of female caregivers, in what many saw as an instance of male condescension. Although AMLO has stuck to a strict policy of gender parity in the selection of his cabinet, feminist detractors understandably see his presidency as insufficiently concerned with the country’s gendered hierarchies.
One of the main priorities of AMLO’s administration has been to reverse the hollowing out of the state. This process has taken various forms. First, there has been a push to recentralize government functions that had been outsourced to private and semi-private firms. The subcontracting of public services has been abolished, with the aim of reintegrating these into centralized state institutions. The government has also gotten rid of trusts that administered public monies in an opaque and highly discretionary manner, bringing such funds within the remit of government ministries.
This programme has been butressed by a series of state-led infrastructure ‘mega-projects’, the cancellation of private ones like the Texcoco airport, and the public expropriation of parts of the railways. AMLO’s flagship construction schemes include the Felipe Ángeles airport, the Maya Train around the Yucatán peninsula, a transportation corridor connecting the Gulf of Mexico with the Pacific Ocean, a rural road-building project and a major reforestation plan. Such undertakings are touted as means of creating employment through public works and rejecting the failed doctrine of laissez-faire.
Energy sovereignty has received special attention from AMLO’s government, which has tried to revamp the productive capacity of the state-owned petroleum company, PEMEX, and turn it into an engine of growth. It has also worked to curb, however modestly, the power of foreign mining companies. A new Hydrocarbons Law opens up the possibility of revoking permits to private firms that commit certain violations, while an Electricity Industry Law aims to increase the power generated by CFE, the state-owned electricity company, by limiting the requirement that it purchase electricity from the private sector. Both measures strive to enhance the relative position of the public sector and roll back the tide of neoliberal reform. The government recently reaffirmed this commitment with the purchase of thirteen power plants owned by energy company Iberdrola.
The prolonged period of state atrophy that preceded AMLO’s tenure has inevitably obstructed some of his most ambitious policies. The state has not yet shaken its dependency on private-public partnerships. It has been forced to use the administrative infrastructure of Banco Azteca, owned by the media mogul Ricardo Salinas Pliego, to implement its cash transfer programmes. While there is a plan for public banks to take over these responsibilities, the transition has been slow. AMLO’s signature infrastructure project, the Yucatán train, is owned by the state, but it will include public-private venture components. Previously outsourced government services like child care have been shut down with the intention of taking them in-house, but not all of them have been replaced, which means that people must use state vouchers to purchase essential services on the private market. Lacking real administrative capacity, AMLO has become increasingly reliant on the military to build and operate many of his infrastructure projects.
The need to recover the power of the state is also evident in the persistence of severe drug cartel-related violence – an issue that prompted AMLO to create a new National Guard, composed of members of the army (and additional new recruits), retrained to carry out police work. Critics claim this represents the militarization of public life. They also point to AMLO’s use of the repressive apparatus along the country’s southern border, where migrant caravans from Central America are often met with force. These actions are largely a capitulation to the US’s perennial demand (before and after Trump) for Mexico to stop the flow of asylum seekers. Like his predecessors, AMLO has accepted such constraints on national sovereignty, perhaps because it can be used as leverage in negotiations with his northern neighbour. He has devoted considerable energy to preventing caravans from reaching the US: offering Mexican work visas, calling for a ‘Marshall Plan for Central America’, and turning a blind eye as police engage in brutal pushbacks. His overall record in this area is dismal – although one important exception was his refusal to countenance Trump’s attempt to declare Mexico a ‘safe third country’, which would have prevented virtually all Central American refugees from seeking asylum in the US.
In his inaugural speech as president in December 2018, AMLO asserted that ‘the distinctive feature of neoliberalism is corruption’. Neoliberalism, as he sees it, is not merely the contraction of the state but its instrumentalization in the service of the market. This process has transformed Mexico into a sort of reverse rentier economy, in which a network of private businesses siphoned money from public coffers through a series of legal and illegal mechanisms: privatization, outsourcing, the sale of overpriced services and the creation of ghost companies designed to take advantage of state contracts and tax evasion opportunities.
The notion of neoliberalism as a political economy of corruption has informed AMLO’s public spending objectives. The flagship concept of his government is a counterintuitive one: austeridad republicana, or ‘republican austerity’. In practice, this means the ongoing reorganization and recentralization of public spending with the aim of ‘cutting from the top’. Since Mexican neoliberalism forged extensive links between the state and private enterprise, austerity is seen as a means of breaking such connections – casting off parasitic companies whose profits rely on government largesse.
In the long term, strict adherence to austeridad republicana may make it difficult if not impossible to create a robust welfare system. Yet, for the moment, it has succeeded in relegitimizing the state after decades of cronyism and clientelism. Fears that it would result in mass layoffs have dissipated. In addition to large-scale spending on public works and cash transfers, sectors such as science, education and health have had their budgets increased, albeit minimally. The most urgent problem with AMLO’s fiscal restraint is that it undermines the case for far-reaching tax reform, as it implies that the left can realize its aims solely through more efficient spending: rebalancing the books rather than redistributing wealth.
In theory, AMLO’s left critics could acknowledge his advances while mounting a sound critique of his gender politics, border policies and austerity programmes. Yet in practice, they have missed an opportunity to build a serious alternative to MORENA. So far, left-wing criticism of AMLO has been largely monopolized by the ‘progressive’ intelligentsia, which has in turn been absorbed by the elite-dominated opposition bloc. The autonomist movement, meanwhile, remains uninterested in capturing state power. It abandoned this terrain long ago and focused instead on opposing developmentalist projects, with little to show for it.
Any assessment of AMLO and MORENA must recognize the difficulties of restarting a welfare state with a dilapidated administrative apparatus and reinvigorating a working class that has been all but defeated as a collective agent. The current administration is, of course, afflicted by many more uncertainties and contradictions beyond the scope of this brief survey. How viable is neo-developmentalism in the context of climate crisis? Can progressive taxation succeed in the midst of stagnant growth? How rapidly can a country wean itself off foreign investment? These are questions for the left worldwide. Whatever the shortcomings of AMLO’s answers, his attempt to break with neoliberalism cannot easily be dismissed.
Read on: Al Giordano, ‘Mexico’s Presidential Swindle’, NLR 41.