Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Book Reviews: "The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics: Critical Liberalism and the Zapatistas" by Courtney Jung [Full Text]

Mar 26, 2009

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.

Avigail Eisenberg (Reviewer)

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. Jung’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 Jung, 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. Jung 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. The indigenous rights movement has worked in a topdown manner, moving from the international to the domestic to, finally, the local level, which furnishes additional evidence of the constructed rather than primordial importance of cultural identity.

There is no denying that significant accomplishments have been made in the era of indigenous identity politics. At the same time, Jung shows that the kinds of interests advanced using the idiom of cultural identity raise a host of familiar problems, including concerns about essentializing indigenous culture, allowing ethnic entrepreneurs and external decision-makers to decide what constitutes "authentic Indians," heightening divisions within communities, and effectively abandoning certain issues (such as economic redistribution and marginalization) that fail to fit into the family of cultural injustice. Jung's book describes how these problems have taken root in Mexico, specifically in the Chiapas and Oaxaca provinces, and, in the final chapter, how they are endemic to politics guided by the aim of cultural preservation. "Critical liberalism" is Jung's alternative approach, which obliges states to address structural injustice, not cultural differences. Because states have forged social groups by using markers of culture, wealth, and gender, among other traits, to organize access to power, the moral force of claims against the state depends on tracing historical injustice along these different lines.

This provocative book contains bold arguments that are sure to raise questions and concerns among scholars. One concern is that Jung's "strong social constructivism" draws too definitive a line between, on the one hand, what people think matters to them and thus what generates political claims against their governments, and, on the other hand, what actually matters to them, which on her account, is determined by assessing what the state has done to them. There is no denying that identity is constructed in strategic and relational ways and that the modern state is responsible in part for the shape that minority identities take. But Jung's analysis goes further to suggest that the politically salient features of indigenous identity consist only of what the state has done to indigenous peoples. Her position is that the state is responsible for historical injustice and is not responsible for responding to what people claim is important to them, to their deepest commitments related to cultural and indigenous identity, and to their threatened ways of life. The success of Jung's book is that she raises this and other issues in a compelling and empirically grounded manner and thereby advances a rich understanding of the relation between normative entitlements and minority politics. As such, it is bound to generate debate.

—AVIGAIL EISENBERG The reviewer is Associate Professor of Political Science and a Faculty Associate in the Indigenous Governance Program at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. She is the author of Reasons of Identity (forthcoming 2009) and coeditor, with Jeff Spinner-Halev, of Minorities within Minorities: Equality, Rights and Diversity (2005).

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