The Politics of Exit: Emigration, Collective Action, and Agrarian Change in Mexico

(part of the TEL Program)

This book examines the politics of exit: how the presence of individual exit options like emigration influences citizen collective action and political change. I argue that the availability of exit options can complicate collective action through two complementary channels. First, those who can leave become less willing to invest in uncertain and costly efforts to effect political change at home. Second, the possibility of exit lowers others’ assessment about whether community collective action can be successful, reducing everyone’s willingness to mobilize, whether or not they have access to exit options themselves. This demobilization makes it easier for authorities to avoid undertaking costly or difficult reforms in response to citizen demands, further encouraging individuals to take advantage of exit options where possible.

I provide empirical evidence for the argument examining historical evidence on emigration, agrarian collective action, land redistribution, and government repression in Mexico from 1917-2000 and in El Salvador from the 1960s through 1980s. Using a series of related empirical strategies, I show that collective mobilization and land redistribution increased during times when individual migration became more difficult and decreased when it became easier. Because these shifts in exit options differed across space and time and were unrelated to local agrarian politics, I am able to address some of the empirical issues that have complicated prior research on this topic. Drawing archival and qualitative evidence, I explore some of the key mechanisms suggested by the argument, demonstrating that ongoing emigration created uncertainty about likelihood of local political change, that individuals felt compelled to take advantage of their exit options given this political uncertainty, and that governments and landed elites were often willing to tolerate the emigration of local workers given the adverse effects on local collective action.