- Free Market Democracy and the Chilean and Mexican Countryside
Marcus J. Kurtz's ambitious new book takes a hard and often pessimistic look at the social and political implications of neoliberal economic reform for the peasant sector, focusing on the empirical cases of Chile and Mexico. Ultimately, the author's combination of theoretical rigor and solid scholarship saves the book from its more extravagant claims. It is worth a close look not only for specialists on Latin America but for those interested in the political foundations of neoliberalism.
The heart of the book is an empirical study of how neoliberal economic reform not only demobilized and disarticulated peasant organizations in Chile, but turned them into an electoral bastion for the conservative right—in dramatic contrast to their immediate precoup pattern of behavior. Had the book simply stopped here, it could have counted among many of the useful if somewhat safe comparative works that social science produces. Kurtz goes on, however, to insist—repeatedly and with much force—that he has uncovered the key to the political survivability of democracy under free market reforms. While I think he is wrong about this, his argument is too powerful to be dismissed out of hand. It should certainly provoke much discussion and further testing, perhaps the most important contribution any work can make.
Kurtz's argument—in his own words—amounts to this: "the democracy-inhibiting character of specifically rural free market reforms . . . make[s] national-level neoliberalism compatible with open politics" (15). Elsewhere, in similar (or stronger) language, Kurtz notes that successful democratic consolidation "hinged on the construction of an unlikely but stable base of electoral support for conservative, neoliberal parties in the countryside [Chile]" (134); that a similar coalition was "vital to the simultaneous construction of free markets and liberal democracy in Mexico" (163); and that "free market democracy is stabilized in an unlikely elite-peasant coalition" (18). Indeed, so necessary is this coalition, Kurtz suggests, that "efforts to deepen democracy in the countryside may reduce its overall stability" (21). These are strong claims, claims which, in the end, outstrip the evidence Kurtz offers and overlook several important contradictory empirical aspects of these cases.
Nevertheless, it is only at the end that Kurtz outruns his evidence. Much of the book is based on an admirably logical sequence of steps, each accompanied by empirical tests. First, neoliberal reforms undermine [End Page 143] the communitarian bases of social capital formation in the countryside by transforming a mostly settled peasant class into a seasonal rural proletariat and by introducing divisions of interest within this sector that inhibit organization. Second, as a result, rural associational networks fall apart, leaving peasants with few autonomous forms of interest expression. Third, at the same time as these changes occur on a micro level, political opportunity structures change to limit the availability of external allies. Traditional peasant issues like land reform are permanently removed from the national political agenda by commitments to private property. The withdrawal of the state from economic production eliminates many incentives for collective action, especially subsidies, price supports, and many state services (such as marketing assistance and agricultural extension). Peasants have little to gain by organizing to address the stateif political parties of all ideological persuasions offer essentially the same limited set of policies. Finally, in this context of peasant demobilization, peasants' vulnerability to pressure from local economic elites creates an electoral base for local and national elites who benefit from neoliberal markets.
Kurtz is able to show, particularly in the Chilean case, that the introduction of neoliberal reforms explains the rapid demobilization of peasants better than does military repression. Peasant associations virtually disappear by the early 1980s and continue to decline, even as urban unionization remains stable or recovers. At the same time, Kurtz demonstrates the electoral emergence of what he calls a "sandwich coalition of urban winners and rural losers backing free market reforms" (208). He argues further that Chile's famous constitutional limitations on reversing market reforms can endure only as...