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God and man in the Palacio Nacional

17 March 2019

As one might expect, the punditocracy has been weighing in on AMLO’s first hundred days in office… making the point, as if it was a point, that he isn’t exactly a “liberal”, in either the Anglo-American English sense of the word, or in the historical Mexican tradition.

Andrés Bello, in the Economist calls AMLO a “reluctant liberal”,  on the premise that while many in his cabinet have been supportive of the standards of a “liberal agends” in the northern countries (things like same-sex marriage, expanded abortion rights, clean energy, marijuana legalization), the President himself has shown little interest in these issues.  While it is true that people supporting economic justice generally support social justice as well, but they are different things, and what is meant by “justice” (social or economic) is not always something we agree on.  And,  at least in Mexico, “liberalism” has a specific historical meaning, one explored (at perhaps with too much erudition) by long time politician and historian Agustín Basave in Proceso (“tweak-lated”… that is, translated, but I was… uh… liberal in making changes and adding words for readability in English…  below).  Basave (no AMLO-fan, he) makes several interesting observations, beyond the obvious one that AMLO’s ideology is “eclectic”, and… he suggests… anti-liberal.

First, he notes one of the more controversial, or at least, talked about initiatives — ending funding for day care centers in favor of direct payments to parents to use for child care is a neo-liberal concept, first proposed by that hero of conservative economics, Milton Friedman (a scaled down version of the negative income tax Friedman discussed with William F. Buckely in 1968).  In itself, with northern liberals now discussing a guaranteed income, one might see AMLO’s plan as “liberal” in the sense that Mexican liberalism was all about personal autonomy.

It’s the fashion right now to reference the Italian political philosopher, Norberto Bobbio, which Basave does in differentiating between leftism and liberalism:   at its simplest, that while liberals and leftist both seek social equality, liberals want to preserve personal autonomy where the left is more willing to turn to authoritarian measures to achieve economic equality.  But, at the same time, Basave recognizes that a legal framework providing autonomy for the person does little to provide social equality.  The 19th century liberals may have extended the vote to all male citizens regardless of their “race” or economic condition, but one could hardly say they were equal.  Or, as another writer once put it, in a Liberal state, “the rich and the poor are equally punished for sleeping under a bridge”.  Basasve goes so far as to call the victims of the inequality that resulted from legal equality “collateral damage”.

So, AMLO’s push for “affirmative action” type programs, that would provide guaranteed incomes to those that have been left behind by the last 25 years of “neoliberal” administrations, would be anti-liberal.  As would the fact that those payments would be targeted to make payments in specific communities.

And, when you come down to it, AMLO’s first 100 days might be summed up by quoting Ronald Reagan (about as far from a “liberal” as one can get) in fighting “waste, fraud, and abuse” of federal funds.  On the other hand, Reagan’s administration was infamous for its ostentation, while AMLO’s call for “republican austerity” has gone to the extreme of selling off the minor perks of high office, the presidential airplane,  and the fleet of luxury vehicles meant to cart around officials, and disposing of the presidential compound, and so on.

Does this mean riding rough-shod over independent agencies and state governments… absolutely.  Something that Basave sees as “authoritarian”, and putting AMLO squarely in the leftist, not liberal, camp per Bobbio.  Does that, then, make AMLO an authoritarian leftist?

AND… the classic Mexican liberals were “Jacobins”… resolute in separating religion and statecraft.  Basave merely notes that AMLO is not anti-religion, but I would look beyond his essay and AMLO’s reverence for Benito Juarez to find the historical lineage for his ideology.

But, then again, at least in private, Juarez was a practicing, believing Catholic.  AMLO has just been more open about his beliefs (whether strictly Catholic, or Evangelical, about which there seems to be some question, though it’s of little import), his almost puritanical personal life and his social conservatism.    His surprising proposal to open television channels to religious organizations, with the understanding that they would provide “moral guidance” to the public, is not in the Juarez “Liberal” tradition, but perhaps is in the Mexican tradition after all.

Not for nothing was AMLO’s first presidential coalition officially names “For the Good of all, but first the poor”.  The phrase, if I’m not wrong, comes straight from Liberation Theology, but the search for a MORAL justice goes back to the earliest days of the New Spain, and has been a thread in Mexican political and social thought for the last five centuries.  Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of Michaocán adopted the “commnist manifesto” of Thomas More, “Utopia” as a rough guide to organizing the Purepechas into an economically and socially nation able to hold its own (relatively) against the outside world.  Bartolome de las Casas, was the “protector of the Indians”.  Hidalgo, Morelos, Matamoros… men of the cloth who in the name of traditional values took up arms against the oppresive “one percent”.  As did so many others, interpreting tradition values through the lens of the prevailing ideologies of their era:  anarchists like the Flores Magon brothers, and Emiliano Zapata; Marists like Luis Cabanas, Lazaro Cardenas, the Ayotzinapa students … none “pure” to their interpretation of the ideology, nor particularly interested in the nuances of the terms… but as much in the traditions of Mexican political thought as any.

Deciphering AMLO’s liberalism

Agustín Basave, Proceso (Edition 2210, 10 March 2019)

MEXICO CITY (Process) .- Although many see President Andrés Manuel López Obrador as a populist or as a revolutionary nationalist, he identifies himself as a liberal, although he does not go beyond defining his ideology as an opposition to conservatism, and as an impulse to change. His observation that the people have always been divided between liberalism and conservative is not a risky given the introspective inclination of the Mexican people to consider their history, it’s not a risky position to take. With the introspective habit of Mexicans to consider their history, there have been several ways to be a liberal, depending on the circumstances of that 19th century Mexican political movement.

Our first liberals emphasized republicanism and the equality before the law, principals enshrined in the Constitution of 1824. Their successors completed the work in the Magna Carta of 1857, separating Church and State and guaranteeing religious freedom. Under the leadership of AMLO’s favored historical touchstone, Benito Juarez, public were secularized. But in achieving these ends, the indigenous people were adversely affected. The abstract ideals of egalitarianism, wielded against special rights and privileges, led to the closing of schools and hospitals for indigenous people, and later because the lands of their communities were expropriated along with ecclesiastical properties. However, beyond this serious but unintended collateral damage, liberalization was the progressive thread of our nineteenth-century evolution.

Despite his Juarista devotion, however, the leader of the fourth transformation does not seem to be coming from this tradition of liberalism. AMLO rejects abstract equality, which treated the unequal as if they were equal, and, although I do not know if he has participated in Freemasonry, he is certainly far from being anticlerical; in short, he is NOT a liberal in the Mexican tradition. Those old liberal principals are by no means an anachronism; even today there are numerous political and intellectual Jacobins — in fact some have criticized AMLO precisely because they consider that he does not clearly draw a line between his religious beliefs and hisrole as a statesman. But, when it comes to the broadly ideological traits identified by scholars of nineteenth-century liberalism, AMLO shares those with which practically no Mexican, left or right, disagrees at present.

But then again, we are all ideologically eclectic, starting with those of us who are social democrats. AMLO’s ideology combines utopian socialism, Marxist binarism, an instinct for populism, the atavism of revolutionary nationalism and ,yes, liberalism, but of a different kind from that found in 19th century Mexican intellectual history. To find wht he really professes, one must turn to Bobbio: “[liberalism] means individualism; and individualism is not only understood to be the radical defense of the individual as the one and only protagonist of the ethical and economic life against the State and society, but also an aversion to the existence of any intermediary between the individual and the State, so that, both in the political and economic markets, man must act on his own “(Norberto Bobbio and Nicola Matteucci, Political Dictionary, Siglo XXI Editores, Mexico, 1988, p.908). To argue that this definition describes AMLO will surely displease not a few liberals and himself, but does not individualized and direct money transfers to citizens and aversion to civil society fit this definition?

AMLO is a doctrinal jumble, a fascinating mixture of statism and economic neoliberalism: he abhors privatizations and vindicates the State, but at the same time repudiates the bureaucracy that characterizes the state — a paradox that I applaud and for intiatives that support this, I’ll vote. And in practice, athough perhaps unconsciously, he uses certain neoliberal concepts: the simplicity of the redistributive schemes — the negative income tax orignally proposed by Milton Friedman, the comparison of bureaucracy and corruption and the reluctance to incur debt, use deficit budget and, above all, to increase taxes. In this sense, AMLO is an unusual follower of the Washington Consensus, which he not unreasonably blames for all the ills in Mexico.

Ideologically, AMLO is impossible to pigeonhole. His speech is more or less homogeneous, but from the decisions and actions of his first 100 days of government, show a variegated ideological amalgam practiced with a dose of improvisation. Perhaps the only thing in which he does not show eclecticism is in his preferred governing style, omnipotent presidentialism. It is clear that he does not like counterweights, even if they are promoted from relatively powerless groups. Therefore, given his insistence on declaring himself a disciple of Mexican liberalism, I must say that the similarities that I find between AMLO and Juarez are two, one good and one bad: austere honesty, and the dangerous concentration of power. The first is not intrinsic to a liberal, but the second is the negation of any liberalism.

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