A short time ago, the town council of El Borge, a tiny town in the Spanish province of Málaga, held a plebiscite. The citizens were asked to decide between two alternatives: humanity or neoliberalism. The result of the poll was 515 votes for humanity and 4 votes for neoliberalism.
I have not been able to chase those four votes from my thoughts. In the face of such a dramatic dilemma, those four musketeers did not hesitate to charge against humanity in the name of the macabre scarecrow of neoliberalism. Were they four clowns or four sages? Was this a "Borgean" joke or was it the only sign of sense in the entire farcical plebiscite?
Not long after, in Chiapas, an International Congress Against Neoliberal-ism was convened by Subcomandante Marcos, the latest hero of the frivolous, media-driven politics of the West. Among the attendees were numerous Hollywood luminaries, a belated Gaullist, and Danielle Mitterrand, the incessant widow of President François Mitterrand, who gave her socialist benediction to the event.
Those are quaint episodes, but it would be a grave error to write them off as the insignificant fluttering of human idiocy. In truth, they are but the tense and explosive extremes of a vast political and ideological movement, solidly rooted in sectors of the left, center, and right, and united in a tenacious distrust of liberty as the solution to the problems of humanity. They have built up their fears into a new phantom and called it "neoliberalism." In the mumbo jumbo of sociologists and political scientists, it is also known as the "only thought," a scapegoat on which to hang both present calamities and those of the past.
Brainy professors from the University of Paris, Harvard University, and the University of Mexico pull their hair out trying to show that free markets do little more than make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They tell us that internationalization and globalization only benefit the giant multinationals, allowing them to squeeze developing countries to the point of asphyxiation and to devastate entirely the planetary ecology. So it should not surprise us that the uninformed citizens of El Borge or Chiapas believe that the true enemy of mankind -- guilty of all evil, suffering, poverty, exploitation, discrimination, abuses, and crimes against human rights committed on five continents against millions of human beings -- is that terrifying, destructive force known as neoliberalism. It is not the first time in history that what Karl Marx called a "fetish" -- an artificial construction, but at the service of very concrete interests -- acquired consistency and began to provoke such great disruptions in life, like the genie who was imprudently catapulted into existence when Aladdin rubbed the magic lamp.
I consider myself a liberal. I know many people who are liberals, and many more who are not. But, throughout a career that is beginning to be a long one, I have not known a single neoliberal. What does a neoliberal stand for? What is a neoliberal against? In contrast with Marxism, or the various kinds of fascism, true liberalism does not constitute a dogma, a closed and self-sufficient ideology with prefabricated responses to all social problems. Rather, liberalism is a doctrine that, beyond a relatively simple and clear combination of basic principles structured around a defense of political and economic liberty (that is, of democracy and the free market), welcomes a great variety of tendencies and hues. What it has not included until now, nor will it include in the future, is that caricature furnished by its enemies with the nickname neoliberal.
A "neo" is someone who pretends to be something, someone who is at the same time inside and outside of something. It is an elusive hybrid, a straw man set up without ever identifying a specific value, idea, regime, or doctrine. To say "neoliberal" is the same as saying "semiliberal" or "pseudoliberal." It is pure nonsense. One is either in favor of liberty or against it, but one cannot be semi-in-favor or pseudo-in-favor of liberty, just as one cannot be "semipregnant," "semiliving," or "semidead." The term has not been invented to express a conceptual reality, but rather, as a corrosive weapon of derision. It has been designed to devalue semantically the doctrine of liberalism. And it is liberalism -- more than any other doctrine -- that symbolizes the extraordinary advances that liberty has made in the long course of human civilization.
We should celebrate the achievements of liberalism with joy and serenity, but without hubris. We must understand that although the achievements of liberalism are notable, that which remains to be done is more important still. Moreover, as nothing in human history is fated or permanent, the progress obtained in these last decades by the culture of liberty is not irreversible. Unless we know how to defend it, the culture of liberty can become stagnant and the free world will lose ground to the forces of authoritarian collectivism and tribalism. Donning the new masks of nationalism and religious fanaticism, those forces have replaced communism as the most battle-hardened adversaries of democracy.
For a liberal, the most important thing to occur in the last century was the defeat of the great totalitarian offensives against the culture of liberty. Fascism and communism, each in its moment, came to threaten the survival of democracy. Now they belong to the past, to the dark history of violence and unspeakable crimes against human rights and rationality, and there is no indication that they will rise from their ashes in the immediate future. Of course, fascism lingers in the world. At times, ultra-nationalist and xenophobic parties, much like Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front in France or Jorg Haider's Liberal Party in Austria, attract a dangerously high level of electoral support. Also, there exist anachronistic vestiges of the vast Marxist archipelago, represented today by the flagging specters of Cuba and North Korea. Even so, those fascist and communist offshoots do not constitute a serious alternative -- less still a considerable threat -- to the democratic option.
Dictatorships still abound, true enough, but in contrast to the great totalitarian empires, they lack messianic aura and ecumenical pretensions; many of them, like China, are now trying to combine the monolithic politics of the single-party state with free-market economics and private enterprise. In vast regions of Africa and Asia, above all in Islamic societies, fundamentalist dictatorships have arisen that have returned those countries to a state of barbaric primitivism in matters concerning women, education, information, and basic civic and moral rights. Still, whatever the horror represented by countries like Afghanistan, Sudan, or Iran, they are not challenges that the culture of liberty needs to take seriously: The backwardness of the ideology they profess condemns those regimes to fall ever farther behind in the race of modernity -- a swift race, in which the free countries have already taken a decisive lead.
Battling the apocalyptics
Despite the gloomy geography of persistent dictatorships, liberals have much to celebrate in these past decades. The culture of liberty has made overwhelming advances in vast regions of Central and Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In Latin America, for the first time in history, civilian governments -- born of more or less free elections -- are in power in nearly every country. (The exceptions are Cuba, an explicit dictatorship, and until recently Peru, a subtle dictatorship.) Even more notably, those democracies are now applying -- sometimes with more gritting of teeth than enthusiasm, sometimes with more clumsiness than skill -- market policies, or at least, policies that are closer to a free economy than to the interventionist and nationalizing populism that traditionally characterized the governments of the continent.
Perhaps the most significant thing about that change in Latin America is not the quantity, but the quality. Although it is still common to hear intellectuals who have been thrown out of work by the collapse of collectivist ideology howling at neoliberalism, their howls are like those of wolves to the moon. From one end of Latin America to the other, at least for now, a solid consensus exists in favor of the democratic system and against dictatorial regimes and collectivist utopias. Although that consensus is more restricted with regard to economic policy, Latin American governments are also bowing to liberal economic doctrine.
Some governments are embarrassed to confess that, and others -- including some real Tartuffes -- cover their bases by spewing out volleys of rhetoric against neoliberalism. Nevertheless, they have no other recourse than to privatize businesses, liberalize prices, open markets, attempt to control inflation, and try to integrate their economies into international markets. They have come to learn -- the hard way -- that in today's economic environment, the country that does not follow those guidelines commits suicide. Or, in less terrifying terms: That country condemns itself to poverty, decay, and even disintegration. Many sectors of the Latin American left have evolved from being bitter enemies of economic liberty to embracing the wise confession of Václav Havel: "Though my heart may be left of center, I have always known that the only economic system that works is a market economy....This is the only natural economy, the only kind that makes sense, the only one that can lead to prosperity, because it is the only one that reflects the nature of life itself."
Those signs of progress are important and give historical validity to liberal theses. By no means, however, do they justify complacency, since one of the most refined (and rare) certainties of liberalism is that historical determinism does not exist. History has not been written so as to negate any further appeal. History is the work of men, and just as men can act rightly with measures that push history in the direction of progress and civilization, they can also err, and by conviction, apathy, or cowardice, allow history to slide into anarchy, impoverishment, obscurantism, and barbarism. The culture of democracy can gain new ground and consolidate the advances it has achieved. Or, it can watch its dominions shrink into nothingness, like Balzac's peau de chagrin. The future depends on us -- on our ideas, our votes, and the decisions of those we put into power.
For liberals, the war for the progress of liberty in history is, above all else, an intellectual struggle, a battle of ideas. The Allies won the war against the Axis, but that military victory did little more than confirm the superiority of a vision of man and society that is broad, horizontal, pluralist, tolerant, and democratic, over a vision that was narrow-minded, truncated, racist, discriminatory, and vertical. The disintegration of the Soviet empire before the democratic West validated the arguments of Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Popper, and Isaiah Berlin concerning the open society and the free economy, and invalidated the fatal arrogance of ideologues like Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Mao Zedong, who were convinced that they had unraveled the inflexible laws of history and interpreted them correctly with their proletarian dictatorships and economic centralism. We should also remember that the West achieved its victory over communism at a time when its societies were full of inferiority complexes: Ordinary democracy offered scant "sex appeal" next to the fireworks of the supposedly classless societies of the communist world.
The present battle is perhaps less arduous for liberals than the one that our teachers fought. In that battle, central planners, police states, single-party regimes, and state-controlled economies had on their side an empire that was armed to the teeth, as well as a formidable public relations campaign, conducted in the heart of democracy by a fifth column of intellectuals seduced by socialist ideas.