The Miseducation of Mario Vargas Llosa

The Miseducation of Mario Vargas Llosa

The Miseducation of Mario Vargas Llosa

A recent collection, The Call of the Tribe, explains why the Peruvian writer rejected the left and embraced the thinking of Friedrich Hayek and his ilk.


In a 1949 paper published in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors, the liberal philosopher Sidney Hook described a certain species of mid-century intellectual who, having long looked to the Soviet Union as a grand experiment in human emancipation, was impelled, for one reason or another, to doubt and ultimately abandon that conviction. The flight of the fellow travelers, including the likes of W.H. Auden, Edmund Wilson, André Gide, and Bertrand Russell, was born not out of mere disappointment or embarrassment but, Hook insisted, something deeper and far more troubling: a kind of religious disenchantment that upset the foundations of a shared political identity. What resulted from this “decay of faith,” as Hook termed it, was a “literature of political disillusionment,” a subgenre in the confessional style in which that failure was put on full display, examined, and ultimately transformed into maturity. The primary language in which this maturity expressed itself was liberalism.

More often than not, when we hear about political disillusionment in the polling and punditry of our moment, it is disillusionment with liberalism itself. Against all and sundry foes, from autocratic putsches at home and abroad to leftward agitation on the labor and electoral fronts, self-described centrists, realists, and liberals find themselves on their guard, in the uncomfortable position of having to defend an apparently crumbling status quo.

Though Hook, who also began his career as a Marxist, focused primarily on the implosion of the Soviet star in the eyes of left-leaning Western intellectuals, this trajectory from left to center (and beyond) as a process of realization is an important device in ideological self-narration. From Immanuel Kant’s definition of enlightenment as “man’s emancipation from self-imposed immaturity” in the forms of political and religious authoritarianism to Irving Kristol’s description of a neoconservative as a liberal (though here he meant anyone left of the American center) who has been “mugged by reality,” the ideal of much of mainstream political thought has been the gradual escape from imposed demands and Icarian fantasies into a utopia of grown-ups, making decisions not on the basis of received opinion, or even of principles, but in accordance with the transparently “rational.”

What carries us on the way to this besotted realm? For many Enlightenment and 19th-century liberal thinkers, it was Christianity—especially in its Protestant, bourgeois forms—that provided a kind of ladder to political maturity that could, eventually, be kicked away. But with the slow erosion of that faith, as well as a general skepticism about the inevitability of progress, could a literature of political disillusionment serve that role? And what do we make of this alternative, which brings us to maturity not by hope but by disappointment? Is there, in the end, a choice between the two?

In the course of his decades-long career, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has added much to this literature. His early novels, such as 1966’s The Green House and 1969’s Conversations in the Cathedral, explored the sources of decay that lead to both institutional corruption and personal despair. And in his essays, articles, and speeches, Vargas Llosa has long been among the most prominent literary defenders of the Western liberal order. Now the octogenarian Nobel laureate and newly elected member of the Academie Française (the first non-Francophone member in its history) offers a summation and justification of that effort in The Call of the Tribe, a study of seven key thinkers who helped him shed his youthful socialist idealism and oriented his soul toward the light of republican democracy and market capitalism. That list of luminaries includes the Scottish economist and “father of liberalism” Adam Smith; the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y Gasset; the Austrian American economist Friedrich Hayek; the Austrian British philosopher of science Karl Popper; the French philosopher Raymond Aron; the Russian British political theorist Isaiah Berlin; and the French public intellectual Jean-François Revel.

In the book’s introduction, Vargas Llosa offers general reflections on his own political experience and his disenchantment with leftism, as well as more pointed comments on the role of the state as a protector of individual liberty and administrator of education, both public and private. (Education, for Vargas Llosa, is an important data point in the reliability of competition as an engine for quality and progress; he’s particularly fond of voucher systems. He attributes these ideas to the Chicago economist Milton Friedman, one of the godfathers of neoliberalism.)

The story that Vargas Llosa tells of his political formation is that of a young man, born into a middle-class but well-connected family, and who spent time in Cuba in the 1960s, only to find himself increasingly alienated by what he took to be Castro’s autocratic tendencies. The breaking point was what is now known as the Padilla Affair, in which the poet and public intellectual Herberto Padilla—an initial supporter of Castro’s government, who became its increasingly strident critic—was arrested in 1971 on the grounds of making counterrevolutionary statements, as well as accusations that he was acting in the employ the CIA (an “absurd accusation,” according to Vargas Llosa).

Padilla’s link to American intelligence remains in dispute (a letter to The Guardian in response to the paper’s glowing obituary of him in 2000 suggests conflicting evidence), but, as far as I can tell, that was neither the charge that got him arrested nor what caused Vargas Llosa, along with other public intellectuals in the West, to break with Cuba. A self-evidently coerced public confession by Padilla followed his arrest, which was far too reminiscent of the Stalinist show trials that an earlier generation of intellectuals had condemned, and this led Vargas Llosa—alongside Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others—to publish an open letter denouncing Castro’s apparent authoritarian turn. Padilla himself lived in a tense détente with the regime for another decade before moving to the United States and teaching at Princeton, but for Vargas Llosa, not only the Cuban project but leftist politics as a whole were now irredeemably tainted.

It is in this context that Vargas Llosa’s principle of selection in The Call of the Tribe becomes clearer: The thinkers he examines are exclusively European and male, an indication not so much of Eurocentrism and sexism (at least not immediately) as of the kind of thinking that he finds most compelling. When drawing up a list of thinkers who took liberalism seriously as perhaps the only remaining political possibility in the 20th century, excluding the likes of Hannah Arendt and Judith Shklar would be a damnable oversight. But strict theorizing is not exactly the terrain Vargas Llosa wants to cover here. Instead, as his career has shown (in addition to his literary and journalistic work, Vargas Llosa has also been a highly visible political figure, even running in Peru’s 1990 presidential election at the head of the center-right Frente Démocratico), he is most alive at the boundary of thought and action. He is therefore drawn to the thinkers who, either by intervention or influence, crossed that line and became unofficial spokesmen for world events. And though Vargas Llosa is at pains to portray liberalism as a “big tent” (his phrase), certain themes emerge to offer a rough-and-ready outline of what, for him, constitutes liberal thinking.

Liberalism’s key virtue, Vargas Llosa insists, is the primacy it grants to the individual over the collective. The title of the volume, The Call of the Tribe, comes from Popper, who is perhaps most famous for The Open Society and Its Enemies, his critical-historical account of the intellectual origins of authoritarianism. This study, which attacks Plato, Hegel, and Marx for their “historicism” (Popper’s curiously misapplied term for social theory aimed at the prediction of future events), is still taken seriously by many liberals, despite a broad consensus that Popper’s thesis is based on a profound misreading of both political and intellectual history. Vargas Llosa cites him, along with Hayek and Berlin, as having had the greatest influence on his own political development, particularly in coming to understand the role of liberal society as the protector of the individual against the ever-present dangers of primitivism and irrationality, the anti-civilizational “call of the tribe.”

For Vargas Llosa, as for all of the thinkers he explores, the history of the 20th century is the fight of the liberal West against various manifestations of that call, which, in modern societies, takes the form of the mass or crowd. Citing Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses, in which the emergence of the crowd in modern times is analyzed and warned against, Vargas Llosa writes: “The ‘mass’…is a group of individuals who have become deindividualized, who have stopped being freethinking human entities and have dissolved into an amalgam that thinks and acts for them, more through conditioned reflexes—emotions, instincts, passions—than through reason.” Crucially here, the liberal ideal is not a goal to be achieved but a neutral state to be protected. It is, in this telling, the natural form of human life, as opposed to the imposed structures of any other kind of social organization. Such naturalism is not merely a tendency but a main tenet of Vargas Llosa’s liberalism, and it accounts not only for the vehemence with which he attacks the thought that he believes threatens it (above all, the leftist positions he claims once to have held), but also for the means by which he defends what is now the mainstream—not to say hegemonic—social order.

Beginning with Adam Smith—who, we are told, “emphasizes that state interventionism is an infallible recipe for economic failure because it stifles free competition”—Vargas Llosa insists on the link between unencumbered economic activity and human freedom generally, a conviction that determines his assessment of each of his key thinkers. In all, Hayek seems to win out as the greatest among them: “Nobody,” Vargas Llosa writes, “has explained better than Hayek the benefits to society, in all areas, of this system of exchanges that nobody invented, that was born and perfected by chance, above all by that historical accident called liberty.” If fascism (or related forms of despotism), in Vargas Llosa’s estimation, is a threat on the grounds of its irrationality, then leftism, from democratic socialism to Soviet communism, remains a greater threat still for its overestimation of human reason. Given liberalism’s defeat of its rival systems (this, of course, is the historical account we’re working with here, despite the crucial Soviet role in destroying the Third Reich and the subsequent absorption of former Nazis into the liberal West, from Kurt Waldheim to Klaus Barbie), the enemy to be resisted is the specter of planning.

The rejection of planning, which Vargas Llosa attributes to both Hayek and Popper, is a difficult idea to hold philosophically in your mind. After all, human affairs do not simply unfold. People respond to stimuli and instruction, however implicit, and it is governments and social institutions, among other things, that form the conditions of the lessons we learn. The critique of planning, then, seems not to be the choice of freedom over determination, but rather the preference for certain kinds of decisions over others.

But I think this is not a question of argumentative slippage, much less of hypocrisy on Vargas Llosa’s part. In keeping with his selection of thinkers, his interest is not in dissecting the arguments for liberalism but simply in defending them, by whatever means prove efficacious. The Call of the Tribe is as much a manifesto and a homage as it is a study.

Vargas Llosa’s rejection of the left, then, is largely based on the bad actions committed by some leftists, which he takes to be indicative of the rot at the heart of the entire enterprise. When he learns of Castro’s detention centers, he sees them as evidence of the regime’s fundamental nature. By contrast, the regimes of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are praised for introducing a new dynamism into British and American life—and as for their funding of death squads from Ulster to El Salvador, the flourishing of private prisons, or the more or less constant state of crisis we have lived under since this neoliberal revolution, these are, to the extent that Vargas Llosa addresses them at all, so many broken eggs in the world-historical omelet. In less triumphant moments, the book’s message seems to be that when a liberal government commits crimes and human rights abuses, it is simply failing to understand or live up to its own ideals.

But the contents of liberalism itself are subject to similarly shifting sands, even contrary tendencies. When Ortega fails to acknowledge the superiority of free-market capitalism to central planning, Vargas Llosa deems his liberalism “partial,” whereas Hayek’s liberalism consists precisely in his transcending the merely economic. And when Hayek praises the murderous, repressive regime of Augusto Pinochet, this is simply an example of one of his “convictions [that] are difficult for an authentic democrat to share.” No more discussion is given to the matter. Perhaps Vargas Llosa is remembering who the real enemy is: When Pinochet was arrested for crimes against humanity in 1999, Vargas Llosa penned an op-ed for The New York Times asking why, if the world was willing to condemn the right-wing dictator, it was not also willing to condemn the left-wing dictators of the world, chief among them Castro.

Vargas Llosa retains much of his power as a prose stylist, and there are moments when The Call of the Tribe provokes a genuine thrill of discovery—a sense that, for good or ill, it was these men whose ideas have driven the history of the last half-century. Nevertheless, there are just as many moments when these accounts of intellectual adventure and individual liberty begin to sag, when the insistence that no system or ideal other than free-market capitalism and liberal democracy can ensure the conditions for individual and social flourishing becomes almost a mantra, an utterance unanswerable not because it is flawless, but because it doesn’t seem made with dialogue in mind.

What does such a hagiographic approach offer to anyone who is not already a believer? This question returns us to what we can learn from the literature of disillusionment. Why, when liberalism is merely the natural and rational position to hold, does it require such a defense? Vargas Llosa allows us a glimpse behind the curtain in his discussion of the argumentative style of the outwardly modest Isaiah Berlin: “Fair play,” he writes, “is only a technique that, like all narrative techniques, has just one function: to make the content more persuasive. A story that seems not to be told by anyone in particular, that purports to be creating itself, by itself, at the moment of reading, can often be more plausible and engrossing for the reader.”

So why disillusionment? It’s a narrative mode with obvious religious connotations; it is a story about the revelation of the true religion, the smashing of false idols and the embrace of pure faith, at which point “religion,” as such, becomes the enemy, or at least a danger to be wary of. This same structure played out in colonial encounters—colonists described natives first as having no religion and then, once European Christianity gave way to secular humanism, as being slaves to it. So it is perfectly consistent to point to Marxism or leftist politics generally, as Vargas Llosa does (drawing especially on Popper and Raymond Aron), as primitive, tribal, religious. “Religion,” in this tradition, is what other people do.

It is this historical double play that illuminates the real power of the narrative of disillusionment. It aids in the creation not of two sides of an argument, but of a natural (that is, a non- or even subhuman) phenomenon and a neutral observer. Such an observer may have a commitment to “flexibility,” as Varga Llosa insists that all liberals—whether individual thinkers or governments—must, but such a duality nevertheless depends on a carefully guarded wall between the wildness out there and the reason in here. It is the complexity of a world of actions and relations, decisions and consequences, congealed into a world of determined possibilities that will remain hidden unless you simply, though perhaps painfully, grow up. When the demand is made so insistently, one begins to wonder what measures might be justified in dragging the reluctant into the light.

I have to admit that by the end of The Call of the Tribe, I felt a kind of malaise, having read the litany of liberal virtue in so many iterations. Why, the question nagged, in its fourth (or, arguably, eighth) decade of nearly unchallenged global hegemony, do the representatives of Western liberalism feel the need to defend it against threats that have been for so long neutralized? And then it occurred to me that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup d’état, the death of Salvador Allende, and the beginning of a decades-long tyranny supported and praised by, among others, Hayek, Friedman, and the US government. Allende, as it happens, is one democratically elected socialist for whom Vargas Llosa, if this book is any indication, retains some sympathy, if only in retrospect. Perhaps, he seems to suggest, the transition to a more fully liberal economy could have been accomplished more smoothly, less forcefully. Still, the Chicago Boys took over, the left was destroyed, and it is in the nature of stories to be retold, of rituals to be performed, of victories to be commemorated.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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