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The Violence of Hegemony

by Adam David Morton on September 12, 2017
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In reflecting on the ‘dual perspective’ of force and consent, Antonio Gramsci recognised that ‘two things are absolutely necessary for the life of a State: arms and religion . . . force and consent, coercion and persuasion, State and Church, political society and civil society, politics and morals . . . law and freedom, order and discipline . . . violence and fraud’ (Q6§87, 763). In a nutshell this quote reveals how hegemony for Gramsci is always about the combination of coercion and consent, evoking the half-animal and half-human aspects of Machiavelli’s Centaur. For Gramsci, this came to be famously rendered as ‘State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion’ (Q6§88, 763-4).

For some time, moves have been made in Mexican studies to break with the consensus-based analysis of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ associated with the Pax PRIísta, or the supposed enduring hegemony of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that shaped twentieth-century Mexican state formation. Violence, Coercion and State-Making in Twentieth-Century Mexico is a continuation of that literature shaped inter alia by scholars such as Florencia Mallon, Gilbert Joseph and Daniel Nugent, Jeffrey Rubin, Tanalís Padilla, and Benjamin Smith that articulates the coexistence and interconnection of violent coercion and consensus-based politics in constructing postrevolutionary state-making in Mexico.

Wil Pansters’ opening chapter on ‘Zones of State-Making: Violence, Coercion and Hegemony in Twentieth Century Mexico’ does an excellent job in articulating the case for viewing state formation through the lens of different agents and forms of violence and coercion in modern Mexico. As a capstone to the book, Pansters presents a novel framework for understanding state formation through ‘zones of hegemony and coercion’. The zone of hegemony is the area in which the construction of consent through political and ideological leadership occurs, prioritising processes of state-making and power relations through negotiation and consensus-based mechanisms. The zone of coercion and violence is the domain of the exercise of control whether that be in terms of state institutions or agents, nonstate actors such as cacicazgos (boss rule), crime, or the reproduction of power relations through gender identities, ethnicity, age, and social status. The focus on these zones is combined with the critique of state-centredness and a focus on sub-national domains of Mexican state-making. Between state institutions, practices and actors and societal counterparts exists the gray zone: an interfacial territory of state, society and market that might operate simultaneously in the hegemonic and coercive zones of state-making.

The result is a critical assessment of the relative weight of coercion and hegemony in shaping Mexican postrevolutionary state formation, that lays out a field for research on violence, coercion and state-making in the making of modern Mexico. Just as Everyday Forms of State Formation defined the agenda of the new cultural history of Mexican studies through its stress on popular culture, state power, and hegemony, then Violence, Coercion and State-Making will equally shape the mapping of geographies of violence, the evolution of state power, and the historical sociology of Mexican state formation.

The book looks in detail at state-making and politics in twentieth-century Mexico, predominantly from the zone of coercion and violence, along different points of the state-society axis. The chapters include a focus on the state dimension (David Shirk on the U.S.-Mexican border region and securitisation, Diane Davis on the police, and Paul Gillingham on the military); on the interfacial gray zone of coercive state-society interactions including extralegal covert tools of control and coercion (Alan Knight on drug trafficking and the state, Mónica Serrano on the cartel-led privatisation of violence and state-led militarisation of counter-drug operations, and José Carlos G. Aguiar on informal street vending, illegal economies, and state coercion); and the societal dimension (Marcos Aguila and Jeffrey Bortz on corporatism and coercion and violence, Kathy Powell on clientelism, personalism, and patrimonialism, and John Gledhill on violence and indigenous communities and state-making). The concluding chapter by Kees Koonings investigates how the Mexican case fits into wider Latin American scenarios of violence and what this means for Mexican ‘exceptionalism’, whereby cartel-cum-state-violence is giving rise to a new mode of Mexican exceptionality.

Given Wil Pansters’ statement that ‘no comprehensive academic approach to violence and insecurity in Mexico has yet been established’ (28), the volume’s purpose is an attempt to provide an overarching narrative on violence and coercion in post-revolutionary state-making. Assuredly, there are some stand-out chapters along the way, not least Paul Gillingham’s fine-grained analysis of violence in the regional and subnational context of Veracruz where he concludes ‘state violence was critical in establishing what rule the PRI enjoyed across a distorted countryside. The PRIístas subsequent, selective, and generally adroit management of both state and nonstate violence was central to that rule’s endurance’ (111). Equally, John Gledhill’s excellent chapter draws attention to the class violence of neoliberalism in fostering responses of ethnic reconstitution as a way of claiming rights and making demands, which continue to transcend the narrow horizons that neoliberal multiculturalism seeks to impose on the struggles of indigenous peoples.

Perhaps more nagging is the lingering separateness that marks the treatment of the zone of hegemony and the zone of coercion and violence. For sure, connections between these zones are sought, not least through the interstitial spaces of the gray zone. But there is a concern that what is already separated and then combined (zone of hegemony and zone of coercion) will persistently fail to grasp relations that are internal to each other. Indeed, Gramsci himself posited various gradations of hegemony within which coercion, fraud, and corruption subsists in internal relation to what he called the condition of ‘passive revolution’. The dialectical unity of the moments of force and consent are reiterated in noting that ‘between consent and force stands corruption/fraud (which is characteristic of certain situations when it is hard to exercise the hegemonic function, and when the use of force is too risky’ (Gramsci 1975: Q13§37, 1638). The coercive practices of ‘passive revolution’ can thus be understood dialectically when telescoped with struggles over hegemony, which could offer another (cognate) route to understanding modern state formation in Mexico.

Without doubt, Violence, Coercion and State-Making in Twentieth-Century Mexico will propel the new wave of historical sociological research on the ‘dark side’ of modern state formation in Mexico even further. It is an invaluable resource and it will be a central counterpoint for all present and future debate on the postrevolutionary state in Mexico.

This review first appeared in Journal of Latin American Studies.

Adam David Morton
Adam David Morton is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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