Is Mexico About to Fail?

zapatista sign
The sign (erected by Zapatista rebels in MÈxico) says “Here the people lead and the government follows.” It prohibits the sale of arms, drugs and unlicensed logging and concludes “No to the destruction of nature”. Image from Wikipedia.

Over at the Oil Drum, Jeff Vail has been predicting that MÈxico, as a functioning nation-state, may not survive the year. He cites the collapse in that country of oil production (a Peak Oil phenomenon), attacks by anti-government forces on oil infrastructure, growing poverty and inequality, inability of the state to provide for the essential needs of the nation, growing power of organized crime, corruption and desertion of police forces, the assassination of judges and officials with impunity, and the growing bankruptcy of farmers due to the distortions of subsidized globalization and phony ‘free’ trade.

Jeff argues that the very existence of functioning nation-states (in contrast to non-functioning, nominal nation-states like Afghanistan) depends upon their ability to meet the needs of the people, to a degree sufficient for the people to continue to support (with their political and military allegiance, their willingness to respect and uphold the law, and their willingness to pay taxes) the nation-state.
Nation-states that are struggling to do so will often try to create a need, and a sense of urgency, for the nation-state to continue, by conjuring up an imaginary crisis (e.g. weapons of mass destruction) or an imaginary enemy ( e.g. immigrants, or unstable or covetous neighbours). If the people are sufficiently ill-informed, governments of nation-states can keep the country together, and ravage its wealth for the personal gain of themselves and their supporters, for a long period of time by doing this.
It is much easier to create a sense of urgency for self-defence, especially as the world becomes geopolitically and economically smaller every day, than it is to create a sense of urgency for, say, decent health care or equitable distribution of wealth, particularly in large nation-states where the lack of the latter can be blamed on ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘inefficiency’.
As Jeff points out, nation-states don’t collapse suddenly. They erode, bit by bit, until you wake up one day and find that you live in a country where:
  • almost all the wealth and power is held by a small, powerful elite that uses propaganda and political muscle to keep it that way
  • voting and other acts of citizenry don’t make any difference
  • the majority of people say they want much less government, even if that means much less, or no, government services
  • the corruption of the police and politicians is rampant, to the point neither is any longer interested in upholding the law or looking after the needs of citizens, but rather their own self-interest, financially, security-wise and/or ideologically
  • organized crime is rampant, to the point it has and exerts more power at the local level than does the government
  • the government is under enormous pressure to devolve authority to regional and/or local governments, in the probably naive hope that this will lead to greater effectiveness and responsibility
  • acts of sabotage, suicide and/or attempted secession are on the upswing
  • what is keeping the nation-state together is mostly manufactured fear of some outside enemy
We have reached the paradoxical point where the nation-state has probably outlived its usefulness, but we face global challenges that dwarf anything we have had to face since civilization and the idea of the nation-state began.
Those who have not paid attention to the lessons of history would have us believe the answer is one global government, that will take away the manufactured outside enemy because there will no longer be an outside. There is no reason to believe that a single global nation-state would succeed any better than the balkanizing, mostly struggling nation-states of today. In fact, without an outside enemy (and, no, we cannot convince people that global poverty or global warming is the enemy; we’ve tried that), it is unlikely such a global nation-state would last as long as it would take to put it together.
Devolution of power to provinces, counties, or regional states has also been tried, and while it generally has the advantage of ethnic, linguistic and/or cultural homogeneity of population (and hence less likelihood of civil war), there is no history or reason to believe it can be any more responsive and able to meet the needs of the citizens than larger nation-states, and there is every reason to believe it will be less able to cope with any real outside enemy, should one emerge (and because of the growing inequality of wealth and resources between regions, and general overpopulation, ecological devastation and resource scarcities, they are more than likely to emerge).
That leaves us with more old-fashioned alternatives: anarchy or self-managed communities. These models both worked for millennia, but we have long forgotten how they worked. It took centuries and staggering bloodshed for us to make nation-states work, in some places, for awhile. Downshifting to anarchy or self-managed community models is likely to be just as tumultuous. For one thing, most of the world no longer has genuine communities, and to create them would require a lot of large-scale musical chairs as people sought others with whom they could hope, and want, to create community.
In areas that have, or can find, real community (including, as I reported yesterday, some areas of MÈxico), this model is already working to some extent, and can work in more places, especially if and when nation-states and their regional surrogates collapse for lack of support from the people that once made them work, and give up trying to suppress community-based ‘independence’ movements.
I am less optimistic about anarchy (by which I mean not the propagandized version of endless chaos and violence, but the libertarian ideal of no government at all, where people agree to get along with, and work with, their neighbours because it is in their interests to do so). My pessimism is due in part to the fact that such a model takes a lot of practice to get right, and in part to the fact that it takes a lot of room and other abundance of resources, to preclude our all-too-human predilection to resort to gang behaviour and banditry at the first sign of resource scarcity. There are just too many of us, and we have used up too much of the Earth’s abundance, for this model to work.
And although I am also pessimistic about the re-emergence of community as the primary social, political and economic unit of our society, just because of the enormous amount of re-learning and practice (and making monumental mistakes) it will entail, I also sense that we have no other choice.
When the circumstances described in the bullet points above prevail in more and more countries (and this is well underway), I think Jeff is right to predict that we will see the (agonizingly slow, but steady and irreversible) collapse of the nation-state, and in the vacuum that this collapse produces, the only viable ‘re-placement’ for conducting social, political and economic activity I can foresee are self-managed communities. Jeff even wryly suggests that this relocalization may help us cope better after the End of Oil.
The process of getting there, alas, is not going to be pretty.

And I wonder what the collapse of MÈxico means for NAFTA and the SPP?

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13 Responses to Is Mexico About to Fail?

  1. Vish Goda says:

    Dave,I do not agree that these two conditions would lead to erosion of the nation state or are symptomatic of degradation:1. “the majority of people say they want much less government, even if that means much less, or no, government services”If government is delegated to offering only essential services and the rest is taken care of by the private industry, in a free market economy – with proper oversight – dont you think that would actually be beneficial and cost-effective to the government and the people? And thereby, only increase contentment among the citizenry?2. “the government is under enormous pressure to devolve authority to regional and/or local governments, in the probably naive hope that this will lead to greater effectiveness and responsibility”In continuation with the first point made here, as long as the central government is taking care of essential services at the national level, the local governments taking care of immediate needs of its community would only work to give effective control back to the people – which is essentially good. So how does this indicate erosion of the nation state?Of course the basic premise here is that the infrastructure is supported by a strong and sustaining economic growth.

  2. Vish Goda says:

    Sorry, this did not make it to my earlier comments:”And although I am also pessimistic about the re-emergence of community as the primary social, political and economic unit of our society, just because of the enormous amount of re-learning and practice (and making monumental mistakes) it will entail, I also sense that we have no other choice.”- I believe a new more powerful and well connected community is already forming – in the form of Online Community. I believe that will have far reaching effect on the political process.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    .. a “fourth turning” for Mexico ? Rehearsal for the rest of North America ? When sourcing oil becomes problematic, IMHO all bets are off.You’re right .. the real threats have been minimized, and the imaginary or far-off ones greatly magnified .. and arguably organized crime has moved into or is moving into nation-state governments.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I believe a new more powerful and well connected community is already forming – in the form of Online Community. I believe that will have far reaching effect on the political process.I suppose Vish might be open to the notion of “wirearchy” ?;-)

  5. Vish Goda says:

    Jon,Wirearchy – it is. Only thing I don’t like about the word is it rhymes with “Anarchy” and “Monarchy” …Vish

  6. I have to disagree with a couple of the comments on anarchy. Anarchy doesn’t take a lot of practice, indeed everywhere it’s been tried it succeeded fairly quickly. Organising anarchistic (i.e. not based on force) solutions for all sorts of dispute resolution has been rapid where it was tried in financial markets or in small communities made up mostly of strangers. Also does not require a lot of resources to work. In fact it is the nation state that needs a lot of resources to work. The “all-too-human predilection to resort to gang behaviour and banditry” comes to the fore where there are plentiful resources not scarce ones. This is demonstrated not only in humans but in Chimps and dolphins which become violently gang-like when humans set up regular feedings.

  7. patricia says:

    Man imagines he has some power over his life and the planet. God is in charge. This earth is in God’s hands.

  8. Martin-Eric says:

    Funny, I already see a lot of this happening here in Europe: people who would rather lose public services altogether than maintains status quo, the elite and police being oblivious to the needs of the population they are supposed to represent and protect. The main difference, of course, is that Europe is undergoing unification, not delegation of power to provinces or smaller local instances, but then again EU is collapsing as fast as it expands; I’d call it an implosion. Also, in countries like France and UK, the populace has started to actively boycott and sabotage the system. From outside EU, people mostly hear about the French riots being caused by immigrant youths, but native French were involved too and, mark my words, the French revolution will repeat itself soon enough if nobody fixes the system to address the concerns of the population. Besides, while the politicians are acting as if it were business as usual, the populace is not that stupid and it notices how EU is falling apart, simply because politicians hijacked the population’s dream of a Europe united in peace to turn it into something eerily resembling USSR’s political structures.

  9. Mark says:

    The election of Hillary or Obama will greatly speed up the process, due to their divisiveness. As an anarcho-capitalist, I welcome the end of the US government, which has become a psychopathic leviathan. Once real estate prices collapse, the fun will begin.

  10. harald hardrada says:

    mexico? why are we are looking down on mexico? if anything, mexico has better community-building skills than the good old usa has — if mexico goes, it only means the usa has gone already — in europe, economic unification is too weak to survive the continuing lack of political unification: moreover, europeans still believe in a free lunch

  11. Joe Deely says:

    I haven’t visited this site for quite a while. Good to see that it is staying consistent in regards to its gloom and doom perspective and lack of decent references in supporting claims.Mexico definitely has a lot of problems.. nothing new there. However, there are also many bright spots. One is the continuing decline in the fertility rate. The most recent estimate by the World Bank has this at the replacement level. For this stat and some other “real” information about Mexico – see positive trend in Mexico over the last 4-5 years has been the boom in the housing and mortgage markets. Here is a quote from recent report by Dallas Fed..”When he took office in December 2000, President Vicente Fox promised that by the end of his term in 2006, the number of houses built annually would rise from 250,000 to 750,000. Analysts expect construction of roughly 800,000 units in 2006, up from 600,000 in 2005. All told, Mexico will have built more than 3 million houses from 2001 through 2006.Despite this, Mexico still has a deficit of 5 million units, largely due to lackluster housing stock growth in the 1980s and

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe’s comments are always entertaining. It takes great positive thinking to look at a country where a large proportion of the people live in rusted tin shelters and other miserable shanty constructions cobbled together from other people’s garbage and celebrate it as “90% home ownership”. I’m sure Joe will soon find a lucrative position in the PR department of DHS or FEMA.

  13. Joe Deely says:

    Dave,Thanks for the compliment. Good guess on my my current employment… you must have seen my recent formaldehyde press release.The point of the article on Mexico’s housing market was that things are improving. Yes, the state of housing has been terrible but it is improving rapidly. Access to mortgages has allowed the number of houses built by builders to grow from 250,000/per year at the start of this decade to an estimated 1,000,000 per year over the next few years. With growing equity in their homes and an economy that is also growing the people of Mexico have something to look forward to. By the way, I believe that one side effect of this will be less migration by Mexicans in search of jobs and housing.By the way you can poke aroung this site – for some examples of the current “shanty contruction”.As for the decrease in oil revenues… this might also be a good thing. Having huge reserves of oil seems to be negative in the long run… look at the state of Middle Eastern economies. Mexico needs to build an economy that is not dependent on oil.Thanks again for the great blog… one of the better ones out there. I’ll have to stop by more often.

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