Thursday, June 23, 2011

Letters from Portugal: A New Salazar?

Those who have been following the news in Portugal know that the country has a new government, with the centre-right Partido Social Democrata’s Passos Coelho leading the government as Prime Minister. This result was received with some relief by Vitor Matos, a political journalist whose blog I follow. Responding to the comments by a Neill Lochery, who promises a rather interesting book on Portugal in the subsequent months, Matos crowed with rather visible delight that ‘Neill Lochery wasn’t right after all. The Portuguese didn’t look for a new leader with the likes of Salazar to set their public finances straight…. This is not 1926. Portugal is a consolidated democracy and a modern European country. Passos Coelho is no dictator, nor is his right-wing ally, Paulo Portas.’

Matos charged Lochery with being offensively simplistic, but it may be that it was Matos, who was both offensive and simplistic. Before we address that matter though, it must be said that Matos did indeed hit a nail on the head when he argued that Portugal’s contemporary Salazar was the memorandum that the troika of lending agencies presented Portugal.

Matos was being simplistic because while he recognizes the crucial fact that the country is in the grip of a dictator, the troika, he seems to be unable to see that this institutional troika can also create the conditions required to produce a national leader of the likes of Salazar.

The reasons he does not see this possibility is because of feature that afflicts not just Portugal, but a number of polities that have had fascist or authoritarian leaders, the creation of a single individual as scapegoat. It is not German society at the time that is blamed for the mess of the Third Reich, but Hitler alone. The result is that society and the larger social processes are exculpated as we create a single individual as the embodiment and font of all evil. But the fact is that Salazar did not start out by plotting to be dictator. He was aided in this process through the urgings and accommodation of a society that believed that all it required to resolve its problems was a person with ‘plenty of authority, little hesitation, agility and swiftness.’ What is scary, is that this is the exact formulation that Matos suggests is required of the new Passos Coelho - Portas government. Passos Coelho and Portas may not intend to be dictators, but if there are more voices like those of Matos, it may well set them to on their way to being as dictatorial and authoritarian as the circumstances will allow them.

Matos coupled his simplistic dismissal of the political crisis that hovers over Portugal with an offensiveness that while not uniquely Portuguese is a striking feature of this society; laying the blame for extreme positions on the economically lower classes. Thus for example, he dismisses the angry shouts of “We would need 10 Salazars to put things into order!” in a Portuguese market as the anger of a hapless and ignorant woman. The desire for another Salazar Matos affirms, is the call of merely the ignorant, and maybe the Portuguese ‘taxi drivers’. This is incredibly offensive because it assumes that it is the poor and the uneducated that lay the foundation for authoritarian leaders, when all too often, it is the desire of the elites, like those of Matos who by virtue of his intellectual role is a member of that elite, for firm decisions and strong authority that roll out the red carpet for capable persons to morph into autocratic monsters.

Mr. Lochery might yet be right Mr. Matos.

(A version of this post was first published in O Heraldo 24 June 2011)

No comments: