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A Clash of Spatialisations

by Sam Halvorsen on October 28, 2019

In Spaces of Capital/Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy, Chris Hesketh provides an overview of the possibilities and challenges for anti-capitalist politics in Mexico. As the book convincingly demonstrates, such an overview is only possible if one grasps both the historical and spatial dimensions to revolutionary transformation, through what Hesketh terms a ‘historical-geographical sociology’. To aid him in this project, Hesketh draws on a range of Marxist thinkers, especially Henri Lefebvre and Antonio Gramsci, as well as his own fieldwork, which allows him to explore processes of ‘uneven and combined hegemony’ that put questions of scale at the centre of analysis. One of the great strengths of the book is its attention to scalar detail, too often marginalised in radical geographical work that has tended, in recent years, to privilege the flat ontology of flows and networks, and in so doing has eschewed the actually existing politics of scale that governs so much political and social life. As Hesketh shows, political struggles over state formation involve an articulation across local, national and international processes that shape and constrain practices of resistance and domination. As such, struggles in and through territory also assume a central role in the kinds of political struggle recounted throughout the book.

The history of anti-capitalist struggle in Mexico has played out through a ‘clash of spatialisations’, in Hesketh’s terms, as alternative spatial practices confront each other at key moments in the restructuring of capitalist relations. For example, the Zapatistas’ understandings of territory, as a space of collective self-governance and power-to, have directly clashed with those of the state. Such alternative understandings of space are also directly lived, thus generating different ‘spatial practices’. In Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ alternative ideas of space were materialised through the everyday production of new institutions and structures of governance (for example, legal systems) that not only questioned the state’s understanding of territory but directly challenged its capacity to exert its sovereign power over space. In response, the Mexican state has used a range of strategies to re-territorialise their top-down vision of state sovereignty, thereby leading to an ongoing dialectical struggle in and through space. Although these clashing spatial practices have been traversed by the ongoing formation of the Mexican state, the constant has been the autonomy of grassroots struggles in which the indigenous have been central protagonists. Hesketh’s book is framed around two of the most paradigmatic cases of autonomous resistance in the region in recent years, which have also been the source of ongoing inspiration for large sectors of the anti-capitalist left: the Oaxaca uprising (2006) and the Zapatistas.

The first question thus revolves around the extent to which these forms of struggle, based on insurgent spatial logics that clash with hegemonic spatial projects, could and should inform the current political juncture that Latin America confronts. Since the election of Mauricio Macri in Argentina and the impeachment of Dilma Rouseauf in Brazil in late 2015 (which led to the election of President Bolsonaro), the region appears to be entering a dramatic rightwards turn. This regional turn of events is leading to reflections on the strategies of the left in Latin America more generally, although much more is still needed in this regard. Hesketh’s book is useful in providing an assessment of two of the most successful cases of grassroots political projects that have eschewed state-based strategies. It is worth noting here that during the period of analysis discussed in the book, Mexico was not part of the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ and was in some ways a regional outlier. Nevertheless, Zapatismo has remained a constant in the region that both precedes the institutional turn to the left and has outlived it. Despites their many limitations, the Zapatistas’ institutionalisation of alternative spatial practices provided a vital set of infrastructures that would not otherwise exist. This institutionalisation includes not only new structures of autonomous governance and law but also core services such as healthcare and education, all of which attempt to provide the necessary resources for Zapatismo to reproduce its radical political project. One lesson for the region is that when clashing spatial projects fail to institutionalise themselves (or territorialise themselves) with a certain level of autonomy from the state, they will be left in a vulnerable position when trying to survive any turn to the right. Hence, immediately after rising to power in Argentina, Macri imprisoned one of the country’s most important indigenous leaders – Milagro Sala – and deterritorialsised her movement that had reconstructed everyday life in a Northwest province based on grassroots utopian spatial practices.

One of the reasons why Lefebvre is so important to the narrative of Hesketh’s book is his insistence that revolutionary transformation only makes sense to the extent that is also a spatial transformation. Territorial Autogestión in everyday life and counter-hegemonic spatial forms must arise and take root if other worlds are to become a reality. Chapter 4 of the book is extremely insightful in this regard, detailing both the revolutionary potential contained within new ways of imagining the city of Oaxaca and its spatial relation to the rest of the state, as well as the incapacity of the Oaxacan uprising to effectively scale-up its struggle. Key to this has been the protagonism of indigenous movements within Oaxaca and the successful mobilisation of the city as a node for establishing new relations, as well as deepening existing ones, across diverse political organisations. Nevertheless, while the 2006 uprising did manage to politicise everyday life in the city for a brief period of time, there was a failure to establish a lasting form for ongoing political coordination. Once again, these experiences suggest that although social movements may fear or dismiss strategies of changing the world via state power, the production of (counter) institutions remains unavoidable and necessary. Autonomous uprisings that fail to institutionalise themselves, to establish a means through which they can reproduce their spatial practices, are likely to suffer the same fate as Oaxaca. Successful experiences of ongoing everyday territorialisations of struggle within a network of social infrastructures and practices thus provide one of the more hopeful readings of autonomous spatial projects that attempt to clash with dominant spatial forms.

One thing that Hesketh could not have foreseen when writing the book, but which has the potential to reorient strategic questions about the future of the left in Mexico, is the rise of AMLO. In July 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won a landslide election, twelve years after his first attempt ended with widespread claims of electoral interference. Hesketh’s reading of Gramsci’s passive revolution proves useful here, as do Hesketh’s writings with Adam Morton on Bolivia, in outlining a possible future path that may unfold in Mexico. Yet Mexico seems to insist on being a regional outlier and its turn to the left, if indeed we are happy to understand AMLO in such terms, must thus be read through a close sociological reading of Mexico’s own historical-geographical development. Spaces of Capital/Spaces of Resistance opens the way but also leaves us hanging at this pivotal moment in Mexican history.

Hesketh ends by highlighting the central challenge for spaces of resistance in Mexico: ‘the need to “scale up” their activism while avoiding becoming reinscribed into the state apparatus and neutralised via means of passive revolutionary activity’. My sense is that many, if not most, of the book’s protagonists would see AMLO as more of a threat than ally. As such, it may be that new movements arise that are better placed to articulate the relations between insurgent, autonomist demands and the messy institutional politics that goes with strategies seeking to redirect the project of state building. Yet, a strength of the book is its placing of local struggles within the context of a global political economy and this will be a hugely determining factor in the outcomes of AMLO’s government, which faces a very different context to the start of the progressive tide some two decades ago.

We will need more rigorous, multi-scalar and political economic analyses such as those provided in this book in order to make sense of the political transformations unfolding in Latin America. Politically, the region will also need a greater articulation between different grassroots strategies that are likely to approach the Mexican state from contrasting (and conflicting) vantage points but with similar anti-capitalist ambitions. I hope that Hesketh’s analysis can be drawn into discussion with scholars and activists from different backgrounds who are currently debating the recent past and future of Latin America, and who will benefit enormously from the historical-geographical sociology provided in the book.

This post was previously published in Radical Philosophy (Autumn, 2019)

Sam Halvorsen
Sam Halvorsen is Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London and (until October 2019) Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow. He is interested in the relationship between grassroots urban politics and territory, having published widely on Occupy London. Since 2015 he has been researching political parties and local governance in Buenos Aires. He recently founded the Latin American Geographies in the UK Research Network.
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  • October 28, 2019 at 9:11 am

    Certainly Mexico is a highly interesting case. Another recent contribution, by David Barkin — who has researched such questions for a long time — and Alejandra Sánchez, is well worth reading: https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2019.1636370 They point to ‘revolutionary actors – collectively organised and deliberately involved in processes of social and productive transformation with a legitimate claim to territory … Indigenous and peasant communities throughout the Americas … not operating in isolation. They coordinate activities, share information and build alliances. Hundreds of millions of people are participating in this growing movement; they occupy much more than one-quarter of the world’s land area. There is great potential for others to join them …’

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