In this essay I explore the important idea of a historical social debt towards the poor, and reflect on its implications for politics in the post-Covid world. Just remember: “Los obreros movemos a México!”
The broader concept of a historical debt or guilt is most commonly used in connection to the survivors of persecuted, enslaved or oppressed minorities, towards which the world or a particular nation ‘owes’ something as a matter of historical justice. Think of reparations or truth commissions for the Jews in Germany, black people in the US or South Africa, etc. However, the concept of a social debt (‘dívida social’ in Portuguese) comes from Brazil, where it played an important role in placing democratization and social policy on the agenda of post-dictatorship Brazil. It resolves around the notion that policy has historically failed to pay attention to the poor and exploited majority, maintaining high inequality amongst relative economic progress. This powerful concept sheds light on the history of all countries, but is especially interesting for Mexico which still maintains very clear class boundaries. In my own Marxist spin of the topic, I will conceptualize the historical social debt towards the poor into two components: 1) the debt towards the working class for physically building the nation under exploitative conditions, and 2) the debt towards the poor in general for being ignored by politics until very recently. After laying out this historical framework, I will look at the relevance of this concept in current domestic political debates, as well as for broader global discussions about robotization and the post-covid reconstruction.
The economical debt towards the poor goes back all the way to colonial times. Besides the simple act of taking and exploiting lands, the colonizers instituted systems of slave labor (for example in silver mines) to generate riches for the empire. The semi feudal economy and distribution of land gave rise to the original privilege and dominant position of white Spanish families. Judging by the paleness of all my neighbors in San Pedro, many still hold on to this today, just like darker skin color still strongly correlates with economic position. After the independence the Mexican working class started its historical labor of building the nation, usually under conditions of heavy exploitation. This building must be understood in the most literal sense. When we say that for example people like Porfirio Diaz (or any other leader before or after the revolution) ‘build’ this or that, we must be aware that we are talking about men that, as my steelworker grandfather would say “never held a shovel in their life”. Our common speech patterns conceal the true nature of labor relations, and it would be more accurate to say that he ‘commanded workers to build’ this or that. The Mexican people build the country.
During the capitalist times the working class carried on its historical task of building every road, canal and house (including yours). It is important to reflect on the fact that they did so under a ‘condition of unequal exchange’, or as Marx would put it: exploitation. In simple words, it means that workers realize a certain amount of work (‘generate added value’) while on the job, but they only get paid a fraction of the realized value. This is because typically they work longer than it takes to produce the monetary value of their wage. Makes sense right: you get hired to make more money for your boss than you cost. But if you add the outcome of this simple mechanism up over years, decades and generations, it creates a stable and ever expanding pattern of inequality. After all, with all the work you do to earn money, you are automatically enriching the one above you. In terms of social debt, this means that the nation was built by a group of structurally underpaid people. In terms of inequality, it means that practically every family that is wealthy (not rich or well off), with possible exclusion of some artists or athletes, amassed their wealth from the contributions of thousands and thousands of workers. Here’s a nonfictional math exercise to get you thinking: the daughter of a wealthy construction magnate has an allowance of 200.000 pesos per month, how many workers on a 2018 minimum wage (+-2.500) who realize a net value of 8.500 pesos functionally spent their life to support that? Ow.
The social debt towards the poor took a whole new meaning during the neoliberal era, starting with Carlos Salinas, the father of modern hyper-inequality. Rather than considering poverty a social debt to be repaid, it became an asset to a nation that advertised its cheap labor internationally. It is widely known that during this period, productivity rose while real income stagnated or even decreased. The humble people worked harder than before (Mexicans work most annual hours within the industrialized world) in generating more wealth for our G20 nation, while receiving less of the fruits of their own labor. One can add to this exploitation the tens of millions of people who got cheated out of social security and workers rights through fake or nonexistent contracts. National debt fluctuated during this era, but the social debt steadily climbed.
But there is more to this historical debt that simple exploitation. Poor people, whether they work or not, have also been spectacularly underserved by politics since the Mexican revolution. In the initial years of PRI government, we could see a one step forward, one step backwards pattern. Enlightened presidents like Cardenas made significant attempts at reducing the social debt with for example land reforms, but Mexico still developed towards a hyper-unequal nation. This is both true in terms of social classes, but also in terms of the total marginalization and under protection of certain groups and even regions.
The neoliberal era added salt to injury, by rolling back several services and social rights (pensions, for example). Although progress was made in some areas, social policy in the past thirty years largely came down to simulation rather than generating real compensations for a marginalized majority. Much of the programs implemented by rightwing presidents where often temporary programs; self-help programs (‘here are materials, now build a road’), or programs that barely helped people survive rather than adjust any structural injustices. That is, if the funds did not get plundered by those very leaders. Unsurprisingly, poverty and inequality expanded during much of this period. To make matters worse, a classist ideology was popularized that washed over the social debt by stigmatizing the poor and the working class in general, as well as many of the particular sub groups (indigenous people, for example) within it. We have shamed whole generations out of asking for justice or rights promised to them by the constitution.
To fully comprehend how underserved the population of this on paper rich country was, we must look at social policy in a comparison to other developed economies. A comparison with OECD member states show us that Mexico under Calderon and EPN had the lowest overall social spending of developed countries (and has had so since 1997, when Korea passed us). In more detail, it had the second lowest pension spending; lowest (zero) unemployment spending; third lowest family benefit spending; lowest social benefits for households; lowest (zero) incapacity spending; lowest (zero) active labor market spending, etc. Much has changed in the last two years, but the interest on the debt is considerable if the goal is a society in which all can equally participate.
The notion of a historical social debt towards the poor is elementary when reflecting on the global challenges that lay ahead, not just in Mexico. Both robotization and the post-covid restructuring of the economy might come with a further decrease in power for the working class. I have written various times before about the problem of robotization, which would make workers more replaceable. In this essay, the point is that while our cities have been built by workers, this might not be the case in the future. In such a scenario, where the working class will lose considerable bargaining power, it is important to remember the outstanding debt. Even if they might be replaced, it are the workers that brought us to this point of development and mined the resources used to build these technologies. Leveraging this social debt via democracy implies that protecting the population from the consequences of these changes is a matter of historical justice. Either get off this dangerous path of progress or recognize those that physically brought you here, instead throwing half the population aside after being ‘used’ like crumbled soda can.
The post-covid world poses a similar challenge, as the ideological and class struggle that will ensue over how this world will look like will be decisive for decades to come. If we for a moment shift our attention to the United States, we can already see that the pandemic was devastating for employment: all who was replicable was fired, and small business got eaten alive by the e-commerce giants. As Marx already knew in the 19th century, the power position of the worker class weakens when unemployment goes up. While Jeff Bezos is rapidly getting richer, both governments and the working class will come out of this pandemic broke and vulnerable. We have to understand that there is no regression to normality or any previous plan – expecting otherwise is pleading guilty to political ignorance. Choices between bad options will have to be made on who receives help (and what do they owe in return for this), who must bear the burden and in what direction will we go beyond ‘politics as normal’ to deal with this new reality. Many causes and groups will lose. It is in this discussion on deservingness that the notion social debt must be brought up. Too many past crises and restructurings have been paid on the backs of the poor, this time must be different. Once again, it is only through democracy that this debt can be leveraged. If not, we move towards either dystopia or more…eventful forms of politics.
Let’s end on a constructive note controversy. On May 30 2020, during an otherwise insignificant anti-government protest of a few hundred people in cars, a truly remarkable event happened. High above the SUV’s with ‘end communism’ slogans, a bus passenger leaned out the window and flexed his muscles while yelling angrily: “los obreros movemos a México! Pinches ridiculos!” (‘the working class moves Mexico’). To paraphrase Star Wars, this viral scene caused a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of conservatives suddenly got triggered in terror (‘but what about the entrepreneurs!), and were suddenly silenced. This raw expression of class consciousness singlehanded exposed the class struggle behind this simulated protest and it’s absurd and empty demand of resignation.
We have to face the truth of this slogan. Mexico has been ruled for over seventy years by people that mostly treated their own population with contempt and largely ignored them. Democracy is not just about making choices, it is primarily a mechanism for representation and redistributing power. What made the Mexican social debt grow much higher than in other countries, is that the poor majority failed to find a way to leverage it, and was frustrated in its attempts at political participation (dictatorship, single party elections, rigged elections, fake parties, minority rule, etc.). And now they at least seem to have finally found a leader that is at least willing to collect a small part of this debt, that unapologetically gives preference to the poor; that gives preference to investing in the South, etc. One that didn’t get murdered. And now, already some have the nerve to start complaining that the government is doing nothing for those on top? It’s true, it doesn’t. We can all form our own opinion on this transformation and the chances of success, but one could at least have the respect to try to understand and be patient to see how it works out. The obreros have been for centuries.