Authoritarian Rule to Revolution: What Can the US Learn From Mexico?

The distinct features of our current moment in politics have left many grasping for analogies. Are we living in the second iteration of the Weimar Republic? A new Cold War? The return of high-imperial great power competition?

The problem with this is that it often represents more an exasperated flailing for solid guidance about what to do next than an authentic assessment of historical similarities and differences.

If there is a consensus on anything, though, it is that the pronouncements made in the immediate post-Cold War period about the “end of history” having been decided in a definitive fashion were simply wrong. The socioeconomic form of what was once called “democratic capitalism” has not definitively triumphed over all others, with many who live under it now questioning its systemic legitimacy.

The key indicator of a crumbling socioeconomic form is whether certain questions, which were previously not politically operative, now are. In this respect, the doors have been thrown open to radical solutions to systemic problems that were previously not even considered as such. For instance, in recent years, income inequality has been defined as an issue worthy of political concern such that even United Nations bodies now consider it a global challenge.

Another time when a seemingly unquestioned set of sociopolitical assumptions started to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions led to one of the strongest flourishings of democratic participatory politics in the early 20th century: that period in Mexican history from 1876 to 1911 usually referred to as the “Porfiriato.

This period is named for its defining figure, President Porfirio Díaz, perhaps best known outside of Mexico for his oft-quoted remark, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” The context of this comment was a lament to what he felt was the inevitability of Mexican society falling under the control of US business interests. However, despite the political sentiments that such a comment would seem to speak to, Diaz’s rule was one defined by institutional alliance with foreign capital and political authoritarianism. With the Porfiriatio’s end came the much more internationally well-known Mexican Revolution and the transformation, at least for a time, of the Mexican state and economy on progressive terms.

Without wishing to fall into the trap of drawing too close an analogy, an investigation of what the Porfiriato was, how it functioned and ultimately how it ended may be useful in drawing connections to the current epoch and how it too may come to a close.

“Poor Mexico . . .”

Though the history that leads from Mexican independence to the 35-year period of policies established by Porfirio Díaz is too long and complex to explain comprehensively, his time in office may be the very definition of “hegemony.”

Díaz’s rule was authoritarian, albeit with the outward trappings of a democratic republic. He had an elaborate patronage network designed to keep unrest quiet and buy off potential rivals for power. Elections did occur for posts ranging from regional representatives up to the presidential levels, but they were rigged from beginning to end, with candidates hand-picked and bribery common.

His rule was personalistic to a degree, but mainly relied on retaining the support of Mexico’s business elites and holders of large landed estates — in effect, forging a solid network of power around the system to ensure its continuity. He did this both by avoiding meaningful taxation or regulation of business and by using state funds to enrich private holdings.

Furthermore, in pursuing industrialization and modernization of the Mexican economy, Díaz offered up large amounts of Mexico’s land and natural resources to foreign investors (in particular, US and French businesses). This led to a boom in mining, but few of the benefits were shared with the population, when combined with effectively non-existent labor rights and safety protections.

Foreign companies also benefited when Díaz declared traditional Indigenous territories “vacant” and divided them into plots that were sold off at low prices. In pursuing these policies, Díaz was supported by a clique of advisers known as the “científicos” (literally, “scientists”). Strict adherents of classical liberal economic orthodoxy, they resisted even mild attempts to moderate the growing social tensions in Mexico, such as those caused by the Panic of 1907. Their initially self-described nickname became, by the end of Díaz’s reign, an object of bitter mockery amongst most of the Mexican population.

Eventually, the corrupt nature of Díaz’s regime, combined with the lack of benefits from industrialization for the majority of the population, led to a crisis of legitimacy. As Díaz had not delegated a successor, he decided to run for another term in the election of 1910, despite previously promising not to. The official result, of course, showed Díaz winning, but his opponent — the moderate liberal and anti-corruption candidate Francisco Madero — quickly contested the results.

Madero, while exiled in the United States, called for the Mexican population to rise up against Díaz. They did, ousting Díaz and paving the way for Madero to take control of the country in late 1911. In a certain sense, Díaz’s hubris in refusing to personally step down, when the essential aspects of his regime likely could have continued under a trusted lieutenant, was the proximate cause of the Porfiriato’s end. However, Madero’s ascension to power was merely the beginning of a larger Revolution, as his essentially liberal, albeit more progressive vision for the country’s future was quickly challenged in itself by more radical elements, such as those led by the now-famous Pancho Villa.

The resulting tumult included a military coup, Madero’s death and, ultimately, the writing of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, which contained substantial social rights, such as those dealing with Indigenous lands and labor, far beyond those of contemporary governing instruments. In effect, the instability of the Díaz regime initially revealed by the moderate challenge from Madero and his supporters forced open a much wider set of political and social questions, which quickly expanded into unforeseen areas.

“. . . So Far From God . . .”

The resemblance between the Porfiriato and the politics of “there is no alternative” should be clear enough. Economic growth was there in both cases, but in an unequal, top-heavy fashion that also threatened environmental protections and community rights.

An obsession with reducing debt and deficits in order to appease international markets (in Mexico’s case, this was done in part to adopt the gold standard) was the cardinal direction of fiscal policy at the expense of social investment. Large swaths of public goods were turned over the private sector (in Mexico, primarily in the form of land concessions), often for the benefit of international capital.

Perhaps more importantly than particular policies, though, was the mindset of the technocratic elite in giving ideological life to the state machinery; that their ideas were “scientific” and beyond political question. The científicos were beholden to a form of economics that today would likely be called “ordoliberalism,” which stresses credit viability and crash industrialization above all else. The immense social costs of this model were to be disregarded in search of a narrowly defined goal of “progress.”

With the neoliberal revolution in economics and public policy beginning in the late 1970s, there has been a similarly straightjacketed ideological consensus among policymakers in the Global North. The effects of this consensus upon the political imaginations of the citizenry in general have been well remarked upon, but, in brief, have had the effect of closing off horizons.

If one is to buy that this analogy roughly fits, then the question inevitably comes: What is to be done about it? This is where the past is not much of a good guide. Volumes upon volumes have been written on what precisely the Mexican Revolution was in terms of its politics, processes and ultimate outcomes. Suffice to say, there were many overlapping tendencies, ranging from moderate liberalism to left anarchism, which interwove in complex, often contradictory, ways to give an end to the Díaz’s long rule.

It is clear, though, that if we have not exactly crossed over the precipice of this point, it is rapidly being approached. There are few significant polities in the Global North that are under the stable rule of the kind of normative center-left or center-right that has long held sway. In those countries where such political formations are still in a position of de jure power, they are wobbling and increasingly unable to resolve contradictions and political threats from forces pressing on them from outside, such as Theresa May’s weakened government in the UK.

Lest it be thought that this is not a phenomenon in the Global South, one need only look to the rule of tough-talking strongmen like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or the election of open torture enthusiast Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. On the other side of the political spectrum, the victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s hard-to-pin-down, leftish, anti-elite campaign in Mexico itself illustrates the worldwide dimensions of this form of politics.

Much like the científicos, the neoliberal technocrats are out of ideas to solve problems, out of motivation and, most importantly, out of legitimacy with the public. The meaningful question, then, is what will come next or, rather, how can what comes next be pushed in a progressive direction as it was during the Mexican Revolution?

“. . . So Close to the United States. . . “

What looking at the end of the Porfiriato as a point of comparison doesn’t do is provide much of a guide about what one should do in the here and now, at least in the literal sense.

Despite the fevered suggestions of some, planning for an armed insurrection in the mold of Emiliano Zapata is not a very productive idea. State power is much more comprehensive and much more well-armed than in the time of the Mexican Revolution, for one thing. At the same time, thinking in insurrectionary terms is not exactly a bad thing; certainly political actors pushing against the ancien regime from the right wing are doing just that.

The contest for power after a long political project has run its course is an intensely messy thing. From a leftist perspective, we might find ourselves allied with more moderate forces in one moment while having to push against them in the next. The important thing is to be able to think strategically about where the points of engagement are and what immediate gains can be built upon to facilitate larger changes later on.

It is also likely that the ultimate goals sought by progressive movements will be accomplished only over an extended period of time in a fits-and-starts fashion. The resolution process of the Mexican Revolution, which ultimately led to the formation of a relatively stable, left-nationalist hegemony, was arguably not fully accomplished until the ascension to the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1934, almost a quarter-century after Díaz’s fall.

However, the terrain of politics had definitively shifted in that period, defining the heterodox economic and political model that Mexico would pursue until it too came under the neoliberal sway in the late 1980s. Perhaps, with Obrador’s victory, Mexico may now be returning to this post-revolutionary spirit, though it remains to be seen what direction he will follow once in office.

If there is anything in this history from which we can take heart, though, it is that, with the end of the Porfiriato, Mexico was able to chart out a new course for itself, one that remade the country from pseudo-colony of foreign powers and big landholders into a much more equal, vibrant and prosperous place.

It is particularly impressive that it managed to do this while standing next to the proverbial 800-pound gorilla of the United States. Though there were doubtless a number of reasons for the relative lack of US interference in Mexico at this time (the Great Depression and the Second World War chief among them), it is also the contemporary case that US hegemony appears much weaker on the world stage than at any point in recent memory.

This fact, however noxious the circumstances under which it has come about, is but one of those signs of opening. Which forces will be able to take advantage of those openings and how they will do so is likely the more operative question of the moment.

Much like Mexico’s revolutionary past, our future is likely to be written in haste and duress, under circumstances which are not always clear even to those most actively engaged in the surrounding politics. One thing that is certain is that there is no going back to “third way” politics, to technocratic hegemony or to handing the keys back to our own científicos.