Paul Gillingham

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20102011 Forum on Virtuality

Paul Gillingham


Ph.D., University of Oxford

Virtual Authoritarianism

This project explores state/society relations in Mexico as a case study in virtual authoritarianism: the combination of authoritarian projections of power with multiple indicators of state weakness. Contemporary and scholarly appreciations of post-revolutionary Mexico stressed the stability, power and success of a long-lasting, low-violence civilian regime. Recent research questions these assumptions. Elections could be fiercely competitive. Gossip, black humour, crowd demonstrations, bloody riots and forgotten rebellions vetoed personnel choices at every level. Key presidential policies could be successfully flouted by massive civil disobedience. Police forces were overwhelmed, the secret police tiny. Moreover, Mexico’s “perfect dictatorship” failed many basic criteria of statehood. There was no legitimate monopoly of violence. At 7% of GDP the budget was half the minimum economists set for state functioning. As late as 1985 the government could not formulate a rural property census. Yet the state endured, under the rule of the same party, for seventy years. In a further twist, sociologists’ surveys indicated that while specific politicians were despised – discourse frequently deemed them vampires – the system as a whole generated an appreciable level of positive affect. The Mexican state, in short, was less leviathan than puffer fish, desperately inflating itself to look bigger and meaner and more giving than it ever really was. My project uses newly-available sources from participants, intelligence and military agencies to examine this virtual domination. It may be of interest in a world where many states fail to meet scholarly criteria of statehood, and where major powers aspire to similar success.