Anything but the People

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For once, the Mexican public received some good news. Last September, the press and television media announced the signing of the National Agreement for Development, Stability, and Employment, an event that opinion leaders immediately depicted as extraordinary, in tones ranging from optimism to outright ecstasy. A closer look at the event, however, raises some vexing questions: What does “national” mean in such a context? By what means was the agreement reached, and what sort of commitment does it entail, at least by those who signed it?
The Mexican public first learned about the agreement on the very same day that it was signed in a solemn ceremony at Chapultepec Castle. Secret (or at least very quiet) negotiations, among unknown parties with undisclosed private agendas, ended up being trumpeted as a “national agreement.” The announcement was made by an assorted collection of three hundred celebrities—football players, movie stars, pop singers, writers, Catholic bishops—who were led by the rich- est men in the country: the owner of the former public telephone monopoly, the tycoons of mass media, the old moguls of the press, and the leaders of business and finance. The most striking feature of the celebration was the careful exclusion of politicians. Not a single representative from the Congress, the Senate, or any political party was present. Only the secretary for Internal Affairs, Carlos Abas- cal, was invited as a “guest of honor” to witness the event.

It is also worth noting that the ritual public signing and presentation of the agreement was performed at Chapultepec castle, the former residence of the ill- fated emperor Maximilian and, before that, the last fortress to fall at the gates of Mexico City during the American invasion of 1847. It is an eminently public place, but certainly not a place of open public access; it is a historical monument towering over the center of the capital, a memorial of ambiguous meaning but an unmistakable seat of power. It may seem obvious or crude to point out the similarity between such qualities of the location and the nature of the people who convened there, but the castle was probably chosen as a venue with precisely this connection in mind.

The agreement was deemed national even before it was presented to the nation, and it was deemed public even before the public was encouraged to join in and adhere to its terms. Neither the nation nor the public was enjoined to discuss, amend, or negotiate the terms of agreement. They were merely asked to endorse it and to acquiesce to it (sober praise would suffice), since the agreement was already there, crafted to the last word. There was no mention of contending par- ties, hard negotiations, and accommodating interests. It seemed the guests and signatories were in unison; they were unfaltering and unequivocal. They had no quarrels and no differences, nor did they give voice to the narrow concerns of any particular constituency. They were, after all, each of them celebrities, hence national in their own right. Indeed, the signatories anointed and presented them- selves as members of the civil society and, as such, felt fully entitled to express the sentiments of the nation and to write them into a national agreement.

All of the rhetoric of this national agreement—the words, the gestures, the stage, and the performance—bears the marks of a historical process that demands critical scrutiny. It seems that a radical transformation of the Mexican public sphere is under way. In both its form and its content, the Chapultepec Agreement mirrors the centu- ries-old tradition of Hispanic pronunciamientos: formerly a term for a document announcing the intention of rebels (it later referred to a military rebellion as a whole), it was the emblematic sign for the launching of a coup d’état in Spain and Latin America throughout the nineteenth century.

José Ortega y Gasset once wryly observed that pronunciamientos were con- ceived by military officers who were so thickheaded that, whenever they had an idea, they simply assumed its truth would be obvious to everyone, and the only necessary thing to do was to proclaim the idea—to pronounce it—and everybody would happily follow suit. That is the spirit behind the Chapultepec Agreement. To be sure, it is a special kind of pronunciamiento, since it compounds Ortega’s logic with the practice, timing, and strategy of pressure groups and with the genre of manifestos signed by public intellectuals. Above all else, though, the agree- ment summons the moral authority of civil society as it has been figured in recent Mexican history.

The term civil society became popular after the 1985 earthquake that destroyed about four hundred major buildings in Mexico City and killed thousands of peo- ple. In the wake of the catastrophe, the term civil society was used widely and wildly to celebrate the spontaneous and massive civilian effort to rescue thou- sands of victims—without, and even against, government intervention. The term was used, in fact, as a substitute for the traditional term for the people (el pueblo) because it underlined the exclusion of both the government and the political par- ties from that collectivity. At the same time, it was also used to sublate the people, since it lacks the class connotations that el pueblo has in Spanish. The term civil society has retained somewhat epic connotations, derived from the memory of popular mobilization during the earthquake.

In addition to this very local history, civil society was the “master term” of the late eighties and the Cold War era more generally. That is, it became a conven- tional codeword to designate the political subjects who, from the outside of the political system (as understood to be the government, the party, and the bureau- cracy), would finally undermine the Soviet system. The analogy was tempting for those advocating a transition to democracy, especially once the pace of that expected transition slowed down. Civil society was then presented as an immedi- ate representation of the people—as its direct expression—as long as it was not contaminated by electoral politics and the corruptions of political power.

Such a spiritualized notion of civil society demanded concrete embodiment, which occurred, according to the conventional meaning of the word, through the private associations that draw the public’s attention toward particular issues that might be of general concern. Here is the basic twist: in Mexico, as in the rest of the world, some of these associations recruit celebrities, mostly public intellec- tuals, to publicize their cause. Those celebrities, even as they promote partisan causes, consequently become the iconic representatives and the unified voice of civil society as a whole (that is, of the people, before politics). They comprise a sort of moral representation that is always seen as being on a higher ethical ground than the elected politicians, and they became very useful in that guise for the powers that recruit their services.

The emergence of the public intellectual qua celebrity coincided with a major transformation of the Spanish-language publishing industry in Mexico in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A series of mergers and acquisitions resulted in the forma- tion of three corporations that now control most of the book market—as much as 70 percent, if we exclude university presses. Given the small size of the Spanish- language reading public, it is hard to distinguish between popular and highbrow publications and to market them accordingly. The only way to guarantee large sales and profits is to build up celebrity authors whose names serve as adver- tisement. In their confinement to the world of best-sellers and established icons, the Spanish-language reading public has suffered real and lasting damage—but this is beside my point right now. The important thing is that once produced and promoted, the stars of this new publishing firmament could also be used by the entertainment industry, mainly by the Mexican television duopoly that had found, in the 1990s, an audience hungry for political information, commentary, and debates about national issues. In this mutually beneficial arrangement, the newly minted celebrity intellectuals added value and prestige to the television networks, which, in turn, enhanced the celebrity value of intellectuals by their repeated public exposure—all of which fit nicely with concentrated market logic of the publishing industry. The newspapers also reinforced this process and thus furthered the production of new celebrity intellectuals as the voice of the civil society.

One last piece completes the puzzle. Alongside privatization, liberalization, and deregulation, the Mexican governments of the 1980s and 1990s decided to subsidize a handful of private cultural enterprises: magazines, journals, publishing houses, and television shows. Thus, the star system of public intellectuals flourished—stoked initially with state funds—while public investment in higher education steadily decreased. Subsidizing the stars was, after all, not only a lot cheaper than paying for education, it also attested to the liberal, democratic, open stance of the regime. The new intellectuals, both on the right and left of the politi- cal spectrum, were fully committed to revitalizing and modernizing the aging postrevolutionary regime: some clamoring for electoral democracy, some for bal- anced budgets, some for the end of state protectionism or a new labor policy. As a group, they simulated and staged a new public dialogue demanding precisely what was needed for the liberalization process.

The compounded effect of those tendencies was the closure of the pub- lic sphere—as public—and the staging of a lively and glittering show given to polemic and publicity. The intellectual star system, sustained by the television duopoly, state subsidies, and a concentrated publishing industry, is in fact a careful and self-sustaining system. Seldom, if ever, do the members of the new star system refer to each other’s books or articles, and they most certainly do not write book reviews. It is a tacit code, not so much of deference as of risk management, to keep everyone’s prestige intact and to maintain each star’s market value. A pub- lic engagement with lesser-known authors must be strictly avoided lest it tarnish one’s star value.

This spectacle of public life, staged by the new intellectual star system that is accredited as the voice of civil society, is emphatically modern and aggressively antipolitical: it is the perfect foil for the decaying system of political representation built by the postrevolutionary regime. A substitute and savior, one that appears as the exact opposite of old-style politics, has arrived right on time.

Now the government has new, powerful support to push forward new policies and a system of public opinion that it can use as leverage against elected politi- cians and party functionaries. The major change, however, is that the business elite now can do without the state—not just in business, but in politics as well. They have their own public sphere, which has become the only popularly and politically significant public sphere for much of Mexico. They can switch the voice of civil society on and off, and they can express the sentiments of the nation just as they believe these ought to be expressed. The three hundred signatories gathered at Chapultepec, always on call, are the very spirit and substance of this new civil society: such is the sad fate of a concept that held out so much promise to the many who were caught in the rage to modernize and that, sadly, has come to mean, in Mexico, anything but the people.

 

 

Public Culture 18:2, 2006