The Mexican Question

One indication of the plight of the left worldwide is the calibre of its contemporary lodestars. Just last century we were learning from and for revolutions. Today we are invited to take inspiration from the likes of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president now entering the final lap of his six-year term. In a recent Sidecar article, Edwin F. Ackerman described AMLO’s ‘overarching project’ as to ‘move away from neoliberalism towards a model of nationalist-developmentalist capitalism’. Any such transition, Ackerman notes, ‘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’. AMLO’s tenure ought therefore to be assessed according to progress in these areas. While Ackerman concedes other weaknesses – AMLO’s ‘dismal record’ on migration, his lukewarm response to Mexico’s feminist movement – his account is broadly positive. How accurate is this assessment?

In Ackerman’s description, the working class has re-emerged as a ‘political actor’, visible in workers’ uprisings and successful unionization drives, and reflected in the increasingly working-class composition of the president’s support base. Initial signs of a revival of class politics were rhetorical: AMLO adopted a populist idiom of confrontation between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. But this, Ackerman claims, was followed by substantive social policy, in particular expanding and universalizing cash transfers.

The truth however is that cash transfers are nothing new in Mexico, and nothing if not neoliberal. Pioneered by the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Progresa epitomized the new state doctrine that displaced the more collectivist ideology of the Mexican Revolution. Rather than a universal entitlement, cash transfers were granted with conditions such as keeping children in school and attending regular health check-ups. The policy was conceived as enabling the individual to better navigate the uncertainties of the market as they pursued their personal betterment. More to the point, these schemes were akin to pre-emptive compensation while the Mexican state implemented a dramatic wave of privatization, liberalization and deregulation.

Ackerman argues that the removal of most conditions for welfare payments represents a break with this model. Having dispensed with ‘micro-targeting and means-testing’, cash transfers ‘now reach 65% more people than under previous governments’. This dramatically overstates the scale and significance of the change: the 65% figure is only true for three programmes – a pension for seniors, a stipend for primary and high school students, and another for farmers. The overall picture of social spending under AMLO is far less impressive. In 2018, the last year of the previous government, social programmes reached 28% of the population. By 2022, the figure was 35%, and total social expenditure was $1.3 trillion pesos – only 1.4% higher than what it was in 2014 when adjusted for inflation. This modest expansion of welfare support, moreover, obscures its regressive cast. The increased spending has not meant more protection for those most in need. The proportion of the poorest 5% of Mexicans benefitting from a social programme actually fell from 68% to 49% between 2016 and 2022, while the richest 5% saw their welfare coverage increase from 6% to 20%. Ackerman omits to mention AMLO’s dismal response to the pandemic, which followed a ‘path of minimal action’: Mexico’s excess death toll was the fifth-highest in the world.

Ackerman equally commends AMLO’s ‘concerted effort to increase the state’s tax collection capacity’, which he says has ‘had a significant redistributive impact’. A comparison with recent administrations in the region is instructive. Kirchnerism in Argentina increased tax revenue as a percentage of GDP from 21% to 28.9% during its first six years in government; Morales increased Bolivia’s tax revenue from 19.3% to 25.9% in his. By contrast, available data for AMLO’s first four years in power show a meagre increase from 16.1% to 16.7% (in 2022 tax revenues even declined in real terms). AMLO’s 0.6% increase is comparable to Lula’s first term in Brazil, but the figure obscures quite different tax structures. By 2009, Brazil’s tax revenue was 31.2% of GDP, almost double that of Mexico, which remains the lowest in the OECD and well below the average in Latin America.

Mexico’s underfunded public services, meanwhile, are being subjected to la austeridad republicana. Though Ackerman acknowledges this may undermine the effort to strengthen the country’s welfare system, he nevertheless argues that such austerity is part of an attempt to weed out neoliberal practices: ‘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.’ But such practices have not ended. The Mexican state now relies more on direct acquisitions than public competition, and friends of AMLO’s family have benefitted from this. In truth, it is difficult to regard ‘republican austerity’ as anything other than a leftist slogan for an old neoliberal tool.

Labour policy is the one area that has seen real progress under AMLO. Ackerman rightly points to the ‘pro-worker reforms’ – formalizing rights, simplifying unionization processes, improving conditions including increasing the statutory holiday allowance and raising the minimum wage, which this year reached 207.40 pesos ($12.30), 82% higher than it was in 2018. But again, nuance is called for. Ackerman says AMLO has overseen ‘the largest minimum-wage increase in more than forty years’. From the 1970s until the mid-1980s, the minimum wage remained above 300 pesos ($17.90), peaking at 396.40 pesos ($23.69) in 1977. Neoliberalization pushed down wages, and since 1996, until the recent hikes, the minimum wage hovered around 100 pesos ($6). The reforms therefore merely begin to reverse neoliberal excess.

Moreover, since not all workers earn the minimum wage, raising it has not resulted in a dramatic redistribution of income to labour as a whole. According to the latest data, between 2018 and 2020, when the minimum wage increased by 29%, Mexico’s labour income share as a percentage of GDP only rose from 33.4 to 35.2%. For comparison: between 2004 and 2010 in Argentina the labour income share grew from 38.7 to 49.3% of GDP. In the same time frame, during Lula’s first stint in power, Brazil’s labour income share rose from 56.1 to 57.9%, and would continue to grow – even under Bolsonaro – to 63.1% by 2019. (The minimum wage in each country increased by 147% and 50%, respectively, in the same six-year period.) As AMLO’s first Finance Minister candidly put it, his government would be ‘to the right of Lula’.

Many of the gains were also set in motion by previous administrations, and impelled by external factors. Mexico’s new labour policy was in part the result of Obama’s pressure to increase wages below the Rio Grande to deter America’s carmakers from further factory closures in the US. Accordingly, a constitutional reform that strengthened labour rights was approved in late 2016, two years before AMLO took office. In a peculiar combination of forces, US national interests, spurred by the country’s union movement, softened the excesses of the Mexican bourgeoisie. When AMLO was elected in 2018, the way had already been paved ‘from the outside’, as academics euphemistically call this episode of US intrusion into Mexican labour policy.

So far, so threadbare. A further priority of the AMLO administration, according to Ackerman, has been to roll back the neoliberal tide that had outsourced government functions to private companies, and he explains how this has been combined with a series of eye-catching construction schemes, including an airport in Mexico City, an oil refinery in AMLO’s home state Tabasco, and a train around the Yucatán peninsula. But lacking ‘real administrative capacity’ to oversee these megaprojects, Ackerman writes, AMLO has ‘become increasingly reliant on the military to build and operate’ them.

That is a serious understatement. The military has become a major contractor of the government, running and profiting from several airports including the new one it helped to build in the capital, a luxury hotel in Yucatán, and some sections of the new train; soon it will run its own commercial airline. The administration’s effort to bulk up the state apparatus has chiefly been accomplished through the comprehensive militarization of public life. Aside from the executive, the only part of the state whose power has grown under AMLO is the armed forces. By 2021, military spending was already 54% higher than at the start of his presidency. And that does not include the swelling budget of the National Guard, established in 2019 to replace the federal police which AMLO disbanded soon after taking office.

AMLO promised the National Guard would be a civilian-led force, but it is now under army command. Almost immediately, the National Guard started anti-immigration operations, deploying some 2,400 soldiers. Now there are 6,500 troops on the border with Guatemala and 7,400 on the border with the US – amounting to a full-blown ‘war against migrants’. AMLO’s government has effectively deputized the armed forces, in National Guard uniforms, as a Mexican branch of US border patrol. Under pressure from Trump and now Biden, the Mexican state no longer turns a blind eye to migration from Central America. The National Migration Institute has been militarized; its facilities function as detention centres. Last March, a rebellion by Central American migrants being held in Ciudad Juárez led to a fire that killed 39.

Ackerman contends that ‘AMLO’s use of the repressive apparatus’ to control the flow of asylum seekers is ‘largely a capitulation’ to US pressure, to which he says AMLO bows in order to gain ‘leverage in negotiations’. The fact is that AMLO did not dare to resist because Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Mexican imports. AMLO could have responded with reciprocal tariffs, which might have ended free trade in North America. There was a time, in the 1990s, when he called for just that. To the extent that the Mexican government has used its role as anti-immigration lackey to the US to gain leverage, meanwhile, it hasn’t been exploited for ‘progressive’ negotiations, but to rescue General Salvador Cienfuegos from American justice after his capture on drug trafficking and corruption charges in 2020. Cienfuegos was the head of the armed forces from 2012 to 2018. The army pushed AMLO to lead a diplomatic operation that included direct talks with Trump to free the general. The charges were dropped; last year Cienfuegos was a guest of honour at the opening of the new Felipe Ángeles airport.

State propaganda has long portrayed the army as ‘the people in uniform’. But Mexico’s military is the same as it always was: soldiers still disappear or murder hundreds of innocent civilians. It is the same chain of command that was involved in the kidnapping of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college in 2014. A group of experts investigating the mass abduction ceased operations this year after reaching a dead end; in its final report, the panel noted the army was ‘hiding very relevant information for the clarification of the case.’ AMLO immediately defended the armed forces, saying ‘it’s not true the navy and the army aren’t helping.’

Whatever AMLO’s shortcomings, in Ackerman’s view the ‘attempt to break with neoliberalism cannot easily be dismissed’. But in reality, however much he has adorned his programme in the language of the populist tradition, his policies have amounted to little more than neoliberal fine-tuning, and in many areas he has actually deepened the worst excesses of the neoliberal state – more budget cuts, more fiscal discipline, more ‘free’ trade. On top of this he has pursued overtly right-wing measures, which Ackerman underplays, above all this unprecedented and dangerous expansion of the role of the military. Relations with the US, meanwhile, remain far from anti-imperialist and closer to client state dynamics.

The truth is that AMLO has become the latest case of left romanticization of a Latin American strongman. If there is a lesson from his tenure for the left worldwide, it is that AMLO’s populism is not the answer. The warning would be familiar to Mexican communists of the 20th century, whose hard-earned insights José Revueltas shared in his 1962 Essay on a Headless Proletariat:

The progressive politics of the government is a relative negation of the bourgeoisie as a class (since such politics seem to contradict their interests through concessions to the working class, nationalist measures, granting of democratic freedoms, etc.), but at the same time it affirms the national bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class, it affirms the apparent existence of a non-bourgeois government, ‘friend of the workers’ and enemy of a bourgeoisie that, apparently, is not in power either.

From this social diagnosis, Revueltas extracted a strategy for working-class independence, an old and seemingly forgotten theme of the Mexican left. Not all communists were as principled as Revueltas, who served time in prison. Others, like Vicente Lombardo, insisted on the need to stay loyal to populism, always supporting its candidates in elections. Even after the Mexican regime killed hundreds of students in 1968, Lombardo remained steadfast, even lamenting that the students went beyond ‘protest’ and ‘tried to become a revolt’. The populist rule that emerged from the Mexican Revolution was not to be contested, only cautiously criticized. In this strategy, the left must remain a junior, docile partner of the centre.

In the late 1980s, under the influence of Eurocommunism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Mexican communists followed Lombardo’s lead, becoming absorbed by populism. The result was a vacuum on the left, which still exists in Mexico today. The disease of Lombardismo has infected many parts of the left around the world, often in more virulent forms. At least Lombardo distinguished the left from populism. Now, the left is urged to become populist – a ‘left-populism’ in theory but just another centrism in practice. Yet the lesson the left should take from Mexico is to avoid it.

Read on: Jorge Castaneda, ‘Mexico: Permuting Power’, NLR 7.