Latin America's Foremost Political Journalist Makes a Brilliant and Passionate Argument for Real Reform In the Economically Crippled Continent
In Liberty for Latin America, Alvaro Vargas Llosa offers an incisive diagnosis of Latin America's woes--and a prescription for finally getting the region on the road to both genuine prosperity and the protection of human rights.
When the economy in Argentina--at one time a model of free-market reform--collapsed in 2002, experts of all persuasions asked: What went wrong? Vargas Llosa shows that what went wrong in Argentina has in fact gone wrong all over the continent for over five hundred years. He explains how the republics of the nineteenth century and the revolutions of the twentieth-populist uprisings, Marxist coops, state takeovers, and First World-sponsored privatization-have all run up against the oligarchic legacy of statism. Illiberal elites backed by the United States and Europe have perpetuated what he calls the "five principles of oppression" in order to maintain their hold on power. The region has become "a laboratory for political and economic suicide," while comparable countries in Asia and Eastern Europe have prospered.
The only way to change things in Latin America, Vargas Llosa argues, is to remove the five principles of oppression, genuinely reforming institutions and the underlying culture for the benefit of the disempowered public. In Liberty for Latin America, he explains how, offering hope as well as insight for all those who care for the future of this troubled region.
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About the Author
A native of Peru, Alvaro Vargas Llosa was trained at the London School of Economics and has worked as a journalist in Latin America, Europe, and the United States for fifteen years. He is a fellow of the Independent Institute in Oakland, California.
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Liberty for Latin America
How to Undo Five Hundred Years of State Oppression
By Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 The Independent Institute
All rights reserved.
The Five Principles of Oppression
If no other evidence were available, the history of Latin America would be enough to lend credence to the theory that sheer force, through conquest and expropriation, was the origin of the state. No matter what periods of peaceful, decentralized, local, or clan-based endeavor one can point to, and there are many in Latin America's long history, a pattern of oppression in which a particular class of people dominates a wider number emerges. It is possible that the prehistoric states arose not as the result of force but out of consent and self-interest on the part of those living under their rules, but if so, we need to explain how and why the state degenerated from a harmless arrangement into the machinery of exploitation incarnated in the chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires of the last six thousand years.
As in other seats of ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, it seems that in the valleys of Mexico and Peru — where natural barriers made it impossible for the losing side in a war to flee to other arable lands — political domination by one party led to an incipient form of state. In more open spaces, what forced the losing side to become subordinate rather than emigrate was probably the fact that resources were concentrated in a particular area, or the existence of dense population around that stood in its way. The subordinated were forced to produce a surplus in order to pay taxes, and the powerful, who no longer needed to work for their own subsistence, made up the ruling class. Some chiefdoms eventually grew and conquered others. They became in effect states capable of imposing taxes and forced labor, drafting soldiers, and enforcing their laws. The sequence of events was by no means linear, nor did these states come about simultaneously in every region. Peaceful subsistence communities continued to exist in some parts as states emerged in other areas.
But the state had been born: its tendency was to grow and to last. Between the third and ninth centuries A.D., the Maya city-states of southern Mexico and Central America, and, much later, the Aztec and the Inca empires of Mexico and Peru, became, in their respective areas, ultimate examples of state power.
The Maya temples of Tikal, the Aztec pyramids, and the Inca fortresses of Machu Picchu and Sacsahuamán are markers of cultural greatness. We admire the Mayas' mastery of agrarian life with their canals and ditches to control the flow of water, the Aztec capacity to build aqueducts and drawbridges, and the terraces with which the Incas overcame the difficulty of retaining water in a mountainous geography lacking flat arable land. We marvel at the corn surpluses of the Mayas and the even greater surpluses of the Incas, who stored large amounts of food with a prudence that is missing from modern Latin America's fiscal policy. And yet we disregard two facts about these very symbols of success: they were the result of collectivism, of systems where political power organized the population into herds, and they constituted a wrenching redistribution of resources (similar to the Soviet empire in recent times with respect to its military-industrial complex), which condemned much of the population to mere subsistence, leaving little space for other, less collective, endeavors.
One can identify, as far back as those ancient civilizations, five principles of social, economic, and political organization that oppressed the individual: I call them corporatism, state mercantilism, privilege, wealth transfer, and political law. The state had a corporatist view of society — its laws and power did not relate to persons but to groups, determined by function. The machinery of the state was mercantilist because it was not a neutral entity that existed for the people's convenience; it required instead that the commoners, the vast majority, devote their efforts to the maintenance and enhancement of it and its cronies. Privilege governed the relationship among the different "corporations" of society and between them and the state. The economic principle of bottom-up wealth transfer stemmed from this institution. And, finally, the sacred nature of authority, embodied by a supreme ruler who was either a descendant of the gods or a godlike figure, meant that the law was supreme.
These five principles worked against the individual in pre-Columbian times. As we will see later, their endurance has been remarkable.
A person was not a person. He or she was primarily a cog in a larger mechanism. The individual existed only insofar as he or she belonged to a collective entity. The nobleman was different from the priest, the priest from the warrior, the warrior from the artisan, the artisan from the peasant, and the peasant from the slave. Most people were agricultural laborers; under the Incas, some worked in the mines, and others, where possible, fished. Women, who also toiled on the land, weaved cloth. But not only the commoners performed a function; the nobles did too. They organized and manned the bureaucracy, managed the empire or the kingdom, and, in the case of priests, oversaw religious matters. The entire social fabric was fragmented into groups that had specific functions, even if the bottom "corporation" consisted, as in central Mexico, of groups of families working on their separate plots of common land.
Such was the principle of corporatism.
People did not work for themselves but for the maintenance of an entity that exercised power over them. They did not work in order to subsist; they subsisted in order to work for the state and its attached parasites. Through taxes and services, their capacity to produce was expropriated by the government, which was not distinct from the state. Surpluses beyond subsistence, whether in the form of products or labor time, were taken over by those in power. The Maya chief collecting taxes from the people, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán drawing tributes from dozens of provinces, and the Inca state forcing peasants to pay their dues by laboring on state property were all varying manifestations of the same principle of state mercantilism. Within the same geographical region, the principle could translate into different shapes. The Tarascan state of central Mexico was more akin to the totalitarian structure of the Inca state in Peru than to that of the Aztecs, who respected local autonomy.
The Inca system was particularly sophisticated. The government split the land into three parts. One part, of poor quality and of a size calculated to sustain life and nothing more, was left to the people, who held it under community-based custom. The other two were reserved for the state and for religious activities. The kuraka, or local chief, was charged with enforcing the obligations of the community, such as laboring on state lands. Every year, in order to avoid inequalities derived from differences in productivity, land was redistributed and people found themselves laboring on new parcels. The Inca state decided what public works were needed across the territory, and the state engineers mobilized the population to build terraces and canals, fortresses and temples. With each new conquest, people were forcibly relocated in order to break traditional loyalties and accentuate dependency on the state.
Under the Aztecs, Moctezuma's code regulated clothing with implacable restrictions, just as the Incas regulated water, wood, and animals. Even in areas where the state left some breathing space, as among the merchants who managed the market in Tlatelolco, the tributes taken away by the state and political interference in the conduct of affairs considerably reduced the possibility for growth and improvement.
Such was the principle of state mercantilism.
The third and fourth characteristics of ancient Latin America — the principles of privilege and wealth transfer — are closely linked. Nobility was of course hereditary, and nobles enjoyed many privileges apart from the labor and tribute of the common people. Aztec nobles could wear cotton clothing and jewels, drink cocoa and eat sumptuous foods, and use slaves as pack animals. In Inca society, only the nobles were educated, and they too enjoyed exclusive rights to clothing and jewelry. Everything, from the economic system to outward appearance, was designed to distinguish the noble class from the common people. It was not so much a feudal privilege as a state-sanctioned privilege. The noble class was protected by the state, to which it also belonged because it managed the bureaucratic empire and, through the network of priests, controlled religion.
Such was the principle of privilege.
The nobles constituted a privileged minority. They were paid tributes or enjoyed the services of the commoners, in the form not only of slaves but, more extensively, of laborers who produced goods for them. Among the Aztecs, the nobles received rights to land, labor, and tribute under state privilege. Wealth was thus redistributed, in the form either of goods or of services, to the top rank in society. The system was enforced by a machine we call the state.
Such was the principle of wealth transfer.
The king or emperor descended from the gods and therefore wielded an absolute authority. The law was an extension of the king: not an ideal against which everyday rules could be measured, or an offspring of living, ever-evolving institutions and customs, but the incarnation of divinity itself as dictated by the godlike will of the ruler. The law and the will of the powerful were one and the same. The Inca ruler, for instance, was believed to descend from the sun: the empire, a heliocentric constellation of worldly stars, revolved around the will of the emperor-sun.
The legitimacy thus conferred on the head of state and his courtiers enabled the state to rewrite history and establish an official truth. Both the Aztecs and the Incas practiced this subtle art of rewriting history so that the past became synonymous with the will of the supreme ruler. And, finally, if the ruler had power over the truth, he also had power over life. That is why the Mayas and the Aztecs practiced massive human sacrifices (the Incas, who committed many cruelties with the people they conquered, did not practice ritual human sacrifice).
Such was the principle of political law.
All five principles made the ancient Latin American state an instrument through which one class exploited lower classes to satisfy its desires. Borrowing Franz Oppenheimer's definition, one could say that the principles point to the use of "political" means of predation rather than "economic" means of production and exchange in order to sustain an elite.
In Spain and Portugal, the countries that conquered what is today known as Latin America, the five principles of oppression also contrived to rein in the individual spirit. They were greatly boosted by the emergence, in the fifteenth century, of a central, unified monarchy that began to dominate a good part of Europe under the Hapsburgs.
In that world, rights and liberties were corporate, not individual. Under the title of fueros, local kingdoms had given many liberties or rights to various groups, which included municipal corporations, religious and military orders, and guilds representing economic activities. The central, unified monarchy continued and expanded the tradition of negotiating not universal but rather horizontal rights cutting across the different sectors of society, but very specific concessions were made to groups according to the standing or recognition the state wanted to grant them. This system, which looked at the world in terms of functions rather than of persons, facilitated taking rights and liberties away according to necessity at a minimum cost, because one corporate group's loss could be another group's gain, and at no point was everyone angered simultaneously. It also kept the various corporations competing with one another for state concessions.
All consultative or representative bodies, including the local assemblies, or cortes, that existed before the unification of the regional kingdoms, had been made up of group representatives with whom the various kings chose to deal. At the close of the fifteenth century, the unified monarchy simply reproduced at the national level a corporatist tradition that already existed at the local level in those places that the Christians claimed back from the Saracens. When they conquered Central, South, and part of North America in the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal were at the zenith of a long corporatist tradition that had placed a tight corset on the individual spirit.
Such was the principle of corporatism in Iberia.
The nation-state emerged in Spain at about the same time that the New World was discovered. It immediately faced the question of how to sustain itself and grow. The state began to appropriate the wealth of the country. Fiscal revenue, an obsessive pursuit from the beginning, grew more than twenty times in a matter of three decades, making it clear that the nation's resources were destined to satisfy this new entity, which had acquired a life of its own independent from the needs of the people over whom it ruled. The state acquired mythical overtones, a "national" soul, something that went far beyond the contract relations that, however lopsided, had kept some sort of balance between the small kingdoms and the emerging groups into which the communities were fragmented. Society was geared toward the maintenance of the state and its dependents, who concentrated all the economic resources.
As a consequence of the rapacity of the state — which was engaged in all sorts of military and religious crusades across the region — a direct and fundamental conflict emerged between fiscal necessity and property rights. In this tug-of-war, the individual again succumbed. The state decided that either the individuals and different groups became wealthy and the state perished, or the state and its satellites became wealthy and society had to pay the bill.
It is not true that there were no property rights and that no private economy existed, a frequent misunderstanding of the system that was soon transplanted to Latin America. Both existed, but they were considered an auction mechanism by which only the party or parties most able to provide what the state needed could benefit from an exclusive concession. The state realized that it could not take money from all sectors all the time. In order to obtain funds, it chose to assist particular groups, the ones immediately able to provide fiscal revenue, at the expense of the others. The property rights of one party were the price the state was willing to make another party pay in order to obtain wealth.
Among the various guilds, none was more powerful than the sheepherders, Spain's principal source of fiscal revenue. Raising sheep and producing wool was the major industry. In order to drive their sheep from the cold parts of the north to the warmer south during the fall and winter, the members of the mesta guild were required to obtain rights from the government. Those rights limited private property and the possibility of expanding agriculture along the vast lands trampled on by the migrating flock at a time when the population was steadily growing — a perfect case of corporate rights taking precedence over individual rights.
As a consequence of the emergence of the nation-state and its fiscal rapacity, property rights became a mercenary transaction between the central authority and particular groups to a much greater extent than had been the case under the regional kingdoms. The arrangements never completely met the financial needs of the state, and new devices had to be put into place. This meant new taxes, like a sales tax and religious dues. When the time came that selective property rights and general taxation did not suffice, the state expropriated private wealth directly.
Such was the principle of state mercantilism in Iberia.
Excerpted from Liberty for Latin America by Alvaro Vargas Llosa. Copyright © 2005 The Independent Institute. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents
PART I: What Failed,
1. The Five Principles of Oppression,
2. The Twentieth Century: The Hour of the Snail,
3. Friendly Fire from the United States,
PART II: What Succeeded,
4. What Could Have Been,
5. The Liberal Tradition,
PART III: Reform,
6. When Things Looked Right, They Were Wrong,
7. The Fever of Change,
8. The Capitalist Mirage,
9. Corruption and the Ethical Abyss,
PART IV: Turning the Tide,
10. Liberty for Latin America,