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Book Review


John Tutino, The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500–2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. Pp. 512. $39.50 (cloth).


     Tutino's new book builds on his seminal previous work, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico, that explored the underlying socioeconomic causes of Mexican Independence and the Mexican Revolution, a work that was formative in my and many other people's understanding of the role that peasant autonomy (or a lack thereof) played in peasant resistance and uprisings. In The Mexican Heartland, however, Tutino argues that while a focus on resistance, especially pivotal moments of violent resistance, still matter, they are only part of the story. Adopting the Braudelian long dureé approach combining economic and social history, Tutino explores the 500 year trajectory that saw central Mexico's transition from a major player in the world market even as the region remained largely autonomous from it to an economic afterthought buffeted by the hollowing out of the region by the neoliberal turn. Tutino recognizes that a focus on central Mexico naturally limits the applicability of his findings, but he still has much to say (and we have much to learn). In addition, he calls on other scholars to engage in similar long dureé studies of other regional centers to further flesh out (or limit) his findings.

     Tutino's book is divided into three major parts–Silver Capitalism, 1500–1820; Industrial Capitalism, 1820–1920; and National Capitalism and Globalization, 1920–2000–comprised of thirteen chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The section on silver capitalism explores the ways in which the discovery of silver, the depopulation of indigenous communities (the result mostly of newly introduced diseases) and central Mexico's connection to the world economy led to a range of differently negotiated accommodations between the Spanish empire and indigenous communities. The autonomy of indigenous peasant communities shifted over time (and varied geographically), but indigenous peoples tended to embrace silver capitalism as long as it did not come at the expense of their autonomy and ability to provide for themselves. When, at the end of the colonial period, exploitation became predatory, indigenous communities resorted to violence to reassert their autonomy, a major contribution to Mexico's independence from Spain.

     The second part, focusing on industrial capitalism, explores the relationship of local communities to capitalism in the nineteenth century. Tutino's analysis covers some familiar ground but his focus on autonomy results in a different story. Mirroring the findings of James Scott's Seeing Like a State, Tutino argues that the eras that we often focus on as filled with political instability and poor economic output can be periods of prosperity and increased autonomy for locals . . . illegibility from the state, in Scott's terms. But Tutino notes, counter Scott, that it was not exactly that peasants were illegible to the state, they just weren't capable of being controlled. Landlords complained that peasants refused to work for what seemed to elites as reasonable wages, and local priests grumbled about their inability to enforce local religious conformity. Later in the nineteenth century, as the economy recovered, peasants paid for it with a loss of lands and the ability to support themselves. The closing down of peasant autonomies led, of course, to the Mexican Revolution which, Tutino rightly contends, provided some peasant communities increased autonomies, but only for a short while. Northern capitalists won the revolution and within two decades, most of the autonomies that peasants had won were ceded back to the newly emerging one-party nation-state.

     The third part of the book examines national capitalism and globalization. The one-party state successfully pushed for greater exports and the renewed growth of industry; political elites were willing to allow for increased autonomy and peasant lands, but only as a means to advance their larger political project. Much has been written about the unevenness of the post-revolutionary, one-party state in the last couple of decades and Tutino makes ample use of these works to show the ways in which increased mechanization actually resulted in greater precarity in both rural and urban communities. Land concentrations pushed peasants from the countryside to the city, especially Mexico City, but the post-revolutionary industries could not absorb the influx of migrants, often forcing rural-to-urban migrants to construct their own neighborhoods, livelihoods, and social support services in the absence of state assistance. The national capitalist project would collapse in the 1980s; the Mexican economy's implosion (and the inability of the one-party state to respond to citizen's needs) led to rising protests and a move toward democratization.

     Tutino's epilogue, which examines the near complete collapse of autonomy for everyday people in central Mexico in today's neoliberal world, is perhaps his bleakest. Drawing on the works of Thomas Picketty and others, he notes that the financialization of twenty-first century economies leaves everyday people with little or no autonomy. What use is protesting (or democracy) if even your own government has little control over its own economy? Sadly, his critique of the neoliberal turn and its impacts appears to be true not just of Mexico. It is hard to know what good it might do for the opposition party to win if global financiers can punish anyone who might try to implement policies that would try to create renewed and additional spaces of autonomy for everyday people. As Tutino notes repeatedly, it is not the ability to rise in rebellion that has mattered historically, but rather the ability to maintain an uprising long enough to force elites to negotiate and accommodate, and the ability to maintain an uprising long enough required some level of autonomy. In a world with few places of autonomy left, the future indeed looks bleak.

Andrae Marak is a professor of history and political science and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate Studies at Governors State University in the Chicago area. He received his Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and teaches courses on world, Latin American, United States, and Chinese history and politics. He can be reached at


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