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Conservative utopias: a reading of Vargas Llosa (II)

Conservative utopias are in vogue in Latin America as they are in the Western world and they are on the rise.


mario-vargas-llosa-la-civilizacionClaudio Chipana


If there is an ideology behind the book “La civilización del espectáculo” – CdE (Vargas Llosa Mario, Punto de Lectura, México, 2015)), then it is the liberal ideology which the author openly defends as he did when he was a presidential candidate. The CdE is not only a cultural manifesto but also a political one.

The leitmotif running behind the cultural ideas expressed in this book goes hand in hand with liberal political logic.

This liberal thinking however does not only fit in with classical liberal thinking as far as faith in progress and in tolerance is concerned.

Vargas Llosa goes further, even to the point of embracing neoliberal ideologies although in the book he only implies it; the attacks against governments such as those in Venezuela and Cuba amongst others which have taken an anti-neoliberal route.

The progressive governments of Latin America are an anchor weighing down “democracy” and “freedom”, read “market freedom” (Ver “Mario Vargas Llosa: Confessions of a Latin American Liberal”.  When he was a presidential candidate in 1990 he presented a set of visibly neoliberal plans.

Vargas Llosa declared that he considered himself a utopian in every way but “less in politics” (El País, 29-03-03).

However, in line with international liberal political thought, it fits into what has been referred to as conservative utopia, which is predominant in the western world.  It is no coincidence that Vargas Llosa’s mentors were not just liberal thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment, but also Popper, Von Mises, Hayek, and other proponents of the neoliberal model (In 1947 there was an important gathering of neoliberal thought. See “El Neoliberalismo y su concepto del Hombre: La Sociedad Mont Pelerin”).

Conservative utopias are in vogue in Latin America as they are in the Western world and they are on the rise.  Neoliberalism places the emphasis on a free market, privatisation and low levels of government intervention.

Vargas Llosa highlights an elitist position in relation to culture by postulating that the degradation of culture is due to the fact that it has become commoditized and “democratised”.  Vargas Llosa says that when it is “democratised”, the quantity of culture increases but in terms of quality the opposite is the case (p. 35).

The creation of mass culture through the growth of the media has led to a situation where image is dominant and where “high culture” has lost its place.  To reverse this, certain members of the elite must continue to play a central role when it comes to the preservation of culture.

The answer is not to look towards the future but to look back towards our past, to the prime periods of high culture. “I must confess that I have little curiosity about the future, in which, as things are currently, I tend to have little faith” says the author (p. 203).

Vargas Llosa reiterates his yearning for all things past when he says that the elite is necessary “without it we will continue to progress aimlessly, blindly, just like automatons, bringing about our own destruction” (p. 73).

In this way, Vargas Llosa entirely rules out the possibility that popular culture can revive the dumbed down culture that exists today.  And that may be whether popular culture is viewed in its Bakhtinian sense, as a response from the people when they are faced with the official version of culture, or as “low brow” culture, that is to say as opposed to “high brow” culture. Whether popular culture is the cultural expression of masses or mass culture as portrayed by the media corporations it is just as harmful.

Vargas Llosa does not draw any major distinction between the two.

Vargas Llosa goes further than declarations in defence of “liberty” and an “open” society, he goes against the general multicultural trends in Europe and promoting arguments against multiculturalism and “political correctness”.  This is how he spoke against the use of Islamic head scares in French schools.

According to the novelist, this is a “just and democratic” decision (p 187).  Muslim families must not preserve their culture, but they must “adjust their conduct to existing laws”, that is to say they must assimilate themselves into the majority culture.

However he does take on a somewhat different view when he claims that different religious sects such as Scientology “should not only be respected, but encouraged”.  These are just some of the irresolvable internal contradictions of the conservative liberalism of Mario Vargas Llosa.

 (Translated by Peter Savin)


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