The Atavistic Assault on Liberalism

La llamada de la tribu
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Alfaguara, 2018, 313 pages, €18.90

llosaWhen a grandee of literature and liberal philosophy, such as Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa (left), publishes the account of his intellectual odyssey, this is a literary event. The new book was a sensation in the Spanish-speaking world. It is a learned, critical record of the seven liberal authors who converted him—an idealistic communist in his youth—to full-blooded liberalism. The account comes from the pen of a master storyteller, who became a political animal in the same places and during the same decades as I did. This made the book a great delight for me. For now, the book is only available in Spanish, but an English translation seems not far off.

In a recent interview with Mexico’s cultural-political monthly Gatopardo, Vargas Llosa scoffs at his eighty-two years. He is already planning a globe-spanning tour to promote his new book.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The young Peruvian began as a Marxist rebel against his father and the unjust, arbitrary rule of Latin-American elites. Marx, Lenin and Sartre inspired him when he was a student in Lima—and when he kidnapped and married his “aunt” Julia Urquidi in 1954. As he told me during his 1993 visit to Australia, his book Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was rather realistic—not a surrealistic invention, as I had assumed when I first read it. As a young progressive journalist, he moved to Paris in 1960 and visited Cuba, where the enthusiastic idealism of the early phase of the revolution swept him away. But he soon discovered how totalitarian fervour led to the suppression of freedom and the incarceration of doubters and critics.

Living for a while in England, Vargas Llosa discovered liberalism in its classical British incarnation. He felt like a priest who had shed his cassock: insecure and guilty, but free. During the 1980s—inspired by the Thatcher revival when Britain began “to breathe and live again”—he became an enthusiast for democracy and freedom. He extols leaders like Reagan and Thatcher who, though conservatives, were firmly anchored to classical liberalism in their basic philosophy. Perhaps I became a Vargas Llosa fan when I read his entertaining novel The Bad Girl, in which he evoked the spirit of the times in late-Franco Spain, existentialist Paris and Carnaby-Street Britain, where I too, at the same time, had become a wide-eyed citizen of the world.

Vargas Llosa calls liberty “the daughter and mother of rationalism and critical thought” and the culture of freedom “the most beautiful and mysterious human creation” (all quotes are my free translations of the Spanish original). Now, liberalism is confronted by populism in Europe and America, which attacks the open society and appeals to atavistic herd instincts. Elites demand blind trust, promise to protect the populace and to renew national—tribal—glory. Yet, morality disappears when tribalism erodes democracy and liberty. As Vargas Llosa learnt in Cuba and the USSR, this ends in new forms of feudalism, terror, assassinations, gulags and the stagnation of a suppressed populace.

During his five years in Barcelona during the sunset years of the Franco dictatorship, he saw how a liberal democratic spirit and cultural creativity emerged again, as I also did (see my Quadrant article, November 2007). He returned to Peru in 1987 to lead a liberal campaign for private property when socialist president Alan García proposed to nationalise the financial system—echoes of Chifley’s cack-handed attempt to do the same here. Vargas Llosa’s campaign prevented nationalisation, but he failed in his political campaign to be elected president. For the readers of his novels, this was a gain.

For him it was probably a relief, for he could continue being the creative, often humorous writer and thinker. Nor did he allow his 2010 Nobel Prize to bury him, a fate suffered, he says, by other recipients who became classics of whom nothing more was expected. In recent years, he should, in my opinion, have been pleased with Peruvian politician Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, an influential liberal minister during the 1980s and early 2000s and the country’s short-lived president (2016 to 2018), who had a hand in Peru’s amazing emergence as a flourishing growth economy. But Vargas Llosa has apparently not forgiven him for releasing his nemesis, jailed former president Fujimori, from jail in order to cling to office.

Vargas Llosa, now a public intellectual of global renown, writes with clarity, which he sees as “the courtesy of the philosopher”. He has no patience with thinkers who write “rhetorical acrobatics” that fails to connect with ordinary people. He demonstrated his convictions again in late 2017, when he was the star speaker at a huge demonstration in Barcelona before hundreds of thousands protesting against the fraudulent, corrupt Catalan nationalists. He now lives in Madrid with his third wife, having deposited his papers at Princeton University. Other personal belongings—including his 2010 Nobel medal—can be found in the Casa Museo Vargas Llosa in Arequipa, southern Peru, where he was born. Should you pass by, visit and be entertained by the exhibits of books, posters and memorabilia, and a brilliant, imaginative multi-media show, which brings his characters and the films of his novels to life.

The title of the book under review, “The Call of the Tribe”, relates to a human herd mentality that Karl Popper called “the tribal instinct”. We owe this deeply ingrained sentiment to thousands of generations of Homo erectus and femina sapiens ancestors. Facing nature with awe and dread, they survived by slavishly following an almighty leader who promised protection and salvation. The tribal mentality was not completely replaced by the classical-liberal revolution, which tried to convert us to rationalism and individualism:

Confronted with innovations, change, progress, people feel a kind of insecurity that makes them want to fall back onto the idea of the tribe: the illusion of a closed community, which in reality never existed. Yet, this mirage gives rise to totalitarianisms and populisms.

The book begins with a meaty chapter, in which Vargas Llosa outlines the essence of classical liberalism, before the bulk of the book relates what he learnt from his seven favourite philosophers. It is an intelligent, exhilarating undergraduate or U3A course about the greats who shaped liberalism, spiced by the author’s own witty observations. Liberalism is not just another ideology with answers to all problems. Though flexible and open, this way of thinking fights for open social, political and economic development. But liberals are not anarchists. Indeed, they want a state that is strong and efficacious, but small and rule-bound, which protects property rights, self-responsibility and the rule of law.

Government should also foster egalitarian starting opportunities through subsidised education, but it must never pursue outcome equality. Citizens differ vastly in their talents, ambitions, habits and leadership qualities. Attempts to even this out necessitate the submersion of individuals in the tribe. Vargas Llosa rejects tribalism, ranging from identity politics to nationalism, about which he remarked in his 2017 Barcelona speech: “Nationalism has filled Europe’s, Spain’s and the world’s history with wars, blood and corpses.” Privilege-creating, protectionist officials, lobbyists and collectivist ideologues are the enemies of freedom. Interventionism destroys entrepreneurial initiative and prevents markets from serving as signalling devices of what is possible and desirable.

Vargas Llosa’s chapter on Adam Smith, his first hero, summarises all that an educated person ought to know about the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Smith certainly was not the rationalist advocate of cold rivalry that leftist adversaries still try to portray. He argued for tax-funded education to give everyone decent starting opportunities in life; he opposed government-sponsored monopolies, prohibitions and privileges, as they only impoverish the poor; he attacked slavery. Ill health in old age prevented Smith from writing the final volume of a planned trilogy about the human condition, a work on laws and institutions that underpin a free society. I had not known that the Inquisition promptly placed the first Spanish translation of The Wealth of Nations on the index––though it is not a great surprise, given the Catholic church’s frequent attacks on liberalism.

The great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, object of the next chapter, and Vargas Llosa have much in common: an elegant writing style and a passionate liberal engagement, which both men projected into the public arena through essays, speeches and books. Both failed in attempts at political careers, which brought benefits to their respective nations much later—Ortega’s influence over Spain’s post-Franco renaissance, Vargas Llosa’s imprint on present-day liberal, prospering Peru. Intellectuals and philosophers should not seek front-line political office; they have to rely on think-tanks and other “second-hand dealers in ideas” (as Hayek called them) to popularise their message, which may have its impact decades later. Ortega saw nations as “living daily plebiscites”, whose citizens share laws and a “unity of destiny”. Like Vargas Llosa, he argued brilliantly against nationalist and Catholic authoritarianism and Catalan separatism. However, Ortega never shed his Catholic and typically continental European mistrust of money, business and Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Vargas Llosa rightly criticises him—and most other Latin liberals—for overlooking the fact that, without economic freedom, political liberty and democracy rest on fragile foundations.

In the chapter on Friedrich August von Hayek (Vargas Llosa leaves him with the Habsburg nobility predicate, which the post-1918 Austrian Republic had taken away), the pace and passion intensify. Here, Vargas Llosa deals with the master who inspired him more than any other. The Road to Serfdom (1944) made Hayek famous. Oddly, it was prohibited in post-war Germany because the Western Allies were loath to antagonise the USSR! They no doubt had a point, because this is a frontal attack on all forms of collectivism through central planning, whether totalitarian or moderate-democratic.

Hayek distinguished between taxis, an order designed and imposed by those in power, and kosmos, the ordering of human affairs through trial and error, which is spontaneously enforced, for example by ostracism or tit-for-tat. Taxis always abridges liberty, “the most precious creation which the West has brought to civilisation … which catapults mankind’s adventure to new and risky feats”. For Hayek, civilisation is “freedom, legality, individualism, private property, the free market, human rights, peaceful coexistence … a certain submission to traditions cleansed by lived experience … Social engineering is its enemy.” Vargas Llosa rightly highlights Hayek’s great 1957 essay Why I Am Not a Conservative, in which readers are invited to abandon the binary Left-Right divide in politics in favour of a triangle: collectivist socialists, reactionary-collectivist conservatives and individualistic liberals. If the anchoring point of individual freedom is lost, conservative democrats become prone to foul compromises with collectivism, redistributive welfarism and nationalism.

May I add a little-known snippet about Hayek. All his life he maintained that central planning must eventually implode. As I learnt from a common friend in Germany, Hayek—frail and hard of hearing—dismissed the Fall of the Wall when he watched the events on television as just another uprising which would soon be brutally suppressed. He did not live long enough to learn that at long last his prediction was coming true.

Unlike his affable, gregarious friend Hayek, Sir Karl Popper was an earnest, austere figure. He wrote his first hard-to-read book on knowledge in 1934: All truths in social science are provisional and fragile, at best plausible. They cannot be proven; at best they withstand challenges at falsification (the so-called Popper criterion). One could paraphrase this insight by saying that, for genuine liberals, “the science is never settled”. Popper fled his native Vienna before the Nazi onslaught and thus avoided the “annihilation” of sixteen of his Jewish relatives, plus numerous friends and colleagues. He found a modest academic job in New Zealand, where he wrote his magnum opus, The Open Society and its Enemies. It was a devastating attack on all collectivist regimes, whether Left or Right. He identified the fear of the new (new knowledge, new technologies, new competitors, foreigners) as the deep-rooted legacy from our tribal past and the reason why people and populist leaders reject liberty, prosperity and progress. This atavistic legacy has implanted in us “an unconscious panic when faced with the responsibility that liberty imposes on the individual”. Freedom is a burden, so we prefer to “live like bees in a hive”. The “call of the tribe” has therefore been an unceasing anti-democratic philosophical tradition from Plato to John Stuart Mill, Hegel and Marx. They grew lyrical about great leaders whom their subjects owe obedience.

Popper showed that tabula rasa revolutions fail because the man-made rules enforced from above (taxis) inevitably rely for their effectiveness on how compatible they are with deep-seated, traditional attitudes and customs (kosmos). Therefore, only piecemeal, evolutionary reforms can improve the human condition. I would add that this insight of Popper’s also ensures that Western technology and rule systems, such as democracy and capitalism, now produce different forms of modernity in different parts of the world. For example, the Chinese, while adopting successful Western concepts, are adapting them to their millennia-old traditions of communal harmony and tolerant co-operation. Anglosphere capitalism won’t be the only model of capitalism.

As is well known, Popper of course also rejected historicism, the assertion that history obeys a pre-ordained, predictable song-sheet. No! Individuals with diverse aspirations and capacities shape history. Moreover, “although the intelligentsia has decided that one has to be a pessimist if one wants to be fashionable, Popper was an optimist” (for the reasons that Steven Pinker enumerates in his new book, reviewed in Quadrant, May 2018).

Unlike Vargas Llosa’s other heroes—Raymond Aron and Sir Isaiah Berlin, whom space prevents me from discussing—the French essayist Jean-François Revel was a socialist and a liberal. He is remarkable for lambasting the Left for subordinating facts to ideology. He attacked communism for preventing the triumph of socialism and criticised Europe’s state-owned media, much of the press and the intelligentsia for bad-mouthing freedom. Before political correctness became popular, he saw that it would abridge the fundamental freedom of speech. And he predicted that the feeble responses of the democracies to terrorists and Russian disinformation in the 1980s would invite more terrorism and then a rise of anti-democratic populism. He wrote that lies—not the truth—would soon shape politics and ideology would distort science.

Vargas Llosa equips the reader—sometimes by explicit observations, sometimes implicitly—to think clearly about the ills of our day: nationalism, protectionism, identity politics, PC intolerance, social fragmentation, partisan polarisation, post-truth spin, anti-system NGO activism, asphyxiating statism, excessive visible-hand redistribution, obfuscatory economic modelling, macroeconomic irresponsibility, fraudulent business practices and lax rule enforcement by lethargic authorities. As long as clear-eyed thinkers like Vargas Llosa uphold the torch of rational individualism, liberty is not yet quite lost. ¡Gracias maestro!

Wolfgang Kasper has been an occasional contributor to Quadrant since 1988.


2 thoughts on “The Atavistic Assault on Liberalism

  • Warty says:

    EI thought to myself, how wonderful this Mario Llosa bloke should have shed his youthful idealism and renounced Castro and communism (not unlike Peter Hitchens, for instance).But Mr Kasper then mentions the fact that Llosa discovered ‘liberalism in its classical British incarnation’ and my being more an adherent of Edmund Burke rather than Johns Stuart Mills, I began to feel a little easy, not least because of the fact that our once vaunted Liberal Party has become more like the liberals of the USA with all the opprobrium that their sense of ‘liberal’ attracts. I know, instinctive, but telling’.
    My distinct sense of unease was momentarily eased in reading that he lauded leaders like Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, semi good stuff, not that they did much about the London or the Washington swamps, but so much better than les cochons Harrold Wilson and Jimmy Bedwetter Carter. Faint praise I know. But then . . . my sense of unease was replaced by a not infrequent hemorrhoids attack, invariably brought on after a severe bout of indigestion; in this case after reading ‘liberalism is confronted by populism in Europe and America, which attacks the open society and appeals to atavistic herd instincts’. Mr Kasper then goes on to suggest a differentiation between this form of syrupy liberalism and the elites, when in truth the two should indeed be conflated. Surely it was the liberal policies of Merkel that swamped Europe with millions of barbarians, and she’s one of the elite, not unlike the scoundrels in Brussels, or the UN technocrats who’d have us sign up to an open borders agreement, undoing everything Howard and Abbott managed to achieve.
    But ‘atavistic herd instinct’!!! To what degree does this differ from Hillary’s ‘basketful of deplorables’?
    Sorry, can’t edit . . . being called to dinner.

  • Warty says:

    Mr Kasper has been greatly influenced by Vargas Llosa, who seems to conflate ‘liberalism’ with ‘freedom’, and worse still, ‘freedom’ with democracy, the latter being a conflation a Socrates would have enjoyed tearing to shreds.
    If I could, if I may, explain what I mean, at the same time exposing some of my own reservations, starting with the democracy conflation.
    It is by no means a new argument, but the truth is democracy isn’t practised anywhere in the world: not here, not in America, not in England and certainly nowhere in Europe (I won’t even bother with Africa, the Middle East and Asia).
    Edmund Burke was primarily interested in the ‘rule of law’ and the good influences set in place by our forefathers. He believed that change should not be undertaken without resorting to prudence, the unstated understanding being that those wiser heads in government would be the ones implementing change, in other words an oligarchy of the wise guided by the influences of past generations, implemented in the present, with half a mind for the future (those yet to be born). The fly in the ointment there is that the wise would need to be manifestly so, search high and low and you won’t find such a group in this day and age.
    So the question is, why doesn’t democracy work? Well, those in government make decisions based on influences, or decisions of others. Unelected bureaucrats, those highly ‘progressive’ civil servants shape government policy. Unions and lobbyists nudge governments in this direction or that, with little regard to the man in the street. The MSM shape government policy, by pretending to speak for the rest of us, and in our name criticising, manipulating government every step of the way. The MSM is rather fond of the idea of global warming, for instance, based on the research of those scientists deemed to be ‘on the money’ and ignoring those deemed to be politically very incorrect. They will be relentless about this; they will collude with each other about this, and those who disagree are called names or otherwise vilified . . . relentlessly. The ordinary bloke in the street has neither the time or the skills to unpick the relentless bullshit, and so the MSM’s repetition on a theme becomes a truism, without any reference to ‘the people’. This ain’t democracy.
    Then there is this concept called ‘liberalism’, a sort of John Stuart Mills thing, or worse still, with a tinge of Jean-Jacques Rousseau sentimentality underpinning it. If I could utter a heresy: this sort of stuff coming out of the enlightenment gave us SSM, and inspires Marisse Payne to instruct the defence forces to get bearded men to paint pink nail polish on the little pinkies. Liberalism equates with a defence force likely to be collectively knocked over by literal powder puffs, again without reference to the more conservative ‘silent majority’.
    I mentioned, at the start of my rant, that I had my own reservations and these to do with my preference for ‘nationalism’ and its potentially unruly cousin, ‘populism’. By ‘nationalism’ I have in mind the Edmund Burke notion of a people adherent to their traditions, speaking their own language, following their own customs, with their own understanding of what is polite or not; what to wear on the right occasion; what to say in the appropriate company, in other words the inbuilt restraints rising out of centuries of tradition, albeit modified only by intelligent consensus, not the late 1960s ‘anything goes’.
    Populism without the smear, for me, is another word for this ‘silent majority’, a majority which instinctively feels that immigration is too high (for instance) and that they had no say whatsoever in the changers taking place in their neighbourhoods, or the indescribable congestion on their streets, or the fact that they had to wait half an hour, almost bleeding to death from a chain saw injury, because their local hospital proved incapable of dealing with out-of-control influx of patients, and so making ‘triage’ something of a cruel joke.
    These people feel like insignificant little pawns on someone else’s chess board. But if they give voice to their despair on social media, they are called ‘populists’ by the MSM, or ‘racists’ if their complaints are about levels of immigration. In short, I’m all for ‘populism’.
    So, Vargas Llosa . . . I don’t buy it mate.

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