Intellectual history Think Piece

Altering the Nation from Within: The Mexican “Working Nation” in the 1840s

By Matias X. Gonzalez

By Matias X. Gonzalez

Like most Latin American societies in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico spent its first three decades of independent life (1821-1851) in a contentious process of nation-building. Since the 1990’s, scholars have continued to discuss which signifiers were mobilized for the construction of a concept of nation as determined by specific conflicts and alliances. Florencia Mallon’s effort to drift away from a category of nation as an “already defined, integrated community with a territory, language, and accepted set of historical traditions” continues to be especially relevant in these queries. Those who have managed to introduce a greater degree of contingency into the study of Mexican nation-building have, not coincidentally, identified certain groups that destabilize the image of the nation as dependent upon an ex post facto artifact, which corresponds to a Nation-State that was ensued only in the second half of the century. The 1840’s concept of industry was a significant threshold where the world of labor and official industrialization agendas mutually contested their ideas of nation-building. In this piece, the contingency introduced by the former is analyzed.

One might justifiably ask: why analyze the world of labor and these industrial projects to understand the contested nature of the nation? The answer follows the wake of previous efforts to go beyond an “artificial” conception of the nation: the working groups articulate an original project of the nation that is in creative dialogue with other official political projects. Here, two symbolic examples are offered. On the one hand, Lucas Alamán’s Memoria (memory, or report) on the status of agriculture and industry in 1845. On the other, Estévan Guénot’s project for a silk company and some entries in one of the principal newspapers regarding Mexican industry: the Semanario Artístico. These contending figures embody, and thus help explain, the “contested processes of nation-building” in nineteenth century Mexico.

Arguably one of the most prominent thinkers and politicians of post-independence Mexico, Lucas Alamán hallmarked some of the most significant economic proposals that wished to establish a national industry. He was behind the Banco de Avío, the “world’s first national development bank” in 1830, was the head different ministries as well as the Dirección General de Agricultura e Industria (General Direction of Agriculture and Industry) in the 1840’s. Throughout the Memorias he commissioned to the government, an underlying message may be found: Mexico needed an industry that functioned as a “producer of public wealth” which could garner “enough “powerful means for the improvement of the mass of the population’s customs”. Alamán described Mexico’s economy as “backward” because it had not procured the insertion of the real product surplus into a commercial economy. This “backwardness” would only be solved by ensuring consumption of all those products that had been left out of the commercial circuit of production for consumption. The “land’s products” did not have any value if they were not “transformed in products for commerce” by local factories.

As John Tutino shows, Alaman’s proposal for a new cycle of industrial and agricultural production intended to enhance the cheapened commodities and land by increasing the availability of product and its consumption. This would increase the demand for workforce which would in turn benefit from better pay loads that would drive the population to sustain a consumption-driven, commercial economy. After the serious blows to internal finances inflicted by external debt and low mining activity since the wars of independence (1810-1821), for Alamán Mexico’s industrial recovery could only come from the activity that linked agriculture, factory production and manufacture: the burgeoning textile industry.

For Alamán, to foment the industry of spinning and weaving expressly meant producing a greater number of “habits” that could provide “more consumers for [the manufacturer’s] production”. These pieces of clothing would also serve as moral correctors for the working populations, as these individuals would forcibly present themselves in the public sphere with the clothes that had been put at the commercial market’s disposal. By enforcing the use of these habits or pieces of clothing, the rest of the population would imitate them. It was the means for the textile industry to introduce “habits of greater comfort”, a concept that was economic but had moral implications to the extent that it inspired “the taste for certain necessities and conveniences, to the general mass of the population”. Consequently, greater production would be achieved in the textile industry (by then one of the most important industries in the country). By “always appearing dressed in public”, the workers almost instantly installed “civilization” through the promotion of consumption and, therefore, of the demand for a product: a prerequisite for increased productivity.

The metaphor of “habit” as a piece of clothing capitalized to reform the working population’s customs is quite illustrative of the profound intentionality that was built into Alamán’s project of a national industry. If there was a moral dimension to this project, it was conveyed by a correction of “public morality”, which was intended as a space of economic production that, in turn, sought the consumption of habits and their public display by the individuals that inhabited the “public sphere”. If the idea was directed at the working populations, it was because of their significance for Mexico’s industry, by virtue of their number––hence the impact for the rest of society––these groups lodged: more and better habits for the working groups banally meant more and better habits in the public sphere. Reforming their habits meant reforming a great deal of the national customs people would see strolling through Mexico’s streets and plazas. The material aspect of the reformation of their customs was limited to the production of commodities, by turning the worker himself into a display of a product, and the morality it reflected, through the neatness of “economic habits”. The conceptual circuit of national industry is functional, in Alamán’s Memorias, to the cycle of production aimed at the rise of consumption. Ultimately, the construction of a national industry and a national economy was a commodity and commercial-driven transformation of the nation that sought a singular way of insertion into the international capitalist economy.

            It would not be unreasonable to argue that Alamán’s was probably the most important industrial project in 1840’s Mexico. But it would quite naïve to disregard the specificities of his projects. Particularly, to whom they were destined: if at a first glance it may seem as though they were a plight for the insertion of Mexico’s working classes into a capitalistic global market, when treading beyond the first glimpses of his ideals’ consequences, the defining borders of his economic and political theories emerge. Indeed, there is little doubt among recent historians that his industrial projects were quite clearly destined to certain groups of the nation, the so-called hombres de bien: the rising middle and high classes, mainly industrial entrepreneurs and landowners, to which and by which the republican project known as the “Centralist Republic” (1836-1846) was greatly favored. Investments, credit, monopoly over certain products as tobacco, and trade protection were all important mechanisms through which Alamán and the hombres de bien built a particular, in the strict sense of the term, capitalist economy: their very own form of “crony capitalism”. This political and economic class was not exempt of facing a conflictive appreciation by the nation’s other groups, among others by those less advantaged industrials that were more concretely seeking the establishment of industries for the nation.

The difficulties in the establishment of a national industry and a national community emerge quite immediately when the historian minds another set of sources. A Frenchman named Stéphane Guénot, rechristened Estévan, had patiently sought the establishment of a Compañía Michoacana para el Fomento de la Seda (Michoacan Company for the Fomentation of Silk) through a discordant negotiation with the Junta General de Industria (General Council for Industry) in Mexico City. His dissent with the Junta General, and with the official agenda backed by Alamán and the hombres de bien, is quite transparent in an article published in the Semanario Artístico, probably the main newspaper where the idea of the “fomentation” of industry in Mexico was discussed at the time.

In it, he discussed the idea that productivity linked to consumption was the adequate solution for Mexico’s industry immobility. This idea, he argued, was based on a system of competition between the nation’s groups that did not even slightly consider that “not all are what they resemble because of the humble suit that covers them”. In an outright defense of their labor, Guénot warned Mexican manufacturers to beware of how the opulent confusingly “blames you for their shortcomings”. Although they continuously lamented about the need to morally reform the worker’s habits and customs, they did not “employ their riches to occupy you and thus remedy the ills they complain about”, namely, idleness. Instead of accurately distinguishing those that “affectionately embraced idleness” from those that were reduced to idleness because of “lack of work” due to the “current state of affairs”, the rich industrial continuously evaded the real solution to the nation’s industry: giving labor to the working groups. If they gave labor to those in lack of work or employment, the rich would alleviate the worker’s luck while simultaneously increasing “their own wealth”. The hombre de bien, who knew that “his duty was to provide well-being to himself as well as to his like” and did not pursue this affair, was nothing short of a “criminal”.

Guénot was openly criminalizing the crony capitalism that was being built by Alamán and the hombres de bien. Not necessarily because of its corrupt system, but because of the selected advantages their industrial system for consumption enacted. His project did not revile the idea of “material prosperity”: “pecuniary advantages” were not to be preemptively disregarded. Yet the development of national industry involved “conciliating the interests of all social classes”. Indeed, the economic and political conciliation of the nation’s groups was carried out by the participation of the “vast majority of the population”, the “impoverished classes”, in the benefits produced by “material labor”. Labor was thus conceived as the destiny of the “poor classes”, which would ward off the worker from the “hideous egotism of the monopolists”.

Instead of conceiving an industry trapped in the circuit of production for consumption, industry was fueled by labor, which was not the result of commodity production, but of the conciliation and cooperation of the working groups of the nation. This concept was not only his. In 1844, an artisan corporation backed his ideas on industry and labor: “To give a productive industry to the impoverished class is a purpose the governments should not lose sight of”. Noticeably, the contrast between these groups’ industrial projects stems in the principle upon which they were built.

For the hombres de bien industry was erected on the principle of increased consumption in relation to the existing, and potentially growing, productivity of local factories and economic activities. Theirs was an industry destined towards commercial activity understood as the search for “lucre”. Productivity and competitivity between the producing sectors were in contrast with the cooperation and conciliation between the working groups, intended in the broad sense of the word, which includes the hombres de bien, industrialists, as much as the manufacturer and the artisan. In fact, Guénot did not refrain from including the wealthy heads of national industry in his project, albeit with a critical stance. The contrast he conceived between productivity and cooperation is transparent once the historian notices that the class antagonism at the root of these divergent industrial projects is not so much suppressed as displaced. Capitalist competitivity was shifted towards the logic of labor cooperation, hence class antagonism between the “monopolists” and the working groups is not so much “solved” through consumption of the product of labor, as much as it is funneled through the cooperation of the working groups of the nation.

The working groups embodied a concept of industry that was in open “disagreement” with the one imagined by Alamán and other industrial leaders of 1840’s Mexico. Through the practices incorporated into their labor, national industry was repurposed as a guarantee of productivity through the conciliation of hitherto contending parts of their economy. In this sense, they were seeking new political values upon which to organize their society. The motive behind these new set of political-economic values thus utter a concept of nation that was radically alternative to previous and coexistent conceptions of nation. Instead of hampering these groups’ political projects through an ex post facto reconstruction that veils their logics of the nation under the Nation-State, labor historians should conceive their alternativity as radically as the worker and entrepreneur Guénot did. In sum, it should be possible to think of the labor association’s political and industrial projects as capable of epitomizing their very own political, social, and economic imaginaries of the nation, what could be called “Working Nation”[i].

[i] This concept is the product and title of a two-year seminar in the Laboratorio de Investigación sobre Movimientos, Estado y Sociedad (LIMES) in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina. It is thus nothing short of a fruit of collective discussion with colleagues that come from different social sciences backgrounds.

Matias X. Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the University of Turin, in Italy. His interest in the intercrossed dialogues between conceptual history and social history have taken him from studying Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin, to C. H. de Saint-Simon, to currently writing a dissertation on the interconnected history of the Mexican and French working nations in the mid-nineteenth century.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Mexican dresses by Casimiro Castro.