Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office on December 1, 2018 in an inauguration ceremony unlike any other seen in modern Mexico. He has called the political movement under his administration the “Fourth Transformation,” following other “transformations” of Mexican politics: the War of Independence from Spain (1810-1821), the Reforms Period (1857-1872), and the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). What will the Fourth Transformation mean politically and economically for Mexico in 2019?
On February 1 of this year, I sat down with two Marxist economists from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Beatriz Corina Mingüer Cestelos and Oscar Rojas, to talk about the current political-economic transition in Mexico and their work as public intellectuals working as legislative advisors for MORENA party senator Alejandro Peña Villa since the beginning of the year. Mingüer and Rojas met as doctoral students at UNAM and became close through a shared philosophy of political economics.
Olivia Durif (OD): First things first, can you explain the significance of “The Fourth Transformation”? What does it mean for Mexico, historically and right now?
Beatriz Mingüer (BM): The Fourth Transformation is an attempt to solve the problems that the Mexican Revolution —the Third Transformation—left unresolved. Many historians think about the Mexican Revolution as an event that never really came to fruition, or at least was interrupted before it could have a real impact.
Oscar Rojas (OR): There was talk of partition of land, of the importance of the peasant class—but this was mostly talk. The country was divided between rich haciendados (landowners) in the north and the ejidos (communal territories) in the South. The North won, Zapata was killed and Mexico was effectively “modernized.”
OD: How responsible is AMLO for the Fourth Transformation?
BM: López Obrador is the personification of the Fourth Transformation, but it could have been someone else. There already existed the necessity to transform the country.
OR: Sure, López Obrador was elected because of his political skill and deep historical knowledge of Mexico, but he couldn’t have done it if there weren’t already the local and global conditions to generate a historical movement. López Obrador isn’t inventing the laws of history, he’s simply a servant of history.
OD: You’ve also talked about yourselves as personifications of this historical moment. Can you talk a little about the event you both participated in with the Workers’ Union of Mexico City?
BM: Sure! We were invited by a union leader who was looking for an academic to act as rapporteur for the event and also give a speech. The idea was to assist with the reconciliation between the union leaders—who are affiliated with old political parties—and the new government. But it quickly became clear that, more than reconciliation, they were looking to be legitimized by representatives of a prestigious academic institution. We arrived full of suspicions, since the figure of the union leader in Mexico is symbolically dark. We call them “Sindicatos Charros” [union-leader cowboys]. Under the mask of workers’ rights, these guys historically have served the political and economic interests of the state and themselves. They mobilize and demobilize in relation to their interests.
…Basically, under the guise of reconciliation, these union leaders wanted to insult the new government in front of the workers, and congratulate themselves in a public setting. It had nothing to do with the thousands of workers who were obligated to sit there for the entire day—they didn’t even provide lunch!
OR: It was an example of populism in the most negative sense of twisting the facts in order to construct a discourse around a political attack. This was the first big contradiction. [The second was that] the event was billed as an open forum, a space for many voices, but as the event progressed, we began to see that the actual energy was completely the opposite. Bety managed to give a speech that cut through the farce. It was intentional but not overly choreographed. Finally, for the first time during the event, the workers in the audience could understand what they were hearing. They were listening to someone, a real person, that was not a part of the overwhelming political discourse of the traditional union leader. You could see in people’s faces that they were connecting to Bety’s words. This sense of connection immediately shifted the polarity of the event.
OD: What did you say in your speech?
BM: I tried to communicate the ideas I work with in my own academic investigations—I talked about the essence of labor—that work is an intrinsic, transformative human process and that “work,” in this current system, is a necessary evil. That it isn’t actually work. Work should serve to transform us as human beings, to transform nature and for nature to transform us constantly. It is a reciprocity in which humans have always partaken. But this thing meant for transformation has become the degradation of both humans and nature. The exploitation of both.
OD: Wow. So what happened after the speech?
BM: Well, of course, the union leaders immediately had to defend themselves. They made sexist remarks at my expense, looking to get the last word by any means necessary. But the workers, on the other hand, were genuinely excited to hear from someone on their side. They asked if we would give workshops about ways to participate in the Fourth Transformation. We’re working that out now.
OD: What do you think the fate of the “Sindicato Charro” is under AMLO?
OR: What we need is a union that fights, with clarity, to transform the political economics that sustain the contradiction between victim and perpetrator. In this case, the worker and the capitalist. Thus, in order for a union to transform into a union representative of transition, it also needs to have a geopolitical, historical consciousness for the moment it exists in. The union leaders will begin to transition once they gain clarity regarding their role in the current, geopolitical moment.
BM: We have a responsibility to be conscious of our ability to affect change, and to understand that we ourselves are also always being changed. The understanding that everything we do creates history is what permits a real transition. Not like what happened with previous transformations in Mexico, which lacked a distinct logic. Or, maybe this logic existed, but they couldn’t concretize the necessary ideology. And this is a real risk during this current transformation because we’re surrounded by ideologies that are racist, classist, xenophobic. We’re seeing this all over the world.
OR: What’s important is that we detect it now.
OD: The work of detecting violent and regressive perspectives…this sounds a lot like the work you do for MORENA in the Senate. Can you talk a little about your work as legislative advisors?
OR: Our work in the Senate isn’t specifically academic or political but more like—a kind of translation. Translation, in the sense of being able to cross different dimensions and start a dialogue between them.
BM: The MORENA party is full of honest, loyal people who don’t have that much political experience or clout. They are shocked by being in a majority position and could easily not own their power and, instead, let it slip into the hands of the old parties who have more cunning and practice. The MORENA team doesn’t have the tools to defend itself. Our work as advisors is to detect the connection between legal initiatives and economic interests. For instance, you see a proposal that appears to be really clean and simple—unquestionable—like a communal cafeteria for kids. It’s our job to detect who might be benefitting from this program.
OR: Right, we have to recognize where the punches are coming from, the discourses that are impregnated with this mentality that private interests are more important than communal interests.
BM: It’s a strategic job. The point is that our work acts as a barrier against a corrupt interpretation of legal discourse—against the very ideology that generates this discourse. We need to shift Mexico away from the discourse of capitalist interests. The idea of returning to pre-Hispanic roots is very important right now in all of Latin America. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, talks about Bolivia as a “plurinational government” in reference to all of the different Indigenous peoples in the country. We’re not talking about “pre-Hispanic” as a cultural or political reference, but rather what actually existed before the arrival of the Spanish, and how that is a part of our contemporary culture.
OR: It’s a little like quantum physics—the principles of time and space. Obviously, it’s common practice today for one country to compare itself to another country, to say “we need to do what that other country is doing.” But, as the theory of relativity tells us, time and space are the same dimension. So, we can remake economic, political and social structures through examples of other contemporary countries, but also from our own country in a different time. There exists, in our DNA, the possibility of an enormous collective social structure with the key characteristic of being able to work with that which is different. With “the other.” So, in the Fourth Transformation, we can see that there is a possibility, with a historic base, for us to imagine another kind of life.
BM: And the project of the new government is very much based on this. There is a move to support rural areas. One of López Obrador’s most important new programs is even called “Sowing Life.” And what it’s trying to communicate is that in Mexico there is a huge quantity of communal property. That’s something that Marx highlighted: that there is so much potential in under-developed countries when it comes to communal property. The existence of a kind of property that is different from private property is a source of the potential of transformation.
OR: And before López Obrador, this communal land had been considered primarily in terms of private, foreign investment.
BM: Yes, it was thought that this land existed so foreigners could arrive and expropriate it. Well, now it’s not even expropriation because, since the law of ’93, which allowed ejidos to be sold, it’s now a legal process. And of course, during all this time, neither the land nor the people who live and work on it have been supported. So it makes sense that people end up selling their land, just to be able to eat for a little while. The intention of rescuing collective property is one of AMLO’s main points in the transition towards economic transformation.
OR: It’s curious because I’m sure that not even AMLO’s team understands how radical this plan is. Private property has to do with the kind of globalization we have lived through, whereas collective property represents another kind of globalization. It’s often thought that it’s either one or the other. When in reality there doesn’t have to be a dominant form of property, there can be distinct forms. And they can coexist together.
BM: But the problem, of course, is that the dominant form has been private. And the point is that, even private property could be collective in a way—like cooperatives, which are ultimately a form of private property, because they belong to certain people. So, we’re envisioning something like private-collective property.
OR: Already it’s more dialectical. Like time and space, we can also imagine individual-collective property as part of the same dimension. Or, better said, personal-collective. And these ideas are already being discussed, competing in the big leagues of radical political thought in the 21st century.
BM: We just need to build it. And this will take us a while. It will take us time to construct this new reality, and this is actually a part of what we’re doing in the Senate—what we’re trying to do. We have a clear idea of the path ahead.
OR: But the senators and the MORENA party don’t know it.
BM: It’s not explicit for them. They are touching on the points—they are talking about social property, they are talking about cooperatives, distinct forms of economic organization, financial inclusion. They are touching on precisely the points that we’ve arrived at in our research. But as legislative advisors, we have the capacity to create laws that log these ideas judicially. We’re in a very exciting strategic position.
OR: Until now, the figure of the senatorial advisor simply had been a technical juridical figure who checked all the right boxes—the boxes of neoliberalism—that are based on the economic structure dictated by international organisms, above all the United States. But now we’re in a place where we can modify this discourse and make an immediate national impact. Advisors on the Left always used to be playing defense, doing the work of resistance but never being able to make an impact. This work of translation has the potential to transform law. If we transform these ideas on a national level, we can direct the energy that is already present in the country towards a new socio-economic reality. We can make an impact with unionized workers in a direct way, and we can also do it through legislation, on a massive scale. Public politics, if we translate it well, has the potential to transform materiality through political force.
Beatriz Corina Mingüer Cestelos is a doctoral candidate in the department of Economy at UNAM. Her lines of investigation are: critique of political economy, natural and sustainable forms of life, and paths of transition of the social relations of production.
Oscar Rojas is an investigative economist at the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), focusing on the crisis of capitalism and the transition from capitalist production to social production. He has combined his theoretical activities with political practice.
Olivia Durif is an independent journalist living in Mexico City. She is interested in stories that illuminate alternatives to capitalism; practices of eating and drinking as forms of cultural resistance; concepts of nature; critiques of nationalism and national identity.