Saturday, October 6, 2012

A letter on Democracy and Freedom

This little piece is in answer to a question posed by 'Neil', one of the readers who commented publicly on an essay in Open Democracy by Oliver Huitson about the BBC and the NHS  .

In his brilliant and entertaining book Life’s Grandeur, the late Stephen J. Gould  included an essay on the spread of variation in a system. Gould used the terms right and left “walls” to represent limits of possibility in opposite directions. For example, the right wall of performance for an Olympic gymnast is to receive top marks from all the judges; while the left wall would be zero marks.   The most decrepit among us may achieve a rating no higher than, let’s say, one,  with  excellence streaming towards the right. Let’s assume that the largest number of people (or “mode”) scores three marks and from then on, as the marks increase, the number  individuals who achieve them declines. This is the kind of curve we might expect:

Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I wondered ‘aloud’ whether wall theory might be adaptable to human socio-political organization whereby at the left wall are infinite possibilities or variations,  and at the right wall only one. In this case, the shape of the curve would differ to reflect the unidirectional decline in possibilities of human organization as history proceeds:
Note that we begin with an infinite choice of systems. This is an imaginary state of chaos, an  infant world where virtually any organizational paradigm is possible. Increased sophistication over time comes with the disadvantage of a steady reduction in choice.  To approach the right wall here might be seen as a blessed end to upheavals, or a cursed end to all chance of happiness and fulfillment. Those who believe a final solution is on the way  to the problem of how the world should be run - even if that solution is, at best, no more than a compromise between conflicting aspirations - will be happy to have the right wall in their sights, provided that they feel comfortable with their lot. On the other hand, whoever remains dissatisfied with the system in which they live or towards which they are heading, perhaps because it appears to condemn them - or others - to poverty or inequality of opportunity or some other disagreeable fate, may feel disenfranchised and discouraged. They may even see such a right wall as a form of imprisonment, the end of political idealism, and individual freedom. Imprisonment without a release date, of course; for at the face of the right wall no further alternatives exist.
Let us suppose that the agreed end (the right wall) posits neo-liberal, free-market capitalism as the best of all possible socio-economic and therefore political systems.  Neither of the two major US political parties nor any of the three UK equivalents would seriously dispute this proposition, even if they might employ different lexicons to express their allegiance. What Ed Balls and George Osborne are currently disputing, for example, are not alternative visions of what might constitute a happy, progressive nation - but marginal shifts of emphasis in economic policy (cutting a little faster or a little slower, etc.). Similarly, Democrat President Obama has been as committed as his Republican predecessor to military "surges" as a way of imposing freedom on obdurate populations. Whether by design or because they haven’t seriously considered the philosophical and political implications, both sets of politicians have defined these issues as essentially administrative or technical and therefore capable, at least in theory, of being resolved by specialists (wielding if necessary a little advanced hardware). For both, the ends are agreed; and the arguments, such as they are, concern the means. We are no longer in the realm of political philosophy - no longer confronted by alternative socio-political or economic paradigms because no other valid ones are seen to exist.
    This ‘ideal’ state of affairs is what Marx and Engels (following Comte and Saint-Simon) meant when they wrote about replacing the government of persons by the administration of things. They were not talking about “control by a technocratic elite” but about the fact that the achievement of their version of utopia would signify the end of politics. Francis Fukuyama in his famous End of History and the Last Man made precisely this claim, namely that the argument was over and that the Western capitalist “democracies” in the blue corner had won by a technical knock-out. Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature could be read as a psychologist’s acclamation of Fukuyama’s thesis (though Pinker’s suburban, middle-class Weltanschauung seems to me as delusional as the benign fantasy world of Dr Pangloss). More lugubriously, Stalin had much the same concept in mind when he spoke of leading the people to the promised land under the tutelage of his “engineers of human souls.” In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the "right wall" (capitalist version) has simply emerged in superficially more respectable colours as free-market fundamentalism, a  doctrinaire orthodoxy arguably more powerful and deadly than its medieval counterpart - the Spanish Inquisition. This is the sense in which I describe our democracy as undermined,  or if this is too strong, then let's say "under sustained bombardment". Are we not in danger of ignoring this assault, whose consequences are familiar to everyone with an awareness of recent  history and which Isaiah Berlin memorably contextualized when he wrote that:
...the whole history (of philosophy) a warning against the assumption that there are permanent questions and final solutions? 
    Those who achieve power, no matter how honorable their original intentions, seldom enjoy the democratic ride. We fondly imagine that democracy is self-righting, invulnerable to shipwreck, that once launched it will never founder. Political leaders tend to see matters differently. They no longer trust us (if, indeed, they ever did). They may want our vote from time to time, but not our opinions. To stifle debate and forestall opprobrium, they form alliances with the opposition and claim, like Margaret Thatcher, that “ there is no alternative”.  Frontal assaults may not work in modern times, but rust and worm can silently consign the stoutest vessel to the deep. The rust and worm of democracy is that we assign politicians to its defence; people whose main ambition is to bend us to their will.
    To define the essence of democracy as “self-empowerment” is, I think a mistake. It is a version of what Berlin called “positive freedom”: the wish on the part of the individual to be his/her own master. This definition of liberty bears us almost inevitably in one of two directions. In the first - as I think you are suggesting - it comes to embrace something wider than the individual:  a tribe, a community, a race, a church, a society however defined. With luck it may result in mutual cooperation, but it can equally lead to coercion or "correction" of recalcitrant members, policies which it is easy to argue are in their interests even if they have not yet understood as much.
Alternatively, we may, as Epictetus recommends, seek to desire only what will happen anyway so as to liberate ourselves from coveting the unattainable or the improbable. This is the traditional self-empowerment of ascetics, stoics, Buddhist sages - those who eschew public opinion and reject the material values of society. St Ambrose  summarized this neatly when he wrote: A wise man, though he be a slave, is at liberty, and thus it follows that though a fool may rule, he lives in slavery.
Both of these forms of “self-empowerment” are entirely compatible with authoritarian and even repressive regimes. In other words, when you leap from “self-empowerment” to “mutual cooperation” you carry a baggage of assumptions both about freedom and human behaviour.
    Democracies are supposed to foster a high level of  individual freedom by mediating between competing claims for unrestrained action. Nonetheless, all democracies end up restricting liberties for the sake of other objectives such as justice, or peace or security. And if they do not, if they allow elites free reign to exercise the powers of privilege and wealth, democracy itself withers and the liberties of other sections of society erode. “Absolute Freedom,” said Bolívar, “inevitably degenerates into Absolutism”.
    Freedom in its many guises seems to me to present a permanent challenge to democracy in both negative and positive senses. The subject is  complex and deserving of much more insight, knowledge and acumen than I am capable.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Dumbing Down

At a recent gathering in Mexico City, I met young Colombian journalist - Eduardo - and after the introductory pleasantries were over found myself plunged in an intense conversation with him about Latin-American literature. After running briefly through the canon, pausing to pay respects to Felisberto Hernández (arguably Latin-America’s greatest short story writer) the two of us admitted to a special admiration for Roberto Bolaño, agreeing that his works, though quirky, complex and sometimes difficult were never impenetrable and always worth the effort to understand.
 “Trouble is,” Eduardo said, after we had spent a good half hour happily ranging over a selection of Bolaño’s writings, “authors like him don’t really matter. Only the elite reads serious literature nowadays.”
I countered with a personal anecdote from his own country, Colombia. In 1981, I happened to be in Bogotá a few months after publication of Gabriel García Márquez’s wonderful, Chronical of a Death Foretold. Picking up a copy of the first edition at a local bookstore, I remember reading on the reverse of the title page that the initial print-run amounted to a staggering one million and fifty-thousand copies. Surely this was evidence of a readership that extended well beyond any definition of the elite.
 “That was thirty years ago - before I was born,” Eduardo replied. “The world has changed since then. People no longer have time for philosophical reflection or for the effort needed to digest a true work of art.”
 His remark brought to mind a little book by Indian writer, Ved Mehta, called Fly and the Fly-Bottle published almost exactly fifty years before. Mehta was a young scholar of formidable wit and intellect who, on graduating from Balliol College, Oxford had moved to an editorial desk at the offices of the New Yorker on West 43rd Street. From that vantage point, he had observed a controversy played out in the correspondence columns of The (London) Times not between the usual suspects - politicians - but between “Oxford” philosophers. Intrigued, and presumably with the encouragement of his employer, Mehta had jumped on a plane to the UK and secured interviews with the key combatants, among the most prominent of whom were Richard Hare, Bertand Russell, Stuart Hampshire, Ernest Gellner and A.J. Ayer. For good measure, he interviewed contending historians too in what turned out to be a witty survey of British intellectual life of the time. Fly and the Fly-Bottle - a phrase coined by Wittgenstein to describe the purpose of philosophy (“to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”) - became if not strictly a best-seller, then certainly a rather unusual hit.
 What struck me, however, as I heard Eduardo’s complaint, was not so much the content of Mehta’s book as the fact that it was inspired by letters to The Times. Fifty years ago, the views of intellectuals were thought sufficiently important to merit an airing in the serious - and sometimes in the not-so-serious - press. People took notice of what philosphers, writers, and artists both thought and did. Their involvement in public life was a given. Politicians feared them, wooed them, sometimes even employed them, as Harold Wilson employed C.P. Snow. Many stood in the vanguard of political activism. Bertrand Russell was founding president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) - an organization whose early supporters also included J.B Priestley, Benjamin Britten, Joseph Rotblat, Julian Huxley, Doris Lessing, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Michael Tippett. I remember the impact of Wesker’s “working-class” dramas: The Kitchen, Roots, Chips with Everything; the fury of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, the influence on what we thought and felt about ourselves and about the world of such writers as John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet… They mattered. Together with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cuban revolutionaries, leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the US, they were stars whose light we followed into what became the “counterculture” of the 1960s, exemplified by the sexual revolution, the student rebellions of 1968, the feminist movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, a widespread, crazy but heady belief that we - the young - could change the world and make it better.
 Perhaps my Colombian friend was right. Where had this ferment of ideas, this sense of infinite possibility gone? Why could I not expect to encounter anywhere in the media the kind of polemic about which Mehta wrote so entertainingly half a century ago? What had happened to the poems, plays and novels that galvanized the world in which I grew up?
 On the day after my conversation with Eduardo, I came upon nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’ s new book, Civilization as Spectacle, an extended essay - something of a diatribe - on the dumbing-down of modern culture. Churlish though it would be not to respect Vargas Llosa’s achievement in winning a Nobel prize, he is far from being among my favorite novelists. Nor do I think much of his vacillating political opinions which he expresses with sublime confidence and minimal consistency. He is, however, undeniably clever as well as being a brilliant and thoughtful wordsmith; in short, a serious artist. When a figure of his distinction speaks, it is worth while paying attention.
 Civilization as Spectacle begins with its conclusion, namely that we inhabit a time in which serious art, reflective politics, the urge to question how we should live, activities that have produced the finest flowers of civilization and guided the way in which mankind has sought to frame social and political life, have now all but disappeared from the stage. In their stead we are left with a demand for facile entertainment, for fun, for distraction from the numbing routine that characterizes the daily round. Ours is an age of mass-market superficiality to which even the most talented creators acquiesce, not least because there is no longer any appetite for depth. Light literature, light cinema, light art afford consumers a feeling of being cultured, up-to-date, free-thinking when the opposite is the case; because what such works propagate is not thoughtful engagement with the world but drab conformity, complacency and unthinking mediocrity.
Vargas Llosa backs up these claims with an impressive array of examples and expository argument. Do we really think, he asks, that figures such as Damian Hirst (and, I would add, Tracy Ermin) belong in same the company as Michelangelo and Rembrandt? Are they even involved in the same activity? Describing Hirst as essentially a snake oil salesman, a vendor of costly baubles, Vargas Llosa suggests that his fame and the hallowed tones in which critics and curators speak of his work tell us more about our own civilization than about the quality of the artist. Hirst and his like (the author cites Fernando Pertuz - who came to notice as a performance artist by defecating in public and consuming the output) - owe their reputation not to the originality of their art but to sensationalism and a gift for publicity. Their appeal is of the same kind as that of the tabloid newspapers: dependent on shock, excess, instant effect, and the avoidance of intellectual effort.
 If the plastic arts today are notably trivial and befuddling, literature, music, and cinema lag not far behind. Where, Vargas Llosa asks, are film directors like Buñuel, Bergman, and Visconti, composers like Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, playwrights like Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shaw? No doubt they are somewhere, but since their importance is now judged by estimates of their return on investment they are as like as not living in obscurity and will probably die unknown.
 Critics are not of much help since it is hardly possible nowadays to achieve any kind of consensus about what does or does not constitute art, beauty, or even original thinking. Many are doubtless cowed into parroting received opinion through fear of being accused of philistinism or of being mired in the past (history having been recast as a midden for ideas and sentiments of depleted worth). Vargas Llosa has already been attacked in Latin-America precisely for being “out of touch”, an elitist railing against one of the signal triumphs of democracy: a world where, after millennia of cultural snobbery, the voice of demos has finally prevailed.
The demotic argument is not without potential defenders among the most elite of academics - the post-modernists, the cultural relativists, the deconstructionists for whom there can be no absolute truth and therefore no absolutes of aesthetic or intellectual judgement, no “great tradition”. For these avatars of meaning (or meaninglessness), a paragraph of tabloid gossip has the same cultural value as a Shakespearean sonnet; and whoever thinks otherwise belongs to a generation that has already passed into irrelevance.
 Of this Vargas Llosa is well aware. Between those like him (and myself) who believe philosophy, literature and art to be activities of historical and moral consequence, and those, like deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, who confine literature to a self-referential world of texts referring to other texts with no direct relevance to lived experience, there can be little in common. “Whenever I am confronted by Derrida’s obscurantist prose and his suffocating literary or philosophical analyses,” Vargas Llosa grumbles, “I have the impression of miserably wasting my time.” If - as the deconstructionists assert - literature is no more than an assembly of hermetic texts that have nothing to do with the external world and from which, therefore, we can learn or experience nothing beyond themselves, then what is the value of so much textual excavation, such tedious analytical labour?
 Derrida and company, however, can be no more than a rivulet beside the mainstream criticism of Civilization as Spectacle which is that it is little more than a paean to inequality, an elegy for an aristocratic past of refined taste. I doubt whether this is what Vargas Llosa has in mind. It certainly does not coincide with my own views. Writers like Dickens, Thackery, Tolstoy, Gogol, Flaubert, Zola - to name just a handful of 19th century novelists, wrote best-sellers in their own time. Their works were never the province of a tiny elite, no more than those of García Márquez, Pablo Neruda, André Gide, E.M Forster in the twentieth century. My friend Eduardo’s lament, let us recall, was not for a lost aristocracy but for a time when serious literature was also popular literature.
 Frivolous cultural artefacts are not, of course, a 21st century phenomenon. Cervantes began Don Quijote de la Mancha partly as a satire on (or at least in competition with) trashy novels of the time, as did Rabelais‘ with Pantagruel and Gargantua. These masterpieces obliterated the lesser creatures that inspired them. Vargas Llosa’s fear - and mine - is that the reverse may now be happening; that creations of our finest writers, artists and thinkers are giving way on the shelves to banalities with a high sugar content and that hardly anyone is heeding the obesity warning on the labels.

First Published in Open Democracy.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How Argentina Came About

This is an essay on the origins of Argentina. Latin American history is still a subject of intense controversy, and there is scarcely a line of this account that would not be disputed by someone. It is a hazard of the attempt. I have avoided entering into a discussion of the Falklands - Malvinas question which has long resembled a dialogue of the deaf. My modest hope is that readers unfamiliar with Argentina will gain an idea of how, in the light of their history, Argentinians may feel about their territorial integrity; and that Argentinians may accept that Brits are not necessarily the ignorant and unsympathetic neocolonialists sometimes depicted in their national media. I have used the expressions “Indian”, “native”, “indigenous” interchangeably. We lack an adequate vocabulary to refer to the original inhabitants of lands usurped by foreign, usually European, invaders so must fall back on collective descriptors, all of which seem to this writer more or less dehumanizing. I employ them for lack of alternatives.

Borders are more than mere tracings on a map. They are the means by which we identify where we belong, and who we are in relation to others. They define the territory we call our own and within which we share common myths about ourselves with our compatriots. To understand how Argentina acquired her present size and configuration and what these signify to her population, therefore, we need a little history; and we need to season that history with the flavours bestowed by her colonial past, her struggle for independence, and the fate of the peoples who lived there before the first Europeans set foot on her shores.

Like all of South America, Argentina came into being in consequence of a decision made thousands of miles away in Southern Europe. The story begins in 1493. Columbus had just returned with the exciting news that he had come across large islands far to the west of the known world. Immediately, Spain and Portugal began squabbling about rights of possession. In those far off days, territorial disputes between catholic countries went to the Vatican. Pope Alexander VI found a simple solution. Drawing an imaginary north-south line a hundred leagues west of the Azores, he divided the “New World” into two parts: lands east of the line belonged to Portugal and lands west of the line to Spain. John II of Portugal thought this unfair and argued successfully for the line to be shifted further west so that he could enjoy a piece of what we now know as the Americas. Both crowns set their seal on the agreement the following year at the Treaty of Tordesillas and Julius II, the next Pope, confirmed the arrangement in 1506. No one bothered to ask the local habitants if they approved the deal. At the time, no one even knew that the South American continent existed.

The Treaty of Tordesillas underwent several modifications mainly to accommodate Portugal’s success in pushing well beyond her allotted meridian line into the region that became Brazil. Not until the Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1777 was the question of who owned which part of South America finally settled between the two countries. By that time, Spain had organized its American possessions into administrative regions, one of which was the Viceroyalty of the River Plate with its capital of Buenos Aires. Breathtaking in size, it covered all of present-day Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, as well as parts of Bolivia and southern Brazil, and the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas).

For over two hundred years after the Conquest, Spanish America slumbered under an indolent if rather stifling colonial regime. Wealth extraction dominated the imperial agenda, and Spain grew rich on imports of precious metals, timber, and agricultural products from the colonies while sending manufactures in return, many of which were no longer made in Spain but bought elsewhere and re-exported to South America at inflated prices.

The Bourbon Fist

Though never formally part of the Habsburg empire, Spain had been ruled by Habsburg kings who on the whole governed with a light hand. Then, in the early 1700s following the War of the Spanish Succession, the Bourbons took possession of the Spanish throne. More absolutist and authoritarian than their predecessors, they began instituting reforms - increasing the taxation of the colonies and demanding higher revenues for the Spanish coffers. They also assumed tighter political control. Fresh administrators came out from the motherland. Measures were enacted to reduce the power and privilege of the church and the elite. New legislation relieved the “Indians” of some of the worst aspects of their bondage - an initiative in keeping with European values of the time but unpalatable to local mine and land owners. In 1767, the Jesuits - wealthiest of all the ecclesiastical groups in Spanish America - were expelled - not on account of their financial success but because they had promoted education, and social and political awareness among the indigenous population - qualities that were not convenient to the maintenance of colonial control.

Bourbon restrictions and demands for increased revenues stirred much resentment among the privileged classes; and though little could be done about the expulsion of the Jesuits, the new administrators from Spain were made to feel unwelcome by criollos (Latin-Americans of European heritage) who had grown accustomed to organizing their own affairs.

In 1780, a descendent of the old Inca rulers of Peru, who styled himself Tupac Amaru - meaning ‘the Gifted One’- launched a rebellion, but within a year he was captured and made to watch as his wife, children and closest friends were hacked to death. He was then tied by the limbs to four horses and dismembered. A rebellion in New Granada (Colombia) put the Viceroy in Bogotá to flight, but it was repressed without much difficulty, and the political landscape returned to normal. Would-be revolutionaries were cowed into silence by the ferocity of Spanish reprisals.

The sparks that eventually ignited Spanish American revolutionary fervour and that were to lead to the creation of independent states came once again from Europe.

Revolution from Afar

In 1808, the French invaded Iberia. Ferdinand VII of Spain fell into Napoleon’s hands and was despatched to France; and Napoleon placed his own brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. Spanish Americans were outraged and rebellion broke out at first, not against the old imperial power, but against the usurper Napoleon. So, at least, the rebels claimed; although some doubtless already had outright independence in mind. In the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, a second incitement to rebellion came in 1806 and 1807 when British forces - anticipating a warm welcome - occupied Buenos Aires and Montevideo under the pretext of defending them from French imperialism. They were quickly repulsed thanks to the efforts not of the Spanish army but of local militia. “We don’t need to swap one master for another” ran one news sheet headline, a remark originally attributed to General Manuel Belgrano, a hero of Argentinian independence. (The battleship torpedoed by a British submarine during the Falklands war, originally the USS Phoenix that survived Pear Harbour, was renamed after this celebrated soldier and scholar when it was acquired by Argentina). This isolated occurrence, scarcely noticeable amid the political and military struggles then taking place in Europe, afforded the people of La Plata a sense of their separate national identity.

Between 1808 and 1810, revolution erupted throughout Spanish America. In Buenos Aires, the revolutionaries overthrew the viceroy and established a ruling junta. Anxious to secure the mineral wealth of Upper Peru, the junta at once sent an army under General Balcarce to eject the Spaniards from the region. After some initial successes, Balcarce was routed and chased from the plateau down to the foothills of Salta, a defeat that resulted in the overthrow of the junta and ushered in a period of confusion and jostling for power in Buenos Aires.

The regime that eventually emerged claimed to govern in the name of the “United Provinces of the Río de la Plata”; but the provinces were not united and the right of Buenos Aires to leadership was far from obvious to local provincial leaders. Several provinces broke away - two of them permanently.

On March 9, 1812, in the midst of the political maelstrom that followed Balcarce’s defeat in Upper Peru, José de San Martín landed in Buenos Aires. A British naval vessel, the George Canning, had given him passage - a small demonstration of British encouragement of independence. Evidently the clashes of 1806 and 1807 had been quietly buried. San Martín was a native of the small town of Yapeyu which lies on the banks of the Uruguay river, but he had spent much of his adult life as an officer of the Spanish army. He had fought for Spain against Napoleon, an experience that earned him the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel when, on arrival in Buenos Aires, he joined the revolutionary army. A successful early action against Spanish shipping on the River Plate was enough to give him promotion and prestige - to both of which he added by helping to foment a peaceful coup against the incumbent government, an unelected body whose dictatorial style had already alienated the public.

From Belgrano to San Martín

The new government believed that independence would not be safe until the mountainous region of Upper Peru (Bolivia) - now controlled by the Viceroy of Peru - had been wrested from the Spanish crown. Accordingly, in September that year, General Manuel Belgrano, who commanded the Argentinian “Army of the North”, was instructed to launch a fresh campaign. Like Balcarce before him he enjoyed some early successes, taking Tucumán immediately and Salta early in 1813; but by October he had followed his predecessor to defeat. The mountains of Upper Peru formed a seemingly impregnable barrier against assault as well as an ideal launching-pad for counter-attacks. Disheartened by his failure, Belgrano resigned his command; and Buenos Aires appointed San Martín to take his place.

Travelling with a 2,000-strong division over the wild spaces of the Argentinian pampas, San Martín took over a month to reach Tucumán where Belgrano had installed the remnants of his defeated army. At once, the new commander set about re-training the troops according to the standards of discipline he had learned during his years in Europe. He talked extensively to Belgrano about the military situation before the outgoing general retired to Buenos Aires, and he reached the conclusion that the struggle to push Spain out of South America could not be won overland through Upper Peru. The terrain was too difficult and too easy to defend. Instead, he set about building a solid defence force in Tucumán against Spanish incursions, while relying on a local gaucho leader, Martín Guemes, to keep the royalists on the defensive by launching guerrilla sorties on Spanish outposts and lines of communication. Guemes and his band of irregulars fought efficiently and cheaply - forcing royalists and rich local criollos to pay for the war effort.

Before his departure, Belgrano had also reminded San Martín of the need to seek the support of the local people - most of whom were circumspect about the revolution and dubious about the motives of the revolutionaries. Many were devoutly religious and respectful of the divine right of kings as taught by the church. “You will not have to make war solely with arms, but also with public opinion,” Belgrano told him.

“...our enemies have made war against us by calling us heretics, and by this means have been able to call the uninformed to arms, telling them that we were attacking religion... I assure you that you would find yourself in much greater difficulty if they should see in the army under your command that you are opposed to religion.... Do not forget that you are a Christian, apostolic, Roman general... remember not only the generals of the people of Israel, but also those of the pagans, and the great Julius Caesar who never neglected to invoke the immortal gods and for whose victories Rome decreed prayers.”

Once the front line had been stabilized and the Spaniards held to the highlands, San Martín did something entirely unexpected. Pleading ill-health, he retired to Córdoba, some 500 kilometres to the south, to recuperate. In fact, he had no intention of returning to Tucuman. To a confidant he explained: “Our country will not make any progress in the north, for here only a defensive war is feasible and for this the brave gauchos of Salta and a couple of squadrons of veterans suffice. To attempt anything else is to throw men and money down a bottomless pit.”

While in Córdoba, he indicated to Buenos Aires that, being too indisposed for military action, he would be happy to accept the governorship of Cuyo, one of the remote Andean provinces of Argentina. Quiet, sparsely-populated, distant from the upheavals of revolution, Cuyo was an outpost - the kind of place where a moderately distinguished but aging politician might be content to spend his final years in public life. Its capital, Mendoza, sat tranquilly amid vineyards and palm trees, a country town still small enough for the most of the citizens to know each other by name. For a soldier of the revolution, it seemed an odd choice, a form of retirement from worldly affairs, almost an admission of defeat. Again San Martín confided his reasoning. The long-term key to defeating the Spaniards, he asserted, was for a “ small, well-trained army to cross over to Chile and finish the Goths there...” and afterwards “...allying our forces, to go by sea to Lima. This is our course and no other.” Mendoza was to be the launching pad. If Lima could be captured then the whole of Spain’s South American empire would fall.

Despite San Martín’s show of confidence, the concept of transporting an army equipped with guns and baggage overland to Chile must have seemed dangerously risky. Only pack-mules, refugees and the occasional hardy traveller journeyed over the southern Andes. The trails were poor and the climb arduous. Some of the paths were so narrow as to afford room only for marching in single file. Chile - the remotest region of the Spanish empire - looked more like a detour than a direct route to Lima and to defeat of the Spaniards. Moreover, San Martín’s natural reticence and austerity combined with his suspect health gave little cause for supposing him capable of visionary exploits.

The new Governor of Cuyo soon dispelled doubts about his health and energy. His prime concern was to build a fresh army, and to seek the necessary funds both locally and from Buenos Aires; but he took to heart the advice he had received from Belgrano and worked equally at the business of government. He began by putting the province’s finances and public services on a sound footing; and he also played a role akin to that of Azdac in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle in the administration of justice. Tales of his eccentric but wise decisions abound. A farmer who spoke against the revolution was ordered to deliver ten dozen pumpkins to the army canteen. Having issued an instruction forbidding officers to enter the gun-powder plant in boots and spurs, he was himself refused entry by a guard - whom he promptly rewarded with an ounce of gold.


The years 1815 and 1816 constituted a dark period for the independence movement throughout Hispanic America. In New Granada (Colombia), the Spanish were carrying all before them; an earlier Chilean revolution had collapsed; and Morelos, leader of the Mexican uprising had been executed. Further south, the situation looked equally bleak. Towards the end of 1815, the Argentine Army of the North under San Martín’s replacement, General Rondeau, suffered a massive defeat at Sipé-Sipé; and it seemed probable that the Spaniards would now push forward into the rest of the country. Unable to respond militarily, San Martín opted for ruse. He set up a network of agents in Chile and Upper Peru whose role was twofold: to obtain intelligence on Spanish movements; and to disseminate stories of the size of the rebel army stationed in Mendoza and the imminence of a major counterattack.

On the Spanish side, General Osorio, who had won back Chile for the Spanish cause, was replaced by Francisco Marcó del Ponte, a pompous aristocrat who styled himself:

Don Francisco Casimiro Marcó del Ponte, Diaz y Mendez, Knight of the order of St James, The Royal Military Order of St Hermenegildo and the Fleur-de-Lys, Member of the Royal Equestrian Order of Ronda..... Field Marshal of the Royal Armies, Supreme governor, Captain-General, President of the Royal Audiencia .....etc. etc.

Marcó’s grandiosity was matched by his incompetence as a political and military leader. He ruthlessly suppressed the Chilean population, jailing and torturing all sections of society indiscriminately and thereby alienating the sympathies even of Chilean royalists. At the same time, he became a prey to every fabrication that it pleased San Martín to feed him. As a result, plans for a Spanish invasion of Río de La Plata from Upper Peru and Chile were constantly postponed and in the end failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, Juan Martín de Pueyrredón was elected Supreme Director of the United Provinces of Río de La Plata and, unlike his predecessor, he backed San Martín’s proposed strategy of invading Chile by way of the Andes.

San Martín was already busy with preparations. He placed the province on a war footing, forming even children into regiments who performed military exercises and carried their own flags. Foreign residents were encouraged to enlist. The English, who were numerous, raised a company of light infantry at their own cost. Under his orders, weapons and gun-powder factories, iron foundries and a textile mill sprang up, the latter to make cloth for uniforms, which the women of Mendoza were engaged to sew. He founded an army medical corps under the command of two military surgeons, one English, the other Peruvian, another of engineers, and so on. Countless requests for materials went to Pueyrredón in Buenos Aires who responded as well as he could:

"The 4,000 blankets from Cordoba are on their way, but I could only get 500 ponchos... an order has gone out to send 1,000 arrobas (11,500 kilograms) of jerked beef for December delivery... Herewith the clothes and shirts you requested... forty saddle blankets... two bugles sent separately in a small box - the only two I’ve been able to find. In January you’ll get another 1,387 arrobas of jerked beef... 2,000 sabers are on their way. Also 200 tents… Here is the World, the Devil and the Flesh... How will I ever pay off the debts incurred for all this… Maybe I’ll just declare bankruptcy, repudiate all the bills and run off to Mendoza so you can feed me on the beef I’m sending you. For heaven’s sake don’t ask me for anything else, unless you want to hear I’ve been found hanging from a beam in the fort.”

Thirty-thousand shoes were made for the horses, without which they would not have been able to cross the rocky mountain passes. Vast quantities of charquicán were prepared - an iron ration consisting of powdered beef mixed with fat and dried chile pepper. Each soldier received enough of this to provide nourishment for eight days.

Not least amongst San Martín’s resources was Father Luís Beltrán, a locally-born mendicant friar. Self-taught scientist, mathematician, engineer and a born innovator, Beltrán took charge of the arsenal and soon had three hundred workers under his orders. He cast cannon, melted down church bells to make guns and bullets, taught workers how to make saddles, horseshoes, knapsacks, bayonets and swords, built special wagons and pulleys for conveying artillery across rivers and canyons, and even made portable suspension bridges.

San Martín’s young wife, Remedios, threw herself into fund-raising - and no well-to-do Cuyo family escaped her request for a donation. The entire province - no more than 50,000 strong - transformed itself into a military-industrial enterprise and, as so often happens, acquired a sense of purpose and unity as well as prosperity in the process. San Martín’s popularity grew along with his reputation as an inspiring leader.

Independence declared

On July 9, 1816, after a congressional meeting in Tucumán, the United Provinces of the River Plate formally declared their independence from Spain. San Martín sent his aide-de-camp, Alvarez Condarco, overland to Chile with a copy of the declaration for delivery to Marcó del Ponte. San Martín’s instructions to Condarco were typically succinct and not without macabre humour: “You are to go via Los Patos which is the longest road. If they don’t hang you, they’ll send you packing at once, in which case you’ll return via Uspallata which is the shortest path. Without taking a note, you are to memorize both routes so that you can make a map on your return.” As expected, Marcó had the document burned in public - but he released Condarco thereby allowing him to complete his mission.

In September, San Martín invited the Pehuenche Indians, who occupied part of the eastern slopes of the Andes, to a conference at the fort of San Carlos, south of Mendoza. San Martín’s first biographer, General Bartolomé Mitre, describes the scene:

“With the invitation, San Martín sent them many mules laden with spirits and wine, with sweetmeats, cloth, and glass beads for the women, horse gear and clothes for the men. In savage pomp they came; the warriors, followed by their women, rode up to the fort on the day appointed in full war costume, flourishing their long lances. Proceedings commenced with a sham fight in the Indian fashion, whereby they dashed at full speed round the fort, from whose walls a gun was fired every five minutes and was answered by Indian yells. Then the chiefs entered the fort and were told by San Martín that the Spaniards were foreigners who intended to rob them of their lands, their cattle, their women and children; and that he desired to pass though their country with an army, to go by the Planchon and Portillo passes to the country on the other side of the mountains, there to destroy these Spaniards. The Indian chiefs listened to his request and granted him the permission he required, after which they, with their warriors, gave themselves up to an orgy which lasted eight days.”

San Martín had no intention of taking the routes confided to the Pehuenches, who owed allegiance to neither side in the war of independence, but he anticipated, rightly, that they would sell the information to the Spaniards.

By mid January 1817, San Martín pronounced the Army of the Andes ready for action. On the 12th, the soldiers - 5,000 in total - marched through the streets of Mendoza to the sound of drums, while the citizens cheered and waved flags. In the main square, the soldiers gave a ceremonial salute to the Virgen del Carmen - patron saint of the army. San Martín formally accepted a special flag embroidered by the women of the city. Clutching the flag, he ascended a platform and addressed his troops.

“Soldiers, this is the first flag of independence to be unfurled in South America.” Cries of “Viva la Patria” rang through air as the troops hailed the flag and swore fidelity to the principles for which it stood. Next came a twenty-five gun salute followed by a bullfight and a rodeo, with gauchos, regular cavalry and even some native riders vying with each other in splendour, exuberance and skill in the saddle. San Martín looked on. “These are the madmen our country needs,” he remarked.

Up and Over

A week later, the army set out. The vanguard and rearguard under generals Soler and O’Higgins (future leader of an independent Chile) were to take the long route over the mountains through the pass of Los Patos. General Juan Gregorio de Las Heras was appointed to lead the second division through Uspallata - the only pass suitable for heavy guns and ammunition. Other, smaller detachments were sent further north and south. As befitted the commander-in-chief, San Martín took the more arduous Los Patos route. All rode mules which were more sure-footed than horses on the mountain paths.

Despite San Martín’s careful preparations, the ascent proved more taxing than even he had expected. Of the 10,500 mules, 16,000 horses and 700 head of cattle taken on the march, only 4,300 mules and 511 horses survived the journey, all in poor condition. On the Los Patos route, five mountain ranges had to be crossed, and the trail led between some of the highest peaks of the Andes. Some soldiers died from cold and lack of oxygen; others became sick with fatigue and exposure. Half-way through the march, at eight thousand feet, in the midst of a violent hailstorm, San Martín came close to despair. As night fell, the marchers settled as best they could in the freezing temperature, San Martín taking refuge in a cave where the combination of cold and fear that he might have launched his army on an impossible mission deprived him of sleep. By morning the storm had blown over, but San Martín sensed that he must make a gesture to revive the flagging spirits of his soldiers. He ordered his band to play anthems of the revolution over breakfast; and for an hour the music echoed through the barren landscape of ice and rock.

Though the struggle was far from straightforward, San Martín succeeded in fulfilling his main objective which was to secure his homeland from any possibility of a return to its former colonial status. Eventually he also reached Lima with his army as he had planned. He did not, however, manage to drive the Spanish army from Peru nor liberate Upper Peru which is probably one of the principal reasons why Argentina’s borders do not include areas of present-day Bolivia that were formerly part of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. It was left to Simón Bolívar and his great lieutenant José Antonio Sucre to complete the task of freeing South-America from its colonial yoke.

While the war against Spain was still underway in the west and the north of South America, civil war broke out between the Argentine provinces and the capital, Buenos Aires, with declarations of independence coming, at various times from Santa Fé, Entre Ríos, Tucumán, Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, Córdoba, La Rioja and the Banda Oriental (Uruguay). Paraguay fell into the hands of a local caudillo, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, a morose, sinister dictator who closed his country to the outside world ostensibly to protect it from economic and political subservience to Buenos Aires. In 1816, Uruguay was invaded by Portuguese/Brazilian forces and subsequently annexed and renamed Cisplatina (literally ‘this side of the River Plate’). José Gervasio Artigas, a charismatic Uruguayan gaucho, led campaigns against both the centralists of Buenos Aires and the Portuguese invaders. After a prolonged struggle, the Portuguese prevailed and Artigas was forced to seek asylum with Francia in Paraguay. Nevertheless, he laid the foundation for Uruguay to become an independent state, and he is remembered as the father of the nation. After his departure, Uruguayan irregulars continued the fight against the Portuguese and although neither side prevailed, statehood was finally achieved in 1828 at the Treaty of Montevideo, which was partially drawn up and diplomatically fostered by Great Britain. By this time, Bolívar and Sucre had completed their mission to free the rest of Spanish South America of colonial rule.

Not yet Argentina

Argentina was now fully independent, but not yet Argentina. Two obstacles stood in the way of a settled nation: a lack of internal unity between the provinces, and the fact that huge swathes of the country, including virtually the entire region south of the Province of Buenos Aires and a large area of the north bordering Paraguay and Bolivia were marked on maps of the time as “Territorio Indígena” (lands belonging to native peoples).

The intermittent civil war and struggle for power between centralists and federalists is a complex tale, made more convoluted by war against a short-lived confederation of Peru and Bolivia, and by periods of interference from foreign powers, notably France and Great Britain, which included prolonged naval blockades of the River Plate. A visitor to the region as late as the 1850s would not have known for certain which nation she had reached nor how it was governed. Not until 1862, when Bartolomé Mitre was elected president, did Argentina emerge as a more or less unified country.

Border stability took a little longer. In 1864, Argentina entered an alliance with Brazil and Uruguay in a savagely destructive war against Paraguay. The Paraguayan War lasted for six years and ended in a devastating defeat for Paraguay whose losses amounted to fully sixty percent of the population and, according to some estimates, up to ninety percent of adult males. Argentina’s share of the post-war spoils amounted to significant chunks of Paraguayan territory, which today make up the Argentinian provinces of Misiones and Formosa.

Once the Paraguayan War drew to a close, the authorities in Buenos Aires turned their attention to the “territorios indígenas”. During the colonial period, where there were mines to work or haciendas to run native peoples had been enslaved or indentured; but in areas of no obvious profit to Spain or to the local criollo elite, they had often been left alone or had defended themselves with enough vigour to discourage attack. Hence why San Martín felt it necessary to requested permission from the Pehuenches for the Army of the Andes to pass through their land en route to Chile.

After independence, hostility between the two very different populations began to grow as the “Europeans” pushed into native lands, and the native peoples pushed back. Some became adept at conducting raids or “malones” on criollo communities for the purpose of carrying off goods, cattle and women. Nevertheless, the native peoples gradually gave ground in the face of increasing determination by central government to occupy every corner of the land inherited from Spain. In the late 1870s, the Conquest of the Desert - as the campaign in the south became known - hardened into a programme that some (though not all) historians have called genocide. Native tribes of the south were broken up and their populations reduced or dispersed. Contrary to a widespread belief, however, many survived and their descendants continue to live in small groupings, though often in very poor circumstances.

By 1890, it was all over. Native resistance had ended and Argentina had stamped her presence throughout her mainland territories.

All that remained to clear up was a dispute with Chile over land at the southernmost tip of the continent. It took nearly a century and was resolved in 1984 under the auspices of the same authority that awarded the continent to Spain and Portugal in 1493: the Vatican.

And Las Malvinas (The Falkland Islands): a thorn in the side of a nation whose founding myths are about the struggle against European colonialism and the defence of territory awarded in perpetuity by God’s representative on earth. Whoever has flown into Ezeiza, the international airport of Buenos Aires, will have seen on their way into town a large billboard with the words: “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” (The Falklands belong to Argentina). No one is going to forget.

Sources on the period and geographical area addressed in this piece are vast though many of the best and most enlightening are in Spanish. Among the best readily-available works in English are those of Professor John Lynch, in particular: The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826, London (various editions), San Martin: Argentine Soldier, American Hero (New Haven 2009), Spanish Colonial Administration 1782-1810: The Intendant System in the Viceroyalty of the Rio De La Plata (New York 1958), Spain under the Habsburgs (Oxford 1964). A fascinating contemporary source in English is The Memoirs of General Miller (London 1828) available in electronic format from Google. Among countless works in Spanish, Bartolomé Mitre’s Historia de San Martín y de la Emancipación Sudamericana (Buenos Aires 1938) is indispensable despite being controversial in many respects. For the colonial period, an excellent general survey is Henry Kamen’s Spain’s Road to Empire, London 2002 which covers all Spanish colonial possessions, including those of the far east. Material specifically on the La Plata region is harder to come by. A superb if highly opinionated view of how Argentinians think and feel about themselves and others is Marcos Aguinis’ Un país de novela - Viaje hacia la mentalidad de los argentinos (Buenos Aires 1988).

Note: This article was first published in Open Democracy

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A little rebellion, now and then....

Martin Wolf’s “Seven Ways to fix the system’s flaws” reads more like a paean to our existing economic arrangements than a serious attempt at visualizing how we might reorganize our economy so as to avoid some of the more critical ills to which they have led us: a savage increase in inequality, a financial crisis wrought by the rich and paid for by the poor, high levels of national and individual indebtedness, environmental destruction on a massive scale, and so on. Wolf recognizes many of the ills, but his solutions involve little more than tinkering.

Where he is undoubtedly correct is in pointing out the mismatch between regulation, which remains largely at national level, and the multinational reach of global business. We should remember, however, that international regulation is far from impossible, and that it has occurred before, notably at Bretton Woods following WWII, which gave rise to the IMF and the World Bank. The main reason why consensus may be much more difficult to achieve now is that there are many more significant players round the table as well as substantial differences between countries in how capitalism is interpreted.

Neo-liberal capitalism - the West’s version - gives primacy to the market, to which we are all expected to be subservient because it supposedly functions best without the malign influence of human intelligence. Its weaknesses are now widely recognized. Left to themselves, markets turn out not to work efficiently: they tend towards monopoly or oligopoly (look at the UK’s banking and newspaper industries for example), while consumers are expected to make choices based on perfect information (there is no such thing), and to be rational in their economic behaviour (when we all know that economic benefit is not the only priority in people’s lives and that decisions that may seem bizarre to an economist may be entirely rational from other perspectives). Free-trade, the neo-liberal mantra for international exchange, opens national borders to a free-for-all in which employees are reduced to the status of commodity inputs, and are as exposed to price fluctuations and as substitutable as common widgets.

State-directed capitalism on the Chinese model, or highly-controlled capitalism (the other BRIC countries) are proving successful alternatives in terms of growth and competitiveness. China’s system, in particular, rests on a strong sense of collective nationalism as distinct from the individualism of the West.

Is the difference between these models so great? Yes and no.

Yes because state involvement in the BRICs is much more overt and dirigiste than in the West.

No because much of our corporate world relies on state largesse despite a general pretence that this isn’t so and that government does not and should not interfere with the private sector. Taxpayers in the UK, for example, foot the bill for health and education, police and fire services, transportation infrastructure, bank rescue and resuscitation, incentives for new investment etc; and they also directly subsidize a vast array of industries including rail, air travel (through aviation fuel), bio-tech (through R&D grants), and so on.

One wonders if there is any significant business in the UK that does not depend for its success to some great extent on the state. In other words - and here comes the heresy - there is no such thing as a purely private sector activity. In a modern state, all so-called private capital investments are joint ventures with the taxpayer. It follows, therefore, that the state should have a voice in how they are run. In this respect, the Chinese have got it right.

So much for the theory. What of the practice? Wolf confines himself to exhortation: “Serious mistakes must not be repeated,”…”control of executive pay and corporate decision-making (must occur) without government intervention…” His arguments are not just indelibly stained by the status quo, they are also fueled by a belief (currently finding expression in the row over RBS boss Stephen Hester’s near £1 million bonus) that if we fail to bribe the great figures of UK PLC with absurd amounts of cash and kind they will flee the nest and thereby leave us in an even worse mess than the one into which they have already led us. It’s called blackmail; and it bludgeons most of our politicians and economic soothsayers into cowardly submissiveness. What would really happen if the feared scenario occurred, if we refused to pay Stephen Hester his £1 million and the entire RBS Board subsequently resigned? The answer is “nothing very much”. The remaining salaried executives would hold the fort while a new CEO and Board were recruited; and meanwhile RBS would continue to function just as well and maybe even better. CEOs and Boards don’t run large organizations on a daily basis. The staff do that. Apple Computer hasn’t collapsed with the sad demise of Steve Jobs; and Microsoft seems to manage okay without Bill Gates at the helm. These two are undeniably great entrepreneurs. Après Hester & Co. le déluge? Don’t buy it.

Executive compensation is not so to difficult to control via marginal tax rates. Currently the UK top marginal rate of 50% kicks in at a “mere’ £150,000. That’s loose change to top executives who count their earnings in £millions. Why not introduce higher rates for higher earnings - with a discouragingly high marginal rate for income over a certain sum (say £1.5 million)? The main arguments against such a procedure are that it would frighten away the incomparable geniuses who run our major corporations, and that it would raise hardly any revenue anyway.

Revenue raising, however, is not the point. Think of it this way. Executives who are paid at stratospheric levels earn enough in a few years not to have to work again no matter what may happen to the company they lead. Provided they do not break the law, they are thus relieved of any serious financial penalty for the outcome of their actions. Some - they do not need to be named - end up playing monopoly with the livelihoods of employees and shareholders alike. Absurdly high remuneration is a gateway to irresponsibility - even if not all recipients head through it.

One of the most serious charges against our brand of capitalism is that it fosters the privatization of profits and the socialization of losses. Corporate efficiency is all-to-readily conflated with national or regional welfare as if the two were synonymous. In fact, they are different and can sometimes be mutually antagonistic. In a capitalist economy it is always efficient for the firm to produce at the lowest possible cost, and its techniques for doing so include maximizing sales, reducing labour costs (sometimes by shifting production elsewhere), and externalizing social costs. But it is not necessarily efficient at the national level for people to buy superfluities (and create the associated waste), nor for a nation to cope with employment instability, the displacement of small farmers and business-owners by multinationals, the ravages of industrial pollution, and the societal disruptions that accompany extremes of inequality. Inequality itself is arguably a spur to capitalist enterprise, but it may also become a charge on the social fabric. We need a way to assess the cost-benefits of corporate activity and to embed them in our tax system in a way that encourages community and environmental responsibility and discourages the reverse. As others have pointed out, the survival of our species may depend on our meeting this challenge. Human welfare and care of the environment will, in the end, have to displace individual enrichment as the principal objective of economic activity.
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to James Madison, wrote that “a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” What we need is not a little tinkering with the existing system à la Wolf, but a root-and-branch reappraisal of its fundamental purpose. A little rebellion maybe...
Note: this article was first published in Open Democracy.