Monday, 3 April 2017

How Mexico got its violence

Geopolitics moves slowly in Latin America. But the new US president continues to focus the international spotlight on the region, so it’s worth unpacking how it got this bad.

The truth about Latin America is that it suffers from the effects of 200 years of revolutionary ideology. Where did those ideologies come from? Do you really have to ask? “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

The Mexican Revolution was a feature of the same divide as in the US between mainstream and radical liberals (Woodrow Wilson and Eugene Debs). It mirrored almost perfectly the Mexican factions Carranza and Zapata. The only indigenous Mexican forces were people like the Cristeros, who enjoyed no Anglo-American base of support.

All of Mexico’s working institutions date to Spanish rule (which is why anything that isn't ugly is called "colonial"). Things broke down in the 19th century after revolutionary Enlightenment ideology of Anglo-American origin destroyed first colonial, then clerical and aristocratic rule, leading to a zillion very, very nasty civil wars.

It's darkly humorous that today, with Mexico as the world capital of decapitation, anyone could admire the Mexican Revolution. If Woodrow Wilson and his ilk hadn't been so intent on "teaching Mexico to elect good men," the Porfiriato and peace could have lasted another century.

And don’t get me wrong, I'm not defending the Spanish conquest. It would be cool if the Incas and Aztecs had been left alone, not that they were paragons of respect for human rights, you know. (Or do you know?) I'm simply observing how the quality of government by the late pre-revolutionary period (18th century) is a lot higher than the quality of government in the 19th and 20th-centuries by almost any sane metric.

For instance, I believe the main role of government is suppression of civil violence. If a government fails at this, it doesn’t matter what it succeeds at. Imagine Mexico’s progress over the last two centuries without its political and civil violence. Don't forget, the first university in the Americas was founded in Mexico City in 1551, almost 100 years before Harvard.

I would suggest two ways of interpreting this perspective. One is that the continuous low-level violence in these postcolonial societies is not due to their similarities with actual colonial societies, but how different they are.

Continuous low-level violence is non-existent when formal power is identical to informal power. When the patron is actually an encomendero, there's no reason for forced labour (the distinction between "forced" and "unforced" labour is academic to an unskilled farmer) to involve violence, because he has the formal right to command and can ask the lawful arm of the state to assist.

Whether or not the encomendero should have this power is a separate question. But note what happens when you try to remove these feudal indigenous structures: it’s driving nature out with a pitchfork. When the patron is just a strong man, not an actual government official, his power is not policemen and soldiers, but thugs and brutes.

Second, consider that everything you know about the colonial period comes from the enemies of colonialism. Imagine if everything we knew about Jews came from people who hated Jews. Every Jewish crime would be played at maximum volume and associated with the entire Jewish race. Which is exactly how the Goebbels press worked.

Seven-time President of Mexico Porfirio Díaz: Wherefore art thou?
In other words, the 20th-century image of colonialism is just an extension of the good old Leyenda Negra (Black Legend) style of tendentious, nonobjective historical propaganda that demonises Spain. It'd be a shame to create strong conclusions about the region after hearing only from the prosecution.

Latin America’s story is certainly tragic. I hope Mexico can find its way to a new Porfiriato soon. The first step would be expelling the US Embassy and pretending there's nothing but ocean north of the Rio Grande. Mexico is blessed with energy and food security, and it touches both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so it can tell Washington where it can put its fatherly advice. It just needs more cultural self-confidence.

Until that point, I'm quite confident the beheadings will continue. Political order is taken for granted until you find you don't have it, and then it's quite difficult to restore without applying a level of force comparable to what the thugs are producing. Mexico isn't alone in this problem.

In all functioning societies, the weak are ruled by the strong and rebels are repressed or killed. When this principle breaks down, the only thing that can follow is chaos. After a century of revolution, Mexico needs martial law the way a camel that's just walked across the Sahara needs a drink of water.

Historical research is hard work, but hard work isn't always useful work. And hard work only to service a political agenda, is just busywork. The perspective of Western academia in 2017 is valid but also narrow by historiographic standards. It takes more effort to step outside this tradition – especially in Latin American studies – but when you do so you may be surprised at what you find.

Of course, it's not unusual for people living in a historical period to misunderstand it completely, generally as a consequence of political corruption. This is as true of the late Roman Empire as of the late Soviet Union. My feeling is that historians of later eras will understand our world much better than we understand it ourselves.

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