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Vargas Llosa’s Intolerant Liberalism
The Call of the Tribe
By Mario Vargas Llosa
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023)
Mario Vargas Llosa is among the most acclaimed novelists of our time. Well-read, widely traveled, and a marquess, he epitomizes the cosmopolitan globalist. His achievements in fiction are beyond dispute. His subtle narration of historical events told from distinct points of view in The Feast of the Goat, for example, demonstrates a keen understanding of the intricacies of historical experience. Such novels as The Time of the Hero, The War of the End of the World, and Conversation in the Cathedral have received sweeping praise from critics, and in 2012 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet The Call of the Tribe, Vargas Llosa’s intellectual memoir, shows he is better at writing fiction than biography and better at writing biography than political theory.
Vargas Llosa’s prose, as translated by John King, is clear and unencumbered with jargon. Originally published in Spanish in 2018, The Call of the Tribe is now appearing in English for the first time. The book consists of an introduction by the author followed by seven essays on liberal intellectuals he admires, including Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, F. A. Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, and Jean-François Revel. After a brief biographical vignette, each essay synthesizes and evaluates the subject’s work. These thinkers have so deeply influenced Vargas Llosa’s thinking that he suggests readers regard the book as “autobiographical.”
The author breaks little new ground in the essays. For any of these intellectuals, one can find deeper analysis and greater biographical detail elsewhere. Each essay does provide some intellectual insight together with diverting details on the personal proclivities of the featured subject. Readers learn, for example, of Hayek’s flirtation with Buddhism and Berlin’s habit of sleeping with the wives of colleagues. Certain ironies grab one’s attention. Adam Smith, for example, ended his days as a customs collector, “a job whose very existence negated his most cherished ideas.” Karl Popper, the champion of the open society, called for the censorship of television. All but one of these seven men lived in the twentieth century. None were Marxists. None were conservatives.
Adam Smith and José Ortega y Gasset come first. Vargas Llosa praises Smith’s recognition of the individual as “the basic cell of society.” He lauds Smith’s views on the “spontaneous” character of commercial exchange, which, when left alone, boosts “productivity.” Famous for his Revolt of the Masses, Ortega y Gasset criticized nationalism, communism, and fascism as forms of “primitivism” that endanger the “sovereignty” of the individual. Vargas Llosa praises the Spanish writer as a secularist and a moderate. Ortega y Gasset saw “freedom as the supreme value” and supported toleration amid wartime extremism.
Next follow two Austrian expatriates: F. A. Hayek and Karl Popper. Hayek, like Vargas Llosa, was a “citizen of the world.” Best known for The Road to Serfdom, Hayek denounced state intervention in the economy. Any economy, he thought, was too complex to engineer. Attempts to do so caused corruption and inefficiency. Hayek believed free markets led to political freedom but valued markets over democracy. The essay on Popper is the book’s longest. Popper’s most important work is The Open Society and Its Enemies, which Vargas Llosa calls “stimulating and enriching.” Popper believed totalitarian ideology originated with Plato, who had crushed the critical spirit of the sophists. Thereafter, closed societies have demanded adherence to certain orthodoxies and hindered individual pursuit of truth. Open societies have promoted progress through greater freedom.
The Call of the Tribe culminates with essays on two French journalists and an Oxford-based philosopher: Raymond Aron, Jean-François Revel, and Isaiah Berlin. Vargas Llosa encountered Aron as a young man through reading his column in Le Figaro. During World War II, Aron used his journalistic talents to serve Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government-in-exile. Later he denounced the hypocrisy of France championing democracy while ruling Algeria. His Opium of the Intellectuals criticized Marxism as a secular religion whose academic adherents romanticized workers and excused atrocities. Isaiah Berlin, a native of Latvia, argued for a bifurcated concept of freedom. “Negative freedom” demanded minimalist government to protect individual liberty. “Positive freedom” required state activism to promote social solidarity. History moves forward, Berlin thought, through the work of great and good persons. Born in Marseilles, Jean-François Revel loved to annoy leftists, making sport of their pretentious claims. An atheist, he criticized the right, disparaged Catholicism, and sought office as a socialist. He saw freedom as the paramount virtue. Such freedom, however, could endanger democracies when their enemies used it to subvert Western society.
On the surface these portraits are perfectly competent: all are informative and mostly fun to read. The heart of the book, however, rests in its introduction and in Vargas Llosa’s musings about his subjects’ ideas. In these parts of the book, The Call of the Tribe provides a startling glimpse into the neoliberal mind. The introduction recounts the author’s life story. Many intellectuals have walked away from youthful Marxist infatuations, and Vargas Llosa has moved further than most. An apologist serving the Castro regime until 1970, he grew to hate communist suppression of dissident writers. When Vargas Llosa protested the imprisonment of the Cuban poet Hugo Padilla, Castro denounced him as an imperialist and warned him never again to set foot on the island. Then, in the 1980s, Vargas Llosa became a cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Their self-confident defense of free markets, global trade, and “democratic culture” impressed him. Anticommunism became and remained central to his worldview. He condemned even those intellectuals he most admired, such as Sartre, for excusing Stalinist brutality. In 1990 he unsuccessfully ran for the presidency of Peru, promising Thatcherite economic reform.
The chief takeaway from this book, however, lies not in Vargas Llosa’s autobiography but in the extravagance of his claims about liberalism, which are more far-reaching than those of his subjects. Vargas Llosa accepts the proposition that all human beings are “sovereign individuals.” He suggests that any allegiance intruding upon individual self-concern amounts to atavism, to “the call of the tribe.”
Many of these claims surface in the introduction. For example, Vargas Llosa says Sartre “inured [him] against dogma” and asserts that “liberalism is not dogmatic.” And yet the author also insists that liberalism possesses a “core set of convictions.” Freedom is its “supreme value.” It “must be evident in every sphere—be it economic, political, social, or cultural—in a genuinely democratic society.” How a required set of “core convictions” that has to permeate all aspects of society does not constitute a dogma he fails to explain. Vargas Llosa also proclaims that tolerance is a distinguishing virtue and a necessary aspect of liberalism. Then he launches an attack on those who disagree with his principles, literally dehumanizing non-liberals as “animals in a pack or herd.”
Vargas Llosa freights the terms “civilization” and “tribe” with considerable moral significance. Only civilized societies promote personal liberty, he argues, and only societies that promote liberty are civilized. With Popper, he sees any society that does not promote personal liberty as barbaric. Using this rubric, readers will note, civilization could not have begun in ancient Sumer, classical Greece, or Shang dynasty China. Rather, civilization seems to have appeared in eighteenth-century Scotland with the work of the atheist philosopher David Hume and the free-market guru Adam Smith.
Exaggerations and contradictions abound in The Call of the Tribe. Vargas Llosa defines nationalism, for instance, as the idea that individuals “must always agree with their nation’s actions, right or wrong.” Nations are enlarged exemplars of the “tribal spirit.” He claims that non-liberals unfailingly deliver themselves “in thrall to a caudillo.” He equates conservatism to “the papal encyclicals and the pronouncements of the Catholic Church.” He faults conservatives for lacking goals toward which society should progress and attacks communists because they do have such goals. Liberalism, on the other hand, is like baby bear’s porridge, not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Attacks on liberalism are “calumnies.” Vargas Llosa’s paeans to his chosen political orientation lack balance. Liberalism, says he, is not “just another ideology.” It is rational, “flexible,” broad-minded, values equality in just the right measure, and promotes “the participation of ordinary citizens in public life.” More than other political viewpoints, liberalism promotes human rights, civil liberties, and “defense of the environment.” Reading such commendations, one wonders if Vargas Llosa ever pondered the Ludlow Massacre or read Blake on England’s “dark Satanic Mills.” He gives few indications that liberalism might have a downside.
One virtue of The Call of the Tribe is its demonstration of how classical liberalism morphs logically into contemporary neoliberalism. The notion that connects them is that individuals should live without outside restraints to hinder their desires. Initially, liberals confined this belief to economic matters, but eventually they extended it to all human affairs. Vargas Llosa’s vision is holistic—personal freedom should be supreme in all spheres. He criticizes Reagan and Thatcher for opposing gay marriage, Berlin for favoring economic regulation, and Hayek for prioritizing economic over political liberty. Vargas Llosa even posits a reverse social contract: human beings are born into enslaving social institutions from which they must break free to establish personal independence. He summarizes Popper approvingly to the effect that individuals must sever themselves from the tribal “placenta.” But he doesn’t seem to realize that such liberals are not breaking their chains; they are cutting the umbilical cord that ties them to history and community.
Vargas Llosa fails to consider (or intentionally disguises) the contradictions and radical implications of this all-encompassing liberalism. He claims, for instance, that liberals favor democracy but also that freedom must be society’s supreme value. In much of today’s world, abortion, drug legalization, and euthanasia are socially mandatory freedoms. Thus, if a majority of voters in a particular country decide to ban abortion, then that society ipso facto cannot be democratic. By democracy, then, Vargas Llosa means something besides majority rule. At times, it seems, “genuine” democracy demands coercion of the majority to accept things it does not want. Hence, when talking about democracy, Vargas Llosa is engaging in neoliberal Newspeak.
A more fundamental absurdity of The Call of the Tribe arises from its repeated praise for individual “sovereignty.” Again Vargas Llosa tries to soften the implications of this idea. He claims that liberals are not anarchists, that they want a small, strong state to enforce the law. Yet the very nature of law is to restrict individual freedom, to require some behaviors and to forbid others. Tax laws force people to pay up. Speeding laws demand they not drive too fast. Sovereignty, on the other hand, means complete independence from higher authority. So in championing the sovereign individual, Vargas Llosa cannot mean what he says. Either individuals are sovereign and therefore not bound by law, which means anarchy, or individuals are bound by law and are not therefore sovereign.
Vargas Llosa fiercely contends that, despite their anticommunism, liberals (including classical liberals) are not and cannot be conservatives. In this, he speaks truly. Conservatives should listen.
Christopher Owen is emeritus professor of history at Northeastern State University.
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