From the Zócalo
to the Polis? The
Globalization of Western Democracy and the Reformulation of the Public Sphere
Patricia M. Martin
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Geography
**Draft – do not cite**
Public Space? Parque
How many people belong? For example, in the Plural Pact there are about 40 people; in Feminist Millenium, Nuevo León, there are five people; and Catholics for the Right to Decide, well, there’s me, here in Nuevo León. So, there are a few people, but because of that we haven’t been interested in massive work, I mean, no. One of these people, for example, is a local congressional deputy, and that deputy, if she wants, can bring together 3000 people, but that doesn’t interest us. Now, if you have someone who writes in the newspaper, for me that is enough. If suddenly, you are invited to give a conference (lecture), like recently, we just gave a lecture to 600, 700 people, gynecologists, talking about emergency contraceptives. From the gynecologists’ community. Why would you want a lot of people? And the gynecologists committed to support emergency contraceptives. Why would you want more people? And one person coordinated all of that. A doctor. So, it is not really a mass movement, its a movement based in specific strategy.
(Interview, Feminist Organization,
…Gramsci studies the formation of organizations that place themselves against state structures, which is civil society. It is a euphemistic manner to effectively say who govern and who are the governed.
- (Interview, state official,
During the year 2000 I spent 11 months in two locations in
This paper represents specific intervention within this broader
research project. Here I take up the
notion of autonomous, multiple public spheres in order to ask questions about
the nature and quality of political change in
II. Democracy and the Public Sphere: New Autonomous Political Spaces?
Numerous definitions of the public and the private have circulated throughout Western modernity and each has differing histories and intellectual lineages. Weintraub (Weintraub 1995) (287) highlights, for example, four major kinds of uses of the public/private distinction. Selya Benhabib (Benhabib 1998), on the other hand, traces three different political understandings of publicity. While all definitions of the public have political implications, this paper is interested in how the public is understood in an explicitly political sense. Following Benhabib (Benhabib 1998), I will briefly summarize three major ways in which the concept of a public sphere is invoked in Western political thought.
The first is the liberal economic model that understands the division between public and private as related to state administration and market economy (Weintraub 1995). In this particular view, human beings are posited as individuals pursuing their self interests both within civil society and the market (Jaggar 1988). In this particular understanding the ‘public’ is coterminous with the state and represents the sphere where a rational and just order can be established so that private individuals can best pursue their interests; liberal democracy is perceived at best representing this kind of order. Individuals are free to associate in political parties and interest groups in order to pursue specific interests vis-a-vis the state. Politics in this view is often about a just distribution of resources (Young 1990) and therefore have a strong juridical aspect (Benhabib 1998). Rationality, neutrality, and impartiality are central values (Young 1990) (Benhabib 1998). As Pateman [Pateman, 1989 #154] has argued in critiquing the social contract theorists of the 18th Century, liberal democracy can also represent a curiously apolitical model of politics, where citizens ‘give up’ their political power to the sovereignty of the state; in response, she advocates an alternative model of politics where citizens can consistently act upon and renew their political power.
The second model of the public that informs politics builds on a republican or classical understanding of ‘the polis’ where public political space is represented by citizens gathered in political community to debate the common good (res publica). The writings of Hannah Arendt (Arendt 1958) have been central in outlining this particular vision of citizenship and the public (Benhabib 1998). While this model is often lauded in theory, some political theorists make the argument - tinged with nostalgia - that it is impossible for scale or scope of modern democracy(Bobbio 1987) (Dahl 1989). In addition, one of the major critiques that often leveled against the notion of political community as political public is the strict adherence to the search for the common good and the implicit homogeneity of the group of citizens making a decision (a situation where the community placed above the individual). Both of these aspects can lead to exclusionary practices if an issue is not seen - a priori - as of common concern to all.
The third major current in political theory that informs an understanding of the public derives from Hambermas’s account of the bourgeois public sphere. Here is one description of his conception of the autonomous public sphere of politics:
It designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is a space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, hence an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction. This arena is conceptually distinct from the state; it is a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state. The public sphere in Habermas’s sense is also conceptually distinct from the official-economy; it is not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theater for debating and deliberating rather than buying and selling. Thus, this concept of the public sphere permits us to keep in view the distinctions between state apparatuses, economic markets, and democratic associations, distinctions that are essential to democratic theory (Fraser 1997)(p. 70).
Although Habermas himself writes a classical story of declension vis-a-vis the public sphere (Fraser 1995), feminist and critical political theorists have sought to engage and reformulate the notion of an autonomous public sphere as an essential political resource in contemporary society. Benhabib, for example, (Benhabib 1998) (91) argues for both a critique and a “dialectical alliance” between feminist theory and Habermas’s notion of the public sphere. Landes (Landes 1998) writes, moreover:
Habermas’s construction of the public sphere had a singular advantage for feminists; it freed politics from the iron grasp of the state which, by virtue of the long denial of the franchise to women and their rare status as public officials, effectively defined the public in masculine terms. The concept of the public sphere was suffused with a spirit of openness that feminists found inviting. (Landes 1998) (197)
The reasons for this “eclectic affinity” between feminist political
theory and the notion of autonomous public spheres are multiple. First, unlike the civic republican
model, the notion of a public sphere resonates more strongly with the
conditions of politics under modernity where broad and diverse kinds of
participation arise within multiple, socially differentiated spaces. In
keeping with this, Fraser (Fraser
1995) suggests that, rather than thinking of a homogenous
and unified sphere, a metaphor of plural, multiple, and overlapping public
spheres is more apt. Moreover, for
societies traversed by systemic inequalities (like
critical reformulations of autonomous public spheres suggest that the nature
and boundaries of these spaces is open to contestation; any evaluation,
therefore, of public spheres must be contextualized. This is certainly true in
In the case of
Evaluating the existence of multiple ‘autonomous publics spheres’ in
It is time to sum up. An enormous social and cultural change that created a plural Mexico; the need that such diversity express itself and that it have a place in the world of the government; electoral reforms that have channeled and accommodated that diversity in the institutions of the country; elections that strengthen the political parties and parties that give meaning to the elections, that give live to the hope for the freedom to vote; parties that organize public life, debate, the legislative process, that are installed in the different institutions of the state, the need for a state architecture that is effective and functional at the same time that it receives and assimilates political plurality.
This story of phenomena and of elements has only one response: democracy.
(Jose Woldenberg K., President of the General Advisory Council of the Federal Elections Institute) (Woldenberg K. 2000) (p. 17) (translation mine).
The above perspective on the
process of democratization in
If we shift however, to the
more localized, and more grounded terrains of Monterrey and Oaxaca, and interrogate
political change in both locations from the more critical lens of ‘autonomous
public spheres,’ new questions arise about the nature of political change in
both locations (which in turn asks questions about the nature of
democratization at the national level).
This suggests, furthermore, that the discourse of liberal democracy does
not provide a critical enough edge to understand redrawing of lines of power
within the process of democratization in
Actors – Institutions
Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)
(media, universities, peasant organizations, government programs)
Railroad Workers; Catholic Church - liberation theology; Liga 16 de Septiembre (urban guerrillas); Partido Comunista Mexicano; student movements; colonos
Teachers Union (SNTE); PAN; PRD; CEPCO; priests; FOCO; NGOs (human rights; community development; women; environment; democracy; children)
Figure 1.1 Institutions Structuring Political Space in
Coding: 1 moving towards center; 2 marginalized
Characteristics (How the Public World has been Described)
Party of the State; Patterns of Cooptation
Social circumstance –
Urban conflict (unions, students, land invaders)
Pluralism in Cities; Conflict between Urban and Rural; Hostile relationship to NGOs; Opposition Political Parties/Complex relationship between social movements – NGOs – Political Parties; Private Initiative; fragmentation of NGO’s
Figure 1.2 Characterizations of the Public World
Usos y Costumbres; PROGRESA; la Ley Quesillo
Figure 1.3 Themes that Appeared as Public Issues
In the estimation of many of
the people I interviewed, the state government in
No, I think it is good, and it has provided a source of strength, I think that for us, as organizations, to know that we are strong, that we have allies in a given problem…For example, organizations on the Coast with the hurricane, there we are offering support. Or one was robbed, well we cooperate with the basics of a computer, we’ll buy it for you. Or they kidnap a member of an organization, well we go and we denounce it.
There have been a variety of challenges on a variety of fronts to this control over political space in Oaxaca, including for opposition political parties. Here, however, I will speak specifically about two efforts to create different kinds of public political spaces, the first is the creation of alternative indigenous municipal political regimes, respecting the practices of ‘usos y costumbres’. The second is through organizations that exist within civil society.
One major challenge to the authoritarian nature of the state government has come through the establishment of indigenous ‘usos y costumbres’ as an alternative electoral mechanism at the municipal level. In short, elections by ‘usos y costumbres’ in municipalities allow for elections that do not follow a party regime (where candidates must be nominated by parties), but rather according to the ‘traditional’ customs of the village/pueblo/ municipality. While usos y costumbres encompasses a range of practices, in politics this most particularly includes a direct vote (not secret) through a community assembly. Often these direct votes occur once every year, rather than every three years, which is the standard tenure for a municipal president in Mexico. One of the other major politicized aspects of usos y costumbres is the fact that in some villages, women do not participate in the voting procedure (some argue that it violates human rights). In 1995, 412 out of 570 municipalities in Oaxaca opted for elections by usos y costurmbres. The number increased in 1998 by 6 to 418. While this number is high, in 1998 it accounted for approximately 34% of the population of Oaxaca and reflects the rural/urban political split in Oaxaca. The law providing for this change in electoral procedure was passed in August of 1995, and was modified in 1998. While some argue that this has no direct relationship to the Zapatista rebellion, (i.e., it was in process before), undoubtedly the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas helped to spur on its passage. Indeed, the indigenous law in Oaxaca bears great resemblance to the San Andres Accords that resulted from the conflict in Chiapas. The San Andres Accords were signed by the Mexican national government, though they were never implemented. This legislation in Oaxaca is part of a broader movement to protect and revive indigenous cultural and communal autonomy. If this project is brought to fruition, than it would signal the construction of radically different kinds of political spaces outside of the sphere of the state.
The second major arena of political challenge to the state comes from organizations within civil society, in particular NGOs. These organizations have a high profile in Oaxaca; a directory produced in 2000 places the count at 209 (Oaxaca 2000). This may be due in part to their connection with the global flow of international agencies, funding agencies, and to foreign researchers. It is also due to withdrawal of state subsidies from the countryside, the intense struggle over the meaning of underdevelopment/development; and the struggle for the expansion of cultural, ecological, and political rights. While there are fractures among the NGO community, they share a broad concern for issues of social justice. I found only one NGO in Oaxaca that may have been clearly aligned with the political right. In this sense, the NGOs that I spoke with generally held a critical and oppositional stance to the government. In the context of concern about development, the environment, and the expansion of social, cultural and political rights, NGOs in Oaxaca have developed decision making capacities and policies of programmatic action to concretely pursue a broad range of goals, at least for the constituents they represent.
The development of an alternative forms of doing politics and pursuing ‘development’ from within civil society has been clearly articulated among some of the civil society organizations in Oaxaca, as exemplified by the “Proyecto Para Oaxaca.” “Proyecto Para Oaxaca” is a working document written by a coalition of NGOs (12 NGOs) in Oaxaca. This document bridges the movement for indigenous municipal political autonomy – and alternative spaces of action of NGOs. In light of the continuing economic, political, and cultural marginalization and impoverishment of many social groups and communities in Oaxaca, this project is organized to foment social, political, cultural regeneration among communities and groups in Oaxaca. As articulated by the document, the route for accomplishing this, however, is not by accessing government resources – rather by finding alternative routes/creating alternative forms of governance and development outside of the scope of government. In the introduction, the document states,
...We need to dismantle inefficient and corrupt bureaucracies, but instead of privatizing State functions, as is being done, we will seek to socialize them; leave them in the hands of the people, as political bodies are returned to an adequate scale…We will reserve some well defined general functions at the level of the entire society, for political bodies that retain a true democratic style, where they govern by obeying. Instead of a situation where the civil sphere is constructed as a residual space, (that which the state has not absorbed for itself), we want that the general functions of government appear residual. (Oaxaca 2000), 25 (emphasis mine).
The state apparatus in Oaxaca is clearly hostile to NGOs. Evidence for this comes from several places. A representative of the state government provided the following analysis, in response to my questions about the presence and strength of NGOs in Oaxaca. This representative began by defining an NGO for me:
…It is a non-governmental organization that provides a counter position to the state organization. First, yes there are NGOs, and they are important, their movements in Oaxaca. However, in Oaxaca, few NGOs are independent of the political parties… There is a German professor…who says that the NGOs are in truth, clubs for the unoccupied…
In my estimation, these words reflect a general,
overt hostility towards organized civil society, by viewing civil society as a
‘counter position’ to the state, and by suggesting that NGOs are “clubs for the
unoccupied”. This hostility is further
evidenced, however, by the passage of legislation that sought to bring NGOs
under state control in Oaxaca with the passage of the Decreto Número 312, the “Ley de Instituciones de Asistencia,
Promocion Humana y Desarrollo
Social Privadas del Estado
de Oaxaca” (Law of Private Institutions of Assistance, and Human and Social
Development of in the State of Oaxaca) on November 4th, 1995. This decree was alternatively dubbed as the
“La Ley Quesillo” by the
civil society organizations who stood in opposition to
is the name of a Oaxacan
cheese; the name apparently reflects that fact that the law was rapidly
created, but that it will melt with heat (Robles
Gil 1998). Some of the
key components of the law include the creation of a state oversight committee,
the president of which was to be selected by the governor. This committee was granted the ability to
authorize the creation, modification, and demise of ‘private’ social service
organization (understood as covering the scope of civil society
organizations). Further, a percentage of
the gross income (0.6%) (Robles
Gil 1998, 231) raised by such
institutions was to be channeled to the state oversight committee to fund its
operation. Furthermore, the committee
would be allowed to visit private associations at anytime to conduct an
audit. According to Robles Gil (1998), Decreto 312 was a
close copy to legislation that had been passed in the Districto
Federal (Mexico City) in order to modernize the ‘Junta de Asistencia
Privada,’ a governance organism that linked private
charity organizations, the catholic church, and the government (Robles Gil 1998). Thus, this
legislation forms part of a larger debate in Mexico about the notion of ‘public
interest,’ who represents “the public interest,” and who gets to determine its
meaning. As a result of mobilization at
numerous scales, the “Quesillo” Law have never been put into effect, though it remains on the
What does this brief overview suggest about
the existence of autonomous public spheres in Oaxaca? There are several issues that I would like to
highlight. First, I think it is
difficult to speak at the local level of any kind of a clear space of public
dialog – within the government or without.
I found little evidence of local issues that had sparked some kind of
public debate. Institutions
that stand in opposition to the state are not clearly or primarily involved
opinion formation – speech/discourse is not a clear means of
pursuing/practicing politics. This is not to say that organizations
don’t confront the governor or the state; they do. Rather, there are few institutionalized
spaces where such speech can be mediated in a public manner. Local organizations in Oaxaca do engage in
speech activities among themselves, and at other scales as they meet with
national and international students, investigators, NGOs, and the press
(outside of the state, there is an interesting ongoing discussion of
intercultural dialog). At the local
level, institutions that stand in opposition to the state may have aspects of
what Fraser [Fraser, 1995 #161] calls ‘strong publics.’ By this, I mean that they garner and
establish decision making capacities for their particular constituents rather
than lobbying the government to effect change.
For example, NGOs establish alternative educational opportunities,
alternate forms of health care, revolving loans programs, they negotiate prices
for buying and selling coffee, they create productive activities to sustain
life projects for youth. Within this
context, and again resonating with the indigenous movement in Oaxaca, autonomy
in a strong sense is one key thread moving throughout civil society
discourse. Furthermore, because of the
project orientation of organized civil society in
IIIB. Public Spheres in Monterrey
Public Spheres – Monterrey
Actors – Institutions
FNSI, CCINLAC, Group of 10, PAN, political parties, private universities, media, Opus Dei, Legionarios de Cristo, CANACO; citizens; professional associations
PRI, PRI institutions (CROC, CTM, CNOP),
NGOs: (debtor’s; human rights; AIDS, feminist movement, environment) Mormons, women in political parties, gays, handicapped, indigenous peoples/migrants, nurses, Jesuits, PRD
FAT, Fundidora, student movement, teachers union, disappeared; Tierra y Libertad; colonos, teachers union, intellectuals
Figure 1.4 Public Sphere Actors and Institutions
Coding: 1 moving towards center; 2 marginalized
Characteristics (How the Public World has been Described)
Business – government relationship; securing transparency in electoral process; Government parties don’t have social base, NGOs represent middle class, patterns of repression – streets, media; media – lack of ethics; repetition of class struggle – but new forms of access and benefits; no authentic unions; relationship between government – business; few spaces for citizens; populist media; debate/discussion in Congress; lack of a counter weight; new forms of access and exclusion
Populist governments; PRI/PAN played different roles in NL than at national level; guerilla, dirty war; end of corporativist
Figure 1.5 How Interviewees Characterized the Public Sphere
Public services, abortion, elections; Fundidora, government, corruption; religion (Virgin de Guadalupe); army; gender; family violence
Human rights (prisoners’ rights), disappeared, feminism; ecology, homosexuality
Figure 1.6 Themes Mentioned as Public Issues
In Nuevo León,
a governor from the Partido Accion
Nacional was elected in 1997; this followed electoral
victories by opposition parties (primarily the PAN, but also the PRD and the
PT) in municipalities in the
…For example, when Acción Nacional enters here, in Nuevo León, they enter with a ‘conciertación.’ Why? Because they win apparently, an election that they didn’t win. That is when Jesus Hinojosa arrives here as mayor…Salinas, by command…grabs a mapamundi and says, well, we are going to divide up, to meet a prerequisite, so he gives away certain points…
On the positive side, there
are also accounts of less corruption on the part of the state government. One organization in Nuevo
“…also last year in the state congress they tried to
pass a law – as you know, the majority are PANistas –
a law of citizen participation. And if
you see the proposed law of citizen participation, it is full of controls, full
of sanctions. They demand, in this
proposed law, that citizen organizations, or non-governmental organizations or
civil organizations present an annual report, either to the municipal
president, or the governor, with which, if they do not agree, the organization
will be sanctioned. They ask as well
that all social organizations register in a (padron/registry)
created by them…Thankfully, until now, although its not certain that is won’t
pass, it has been approved. It was so
absurd that even some PANistas said, ‘it can’t be.’…”
(Interview, ONG representative,
Despite this striking parallel with
‘Parque Fundidora’ is a 114
hectare park in the center of the
During the 2000, plans of
creating a motor car racetrack within the park area surfaced (CART Grand Prix
Racing). It was this particular plan
that mobilized certain segments of civil society in
What kind of evaluation
regarding the existence of multiple, autonomous public spheres in
Without a doubt democratization under
conditions of globalization has brought about greater political diversity
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(need to add Pateman, Cornelius, and Larrain).