Complex societies, says Joseph Tainter,* tend to collapse because their costs pile up until they become dysfunctional: investments yield diminishing returns and the expenditures involved in the administration of increasingly intricate social and political structures are in perennial escalation. Although his study refers to civilizations such as the Roman Empire, the Mayas in Mexico and the Chacos in Paraguay, reading his work made me think of the South of Mexico, a critical matter for our development as a country.
The backwardness of that area in the South is not only lacerating, but also constitutes a stumbling block to growth. This region of the country, the richest in natural resources, history and demographic profile, is also the poorest and that with the fewest opportunities for development. The poverty derives from ancestral times but is preserved and reproduced by the political and social structures that prey upon and live off the status quo. The diverse programs that, from at least the sixties of the XX century, were developed and implemented to alter that reality have had very little impact.
Over the course of these past decades Mexicans have had governments (at all levels) of the Left and of the Right, PRIist, PANist, PRDist, and more recently, Morenist and, nothing changes. Some of these engaged in projects involving massive financial outlays, others undertook direct transfers; some of these transfers entertained clear electoral ends, while others adhered to objective, non-politicized, criteria. Under that rubric institutions devoted to evaluation were constituted that have become part of the debate, equally politicized. The poverty has not diminished more than marginally and that has happened, most typically, due to the behavior of macroeconomic variables such as prices, the overall rate of economic growth or the exchange rate. When the current federal government was inaugurated, its faultfinding of former governments was implacable; five years later, the same criticisms are applicable to this government itself.
Clearly, something is wrong with the very focus: the issue-at-hand is not one of spending, direct or indirect, but instead one of structural factors that perpetuate, consciously or not, the status quo. Porfirio Díaz stated that “governing Mexicans is more difficult than lassoing turkeys on horseback” and perhaps he knew and understood something in this respect: effecting changes in ancestral economic and sociopolitical structures, as in the case of localities such as the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, entails such painstaking intricacy that no one dares attempt it.
I wonder whether it is not time to rethink the entire manner of conducting public affairs. During the last half century, the country has sustained an unprecedented rhythm of changes and reforms, which have dealt new vitality and viability to a good part of the nation, but plainly not to the whole. States in certain regions, such as Tamaulipas and at least part of Veracruz, have experienced devastation in their most fundamental governmental structures due to organized crime, whereas others have remained frozen in time, abiding criminality as well as local power factors that endure by hindering any change from taking place, as in the case of Guerrero. Whether due to the criminal element or the ingrown sociopolitical structures -often associated with the narco-, there are states or regions that are incapable of emerging from their predicament.
There certainly has been no lack of diverse efforts and attempts to break these patterns, but nothing has worked. This leads me to contemplate drastic solutions, similar to those employed in other latitudes with a high measure of success. In Northern Ireland, for example, the British Government imposed “direct rule,” that is, from London: it took control of the province until the latter was able to self-govern anew. Something like this occurred in the U.S. South during the fifties and sixties, when the Federal Government deployed Federal Marshals and the National Guard to force local governments to modify their racist police practices. There are also instances of entire countries being converted into protectorates to stabilize the nation, pacify it and drive a transformation.
The key to the successful cases-in-point lies in one very specific attribute: a federal government clear on what it requires and the inclination to achieve it. If one observes the case of Michoacán in 2007 and, again, in 2013, that is, under Calderón and Peña, respectively, the result was pathetic: both dispatched the Federal Police and the Army to pacify the state but not to transform it. Pacification came about in a few weeks, but there never was a plan for transformation; in contrast, in Northern Ireland as well in Alabama, the project per se was the transformation. In a word, the key is a government endowed with clarity-of-course, a crystalline compass and a transformative project committed to revamping the local sociopolitical structures, enforcing order on organized crime and establishing a new system of government at the local level.
None of this is simple or swift, nor does it comply with the normal presidential calendars: in the cases cited, external control lasted for years and was not removed until the reality had changed. I see no alternatives, but I do see a conditio sine qua non: clarity in the objective to be sought.
*The Collapse of Complex Societies