July 10, 2024

Presidenta: Will They Beat Her into Becoming a Feminist?

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Claudia Sheinbaum (left) and Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It’s hard not to get excited about finally having a woman president in a deeply machista country like Mexico, where violence against women prevails daily. Almost half of Mexican women claim to have suffered sexual violence, and eleven women are murdered every day. Having a woman president from a leftist party intensifies the progressive feeling in the country, after six years of the first leftist government. Claudia Sheinbaum, who was the first female mayor of Mexico City, is an academic, technocrat, and scientist. She is a Jew who, according to a statement she made to the leftist newspaper La Jornada in 2009, vigorously opposes violence against civilians in Gaza and the Palestinian territories.1 She cuts quite a figure compared to the alpha males who head other governments across Latin America. Sheinbaum received a historical 60 percent of the vote, and her party, Morena, or National Regeneration Movement—a left-democratic party created in 2011 by Andrés Manuel López Obrador to oppose neoliberal policies in Mexico and support diversity, human rights, and the environment—also won in many states that elected governors across the country. The party also achieved a qualified majority in the Deputy Chamber and the Senate.

Indeed, in a country ravaged by gender violence—along with other forms of violence—having a woman president from an anti-neoliberal progressive party is a message of hope. It signals a changing role for women in Mexican society and the possibility of achieving much-needed systemic change. Sheinbaum follows in the footsteps of Griselda Álvarez, who had a long career as a civil servant and politician and was governor of Colima from 1979 to 1985. Her motto was “To govern, to educate, to progress,” and her legacy includes an institute for educating women in public service in order to achieve equality with men, child care for mothers working as prostitutes, and workshops for women to become economically independent. Álvarez was also a poet:

Sonnet to Woman

To be born a woman is an immense challenge,
a fundamental circumstance, it is life-lasting,
the female is born out of sin
and the man is born full of respect.

You seek not to be an object, to be a subject
With your ovarian force sustained,
to struggle with a divided soul
because you will not be able to accomplish everything.

They give you a single, but double is demanded of you,
you bleed before the law home conquest,
in maternity, noble substance,
always a giant although charged with pain,
soft outside inside an oak,
but they beat you into becoming a feminist!2

In light of Griselda Álvarez’s legacy and feminist struggles in Mexico to achieve equality since the 1980s, Sheinbaum’s ascent to power is indeed a long-awaited and overdue victory for women’s empowerment. During Sheinbaum’s tenure as mayor of Mexico City, she promised to eradicate violence against women. However, the femicide epidemic in Mexico City (and the rest of the country) continued unabated, and perpetrators remained unpunished. Yearly fortifications are erected on March 8 (International Women’s Day) in Mexico City, with armored fences and soldiers along Reforma Avenue and the National Palace, seat of the government and home to the president. When López Obrador was in office, he accused feminists of being “conservative.” In the president’s dogmatic old-leftist view, feminist struggle is secondary to class struggle. Thus, for the past six years, women and mothers searching for missing loved ones have been the moral compass of Mexico. Theirs is the most visible social movement since 2018. Demonstrating against the government’s indifference, repression, and impunity, they have constituted the only serious opposition to the country’s machista status quo.

So I am indeed, like many others, thrilled that a woman has won. This, however, does not guarantee positive results, much less a triumph for all women. Sheinbaum inherits a patriarchal, militarist, carceral, and polarizing government, and the massive takeover of the country by Morena is worrisome to some. The not-so-hidden legacy of López Obrador is intensified extractivism, neoliberal politics on steroids, US-subcontracted militarized prosecution against migrants, climate crisis, the reign of drug cartels, and increased violence. Observers have noted that democracy may be at stake and that López Obrador’s legacy is nothing less than poisoned despotism. Right after the election, López Obrador’s famous “Plan C” was set into motion, which involves changing the Constitution to make judges elected and eliminating government institutions that serve as checks on power in the areas of environmental protection, elections, energy, and more. Some see Plan C as posing the risk of authoritarian drift in the name of the majority—a mechanism to impose a logic of power that is free of institutional counterbalances. Plan C reforms are also seen as jeopardizing judicial independence; judges and magistrates will be elected through citizen vote, politicizing judiciary power, reducing its independence, and eroding limits on executive power to change the rules of the game.

Paloma Contreras Lomas, digitalized fragment from Área equis, large format graphite drawing on canvas, 2021.

In this context, Sheinbaum’s closeness to her predecessor and mentor—a climate-change denier and patriarch—is worrying. The question arises: Will she be able to break away from him and his controversial policies—an extractivist economy powered by fossil fuels; massive cuts to public healthcare, education, and culture; Plan C; militarization; the polarization of society; and the weakening of democratic institutions? It is unclear whether Sheinbaum will manage to avoid authoritarian drift and implement actual progressive policies for Mexico, especially concerning Mexico’s current environmental crisis. Eighty-five percent of the country is currently undergoing drought, and oceans and forests lack institutional protection. High-temperature records are broken over and over again, and endangered species are dying en masse due to the heat. This year alone, natural catastrophes have displaced two hundred thousand Mexicans. Fires have burned dozens of protected natural areas, with one hundred fires burning simultaneously at one point this year. Ocean temperatures are rising, all major rivers in Mexico are polluted, and 205 internationally forbidden pesticides are used routinely, threatening the survival of bees. Mexico is on the verge of environmental collapse, and government policies have been woefully inadequate to stop it.3

In addition, this year saw the most violent election in Mexico’s history. When he assumed the presidency in 2018, López Obrador promised that he would bring peace to the country, but “hugs, not gunshots” ended up being a mere slogan, not a policy. During his tenure, more than 180,000 people were murdered, and some 110,000 were disappeared. In the lead-up to the election, at least twenty-four candidates were murdered, and their relatives and fellow party members were targeted in violent attacks. Hundreds more candidates dropped out. In particular, hundreds of women abandoned their campaigns (in Zacatecas, 217 alone); a few of them publicly acknowledged that they had been pressured to give their place to others.4 The spike in killings has been primarily attributed to cartels seeking to eliminate unfriendly candidates. According to Al Jazeera journalist Belén Fernández, this means that organized crime is calling the shots.5 What’s more, asylum seekers in unprecedented numbers are crossing Mexico to reach the US, and now drug traffickers have diversified into human smuggling. People crossing Mexico are abused and extorted by state agents and organized crime, often working in cahoots. The National Guard, created in 2019, has been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearance, and sexual violence against asylum seekers. The fact that increasing violence, official corruption, and cartel wars were barely discussed during the election means that Mexicans have gotten used to the massacres. For people in Mexico City, violence happens far away. It’s regarded as a kind of natural catastrophe akin to climate change: an inevitable part of contemporary life. A woman may have won the Mexican presidency, but according to Belén Fernández, organized crime is the real winner.6

One of the reasons for Morena’s popularity is a change in the Mexican electorate’s priorities, thanks to a radical reshaping of the collective political imaginary. In the two decades before López Obrador came to power, organized civil society fought for democracy against institutional erosion and rampant corruption, violence, and militarization, all against the backdrop of neoliberal policies. Morena’s ascent signals a sea change, transforming opposition to neoliberal hegemony into a hegemonic discourse itself, characterized by anti-classism, anti-racism, and support for social equality. This discourse has also promoted a new nationalism (all public workers, especially women, now tend to dress in indigenous attire), a rebranding of Mexican identity (including the imposition of a cultural program from above), and a form of identity politics that seeks to change the country’s embedded racist dynamics, especially around employment policies and the distribution of government aid. According to Mixe writer Yásnaya Elena A. Gil, Morena’s is a project of radical equality that goes beyond the (old neoliberal) transformation of institutions to assure democracy. In her view, the state is an institutional machinery designed by the elite, and thus Morena’s project of radical equality must break from the mere “defense of democratic institutions” advocated by its predecessors and the current opposition. This means that the majority of voters must feel that social justice is arriving with the “Cuarta Transformación” (Fourth Transformation), insofar as there can be no democracy without government-facilitated social equality and well-being for everyone.7

Polarization has always existed in the form of disagreement; it is a mechanism inherent to democracy. López Obrador capitalized on this tension, conjuring a political imaginary that made visible the deep inequality in Mexico, and combatting it with government aid and policies. Poverty indeed receded in Mexico for the first time in centuries and the peso became (albeit briefly) one of the strongest currencies in the world. What is more, people who voted for Sheinbaum care about social assistance and the increased minimum wage; they perceived greater social justice under López Obrador, and affirmed his politics by electing her. But “the poor first” is an ideological victory with a high price in reality: 180,000 murdered, 110,000 disappeared, the withering of the welfare state by way of its privatization through cash handouts, and the climate crisis, amongst other problems caused by the intensification of neoliberal politics under the leftist discourse of inclusion, anti-racism, and redistribution of wealth.8

In fact, precarity, displacement, and imminent death is a prospect faced by a significant portion of the population, not only in Mexico but around the world. One trait of post-pandemic capitalism (called “technofeudalism” by Yanis Varoufakis) is that it uses “necropower” to manage bodies that are no longer destined to be exploited as cheap labor. Necropower is a form of power beyond biopolitics. Foucault defined biopolitics as a type of power exercised not over territories, but over the life and death of populations. “Necropower” extends the notion of “necropolitics” developed by Achille Mbembe and Sayak Valencia, who describe the latter as the management of remaindered lives trapped in illness, slavery, debt, forced displacement, disappearance, and death.9 Technofeudalism now exercises necropower, by which I mean the creation and management of redundant populations lacking basic rights and means of survival. From this perspective, necropower has transformed the descendants of colonized peoples and slaves from an exploitable labor force to a negative and undesirable mass, a redundant population, or what Neferti X. M. Tadiar has called the “remaindered.”10

Paloma Contreras Lomas, Futuro, sketch for film, pencil on paper, 25 × 35 cm, 2022.

That social groups across the globe are structurally forced to occupy a state of expendability is one cause of massive waves of migration. It also drives the creation of the for-profit global detention complex. The growing number of displaced people seeking refuge from violence and environmental precarity has been commodified, giving rise to a booming industry of smugglers, guides, traffickers, drivers, ship captains, lawyers, and doctors. The extractive process linked to migration is also grounded in the outsourcing of detention and deportation by governments to private firms.11 I am talking about refugee detention centers in Australia, Mexico, Greece, Cyprus, Libya, and the US that criminalize migration; “misery belts” in Paris, Manila, and Sao Paulo; urban workers in China and in Special Economic Zones across Southeast Asia and Central America.12 The redundant populations managed by necropower include the dead and disappeared in the war on drugs in the Philippines, Colombia, and Mexico. Forcing people into these situations is the condition of possibility for the accumulation of wealth and power by those whose lives are produced as valuable to the system.

In other words, the cost of valued life thriving in enclaves of privilege across the world is the precarization and destruction of life produced as remaindered. This has led to injurious forms of interdependency on a planetary scale—the wasting and elimination of lives inhabiting “sacrifice zones.” For instance, the cost of having cheap frozen fish in European supermarkets is the elimination of native fisher populations around Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The cost of lithium and other minerals for cell phones and laptops is the forced displacement of rural communities across the Global South (and North). Injurious forms of interdependency waste the lives of those forced by colonial structures of racism to produce consumable excess for privileged populations. It entails predation as necessary to sustain (a certain form of) human life.

In this context, whether Sheinbaum will continue López Obrador’s policies is not the issue. If you support López Obrador’s policies that aim to bridge the gap of brutal class divisions, it means you’re “progressive”; if you regard them as a populist threat, you’re “conservative.” This is what fuels the current polarization, where leftists see themselves as victims or as representing victims who are finally getting restitution. A certain message is accepted as universal truth by the winners: “The poor first.”

How to theorize this conjuncture? I think Jodi Dean’s concept of “communicative capitalism” and her definition of “post-politics” are as current now as when she developed them a decade ago. For Dean, communicative capitalism repurposes democratic ideals and aspirations in ways that strengthen and support injurious forms of globalized neoliberalism.13 Therefore, the problem isn’t democratization in the form of redistribution or healthy antagonism and institutionalized power balances. It’s the systemic impossibility of thinking beyond extractivist technofeudalism as the means to sustain human life on earth. We are facing the left’s failure to think beyond neoliberalism, democracy, and identity politics—its failure to defend life and the possibility of a future. When redistribution and anti-racism as democracy—which culminate here with the ascent of a woman to power—appear as the condition of politics and the solution to contemporary political impasses, the violence of neoliberalism is hidden. This is what communicative capitalism does: through a rhetoric of inclusion, ethics and economics are fused. Post-politics means that politics has become a realm of highly mediatized and professionalized practices based on advertising, public relations, and rapid adaptation to new technologies. Following Dean, these governance practices consolidate a capitalism controlled by corporations and oligarchies, filling the political imaginary with promises and aspirations, the feeling that wrongs have been righted, that the elite has been displaced, and that “the people” (and women) are winning.


See (in Spanish).


Griselda Álvarez, “Soneto a la mujer,” date of publication and source unknown. Translated by the author. Available online .


Beatriz Guillén, “Radiografía de un ‘sexenio perdido’: México se asoma al colapso ambiental,” El País, May 31, 2024 .


Dalila Escobar, “Excluidas, silenciadas, sometidas … cientos de mujeres renunciaron a sus candidaturas,” Proceso, June 23, 2024 .


Belén Fernández, “Mexico’s Election: A Victory for Organised Crime,” Al Jazeera, June 3, 2024 .


Fernández, “Mexico’s Election.”


Yásnaya Elena A. Gil, “Defender la democracia o defender las instituciones democráticas?” El País, June 10, 2024 .


For a thorough analysis of the Cuarta Transformación’s continuation and intensification of neoliberal policies, see my The Tyranny of Common Sense: Mexico’s Post-Neoliberal Conversion (SUNY Press, 2021).


Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Duke University Press, 2016); Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism (Semiotext(e), 2019).


Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Remaindered Life (Duke University Press, 2022).


Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry, ed. Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine (PM Press, 2020).


Belén Fernández, Inside Siglo XXI: Locked Up Inside Mexico’s Largest Immigration Detention Center (OR Books, 2023).


Jodi Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Duke University Press, 2009).

Democracy, Capitalism
Mexico, Neoliberalism

Irmgard Emmelhainz is an independent translator, writer, researcher, and lecturer based in Mexico City. She is the author of Jean-Luc Godards Political Filmmaking (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), The Tyranny of Common Sense: Mexico’s Post-Neoliberal Conversion (SUNY Press, 2021), and Toxic Loves, Impossible Futures: Feminist Lives as Resistance (Vanderbilt University Press, 2022). She is a member of the SNCA in Mexico (National System for Arts Creators).


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.