PSA Co-sponsors distinguished Political Theorist in Mexico

Mexican PSA confers lifetime membership on John Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, University of Cambridge

Professor John Dunn and Oniel Díaz Jiménez, Associate Lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of the Autonomous University of Mexico State (UAEM).

Toluca is not one of Mexico’s great historical cities. It is a large industrial town, quite close to the capital (a centre for firms like Nestlés or Pfizer) and a state capital itself. It has a State University which is also large by British standards. At over 2500 metres, it sits high up beneath a volcano. But in the warmth and generosity of its hospitality, and the buoyancy and energy of its more than a thousand participants from all over Latin America and much further afield, the conference which it hosted made an unforgettable and wholly winning setting in which to think and talk with innumerable companions about the politics of Mexico, the two continents to which it feels itself to belong, and the world as a whole.

Mexico’s Political Science Association (AMECiP) is relatively young, and its Toluca meeting (11-13 September 2014) was only its second international conference, but in exhilaration and intensity of interest it is hard to imagine how there could be a meeting in Europe or to its North which could begin to rival it.

The conference eloquently celebrated foreign scholars recently lost who had given much of their lives to the study of Latin America (notably Juan Linz and Guillermo O’Donnell) and greeted one of its six keynote speakers, Adam Przeworski, like a rock star, although, as far as I could make out, he had had few, if any students from Mexico itself. The organisers were consistently courteous and appreciative, taking endless photographs of all foreign visitors (the cameras on mobile phones make a formidable contribution to Mexican life today). We were asked impossibly hard questions with grace and good fellowship, and listened patiently to the answers.

The Mexican PSA conferred on its six keynote speakers, all of whom taught in foreign institutions or based their research there, Honorary Life Membership of the Association, explicitly in each case in hope of continuing contact with them, in the near future. Four of these, Marta Lagos from Argentina, who operates the Latinobarometer; Mariana Llanos from Mexico itself, now based at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg; Adam Przeworski and Laurence Whitehead from Nuffield College, Oxford, each worked extensively on Latin America; and Jon Elster, perhaps more at home in Norway, Paris or New York, had many former pupils in Mexico’s leading universities.

As a foreigner who knew no one at the conference beforehand, and who spoke no Spanish at all, it would not have been hard to feel out of place. In the event I simply could not remember a more enjoyable and engaging academic meeting on a comparable scale. What made it so isn’t hard to pin down.

For a country of profound historical inequalities in wealth and power, and a terrifying level of current violence in many parts, what stood out was the ease and good cheer of relations across the participants, from the youngest students to the Rector of the University himself. There were scores of impeccably professional panels besides the plenary sessions, and the atmosphere in these must have varied greatly, but the overall mood of the conference as a whole was festive as well as serious, and for all the avidity with which it interrogated politics, it was almost never solemn. Each day ended with receptions for all participants (and at least half the participants and perhaps many more were clearly students, not holders of academic posts). The students certainly partied on with gusto long into the night.

The blend of fiesta and purposeful political inquiry at the Conference made a very Mexican synthesis. It suggested, at least to me, that there is much the Political Studies Association might learn from getting out more. I was extremely grateful to PSA for aiding me to do so on this occasion. There couldn’t have been a better setting in which to argue for our need to see the history of human political thinking as global in scope throughout, and by now only accurately intelligible in principle by recognizing the intersection of its local trajectories today.

John Dunn is emeritus Professor of Political Theory at King’s College, Cambridge