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Greed and Good

Tom Hennigan

La llamada de la tribu, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Alfaguara, 320 pp, €18.90, ISBN: 978-8420431994

“In Latin America, a writer is not just a writer. Due to the nature of our problems, to a very deep-rooted tradition, to the fact that we have a platform and a way to make ourselves heard, this is, also, someone from whom an active contribution is expected in solving problems.”

So wrote Peru’s future Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in 1984, and none can have worked harder than he to discharge this writerly obligation. The last member of the Boom generation of Latin American writers still alive, his fiction alone would have settled his debt. He is the outstanding political novelist among the clutch of authors that shot to global prominence in the 1960s. Over more than half a century, his novels have brilliantly explored the effort to engage with modernity in Latin American societies riven by divisions of class and race that are rooted in the terrible legacy of colonialism.

His broad range, encompassing as it does social realism, the police thriller, the comic, the erotic, means he is far more than an obsessively political writer. But that said, the towering peaks in a body of work that now includes eighteen novels are intensely engaged with political questions. In the opening paragraph of the first of his three undisputed masterpieces, 1969’s Conversation in the Cathedral, one of his characters asks: “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” and that question is extended to the rest of Latin America in 1981’s The War of the End of the World, set amidst a millenarian uprising in the backlands of Brazil, and later in The Feast of the Goat (2000), a chilling exploration of power and violence in the final days of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

Beyond his fiction he has been a constant and often controversial commentator on public life and political affairs, most famously through his column for Madrid’s El País newspaper, which is syndicated throughout Latin America. The most intense phase of his career as a politically engaged public intellectual started in 1987 with a newspaper column condemning plans by Peru’s President Alan García to nationalise the country’s financial sector. This sparked a civic uprising by the country’s desperate, increasingly impoverished middle class, caught as they were between García’s ruinous populism and the messianic violence of various communist insurgencies. Against his better instincts, Vargas Llosa was convinced he was the man to lead the movement his article had sparked into life and he ran for president in 1990. Having initially looked a shoo-in, he was eventually defeated by the political cypher Alberto Fujimori.

This ultimately unsuccessful presidential run capped Vargas Llosa’s remarkable transformation from a young radical who, “impregnated” with Marxism and Sartrean existentialism, supported the Cuban Revolution, into perhaps the best-known advocate of liberalism in Latin America, a region where this political current had been on the endangered list since the 1930s.

For Vargas Llosa this change of direction was internally consistent with his core political belief ‑ “my biological allergy to any form of dictatorship”. If resistance to the dictatorship of Manuel Odría, the setting for 1969’s Conversation, informed his participation in an underground communist study group at university, then it was the congealing of the Cuban revolution into just another communist dictatorship that forced a parting of the ways with Marx in order to fulfil what he saw as “an intellectual’s highest duty: being free”.

On this journey towards liberalism he was first helped along by his reading of Camus, Orwell and Koestler. As his study deepened, he immersed himself in the works of liberal thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, Juan Bautista Alberdi and Carlos Rangel. His time living in Britain during the Thatcher premiership, his support for her anti-communism, and what he saw as her ability to shake the UK out of a statist torpor while remaining faithful to democratic principles, sealed his conversion to liberalism. When he ran for office in 1990 it was on a platform that promised to break the grip of the Peruvian state on the economy and free its citizens to fulfil their own destinies.

Vargas Llosa’s campaign ended in failure, but it cemented his place in the contemporary liberal firmament, if not as an original thinker then at least as a bold advocate willing to carry the fight into hostile territory. His 1993 memoir A Fish in the Water recounts the violence his campaign provoked from President García’s populist APRA movement, as well as from the communist insurgencies. Guerrillas from the Cuban-inspired Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement tried to assassinate him, while the Maoists of Shining Path murdered several of his activists. This personal involvement means it was no mere keyboard warrior who emerged from his book-lined study this February, a month before he celebrated his eighty-second birthday, with a new work in hand.

A book-length reflection on his decades of intellectual engagement with liberalism, the yet to be translated La llamada de la tribu (The Call of the Tribe) is part intellectual autobiography and part biographical sketch of seven of liberalism’s great thinkers, with a lucid outline and commentary on their thought. The seven apostles are the Scottish founder of classical liberal economics Adam Smith, the Spanish essayist José Ortega y Gasset, the intimidating Austrians Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, the French intellectual insurgents Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel and, arguably the most attractive member of the group, Isaiah Berlin, a Jew born in Riga when it was still part of the Tsarist empire who made his career in the heart of the British establishment.

There is an eclecticism to Vargas Llosa’s selection. Smith stands apart, more remote in time than the others, all twentieth century figures, his presence that of a distant but still revered founding father. The rest all saw the lands of their birth suffer from the totalitarian madness of the twentieth century that also wrecked Peru and threatened the author himself. He identifies Hayek, Popper and Berlin as the most influential figures but the three who did not write in English may be worth some exposition here, being less well known. The essay on Ortega y Gasset is a tribute from one great exponent of the Spanish language to another. It is also an effort to rehabilitate the reputation of a liberal too often dismissed as a conservative tolerant of Franco by someone who one assumes is also annoyed that his break with Marxism has led to him being portrayed as a reactionary. Aron was a midwife at his liberal rebirth, Vargas Llosa having bought Le Figaro in the late 1960s just to read his articles exposing the fantasies of the ’68 generation. His heir, Revel, visited Peru at the close of the 1990 campaign to lend support, the two Frenchmen having displayed, like Vargas Llosa himself, fierce independence of spirit in swimming against the dominant intellectual currents of their time ‑ Gaullist conservatism and Left Bank Marxism in their cases.

So what does Vargas Llosa’s liberalism consist of? Well it is certainly a different beast from the laissez-faire faith in the ability of markets to solve all the ills of humankind. It cannot be reduced to a set of purely economic mechanisms. “[L]iberalism has bred in its bosom an ‘infantile illness’, sectarianism, represented by certain economists enchanted by the free market as a panacea capable of resolving all social problems,” he writes in the opening essay. How then would he define it? “Liberalism is a doctrine that does not have answers for everything, as Marxism claims, and holds in its heart differences and criticism, starting from a small but unequivocal body of convictions.” Gathered up together these are democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression and equality of opportunity. Suspicious of identity politics, liberalism is cosmopolitan and rejects nationalist tribalism. It is secular, tolerant and sceptical. It believes in the organic, spontaneous development of civilisation rather than in social engineering. It defends the sovereignty of the individual. It is intellectually modest, promoting diversity and the free competition of thought. Beyond its core convictions it is always ready to compromise and adapt. Vargas Llosa’s own brand of liberalism has made him a passionate defender of sexual freedoms, dismissing so-called sexual orthodoxy as “aberrational nonsense”. He is a vocal advocate of euthanasia and the decriminalisation of abortion and he would also bring the long-lost War on Drugs to a close by ending the prohibition on narcotics.

Those progressives sympathetic to Vargas Llosa on these social issues, however, are often among his most vehement critics over his trenchant defence of the market economy, which in the liberal West at least has seen its reputation battered in the last decade. And just to emphasise the ideological confusion surrounding “liberalism”, many of his fellow market enthusiasts, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, are social conservatives who would abhor most of the Peruvian’s social views.

Vargas Llosa’s attachment to free markets depends not just on the argument that they have produced greater material prosperity than any other system. In Sabres and Utopias, a collection of his journalism also published this year, he endorses Václav Havel’s reflection: “Though my heart may be left of centre, I have always known that the only economic system that works is a market economy ... This is the only natural economy, the only kind that makes sense, the only one that can lead to prosperity, because it is the only one that reflects the nature of life itself.” It is not just the productivity of markets that recommends them to Vargas Llosa but their supposed naturalness, their organic development through history, from which has flown the rule of law and individual liberty, the force that has guided us from barbarism to civilisation.

Adam Smith saw civilisation as being born out of the human necessity to turn to others to satisfy their needs: markets were a spontaneous development born out of this process. Hayek argued that this “spontaneous order” had liberty as it cement. The freedom to hold and trade private property, the emergence of laws to protect these rights, the spread of contracts, commerce, laws all marked the advance of humankind. For Popper this progress was achieved by a process of trial and error which can best be achieved in open societies with democratic cultures, which ensure a plurality of ideas are free to emerge and be tested, thus allowing for the correction of inevitable errors.

The foregoing is of course merely a summary of some rather complex ideas: indeed a summary of a summary. But Vargas Llosa’s central idea that economic liberty is the source which sustains and supports other individual liberties seems theoretically coherent. It is difficult to disagree that individual freedoms are more entrenched in countries with democratic cultures and market economies, or that regimes that move against economic freedoms sooner or later start stripping away individual ones as well.

But theory is one thing and practice another, and the current crisis in the liberal democracies, amply revealed in a series of troubling election results and a growing literature with titles like The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Why Liberalism Failed, might have prompted a more rigorous examination of the phenomenon than that offered by Vargas Llosa. But perhaps this is partially a question of point of view, of one’s location along liberalism’s time-line. A citizen of Latin America might very well wish for the application of full-spectrum liberal doctrine ‑ and not just the narrow economistic model Vargas Llosa disdains ‑ for their region and happily face the problems this may ultimately bring (those which currently afflict the North Atlantic democracies) at some time in the future when they have achieved similar levels of economic and social development. The difficulties in the north may be grave but they still look like rich world problems when viewed by many in the global south.

But La llamada de la tribu is not a manifesto for Latin America but a passionate restatement of liberal principles and welcome at a time when these are not only under attack but the very meaning of the world liberalism seems to be in doubt, meaning something akin to socialism for many in the US yet for others a modern imperialism, once the prefix “neo” is attached. (Vargas Llosa, surely somewhat disingenuously, dismisses “neoliberalism” as a term concocted by liberalism’s enemies to denigrate it. “I have still not met a single neoliberal,” he writes in a 1998 article included in Sabres.)

Though he might argue that this is outside its remit, Vargas Llosa’s book is weakened by its failure to ponder more deeply the current problems faced by liberalism. Its treatment of the democratic fallout from the 2008 crisis is brief and superficial. In the essay on Hayek, Vargas Llosa states that the Austrian lived to see his ideas vindicated by the governments of Reagan and Thatcher, undermining (in the Spanish the verb used is the stronger desautorizar) those of his adversaries, among them John Maynard Keynes. Yet just seventeen pages later he writes that Hayek “could never have imagined ... the phenomenon of corruption” which is fruit of the greed for profit that has done so much to undermine civic values and faith in institutions. “The great modern financial crisis is a dramatic expression of this collapse of Hayekian ideas and values,” he laments.

Hayek indeed gave huge weight to the role of public morals in the liberal system, the necessity of which is another theme running through La llamada de la tribu. But little time is spent inquiring why these morals seem to have declined so dramatically in the liberal heartlands, and whether full-throated capitalism might be at the very least partly responsible for this. Could it be that in an age of supercharged global capitalism, where the potential rewards are so great, the systems so labyrinthine and global governance incomplete, it was inevitable that more would succumb to the eternal vice of greed, Smith’s self-interest unrestrained by what he identified as its counter-weight, our moralising inner witness? Is this not the inevitable result, in what has been since the 1980s an increasingly deregulated economy, of shifting the focus from solidarity to individualism, from equality to liberty?

In his grapplings with political practice indeed Vargas Llosa the public intellectual comes across as rather naive compared with the altogether more worldly person who produces his fiction. His novels might question power and illustrate the dangers it poses to the individual when abused. But they are successful works because the characters they feature are so believable. They are flawed and exist in a fallen world. Someone so sensitive to human weakness and cruelty should surely not have been so surprised by corruption and the decline in civic values, even in his beloved liberal polities.

That liberalism and its market economy could create conditions that would corrode many of its own supports is not altogether surprising. It has happened before, including in Latin America. The region’s founding fathers were by the definition of their time liberal and after a brutal struggle with reactionary conservatism controlled the region’s destiny by the second half of the nineteenth century. It was an imperfect liberalism, but it nevertheless managed to bring a period of sustained progress to the region. This historical period came to an end by the 1930s, in part because the establishment proved incapable of responding to the demands of new social actors that the development they oversaw had produced, principally the emerging urban middle and working classes who populated the great new metropolises that were the pride of the region’s liberal elites.

The analogy may be only an approximate one but this historical example does bring to mind the inability of contemporary liberal elites to respond to new social actors conjured up by the global capitalist economy they have promoted with such ardour since the 1980s, that is the “left-behinds” in the old manufacturing regions, those who have seen well-paid jobs lost to technological advance or to Asia. In defence of the system that has produced this situation one constantly hears, typically from those who have benefited from rather than been damaged by globalisation, that an unprecedented number of people have been lifted out of misery worldwide; and in absolute numbers this is undoubtedly correct. But the question is whether liberal democracy has the means to survive the fallout from the uneven, disruptive development this involves. Telling voters in Sunderland or the American Midwest rust belt, or most recently Italy, that globally speaking poverty is decreasing and that globally it will all be worth it in the end is not going to cut it in democracies whose inhabitants operate on rather shorter time-scales than the great cycles of history. Why wouldn’t disillusioned voters feeling liberal economics is not working for them turn to what Popper called the “spirit of the tribe”, seductive nationalism, or be tempted to give utopian social engineering another go?

Berlin argued that the solution to our problems required us to be nimble, not rigid and if we gather up various scattered observations by Vargas Llosa’s seven thinkers liberalism would indeed seem to possess within it the means to respond to current dissatisfactions. Smith envisaged a regulatory role for the state and warned of the corrupting influence on politics of concentrated wealth. While Reagan notoriously said that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”, Isaiah Berlin warned that “total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs”. Many of Reagan’s heirs overlook the fact that when Popper said the state was “evil” he nevertheless saw it as a “necessary” one. Vargas Llosa defines Popper’s liberalism as “profoundly progressive”, with room to accommodate social democracy.

Throughout this book, equality of opportunity is held up as a core liberal value, best achieved by providing access to a public education of a quality that matches the best private ones – a somewhat tall order in terms of cost, it might be said. Even Hayek, the closest of the seven thinkers to libertarianism, advocated some form of social safety net. But in the complex societies with high levels of material and intellectual development we now live in a commitment to public education that would provide something like genuine equality of opportunity and to a social safety net demands a significant role for the state and a not insignificant level of taxation.

Hayek famously warned that such state encroachment would set society on the road to serfdom. But Vargas Llosa writes that one of Hayek’s “great errors” was to see any distinction between totalitarian socialism and democratic socialism as an illusion, arguing that the latter is much closer to liberalism than Marxism. Social democracy proved Hayek wrong in Europe after World War II when a significant degree of central planning and wealth redistribution was able to exist without democracies turning into totalitarian dictatorships. No better proof that political freedom remained alive was that when this model seemed to become exhausted, voters were able to turn to politicians to varying degrees influenced by more liberal economists than their Keynesian colleagues. Perhaps now that their model is becoming somewhat jaded the liberals should try and rekindle this understanding with social democracy rather than hanging on until nationalists and populists usher them off the stage.

Jean-François Revel argued that real socialism was inseparable from liberalism. But perhaps there is also some merit in the reverse proposition. In a letter to Hayek after reading The Road to Serfdom, Keynes wrote: “You admit here and there that it is a question of knowing where to draw the line. You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere [between free-enterprise and planning], and that the logical extreme is not possible. But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it. In a sense this is shirking the practical issue.” Vargas Llosa is somewhat sniffy about Keynes. But as an impeccable if non-dogmatic liberal it is a pity he did not devote a chapter to him, perhaps relegating the cranky Hayek, who inexcusably backed the murderer and thief Pinochet, arguing that he preferred a dictatorship that practised free markets to a democracy that did not, to a walk-on part.

Vargas Llosa’s huge enthusiasm for liberalism might be viewed in the light of the fact that the urgent practical issue now in Latin America is how to bring to power genuine full-spectrum liberalism, ideally alternating via elections with an equally genuine social democratic counterweight, so a choice between these alternatives could replace the swings between reactionary oligarchic interests and ruinous populism of right and left that have plagued the region.

In the old liberal heartlands to the north the practical issue is located much further along in the liberalising process. It is how to redraw a line that has shifted too far away from equality. The economic resurgence of Asia, the impact of automation, the botched design of the euro might all explain part of the background to the increasingly ugly current political moment in the western liberal democracies. But much of it must be traced back to a certain decoupling that has taken place since the 1980s between capitalism and social awareness (“And, you know, there’s no such thing as society”). Vargas Llosa’s book provides enough evidence to argue that the two belong together. He recommends Ortega y Gasset to us, even though he was suspicious of free markets (a view he blames on a Jesuit education) because he reminds us that liberalism is “before anything, an attitude towards life and towards society, founded in tolerance and respect, in love for culture, in a desire to co-exist with the other, with others, and a firm defence of liberty as the supreme value”.

Liberty might indeed be the supreme value but one does not come away from Vargas Llosa’s book thinking that this means we do not have to think very seriously about equality too. This may well not mean equality of outcomes but a better harnessing of the power of markets so they sustain the broader liberal attitude to life that Ortega y Gasset outlines across a wider spectrum of society.

Is this utopian? Given the current global configuration it may well look so. And the desire for a liberal rapprochement with social democracy might not be the exact message Vargas Llosa intends to convey, or what most interests him about liberalism. Indeed he often seems more concerned with rehashing the ideological battles of the 1970s and 1980s. The appeal of Marxism, and later the threat it posed, loomed large in his life, and as Venezuela demonstrates Latin America still remains more vulnerable than the northern democracies to utopian follies. So this preoccupation is understandable. A northern audience, however, might have preferred him to focus a little more on the threat posed by what he himself describes as the “sectarians” within liberalism (those neoliberals he has never met perhaps) who would reduce it to a quasi-religious belief (which itself should be anathema to the sceptical liberal mindset) in the free market, a belief that he insists his seven selected thinkers did not hold. Helping to face down those sectarians might then open the path for his cherished doctrine to reconnect with those who sense it has abandoned them.


Tom Hennigan is the South America correspondent for The Irish Times and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.