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New Left Review I/130, November-December 1981


Atilio A. Borón

Latin America: Between Hobbes and Friedman

In recent years a major preoccupation of everyone interested in Latin America has been the extreme fragility of its democratic institutions. [*] We would like to acknowledge the instructive comments on an earlier draft of this article made by David Collier, Óscar Cuéllar, Manfred Kossok, Jorge Landinelli, Juan Pegoraro and Dieter Senghaas. This incurable weakness has even made itself felt in Chile and Uruguay—countries once celebrated as living proof of bourgeois democracy’s viability in peripheral capitalist societies. From a theoretical point of view, the last ten or fifteen years have demonstrated that in a significant number of Latin American countries further capitalist development requires the dismantlement of institutions, practices and values traditionally associated with bourgeois democracy. We are confronted, then, with a paradox that has given rise to no little confusion: the development of capitalism rests upon persistent violation of the institutional structure and political ideology which are held to be the most authentic product of the ‘genius’ of capitalism. The stunning realization that economic liberalism requires and generates political despotism shattered the optimistic expectations of the fifties and early sixties. For those earlier views had assumed, in a veritable fanfare of economic mechanicism, that capitalist development in Latin America would eventually eradicate the chronic plagues of caudillismo and political instability, rooted in the weakness of capitalism in the area, and would thus finally provide a solid basis for bourgeois democracy. Everyone knows that these reformist hopes suffered a cruel blow. Capitalist development did, indeed, take place, and yet the political crisis reached levels without precedent in the history of the continent. To be sure, the old dictatorships, so admirably portrayed in the Latin American novel, had themselves formerly been seen as the supreme exponents of a ferocious and insurmountable system of repression. But when compared with the scientific barbarism of the new dictatorships, this classical gallery has paled into a mere collection of petty patriarchal despots and dilettantes of authoritarianism.

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