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From Globalisation to Revolution? The Porfirian Political Economy: An Essay on Issues and Interpretations*


This essay evaluates the political economy of Mexico during the Porfirian period (1876–1911), with the aim of discussing advances in scholarship and presenting an outline of the elements for a future research agenda. To this end, the essay examines the current state of knowledge on four crucial aspects of the Mexican economy: growth and its dimensions; the state, finance and economic strategies; the construction and functioning of the internal market; and the international economic relations of Mexico during the first period of globalisation. In particular, it assesses the arguments that link features of Porfirian economic organisation with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.


Este ensayo evalúa la economía política de México durante el porfiriato (1876-1911) con el fin de discutir los avances en la literatura académica y presentar un bosquejo de la agenda futura de investigación. Para este fin, el ensayo examina el estado actual del conocimiento acerca de cuatro aspectos cruciales de la economía mexicana: el crecimiento y sus dimensiones; el estado, las finanzas y las estategias economicas; la construcción y el funcionamiento del mercado interno; y las relaciones económicas internacionales de México durante el primer periódo de globalización. En particular, se revìsan los argumentos que vinculan los rasgos de la organización económica porfiriana con el surgimiento de la Revolución Mexicana en 1910.


Este ensaio avalia a política econômica do México durante o período de Porfírio (1876–1911) ensejando discutir avanços no conhecimento e apresentar um esboço de elementos para uma futura agenda de pesquisa. Com este objetivo, examina o atual estado do conhecimento acerca de quatro aspectos cruciais da economia mexicana: o crescimento e suas dimensões; o estado, as estratégias financeiras e econômicas; a construção e funcionamento do mercado interno; e as relações internacionais do México durante o primeiro período da globalização. Avalia, especialmente, os argumentos que ligam aspectos da organização econômica porfiriana com a erupção da Revolução Mexicana de 1910.

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1 Luis Bértola and Jeffrey Williamson, ‘Globalization in Latin America before 1940’, in Victor Bulmer-Thomas et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (Cambridge, 2006), vol. II, pp. 1–28; Marc Flandreau and Frédéric Zumer, The Making of Global Finance, 1880–1913 (Paris, 2004).

2 Oddly enough, the personalisation of the period based on Díaz was accompanied by a lack of academic studies on him. Before the publication of the study by Paul Garner, Porfirio Díaz. Del héroe al dictador: una biografía política (Mexico, 2003), there was only the work of Enrique Krauze, Porfirio Díaz: el místico de la autoridad (Mexico, 1987), which was based on secondary sources, and a much older one by the US radical, Carleton Beals, Díaz, Dictator of Mexico (Philadelphia, 1932), the sources for which are unknown.

3 Leaving to one side the obvious differences between the two countries, compare this with what Paul Gregory writes in Before Command: An Economic History of Russia From Emancipation to the First-Five Year Plan (Princeton, 1994), pp. 6–7. Gregory notes how for a long time the study of the Tsarist economy was steeped in myth and stereotypes, linked to the influence of the Leninist research agenda on Soviet historians.

4 This comment refers to the use of statistical reconstruction, quantitative methods, and economic theory.

5 These two points found intellectual support in dependency theory. For a critical evaluation of this family of theories, see Stephen Haber, ‘Economic Growth and Latin American Historiography’, in Haber (ed.), How Latin America Fell Behind: Essays on the Economic History of Brazil and Mexico, 1800–1914 (Stanford, 1997), pp. 1–33.

6 For a recent effort at systematic historical comparison between Mexico and Spain, see the essays put together by Rafael Dobado, Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato and Graciela Márquez (eds.), México y España. ¿Historias económicas paralelas? (México, 2007). In particular, the two countries' long-run economic trajectories, their fiscal systems, their mining sectors, regional growth, patents, and human capital are the subjects of an explicitly comparative approach.

7 For an exhaustive bibliographical essay on the Porfirian age and insightful observations, especially about the relationship between politics and society, see Mauricio Tenorio Trillo and Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, El Porfiriato (Mexico, 2004). A useful long-term vision is provided by Enrique Cárdenas, Cuando se originó el atraso económico de México: la economía mexicana en el largo siglo XIX, 1780–1920 (Madrid, 2003).

8 One referee suggested that the issues of human capital and unequal access to education might also be discussed. Unfortunately an assessment of the role of educational lags as drawbacks to Mexican growth in historical perspective is still lacking. Bridging the gap between scholarship on the educational history of Mexico and that on its economic history should be considered an urgent, and potentially rewarding, task. Around 1900 Mexico's literacy rates were very low, even by Latin American standards: see Newland Carlos, ‘La educación elemental en Hispanoamérica: desde la independencia hasta la centralización de los sistemas educativos nacionales’, Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 71, no. 2 (1991), p. 358.

9 On the uncertain way in which the series were constructed and all the attendant problems, see Clark Reynolds, The Mexican Economy: Twentieth-Century Structure and Growth (New Haven and London, 1970), pp. 338–44.

10 The term ‘relativist’ is used impressionistically here to denote the lack of interest in the reliability or origin of the data with which one works, hand in hand with the skilful use of powerful quantitative techniques.

11 The lack of a critical reconstruction of GDP series contrasts with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where the work of economic historians has enabled relatively reliable data to be assembled and published. See Roberto Cortés Conde, Estimaciones del producto interno bruto de Argentina, 1875–1935 (Buenos Aires, 1994); Raymond Goldsmith, Brasil 1850–1984: desenvolvimento financeiro sob um século de inflação (São Paulo, 1986); Claudio Haddad, O crescimento do produto real no Brasil, 1900–1947 (Río de Janeiro, 1979). See, José Díaz B, et al, Economía chilena 1810–1995: evolución cuantitativa del producto total y sectorial (Santiago, Documento de Trabajo no. 186, 1998).

12 See Keesing Donald, ‘Structural Change Early in Development: Mexico's Changing Industrial and Occupational Structure from 1895 to 1960’, Journal of Economic History, vol. 29, no. 4 (1969), pp. 716–21.

13 John Coatsworth, Growth Against Development: The Economic Impact of Railroads in Porfirian Mexico (DeKalb, 1983); Ficker Sandra Kuntz, ‘¿Mercado interno o vinculación con el exterior?: el papel de los ferrocarriles en la economía del porfiriato’, Historia Mexicana, vol. 45, no. 1 (1995), pp. 3965; Stephen Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890–1940 (Stanford, 1989); Marcello Carmagnani, Estado y mercado: la economía pública del liberalismo mexicano, 1857–1911 (México, 1994); Javier Pérez Siller, Los ingresos federales del porfirismo (Mexico, 2004). The latter work appeared as the author's thesis in 1982.

14 Gómez-Galvarriato Aurora and Musacchio Aldo, ‘Un nuevo índice de precios para México’, El Trimestre Económico, vol. 67, no. 1 (2000), pp. 4792.

15 Sandra Kuntz Ficker, El comercio exterior de México en la era del capitalismo liberal, 1870–1929 (México, 2007).

16 Coatsworth detected an improvement in per capita food production levels, particularly in the second half of the Porfirian period: see Coatsworth John, ‘La producción de alimentos durante el porfiriato’, Historia Mexicana, vol. 26, no. 2 (1976), pp. 166–77.

17 See the pioneer anthropometric work of Lopez-Alonso Moramay, ‘Growth with Inequality: Living Standards in Mexico, 1850–1950’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 39, no. 1 (2007), pp. 81105, as well as her PhD dissertation, ‘Height, Health, Nutrition, and Wealth: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1870–1950’ (Stanford, 2000).

18 Marta Vera Bolaños and Rodrigo Pimienta, Acción sanitaria pública y cambios en el patrón de mortalidad en el Estado de México, 1898–1940 (México, 2007).

19 As Angus Maddison stated, ‘the government was administered by social Darwinists interested in modernization and so indifferent to popular welfare’: Angus Maddison, The Political Economy of Poverty, Equity and Growth (Washington, 1992), p. 113.

20 Stephen Haber (ed.), Crony Capitalism and Economic Growth in Latin America. Theory and Evidence (Stanford, 2002), p. xviii.

21 Stephen Haber et al., The Politics of Property Rights: Political Instability, Credible Commitments, and Economic Growth in Mexico, 1876–1929 (Cambridge, 2003).

22 Moreover, the interaction between economics, political science, and history that characterises the work of Haber and his associates places the case of Porfirian and revolutionary Mexico within the broader context of the literature on institutions and development.

23 In fact, according to their interpretation, vertical political integration survived the demise of the Díaz regime and continued at least until the cardenista regime. In the light of the abundant evidence of systemic cronyism during the later epoch that was dominated by the PRI, one might conclude that in the context of Mexican history the cronyism of the Porfiriato was not so ‘archetypal’.

24 Carmagnani, Estado y mercado; Pérez Siller, Los ingresos federales del porfirismo.

25 This process did not stop at the federal level, and trickled down to the finances of the states of Mexico. The innovative study of María Cecilia Zuleta, De cultivos y contribuciones: agricultura y hacienda estatal en México en la ‘época de la prosperidad’. Morelos e Yucatán, 1870–1910 (México, 2006), documents this transformation for two regions that were the scene of extensive commercial agricultural developments (henequen and sugar respectively).

26 María Luna Argudín's valuable study, El Congreso y la política mexicana, 1857–1911 (México, 2006), pp. 217–70, reconstructs the debate in Congress on these measures, the process of bargaining between the legislature and the executive, and the different stages of participation of the legislative branch in policy design.

27 Cárdenas, Cuando se originó, is one of the few efforts to incorporate the weight of the retarded conditions of Mexican economy before the 1870s on subsequent development.

28 Krueger Anne, ‘Government Failures in Development’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 4, no. 3 (1990), pp. 923.

29 The reference here is to the innovative study by Paul Gootenberg, Imagining Development: Economic Ideas in Peru's ‘Fictitious Prosperity’ of Guano, 1840–1880 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993).

30 These are the results of the novel study by Edward Beatty, Institutions and Investment: The Political Basis of Industrialization in Mexico before 1911 (Stanford, 2001), pp. 51–2, 78–9. See also Kuntz Ficker, El comercio exterior, pp. 212–35. For an interpretation that stresses non-tariff factors of protection, chiefly exchange depreciation due to falling silver prices, see Graciela Márquez, ‘Tariff Protection in Mexico, 1892–1909: Ad Valorem Tariff Rates and Sources of Variation’, in John H. Coatsworth and Alan M. Taylor (eds.), Latin America and the World Economy Since 1800 (Cambridge and London, 1998), pp. 405–43.

31 Arturo Grunstein, ‘Railroads and Sovereignty: Policymaking in Porfirian Mexico’, unpubl. PhD diss., University of California, 1994.

32 William Schell, Integral Outsiders: The American Colony in Mexico City, 1876–1911 (Wilmington, 2001); Alan Knight, ‘The Political Economy of Prerevolutionary Mexico, 1900–1940’, in Christopher Abel and Colin Lewis (eds.), Latin America, Economic Imperialism and the State: The Political Economy of the External Connection from Independence to the Present (London, 1985), pp. 288–317; Passananti Tom, ‘Nada de papeluchos!” Managing Globalization in Early Porfirian Mexico’, Latin American Research Review, vol. 42, no. 3 (2007), pp. 101–28.

33 Richard Weiner, Race, Nation, and Market: The Economic Culture of Porfirian Mexico (Albuquerque, 2004).

34 Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment.

35 In the first decade of the twentieth century the value of the output of maize, wheat and beans, staples that circulated almost exclusively within the country, was more than double that of the eight leading agricultural export products (henequen, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, rubber, and others). Even allowing for the weaknesses of Porfirian agricultural statistics, the proportions are revealing. For an exploratory work on the growing integration of maize markets in Mexico resulting from the construction of the railways, see Dobado Rafael and Marrero Gustavo, ‘Corn Market Integration in Porfirian Mexico’, Journal of Economic History, vol. 65, no. 1 (2005), pp. 103–28.

36 Kuntz Ficker, ‘¿Mercado interno o vinculación con el exterior?, pp. 39–65. See also the essays in Sandra Kuntz Ficker and Paolo Riguzzi (eds.), Ferrocarriles y vida económica en México, 1850–1950 (Mexico, 1996), which take issue with Coatsworth's influential study, Growth Against Development. Coatsworth had argued for a much more restricted role for the railways, due to their foreign ownership, the absence of a capital goods industry in Mexico, and the repatriation of profits.

37 The Mexican case still lacks a study like the excellent one by Fernando Rocchi, Chimneys in the Desert: Industrialization in Argentina during the Export Boom Years, 1870–1930 (Stanford, 2006), which combines analysis of attempts at industrialisation, entrepreneurial behaviour, the structure of demand, and consumption practices and cultures. Rocchi's original PhD dissertation, on which this book is based, was in fact entitled ‘Building a Nation, Building a Market: Industrial Growth and the Domestic Economy in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina’, unpubl. diss. University of California at Santa Barbara, 1997.

38 Unification was late and fragile, since it was carried out largely as a result of federal pressure and subject to concealed attempts to reintroduce differential taxes. In fact, with the disruption of the state after 1914, interior customs houses re-emerged in much of the country: see Aboites Luis, ‘Alcabalas posporfirianas: modernización tributaria y soberanía estatal’, Historia Mexicana, vol. 51, no. 2 (2001), pp. 363–93.

39 See Mario Cerutti, Proprietarios, empresarios y empresas en el norte de México: Monterrey de 1848 a la globalización (México, 2001).

40 Noel Maurer and Stephen Haber, ‘Institutional Change and Economic Growth: Banks, Financial Markets and Mexican Industrialization, 1878–1913’, in Jeffrey L. Bortz and Stephen Haber (eds.), The Mexican Economy, 1870–1930: Essays on the Economic History of Institutions, Revolution and Growth (Stanford, 2002), pp. 23–48.

41 Robert Holden, Mexico and the Survey of Public Lands: The Management of Modernization, 1876–1910 (DeKalb, 1994), p. 18.

42 Unfortunately no quantitative assessment of the sale or dispossession of communal property is available. A growing number of regional and local studies coincide in offering a highly nuanced view of the process: see, for example, Kourí Emilio, ‘Interpreting the Expropiation of Pueblo Indian Lands in Porfirian México: The Unexamined Legacies of Andrés Molina Enríquez’, Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 82, no. 1 (2002), pp. 69117; Daniela Marino, ‘La desamortización de las tierras de los pueblos (centro de México, siglo XIX)’, America Latina en la Historia Económica, vol. 16 (2001), pp. 33–43.

43 Meyer Jean, ‘Haciendas y ranchos, peones y campesinos en el porfiriato: algunas falacias estadísticas’, Historia Mexicana, vol. 35, no. 3 (1986), pp. 477509.

44 Herbert Nickel, El peonaje en las haciendas mexicanas: interpretaciones, fuentes, hallazgos (México, 1997); Alan Knight, ‘Mexican Peonage: What was it and Why was it’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (1986), pp. 41–74.

45 See Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, ‘Myth and Reality of Company Stores during the Porfiriato: The tiendas de raya of Orizaba's Textile Mills’, CIDE Working Paper No. 317, (2005).

46 See the essays in Leonor Ludlow and Carlos Marichal (eds.), La banca en México, 1820–1920 (México, 1998); Stephen Haber, ‘Financial Market Regulation, Imperfect Capital Markets, and Industrial Concentration: Mexico in Comparative Perspective, 1830–1930’, Economía Mexicana, vol. 7, no. 1 (1998), pp. 5–46; Noel Maurer, The Power and the Money: The Mexican Financial System, 1876–1932 (Stanford, 2002); Paolo Riguzzi, ‘The Legal System, Institutional Change and Financial Regulation, 1870–1910: Mortgage Contracts and Long-Term Credit in Mexico’, in Bortz and Haber, The Mexican Economy, pp. 129–54; and ‘Sistema financiero, banca privada y crédito agrícola en México, 1897–1913. ¿Un desencuentro anunciado?’, Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, vol. 21 (2005), pp. 333–67.

47 It was three decades before a financial system re-emerged that was better than the one of 1910 with respect to assets and the number of banks. One of the few works dealing with the tortuous and ineffective process of banking reorganisation is Luis Anaya, Colapso y reforma: la integración del sistema bancario en el México revolucionario, 1913–1932 (Mexico, 2002).

48 Nineteenth-century economic nationalism, clearly distinguishable from twentieth-century revolutionary or totalitarian nationalisms, had different strands and could endorse a variety of economic policies, as shown by the insightful work of Helleiner Eric, ‘Economic Nationalism to Economic Liberalism? Lessons from the Nineteenth Century’, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3 (2002), pp. 307–29.

49 Although the qualitative importance of the more educated European and North American immigrants could have been weighty in certain spheres of economic life, immigration did not constitute a significant channel for transatlantic links. On this, see Steven Topik, ‘Las relaciones entre México y Estados Unidos en la era de la globalización’, Secuencia, no. 48 (2000), pp. 24–5.

50 Victor Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (Cambridge, 1994), p. 102; also see Lance Davis and Robert Gallman, Evolving Financial Markets and International Capital Flows: Britain, the Americas and Australia (Cambridge and New York, 2001).

51 Lorenzo Meyer, Su Majestad Británica contra la Revolución Mexicana: el fin de un imperio informal, 1900–1950 (México, 1991); John Hart, Empire and Revolution:The Americans in Mexico since the Civil War (Berkeley/Los Angeles, 2001).

52 Suffice it to note that estimates for the level of total investment for 1911 oscillate in a range between US$800 and US$2200 million. See the discussion in Daniel Cosío Villegas, Historia Moderna de México. El Porfiriato. Vida economica (México, 1955), vol. VII, t. II, pp. 1148–55.

53 See Reinhard Liehr and Mariano Torres, ‘British Free-Standing Companies in Mexico, 1884–1911’, in Mira Wilkins and Harm Schröter (eds.), The Free-Standing Company in the World Economy (Oxford, 1997), pp. 253–78; Schell William, ‘American Investment in Tropical Mexico: Rubber Plantations, Fraud and Dollar Diplomacy, 1897–1913’, Business History Review, vol. 64, no. 2 (1990), pp. 217–54; Carlos Marichal y Paolo Riguzzi, ‘Bancos y banqueros europeos en México, 1864–1933’ in Sandra Kuntz Ficker and Horst Pietschmann (eds.), México y la economía atlántica. Siglos XVIII-XX (México, 2006), pp. 207–39.

54 An example of this is the heroic counterfactual estimate of the contribution of FDI to Latin American growth before 1913 put forward by Alan M. Taylor, ‘Foreign Capital Flows‘, in Bulmer-Thomas et al., The Cambridge Economic History, vol. II, p. 76. Taylor's calculations suggest that, in line with the Latin American average, the absence of foreign investment would have meant an 18 per cent loss in income for Mexico. However, the reader interested in evaluating the data employed is referred to another author's work, one that does not offer any clue on how the foreign investment figures were obtained.

55 On the Pearson oil interests in Mexico, see Geoffrey Jones, The State and the Emergence of the British Oil Industry (London, 1981), pp. 65–70; Jonathan Brown, Oil and Revolution in Mexico (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993), pp. 63–5. On the French-Mexican financial connection, see Steven Topik, ‘When Mexico Had the Blues: A Transatlantic Tale of Bonds, Bankers, and Nationalists, 1862–1910’, American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 3 (2000), pp. 714–38. Topik provides a fascinating analysis of the prolonged lockout of Mexican securities from the Paris Stock Exchange, due to the non-payment of the bonds issued by Maximilian, and the manner in which it was solved.

56 In real terms, the average growth rate was 7.1 per cent for total exports and 7.9 per cent for merchandise (net of specie outflows): Kuntz Ficker, El comercio exterior, pp. 324–5. It is worth noting that in order to calculate the real value of exports, the author constructed a price index with nearly total coverage (20 products).

57 By 1912, Mexico, together with Chile, was the fourth largest Latin American exporter while its per capita exports in dollars were half the Latin American average: Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History, p. 68.

58 This confirms what Salvucci has aptly written about the first industrialisation of Latin America, as a process ‘not independent of international trade, much less opposed to it, but complementary to, consistent with, or even consequent upon the expansion of the external sector’: Richard Salvucci, ‘Export-led Industrialization’, in Bulmer-Thomas et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History, vol. II, p. 249.

59 These are the results of the study by Paolo Riguzzi, ¿Reciprocidad imposible?La política del comercio entre México y Estados Unidos, 1857–1938 (Mexico, 2003). The following paragraphs are based on this source.

60 But see Carlos Marichal, ‘The Construction of Credibility: Financial Market Reform and the Renegotiation of Mexico's External Debt in the 1880's’, in Bortz and Haber, The Mexican Economy, pp. 93–119; Jaime Zabludowski, ‘Money, Foreign Indebtness and Export Performance in Porfirist Mexico’, unpubl. PhD. diss., Yale University, 1984; Thomas Passananti, ‘Conflicto y cooperación financiera en la Belle Époque: bancos alemanes en el porfiriato tardío’, in Kuntz Ficker and Pietschmann (eds.), México y la economía atlántica, pp. 173–203.

61 From 1911 to 1912, the stock of Mexico's external debt was equivalent to half that of Argentina's and a third of Brazil's: calculated from Bulmer-Thomas, The Economic History, p. 102.

62 According to the date gathered by the International Agriculture Institute of Rome, by the mid-1920s Mexico's average yields ranked 76th in the world for maize, and 45th for wheat: México Económico (México, 1932), p. 17. For a different view of agricultural productivity, based on the figures of a few haciendas in the central state of Querétaro, see Simon Miller, ‘Wheat Production in Europe and America: Mexican Problems in Comparative Perspective, 1770–1910’, Agricultural History, vol. 68, no. 3 (1994), pp. 28–33. Miller, however, does not present any comparative figures for 1880–1910, the period for which he sees significant modernisation in the hacienda system.

63 For an introduction to these issues see Luis Cerda, ‘¿Causas económicas de la Revolución Mexicana?’, Revista Mexicana de Sociología, vol. 53, no. 1 (1991), pp. 307–47.

64 The only work to address the transmission effects of the 1907 crisis to Mexico is Kevin Cahill, ‘The US Bank Panic and the Mexican Depression of 1908–1909‘, The Historian, vol. 60, no. 4 (1998), pp. 795–811.

65 This argument follows Lindert Peter H., ‘Voice and Growth: Was Churchill Right?’, Journal of Economic History, vol. 63, no. 2 (2003), pp. 315350. Lindert insists on the significance of evolving institutional channels between political voice (not limited to formal democratic rules) and economic growth.

* The insightful observations of two anonymous referees are acknowledged. All the errors are mine.

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