Interview: Dr. William I. Robinson on Power, Domination and Conflicts in Mexico
Below is an interview I did with professor William I. Robinson for Upside Down World. I’ve used Robinson’s work quite a bit over the past year or so, and I hope that this interview will shed some light on some of the oft-hidden elements of the ongoing conflict in Mexico.
As people from around the world dig their claws into the quarter million documents released by Wikileaks, the discussion around U.S. power is taking on new and sometimes unexpected dimensions. But the cables about the war in Mexico have yet to be fully released, and much media coverage of events there tend to frame the conflict as a “drug war.” Among the few analysts in the U.S. who are taking an analysis of what’s happening in Mexico to another level is Dr. William I. Robinson, a professor at the University of California – Santa Barbara.
Robinson’s work challenges critical thinkers and students of sociology and politics to think outside of 20th century notions of imperialism. He introduces new possibilities through which to understand power, including transnational theory and a theory of global capitalism, which are not bound to nation-centred understandings of power but instead reflect more accurately upon the world today.
“This classical concept of imperialism that we’re still using, and in my view equivocally, analyses that World War I and World War II and post World War II conflicts are based in the notion that capitalist classes of different countries are competing with each other, that rivalry and that competition sometimes takes military form, other times it takes [the form of] political conflict,” he said.Instead of relying on a frame of classical imperialism, Dr. Robinson encourages critical thinkers to delve into the complexities of new relationships of power and domination in an era of global capitalism.
Author of books including Promoting Polyarchy: Globlization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony, and Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change and Globalization, Dr. Robinson spent all of September in Mexico, traversing the country and meeting with participants in social movements, as well as academics and critics.
I caught up with Dr. Robinson by phone from his home in Santa Barbara, here’s what else he had to say:
On how Carlos Slim challenges classical precepts of imperialism…
“Carlos Slim, to give you another example, he was the richest man in the world, he competes constantly in terms of his total amount of billions of dollars, with Bill Gates and with Warren Buffet. He was in first place, now he’s back in third place, the third richest man in the world.
“He’s Mexican, and he has a vast dynasty, and he has investments on all five continents, and one of the many holdings are major holdings in the US, in major media conglomerates, in US banks, and he employs tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people in the United States.
“So here we have a Mexican, which is the capitalist employer, the exploiter, of workers based in the United States. And so the classical image of imperialism here is reversed, and so we’re not going to say that this is Mexican imperialism against the United States.
“What we’re going to say is that the world of the 20th century, of global capitalism, this new epoch is a lot more complicated and it can’t be understood in terms of what we used to refer to as the old imperialism, whether it was US imperialism, or before that British imperialism, and so forth.”
On Inequality and the War in Mexico…
“There’s a number of levels to analyze what’s going on in Mexico.
“One level of course is in an age of global capitalism, and unbridled inequalities, and massive polarization between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have nots, the social fabric breaks down and the state can no longer try and juggle multiple interests, it can’t even attempt to do so.
“So you have a breakdown of social order, and the breakdown of social order is more general, worldwide we’re seeing that, whole pockets and whole countries where social order and the ability of political authorities to manage these contradictions generated by massive inequalities and by global capitalism is breaking down. And so in part that’s what’s going on in Mexico, the central state really can’t hold the system together.
“Another part of the story is that the drug trafficking is wildly profitable, but in Mexico what’s also happened is that increasingly, a portion of the population has become dependent on drug trafficking.
“There’s massive unemployment in Mexico, there’s what we call los sin sin, those without work, and without school. So there’s a whole generation of youth that are not studying, they don’t have the opportunity to because the economy is in total crisis and because of massive inequality, and they have no work, because there is massive unemployment and underemployment.
“Drug trafficking has become a source of income, including petty income. It used to be you know the top level there were drug traffickers which were, if they weren’t interfered with they only fought against each other, you know, cartels for control of the drug trade. Now right down to each neighborhood people who are unemployed and young people who are unemployed have been swept up into drug trafficking, and they’re fighting each other literally, in some cities, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, for control over the pettiest level of making some money off of drug trafficking.”
On Mexican Social Movements and Militarization…
“The other thing going on in Mexico, and again you can generalize this in other countries, but specifically in Mexico, is that the social explosion is immanent. Mexico is so full of social movements and community movements and resistance and rebellion, every single corner, the problem is… you wouldn’t know that by going to Acapulco or just reading the headlines about the narcotrafico, I mean you wouldn’t see it in the larger context, but it’s a country with massive resistance, massive social movements, at every single level, you know of women, of peasants fighting for their land, of workers, of students, of immigrants, I mean at every single level.
“They’re not united, there’s a big problem in Mexico, all these social movements are not united. But the thing is the inequality and the emisseration of the majority of Mexicans has reached such a point that everyone who’s following closely, you know, critical, radical thinking in Mexico, is predicting that there’s an imminent social explosion. People even talk about 100 years since the Mexican revolution and its time for another revolution.
“But Mexican ruling groups, Mexican elite, and the US elite, really the transnational elite, is very aware of that, they’re aware that there’s going to be imminently this social explosion, and they can’t keep the lid on it. And its not necessarily going to be localized, its not going to be like the Zapatistas in one state, in Chiapas, it’s going to break out somewhere and start spreading elsewhere, and you’re going to have this massive uprising, not coordinated, again, spontaneous.
“And at that point, what’s the Mexican state and the Mexican elites going to do?
“They’re going to need military force to suppress it… I don’t want to downplay that the drug trafficking is real and I don’t want to down play the other factor I gave you, that its become so infest at the local level as an expression of the social and economic crisis.
“But half the Mexican army has already been deployed throughout the territory. And Calderón, the President of Mexico, has already announced that he’s going to deploy or he’s in the process of deploying the other half, so the entire Mexican army is going to be deployed to every corner of the country, and in part I am suggesting, and not just myself, it is the thinking of many of us, is that that is a move to put the Mexican army in place so that when there is a massive uprising, all the instruments are there, the forces there to suppress that uprising, and its going to be legitimated, in the name not just of stability and keeping order, but in the name of drug trafficking.
“So same thing with terrorism, there’s two things which legitimate repression of social movements, and new forms of domination and social control. One is terrorism, you describe anything now as terrorist, but another is [saying] that this is drug trafficking and delinquency, and crimen organizado, so that’s another side.”
On the International Criminal Economy and the Illegitimacy of Calderón…
“But I want to go to one other thing, with Mexico and then more generally, that’s an international criminal economy, which overlaps with the international above ground or so called legal economy, and its that the US has been able to, through the drug trafficking, and the excuse of trying to control narcotrafico, has poured hundreds of millions, now billions of dollars into Mexican security, and Mexican armed forces, and its changing the whole nature of Mexican society, Mexican society is being militarized.
“And again its being done in the name of combating drug trafficking but I think the real thing is that part of the face of this global capitalism is increasingly militarized societies in function of social control when inequalities and misery become just so intense that there’s no other way but through military and coercive means to maintain social control.
“The other thing going on in Mexico, remember, is that previously the drug traffickers they had different cartels, and the state didn’t take sides with one or another cartels when they fought each other. Calderón came to power in 2006, he came to power illegitimately, through fraud, and he had no credibility whatsoever, and within weeks of coming to power, with no credibility, two million people at one point actually took over the Zocalo, in the centre of Mexico City, he launched this drug war as a way of deflecting all of that illegitimacy, and tried to gain legitimacy and pushing it in different directions.
“One of the things that the Mexican state is doing now that it didn’t do previously is siding with one cartel or another, rather than simply neutrally taking bribes or just letting the cartels exist. So that’s why the cartels are now also targeting Mexican state officials and governors, and so forth.”
On the Impacts of the US Border on Drug Trafficking and Markets…
“When the US tightens the border after 2001, and even more recently with the recession, and then the tightening up on immigrants, when they tighten the border that meant that drugs traveling from South America, and from Mexico also, but from South America and crossing through Mexico, doesn’t move as quickly across the border as it used to, and so it stays in Mexico, it’s slower, the process of getting this across the border into the US.
“When the drugs stay in Mexico, the whole flow of drugs gets slower because of the border issue, and so as a result of that, many Mexicans have become addicted to drugs. Just 10 years ago, there was a lot of narcotrafico in Mexico but Mexicans themselves weren’t consuming the drugs.
“Now there’s millions of Mexicans that are addicted to drugs, and that are consumers of drugs also, and that’s because of those changes at the border and the changes in the velocity of drugs moving through Mexico. So I mean the Mexican cartels said ‘well, while we’re moving slower and while it’s more complicated, lets also open up a market inside Mexico,’ and they’ve succeeded.
On Cracks in the System and the Rise of 21st Century Fascism…
“I don’t want to fall into too much cynicism and pessimism, I haven’t lost my optimism, but I want to be realistic, and what I see taking place is in the face of this global crisis, which is a deep structural crisis, very close to a systemic crisis, and so I see that there are different responses to the crisis and a very quick polarization between a response on the one side, which is resistance, from poor people, from below, from poor peoples’ movements and the resurgence of the left, and attempts to create 21st century socialism in South America, and these mass protests and you know general strike in France and in Greece, and all around the world, we can follow the rise of progressive resistance, radical resistance, leftist resistance, and a new awakening of masses of people.
“But then this polarization around this response to the crisis, the other side of that is the rise of what I call 21st century fascism, these different, it doesn’t look like 20th century fascism because everything has changed, but the force which is most insurgent right now in the United States is the right. The rise of the fascist right.
“They’re organized in the Tea Party, and the right wing of the Republican party, the Minute Men, White power movements, and so forth. And so you see the rise of a fascist movement in the United States.
“But a rise of the fascist right we see it all around the world as well. We see it in Europe, all of the European countries, we see it in the Latin American countries, there was just a meeting, Uno América, these bring together the fascist Latin American right, the Latin American right that used to be happy when there were military dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes.
“Colombia is really a model of 21st century fascism: a democratic façade, a polyarchic political system, and beneath that there’s total social control, total domination by elites and by capital, and if you resist you’re massacred, and four million people have been displaced from the countryside.
“Yes, there’s major cracks and that opens up space for both the fascist right and the resurgence of the left. And I don’t know what the outcome of that is… We’re entering into a very dangerous period of uncertainty.