By Jules Simon
This article explores the socio-economic violence that has occurred, specifically to subsistence farming Mexicans, over the more than twenty years of institutionalizing NAFTA. Simon identifies an internal juxtaposition of his interpretation with that of Carlos Sanchez in “Clothing the Other in Dignity: Centeotl, NAFTA, and the Primacy of Tradition.” (October 2014 issue, Inter-American Journal of Philosophy) Both recognize that violence to Mexicans and a Mexican way of life has occurred and is ongoing as a consequence of the NAFTA accord, however, Simon does so with explicit reference to behavioral habits that arise from institutional enforcement versus the Sanchez’s emphasis on the transformation of lives and habits from the loss of traditional religious beliefs and associated practices. Where Sanchez focuses on the phenomenon of religiously oriented nativism, Simon focuses on the phenomenon of how NAFTA has so quickly overturned centuries of socio-economic practices. Drawing on support from proponents of the phenomenological and pragmatist traditions in philosophy, the thrust of Simon’s philosophical argument, however, is a critique of the underlying orientation of neo-liberalism that results in the practice of politics as usual. What is lost in practicing political philosophy of the kind that espouses Rawlsian-inspired ideal theory speculations, namely, those kinds that are deeply embedded—institutionalized—in most Anglo-American philosophy and political science departments that are dominated by the Anglo-American “Analytic” tradition, is the ability to create critical, effective, and sustainable changes in existing policies of injustice.
Resumen en español
Este artículo explora la violencia socioeconómica que ha ocurrido, específicamente en la agricultura de subsistencia de los mexicanos, en los más de veinte años de institucionalización del TLCAN (NAFTA). Simon identifica una yuxtaposición interna de su interpretación con la de Carlos Sánchez en “Clothing the Other in Dignity: Centeotl, NAFTA, and the Primacy of Tradition” (Octubre 2014, Inter-American Journal of Philosophy). Ambos reconocen que la violencia a los mexicanos y su forma de vida mexicana ha ocurrido y continúa como consecuencia del acuerdo NAFTA, sin embargo, Simon lo hace con referencia explícita a los hábitos de conducta que surgen de la aplicación institucional versus el énfasis de Sánchez en la transformación de vidas y hábitos, y la pérdida de las creencias tradicionales religiosas y prácticas asociadas. Donde Sánchez se enfoca en el fenómeno del nativismo con orientación religiosa, Simon se enfoca en el fenómeno de cómo el NAFTA ha invertido tan rápidamente siglos de prácticas socioeconómicas. Basándose en el apoyo de los defensores de las tradiciones fenomenológicas y pragmáticas en la filosofía, el empuje del argumento filosófico de Simon, sin embargo, es una crítica de la orientación subyacente del neoliberalismo que resulta en la práctica de la política a la cual estamos acostumbrados. Lo que se pierde en la práctica de la filosofía política del tipo que propugna las especulaciones de la teoría ideal inspirada en Rawls, es decir, aquellos tipos profundamente arraigados e institucionalizados en la mayoría de los departamentos de filosofía y ciencia política angloamericanos que están dominados por la tradición “analítica” angloamericana, es la capacidad de crear cambios críticos, efectivos y sostenibles en las políticas existentes de injusticia.
Resumo em português
Este artigo considera a violência socioeconômica, especificamente contra os agricultores de subsistência mexicanos, que tem ocorrido durante mais de vinte anos através da institucionalização do Acordo de Livre Comércio da América do Norte (NAFTA). Simon identifica uma justaposição interna da sua própria interpretação com a de Carlos Sanchez em “Clothing the Other in Dignity: Centeotl, NAFTA, and the Primacy of Tradition.” (Edição Outubro 2014, Inter-American Journal of Philosophy). Ambos autores reconhecem que a violência contra os mexicanos e um estilo de vida mexicano já ocorreu e ainda continua como consequência do NAFTA. Porém, Simon refere explicitamente aos hábitos comportamentais que surgem da execução institucional, em contraste com o enfoque de Sanchez na transformação de vidas e hábitos devida à perda de crenças religiosas tradicionais e as práticas associadas com elas. Sanchez analisa principalmente o fenômeno do nativismo religioso, enquanto Simon analisa como o NAFTA derrubou tão rapidamente séculos de práticas socioeconômicas. Fazendo uso dos proponentes das tradições filosóficas de fenomenologia e pragmatismo, o eixo filosófico de Simon é uma crítica da orientação fundamental do neo-liberalismo que perpetua a política habitual. Na prática da filosofia política que adere às especulações inspiradas pela teoria ideal de Rawls, especificamente as que se encontram profundamente estabelecidas—institucionalizadas—na maioria dos departamentos de filosofia e ciência política anglo-americanos, que são dominados pela tradição “Analítica” anglo-americana, o que se perde é a capacidade de efetuar mudanças cruciais, eficazes e sustentáveis nas políticas atuais da injustiça.
I first drafted this work in 2014 as a response, 20 years after the fact, to the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. However, the reviewers of my submission asked for substantive revisions to that response. In the meantime, my former editing partner, Carlos Sanchez, had his article published in the October 2014 issue of the Inter-American Journal of Philosophy, “Clothing the Other in Dignity: Centeotl, NAFTA, and the Primacy of Tradition.”i In my revision, I now begin by identifying an internal relation between my work and that of Carlos Sanchez, focused on the issue of patterns of violence. While he does not use the language of violence in the way that I do in my title and in the development of my argument, Sanchez similarly considers the plight of Mexican corn farmers after the signing of the NAFTA in 1994 and notes how their “livelihoods and traditions were thrown into a slow process of ruin” (31) and associates “the destructive consequences of the NAFTA-event, including the fall of the Mexican corn farmer into its inevitable death-procedures, with the collapse of the temple of Centeotl, the Aztec god of maize.” (36) Those judgments by Sanchez about “destructive consequences…. death procedures…and collapse” are an indictment of the violence that was incurred in the ‘successful’ implementations of NAFTA and that continues to be incurred by Mexican farmers and others in Mexico, just in other words. I hope that by connecting my interpretation of NAFTA to that of Sanchez’s I can contribute towards a complementary deepening of philosophical reflections on the effects and implications of this important issue and how it has been playing out in an inter-American context.
There are differences with how we reflect on the issue, however. For the most part, Sanchez relies on a reading of two articles by Rorty to drive the logic of his argument, “Postmodern Bourgeoisie Liberalism,” and “Justice as a Larder Loyalty.”ii And while Sanchez focuses on the loss of Mexican mythic identity from the adverse economic policies of NAFTA to motivate his critique of the unjust protectionism of the U.S. American liberal ‘nativism’ tradition, I focus instead on the phenomena involved in institutionalizing NAFTA over the more than 20 years since its inception in 1994 In what follows, I explore the phenomenon of institutionalization in general but in the context of examining some of what I refer to as the ‘violating’ and thus ‘violent’ consequences of the particular instantiation of NAFTA by U.S. Americans and Canadians and with Mexicans.
Any reflections on NAFTA should indicate some of the well-known instances of the social violence associated with the sanctions and incentives of that agreement. Sanchez does that, as do I. But here, I employ the word “violence” intentionally in order to draw immediate attention to the damage done mainly to Mexicans by the injustices of this treaty. As a preliminary caution, however, identifying the obvious violences that are associated with NAFTA should not lead us to accept that they are the sole indicators of the injustices of neoliberal policies and neoliberal thinking. Rather, what is more important than focusing on symptoms and outcomes, is to focus on the root causes and, in this case, those root causes can be traced to the implementation of institutionalizing this agreement, this social contract. What is missing from many of the accounts that focus on the injustices associated with putting into practice neoliberal policies is the manner in which those policies violate the livelihoods and relationships of individual humans—in this case, violating the traditional socio-cultural and economic practices of Mexicans. One of those Mexican practices which has been essentially disrupted by the institutionalized policies of NAFTA are traditional forms of subsistence farming—the disruption occurring in how the policies have cut off possibilities for flourishing rather than providing more or better educational and economic opportunities. The symptoms associated with violating such traditional ways of life are what Sanchez identifies as the ‘nativist’ rejection of Mexican immigrants forced to flee their homeland in order to survive because of the loss of the Centeotl-focused traditional way of life through the policies of NAFTA. Considered from an economic perspective, however, those ‘legalized’ NAFTA policies enabled, and continue to enable, the United States to dump cheap corn on Mexico that, as Sanchez correctly notes, resulted in the forced dislocation of Mexicans seeking to survive-without-welcome north of the U.S./Mexico border. In other words, for Sanchez, the loss of the myth was instrumental in stimulating the migration northward. However, those material effects resulted from creating a political ‘social contract’ that allowed for an unfair economic advantage, namely, shipping corn from the United States that was overproduced because subsidized production was/is supported by U.S. legislators who are intent on maintaining and increasing U.S. economic advantages over Mexico.
In the next section of my article, I provide a phenomenological sketch of institutionalization with NAFTA in mind, thereby drawing attention to the ways in which we have already deepened our institutional complicity in allowing that economic agreement to take hold in our daily lives. It has been allowed to take hold by its coercive potential in forming consensus in educational practices and cultural choices through the acts of governing agents—educators, politicians, and business leaders–who exert power to guide us by establishing standards by which to measure our activities and measures of what constitutes the happy or good life. The forms of these exertions result in an exponential increase in the practices of coordination and collaboration that enable us to justify to ourselves and others, as rational reason-giving agents, that the beliefs that we hold about the economic model called NAFTA are based on rational principles of fairness and justice for all potential others. As has become clear over the past twenty years, and as I point out here, there are good reasons for why that policy is indeed successfully working in the way that it was intended, that is, according to the principles and rule-following expectations of neo-liberal, free-market dynamics.
NAFTA is a formal agreement that establishes operational rules and thus conventions for regulation of international relations; specifically, rules for regulating commercial trade activity between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It came into force as a trilateral free-trade deal in January 1994, signed by former President Bill Clinton, former Mexican President Carlos Salinas, and former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. According to the official website established by the three signatories to the treaty, NAFTA is overseen by a number of institutions including appointees to the Free Trade Commission, Coordinators, Working Groups, Official Committees and a Secretariat to “ensure the proper interpretation and smooth implementation of the Agreement’s provisions.”iii What has been the ongoing intention of these institutionalizing forces and offices? Well, obviously, free trade—in the words of the framers and implementers of the policy: to set into governing motion a “state-of-the-art market-opening agreement” that was meant, in principle, to systematically eliminate tariffs and non-tariff trade and investment barriers between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Some other more intangible intentions included establishing a strong and reliable framework for investment in order to foster an environment of confidence and stability required for long-term investment for trade liberalization. However, if we are already talking about investment and trade liberalization, we are already talking from the context of existing global markets and international globalization, the end goal of which is to create large enough economic entities of sufficient scale so that the members of that block would not only compete but dominate other countries and blocks of economic power. One of the novelties of the agreement was to set up a jointly administered, bi-national panel system for settling trade disputes, such as complaints about dumping and other forms of economic injury, but which also has resulted in what can best be described as the privatization of the justice system.iv In fact, foreign investor lawsuits entered into against Mexico and Canada have resulted in the taxpayers of those two countries having to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments of unfair NAFTA-defined trade practices.v As of the first draft of this article, the United States had yet to make any such payments but there are billions of dollars pending that impact. Not surprisingly, by interpreting the economic indicators in favor of the preferential criteria of those economists, businessmen, and politicians who favor unregulated trade and free-market determinism, there have been identifiable and tangible economic results that clearly demonstrate that overall import and export balances between these three countries has made dramatic increases in the past 20 years.vi Those three governments also used NAFTA to set up Commissions for Labor and Environmental Cooperation that have not been as successfully binding since those areas reveal much more critical fault lines associated with the institutionalization of this internationally binding social contract. At this point, I would like to remark that not only is there a great deal of ‘free’ trade not happening but that there has been a great many workers displaced and degraded as well as a great deal of environmental injustice.
The central thrust of the agreement has been to eliminate most tariffs on products traded among the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The terms of the agreement called for these tariffs to be phased out gradually through implementation of institutional vehicles, and the final aspects of the deal were not fully implemented until January 1, 2008. The supporters of the deal claim that ‘this de-regulation’ swept away import tariffs in several industries, especially agriculture, and that tariffs were also reduced on items like textiles and automobiles. NAFTA also implemented significant intellectual-property protections, established dispute-resolution mechanisms, and set up regional labor and environmental safeguards. But I maintain that these safeguards are still regulatory practices and thus tactics for the more essential political strategy of institutionalizing the fundamentals of an economic policy that is, in design and practice, a boon for the owners of and lobbyists for the ‘dominant’ means of production that results in the exercise of violence on the impoverished and working classes. The word ‘violence,’ in this context, is appropriate because of how it is directly tied to the processes of institutionalization, as I argue in the following section.
What does it mean to institutionalize? What is the purpose of an institution?
Institutions structure social interaction by establishing and embedding ‘structures’ or rules that provide stability and durability, and a framework that provides form and consistency for the expectations that we have for the behavior of others.vii They provide rules and conventions that constrain and enable activity. For example, the law that mandates that I stop at a stop sign constrains my spontaneous impulse to just barrel down the road, heedless of others, but it also enables health and safety and thus enables the possibility for creating cooperative and collaborative relationships with my neighbors or with anonymous others. In its initial design and implementation, the NAFTA treaty has provided us with just such structural constraints and enablers but what concerns me is the ethically questionable initial intent of that treaty and the evident adverse social and cultural consequences of its institutionalization. The empirical evidence for questioning socio-economic effects of NAFTA should trouble those who care for members of the working and impoverished non-working classes of our respective societies. What is just as troubling is how the hierarchical and reified structures of those sympathetic to the policies of NAFTA and policies philosophically akin to it have benefitted most by its institutionalization. This is starkly apparent when we examine where the wealth is aggregating in the United States and Mexico.viii
In our economic world where major business decisions depend on quarterly income reports from and fluctuations of the New York Stock Exchange—and its very little sister, the Bolsa Mexicana de Valores—but are in fact indifferent to whether this or that colonia in El Paso or Juarez has clean drinking water or if someone’s abuelo o abuela just lost their farm that had been in the family for generations. However, these latter concerns are essential factors when we begin to consider the long-range consequences and sustainability of NAFTA. The normative dimension of institutionalization has precisely to do with the relationship between codified rules that are socially established and transmitted that occur as customary normative injunctions and are rules that, if I choose to neglect, could land me in jail or with a fine or the loss of my livelihood. But perhaps more significantly, institutional structures—those associated with NAFTA or any other institution—create and establish immanent or dispositional norms, namely, those ways of feeling, thinking, and believing that contribute to forming my individuality by influencing my subjectivity according to normative standards of acceptable—because desired—behavior patterns. In other words, institutions such as NAFTA establish codified norms that define the community which adopt them and share in and understand the rules through acts of believing in and interpreting them. I could have said to the cop that pulled me over for running the stop sign that, “no I did stop but only for one moment.” To which his reply could be, as the enforcer of the institutional law, that my action from his perspective constituted a rolling stop, as he promptly writes me a traffic ticket for a moving violation. What is important for my thesis is the normative aspect of this scenario: given the enforced punishment, the next time I approach a stop sign, any stop sign, I would most likely stop and stay stopped for longer than a moment because I would fear the material punishment that removes the possibilities of material enjoyment because of a subjective difference in the interpretation of a law, an ‘enforced’ difference which forms the convention (stopping longer than a moment) that becomes a habit-forming rule. What I have in mind here with my simple physical example is that institutionally enforced rule-following has consequences for influencing one’s psyche, one’s subjectivity, and that the function of institutions is just that—to create predictable patterns of customary habitual patterns and behavioral regularities such that rule-following leads to the social replication of regularizing the behavioral conduct of individuals. I want to complicate this initial account of institutionalization with the phenomenological observation that a different way to understand what primarily constitutes the way to understand conscious behavior is that humans are constantly engaged in intentional acts. What I have learned in different ways from reading phenomenologists such as Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas and Arendt is that to be authentically rule-following, I have to necessarily be engaged in a form of self-reflexive reasoning of my intentionality relations which then allows for ethical critique and deliberation of what constitutes the normative patterns in which I find myself engaged in my lived world. This presents itself as a form of self-reflexive control over my behavior that takes into account thoughts about possible future consequences and deliberations based on observations of causal understandings of current and past behavior and events.
What happens here is that in the first instance we have a set of codified rules that constitute the established conventions of an institution, in this case NAFTA. But I could be following those rules thoughtlessly or mindlessly, out of habit and custom and not through freely choosing with intentionality to be a rule-follower. In this, what I do is to act because I find myself in a social network of beliefs and intentionalities with perceived regularities, and an experience of stability that I find safe and secure, so that I act based on mutual beliefs rather than actual agreements. The former involve sanctions, penalties, or punishments by an explicit external governing authority whereas the latter operates through perceived threats of disapproval or promises of inclusionary approval. In both cases, discomfort, pain, or even violence is associated with each of the two forms. Given that, it is often the case that a legal institutional system comes to acquire moral force and authority because of both the involved sanctions and the moral legitimacy it accrues with the moral support of its rule followers. Institutional law becomes a rule because it becomes customary and thus dispositional, and thus becomes a sign for others to follow, thereby acquiring normative significance. This then is the architectural framework for how institutions, in part, acquire their durability and stability. But only in part.
The durability and stability are only possible if the individual members of a society, the citizens of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, adopt the rules and conventions and behave accordingly with the regularity of habit. Geoffrey Hodgson draws on the pragmatist tradition for how to understand that institutions work in the powerfully normative way that they do because the rules that constitute institutions “are embedded in prevalent habits of thought and behavior.”ix As he notes, more than 90 years ago, in Human Nature and Conduct, John Dewey observed that “the essence of habit is an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response.”x Habits are submerged repertoires of potential thought or behavior that can be triggered or reinforced by an appropriate stimulus or context and thus, acquiring habits leads to rule-following, which is essential for institutionalization: persistent and shared habits are the basis for customs and the establishment of various kinds of institutions. Even earlier, in The Principles of Psychology—and in order to get at the relation of habit to ethics—William James argued that we have to think of habit in terms of physics and plasticity and famously noted that, “Habit is thus the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.”xi The importance of his observation for my argument is that since the structure of rules creates habits and preferences that reproduce the rule structure, habits could be said to be the constitutive ‘plastic’ material of institutions, providing durability, power, and normative authority. Thus, by reproducing shared habits, institutions create strong mechanisms of conformism and are thus profoundly normative.
A final thread to add to this tapestry comes from Charles Saunders Peirce who informs us that “the essence of belief is the establishment of habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise… [and that] ….the whole function of thought is to give rise to action.”xii So not only is it the case that by establishing habits we develop customs based on the conventions that result in the rules that relate to the laws agreed to by the signatories of NAFTA, but the habits that are developed form beliefs and then associated reasons that justify those beliefs but that ultimately spring from deep-seated feelings and emotions that themselves, unsurprisingly, spring from the habits that were laid down by repeated behavior. And all of this is very rational. In fact, the basis of rationalizations can only be disclosed by, at first, understanding habits and how, as I have argued, habits lead to customs which then acquire moral authority and thus underwrite institutional durability and stability. Moreover, what makes all of this work and makes all of it very rational is the utilitarian basis of the ethical mechanisms, namely, the sanction/incentive or pain/pleasure nexus of motivators. These are built into the legally binding contractual commitments of NAFTA. However, most of what I have been explicating up until now is primarily an onto-phenomenological account that leaves out or neglects the fundamentally determinative role that intentionality plays in this and any socio-political process, which is primarily an ethical and not an ontological consideration.
The underlying metaphysical premise in the formation of institutions that I have laid out is that institutions can arise spontaneously and in undesigned ways by structuring the aggregated actions of individual agents through self-organization, a position that flies in the face of conventional, liberal economic theory.xiii What this means is that such institutions, including and especially economic ones, arise non-intentionally and not as the property of any single individual or group of individuals. In the case of NAFTA, the implication of that way of ‘non-intentional’ thinking is that the emergence of such a policy as a contractual arrangement between sovereign entities, such as international governmental institutions, appears to be a natural and rational process whose effects, benefits and apparent drawbacks is the consequence of the likewise natural and rationally deducible situation of competitive free-market associations. Of course, I am being skeptical here but the target of my skepticism is the set of analytical tools that we have developed to understand the function of such a model, namely, rational decision theory or rational choice theory. This dominant theory seems to have been designed to account for the way that modern economic theory privileges the rational, individual agent because it is based on the presupposition that the members involved are, of course, individual rational agents whose primary motivation is to be both reason-giving and self-seeking and who thus constitute the institute in the first place as an organizational entity with defined sui generis, self-aggrandizing roles that can be legitimately rationalized. What is attractive about this sort of modeling for proponents of this theory is that individual members, as components of a rational utilitarian system that suffer or experience pain and loss, can then be adequately accounted for because their value is ultimately instrumental in being subservient to promoting the greater good for the greater number of the success of the system, ruthless and hierarchical as it may be.
But self-organizational models, such as rational choice theory, distort the pragmatics of our ‘actual’ human relations as well as larger historical phenomena such as institutional emergence and maintenance and, especially, the problem of enforcement that leads to ever-increasing incidents of self-enforcement, coordination, cooperation, and defection. And it is just these sorts of problems that have been happening in Mexico over the last 20 years, especially on the border of Mexico and the U.S., where the physicality of the commerce that is NAFTA is most visibly in play. My speculation is that the reason for these omissions is that the model has a distorted understanding of autonomy as one of its fundamental principles that entails establishing normative structures that result in a fractured social ethics. We have seen this happen in the explosion of violence associated with the drug cartels, kidnapping, military and bureaucratic collusion for short-term gains, and lately the emergence of more and more vigilante groups within Mexico but also along the border and in the U.S. These actions, from the perspective of self-organizational models, are all examples of “a distorted understanding of autonomy.”
The obvious consequences of this treaty, this theory, and this distorted understanding, though, has been the facts on the ground of Mexicans reacting to the policy consequences of NAFTA with their feet. This consequence is one that I strongly share with Sanchez’s position on the issues at hand. They have been driven out of their country and from their villages, towns, and farms in an economically induced exile to the United States, doubling the number of Mexicans now living as undocumented in the U.S. from 6 million pre-NAFTA to the current approximately 11 million.
These are extraordinary numbers, complicated by the fact that when NAFTA went into effect it was accompanied by the steady closing of the U.S./Mexico border motivated by growing fears in the U.S. that outsourcing middle class and lower class jobs would be filled by Mexicans seeking better employment and more stable living conditions as their own traditional and emerging job possibilities disappeared. NAFTA is that sort of superstructure that was intentionally designed the way it was because of the economic model on which it is based, namely, that the habits of individuals could be manipulated by industrial and agriculture corporations that needed large-scale numbers of consumers in order to justify the large-scale investments into technological industrialization and massive agri-businesses and factory farms supported by industrial giants such as Monsanto, E.I. Dupont and Syngenta. The way that this manipulation was done was by establishing mutual and reciprocal arrangements to enforce the agreements to ensure contractual compliance. Moreover, this had to be done on the highest and most formal level of international cooperation, coordination, and compliance because of the scale and inability to do this on an individual, merely market-based level. What we now know is that leaders in the political, economic, and business sectors formed an unholy alliance adjudicated by new judicial agreements and enforced by the military and police and eventually ICE and Homeland Security in the U.S.xiv
The empirical data is in:
Eating more meat, drinking more milk and massive quantities of short-term energy producing caffeinated sugar drinks like Coca-Cola has become the new dietary norm. What is being lost is the distinctively cultural and healthier lifestyle habits of a diet based on fresh fruits and vegetables, maize, and maize tortillas. And while tortillas and tortilla chips are not yet being made cheap, imported GM corn from the U.S., Mexico is importing GM yellow corn from the U.S. to feed its livestock.xv In Mexico, the violence that erupted in the past several years revolves around the change in the lived world conditions of everyday Mexicans. And perhaps the questions that now need to be raised should be redirected not to “what” is the problem but “who” is doing the acting and how is it that they are acting? Raising the question of “who” leads us into a phenomenological inquiry since all inquiring into the history of subjective motivations is one of the identifying characteristics of phenomenological inquiry that serves as the basis for how we understand intersubjective human behavior as a process of understanding the ‘logic’ of natural language practices and its meaning endowments. For me, this is a matter of speech act analysis that is other than the standard Anglo-American style.xvi
Thus, my initial account of institutionalization is complicated by my attempt to understand conscious human behavior as it is based on intentional speech-acts. In the third part of my paper, I will elaborate that position by drawing from the philosophies of Octavio Paz, Hannah Arendt, and Emmanuel Levinas in order to more clearly present my own position.
The idea I want to introduce here is that by focusing attention on forms of intentionality in our descriptions of the lived world we are then able to engage more sharply in ethical critique because of the ethical relationship of responsibility with intentionality. What I have found is that the premise of much of the debate and controversy surrounding the NAFTA accord ‘intentionally’ leaves out the thorny and ambiguity-generating problems of subjective intentionality, agent sensitivity, psychology, etc. in order to let the economic and political systems and structures do all of the explaining. In that case, it seems important to ask how convention can be overturned? One possible answer is through mobilizing sufficient coordination and defection, but precisely on the basis of all of those ambiguous, equivocal, radically unpredictable, creative, and passionate subjects. What seems to be called for is to cultivate the potential for a certain kind of individual defiance—not quite that of the Nietzschean Übermensch, but definitely a form of personality that is able to break the mold of conventional habituation.
However, breaking any forms of habitual convention takes on ethical significance. My suggestion is that we should, in this case, turn our attention to the various forms of intentionality individual subjects in order to gain some leverage for understanding the responsibility involved in “breaking” habits. In fact, it is only through better understanding subjective forms of intentionality structures are we able to glimpse the necessarily anarchic ‘subjective’ origins of all intentional desires and their intentional arcs and thus begin to understand what Levinas refers to as the inter-subjective curves of our ethical life.xvii From the perspective of such a view, it appears that NAFTA supporters tend to exclude considerations of intentionality, arguing that the free-market is self-organizing and ultimately rational in such a way that “IT” situates individual accountability of any single individual, group, or groups of individuals to “IT’s” relational structures. However, we need to keep in mind the rational character of NAFTA as a policy developed and put into place by governing representatives of the citizens of each of their nation states: Canada, the United States, and Mexico. And thus, it is socially binding since the nature of representative democracy is constituted by such forms of ‘promising’ that have developed in our modes of governing ourselves. In this and other cases, these forms are based on mutual respect for considerations of autonomy (sovereignty) and self-aggrandizing economies of scale to determine the criteria for negotiating with others in our international institutional relations. Historical considerations include, then, how we record those—that is, these material engagements because we are also, after all, those sorts of beings whose very being and instrumental ways of being in the world are at issue for ourselves. Or are we? If so, what it means to consider my way of being or that I am a being who is an issue to myself is that, in this case, what is at issue is my way of being an American citizen, as that sort of being whose very way of being—conditioned by the NAFTA agreement and its institutionalization—is an issue for me, for myself. Such is my interpretive approach for one way to understand how our democratically elected representatives chose to operationalize that model—through the emergence and formulation of NAFTA into an institutionalized and bureaucratized regulatory, or rather, non-regulatory vehicle that normatively determines our psychical and material engagements with each other that happen in our daily social encounters and inter-relations with each other.xviii I therefore have some self-reflexive questions about the underlying assumptions of the theory and here is where we come to a philosophical conundrum.
The institutionalization of NAFTA was and still is based upon an economic theory that more or less correlates with the theoretical ground rules of a philosophy of action that entails that the treaty (any treaty or ‘agreement’ made between humans) is formulated by rational agents with the presupposition that the actors involved in and the signers of the treaty were acting on a presumption of rationality with a stipulated or axiomatized starting point—an ‘ideal’ a priori principle of egalitarian equality for all signers of the treaty—and that is then ‘composed’ of equal playing partners, so to speak. This is in line with the tradition of rational choice theory that currently dominates contemporary philosophy of action theory and undergirds contemporary research in the social sciences. It relies on various models that could also be understood via a Davidsonian philosophy of action and of intentionality which grants a metaphysics that rational agents act in ways that not only give us greater explanatory power of the causal structure of the world but do so because of presupposing a justified true belief that such agency is necessarily grounded in rationally tautological networks of relations.xix That network is based on the constitutive action of the autonomy of such a rational agent that is founded on a conception of that agent that what it means to be an agent as one capable of reason-giving and, more importantly, the ability to justify one’s reasons based on true beliefs about those reasons. This perplexes me for a number of reasons, since it seems to presuppose that if I can explain more based on a logic of justifying the empirical evidence as it is supported by the reasons that I give to myself and others in the first place for producing that evidence, it seems that I am thereby positing an a priori theory of explanation that suffers from a circular logic because it is itself based on analytic, causal mechanisms underlying the phenomena that are to be explained.
I could also argue that a form of this political, ideal logic is at work in the liberal philosophy of John Rawls, especially in how he formulates his principle of the “veil of ignorance” behind which self-interested rational persons stand, apparently to ensure that justice as fairness prevails.xx But it is not the case that it is either reasonable or possible that those who actually devise policy remain impartial or unbiased in the choices that they make. In fact, since the liberal veil, that this theory and that other theories of rationally based philosophies of action support, such as Davidson’s, do not take into account already existing inequities and injustices, any recourse attempting to incorporate their principles of ‘fairness’ in effect provide philosophical support for progressing policies that benefit the upper echelon’s of society, that is, benefit those who already have power and who are in a position to exercise that power by deliberately and rationally choosing to minimally ignore the rights of the marginalized and thus further exploit them. This has already happened with the NAFTA accord.
Which is why I maintain that the supporters of NAFTA and other versions of an unregulated free-market economy that prioritizes the principle of return on investments leads rationally and logically to the dissociation of subjective suffering and enjoyment (and workers’ rights and environmental protections) from the rational indices of Gross National Products.
That approach differs from acting in the world in such a way that before I come to decide I spend a great deal of time and effort working on understanding the concrete particularities that the face of the other presents to me, their histories, their cultural constraints and customs, their desires and needs. Ultimately, adopting this or that position should take the form of responsibly taking into account one’s lived life as an ethical commitment in doing so—i.e., as a commitment to an other with whom I am mutually engaged in collaborative and correlative projects that not only affect our general well being now, but will affect others in the future in sustainable or unsustainable ways. What I mean by responsibility here is that I should not only be able to explain ‘what’ being in the world is, but ‘how’ being in the world matters to me as a unique individual with others who are gendered, lovers and beloveds, friends, enemies, partners, masters, students, and those many anonymous beings in the world with whom I enjoy living this adventure. I am skeptical about the possibilities that a model of rational choice theory is either thick or rich enough to account for such considerations. It certainly does not approach the extent of responsibility that I have in mind, that is, that I have one responsibility more (greater) for the other than that which can be conceived.
But as a phenomenologist, I can draw on other philosophical allies who lead me to question the propensity to dictate our lives with rational economic models and various forms of rational choice theory that underpin our contemporary versions of liberal and neo-liberal social contract theory which provide the philosophical foundations for NAFTA. Not only do I rely on the tools of phenomenology to guide my way but I rely on an anarchical form of phenomenology that I have been calling phenomenological ethics. This is not the place to spell out that theory but it allows me to transgress established borders as, for example, the border-wall that was erected by the U.S. government to keep desperate Mexicans seeking dignified and essential work from the economic system that drove them into exile from their own homeland and dwellings in the first place.xxi
If we erect a veil of ignorance and look at NAFTA through the eyes of a blind economic metrics of productivity—succumbing to the soul-numbing habits of “…a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”—we erect border walls of conceptual confusions that allow economists like Alfredo Coutino, director for Latin America at Moody’s Analytics, to say with justified satisfaction, ‘‘the benefits [of NAFTA] arrived, but perhaps not of the magnitude that had been hoped for.” He confidently notes that ‘‘if this agreement had not been signed, Mexico would have been in a much worse situation than it has been over the last 20 years.” On his analysis, prior to NAFTA, Mexico was a closed, state-dominated economy reeling from debt and the underlying problems of Mexican farms — low productivity on small plots that had set up perfect conditions for mass unemployment.
But if we look at NAFTA through the prism of a phenomenological description of intentionality structures, the horizons reveal alternative perspectives that are closer to actual events on the ground and we begin to see evidence of the blood and guts and wasted lives that are the rationally justified consequence of this ever-so-rational agreement. The purported intent was to open up markets and bring all of the sailing ships up to even keel. However, the underlying intent seems to have been to fundamentally change existing socio-economic conditions creating thereby new institutions, such that the structural mechanics of that model would allow the dominant and superior commercial agricultural and industrial systems already in place in the United States and Canada to exploit the people of Mexico by recreating that country as an assembly line state to outsource jobs and to provide cheaper, industrial goods to the U.S. and Canadian consumers. This did in fact happen. And it happened according to the dynamics of institutionalization that I sketched out above.
However, there is always a propensity to break rules or transgress constraints and there is the exceptional individual who is not the rule-follower, the hippie, the bohemian, the anarchist, the exile. Or in this case, the traditional subsistence farmer who not only makes up 20% of Mexico’s labor force but who produces one of the 60 indigenous strains of maize that have been cultivated over the past 10,000 years.
However, and unfortunately for the subsistence farmer, the rule-makers and the rule-followers are currently controlling the day. And that control has brought a great deal of violence to our social relations.
Section II: ON VIOLENCE and OTHER INJUSTICES: Datos Empiricos, the case of Mexico in NAFTA
Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end that must justify it. This is the entire premise of justifying the use of violence as a means in utilitarian ethics. But since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if those who use to violence pursue short-term goals. The pursuit of the NAFTA framers and enforcers, and those who benefit by it, are clearly short-term. In light of my remarks on institutionalization, what are the short-term goals that are at stake in NAFTA?
From the perspective of creating an institutional framework that was more or less modeled after the governing principles of the free market system, which are self-organizing and rely on spontaneity and freedom for goods and services to go to wherever demand draws them or to originate from those who produce the needed or desired product most efficiently and for the lowest price, NATA is a quintessentially rational and violence-tolerant vehicle developed by the conservative governing forces who sought to maintain the oligarchic hierarchies of their respective nation-states and who still seek to maintain their economic advantages. From the perspective of economic indicators, it is obvious that while gross quantities of trade between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico has increased exponentially (by at least threefold), it is also obvious that the short-term effects have produced significant hardships for many hundreds of thousands of North Americans. From the heart of Mexico, from the perspective of Mexico City where I presented some of the reflections that comprise the core of this article, I focus on a short list of just those acts of violence that have affected the Mexican people. It should be apparent from such a list the ways in which these violations have become part of the institutionalized structure of Mexico.
As mentioned above, the violence is endemic but unnoticed because of how the policies of NAFTA are part of its institutionalization.
1. Mexico is the only major Latin American country where poverty has risen in recent years: “According to the Economic Commission for Latin America, poverty fell from 48.4 percent in 1990 to 27.9 percent in 2013 for all of Latin America. In Mexico, where it stood at 52.4 percent in 1994, the poverty rate dropped to as low as 42.7 percent in 2006; but by 2012, it had risen again to 51.3 percent.”xxiiPer capita income in Mexico rose at an annual average of 1.2 percent over the past two decades, from $6,932 in 1994 to $8,397 in 2012, far slower than Latin American countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Peru. In fact, in the decade prior to the implementation of NAFTA, per capita income was rising at a rate of about 3.5 percent and if that had been allowed to continue, Mexicans would have a standard of living roughly equivalent to many countries in the European Union. Nearly half of the Mexican population currently lives below the poverty line.
2. Despite the 2007–2009 recession and increased deportations, Mexican-born people living in the United States doubled since 1994 to 12 million in 2013, writes Jorge G. Castañeda, a professor at New York University and former foreign minister of Mexico. The desperate migration of those displaced from Mexico’s rural economy pushed down wages in Mexico’s border maquiladora factory zone and contributed to a doubling of Mexican immigration to the United States following NAFTA’s implementation.xxiii According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of people immigrating to the United States from Mexico remained steady in the three years preceding NAFTA’s implementation. However, the number of annual immigrants from Mexico more than doubled from 370,000 in 1993 (the year before NAFTA went into effect) to 770,000 in 2000 – a 108 percent increase. The immigration surge coincided with a NAFTA-enabled flood of subsidized U.S. corn into Mexico. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States (who are primarily Mexican) has increased 144 percent since NAFTA took effect, from about 4.8 million in 1993 to 11.7 million in 2012.xxiv
3. Industries excluded from NAFTA—such as telecommunications, television, and transportation—allowed Mexico’s wealthiest to become even richer; the country now claims the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helu.
4. The export of subsidized U.S. corn did increase under NAFTA’s first decade, destroying the livelihoods of more than one million Mexican campesino farmers and about 1.4 million additional Mexican workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture.xxv The mass dislocation exacerbated the widespread instability and violence of Mexico’s spiraling drug war.
5. Though the price paid to Mexican farmers for corn plummeted after NAFTA, the deregulated retail price of tortillas – Mexico’s staple food – shot up 279 percent in the pact’s first 10 years.xxvi
6. Real wages in Mexico have fallen below pre-NAFTA levels as price increases for basic consumer goods have exceeded wage increases. A minimum wage earner in Mexico today can buy 38 percent fewer consumer goods as on the day that NAFTA took effect. Despite promises that NAFTA would benefit Mexican consumers by granting access to cheaper imported products, the cost of basic consumer goods in Mexico has risen to seven times the pre-NAFTA level, while the minimum wage stands at only four times the pre-NAFTA level.xxvii
7. Facing displacement, rising prices and stagnant wages, over half of the Mexican population, and over 60 percent of the rural population, still fall below the poverty line.xxviii
8. The agricultural provisions of NAFTA, which removed Mexican tariffs on corn imports and eliminated programs supporting small farmers but did not discipline U.S. subsidies, led to widespread dislocation in the Mexican countryside. Amidst a NAFTA-spurred influx of cheap U.S. corn, especially in the first 10 years, the price paid to Mexican farmers for the corn that they grew fell by 66 percent after NAFTA, forcing many to abandon farming.xxix
9. Mexico’s participation in NAFTA also helped propel a change to the Mexican Constitution’s land reform, undoing provisions that guaranteed small plots – “ejidos” – to the millions of Mexicans living in rural villages.xxx
10. As corn prices plummeted, indebted farmers lost their land, which could then be acquired by foreign firms that consolidated prime acres into large plantations. As an exposé in the New Republic put it, “as cheap American foodstuffs flooded Mexico’s markets and as U.S. agribusiness moved in, 1.1 million small farmers – and 1.4 million other Mexicans dependent upon the farm sector – were driven out of work between 1993 and 2005. Wages dropped so precipitously that today the income of a farm laborer is one-third that of what it was before NAFTA. As jobs disappeared and wages sank, many of these rural Mexicans emigrated, swelling the ranks of the 12 million illegal immigrants living incognito and competing for low-wage jobs in the United States.”xxxi
11. NAFTA included service sector and investment rules that facilitated consolidation of grain trading, milling, banking and retail so that in short order the relatively few remaining large firms dominating these activities were able to raise consumer prices and reap enormous profits as corn costs simultaneously declined.xxxii
12. Prior to NAFTA, 36 percent of Mexico’s rural population earned less than the minimum income needed for food, a share that grew by nearly 50 percent in the agreement’s first three years.xxxiii
13. On the 10-year anniversary of NAFTA, the Washington Post reported, “19 million more Mexicans are living in poverty than 20 years ago, according to the Mexican government and international organizations. About 24 million – nearly one in every four Mexicans – are classified as extremely poor and unable to afford adequate food.”xxxiv Today, over half of the Mexican population, and over 60 percent of the rural population, still fall below the poverty line, despite the promises made by NAFTA’s proponents.xxxv
14. Mexican Wages Shrink, Poorly Paid Temporary Employment Grows: A 2006 comprehensive study found that inflation-adjusted wages for virtually every category of Mexican worker decreased over NAFTA’s first six years. The workers that experienced the highest losses of real earnings were employed women with basic education (-16.1 percent) and employed men with advanced education (-15.6 percent). The only exception to the downward earnings trend was earnings for mobile street vendors – the very poor people who hawk candy and trinkets on Mexican streets. Even in that category, earnings were still below their 1990 levels, and only slightly better than their 1994 levels.xxxvi Overall, there has been a shift from formal, wage-and benefit-earning employment to informal non-wage and benefit-earning employment under NAFTA. Even formal employment has shifted to carrying fewer benefits than it did prior to the pact’s passage. Maquiladora (sweatshop) employment, where wages are almost 40 percent lower than those paid in heavy non-maquila manufacturing, surged in NAFTA’s first six years. But since 2001, hundreds of factories and hundreds of thousands of jobs in this sector have
been displaced as China joined the WTO and Chinese sweatshop exports gained global market share.xxxvii
15. Mexican Businesses Disappear, Inequality Persists and Growth Slows: An estimated 28,000 small-sized, and medium-sized Mexican businesses were destroyed in NAFTA’s first four years, including many retail, food processing and light manufacturing firms that were displaced by NAFTA’s new opening for U.S. big box retailers that sold goods imported from Asia.xxxviii The richest 20 percent of Mexico’s population collect over half of the nation’s income while the poorest 20 percent earn less than 5 percent. Despite the promises of NAFTA’s corporate proponents, the country’s income inequality index remains among the highest in the world.xxxix
16. NAFTA supporters promised strong growth rates for Mexico upon implementing the deal. Yet, since NAFTA took effect, Mexico’s average annual per capita growth rate has been a paltry 1.1 percent. After two decades of NAFTA, Mexico has only grown a cumulative 24 percent. In sharp contrast, from 1960 through 1980, Mexico’s per capita gross domestic product grew 102 percent, or 3.6 percent on average per year.xl
17. There are over 3,000 maquiladoras in Mexico, mostly in Northern Mexico in Tijuana, Juarez, and Matamoros employing about one million Mexicans, mostly young single women, who earn from .50 to $2.00 per hour working as much as 75 hours per week. The maquilas assemble products mostly for the U.S. which turns around and sells cheap goods back to Mexicans. In Juarez, hundreds of these women were killed or “disappeared” before and during the drug cartel wars that engulfed that city in violence.xli
18. Over the past 20 years, Mexicans have adopted the U.S. lifestyle and eating habits and have officially surpassed their northern neighbors as the most obese people in the world. 70 percent of Mexicans are overweight and 33 percent are classified as obese. The poor and the young are the most affected and since most Mexicans are poor and lack adequate health education, that means they are even more susceptible. Weight-related diabetes claims the most Mexican lives each year, with nearly one of every six Mexican adults suffering from that disease and other weight-related sicknesses. Coca Cola, high carb processed foods, fast-foods from U.S. restaurant chains like pizza, hamburgers, and fried chicken, and comida chatarra are now staples because that food is cheaper and more readily available than fruits and vegetables.xlii And then there is the Mexican proverb: ‘Barriga llena, corazoncontento’ (full belly, happy heart).
Section III: Institutionalization, Public Space, Ethical Space and new forms of Community
A first step in creating alternatives to the institutionalized world of NAFTA is to better understand the lived world of Mexicans and other North Americans and learn to describe that world in normatively sensitive terms, that is, using phenomenological ethics which are attuned to the ethics of not only what is being described but who is describing it and to whom and for what.xliii I propose the following agenda:
We start by understanding institutionalization and one’s embedded and embodied condition in the world and with others;
And then attend to the actual lived-world, empirical conditions, and socio-political injustices that are taking place on the ground;
Which leads to considering new sorts of sets of empirical data.
But that is necessary but not sufficient, since we….
Need to listen to the other and their story, their particular histories or lived world experiences; their particular sufferings or bodily needs;
And in so doing, reclaim public spaces – relying on Hannah Arendt’s ideas in order not to relinquish public spaces to privatization, which means not accepting that we have to buy our way into consumer spaces where we are sold things;
Rather, public space should be seen as a place for free speech and dialogue, of experiencing the world with others and of being allowed the freedom to develop one’s own voice and strengths;
But that can only be done ethically, namely, face to face, with Levinas, by respecting the other as other;
And which then entails the need for building new forms of community, using my ideas about flourishing sustainability that affirms cooperative communities that are inter-related in their differences; joined by incomparable comparabilities; urban centers that are based on commitments to sustainability as flourishing growth that can heal the damage already done and build new relationships to the natural and built environments through creating alternative institutions based on possibilities of ethically endowed human enterprises that incorporate surprise, unpredictability, the new, wonder and the wisdom of love and care for each other.
We can only move forward with such a revolutionary agenda by facing the institutionalized violence that has already been done and which comes in all shapes and sizes –some of which I have indicated with the hard evidence of the “datos empiricos” that tells how my Mexican neighbors have been and are being violated. In the face of such violence and suffering, there is also the ethical complicity of my own role and the roles of my fellow U.S. citizens that are essential parts of the problem. Given the many problems with NAFTA, what can be done? I suggest three approaches: to become more ethically self-reflexive by questioning one’s own actions and intentions; to become more open to social and political engagement; and to enjoy ourselves with each other, holistically, but especially philosophically by becoming more phenomenologically attuned to each other. There is no special order to how this can be done because all three are inter-related. I should note that this approach, rather than the social-scientific or the deductive-rationalist approaches, while both valuable, do not adequately address enough of the radical way that our values, choices and motivations are rooted in the ways that we live our subjective and historical conditions in fundamentally embodied and communal ways.
What I mean by this is that our embodied and lived worlds begin with our subjective and historical conditions. That means that in order to provide a meaningful account of our actual lived world experiences we must start with our personal accounts and our personal convictions before we engage in empirical analyses and data-driven economic analyses. Obviously, I am not Mexican and so, just as obviously, it is clear that I am not in a position to proceed from a Mexican perspective. However, there is the fact that as a U.S. American I can look at the facts and the consequences of the policies of NAFTA and how, from that perspective, criticize the policies have obviously been detrimental to many Mexicans. I have done some of that here. But what is more helpful is when Mexicans themselves begin the task of self-reflexive, ethical observation by turning to their own history and formation of their self-identities. The following story was shared with me by Eric Chavez when he was an undergraduate student in a seminar I was teaching on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. The story exemplifies the kind of self-reflexive understanding of his own historical dialectics.
NAFTA: My Story; Keeping the Mexican Ground Fertile
“Tierra y libertad!!! The current slogan of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) inspires an ideology of self-determination and free-will. The EZLN, symbolically emerged upon the Mexican socio-political landscape as an indigenously-based defense against the forced implementation of neo-liberal, “Washington consensus,” policies under the guise of free trade, ie. NAFTA. This EZLN slogan was resuscitated from the empty promises and debris from the Mexican Revolution (c.1910-1920) of economic and socio-political rights. The institutionalization of the revolution by the consolidation of political power into a single party happened with the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and is a classical example of dialectic antagonisms in the loop of an eternal recurrence without any mind given to the community on the ground. Power shifts from one set of professional politicians to another camp of professional politicos, while the Mexican soil is literally kept fertile by blood, sweat, and tears of the Mexican “pueblo.”
While politicians show off their knowledge about economics to each other, my cousin is getting killed because she had no other education but the streets; this beautiful Mexican ground is soaked with countless other bodies making it fertile ground for even more rampant violence because of a limited economy. This is the urban scene. The rural towns where my family originates and visits every chance we have, are charmingly worse. Villa Ahumada, my father’s homeland, is known for their delicious asadero cheese and drug corridors leading towards Juarez. There was a time, according to my grandfather (who still resides in Villa Ahumada), when the town had no law: “Un pueblo sin ley, asi como en la revolucion,” and my grandfather would half-jokingly state. Of course, the threat was always immanent, every morning a body or two would be lying in the main street of this town. (Sometimes, these bodies would lay there on the streets for most of the day, as law enforcement were afraid to come into town, afraid of an ambush or something of the like. This, of course, is only anecdotal information from my grandfather.) Every time a new police chief would get hired in Villa Ahumada, it was rare to see him survive a full day on the job. This was in 2008, twelve years of NAFTA and the militarization of the border fully in motion.
Furthermore, Mexico’s economy was wholly dependent upon the American market; an economic strangulation mirrored the strangulations of bodies swinging from Juarez street-bridges: unbridled power by state and non-state actors. Liberty was ‘determined’ by the whims of the eternal dialectic struggle between both politicians and organized crime—a perfectly disastrous symbiotic relationship. The ground, although, fertile, kept losing its value. This ground, in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, kept losing its value, although I clearly remember that as a kid, watermelons, squash, alfalfa, and maize grew in sheer abundance. The artesian well, used for irrigation, was my swimming pool. Swings swung playfully under the shade of gigantic and majestic cottonwood trees while in-between the leaves, the wind would talk. At night, fully armed with a .22 rifle, we would keep jackrabbits away from our fields. Their dumb-founded and frozen look, when aimed at with a spotlight right before the perfect kill, is my most memorable image of that ranch. The struggle was real and elemental; it was pure and innocent.
Although that ranch was nothing compared to the endless corn fields I had witnessed in Kansas while accompanying my father in his 18-wheeler a couple of summers ago. My grandpa’s ranch was purely used for self-sustainability. I was spoiled enough to have tasted fresh veggies, eggs, milk, chicken, meat, and pork (and while to witness how these latter meats came to be on my plate was quite painful and grotesque, they were also delicious). This was when I was about seven years old during a sweaty summer of 1995, the year after the signing of NAFTA. Things, however, were soon to change. The struggle become impure and violent.
Fast-forward to today, and that ranch is gone—my grandfather was forced to sell it in order to avoid bankruptcy. The corn, genetically-modified, is imported from the United States and no longer grown in beautiful Mexican fields of my youth. This ranch was given to my great-grandfather as compensation for being an active and loyal Villista throughout the Mexican Revolution; his rifle and sword are hanging on the wall of my parents’ home as a sacred reminder of my heritage. Tierra y Libertad!! Yet, I do not have any land I can call my own, nor the liberty promised by the revolution. Rather, I live in a militarized border town with the constant threat of being “at the wrong place at the wrong time” when visiting Juarez, my second home. The empty promises passed on by the failure of the Mexican Revolution have been institutionalized by the economic and political consequences of NAFTA. Nonetheless, I added my share of fertilizer to the land I call home. It was a painful day the day I visited the ranch as a guest a couple of months ago. I had no other option but to cry below the cottonwood trees in a futile attempt to keep them alive. To keep alive the memory and its living history and the promise of land and liberty. However, I am now only an unwelcomed guest on the land I once enjoyed as a child because that is what I have become in the configured and forced institutionalization of NAFTA upon the Mexican people.
Besides this personal history of Eric Chavez, there are many unknown individuals who have assessed the changes that have gone on at the border of the United States and Mexico, and perhaps no one more famous than Octavio Paz.
The thesis of Octavio Paz’s El laberinto de la soledad (1950) is familiar to many of us, namely, that humans are solitary beings caught in the labyrinth of the search for their identity and for meaningful community. From his perspective as a Mexican philosopher-poet, Paz sets his readers on a search into an existentially determined historical context by claiming that the Mexican Revolution was “A search for ourselves in this fiesta of blood.” And indeed, the Mexican people did seek for themselves in a deadly and devastatingly mortal embrace that saw the deaths of nearly two million Mexicans in their struggle for freedom, sacrificing almost 1/6th of the population at that time (1910-20). By way of understanding the drivers of that human sacrifice, Paz notes that, “The immediate antecedents of the movement are not difficult to find. First there was the political and social situation. The middle class had increased due to the growth of commerce and industry, which used native personnel even though they [the businesses] were mostly foreign-owned.”xliv More than sixty years after Paz posed that question for us, we should be asking: how are NAFTA-generated maquiladoras any different than that earlier form of colonialism? Paz adds that, “Our movement was distinguished by a lack of any previous ideological system and by a hunger for land. The Mexican peasants supported the Revolution not only to achieve better living conditions but also to recover the lands that had been taken from them during the colonial period and the nineteenth century by the royal land grants and the great haciendas and estates.”xlv In the past twenty years, thousands of average Mexicans have lost their land and homes because of free-trade policies and the wholesale adoption and institutionalization of a U.S. American life-style, driven by quarterly reports and the Emerald City promises of multi-national corporations and the shiny commodities and agreements of their ‘fat’ northern neighbors, the U.S. and Canada. Still, the issue is not deregulated trade policies but rather that major multinationals have moved into an economic vacuum and created new forms of institutions, taking over the heart, souls, minds, and beliefs of average, everyday Mexicans. Others have observed that the McDonaldization and Walmartization of Mexico, with their neon signs lighting up Mexican cities and the imaginations of millions of urban and suburban Mexicans, are the new conventions that are normativizing Mexican consumer habits and that those multinationals have come to rule the day and desires of average, everyday Mexicans. It seems obvious that the new institutions are offering not only empty calories but they are literally poisoning the life-blood and bodies of the Mexican people.
Now, after more than 20 years, NAFTA policies have provided mixed results at best; so we need to ask: what is it that went wrong in the first place? To begin with, we should begin by considering political self-governance and how NAFTA is embedded in a normatively moral and cultural (collective-aesthetic) ethics that plays out in our public spaces, our homes, and our workplaces. Given the reach of NAFTA and its associated neo-liberal and globalizing economic orientation, it should not surprise us that its normative affects reach into the very formation of the daily habits and beliefs of most North Americans. In other words, we accept the policy and all that it stands for on an everyday level, and by doing so we become habituated to the new levels of available cheap commodities; or what is worse, we become inured to the reports of chronic underemployment and unemployment and the criminal activity that people are driven to in order to make a living or to achieve moral affirmation.
We need to begin, first of all, by undertaking a phenomenological-ethical description that initially brackets our daily political and lived world relations in order to get to a better understanding of the normative structures of such political conditions and thereby better understand the economic conditions themselves. At the same time, however, we have to remain aware that we are only bracketing our empirical determining conditions for the sake of a more pure possibility of objectivity. In other words, although I exercise a bracketing of my existing empirical conditions, I nonetheless remain cognizant of the interdependent threads of those existing conditions. The threads are the those of my everyday, inter-subjective relations with other US Americans, with Mexicans, and Canadians, across borders and in the everyday practices of my concrete daily life of buying and selling, of consuming and enjoying, and of living in indifference to the suffering of others who are my neighbors a stone’s throw away across the Rio Grande.
For me, personally trying to understand NAFTA is tied up with the everyday experiences of living on and with the El Paso/Juarez border, with the Wall that runs through Chihuahita in downtown El Paso and that signifies with metal and concrete the ongoing ‘free’ trade barriers associated with the regulations and deregulations of NAFTA. This accord palpably plays out its policies on the neighborhood streets and barrios of my home city, El Paso.
During the Spring of 2014, commemorating the NAFTA accord, NPR ran a series of podcasts highlighting the U.S. American border situation. The clip played on March 24 and focused on the business relations between Juarez and El Paso and how Juarez is “all about business.” But what kind of business is the business of Juarez? As the podcast played out, listeners learned of how tens of thousands of Juarensians fled the violence of Juarez in the first decade of the new millennium which, we can only surmise, was also a byproduct of the economic blight visited on the Mexican people by the devastating policies of the NAFTA accord that destroyed the economic base of subsistence of many hundreds of thousands of rural Mexicans. The social and institutionalized violence that drives Juarensians into exile in El Paso realigns them with the re-institutionalizing force of dislocating established business practices and reestablishing new forms of institutions. Some estimates are that there was a loss of up to 35 percent of small businesses in Juarez with the drug trade wars and the direct beneficiary of that loss was the gain of successful businesses in El Paso. Again, Mexico continues to lose in this ‘bargain’ and the U.S. continues its economic and social gains.
In the remainder of my paper, having set the tone for my normative concerns by practicing a form of phenomenological and sustainability ethics, I make some brief suggestions drawing on the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and the metaphysical ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. I use Arendt for my thesis because of her ideas about the importance of public space and how we need to reclaim the freedom possible with public space from how those spaces have become privatized and politicized for the sake of commodification.
Arendt’s first major work was The Origins of Totalitarianism where she describes how nineteenth century biological racism in Central and Western Europe became an infectious form of anti-Semitism that provided the general conditions for the Neo-Imperialist and colonial expansionist policies of the modern European nation-states, the United States, and Japan that led to World War I. Informed by Arendt, we can ask: is NAFTA an issue of imperialism or economic neo-colonialism? It seems to be both and my earlier remarks about institutionalization can be applied to demonstrate how these kinds of political conditions are in play.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt describes the rise of anti-Semitism in Central and Western Europe in the early and middle 19th century and continues with an examination of the New Imperialism period from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Although Arthur de Gobineau‘s, An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855) constitutes the first elaboration of “biological racism,” as opposed to Henri de Boulainvilliers’ anti-patriotic and anti-nationalist racism, Arendt traces the emergence of modern racism as an ideology to the Boers’, starting in particular during the Great Trek in the first half of the 19th century, and qualifies it as an “ideological weapon for imperialism.”
It is hard not to ignore the similarities of Arendt’s analysis to what has gone on in the past 20 years in North America. Except here we have a white/brown dynamic instead of a white/black dynamic. Roughly similar to the trek of the Boers who sought their own form of economic and landed independence spurred on by British imperialism and which resulted in the socio-economic oppression called apartheid, the mass migration of Mexicans northward was the direct consequence of Anglo-American economic imperialism intent on colonizing the impoverished working classes in Mexico. Except in Mexico, the form of economic imperialism was aided with the collusion and encouragement of the hierarchical ruling elite in Mexico, those in government, business, and supported by the military.
Along with bureaucracy, which was experimented with in Egypt by Lord Cromer, Arendt says that racism was the main trait of colonialist imperialism, itself characterized by its unlimited expansion (as illustrated by Cecil Rhodes). Arendt traces the roots of modern imperialism to the accumulation of excess capital in European nation-states during the 19th century. This capital required that overseas investments outside of Europe be productive and that political control had to be expanded overseas to protect the investments. The similarities to NAFTA are uncanny: the free trade agreement is based on the accumulation of excess capital in the hands of multi-national corporations that need to invest that capital “overseas” or in this case, across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo in order to be productive. And then political control, in the form of a war on drugs, had to be engaged in in order to protect the investments. Additionally, many of the complaints that are breaches of the NAFTA provisions stem from foreign investors, as I noted earlier in this essay.
Arendt then examines “continental imperialism” (in the forms of pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism) and the emergence of “social movements” substituting themselves for political parties. These social movements, as they are today, were hostile to the state and were radically anti-parliamentarist and gradually institutionalized anti-Semitism and other kinds of racism. Arendt concludes that these social activist movements tended towards nationalist authoritarian movements such as Nazism and Communism which were totalitarian and that sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State.xlvi
For my thesis, Arendt helps to highlight the problem of NAFTA as the loss of a world and of the normativizing institution of a way of life that has lead to violence through the legalized and institutionally sanctioned creation of a permanent sub-class of impoverished workers—chained to their jobs and not able to be educated for meaningful work. With the three categories that she sets out in The Human Condition—labor/work/actionxlvii—Arendt provides a way to help us to rethink what it means to lose the world and why we need to continue to reconstruct fragments of the past that have been lost by the homogenizing and globalizing institutionalizations of NAFTA. We need to better understand the relationship of labor to work in the sense that she means by better understanding the intrinsic value of those conditions. But we also need to continue to be critical about the loss of the political realm, in particular—the realm of action and freedom, which in this context means the loss of our public spaces to privatization (to malls and gated communities). As I have implied, we should continue to resist the sorts of bureaucratization of the NAFTA-related industries that has made Mexico into a client state, where the political leaders have sold out the public spaces of open debate to secret deals and collusion and, in the process, have lost the possibility for experiencing the kind of freedom and respect of the common public world where art and open speech happen. Instead, we have cities that are controlled by drug lords and regions and drug routes that take the place of free, open public spaces.
But this leads me to Levinas, whose concern is with the totalizing propensity of our ethical relations, which itself is a form of violence. As Levinas notes: “My being-in-the-world or my ‘place in the sun’ my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? Pascal’s ‘my place in the sun’ marks the beginning of the image of the usurpation of the whole earth.xlviii”
With Levinas, I am concerned with how to cure the violence. And with Levinas, and in part with Arendt and with Paz, the cure for our propensity to violate others for the sake of our economic gain begins with respect for otherness and with a healthy sort of inter-subjectivity. What I mean by “healthy inter-subjectivity” is to prioritize what he sets out as enjoyment, autonomy, and respectful separation and not North American imperialist economic integration. In other words, let Mexico be Mexico and not just an economic extension of the United States. This does not mean that I think that policies of tariffs and protectionist measures should be reinstituted; but rather, I think that the injustices that are in place need to be recognized for what they are and the subsidies that U.S. and Canadian governments provided and still provide to farmers need to be fully eradicated and restrictions should be immediately established by the Mexican government on Monsanto, Cargill, and on Coca-Cola as well as other global international corporations.
With Levinas I want to emphasize the space of ethicality, namely, the importance of turning to developing a critical self-reflexivity and for how we need to prioritize social ethics as a complement to Paz’s historical critique of self-identity and Arendt’s political awareness and concern for our public spaces. Levinas’ commitment to “Ethics as First Philosophy” reminds us that before we can begin to regain political power we need to understand our ethical relations and the ways in which we are called to attend to justice—of what he refers to as the face-to-face immediate relation and of the concern for the objectivity immediacy of the third. This happens when: first, in the face of the other who confronts me, who knocks at my door, I check my own desires and justifications for holding onto land and property and possessions. In the second place, I not only give to the other the “bread out of my own mouth” but in substituting myself in her need, I enable her to take up her own sense of responsibility and express herself, to grow blue corn or multi-colored corn and to thrive and flourish in doing so. By obsessively attending to the face of my neighbor, to her history and her particular story, I am called to remember to reinstate intimacy and the personal as the infinite overflowing of the difference of the other which is not merely psychological but psychic and subjective and determines, ultimately, the meaning of our inter-subjective lives.
In 1994 I began teaching philosophy at the University of Texas at El Paso, a university on the border of the USA and Mexico. In that same year, the North American Free Trade Agreement was institutionalized and in the past twenty years NAFTA has become institutionalized to such a solidified extent that it has resulted in remarkable political, economic, and cultural transformations of the citizens of the three trade partners. The “institutional” refers to the totality of the built environment and not just state and governmental entities. Institutional is more comprehensive and extends to the entirety of ‘unnatural’ dwellings that ‘house’ humans, individually and collectively, such as homes and farms and schools and stores, where everyday life takes place, “what the French Social theorist Lefebvre calls the ‘bureaucratic society of controlled consumption’.”xlix
These institutionalized patterns have become what we have been conditioned to accept as the nature of urban life in contemporary society. What I am suggesting with my references from Paz, Arendt, and Levinas, however, is another ‘world’ with other borders and inter-subjective relations, where people could assemble joined in solidarity in a common world, united not by the forces of production, distribution and consumption, which are the trademarks of modern industrial/technological capitalism maintained by disciplined subordination to mechanistic and organized purpose. Rather, I suggest that we hold out for the possibility of another ‘world’ conditioned by the chaos of freedom, that is, the kind of freedom that in the first place respects the rights of Mexicans who have become “institutionally” uprooted from their traditional lands and occupations to freely engage in work that leads to their own most possibilities of flourishing.
What has been and continues to be the case with NAFTA, is that there currently exists an ‘unjust’ disjunction that separates the consumers of goods from those who make them, indicative in Mexican society in that now every Mexican wears imported clothing and buys genetically modified corn products, such as Fritos, instead of wearing traditional clothes made by Mexicans in Mexican factories and eating lovingly prepared dishes of huitlachoche and flor de calabaza.
Professor of Philosophy
Department of Philosophy
University of Texas at El Paso