In recent years a major preoccupation of everyone interested in Latin America has been the extreme fragility of its democratic institutions.footnote 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.

The historical drama of Latin America teaches us that the praxis of liberalism has become entangled in an insoluble dilemma: the adoption of liberal-type economic policies presupposes a political order in which the State, assuming the unmistakable outline of Hobbes’s apocalyptic sovereign, enjoys an oppressive concentration of power that enables it to command unlimited obedience from the population. Hobbes, himself, had called upon the Leviathan, that Biblical sea monster, to put an end to the terrible ‘war of all against all’ implicit in men’s natural state. It was a metaphor which clearly referred to the experience of the English Civil War, when the exasperating clash of rival classes stamped everyday life with the constant fear of violent death. In a famous phrase, Hobbes summed up human life in such circumstances as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.footnote1

There is an undeniable similarity between Hobbes’s portrait of a terrified England that had just beheaded Charles I, and the contemporary scene in Latin America, with its bleak record of murder, disappearance, kidnapping and torture. There, too, people had been living in ‘a state of nature’; there, too, class confrontation, reaching critical levels that threatened the stability of bourgeois society, precipitated a series of despotic regimes bent on ‘solving’ the crisis (on the most favourable terms for the ruling classes) through the automatic mechanisms of the economy. The contradiction, then, was quite blatant: the invisible hand of the market, that fetish so dear to the entire liberal tradition, changed imperceptibly into an iron fist which concentrated all the subjugating violence of the Hobbesian State. For the bourgeoisie, an irresolvable conflict has taken shape between, on the one hand, the exigencies of the capitalist sphere of production, and, on the other hand, a democratic tradition which, in this epoch of general crisis, has become a dead weight to be removed as quickly as possible.

In this article we shall mainly, but not exclusively, refer to the way in which this disjuncture presents itself today in Latin America. If the stress falls on certain countries of the Southern Cone, this is because their recent history illustrates with particular clarity a number of deep-rooted tendencies at work in all capitalist societies. The world capitalist system, which, in the course of the twentieth century, has witnessed the emergence of socialist states, the crumbling of old colonial empires, the outbreak of two severe economic depressions, and the eruption of two world wars, now faces the ineluctable necessity of major reorganization. Since, above all, the re-establishment of a liberal economic order, untying the hands of the most dynamic and concentrated fractions of capital, requires an ever more authoritarian political order, it has become vitally important to re-examine the validity of democratic conceptions that used to be presented as sublime bourgeois contributions to modern society. Hence the insistence with which distinguished bourgeois writers speak of ‘the crisis of democracy’. Democracy, however, does not exist in the abstract. A correct analysis cannot but begin with a systematic redefinition of the problem which refers to the complex and contradictory link between capitalism and democracy. The following considerations will therefore focus on this, ‘the most difficult and obscure nexus of problems’ in the modern theory of democracy.footnote2

Rousseau’s writings illustrate with unrivalled clarity that bifurcation of democratic theory which the French Revolution made irreversible a short time after his death. For the historical course of democracy, as both an ill-designed proclamation of the rising bourgeoisie and a radical demand of the plebeian barricades, inescapably leads us to consider its articulation with property. And it was precisely the philosopher of Geneva, in his Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, who attacked the traditional terms of debate and proposed a radically new definition of the relationship between property and democracy. Writing in a language of still impressive power and eloquence, he argued: ‘The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, “This is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, “Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’footnote3 Rousseau drove a dagger to the very heart of the bourgeois ‘common sense’ of his epoch—an ideology expressed in Locke’s bare, phlegmatic assertion that ‘the great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealths . . . is the preservation of their property’.footnote4 In Rousseau’s discourse, by contrast, property is no longer the foundation of good government, but the origin of the misfortunes suffered by the noble savage, and the ultimate cause of man’s wretched condition. It is in this critique that we can discover the distant premisses, as yet only embryonic in form, of the conception of socialist democracy later elaborated by the classics of Marxism.footnote5