In his 1990 Nobel Lecture, Octavio Paz affirmed that “History’s sun is the future and Progress is the name of this movement towards the future”. What is difficult is to determine precisely when it advances and when it recedes: what is progress, and how is it achieved. Although it is easy to observe the great number of instances in which the country has experienced a sensible advance, the greater part of the population perceives a going backward, and entertains the sensation that things are bad and can only get worse. This has created visceral opposition to any change, but also, and paradoxically, unwholesome sympathy on occasion with miracle workers, conspiratorial theories, and other similar deviations. How can progress be measured in a better way?
The perceptions that citizens devise respond to the events, circumstances, and realities that are affecting them. A person or family may have a much better quality of life today than twenty years ago, a situation that can be measured objectively and convincingly, and, however, perceive that their situation is worse. Part of this is explained simply by the comparison that people make with their peers, partly due to objective situations (I could be better but I don’t have a job, which makes me worse), and in part due to a sensation of lethargy, paralysis, or inaction that has characterized the country for decades. Things could improve, but the generalized sense is that they get worse or, at least, don’t get better.
Gauging democratic progress is even more difficult than assessing material and economic progress because there are no measurable indicators that are grasped with ease. While one is able to calculate a salary and compare it, after removing the effect of inflation, with that which one earned twenty years ago, the same cannot be said for access to power, inter-party competition, or the quality of government. Some of these factors might appear evident (for example, that there is more freedom of expression), but it is also inescapable that, currently, more journalists lose their lives in the line of duty, above all in the world of criminality. Similarly, although it is obvious that the administration of electoral processes has improved dramatically, it is also plain that abuse by governors determined that their dauphins win elections is greater than ever
One way of appraising advances in political terrain, albeit not particularly orthodox, is to observe what has occurred in other societies that have gone through similar processes. In a work on Soviet archives, Jonathan Brent* describes his odyssey attempting to be granted authorization to publish, outside of Russia, the documents (letters, speeches, and writings) of the Soviet era, principally the documents of Lenin, Stalin, and the Communist Party. This narrative is much more than a story of the vicissitudes one would expect of an ambitious editor; it is, in the main, the description of a political system: what has changed; what has remained the same, and where something that had changed shows signs of retrogression. Eschewing all proportion, this appears to mirror our own recent evolution.
Brent begins by describing the stench that is breathable in some places, but this does not exactly refer to something one breathes, but rather, something that is perceived: as if something of the old system never disappeared and continues to be there. Although there is great aperture -people are free to travel, there is full access to the external world, and there is ample freedom of expression- the old bureaucracy remains ensconced in place and conducts itself as if it owned the world instead of as in the citizenry’s employ.
Brent’s description of the bureaucracy is extraordinary, not because it depicts the taco, the torta, and the cafecito (typical of a bureaucrat’s office in Mexico), but because it lusts after control, imposes bureaucratic requirements, works little, and boasts being the law personified. In its modus operandi, there is no notion of explaining what is required for approval of a determined procedure, and the rights of the citizens that are consecrated in the Constitution do not exist for those with the power to utter yes or no. Period.
Brent’s general message, and what brought me to think that the book is about Mexico, is that culture is more persistent than ideas and political regimes. People are accustomed to doing things in a certain fashion, and it is very hard for them to modify their patterns of behavior. Although many of the incentives have changed -in the case of Russia, for example, there are no longer detentions by the secret police in the middle of the night- arbitrariness remains the norm: the judicial authority decides whom to persecute and whom to set free, what constitutes a crime and who is guilty, and what their fate will be. In other words, the regime changed but judicial arbitrariness survives intact. The theme of culture is particularly ominous because it comprises one of the central factors making up the way people understand a theme, it shapes their responses, and even their thoughts.
In the economic ambit, the Russian continues to live in a world in which it is easier to make a living by stealing than by producing. Efficiency is a non-existent term, and productivity, even more so. Legality is what the authority and the powerful say it is, what we here are given to call “de facto powers”. In this context, it should not be surprising that corruption continues to be an instrument of power, although, states Brent, this responds to that there is no rule of law.
Mexico was never a totalitarian state like the Soviet one, but many things that Brent describes are revelatory in terms of what we have advanced in, as well as the enormous stretch that we still have to cover. For example, in the economic milieu, Mexico is much more advanced than the author describes. Although the fact that the country has a long way to go is unmistakable, Mexico’s economy is a Swiss timepiece compared with the current Russian oil economy. In terms of its bureaucracy and the judiciary, Brent’s description appears to describe Mexico. But in terms of the power exercised by the government, Russians have much more to fear in theirs than Mexicans do. Here, we have a dysfunctional government, while there they are experiencing the recentralization of power, something that surely does not bode well. This is no Nirvana, but the comparison allows one to think, or at least to dream, that what we have is progress, some type of progress, at long last progress.
*Inside the Stalin Archives, Atlas Books, 2010