A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
Outcomes, and Vision
|We of the 21st century know that conflict does not go away, just because
messages move at the speed of light. Some of us thought, a few years
ago, that the Web, the Internet -- under whatever label -- offered us a
marvelous world of connections that we could make ourselves. Now,
it is also a world that administrators can study, and manipulate, and control.
Internet connections have become avenues of intrusion.
In 1833 the mule-drivers of Mesoamerica could still believe that it was their office in life to provide the physical connections, from one community to another, extending people's scope ever beyond the next horizon. 1833 was the year, though, that Manuel Escandón, from Orizaba, bought up the Yankee stagecoach equipment that operated out of Veracruz, and began building a monopoly network that was to extend over the main lines of action in the First Civil War. It was the government of Antonio López de Santa Anna that gave him the monopoly contract.
Mule-drivers tried to mount a protest movement. Much good it did them.
As soon as we think we have the resources for connecting and communicating, and just as we begin sensing that a strategic organism is emerging to express popular will, we find that the engineers who build networks, by deliberate planning, have been working hard to make sure that our "organism" is really their "machine."
Manuel Escandón outlasted Santa Anna. He, and then his relatives after him, were the ones who floated railroad plans, even while the liberal and conservative political parties were fighting their Second Civil War, in the time of the French Intervention and Maximilian's empire. The Escandón crowd were still there, and succeeding, when Porfirio Díaz achieved the dictatorship of which Santa Anna had vainly dreamed.
In each century the conflict, whether trotting slow or flashing fast, has aligned on one side all the connections that work close to people's lives, against the controls that would govern both communication and life.
Sometimes the projected arrangements were conservative, like the religious brotherhoods or cofradías of Mesoamerica. Sometimes they were secessionist military clans, as among the Cheyennes or Comanches. Sometimes they were the old "nomadic" part of a people, not yet "reduced" or "congregated." Sometimes they were maroons on the edge of a slave community. Sometimes they were improvised paramilitary groups, like the brotherhoods or lodges of Hunters in Quebec. Sometimes they were callow liberals, like the yorkino lodges of Mexico. Sometimes they were practical people who did the work of carrying goods and messages between communities, like the arrieros of many Latin American countries.
When communicating units come into contact with each other, their reactions
can work as positive signals or negative, as cooperation or rejection.
They may appear hostile toward each other, like the supposedly "traditional"
enemy tribes of the Great Plains. But they still form webs of signal
and response, generating an autonomous network that is logically distinct
from any control circuit inserted from above by merchants or bankers, generals
From the standpoint of present-day efforts at popular network-building -- both the successes, and the failures -- the object in studying the First Civil War is precisely to understand what conditions made for success and failure, even then. Popular efforts were still handicapped more by the weight of established authority than by the power of new capital. The eventual control alliance, between money and arms, had not yet been securely forged. Vicente Guerrero, and Samuel Sharpe, and Rafael Carrera, were showing that initiatives from the ground level of society could attain new levels of outreach and influence.
In the event, these levels were swamped by the force of stronger control systems imposed from above. Thus the practical question: In any time when space opens up between old systems and new, what kinds of ground-level action will keep the emergent networks oriented to the popular interest?
At the worst, ground-level actions may lack autonomy from the outset. They may be saddled with paternalistic leadership coming out of some older social sector. Even if they seize on a new technology that older leaders do not understand, the older leaders can soon enough hire their own tame experts.The popular initiatives of the 1830s were not a matter of "what might have been." They are examples of what grass-roots action in any period can attempt, if it finds an opening between old and new, between the systems of control based on traditional authority and the systems based on corporate organization. They are the practical examples in an exercise-book that never goes out of date, and a warning not to forget.
When networks arise from genuine ground-level initiative, they are still vulnerable to being taken over from above. Popular organizers are sometimes corrupted by their own ambition to enter the ranks of authority. While this may not be typical in the life-history of social movements, it is not just a rare exception that sometimes intervenes. And popular leaders are also vulnerable to the rivalry between one patria chica and another, or between one patria étnica and another.
On the other hand, when authority introduces new control connections f rom above, this process may depend on technicians and middle-level enforcers whose loyalty is brittle. At least in theory. these brittle elements can be detached from the control system, even "co-opted from below." In the Americas of the early 19th century, cultural nationalism could work either way -- sometimes a vehicle for the consciousness of those brittle elements, sometimes an ideology for tying ground-level action to paternalistic control.
Forgetting works in space as well as time. The anti-system junkies of the 1990s were often libertarians who thought that the sophisticated markets of the United States were what define the world. If they thought at all about past examples of resistance, they though about Confederates and Indians on the periphery of a modern world. They thought little about Native Americans at the center of their own world, and none about centers of initiative outside the bounds of what is now the United States.
That is a prescription for failure. To limit our vision to that geographical horizon is to concede initiative to the organizers and authoritative system-"builders" at the core of a restrictive system. We need a better, wider perspective for those who are interested in seeing popular networks "grow": a view that gives "growers" in all areas access to the whole of the interconnected network experience in their collective past. That experience was not defined within national boundaries in the 1830s, any more than it is now.
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