Saturday 27 July 2013

On the elusiveness of the common good

It always seemed to me that the interwar period in the 20th century is one of the most fascinating historical periods in contemporary history. Whilst some countries veered to the extreme left to state communism, others turned to fascism and right wing authoritarianism. 

The tendency of Marxist historians to lump the latter two together under one category is now widely discredited. However, there are still many white spots in our knowledge about Pilsudski’s Poland or Franco’s Spain despite the more nuanced approach towards these regimes nowadays. 

It would be deeply flawed to term this renewed interests in some of the right wing authoritarian regimes of the interwar period as historical revisionism, which would somehow suggest a more positive appraisal of their past. Spain under Franco was a brutal dictatorship which extracted enormous human costs from its population over the decades. 

Yet, there are some aspects of these regimes that make interesting reading. Pilsudski’s attempt to navigate the country through turbulent times and defending its territory against two murderous neighbours is probably one of these fascinating examples of history that defy easy description. 

Salazar’s Portugal may be another. I have always been fascinated by the strange melancholy that suffuses Pessoa’s writings which somehow seemed to reflect a pessimism bordering on apathy. Whatever the greatness of his poetry, the time in which he lived must have contributed somehow to his despondency and hopelessness. Salazar’s Portugal (he gained power in 1926 and governed until 1968 when he suffered a stroke) strikes a distant observer as a country preserved in aspic. Although Portugal made some progress towards modernisation in the fifties and sixties, it remained far behind most of its Western European allies in terms of economic and social development. 

There is little written in English on Salazar. A search on Amazon produces fewer than half a dozen books but I stumbled over a contemporary account of the man and his country by a British writer. Michael Derrick must have had some Catholic sympathies since his book, written in 1936, is full of praise for the Catholic (yet non-clerical) undertones of Salazar’s regime. 

There can be no doubt that Derrick was a fan of Salazar’s political vision, a corporatist state without political parties or full democratic representation. There is little doubt that Salazar's corporatism is more of a smokescreen for an at times merciless dictatorial regime. 

Yet, Derrick contrasts Salazar’s politics with those of the previous ‘liberal’ government which he describes as a series of ‘squabbles and inter-factional struggles’. And this is where it gets fascinating, since Derrick’s account may just reflect a widely held belief at that time about the shortcomings of democracy. 

First and foremost, there is the notion of the common good as something that is opposed to factional interests. Salazar’s (and Derrick’s) answer to the dilemma of factional strife in society is to invest the idea of the common good in one person, and perceive of it as an immutable entity closely aligned with a set of traditional values and ‘ever-lasting’ social practices. 

It is this hope that there is a fixture in the ever moving universe on which people can peg their life that appears oddly moving today. It was of course a forlorn hope and one that had to disappoint as Salazar’s regime became ever more oppressive. And it is the belief that a notion of the common good could somehow be defined beyond the the clash of interests that is instructive. As Salazar’s regime became increasingly an apparatus to secure the positions of a small social and economic elite, it revealed the hope for a predefined common good as a mirage. 

This leads us to the most instructive parallel between those authoritarian regimes and our own politics. It is was not so much the lack of any separation of powers, or any checks and balances, but the deep belief that there was to be an idea of the common good that ought to be shared by all which animated those regimes and provided some semblance of legitimacy. This belief can be detected in many other ideologies as well, be it Marxism (think of the ‘right consciousness’) or Rousseau’s armour propre (in small communities). 

Neither Salazar’s nor Franco’s regime of course today passes the test that probes the relationship between their declared aspirations and the realities of brutal oppression and persecution of political oppositions. But their avowed belief that there must be something else beyond a common good emerging out of a political 'squabble' or conflict of interests in society reminds us of the weakness of liberal democracy. It is a weakness that we should celebrate as it gives voice to the lack of alternatives to public debate and open discussion. 

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