On 5 December 2011, we were delighted to host a lecture by the esteemed Professor of Latin American History, David Rock (University of California, Santa Barbara), entitled “Liberalism in Argentina and Mexico: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives.” He engaged with the comparative ambitions of our project by using selected contrasts from Mexico’s experiences with liberalism to throw into clearer focus the distinctive and particular aspects of Argentine liberalism. In a dynamic discussion session after his paper, Rock answered questions for nearly an hour and spoke to many of the important issues that have shaped our research agenda on the Liberalism in the Americas project.
Recalling Tulio Halperín Donghi’s maxim that Argentina was “born liberal,” Rock began by pointing out that for this to be the case, a period of “pregnancy” must have occurred, and discussed the pre-Independence trading relations that Buenos Aires developed with British merchants as evidence of this, and as a possible distinguishing feature of Argentina from many other Latin American countries. In terms of economic liberalism, at least, Rock argued that liberal policies were implemented, first in Buenos Aires, and then in other parts of the future nation-state of Argentina, with a comparative lack of opposition and contestation. In Mexico, by contrast, significant interest groups–primarily the Catholic Church, and the indigenous peasantry–posed strong opposition to successive attempts by liberal reformers to eradicate communal landholding practices.
In political terms, Rock contended that the essential liberal criterion was the presence of representative government and, in this regard, Argentina’s relationship with political liberalism was less straightforward than with economic liberalism. Although independent Mexico’s periods of monarchical rule (which will be explored by Erika Pani in our next research workshop) might again suggest that Mexico’s experience with political liberalism was more contested than Argentina’s, Rock outlined the existence of a “second tradition” that opposed liberalism throughout modern Argentine history. In various different eras, disparate movements (Rosismo, nacionalismo, Peronismo) emerged to challenge the individualist elements of liberalism, whether through a clientelist political culture, corporate structures like trade unionism, or an organic vision of collective society such as nationalism.
In the extended discussion following Rock’s paper, among the most interesting issues were: how Latin American ideologies are formed from national, international, local, popular and elite influences; the political and economic struggles between the centre and the regions in the process of nation-building; the relationship between liberalism and nation-building, with the “civilising” agenda within liberal ideology being a strong impulse behind nation-building; and the relationship between liberalism and democracy. During his paper, Rock stressed the importance of representation to the existence of political liberalism and this issue was central to the later discussion of the extent of the connections between liberalism and democracy, on which no consensus was reached. By a happy coincidence, we will be returning to these very issues in our next events in February 2012: a research workshop on “Liberalism, Monarchy and Empire: Ambiguous Relationships” and a public lecture by Roderick Barman (UBC): “The Enigma of Liberalism in Imperial Brazil.”
In the meantime, let us know your thoughts on David Rock’s lecture in the comments section!