Keep Your Eye On the Ball

Luis Rubio

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear”. Thus wrote Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. We Mexicans have much experience in these latter because, in the long run we’ve had decades of a series of transitions that have no beginning or end. In contrast to the handful of nations that achieved –due to circumstances or to exceptional leadership- constructing a negotiated transition, Mexico’s course has been a medley of true reforms, prejudices, competition and clashes with interests devoted to undermining the process. The challenges have come equally from Right and Left, bureaucracy and de facto (or veto) powers. On occasion due to apathy, on others due to the absence of vision or capacity for political delivery, the country has gone from being an authoritarian system to an undefined hybrid, steeped in contradictions and incomplete processes. I wonder whether the ongoing complexity in negotiating often ludicrous legislation (as with the political reform) or ideological battles around the energy bill could be explained in this dimension.

There are two examples that seem particularly relevant and on which there is so vast a literature that allows for a dispassionate and revealing reading. China is a country in which its government and party have planned down to even the time the sun comes out and, however, it experiences a process of change that is ever more less under the control of its authorities. The Eastern European countries supply a contrasting example because in these nothing was planned: their national and political evolution was due to a great extent to what happened in another latitude, the Soviet Union. Both cases cast light on the subject.

Robert Kaplan* has for years, and various books, been studying the Chinese evolution. His ideas may be summed up as follows: a) the era of the technocrats is coming to an end, giving rise to that of the politicians, and “politicians, even in liberal democracies, exploit people’s emotions. That could lead to more erratic, more nationalistic leaders”; b) the problem is not the democracy: “the problem in China is a vast and undisciplined State in the messy and decades-long process of liberation”; c) “Democratization in its initial stages in any society means a diminution in the power of the elite, and with the exception of totalitarian states  –which China is not anymore- the fall of the elites may lead to more intemperate policies in the short run”; and d) “the problem with authoritarian states is that if they remain in place for several decades, the only people who end up capable of running ministries and formulating policies are the authoritarian elites themselves. Thus, toppling such systems entails serious risks”.

Anne Applebaum**, expert in Eastern European countries, describes the relative success (or failure) of these nations in the following manner: “The factor most closely linked with stability and growth (in the Eastern European nations) is human: those countries that had an ‘alternative elite’ –a cadre of people who had worked together in the past, who had thought about government and who were at some level prepared to take it over- were far more likely both to carry out radical reforms and to persuade the population to accept them. Hungary, Poland –and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Balkan states- all benefited from the presence of people who had been thinking about change, and organizing to carry it out, for a long time”. “Elsewhere, opposition groups had not been so well unified or repression had been much harsher. So when the Soviet Union disbanded, former communists –perhaps dressed up as social democrats or nationalists- took charge again. Some were better, some were worse.  On the whole, they did not press for radical change –because radical change was not in their interest”.

It appears evident that both perspectives offer lessons for Mexico. Like China, Mexico underwent an incomplete change in which, despite the alternation of parties in government, the authoritarian structures of yesteryear have not been dismantled nor has a body of civil servants that grew and developed independently of the old system been incorporated. As in the least successful nations of Eastern Europe, old PRIist functionaries remained in control of the State apparatus, rendering the approval and implementation of significant reforms more difficult. It’s sufficient to recall the way that the unions of the state entities were maintained unimpaired and untouched throughout this period or the way officials of the PRD and the PAN, respectively, adapted to the ancestral, corrupt, ways of governing.

Perhaps the main lesson that these examples offer is the fact that, in the absence of an explicit agreement among the elites (Spain, Chile or South Africa) or the total collapse of the former system (Eastern Europe), the future of a nation depends in good measure on the leadership capacity found at the moment. That is, there is an extraordinary element of luck in all of this. China is undergoing a huge process of change on a daily basis and has yet to see what type of landing it will have. For their part, the Eastern European nations have exhibited very distinct politico-economic ways in their transition process, some nations ending up in much better shape than others.

In his study on the (religious) Reform movement, the birth of Protestantism, Patrick Collinson*** affirms that “no revolution, however drastic, has ever involved a total repudiation of what came before it. What do revolutionaries have to work with but the ideas and aspirations that they have inherited? What was Stalin but a new kind of tsar? Thomas Hobbes pronounced “the Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, seated crowned upon the grave thereof”. “Jesus was not the first Christian, and Luther was not a Lutheran”. The political changes and transitions among systems take time and are never alike.

Mexico will have to find its own way, with the structures, persons and vision available to it. One paradox of our peculiar evolution is that the party that always proffered the radical reform (in the Applebaum sense) did not know how to head it nor did it have the grandeur to attempt it. Now it’s up to the PRI to try it, avoiding running into snags along the way as has occurred with the Chinese government. It is not surprising that when China “hit the wall” in the past few months, its government began searching for a new strategy. Mexico is not too far from experiencing a similar crash against the proverbial wall. As soon as that happens, the government will have to build a way out. The advantage is that a lot of planning doesn’t make the difference. Maybe, after one of these typically-Mexican slapdash ventures, things will turn out well for it.

*The China Puzzle.


***The Reformation.