In Other Words

Mexico’s Globophobe Punks

 New Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 1, March 2003, Oxfordshire When armed indigenous peasants took over the town square of San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994, their uprising marked the birth of the anti-globalization movement. Since that day — the same day the North American Free ...

 New Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 1, March 2003, Oxfordshire

When armed indigenous peasants took over the town square of San Cristobal de las Casas in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994, their uprising marked the birth of the anti-globalization movement. Since that day — the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect — demonstrations against globalization have assembled a widening range of people who feel marginalized by the international economy. In an article in New Political Science, the quarterly journal of the Caucus for a New Political Science, Canadian anthropologist Alan O’Connor describes a segment of Mexico’s antiglobalization movement: Mexico City’s punks.

A self-described anarchist, O’Connor has participated in meetings of punks and anarchists throughout Mexico. In his article, O’Connor seeks to show that these Mexican youths share many values with their rebellious counterparts around the world, despite differing cultural backgrounds. For instance, the Mexican punk band Desobediencia Civil (Civil Disobedience) sings "Rebellion of the Rocks," expressing solidarity with Palestinian youth uprisings. "Although the experience of Palestinians is quite different from anything in recent Mexican history," writes O’Connor, "the Mexican punks related very strongly to the imagery of youths rebelling in the streets resisting the police and military." Similarly, the author quotes from the song of a Mexican punk band lamenting the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Such examples notwithstanding, O’Connor’s analysis of the concerns and tactics of Mexico’s punk subculture only shows why the anti-globalization movement has accomplished so little. In the gatherings the author witnesses, punks and anarchists endlessly debate topics such as the meaning of personal autonomy, when anarchists ought to walk out of meetings they attend, and why a "hegemonic movement of socialist-style cadres" is undesirable.

At one such meeting devoted to globalization issues, "a well-known anarcho-punk from Mexico City challenged the format," recalls O’Connor. "The rigid format was criticized for being non-participatory. The punk collectives wanted to open up the schedule to allow for more diversity in the workshops. This was reluctantly accepted." Mexican bureaucrats are famous for parsing minutiae while disregarding more crucial issues at stake. Apparently punks and anarchists suffer from the same affliction.

O’Connor portrays Mexican youths brought together by globalization’s cross-pollination of ideas. Yet they divide over ideological trivia and a devotion to tired labels — Leninist, anarchist, anarcho-Marxist, punk, leftist — that belong to an earlier era. Maybe rigidity is how the youth rebel in an era of blurring labels, borders, and ideology.

These young people struggle to understand the larger forces at work in the world, but with so few channels for change open, they can only bellow "No!" and toss rocks at McDonald’s. Perhaps this impotence is the warning inherent in O’Connor’s descriptions of Mexican youths.

Unfortunately, the article suffers from the author’s close identification with his subjects. O’Connor uncritically accepts punk-anarchist-leftist beliefs, including the notion that neoliberalism is to blame for Mexico’s troubles. For example, O’Connor agrees when his subjects reject as neoliberal the attempt by the National Autonomous University (UNAM) to begin charging a minimal tuition in 1999. Following a 10-month student strike, the tuition increase was shelved. But this result harmed only Mexico’s working classes, for which UNAM is often the only higher-education option. UNAM departments are so underfunded today that they provide a shoddy education, and many employers won’t hire UNAM graduates. Defeating the tuition hike condemned many working-class kids to an even more expensive option: a worthless degree.

Moreover, many of Mexico’s problems — whether related to agriculture, the legal system, the environment, healthcare, or worker protection — are due less to neoliberalism than to the legacy of the 71-year rule of the closed and twisted Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was finally voted out of the presidency in 2000. Mexico’s peasants need more globalization, not less, as O’Connor implies. They need more roads, telephone lines, Internet connections, and literacy; they need connectivity, which is the cornerstone, the definition even, of globalization.

Ultimately, rather than engaging in political activism, the young Mexican punks in O’Connor’s article seem to be stumbling through adolescence. Perhaps the same could be said for the antiglobalization movement to which their country gave birth.

Sam Quinones is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles who lived in Mexico for 10 years, where he wrote two narrative nonfiction books about the country. His third book, "Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic," is now available in paperback. Contact him at samquinones.com.

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