The New Normality (July 25, 2020 –Nth week)
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.
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.
In his classic text “The Theater and the Plague” (1938), Antonin Artaud described the plague as a situation in which “life succumbs.” During the plague pandemic, life is disjointed from culture, and before we can even discuss culture, we must consider that the world is starving, and that culture never saved man from the preoccupation of living better and of not being hungry. In further discussing the relationship between life and culture, Artaud argues that in order to live we must be able to satisfy bodily needs, but that we also need to believe in that which makes us live: thought systems. Although foreign to our bodies, thought systems are either within us or we live within them, so although we may think of life and culture separately, culture rules our most subtle acts and decisions because it is the spirit present in things. Indeed culture does not feed us but it definitely drives our decisions toward finding ways of sustaining ourselves; culture is also vital for humanity because we think through systems of forms, sings and representations all which give meaning to our lives. For Artaud, however, both life and poetry slip away during the plague pandemic. Social forms, order, morality all disintegrate and collapse, all the while psychological disaster spreads. Artaud proceeds to provide a description of the plague’s effects on the body: torn and collapsing tissue, organs growing heavy and turning to carbon, an unpleasant smell. These traits serve as a metaphor for the ravages underwent by the social body at large caused by the plague.
Differently from the plague, COVID has not meant the collapse of social and civil order. On the contrary, during the most intense weeks of lockdown, streets were being kept, surveillance enhanced and everyone went through great efforts to continue living life as our hyperproductive normal. What became evident right away was not the fragility of life, but the fragility of the economy and the fact that social relations pass through the market. In Mexico moreover, the problem is not so much contagion, but deaths (with a death rate of over 12%) and the collapse of the economy.
A COVID-19 death is due to massive organ collapse, analogous to the worldwide collapse of the economy and ecosystems. A COVID-19 patient dies from asphyxia, and being unable to breathe is also a symptom of the pandemics of anxiety and panic humanity has been undergoing for the past couple of decades. The watery lungs can also remind us of melting ice caps, and while the corpse of a COVID-19 victim shows no lesions, inner surfaces are intact except for overall inflammation due to cascading organ failure (encephalopathy, myocardial injury, hearth failure, coagulation dysfunction and acute kidney injury) triggered by acute respiratory distress syndrome. The virus creates a barrier for oxygen, impeding it to travel to the bloodstream, like the lowering levels of oxygen on earth due to deforestation and pollution.
Following Artaud, from the peculiarities, conditions and symptoms and mysteries of the illness, we can construct the spiritual physiognomy a disease which progressively chokes the body, as is choking market-based human relationships compromising our (limited) capacity to sustain ourselves. Where is monetary exchange occurring? Who working in what is still making money? On what are we choosing to spend our money? Unlike with the plague, for which pyres were lit at random in public spaces to burn the dead, COVID-19 deaths are only visible in the interminable lines of people waiting to enter cemeteries or funerary homes to collect the incinerated remains of their beloved ones, often after long waits. If the plague was correlative to a powerful state of physical and social disorganization, COVID-19 is a powerful state of slowly choking the body along with our capacities to reproduce life collectively through markets. If the plague was seen as Artaud as undrained abscesses and thus the opportunity to drain moral and social abscesses, the COVID-19 virus cancels the body’s capacity to keep itself alive with oxygen. Like the planet and the species it is home to, COVID-19 patients breathe for their lives. The virus means asphyxia of life on earth in progressive waves, reaching the most vulnerable populations and ecosystems first. Breathing and speaking also mean that the virus is projected spreading exponentially an invisible and lethal enemy: now every individual is a threat to society.
The world is killing itself unaware, starting with the fact that science and culture have become too expensive and thus expendable for State capitalism: the reign of technology begins, deprived of science and humanism. The virus expands exponentially in poor and precarious environments, class and race issues come immediately to the fore. COVID-19 is perceived as the presence of something that is foreign, anonymous, invisible, expansive and lethal that will not go away. The virus is confronting us with the reality of death and mortality, which are anathema to our contemporary culture prone to prolong illness to postpone death at any cost, where preventive medicine is not profitable. Someone recently wrote that viruses are traces found on the crime scene. The virus survives in the cadaver whose life it has taken away.