Book Review: In Print
Reviewed by Roger Gathman, Fri., March 19, 2004
Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracyby Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 624 pp., $30
Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon want to do two things in their book. First, to provide a comprehensive, although necessarily foreshortened, history of the mad, mad world of late-Institutional Revolutionary Party Mexico. They do a bang-up job of this (although sometimes, when they are hostile, they are shallow hence the uneven coverage accorded to the Zapatista uprising). Second, they want to impose on this history a macro-story. In this story, a personable businessman, Vicente Fox, after experiencing the scams of a perpetually gamed Mexican political process, wins the 2000 presidential election in a triumph of civil society over its enemies.
This is a pretty story. I don't buy it for a second.
One can argue about the particulars. Fox and his party, the National Action Party or PAN, seem to share more than a few goals, and more than a few sponsors, with former President Ernesto Zedillo. But the problem here is intellectual. Preston and Dillon, in good old Times-ish fashion, tend to transform deep flaws in the political economy into reformable flaws in the political process. My ah-ha moment in this book came when Dillon (writing the section about the peso crisis alone) describes the bickering during the transition from Carlos Salinas' team to Zedillo's that preceded the collapse of the peso: "The crisis resulted from a systemic breakdown in the transfer of power from one PRI President to another."
No, it didn't. It resulted from Mexico borrowing a short-term sum in excess of any reserve it had to cover it. If Salinas and Zedillo had been Anthony and Cleopatra, the facts on the ground would have remained the same. Accounting is accounting.
The neo-liberal crises are compounded out of three stages. A corrupt, public-sector-heavy state liberalizes its economy. In essence, this leads to an orgy of self-dealing among the corrupt oligarchy. In stage two, the money floods in from international lenders. This raises the artificial purchasing power of the middle class above its actual purchasing power. Because the economy is being wrenched from a managerial one to an export one, the middle class should, actually, experience a downturn in its purchasing power, given that its expertise is now devalued. Instead, it experiences a moment of consumer Disneyland. But Tinkerbell is a bitch, and when some tremor in the global market causes a restriction on credit, which usually takes the form of refusing further loans to the state to support earlier loans, Wonderland collapses, middle-class capital is expropriated, working-class incomes regress, and the rotten substance of the various cabals that constituted the oligarchic hegemony in the first place are revealed.
I'd recommend Preston and Dillon's book as an introduction to what happened in Mexico but supplement it with deep drafts from Joseph Stiglitz's short tract, Globalization and Its Discontents.