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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

The Creole Bourgeoisie: Enlightenment and Change

The new groups that led first the reformist movement and later the movement for independence were members of the Creole bourgeoisie, who began to emerge as pretenders to power in the new society. As these groups took shape, they began to clash with the minorities, both aristocratic and monopolistic, which constituted the elite of traditional society. At first, this was a muted confrontation, a sort of tension between a strong group and a weak one; between one that is already established and another that is just beginning to emerge through a process of differentiation; between a recognized group and one trying to conceal its ambitions; between, on the one hand, a group that exploited the passivity of consensus and based its prerogatives on its members’ self-proclaimed privileged origins, and, on the other, a group that did not dare to declare the principles upon which it based its aspirations. But as time passed, as Creole society became better defined, and circumstances improved the chance for change, the confrontation became more intense and the old aristocratic elite no longer seemed so strong or the new elite so weak. The play of both internal and external forces seemed to legitimize the aspirations of the budding Creole bourgeoisie.

The character of the Creole bourgeois groups had many distinctive traits. Compared to the traditional elite, they seemed more rooted, less inclined to let the mother country dictate their way of life and expectations. It was as if they had cut the umbilical cord once and for all and discovered that they were alone, on their own, in a land their ancestors had conquered. They felt a profound attachment to the land, an attachment that had no alternative. In that land, their private interests were secondary, but they felt inextricably tied to its general welfare and its destiny. That land contained a vast, diverse society composed mainly of the descendants of those whom their ancestors had conquered. But the Creole bourgeoisie did not look upon those descendants the same way their ancestors had looked upon the conquered. That rural society was, moreover, an altogether different one. On the eve of Independence, it was, ethnically and culturally, a mixed society that displayed a blur of different traits and shared the same life of those who had white skin. The Creole middle classes did not look upon dark-skinned people as the conqueror would the conquered, or as something separate and distinct. They may have regarded dark-skinned people as a superior would an inferior or as the exploiter would the exploited, but they also saw them as members of the same community as themselves. These dark-skinned people were a necessary part of the world they aspired to lead. As they were committed to the land, the generally white Creole middle classes felt committed to the dark-skinned people who formed their social context.

The middle classes were essentially urban, created in the cities and adapted to the limitations and possibilities of city life. In the Hispanic world and in some Brazilian cities like Recife, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, they had inherited their ancestors’ belief in the hegemonic role of cities as regional hubs that controlled life in the surrounding countryside. This belief became more and more entrenched as urban societies were steeped in the mercantilist mentality. The Creole bourgeoisie was a mercantilist class and became a well-defined social group because their members adopted that way of thinking; those who did not remained somehow peripheral to the group. Hegemonic nations, like England and France, were mercantilist and capitalist civilizations. Like their aristocratic forebears, the Creole bourgeoisie believed that cities were the hubs of civilization, but they began to think that the Iberian model was out of date and that another one had to be found. And they looked for that model precisely in the place where civilization displayed the splendor that once had been attributed to power and glory but that now, as Jovellanos pointed out, everyone knew only wealth could give.

And wealth, the new wealth that commercial ventures offered, was precisely what solidified the position of each member of the Creole bourgeoisie. It had always been that way, but that truth had been disguised by a gigantic mask. In the rationalist catharsis of the eighteenth century, all masks were removed. And that fact was no longer denied; instead it was openly declared. Membership in the new privileged group was a function of wealth; although some of the Creole bourgeoisie still claimed aristocratic lineage, it became more and more explicit that wealth and the social position it brought came from engaging in the activities of the modern mercantile world.

Wealth was not the only thing, however. The Creole bourgeoisie clung passionately to two ideas that certainly were not incompatible. They believed that their position depended upon their effectiveness and that their effectiveness—and their wealth—had much to do with education. This was precisely what Enlightenment philosophy taught. Rich, effective, and educated, the American homo faber felt ready to master his surroundings and defeat the dandy who frequented salons, guarding the family crests that his ancestors had purchased and filled with ugly prejudices.

Impelled by those certainties, the Creole bourgeoisie discovered that the philosophy of the Enlightenment was their philosophy, since it had been created by similar European groups, doubtless more mature and more firmly entrenched in their own economic structures. They accepted that philosophy as an ideology, assimilating its elements and above all its dynamism.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment had many shades, and at the beginning the budding Creole bourgeoisie had accepted the peninsular shade, which was moderate and, above all, restricted. A pronounced predilection for the natural sciences triggered an interest in botany, since it could produce knowledge that would be useful in agriculture. The Discurso sobre el mérito y la utilidad de la Botánica (A Discourse on the Merit and Usefulness of Botany) is the title of an essay by a disciple of Mutis, the neo-Granadian Francisco Antonio Zea, who would one day be the editor of a newspaper in Bogota called El Semanario de agricultura (The Agricultural Weekly). There were geologists like Francisco Javier Gamboa and physicists and mathematicians like José Ignacio Bartolache, both Mexicans. New ideas and practical knowledge were what mattered, not just for the sake of a new and different understanding of nature but also for a new and different understanding of the fundamental problems in philosophy and in social and political life. It was in these areas that the Iberian variant of the Enlightenment was most in evidence. Religious and political matters were excluded from the debate, and agnosticism, materialism, and political liberalism were studied only surreptitiously. A royal edict of 1785 ordered that the works of Marmontel, Raynal, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, and others considered dangerous be rounded up and burned. Of course, one could talk about “bad government” in the abstract, but only if it was very clear that the criticism was leveled at the way the system operated rather than at the principles upon which it was based. If one wanted to criticize some greedy and licentious cleric, one had to do so by comparing him to a pious, humanitarian priest.

One was, however, free to criticize customs; like Father Feijóo, Montesquieu, and Voltaire, many American thinkers did just that, among them Father Servando Teresa de Mier, Esteban de Terralla y Landa, Mathias Aires Ramos da Silva de Eça, and, above all, José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, who gave his newspaper the title El pensador mexicano (The Mexican Thinker). All his works—Periquillo Sarniento, Don Catrín de la Fachenda—and his studies of customs are steeped in an urbane, civilized, rationalist atmosphere that gives his picaresque novel a tone so different from its seventeenth-century Spanish models. The entire society of a great city—the largest city in the colony—is laid bare to be scrutinized from the standpoint of reason. In Periquillo, the Chinese islander who picks up the shipwreck victim and gives him shelter holds a long dialogue with him about the beliefs, habits, and customs of the western world; mockery and criticism reveal the error of prejudice, the injustice of social standards, the uselessness of routine tasks—everything that the learned Mexican polemicist saw around him in the colonial city or learned of the world through books and newspapers. That was the prevailing sentiment among the new Creole bourgeoisie, who had appropriated the spirit of the Enlightenment and, inspired by it, had built a dissident, critical ideology to interpret reality, one that suggested a blueprint for change.

Sometimes the blueprint suggested itself in opinions about everyday facts. At other times it was formulated around individual, concrete cases: the claim of some businessman, or the ruling of some member of the municipal council or of a judge. From time to time, however, it was codified by some rigorous thinker bold enough to spell it out clearly and methodically, without failing to suggest somehow the ultimate consequences involved. In Bogota Antonio Nariño examined economic problems and possible solutions in his Ensayo sobre un nuevo plan de administración en el Nuevo Reino de Granada (An Essay on a New Plan for Administration in the New Kingdom of Granada). In Buenos Aires Manuel José de Lavardén, a learned businessman, was the first to discuss economic problems in the speeches he delivered at the Sociedad Patriótica (Patriotic Society), which were later published under the title of Nuevo aspecto del comercio del Río de la Plata (A New View of Commerce in El Río de la Plata); later, Mariano Moreno examined economic problems in a paper known by the title Representación de los hacendados y labradores (Representation of landowners and farmers), which José da Silva Lisboa immediately translated in Rio de Janeiro, adding a prologue in which he summarized the author’s arguments and applied them to his own country. Moreno also addressed social problems in his Disertación Jurídica (Juridical Discourse), which concerned the lot of the Indians. There, he continued the line of reasoning used by Victoriano de Villava, a jurist from the University of Charcas, whose Discurso sobre la mita de Potosí (Discourse on Forced Labor in Potosi) had precipitated heated debate. The Diálogo entre Atahualpa y Fernando VII (Dialogue Between Atahualpa and Fernando VII)—written anonymously but reliably attributed to Bernardo Monteagudo—was a further discussion of this issue. In Charcas Mariano Alejo Alvarez wrote his Discurso sobre las preferencias que deben tener los americanos en los empleos de América (Discourse on the Preference that the American-born Should be Granted for Employment in America). Profound and full of energy, the Memorial de agravios (A Memoir of Grievances) written by Bogota’s Camilo Torres made the same argument in political terms, while the Nuevo Luciano (The New Lucian) by Quito’s Francisco Eugenio de Santa Cruz y Espejo criticized the intellectual situation of the colonies. This wealth of ideas was engendered, explained, or published between 1797 and 1810, the years when the Creole bourgeois groups gained self-awareness and identified themselves as a social class with an ideology of their own. That ideology was immediately transformed into a project for change that was nurtured both in the Sociedades Económicas (Economic Societies), founded in many cities to imitate what the native-born Spaniards and Portuguese had done, and in the periodicals and literary circles that gathered those who shared common interests and ideas.

At the outset, the project for change was a reformist plan aimed at transforming the economy and society. In the traditional concept, America was a mine of easy riches. The illusion of the first conquistadores, who were awed by the accumulated store of precious metals that they seized, was rekindled by the discovery of veins in Potosí and Minas Gerais, which flooded the world with gold and silver. But as the mineral wealth declined and became more and more difficult to extract, the mirage gradually began to fade. Moreover, vast regions of Latin America without mineral wealth were being settled, and they had to build their economies around other sources that required more work, more organization, and better marketing. The doctrines of the physiocrats would help regions that had been ignored because they had no precious metals; those who believed that they were part of the destiny of these regions clung to them fiercely.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, the magic words of the enlightened and reformist Creole bourgeoisie were “agriculture” and “commerce.” What had until then seemed to be a minor, secondary source of wealth became the great hope of new sectors that, from the cities, wanted to advance the development of their region. Above all, the potential wealth had to be ascertained, nature explored, and soil and climate conditions determined. Crops would have to be selected, both for their suitability to the environment and for their market potential, and then improved. Traditional techniques would have to be abandoned, and new techniques tested. And although newspapers devoted to agriculture tried to circulate advances in farming, change had to be fostered by example, because, as it was said at the time, “farmers are not men who read books.” The groups of the urban bourgeoisie were confident that the more progressive farmers would apply modern methods to till the soil, replacing the spade with horse—or ox-drawn ploughs, methods that would be imitated by other farmers once they saw good results. One also had to learn how to enrich the soil with artificial fertilizers as the most progressive farmers in Spain were doing, how to plant seeds, abandoning the practice of scattering them, and then how to ensure irrigation. Thus production could be diversified and increased. The Creole bourgeois groups who preached the gospel of progress were encouraged when they saw results. In Caracas, Andrés Bello praised what the visitors saw in the fields. Shortly before Independence he wrote: “For the first time Europe knows that there is something more than cacao in Venezuela when she sees the ships of the (Guipuzcoan) Company loaded with tobacco, indigo, skins, divi-divi, balsam, and other exotic goods this country offered to industry, to amusement, and to medicine in the Old World.” It was the triumph of reason over routine.

But the growth and improvement of crops was not the only thing that the Creole bourgeois groups were pleased about. They were also gratified by the indirect effect of agricultural wealth on the people’s way of life, because their project was beginning to bear fruit: urban cores were growing and the major centers, which already had sizable internal markets, benefited from the increase in rural production. Excited to see how agriculture had flourished in recent times, Bello wrote:

With such favorable conditions, all of the communities that now decorate this privileged mansion of agriculture that is Venezuela emerged out of nothing. La Victoria quickly went from a tiny village inhabited by Indians, missionaries, and Spaniards who worked the Teques mines to the pleasant population it now has; just forty years ago, Maracay barely qualified to be called a village, but today has all of the appearances and advantages of a farm community, and well outside the city its surroundings are testimony to its people’s inventiveness and resourcefulness. The indigo and the King’s tobacco plantations in Tumero have made it one of the major communities within the Caracas district. Guacara, San Mateo, Cagua, Güigüe, and many other new communities owe their existence to a surge in agricultural ingenuity designed to protect the Aragua valleys; the banks of majestic Lake Valencia, which dominates this portion of the Venezuelan landscape, are energized by an agriculture that, renewing itself each year, provides much of the capital’s food supply.

It was a period when all the colonial governments were trying to “gather families into communities” for their safety and for the security of the rural way of life.

Cities had to offer a better, more civilized life. The enthusiasm for urban development was greatest in the large cities because it was there that commerce developed and prospered. The Creole bourgeoisie fought valiantly for freedom of trade and dreamed of ports filled with ships of all flags. When the mercantile companies ceased to have a monopoly on commerce, the bourgeoisie wanted trade to be opened up to foreigners as well, especially the English. In Buenos Aires, Mariano Moreno wrote that “Those who believe that opening up commerce to the English under these terms is bad for the nation and for the province should be ashamed.” He was convinced that such people were “most certainly ignorant of even the most basic principles of the economics of states.” The Creole bourgeoisie, on the other hand, understood those principles very well. Convinced that commerce had to be nurtured, they supported the development not only of agriculture but also of ranching and industry. At the same time they were not opposed to importing manufactured goods, especially English commodities, because they hoped that importing would increase mercantile activity, which was their economic power base. It was an advanced reformist program that aroused hostility among the monopolistic sectors. But he Creole bourgeois groups were already beginning to have a very clear sense of where their interests lie. They felt they were backed not only by the growing English pressure on Spain and Portugal but also by the spread of their principles though treatises of economists and, above all, popularizing works. The new economic ideas stirred so much enthusiasm that a Guatemalan poet, Simón Bergaño y Villegas, captured them in verse in his Silva de economía política (Silva on Political Economy).The Creole bourgeoisie were no less passionate about the new social, educational, and political ideas. A hybrid society in the process of integration had to revise the Enlightenment theses about human equality and the condition of Indians and blacks. Although there were Spanish precedents, the ideas preached by Villava and Moreno about the plight of the Indians shared in the humanitarian and philanthropic tendencies of the Enlightenment. So also did their ideas about the poor and the beggars, although this time the interpretation was somewhat more complex. Speaking through a gentleman trying to protect Periquillo Sarniento when he begs by feigning blindness, Fernández de Lizardi made some transparent observations about the problem of the urban poor. The gentleman says, “It’s not my job to determine general economic policy,” but he goes on to propose an interpretation that entails a social policy:

Were you to tell me that although they want to, many are unable to work because they can’t find work, I would answer that there may be some cases where there are no jobs in agriculture, commerce, fishing, industry, etc. But there are not so many cases as one might suppose. Let’s look at the multitude of vagrants who lie about the streets, drunk, congregating at street corners, hanging around pool halls, taverns, and pubs, men and women alike. Let’s talk to them and find out how many of them have a job and how many of them are strong and healthy enough to work. Then let’s leave them there and go about the city asking whether there are artisans who need apprentices and houses that are short of servants. If we find out that there are many such jobs, then we will have to conclude that the many vagrants and bums (including bogus beggars) owe their condition not so much to a lack of work as to their own idleness.

Love of work and education were, for the reformists, the means by which someone not born to wealth could raise himself, all the more so since the love of both was also important for the gentry. A lively debate emerged concerning the “mechanical trades;” as Simón de Ayanque said in Lima, to the aristocrat’s way of thinking, it was preferable to be:

Vagabond, gambler,
Procurer and swindler
Are more honorable
Than being a good craftsman
As even the noblest of trades
Is degrading for a gentleman.

In Mexico, Fernández de Lizardi made this the crux of the controversy concerning the education of Periquillo Sarniento. “A gentleman without a trade is better received and better treated in any decent quarter than some gentleman tailor, silversmith, or painter,” said Periquillo’s mother. But the father’s reply echoed the Enlightenment point of view: “The tailor and even the shoemaker will be held in higher esteem everywhere than an idle, swindling gentleman, which is what I do not want my son to be.”

Education was indeed absolutely necessary; better yet the learning of modern ideas and useful things, and assimilation of Enlightenment principles in place of the prejudices of the common folk. Only in this way could one be useful and occupy a prominent place in society based on merit and virtue. And then if one wanted to be a good servant and neighbor in the city, one had to be a progressive, but within the limits that reformism dictated. When faced with abuses by a public official, one could shout: “Long live the king and down with bad government!” When faced with a debatable royal order, one could say: “It is obeyed, but not performed.” If these boundaries were crossed, then reformism became revolution.

Doubtless, the project of reform carried the seeds of a revolutionary plan. Only an auspicious set of circumstances prompted the Creole bourgeoisie to choose the revolutionary option. In some cities they accepted the challenge and unleashed definitively urban revolutions through which they took irrevocable steps that rerouted them from the old road onto a new one. Yet there was no ideological change but only an extension and perhaps a radicalization of the ideology they had long embraced. The extension consisted of accepting some ideas from Enlightenment thinking that were not part of its Iberian variation. Jacobeans embraced more radical political ideas, while others kept to more moderate ones. By accepting those ideas and by the practical steps they took, the Creole bourgeoisie freed themselves of the rather slow pace of change that the reformist attitude had imposed. Now the could do everything more rapidly, without restrictions, and without fear of overstepping the limits that the old traditional order had dictated, but the goals were the same as those of the reformist project. The economic, social, and educational ideas that influenced the behavior of the Creole bourgeoisie remained the same after the urban revolutions.

Those urban revolutions, political only in intent, destroyed the foundation that had held the old urban and rural structure intact and set each of its components free to find a new position. Such a dispersion was inevitable, since the cities sustained the entire system. The Creole society that had slowly taken shape released its energy and went beyond the traditional schemes as it began to reorder itself and the various groups jockeyed for position. The traditionalists (and those who turned traditionalist in the sometimes-fierce open competition) saw only a struggle for power and called the crisis anarchy. But much more than power was up for grabs: it was each one’s place in the economic and social structure. Although kept in check until that point, Creole society had unequivocally shown its disruptive capacity. And when the old colonial order broke down and the traditional structure vanished once and for all, that society would explode.

The Creole bourgeoisie that unleashed and led the urban revolutionary movements tried to preserve the slow-paced and moderate reformist project as they dealt with questions of social and economic structure. But the revolutionary climate changed the situation so quickly that their policy met with heavy resistance. The society that had to be reformed changed so fast that it left the Creole bourgeoisie in disarray. The old problems were left behind by new, even more serious and urgent ones. These problems had been vaguely anticipated, but certainly not enough to appreciate their challenge to the traditional order. The Creole bourgeoisie had to make an enormous effort to cope with the new situation. And in that effort, its groups disintegrated, and their different sectors regrouped over and over again, in unstable alliances, because the old project had to be readjusted to a new reality with entirely new problems.

The most serious was the problem of relations between the countryside and the city, between the new rural societies and the Creole bourgeois groups who were entirely urban and absolutely convinced of their rights to hegemony. For them the city meant civilization, while the rural world meant, first, ignorance and routine and then barbarism. The duel began very quickly, from the moment when the urban bourgeoisie called on the rural population, first to form the armies that would defend the revolution and then to fight each faction contending for power. With weapons in hand, the farm workers joined the cast of characters in this drama, but their presence had not been anticipated, and it disrupted the schemes of the bourgeoisie. Given their economic function in the process of production and their ethnic and social background, the appearance of the rural populations called into question the very point of the revolution. To the Creole bourgeoisie, it was obvious that they had been the protagonists of a political revolution in which power had passed from one group to another. But they also knew that they were part of the group that had been displaced. Even the urban lower classes realized what had happened and were pleased at the prospects that the shift in power offered. The emergence of the rural populations changed the picture and raised the question whether what had happened—beyond the intent of its advocates—was in fact a social revolution. No doubt the rural groups who rallied to defend the new system were beginning to get some sense that a revolution was in the making; the Creole bourgeois groups saw it with absolute clarity. And they had to include this problem among a host of new ones they had not anticipated in their reformist project or in their revolutionary program. Soon after the initial euphoria died down, answers began to appear that were consistent with the ideology of Enlightenment. Whether moderates of Jacobeans, members of the Creole bourgeoisie set limits to the actions they would take and decided to restrict the process to the terms of political revolution. This was the decision reached by the urban societies under the leadership of their new elite. But they had to contend with a social revolution that had begun spontaneously, without any particular ideology at first but soon to be guided by an anti-Enlightenment philosophy already taking shape in Europe: romanticism, one of whose many facets valorized the importance of the people and placed their authentic inspiration above the rigorous dictates of reason. This was the beginning of a period that the “enlightened” Creole bourgeoisie regarded as anarchy.

Enlightenment philosophy could not anticipate this because it was created by tensions within the social and economic structure. This problem brought others with it. One, very concrete and decisive, was the source of sovereignty; another, more abstract, posed the question whether to preserve or destroy the colonial system. The first was settled by events, and it is likely that the principles of the Napoleonic Code had already influenced many minds when those events took place. The Creole bourgeois groups allied with one another through the cabildos and regarded themselves as representatives of the people. But they had to contend with dissident groups who did not believe the cabildo represented them: these were the rural people or, better said, those who rallied the rural population and used them as a source of support in their battle with the urban bourgeoisie or with some of its factions. The second was an issue that needed to be reflected upon at greater length. Still, it was present in many minds, and though only an abstraction, it involved a number of major decisions concerning the scope of change and its consummation in practice. But the tumultuous social and political crisis that followed the urban revolutions undermined the cohesiveness both of the reformist project and of the revolutionary program, and all decisions reflected that fact.

The first and fundamental issue about continuing the colonial order was political independence, which combined with the issue of form of government. There were any number of options: total independence within a republican or monarchical system, or some vague form of protectorate, not excluding the possibility of an English protectorate. The question boiled down to Enlightenment ideology, and each opinion group within the Creole bourgeoisie decided its preference on that basis. It was a choice between order and anarchy, between authoritarianism and the free play of social forces. But not all social forces had the same character for the Creole bourgeoisie. “Decent people” were one thing, and the populace quite another. Even among the second group, the urban masses were one thing and the peasants another. The first choice of the urban bourgeoisie was order and the “decent people.” Time passed; other social forces gained strength and were channeled through certain bourgeois groups that neither rejected nor sought rural support; the urban bourgeoisie divided into factions that, in their struggle for power, came to understand better the new social reality.

The other point, no less important, was the choice between a centralized regime and one in which the regional areas which had begun to take on a character of their own would be given some political identity. Centralism meant confirming the value of the cities and their bourgeois groups and maintaining the urban networks that converged on the capitals. It also meant perpetuating an order that ignored the real differentiation among viceregal areas and continued the uniformity that the conquest had established and that the municipal system had modified only slightly in the Hispanic world. Its antithesis was regionalism, which disregarded the principle of uti posidetis by affirming, purely and simply, the undeniable reality of the regions, which had finally discovered themselves; their people recognized no other realm but the one they felt was their own, regardless of any institutional framework. And, as in the case of Independence and political regimes, the enlightened Creole bourgeoisie first adhered to the centralist concept and then split, as competing factions struggled for power.

Some groups did not hesitate to seek the support of the new social forces unleashed by the urban revolutionary movements. Their pragmatism triggered the crisis of the Creole bourgeoisie which, little by little, began to divide into factions. There were those who continued to cling to their ideology and refused to recognize the new social reality; there were others who recognized that reality and built upon it, some because they dismissed their ideology, others because they had never been fully convinced of its validity, and still others because, although socially part of the urban bourgeoisie, they still clung to pre-Enlightenment notions. Once divided, the Creole bourgeois groups ceased to be the single elite of the new society. They stepped aside to make way for another Creole group, one less ideological and more pragmatic: the patrician elite.