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Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy

by Chris Hesketh on May 17, 2018

My recent monograph with the University of Georgia Press (Geographies of Social Justice and Transformation series), seeks to give empirical grounding to Henri Lefebvre’s famous statement that, ‘Today, more than ever, the class struggle is inscribed in space.’ An overarching focus on issues of ‘space’ can seem, at first blush, to be something of an abstract concern. However, a ‘politics of space’ occupies a central part of our daily lives and promises to have profound effects on our future. One may think here of the peculiarly modern phenomenon of urban slum proliferation, the tragic plight of those who each year, fleeing political or economic persecution, mortgage their lives in the backs of trucks or other precarious means of transportation, only to be turned back at demarcated and fortified border lines, or the relocation of corporations to far-flung parts of the globe, to highlight  just a few example of how the politics of the spatial permeates conflicts and struggles throughout the world. We have also seen recently, under the guise of populism, a new wave of claims for spatial exclusiveness in terms of nationalism, or regional forms of identity.

Drawing from the methodology of Neil Brenner the book constructs its spatial analysis at three separate levels. These are the abstract level, the meso level and the concrete level. As Brenner notes, these are not to be thought of as ontologically separate, but rather they represent ‘analytically distinct, if dialectically intertwined, epistemological vantage points.’ As its name suggests, the abstract level involves drawing together key systemic features of a system, and outlining a theoretical framework within which we can operate in order to conduct our empirical investigation. As such Chapter One lays out theoretically what it means to refer to the production of space and scale, especially under capitalist social relations of production, using concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘mode of production’.

The meso level by contrast is concerned with broad periodisations of institutional configurations that coalesce within time and space, underpinning dominant ideas about, and practices of, development. Chapter Two thus offers a broad periodisation of spatial and scalar geographies of development within Latin America.

Lastly the concrete level looks at the precise ways in which these wider forces unfold within specific contexts, whether this be at a national or sub-national level. Saskia Sassen has rightly pointed out that studying the global ‘entails not only a focus on what is explicitly global in scale. It also calls for a focus on locally scaled practices and conditions articulated within global dynamics.’ It is at these scales we can observe disjunctures and contradictions within material social practices and also think about processes of resistance and alternatives that are constructed within these interstices. Chapters Three, Four and Five thus respectively focus on Mexico and then two southern states of Mexico: Oaxaca and Chiapas. Both of these federal states have seen major activity by largely indigenous social movements to craft new geographical relations of power. Responding to a rapacious form of capitalist development that has often made everyday life more unequal and access to land more precarious, such movements have called into question the legitimacy of the state as the arbiter of social life as well as the efficacy and desirability of a purely representative form of democracy. Moreover, they question the viability of capitalist social relations and the logic of infinite expansion.

What then are the major contributions of the book? First, it highlights how the continual production of space through the transformation of the biophysical environment is a prerequisite for the capitalist system to function. It also provides a detailed account of the social agency of such a process, as well as linking this to crises in economic, political and environmental spheres.

Second, the theoretical insights of Antonio Gramsci and Henri Lefebvre are deployed in a novel way to aid in understanding processes of modern state formation in Latin America, and, in even more detail, Mexico and the two specific federal states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. In particular, Gramsci’s notions of passive revolution and hegemony are drawn upon to show how spatial and scalar configurations have been historically produced within Mexico and for what social purpose.

Stefan Kipfer has noted that Gramsci’s key concepts were developed through their historical and geographical specificity and this methodology is continued throughout the book. A spatially nuanced explanation of hegemony and hegemonic processes are therefore offered which draw from the work of the new cultural historical studies in Mexico that emphasises ‘everyday forms of state formation’. In contrast to approaches that stress purely national levels to the operation of hegemonic projects, the book demonstrates the interplay between global, regional, national and localised articulations of power in the production of space and scale. This is done by developing the notion of ‘uneven and combined hegemony’ (linked of course to the well-known concept of uneven and combined development formulated by Leon Trotsky). The purpose of this concept is also to offset a contemporary trend within current Mexican studies literature that focuses on power dynamics solely at the local level without linking this scale to wider processes of class formation.

The book also makes claim to originality by offering the first sub-national examination of passive revolution as a means of constructing state space. Whilst the concept of hegemony has been successfully ‘decentred’ by a number of scholars the same has not been done for passive revolution, where analyses have largely remained fixed on its broader regional significance or national manifestations.

Lastly, the book underscores the contestations involved in the production of space and looks towards the potential for alternative geographical projects based upon the epistemologies of the excluded. These issues have often been elided in more structuralist accounts of capital, where a detailed engagement with specific resistance movements has not been undertaken. However, the book is keen to maintain a focus on resistance that stresses its dialectical nature, rather than a separate dualistic history. Concretely, this means not postulating a fully autonomous sphere of action for social movement activism but rather examining the relational character to the dominant exercise of power as well as its contestation and subversion. This emphasis on the dialectic is missing from some of the landmark analyses within geographical studies that focus more on a radical politics of language in constructing the social world to achieve transformation.

The book lays particular stress on the agency of indigenous communities and movements in the struggles over place and space. Indigenous subjectivities have largely been excluded from dominant debates about development in Latin America, frequently being regarded as an anachronism that would be absorbed through the twin processes of mestization and/or proletarianisation. However, in recent decades (and in particular since the quincentennial remembrance of Spanish conquest), indigenous resistance has risen to prominence throughout the region. Indigenous movements are now the leading social force of popular mobilisation in Latin America, providing a cosmovision often in direct antagonism to capitalist social relations of production. This has provided a distinct clash of spatial projects in the region (what I have termed a ‘clash of spatialzations’). Subsequently, many of the long-held axioms of traditional leftist thought, such as the centrality of the state, and the working class (defined in terms of a fixed sociological category) as the agent of political transformation have been challenged. Among a number of new trends that are observable in Latin America is the manner in which social movements have become more territorially rooted, whilst frequently, but not exclusively, seeking autonomy from the state and political parties. The book seeks to explore the reasons behind this strategic evolution, as well as discussing its potentialities and problems in a globalised context.

I argue that it is especially important to learn from such counter-spaces of resistance. Many radical intellectuals have borrowed from Gramsci, citing with regard to social transformation that they retain pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. However, this is surely no longer sufficient (if it ever was), for transformative activity. What is required is both engaged, purposeful (indeed hopeful!) intellectual activity, combined with an optimism of the will to put ideas into material practice.  In highlighting some of these counter-spaces that are being actively built, the book has also tried to demonstrate the continuing possibility for alternatives. Examining these ‘spaces of resistance’ shows that other worlds are possible. The exploration of the ‘spaces of capital’ meanwhile demonstrates why such other worlds are increasingly necessary.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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