The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics: Critical Liberalism and the Zapatistas

By Eisenberg, Avigail | Ethics & International Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics: Critical Liberalism and the Zapatistas


Eisenberg, Avigail, Ethics & International Affairs


The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics: Critical Liberalism and the Zapatistas, Courtney Jung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 350 pp., $85 cloth, $29.99 paper.

The scholarship on identity politics tends to be divided between those who argue that threats to culture constitute legitimate grounds for minority entitlements, and those who argue that culture has no independent moral force in politics and thereby provides no grounds for legitimate entitlements. Courtney Jung's book belongs in the second group. Jung offers a normatively informed and empirically grounded critique of approaches that justify minority rights on the basis of the need to protect culture, arguing that the political significance of culture depends only on how it has been used by the state as a "marker of exclusion and selective inclusion" (p. 286). The political condition of minorities is determined by structural injustice, not cultural difference. Therefore, the morally compelling basis for minority claims, and the political standing of groups to make these claims, "flows not from who they are, but from what has been done to them" (p. 21).

Jung devotes attention both at the beginning and end of the book to normative debates about cultural rights, while the middle chapters offer an empirical account of why structural oppression rather than cultural difference is a better way to understand the circumstances and legitimate claims of minorities--in particular, the indigenous peoples in Mexico. As the last 300 years of history show, indigenous peoples have been socially constructed by the Mexican state, which has at different times channeled their identities into the categories of race, in relation to the colonial state, class, following the revolution, and ethnicity, within the newly minted multicultural Mexico. lung's rich account, especially of the movement from peasant to ethnic indigenous politics, shows that indigenous peoples have identified and organized themselves as a class or an ethnicity depending on how their access to power has been structured through various policies, party politics, social movements, trade relations, land use reform, and agricultural production. Some policies have denied indigenous peoples favorable terms of access to power, while other policies--such as those that recognized Indians as peasants to whom land redistribution is due--included them in selective ways. This uneven inclusion and exclusion created incentives for collective mobilization along the lines of class or ethnicity at various times. According to lung, the question we should be asking is not how best to protect the distinctive identities of indigenous peoples, but rather what features of politics create incentives for groups to mobilize on the basis of cultural identity, and what limits these features place on addressing the injustices minorities experience.

As an ethnic group, indigenous peoples today participate in the expanding world of international human rights in order to secure cultural and indigenous rights. Domestically, they are mobilized against cultural assimilation and in favor of such measures as local autonomy and special rights to representation, lung shows that class or peasant-based politics is ineffectual in the current neoliberal context, a fact that is not lost on indigenous rights activists, who have acted as ethnic entrepreneurs to mobilize communities to adopt strategies that offer the most political leverage under today's circumstances. …

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