Tuesday, April 30, 2013

'We Think We're Just Special"

Reading Stanley Payne's  (somewhat ironically?) titled Spain: A Unique History, I'm reminded again of how blinkered are our own perceptions of our own political reality.  As in, we think we're so special; but the briefest reflection should suggest that our own experience finds echoes almost everywhere,not least in the recent history of our close cultural neighbors, the Europeans.

Case in point: "liberals;" "nice people;"--that would be me, your honor--so often suck on their unassuageable sense of hurt, fueled by the insight that "they" just don't understand our good intentions: how we'd all be so much better off if "we'd all" just do as we say and become a tolerant, cooperative, seculariust and yes (perhaps) multiculturist and certainly (well-maybe) market--oriented.  Specifically it makes us crazy when the Tea Party and its ilk let themselves get snarled up in the Muslim Thing,  the Abortion Thing, the Gun Thing when we tend to regard all of these issues as distractions that ought to be got out of the way.

I won't labor the whole catalog of reasons of why "we" are right--nor the companion-account of how entirely this misses the point.  My purpose at the moment is to observe only not-new this particular discontinuity is; how much it helps to explain so much of European politics over the past couple of hundred years.

You could start with the French Revolution, or more precisely, the royalist/Catholic reaction against the French Revolution; you could start with Balzac's first real novel, Les Chouans.  People tend to dismiss the Chouans (when they pay attention at all) as useful idiotsm gullible tools of an evil and manipulative master classs.  Balzac makes it clear that it's far more than that: the reaction (sic) of his Chouans is clearly fueled by the sincerest of passions.

So also Spain and Portugal. It's worth noting that as Spanish/Portugues "liberals" took baby steps with power in the 19th Century, they weren't at all enthusiastic about extending the franchise.  And with good and sufficient reason: they understood that the peasants weren't at all interested in "their"--the liberals'--issues and would do what they could to defeat them.  I suppose this has something to do with what Marx had ind when he fulminated about the idiocy of the peasants, although I suspect he may have come to the point from a slightly different perspective.

If this was novel insight for the Spanish liberals, it certainly wouldn't have surprised, say Napoleon III who grasped early on that he could build a government of the reactionary elite on a properly motivated mass audience.  And forget about Napoleon: it comes close to the truth to say that every important European government of the 19th or 20th Century came from a reactionary elite that learned how one --not just the reluctant consent, but the enthusiastic cooperation--of a mass.

Another thing that is so great about Spain as an example here is that it is a dazzling instance of just how complicated  both "liberalism" and "conservatism" can be.  Spain had secularist/liberals whose main concern was to try to develop markets; but it had others whose primary motive seems to have been simply to bring down the church.  Similarly the right had (at least) the traditionalists of church and monarchy; and the bullyboy streetfighters of falange.  Also the military, whose internal complexities were far more arcane than our post-Franco memories tend to tell us.  And let's not get started on the socialists...

I don't know if there is any consolation to be found here--to know that politics has always been as complex and contradictory a business as it appears today.  But at least, Payne is a good companion along the way.  And as to "unique," recall the old sports announcer's insight: everyone is unique and this one is no different.

1 comment:

Ebenezer Scrooge said...

I'm not sure. I remember that Disraeli was pretty bold in thinking that the Tories could get the votes of the newly enfranchised. He was right in practice, but utterly wrong in his guiding theory: i.e., that there was a natural community of interest between the squirearchy and the horny-handed son of toil, as against the banker and manufacturer.

I'm not sure that conservatives grokked their popular appeal in fullness until the rise of fascism.