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The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750-1850.

The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750-1850. By Peter Guardino (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. ix plus 405 pp. $23.95).

Peter Guardino's new book reflects some of the most interesting and innovative trends in the study of Mexican political history over the last decade or so, trends of which he himself has been one of the architects. One increasingly sees in recent published work (and in dissertations-in-progress) the 1750-1850 periodization, for example, in which independence from Spain (1821) is still taken seriously, but as a watershed, in the sense that one needs to see which way political processes flow on either side, rather than as an epochal disjunction. Guardino also delves below the notoriously chaotic and violence-wracked political life of the young republic to the sub-stratum of what he and others have called political culture: the new rules of the game of politics, in other words, rather than just the epiphenomena of public life. Finally, he concentrates on subaltern groups in city (Antequera, the old colonial capital of the province of Oaxaca) and country (Villa Alta, a heavily indigenous town and the surrounding district), although their thinking and talking about politics were necessarily mediated, as in most such studies, by the political elites and entrepreneurs who claimed to speak for them. Both towns are located in what is today the state of Oaxaca, an area traditionally beloved of anthropologists, but more and more of historians. Guardino has given us a really accomplished work, deeply researched, nicely written, with a mature authorial voice and a text scattered with pithy, almost aphoristically memorable pronouncements. He is cautious and judicious with his abundant empirical materials, but not tentative; without being obtrusive, his theoretical and historiographical discussion is acute and sustained throughout the book, not concentrated in indigestible lumps in the introduction and conclusion; and as a writer he knows the function of a topic sentence.

Political life in Oaxaca (and by implication, in Mexico more generally) underwent a dramatic cultural transformation between 1750 and 1850, according to Guardino, from a dependence on royal sovereignty to popular sovereignty, from subjecthood to citizenship for (male) individuals, and from colonial rule to republican government based on electoral politics. Other changes followed from these formal alterations in patterns of governance, among them an opening for subalterns in public life and the expansion of political and economic opportunities for professional men outside the Church. There were also significant continuities, however, perhaps the most important of them the ethnic divide between Spanish and Indian, as seen both in notional social types and everyday practice, but mediated after Independence through citizenship and an ostensibly egalitarian public ethos. The first two chapters walk us through a very solid if unsurprising survey of economy, society, and political culture during the colonial period. Here and in the introduction it emerges that Guardino's conception of political culture hinges primarily on the relationship of individuals to the state, where elite political actors take center stage. Horizontality in politics--that is, what we might call civil society--does not enter the picture until we arrive at the post-colonial era. Chapter 3 deals with the minimal changes in popular political life wrought by the Bourbon Reforms of the last colonial decades. But by the time the wars of Independence come along in Chapter 4, it is clear that something is changing, since the period 1808-1821 in Mexico had profound effects on political discourse, at least, introducing new political idioms of nationality, equality, liberalism, and so forth, and letting the genie of subaltern politics out of the bottle with the brief application of the reformist Spanish constitution of 1812 to forms of local governance. Guardino even suggests rather obliquely and interestingly that the adoption of a new political vocabulary itself forged new forms of political sensibility and behavior. The heart of the book, it seems to me, consists of Chapters 5 and 6, where Guardino provides a fascinating and insightful account of urban and rural politics in Antequera and Villa Alta, respectively, in the first three decades of the country's independent life. New forms of elite domination emerged within the framework of republicanism and electoral politics, along with the problem of social order in a setting in which old hierarchical assumptions had been shaken. Guardino traces urban politics with particular panache (Chapter 5), especially the clash during the 1820s and 1830s between the aceites and vinagres, literally "oil" and "vinegar," the labels corresponding respectively to the conservatives and liberals. He finds that elections had remade the urban political world into one in which ideological programs, not old practices of corporatism and patron-client relations, were the most effective methods for mobilizing ordinary voters, and in which public spaces were filled with tumult and shouting. Despite a general and continuing condemnation of "factionalism" on all sides, the republican period was characterized by the virulent party politics at all levels that led eventually to episodes of civil war and Mexico's near failure as a state.

Despite the empirical richness of Guardino's study and the intelligence of his analysis, some readers may detect a problem with his approach to political culture. In the introduction of the book he constructs an implicit syllogism that runs something like this: culture is unconscious; the unconscious is (for the historian) unknowable; therefore, culture is unknowable. Political behavior is knowable, it would seem, so that political culture can be reduced to behavior, and certainly there turns out to be more politics than culture in the book. This shows up, for example, is Guardino's compelling discussion of the partisan intolerance and even violence that developed in Oaxacan urban electoral politics, but for which he provides a better description than a deep cultural explanation. Indeed, this failure to respect the legitimacy of disagreement in politics still widely exists in Mexico, and has made of the democratic opening of recent years a fragile process. But in the end this is not a simple methodological or theoretical problem, and at the least Guardino has acknowledged that there is a popular political culture which, if not existing in isolation from elite political culture, demonstrates its own noisy identity.

Eric Van Young

University of California, San Diego
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Author:Van Young, Eric
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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