The eternal struggle

The history of the independent Mexico, wrote Edmundo O’Gorman, is the perennial struggle between tradition and modernity. Every epoch has had its specific manifestations: in the 19th century, the themes were federalism vs. capitalism and republic vs. empire; in the 20th century, these included proximity to vs. distance from the U.S. and centralism vs. decentralization. In 2006, citizens were witness to the collision between the two traditions in an electoral confrontation that summed up the perennial themes in new ways: the role of the government in  development; the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); expenditures, and debt. The themes change, but the contraposition endures.

Today, the contrast can be appreciated in themes in all fields: reelection; political parties, and the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. The same is true in the debate on matters of foreign policy, concerning whether to emphasize relations with the North or the South, to intensify or reduce the economic linkage with North America, and in the management of taxes. As Octavio Paz repeatedly stressed, the theme underlying everything is whether to look forward and outside, or backward and inwards.

Mexican society is divided: one segment pines for the achievements of others, while the other takes refuge in a past that it knows. The crises of prior decades and the decomposition with which the society and politics are afflicted contribute to the sensation of many that everything new is bad. Contrariwise, others affirm that it is necessary to break with the ties to accelerate the pace and to confer a start to and viability on these expectations so often broken to pieces.

What would be better? The defenders of tradition put forth a plausible and reasonable line of argument: the population, they say, does not want more taxes, rejects re-election, and independent of that they have little respect for legislators, they consider the manner in which these vote to reject any change acceptable. At the same time, maintaining the status quo implies the perpetuation of poverty and the enormous inequalities that characterize us. On the other hand, the defenders of modernity take note of the many Mexicans who migrate to the U.S. in search of a better life, study the motivations of the ordinary citizen, and propose means for transforming the lives of the population. The problem lies in that advancement of the measures that they espouse, even if these are successful, would imply difficult and costly adjustments in daily life.

The big question is how to reconcile such opposing stances. Instead of a sum of postures, the history of change, from the clash between liberals and conservatives 150 years ago to the present partisan contraposition, has been a struggle of impositions. Throughout the country’s development, there has not been the equivalent of a syncretism that allows for adding, pacifying, and conciliating. Will it be possible to achieve a grand bargain that brings all Mexicans into a common tent?

No one doubts that the population exercises great attachment to tradition. What is not obvious is whether this adherence is the product of a desire to remain inert, or rather, whether this constitutes a response to fear of change, and, in particular, to the traumas that our history -wars, revolutions, financial crises- have left in their wake. One review of history suggests that the obstacle resides in the fear of repeating shortfalls in change, and not in the deeply entrenched customs themselves. In addition, it is not possible to ignore the tangible fact that an entire gamut of interests hides behind the past as an excuse for not changing and maintaining its own legitimacy. You, the reader, may choose the use, the custom, the labor union, or the favorite special interest (or “poder factico” in Mexican slang) as an example.

In the world era of the present, in which television has made the comforts and luxuries of daily life omnipresent, the Mexican would have to be the only earthly being to reject a better life as a an aim. Fortunately, we have irrefutable proof of this reality in the evidence yielded by millions and millions of migrants –many of these originally from the poorest and most tradition-compliant towns, such those in the state of Oaxaca-, who leave the country in an attempt to satisfy not only the most immediate needs of their families, but also their prospects.

It appears clear that the Mexican’s conservatism is the product to a greater extent of his experience than of his yearnings: bad reforms and crises that become a collective subconscious that rejects any change, not because the latter is necessarily bad, but rather, because many changes have been very costly, and those actually implemented even worse. Why would the common citizen have faith in changes advocated by those, like major special interests, who have for decades benefitted beyond the reasonable from the status quo?

To suppose that the Mexican clings to tradition and the past because it is their nature to do so entails a deep-seated arrogance, the contempt of those who assume that the population is an inert mass, and not an intelligent people capable of utilizing their own discernment. All of the evidence shows that the Mexican works hard, often upstream and against the current. Of course, there are many traditions that represent a history and a way of being and its conservation, and as in so many other societies with a grandiose past, this should be an integral part of any modernizing project.

Perhaps the greatest failure of our political system has been its inability to bring together, not only political groups, but also the society as a whole. The stability achieved in the past century was the product of a great capacity for political action, but in addition, of a simpler and more manageable era worldwide (in which the international dimension was ludicrous) and, of no lesser importance, of a disposition of the government to clamp down, by whatever means, on any opposition. The future can no longer be like this: a new ability of the government will have to be developed for the political reality of today, one that is very distinct from that of the past. And this ability will be required to respond in the same fashion to the growing obstruction represented by particular interest groups as well as persons, entities, and institutions whose logic or objectives comprise discrediting those who govern, rendering processes transparent, imposing its agenda, or activating diverse populations.

Deep down, the struggle between tradition and modernity reflects the permanent absence of assurance. As the civil wars of the 19th century led the population to take cover, the crises of recent decades encouraged absolute rejection of any change. What the people need and want is certainty and clearness of course; a population that possesses both will wager on the future. Our problem is not one of tradition, but instead, of the absence of leadership and of the assuredness that this would of necessity be obliged to contribute.