Author Archives: Kelly Birch

An Overview of Social Protest in Mexico

By Sergio Tamayo, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Azcapotzalco

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, Mexico has become a laboratory of social struggle. The trajectory has followed a galloping pace of multiple struggles, rebellions and protests that look as if they cross paths with similar movements elsewhere in the world. From the student movements in Chile against privatization, the Indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street and the resistance of teachers in the United States, the Arab Spring in the Middle East, young people for public space in Turkey, the struggles of workers in South Korea, and the spread of anarchist communes; all seem to cross nations, cultures and similar experiences. With a highly schematic story I would like to show the way the space of Mexican movements has developed, and introduce some Mexican authors who have witnessed these struggles.

Protest in Mexico during the first decade of the current century has been a battle for citizenship and a dispute over the future of the nation (Tamayo, 2010). It has been a cycle in response to the systematic application of unpopular neoliberal policies that have been embedded in society, through critical structural reforms, especially in labor, education and energy (Modonessi, Oliver, Munguía, López de la Vega, 2011; Zermeño, 2009).

Mexican social movements can be classified by the way they relate to state policies. The National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) was aimed at both electoral goals and an anti-neoliberal court, but it is not radically opposed to capitalism. MORENA, which imagines development through a nationalist and popular strategy, has passed from being a social movement to a political movement-party (Combes, 2015).

In contrast, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the Other Campaign promotes an explicitly anti-capitalist project. During this period, the EZLN has lost social support, engaged with the ever-present threat of military aggression, and consolidated a regional project in indigenous communities (Lutz y Chávez, 2014).

There is also the movement of the working class. There are heteronomous unions such as the UNT (telephone workers), SME (electrician workers), OPT (political workers party) and CNTE (a democratic faction of the teacher’s union). The trade union movement is nevertheless fragmented by unceasing governmental repression strategies. Unions deeply disagree about regional, organizational, mobilization and political strategies. Within union cultures, an older class-consciousness has been replaced by business-oriented and individualistic values that limit the prospects of social change (Bizberg, 2010).

In addition there are regional movements like the APPO in Oaxaca, which allies the teachers union with indigenous and popular communities to influence local governance (Bolos y Estrada, 2013). Also, protests against mining in Wirikuta and the Parota dam have sparked an ethno-environmentalism, which has combined community and regional visions to build integrating schemes of social citizenship, as well as a practical and theoretical sense of autonomy, against penetration by transnational companies. They have connected the defense of territory with religious values, based on traditional customs and practices, which sometimes contradict a universalist vision of citizenship (Landázuri y López Levi, 2011; y Lutz y Chávez, 2014)

A new cycle of protest opened with the federal elections of 2012, as youth mobilized across the country. The movement #YoSoy132 (#Iamthe132) was for democracy and against the imposition of large media networks. It still resonates with social activists in several regions (González Villarreal, 2013). The Ayotzinapa movement emerged in 2014 in the state of Guerrero, one of the poorest and most violent states in the country, after the incursion of drug trafficking violence. Despite ups and downs, this movement continues to demand the live presentation of 43 disappeared students from the Rural Normal School, affecting the legitimacy of judicial institutions, the military and political representation, under the claim: “The crime was by the State.” In association with this social conflict, the movement of community policing appears in several regions of the country that replace the deficient state’s role in public security, combating violence against women and drug trafficking (Albertani y Aguilar Mora, 2015).

The resistance has irritated the system, but the social response is not enough to crack it. To achieve an institutional impact, movements call for unity in action, a difficult goal to achieve. The EZLN has shrunk in its liberated territories.  MORENA, now becoming an institutionalized party, is unable to sustain protest. Unions defend stability rather than the interests of members. And communities that built compact ethnic identities have reinforced them with speeches of exclusion, losing their appeal to a wider audience.

Elections, on the other hand, have become an opportunity for political contestation. Some groups have been able to use the electoral process to articulate and promote movements that may have a decisive impact on politics (Aguilar, 2009; Cadena-Roa y López Leyva, 2013). These groups view the elections as appropriate targets of protest and disqualification. They lead toward more and more active abstentionism, collective actions, boycotts of elections, and de-legitimization of the political elite.

As can be seen, the Mexican protest has reemerged, mainly due to the deepening of structural reforms, which have disrupted the lives of millions of human beings. From the countryside to the city; from frightened groups of middle class and workers; from perished community identities, women and radical students and young people; the looming common struggle is the defense of public space. This project is one of citizenship. It seeks to balance the defense of universal human rights with cultural diversity. A theoretical perspective can explain this paradox by attempting to reach a synthesis between macro structures of opportunity and cultural processes of life experiences.


Aguilar, Martín (2009). Movimientos sociales y democracia en México 1982 y 1998. Una perspectiva regional. México: Editorial Porrúa y Universidad Veracruzana

Albertani, C. and Aguilar Mora, M. (2015). La Noche de Iguala y el despertar de México. México: Juan Pablos.

Bizberg, Ilán (2010). “La democracia vacía. Sociedad civil, movimientos sociales y democracia”. En Bizberg Ilán y Francisco Zapata (2010). Los grandes problemas de México. VI. Movimientos Sociales. México: El COLMEX, capítulo 1.

Bolos Jacob Silvia y Estrada Saavedra Marco (eds.) (2013). Recuperando la palabra. La Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca. México: Universidad Iberoamericana.

Cadena-Roa, Jorge y López Leyva, Miguel Armando (eds.) (2013). El PRD: orígenes, itinerario, retos. México: Editorial Ficticia y UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Centro de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Ciencias y Humanidades

Combes, Hélène (2015). “Repertories de la movilización, estrategias políticas y reclutamiento militante,” in Hélène Combes, Sergio Tamayo, and Michael Voegtli (cords.). Pensar y Mirar la Protesta. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

González Villarreal, Roberto (2013). El Acontecimiento #YoSoy132. Crónicas de la multitud. México: Editorial Terracota.

Landázuri Benítez Gisela y López Levi Liliana (eds.) (2011). Actores sociales y dinámicas locales. México: UAM Xochimilco.

Lutz Bruno y Chávez Becker Carlos  (eds.) (2014). Acción Colectiva y Organizaciones Rurales en México. México: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, UNAM-FCPyS, y Ediciones del Lirio.

Modonesi, Massimo; Oliver Lucio; Munguía Galeana Fernando: López de la Vega Mariana (2011). “México 2000-2009: Una década de resistencia popular,” in Massimo Modonesi and Julián Rebón (eds.). Una década en movimiento. Luchas populares en América Latina en el amanecer del siglo XXI. Buenos Aires: Promoteo libros, CLACSO, UBA Sociales Publicaciones.

Tamayo, Sergio (2010). Crítica de la Ciudadanía. México: Editorial Siglo XXI y Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana.

Zermeño, Sergio (2009). “Movimiento social y cambio en México y en América Latina,” in Francis Mestries, Geoffrey Pleyer, and Sergio Zermeño (eds.). Los Movimientos sociales: de lo local a lo global. México: Anthropos y UAM Azcapotzalco.

Anger in Politics: The Full Story

Benjamin Lamb-Books (PhD, University of Colorado)

Emotion itself and unpleasant displays of anger in particular are once again becoming causes of alarm in current U.S. politics with the 2016 presidential campaign. Civic questions about the propriety of anger in public and over ‘less-friendly’ forms of civil-society discourse have spread across media channels. The undeniable influence of angry sentiments in American politics has itself become object to those second-order feelings—feelings toward feelings—so well analyzed by sociologist of emotion Arlie Hochschild (who, e.g., in The Second Shift discusses how overburdened women develop coping strategies of affective suppression to deal with gender-bending strong emotions including anger at unfairness).

Prima facie, nothing seems to be more uncivil and unproductive than public outpourings of anger. Sociologists have observed that the acute expression of anger, usually toward subordinates, is a privilege reserved to social elites of higher status in some respect (see Collett and Lizardo’s 2010 article, “Occupational status and the experience of anger” in Social Forces). Anger among subordinates, in contrast, is mostly blocked and contained by more chronic frustrations and diffuse negative moods (with terrible health effects). Yet this is only half of the story. For charismatic leaders in the spotlight—whether politicians, activists, or celebrities—displaying and performing the strong affects of anger is always risky, like playing with fire. There are sociological reasons why Donald Trump can get away with anger-provoking rhetoric and thrive off it, but Hillary Clinton cannot. (Recent headlines indeed blast Clinton whenever she comes even within a mile away from ‘losing her cool.’)

In fact, almost nothing is more difficult than successfully pulling off an eloquent performance of anger in public without it backfiring upon one’s character. Even our wannabe-American-fascist Trump is unable to, he being instead high in anger but low in eloquence. Sensible, wise, and effective expressions of anger continue to be a civil-society rarity. Protestors try to capture this sensibility but more often than not their anger is dismissed as a mark against them. They are deemed too subjective, too emotional, and not rational enough about the more objective origins of their discontents. Anytime anger is expressed too bluntly, the character of the speaker gets impugned for being biased and intemperate. In rhetorical theory the importance of managing such character concerns in speech is known as ‘ethos.’ The need to protect one’s ethos from emotional contamination of the bad kind, given the binaries of civil-society discourse, always confronts the rhetor of the moment with special limitations based upon the social perceptions of others.

As James Jasper might put it, the rhetoric of anger in public poses a “strategic dilemma,” both for people protesting some injustice and for politicians seeking election via the arousal of populist sentiments. Indisputable here is just how eminently emotional all of politics in general is, just as are the protest struggles that sociologists analyze as ‘social movements’ or ‘contentious politics’ (on emotion in politics, see the special issue of the Journal of Political Power, edited by J. Heaney). Verbalized explicitly or not, anger is a “potency emotion” that can operate as a key motivational resource in conflicts over power (as social psychologists like Scott Schieman have shown). Anger is often veiled under more respectable status claims (of ethos) but still easily recognizable as what makes one’s political opponent so damn intractable.

In democracy, the anger of ‘the people’ is deeply threatening to the status quo. A coherent collective articulation of deep anger is unsettling to political incumbents no matter what their party affiliation. Irrespective of practical policy, such an articulation of anger will also inevitably frighten the upper classes who always prefer law and order to chaotic social changes. Meanwhile, the modern intelligentsia (me included) thinks ‘fascism’ when things get collectively too heated or dissects away the anger problem as the last desperate gasp of a dying status group. We are not necessarily wrong about this. All commenting parties though are usually content to ignore the social structure of the strategic dilemma, that is, the cultural and rhetorical dynamics that necessarily accompany anger when it rears its ugly head in public.

Even sociologists could benefit more from a deeper rhetorical and social-psychological understanding of the strategic dilemma of anger as a public political emotion. Without doing so, we are liable, like lay pundits, to dismiss the emotional energy therein without being able to explain the dual operation of collective emotions—as intermittently disruptive and/or “cementing of domination,” so Helena Flam has written. When are angry rhetorics productive and progressive in struggles against injustice, versus, when are they merely loud last gasps of a disintegrating status group? In principle, angry rhetorics can serve both purposes effectively as is plain from current political news. For the activists and politicians then, what makes the strategic dilemma of anger worth choosing? When are the potential costs to character too great and distracting? Beyond the political dichotomy between progressive versus conservative, what distinguishes the zealous prophetic rhetoric of MLK Jr. from the destructive angry rhetoric of DJT Sr.?

In my forthcoming book, Angry Abolitionists and the Rhetoric of Slavery: Moral Emotions in Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), I bring together for social analysis exemplars of the so-called ‘eloquence of abuse’ from the antislavery movement in the United States, the radical rhetoric of prophet-like abolitionists from Sojourner Truth to Wendell Phillips to Frederick Douglass. The rhetorical tradition categorizes collective anger as one of the most important species of ‘pathos,’ which Cicero defined as the production of strong or ‘violent’ emotion. What’s sociologically interesting about anger as a type of pathos is the careful ethos work inextricably involved. For the production of pathos to be persuasive and beneficial to one’s purposes, the speaker must manage a precarious balance between emotion and rationality in the right proportions. This is clearly a distinctively affective form of impression management in public. If a speaker comes off as too angry, if he or she ‘loses his or her cool,’ then the credibility and trustworthiness of that speaker also takes a hit.

There appears then to be an Aristotelian golden mean for the expression of anger in political rhetoric, a level of moderation that is necessary in order to avoid triggering distrust and cynicism toward the character of the speaker (ethos). To produce persuasive pathos, one’s ethos cannot be in question. At least this is the case if the aim is the identification and solidarity of the audience (as classical rhetorical theory would have it), less so if the intent is defiance or disruption (as more common in prophetic radical rhetorics). The strategic dilemma of anger in contentious politics is that stimulating pathos may backfire upon the ethos of the cause and hurt the progress of the movement. This is a tricky balance to negotiate. It is a near impossible bind for low-status participants of a protest struggle who instead are compelled to devote nearly all their time on performances of ethos and logos rather than pathos. If they slip-up and irrepressibly express too much strong emotion, as is more inevitable for the most oppressed, it often triggers status backlash by the audience—a different, less desired in-group/out-group kind of pathos—that is, if there even is a watching audience in the first place.

Benjamin Lamb-Books is the author of Angry Abolitionists and the Rhetoric of Slavery: Moral Emotions in Social Movements (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).