How Morena Turned Anti-Corruption Politics Into Class Politics

By Edwin F. Ackerman

Anti-corruption politics was key to the landslide victory of AMLO’s Morena party in Mexico. Morena branded neoliberalism a form of upward redistribution, rallying the working class under the banner of republican austerity against the excesses of the rich.

The presidential elections that took place in Mexico on June 2 gave the reigning party Morena and its candidate Claudia Sheinbaum a decisive victory. The party that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, founded in 2014 won 60 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Sheinbaum is poised to take office with an indisputable mandate. She campaigned on a promise to continue policies that AMLO implemented during his tenure as president, which witnessed measurable advances for the working classes.

Official figures show that real wages have surged by approximately 30 percent, labor’s share of income has increased by 8 percent, and the earnings of the bottom 10 percent of earners grew by 98.8 percent. Additionally, the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, has seen a decline, and overall poverty has dropped by 5 percent, over five million people — the largest reduction in twenty-two years. Unemployment rates are now the lowest in the region, coupled with a slight decrease in informal labor.

Left-Wing Anti-Corruption Politics

Perhaps unsurprisingly, AMLO has retained extraordinarily high approval numbers, averaging in the mid-sixties (although a recent Gallup poll places his support at 80 percent). Certainly, leftists and progressives of different stripes have taken issue with the nature and extent of the reforms he has implemented while in government. During his tenure, critics claim, AMLO did not make a full break with neoliberalism, did not heed the demands of feminists or environmentalists, and strengthened the so-called militarization of public affairs — many big infrastructure projects in Mexico continue to be built and managed by the military. These criticisms are not without a basis in reality.

What is incontrovertible, however, is the progress that Morena has made on behalf of the working class, confirmed at the polls in early June. Rightly, this has elicited a renewed interest in the English-speaking world, which for decades has puzzled over the issue of how to revitalize a left centered around the popular classes. If there was a distinguishing feature of AMLO’s political style, it was his ability to treat neoliberalism as synonymous with corruption. Historically, anti-corruption politics has been the mainstay of the neoliberal right seeking to privatize graft-ridden state industries. In Latin America at least, the middle and upper classes have been the most reliable constituency for this brand of politics. But AMLO has adroitly repurposed anti-corruption politics to garner mass appeal without embracing a neoliberal anti-statism or a technocratic anti-politics seeking to empower unelected officials.

“It sounds harsh, but privatization in Mexico has been synonymous with corruption,” AMLO said in his inaugural speech in December of 2018. He went on to add that

unfortunately, this malady has almost always existed in our country, but what happened during the neoliberal period is unprecedented in modern times — the system as a whole has operated for corruption. Political power and economic power have mutually fed and nurtured each other, and the theft of the people’s goods and the nation’s wealth has been established as the modus operandi.

The defining features of the Mexican neoliberal state has been an increase in outsourcing of services to private companies, subsidies to a private sector encouraged to compete with state-owned companies (electricity is one of the egregious examples), mechanisms for ceding control of public monies through privately administered fideicomisos (trusts), and sanctioned and unsanctioned forms of tax evasion. At the heart of AMLO’s diagnosis of his country’s malaise lay a fundamental redefinition of neoliberalism: contrary to the common belief, neoliberalism was not about the contraction of the state. For AMLO, neoliberalism represented the instrumentalization of the state to serve the rich.

Republican Austerity

AMLO’s reinterpretation of neoliberalism has lent a sophistication to discussions of the economy that remains alien to much of the Anglophone world. Thanks to Morena, the debate in Mexico is not, as it is in the United States, about small government versus big government — Mexico operated under “big government” during neoliberalism, but it consistently served the upper class through both legal and illegal means. Recognition of this fact provided the basis for a class politics of anti-corruption.

This understanding helps explain the flagship concept of AMLO’s government, which is perhaps a counterintuitive one: “republican austerity.” Republican austerity refers to an ongoing reorganization and recentralization of public spending, with the aim of “cutting from the top.” Neoliberalism in Mexico, as Morena has understood it, did not mean the general contraction of the state but its decentralization and instrumentalization — austerity (of a specific type) could thus counterintuitively be a tool for combatting neoliberalism.

Here the connection to AMLO’s broader diagnosis of corruption is key: republican austerity looks to fight against neoliberalism/corruption through the elimination of intermediaries of all sorts between the state and the citizenry in the distribution of public resources. The vision of AMLO’s government is that these intermediary networks — parts of the private sector, clientelist brokers, NGOs that received government funds, fideicomisos, or simply private companies hired out by the state to carry out specific services — facilitate budgetary capture. Central to Morena’s politics has therefore been a push to recentralize government functions that had been outsourced to private or semiprivate entities.

In a press conference in May 2021, AMLO tied his political project to a distinctive view of Mexican history:

In our country, capital accumulation did not necessarily occur through the exploitation of the bourgeois or the employer over the worker; capital accumulation in Mexico occurred through corruption. This is not new; it increased in the last stage, in the neoliberal period . . . this is not to sideline Marxism, it is not [that discussions] about class struggle, or surplus value are invalid, but rather that the case of Mexico is something special.

There are, of course, many scholarly objections one might make to AMLO’s arguments, especially his claim that political upward redistribution is a unique feature of Mexican politics. What this narratives does do, however, is go a long way toward explaining the outlook and aims of the Morena government. More than a series of individual crimes or isolated scandals, for AMLO, corruption is a consequence of a reordering in the state-economy relationship. Neoliberalism was characterized not by the contraction of the government but by its conversion into a reverse rentier state, in which the government and a network of contractors drained public money through a series of often illegal mechanisms. These ranged from the outsourcing of government functions to, in the most extreme cases, the creation of parallel structures of shell companies and fraudulent firms, producing an unofficial alliance between politicians, businessmen, and expert service providers.

This nexus of politicians-businessmen-consultants represents a fraction that is, if not specific to Mexican neoliberalism, especially prominent within it. The defining feature of this class fraction is that their surplus value is generated not from the production and sale of goods in the free market but from the extraction of public resources. Rather than exclusively focusing on exploitation of workers, AMLO has instead conceived of class struggle in neoliberalism as primarily a battle to dismantle this fraction through the fight against corruption armed with the tool of republican austerity.

But the phenomena that AMLO has observed in Mexico have analogues across the globe. The historical sociologist Robert Brenner has long argued that the neoliberal period is characterized by upward redistribution through political means. Tax cuts, high interest rates on government debt, privatization of public assets at bargain prices, and the socialization of massive private losses, such as the bailout programs after the financial crisis of 2008, are all examples of ways in which the state has intervened in the economy to alter the balance of class power in favor of the rich.

Across the rich world, much like the Global South, the state did not simply contract. The historian of inequality Thomas Piketty has found that tax revenues in rich countries as a percentage of national income never dropped during the neoliberal period. Neoliberalism was in fact a retooling of the state so that it could more closely reproduced the interests of capital. This fusion of political, administrative, and economic power has undoubtably made neoliberalism difficult to dislodge. But it has also exposed elites to the kind of moral and political critique advanced most forcefully by AMLO. This brand of left-wing anti-corruption politics has not only managed to legitimize redistribution but brought the working class back into the fold of left-wing parties, reversing the trend of dealignment prominent across much of the rich world.