- Free Market Democracy and the Chilean and Mexican Countryside
How do governments implement free market neoliberal reforms in the context of open democracy, especially when these measures impose high material costs on concentrated groups of "losers"? Why have some government reform programs avoided derailment by organized opposition from those they penalize the most, i.e., rural peasants? These are the questions that Marcus J. Kurtz tackles in this thoughtful, theoretically rigorous book by examining the interplay of market reforms and democracy in the Chilean and Mexican countryside. Central to Kurtz's explanation is the ability of political leaders to construct an atypical electoral coalition composed of urban voters (many of whom benefit from reform) and rural peasants (most of whom do not). Yet this outcome is not simply the product of leaders' political skills, for it is neoliberal reforms themselves, Kurtz argues, that make such coalitions possible. In fact, the successful union of national democracy and free market policies turns explicitly on the "democracy-inhibiting" (p. 15) effects that the reforms generate in rural settings.
To support these claims, Kurtz offers an intriguing theoretical argument. In this account, marketization dismantles the capacity of the rural poor to organize effectively and engage in collective action by: (1) permanently removing peasants' most broadly shared class interest (land reform) from the political arena; (2) replacing shared interests with more fragmented, divided ones—thus, degrading the substance and efficacy of rural associational networks, along with peasants' capacity for [End Page 286] autonomous political organization and interest articulation; (3) limiting the rural poor's opportunity to forge alliances with progressive forces beyond the countryside; and finally (4) increasing peasants' economic dependence on seasonal employment, and thus their political dependence on the pro-reform rural elites that can provide it. The result is an "organizational and participatory deficit in peasant society" (p. 53) that transforms the rural political dialogue into a conservative, pro-reform "monologue," and allows political leaders to harvest votes from an unlikely coalition of "traditional well-off supporters in urban areas coupled with a mass rural base of some of neoliberalism's greatest victims" (p. 14).
Kurtz devotes the lion's share of the book to a meticulous examination of how some of neoliberalism's key features—free trade and commodity price deregulation, privatization of public enterprises and service provision, and the development of rural land and labor markets—transformed Chile's mobilized and highly organized peasant society into a fragmented, demobilized bastion of conservative electoral support. Combined with urban reform "winners," this rural base of reform "losers" produced a "sandwich coalition" that enabled post-transition governments to reconcile democracy at the national level with a commitment to free market policies, and to retain sufficient leverage in Congress to block any reform backsliding. Similarly, the chapter on Mexico finds that the market reforms pushed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) "helped create an electoral constituency among its peasant victims by increasing their vulnerability to local elites, raising steep barriers to autonomous collective action, and removing alternatives from the political agenda" (p. 164).
These findings raise troubling implications. If "free market democracy" can only be sustained by violating "basic democratic requirements of independent interest aggregation and expression" (p. 208) in the countryside, how can democracy ever be deepened in rural areas without threatening regime survival? This dilemma is especially troubling if as the book suggests, its basic argument is applicable beyond the Chilean context. Mexicanists, however, may be skeptical that market reforms per se produced a demobilized, conservative, pro-PRI peasantry: as the author acknowledges, Mexican peasants had provided the PRI its bedrock of support for 60 years prior to the reforms; moreover, peasants' exposure to local elite pressures and the impediments they faced to autonomous collective action preceded marketization by decades (although the reforms' onset no doubt exacerbated these problems). While some may question the generalizability of Kurtz's claims, this book makes an important contribution to the study of democratization and the political economy of market reforms. It...