Individual Liberty In The Eyes Of A Novelist

Novelists often have strongly held political views. Nobel Prize-winning novelists are obviously no exception.
But what is surprising about the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, is just what those political views entail. Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal. With varying degrees of sympathy, Australians might call his politics free market liberalism, libertarianism, or neo-liberalism.
In other words, he’s a supporter of liberty. And not in the vague, collectivist sense offered by those who speak of freedom as taking control of the state for their own purposes. But in the individual sense. Vargas Llosa supports low taxes, limited government, private property, and free markets. He’s even a fan of business, describing it in a 2003 essay as a “beneficent institution of development and progress”.
While most commentary has mentioned Vargas Llosa’s strong political beliefs in passing, his politics is more than incidental to his life and work. He won the Nobel “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”. The thread which ties his novels together is the human desire for freedom, and many of his essays and non-fiction work apply liberal philosophy to Latin American politics.
One of the earlier political controversies he engaged as a liberal was opposing the nationalisation of the Peru’s banks by president Alan García in 1987. García, who has had a second term as president since 2006, now celebrates Vargas Llosa’s Nobel win.
On the back of that campaign, and with a new liberal political party, Vargas Llosa ran for the Peruvian presidency in 1990. He lost.
Since then he has been Peru’s most prominent and fearsome advocate for individual liberty and liberal democracy. His influence in Peru is so substantial he triggered a ministerial ousting last month when he resigned from a museum committee to protest a new law excusing human rights abuses under Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president during the 1990s. Fujimori is now in jail, but has many allies in Peruvian politics.
Vargas Llosa has had a long running stoush with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, describing the latter as autocratic. He has close relationships with free market think tanks in Latin America, in the United States and around the world.
That’s his political credentials. But why are they so surprising? Vargas Llosa has just won one of the highest prizes for literature. There’s been speculation his political views meant he didn’t get the Nobel earlier.
We seem to presume that culture is the sole responsibility of the left. Perhaps justifiably: I don’t think it’s overgeneralising to say the majority of artists, actors, writers and musicians profess near uniformly social democratic views.
The Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela said Vargas Llosa’s liberal politics “stains his literature”.
Liberalism is easily caricatured. First as a political philosophy of cruelty that believes all people should be subjected to the harsh storm of the marketplace. Only those who manage not to drown deserve to survive. Or alternatively, as a dictatorship of the accountants, obsessed with efficiency and streamlining above all human concerns.
Against these caricatures, liberalism’s critics offer a vision of a society built on compassion and cooperation. And this vision is easy to sentimentalise.
Certainly, liberalism resists collective goals. As a philosophy it provides no support for the pursuit of national greatness, which throughout history has been the source of much romantic sentiment. So liberals struggle to tell “national” stories as they are sceptical that artificial collectives like the nation have any real moral agency. Only individuals do.
In 1997, Vargas Llosa told the Los Angeles Times that the great battle of the future was the “battle against borders, against this provincial, small, petty vision that defines a human being through the idea of a nation”.
Vargas Llosa’s achievement is to show that liberalism has its own romantic elements. Individual liberty is as much a cultural achievement as a political one. When individuals are able to pursue their own goals, free from the structures of the state or the collective, they are able to self-actualise – to realise their own potential and live their preferred life.
It was, after all, the development of individualism that provided the spark for modernity. The great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt argued the cultural and philosophical achievements of the Italian Renaissance were largely attributable to the idea of the individual as a unit. It’s easy to trace this idea through history to the 21st century political philosophy espoused by liberals like Vargas Llosa.
Last week the Mexican historian Enrique Krauze described Vargas Llosa’s win as “an act of justice toward literature and toward liberty. They are two inseparable words”.
If nothing else, his deserved Nobel Prize should remind us that culture, art, and creativity are not just franchises of left-wing politics. Individual liberty has the capacity to stir the heart as much as collectivism.