Here are two books, a small book that covers the huge subject of the rules of politics and a large one that traces a brief period of state building in one region of Mexico in the 1920s. Both books were written in what now appears to be a different era. Both are about order; but at the moment we seem to be surrounded by Mexican ruins, with only the international corporations atop the (or their) order.

Both Roderic Ai Camp and Arturo Alvarado Mendoza point to the corporatist character of Mexican politics. Camp traces it to the Iberian tradition but barely shows how that tradition makes itself felt in daily politics. Alvarado makes little mention of cultural traditions, but illustrates plenty of ways that the forces on the ground make an apparent cultural ethos come alive.

Camp offers a textbook introduction to politics in Mexico, composed of pieces from his more textured monographs. His book is aimed at those who know little about Mexico, and it seeks to address comparative questions regarding which political systems of the world are better than others. It offers little to convince the reader that Mexico is in the vanguard, even though the author gives the semi-authoritarian system a positive gloss. Neither official corruption nor concentrated economic decision making and financial markets, the twin factors that have caused the system so much trouble since late 1994, receives much mention. Camp does indicate, though, that the system will turn more participatory and democratic over time.

Alvarado’s study is a textured account of the rise (and fall) of Emilio Portes Gil in Tamaulipas. With the emergence of a political party and a state bureaucracy, the regional caudillo incorporated actively organized and often contentious peasants and workers by means of personal loyalties and more impersonal negotiations, all the while seeking to keep the emerging central government at bay without provoking its wrath. In the end, the regional institutions lent themselves to the construction of the national state as the center sought ever new alliances with local wielders of power, including mobilized workers and peasants. All this we can clearly understand to be both new and old, even traditional and modern.

There is such a fluidity, not only to this fine account but to the construction of regional power itself under the aegis of the revolution in a place like Tamaulipas, that we can only wonder how the current crisis at the center of the system might make itself felt in the regions, and vice versa. A reading of Alvarado leaves the idea that perhaps this crisis too shall pass, and that Mexican politics, always a combination of the new and the old, will stand yet another test, as new alliances again breathe life into the old system. Whether it will turn more democratic, as Camp states, is a different question altogether. We have little here with which to answer it.