This book has a perfect hook: What about the vilified landowners on the receiving end of the January 1, 1994, uprising by the Zapatista rebels in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas? Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s brilliant book seeks to give landed elites the same analytical depth and attention that has been given to “peasants” and their rebellions. He also seeks to veer the story of the uprising and elites’ quiescence away from mechanistic economistic explanations. By analyzing landowner-peasant relations through lenses of cultural politics of race, gender, and class; spatial relations; and landed estate production; Bobrow-Strain seeks to answer the following question: “Why would coffee planters and cattle ranchers with a long and storied history of violent responses to agrarian conflict react to [land invasions sparked by the Zapatista uprising] with quiescence and resignation instead of thugs and guns?” (7).
The author shows that the massive land invasions sparked by the Zapatista uprising—a transfer of property on the order of 500,000 hectares—were a dramatic highpoint in several centuries of land struggles in the state. The year 1994 marked the final unraveling of landowners and estate production’s already eroding regional hegemony. What ultimately became “unglued”—as Bobrow-Strain puts it—was landed elites’ ability to politically mediate relations of spatially produced insides and outsides (estate/non-estate, local/national, indigenous/ladino, rural/nation, peasants/state) (8, 13).
The estate with its casa grande was the bedrock of these “territorial projects,” which he defines as “constellations of spatial practices aimed at delimiting, representing, and enforcing spatial boundaries in the service of complexly structured interests” (43). In the making of these governable spaces, so are produced governable subjects. But these are always, everywhere, deeply fraught processes in which “landowners (as complex subjects) and landed production (as particular configurations of space and social relations) are constituted through processes of struggle over hegemony” (10).
The first three chapters lay out some theoretical groundwork that draws on Lefebvre, Gramsci, and Stuart Hall to give a non-economistic take of traditional agrarian political economy as presented by David Ricardo and Marx. These chapters also offer extremely interesting material on the methodological, theoretical, and ethical quandaries about studying elites. Part II of the book lays out a deeper and broader historical overview of Chilón, beginning with the vast post-colonial enclosures in which more than half of the state’s population was dispossessed of customary rights. Coffee estates became prime sites of debt servitude and “carefully cultivated alchoholism” (13) along with orchestrated rituals of paternalism and peasant subordination. The political mediations of insides and outsides, between estates and the outside world, became firmly entrenched.
In the period after the Revolution, peasants were better positioned to challenge this landowner hegemony—and they did—but elites were largely able to contain and absorb these challenges. One reason why this was possible was the greater turn toward cattle ranchers, who (with hefty state support) began supplying a burgeoning urban workforce. But this was also the source of renewed conflict between indigenous peasants and ladino landowners, particularly with the emergence of rural liberation theology that helped stoke peasant antagonisms. Conflicts between peasant communities also became further ignited by state-makers (mainly, PRI affiliate) who tried to establish patron-client relations among the countryside in which questions of access to land became increasingly linked to political affiliations.
Bobrow-Strain concludes that landowners were unable to defend the territoriality of estate production for several reasons: for one thing, state-driven reforms largely sidelined their importance in the national economy. An equally important part of this trend is that what “production” meant was being redefined (by the state) in the eyes of landowners. This economic dislocation meant that state support in the form of economic or military assistance would not be forthcoming. Landowners could also not come to grips with indigenous “insubordination”; it was simply inexplicable in their minds. The docile, infantilized, paternalized discourse of their indigenous neighbors became eclipsed with primordial discourses of indigenous savagery. Bobrow-Strain ties this production of fear to particular representation of space—some etched into the landscape by indigenous milpa cultivation techniques, others built on long, sedimented histories of racism and spatial projections of indigenous rebellion. The ladinos felt—and, perhaps, literally, were—surrounded, a sensation of barbarians at the gate with a long colonial history in Mexico and elsewhere. In the end,
The spaces of landed production in Chilón have been constantly formed and re-formed through social struggle, and this ongoing process of transformation lies at the heart of landowners’ responses to agrarian conflict…. We have seen how the economic logic of landed production intertwined with fear, how landowners’ privileged control over labor turned on the construction of a gendered and racialized estate “family,” and how disproportionate state support for landowner violence accrued, in part, because o f particular resonance between discursive constructions of landed production and larger processes of Mexican development. The economic has always and everywhere also been cultural. (216)