How Mexico Reshaped the Global Economy: Interview With Christy ThorntonHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, globalization, free trade, Mexican history
Only a generation removed from a world-historical revolution, Mexico enjoyed decades of sustained economic growth after World War II. But while many scholars have analyzed the country’s economic trajectory, fewer have investigated how Mexico shaped the international capitalist order itself.
A new book by historian and sociologist Christy Thornton, Revolution in Development: Mexico and the Governance of the Global Economy, adds a global dimension to the story of Mexico’s economic ascendance during the twentieth century — and its eventual ruin in the form of the 1982 debt crisis.
As Thornton shows, Mexico’s attempts to reform global economic governance played an important role in the formation of international institutions like the World Bank. But later, as Mexico became increasingly tethered to the international financial system it had helped create, the country’s radicalism eroded. By the 1950s and ’60s, Mexico was vigorously defending the prevailing system from new challenges posed by the decolonizing world.
In Revolution in Development, Thornton frames this understudied history as a cautionary tale for today’s radicals. Earlier this month, she spoke with Jacobin’s Jonah Walters about the global repercussions of the Mexican Revolution, the “undying dream” of international financial reform, and the contradictions at the heart of economic development.
What led you to write Revolution in Development?
I came to this research because I was interested in international financial institutions and the role of the Global South within them. Some of my most formative political moments were as part of the global justice movement in the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle protests. Those experiences led me to begin thinking about the role of debtor countries within international financial institutions.
When I set out to study the history of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), I kept finding unexpected references to Mexico: it surprised me to learn, for example, that the Mexican finance minister Eduardo Suárez chaired a commission at the Bretton Woods monetary conference (1944) alongside the much more famous John Maynard Keynes.
Looking back at how international institutions were created and reformed in the twentieth century, I found that Mexico’s participation always seemed to turn on questions of property and sovereignty. The idea for the book, then, was to answer how and why this happened.
Elite Mexicans, specifically experts in the field of international finance and economics, are the human subjects of your history. They’re also, in large part, your sources. Why did you choose to focus on them?
This book draws on research from a few distinct fields, and I tried to combine a sociological focus on the state and state power, an analysis of the institutions of international political economy, and attention to historical narratives “from below.”
The people I follow in this book are mostly white, male, highly educated, powerful state representatives — not marginalized voices. But because perspectives from the Global South have been largely excluded from analyses of international institutions and global governance, these elite Mexicans occupy a paradoxical place.
When they operated in the international sphere, the people I write about were frequently derided for being Mexican and judged unfit for international economic negotiations by US and European experts. Their ideas and expertise were systematically dismissed by their contemporaries — and by many subsequent scholars.
I think of this story, then, as taking some of the lessons of Latin American histories from below and deploying them in more social-scientific debates about international governance, which have only recently begun to include voices from the Global South.
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