Michael K. Bess – Routes of Compromise

23 August, 2021 - examPrep

Michael K. Bess’s Routes of Compromise: Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, 1917-1952 is a comparative history of Nuevo León’s and Veracruz’s road building institutions and initiatives. Though in subject matter a history of infrastructure, Bess’s is, in approach and in the kinds of questions asked, much more a political and labor history. Though he professes to study “the Mexican state through the prism of its engineering bureaucracies” and to take a regional approach that “underscores the powerful influence of state officials and local groups vis- à- vis federal authorities”, Bess’s Mexico is still one in which the defining feature of any time period is the man who occupies the presidency, the idiosyncrasies of his individual personality, and his particular vision for a modern Mexico invariably thwarted or at least undermined by graft, nepotism, and corruption. Bess’s Mexico exists in and can be completely explained by a dialectical tug-of-war between agrarian socialism and industrializing capitalism, between subordinate cooperation with the US and national self-determination, between the “low” politics of campesinos and the “high” politics of elite politicians, and between the revolution’s promise of social justice and its promise of economic prosperity. This does not make it, prima facie, a bad or misleading history, simply a trite one.

Bess’s concluding remark, that

As the government points to road building as symbolic of economic progress, other people will dispute this narrative, converting roads and streets into spectacles of gridlock, burned buses, and political struggle. It is indicative of economic and social tensions rooted in the very idea of Mexico itself, dating not just to the causes of the Revolution but also to national independence and the legacy of colonialism 


reveals the intractable sway this kind of narrative holds over Mexican history. Whether you are telling a story about the oil industry, land redistribution, structural adjustment, or, as in this case, road construction and automotive transport infrastructure, the government “points to [X] as symbolic of economic progress”, other people dispute that narrative, “converting [X] into spectacles of [insert examples of social fragmentation, economic inequality, and political struggle wrought by X] and X inescapably becomes “indicative of economic and social tensions rooted in the very idea of Mexico itself.” This particular simplistic dialectical idea of Mexico is not the dispassionate result of careful historical analysis that these histories purport it to be but rather the preconceived assumption that inevitably predetermines the conclusions of these histories. This idea of Mexico parasitically insinuates itself into the historical corpus, solely concerned with its own reproduction and propagation, consequently coercing the historiography of Mexico into the social reproduction of a caricature of Mexico sisyphean-ly enslaved to the revolution’s dreams and nightmares in perpetuity.

That being said, Bess succeeds at illustrating the productive role road building played in Mexican state building (and also, albeit less explicitly, the role it played in building institutions of labor solidarity often in opposition to the state and its partnerships with industry). Before nationalization of the oil industry, state governments, in concert with laws inflected with revolutionary ideals and sympathetic interpretations from the judiciary, were able to increase their sovereignty over foreign owned oil companies in Veracruz. After nationalization of the industry, the federal government was able skirt the consequences of nationalization and re-establish commercial amity with the United States by agreeing to a laughable one-time payment of US$37 million to Standard Oil in exchange for a bi-lateral agreement that included US$10 million for road building. After PEMEX tankers were sunk by a German submarine and the United States repatriated the recovered remains of Mexican mariners, the Mexican government paraded their bodies in state down the Pan-American highway, simultaneously fomenting support for the war and public emotional connection to national road infrastructure. While Bess succeeds at illustrating the relationship between road building and state building, there is nothing particularly revelatory about the claim that large scale government investments in infrastructure extend the power of the state. Bess could have elaborated these claims by gesturing to historiographic discussions of territorial politics (as Chandra Mukerji does for her story of state-building-through-infrasture), but does not. In fact, I am finding it difficult to find any attempt by Bess to engage with related ongoing historiographic discussions except, perhaps, when he mentions in the introduction that James C. Scott and Eugen Weber have also written about the role of road building in shaping national identity. They are never mentioned again, nor are any of the other historiographic issues mentioned in the introduction, so it is difficult to judge Bess’s contribution to the literature. 


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