The Economist: Reading this book, I felt as though I were back at university, in the best sense, because you spent a lot of time rereading all the works of these thinkers.
MVLL: Well yes, of course, the texts cover many years [of reading]. I looked over some notes again, reread certain parts and so on.
The Economist: Why did you do it?
MVLL: I explain in the book that the first time that the idea occurred to me—even though what came out was quite different—was after reading a book written by Edmund Wilson called “To the Finland Station”. It impressed me a lot, because apart from anything else, it’s so well written. It seems like a novel, only the characters aren’t characters, rather, they are ideas. So I thought since then, wow, how marvellous it would be to write a story about liberalism, taking this model. A story that began in a small Scottish village with the birth of Adam Smith, in which the evolution of liberal ideas was expressed through characters and facts.
In practice, from this remote model, something very different came about. Look, I wrote the book basically because I believe there’s nothing that has been so misrepresented, so slandered, so distorted as liberalism, both in the Latin American world and in Europe, as well as throughout the entire world in reality.
Liberalism has been presented as being identical to conservatism, yet more reactionary, like a mask for exploitation. Furthermore, there has been a lot of confusion as to what liberalism truly is. So my idea was to write a kind of intellectual and ideological autobiography, starting with my great disillusion with socialism, with the leftist ideas of my youth that were also of great importance to me and to those of my generation.
And then my great disillusion with socialism led little by little to my arrival at liberalism, after my disillusion with the Cuban revolution, with the USSR. And, as I say in the book, I lived in England in the time of Margaret Thatcher and for me those years were a fundamental experience of the utmost importance. For example, I read Popper for the first time because of some statement by Margaret Thatcher, who said, I believe, that Popper is the great philosopher of freedom of our time, and she spoke of “The Open Society and its Enemies” … and I remember having read it and being extremely impressed with Popper. So it’s the story of an evolution through the essays that appear there.
The Economist: Yes, you do indeed explain this in the first chapter. But I was thinking that authors write books for themselves—but also with the idea that someone else will read the work. What type of readers did you have in mind for this book? Who did you want to reach?
MVLL: Well, I’m never sure what type of reader I’d like to reach. I mean, I think all writers would like to reach everybody or at least the most intelligent readers or readers capable of reading without bias, of arguing with the book, let themselves be persuaded by it, or not, but let’s say that an author aspires to have intelligent, intuitive and creative readers…that’s what one would like most, isn’t it?
But above all, I think there’s a lot of ignorance in Latin America in relation to liberalism, what it means…there are so many caricatures, completely deformed accounts of liberalism. And, above all, I think that today in Latin America the ideals of military dictatorships, developmentalist dictatorships, the socialist revolution and “guevarista” guerrillas have been completely destroyed. I think that today most of Latin America understands that these formulas have failed completely. The examples of Cuba and Venezuela are there.
And so there is a great opportunity, which in fact is materialising, in favour of democracy. So this moment seemed to be an opportune one in Latin America to defend the liberal option and to explain that some things that are happening there have liberal origins, that liberalism is the most advanced, progressive form of democracy. That liberalism is the complete opposite of the caricatures that present it as the most extreme form of conservatism, the defence of Manchesterian capitalism and things like that.
So that’s more or less the idea of the book. And also to explain to myself an entire evolution, an evolution over many years. I’ve chosen the seven authors who made the biggest impression on me. Of course, there are other important thinkers, but let’s say that these were the ones who marked me, and that’s why I say that, in a way, it’s an autobiographical book.
The Economist: Yes, because I assumed the list was a personal selection. Because, one misses, I’d say John Stuart Mill and [John] Rawls, for example…
MVLL: There are plenty of others, of course. Many are missing. But the book doesn’t try to be a history of liberalism by any means, but rather a personal book about authors that influenced me immensely after my great disappointment with socialism. In addition, they are authors who didn’t always agree, there are many differences between them. And that was precisely a way to show how liberalism isn’t an ideology, nor a secular religion, nor a dogma with answers for everyone.
Rather, from certain beliefs come a great diversity and a tolerant, very open attitude. This aspect of liberalism has been much ignored in our time: tolerance, accepting that one might be wrong, that one’s adversary might be right. I believe that some of these writers were exemplary in that sense. Isaiah Berlin, for example. He was so tolerant, so much so that he dedicated his life more to studying his opponents than those close to him.
The Economist: I like the fact that you mentioned his unworthy behaviour towards Isaac Deutscher.
MVLL: It’s an interesting case, no?
The Economist: I liked that you included your criticisms of these people you admire.
MVLL: Yes, of course.
The Economist: I think there’s a fundamental tension between liberalism and libertarianism. And I’ve seen this tension in many of your newspaper articles over the years. There are times when you are enthused by…
MVLL: That I’m more libertarian than liberal, let’s say…
The Economist: …and there are times that you’re more of a liberal social democrat…
The Economist: My problem with [Friedrich] Hayek, as understood in Latin America, through the Cato Institute and the Francisco Marroquín University [in Guatemala] and those kinds of places, is that I think he is used to represent a blessing of privilege in an unjust order.
MVLL: It wasn’t his intention. What happens is that he had a faith, a religious faith in the market… I think the nuances get lost in the case of Hayek. For example, he got to the point of saying something outrageous, that there was more freedom [in Chile] with [General Augusto] Pinochet [the military dictator] than with [Salvador] Allende [the Socialist president who was overthrown]. He said that twice, in Chile and England.
Well, I believe that is outrageous. It’s nonsense, because there was a free market during the time of Pinochet but there was torture, killings, there wasn’t any freedom of expression, the press was completely controlled. So, let’s say, I think that was an exaggeration.
The Economist: But you criticise, several times in the book, the–I don’t like the world “neoliberal”–but the view that identifies liberalism purely with the market.
MVLL: with the market, no, I don’t agree with that. But I don’t think it’s true either. Furthermore I don’t think that liberalism in its origins represented this idea.
The Economist: Of course, but perhaps it’s Hayek more than anyone else who represents that view, in the way he is interpreted.
MVLL: Yes, that has been the interpretation. And, to a large extent, I believe because of his statements in favour of Pinochet. I think that was very damaging for Hayek…
The Economist: But also because, as with everyone, he was a man of his time. Aren’t we all?
MVLL: Exactly, it was the age of the Cold War also, which is important to keep in mind.
The Economist: And the Soviet Union and the Nazis, and he was a victim of this, so it’s understandable, but he saw the state as necessarily bad.
MVLL: He believed the state was a necessary evil. That’s what he said (laughs).
The Economist: But he also thought it was essentially evil too, right? (laughs).
MVLL: Yes, the less state intervention, the more freedom there is. Of course, this is unfortunately incompatible with a world in which terrorism has become a main protagonist and in which the development of weapons technology has reached monstrous proportions in our time. It’s incompatible, let’s say if this is what Hayek believed, in these times it wouldn’t be possible to believe it.
The Economist: Clearly a large state restricts liberty, and is also very inefficient, etc. But you highlight, and I absolutely agree with you, the importance for liberalism of equality of opportunity
MVLL: This is the most important thing. I believe that this is the most forgotten part of liberalism. Nevertheless, I think that all the great liberal thinkers were in agreement with equality of opportunity. This topic is repeated many times by Popper, for example, as well as by Revel, Raymond Aron.
The Economist: and Adam Smith…
MVLL: Equality of opportunity is to start [in equal conditions] from a certain point…and for this, education is absolutely fundamental. In fact, the most advanced societies, the Nordic ones for example, have this equality of opportunity, there is high-quality public education that prepares each generation for a certain equality at the outset.
So I believe that when a society perceives that there is equality of opportunity, it accepts difference in wealth. It accepts that there are those who contribute much more to the development of a society and therefore receive higher income.
What is unfair, what is unacceptable, is that there isn’t equality of opportunity. That there are those born with privilege that guarantees them success, or that others are guaranteed failure from the beginning. That is unacceptable. But I believe this is a liberal idea, deeply liberal.
The Economist: I missed a concluding chapter to the book.
MVLL: Conclusions? Yes, some people have mentioned that to me, but, well, this is open, and open-ended book. (Laughs) It’s an open-ended book like Popper’s open society, that can go on renewing itself, reintegrating, modernising, chapters can be added. I would like to add chapters about a Latin American liberal, for example.
The Economist: Exactly, that’s what I would have liked to see.
MVLL: But unfortunately there aren’t many. For example, a great thinker like Octavio Paz wasn’t a liberal, he was democratic but the idea of relegating culture to the market horrified him. The idea that poetry could be subject to market supply-and-demand horrified him.
The Economist: He was an elitist in this sense. But Ortega y Gassett too.
MVLL: Ortega y Gassett too. Of course, many intellectuals are democrats. But they aren’t liberals, in the sense that they don’t accept that culture be democratic. And there are some fears that are justified, because the democratisation of culture can reach extreme, even ridiculous levels. It’s happening in our own time, we can see it. (Laughs)
The Economist: You yourself have suffered this.
MVLL: I wrote an essay about this called “The Civilisation of the Spectacle” about pseudo-democratisation, in which culture disappears in the end, where it all becomes gossip, a farce, a circus.
The Economist: You mention, at one point in the book, that perhaps the liberal tradition in Latin America is so limited because of inequality…
MVLL: And moreover, for another reason. It’s that the liberals of the 19th century didn’t believe in the free market and, yes, they believed in tolerance. They were against the church, against the religious state. But they didn’t believe in the market. And so the democracies that resulted, that called themselves liberal, were democracies that failed economically. Precisely because of the lack of free markets, there wasn’t the free play of supply and demand.
That was the great limitation of liberalism in Latin America. And in modern times, I believe the limitation is that the so-called developmental dictatorships presented themselves as liberal dictatorships because they allowed the market. But this is a monstrous caricature of liberalism. Because liberalism….once political freedom disappears, liberalism is no longer possible.
The Economist: You’re thinking of Argentina, of Pinochet, of Peru, Brazil…
MVLL: Yes, the Argentinian military leaders called themselves developmentalists, and they were an absolutely ferocious dictatorship, that didn’t allow a free press, that in addition exterminated and tortured their opponents. In no way can this be considered liberalism.
The Economist: I think, in addition, that liberal democracy in Latin America at the end of the 19th century was kidnapped by positivism…
MVLL: Without a doubt. And this discredited liberalism a lot. This meant that liberalism became associated with conservatism, with an intolerant, reactionary right wing.
The Economist: You mentioned that, looking at Latin America today, you see an opportunity.
MVLL: Without a doubt. I do believe that currently, regimes like those in Chile, for example…Chile today is a democratic society, one oriented towards liberal attitudes, both in the economy as well as in social reforms. I believe Argentina has a similar tendency, right? That’s what [President Mauricio] Macri represents, a liberal democracy. Yes, it’s difficult, because there are many interests and the state has grown in an absolutely distorted way. Yet the reforms that are being made, they are in part based on what is possible, but they are liberally oriented reforms.
I think Mexico is the big problem, because the rise of [Andrés Manuel] López Obrador is extremely dangerous. He’s a populist, he’s an unpredictable person. He could push Mexico in the direction of Venezuela, for example. It would be a catastrophe for Latin America.
The Economist: I’m quite optimistic about Latin American society at the moment. Yet I see the political path as being difficult. It will be hard for liberalism to advance unless there is a renewed political version of liberalism.
MVLL: More modern and more…well, yes, without a doubt. Liberalism has to have very concrete effects in order to change the great distortion that exists in the Latin American mentality with respect to what it is. However, I do believe that the idea of democracy is very widespread in Latin America, and for me, this is inseparable from liberalism.
The political aspect of liberalism is democracy, a democratic society, a society with free elections, political parties, with freedom of the press and human rights. This is the liberal democratic society. I’m also optimistic in this sense, I think Latin America is moving in this direction.
There may be some bumps in the road and setbacks. But what happened in Cuba, and especially in Venezuela recently, I think it has contributed decisively to the destruction of the utopian, socialist, collectivist models. Who wants their country to turn into a second Venezuela? Nobody in their right mind. Except for very small factions, marginalized fanatics.
The Economist: The problem is that there is a kind of contest between the Venezuelan failure and the spectre of Odebrecht [a corrupt Brazilian construction company] that has sadly discredited democracy.
MVLL: Yes, but at the same time Odebrecht has done a great service. It has brought all the rot to the surface, now we can see where is the gangrene of democracy, and the need to combat corruption in a much more energetic way. I think it’s quite clear, Odebrecht has been very useful in that way, don’t you think? It has shown how far-reaching the corruption was, in a terrible manner…presidents, ministers and employees of important businesses. I believe this had to be done. It’s a way of cleansing democracy of one of its worst defects, which is corruption.
The Economist: All of your thinkers you mention are men from the 20th century, right?
MVLL: Exactly. Except Adam Smith.
The Economist: Are there liberal thinkers in the world now that you find interesting?
MVLL: Well, of course there are liberal thinkers from the 20th century, there are many, for example, Rawls in the United States.
The Economist: No, in today’s world, the 21st century.
MVLL: That is difficult to say, many of them have died…but there is no important political philosophy in the 21st century.
The Economist: It’s a time of confusion, isn’t it?
MVLL: Let’s say there is an almost incomprehensible slang among Marxist philosophers, aimed at small intellectual, academic circles. Alain Badiou for example, who is so fashionable in France. He is unreadable. He is a person who writes for a very restricted number of readers, with his Marxism of the 21st century. I don’t think this gets to anyone. It’s completely marginal.
What was the big audience for Marxist thinkers in the 20th century has long passed with socialism, collectivism and statism. Today’s there’s no intellectual foundation for this, because all models of this nature have failed in such a resounding way. But what there is is a vacuum, because ideas are much less important in our age than in the past. I believe that unfortunately, images prevail today.
The Economist: Yes, reading the book, I thought that one of its virtues is that you’re saying that ideas matter.
MVLL: Ideas matter, I think that’s fundamental—that ideas are what do most to change history. I think all liberal thinkers are convinced of the primordial importance of ideas: that is that ideas lie behind events, both good and bad. But ideas are always there.
I’m completely convinced of that, that behind [Nicolás] Maduro [the president of Venezuela] and [Hugo] Chávez [his predecessor] there were ideas. Very bad ideas, of course. The proof is that they’ve brought catastrophe upon the country. But there were ideas…it wasn’t just improvised creativity, it was a particular model… And the results have been so terrible that I believe they have served as a preventative lesson for Latin America.
So I think the socialist fantasy has suffered more from Venezuela than from all the arguments that the foes of socialism, of Marxism, might make. You can see there what this supposed 21st-century socialism has done to Venezuela. It’s so tragic, so terrible, that I think it acts as a vaccine, a real vaccine against socialism and collectivist ideas, except in very small factions or groups. They’re groups that today have very little influence on what is happening in Latin America.
The Economist: Almost all the great rationalists that I know are people who at bottom are governed by passion, and I see that in you, a man who is so passionate, as expressed in your novels, but a great rationalist at the same time. Am I right, or not?
MVLL: Look, I think that reason…in this sense I am a liberal. Reason should govern society, we must avoid passion, we must avoid the purely instinctive, the irrational. In contrast, unlike some liberal thinkers I don’t believe that the irrational and passions can be supressed in life.
On the contrary, they must find an outlet because they are part of the human condition. And I think culture is the privileged vehicle for this aspect of human nature to find its place, in poetry, in painting, in music, in literature. I think this uncontrollable essence of personality should find an outlet and society should accept it as it is, even though it releases monsters from their cages and shows us our monsters.
I believe this is an important issue, because now feminism wants to establish a sort of censorship of all things they call machismo, and so this is a new inquisition that would simply put an end to literature and culture, if what we want to establish is a kind of ideologically correct literature, or ideologically correct painting…
I think it’s a battle that must be fought. It’s very good, the struggle of women is very just because it aims to get rid of discrimination, but wanting culture to submit to these rules of a moral or political kind is simply going to finish off culture. It’s a new inquisition. I think we must fight this energetically. The idea of politically correct literature is dangerous for the future. Extremely dangerous.
The Economist: You have been active on the issue of Catalonia.
MVLL: Yes, very active.
The Economist: In the United Kingdom many people look at Catalonia through the prism of Scotland…
MVLL: But that isn’t fair. Scotland was an independent kingdom and chose to become part of the union, to join England. Catalonia was never independent, not in its entire existence, never in its history. This is the most important thing, you know.
The Economist: Some people argue that it is illiberal to be against the right of self-determination.
MVLL: The right of self-determination is regulated by the constitution. It is unjust for a province to give itself the right of self-determination thereby foregoing the rights given to all Spanish citizens. But why? If Catalonia has prospered thanks to Spain as a whole, to all those Spaniards who went to work in Catalonia and that have contributed just as much as native Catalans to the progress, industrialisation and modernisation of Catalonia. But, furthermore, there are historical facts. At what point was Catalonia independent? Never! Catalonia was part of France, and has been part of Spain for 500 years. So this is a historical fabrication that has no real foundation. It is a big mistake to compare the case of Scotland with Catalonia. Scotland was an independent monarchy that decided, by means of its parliament, to become part of Great Britain. This has never happened in the case of Cataluña.
The Economist: But what motivated you to take such an active role?
MVLL: Because I’ve got…look, I believe that the great danger in our age is nationalism, it’s no longer fascism, nor communism. These ideologies have become completely outdated. But in contrast, nationalism is a defect that is always there under the surface and above all, at moments of crisis, can be very easily exploited by demagogues and power-hungry leaders. Nationalism is the great tradition of humankind; unfortunately it’s always present in history.
And so, I believe that it’s the great enemy of democracy. It’s the great enemy of freedom and a terrible source of racism. If one believes that being born into or forming part of a particular community is a privilege, then that is racism. I believe that one must fight nationalism energetically if one believes in democracy, in freedom, especially in this age of mixing and the building of great blocks.
So the Catalan independence movement is a big danger for Spanish and European democracy. Because if secession had succeeded, imagine the precedent that would have set in Europe. Brexit was already something dangerous. Brexit represents a very dangerous form of nationalism, which has already done a lot of damage to the European Union, and I think to Great Britain as well. But in Spain the triumph of secession would have set a terrible example, just imagine, for Hungary, Poland, Denmark, wherever there are outbreaks of nationalists operating today.
I think that the most ambitious political construction that exists in the democratic world today is the European Union, with all the limitations that it might have. But it’s a feat that is very important. It has already kept Europe at peace for 70 years for the first time in its history, and enemy number one of that is nationalism. Therefore we must fight it, confront it.
I lived in Barcelona for five years. Back then, there weren’t any nationalists. Nationalists were small minority factions. What there was, was a great democratic movement to get rid of the dictatorship, to turn Spain into a democracy. Unfortunately, this has been artificially created, by an autonomous [regional] government that had a clear political scheme and to which was given control over education. This was decisive for them to create, artificially on the basis of historical lies, the nationalist argument. My impression is that fortunately, the worst is behind us. But it’s still there, and it’s a latent danger.
The Economist: When we look at Spain, this year will mark 40 years of the constitution. The constitution gave Spain 30 wonderful years, the best in its history.
MVLL: Without a doubt.
The Economist: After 10 years of problems, it has overcome one of them, the economic crisis. But it looks very difficult for the country to resolve its political conflicts at the moment.
MVLL: Permanently resolve conflicts, no. That never happens. Conflicts can be overcome, but they always leave traces that can sprout up again. And there has been nationalism for a long time in Catalonia, but it had never prospered like this.
The Economist: But I don’t think it’s going to disappear so fast, nor die down much.
MVLL: It won’t disappear, but I think it has diminished already. The damage that nationalism is generating in Catalonia, what with the flight of businesses, the fall in tourism. Economically it’s hurting Catalonia in a terrible way. That will have an effect on the population. It’s very interesting that business people, who didn’t dare oppose nationalism… Since the results have been so catastrophic for Barcelona, for Catalonia, there are business owners that have begun to take a stand… And then there are many Catalans who aren’t in favour of independence, but who were as if paralysed by an inferiority complex in relation to nationalism. However look at the demonstrations that have taken place in Barcelona with millions of Catalans going out to protest against nationalism, declaring themselves enemies of nationalism. I think that is very positive. Now, my impression is that the worst is over, but the problem will continue. Yes, surely the problem will continue for a long time.
The Economist: Anther problem is that with the political fragmentation that there is now in Spain, achieving governance to make the necessary changes is going to be difficult. We see it now even to approve the budget…
MVLL: Yes, it’s going to be very difficult. But there is an important trend that I see, which is what Ciudadanos [Citizens, a newish liberal party] represents for me. I’m supporting Ciudadanos a lot, because Ciudadanos is centre-right, or liberal, and they are attracting many people who haven’t participated in politics, people who didn’t want to participate, who have clean credentials, and this renewal is, I believe, necessary in Spain.
The Economist: I think it may be difficult for Ciudadanos to win a majority in Congress.
MVLL: You don’t think so. At the next election?
The Economist: It’s going to be challenging. Spain is probably going to have a coalition government, which is going to be complicated.
MVLL: Well, it will be a gridlock…a coalition government.
The Economist: What Felipe González [a former Spanish prime minister] said after the 2015 elections—that Spanish citizens have chosen an Italian political system, but lack Italians to operate it—seems to me to remain true.
MVLL: I’m more optimistic. The ideal thing would be an agreement between Ciudadanos and the Peoples’ Party [the ruling conservative party] in the next election, which may happen. To form a government that can function. I don’t think it’s impossible, I believe the numbers show more or less that the electorate is moving in this direction.
The Economist: Yes, there seems to be a turning point.
MVLL: This is going to be very important, of course, a new generation…The great threat was Podemos, that there might come about a kind of fascination with a completely obsolete model, “21st-century socialism” in Spain. That would have been a disaster. I don’t think the country is up for that. Spain has evolved quite a bit. Then, the resounding fall of Podemos and the effort it is making now to hide its Chavista, revolutionary credentials is a sign that they have realised they are losing support. And so they are trying to modernise, to hide their least presentable side, and that seems to me to be a positive sign, too.
The Economist: What are you working on now? Aside from Catalonia.
MVLL: I’ve been wanting to get back to a novel, because this book took me about two years, two years and a bit, working purely on this essay. I’m beginning a new novel.
The Economist: You’re going to continue writing forever, aren’t you?
MVLL: Until my last day I hope. I hope to die with a pen in hand. That would be part of my ideal. The ideal thing would be to keep going as if I were immortal and all of a sudden die of an accident. (Laughs)
The Economist: Reading the book, I felt as though France made you democratic and England made you a liberal?
MVLL: Exactly. Without any doubt. For me, the 11 years of Margaret Thatcher [in power as Britain’s prime minister] were decisive. In those 11 years I became a liberal. I read Hayek and Popper above all; Isaiah Berlin I had already read before. But my most important liberal readings were in England. I began to read The Economist when I became a liberal. It was the English experience, and perhaps that’s why Brexit traumatised me so much. Brexit caused in me, you can’t imagine, a real trauma. I never would have believed that Brexit was possible and that the arguments of Brexit could triumph electorally in England. It was a true surprise. But look, this just goes to say that no country is immune to the populist fantasy, ever.
The Economist: How long did you live in London?
MVLL: I lived in London for many years. On and off, because I left and came back. I was in France for eight years. I left France in 1967 and I went to live in London and I was there for many years. I went to teach. I worked as a journalist in France, in RTF and before that in Agence France Presse, and I was offered a teaching post at the University of London. I went to Queen Mary College first, and later on to King’s College. And I was in Cambridge for a year. It was a very interesting experience.
The Economist: Lastly, of writers in Spanish today, who do you find most interesting?
MVLL: Javier Cercas, I think he’s a magnificent writer; he’s one of the most interesting here in Spain.
The Economist: And in Latin America?
MVLL: In Latin America, the truth is I don’t know the new writers so well. There is a Colombian writer I’ve read, Juan Gabriel Vázquez, who is very interesting.
The Economist: It seems to me that young Latin American authors are becoming more and more universal and less provincial. I think that’s positive.
MVLL: It’s very positive. Emerging from the tribe is important.
The Economist: Don’t you think you left one tribe and joined another?
MVLL: No, I think I have achieved something that I aimed for at a young age, which was to be a citizen of the world. The truth is I feel at home in France, in England and in Spain. Wherever I am, as long as I can write, I feel at home.