State formation in dispute: local government as an arena in Chapias, Mexico

Gemma van der HaarHelen Delfeld, December 2009


  • State
  • state formation
  • local goverment
  • Zapatista
  • Mexico
  • Chiapas

The conference Post-crisis State transformation: rethinking the foundations of the State, for which this paper was originally written, rightly argues that we need to further our understanding of processes of State transformation in post-crisis contexts beyond normative and instrumental perspectives of state-building. In this paper I hope to contribute to that endeavour arguing for a focus on the everyday processes of State formation and transformation in regions emerging out of protracted social and political conflict. In this paper, I discuss processes of institutional re-ordering and re-signification in and around local government. I make reference to the particular case of eastern Chiapas, in southern Mexico, where the Zapatista rebellion continues to be influential.

To better understand processes of State transformation it is important to study what happens at the fringes of the State and of state-building projects. Van der Haar claims that local governments -the lowest tier of state-endorsed structures- are such a fringe area where the presence, capacity and symbolic meaning of the State are negotiated in the midst of multiple and possibly competing claims to governance. Van der Haar does not refer to Menkhaus’ concept of ‘mediated State’ but the aspect of negotiation is very present in her conceptualisation of the interaction between different levels of governance. She proposes that local governments should not be seen as extension of the State apparatus that can be modelled to serve higher goals, but as arenas, as spaces of interaction, negotiation and contention within wider conflict and post-conflict dynamics of change1.

Van der Haar analyses the Zapatista parallel structures and then the wider indigenous mobilisations around municipal government in eastern Chiapas as a means to better understand the attempt of the state to (re-)assert itself in post-conflict situations and popular responses to this strategy. Three concepts that are key to her analysis are “everyday forms of State formation” introduced by Gilbert and Nugent2, institutional multiplicity3 and parallel governance, meaning rebel groups or political movements fulfilling State functions as part of a strategy of resistance to the State government. The latter is different from “alternative governance” as described by Delfeld with regard to the Philippines, where alternative governance structures are the result of government ineffectiveness but can not be interpreted as resistance.

In line with Helen Delfeld’s observations in the Philippenes, van der Haar notes that NGO involvement plays an important role in cases of alternative governance. The “autonomous municipalities” that were set up by the Zapatista implied not accepting any state-organised public services or development projects. Instead, they relied on the support of sympathisers and NGOs from across the globe. In this case, NGOs provide the backbone of governance, not as a result of the ineffectiveness of the State as in the case of the Philippines but in order to contest the state. Van der Haar explains that “the Zapatista project reflects a critical engagement with the idea of the State and the nature of governance and citizenship. In that sense, the Zapatista project can be seen as a kind of State formation ‘from below’”. With that term she means that that it is the subjects that seek to redefine the relation with the State, rather than the other way around, and it is they who seek to condition and transform the symbolic and material presence of the State.

For several reasons that are explained in detail in chapter nine, there is increasing overlap after 1997 between the autonomous and state governed municipalities, which leads to a different dynamic in state transformation that focuses on integrating the State rather than the creation of parallel institutions. Indigenous mobilisation around municipal government has, first, engaged with the idea of the State, transforming it. Although this does not mean that everything will change, it does mean that any State representative is aware of concerns of the indigenous populations and can no longer rely on institutionalised racism in the exercise of power.

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The full article can be found in the publication “Rethinking these Foundations of the State” (forthcoming 2010)