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Rethinking Pinochet (and Franco)

In Christian Democracy, Conservatism, Conservative, Democracy, Distributism, Government, History, Hitler, Military, Opinion, Politics, Society on June 19, 2008 at 05:11

If Franco, Pinochet, and Salazar acted like cads, they were at least not total cads with total power, and that is what spells their difference from Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

An interesting Wall Street Journal article quoted by Stephen Hand explores the “Pinochet paradox”; that is, the strange fact that the much-vilified General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, widely considered to be guilty of “tyranny” and human rights violations, ultimately became the architect of contemporary, reliably democratic Chile. Pinochet, it says, “proved the truth of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s Cold War distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, with the former far more likely to evolve into freer places.” It goes on to compare the Pinochet government to Castro’s:

“[H]is legacy includes a Chile that is democratic, that truly belongs to the Chilean people; it exists in stark contrast to the nearly five decades of personal (and soon to be fraternal) dictatorship that Fidel Castro is leaving in Cuba. That the international left still gives Castro higher marks is something for democrats everywhere to ponder.”

For more, please read the post. Some brief comments:

The Socialist or Liberal might understandably raise an eyebrow at the apparent attempt to rehabilitate one of the last century’s more renowned villains, and a second eyebrow at the citation of the controversial Kirkpatrick thesis, so often cited during the Reagan years; a less nuanced view might react, “it’s all Fascist to me”; but I think Kirkpatrick, and the article, had a point.

To begin with, we must understand that the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is not fundamentally that the former is Rightist and the latter Leftist, as Kirkpatrick herself seemed to think (Nazism is as totalitarian as, and in fact copied from Leninism; and Titoism is as authoritarian as Somoza), though it is relevant as we will see later. Nor is it necessarily the degree of coercion imposed; for as Walter Miller asks in A Canticle for Leibowitz, when murder is answered with murder, does it matter whose axe is bloodier? Rather, I think, the difference lies in the motive for and scope of the coercion, whether it’s for a “conservative” or a “progressive” purpose. Thus:

A government that seeks to effect radical change, either forward to a progressive utopia (e.g., Communism) or backward to a lost golden age (e.g., Nazism), will be driven to use comprehensive coercion against all sectors that oppose the change. Where the change is sought by a small, Bolshevik-type cadre, the process will entail a struggle between the pro-change minority and a majority composed of groups that either oppose the change per se or desire different changes. The minority must endeavor to force these social groups to toe the line, thereby creating a society that is more or less totally controlled by a single social faction. Hence totalitarianism.

On the other hand, a government that seeks to stop change, or to have limited or gradual change, will only need to use limited coercion. For unless most of society is united in desiring change justified by a widespread social myth (e.g., in 1789 France), the various social groups with their several objectives would easily reach equilibrium with a non- or limited-change government; for such a government, because it does not pursue an all-or-nothing agenda, can compromise with most sectors. So this government will generally let the sectors alone, reserving its ire for those with irreconcilable agendas who defy its authority to rules the whole. Hence authoritarianism.

It’s obvious, then, why the latter would more easily transition to democracy, whose very essence lies in the principle of subsidiarity, that individuals and groups should be allowed in reason to make their own choices. Subsidiarity would directly conflict with the radical-totalitarian program, for it would allow groups to opt out of the State-mandated change; and it’s inconsistent with the total social control demanded by radicalism. However, gradual-authoritarian governments would tend to preserve the relative autonomy of social groups if only by default; and it is these groups that tend to lead the fight for democratic structures.

Indeed, it is usually during the gradual-authoritarian phase and because of it that groups become acclimatized to democratic power politics, because they are forced to temper other objects or their means to achieve the authoritarian equilibrium; and this enforced willingness to compromise is the vital requisite of democracy. In 1930’s Spain, for example, the various groups of Left and Right (Trotskyists, socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, the Falange, Carlists) fought for irreconcilable ends with extra-parliamentary means and thus drove the Center (the inaptly named Radicals and the Catholic CEDA) and democracy to the edge. It was Franco who tamed or suborned the most uncompromising sectors (it helped that he never belonged to a faction, and contrary to popular belief, was never a Falangist), making possible the transition to democracy under King Juan Carlos.

Going back to the Right-Left dichotomy, the foregoing also tells us how it’s relevant. Thus, the reason a Rightist dictatorship more easily leads to democratization is that the preservation of social groups (families, faith-communities, etc.) is often a major part of the often vague conservative/moderate stance of Rightist autocrats. This vagueness is another reason, of course, for it means that Rightist autocrats usually have no definite program that they seek to impose on society, often settling for ad hoc solutions that seem vapid compared to the clearly drawn (but sometimes too abstract) blueprints of Leftists. This means that the Right often imposes more limited coercion than the Left with its systematic program, and is thence less totalitarian and more vulnerable to democratization.

I think part of the reason for the demonization of Rightist authoritarian leaders has been their apparent association with or similarity to the Nazi government. This is, however, a taxonomic mistake, for the Nazis were reactionary rather than conservative, and notwithstanding their frequent equation in polemical literature, reaction and conservatism are not the same: Reaction wants a radical change back in time (e.g., to the pure Aryan past), while conservatism wants preservation of present forms. Reaction, then, is closer to revolution and has the same transformative agenda; and indeed, both often use the same restoration and better-tomorrow motifs, as witness Marx’s nostalgia for primitive communism and Hitler’s drive to build a 10,000-year paradise under the Reich.

One therefore shouldn’t disagree too much with Kirkpatrick in light of the facts. This doesn’t mean condoning the tactics of authoritarian leaders or dismissing the claims of desaperecido families, but it does mean a constructive policy that sees differences where they are and adjusts itself to the same, and that doesn’t demonize Right or Left without good evidence. If Franco, Pinochet, and Salazar acted like cads, they were at least not total cads with total power, and that is what spells their difference from Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

May God bless us all.

  1. […] Scriptorium suggests Rethinking Pinochet (and Franco) because of the troubling contrast between countries that went through fascist dictatorships, such […]

  2. I myself take the less nuanced view, its all fascist to me. lol

    I just need to ask, is Fidel Castro’s human rights abuse record comparable to Pinochet’s?

  3. Motives cannot be the measure. Everybody has good motives, at least in their own estimation. Indeed, humans always act for some reason they think is good, as Aquinas noted. We judge actions, and leave motives to God.

    And even under your own taxonomy, it would be hard to see Pinochet as anything but a bloody reactionary.

    Surely, Catholic have something better to do than defend such people.

  4. To all, thank you for the comments.

    To not so anonymous: I’d think their human rights records are comparable, and indeed, Pinochet’s may well be worse on an average-per-year basis. The question, however, is which one would more likely transform to a democratic state, and I think this depends on the purpose for which they commit human rights violations.

    To John Medaille: Thank you for the correction. I failed to make it clear that my “taxonomy of tyrannies”, if I may call it that, was intended not to evaluate their relative ethical character but to describe their tendency to evolve into democratic regimes. I shall correct it forthwith.

    That said, I quite agree on the primary importance of the objective act as the basis for evaluation, and that Pinochet was likewise a sanguinary ruler. However, I submit that the motive for the bloodletting conditions its effect on those social institutions that play key roles in the transition to non-authoritarian government.

    To clarify, therefore, no defense of autocrats qua autocrats is intended. Only, their different effects on society has ramifications on the means available for regime change; and in an imperfect world where one must at times rely upon, and is forced to decide among, unpalatable would-be allies (as in the Cold “War”), a calculus of their relative transformability would be relevant.

  5. You said I submit that the motive for the bloodletting conditions its effect on those social institutions that play key roles in the transition to non-authoritarian government.

    The problem is that this isn’t true. You might as well say that Polish Communism “evolves” into Solidarity, and thus is Stalin’s gift to the Church and to Democracy.

    The truth is that these dictators established unstable and economically unsound regimes which could only be maintained by repression and had to fall of their own weight. The neat rationalizations for tyranny simply don’t hold up. But worse is Kirkpatrick’s taxonomy which justifies “our” tyrants as opposed to their tyrants.

    Speaking of economically unsound regimes, we may be facing a few problems ourselves. Then this question will no longer be for us something abstract, but something immediate and personal. Do you really think the “Patriot Act” is aimed at some nonentity in a Pakistani cave? No, its aimed at you and me, if we become troublesome to the regime. Then you can see for yourself whether there is really a difference between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” torture.

  6. To John Medaille, thank you for the comment. I agree that we can never justify oppression, whether on Kirkpatrickian or other bases. However,

    First, while a democracy is usually better than autocracy or aristocracy/oligarchy, I submit that the moral validity of a government depends more on its material/substantive justice (i.e., whether it respects life and dignity) than on its formal/procedural aspects; or in other words, on its conduct more than its structure. Thus may we distinguish French government under Robespierre and the Florentine state under Savonarola, and even St. Thomas distinguished isonomia and mob rule based on their furtherance of the common good.

    Second, even as to substantially immoral government, we still need a prudential standard to distinguish among them based on their accidental character; for international realities often force states to align or at least adopt rapprochement with some immoral rulers (as when the West had to choose between Hitler and Stalin in WW2, or when West Germany was forced to pursue ostpolitik even after the 1968 repression of Czechoslovakia), and our choice cannot be purely arbitrary or even stochastic. Such distinction–founded on prudence if not justice–is possible because governments are not monolithic entities. They will have both just and unjust laws that may be gauged based on a rational hierarchy of values.

    Hence the possible standard we discussed, i.e., conduct towards families and civil society groups, which have historically aided the transition to non-dictatorship. I agree that dictatorships often fall due to their policies, but bad policies merely weaken government’s resistance to opposition and do not guarantee their fall. For democratization to succeed, institutions must exist to take advantage of regime weakness and effect an orderly transition; and therefore, the survival of such institution is one way to distinguish among immoral governments.

    In conclusion, we sometimes need to tolerate a lesser evil to promote a greater good, as is the case with some intrinsically unjust laws due to their extrinsic “double effect” (following Suarez, not Schillebeecx). This applies to governments as well, for we simply do not live in a perfect world where we can limit interactions to moral governments; and while we must eschew the cold-bloodedness of pure realpolitik, I think that epikeia should trump rigorism when “let justice be done though the heavens perish” is the only other option.

    God bless you.

  7. […] some have argued -recall my linking, in the past, to Rethinking Pinochet (and Franco) in Scriptorium- that authoritarian dictatorships such as those of Franco and Pinochet gave way to democracy, […]

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