Gadfly and great satirical actor Groucho Marx once observed that “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it and then misapplying the wrong remedies.” The prevailing notion in Mexico is that the country is over-diagnosed, that the problems are known and understood, and that the genuine problem lies with legislators and government officials not committing to and acting upon approving “the reforms”, thus forfeiting the opportunity for the country to get ahead. However, it is not obvious whether the diagnoses have become unsullied truths, or whether the content of the reforms, reiterated ad nauseam, are correct. While the country evidently is in need of innumerable reforms, the content of these is important, and no less than key, for leading toward the objective of getting out of the rut and giving free rein to development. Nothing courts danger more than doing the incorrect correctly.
The essence of our problematic centers on a sole concept: conflict. Conflict is inherent in any society. As homogeneous as it might be, there is no community of humans that does not manifest differences, interests at odds, or incompatible perspectives. Ralph Miliband, one of my great teachers, affirmed that without conflict, it is impossible to understand human society. Conflict is part of the daily life of the most institutionalized and civilized, as well as the most contentious and violent of societies. The difference between these does not reside in the existence of conflict, but rather, in how conflict is processed and revolved.
The prevailing diagnosis trusts that the problem of institutional paralysis lies in our incapacity to agree on something. Thus, the argument goes, it is urgent to find a way to bridge the gap among positions; this done, the country would begin to flourish. Thence, proposals that are that are oriented not toward channeling conflict but, instead, to suppressing it: to create majorities, even if they are artificial, so that, this time, we can emerge from the impasse. In essence, there is nostalgia for the presidential solutions of yore, and concurrently, for the Spanish and Chilean transitions in which all political forces agreed to disregard the past in order to construct a new future.
Contemplated in retrospect, the circumstances of these two nations prior to the end of dictatorial government were very distinct from those of our reality. Both Spain and Chile built legal systems that functioned as mechanisms to settle disputes, and that afterward served as platforms for the transition itself. In Spain, there was an explicit agreement to maintain the post-Franco Constitution, not because it was good or because it had the blessing of the new political structure, but because all forces recognized how fundamental it was to maintain a legal regime to which everyone was obligated and that set down the rules of the game. In Mexico, the rules of the game were those of the PRIist system, and were based, not on a functional legal system, but on the power of the president. This system eroded and finally collapsed in 2000. In contrast with Chile and Spain, Mexico entered into a political transition process without a map, without game rules, and without institutions capable of channeling and resolving political conflict. Viewed in this manner, it should have been obvious that a transition such as those in Chile and Spain was simply inconceivable in Mexico.
Then along came what Joaquín Villalobos denominated “the democratic deception syndrome.” For those who expected a smooth transition, disenchantment has been major. The greatest problem at present does not lie in lack of action, but in error in diagnosis and closed-mindedness when faced with the desideratum for analysis. Rather than recognizing the inevitability of conflict as a component of human nature, the debate has been absorbed in the need to impose majorities and to returning to what supposedly worked under the PRIist regime that, in all fairness, had it been so marvelous, would not have fallen as it did…
Democracy is inevitably conflictive; it generates uncertainty and opens spaces for the public and political participation of all social actors, including those who are undesirable. Democracy requires rules for it to be able to work, and these are the product of negotiations in which all of the actors relinquish the privileges of the old order in exchange for institutionalism: it is not a simple process, nor is it one lacking in contradictions. The old establishment attempted absolute control over minds and souls, and by this route, the suppression of conflict. As imperfect as our democracy may be, the opening inexorably entails the presence and involvement of indigenous and narco communities, the opinion makers and the politicians, businessmen and unions, leaders and citizens. What in the past appears not to have existed –because it was suppressed- is now an inherent part of the social debate. Therefore, the notion that an artificially created majority constitutes a solution is absurd: what is quashed in one space will reappear in another. In a certain manner, this is the main lesson learned from the Zapatista uprising: conflict exists and will surface in some form or another; if there are no institutional mechanisms for conflict to manifest itself, it will materialize in other, less attractive, behaviors or conduits.
The country is experiencing conflict in all of its ambits, many very sensitive. Differences in perspectives and clashes of interest are ubiquitous. Much of the disjointedness in which we live has deep roots in reality, a reality that is easy to thrust aside. For example, the underground economy perhaps employs at present an absolute majority of the urban workforce in the country. It can be claimed that the underground economy does not exist, but this does not nullify it, and, more importantly, it does not change the fact that the incentives for those who inhabit it are distinct from those belonging to the formal economy. It is here that Mexican society comes face to face with a little understood schism: on the one hand there is the formal economy (which includes professionals and bureaucrats on an equal par with the de facto powers), and the other, the underground economy (which incorporates narcos and street vendors, the latter extraordinarily vulnerable to the networks of corruption and violence of the former.
The solution to this state of affairs does not begin with legislation. Without an elementary political pact or arrangement that precedes any reform, no law will alter the reality. The underlying matter to resolve is how to channel the conflict and confer legitimacy upon the instruments of government, including those that assert the law on those refusing to be part of the political regime resulting from this arrangement. Denying the inevitability of conflict is tantamount to preserving the status quo.