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

Mass Formation and Ideology

Mass formation did more than precipitate change in the lifestyles of all groups within the divided society. It also triggered a profound and subtle renaissance of philosophies that could explain the new situations and suggest ways for dealing with the forces at work in social, economic, and political life. Nobody was excluded from the tremors that shook traditional opinions. The crisis immediately aroused the intellectual curiosity of those anxious to understand what it all meant—its secrets and its implications for the future. Like all crises, it weighed more and more heavily on the public mind. One interpretation followed another; explanations became more and more simplistic and invariably ended up as banal cliches. The keen awareness produced by the crisis unleashed a torrent of words, sometimes repeated as catch phrases, other times as arguments, and often as buzz words used to identify friend and foe. Sometimes they were vulgarisms carrying a special significance. At other times, however, they were the technical jargon of political science reviews or the language of economics or sociology, impoverished and debased in content. Many ideas drowned in the sea of words brought forth by the malignant form of consciousness stimulated by a crisis that was hard to understand.

Mass formation resurrected the problem of relationships between the individual and society that Latin America had not experienced since Creole society first burst upon the scene. When the crisis recurred, the debate revived the same old arguments. They were all wrong, for while the situations may have looked similar, the protagonists of the social process were profoundly different. It would be difficult to make anything other than a superficial analogy between the Creole groups that emerged with Independence, some of whom were mounted bands of rebels, and the new urban masses. The fact is that the new masses forced a rethinking of the relationship between the individual and society, and those thoughts crystallized into the opinions held by established society and those held by anomic society.

Naturally, the idea of examining the relationship between the individual and society came from the establishment, specifically from those groups most concerned with politics and economics. The emergence of the masses questioned the ideology of these groups, and as a consequence they rushed to re-examine it, some in order to defend it to the last, others to determine whether it needed correction to adapt it to new circumstances.  This kind of reassessment had not been undertaken with so much passion since Independence. The anomic mass whose formation had triggered these reactions, meanwhile, was entirely left out of the excited concern for interpreting social situations and defining its role. Each sector of the lower classes had its rudimentary weltanschauung but was unable to adapt it to real circumstances or to examine it critically; a set of heterogeneous notions and prejudices formed the confused scheme that the emerging mass employed to face the gloomy urban world. A few positive experiences in arriving at a more profound understanding between migrant groups and some sectors of traditional society, however, permitted the synthesis of an ideology responsive not just to the needs and desires of the masses, but also to the ability of established society and the structure in general to respond to those needs and desires. The anomic mass began to learn the difficult art of alternating between requests and demands precisely because it gradually began to sense that its greatest strength would lie not so much in its sheer numbers as in a belief slowly taking hold in established society about the rights of the masses and the legitimacy of their expectations. That conviction would weaken ideological unity within established society, but it did not take hold quickly. Even after the presence of the new mass was accepted, the old ideology endured in established society.

Except for a few sharp minds—who heeded the experience of post-war Europe—most of established society was slow to imagine, much less foresee, the magnitude of the impact that the presence of the mass would have. But as that impact was felt by individual sectors of the structure, various elite groups began to revise their positions. Little by little, important sectors of public opinion began to reshape their attitudes and plans; ultimately, they put together a new ideological framework in which the traditional agenda was displaced to make room for the one created by the social transformation set in motion by the presence of the masses. There were two types of attitudes: the attitude of those who refused to recognize the importance of the masses and underestimated them, and the attitude of those who decided to acknowledge that their emergence was an irreversible fact.

Those who underestimated the new social development reacted according to whether they were conformists or nonconformists. Eager to keep the system intact, conformists were contemptuous of the masses, closed ranks, refused any type of concession, and went on the defensive. They never so much as considered any other strategy. Traditional and strong, the conformist ideology maintained its support for a liberal concept of society and proposed to each of its members that the path to individual social ascent was by effort, ability, and competition. This view became more and more conservative as the number of competitors increased. These were the classic conservatives: liberals originally, but more and more inclined to defend their own privileges without making any concessions. In response, the nonconformist ideology proposed a structural change designed to make participation all-inclusive: nineteenth century-style advocates of progress were not very assertive, but others were bolder and did not hesitate to call for socialist-style reform or revolution. These traditional nonconformists, advocates of a change in the structure according to what they considered to be immutable rules of the industrial world, identified the masses as a rootless lumpen proletariat, with no class consciousness or willingness to struggle. They concluded that, in the final analysis, the masses were a potential ally of the existing structure; in that sense, they concurred with the classic conservatives and shared a certain contempt for the masses. These nonconformists were the progressives, the reformists and revolutionaries whose ideological schemes were built upon principles of radicalism or Marxism in which the infrangible vestiges of Enlightenment thinking and philosophical liberalism were very much alive.

Those who, on the other hand, accepted the new social reality began to review their strategy, their interpretation of society, and their plans for the future. They were attentive to the smallest details, in order to catch the general direction and sense of the process that was unfolding before their eyes. They sharpened their analyses and their wits; some were guided in part by the experience of post-World-War-I Europe. Yet many looked mainly at what was unique and local about the phenomenon, and they managed to outline the fundamentals of a new ideology to steer the eruptive tendencies of the masses by norms that would ensure that the essentials of the structure would remain intact.  They concurred with the traditional nonconformists in the sense that they intuitively thought that the masses were a potential ally of the structure. Thus they put together not only a strategy to keep the masses attached to the structure but also an unusual ideology with a valid interpretation of real situations, one that could win a consensus among proponents of change: it was populism. The strategy proposed was something akin to natural change, with groups or individuals in the masses being slowly integrated into established society. At times the proposed change consisted merely of facilitating or hastening that natural tendency.

But what was truly important was that the new ideology required change to be realized along fundamental lines that would develop the system according to clear objectives. To ensure that goal, change had to be managed from within the structure, by its most notorious and loyal defenders. These defenders constituted the State, conceived as an abstract entity whose social affiliation was left undefined. The State appeared as the pilot of change in the program of the Bolivian Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, which proposed “building a nation upon a system of authentic Bolivian social justice, upon State-determined economic and political bases.” An authoritarian regime would guarantee the kind of guardianship that Colombian General Rojas Pinilla described as true democracy:

Democracy is the best interpretation of the sovereign will of the people; democracy is an opportunity for everyone to work honorably and peacefully; democracy is the granting of guarantees, without any form of discrimination; democracy is government by the armed forces. Who can listen to the voices that speak of a despotic government and of omnipotent powers? You will tell us now whether you prefer the democracy of loud parliamentarians and an irresponsible press, unlawful strikes, premature and bloody elections, and a partisan bureaucracy, or the democracy that the resentful call dictatorship, tranquility, a peaceful citizenry, works that are good for the nation, job guarantees, good and honest government, and ample room for real freedom and the initiative that requires muscle and intelligence.

These were the terms that the new ideology of populism proposed for the social structure, in order to hasten the moderate change to which those who wanted to become part of the structure aspired. As part of the new urban masses, they seemed, in principle at least, to want only a helping hand to achieve a subsistence standard of living and security, regardless of the conditions imposed. The new ideology, however, wanted more than just resigned acquiescence. It was looking for consensus from those to whom it proposed change, and it pursued that consensus by making the masses aware of the very legitimate causes of their resentment toward the established structure. It was a combative ideology, and its principles made very plain who the adversaries and enemies were. The program of Bolivia’s 1941 Revolutionary Nationalist Movement listed them as follows: “We denounce as anti-national any possible relations between international political parties and the maneuvers of Judaism, among the liberal democratic system, secret organizations, and the invocation of socialism as an argument to allow foreigners to interfere in our internal or international policy or in any activity prejudicial to the Bolivian people.” Jews, Masons and, above all, liberals and socialists were singled out as being the enemy of the new ideology, which effectively declared itself to be anti-liberal and anti-socialist. Indeed it declared itself the enemy of those who refused to accept the new social reality, conformist as well as nonconformist.

The ideology of populism was relentless where Marxism was concerned, precisely because Marxism proposed a different model of change, one intended to develop a new structure according to its own, quite different, system of objectives. Against Liberalism it was almost, but not quite, as relentless. The battle was fought more in words than in practice. Jorge González von Marées, founder of the Chilean National Socialist Movement, praised Italian fascism, which he said was a worldwide movement that “represents the triumph of the ‘grand policy’—in other words a policy crafted and directed by a handful of superior men in each generation—over the mediocrity that is liberalism’s mainstay; it also represents the victory of blood and race over economic materialism and internationalism.” Cautious and realistic, the Brazilian Getulio Vargas alluded to the need to temper liberalism, but did not condemn it altogether. In 1932 he said, “The excessive individualism typical of the last century needed to be curbed and corrected . . . which was an overriding concern for the social interest.”

For those who instituted and cultivated the ideology of populism, the presence of the urban mass was an unforgettable experience. Its potential, and presumably unconstrainable strength prompted populists to work toward a consensus of the masses; while it was important to identify enemies, it was also important to extol the traditional values that members of the urban masses preserved in their own ideas and beliefs. Migrant groups and the established working class groups that intermingled with those migrants, retained their cultural heritage virtually intact and needed very little to reinvigorate it. Appealing to the roots of their native culture, to the basic qualities of native groups and, above all, to a criollismo that was very much alive seemed to be and indeed was an effective way to convert large numbers to the new ideology. In a city where everything was alien to them, their culture and their world, which had until recently been scorned, were now celebrated. Bolivian philosopher Roberto Prudencio put it this way: “Culture is simply an expression of one’s relation to the earth.” Another Bolivian, Jaime Mendoza, said the following: “When one speaks of an Indian, one is implicitly alluding to the earth.” Such remarks may have stirred the consciousness and will of many who yearned for their homes and felt powerless in the face of the monster that had both attracted and rejected them, and may have moved them to tears. A very definite paternalism—sincere, natural, and sentimental in some, but calculated and artful in others—was seen as the only effective way to hasten the marginal people’s assimilation into the system. The protective figure loomed large in the eyes of the defenseless. Trusting in God and in the charismatic caudillo who seemed to understand their poverty, those who were already irreversibly immersed in the industrial world were seduced, not knowing the diabolical secrets hidden from them. Populism earned consent.

The promise of inevitable, well-deserved success was what populist nationalism represented. All the Latin American countries (some more than others) had experienced the onslaught of international capital, and the gringo was a figure in popular mythology. Populism turned against the gringo and extolled the sense of fatherland. Although sometimes pure rhetoric, it always elicited a dual response: it reawakened the natural and profound sense of belonging among native peoples who loved their traditions, while among the new arrivals and their children it awakened a desire to assert that they, too, were one with the heritage that nationality represented. A fervent allegiance to the fatherland impregnated the new urban masses, seduced by the unexpected revelation that those who had heretofore scorned them now regarded them as equals in the fraternal union of the nation, which everyone wanted to win back from the conquerors, from the foreign exploiters, from the agents of imperialism and multinational capital. Those who a half century earlier had believed that the Latin American countries’ only salvation from ignorance and poverty was to agree to become satellites of the industrial world were censured and labeled “sepoys.” There was a new appreciation of the principles of criollismo, of the caudillos who had adopted and defended those principles in the period following Independence, and of their cultural traditions; the calculated revival of folklore revealed how much there was of polemics in that cult of nationalism, which seemed to identify itself with policies intended to control the masses whose very presence could threaten the structure. The Argentine nationalists had already said it:

In all countries, nationalist movements are arising to return to the traditional political principles and the classic idea of government and to abandon the mistaken principles of democratic doctrinairism, whose disastrous consequences these movements denounce. They answer the ephemeral myths woven by the demagogues with the fundamental truths that are the very life and grandeur of nations: order, authority, and hierarchy.

Some may have believed that, to ensure the victory of the new ideology, one had to forsake the entire system of traditional democracy embodied in the constitutions of almost all the Latin American countries when the crisis began. But only Brazil, with the Aesthete Novo imposed by Gaudily Argas after the 1937 coup d’état, ever made any attempt to give the new ideology substance and form, though it was short-lived. The strength of the capitalist structure, and the influence of the liberal and no-liberal schemes upon which the world system thrived, prevented anyone from going too far to find ways to implement populism. The collapse of the Nazi and fascist countries in 1945 discouraged any further experimentation. What was left was what the new ideology had never denied: the old philosophy of social ascent basically presupposed the liberal concept of society just re-introduced by the new ideologues, reinforced perhaps by the decision of populism to strengthen and modernize the capitalist system. About his own philosophy Getulio Vargas wrote: “There is nothing in that thinking to suggest any hostility toward capital; quite the contrary, capital has to be attracted, protected, and guaranteed by the public power. The best way to guarantee it, however, is to transform the proletariat into an organized force that cooperates with the State, rather than let it drift away into lawlessness, destruction, and disruption, bereft of any sense of country and family.” The argument was clear and similar to the one that the Argentine Juan Perón would use: “We defend the workers and believe that the advantages of the capitalist system, as opposed to collectivist systems, can only be realized by vastly improving the well-being of the workers and increasing both their participation in the State and the State’s intervention in labor relations.”

Something did, however, weaken the ideology of social ascent. Whereas populism invited each member of the masses to try to move up, their sheer numbers, the competition created, and the rigidity of the system made that invitation impractical for many. In the meantime, the needs of the urban masses were becoming greater, and more and more immediate all the time. Those needs finally came to pose a threat and triggered multiple and aggressive reactions. But they posed a specific political threat: a disillusioned urban mass could drift toward revolutionary trends and doctrines. To neutralize that threat, populism proclaimed that society was obligated to cover the basic needs of those who lacked resources, and to protect them from being further exploited by a system that had already victimized them. This was the language of an ideology of social justice, to be implemented by a paternalistic and benefactor State: its objective was social welfare. But once it was articulated, the philosophy of social ascent was called into question. How far did the obligation of a society that aspired to social justice go? Should it offer everything to which the individual struggling for social ascent aspired? The question was like a pendulum between the two ideologies, liberal and populist. It was not an either/or question, as between the liberal ideology and the Marxist ideology; it simply created a kind of unsteady equilibrium between two poorly defined concepts that appeared to be compatible. Social justice was in favor of supporting those who did not achieve social ascent, or perhaps it was for improving the lot of those who were beginning to move up. The problem was that more and more could be demanded of the populist notion of social justice each time, while an unfettered capitalist system and a consumer society invited each one to embark upon the adventure of social ascent. For many people, the populist notion of social justice was merely a trampoline for ascent, while for others it was a trampoline for trying to go beyond populsm’s acceptable boundaries.

What were those boundaries? The response from populism was unequivocal. The boundaries were those that separated its theory of social justice from the theory supported by Marxism, based on the radical principle of the socialization of the means of production. Advocates of the populist ideology knew that they were walking a razor’s edge, and they carefully monitored themselves. For them it was imperative that the ideology of social justice not imperil the ideology of social ascent embodied in a liberal society and a capitalist system. Proclaimed by the system itself—whose symbol might well be the balcony of the executive mansion— and defended by intelligent sectors of the economy, the Church, and the armed forces, populism was a compromise of the ideology of ascent with that of social justice; it was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the anomic mass. In many cities, frenzied crowds demonstrated their support in public squares, and in almost all cities people were surprised to find themselves nurturing a kind of hope. The dream of the destitute migrant—or of anyone who had lived in poverty in the city for years, eking out a subsistence living—had been this: immediate help to meet their needs, an opportunity to become part of the structure, and assistance in moving up within the structure. Thus the anomic society began to develop its own ideology. It was still slightly ambivalent, for it was based simultaneously on an individualist and competitive concept of society—a liberal concept in the final analysis—and on a community or collective concept that thought first of justice and then of success, one that traced its roots to social romanticism. These two concepts were fundamentally incompatible. But their incompatibility was based on principle; thus it was deeply conceptual and difficult to perceive without scrutiny. It was not, therefore, immediately discovered. The ideology of social justice was seen simply as a new form of charity and beneficence, especially when it was used to support a demagogic policy and when the benefactor himself was owed thanks. In the name of social justice, the masses received what they wanted: better salaries, social benefits, perhaps even housing for some. Yet each one of them continued to believe that his or her real objective was to become part of the system and to move up within it.

That sentiment informed everyone’s actions, although one might occasionally join collective actions to voice one’s reaction and express one’s desires, perhaps because the mob atmosphere created in some cities made such demonstrations possible. Secretly, however, every member of the masses wanted to cease being part of them; their dreams did not stop at the level of the working-class, but reached as far as the petit bourgeois. The individual no doubt loved and admired the system especially if he heard a voice from within the structure calling to him to carry a heavier share of its responsibilities and receive a bigger share of its rewards, if he heard his own once-despised ideas and beliefs defended, or if he discovered that being a mestizo or simply being poor was no disgrace. That love and admiration of the system were articulated in the form of praise for one’s country. Whereas praise on the lips of the poor and downtrodden would earlier have been unseemly because, after all, their country had scorned them, it now seemed fitting because the country openly counted them among its sons and daughters. How could one not love and admire a system whose ardent defenders declared that they, once labeled incapable of being part of the modernization process, were in fact its bulwark and the essential architects of its grandeur? The program of the Bolivian Nationalist Revolutionary Movement put it this way: “We affirm our faith in the power of the Indo-mestizo race, in the unity of the Bolivian people in defending the collective interest and the common good before the individual interest or the individual good, and in a renaissance of the native traditions, in order to mold Bolivian culture.” A vigorous nationalism pervaded the new ideology of the anomic masses, for whom patriotism represented the hope of achieving a fair country and, above all, acknowledgment that they were not peripheral, but rather integral parts of the system. Once part of the system, each one could try to move up, just as the earlier participants in the system had.

But the anomic masses’ attachment to the system was neither passive nor steady, perhaps because the cities were becoming heavily politicized. The accession depended on whether the populists could keep its promises, and whether their line would become more pronounced. An awareness grew in the mass that other ideological sectors opposed the populist line, factions that, if in control, would restore the system to its previous state. It was, therefore, a conditional attachment; its terms changed not only as reality changed, but also as political insights became clearer, thanks to contacts with other urban groups of differing political persuasions, especially in cities undergoing industrialization. The ideological ambivalence became increasingly apparent, and with time more and more people discovered the contradiction: the old ideology of social ascent and the new ideology of social justice were neither concurrent nor compatible.

Populism had been a confusing combination of the two ideologies that were now beginning to clash. When carried to their ultimate consequences, one reinforced the system, while the other weakened it more than—even for strategic reasons—its own proponents could condone. After a certain point, that weakening posed the threat of revolutionary destruction. Defenders of the system began to think that they might have gone too far. In the anomic mass, however, others began to think quite the opposite: that the ideology of social justice had to be carried to its ultimate consequences, well beyond the limits to which populism was prepared to go.

The clash was inevitable. Those who opted to carry the ideology of social justice to its ultimate extreme began to dissociate themselves from the ranks of the anomic mass and to gravitate toward the nonconformist groups of established society, thus beginning to create a broad-based anti-nationalist reformist movement. This happened in Brazil after 1961 and in Bolivia after 1964. Established society began to crack; oscillating social alliances and changing ideological positions proved the magnitude and depth of the impact that the formation of the urban masses has had on the traditional structure of Latin American societies.