When State Building Backfires: Elite Divisions and Collective Action in Rebellion

Emily A. Sellars (Yale University)
Francisco Garfias (UCSD)

Abstract: We examine the complementary roles of state weakness, elite divisions, and popular grievances on rebellion. We argue that state-building efforts increase division between local and national elites, which undermines provincial peacekeeping efforts and provides an opening for popular rebellion. For a given level of grievance, revolts from below are therefore more likely to be attempted and more likely to spread in areas where local elites harbor grievances over earlier state-building efforts. We provide support for the theory using subnational data on rebellion, tax centralization, and drought from the late 17th-century to the Mexican War of Independence. We show that droughts led to peasant uprisings throughout the late colonial period, but it was not until the weakening of national institutions following the fall of the Bourbon dynasty in 1808 that these uprisings grew into a large-scale insurgency. Insurgent mobilization during the Independence War was more likely in drought-affected areas that had higher exposure to the Bourbon centralization of tax collection, which reduced the rents available to the local elite and thus elite loyalty to the government.

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