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Mexico: class formation, capital accumulation, and the state.

This excellent synthesis outlines Mexican history in two stages: The first stage takes us through three millennia of Mexican history into the present; the second orbits contemporary Mexico and analytically penetrates the class structure and the state. Cockcroft presents a frightening picture: dependent state monopoly-capitalism fuses together fractions of the big bourgeoisie, accelerates growth of the intermediate classes, proletarianizes the petty bourgeoisie and the peasantry, atomizes the working class as a whole, and immiserates most of the people.

Vast underclasses jam the festering slums of cities paved with superhighways; in Mexico City three million defecate in the open air. The author's documentation of the agony of the marginally employed, often based on first-hand research, makes one of the strengths of his book. Cockcroft shows how everyone is slaving away. For most people their survival is at stake, and even when an entire family works they often can't make ends meet. They work as shoeshiners, street vendors, temporary laborers, seamstresses, carriers, messengers, servants, car washers, family labor, marketplace stall operators, prostitutes.

This timely book contains the first comprehensive social history of Mexico to appear in English in more than a decade. The class-stratified civilizations of Olmecs, Mayas, Teotihuacanos, and Aztecs rise and fall; Cortz conquers, the Viceroys exploit, Father Hidalgo screams, Santa Ana betrays, Maximilian presides over the first modern experiment in counterinsurgency warfare. They are all here, crowding the pages of part one; but more important than the grand story is Cockcroft's interpretation of events. He turns the x-ray of class analysis on the heroes and masses of Mexico's revolutionary struggles and lays bare the economic anatomy of society. Many teachers will find in this book a classroom text.

Most of the book is about Mexico in the twentieth century. Cockcroft follows New Left historians who see capitalism winning out by 1900. In the social explosion of 1910 to 1920 the oligarchic fraction of the bourgeoisie lost economic and political power to the industrial fraction. From this premise cockcroft draws and consistent Marxist conclusion: there was no social revolution. For a social revolution is the transfer of economic power from one social class to another class.

Was there a political revolution? Did a new class seize control of the government? What was the victorious regime led by Alvaro Obregon after 1920, that general with 20-20 vision? Here Cockcroft wisely hesitates, for the class nature of the state thrown up by the terrible struggle has puzzled two generations of scholars. It was a partial political revolution, he decides, since the industrial fraction of the bourgeoisie had "to share power in the new state with a number of military caudillos, regional political bosses, labor leaders, small business owners, intellectuals, and bureaucrats--the petty bourgeoisie." The petty bourgeoisie is, of course, a distinct class.

"Petty bourgeoisie" is an overworked term on the left, and the categories stuffed into the concept by cockcroft are not those of Marx. The authorhs pettybourgeoisie is the new middle class of professionals and bureaucrats, a social group barely raising its head in Marx's day.

But terminological squabbles aside, cockcroft's characterization of the so-called revolution as a defeat for workers and peasants is right on target. Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata were defeated on the field of battle, and the new overlords built a state favoring capitalist development. Several chapters show the progress of cpaitalism in herding women into assembly-plant sweatshops, in superexploiting industrial workers, in generating uproductive state bureaucracy, in worsening the distribution of income, in eroding semicommunal villages, and in driving peasants into tenements and shantytowns. But the fightback gets attention too: land seizures, wildcat strikes, slum organizing. "Organizers who try to spark slum political movements on the basis of a theory of marginalization are not likely to achieve more than temporary goals based on charity, self-help, and mutual aid. Only when both the working poor and concerned organizers recognize that the role of the immiserated is not merely that of a reserve army of labor but that of an activated arm of capital accumulation can be burgeoning mass movements be linked to the dynamic of class struggle." With just enough figures to keep the scholars happy Cockcroft gives an analysis of the changing class structure from 1940 to 1980.

Since the purpose of a review is criticism we have some small points. Cockcroft says that Mexico slipped into the quicksand of an economic crisis in the late 1960s and went down to knee level. The nation san farther while grasping loans offered by international finance during the 1970s and was in up to its neck by 1982. (We add that the bog was at eye level in 1983.) When Cockcroft mentions the 1982 economic crisis he is right on, but did it begin back in 1968? In the 1960s and 1970s Mexico had boom growth rates, and the slump of 1976-77 was momentary. Of course, while the economy was doing well the people were doing badly. But for 50 years of industrialization the people all over Latin America have been doing horribly. This means that Cockcroft's crisis is forever.

The economic crisis, says Cockcroft, was accompanied by an ongoing political crisis. To Marxists a political crisis usually means a split in the governing class such that it can't go on in the old way. But the Mexican governing class goes on and on spouting the same old rhetoric. Right now in 1983 as the quicksand of an economic crisis reaches eye level, Mexico is one of the few countries on earth with no terrorists, no querrillas, violence. Government leaders continue their populist act with the same old gestures--like sleepwalkers. The political crisis will have arrived when they wake up.

Maybe this is a verbal dispute about the term "crisis," a word even more widely abused in Mexico. Fact is, the nation is now in a deepening economic disaster with no end in sight. The grim, tight-lipped presidente wears a crisis look, and his advisers listen nervously to the time bomb ticking under the nation. In fear and trembling they eye Latin America's tradition of political violence: 150 successful uprisings between independence and the First World War, with Mexico making the big contribution. They see the signs of that old mole in the earth beneath their feet--the revolution.

It is a worker sparking a wildcat strike, an Indian marching on the capital, a student reading Marx, a teacher explaining the class struggle, a priest organizing the poor, a peasant seizing land.

The revolution is the slumdwellers on Mexico City's eastern rim, described so well by cockcroft, marching into supermarkets to help themselves--food riots not reported in the press. It is Mateo Zapata's refusing to surrender his father's bones to the government's Pantheon in exhcange for two million pesos: "You can have the bones for nothing when you meet my peasants' needs!" It is a people's priest facing death threats from local bosses.

Though it may be a long time coming, the revolution is the ruthless future.
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Author:Hodges, Donald; Gandy, Ross
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1984
Words:1158
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