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Letters against Separation – Irmgard Emmelhainz in Mexico City

March 30th 2020

Today it’s been three weeks since women massively went on strike a day after having taken the streets. Called for by feminists to protest against gender violence and visibilize women’s role in the economy and society, women stayed at home and refused to work, shop, buy and perform any reproductive tasks for a whole day. The day prior, some 800,000 women marched on Reforma Avenue in Mexico City – although the vast majority failed to make it to the emblematic center of the protest, the Zócalo or the city’s main square. Authorities had subtly dissuaded access, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had taken a hostile stand towards the march and strike. The feminist actions were reproduced in cities across the country and in Latin America, creating waves of green (the emblematic color of pro-abortion struggle originated in Argentina) and purple, which in Mexico City matched beautifully with the blooming jacaranda flowers that had arrived a month earlier than usual.

On March 13th, as news from the coronavirus pandemic and crisis mainly from New York City, Italy and Spain began to generate concern amongst the population in Mexico, the Secretary of Public Education (SEP) declared that spring break would begin two weeks earlier than planned and would last for a whole month, instead of two weeks. Private education institutions, however, officially shut down a week earlier than the SEP had prescribed. A meme began to circulate in WhatsApp groups: “Karma: From the creators of a day without women, there will be thirty days with children at home.” The dry misogynist cynicical tone of the meme hardly describes the hardship women are undergoing during lockdown: extra housework chores, productive work plus tutoring children through heavy school assignments sent by teachers for homeschooling.

Two weeks ago, the middle, upper middle class and the elite went into self-imposed social isolation. Perhaps because we are connected to the rest of the world through social media (a particular video from Italy recommending that we follow sanitary measures, lest end up like them), or because some of us were abroad and informed about what was going on elsewhere. Right before the SEP called for the official month-long education shut-down, a mythical flight coming to Mexico City from Colorado, US had brought well-to do Mexicans back from a skiing trip to Veil. A dozen or so tested positive for Coronavirus and one of the passengers, a relative of Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim, was reported dead from the illness in a Mexico City hospital. The coronavirus became immediately a class issue in political discourse: an illness that was brought in by those affluent enough to travel abroad. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador went as far as declaring that “the people are immune,” a declaration echoed by Puebla governor Miguel Barbosa, who declared “if you are rich, you run the risk (of falling ill), if you are poor, you do not. We the poor are immune.”

The neoliberal populist line of action had been denial of the crisis. Like Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President López Obrador’s stand towards the pandemic was in frank opposition to measures taken by state and municipal authorities across the country. On March 20th, Mexico City governor Claudia Sheimbaum called for the closure of public parks, museums, theaters, etc., and launched the “Susana Distancia” (Her-healthy Distance) campaign to promote keeping a healthy distance in public spaces. A group of civilians in Nogales, at the Sonora-Arizona border, blocked the border for hours on March 25th, demanding that Americans stay at home and that incomers to the country be tested for COVID-19. As a response, officials began taking the temparature of travelers, but the “Sonoras for Health and Life” group has threatened to block the border again as they don’t think the measure is enough to stop the coronavirus from propagating in Sonora.

That same day, thousands of companies across the country closed indefinitely. Restaurants began offering delivery-only services. Grupo Alsea, who owns the concessions in Mexico for Domino’s Pizza, Starbucks, Burger King, Chili’s, P.F. Chang’s, Italianni’s, The Cheesecake Factory, Vips, amongst others, launched a 30-day program for “voluntary licensing” without pay. The reason why restaurants remain open with delivery service is because if they shut down, they’d be forced to pay their employees.

In the meantime, President López Obrador claimed that there was no cause for alarm, and was seen shaking hands and hugging admirers saying that there are no shortage of spaces in hospitals (there are about 2050 ventilator machines in the entire country in the public healthcare system). Finally, a week after he encouraged Mexicans to go out and live a normal life in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic (and civil society, governors and municipalities were clearly not listening), President López Obrador asked everyone this Friday to stay at home to prevent the propagation of the virus. Since March 29th, the call for national shutdown as a measure against the coronavirus pandemic is official.

What is behind the populist neoliberal line of denial? It is the millions of people who live by day to day, who cannot afford to stop working and keep on using public transportations to reach their work places. At this point, the health problem in Mexico is not so major as the economic problem. The shutdown is already affecting 40 million workers and according to experts, poverty could reach up to 48% of the country’s population in the month-long official shutdown. For many, the coming economic crisis and recession will be unprecedented in scale. In India, Modi demanded forgiveness from the poor for shutting the country down. Does this mean that our populist leaders will pay for the social cost of the pandemic? Whom will they bail out and how?

We are definitely at the verge of an extremely complex moment, when the majority will be more vulnerable than ever to failing to survive in a collapsed economic system. The immediate official response in Mexico to the crisis has been privatization, shifting responsibility of the COVID19 crisis away from the state and toward family structures (as if families, especially women, have not been shouldering the burden already). Early on, the President issued a machista decree stating that women should look after their elderly family members and that men have to be generous to those around them (like lending money to unemployed cousins or something, as if the norm in Mexico were different than a majority of families sustained by single-mothers’ income). López Obrador has also called for corporate solidarity, and apparently businessmen will be helping the government to strenghten a health plan to contain the propagation of COVID-19. The President announced in his daily morning address on March 25th that Coppel had donated 50 million pesos, Carlos Slim will donate a thousand million pesos for medical equipment, and Germán Larrea, owner of Grupo México, will offer a hospital his foundation built in Juchitán, Oaxaca, which will be operated by the army. The federal government, moreover, has set a fund of 25 thousand million pesos to offer up to a million credits of 25 thousand pesos to taxi drivers, food markets, and taco shops that can be repaid at an annual rate of 6.5 percent payable in three months. López Obrador also stated that there will be no tax exemptions or extensions and that he refuses to replicate the neoliberal rescue schemes that privileged banks and the private sector. These measures are clearly not enough to palliate the ravages of the crisis and the shortcomings of the public healthcare system.

Between March 26-29th, the whole country went officially into shutdown. This past weekend, the President finally demanded that people stay at home as a measure to contain the pandemic. Most of us are concerned about where our next paycheck will come from once our little savings fade out in rent, food, and basics. Banks have postponed credit and mortgage payments for four months, but that is as far as solidarity has gone right now. My efforts in social media to find about or share information about mutual aid networks have been ignored or met with scorn. According to some, the upcoming recession and economic crisis deriving from the COVID-19 epidemic means that the virus is inflicting a mortal blow against capitalism. But I think that governments and corporations will quickly find and implement measures to contain the impact of the virus on the economy to try to return to some sort of “economic normalcy.”

What will become flagrantly evident is the consequence of privatization and austerity measures in the public healthcare system. In Mexico, only a few will have access to ventilators and hospital beds; others will surely have to wait on the streets to receive treatment, as is already the case in New York, where outside a hospital in Queens people are standing in line sick, waiting for a bed which can only be freed if someone dies and the body is taken away. It goes without saying that we are living in a social and economic world in which we accept that some people have access to healthcare to save their lives and others cannot afford it or have no insurance and will die. For fear of falling ill, people have been willing to temporarily suspend normal life, work, friends, affects, political and religious conventions. Bifo has foreseen a long-term stasis, immobility, slowing down. A propagation of relational paralysis. This will not be the end of capitalism, but perhaps the end of our lives as we know them. Embracing uncertainty and precarity at a deeper level than we have embraced them until now, having lesser economic privileges and hardship. Under future conditions maybe we will begin to think and discuss more about the fact that social structures that sustain our lives are not designed to preserve the wellbeing of everyone.

Another issue that we will be no longer able to avoid is the fragility of the social, economic, and environmental structures upon which we lead our lives. COVID-19 has put global interdependency to the fore and that it is the first time that the effects of climate change are being lived at the global level, instead of locally. And yet the idea that the coronavirus will end capitalism is wishful thinking: the virus isolates and individualizes us, we are fearfully retreating further into our private lives, only concerned with self-survival.

News (perhaps fake news) has already begun to circulate about robberies and breaking and entering into supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the country. Some imagine an urban apocalypse of poor (obviously brown) people invading homes and stealing all the food that is left from the supermarkets. And solidarity now means keeping a 1.5 meter distance between others, staying home and socializing through Zoom, using sanitizing gel regularly and not hoarding toilet paper or other basics at the store. Eventually, capitalism will surely come back with a vengeance, tourism will expand, corporations will have profited from the pandemics.

In a way, the COVID-19 isolation measures represent continuity with our “normal,” which is living in a world in which we all have the right to retreat to our private worlds of meaning, tailored to our wants by the algorithms of digital interfaces that adapt to our individual needs. As I have already argued elsewhere, the possibility of the world in common was replaced by the explosion of myriad niches for the private consumption of digitalized content disseminated in the “world” and in the infosphere. The virtual isolation inherent to digital individual consumption has become our everyday reality.

Uncertainty, sudden curfews, inconsistent quarantines unpredictable in length and increasingly more desperate conditions for survival will ensue. Instead of hoping/fearing for the end of capitalism, we need to propagate the idea that a return to “normal” cannot be an option because the coronavirus is part of the climate crisis. And climate change is not a private but a collective crisis that can only be solved by collective decisions beyond the political theater and corporate greed. By now we know that coronavirus and other illnesses come from human contact with animals living in disturbed natural habitats, a consequence of the commodification of life. Understanding that the coronavirus and climate change are rooted in the current economic model, at the expense of the environment upon which our survival depends, because our ability to produce food is compromised in the short-term (the fertility of soils is diminishing, there are droughts, coastal innundations, bee extinctions, heatwaves and wildfires). If cultural producers were the harbingers of globalization and precarized neoliberal working conditions, perhaps we will become harbingers of a different future now. Sharing an understanding and unease with the fact that this society is no longer tenable. That the “life” that is trying to be saved by locking ourselves down has less to do with our personal lives and more to do with the commodification of life.

The jacarandas in full bloom three weeks ago during the women’s march are slowly withering, littering unkept streets across our neighborhood. Still, they offer a festive feeling and fill our afternoon walks of social isolation with joy, countering the paranoid and fearful vibe of the few neighbors we cross on the streets. We have been in social isolation for two weeks now. I work with my nine-year-old daughter daily for 3 hours on school assignments and make up activities for her to do. Dance, guitar, anime tutorials, and podcasts in English and French are the order of the day. My natural state is isolation for reading, writing, and preparing my classes, but having my daughter around and the extra chores has made the quarantine extremely stressful. My classes have moved online – and yes, they include punctuated interruptions in spite of nasty threats. My productivity seems to be increasing and not by choice. I can’t seem to keep up with writings about the crisis by Butler, Zizek, Byung-Chul Han, Preciado, Berardi on top of following the news on democracynow.org, Aljazeera, let alone local newspapers and their opinionists, my previous deadlines and the pile of books next to my bed staring at me. Thinking about the looming uncertainty of income after the crisis, I keep wondering if I can say no to teaching an extra seminar online? To a written commission about the crisis? To a podcast interview? To a Twitter challenge? Aside from daily walks and indoor exercise routines led by YouTube or Instagram live videos, we have been able to enjoy bike rides on the near-empty streets. We are well aware that it won’t be long before we have to face police or military checkpoints when going outside, which I find scarier than the virus. What “life” will we yearn for and desire and what will be the cost?

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April 3, 2019 Day 18

During our first week of lockdown, I read a FB post by my friend Pablo Helguera who lives in New York and was offering anyone interested to read to them a story over the phone. I found his effort to stay connected and be present from afar, offering the gift of moments of contact to share meaning, incredibly touching. I took him up on his offer. When we spoke, New York had already been on lockdown for a week and he told me some personal observations about life there based on the new restrictions. Then he read to me a lovely story he had written in his youth about a vampire teenager who falls in love and approaches the girl at a party. The story unfolds in a far-away Mexico in time and space that came alive through Pablo’s voice. Our imaginations met in Polanco in the mid-1980s amidst teenage angst and quiet streets when life seemed to be much simpler. To Layla my daughter he sang a song accompanied by his guitar about a robot boy whose grandmother gets him ready to go to school by winding and oiling his machinery. She then sends him off kissing his polished steel forehead and his twisted wire curls, and sees him march away at the rhythm of a corrrido tune of “cha cha cha cha cha.” Two days ago Pablo reported having come down with a 103 F fever. The fever is not high enough to grant him COVID19 testing, let alone hospitalization. I sent him digital strength and love, while I reposted a story about 500 people being evicted from a Catholic shelter in Las Vegas. One of them tested positive for the virus, so to avoid contagion, all homeless cloistered there were promptly relocated to a parking lot in which a grid had been drawn to mark the mandatory 6 ft separation. The image of people lying down on sleeping bags with bottles of water, asleep or convalescing, is terrifying and keeps haunting my mind, foreboding and indicative of the current division of the world between privileged and redundant populations, or those who have a roof and money to go on lockdown and those who do not. How do we account for this deep difference? In Mexico as I mentioned on my previous post, COVID19 became a matter of class as the president announced that “the people are immune.” This statement has not only (populist) political but also (neoliberal) economic implications – to allow the self-exploited to keep on self-exploiting to buttress the lockdown. This has given way to a situation in which beyond the fact of lockdown being a privilege, a portion of the population is in actual disbelief of the pandemic and even in numerous areas in the city life is being lived as normal. A schizophrenic denial of economic precarity and social polarization are at the heart of the current regime’s management of the situation (municipalities and states keep on taking independent initiatives though, like the much criticized liquor ban in the state of Yucatán, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Sonora and Campeche).

I’ve been reading Brenda Lozano’s newest novel Brujas, which tells parallel stories about two pairs of sisters, one from the city (a photographer and a journalist) and another from the Oaxaca mountains who are healers, one of them a muxe (*muxes are persons in Zapotec cultures in Oaxaca who are assigned male at birth, but who dress and behave in manners associated with women, also a third gender). Each chapter interweaves the parallel worlds of the sisters who cross paths when Zoé the journalist decides to travel to Oaxaca to meet world-famous healer Feliciana and inquire about her sister Paloma’s murder. In the novel, the character of Feliciana is inspired by the figure of María Sabina (1894-1985), a Mazatec curandera who healed with sacred mushroom ceremonies. She achieved world renown and was visited by famous scientists and people like Aldus Huxley, Walt Disney, Alejandro Jodorowski, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Carlos Castañeda. The two realities interwoven in Lozano’s narrative could not be more different: oral vs. written language, worldviews, scenery, life circumstances, family and social relationships. What the narratives have in common though, is a special focus on how gender violence, maternity, homosexuality, and life stories are lived in both realms. All characters have witchery to help themselves and others, and the figure of the witch is the symbol for empowered women.

Lozano’s aim to give voice to indigenous literary characters has a precedent in Elena Poniatowska’s Hasta no verte Jesús mío. Written in 1969, it is based on interviews with a destitute woman from Oaxaca who fought along her husband during the Mexican Revolution and then decided to stay in Mexico City, getting by with many jobs. The character was inspired by Josefina Bohórquez, a woman that caught Poniatowska’s attention by her language, sharpness and political self-consciousness. Poniatowska visted her every Wednesday for many weeks for two hours to listen to her life-story. The result is a novel made up of a mix of anecdotes written to imitate Bohórquez’s oral language to give shape to the protagonist, Jesusa Palancares. Lozano makes a similar attempt with Feliciana and Paloma (although Paloma speaks like chilanga trans, punctuating all her declarations with a candid “¡Mi amor!”). The context in which Poniatowska wrote Hasta no verte Jesús mío is the peak (and the beginning of the demise) of Mexican communism, in an honest attempt to give voice to a politically conscious indigenous woman who challenged gender roles and was truly exceptional. The voice captured and transmitted by Poniatowska is an attempt to bridge class struggle to real-life subjects in struggle. Half a century later, that bridge has solidified as de-politicized cultural difference.

While half a century ago poor mestizos and originary peoples were the leaders of history in whose name the left fought, now they are (again) the cannon fodder for the coronavirus epidemic: not only are they being left to grapple on their own, but mestizos are filling the streets working, cleaning, cooking, delivering meals and groceries, trying to scrape by, remaining exposed and vulnerable, while the middle and upper middle classes are in lockdown. The irony behind the president’s declaration that “the people” are immune to the virus is that they are wanted to be, or have to be, immune to sustain themselves during the lockdown. Social distancing is just not possible for the majority of the population, and this is why any juxtaposition of life between the urban and the rural worlds needs to remain inconmmeasurable.

In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici recounts how before the witch hunt began at the end of the Middle Ages, women had been relatively in control of their own fertility and reproductive function, practices that would be criminalized during the witch hunt. Before that, the Church at the end of the 13th century saw this with certain indulgence and a right women had to put a limit to their pregnancies due to economic reasons. But things changed drastically when control over women’s reproduction began to be perceived as a threat to socio-economic stability, especially in the aftermath of the demographic catastrophe produced by the black plague that destroyed more than a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1352 changing deeply social and political life inaugurating a new era. Social hierarchies were turned upside down due to the leveling effect of generalized death. But most importantly, as labor hands were decimated, workers became extremely scarce and this strengthened the proletariat’s determination to break the ties of feudal dominion. In other words, power relations were modified favoring the lower classes, as land became largely available, as crops rotted and cattle wandered aimlessly, peasants and craftsmen suddenly took over the situation. There was a massive exodus from both land and the city, and tenants began to refuse to pay fines, taxes and rent. The aftermath of the black plague is known as a golden era of the European proletariat, but a counterrevolution followed, bringing about the capitalist reorganization of social and economic life that came together with the degradation of women’s status in society, misogyny, control of the reproductive function and the witch hunt. Contraceptives began to be called “maleficia.”

Apparently it has been newly found that the coronavirus seems to spread as an airborne aerosol and thus standing six feet apart is not enough or an effective measure to protect people from contagion. This has been known in Asia for months, and an effort to contain spreading of the virus has been to protect everyone with masks. Infected people can spread the virus by talking or breathing, and today only half of the ten people allowed at a time at my bank were wearing a mask.

Speaking endangering us is literal, while women have been talking for four decades, but no one has been listening. During the Mexico City Women’s March three weeks ago, there was no manifest direct repression. As I mentioned in the previous post, access to the Zócalo (the country’s symbolic center and seat of Catholic and state powers) was prevented by a barricade and police, causing the majority of protesters to turn around before getting there. The image of a half-empty Zócalo contrasted with a congested Reforma Avenue. Six people were detained for attacking protesters at the doors of the Palacio Nacional (National Palace, the seat of the Federal Government) which were heavily protected with metal doors. Bellas Artes Palace, hotels, restaurants and shops along Reforma and Alameda streets displayed the same kind of armored protection. And yet, the hundreds of riot squad female police with faces reddened by the sun stationed on the edges of the procession passively observed through their protective masks how the “morras” broke through the armoring and began to destroy windows, doors, security cameras. A few meters distance from me were a group of four morras shattering the window of a Starbucks by the Hilton with a long hammer and a thick wooden beam. I saw another group of morras throwing rockets that made loud banging noises and disolved into pretty colored gases. They also released rocks the size of soccer balls. To me, it was beautiful and I silently thanked them for risking their skins, lives, integrity, sanity for all of us. While these not at all sporadic episodes of vandalism occurred throughout the march, many of the other women present chanted “No violence, no violence.” Without knowing or understanding that those violent gestures indeed spoke on behalf women’s struggle. “The origin of women’s oppression is private property,” I said to a fellow marcher in my contingent, wishing to have a moment to discuss Engels and Federici with her, also to remind her of the Chilean hymn “El violador eres tú” (You are the rapist), which directly accuses the state of being founded on maintaining heteropatriarchy and thus gender violence. There is an urgent need for a popular feminist pedagogy to spread knowledge about the links between heteropatriarchy and state indifference to gender violence. After all, it is the state which grants aggressors impunity. By expressing paranoia and indifference towards the women’s march and strike, the president himself is demanding silence from the victims. This is why vandalism against official monuments (“patrimony”) is a direct expression of state impunity granted to male aggressors of women. In Federici’s account, during the transition from feudalism to capitalism at the beginning of the 14th century and in the aftermath of the black plague, as a means to co-opting young rebellious proletarians, the state (and Catholic church) granted them free or easy access to sex. This meant on the one hand that rape against working class women went unpunished (becoming a kind of sport), and on the other, prostitution was institutionalized and condoned by both state and church. This paved the way for misogyny and the witch hunt or “gynocide” that would last for the following three centuries. A symbolic gesture towards the Catholic Church’s complicity historically and in the present with women’s oppression on the March 8th protest took place as women “liberated” the Cathedral erected across from the Palacio Nacional by pulling away the shielding fences and leaving their bras hanging around the entrance gates.

The desire for connection and togetherness fueled by the uncertainty of the length of the social distancing to contain the pandemic only needs to crystalize in continuing where we left off at the March 9th Women’s Strike. Without a doubt, all toxicity is coming from the same source, the evidence is on the table.

Now, our stories are public. The global debate that arose after the #MeToo movement unleashed accusations of abuse across the world (with brackets in Hollywood and France) centered on men’s freedom to conquer women. #MeToo has been either dismissed as being prudish or as ignoring the quid pro quo behind certain forms of sexual behavior. But we need to be aware of the distinction between predation and abuse and pit abuse against debauchery. Last February, beautiful French actress Adèle Haenel left the Césars award ceremony in France outraged when Roman Polanski’s was awarded Best Director for his film An Officer and an a Spy. Only few cheered, perhaps seeing the irony behind the fact that Polanski had been given an award for a film about an unfair and prejudiced prosecution against a Jewish man (Dreyfus) in 19th century France. In an interview with Médiapart, Haenel told the story behind the accusation of abuse in November that she had undergone as a teenager by Christophe Ruggia, the director of her first film. She concludes that the difference between predation and debauchery lies on the fact that abuse inoculates self-hatred in women along with the drive for self-destruction. Because through abuse, men may derive pleasure from depredation and it can dangerously become the normative measure of behavior between men and women. But beyond that, the whole of society is built on depredation and violence against women: it is not about singular cases proliferating or coming to light: gender violence implicates the whole of society. We are speaking, making symbolic actions, going on strike. And everyone must listen, we have to continue to fight, although the virus has made speaking dangerous. But right now, it is nature itself speaking back.

Because our societies are not only erected on the depredation of women, but also of nature. We are seeing now across the world leaders reacting to the coronavirus crisis with extreme power grabs for ruling by decree with no end in sight (Urban, Netanyahu, Trump’s hint at postponing elections), the suspension of environmental regulations in the name of salvaging the economy (China and the US), attacks on our weakened democracies. In Mexico City, the government is grabbing for extra powers of surveillance, as cell phone companies are now granting the government access to cell antennae, while the president is pushing for debt schemes for small businesses as a solution to lack of salaries.

The power grab and depredation intensify as global capitalism once gain proves to be biologically unsustainable, while the coronavirus crisis signals a passage from the Anthropocene to an era in which humanity has lost its central role as the subject of history on earth. Nature is now taking over, viruses are rebelling against humans, causing the economy to collapse due to the seclusion, death, recession and desperation.

According to a recent interview with environmentalist journalist and ETC director Silvia Ribeiro, all infectious viruses that emerged this century are directly linked to industrialized animal farming, which are fertile grounds for the replication and mutation of viruses mainly because animals live in crowded conditions: chicken (bird flu) and pigs (AH1N1 and SARS) are bred in industrial farms where they can hardly move around and thus generate illnesses as they are fed pesticides, transgenic forage, antibiotics and anti-virals to prevent illnesses. These animals are in contact with human beings, as are animals displaced from their natural habitats, for instance by deforestation, which is also linked to the expansion of agriculture. In short, industrialized animal farming and agriculture are highly toxic; they not only create viruses, but produce food that causes diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cancer. Bayer, Monsanto, Singenta, Basf, Corteva, Cargill, Bunge, ADM are virus and death factories and paradoxically, as we all know, economic rescues will go to saving them along with pharmaceutical companies propelling further the vicious cycle that will reproduce similar pandemics.

Thus while we are on lockdown, we should be reminded everyday that global capitalism is biologically unsustainable and that the vicious cycle of always-returning viruses can only be broken if we actually manage to break the power of the for-profit healthcare and agroindustry.

Banks in Mexico have announced a four-month moratorium on mortgage and credit payments, while the government is offering credits for small and medium-sized companies to pay for employee salaries through the “Banco de desarrollo,” a government-supported fund, and demanding corporate support for the crisis. But clearly more radical measures need to be taken because thus far, these measures favor privatization and debt, fueling the neoliberal capitalist machine. For instance, the US states California, Washington and New York have also announced relief on mortgage payments and eviction moratoriums but many workers have lost their paychecks due to de pandemic and are unable to pay rent. And yet, no rent freezes have been ordered anywhere. In New York, people are demanding a similar approach to mortgages to renters who demand waving rent payment or reducing it at least to 50%. If not, they will call for rent strike like in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Radical measures like this will begin to be taken, like the Amazon workers strike to demand protection from the virus, or like the nationalization of private healthcare in Spain and Ireland, where public, private and military health have been subsumed under the command of the federal government, which has taken over sanitary material or private installations for the duration of the coronavirus crisis for the benefit of all the people. Right now we can allow no room for the public versus the private, and we need to be alert and plan the fight against further possible power grabs and depredation.

*Mental note: To find a way to excise the presidential media circus from my thinking and writing. For the most part, the circus is inconsequential (except for making people skeptical about the pandemic).

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April 10, day 5 of the 4th week

This week I have been experiencing difficulty sleeping, anxiety and feeling pain on my limbs and neck. I have not been i n the greatest of moods, and our three-strong-headed-ladies-household interaction on lockdown has not been easy. Negative dynamics intensify and the need to take refuge from within the refuge is palpable. Diverging needs and capacity to fulfill them uneven out, and a fair redistribution of chores and house space is called for. It has been over a week since access to my anxiety animal has been fully restricted, and that makes all harder. Last night, Layla dreamt of being evicted from our home: “Some guys looking like Trump came and kicked me out of the house and I was forced to go on and live by myself on the streets.” The heat and dry air have added to general discomfort, but luckily we were able to enjoy a thunderstorm that seemed to arrive as a gift to enable everyone to breathe better. I am getting good at finding balance between productive and reproductive work. My daughter has two weeks off from school and I have a break from virtual teaching. I have been trying to take some time off from writing and to “forget myself,” as my friend Jimena Acosta suggests, to spend more time with Layla. Although keeping my mind sharp as well as my body are definitely my best way of coping so far. All the while, the secrets of tender chicken, the mysteries of the marriage between steak and wine and ginger and garlic, al dente pasta, the endless possibilities of quinoa, fideos reveal themselves to me (not really: my friend Miguel Ventura and my aunt Sonia Ortiz’s Cocina y comparte channel are helping a lot). Will the Easter Bunny arrive if COVID19 is on the air? I’d better prepare for a night sneak-out to go buy some chocolate to hide in the garden on Sunday.

Daily parentheses of our lives under lockdown had been walks and bike rides, but now it turns out that they can be dangerous because it has been demonstrated that the virus lingers on the air; crossing a jogger or cyclist in our paths less than 20 m away is now considered to be a haphazard. So life appears to be reduced to bodies and voices on screen telling me to stretch out previously unknown and unfelt joints and muscles on my torso, hips and shoulders; or me telling faces on my screen to think about this or other aspect of a film we saw. As faces and voices on screens appear to be our link to the world in a desperate search to ward off depression and panic, to get together and find meaning at Zoom parties, to exchange views, articles and news and hope on the situation on WhatsApp groups, it becomes clear that we take for granted so many things, like running water and soap, food availability, mobility, freedom of choice and contact with one another.

Our current lives in conditions of extreme alienation have not only redefined privilege as comfortably having the means not to come into close contact with the people upon whose labor, bodies and lives our lifestyles depend upon. It means that a new “virtual working class” has emerged. Zoom and similar platforms have become the matrix of a model of production instituted by the coronavirus. We have brought our productive lives to a partial halt to flatten the curve of the propagation of the virus, but have enabled minimal production and consumption to keep the system going. A new economy of lockdown has emerged in “the digital purity of connectivity,” in the space of disembodied communication, where knowledge is further subsumed to the rule of capital accumulation, the technological power over social life exacerbated.

One of the most worrying effects of the reduction of life and human contact to screens has been that society has fallen into disbelief of its own capability of governing itself. Civil society on lockdown now means daily shared automated panic and outrage triggered by the simulacral voice of our political leadership. As we are facing a near future of economic recession that inevitably comes with cultural devolution, further political regression and social impoverishment, we are turning to the “State,” the banks and the 1% for the solution to the crisis and to the private sphere to worry and solve problems that are collective. This is clearly a side effect of the alienation brought about by lockdown, of the shocking sudden awareness that the distinction between nature and culture is risible, that human beings and capitalist production are not separate from nature. Although nature is not centered on humans or human beings, nature has agency, insofar as it is a condition of states of affairs. We are now living under Coronavirus Capitalism: the virus has instituted a new discipline for production, surveillance, militarization and thus the movement of bodies, which has come with the intensification of racial, class and gender hierarchies as well as with the eradication – through great suffering – of a portion of the redundant population. A new perfect storm for the shock doctrine is brewing. The experience of “society” has never been lived at this level of abstraction before. Capitalism, for its part, is “the social” insofar as we depend on and profit from one another, having created and perpetuated social relationships that are disabled and unequipped to function toward the common good. Capitalism is not only anti-social, but also anti-life and toxic.
If nature is a condition of states of human affairs and production, foreign to human agency, the COVID-19 crisis is the expression of capitalist (and heteropatriarchal) toxicity. Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters (2019) is a fiction about an environmental lawyer (Robert Bilott) who puts together a class-action case against the chemical manufacturing corporation DuPont, accused of contaminating a town in West Virginia with unregulated dump chemicals on the town’s river. Specifically, DuPont dumped large amounts of PFOA, the unregulated chemical used to manufacture Teflon, which causes cancer and birth defects. It turns out that more than half a century after PFOA every human being and the environment carries traces of PFOA. In the light of this film, Haynes’ 1995 film, Safe, acquires a new dimension and contemporary relevance in helping us understand the role of all kinds of invisible toxicity surrounding us as well as the fact that our drive to safety and security drives us apart. Carol White is a Los Angeles housewife who falls ill and comes to believe that she suffers from environmental allergies. Haynes’ film is not only a commentary on self-help culture (again: collective problems understood as private), a metaphor for the AIDS crisis as well as class and social estrangement, but also about the environmental and social toxicity that we fail to see and account for.

The fetish word “community” in its romanticized version has seen a new life to draw a future horizon of building together lives as communities of shared affinities or communities of strangers (with plus points for that). But I think that before we are able to foresee a future of a socialized economy and interdependency (or communities grounded on responsibility towards others), we need to first acknowledge the social, environmental, emotional toxicity surrounding us grounded on capitalist relationship of power and debt. Second, we must find ways to rewire ourselves against Western Modernism’s inoculation of individualism and the fantasy of self-reliance. Only then perhaps, could the quarantine become be a “portal” as Arundathi Roy says, from our past lives toward a new post-capitalist world.

Without a doubt, we need to match up to the times, and resiliency means right now being clear about what is necessary for us to understand to be able to envision forms of action and movement encompassing what needs to be fought for. Most of what we are dealing with are feminist issues as class, gender and race divisions are being deepened by forced lockdown.

We must also acknowledge that in spite of our best efforts and intentions, our current lockdown conditions are hindering meaning as the result of ineffective communication amongst language agents and thus affecting our “shared view” of the situation. According to Bifo, meaning emerges in the dimension of affective conjunction, and meaningful exchange dissolves rapidly when the community of bodies disaggregates. As the community of congregated bodies is substituted by faces and voices on screens, sentience is numbed down. We tend to overlook the material infrastructures that surround and support us, like electrical wiring, elevators, heating and cooling systems, not to mention the oxygen in the atmosphere. Like we take these for granted, we take the possibility of having access to others through our screens for granted. Our reliance in technology is invisibilized as it becomes a proxy-space for mutual understanding and sharing meaning. But we are currently missing out on a sensuous consciousness for a shared imagination, which is key for political organization. Facing screens, we have cognition but our forms of shared imagination are being reduced to simplified expressions of outrage, irony, cynicism, depression, despair or hope.

On a live Instagram interview on April 7th, Jean-Luc Godard posits information as the virus and incommunication as the illness. He mentions his 1975 a video-film made in collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, Comment ça va?, in which they discuss the illness of information grounded on a critique of an image of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal published in the leftist newspaper Libération. As a genre in photography, photojournalistic images had become information and “Plato’s cave became fixed on paper/screen.” If we extrapolate this analogy to Coronavirus Capitalism, we could argue that we have moved from real life and human contact (which had been already partially shut down by various forms of alienation, amongst them digital communications) to the inside of Plato’s cave-screen, in which we are now exchanging information without sentience or shared meaning: that is the illness of incommunication, as Godard put it. To explain this, Godard brings up linguist Férnand de Saussure’s structuralist distinction between langage, langue and parole in French. Langage (language) is the capacity to use langue (language) as a tool, to communicate and interact with fellow humans, an organized system of sounds that carries content. Langue is a tool structured by rules that allows us to communicate and interact with fellow humans. Parole (word) is the concrete use of langue by every individual that expresses herself through singular forms of pronunciation, accent, rhythm, type of words and expressions. I would add here voice, which is the faculty of speaking and expressing sentiment, judgment, opinion, and écriture (writing). For Godard, images are langage and cinema is made up of writing and images (écriture and langage). So is information, but it has become an illness because it conveys solidified meanings from which complexity and ambiguity have been excised, expressed as mots d’ordre (orders of the day, slogans, mandates) as Deleuze and Guattari put it in Mille Plateaux, crystallizing states of affairs and hindering action. Another manifestation of the virus of communication is the simulation of the voice by political leaders (this has been called Neurototalitarianism, post-truth…)
Every morning since he came to power on December 1, 2018, our President Andrés Manuel López Obrador addresses a group of journalists and their recording machines; as he speaks out, the President receives feedback from them as a lonely mirror-image which finds a chamber of echoes in social media. The purpose of the daily morning address is to dominate the public sphere with a series of pre-determined topics and so the President’s voice has become the source of the nations’ daily outrage. On April 7th, our constitutionally-mandated secular president read in his morning address a Tweet by Pope Francisco quoting the Gospels: “… we will be judged according to our relationship to the poor…” the President read, and then declared: “We have to give preference to those who need help the most.” The President’s simulacrae of a voice in his daily morning addresses have become a self-enclosed and self-referring system of parole: “fake news” reproducing themselves like a virus in the chamber of echoes of social media and digital commentary.

In my previous post I gave myself the task (or challenge?) to no longer rant or complain about the President, but I think it is important to understand his voice as a “sinthome” in Lacan’s sense (I’m all vintage-post-structuralist today). The sinthome or symptom is not a call for interpretation or an address to the Other, but pure jouissance addressed to no one. In other words, the sinthome is a not symptom as a signifier, but the enjoyment of the unconscious which determines the subject, and it can be deciphered as a constitutive trace in the subject’s jouissance. In the Mexican particular case, the President’s voice as synthome is the machista moralistic unconscious of condescending capitalist heteropatriarchy upon which the Nation-State is grounded: on the exploitation of indigenous and originary peoples.


Sears controversial Spring 2020 campaign throughout Mexico City

At the end of last week, a meeting took place between the President and private enterprise leaders (the representatives of the 1%) who had come forward expressing solidarity with the government in palliating the current/forthcoming economic crisis. On Sunday, the President announced his proposal for economic measures, centered on amplifying social programs based on youth and elderly cash handouts, future plans to build public and housing infrastructure, to continue with the government’s policy of austerity and “the poor first” through government social aid. The President has repeatedly stated that a new FOBAPROA – a contingencies fund created in 1990 by the Mexican government to attempt to resolve liquidity problems of banks in the country before economic crises – is out of the question, and that COVID19 is the opportunity to bring crashing down the neoliberal economy. In order to do that, political parties now need to donate a portion of their elections budget, the President has come up with an extra 250 thousand million pesos, product of the dissolution of 283 trust deeds considered inessential in one blow, to pay public debt interest, to strengthen State social programs, to help economic reactivation by offering credits to small family businesses in the formal and informal sectors. A million credits will be handed out to micro and small family enterprises like car workshops, beauty parlors, convenience shops, small restaurants. The funds will also be used to buttress Pemex against the fall of oil prices and to invest in State infrastructure for fossil fuel extraction (a large portion of oil extraction infrastructure was subcontracted or privatized under President Enrique Peña Nieto). These measures make sense if we consider that about 50% of the workforce is informal, which means they do not have the right to social security, and that thousands of people have lost their jobs, and if they don’t die from COVID19 they could die of hunger or domestic violence (this is why for better or for worse in many States alcohol sales have been restricted).

For its part, the Private Initiative represented by the Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (Corporate Coordinator Council) has requested the 100% deferral of social security contributions for hotels, aviation, tourism and restaurants, to increase the country’s debt in 4 GDP points (a total of a billion pesos to palliate the crisis), an infrastructure program with joint public and private funds assigned to every one of the 32 Mexican states; a Private Initiative opening to invest in the energy sector, that Mexico substitute China in some exports to the US, an accelerated depreciation to accelerate investment in Mexico, to support smaller business with advanced salaries and raw matter acquisition, and to avoid contractual penalizations amongst particulars.

The President’s disregard for the Corporate Coordinator Council’s proposal repeatedly stating that “the State will not bail them out again,” not only caused extreme polarization on the screens that comprise our public sphere, but as the 1%, believes that the President’s plan is a tragedy, they seem to be launching into a private crusade to save the country (which possibly means taking full advantage of the crisis, Shock Doctrine style). Mexico’s unbridgeable realities have been brought again to the fore. While the President speaks for the poor and seeks to ameliorate their living conditions, he does so without threatening the social order or private property – why else would he not propose to nationalize private hospitals, hotels, the aviation industry and restaurants? Many see his plan as mere populist subsidies geared at short-term consumption, and indebting the poor.

Again, the polarization upon which this debate has been constructed is the same as the President’s voice as sinthome, the source of unconscious enjoyment, the sadistic violence upon which our colonial society is erected.

From this point of view, the public discussion about the solution to the current/forthcoming crisis should not be centered on whether the President is nuts or the 1% abusive. The current discussion about the means to solve the current/future economic crisis should be centered on the unsustainability of the fossil fuel and megaprojects economy. What is denied in the ridiculous chairo/fifí dichotomy is the democratic control of the commons. This is why we need to fight for a more radical approach to the crisis.

Clearly, the virus affects everyone but not in the same ways: most live in overcrowded homes and neighborhoods which make social isolation difficult; others have no access to running water and soap, many are old and sick (diabetes and obesity being already national epidemics). Vulnerabilities are distributed differentially amongst the population. The question to a find a strategy to reduce economic and physical harm for everyone. The idiotic debate polarizing our screens is proof that the Nation-State is obsolete, especially when healthcare is treated like a commodity and nationalizing private healthcare, or impeding big pharma and securitization industries to take a big chunk of the Coronavirus Capitalism cake is not even on the table. Pitting “the poor” against the “1%” will take us nowhere; rather, we need to put the stark class divide at the center of the discussion. Indeed, a portion of the population has healthcare and can work from home and order groceries online, comfortably isolated; but the vast majority (informal workers, campesinos, indigenous peoples) are being left to their own devices; what will they do with the State cash handout if there is no medicine, no food to buy, no hospital beds? We also need to bring forth race as an issue: people on the frontlines are brown men and women (domestic workers, nurses, security guards, delivery pepole, factory workers) but also prisoners, refugees, immigrants in transit, destitute, homeless, misery belt dwellers who are the most vulnerable.

Bearing this in mind, we need to fight not for State cash handouts for the youth and elderly in the short-term, but for a universal income; for large-scale public ownership of major corporations to maintain vital services that cannot be run at a profit (private property seems to be untouchable in this country, in spite of the President’s war cry “Down with neoliberalism!”). This, along with State attempts to plan production – especially food. We should be concerned with maintaining not only the stability of food prices but food supplies. The current agricultural system in Mexico is not economically viable: it is environmentally and socially unsustainable as it depletes the soil and poisons aquifers, while it concentrates power in the hands of retail cartels who have driven prices so low that campesinos are obliged to sell below production costs. Perhaps this is an opportunity to regain food sovereignty, making our agricultural and food system greener and more efficient, making sure that the food that we are consuming is not produced by exploiting people and destroying the environment and our bodies with toxic chemicals.

Some other demands that we need to be articulating boldly are for free universal access to healthcare, food, energy, Internet and water. On the ground, we need to keep on organizing networks for aid – networks for food and sanitary equipment donations have been the order of the day in Mexico City – and mutual aid and for rent and mortgage strikes.

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April 17, 2020 day 6, week 5 (just past the official “quarantine”)

Everyday I feel like I could, like things could sway either way: toward dystopia – a brutal class war is breeding, survivalists are already on their way to their bunkers or estates in New Zealand, the one percent are fearing a backlash – or toward a post-capitalist future that I ceaselessly try to conjure up during the day but that gives me nightmares at night. And so when I get up I feel guilty for wanting my old life back and that my attempts to interpret reality, draw a horizon of a future, give a critical assessment of the state of affairs, offer conceptual tools to think the present, share thoughts – which are supposedly the duties of writers and artists – are facetious at best. Intermittently immersed in the frenzy of content production and consumption, I accept that language is my means and that thinking through language is for me as vital as moving physically. It’s my way of battling anxiety and plus, the sensation of being informed adds to the illusion of being in control.

Today it was officially announced that the lockdown would extend until May 30th. In zones of low or non-contagion, it will end in a month. These are the last of my Spring Break days before I go back to teaching and homeschooling. By now we have sunk into a daily routine that involves serious cooking – and by this I mean cooking that produces considerable amounts of compost material – cleaning (laundry is done on Sundays), UNO and Siedler, LOL dolls going to the beach in a patch of garden, NPR’s podcast Molly of Denali and Peppa Pig in French. I have not been able to read much, and we have hardly been on the streets. We have ventured once or twice to the supermarket (which is always packed), or to walk around the block. The heat has not receded and neither have the withered jacaranda flowers trashing relentlessly the surroundings of the house. As the sun rises up throughout the day, the color of the sky intensifies to a metallic shine, seeming almost like an opaque mirror lit to the point of overflowing radiation. Right before this happened and our lives changed forever, the sky had been appearing like this. Perhaps I noticed in February? The sun rays felt more intense, I had been going to bed every night feeling that my body had absorbed the sun’s heat, nighttime becoming a reprieve from the menacing opaque mirror spewing heat the sky had become.

Solidarity efforts have emerged around me; not the “mutual aid” kind I had been hoping for (yet) but more like Coronavirus capitalist measures: hundreds of women are sewing masks at home either to sell or to give away. Techniques and materials abound, my favorite are acetate sheets with elastic bands stapled around them (we got a bunch this week as a gift and I will be trying on one as soon as I finish this to visit my nearest ATM). Fashion designer Carla Fernández has produced her own Mexican-neo-modern-folk designs, which can only be bought in bulk and promise safety, 25% revenue to artisans in rural areas, being collector’s items and ultimate chicness.


@Carla Fernández Instagram

In my “Mujeres Unidas” WhatsApp group of moms from Layla’s school, pastries, tacos, paella, psychological, and legal advice on domestic violence, CVs (many are losing their jobs) are being exchanged and shared. Today a mom will be delivering to our home cochinita tacos. Other people I know are handing out baskets with basic groceries to informal vendors on the streets. A young artist who graduated from the school where I teach, Ricardo Atl, together with two doctors, produced an aerosol box, a protective barrier that doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists can use when they intubate patients. They redesigned Taiwanese Lai Hsien-young’s box for the same purpose and liberated the blueprint so that anyone can build their own box. Doctors run the most risk of contagion when they intubate patients. Now a campaign has been launched to raise more funds to build boxes and donate them. I could also mention here that UNAM students have produced a COVID-19 test that yields results in 2 hours for 300 pesos (or 13 USD or less by the day).

In the face of the current regime’s generally perceived populist maladroitness in handling the COVID-19 economic, political, health and social crisis – to the point I’m conspiratorially thinking, a version of herd immunity-eugenics must be at work in Mexico – municipalities throughout the country have organized to impede access to visitors during the quarantine. The Italian village model (for agglomerations of 10,000 inhabitants or less) is being applied by cabildos, municipal councils, local government authorities, etc. who have taken action at the micro-local level (but unfortunately without the COVID-19 testing kits as they are scarce and expensive). Tepoztlán, a “magical town” in Morelos just beyond the fringes of Mexico City embedded in the skirts of a mystic rock agglomeration where many chilangos have weekend homes, shut down for Easter week like other villages across the state of Morelos. Colima and Nayarit, adjacent states on the Mexican Pacific North, closed their borders as well to visitors who fail to prove they have an essential activity there or that live elsewhere. Checkpoints now pepper highways and secondary roads, airports and non-essential commerce are closed, and US citizens coming home to visit or to stay for good are being isolated for 14 days. In deep Guerrero, in the zone known as “La Montaña,” community authorities and vigilantes installed checkpoints weeks ago to stop incomers from the north. That is to say, many immigrants returning from the US to their villages are not being admitted back for fear of contagion. This “communitarian encapsulating” is a drastic measure being taken but necessary, as indigenous communities are the most vulnerable peoples to the pandemic in Mexico.
Recosur, Jolom Mayetik Cooperative, Cefocam-K’inal Antsetik and K’inal Antsetik are indigenous women associations predominantly from Chiapas who have issued a communiqué on April 9 with conclusions about the economic, social and political impact on indigenous women by COVID-19. They fear for their health as in indigenous urban and rural zones there are no conditions to guarantee either information or the means to supply basic necessities for indigenous families. Some municipal authorities are subsidizing the costs of maize, beans, sugar and rice, but they declare that prices are escalating. They also state that the mandate to “Stay at home” is impossible for them because they need to go to work to guarantee the most essential things to reproduce life, even water and soap. They demand that municipal, state and federal authorities forbid alcohol sales in rural and urban areas because alcohol strengthens violence against women and children, and denounce the lack information about the pandemic, especially in their native languages. Men and women are also returning to indigenous zones unemployed and as they are possible sources of contagion they have no tests available and neither do they have access to healthcare. They are thus requesting mobile medical clinics with basic medicine and equipment and demanding that information about the epidemic in their native languages be spread in radio and local media. Finally, they highlight the fact that the epidemic has drawn a steep difference in how it is lived according to race and class, as some can afford to stay home and others cannot. They demand that the Mexican State guarantee economic and social rights for their communities.

Indeed, originary populations are already at a disadvantage: they are more vulnerable to the pandemic because they lack running water, healthcare access, a balanced diet and basic sanitation, on top of living under the threat of their lands and commons being expropriated, leading to permanent territorial conflicts. The pandemic will certainly exacerbate their situation. They will fight for maintaining some land, water and forests they can manage and have autonomy over. They are deeply concerned with maintaining collective life (not individual life). In a recent live interview with Raquel Gutiérrez and John Holloway with Firize Manji, Gutiérrez recalls how colonization five hundred years ago was intrinsically linked to the smallpox pandemic which decimated a third the pre-hispanic Mexican population. For Gutiérrez, now it is a time to observe and learn from indigenous communities whose fight for water, land, food and some energy to stay alive means organizing themselves and going beyond individualism. It is also crucial to understand that their means to survive represent a direct critique and alternative to capitalism’s way of relating to nature (destroying it), as clearly COVID-19 is directly linked to industrialization, deforestation and global warming. Never has it been so clear that capitalism actually destroys the preconditions of human existence.
And even more vulnerable than indigenous peoples in rural areas, are those living in refugee camps, precarious urban zones, detention camps or tent cities like the one in Matamoros, Mexico where people from Central America have been stranded since last Fall awaiting to hear back from their asylum petitions in the US – now less likely to be granted than before. Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy in 2019 established that asylum seekers needed to return to Mexico for the duration of their asylum process; many families sent their kids to cross alone because the US has a policy of protecting unaccompanied minors. But even that door has been closed as on March 21, and stating the COVID-19 crisis as a reason, minors began to be expelled back to Mexico. While many asylum seekers have returned to their home countries, 1500 remain in the Matamoros tent city and now there are 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus amongst them.


Tent city in Matamoros, Mexico, November 2019

This clear differentiated distribution of vulnerabilities obeys the division of the world between privileged and redundant populations or degrees of mournability or citizenship of lives across the world. For instance, in Mexico City this distribution of vulnerabilities manifests in the fact that 35% of the population (only) is on lockdown, while 65% is going on about life as usual mostly trying to make a living by maintaining the quarantine of the rest as unprotected “trash workers” (or disposable workers; I’m thinking of how I read somewhere that a company in the US had given trash bags to its delivery workers as COVID-19 protection).

Approaches to palliate vulnerabilities are also differentiated across the socio-political field. While the Mexican Private Initiative is launching a crusade to save the country from bankruptcy, private and public institutions are acting independently of the central government’s declarations or policies. For instance, the CCE (Corporate Coordination Council) has signed an “Acuerdo nacional a favor de México” (National Agreement for Mexico) in association with unions, social and corporate organizations rejecting the president’s stand of “the poor first” which accepted no tax deferrals or exemptions for private companies, amongst other economic measures to palliate the economic crisis. From the CCE’s point of view, the president is failing to understand that when there is a problem with medium and small enterprises, there is a problem with the social base of the nation. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is being highly criticized moreover for having called for a decree to cancel all non-essential industrial production except for subcontractors like CEMEX which is providing cement for his megaprojects: the controversial Dos Bocas Refinery and the Mayan Train. And perhaps the fear I expressed weeks ago when this all started is justified. I was worried that when we came out of lockdown these megaprojects would have materialized and that was going to be the world the near future had for us to inhabit.
Other instances of autonomous measures taken by private and public organisms, in spite of the president’s declaration that the government will not bail out private corporations by any means, are the IMSS (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social or Mexican Institution for Social Health Insurance), a remaining representative fragment of what used to be the Mexican Welfare State, which has conceded a payment break to enterprises whose employees are affiliated with the Institute (I am, by the way). It has also been reported that drug, human trafficking and paramilitary cartel Los Zetas sicarios (hit men) are handing out basic groceries baskets to vulnerable families in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, where thousands are now unemployed. In the communities were mining tycoon Grupo Larrea operates, the company has donated cleansing and hygiene packages with antibacterial gel, soap, chlorine, face masks, and thermometers and is offering online yoga, music and fitness classes to employees and their families.

Perhaps they were moved by Tijuana nurse Silvia Rosas’ story: she works for the General Hospital at the COVID-19 ward and avoids going home after every shift for fear of putting her husband and children at risk. Silvia Rosas goes “home” to rest in her transformed 1994 Voyager van equipped with the essential blankets, pillows, shoes, and civilian clothes. Or maybe owners fear for an authoritarian call for nationalization. In any case, hotels in Mexico City (at least 175) have been “persuaded” (like private hospitals) to donate hotel rooms for healthcare workers to sleep in during the COVID-19 pandemic for free when they finish their working day at hospitals and medical centers. (Or are we talking altruism?) Across the country attacks, discrimination and threats against doctors and nurses have been reported because people fear being infected by them. In some cities across the country like Guadalajara, authorities have assigned special transportation for them, even with police escorts.

A total of 146 hospitals nationwide have also donated a portion of their facilities to treat patients with non-COVID-19 related illnesses like birth, appendicitis, gastric ulcers and abdominal emergencies, liberating 3500 beds in public hospitals devoted to the pandemic. I must mention the irony behind the makeshift hospital being currently built at the Convention Center Citibanamex in Mexico City. In collaboration with Carlos Slim, Telmex-Telcel and Imbursa Foundation which have donated half of the money for it, the other half being given by CIE, Walmart Mexico and Centroamérica, Bimbo, Barcel, Sertull Foundation, Citibanamex, Alfredo Harp Helú, Coca-Cola Mexico Foundation, Coca-Cola FEMSA, Goldman Sachs, Codere, HSBC and Coppel. All these companies will definitely not go into bankruptcy during the pandemic, especially those specializing in Internet and food production and distribution. I must mention the uncanny feeling I get when I see the image of the Citibanamex hospital, as the Center has been for the past 8 years or so the siege of the Zona Maco art fair, the biggest contemporary art fair in Latin America.

citibanamex-696x467

In parallel, we are beginning to get glimpses of the savagery of Coronavirus Capitalism: While Mexico’s private-public electricity company CFE increased its rate .23%, a worldwide ruthless facemask war is being waged. It seems like it began two weeks ago when Germany accused the US of appropriating a cargo carrying 200 thousand facemasks destined to Berlin in transit at the Bangkok airport. And while the French have accused US “pirates” of stealing face mask lots in Chinese runways (with suitcases full of dollars paying three times their price), Trump has caused outrage in Canada as he ordered the Minnesota-based 3M corporation to suspend face mask exports to Canada and Latin America and to arrange production to be solely distributed in the US. The war is also being waged within Europe, completely overriding European Union market laws, evidencing new global market rules specific to Coronavirus capitalism. Although some previous neoliberal structures remain or intensify, for instance, Mexico’s status as colonial outposts whose resources bleed into the world economy to create surplus value for foreign transnationals: in the state of Baja California, three US companies are fabricating artificial respirators and some of their components. The manufacturers refuse to sell the products to local authorities as Tijuana is one of the cities with highest COVID-19 contagion thus far.

In the meantime, in has been reported that obscene amounts of food are being wasted because of the pandemic. In Europe for example, crops are rotting in the fields because seasonal harvesters are usually migrants who are currently being denied access to the EU. In the US, tons of vegetables, eggs, milk and other perishables produced to be sold to restaurants, hotels and schools are being thrown out because in spite of donations, there appear to be logistical obstacles to distributing the food. It would require millions of dollars in investment to distribute it and none is willing to pay the price. To get an idea, according to an Aljazeera article (and I am sure this is ubiquitous across the Capitalist Global Industrialized Food Production Complex), we are talking about 3.7 million gallons of milk daily and 750,000 unhatched eggs a week produced in the US alone. But here the problem is definitely the economic model of “incrementalism,” which is geared at “economic and GDP growth,” which means producing for the most optimal logistics to maximize efficiency and profit. So the obscene waste is directly related to Coronavirus capitalism based on the subsumption of everything to market logic. As I mentioned above, one of the things that the Coronavirus crisis will hopefully make clear to everyone is that capitalism represents a war against life which brings dire consequences to the social fabric and the environment. Under neoliberal logic, they are usually understood as separate problems, when in truth, they are not.

In the current discussions around Coronavirus capitalism and the economic crisis that is ravaging the world, the “Doughnut” economic model designed by Kate Raworth is being much talked about. The premise of the model is to balance people’s needs without harming the environment considering that there are two two large-scale problems facing humanity: poverty and climate change. Raworth’s doughnut visualizes and measures the relationship between the two. According to the economist, it is critical that the economy account for the planetary boundaries which are: the freshwater and nitrogen cycles and climate regulation, which are critical for maintaining the planet stable and safe for humanity. Thus far, the economy has failed to recognize its environmental limits which are intrinsically tied to a social foundation in which ill health, income and energy poverty result from the excessive consumption levels of wealthy people. The challenge posed by this model is to translate these ideas into policies, as it impacts how we produce energy, how we make things, how we communicate and how we create shared knowledge. Food waste as a result of optimization prices would not be an option under this model, and instead of aiming at spreading massive oil rigs, we need to fight for a solar panel on everyone’s roof. Raworth envisions also a shift from mass production in factories owned by corporations to desktop manufacturing with 3D printers in an economy powered by sunlight, were production is distributed. Social justice and economic integrity, for example, are the two premises on which the US’s Green New Deal is based.

So optimists see in the current supposed “freeze” of the economy and state interventions at colossal scale as going against the free market creed of our time, almost to the point of killing it with “social solidarity policies,” rescue programs, cash assistance and defending workers’ rights. But as on the ground evidence suggests in Mexico and elsewhere, this feels like wishful thinking. How to educate people on the evident destruction of life by capitalism? How do we learn to change things, especially the relation between humans and nature? To understand interdependency amongst humans and the non-human world? How to bring the relevance of care work to the fore in the long term, now that it is so central? Raquel Gutiérrez suggests starting to organize to reject debt and to put the reproduction of life and care work at the center of political organization. To try to go beyond being trapped by capitalism, to organize other ways to resonate between each other and to fight for life together. In these times, we must question, not celebrate, Coronavirus capitalism’s expressions of altruism grounded on “earning to give” to strangers to prevent suffering and the death of others in precarious living conditions. Altruism is not reciprocity, as it is based on a principle of “life” as subject to control, management and betterment, it is non-reciprocal and disinterested. We must entice and seek for manifestations of reciprocal aid, not from an antagonistic point of view that would pit life against the economy, but precisely defetishizing capitalism. A form of “altruism” that would make sense to me would be corporations investing in the disinterested production of UNAM test kits and distributing them in “encapsulated” communities to keep them safe. I must mention again that originary peoples’ means to survive through reciprocity, interdependency and “communitarian encapsulation” are forms of empowerment to take control over their lives beyond the grip of the colonial nation-state. But I think the privileged populations have yet more lessons to learn, as this crisis will not have reformatted us completely. I would like to end here with a quote by Vinciane Despret from What would animals say if we asked the right questions? in which she tries to deconstruct the Westernized modern understanding of animals as having no autonomy, as being stupid or very stupid and always subject to anthropomorfization. Her understanding of relationships to animals and to each other as mutually affecting each other resonates with Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming, and they feel like a good start (but not quite enough yet):

“The body becomes the site of what can affect and be affected, a site of transformations. Above all, to underline the possibility of becoming not exactly the other through metamorphosis but with the other, not in the sense of feeling what the other is thinking or of feeling for the other like a burdensome empathizer but rather of receiving and creating the possibility to inscribe oneself in a relation of exchange and proximity that has nothing to do with identification. There is, in fact, a kind of ‘acting as if’ that leads to a transformation of self, a deliberate artifact that cannot and does not want to pretend toward authenticity or to some kind of romantic fusion that is often evoked in human-animal relations.”

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April 25, 2037
I started my day as usual: it was Friday so I did a digital 30 min. spinning class + 10 min abs routine, woke up my daughter, fed us breakfast, cleaned up, sat down for a few hours of homeschooling before green house duty. Last night it finally rained after many weeks of intense heat and drought. Every time I hear the rain outside I feel relieved, like not everything has been lost. There is nothing that gives me more anguish than feeling dryness in the insulated corridors and getting a warning on low water levels signaling drought. My daughter will be 12 next month and I’m ready with the ingredients for a cake. I have been saving packs of dehydrated powdered milk and eggs for weeks. The flour and sugar were a bit more difficult to get ahold of and I didn’t want to use a ready-made mix because the resulting cake is not as good. Jonas agreed to exchange them with me for the last of my CBD stash. The cannabis crops will not be harvested for another couple of weeks and the lab takes another week or so to process it and hand it out to residents. I plan on organizing a small party for Roberta with the other 5 resident children. As a gift, I will give her the pearl earrings I got from my mother when I was exactly her age. I was lucid enough to pack them when I first got here and had no idea what I was getting into. I met Jonas at a bar in San Francisco a couple of years before the COVID-19 pandemic. He worked for one of the big tech corporations and had it easy off. I taught art and film part time at the State University and to pay rent I had a gig translating a Netflix series from Spanish-English and French-English. When I was unable to round up the month, I’d do some sex-cam work on the Internet. When the pandemic crisis hit I lost all sources of income overnight and this is why moving to the bunker with Jonas did not seem like a bad idea. We had been together for a year and his boss, Ted, had offered him a spot on his plane and bunker in New Zealand for the duration of the pandemic.

When we first arrived I was endlessly impressed by the fortified structures equipped with power and water purification systems, blast valves, food supplies for many months, hydroponic gardens and a huge tank containing a tilapia fish farm. The bunker is 11 feet beneath the ground (I’m not sure exactly how wide though) and when we are able to open the skydomes lifting their huge iron covers, they let daylight in as well as the sound of rain falling above us. The humongous structure, flown in to New Zealand in parts from a factory in Texas, is self-sufficient and designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Our 1500 square feet unit within the bunker includes three bedrooms, kitchen, pantry, studio, storage and bathroom. There is a communal gym we share with the inhabitants of the other 19 units of Ted’s “staff.” Ted’s own complex features a pool, general store, theater, bar, library, underground garden and spa. The interior of his 10,000 square foot space reminded me of luxury yatchs I’de seen on TV; it also includes a humongous kitchen, pantry, gun room and shooting range, entrance/decontamination area, 9 bedrooms and a massive master bedroom, a surgery station, bathrooms, gym, and a spa.

The first couple of years or so, we didn’t have to worry about sustaining ourselves. There were enough food supplies for the 100 people or so who had been invited by Ted to wait out for the pandemic. A few months into lockdown, some thirty “staff” were let go; on the third year there were three suicides, another two the following year and the resident population of 75 (including births) has been stable for the past five years. I suspect there have been a couple of forced disappearances but we were all given credible explanations on how they had died in their attempts to escape the bunker. Who knows. I was never given a choice to leave. I mean I was, but the price would had been leaving my child behind. The plan they had for me and the six other members of Ted’s “personal staff” was not revealed until we didn’t have much of a choice but to stay and become members of his kind of harem as sexual slaves. Jonas and I had always used condoms but a couple of weeks into lockdown I suspect he took it off as I soon discovered was pregnant. This was part of Ted’s plan: with a young child it was harder to conceive escaping into the uncertainty the outside world had become.

Everyday I wonder about the world, how bad the climate crisis is, whether there are fires, floods, warming oceans, ecological breakdown, mass extinctions, epidemics. While for me protection has meant enslavement as well, I wonder if the rest of humanity is witnessing the beginning of the end. Only Ted has access to the outside. I know because when he requests my company (he calls us more or less for intervals that last 2-3 weeks, Roberta has always stayed with Jonas to my great despair, I always miss her so much), I have seen him lock himself in his studio every morning and talk to other people, maybe over a satellite phone? Or through the Internet over the computer. One of his friends came for a visit from outer New Zealand, I heard. We’d all thought he was going to stay but he left after a few months, he surely had news of the world outside to share with Ted.

I always believed that communal, interdependent living would be the result of effective civil disobedience, of the disruption of the normal functioning of cities and infrastructure for long periods until the state and corporations became completely irrelevant. This situation would lead to solidarity beyond idealism, grounded on bare necessity. Instead and against my will, I had become a member of a community of slaves in which everyone had a specific function to fulfill in order to maintain ourselves (but mostly Ted) alive, safe and healthy. There is a chemist, a biologist, a doctor, engineers of various kinds, farmers, tech specialists, a biologist, a dentist amongst us. But we aren’t really a community. For a while we tried to bond through gatherings, festivities, birthdays … but somehow things went sour and now we aren’t very friendly to each other. I suspect everyone’s self-absorption is related to a deep depression (and to Ted’s differential treatment of the “staff,” giving privileges to some and treating the rest like varying intensities of shit).

Sometimes I think that the situation outside can’t be any better. The dark rut politics had become after 40 years of neoliberalism could only offer endless opportunities for pseudo-participation and pseudo-debates, political correctness, cultural wars grounded on ethnic or family values, also for endlessly sharing memes making fun of politics on social media. Humanity was completely de-socialized. Around the time when we went underground, we no longer depended on government assistance programs but neither could anyone depend on neighbors or communities. Collective institutions had been eroded by market forces, collective agency had been lost as everyone was reduced to every woman for herself. The extreme individualization of risk (and of protection) was pretty much the principle of social life. And this is probably the logic behind which I ended up in this goddam bunker as a slave to a man who had enough power and money to build his own apocalypse refuge. The unexpected events unfolding as the COVID-19 epidemic spread around the globe made evident that our world did not offer safety of any kind: social, institutional, financial, physical. Not even familial. So there was no horizon of a viable alternative that could offer capitalist societies a new coherent regime of social regulation and prosperity. Politics was no longer able to make a difference in people’s lives because power, infrastructure and everyday life had become inseparable. The nation-state had become a hologram shielding complex corporate and state forms of governmentality. And the only shared experiences we used to have was the experience of consuming content in front of a screen.

In that sense, life in lockdown is not much different: in the bunker we enjoy an infinite database of all audiovisual content produced by humanity, including my digital spinning, fitness, yoga and dance classes. I think one of the hardest things about living in the bunker is finding meaning to our existence beyond tending to Ted’s needs and figuring out how to maintain ourselves fed and healthy and the bunker functioning. That part hasn’t been easy, the system has many mistakes and once we spent a whole month without clean water and had to boil on our stoves liters and liters of grey and rain water until Elizabeth, the Mexican engineer, figured out the water collection and treatment structure which had broken down. Water was actually the only element from the outside we had contact with.

Aside from our interactions as co-workers, which were sometimes functional or tense, we were unable to share anything at all, let alone a few meals. Jonas and I lived in the same unity but I was just too angry at him to be able to have any substantial communication, or a relationship with him beyond co-parenting Roberta (kind of: most of the responsibility of her care and education still fell upon me). I realized that to find a way to find meaning to our existence became pivotal to our survival, and that meant focusing on physical as well as mental health. Ted told us a post-apocalypse story of sorts: two years into lockdown he held down a meeting to tell us that we didn’t have a choice but to live there as the world had become uninhabitable for humans. Ted said we were heroes of sorts, bearing the last traces of human civilization and this is what we bred into our children (two of which were Ted’s although he did not care much for them). On the surface, we thought of ourselves as an incubator of future possibilities but in truth we were fighting depression, anxiety, neurosis, compulsion, addiction. Neurosis and compulsion are like a trailblazer that needs feeding at the instant when they explode and they carry down anything that comes across their way. Addiction was a widespread yet unspoken toxic element surrounding us, bred out of disconnection and distrust. I lived with the frustration and anxiety of being unable to provide for my daughter a proper education, access to a garden, friends, school, museums, an extended family. Living inside a puppet theater isolated from the rest of the world definitely had a heavy toll on our mental health. And yet it was hard to focus on mental health because we were used to putting value on physical health over mental health. Physical health is usually understood as a necessity while the latter is considered a luxury or an abstraction. There are no psychologists or psychiatrists amongst us, and the lockdown has taken a heavy toll. Angry at the situation, intimacy is impossible to sustain as there is just too much intrigue and resentment going around. We tend to isolate within our units, we don’t know each other at all beyond our functions and courteous (or not) brief interactions. I live with the feeling that our real lives have been suspended, that the world is waiting for us as it was before we were snatched to New Zealand. I dream that one day Roberta and I will go back and we will find it exactly as I left it before I was forced to go on lockdown.

#exercisesinradicalimagination

May 4. Week 7 or 8 or 9 on lockdown

How will the pandemic affect culture? What is the role of art in these times? What will artists do, or what can they do, in the face of the pandemic? These were some of the broad questions that triggered the conversations commissioned for this blog. The answer to this question from Mexico City was unclear to me until now, as we are seeing with great worry the budget and infrastructure for culture and the culture industries be blown apparently by a single coup with a presidential decree of austerity measures issued a month ago due to the COVID-19 crisis. Trying to understand the consequences of the decree on the medium and long term and what we can do about it as a community has been extremely difficult, especially on lockdown. Trying to cope, discuss and get organized via zoom, whatsapp or email has been hard, especially in a community that is diverse, has proposed many solutions, many of them conflicting, but that is also characterized by fragmentation, lack of solidarity, and by the fact that some comrades haven fallen into the temptation of ego trips. If you, reader from elsewhere, have been to Mexico and know and have enjoyed or been part our cultural scene, stay put. And if you live in a country like Germany or England where COVID-19 salaries have been given to artists, or like Denmark, where, I heard, the state paid for a gallery’s staff salary during the entire lockdown, consider yourselves to be extremely privileged (there are degrees of privilege indeed).


By Montserrat Pazos and Jaime Ruiz

In Mexico, the relationship between the state, artists, and intellectuals has always been complex, contentious, at times tense or friendly. Since the legacy of Muralism was radically questioned in the 1950s, cultural producers have resisted serving or accompanying an official culture program. Our fight as cultural producers has been marked by a contradiction: on the one hand, we fight for the autonomy of art, and on the other, to convince politicians and technocrats of the relevance of state subsidies for the arts, the benefits culture offers to the people, the economy, the image of the country abroad, etc. in a country where only 20% of the population makes above 8000 pesos (400 USD) a month. In this context, culture is even defended as a universal right by the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1989, a generous system of grants and funds for the arts was established in Mexico, the FONCA (or National State Fund for Culture and the Arts) by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. The system (similar to the Canadian or British Arts Councils or Scandinavian countries’ culture funding programs) granted autonomy to artistic creation in the sense that a jury of peers was established to allot the grants. Sure, the system was not perfect and it lent itself to practices of centralization, sexism, auteurism, nepotism, or corruption as well as official instrumentalization. In its thirty years of life, however, the community together with the FONCA’s administration have fought to establish institutional mechanisms to guarantee transparency and democracy within the system (to which I can personally can attest to, as a scholarship holder, jury member, and commissioner). The implementation of the system thirty years ago allowed arts and culture to bloom in Mexico, transforming Mexico City and Mexico into a main global contemporary art production center. For instance, Mexico was the most represented country in Documenta 13 in 2012. Another of the achievements has been a Mexican Pavillion in Venice since 2009. MACO, founded in 2002, not only became a leading art fair in Latin America and one of the most important ones in the world but has given way to a rich and diverse art week in Mexico City and two more art fairs, situating Mexico as a main player in the global art market. But aside from the art market, Mexico created theory tourism, as I have seen people come from all over the world especially to listen to the relevant debates that took place at the SITAC (or Contemporary Art Theory Symposium), which used to be held yearly since around 2000 and that has recently found a decentralized diversified format. Hoards of art students, moreover, come from all over the world every summer to attend seminars, residencies, workshops, to visit artist’s studios, to see major exhibitions, to meet with curators, to engage in dialogue with Mexican cultural producers or foreign peers based in Mexico. In parallel, there has been a boom in literature through the creation of corporate but also independent editing houses and bookshops, grants and prizes. One of the FONCA’s grants is devoted to literary translation including indigenous languages. The Mexican boom in literature in the past 20 years has granted Mexican women writers the rule of their guild. In the acknowledgment section of the contemporary literature books, the FONCA is most likely to have been thanked as facilitator of funds for the writing of those pages. Similar achievements can be found in theater, film (Ambulante, the documentary film festival as well as the Morelia Film Festival), dance… positioning Mexico and Mexicans as important figures in international venues, festivals, prizes – in brief, on major cultural stages across the world.

Indeed the FONCA has gone well beyond its original mission to both grant freedom of expression and artists’ autonomy as well as to transform Mexico’s cultural landscape. The FONCA was created at the eve of signing NAFTA, the free trade agreement with the US and Canada. In that regard, the progressive cultural politics furthered by the state represented by institutions like FONCA came hand in hand with major neoliberal reforms which implied a regressive political economy that created a redundant population, massive environmental devastation, endless waves of violence through military and paramilitary violence, the loss of labor rights and food sovereignty, the intensification of gender violence and femicide, amongst many other problems throughout the country. In this context, the FONCA’s position has always been perilous and every president following Salinas de Gortari has reformed, amended, and introduced budget cuts into cultural subsidies.

On April 2, the eve of the call for phase 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a decree eliminating an array of trust funds backing government programs, while calling for state austerity measures, which included cutting 75% of operating costs of all government institutions as well volunteer salary cuts up to 25% by government employees. In the context of culture, not to exercise 75% of the available budget means firing thousands of cultural workers and the pauperization of cultural creators. But not only was the FONCA and the culture sector in general (with Foprocine, Efiteatro, and other cultural funds that depended on the trusts) affected, but major postgraduate and research institutions like the CIDE (Economic Research and Teaching Center), the CIDA (Agrobiotechnology Research and Development Center), and the Instituto Mora (for Social Sciences) which are also on the brink of extinction, as money destined to scholarships and living stipends for students have been frozen. Because they have been forced to cut their operating budget, the CIDA has been unable to pay their electricity bill and thus the CFE (the State-Private electricity company in Mexico) has cut it off, causing that invaluable research biological material will be lost forever. Another worrisome effect of the austerity measures is the rendering inoperative through budget cuts of the Semarnat, or the Environmental and Natural Resources Institute, centered on the imposition of environmental regulations and subsidy distribution for environmental defense. The government has also ordered that the INAH (or National Institute for Anthropology and History) do a 50% budget cut with devastating consequences for the institution, affecting archeologists, researchers and base workers. We must note that the INAH has publicly pronounced itself against the Mayan Train project focusing their protest on the defense of the Calakmul Mayan archeological site.

The goal of the finalization of the trust funds, budget, and volunteer salary cuts and austerity measures together with tax collection enforcement (which has come with a campaign by the government to accuse corporations publicly of not paying) is to stop the country from going into further foreign debt and to put into place an emergency program to palliate the forthcoming economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the stimulus package, there is the “Programa de Bienestar” (or Well Being Program), which consists of cash handouts through cards issued by Banco Azteca, and a credit program to aid small and medium enterprises with 25,000 pesos (or 1000 USD) payable at 8% interest rate in three months’ time.

In this context, the decree eliminating the FONCA’s fund means that it has ceased to be an instrument financed by a trust fund that will be integrated as an entity (of uncertain administrative and legal structure) under the Secretaría de Cultura (Secretary of Culture) and that the funds allotted to the FONCA will go on to fund government programs to alleviate the COVID-19 crisis. The greatest challenge in the medium term, as some people see it, is not only to secure funding but to maintain the FONCA’s administrative transparency and agility, as well as the creative community’s autonomous role within it. As I type, a new legal and administrative figure for the FONCA is being created to try to address three challenges: to maintain art’s autonomy against the government’s official culture program, to keep the relationship between creators and institutions fluid as opposed to conditioned or prone to instrumentalization, and to allot grants via peer juries. In spite of the FONCA’s administrators’ repeatedly stated good intentions to secure the FONCA’s autonomy and budget under a new administrative and legally figure separate from the Secretary of Culture, many see in the dissolution of the trust fund, together with the 75% budget cuts (affecting museum programs, exhibitions, and employees), a shock-doctrine style measure that dismantled with a slash the cultural apparatus we have inherited from the eve of the neoliberal policies era (which is ongoing, do not be mistaken by the populist rhetoric).

It seems that, with the presidential decree, not only the livelihoods of thousands of people are at stake but so is the entire machinery of the Mexican culture industry. But not only that. There is widespread fear that the culture budget will be redistributed to nourish the government’s largely problematic Chapultepec Park Cultural Center (built in the old official Mexican president’s residence amidst a military base in the center of Mexico City), the Community Culture program (with outreach to rural and indigenous communities seen as propagandistic and pork-barrel politics), the extremely expensive, fully French-operated and thus colonial Georges Pompidou Center branch in Azcapozalco. There is also fear that the culture budget will be used to sustain the president’s personal understanding of culture based on folklore and indigenous culture as expressed in the 2019 Day of the Dead megaparade, whose imagery was inspired by a Mexico City-funded Hollywood movie and crafted by populations living in misery belts in the Mexico City for free.

For now, a request has been made to the Mexican Secretary of Finance to maintain the FONCA’s previous commitments. The request was approved and the organization has been incorporated into the Secretary of Culture (along with Foprocine). The FONCA’s administration has been given three months to revise the structure, patrimony, objectives, efficiency and efficacy of the program, to be analyzed by the Secretary of Finance, who will decide whether they will receive further federal public funds. They will issue a report that will be sent to the Deputies Chamber, where the destiny of the FONCA will finally be decided.

Before this situation, cultural producers have regrouped into different positions and movements, issuing an array of demands. Amongst the most visible ones, one group proposes a direct confrontation with the government demanding that cultural rights be respected, highlighting the economic and symbolic relevance of cultural production’s contribution to the country’s GDP and to progressive democratic politics; another group demands that after doing a census of cultural creators, half of the entire Secretary of Culture’s yearly budget be distributed amongst 100,000 cultural producers (15,000 pesos or 620 USD each in three months in exchange for a cultural project); a third group is diplomatically seeking to collaborate with the FONCA’s administration to lobby the Chamber of Deputies and public opinion to vouch for cultural production in Mexico.


In this complex moment, moreover, it is difficult to argue for cultural rights when the regime’s slogan is to “put the poor first.” It is hard not to see, however, how our current authoritarian government is using the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to dispossess, steal, and suspend rights, and not only within the cultural and education sectors. Shock doctrine-style, a massive transfer of wealth from the state to corporations is taking place. I am referring to the acceleration of the construction of the regime’s controversial megaprojects: the Tren Maya (Mayan Train), the Corredor Transístmico (TransIstmic Industrial Corridor or SEZ in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz), the Santa Lucía Airport, and the Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco. For instance, the companies that have specific government contracts to provide cement, glass, and steel, as well as Pemex and the CFE, are exempt from mandatory shutdowns during the quarantine (as are sweatshops at the Mexican-American border providing input to the US industry and market, following President Trump’s orders). All these businesses are deemed as “essential activities” in spite of being vulnerable to becoming (or having already become) centers of contagion.

From this perspective, the austerity measures geared at financing the stimulus package are clearly designed to further a market economy that benefits the ruling (albeit the corporate) class. This public policy favors the rich and social Darwinism, condemning the poor with altruism or populist measures that will forcefully incorporate them into the market system as consumers and debtors. This becomes even clearer if we understand that the credit and cash cards of the government’s Well Being Program are being distributed by Banco Azteca, owned by millionaire Ricardo Salinas Pliego, whose sister company is Elektra, a house appliances and technology chain store for the working class with branches in rural and peripheral urban zones. For many, moreover, the Mayan Train and the Dos Boca refinery are not considered priorities for the Mexican economy, and the resources to build the infrastructure projects could be used to reactivate regions of the country that will surely need it. Thousands of jobs will be lost and cannot be recovered in the construction of the train or the refinery. In addition to making no sense economically at this point, the regime’s megaprojects are harmful to the environment and they are premised on a false idea of “progress,” and on sustaining the country’s economy with fossil fuel extraction, slave labor in EPZs, and tourism. This, in conjunction with the Semarnat’s extinction, I might add, make of our president a climate change denier together with Donald Trump. For instance, the Mayan Train envisions 30 stations projecting urban subcenters with industrial, real estate, and tourism development built through occupying and dispossessing thousands and thousands of hectares of communal land sustaining the lives of millions of inhabitants in Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. Agroindustrial businessman and head of the presidential office Alfonso Romo will benefit from the Mayan Train as the founder of Enerall, a company that exploits water resources for agroindustrial farming in the Yucatan Peninsula (he is known as the Yucatan water lord). Internet and phone services tycoon Carlos Slim will also make a profit with the Mayan Train, as his company CICSA has been subcontracted to build section 2 of the megaproject. So who is being helped by the stimulus package’s austerity cuts? Coronavirus capitalism is bringing to the fore social evils that have accumulated over decades of neoliberalism. Private profit maximization is not receding but intensifying. The government’s policy of “the poor first” really means a scheme to incorporate the redundant population into the market.

The pandemic has accelerated and exposed the fragility confronting us, the fact that there is no safety net to back us up. Mind-boggling wealth concentration is being facilitated for a few at the expense of millions and the environment. The march toward the abyss continues as political process and priorities determine the mortality rates of the population: it is a political decision not to apply restrictions on movement in certain areas, factories, sweatshops, poor zones with high mortality rates. Not to have bought COVID-19 test kits is a deliberate decision by the government, as is leaving workers exposed to the lethal virus and linking the survival of the rural and indigenous population to the market, many of whom live sustainable lives without having to sell their labor power in the labor market. The megaprojects will force the people into becoming proletarians, workers of capitalism, as well as into becoming consumers who need to secure goods and merchandise in order to survive. In this regard, the megaprojects are dispositives of capture and the subsumption of life to extractivism, at a time in which thinking about de-commodification or de-marketization is more than urgent. De-commodification occurs when what is needed in order to survive is obtained as a right, like a basic service provided by the government for free (as opposed to being purchased in the market). De-commodification also happens when people no longer depend on selling their labor-power on the market to survive. This logic is far beyond the welfare state: the decommodification of work implies not to have the need to sell our labor-power in order to survive; all evidence points toward the fact that this is where we need to go in order to secure our future.

On insomniac nights I fear that when the quarantine ends the West Bank will have been annexed by Israel and here in Mexico we will have these megaprojects up and running, leaving us impotent to organize against them from within cities, in solidarity with indigenous peoples and inhabitants of rural areas who are being affected. For this entry I had planned to discuss Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven (2019) and Lina Meruane’s novels Sistema nervioso and Sangre en el ojo, to ponder the meaning of human life on earth beyond nation-state, market, and culture-industry narratives. But the urgency to think and act upon defending the funding and administrative mechanisms behind our culture industry led me to focus on the FONCA ordeal instead. I have realized that not only is our state far behind any notion of progressive politics that could rise to the challenge of the current crises (COVID-19 in particular but global warming in general). We are truly far behind in being able to envision a “people’s bailout” coming from below beyond the neoliberal market economy. In this regard, indigenous communities are far more organized to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects: they have organized for food autonomy and have self-isolated, for instance, the Nahua, Otomí, and Tenek communities in the northern mountains of Veracruz and the Huasteca jungle (similar examples throughout the country abound). As no new healthcare clinics have been built there since 1981 and the extant ones are inoperative, the communities have taken measures to protect themselves from the virus. The people are connected via radio to keep each other informed. It seems like rural and indigenous communities are more adapted to survive the pandemic, as they know how to live isolated and to maintain themselves fed (although scarcity of food and drought are on the horizon).

State and capitalist structures will fail us in many ways and this becomes evident in the fact that responsibility to relieve the stress derived from the pandemic and its effects has been privatized. Right now, not only demarketization should be an explicit goal for our political projects, but also social solidarity and collective care. Unless everyone cooperates, the virus will keep on spreading exponentially; we need to make sure everyone can take time off work, have a home and enough food, water to wash their hands and be hydrated. In this panorama, I will not defend the right to culture and neither will I vouch for the social relevance of art as useful art, but I definitely can bet on the social relevance of artists to envision strategies of mutual aid and to survive the crisis. But before we do that, we need to move beyond the PTSD caused by the collapse of the idealized image of the regime we voted for and the losses it represents.

For instance, beyond lovingly sewing masks for our friends (which is nice and thoughtful and we could use a bunch!) or selling masks made by indigenous artisans who make 25% profit, there is Carlos Amorales’s project to ask collectors through his gallery to gather funds to subsidize a textile shop to keep on working to produce face masks for $10 pesos each. Three hundred workers have maintained their jobs and the facemasks that they are making are being distributed to vulnerable populations like street cleaners and market and informal vendors. With this aid project, Amorales created a structure to bridge two worlds that resulted in a win-win for everyone involved.

Art has gained relevance as a field or laboratory to envision futures and alternative life forms, and right now artists and cultural producers can and need to show solidarity outside our cultural structures in peril. For instance, designing structures for home gardens and orchards, scheming ideas to help get parents with young children, or single mothers, or neighbors, or partners through the quarantine. We can imagine moments of relief, structures for resilience (like Amorales’), means to temporarily reconvert cultural infrastructure into mutual aid infrastructure. For example, theaters, museums, and galleries could become shelters or food distribution centers, or means to channel social solidarity efforts. The possibilities are endless. All we have to do is imagine them.

May 11, two months on lockdown

Section I
Everything begins to interlink and will perhaps end up as a chain that could incite a massive cognitive and epistemological transition on how humans perceive themselves in relationship to their environment.
She waits for me everyday to come play with those dolls that copy toddlers forced to parade themselves in miniature beauty pageants simulating adult women attributes; with dolls that simulate the big hips and strident colors of Afroamerican pop stars; with those that copy white women’s anorexia. Her shameless mélange of plastic of all kinds, sizes and imaginaries figuring idealized humans, fairytale characters, exhibiting exotic animal traits, pets, mini-merchandizes and pieces that are meant to assemble things never ceases to surprise me. I was always a purist with my toys and it never occurred to me to mix them together to play. I am surprised by the infinity of possibilities that mixing toys up offers, and that we always end up constructing imaginaries denoting nostalgia marked by the moment: for school, for strolling around on a shopping mall or corporate coffee shops, for the country house, for the beach.
She patiently waits for me to surprise her spooning her for a siesta, to share with her serious or banal stories, anguishes or a bowl full of fried veggie sticks with Valentina hot sauce, memes or videos from her large collection of Ghanese funeral dancers, to come and exchange caresses in minutes stolen from hidden moments. Because the last time we locked the door for a while, she broke uncontrollably into tears and I almost interrupted us to go calm her down. I cook her delicious Hindu food hoping she won’t forget I love her, I make her snacks five times a day to help her keep her energy so she can finish her school work soon. The original receiver of the mango ice cream can be a matter of dispute but it doesn’t really matter because we all enjoyed it.
Between her and her there is me. And the dogs that look at us wrapped around our feet and that sometimes demand ham or to be patted. We walk carefully between the spaces carved up amongst us, while we closely observe each other, noting the traces of the passing of time on lockdown registered on our faces’: acne, wrinkles, a piece of skin now hanging here or there, excessive facial hair growth on eyebrows, bangs or white hair out of control, more or less bodily volume, sings of growth. We have helped time pass painting with watercolors, Siedler tournaments, being good quarantine archetypes taught how to make bread on a video call. Right at the beginning (I forget when, I have by now lost track of time, days succeed each other undifferentiated and accelerated), we made a video with a gummy bear crowd. We arranged carefully about 1.5 Kg of gummy bears into a public listening and singing along Fredy Mercury (a blueberry gummy bear) “I want to break free.” Freddy was trapped on stage inside a mezcal glass, and the strophe that he sings in chorus with the crowd still echoes the soup of sensations transported daily by our bodies. All of sudden someone collapses or explodes but by now we know more or less what to do when it happens.
I learned that Pop died in the midst of the pandemics on the island a few hours before daybreak as he coughed until exhaustion and Mili was unable to bring him back to life with her expert and tired hands. We are sad because the military funeral he dreamt of, with the stripped and starred flag covering his coffin in an homage to his life, leaving that his body feeds the earth was not possible. Mili and the Guadalupano nephew who admires via zoom his collection of paintings of the Lady received resigned the ashes that were present in the family video call to open up a parenthesis for mourning during the quarantine.
Outside, some walk around with their faces partially or completely covered depending on the intensity of their paranoia. Most of them out there are working and are not wearing facemasks, either because they don’t care or because they can’t afford it or because pharmacies have run out. A few days ago a gigantic band offering music paraded down our street. We ran out to look, we were both surprised and deceived when we saw that it was only a two-member band: a drum and a trombone. A third was there to collect the money none was coming out to give them. A marimba also passed through but we didn’t see it, we did see the humming birds that come out everyday to the garden because it is certainly theirs. From outside, we hear sounds and smells coming from the neighboring houses: someone practices the piano back here, across the street someone else is learning to play the guitar, the house to the left is empty except the dog who won’t stop barking. On the other side, Korean food is cooked every afternoon around seven PM when delicious smells begin to travel. Beetles, cockroaches, big ants, mosquitoes and chipmunks who are unwelcome pullulate at the interstices. The outsides ground us or embody us after hours of being captured by the absence machines. These machines are nothing other than screens that open windows to massive meetings or school, music, theater, feminism, yoga or dance classrooms. A good portion of the day is spent being bodily present but absent, evaporating in the voids sucked up by screens that transport us to different outsides to fill time.
Outside hospitals are overcrowded and over there, nurses are being attacked. The sky heavy with metal is an opaque mirror that intensifies the sunrays until late in the afternoon without a truce. The outside that is abstract is apparently collapsing at full speed, I read on the headlines, in 280 characters, in the shared news on WhatsApp groups. This outside is to me, unbelievable and foreign. I wish I’d smoke a cigarette right now.
When private property was created and the market invented as the only means to survive, people were expelled from the land and forced to sell their labor on the market. We have come to depend not on our own means, but on the effectiveness of the system of production, which in turn, became the grounds for social relations. Our societies are structured in market exchange, with the promise to elevate our living standards. The pandemic has forced us to put full stop in productivity and to suspend the passage of all social relation through the market. We don’t know what to do with our productivity. How hard is it to find unforeseen uses of our time beyond pandemic bread baking? Would we know how to exist outside of the market? Demercantilization occurs when we are no longer forced to sell our labor force in the market in order to survive. It implies establishing government aid programs like universal basic income. At the micro level, demercantilization can happen through solidarity measures such rent and mortgage strikes, mutual aid networks, establishing interdependent subsistence means. But the generalized response to the suspension of markets has been charity (as opposed to solidarity) and a puritan austerity to produce a populist shower of money and credit to keep select markets alive. In passing, the capture of what resists entering the market is intensified, destroying lives and forms of life supposedly seeking to elevate quality of life. The conservative fear that the country could fall into the hands of drug cartels due to government lack of action prevails. It is easy to blame the government for the death of thousands of people and why not? Of thousands of companies. Indeed, the government refuses to support the entrepreneurial class (owners of restaurants, hotels, factories, medium businesses) with fiscal relief or bailouts. This is why it is feared that the mafias will reach out and take over. Hope in the country shatters with the shock of massive redistribution of the State budget with uncertain destiny beyond cash handouts, and yet everyone is worried only about their small parcel. Indeed, What will become of culture and museums without a budget? Of independent editorial houses gone broke? But also, What are the destinies of fossil fuel? Industry and sweatshops? We are being unable to see a broader panorama, out there, of the unsustainability of the market economy. I wish I’d smoke a cigarette. We are also not used to joyously wasting time, to have time to read, to play cards, to take a siesta or sleep in, to get obsessed with cleaning and that indomitable paper archive, to learn how to cook (or to eat better, perhaps), to call an old friend, to get in shape, to try to look at oneself on the opaque mirror that the sky has become.
Let’s run get the shears, because this is only the beginning and we have no idea how things will turn out when we’re able to go outside.


Section II*
CORONA Beer (2) by Nina Zivanzevich

If I didn’t have to go every 10 to 15 minutes to the toilet, this quarantine would even be fun! However, every picture has its frame, every picture tells a story: there is a story where the most idiotic people call to ask me (they are « sweet » I guess) how I feel. I cough and sneeze and spit blood through my mouth and through nostrils-
The skin tissue ripped-open- is this THE one which Poe called « the Mask of Red Death » ?

I don’t know… have been through so many of them, even from the times when they changed DNA in my cells (2008) and I saw all people in the form of the angelic visions – in fact, they were very ordinary, all of them- except from an old witch. This prophetess à la Nostradamus, was actually giving a crystal ball clairvoyant session when Marc-Louis brought me to her spooky place.

As soon as I entered the room, the prophetess exclaimed: WHO is, or rather who was a Buddhist nun among you here ?

It’s me, it’s me, I yelled.

And who used to be a painter in her previous life? She continued.

It’s me, it’s me, I tweeted again.

I see you entirely burnt, she said, you are covered with ashes- but like a Phenix, she continued, YOU will rise from the ashes!

I was so grateful to hear her soothing bullshit. The chemotherapy had burnt all my cells and then, my DNA was changed entirely so that I could live like a bionic woman, and as far as i go–that was fine for me. That was 12 years ago.

This time around I appeared even more belligerent, as my trip to Kerala in 2014, when I’d caught malaria again, taught me that one could die and resurrect several times.

I will challenge this man-made virus, this lousy convention again invented by an even lousier scientist whose nose was dripping with coke and his own experiment-- so why burn my throat and my stomach so drastically now? NO ONE could convince me that this Batman was using bats- for his batty business ! There must had been something more powerful at his hand. And us humans -we were in this affair all alone- offered to the mercy of bad commerce and distant trade.

Several leaders were competing all over the world in their endeavor to open several V.I. markets, in order to erase the surplus of humans on Earth, as just VERY few computer educated jocks were supposed to work from home. I mean, to work. And the rest of us were not supposed to work- as we were duly supposed to die. Or just try to die, which was fine with me, but as usual, in my case that was a very very bad timing. (Do I really sound here like that scumbag Burroughs?)

*@Nina Zivanzevich thank you for letting me reproduce an entry of your diary here

The title of a recent piece by Arundathi Roy is a harrowing: “Our task is to dismantle the engine.” As much as I agree with her, I wouldn’t know where to start even to describe, let alone to think about how to dismantle “the engine…"

Nearing week 14

I’ve been debating with myself about whether to take up the opportunity of writing this blog to experiment and produce a more LITERARY text, filling my writing with different things than critique or theory and beyond the urgency of present matters. In this spirit, I’ve tried to stay away from texts by THE BIG IMPORTANT THINKERS (most of them white men) who tell everyone educated what to think and what concepts to use to name the current situation. I’ve also partially succeeded at rationing my daily news consumption. I’d been envisioning something beautifully written and apolitical, for instance: a confessional text about my sexual and emotional life geared at shattering pre-established fixed gender roles and overcoming my insecurities; a text about teenage abuse with a twist: it was all along a Lolita-like fantasy fueled by adolescent rebellion; to write an elegy to unproductivity and laziness or a stream of consciousness of a fallen evil politician who holds on tight to his old evil convictions; or to theorize about my relationship to horses, or even about a chemical that could transform our engrained individualism making our brains empathic and our actions solidary. Or maybe write focusing on a single topic like water, my newly discovered penchant for plants and cooking, the vagaries of motherhood or teaching under lockdown, to describe my recurrent nightmare of an endless flight of stairs going downwards; or to concoct a self-deprecating rant in an homage to Hannah Gadsby; to write a pop and concentrated version of the history of psychoanalysis disguised as a review of Netflix’s Freud; or a clever description of quarantine melancholia sublimated through a letter addressed to an old love; or even to articulate my secret fantasy of getting infected with COVID-19 just to get it over with and to be looked after by my partner, who would presumably go out of her way to keep me safe. Or maybe not, and just come up with something REALLY meaningful and smart about the pandemic and the times we are living in, outlining the “conjuncture” that will define our near future of neo-feudalism and digital extractivism. And then I could splash it with erudite references to key works of Latin American literature only a few would catch.


I’ve thought about writing fiction, even went ahead with it, but it turned out to be a story about a Standing Rock in the town of Tenosique, Tabasco to stop the construction of the Mayan Train. The camp was erected exactly six weeks ago in the site downtown where the train station is envisioned. Ironically, the camp reminds visitors of the one that got erected in Mexico City to contest the result of the 2006 election. For those who won’t catch the irony: our current president is from Tabasco and the Mayan Train is the regime’s poster child; yet the biggest irony is that Mexico’s current president elect led the 2006 occupation that paralyzed Mexico City for 47 days after the results of that year’s election where he was candidate for the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) did not favor him. Back then, over a million people helped block eight km of the main artery of the city, Avenida Reforma, from the Fuente de Petróleos/Periférico to the Zócalo under the slogan: “Vote by vote, polling station by polling station.” This scheme of pacific civil resistance (and blackmail by urban chaos sequestering the city) had no precedent and none of the camps that were built during the global Occupy movement was equal to it in size: 47 camps with up to 3 million people at the moment of highest occupancy during 47 days spread out along eight km. I recall a discussion that year at the SITAC (the now extinct Contemporary Art Theory Symposium) around the fact that the camp had radically brought into question what public or social art could actually achieve within the extant frames of the culture industry. The 2006 camp had been made with plastic roofs and structures similar to urban “markets on wheels”; it comprised zones for living, washing, meetings, cafeterias, sports and entertainment (concerts abounded) and child care facilities. Three giant plants generated energy for the conglomeration and motorcyclists transported occupiers and visitors from one point of the camp to the other for ten pesos.

The Tenosique camp is not nearly as big, maybe at its peak there have been about three thousand people some of which come from Tenosique, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puebla, Mérida, France, Sweden, Italy, Canada, all staying under layers of plastic bags stretched over precarious wire structures or some cheap tents or shelters made out of discarded wood and carton, all arranged in a neat grid. There is a Zapatista delegation, and refugee migrants usually living at an improvised refuge at the bank of the Usumascinta River on the Mexican side, make occasional appearances in solidarity. Tenosique shares a border with Guatemala and Chiapas, and it is an obliged crossing from migrants coming from the south. The village is an urban enclave of around thirty thousand inhabitants, many of who see the occupation with an evil eye. Aside from the refugee migrants, the occupiers are visited on weekends by pochó dancers with cojós, pochoveras and tigers, which in a way, by performing fragments of their traditional dance to support them, dignify and bring joy to the camp. On Sundays, the smell of pejelagarto roast (a large freshwater gar) spreads throughout the camp, calling for what lies beneath the pavement. The slogans that can be read in signboards and placards at the camp are: “No to megaprojects of death,” “Development = environmental destruction,” “For an economy of subsistence,” “No to tourism,” “Solidarity with the refugees,” “Future = territory struggle,” “Save the jungle,” “Autonomy = sustainable life.” After the first few days, the occupiers received intel that the National Guard would come evict them. The four hundred or so people who were there were able to quickly dismantle the camp and hide at the refugee camp by the river. After two days in the jungle, they came back to mount the camp again. Water protectors, jungle protectors and river protectors arrived from northern lands to join them, and the third week saw almost three thousand people gather. Poetry readings, visits from cultural figures from the capital and politicians from the opposition, foreigners, all happened. Theater plays and a film festival were mounted along with cooking, embroidering and permaculture workshops. Nightfall was the time in which an important number of the occupiers gathered to sing and make music displaying an ample global and trans-historical music repertoire. Nightfall was also when at the fourth week, the National Guard or maybe private security guards (none could tell for sure) came back unannounced to violently evict them. There was no warning like the first time, but there were pepper spray, rubber bullets, sound bombs, detained, raped, beaten, deported and runaways. The day after, demonstrations flared throughout the Yucatan peninsula. Highways, city halls, future Mayan Train sites were taken over simultaneously. A legal protection warrant was issued to reroute the train from Tenosique, and this is how it all started, in fiction.
Tenosique Pochó


So by now I avow that it is impossible for me to draw back from “political reality”, a reality that is as present in daily interactions as it is the hall of mirrors “reality” has become as filtered through the news and social media. Elias Suleiman’s latest film It Must Be Heaven (2019) is an inventory of daily nearly imperceptible microfascisms in the lived realities of Nazareth, Paris and New York, that happen anywhere and that are the seeds for occupation, colonialism, genocide. These forms of microfascisms used to be subject of ethical debate, moral and religious principles, rules of good manners, a measure of ‘decency,’ etc. and now appear somewhat unregulated, outside of history and as part of everyday relations. In the movie, for instance, Elias’ neighbor comes regularly to steal fruit from his tree while pretending to be looking after it; there is a white Mexican/actor producer who forgets his whiteness (an indisputable trait of blanquitud) and complains that Americans don’t get the history of colonialism in Mexico and want to produce a film about Hernán Cortés in English; or the pettiness behind the gorgeously choreographed scene that shows a struggle to get a chair around the Fontaine du grand bassin rond at the Tuileries Garden in Paris; there is also a scene in which Palestinian patrons at a restaurant refuse to pay for food that did not meet their expectations. I recently lived one of those microfascistic moments beyond consensual coding of good manners (all is so I-centered nowadays probably the code would be: !Que se chingen! Or let them fuck themselves): I happen to share a parking space with my neighbor, which means that if they arrive after me, I get stuck in front of them and can’t leave unless they move their car. The second they settled in the building, they were horrified by the situation and refused any practical suggestion I had to solve the “problem,” like exchanging key duplicates. They just went ahead and bought a second parking spot, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the “situation” (or me, their neighbor) on a daily basis. But now they have guests who are staying over for the quarantine and my parking spot is permanently blocked. When I first called them to ask them to move their car, the owner came down eagerly to help. Via WhatsApp, they then requested that every time I need the car moved, that I contact them through the security guard 15 minutes before I leave the building. Three times in a row, however, they failed to come down to to give me access to my spot. When I was finally able to reach them to discuss the matter, they told me that for them this problem was overwhelming, a huge discomfort, a terrible ordeal. I told them that the solution was to trust each other and be practical about the matter. Since the quarantine began though, I’ve been allotted a regular spot in the guest area at the building and have not had to deal with them myself.


Every night I hunt for these dumb flying beetles that attracted by the light, land inside from the main door, which we always keep open, or a back window. They end up lying on their backs and can’t turn around and agonize all night. So I pick them up, one by one and place them carefully outside. Their presence signals drought; waiting for the rain to come, they are disoriented and have become a plague. Their assured suicide is like that of the straying penguins in Werner Herzog’s documentary about Antartica, Encounters at the End of the World (2012). I keep thinking, we are not victims, we have the power to hold corporations and the government accountable, if going out to the streets is not feasible right now, we have the tool of boycott. What if aside from occupying the sites where the Mayan Train is envisioned, we would also boycott corporations owned by the subcontractors like Elektra and Banco Azteca, or Carlos Slim’s or Alfonso Romo’s companies as well as those owned by the current government’s cronies (the REAL rich, the 1% which definitely does not live in Polanco)?
Not that we are watching the country fall into pieces from the comfort of our homes under lockdown, while the “essential workers” are risk their skins, like the army of Cornershop shoppers I saw the other day at the supermarket, running around anxious to please their customers and get a salary even if it means having to bike up to 20 Km with a backpack full of food in 20 minutes or less…


I made a bold declaration on FB that was highly liked and commented. I stated that we need to demand a rent and utilities payment freeze along with mortgages and credits. To massively distribute food, to give a basic universal income for the coming three months so none is forced to go out and work. To subsidize family businesses and Pymes (Small and medium enterprises). To nationalize hospitals, to stop the Mayan Train and other megaprojects. That Amazon and food distributing chains donate part of their earnings to people in need; that measures be taken (like a functional and properly trained police force) to palliate or stop gender violence under quarantine; that congress and chambers be suspended until it’s safe for us to go out on the streets and protest at their doorsteps, to make demands (car protests have been pathetic and subject of class shaming). The wide echo on social media of the statement (which is not really extraordinary, is what other countries are doing) was unsatisfactory to me… a sign of lack of vision and political will. I’m exhausted and sad.

racism classism vigorexia
pulsion to destroy, to self-destroy,
like a burning life their tongues,
speaking
bot
black screen zombies
skinless living,
sex no touching

parody specters
theater politics
reality burning drought

descentralization
The wounds on roberta’s withers
My (neighbor’s) pettiness
Tiny toxic microshits

Tears and Laughter:
A conversation with Carlos Amorales on the pandemic, the destruction of cultural infrastructure in Mexico, the redundant populations and “the poor”, a new underground, the vanguard, etc. in six parts (Spanish only)

Lágrimas y risas: Una conversación con Carlos Amorales en seis partes sobre la pandemia, la destrucción de la infraestructura cultural en México, las poblaciones redundantes y “los pobres”, el nuevo underground, la vanguardia, etc.

The New Normality (July 25, 2020 –Nth week)
1.
It’s been more or less four months of lockdown, the infection alarm is still in red throughout most of the country, the contagion curve hasn’t reached its peak but neither has it been flattened. We’re still waiting for the curve to be crushed, people we know and people we’re close to have had their dance with the virus. We have also denominated a certain condition of tiredness, weakness and depression that comes with a self-induced fever and body ache: “Psychological COVID-19.” Whomever I ask, they confess that they have had it at least four or five times. Mexico has the highest death rate in the world of COVID-19 patients and has increased from 11% to 12.5%. The wheels of the capitalist machinery are turning though, markets have been reawakened, construction, sweatshops and other forms of industrial production, government offices, churches, restaurants, beauty parlors, shopping malls, bookstores are now open. Schools and offices remain closed but operative online, the rest of the workers are back on the streets. The population is being left to their own devices: from women and children who suffer from domestic abuse, to those who can’t afford private healthcare or unable to feed themselves and their families. Aside from rampant unemployment, there are no hospital beds, or oxygen tanks or oxymeters to be bought. Something perverse is going on: If you’re able to afford a COVID-19 home testing kit (which costs around $50 US if bought in bulk) and test positive, you run to a private doctor to get a prescription for your own cocktail of Afidavir, Cloroquine, Hidroxicloroquine, Remdesvivir, Famotidine, Aplidin Ritonavir, Interferón, Beta 1B and Lopinavir. You’ll make it for sure without having to go to a hospital. But most of the people can’t afford this kind of healthcare, medications are unavailable in most pharmacies, and officially, these remedies have not been sanctioned by the country’s healthcare officials, so most people are both afraid and discouraged to use them as cures. Only patients who are very ill are being admitted to public hospitals for treatment, but most of them are going there to die. It feels like a willful intensification of Social Darwinism.

This morning I realized that one of the things that the quarantine has given me is an elongated sense of time. Under lockdown, things happen much slower, with less intensity. Being dislocated from the outside has helped me to ground myself –which I was very much in need of. We changed to our current home about a year ago. I had been moving around for the past twenty years and had kept most of the books I own (some since childhood, some inherited from my father’s library, most of them have traveled with me across the world) in boxes in a storage space. These past few weeks I finally made the time to find shelves to free them from the boxes. The process has given me immense pleasure and joy. I saw a map of my thinking and passions unfold and interlink as I made (very difficult) decisions to order them: Should I have a distinct section for contemporary women’s writing in English (Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, Leanne Betamosake Simpson, Lidia Yuknavich, Veronica Gonzalez, Chris Kraus, Rachel Cusk, Cristina Rivera Garza, Eileen Myles, Siri Hustvedt) which I consider a key influence right now in one of the angles in my writing, or subsume them to a “Universal Literature category”? Could that section include Arundathi Roy’s non-fiction, or should that go on the political thought or on the activism section? Where should my father’s Anthropology books go (Levy-Strauss, Carlos Castañeda…), or Paulo Freire, Victor Frenkl, as I do not have obvious shelf companions for them? Now it hits me: I should’ve asked my third degree librarian cousin Celia Emmelhainz, who works at Berkeley and spent a couple of years in Kazakstan. Do Marx and Engels go in the same section as Wendy Brown and Alain Badiou? Are Marcel Gauchet and Régis Debray kindred in a non-obvious way? I realized that the Social Sciences have radically changed since post-structuralism, cultural studies, and since the French invented “meta” politics. I can’t stop thinking where the hell I left my Gallimard edition of Gilles Deleuze’s L’image-temps (as I see L’image-mouvement sitting cozily next to Derrida’s Glas but think, it might migrate to a film theory section nex to visual studies). I can’t find either my Luther Blisset books, which I got in Italy when I was an Erasmus student in France, and we travelled by bus to Venice for a weekend during the Carnival (the bus was also our hotel). I’m also wondering why on earth didn’t I keep my Martha Rosler Bowery book (yes, it’s now easily available as PDF, but still), or so many art catalogues that I left behind in Toronto (thank you Eshrat Erfanian for holding on to them for a while and keeping some of them), my Elizabeth Bishop poem collection must have gotten lost on the last move… I finally feel like I inhabit the space I live in. It’s a sensation that is difficult to describe, put in the context of the life of someone who slept for years with an increasingly battered pink suitcase sitting next to her bed. Suitcase is long gone, the freshly shelved books now remind me of something about myself, don’t know exactly what. Which makes me happy in the midst of the pandemic, political turmoil and climate change which undoubtedly threaten most of what I live for. So putting my after midnight insomnia aside –which can be blamed on nightmarish scenarios of having to repatriate to Germany, where I can only be the Mexican with a German name that I am, thus unable to find any teaching jobs so my next life involves never having time to read a book again –I’ve decided to dedicate a part of the final entry to this blog to an angry lament. A young editor recently hinted that some of my writing is moralistic in a not so desirable way. But whatever the fuck have I got left to write about when in the past few weeks I have been dwelling over, meeting about, discussing, lamenting, panicking about the current Mexican government’s crusade against the arts and cultures, social sciences, academia and scientific research by massive defunding?
Aside from the crisis in the field brought about by the pandemic, the government has cut budgets to the extent that no more art exhibitions will be put together in the next year or so (to give an example of the extent of the crisis). The FONCA, or National Fund for Arts and Culture, which gives three-year grants to established artists, writers, directors, performers, etc. and grants for emerging artists and has been a fundamental pillar of Mexican cultural production for the past 30 years, is being slowly dismantled. The budget of cultural institutions has been cut as an austerity measure in COVID-19 times up to 70%, thus cultural institutions are barely able to pay for salaries. In parallel, it is becoming clear that the current government is building its own mechanisms of high culture and ideological control to undermine the PRI and the PAN’s previous cultural policies. A specific target is CONACULTA, a high culture apparatus created by Ex President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to assign support to culture elites which in spite of criticizing his government, ended up legitimizing the regime’s neoliberal policies. This culture apparatus is being substituted by a supposedly anti-neoliberal model of culture based on instrumentalizing art as a healer of the social tissue, on promoting cultural production in indigenous and poor communities introducing a kind of relational and interventionist art through “semilleros” and a “Community Culture” program. The “semilleros” exist in strategic marginalized urban areas and municipalities in rural zones –called “Municipalities of Hope” – where organized crime and the National Guard are present. The Community Culture program has been tailored to fit perfectly the regime’s main slogan: “The poor first.” As opposed to the older cultural régime, the participants do not belong to the institutional art circuit, their knowledges are not academic and neither have they been built by art institutions. Their names are unknown, and according to UNAM academic Rafel Mondragón, this project invites us to rethink art and intellectual functions for the future in the face of a functional program that is “bringing about true transformation.” The reviled “high arts” community is in shock: as we supported the regime before the election, it is being extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that the current government does not represent us, “the liberal class” and our values (which mind, you, do include social conscience and sensitivity toward marginalized and indigenous peoples). Some of us are demanding that the government maintain its support to culture based on a defense of a “right to culture.” A communiqué issued recently by the Secretary of Culture, was adamant: “For there to be cultural rights granted, equality amongst producers, publics and audiences needs to be granted first.”
The current government’s Community Culture program is based on an idealized notion of community as a new ideological model for nationalism grounded on indigenous relationships of interdependency and subsistence (more on that later), republican austerity, a moralist-populist discourse, all indissociable from extractivism and policies that are increasing the privileges of the 1%, while destroying the middle class: For instance, the government’s meager rescue measures facing the pandemic left out PYMES or small and medium enterprises as well as companies who give work to the middle class. This, bearing in mind that the dismantlement of the previous high culture apparatus comes hand in hand with the displacement of ideological struggle to a new sphere of passionate commentary by commentocrats through social networks, pro-regime websites and media segments. It seems like the goal of these transformations is less to redistribute wealth equally and to expand the right to culture to marginal populations and more to destroy the critical middle-class masses. Organic intellectuals and outspoken artists are being replaced by influencers, readers by followers. My film students confessed to me last semester that they get their political education from Chumel, an influencer with a YouTube channel who does political satire, hosted the 2017 MTV Millenial Awards and who was recently involved in a scandal for making a racist remark on social media about the President’s youngest son leading to the resignation of Mónica Maccise, director of the CONAPRED, or the National Institute for the Prevention of Racism and Discrimination (which the President claimed not to have ever heard of before).
An ultra-right panorama of capitalism with Asian values toward neofeudalism is painting itself in contemporary Mexico: Yes, the TCMEC was recently signed and while I will not delve onto it here, I must mention that one of the treaty’s clauses involves a mechanism of digital censorship known as “notification and retreat” foreseen by US laws. It means that if a person argues that certain content or publication violates her authorship rights, the providers of Internet services must remove them without need to prove the misdeed and without the judicial authority order. Millions of content that do not violate author’s rights will be censored regardless and without due process, violating freedom of expression. In parallel, a project of law is being proposed in Congress to give corporations like Telmex and AT&T the power to choose winners and losers in internet, enabling them to limit, degrade, restrict, discriminate, obstruct, filter or block access to contents, applications or services favoring their interests. All while, what Dawn Paley calls “Neoliberal War” is ongoing which includes forced disappearance, mass displacement and murder under the guise of the so-called “War Against Drugs.” The war was launched by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 but in truth, it is a counterinsurgency war fought on behalf of transnational and national corporations to cleanse the territory for extractive activities.

In a previous post I mentioned an article by Jodi Dean in which she describes the current system as mutating toward a new social order not only of extreme inequality, but also of mass serfdom. A kind of neofeudalism, which enables direct exploitation of peasants by lords and a property-less underclass that survives by serviging the needs of high earners, hand in hand with massive extractivism and primitive accumulation. The road to contemporary feudalism was paved by legal reforms by neoliberal states, by the liberalization of markets, the corporativization of the State (the State having become manager of the country’s assets acting on behalf of the interests of transnational and national corporations), by massive privatizations. We are facing an extractive economy not only of resources but of data, cheap labor, through budget cuts and megaprojects (EPZs and tourist infrastructure), more privatizations and debt.
None of these advances in capitalism were prevented by the cultural, journalistic, legal, activist work of the liberal class, made up of artists, writers, journalists, researchers, activists, NGO workers, advocates of human rights. Most of us have unquestioningly repeated the official “War Against Drugs” discourse in art, literature, film, denouncing criminal violence and unable to draw the links between organized crime, the myth of narcos, private armies, Blackwater, the Mérida Plan, the exponentiation of violence and extractivism and dissposession. The war has been mostly denounced through the abstract umbrella of “violations of human rights,” demanding that the “Government do its job right.”
During the past century or so, the press, universities, the labor movement, unions, culture, the Democratic Party as well as NGOs functioned as a defense against the excesses of power. According to Chris Hedges in The Death of the Liberal Class (2010), however, for various reasons, the liberal class has collapsed as an effective counterweight to the corporate state. The most disadvantaged populations: the poor, the working class, migrants, even the middle class no longer have a champion. In the case of Mexico, the President has filled that void positing himself and his policies as a defense of “the poor”: a vague and obsolete concept that encompasses the lower and working class, students and elderly but not precarious workers, women, the non-exploited migrants, non-citizens, displaced and redundant populations, victims of violence; “the poor” signifies indigenous communities but not those who are defending their territory against megaprojects, etc. According to Hedges, this void has given way to a new terrifying political configuration: the gradual corruption and death of the liberal class, which no longer helps through institutions and the media to mitigate corporate control of politics, education, labor, the arts, financial systems. Now the corporate State is dismantling without any barriers the last vestiges of protection once put into place by the liberal class.
The way in which Chris Hedge’s hypothesis applies to Mexico is easy to see but difficult to articulate. Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power, he has attacked and defunded students with scholarships studying abroad, scientists, academics and the cultural sector. His attack has expanded to defunding the CONAPRED, INE (the institution that keeps elections in check), Refuges for women suffering gender violence, but also major social sciences institutions like the CIDE, the INAH, Instituto Mora. A massive transfer of wealth is taking place from institutions that produce and maintain the middle class as well as keep democratic mechanisms healthy (at least in a technocrat kind of way), to where? To the regime’s social programs? To handouts to “the poor”? To Dos Bocas (a new oil extraction plant) and the Tren Maya, two of the regime’s most prized megaprojects, for which oligarchs got contracts? To the Complejo Cultural Bosque de Chapultepec which is being developed –for free – by conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco? It seems like what comes after Neoliberalism is Capitalism with Asian values like authoritarianism, internet censorship, state control over certain sectors of the economy, a centralized cultural program, a new morality and the intensification of the so-called War Against Drugs: the expansion of the apparatus of “amplified counterinsurgency” as Dawn Paley suggests. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
According to Hedges, the liberal class –WE cultural producers, creative thinkers, artists, creative industry workers, journalists, NGO workers, activists, actors, researchers, professors – no longer have a place as moral authority. This is due to the rise of the corporate state and OUR inability to criticize unfettered capitalism, question the surveillance state, boycott states or corporations against globalization and inequality. Indeed, opportunism and pretentiousness abound in the culture industry –at least that’s the outsider’s perception –, with its caricature of appropriating marginal people’s voices, building modes of collective existing, of living together, of appropriating ancestral knowledges and radical subaltern gestures. Blind to extractivism and to the ethical nuances of participating in biennials and film festivals subsided by oil companies, armament corporations, corrupt governments. In an address at the 2007 Guadalajara Book Fair (FIL), Carlos Monsiváis discussed the novelty of “cultural empowerment” as an incipient form of nationalism. By this he meant that “our culture” had come to mean that “minorities believe in aesthetic complexity through faith and not by demonstration, they get excited with some poems and a bit of classical music and exhibit their astonished admiration before virtuously employed language that creates aesthetic reactions in unexpected places.” At the same time, Monsiváis points out, humanism has been expelled from education and delegated to the “iconosphere,” or the realm of images. In the domain of high culture, he declared, what came to matter is a form of overloaded, delirious and demential praise to convince everyone that the cultural product they are consuming is not a product, and that the praise is not marketing. In sum, for Monsiváis neoliberalism signifies the encumbrance of a predatorial minority which despises humanism and adopts culture as adornment and education to disguise is technocratic ways. The tragedy for him, is that cultural contexts and cultural referents came to be lost. When pondering about this last line, I can’t help but think that the rare meetings with my editor always take place at a corporate building where I need to pass three filters to get in, and that the image of Frida Kahlo has been sold to be placed on the labels of plastic water bottles and feminine pads.
When the official narrative critiqued the liberal class labelling us as “fifís” (or snobs), we were living comfortable lives working for the State or private culture industries without fighting against the system. To be comfortable, we have had to compromise, self-censor, accept the fact that the pillars of the liberal class (the media, the university, the arts) have been bought off with corporate money. Students are no longer educated to think critically but to make themselves helpful to the corporate state. We have been unable to stop – let alone denounce – extractivism and neocolonialisms, living off the surplus in the economy that gets reinvested in cultural production. We are blind, unable to see the corporate structures that have made it impossible for most Mexican families to live with dignity (indebted to Coppel or Elektra with degraded access to healthcare through the Doctor SIMI chain, with decimated health by Maseca, Coca-Cola and Bimbo and minds bombarded by Televisa and now Netflix). WE are blind to the Neoliberal War: Contempt with denouncing massive disappearance and violence against women as violations of human rights as opposed to the continuation of colonialism and capitalism’s systemic need to murder to thrive. In her newest book, Guerra Neoliberal: Desaparición y búsqueda en el norte de México (México: Libertad bajo palabra, 2020) Dawn Paley argues that being unable to give signification to what we are going through is a brutal condition of demobilization, discord and fear. We are trapped in that situation. According to Paley, an explanation of the current situation of violence in the country is beyond our grasp because the framework for understanding it, “The War Against Drugs” is obsolete and giving the false impresión that the Mexican State is waging a war against drug cartels who fight against each other and that if innocent people die it’s only collateral damage. Following Paley, however, the so-called War Against Drugs represents a change in the form of governing in parallel with a deepening of the neoliberal processes throughout the application of what she calls “expanded counterinsurgent” war techniques. This form of war serves global capitalist interests and is occurring during a formally democratic moment as opposed to yesteryear’s military juntas or dictatorships. The “War Against Drugs” or better called “Neoliberal War” is a depoliticized war without guerrillas, communists and ideology with State violences at the root, to dispossess private and common resources that sustain collective life and to hinder political capacities of resistance and struggle throughout Mexico. Two of the key tools of this war are forced disappearance and mass displacement of people forced to abandon their businesses, lands or homes by fear of extortion and death serving the purpose of renewal of the primary accumulation cycle (extractivism). The form resistance is taking in this war, is the organization of collectives of families of missing people who get together to find the remains of murdered people to hand them out to the police to run DNA tests, as does “Grupo Vida” in Torreón, Coahuila.
While the Mexican State is painting itself as the physical and moral protector of the people, Who amongst us is defying the corporate state and the power elite? What ideological alternatives are we going to put on the table? Our endless discussions on what makes art relevant to an unequal society, our pathetic defense to find support from civil society banking on Mexican’s (former) love for cultural figures and on the myth of aesthetic enthrallment falls short in envisioning what is needed to be demanded right now: To stop extractivism, crony capitalism, the threats of Internet censorship and to native maize by TCMEC, to demand renewable energies and democracy by government reforms, the need to call for a rent and mortgage freeze, mutual aid networks, counter-information to tell the COVID stories that the government is hiding behind data shoved nightly down our throats by charming Healthcare Secretary Hugo López Gatell. Unfortunately, art museums will go on conceiving their mission as being nimble stages for antagonism putting in place a symbolic politics grounded on mere illusions, like poetic activism or poetic politics. In the meantime, enlightened cultural producers will go on believing that they are rising feminist anti-racist children.
Thinking strategically and not ethically is how we are serving power. The current regime’s critique and dismissal of the liberal class as “fifís,” as elitist and snobbish, closer to patrons and collectors than to the masses is not too far off. Look at our history: Octavio Paz, Héctor Aguilar Camín, Enrique Krauze vouched ferociously for neoliberalism as a means to develop Mexico. Against Carlos Fuentes, Paz dismissed condescendingly the Zapatista struggle which Luis Villoro defended with the mystique of community and plurality. Not long after and famously, while on tour, President Ernesto Zedillo was approached by an indigenous woman who offered something for sale to him and he responded condescendingly: “No traigo cash.” (I don’t have any “cash” on me, using the word in English). While market liberalizationw as at its peak, Jorge G. Castañeda and José Woldenberg worked on the country’s democratic structures and “democratic transition,” while the liberal class firmly believed in what is making us go extinct: technology, industrialization, capitalist production, free trade, development, modernization: to be like the US, to become European.
Mediocrity, opportunism careerism, corporatism now invade democratic and cultural institutions which were envisioned to make the world a better place and give a voice to the silenced. Neither have we protected the commons or fought injustice (beyond likes and shares on social media). Claiming to speak on behalf of “universality” without defying the power elite is also how we lost our moral role in society, succumbing to the privileges that were offered to us. Workers did not become wealthier with neoliberalism (but became indebted or unemployed), the global market did not lift the developing world out of poverty (but renewed and strengthened colonial patterns of dispossession), trade barriers did not benefit citizens (but made them blind to global warming, mass migration, the fact that their privileges are sustained on war, dispossession and violence). The final assimilation of corporate ideology into liberal thought is evident in the fact that artworks, films, novels are conceived and disseminated in terms of marketing, as Carlos Monsiváis pointed out in Guadalajara.
Not having seen what was coming: a neopopulist régime that gained legitimacy by promising to undo the wrongs perpetuated by “neoliberal governments,” but that would regardless continue with their extractivist and neoliberal policies, the liberal class voted for a government that does not represent us but neither does it represent people undergoing hardship to survive due to climate change, women, migrants in Mexico hoping to cross to the US, indigenous populations whose territories are rich in resources fighting to defend them, the redundant populations, the families of victims of forced disappearance, people undergoing forced displacement through extortion or terror, etc.

  • Votemos Por el Amor, collaboration with Miguel Ventura

On July 15th, a group of academics, analysts, intellectuals and politicians, denounced in the open letter “Contra la deriva autoritaria y por la defensa de la democracia” (Against the Authoritarian Derive and on Defense of Democracy) the stifling of pluralism in the Chamber of Deputies (López Obrador’s party MORENA has now the majority of seats). The letter accuses the President of centralizing power in detriment of other State and Federal powers, of destroying or deteriorating public administration and constitutional institutions, as well as of making personal decisions, polarizing society into artificial bands, discrediting the authority of special organisms like INE (National Electoral Institute) and attacking all expressions not identified with his politics. They also denounce his suicidal austerity politics in the face of COVID-19, and his rejection to come up with a national agreement to reactivate responsibly the economy and save hundreds of jobs. Instead, they point out, the pandemic has been instrumentalized to accelerate the demolition of institutions that hold the State in check, and to take over more power. These “organic intellectuals” call for an opposition block, an alliance to give back to the Chamber of Deputies its role as institutional counterweight to the executive power keeping the government in check to respect democratic plurality. In this regime, however, “Organic intellectuals” belong to the same category as corrupt politicians, capitalism’s cronies, irresponsible privileged people.
This perception is perhaps due to the failure of the liberal class to articulate an alternative to profound inequality, but I also found answers in Jaime Durán Barba’s books. Durán Barba is a political strategist and a consultant in dozens of electoral campaigns throughout Latin America in the past twenty years. In his Manual de relaciones legislativas con la prensa (2002), he argues that a condition for the strengthening of democracy is that rulers maintain an adequate relationship with citizens through the mass mediatization of political communication. It is thus essential to do whatever is necessary to increase the government’s press coverage addressing a specific audience, considering the context and headlines. Durán Barba is known to have invented President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s mañaneras (or daily morning addresses, akin to Donald Trump’s Tweets) when he was governor on Mexico City (2000-2005). In his “mañaneras,” López Obrador marked the political agenda every day on the radio delimiting political discussions in the country which enabled him to become the main opponent to then Mexico’s President Vicente Fox. The “mañaneras” now take place everyday at 7:00 AM in the room where about 50 journalist wait until the martial salute of a woman soldier is heard: “Good morning Mr. President!” That is the signal that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has arrived. Seconds later, the President climbs a pallet and stands before a lectern with a microphone, in front of a screen where a PPP is projected. “Good morning. We will reveal information dealing with the government’s plan of republican austerity.” And thus the mañanera begins. For over an hour, the President announces his government’s social programs, gives instructions to his collaborators and sends political messages. The President is representing not himself but his government and places journalists and actors right before the daily conjuncture. He jokes around, confronts his enemies, puts down journalists, makes personal statements, deploys his idiosyncrasy, comments on social media, dismisses criticism, announces his political decisions. Many of his statements are outrageous and are echoed and criticized in social and mass media giving way to shit storms around specific topics, policies or events. None in the country has stayed indifferent to his daily morning declarations, which have become source of memes, jokes, endless commentary, anger, outrage and criticism.
I must note that “Mañanero” was the name of a TV political commentary program led by Víctor Trujillo “Brozo” between 1994-2019. Brozo’s show was known for being satyrical, critical, ruthless against the political class and for having exposed many political scandals. The name of Brozo’s show and the President’s daily morning address, bear a double entendre: “(palo) mañanero” also refers to “morning sex” while “(cogida) mañanera” means “morning fuck.” Both imply the normalization of mysoginistic language in public sphere, as in Paco Ignacio Taibo III’s (director of the Fondo de Cultura Económica, or the national editorial house which has recently edited the entire collection of his own police novels) stated: “se las metimos doblada” or “we put it in folded”, referring to López Obrador and his ally’s having “fist fucked” their opponents.
In another book Jaime Durán Barba co-wrote with Santiago Nieto, Mujer, sexualidad, internet y política (2006), they discuss the need of politicians to massify certain values and meanings. For them, it is key to address the “new voter,” a figure with a specific political sensibility around whom they must construct a sociopolitical imaginary through mass communication, a political culture identifying with the right wing/conservative right. This “new voter” is a consumer of communication: this is why the proposals need to be jazzy, armored against questioning. Ideology is thus recuperated through a false notion of politics: novelty, bombardment and bombastic statements. Everything needs to become ephemeral and transitory, like the brief nationalization of Private hospitals, which for a few months took in non-COVID patients from public hospitals, or like the short-term program to hand out credits to family business as a measure to help with the economic crisis. In the mañaneras, declarations are volatile and ephemeral and evaporate in the citizen-consumer’s nonextant short-term, let alone historical memory.
Critical-intellectuals phantasize with changing society at their root but are in crisis: the “common people” no longer recognize them as superior beings and beholders or reason and consciousness. The president is imposing his agenda not without reason, but with passion. Passion has become the ruling value of the “new Latin American electorate,” according to Durán Barba. In his view, the idea that intellectuals are right and are bearers of reason and that the problems of the country will be overcome through their ideas and when the masses study sociology, learn to discuss and discern ideologies and government programs and speak their language -is wrong. A crusade against critical thought has been brewing in Latin America for the past twenty years. What criticism generates now is apathy and that makes things worse. The attack against intellectuals and social sciences and critical thinking parts from the strategy of the “art of winning elections”.
Indeed, in the current contemporary imagination, images have annihilated words and spectacle has replaced old discourses and programs. Celebrity culture has taken over political communication generating passions from staged authenticity rather than genuine forms of recognition and belonging: a culture of the perpetuation of faux ecstasy. Now words, discourses, political programs and policy are a thing of the past. Durán Barba has prescribed to replace them by images, spectacle, emotions underscored by the neoliberal values of individualism and apolitization.
Durán Barba did not bring President Andrés López Obrador to power, but former Mexico City’s Major seems to have learned the exercise of his communicational politics by heart. Ironically, it was Antonio Sola, the Spanish political consultant who supported Felipe Calderón who advised López Obrador’s last campaign. I write ironically, because Sola created back in 2006 a campaign against López Obador crowned by the slogan: “AMLO is a danger to Mexico.” For the 2018 campaign, Sola capitalized Mexican’s anger against organized crime, insecurity and corruption and radically changed the figure of the President: he does not live in the official residency, he is paid less, he does not have bodyguards, he travels in tourist class in commercial flights, he promised a peaceful strategy to eradicate insecurity and violence, scholarships for young men and women.
The figure of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, however, is a perfect example of civil society’s historical amnesia and that old PRI tactics have not been excised from Mexican politics. As candidate for governor of the State of Tabasco, he lost in 2004 and as a protest he organized a march to Mexico City; some of his constituents took over oil wells and proclaimed his victory. He did not make it to Tabasco governor but in 2000 he was elected for Mayor of Mexico City. As he took power, to demarcate himself from his predecessor Rosario Robles, he reduced government expenses that he deemed unnecessary like cellphones, consultants and press office with the goal of dedicating that money to social programs. Sounds familiar? Back then, he was criticized for not making sure his people were following his rules of transparency and austerity; a series of corruption scandals around his Party, the PRD in 2004 brought him to impeachment in 2005 by the Chamber of Deputies. Since then, he began to sell himself as an “uncomfortable subject” for power. His political strategy is sustained by the idea of a complot against him, which generates passions and divisions amongst citizens: something which he has evidently mastered.
“Organic intellectuals” critique Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government for his positing himself as “caudillo” (Chieftain) or “Messiah,” but not by the principle underlying his government program: poverty as the enemy that can be defeated with the union of businessmen (oligarchs) and campesinos; none is questioning that he is not complying to the San Andrés Agreement with the Zapatistas who fight for a plurality of autonomous nations under the umbrella of the “Mexican Republic,” or that López Obrador posits the State as the only means of possible social transformation. Journalistic research about his social programs is also lacking: it is rumored that they are failing or have been halted due to improvisation and non-viability; the financing for programs like public rural universities, planting trees, scholarships for youth, microcredits for the poor have been said to have come from arbitrary budget cuts (which are ongoing) and adjustments in vital projects, seriously affecting public institutions. He has ordered cuts in public realms like health (cancer patients lack treatment now in public hospitals, for example), education, culture and scientific research. But serious reporting is lacking right now, connecting all the dots and painting a realistic picture of the relationship between the Caudillo’s promises and deeds.
In the context of global neonationalisms, the current regime is not an exception in creating a new identity discourse generated from within the State: a truly rooted nationalism grounded on the originary indigenous past. This discourse is based on the goodness of indigenous populations and an originary essential “communitarian democracy” that can realize the common good for all communities to overcome inequality. A society that becomes a community reflected through morality and rights, a “collective us” against an Individual “I” that the President “Governs obeying.” This “communitarian democracy” led by President López Obrador was inspired by Luis Villoro’s writings about indigenous communities as an alternative and post-ideological form of political organization and a means to overcome inequality. This discourse obviously contrasts with the current government’s “development” programs in the South of Mexico. By many accounts, “Modernization” is racism.


4.
Involution (2018), a film by Pavel Khvaleev paints a scenario in which humans on Earth get out of control influenced by a cruel and inhuman mechanism that reverses Darwin’s theory of evolution, so that every human being begins to gradually inhabit animal instincts. Human social and interdependence relationships are substituted in the narrative by uncontrolled aggression and instinctual self-preservation. Psychologically, this is explained as men and women being driven by their limbic system, which obviously leads to chaos on the planet and directly to the extinction of mankind.
Alberto Chimal’s most recent novel, La noche en la Zona M (México DF: FCE, 2018) is set in a post-apocalyptical Mexico City in which global warming has deepened social polarization. The Internet has collapsed and people stumble to find resources to survive. The city has been divided into “reigns,” and the protagonists are three women who inhabit the reign formerly known as “Centro Histórico.” Luciana is Sita’s grandmother and Celeste is “a human consciousness trapped in a machine.” They decide to flee seeking a better place although they will face threats and dangers on the way. Chimal began to draw the novel’s world in “El gran experimento,” a text published in November 2018 at Revista de la Universidad. In this world, immigration to “developed” countries is forbidden; mass executions regularly take place at the borders, coasts and internment and reeducation camps; massive displacement is the cause of death of people at sea or in the deserts; the reasons of this massive displacement are invisible and never discussed because the State penalized discussions about topics deemed “controversial;” those deviating from the officially “correct” thinking and acting of the country in sexual and social matters suffered from social and economic restrictions; oligarchs had become a superior caste; large portions of the territory had become uninhabitable; racial, sexual, religious segregation laws and other limitations of civil rights were enacted justified by fake stories about internal enemies; media and politicians denied anything abnormal was happening; the solution to the country’s problems had to leave intact the privileges of corporate owners, politicians and other important people; all contact amongst nations was suppressed, displacement between nations forbidden; information sources and mobility possibilities were cut out. “The Great Experiment” was taking place in three stages: Exodus and Retreat then “The Advanced,” which were out to open up new inhabitable zones in the polar regions of the world; then, Nation-states collapsed and fragmented due to chaos, poverty and hatred. Radically different tiny feuds appeared: a nation based on hatred for medicine; a nation of speakers of a language that had been suppressed for centuries; a nation in which an old criminal band, used to depredation, had to learn to survive without anything else around them; a nation presided by women; a nation composed exclusively by men who hated women; all nations were isolated from each other and they were running out of resources, energy and knowledges.
Chimal’s dystopian sci-fi world is comparable to the world painted by Juan Villoro’s short story “Paciente Cero” (Letras Libres, April 2020). Both take place in a near distant future and their protagonists are “marginal”: an old woman, a young girl, a computer and a 91-year-old man. All are guards or keepers of sorts: in Chimal’s story, the women are appointed to the secret task of finding and archiving whatever is left from the old world; in Villoro’s story, the old man was formerly a writer. “Paciente Cero” unfolds in “Ciudad Zapata,” a place in which crime rates are beyond being tracked, private militias roam wearing old mishmashed uniforms, mariachis can be heard in Chinese bars, and migrants who come looking for jobs sleep on the streets. Like the rest of the world, Ciudad Zapata is ruled by the Chinese in the “era after cultural sector cuts,” immigration and the worldwide trash crisis. The Chinese brought and processed trash from the US in the territory but they had run out of space. The “Prócer” (or leader) offered the Chinese new sites in Michoacán, Guerrero, Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima as a strategy to combat organized crime in 2030. The old writer regularly meets with Fong, a leader of genetic modification projects in animals and viruses with extensive experience in South East Asia and South America to play chess. In this world, every citizen has been implanted a carbon nanoconductor in the brain that enables them to listen to the Prócer’s discourses but mostly to register and transmit their thoughts, habits and tendencies. Fong takes the old writer to visit the delegates of the Indigenous Council who are having “zone problems.” The protagonist remembers that he had visited the community 30 years ago, when “Ethnicity was fashionable,” “objects were decorated with indigenous motifs,” “people spoke a lot about originary peoples who were being dispossessed of their communal lands.” The Council tests the writer him by asking him to edit a text he himself had written about justice, the repatriation of communal lands in 2017, “a time in which there were still elections and activism was possible…” Then, a time came when “he wrote texts that he thought subversive at night and during the day, he wrote pompous discourses for the Prócer.”
Both texts and the film operate through speculation and extrapolation of traits of the present in the future tense. They are kinds of thought experiments embodying current issues into characters and narratives, asking questions about the future. All scenarios are dystopian and counterintuitive pondering on what if what we do (or fail to do) today leads us to such scenarios that become true? These speculative scenarios are far from challenging our common intuitions, intuitions that exemplify how information has become perception. These information-based perceptions are the grounds for fictional futures based on fear and hopelessness; earlier cynicism has been recycled in a rehash of all the clichés of science fiction literature, giving way to weak allegories and pessimistic extrapolations. These narratives also testify to whiteness as the elemental spirit of our current system: in critical circumstances, this spirit is only capable of imagining dystopias that reinforce normality because the spirit lacks the need to fantasize about fleeing to find freedom from the hegemonic. Dissidence thus lies in overcoming this spirit of whiteness, which is also the spirit of Western masculine modernity. Resistance is fierce defense of the territory hand in hand with getting involved with energy politics. As Brian Homes recently argued, it is not about creating a new world, but about perceiving the existing one: perception (not information) is at the root of resistance, acknowledging that to defend the territory means acknowledging relations of interdependence based on a world in common and encompassing different entities: species, soils, rivers, technological systems, human groups.

August 2020
Conversation with Dawn Paley, in collaboration with Enrique Arriaga (editing and sound effects) and Kevin E. Hernández Martínez (transcription)
[Links to soundcloud audio files at the bottom]
THE NEOLIBERAL WAR OF MASS DISAPPEARANCE BEHIND THE SO-CALLED “THE WAR AGAINST DRUGS”
Conversation with Dawn Paley
August 2020
Irmgard: Today I’ve invited Dawn Paley to discuss her new book “Neoliberal War: Disappearance and Search in the North of Mexico”, which just came out with Libertad bajo palabra. Dawn Paley is a brilliant thinker and journalist, one of the best, I think, and I’m grateful that we have her working in Mexico. She’s originally from Vancouver, BC, or Occupied Musqueam, Skwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil Waututh Territories, in Canada. She’s been based in Mexico since 2011, her first book is titled “Drug War Capitalism”, and it was released in 2014 with AK Press, and it was one of the key books to understand what is known as the “War against drugs” in Mexico, with amazing research on the ground. And, also, Dawn has a PhD in Sociology from the Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico, where one of the most interesting research and dialogue groups in academia, but also linked to political activism, is grounded right now. And, she has an opinion column at the prestigious Mexican leftist newspaper La Jornada. So, it’s really a pleasure and a privilege to have this conversation with you, Dawn, thanks for saying yes.
Dawn, in your new book, you argue that we are trapped in a situation in which we cannot signify what is going on, what we’re going through, and what the country, at large, is going through, in Mexico, is an epidemic of disappearance and violence. That we’re really not understanding what is going on in cities, regions or countries where disappearance of a loved one is almost a rule, and when this happens, a family’s everyday is destroyed. As you argue, Dawn, what is left behind is a void, anxiety, endless pain, of not finding the absent loved one. So, in this book, you take on the task to explain how the situation is currently beyond our grasp. And I wanted you to start with how we have been misled by our historical-political framework to understand this forced disappearance and violence that is happening around the country right now.
Dawn: Sure, well, thank you so much for inviting me to be here, I’m super happy to have this exchange with you. So, my first book, “Drug War Capitalism”, sometimes I think about it as being a little bit like the “Why”’ of the so-called “War on drugs”, though making the argument that it doesn’t just have to do with greedy men and guns, and briefcases full of cash, but that it also has to do with the so-called “legal economy,” with the expansion of capitalism, with the expansion of extractive industries, control of labor, etc.; and in this new project, “Neoliberal War”, I start to think of it more as the “How?”, so I’m looking a little bit less at, sort of, the economic motivations and working more on what’s actually happening on the ground, how are people who are living through this violence describing what’s taking place, how is the state describing it, how are the media, how are the journalists describing it, and how do we as social activist, revolutionaries, people devoted to changing the situation of such deep injustice, how are we describing it. So yeah, since 2006, Mexico has been in a so-called “War on drugs”, I mean, it predates that with all different US-backed anti-drugs programs basically since the 70s, here in Mexico and all over Latin America and different places in the world, but here in Mexico it was a big uptake in military spending and militarization during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, which continued through the presidency of Peña Nieto, and I would argue continues to this day. And so, what I kind of wanted to do with this new book is look really into that, the production of confusion as a key plank, or as a key strategy, because what we’re constantly told from all different sort of [?] #0:04:36.7# power is whether the Attorney General’s Office, Nationally, Federally or on a state level, or you’re going by city or municipal police in different places, is that they’re fighting crime, you know, the army is fighting crime, the National Guard is fighting crime. Criminals, drug dealers, drug traffickers, people who wanna harm your children, you know, it’s a very moralistic type of language. And it’s not just Mexico, you know, in “Drug War Capitalism” I wrote about Honduras and Guatemala, and Colombia as well, it’s happening far beyond as well. But yeah, I mean, really just looking at how people are living this on the ground, and then what the numbers are telling us, which is that… in Mexico, living through a period of unprecedented violence since, basically, the early 20th century, and they’re having a whole bunch of clandestine mass graves all around the country, and by a whole bunch I mean like there’s thousands of them, and like… extermination grounds where people are being, where bodies are being destroyed… This is not normal, this is not like a crime problem, so that’s kind of like where some of that digging started, working with… literally digging, actually, working with family members of the disappeared in Torreón, Coahuila, who are doing these searches and listening to how they’re talking about what they lived through when the so-called “War on drugs” was really bad there and… just trying to kind of… seed or thread through a proposal towards a new understanding, so that we don’t just assume that what we’re living through is a series of “bad apples”, or a series of policy mistakes, or a series of… victims caught in a crossfire, all these types of arguments that contribute to the depoliticization of what I consider to be a war on the people of Mexico.

I: So, could be talk about systemic, or systematic, genocide?
D: I use the word “Holocaust” in the book because of the root etymology of Holocaust, which is “all burnt”, because of how they’re finding human remains in that area, and in other areas of Mexico, and I use it in a comparative sense in terms of really thinking through just how many, potentially thousands, tens of thousands of people… and then we can get more specific, to an extent, even though there’s a huge problem of statistics, of the collection of statistics in these kinds of crimes, specially disappearance, but… targeted specifically towards young men, in poor, working-class parts of geographical areas of certain cities, being targeted for extermination and social cleansing.
I: And, Dawn, the people that live this in the flesh, would you say that they buy the framework of the “War against drugs”? Or they live it differently?
D: That’s an interesting question, I think we’re so bombarded by the state and media discourse, and we’re bombarded beyond just the newspapers and, you know, what we’re reading in terms of information: were bombarded by Netflix, and we’re bombarded by series, supposedly about “narcos”; bombarded by all these narratives telling us constantly that what’s taking place in Mexico is a war between drug cartels and the Mexican state. But yeah, there’s a few interviews that I did that always stuck out to me, where I’d say, well, “What did you see? What can you actually describe, like, what you saw?”, you know, in the case of one woman who is an eye witness of the disappearance of her son, for example. And she told me that, you know, it was a white pick-up truck, and then I kind of pushed her on, she said, “You know, they said they were Los Zetas”. And I was like, “Well, what did you see, though? What is your experience living in that colonia?.” And she eventually just said, “You know what? They were all driving white pick-ups with no license plates. The Attorney Generals, state Attorney Generals, police officers, the state police, and so-called “organized crime groups,” they’re all driving the same trucks. So, actually, I’m not actually sure who were the perpetrators,” right? And I found that to be a repeated thing, people who were living on the ground… there’s definitely… I know this myself from being a journalist, when you’re in a news room, you take the police an the Ministerio Público’s word as gold, like it’s not questioned, whatever the police say, that version goes in and then, if you have time, you get a second version, right? So, a lot of the narratives we find in the newspapers, local newspaper included, like in Torreón or Gómez Palacio, Durango, which is a city next door, they would say “This is the Chapos fighting the Zetas”, and they… title [?] always be coming basically from the police as the main source, and I kind of looked at this a little bit in “Drug War Capitalism” too. And that’s very influential, I mean, it’s on all the TV stations, it’s like… that’s the vernacular that we have to talk about what’s going on. And I think it allows victims to be criminalized over and over again by saying, you know, “They were involved in the drug trade”, “They were using drugs,” whatever. And it’s hard, it takes an effort for folks who are directly experiencing this to step back and reject that discourse, push back against that discourse, ‘cause there is still that discourse of innocence, where people want to say, “My son was innocent, my son wasn’t doing anything,” but some victims have stopped doing that, and say, “So what if he was involved? Does it matter that he was… Should he have been disappeared?” Obviously the answer there is no. So, there’s definitely hard pushback on the criminalization piece, and then, in terms of the cartel, the family members, what they do know is the extent to which the authorities are often involved directly in the disappearances, the extent to which they know who the perpetrators are, the extent to which they have existing relationships with perpetrators. You know, the victims, the family members of people who have disappeared, they know so much about how intertwined the state is, the state armed like… the police, specially, but the army, the marines, etcetera; they know how intertwined those official agents area with so-called “organized criminal groups,” which I prefer to call “paramilitaries.” They definitely know that, but, yeah, untangling it all is… I mean, it’s confusing for me.
Irmgard: That’s really important that we talk about that, how we need to untangle this confusion, which you were saying, this confusion comes from the families living some facts in their flesh and the gap that comes between their lived experience and what we know of the violence that is stated officially in the media, by the state through the media, right? And this is where this confusion resides, and this is why it’s so complex to untangle all this violence, right? You just talked about how the state is involved, state authorities, municipal authorities, are involved in this forced disappearances and how the victims know their perpetrators and so on, and they know who they are. And you’re talking about… in your book you develop this really important concept that is expanded counter insurgency, and you use it to describe contemporary forms of state violence, and I wanted you to explain that a bit more.
D: Sure, so… I studied a lot a counterinsurgency theory to try to understand what’s happening in Mexico, and just a lot of things it didn’t just quite fit, so I do think that the violence that we’re experiencing in Mexico is definitely informed by Cold War models, and there’s definitely a transmission of information, of repressive repertoires through different generations. Greg Grandin documents that in his book called “Empire’s Workshop”, where he writes about how the same clique of officials go from coordinating the US war in Vietnam, to coordinating the US war in Central America in the 80s. So, we know that there is a transmission of information through these different conflicts and through this different kind of eras or generations. But just counterinsurgency just didn’t quite work for Mexico, because I think… You know, Hillary Clinton came to Mexico when she was Secretary of State, and she suggested that the cartels are insurgent groups. And so, that suggests that, if you have counter insurgency in Mexico, that the insurgents are drug cartels… which does not match up with lived reality. Lived reality here is that people, poor people, in towns and cities in Mexico are being persecuted, are being picked up, are being IDed, are being held in casas de seguridad, and taken to jails by both or a multitude of state groups and [non-state] armed groups. And I heard this over and over again in Torreón. They’ll pick up young men, and the young men won’t know whether it’s a drug cartel picking them up, or whether it’s the state police picking them up, there’s no identifiers. And they’ll pick them up and the questions will be the same: “What are you doing? Where is your ID? What are you doing in this part of town?”, you know, this type of questioning, and so… That’s where it’s like… there’s a real confusion in terms of who the actors are right now, but also who the insurgents are, because it’s not clear in Mexico, we don’t have a kind of a group like the FARC in Colombia, or the ELN, or some kind of visible organized powerful insurgency group that actually wants to overthrow the state. And I think that’s part of why there’s no argument to be made that cartels are insurgent groups, they’re paramilitary groups, they work hand in hand with the state, they have no interest in taking the state over, they’ve actually like augmented state power, right? So, we have that sort of confusion of perpetrators, but we also have a sort of lack of a real insurgency, which is where, just looking really specifically the case of Torreón, but I think more probably in Mexico, you can really see that people at large are being treated as insurgents, because the few times that we get to hear who the victims are of this massacres and mass killings in Mexico, or mass disappearances… I’ve actually learned a little bit about the biographies: often people who work in the popular sector, who work in informal commerce, who are migrants, who are people who are traveling, construction workers going to work from one town or one city to another…huge parts of their lives are connected to informal economies, which I think actually are incredibly powerful and actually can get people a lot more dignity, a lot of times, than working in massive, super transnational corporations, and so on. The Mexican people, at large, are considered insurgents, and specifically people, which is the majority of the population, who are connected to informal economic activity.
I: Okay, so, the target is being working-class people who are, what I would say, redundant populations, not the poor, idealized by the current regime, but the people who are really outside of the networks of consumption and production.
D: Or they’re in alternative networks, right? So, I don’t know, I was thinking of, I mean, there’s also been killings of maquila [sweatshop] workers, so there’s definitely an element of labor discipline in the violence in Mexico, but there’s also an element of… sort of a notion of a disposable population on the part of the state, of people who like… don’t pay taxes, and who aren’t on payrolls, who work more on like day-to-day, and who participate in alternative economic structures that, again, not to like over-glorify them, or to say that they’re always good, but that can allow people to have a certain amount of dignity and not become total wage laborers, getting completely exploited. Because those people are also victims, right? I mean, basically, it’s like the majority of the population in Mexico, which is, again, today the same people who are super exposed to COVID. I mean, it’s a perfect overlap.
I: But these are also people who live on lands rich in “natural resources”, quote unquote, or who live on lands that are desirable for agroindustry, and so on?
D: Right, that’s kind of what I developed in “Drug War Capitalism”, for sure, I was looking more at territory, and the case of Torreón is really different: what you see in Torreón is basically the maquila [sweatshop] industry… you know, it’s highly urban, because there’s not enough water for people to live a dignified life as agriculturalists in ejidos, ‘cause there’s so many ejidos, collectively owned lands, around Torreón, but the maquila industry basically pushed a huge urbanization in the 90s, and when the maquila sector collapsed, it collapsed like four years before the “drug war” started. So, it was like hundreds of thousands of workers became redundant. I take a lot of inspiration from the work of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who wrote “Golden Gulag”, and she talks about prisons coming in and serving that purpose, right? in the Imperial Valley of California, and the hypothesis that I’m working on here is that, rather than prisons and prison-industrial complex coming into Mexico, what we saw was this massive, massive wave of enforced disappearance and massacre, as a way to tighten the screws on these communities, undo the social cohesion, their ability to resist. And here I’m not talking necessarily about resource-rich areas, we’re talking about social contention, like containment of populations through extreme violence.
I: So, would you say Torreón is the new Juárez? What Juárez was in 2010?
D: Yeah, so in Torreón it started 2008, and the height of the violence is in 2012, and it’s kind of been descending since then. I think that Juarez is part of a constellation that includes Torreón and includes many other cities that we never talk about. And part of the reason I wanted to work in Torreón, because I met “Grupo Vida” and I thought they seemed awesome because they are an autonomous group of like self-organized family members searching for people who are disappeared, but also because I wanted to work in a city that wasn’t so like… Juárez is it still so messed up to this day, right? It’s not over in Juárez, I feel like we need to really, we need to amplify the discussion of what’s happening in all these secondary cities and smaller cities, you know Torreón also is not directly on the border, even though it acts like a border city, and it’s a place, you know, when I started working there people were like: “You want to do research here?” And I think, like Torreón, there’s many other places, you know, there’s the famous ones, that people… “Okay, yeah, Culiacán and Ciudad Juárez”, and then there’s just so many others, where it’s just been like a nightmare for people over the last 15 years that it doesn’t transcend, it doesn’t actually um… The news doesn’t even get to like… the state capital, much less to Mexico City, much less international, right? So there’s tons of people [inaudible] that are just suffering really intense violence and it just… no one no one really finds out about it, it doesn’t really travel or make the national news media, unless it’s an extremely radical event, right?
I: Right, so you’re saying, uh, people at large but meaning working class who work in precarious conditions, who were not taxpayers, who were not part of the payroll, they are being treated as insurgents, no? And they’re also migrants, construction workers, and so on and so forth; they’re being treated as criminals, sorry, as insurgents, but they are being labeled as criminals, so insurgent is a label that comes from the Cold War, right? Rhetoric and criminals comes from the rhetoric of the Drug War. Can you talk a little bit about that slippage between both concepts and both temporary frameworks to describe the social historical confusion, the historical conditions? Which I think add to the confusion even more.
D: Right, yes, I mean, it’s so confusing and it’s, yeah… I mean, the number one predictor for whether or not someone is disappeared or not is what neighborhood they’re in, or what colonia they live in, that’s the number one predictor, the second is age and the third is gender, right? So it’s like, there are some things we can say about who’s being disappeared, but it’s not in the old language of trade unionists and activists, and like visible social leaders; although that is also happening, that’s not the main dynamic that’s taking place. I think the term insurgent predates the Cold War, I think it’s from the French, you know, the resistance in Algeria, I think is partly where that first came into use, and what was your question about the slippage…?
I: Yeah, there’s this slippage people are being labeled or treated rather as insurgents and prosecuted as insurgents, but they are being labeled as criminals.
D: The criminals are the perpetrators of what’s taking place, right? Which is mostly the state, and it’s mostly the state forces, the official state forces, and, you know, former state forces, retired state forces working hand in hand with active duty, military police, whatever. And I don’t necessarily think that, you know, all of the folks are insurgents either, like I think they’re being treated as insurgents, I think they’re people who are going about daily life within a community popular framework of production and consumption, and extended family care, and neighborhood networks and different kinds of sort of social organization, that also Ruth Wilson Gilmore talks about, right? In “Golden Gulag”, folks who are participating in these different networks are being treated as insurgents, they’re not, they’re not, it’s not an insurgency. However, I do think that from power, from the height of power in Mexico and in Washington, these types of social formations are read as a threat to the maintenance of the ever increasing inequality, the ever worse conditions of labor, the ever, you know, everything getting more austerity, like we’re seeing now in all different aspects of life, really also wanting to prevent people from migrating, because I see War on Drugs also as being a strategy to try to prevent people from transiting through Mexico, be they Mexican or non-Mexican, to reach the United States, which acted for a long time as a sort of way to keep Mexico kind of under control, keep people eating, for the so many migrants who go to the United States, all of these, you know… The majority of people in Mexico, are completely vulnerable, but i refuse to think—I refuse to use a discourse that talks about them as criminals, and that considers innocence as if someone innocent was killed, it was by mistake, because that suggests…
I: Collateral damage
D: Exactly, it suggests that there’s some kind of real planning and real intelligence that’s being used to eliminate so many people, I mean, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people between disappeared and people who’ve been murdered since 2006 in the context of this War on Drugs, right?
I: Dawn, it’s so overwhelming.
D: I know.
I: Like… I’ve read you, your two books and I’ve thought about it, and I’ve written about it, and now you’re telling it to me again here, I’m like really overwhelmed. So you’re saying… you’ve discovered that cartels are paramilitary groups that are augmented state power.
D: I think so, yeah.
I: So, we’re living a form of state violence with no real insurgency, violence for violence’s sake, or violence for the sake of capitalism, I’m hoping you go into that later on, but right now I want to go back to that concept you developed that you call “expanded counter insurgency”.
D: Sure, so, yeah, I kind of try to break it down into three pieces, so there’s a confusion of perpetrators, right? So, they’re constantly telling us that they’re going after the bad guys, right? The drug cartels. Being on the ground, as if it’s actually the state and the so-called “drug cartels” that are together carrying out a war on the people, on the popular sectors, on the neighborhoods, just like what we were just talking about, right? So that huge confusion in terms of who’s doing the violence. We’ve got an expansion of the idea of insurgency, so there’s like no actual armed insurgency necessary in order to treat the entire population like insurgents, again because they are participating in these community popular life ways, right? That can be outside of the sort of transnational circulation of capital. And then the last element is the use of a whole continuum of violence, and I call it a complex of violence basically, complejo de violencia, that ranges from, like, the brutal exhibition of bodies to their complete disappearance. So I just wanted to clarify that expanded counter insurgency is what I think the state is doing, right? It’s not a general analysis of everything that’s taking place, it’s, I think, the state approach to the war, and that’s why I think “Neoliberal War”, this book, is more about the “How?” It’s a form of counter-insurgency that the state is doing against the people. I hope that makes it clearer.
I: No, that that makes it perfectly clear, but let me just go back a little bit. So the “War against drugs”, you argue that it’s a form of expanded counterinsurgency in which paramilitary groups, and these are state or non-state agents, we’re confused between them, they perpetrate crimes against vulnerable populations throughout Mexico, and the result of that is that these crimes are giving the state and corporations power through social cleansing, but you’re arguing that the state and corporations are having more power, but then in recent years and under Peña Nieto, in the media, people started talking about the concept of the “failed state”, by which they meant that neoliberalism had hollowed the state out to the point that the state didn’t have full sovereignty over the country, and that is something—or regaining that sovereignty should be the task of the “War against drugs”, but, how…?, you know, can the official propaganda, that the Mexican state is a failed state, be compared against this factual reality in which these murders are giving the state and corporations even more power?
D: Right, I mean, there’s a bunch of, I think, mis- or, like, inaccurate assumptions in what you just described, right? As a position, so, I think that Mexico is not… so, yeah, there’s so many ways to approach this, right? There is the idea that a state is supposed to look after its people, which I think, if we look in many states over the history of the last few hundred years, there’s not that many examples of that actually being the case, but that’s still like what we are led to believe through all of the kind of education that we receive and we’re all inculcated with since the time we were born, right?
That’s what a state is supposed to do, and so the idea is that a failed state is somehow not able to not only look after its people but, as you said, that doesn’t have sovereignty, etc. The thing is that Mexico is clearly a state that is failing its people, but I actually think that we’re seeing that all over the world right now, like with COVID so clearly, there are very few states that are actually managing to mitigate the extent that huge amounts of people aren’t super exposed and vulnerable right now, and they’re always the same folks who are—they’re not vulnerable, they’re made vulnerable, right? Through economic policy, through political policy.
The failed state label also suggests that, you know, private property is at risk or that it’s a country where you can’t do business, so the suggestion that Mexico is a failed state completely ignores the fact that Mexico continues to be ranked like, in terms of macroeconomics, like among the most stable countries, and it’s like a model nation according to, like, the World Bank and the IMF, it’s considered a very secure place to do business, it’s considered a secure place for transnational corporations to come and mine, and build infrastructure, and build tourist infrastructure, and where private property, especially when owned by these transnational interests, is totally protected by the state, right? So, is Mexico’s state failing its people? Yes. Are most states failing their people? Yes. Is Mexico totally overwhelmed by drug violence? No. Is Mexico extremely violent because, far from becoming hollowed out during the last 12 years of neoliberalism, it’s actually become hyper-militarized, and the military budget has increased, and the police budget has increased, and the security budget has increased? Yes, right? Like, so that’s where the idea of “Neoliberal War” comes from, you know?, wanting to say militarization is a centerpiece of neoliberalism: it’s absolutely essential…
I: And the failed state…
D: I think the failed state is a bit of a straw man.
I: And, Dawn, you’re saying that this pattern can be seen all over the world and throughout Mexico. What do these territorial patterns of militarization and violence tell us about the goal of this social cleansing going on?
D: I mean, in Mexico, it’s just—what we’ve seen in Mexico is a war that is so complex in the sense that it looks really different in a city like Juárez, or in a place like Torreón, than it does in a place like Chilapa, Guerrero, or Ostula, Michoacán. There’s so many different variants, but it’s variants on a theme, which is militarization through official forces and paramilitarization through a whole different, like, a host of mechanisms including former soldiers, retired soldiers defected soldiers, and police officers; soldiers and police officers who are participating in both paramilitary activity and, like, legal armed force activity, and then independent contractors, and like so-called sicarios [hit men]; like, there’s so many different kind of layers, but I don’t wanna—it’s not like it’s all being controlled from Washington, that is totally not the argument I’m making, but there’s—it just seems like there is a certain—there are certain outcomes from this kind of militarization, where you’re specifically militarizing on the pretext of stopping the flow of illegal narcotics, which is something that the armed forces can easily plant, can easily say, “Look, we’ve got it,” you know, “we’ve found the drugs,” like it’s an inanimate object that can appear wherever they want to.
It’s a very powerful pretext for what I actually think are campaigns of, yeah, displacement, forced displacement, and again, just to come back to the idea of vulnerable people, I mean, I think that people are made vulnerable by these systems, but I also think that these systems go after people who are organized to a certain extent; for example, you know, in Torreón, a lot of people would talk to me about how the first people that were disappeared, that were murdered, in Torreón, when the crime really started, when the militarization—because that’s the thing, like, the militarization started at the same time as the crime started, right? So, it’s like, it’s clearly something that connects with the other, they’re not two separate phenomena, it’s not like there was a crime wave in Torreón, and then Torreón was militarized, both happened like lockstep at the same time, whereas, like, clearly the presence of all of these police and soldiers is provoking chaos within, an already established, generations long, network of informal commerce and smuggling, and so on. The people, what they would say to me, was that the first people that started to go missing or that were killed were the teenagers that would gather on the corners, and they would sit outside a shop and like, basically, watch who was coming in and out of the colonias, and in that way were providing kind of a security role where they were living and, you know, there’s an argument to be made that they were, like, very easily co-opted by different crime groups or by the police, by different groups of police or whatever; but there’s an extent to which it’s also, yeah, like, I wouldn’t want to just read it as attacking vulnerability, I also want to read it as attacking any level of organization, community organization that exists open, community organization.
I: That’s what I want to get at in the next questions, we’re talking about fear as a form of control? You mentioned a form of “labor discipline” or violence as a way to discipline workers, and also to discipline gender, no? And I’m going to ask you to talk a bit later about the text you co-wrote with Raquel Gutiérrez on violence and gender, but you mentioned also that we have seen this pattern of violence in Ostula, in Michoacán, and Ostula is known for having their own community police, for having kicked out the talamontes, right? A few years back, and of kicking out old state authorities present in the village, so it’s not only semi-urbanized or urbanized populations that are incorporated to precarious forms of labor, maquiladoras, or migrants, but also communities who live with dignity, and who are outside the cycles of capitalism.
D: Absolutely.
I: So, can you talk about that a little bit?
D: I mean, I would just say, again, it’s just, it speaks of the flexibility of the discourse: you can plant drugs anywhere you can, accuse anyone of being a criminal, of being a drug trafficker, there’s no further proof needed, the system just constantly self-justifies by saying “Drug trafficking, drug trafficking, drug trafficking,” sending in the military to get the drug traffickers; I mean what the people of Ostula lived was a campaign of paramilitary and military terror against their leadership. But, you know, the doubt was always being sown: that it was a trafficking route, that they were, you know, there was illegal activity happening, and like, just like salt and pepper that discourse into any repression is enough to make people in Mexico City go, “Oh yeah, I guess they must have been, you know, criminals,” or people outside of Mexico, or whatever; like it’s just constantly sowing the seeds of doubt, and I mean, they unbelievably did it with Ayotzinapa, you know, trying to suggest that the, you know, the 43 students, that someone would be involved in drug trafficking, and that was why it all happened, and there was actually criminals, like, infiltrated within the—it’s unbelievable when you actually start to look at it, that it still works and it’s still accepted as kind of, “I guess they had it coming,” you know, “I guess… too bad for the innocent ones but, you know, some of those kids knew that they were…”. Like, it’s, it’s a very, very flexible and extremely useful discourse from power, because, I mean, they can use it to get away with anything, and that’s what we’re seeing. I mean, thousands of mass graves around the country? It’s… and still saying it’s a fight against crime, when I initially started this project, I wanted to work on mass graves, because it just was like… there is no way that this can actually be a fight on crime, and you can have thousands of mass graves, it just—it doesn’t work. Mass graves tell us that we’re in a different… in a war, like, mass graves are a clear signal that something else is happening, and then, you know, once I started working on this project, and then the 43 students, were disappeared, and the search groups started to come out, and then my focus kind of shifted towards that, towards that search, and that form of resistance that these family members are using to look for their loved ones.
I: And so, the groups are going to expand, no? With the outsourcing of migration control from the US to Mexico, and with the increase of migrant caravans, and they’re being stuck in Mexico, and the new Guardia Nacional military station, no?
D: I mean, I think we don’t have any idea… For example, like what would have been a responsible thing to do at the beginning of López Obrador’s presidency would have been to actually try to actually get a real scope on what’s taken place in the last 12 years, so one way to do that, for example, would have been to have a census question, because they’re just doing the census right now, a census question on disappearance, a census question on violence, a census question on homicide, so that we could actually start to get real statistical numbers and information, that would give us an idea of the scope, because, right now, Mexican state is talking about a few thousand mass graves. It’s definitely way more, right now the Mexican state is talking about 70 000 people disappeared since 2006, and we know there’s a massive under count because people are terrified to go report these disappearances to the same authorities that they know are essentially connected to those who are responsible for them, —so there’s a there’s a universe of crimes, of extremely serious crimes, often perpetrated by the state, or done under the supervision of the state, or, at the very least, done with the complicity of the state, that we have no information about, so we actually don’t know the full extent. There’s so many people still suffering in silence and fear right now, that haven’t come forward, that aren’t working in activist collectives and so on, and so, you know, any numbers we’re operating on are super low and, I mean, I have to say it, it feels like they’re doing the same thing with COVID in Mexico, it’s just minimizing the numbers, blaming the people who are dying for having unhealthy practices, and unhealthy lifestyles, and purposely under counting, so that they can also wash their hands of just, like, yeah; an amount of crime where like, if we had the real numbers in Mexico, I’m confident that things would be upside down, that we would not be living in this situation, people would have risen up, it’s way more severe than it seems, and it already is so bad, right? According to the official statistics.
I: One point I want to make an emphasis of is how autonomy and sustainability, and, that is, the communities who are able to live an autonomous and dignified life, as do many Indigenous communities across the country, are a threat, so non-capitalist life ways are directly a threat and target of the drug—of the neoliberal war.
D: I think the most straightforward way of reading that is that they are a threat because they defend their land, and their land is desired for a wind energy project, for a dam, for… not just like thinking classically extractive industries, but of course those too as well, right? So, mining, oil, and gas; in that sense, they become obstacles, essentially, to the never-ending expansion of capitalism, and I think that community formations in urban areas can also be seen as a threat, I mean, I think it’s just important to go back to 2006 when this started, which I think is a year of heightened social mobilization in Mexico, where people felt like a lot of things were becoming possible, like something new could open in Mexico. In terms of social struggles you had Atenco, you had Oaxaca, La otra campaña, you had the election and the protests for López Obrador, and the fraud that happened in that election, and then in December of that year, you had the announcement that the drug war was basically on, even though Felipe Calderón did not campaign on that at all, was not part of his 2006 campaign, and then by December, he was sending troops into Michoacán, right? A historically and, to this day, Indigenous state which is very, very rich in resources.
I: So, we could say that the Neoliberal war began with the uprisings in 2005-2006, with the Drug war declared by Felipe Calderón?
D: I use Neoliberal war to just challenge the idea that we have to keep using terms and ideas from the Cold War, to talk about what’s happening today, but also to challenge the idea that after the Cold War we somehow entered into a time of peace, which is kind of, I feel, what is, suggested by the end of the cold war, and the lack of any kind of term or sort of narrative that helps us understand that—and it’s not just in Mexico, but in all these disparate nations, and I mostly look at Latin America; you actually have intense fighting and violence to levels, not always, but often, that are worse than what happened during the Cold War conflicts, and this is true, for example, in El Salvador or Honduras, in terms of the number of disappeared, which is higher now than it was during the internal conflicts, so Neoliberal war is something basically that, when the Cold War is winding down, the hawks are looking for a way to keep the military machine going, and it’s the Drug War, but depoliticizing that, because another piece of the Neoliberal war that’s really important and it’s part of the confusion is that it’s totally depoliticized, right? So, we’re supposed to think the victims are criminals, we’re supposed to think that the good guys are the state, we’re supposed to think that the drug cartels have more power than the government, and that they’re trying to take over the state so that the state can’t help people, so then we have to support the government and etc., because the other choice is, like, living under the reign of the cartels and so on, and it’s like this is actually, again, I think, expanded counter insurgency, right? It’s a state strategy to manage this level of inequality that we now live in, which is, like, unbelievable.
I: And, Dawn, it’s also Neoliberal war because we need to emphasize again and again that militarization is an essential component of neoliberalism.
D: Exactly, exactly. So the Drug war, or the War on crime, or—these are the sort of discourses that the state is using to talk about what they’re doing, and instead of using those, I’m trying to use expanded counter insurgency: that’s what the state is doing, they’re calling it a Drug war, they’re calling it a War on crime but, again, my work is like really trying to, yes, do some discourse analysis and stuff, and say “What are they saying?” But really, like, from on the ground, what is it that people are experiencing, like, what is actually happening, and from, like a pinhole of, like, working in Torreón, Coahuila, but really trying to think through, like, how can we think this stuff through on a broader level that helps us politicize what’s happening right now, that gives us a new set of tools to talk about what we’re living through that doesn’t criminalize victims, that doesn’t automatically make… like things like failed state, it makes the automatic response be, “Well, we need a stronger state then,” or, “We need more police then, we need more military,” or, “We need more…”, like constantly going back to the old arguments, the punitive state-centric arguments for how we get out of this situation; trying to give ourselves like a new toolbox that allows us to see, like, this is political, this is war on the people, it’s connected to an economic system, it works within an economic system, it obviously does not threaten this economic system.
I: But the myth of the drug war is so powerful. I mean, first time I read about this new wave of state violence under Neoliberalism was Pilar Calveiro, then your book came out, Oswaldo Zavala, Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, but it still seems not to reach the mainstream, because the drug war myth is so powerful, and to an extent, films Netflix, the arts, literature, have been feeding on to this myth, no? That’s so dangerous, and we need to break through it.
D: Exactly, I mean, unfortunately the counter narrative, which is something that we’ve been working on with, like, lots of colleagues, including tons of activists as well, not just writers and journalists, but it’s far from hegemonic. And it’s, like, super complicated, right? Because if we’re going to go outside of that, of the state framework and the state discourse, it’s like you have to explain the whole universe, you know what I mean? It’s like… it’s not… conceptually, it’s extremely complex, but the idea is, Neoliberal war is really like, for me, it was like to say, “Let’s think about this period we’re living through as not just a bunch of random homicides, and a bunch of, you know, people caught in the crossfire, and a bunch of bad guys getting killed by good guys, let’s think about this within the context of capital, let’s think about this within the context of migration, let’s think about this within the context of territory,” and that’s where we can start seeing like, “Oh this is actually working out pretty good for the maintenance of an extremely unequal system, yeah.
I: And… no, what makes it also super hard to break through this myth is that, even the people who live it in the flesh are confused, and I want to conclude asking you to talk a bit about your work with Grupo Vida in Torreón and their means to resist this Neoliberal war.
D: Sure, so Grupo Vida was founded in 2014, and after Ayotzinapa, as you know, groups, local groups started looking for bodies, and they started finding bodies of people who’d been disappeared who actually weren’t the students, but it was the first time that there was sort of a lot of attention on clandestine mass graves that were being found on purpose by people who were going to look for them, right?
Because we did have the events of San Fernando, Tamaulipas, right?, with 72 migrants and then over 100 Mexicans found in clandestine graves there in years prior, and so on. But the Ayotzinapa searches inspired the family members of Grupo Vida to start doing their own searches, and so, in January of 2015, and these are self-organized family members, most of them are domestic workers, folks who are extremely precarious, and some of them were actually… refused, they were not welcomed into one of the other groups of disappeared because there was a suspicion that the disappeared that they were looking for were somehow involved in drug trafficking, which, again, can be read just as complete… it’s a class thing, it’s nothing other than saying they’re lower class people, or poor people, who may have had connection with smuggling or trafficking, which is very common in border areas, right?, in Mexico.
And so, Grupo Vida starts doing these weekly searches, and they began turning up just tons of fragments, bone fragments, they found a couple of cadavers, but it’s mostly all bodies that have been broken down and burned, and they’re finding bone fragments, and they’re sending them for genetic testing, and they have managed to return some bodies home to their families, and to identify some people who have been disappeared, and they’ve also managed to, through that concrete work, create a really powerful community; they do transcend in the media, because one of the things with disappearance is there’s nothing, there, there’s no story, there’s nothing to talk about, and so family members of the disappeared have kind of like two days a year where they’re sanctified to appear, which is mother’s day in Mexico, and which is the international day of enforced disappearance in August, and this, with them constantly finding these human remains and showing that the government is not investigating, and not looking, and it’s the families that are doing it, and it’s the families that are leading it, it’s a way of totally shaming the state as well, changed the media cycle, right?
It made the media look at what’s taking place and continue to talk about the violence in Torreón, whereas, without the searches, it would have been easy to just be like, “Well, that happened and it’s over, and hopefully you didn’t know anyone that got killed; well, moving right along,” you know what I mean? So, what they’re doing is actually building memory, and yeah, to see the importance of concrete work of them getting together, and doing that work, and of course the priority is always finding someone who’s been disappeared, and it’s so sophisticated the way they sort of manage one of the central contradictions, which is actually something that divided the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, which was that idea that you should only look for the disappeared alive, right?, and then another group that said, “Well, we’re going to look for remains as well,” and some groups in Mexico still refuse to sort of accept the idea that you should look for human remains, although I think it’s becoming more and more accepted, for sure, but, I mean…
I: It becomes a form of mourning the loss, no?
D: The way that they, that these family members that I interviewed managed to sort of assimilate that contradiction is by saying, “I’m looking for someone who can’t look, so I’m still looking for my own child alive, and I’m still confident that I’m going to find my child alive, but I’m also looking because I know there’s all these human remains, and I’m doing this work for someone who’s too scared to go look, and I’ll find someone else’s son or daughter, and I’ll help that person get closure,” and so, in that way they can keep that hope alive, because they all hope to find their family members alive, but when you think about it, searching for human remains is a lot cheaper than searching for people alive, which requires, like, going and staying in hotels, and going around to places, and, like it’s—and with this it’s like: get in a car, drive 45 minutes from Torreón, and you’re in a killing field, and there’s I don’t know how many of these, like, right now, I think they have probably over 20 operational sites where they’re exhuming, just in this area in Coahuila, around Torreón, so, I mean, yeah what’s going on around the country is—the last I heard there are, I mean, there’s at least 62 family groups like this, but probably many, many more…
I: Across the country, and…
D: Yeah, it’s it’s a new development in terms of social movements in Mexico, for sure, especially since Ayotzinapa, and it’s very, very powerful in terms of challenging official discourse on…, “The government is helping, the government is looking for people, the government is repairing the damage, the government is,” you know, “making things better, and these families are saying, “The government is only here because we’re here, they’re following behind us, and they’re only here because we’re doing this work, because if the families went out there finding all those human remains, the government would be, again, the bureaucrats, would be sitting at their desks in air conditioning, fucking the dog, let’s just say.
I: Because, Dawn, this form of loss is is the cruelest, no?, because there is nobody to mourn, the pain that or the loss never goes away, like it doesn’t conclude.
D: Yeah, it’s awful.
I: And yet, we also see this continuity between the Dirty war in the 70s and 80s, as you mentioned, the Argentina-Mexico, link although the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have a different approach, right? And they are operating in this contradiction between getting closure and keeping the hope alive. Has anyone that you know have been found alive?
D: I recently found out about a case of someone who was disappeared in Torreón, and who was released, he was held for a few days, so… and, I think that, again, I think there’s a lot of cases that happened like that, where it’s like, in that case that I’m referring to, like, the people that disappeared this person, and this happened like two months ago, were state police, they were basically the SWAT team of the governor of Coahuila. You’re not going to go, you know, make an official complaint, because making a complaint is drawing more attention to yourself to the same state that just did that thing to you, or the message is, “Go home and shut the fuck up,” right?, like…
I: But through these groups we can say that that civil society is achieving a degree of agency?
D: I know in some places, for example, there’s rapid response teams, so if they find out that it was like a police perpetrated disappearance, they’ll immediately send people to basically go to the front gates of the police station and demand that person be released immediately, right? And these are borrowing some of the tactics of resistance that were used in Argentina and other places as well during the Cold War, and, yeah. But, in terms of the family members that I worked with, in Grupo Vida there hasn’t been, I mean, that’s the thing about it, it’s so devastating, right? There’s a sort of a therapeutic element to the searches, there’s a media element, like it does give them a lot of power and a lot of agency, but at the end of the day, when you ask people, like, what’s going on with the case of your daughter or son, they’ll usually say: “Nothing. No hay avances,” like, everything’s the same, right? So there’s also, on the other side, just this deepening, deepening, I mean, just the pain, I think, gets worse for folks, and it’s also intergenerational, I mean, it’s not just the parents, like, a lot of people who are disappeared, even though they were disappeared quite young, you know, early twenties, a lot of them had one or two children already, so there’s that sort of generation that’s, for those kids who, again, even more precarity, because they’ve lost often the primary breadwinner of their family, who are now learning of these crimes, and I have hope, anyways, like, that some of these youth will become, like, a new generation of fighters, like, the way we saw with Hijos in Argentina, for example, or in Guatemala.
I: So obviously before this complex panorama that you draw in your two books, the policy of the current government of “Abrazos, no balazos” or “Hugs instead of gunshots” is ridiculous, to say the least.
D: Yeah, I feel like AMLO campaigned against violence, and against state violence and militarization of the Drug war, and has continued with the same, essentially the same, policies, with the main difference being the creation of the National Guard.
I: And what are the implications of the National Guard?
D: Well, there’s a fiction right now that the national guard is civilian, right? That it will transition into being a fully civilian force within five years, but it’s just, it’s like they say in Mexico, it’s simulación, it’s not real, and I think, any of us who’ve seen the National Guard on the street know that, I mean, they’re guys in trucks with semi-automatic weapons standing up in the back of the truck, driving around in camouflage, right?, like… And it’s also that fiction that, like, somehow a civilian leadership is that much better, when you consider that what they’re talking about with that is… Federal Police, basically, which are, you know, deeply corrupt, and deeply militarized police force in Mexico.
I: Right, and also comes with the right the rising of migrants crossing the country and with the subcontraction of migrant contention to Mexico, no?
D: Exactly, exactly, which, I think, you know, paramilitarism—the 72 migrants that were disappeared and then found in that clandestine grave in San Fernando, Tamaulipas in 2010 were an early and very obvious indicator of what the strategy for containing migration looks like now in Mexico, and it looks like it’s paramilitarized, but that doesn’t mean that the state isn’t, one, sort of still actively supervising it, and, two, that there aren’t state elements of the state forces actively involved in in those processes of detention and massacre.
I: Está muy cabrón, Dawn, I’m super queasy. Is there anything you’d like to add to conclude?
D: Well, I guess I would just say that I have been, like, extremely bummed out, like, I’ve been pretty depressed with everything that’s happened with COVID, I feel like the response from the Mexican government has been extremely, extremely…
I: I would say, it’s outright a continuation of the social cleansing, very perverse.
D: Exactly, that’s how it feels, it just feels wicked, it just feels like, you know, the fact that people aren’t getting any support, any extra money when their business is closed, when they can’t go to work, it’s just like, “Fend for yourselves, guys, and if you eat well and whatever, you should be fine,” you know, like they keep saying, you know, “Most people are just gonna have like a light flu,” like they keep on kind of suggesting that it’s fine to just get it, you know, “Get it and stay home,” and whatever, and it’s like, the stories that I’m hearing from people on the ground do not match up at all with, like, the official line of what’s going on, and it does, it feels like a continuation, it’s just, it’s like utter contempt for the population, and those who have the resources to not expose themselves and not be vulnerable…
I: And to get the medicine and the tests…
D: You can get the medicine, you can get the test, you can get your [narcotic] drugs through like a boutique, like, app, so don’t worry about it but if you’re, like, buying [narcotics] on the street, or if you’re, like, not able to access a test, then it’s your own fault, right? It’s like, it’s a very similar criminalize the victim, shame the victim, and it’s state policy, that is at the root of what’s taking place. And the fact that, you know, that then the sort of falseness of saying, “The mexican government can’t afford to pay people to stay home,” and it’s like, but they can afford this massive military budget, new airport, for what tourists? Tren maya…
I: The cultural center…
D: Like, all of this big builds that are supposedly, like, you know, they’re these signature projects of López Obrador, that don’t have any clear economic path in this… in the COVID age, because there is not going to be that kind of tourism probably for quite a few years; are still the ones that are just receiving all the money and, like, the refineries, it’s like, still, this huge investment and, again, it’s like Cold War, infrastructure projects, and just letting people… but it’s beyond letting people die, it’s really administering a public relations campaign to normalize a level of suffering and death that is totally unnecessary, and that is totally preventable.
I: No, and it’s like it’s a clear continuation of the Neoliberal war and the austerity measures, you know, in the culture sector, and with education that is now being centralized on television, I really fear that that’s the end of public education, you know.
D: It’s very, yeah, it’s been a, yeah, it’s been definitely a very hard couple months, and, like, honestly, I have kind of checked out a lot of stuff, and like stopped following, you know, for example the video of El Mencho, like, I see that video and I’m like, “What is this?,” like the purpose of that video is to justify militarization, it doesn’t matter who’s showing it, it’s either, “Look, the government’s weak, we need more forces,” or, “Look, the organized crime is strong, we need more forces,” like whatever way you want to look at, but, at the same time, it’s like, I’m not, like, taking the time to forensically analyze or like, I just, I’m finding, I’m like finding it super hard to connect, because it’s just like totally, overwhelmingly horrible.
I: Yeah, I hear you.