Mexican Independence, the Multitude, and “Machete”
Yesterday was Mexico and Chile’s Independence Day — a particularly important one for Mexico as it is the 200th year anniversary of their overthrow of Spanish colonial rule and the 100th year anniversary of their overthrow of the capitalist dictator Porfirio Diaz. I decided to celebrate this important day by attending a scholarly lecture by Dr. Michael Gonzalez on the origins of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, then going to the theater to watch Robert Rodriguez’s new movie Machete (starring Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Segal, Cheech Marin, and Lindsay Lohan), and finishing the evening with a shot of tequila and a beer with one of my comrades at the little bar down the block from my apartment.
So, you may be looking at the title of this blog and wondering what Mexican Independence, the movie Machete, and the theoretical concept of the “multitude” have to do with each other. And of course what they have to do with each other is exactly the point of this post, so I hope you will keep reading in order to find out. But first, check out the trailer for the kick-ass movie Machete.
And second, if you aren’t familiar with the multitude concept, it was theorized somewhat recently by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in their books Empire (2000), Multitude (2004) and Commonwealth (2009) and by Paulo Virno in Grammar of the Multitude (2004) and Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (2008), but the concept can be found in Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1513), Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive (1642), and Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). Essentially it is a category that can be contrasted to other concepts such as the People (as in the phrase “we the People of the United States…”) and civil society, which are determined by a territorial, national government. The multitude are autonomous, plural, and deterritorialized, and might seem to have no foundation for political agency or even civilization, and yet — as such, despite that negative characterization — the multitude is very productive, innovative, creative, and positively resistant to the oppressive regime of capitalist social organization.
Third, if you aren’t familiar with the history of the two Mexican revolutions, the first “Mexican War of Independence” in 1810 somewhat resembles the United States’s 1776 revolution in which the basic racist power structure remained intact — i.e., for the U.S., merely shifting colonial rule from the elite bourgeois capitalist class in London to the elite bourgeois capitalist class in Boston, New Haven, New York, Philadelphia, and Charlestown, and for Mexico from Madrid to Mexico City. But the second “Mexican Revolution” a century later was a social revolution of the working class, peasant farmers, and indigenous people to overthrow the capitalist dictatorship. Significantly, this dictatorship had been working on behalf of the interests of U.S. capitalists to expropriate land from farmers (many of them Native Americans) and to exploit laborers in mines, oil fields, and factories. One of the government’s political tools against labor organization, farmer’s unions, and the development of civil society was the threat of state violence and police brutality. Against the oppressive and exploitative regime, uprisings emerged across the state of Mexico, often autonomous of each other — the most famous of which was the romantically Robin-Hood-like Pancho Villa. What I most appreciated about the lecture I heard by Dr. Gonzalez was just how diverse, convoluted, and autonomous the various social movements that produced the revolution in 1910 were — often having very different origins, regional and ethnic commitments, political agendas, and styles of organization. In other words, one might say that this social revolution exhibited some of the characteristics of the “multitude” theorized by Virno, Negri, and Hardt. Nevertheless, what remained unclear to me at the end of Gonzalez’s presentation is how a singular, unified political form eventually emerged out of that multiplicity of creative revolutionary activity.
So, back to the movie. Its main character Machete is an ex-Mexican Federale police office who fled a government corrupted by a drug lord and became an illegal immigrant day laborer in Texas. He is “hired” to assassinate a senator whose racist political platform is anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican, but of course this is all a ruse. The person who hired him actually works for that senator, and they are both in league not only with redneck, anti-immigrant vigilantes but also with the same Mexican drug lord who is Machete’s nemesis. We soon discover that the anti-immigrant political rhetoric is all a smokescreen to cover their effort to monopolize the drug trade by building a wall between Mexico and the United States, a wall that they alone control. Meanwhile, Machete teams up with Luz — a.k.a., “She” — who is a leader of the underground “Network” that assists immigrants and organizes resistance to their oppression on both sides of the border. The police fail to understand how the “network” is organized, insisting that it must be a top-down organizational structure with “She” at the top. However, of course it is actually a loose organization in which all its members operate autonomously and according to their own moral conscience.
How this relates to the theory of Negri and Hardt and the history of the Mexican Revolution is this: (1) The political form of capitalism is a network of groups that one would think would be opposed to each other (i.e., American senator, anti-immigrant vigilantes, and a Mexican drug cartel) but actually operate together to control the economy. The “wall” between nations is merely a tool of transnational capital. (2) The resistance to capitalism is also a borderless “network” of diverse groups and interests bound loosely together by affective social relations. In the movie’s climactic battle between the evil capitalist network and the good multitude network, we see pictographic representations of how the multitude operates — the multitude of many bodies — farmers, nurses, caretakers, automobile mechanics, and restaurant dish washers all coming together, all using the tools of their own trade as weapons. The way this multitude communicates with itself is shown when messages gets passed from one person to another and to another and so on through cellular text messaging. In fact, the innovative use of cell phones as an organizing tool is foregrounded when Machete says that he “improvises.” Or, to quote singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco (which Negri and Hardt do), “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” And this would include tools of communication and cultural identity. At the same time, the affective ethical bonds of the multitude are constantly demonstrated throughout the movie, for instance when the daughter and employees of the Senator’s evil campaign manager turn against him and side with the multitude’s Network. I can’t help but believe that the film’s director Robert Rodriguez has read Negri and Hardt’s work and was consciously parodying it in his movie.
The question for me is the effect of the parody. Rodriguez’s film is glitzy, gratuitously violent, and intentionally absurd. If you have seen his other work and his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, then you can imagine what I mean. For example, a woman pulling a cell phone out of her vagina after stabbing Machete, and Machete using someone’s intestines as a rope to scale a wall, and the absurd climactic scene where sexy nurses in short skirts are shooting machine guns. Does this parodic circus of clownish violence undermine the theory of Negri and Hardt by making it so laughable? Or is the entertaining cinematic romp actually a vehical (or tool) for imagining the future of political resistance… or a tool for exposing the idiotic, racist rhetoric of mainstream American politicians and corporate media…. It’s hard to say.
Sadly, whether because of the excessive violence or because of the pro-Mexican message, the movie was so unsuccessful in central Minnesota’s nowhere town where I live that hardly anyone was in the movie theater both times I saw it this week, and it only played for one week before the theater decided to cancel the movie because of the low ticket sales. This is a bummer because a lot of my students said they wanted to see it. I know it was more successful in cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis, because of e-mails I got from former students who live there, but still…. Sigh.
Anyway, I am dashing off this blog quickly because I have to teach class and have a zillion other things to do, but in honor of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and all revolutions yet to come, I have just one last thing to say — ¡ya basta!
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