Modern Revolutions in Latin America II
Review of Werner Bonefeld, The Strong State and the Free Economy

Indigenous Peoples Contesting Neoliberal Governance

by Inés Durán Matute on June 5, 2018

In May 2017, the Congreso Nacional Indígena [National Indigenous Congress] together with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional [EZLN] named a Concejo Indígena de Gobierno (CIG) [Indigenous Governing Council] and an indigenous woman, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, presidential candidate (spokesperson) for the 2018 Mexican elections. The objective was not to achieve power, but to organise civil society from below for dignity, liberty, democracy, autonomy and justice. This project is not being directed exclusively to the Mexican society, but to the world; proposing another form of government and society to construct another world based on solidarity and respect. Their proposal is being heard and sometimes adopted by different peoples and sectors around the globe that experience the exacerbation of inequalities, racism, prejudices, criminalisation and exclusion. In this way, the possibilities to deconstruct neoliberal capitalism along with ethnic and economic hierarchies marked by colonialist social constructions increase.

This is not the first time that indigenous peoples in Mexico are rehearsing autonomous projects and inviting the world to resist the workings of a capitalist world-system cast in the image of modernity/coloniality. The Zapatista uprising has gained much attention, but still many ignore that, just like them, there are more than a hundred different indigenous peoples in Mexico struggling against the ravages of capitalism and organising their lives and projects from below and to the left. My new book Indigenous People and the Geographies of Power illustrates a fascinating case in the West of Mexico, the Coca Indigenous Community of Mezcala that might give us valuable lessons on how people could reshape their circumstances to overcome political and economic problems and to defy social structures. Mezcala’s history, in fact, is a continuous narrative of rebellion and struggle for land and its management, as they resist the menaces over their territory together with those against their ways of being, living and thinking.

In effect, this case demonstrates how indigenous communities struggle nowadays against their recolonisation and relocation, as they are in the midst of a continuous fight for the control of space, people, wealth, resources and power. For this, I draw upon the work of Massimo De Angelis and Boaventura de Sousa Santos to develop the critical concept of this book, which is ‘neoliberal governance’, to understand the institutional arrangements at play. I argue that neoliberal governance is an operational logic that deceptively infringes upon people’s lives enmeshing them deeply into colonialist structures of power and discourses via seduction and coercion. Actually, through the workings of neoliberal governance, there is a transnationalisation of social structures, the reinforcement of economic and political positions of countries and elites worldwide, and the maintenance of control and management of people, spaces and resources.

These procedures have been possible via, as I argue in the book, through power relations, practices and rhetorics that continuously move across spaces and times. For instance, the discourses of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘modernity’ act as catalysts in the minds of Mezcalenses to mould their lives and projects and to establish their position. Besides, the workings of the political economy assist in the functioning of this neoliberal capitalist system, shaping the construction of unequal economic, political, social and cultural structures. So, for instance, within labour dynamics, the devaluation of their main economic activities and the fostering of migration, are redefying the lives, spaces, practices, projects, identities and organisation of Mezcalenses.

Indigenous people are enmeshed in these geographies of power; they are caught up in ambiguities and contradictions, being passive and active participants in neoliberalism’s courses of action, trying to find survival strategies but also to construct autonomous projects. In this context, Mezcala is touted as the ideal ground for the development of residential tourism on the shores of Lake Chapala, witnessing, on one hand, co-option, fragmentation, criminalisation and repression; and on the other hand, the organisation, resistance, creativity and solidarity of its members. Power and space are imbricated, being configured by different structures, political economic processes, practices, subjects and rhetorics. Here I follow Doreen Massey to show how spaces are relational and socially constructed, and thus, how people can challenge hegemonic meanings and representations, and have alternative ways to construct, live and imagine their territories.

This scenario becomes more complicated as Mezcala brings distinct temporalities and spatialities. In fact, the number of Mezcala’s transnational migrants is believed to be the same as that of its local population, and this is impacting the construction of their identities and ways of living and thinking. So while the state pushes further strategies to disavow them as indigenous people by eliminating their legal protections, and folklorising and commodifying their cultures and traditions, Mezcalenses have engaged in the dignification of their indigenousness to survive, unite, defend land, and transgress stratifications. This project by reaching the transnational sphere can expand their networks of solidarity to form an even stronger movement of opposition. In a few words, the central proposition of this book is that the local-regional-global interfaces of power that sustain the workings of a capitalist world system cast in the image of modernity/coloniality can be challenged through networks of solidarity that might change the conception of globalisation to one from below.

My book, thus, provides a timely analysis to understand our possibilities to defy structures of power, the rhetoric of ‘development’ and ethnic and class hierarchies, while seeking to gain control over our lives, realities and relations in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world. It becomes central to our understanding of unequal and uneven geographies, since it elucidates many issues and questions that might be arising as we witness the expansion of indigenous peoples’ struggle against neoliberal governance. The preamble of Rocío Moreno, an indigenous Coca, and the preface of Jorge Alonso and postface of John Holloway, might introduce the reader with some of these issues while highlighting the importance of engaging in this kind of research project. In effect, by proposing another way to do research that follows the Zapatista logic of a research ‘in’ and ‘with’, this book also calls on academics to reflect on how in our scholarly engagements we should engage in an epistemological struggle to recuperate the validity of local knowledges while participating in the quest to transform reality.

Inés Durán Matute
Inés Durán Matute received her PhD from the University of Sydney, Australia and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), Mexico.

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