Crisis latin america nation-state

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The Crisis of the Latin American Nation-State

Michael Mann
Professor of Sociology University of California at Los Angeles

Paper presented at the University of the Andes, Bogotá , Colombia, to the Conference “The Political Crisis and Internal Conflict in Colombia”, April 10-13, 2002.


1. Introduction Since I have limited knowledge of Colombia, any light I can shed on“the Colombian crisis” must be indirect, generated by a discussion of the more general development of modern nationstates. I specifically ask what it is that makes for successful nation-states, that is states with effective “infrastructural powers” and nations which are cohesive. I address this question with a brief comparative analysis of the West, Latin America and successfully developingparts of Asia. I can then begin to identify the problems – amounting perhaps to a “crisis” – facing Latin American states today. Since I am a sociologist, my view of states goes beyond the constitutions, political parties and electoral systems on which political scientists have focused most of their recent attention. I concentrate less on democracy than on state administration, on what statesactually do, and I then examine how this is rooted in their societies. I will argue that the most effective modern states are those whose societies are sufficiently homogenous and egalitarian to permit the development of a common sense of national citizenship. This permits states to develop effective infrastructural powers to mobilize resources and so promote development. In the long-run such stateswill also become democratic. The converse is more clearly true, however: only states with efficient infrastructures can become full democracies. Latin American nation-states have major failings in this respect. These form what I will term the “structural crisis” of the continent’s nation-states. Of course, current problems do not constitute a crisis in the dictionary sense of being sudden andunexpected, for such state crisis has been recurrent, even perennial and so in a sense predictable. But to them have been added two more recent and unexpected “situational crises”, presented by debts and drugs. These were partly or largely generated from outside the continent, but they serve to exacerbate the more long-term structural crisis. This combination of “crises” hits Colombia hardest of all,constituting by any definition a “ Colombian crisis”. But first I define state power. This may have two meanings. We may talk of a state being “strong” because it is despotic over its society or because it can effectively implement decisions through its society. –- power over or power through. In previous work (Mann, 1984) I termed these despotic and infrastructural power and laid them out in asimple four-cell table. Table 1 Here Despotic power is the ability of state elites to take decisions without routine negotiation with groups in civil society. In principle democracy involves no despotic power at all, though all realworld states possess some. Infrastructural power is the state’s ability to actually implement decisions throughout its territories, no matter who takes the decisions.This might also be termed state capacity or efficiency. It requires that states possess infrastructures penetrating universally throughout civil society, through which political elites can extract resources from, and provide services to, all subjects. All advanced states of the global North today possess considerable infrastructural power; at the other extreme some sub-Saharan African statespossess negligible 2

infrastructural power (eg Somalia or the Congo). Latin American states lie somewhere between these extremes. These two dimensions of state power are largely independent of each other. Thus in 18th century Europe both England and Prussia were infrastructurally powerful states, though Prussia fell into my authoritarian cell and England into the bureaucratic cell since it was a...
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