How the dreams of the Enlightenment turned into monsters

Clara Figueiredo, the old and the new, digital photomontage, 2020


Comment on the recently released book “Political Crisis of the Modern World”, by Gilberto Lopes.

Western modernity saw the appearance, in the XNUMXth century – imagined by the Enlightenment as destined for great things –, various forms of reducing the human being: to consumer and soldier. At the same time, from the bosom of this modern thought, critical theory grew, which, moved, tried to evaluate this reductionism as a facet that led to barbarism, from which humanity could escape with the same force that emanated from the Enlightenment that unleashed it.

At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, several Latin American intellectuals warned about this opposition between civilization and barbarism in terms of Shakespeare: Ariel versus Caliban. But it was not in Latin America where this double condition of enlightened modernity was first radicalized, but in “civilized” Europe. The carnage of the Great War (1914-1918) took place there, which made human beings not just wolves of their own kind, but beasts and monsters.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the Germany that spawned Einstein, Benjamin and the Frankfurt School was the same that spawned National Socialism and, with it, the terrible Second World War. At the same time, even though the war ended in 1945, the ghosts of modernity insisted on the opposition between the world of the Soviet Union, whose socialist dream was subdued by the Stalinist boot, and the world free, guided by a power that put all its power in the modern art of war and in bourgeois reason decided by the calculator.

What happened to the dreams of the Enlightenment? Have they all turned, as in Goya's engraving, into monsters?

This book walks through the most interesting answers to these questions developed during the XNUMXth century. Its author, Gilberto Lopes de Castro, is an outstanding journalist, if this activity is defined as it used to be decades ago: the work of an investigator, with erudite knowledge, created in the ability to ask questions and question certainties, as well as global in its way of analyzing the small, local in its way of analyzing the universal, historical when studying the present and futuristic when it leans towards the study of the immediate.

Lopes belongs to that school of journalism that produced narrators like Gabriel García Marquez and analysts like George Orwell. His capacity for analysis, with a fluid and well-constructed narrative, make his essays works of study. This book becomes, in this sense, Lopes' peak as an essayist, philosopher, scholar of the past and critic of the present.

In this work, Lopes brings together two traditions of analysis: the Frankfurt School and the analysis of the world from 1900 to 1950 developed by the Costa Rican thinker Vicente Sáenz (1896-1963). The first – school in the sense of grouping analyzes that brings together thinkers by the similarity of the questions – is scrutinized by Lopes from a reading of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the best-known book by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. This reading leads Lopes to the depths of these authors' thesis, but also to a dialogue with Friedrich Pollock, Franz Neumann, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, among others.

Lopes considers Saenz' approach as one of the greatest connoisseurs of this figure and as one of his rescuers from the webs of time, which, in the case of Costa Rica, also becomes a catacomb for those who have overcome the tropical forest scenario.

Lopes reveals the contradictions of modernity linked to capitalism as a mode of production. Capitalism, driven in and by the Enlightenment, acquired its character as a totalitarian order. In its attempt to define happiness as the ability to have, capitalism makes each individual a repetition of the other and makes him dependent on consumption. Bourgeois capitalism would be, so to speak, a materialization of the rational inability of the Enlightenment to contain barbarism or, what is even worse, to encourage it in its intention to curb it. Thus, the Enlightenment would fall into a void by being, like the serpent that eats itself, the devourer of its own work.

According to Lopes: “The circumstances that gave rise to the Dialectic of Enlightenment no longer exist, at least as they existed at that time. But, as we tried to show, the dilemma only changed its form, while the process of decay of one social order and the emergence of another continues to feed the political tensions of our time, without us being unaware that the very advance of progress, that the renewed resources for the conquest of nature, placed us on the verge of the drama that the Enlightenment intended to solve: the destruction of that same nature, which we intended to serve as its masters; and that of humanity itself, today in control of the secrets that nature has placed at our disposal and whose capacity for destruction has proved to be practically unlimited”.

Lopes delves into Neumann's discussion of the totalitarian state and capitalism, until he reveals the way in which liberalism, in its desire for absolute profit, annihilated the economic institutions created in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, particularly competition and the market. At the same time, the powerful German industrial conglomerates became niches for National Socialism, in such a way that they realized the liberal political dream: to annul democracy. In this way, profit capitalism was the same as an authoritarian state without democracy and the suppression of labor rights and their inheritance. Neoliberalism would then be a worthy heir to this liberal dream of the XNUMXth century, which unleashes the myth of the market as the supreme good, but, in fact, opens the door to the destruction of democracy and social rights. Following Wendy Brown and, more openly, Christian Laval and Pierre Dardot, Lopes' analysis would lead us to attest that neoliberalism is a reaction of extreme capitalism against democracy.

Lopes' reflections, based on his reading of Neumann, show that neoliberalism is dangerous for liberal democracy because it annihilates it. But Lopes reads Neumann interested in visualizing the form that Karl Marx adopts in his notes on the development of modes of production, without falling into absolute scientism, but in identifying the particular historical dimensions of each experience. It is interesting, therefore, that this fundamental essence of Marx as a historian is rescued, in the style in which the Marxist historian Edward P. Thompson complained about the dogmatic Marxism proposed by Louis Althusser in the 1970s. Marx, says Lopes and I agree , studied capitalism as a historical experience and not as a post-Hegelian idealist or as a positivist; like Thompson, Marx did not believe in a conceptual universe that engendered itself before history occurred. Thompson directly refers to this as Geschichtswissenschlopff  or “ahistorical shit”. I think that Lopes would agree with Thompson and this book is a fundamental contribution in that sense, particularly when, with an acute criticism, the author analyzes the ungrateful homologation between Nazism and communism that Hannah Arendt made in her book on the origins of totalitarianism. Moreover, Lopes verifies the routes through which Arendt tries to find the roots of German and Soviet totalitarianism, until it collapses its main pillars and warns that Arendt, condescending with the European and American bourgeoisie and imperialism, was blind to the true totalitarian nature of the capitalism.

Lopes trusts Vicente Sáenz, always presenting him as an authoritative voice in the group of theorists he studies. His processing of statistical data and his analytical criticality allow him to make use of Sáenz to confront studies on totalitarianism, such as Arendt's, that seem to him to be deficient in their analysis or manipulated by a certain anticommunist dislike. Why this confidence? There is an admiration for Sáenz, which is never hidden, but is honestly highlighted at every step of this book. No wonder, as the author read all of Sáenz's works and discovered in him a dedicated essayist and a student of the society of his time. Lopes, I presume, wants everyone to read Sáenz, in view of the wonderful meeting and discovery that he himself had with this author. His voice appears not only lucid to him, but well informed, which is why he regrets that some of the European authors he studies did not read in Spanish, as if to highlight the genius he observes in Sáenz.

Lopes quotes Vicente Sáenz: “Despite the fantastic improvement of the means of production, the products of human labor, which could satisfy all the needs of the world's population, were not distributed fairly. The contrast between the defiant opulence of the powerful and the miserable life of the indigent formed a picture in which the seeds of the new barbarism were germinating. Far from promoting the well-being of humanity, commodity production ended up engendering hatred, promoting mercantilism as the supreme deity and, finally, the struggle of all against all”.

Lopes argues that the economic goals of big German capital, which could not be achieved through war, were obtained by political means after the end of World War II. The author elaborates an acute analysis of the way in which German banks and their government use the Eurozone and the European Union (EU) to their liking and, in this sense, disguise the preponderant and authoritarian role they have over the other countries of the old continent.

The norm of action, which Lopes explores in the case of Greece, is to annihilate the small economies by squeezing them, grabbing them by the neck, once they become inoperative because of neoliberal policies. Germany thus has absolute power over its partners, but it disguises this power by acting as if it were the EU applying the law of the fittest. However, the point that asserts the path towards a totalitarian society resides, according to Lopes, in the labor reforms developed by the British and German social democrats in the 1990s, which made the offers of mini-jobs grow. These mini-jobs, conceived almost as the Nazi policies of destroying unions and benefiting employers, caused the German working class to become impoverished or see their wages reduced, while at the same time eliminating the labor rights they once had.

Normally, when discussing the proposals of Latin American critical thought, a path is developed that begins with some authors from the XNUMXth century, such as Inca Garcilazo, and goes until the XNUMXth century, with leaders such as Simón Bolívar or Sarmiento, advancing to José Martí, then passed through intellectuals such as Rubén Darío, Rodó, Alfonso Reyes, until reaching people like Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre or José Carlos Mariátegui, among many others. This book makes it clear that this firmament lacked a star that shines with its own light: Vicente Sáenz.

Lopez observes in Sáenz a proposal for analyzing the history of Latin America linked to its economic dependence, produced by the process of global capitalist expansion, and with its life in the shadow of the US empire. Under this system, Sáenz observes a merciless exploitation of the masses that could only be overcome or faced from a scientifically oriented scheme of directed economy, in favor of the proletariat.

Knowing his time, Sáenz undertakes a scholarly analysis of how Nazism rose in Germany and how the common enemy of the West was not initially the Nazis, but the Communists. Sáenz proves this premise by analyzing the position taken by powers such as Great Britain, France and the United States in the face of the rise and triumph of Phalangism in Spain. The so-called “red danger” was the pretext for turning a blind eye to barbarism in the Iberian peninsula. Sáenz very well observed that the Falangist triumph, which the French and English conceived as a containment of the “reds”, did not contain the intentions of Nazi expansion. Reading Sáenz thus allows us to specify that Western blindness about the USSR dug the hole of millions of dead during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In addition, Sáenz identified the end of the conflict in Europe and the birth of the Cold War as a moment of darkness for Latin America, given his perception that, under the pretext of communist control, US imperialism would exploit at will. Latin American countries enjoyed pleasure, while the dictators and presidents of that region embraced that power and obtained authoritarian legitimacy from it. Latin American anti-democracy found in the United States one of its main promoters and defenders, and in anti-communism the best excuse to govern with an iron fist and a bladed weapon.

At the same time, US companies and industries spread throughout Latin America so that the economic exploitation of this region served to rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan, against the reconstruction of Germany, while US imperialism handed out clubs or encouraged Latin governments. -Americans borrowing to buy weapons. Lopes sentences: “What was fundamental, for Sáenz, was the transformation of our economy, the nationalization of our wealth, balancing the collective mode of production with the distribution of wealth. This is the basis of democracy for him".

Lopes constantly remembers Ulisses, tied to a mast to escape the madness generated by the sirens' song. He does so again at the end of this book, to indicate that the course of ideas began in this boat, with the same character and the same ropes. But, at this point, we are already prepared, as readers, to assume the fundamental challenge that this text raises: to untie ourselves and decisively face the corner that torments us.

As humanity, we will not be able to survive if the barbarism of the Enlightenment triumphs. That is, if the values ​​of bourgeois capitalism take root more and more as the real meaning of the human. If that happens, all the boats will end up in pieces against the rocks. How to avoid this terrifying end? Sáenz, presented by Lopes, offers us the way: to exchange the solitude of the mast for the strength of anti-imperialism, for economies directed towards the benefit of the majority and for the peace of a shared identity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put us at a point similar to what Horkheimer and Adorno, but also Sáenz, announced: we will be able to find out, after this destructive tide, if humanity survives to be and not to have.

With this formidable book, original and pleasant, enthusiastic and critical, sad and happy, Lopes makes a fundamental contribution to understanding contemporary society and its consequences. The reader cannot stop reading, hoping, in this adventure, to discover which of these paths is viable.

*David Diaz Arias is a history teacher at University of Costa Rica. Author, among other books, of Social crisis and memories in struggle: civil war in Costa Rica, 1940-1948.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


Gilberto Lopez. Political crisis of the modern world. Two visions: the one from the Escuela de Frankfurt and the one from the Costa Rican writer Vicent Sáenz. San Jose, Uruk editors, 2020, 344 pages.

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