The Illusion of Civil Society

Democratization and Community Mobilization in Low-Income Mexico

By (author) Jon Shefner

Hardback - £49.95

Publication date:

13 November 2008

Length of book:

240 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271033846

Much has been written about how civil society challenges authoritarian governments and helps lead the way to democratization. These studies show that neoliberal economic policies have harmed many sectors of society, weakening the state and undermining clientelistic relationships that previously provided material benefits to middle- and low-income citizens, who are then motivated to organize coalitions to work for greater social justice and equality. Recognizing this important role played by civil society organizations, Jon Shefner goes further and analyzes the variegated nature of the interests represented in these coalitions, arguing that the differences among civil society actors are at least as important as their similarities in explaining how they function and what success, or lack thereof, they have experienced.

Through an ethnographic examination extending over a decade, Shefner tells the story of how a poor community on the urban fringe of Guadalajara mobilized through an organization called the Unión de Colonos Independientes (UCI) to work for economic improvement with the support of Jesuits inspired by liberation theology. Yet Mexico’s successful formal democratic transition, won with the elections in 2000, was followed by the dissolution of the coalition. Neither political access for the urban poor, nor their material well-being, has increased with democratization. The unity and even the concept of civil society has thus turned out to be an illusion.

Shefner provides a fascinating account of popular sector organizing in a poor Mexican community from 1994 through 2004. This is an important period in Mexico’s history, and Shefner does a splendid job of immersing the reader in his own process of personal engagement and re-engagement with the people he has known for more than ten years. The result is a study that addresses critical issues in Latin American politics today, including the impact of transitions to democracy on civil society and the pervasive endurance of clientelism.

—Philip Oxhorn, McGill University