The problem with conservatives in Latin America

Shortly after the declaration of independence of the USA, in 1776, several independence movements in Iberian America followed. Basically between the 1800s and the 1820s almost all of Latin America broke its colonial ties with Spain and Portugal, giving rise to the national states we know today, from Mexico to Chile. This disruption of colonial ties, however, was only the beginning of the process of formation of Latin American national states. The borders would still undergo many transformations, and especially there would be a long and tortuous task of forming national governments in each country.

In general there was much influence from the USA and the French Revolution in the formation of Latin American national states. The constitutions that emerged on the continent were generally liberal in their essence, using a theoretical background similar to that which gave rise to the American constitution. However, in the case of Latin America, this liberalism proved to be only a veneer covering the surface. Below it Latin America was a region marked by oligarchy, paternalism, and authoritarianism.

Using Brazil as an example, one can observe how much the French Revolution was a strong influence on Latin America. In the Brazilian case, this influence was due to the fear that there would be a radicalization of liberalism that guided the process of independence, leading to a Jacobinism such as that which marked the period of Terror in France. The fear that a Brazilian Robespierre would emerge at some point forced Brazil’s founders to cooperate in such a manner that the formation of the Brazilian state was more conservative and less liberal.

One problem with Latin American conservatism lies in what it retains in trying to avoid liberal radicalization. There is a conservative Anglo-Saxon tradition identified primarily with Edmund Burke. As in Latin America, Burke was critical of the radicalization of the French Revolution (with the advantage that Burke predicted radicalization before it actually occurred). However, Burke had an already liberal country to conserve. In his case, conservatism was a liberal conservatism. In the case of Latin Americans, preserving meant maintaining mercantilism and absolutism, or at least avoiding a more rapid advance of liberalism.

Another problem with Latin American conservatism is to confuse Rousseau with true liberalism. The ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau were behind the most radical period of the French Revolution. Burke criticized the kind of thinking that guided the revolution because of its abstract nature, disconnected from the traditions. But this was not really Rousseau’s problem. His problem is that his ideas do not make the slightest sense. John Locke also possessed an abstract but perfectly sensible political thought. Rousseau does not represent liberalism. His thinking is a proto-socialism that we would do well to avoid. But the true liberalism of John Locke and the American Founding Fathers still needs to be implemented in Latin America.

In short, the problem of conservatism in Latin America lies in what we have to conserve. My opinion is that we still need to move forward a lot before having liberal societies that are worth thinking about being preserved. Meanwhile, it is better to avoid the idea of a Latin American conservatism.

Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XIV, Revolution and the Dutch Model in the Late 17th Century

The last post in this series looked at the impact of Dutch republicanism on constitutional innovation and revolution in mid-seventeenth century Britain. Now on to Dutch influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Britain, or what was still three kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland) only unified in the person of the monarch did not have just one revolution connected with the Dutch model in the seventeenth century, but two. Furthermore the second of those revolutions required invasion by a Dutch prince to happen. The Glorious Revolution, as that second revolution is known, established something like the modern British political system in 1688 in establishing that the monarch could not legislate or even nullify legislation without parliament, could not govern without parliamentary consent and that parliament had the right to decide who could inherit the monarchy.

That this fundamental reorientation of the state system took place through violence and foreign intervention is not the sort of thing that sovereigntist believers in a British special path separate from mainland Europe, since Edmund Burke like to emphasise. Edmund Burke, a remarkable parliamentarian and writer on various topics including philosophical aesthetics, of the latter half of the eighteenth century, is introduced here, because his way of presenting British history is very connected with his assertions of British superiority in Reflections on the French Revolution, his most widely read book.

Of course there were things to condemn in the French Revolution, and Burke was a very acute observer of the violent polarising tendencies within it before they reached their extreme points, but his assumptions about British history are absurd. Given the importance of the Glorious Revolution for the British polity within which he played a distinguished role (though never in government), and his wish to condemn revolution, he reacts by denying a real revolution in 1688, presenting it as essentially restorative rather than innovative and as an essentially peaceful consensual event. It was of course presented in that way at the time, but then the French Revolution was influenced by ideas of restoration.

Evaluating Burke’s attitude will require going back to those events. Inevitably there are debates about the real causes of the Glorious Revolution, but it is anyway undeniable that it was a reaction against the rule of James II, who had only come to the throne three years previously suggesting remarkably poor powers of persuasion and conciliation.

The collapse of his reign was in some important part the result of religious issues going back to the simple fact that he was a Catholic monarch in a Protestant country. This would have been tolerable for Parliament and everyone else participating in political life if James had left the state religious settlement alone and if he was to die without a Catholic heir.

James was, however, very busy with changing the state religious settlement letting Catholics into powerful positions, and more seriously institutionalising the Catholic church in ways that suggested that at the very least he intended to give it equal status with the Protestant Church of England. This could be defended on grounds of religious tolerance at the time and still is.

Unfortunately for him James was not successful at persuading many Protestants, even those subject to discrimination themselves, that he had good intentions, and his methods of enforcing changes in the state religious settlement did not suggest someone willing to limit his general powers as Parliament expected. These methods included the assertion of a Dispensing Power, in which laws were suspended at will, and measures to manipulate parliamentary elections.

At the beginning of the reign he benefited from an extravagantly royalist Tory Parliament, but in a short period became mistrusted and feared. The birth of a son in June 1688 brought opposition to a new peak as it suggested that what James II had done would last beyond his own lifetime and it was not enough for those who disliked his policies to simply wait for his death, which would bring his Protestant daughter Mary to the throne, if he had no male heirs and she lived long enough. The outcome was that the Immortal Seven, seven prominent parliamentarians invited Princess Mary’s husband, Prince William of Orange to invade England.

The title ‘Orange’ refers to territory in France, but the Orange family was Dutch. They had a rather complicated and changing status as the first family of a country with no monarchy, tending to lead the army and to some degree provide a focus for central executive power in a  very decentralised system. The invitation to William enabled him to become King by will of parliament, but as he was the husband of the next in line to James, apart from his son, the hand over to William could be concealed as Mary taking her inheritance.

The next post will look at the steps from Dutch model to German kings linking Britain with Hanover.

Reading the Laws, Part 4

If you haven’t been following along with the series, you can find the last three entries here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three


I recently began reading Joseph Campbell’s well known work, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in the section concerning the challenges of the hero, he uses the example of Theseus and the Minotaur. I instantly thought back to my first entry in this reader’s diary, for the characters of the dialogue are all on their way to the Temple of Zeus, in mimicry of the journey of King Minos, who would go there once every nine years to propitiate the sky god for his aid.

I will quote what I said initially:

“They [the three participants in the dialogue] find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.”

Any serious student of literature could make that assessment, as it requires no previous knowledge about Greek culture, mythology, and history. The ability to make inferences, hopefully a faculty shared by all people, is sufficient. Coupling the plain interpretation of the passage with some concrete knowledge about the Ancient Greek cultural milieu will add further depth. I quote now from Campbell:

“…the king of the south Indian province of Quilacare, at the completion of the twelfth year of his reign, on a day of solemn festival, had a wooden scaffolding constructed, and spread over with hangings of silk. When he had ritually bathed in a tank, with great ceremonies and to the sound of music, he then came to the temple, where he did worship before the divinity. Thereafter, he mounted the scaffolding and, before the people, took some very sharp knives and began to cut off his own nose, and then his ears, and his lips, and all his members, and as much of his flesh as he was able. He threw it away and round about, until so much of his blood was spilled that he began to faint, whereupon he summarily cut his throat.

This is the sacrifice that King Minos refused when he withheld the bull from Poseidon. As Frazer has shown, ritual regicide was a general tradition in the ancient world. “In Southern India,” he writes, “the king’s reign and life terminated with the revolution of the planet Jupiter round the sun. In Greece, on the other hand, the king’s fate seems to have hung in the balance at the end of every eight years . . . Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle” (ibid., p. 280). The bull sacrifice required of King Minos implied that he would sacrifice himself, according to the pattern of the inherited tradition, at the close of his eight-year term. But he seems to have offered, instead, the substitute of the Athenian youths and maidens. That perhaps is how the divine Minos became the monster Minotaur…”

Whereas the king’s journey to the Temple of Zeus, in connection with the theme of Plato’s dialogue, connects kingship, divinity, and the law thematically for the reader, this passage from Campbell offers a related but different perspective: kingship is not a transmission of divine decrees into a phenomenal space, but is itself bound by a deeper law, a primordial order tied to the revolutions of the planets, and the bloody desires of the gods. Zeus did not give just give Minos the law, but also a limited time to enforce it, for it was dependent on his devotion, and eventual demise. By subverting the will of the divinity in diverting the sacrifice from its typical victim, the regent, to a novel set of seven youths, the king invites calamity: his wife copulates with the bull of Poseidon, bearing the Minotaur, which as Frazer and Campbell argue, is really the personification for the bloodlust of the king himself, effaced over time by myth.

The law cannot be deceived, and it always exacts its due, for it is not the enforcement of human decrees, but an element of the fabric of the universe. The word of Zeus is binding because Zeus is the pillar of existence and the basis of all, “the first and last, one royal body, containing fire, water, earth, and air, night and day, Metis and Eros. The sky is his head, the stars his hair, the sun and moon his eyes, the air his nous, whereby he hears and marks all things,” in the words of an Orphic hymn (quotation from A. Wayman, “The Human Body as a Microcosm,” History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Nov., 1982), pp. 174). His words bear the weight of physical laws, which balk at defiance. If Plato had this myth in mind when he wrote the Laws, then his setting of the dialogue in such a place, at such a time, fives a different interpretation for his view of the law: law is the capricious will of the gods, which binds us with the finality of the law of gravity, the pious upholding it and prospering, the wicked flouting it and suffering, though its moral dictums are always enforced in the end, even if it is defied.

There is little to indicate that this was Plato’s intention. Though some Greeks moved into a sort of philosophical monotheism based on the preeminence of Zeus – see Stoic cosmology, for one example – belief in the entire Olympian pantheon was still widespread. If the law is the will of the gods, we must ask first, whose will? All of the gods, or just one, the father, Zeus? Surely all of them, since the poets always depicted the gods as bickering over their own spheres of influence, and with significant power endowed in each. But if all of them, how can their wills be the basis of law? For did not Poseidon support the Achaeans at Ilium, while Apollo took the side of noble Hektor? Plato went over these questions himself in his dialogue Euthyphro, which indicates to me that he would not endorse a viewpoint he ringingly denounced through his mouthpiece, Socrates, in his earlier dialogue. Furthermore, as I have pointed out earlier, it seems to vitiate the whole point of this book of the dialogue, which is to examine different systems of law and define the basis of good laws.

Despite this, there is something to go on here. As Plato’s Athenian has earlier argued, the old should be the only ones with the prerogative to discuss the laws, their bases, their validity, their use, while the young must be enjoined only to obey, lest respect for the law as an institution does not solidify in them. Edmund Burke has a similar argument in his Reflections. From page 29:

“Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot pro- duce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.”

Burke argues for creating a civic religion around the institutions of the laws, which attains its respect from its age and pedigree, in the same way an old man garners respect by virtue of his advanced age. On my foregoing interpretation of Plato, tying the law to a far more awful and terrifying source than human judgment gives it greater security, for there is not just the fear of man’s retribution, but also god’s. Both these thinkers operate on the premise that the law does not necessarily attain respect from its goodness or its appropriateness. These are objective aspects, which can only be comprehended by an intellect habituated to high and lofty topics, and not by the vulgus, which is naturally stupid, and has no capacity for understanding such things. Better to inspire such people, always the bulk of a society, through the antiquity of the law, to awe them with its heraldry and trappings, to set them to quaking with the terrible countenance of the statue of Zeus, in the greatness of its size and the scale of its construction a visible reminder of the awesome power of the god, and of his vengeance.