The Spirit of the Tribe

Is nationalism a bad word?

Certainly it is for Mario Vargas Llosa who has published recently a book entitled: The Call of the Tribe (La llamada de la tribu, in Spanish). The author, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (2010), is certainly the most prominent “classical liberal" (not liberal as in the United States) of the Spanish language. It is possible that liberal authors like Octavio Paz or Jorge Luis Borges are more profound in their thoughts; however, when one strolls by the bookstores of Spain or America, the books by Vargas Llosa are displayed in their more visible windows or showcases. Therefore, this book deserves a review both by its autobiographical content but also by the content of thought of the authors that Vargas Llosa chose to explain why he became a classic liberal after having been actively involved in the Communist Party of Peru.


Mario Vargas Llosa

The theme of the book is the liberal answer to what Karl Popper called "the spirit of the tribe”, the attraction of that form of existence in which the individual enslaves himself to a religion or doctrine, or to a “caudillo” who takes responsibility for the solutions of all his problems, and thus avoids to be rational by evading a commitment to the freedom and sovereignty that he is endowed.

Nothing more representative of the return to the tribe than the real socialism of the Soviet Union or the authoritarian regimes like in Cuba, or Venezuela, or Ecuador, or Nicaragua, where the truth rests in a single political party, namely the communist party, where all forms of criticism are muted, dogmas are imposed, dictates become a religion and dissidents are executed or banished to gulags.

The spirit of the tribe also lives in “caudillismo” and populism; where the charismatic "comandante" uses a heavy-hand to straighten all wrongs or a Messianic leader who promises paradise on earth; where the individuals are relieved of their responsibilities and are returned to the condition of submissive servants blindly obeying the dictates of the leader, a kind of religious shaman whose word is sacred, irrefutable as an axiom, resurrecting the worst forms of demagoguery and chauvinism.

Vargas Llosa also warns that nationalism is nothing more than one variation of call of the tribe. Although he had already criticized the nationalism in the past, this time he does it from the perspective of the purpose of his book. Thus he holds that nationalism is nothing more than a more contemporary mode of the spirit of the tribe:

"when the man was still an integral part of the community, subordinate to the witch-doctor or to an all-powerful chieftain, who took care of all decisions, the members felt safe, freed from responsibilities, subject, like the animal in the herd, to be a herd, or the human being in the gang who spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods and practiced the same customs, and hating the other, the “outsider,” the different, so they could ascribe to them all the calamity ensuing to the tribe. The tribal spirit is the, source of nationalism, which has been the culprit, together with religious fanaticism, of the biggest massacres in the history of mankind." (Ibid. Loc.161) (Emphasis mine)
For Vargas Llosa, liberal democracy—ultimately, rationality and civilization—has been the libertarian process leading Western countries to cultural democracies, which, unfortunately, are being undermined by nationalism, that totalitarian stratum that he detested in his youth because it was the denial of the culture of democracy, of rationality.

Vargas Llosa used renowned classical liberals to support his thesis. His has chosen thinkers that are without a doubt the most insightful ones of the liberal literature, apart from Adam Smith, they are all contemporary:

Adam Smith

José Ortega y Gasset

Friedrich von Hayek
Karl Popper

Raymond Aron
Isaiah Berlin

Jean-François Revel
.

The pervading theme in all of them is freedom. Although they are not by any means "libertarians" (they do not deny or doubt the "goodness" of the state) they all believe in representative democracies as in the republics of Western democracies, and above all in individual freedoms as the foundation of economic, political and social prosperity. They believe in a free market but give the state certain functions like national defense or public security in addition to regulations on monopolies. They all advocate universal, free and secret suffrage and that there is a role for the government in social services such education, health and social security.

Ver la versión en español

Franklin Lopez, Ph.D.


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Fantastic article and all too telling about the scourge of communism and socialist ideas that still beleaguer Latin America.

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