AMLO’s Presidency Has Been a Success

Edwin F. Ackerman

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has achieved more than just policy victories during his five years in office. He has reshaped the national political field and established a new cycle of left-wing governance.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during the five-year celebration of his victory in the 2018 presidential election at Zócalo on July 1, 2023, in Mexico City, Mexico. (Hector Vivas / Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

Mexican president André Manuel López Obrador is approaching the final year of his one-term sexenio. With attention now turning to a hotly contested succession struggle, and his legacy of policy accomplishments largely solidified, some have begun to draw up a balance sheet of his time in office.

Over the last five years, Kurt Hackbarth has chronicled the ups and downs of AMLO’s Morena government for Jacobin. There have been unalloyed positives: strong macroeconomic indicators; greater working-class purchasing power; public control over the energy sector; a reinvigorated labor movement; and independent leadership on the international stage.

There have also been some low points: López Obrador’s poor relationship with the country’s feminist movement and his failure to answer for rising cartel violence stand out. Other legacies are proving more mixed: AMLO’s large-scale infrastructure projects drew heavy fire from environmentalists, and his expansion of the Mexican Army defies a national tradition of limiting the role of the military.

Amid policy victories and setbacks, the true historical significance of “the Fourth Transformation” is only just emerging as the subject of debate. Edwin Ackerman, author of Origins of the Mass Party: Dispossession and the Party-form in Mexico and Bolivia in Comparative Perspective, has argued in a recent article that the true measure of AMLO’s government needs to look beyond individual policy achievements to the wider social field. In particular, writes Ackerman, AMLO should be appreciated for using his time in office to strengthen his working-class base, effectively reversing a global trend toward class dealignment.

Jacobin’s Nicolas Allen spoke to Ackerman to better understand how AMLO has rallied a working-class base around a left-wing platform and what lessons his Morena government can offer for the Left at large.

Nicolas Allen

How do you think AMLO’s government will be remembered historically: as a new political formation struggling to be born from the ashes of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)–dominated one-party system; as a clean break with that period and the beginning of something new; or something else altogether?

Edwin F. Ackerman

First, AMLO’s presidency has to be placed in relation to the first wave of the Pink Tide. In a sense, Mexico arrived late to the Pink Tide, meaning there are a lot of elements in AMLO that would have made perfect sense if his presidential victory had been accepted in 2006. Coming from similar background conditions, his administration would have merged organically with the other progressive governments in Latin America.

In the original Pink Tide countries, there was a postdictatorial opening in the political sphere which, when combined with faltering neoliberalism, created a unique window of opportunity for new left-wing parties. By contrast, in Mexico, the opposite happened: the collapse of the PRI led to nearly twenty years of the neoliberal right in power.

Part of that had to do with very Mexican peculiarities: the neoliberal bloc in Mexico was able to take up the flag of democracy since the overt anti-statism of challenger parties like Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) was also a critique of the lack of democracy under the single-party system. They could sell neoliberalism and the free market as synonyms for democracy.

That period has been generally described as Mexico’s “democratic transition,” following years of authoritarian rule under the PRI. Increasingly, though, there are debates about the periodization of Mexico’s transition. If the general consensus puts the beginning of the process at the year 2000, when the PRI suffered defeat after seventy years in power, more and more people are starting to question whether that narrative is too much in the service of the neoliberal reform program carried out afterward.

For example, it’s increasingly clear how that historical reading has conflated the elimination of corrupt, PRI-backed union bosses with the attack on unions and organized labor in general, or the removal of corrupt state officials with the wholesale privatization of public companies. Also, to some extent, the Pink Tide passed over Mexico because, crisis notwithstanding, the PRI was still home to a large part of Mexico’s working-class vote, complicating matters for the nascent electoral left.

That is a long way of saying that AMLO’s 2018 victory came, on the one hand, with the decline of the PRI and, on the other, with the subsequent collapse of neoliberalism — or at least the collapse of its most triumphalist factions in both Mexico and abroad. Starting with the 2008 financial crisis, we have seen a type of direct attack on neoliberalism from both the Left and Right around the world that was unthinkable before, and I would say that AMLO is a good manifestation of that post-2008 phenomenon.

In Mexico, neoliberalism’s declining legitimacy manifested itself as the complete decay of the party infrastructure associated with the governing elite. From 2000 to 2018, each government was rocked by scandals connected to revelations of massive corruption.

At the same time, we also saw the de facto merging of different political parties, with the PRI and PAN coinciding in pushing for neoliberal reforms, while the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) — AMLO’s former party — played along and veered toward the center. This merger of the PRI, PAN, and the PRD became even more formalized with AMLO’s presidential victory.

After 2012, when AMLO lost the election on the PRD ticket for a second time, the party leadership decided to sever its ties because they felt that he was weighing them down. They went on to close ranks with Mexico’s neoliberal bloc under the slogan “Izquierda Responsable,” or responsible left. It was meant to distinguish itself from AMLO and signal, “We are polite social democrats. We’re not interested in taking the streets or aligning with some of the radical elements of the Pink Tide.”

The problem was, by the time 2018 came around, the ruling class to which it had attached itself had been largely discredited. That partially explains how in 2018 AMLO and his new party could achieve victory with a thirty-point lead over his closest competitor in a four-way race. He completely demolished a teetering party system.

To return to your initial question: Is AMLO’s Morena government a period of rupture or reformation? In a sense, López Obrador is right in calling his government a new “regime” rather than a new “government.” His point is that the party infrastructure and the party system have been completely transformed for the foreseeable future. That’s because, again, after AMLO’s huge victory, all of the mainstream parties of the neoliberal period — the PRI, the PAN, the PRD, and so on — suddenly were reduced to tiny formations that on their own could only garner at best 15 percent of the national vote.

The only way for those parties to remain competitive is to join together. They might maintain their organizational autonomy and party names, but they have to establish formal coalitions and agree to share power for the sake of winning any elections. This means that, when these parties do win at the regional or local level, they score victories against Morena by diluting their own individual quota of the spoils. On the other hand, it is still up in the air whether this process will lead to some sort of two-party system, where the opposition achieves some kind of stable unity and can mount a challenge to Morena.

What’s clear is that the post-2018 party landscape is completely different from what came before. In that sense, AMLO represents a rupture. It is also true that there is a very deep connection between a certain faction of the PRI and AMLO himself. AMLO came to politics through that part of the PRI that was most committed to economic nationalism and the Mexican welfare state, which existed up until the late 1970s.

But it’s equally important to not overstress that connection: we’re talking about a part of the PRI that existed in a context in which there was a mixed economy and a general Keynesian consensus around economics. The faction most rooted in that context is the same one that felt betrayed when the PRI entered its neoliberal phase in the 1980s.

Let me illustrate this point with an uncomfortable example: AMLO’s director of the public energy company, Manuel Bartlett, was a member of the very highest echelons of the PRI until the 1990s, when he publicly broke with the party over its embrace of neoliberalism. Bartlett now has a government position in AMLO’s administration that reflects what has been his main cause for the past several decades, which is the protection of the public and sovereign character of the Mexican energy sector.

Bartlett is an example of what some people might mean when they say that Morena is a kind of rebirth of the PRI. But that is a superficial reading that conflates the PRI with welfare-state economic discourse. It only make sense if you forget the actual PRI has been neoliberal for the last thirty years.

Still, that historical background remains relevant insofar as it plays out in important ideological ways. Ideologically, AMLO is a throwback to what in the twentieth century was known as national revolutionary ideology: a sort of Keynesianism focused on national sovereignty and autonomy from US imperialism, of which Lázaro Cárdenas was the prime example. That position also means taking very seriously national figures like Cárdenas, Francisco Madero, and Benito Juárez as the main symbolic points of reference. So AMLO represents a rupture with history if you look at the party system and, from another angle, the resurgence of elements from Mexico’s history of national revolutionary Keynesianism.

Nicolas Allen

In a sense, AMLO assumed a role that in the late 1980s seemed to be reserved for Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of Lázaro and the most obvious living heir of the Mexican welfare state.

Edwin F. Ackerman

Without ever actually governing, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas ended up playing a role more analogous to Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil. Cardoso in Brazil always felt that, as president of the postdictatorship era, he should have received more credit for closing the social gap and achieving progressive measures more commonly associated with Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party (PT).

Cuauthémoc feels the same way about AMLO — that is, that he usurped a historical role that was rightfully his. But look what’s happened: these days Cuauhtémoc can be seen taking pictures with the most reactionary figures of the opposition camp. He doesn’t necessarily endorse them, but he is happy to take a meeting. In any case, he’s out of the picture at this point.

Nicolas Allen

The party structure of Morena is something that is rarely discussed. It doesn’t seem to resemble anything like what the PRI had in its heyday, with its capillary presence at every level of the state and civil society.

Edwin F. Ackerman

It’s completely different. Not only is Morena a very new party, formed in 2014, but it’s also an organization born from the neoliberal hollowing out of organized society.

The thing to remember about the PRI is that those capillary connections took decades to build up. Depending on how you date the origins of the PRI, it took about thirty years — between the 1920s and ’50s — for the party to absorb different elite circles, existing party formations, and also incorporate unions and peasant organizations. It takes time for those organizations to feel like they are getting something out of that relationship.

There was a subsequent phase in which the absorbed groups were completely neutralized in terms of any autonomy of decision and essentially became corporatist entities. That is the story of the PRI during the second half of the twentieth century. Still, I think it is important to remember that longer history, because too much of the analysis of the PRI begins from what the party’s finished form ended up as, taking that to be the default way the party operated from the beginning.

As I mentioned before, every now and then you’ll hear someone announce that Morena is the new PRI. But that’s pretty silly. Structurally speaking, they’re completely different. There are no corporatist connections like the ones the PRI maintained, with its top-down relation to unions, labor confederations, and peasant organizations. That just doesn’t exist, to a large extent because society isn’t organized that way anymore.

In terms of the relationship between the party and its base, Morena has a lot of the elements of what could be called a social-movement party. I say “elements” because it’s not correct to say that Morena is a social movement. Morena is the party in power, not a social movement.

But it came to power very quickly, which means there’s a lot of semi-spontaneous coordination between its different parts and significant differences between how the party operates at the national level versus how it works in certain specific places or regions. The party is very much in flux, in large part because its mid- and top-tier leadership structure went into government in 2018.

Things have begun to stabilize a little bit in the past two years, but the first two years, in particular, were a missed opportunity in terms of building up the party, with ambitious initiatives like the political education of cadres not coming to fruition. In any case, there’s been more stability in the last two years. There are newly formed committees that are establishing rules for internal contestation — for example, for deciding things like who the next presidential candidate will be. Since there are no primaries, they decided to release a poll to the general population that will be administered by a third-party polling company.

Nicolas Allen

Morena has also established a strong relationship with parts of the Mexican labor movement. How did that come about?

Edwin F. Ackerman

That relationship was facilitated by a new reform law that makes it much easier to form a union in Mexico. Historically, part of the difficulty of starting a new union was that workers were officially on the books as union members without even knowing they had any bargaining representation — much less that their unions were in the pockets of the employers. That is the legacy of the PRI’s corporatist union structure.

Thanks to the labor reform, there are growing links between new unionization efforts and Morena. One of the clear examples of this was the organizing drive in the maquiladora sector in Matamoros. One of its leaders, Susana Prieto Terrazas, is now a congresswoman for Morena. That’s just one example of how links are being formed between the party and a new labor movement.

There is also a strong link between Morena and the labor organizations that represent informal workers. Often, when we think about informal work, we assume that those workers are politically disorganized. But that is actually not the case. In fact, during the neoliberal period, as formal unions and industrial labor declined, the informal sector in Mexico became much more politically organized than the industrial sector.

On the other hand, the political organization of informal labor comes with its own peculiarities: it tends to be very clientelistic and function as a kind of interest group, with deals mediated between the leaders of informal workers and local politicians. But in any case, those groups do aggregate the demands of their constituents and elevate them to some level of the state, maintaining an especially fluid dialogue with Morena.

Nicolas Allen

That brings to mind the parallel you drew earlier between Morena and the Pink Tide governments. Some argue that a weakness of the Pink Tide governments was their overreliance on informal workers as a constituency — the idea being that a substantial portion of the working class in Latin America could be politically mobilized by social welfare programs but their structural leverage remained weak in relation to large capital interests. Do you think Morena could face a similar dilemma?

Edwin F. Ackerman

Absolutely. It’s a structural limitation.

On the one hand, there is an emerging wave of labor organizing happening in the informal sector, but there are also limits to how far that process can go based on what could be called, for lack of a better term, “lower petty bourgeois” class interests. These low-income class fractions usually have their own small businesses and boast a kind of entrepreneurial spirit, so any political demand they raise will also have that ideological component built into it.

As we’ve seen countless times in Latin America, those interests can easily be folded into right-wing politics. What’s interesting about AMLO is his ability to channel the interest of low-income business owners into a left-wing project.

This comes to the fore, for example, when he is protecting the public character of the electric company. Big businesses like Oxxo (the Mexican equivalent of 7-Eleven) are in every corner of the country and received subsidized electricity before AMLO. At the same time, the state electricity company was by law forced to buy a certain amount of electricity from the private sector, so essentially, they were using the state to funnel money toward the upper classes.

In defending his efforts to retake control of the energy sector, AMLO says things like: “In your little corner store, you have to turn off your refrigerator at certain hours of the day. Meanwhile, the 7-Eleven is selling super cold drinks thanks to subsidized electricity. The subsidies to the upper class need to end, and the public electric company must be strengthened to do that.” By reasserting state control of the energy sector, AMLO is able to make a left-wing project that appeals to the small shop owner.

Nicolas Allen

That seems like a good segue into AMLO’s class politics. You’ve argued that AMLO has bucked a global trend in which a so-called Brahmin left has grown disconnected from everyday working-class struggles. You claim that Morena has achieved a realignment that marries a leftist program with a growing working-class base.

Edwin F. Ackerman

If you compare the composition of the constituency that brought him into power in 2018 and the constituency that supports AMLO now, there’s been a big transformation. To the degree that AMLO has lost support, it has been from the “credentials class,” which was a large base of support in 2018.

Meanwhile, in 2018, working-class voting patterns were scattered throughout the different parties, so there was really no class politics expressed as a voting bloc in 2018. The dispersion of the working-class vote had a lot to do with the legacy of clientelist networks, particularly those connected to the PRI.

In the past years, if you look at the midterm elections or at opinion polls, there is an increasing base of support for Morena candidates coming from the working classes. For example, the highest levels of support for Morena come from campesinos, the informal sector, and employees, while the lowest levels of support come from the business sector and people with university degrees. That is a big transformation from 2018, with the loss of the credential class being made up by the growing support of the working class.

This is the effect of a wave of pro-worker reforms, from easier rules for forming unions, more mandated vacation days, increases in the minimum wage, direct cash transfer programs, and many other things. Those reforms have resulted in increases in the spending capacity of the lowest income earners and a reduction of about 7 percent in poverty levels since AMLO took office — that’s over five million people lifted out of poverty, even with the economic collapse of the pandemic and global inflation.

In parallel with that realignment, the alienation of the credential class has made for all sorts of odd bedfellows. For example, a big chunk of the self-proclaimed progressive intelligentsia is for all practical purposes being folded into the neoliberal bloc. Naturally, the opposition parties are led and organized by the business class, but social progressive sectors of the intelligentsia are joining those ranks.

Among other things, Mexican progressives will attack AMLO for his environmental record, taking aim at so-called mega-projects like the Tren Maya, a big train that would go around the Yucatan Peninsula. The construction of that project has to go through the rainforest, so there’s a clear environmental impact. But then, as a progressive, you would also want a strong state doing public infrastructure and transportation works. These dilemmas are rising to the surface under AMLO, and as they do emerge, “progressive priorities” are starting to split along class lines.

Nicolas Allen

Debates on the Mexican left have always had their own peculiarities. I don’t know if there’s anywhere in the world where the Left is so sharply split between pro- and anti-statist camps.

Edwin F. Ackerman

That’s true, and I think the challenge of understanding that divide is really about understanding the history of the PRI: the party was born as the heir of a radical social revolution while, at the same time, the party was in power for decades in a context in which there was a general consensus around Keynesianism.

So there are sectors of the Left that either felt comfortable with or saw a benefit to having a relationship with the PRI; meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, there were other parts of the Mexican left that have developed sort of communal anarchist tendencies. The Zapatistas in Chiapas would be a perfect recent example of that branch of the Left.

While that dispute continues, I would say there is now a third type of Left: a sort of cosmopolitan middle-class left that dreams of a polite, European-like social democratic party. That group feels orphaned by both the national populist left and the rural anarchist left. They feel like they were born in the wrong country and lament, in a very classist way, the absence of a polite social democratic left.

Nicolas Allen

Are you talking about the people who are fixated on false equivalences between Donald Trump and AMLO?

Edwin F. Ackerman

Exactly. These are the same people who are dreaming of founding a Mexican equivalent of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Nicolas Allen

You said earlier that, even if Morena is the party in power, it still behaves in some ways like a social movement. Do you mean to say that, like other social movements in government — the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia, for example — the party’s legitimacy depends on its ability to fulfill certain social demands?

Edwin F. Ackerman

I think some clarification is in order. Particularly if we compare Morena to other examples in Latin America, and especially with the Pink Tide, it’s clear that the party is different from other progressive governments.

The party did not draw on preexisting social movements that were subsequently channeled into a political coalition. In that sense, Morena behaves much more like a mass party, in that it is not beholden to external demands raised by a preexisting social movement. Morena instead tries to form and shape a new political collectivity.

That said, I would insist it behaves like a social movement in the way it tries to involve everyday people in the internal life of the party. There is an attempt to involve the bases in decision-making processes. I say “attempts” because it’s up for debate whether that work is done correctly or efficiently. But there is a significant effort being made.

To give you an example, earlier this year a vote was held to determine the delegates to Morena’s National Party Congress. That vote brought out about three million people from across the country — a pretty remarkable level of engagement in the internal life of the party. Not to mention, the National Party Congress is itself a massive event with thousands of people and all kinds of heated debates.

Nicolas Allen

In your book Origins of the Mass Party, you argue somewhat counterintuitively that social upheaval and fragmentation are what create the conditions for highly structured, mass party formations. You use Mexico as an example, showing how land privatization and concentration led to the uprooting of the peasantry, which created the conditions for new forms of political association within the PRI. Could the same be said about Morena as a kind of twenty-first-century mass party?

Edwin F. Ackerman

One could say that, although I’d kind of be beating my own drum. I would say this: even in the case of Bolivia, where the high level of social organization around the MAS would seem to be a counterexample, we need to recall that the Movement Toward Socialism arose in a context of massive neoliberal dislocation.

The base of the party in, for example, the Chapare province, is comprised of communities of people who, before they had formed communities, were recently arrived migrants coming from disparate parts of the country. Often the image we have of those groups is of a cohesive, long-standing community. But in fact, those people formed entirely new organizations — “political instruments,” they call them — that did not exist in any kind of ancestral form.

In the case of Mexico, you have almost the reverse process of MAS: the dismantling of the social basis of the PRI by the PRI itself, in which the party basically pulled the rug out from under its own feet by turning neoliberal. Destroying the pillars of its own base and implementing neoliberalism is what laid the conditions for new forms of organization. That is part and parcel of the social dislocation and fragmentation — the rise of the informal economy, for example — in which Morena is attempting to build itself as a mass party.

Organizationally speaking, mass party formation is going to look very different now than it did in the early twentieth century. Take the process of choosing a new candidate for the party. There are no legal requirements for party primaries in Mexico, and since it’s a new party, there’s no precedent in Morena for a primary contest.

That creates all sorts of friction within the party as people are vying for the presidential candidacy. And all of this is taking place in a context of high social fragmentation, where membership is in flux and it’s hard to hold a vote based on party affiliation. In that scenario, putting the presidential candidate to a members-only vote would feel at odds with the general mood at the national level. So, instead, the party is putting the vote to the general populace via commissioned opinion surveys.

Nicolas Allen

People sometimes criticize AMLO for that very “plebiscitary” approach, i.e., putting to a national referendum something that should have passed through a process of checks and balances or been subjected to internal party debate.

Edwin F. Ackerman

Exactly, but that’s the thing: when the connection between the party and its base is still forming in the context of today’s social fragmentation, that relationship is not going to look like how the mass party related to its base in the twentieth century. It will assume forms that may seem diluted as a form of participation, like being selected by a pollster to answer a question rather than, say, going to a union hall and caucusing.

In any case, there is a relationship that’s being built between the party and the base, which is very different from the opposition. Those parties are emerging from what are basically elite negotiations over power sharing.

Nicolas Allen

Claudia Sheinbaum seems to be leading opinion polls. What does her candidacy represent?

Edwin F. Ackerman

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Sheinbaum is going to be the Morena candidate. She’s a very interesting figure: a kind of red-diaper baby with a family background in left-wing politics.

She began her involvement in politics as a student activist in the 1980s, fighting for the public character of the national university, and that was where she came into contact with people who would eventually overlap with AMLO’s circle. That relationship was solidified in 2000 when AMLO became the mayor of Mexico City and Sheinbaum was appointed minister of the environment.

She’s also an academic and has a PhD in energy engineering. That academic background, combined with her student activism, may hit some of the sweet spots of the credential classes who, again, are uneasy with AMLO’s more populist style. But whether that alone will sway them is another question.

At the same time, Sheinbaum was really politically formed within the world of Obradorismo. She started her position as AMLO’s minister of the environment at a fairly young age. Politically and personally, she’s perceived as much closer to AMLO than any of the other “primary” candidates, so her candidacy in that sense represents a choice for continuity with the existing Morena project.

Obviously, all of the candidates vying for the position have to claim proximity to AMLO because he is such a popular president. People are jockeying to appear as close as possible to AMLO while at the same time crafting an image that they are their own person.

Nicolas Allen

Do you think Sheinbaum could placate those parts of the Left that criticize AMLO’s perceived illiberalism?

Edwin F. Ackerman

Possibly. She’s much more comfortable talking about certain social liberal issues than AMLO. For example, she’s much more comfortable talking about feminism in a way that feels up to date.

The same with environmentalism: she’s in a good position to shore up some of the contradictions and spell out what the left position is in debates over, for instance, environmentally friendly “green capital” versus state ownership. I think she’ll be legibly left-wing in a way that is more understandable for people outside Mexico.

But is that an advantage domestically? I’m not so sure. Part of the advantage of AMLO’s discourse is that it inserts his party and movement into a national — and nationalist — historical narrative. There are plenty of ideas in AMLO’s program that, while not specific to Mexico, are conspicuously framed as Mexican, i.e., as a continuation of a process that began under Cárdenas, which began under Benito Juárez, and so on.

The ability to convincingly frame his government in those terms is part of AMLO’s political power. I think that AMLO’s capacity to synthesize those ideas in a language that is understood by everyone, as opposed to the specialized lingo of the credentialed classes, gives him a unique advantage. But Claudia Sheinbaum should be able to incorporate some of those elements to her advantage.

Nicolas Allen

What do you expect to be the big debates in the 2024 elections? The so-called drug war ran pretty hot in 2023. Will that figure prominently in campaign platforms?

Edwin F. Ackerman

Absolutely. The levels of violence in Mexico are extremely high, so public safety is going to be the single biggest issue.

It would be unfair to say that AMLO has not done anything on that score, but real progress has been pretty minimal. You can argue that it’s a problem he inherited from past administrations, that it’s a very complex issue, that no one can simply dismantle the drug trade, and so on. I obviously agree with all of that. But the truth of the matter is, when you reach homicide levels like Mexico had in the last year, you can be sure that public safety is going to be the number-one issue come election time.

Nicolas Allen

Considering AMLO’s controversial expansion of the role of the military, it seems like he could be attacked for doing too much or too little.

Edwin F. Ackerman

AMLO is definitely attacked from both sides. His policy approach to the drug trade was summarized in the slogan “Abrazos, No Balazos” (Hugs, Not Bullets). The idea was that through different types of scholarships, young people who otherwise would have joined the lower ranks of drug-trafficking rings would instead find other outlets. That left him vulnerable to being attacked from the right for being too complacent and coddling drug traffickers.

At the same time, AMLO is attacked for being a militarist. It’s true he has expanded the role of the military to deal not just with security issues but also with other matters normally left to civilian authority. But here, I think it’s important to step back and reflect on how the dilemmas AMLO has faced are going to emerge any time the Left takes power in the wake of decades of neoliberalism.

For example, AMLO has overseen a revamping of the Mexican military to help administer some of his large-scale infrastructure projects. That sits uneasily with a long tradition of the Latin American left and its relationship to the military. But AMLO is doing this in a context in which state capacity has been completely dilapidated; he sees the military as a relatively efficient and well-disciplined bureaucratic apparatus that can be used for different purposes.

Nicolas Allen

AMLO has suffered a number of setbacks while in office. Still, on balance, would you say his term has been successful?

Edwin F. Ackerman

I would. There are a couple of things that AMLO has done that are relevant to how the Latin American left might think about its larger project.

One, in particular, is how López Obrador has been able to instrumentalize anti-corruption politics in a progressive direction. The reason I say this is because anti-corruption politics has tended to be something promoted by the neoliberal right and strongly supported by the Latin American middle classes. AMLO has figured out a way to use anti-corruption so that it has mass appeal and does not turn into anti-statism or anti-politics.

In fact, AMLO has found a way to use anti-corruption discourse to relegitimize the state and advance a project against neoliberalism. The way that he’s done this is by redefining neoliberalism: neoliberalism wasn’t the contraction of the state, as is normally assumed. Instead, for AMLO, neoliberalism was the instrumentalization of the state in the service of the upper class. So the discussion is not about small government versus big government — Mexico was run by “big government” during neoliberalism, but it was always in the service of the upper class in all sorts of legal and illegal ways.

In other words, for AMLO, neoliberalism is corruption. It’s an argument that someone like David Harvey would completely understand: neoliberalism wasn’t the separation of the state and market; it was actually their coming together as part of an elite class project.

This holds lessons for the Left at large. Too often, the Left finds itself forced by the historical conjuncture into doing the job of the bourgeoisie, that is, advocating for the separation of the state from the market. But it’s not really a separation of market and state that we’re after. We want the subordination of the market to the state, and in his best moments, AMLO has achieved that.