Antinomy, a contradiction between two things such as laws or principles, describes well the dilemma of Mexico, but one which has been systematically sidestepped as if it were not to exist. Instead of facing up to the problem of governance, each of the governments of the past three or four decades pretended it to be manageable without resolving its essential contradictions. The problem has been apparent for a long time, as I have attempted to set forth in this space, but it was the reading of the new compendium of Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo* that enabled me to find the missing piece of the puzzle to determine precisely what this problem was.
The fundamental problem of Mexican society is governance. In the past, says Escalante, the political arrangement consisted of adapting “the immense heterogeneity of the social needs and to offer, on a case by case basis, money, regulations, quotas or licenses, concessions or tolerance for non-compliance of the law. And for the latter a reasonable margin of impunity to administer the public resources.” In one paragraph, Escalante synthesizes the essence of the functioning of the old system: corruption, illegality, impunity, all of which safeguarded the peace and created an environment in which a certain degree of progress was satisfied. None of this is novel, however much the current government flaunts it as its great innovation.
What cleared up the panorama for me was the role of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in attaining that governance. My point of departure had been that the conjunction between the government and the PRI (two of the several components of which Escalante denominates the State) allowed for maintaining control and stability, in addition to creating conditions for economic progress. The text, especially the chapter on the PRI, makes it clear that Mexico had a feeble government, dedicated basically to properly administrative functions, but in which the activity expressly of governance was carried out by the PRI Party: the function of “mediation, between State and society, between capital and labor, between the legal order and the informal order, between the expectations and the possibilities, in order to resolve the fundamental problem of the weakness of the State and the dispersion of power.”
The PRI was constituted to institutionalize the power, eliminating the political violence that culminated in the assassination of President Álvaro Obregón (1928). Its function, in the words of Escalante, had been to deal with the dispersion of power, but above all to replace the mission that, under other circumstances, would have corresponded to the government. Escalante further argues that a weak State “that does not correspond to the ambition of the idea of the State, which cannot impose wheresoever its authority in an immediate and unconditional manner, such that the decisions must always be negotiated.” The party ends up being “a resource to contribute to managing, governing or rendering governable that situation.”
The nodal point is that, throughout the 20th century, Mexico had been able to count on an effective political system because the PRI substituted for the absence of governance capacity due to the intrinsic weakness of the government, because of its lack of institutionality. The PRI became a mechanism through which decisions were intermediated, the society was organized, the political control was maintained, and this was negotiated with the diverse groups and interests so that the assemblage of these would work, however that happened: with corruption, special arrangements, favors, arbitrariness and total impunity. It worked as long as it was effective. Like everything in life, its success produced the seeds of its own extinction: to the degree that the country advanced, the economy diversified, the middle class expanded, the population grew and dispersed, those arrangements were no longer capable of addressing the problems that began to present themselves, above all from the end of the seventies.
The reforms of the eighties and the nineties consisted in essence of attempting to formalize everything that the PRI had carried out informally: rather than special agreements, general laws and in place of the politization of the decisions, clear and transparent rules. The point is that the political as well as the economic transition implied the dismantling of the mechanisms that up to that moment had comprised the essence of the country’s governance. And nothing was substituted for them. The pretense was that the electoral democracy would create a new system of government and that a vigorous economy would resolve the problems of poverty and regional inequality. In a word, the mechanisms of the old order were dismantled but the scaffolding of a new source of governance was not built (nor, clearly, were the economic problems resolved nor those of violence and criminality, additional evidence of the absence of government).
Three decades later a government came into power that was dedicated to return to the broad “margins of discretional maneuvering with utter impunity for the political class, opacity regarding the public expenditure, possibilities of electoral manipulation and new spaces of intermediation.” Neither the old system nor the “new” one are the solution to the most deep-seated problem: the Mexican government does not work.
To top it all off, the singular characteristics of today’s President may have permitted skirting the integral collapse of the government, but nothing guarantees that the individual who will come after him possesses the capacities and abilities to sustain it.
*México: el peso del pasado. (Mexico: The Weight of the Past). Cal y Arena.