The Capitalist Fantasy of Authoritarian Democratization

Ultimately, the PRI and its neoliberal values emerged victorious. The Party would remain in power for another 12 years until finally being defeated by the right-wing PAN. However, their demise, while certainly ushering in a more institutionally democratic era, did not signal the end of either neoliberal democracy or the use of discourses of democratization for the purpose of closing off, forcefully if necessary, ideological and political contestation. In this spirit, PAN and those that followed them would embrace the capitalist fantasy of authoritarian democratization created by the PRI.

The resiliency of this fantasy was witnessed throughout the 2000 campaign, specifically in the figure of PAN’s charismatic candidate and soon-to-be President, Vicente Fox. Despite his deep commitment to marketization, he continually minimized these neoliberal beliefs in favor of affective themes of democracy (Klesner, 2004). In his post-election memoirs, tellingly entitled The Revolution of Hope, Fox wrote that “I spoke straight to the people’s hearts in a way every Mexican could understand, summing up the campaign as a crusade for democracy ... the Mexican people wanted democracy. On the 2nd of July they got it” (Fox and Allyn, 2007: 183, 185, 191). This democratic “crusade” was waged at a time when social inequality was at record-breaking levels and showing no signs of diminishing (Mundi Index, 2011).

This affective modernization story of authoritarian democratization would become a persistent and defining feature of Mexican politics in the twenty-first century. The government was first and foremost responsible for protecting the country against anti-democratic threats. Any and all challenges to its authority were a danger to these political reforms and could lead the country into chaos or even worse, fascism. These elements were on full display in the 2006 campaign. The PAN candidate Felipe Calderon Hinojosa campaigned heavily on the idea that electing his opponents - particularly his left-wing challenger from the PRD (Democratic Revolution Party) - would put the country at grave risk of returning to its authoritarian past. He intoned ominously during the campaign that:

Today ... we have a better country than he had in 2000. A country that lives a true democracy ... with economic stability and very solid social politics [Mexico] is now immerse in a transformation process that should not be stopped but rather consolidated. (PAN, 2006)

Despite these idealized appeals to democracy, the election results - as in 1988 - remained highly controversial, marked by charges of voting irregularities and fraud. In the face of civil challenges and street protests by the supporters of the PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who lost by fewer than 25,000 votes, Calderon called for national unity under the banner of national democracy, “even when there are differences stemmed from a very competed electoral process like the one we just experienced ... the Republic and the future of our democracy is one and indivisible” (Martinez and Aranda, 2006).

The next election in 2012 bore even greater witness to the neoliberal designs at the heart of this authoritarian call for democratization. The PRI once again gained power amidst promises of reduced civil violence and enhanced marketization. Their candidate, and newly elected President, Enrique Pena Nieto, pronounced “I am convinced that the time has come to transform an essentially electoral democracy into a democracy of results” (Nieto, 2012: 1). In practice, these “results” included a sweep of neoliberal policies including the privatization of the Oil Mexican Company (PEMEX) and increased labor market flexibility. Notably, he blamed widespread student and social protests against his election - an election marred again by severe irregularities and accusations of manipulation - as being caused by “leftist” agitators and “anarchists” who opposed democracy.

This veneer of democratic reform often disguises the autocratic attempt by elites to implement neoliberalism nationally. The PRI was heavyhanded and dictatorial throughout the 1990s in guiding the country toward marketization and an embrace of the global “free market” - witnessed in its negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the face of large social disagreement and even resistance (Kim, 2013). The election of Vicente Fox in 2000 did little to change this governing paradigm, as he continued the authoritarian implementation of neoliberalism begun by his PRI predecessors (Armijo and Faucher, 2002).

Crucial to this technocratic modernization is the belief by Mexican elites, many of whom were trained as free-market economists in the USA, in the need to “manage Mexico” (Babb and Babb, 2004). Teichman (2001) notes, similarly, that neoliberalism was implemented by small clique of American-trained technocrats, characterized by an autocratic orientation who seek to implement marketization in a top-down way, free from popular discussion. Furthermore, they are extremely receptive and open to the opinions of foreign investors for guiding their country’s policies, more so than their own fellow citizens.

The responsiveness to outside influences, which results mainly from an ongoing, wide-ranging policy dialogue, not from formal loan conditionality, aggravates the democratic deficit of technocratic decision-making: Foreign actors have significantly more influence than the presumed democratic sovereign, i.e., the voters. (Weyland, 2001)

Significantly, this authoritarian paradigm linked to discourses of democratization and neoliberalism has led concretely to increased social repression (see for instance Amnesty International, 2011). These abuses are directly connected to the country’s opening relationship to the “global free market,” which has produced greater organized crime (particularly connected to the drug trade) and enhanced government policing to deal with this rampant violence. Referring to twenty-first-century Mexican leaders as “globalization presidents,” Olney (2012: 151) observes “globalization contributes both to the escalation of violence by increasing opportunities for criminals and disgruntled elites from Mexico’s disposed revolutionary system ... and to a new political culture capable of supporting a stable, modern Mexican state.”

The achievements of a stable liberal democracy harken back to the PRI’s discourse of “stabilization development” used to justify its authoritarian program of state-led modernization. As the most recent 2015 Human Rights Watch World Report notes:

[T]he government has made little progress in prosecuting widespread killings, enforced disappearances, and torture committed by soldiers and police in the course of efforts to combat organized crime, including during Pena Nieto’s tenure. Other ongoing problems include restrictions to press freedoms, abuses against migrants, and limits on access to reproductive rights and health care.

Nevertheless, it continues to promote the need to work toward a “stable democracy” that can simultaneously fend off authoritarian populist protests, manage the country’s escalating civil violence and become a prosperous part of the global democratic community. These optimistic appeals stand in stark contrast to the country’s declining economic situation, one where it has:

[b]ecome a rentier nation living off of its cheap-labor and assembly-and- export, foreign-owned, manufacturing operations that have arisen largely as a result of the restructuring of US capital. But other rentier operations abound such as the de-capitalized national petroleum company, which is now targeted for privatization. (Cypher, 2013: 396)

Crucially though, the failures of neoliberalism and persistence of state repression only serve to bolster a resilient capitalist fantasy of authoritarian democratization. The cure to all national ills is to strengthen its democracy. This affective narrative, in turn, bolsters the autocratic implementation of marketization; a process that is more responsive to foreign investors and capitalist institutions than it is to domestic democratic deliberation and popular opinion. Moreover, it positions the state once again as the primary protector of national progress, doing whatever is required to preserve the country’s political and economic liberalization, an authoritarian necessity for achieving the country’s dreams of democracy.

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