Carlos A. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 1760–1900 : Vol. 1, Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru

Carlos A. Forment, Democracy in Latin America, 1760–1900 : Vol. 1, Civic Selfhood and Public Life in Mexico and Peru  (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. xxix+ 454, £24.50, hb.

 This book is the first instalment of a diptych that tries ‘ to understand why Latin Americans practise democracy more readily and intensely in some terrains than in others ’ (p. 20). The first volume deals with Mexico and Peru; the second volume, not yet published, will deal with Argentina and Cuba. This volume (as, presumably, the next) has at its core a number of historical chapters, largely based on a trawl through various Latin American hemerotecas, flanked by a theoretical discussion which sees Forment – to continue the fishing metaphor – angling in varied theoretical rivers from his ‘Tocquevillian perch’ (p. 6). Thus the book (1) is said to be in ‘conversation’ (p. 31) and ‘dialogue ’ (p. 33) with the work of Partha Chaterjee and Mahmood Mamdami; (2) takes issue with the ‘ sociologists and political scientists [who] have been scrambling across the continent chasing after late-breaking events in order to develop a ‘‘ theory ’’ of ‘‘democratization ’’ ’ (p. 6) as well as studies that interpret the emergence and development of democratic life in Latin America as a ‘structural by-product of ‘‘state-building ’’, ‘‘economic development’’ and ‘‘modernization’’’ (p. 29) ; and (3) is inspired by Michael Walzer’s ‘ little book on social criticism ’ (p. 21), which, strangely, convinced Forment to accord nineteenth-centuryLatin Americans ‘the very same authority that I had previously been willing to grantonly to contemporary scholars in the field of Latin American Studies ’ (p. 12). In so doing, Forment claims to have ‘unearthed’ a specifically Latin American democratictradition distinct from ‘state and market-centred forms of life ’ (p. xii).

Forment calls the democratic tradition he has ‘unearthed ’ Civic Catholicism. Unfortunately, what he understands this to be is never made fully explicit. Despite the centrality of Civic Catholicism to his study, we have to wait some 200 pages before the term receives some discussion (prior to this point it is merely alluded to) and even that discussion is far from clear. We are told that Civic Catholicism is a ‘new vocabulary’ and that ‘ central to this new narrative was the religious colonial dichotomy of ‘‘ passion-reason’’, and the new civic concern for ‘‘ association’’ and ‘‘ personal liberty ’’ ’ (p. 208) and that ‘ citizens used Civic Catholicism in order to make sense of themselves and each other in civil society, economic society, political society and the public sphere itself ’ (p. 209). In the last chapter of the book Forment introduces a distinction between ‘Neo-Colonial Catholicism ’ and ‘ Civic Catholicism ’ but the meaning of both terms is again left vague. From the discussion he offers they would seem to be rhetorical substitutes for the ideas associated in much of the literature on nineteenth-century Latin America with ‘Conservatives ’ and ‘Liberals ’, but this can only be a supposition. It is surprising that in a book that deals with ‘democracy’ in nineteenth century Latin America there is no index entry for either ‘ Liberal ’, ‘ liberalism’, ‘Conservative ’ or ‘Conservatism ’, or, indeed, any discussion of these terms and how they, presumably, are inadequate or unsuitable to the argument put forward by the author.

According to Forment, Civic Catholicism took root in Mexico as early as the 1840s, as witnessed by the proliferation of associations of various types and discussions in newspapers, but was less successful in Peru. Unfortunately, Forment does not attempt to explain the differences between the two countries. He notes the differences on several occasions (‘ in contrast to Mexicans, the overwhelming majority of Peruvians remained attached to their old authoritarian habits ’ (p. 130) ; ‘associative life in Peru nevertheless remained embryonic, and it was not nearly as stable as it had been in Mexico in the first half of the century ’ (p. 285)), and he signals some of the factors that may explain the divergence (enduring militarism and racism in Peru), but he does not explore them to any satisfactory degree. Equally problematic is the fact that Forment appears to view the development of associations or, to use his jargon, ‘ associative life ’, as evidence of democratisation and the associations as democratic in themselves (as ‘models of and models for democratic life ’ (p. xi)), in contradistinction to governments, which he sees as inherently antidemocratic, thus leading to the conclusion : ‘democratic life had become rooted throughout public life except in political society, which remained under the control of authoritarian groups’ (p. 440). How this squares, for Peru at least, with the fact that ‘ the vast majority of voluntary groups in the country excluded indigenous peoples, blacks, and Chinese, marginalized mixed bloods, and remained relatively hierarchical in terms of the practice of democracy in daily life ’ (p. 285) is left unexplored beyond noting that ‘ in Latin America, the citizenry’s habits pertaining to marginalized groups remained the least changed (most mechanistic) ’ (p. 437).

The theoretical shortcomings are matched by organisational and methodological weaknesses. In the core section of the book, Forment marshals considerable ‘ historical evidence’ to support his thesis. However, the organisation and presentation of this evidence is unimaginative and, more important, unconvincing. Every chapter has a similar structure, with a brief presentation of the author’s data on varied forms of associations in tabular and graph form (and some maps) accompanied by a lapidary sentence the function of which, one assumes, is to summarise the chapter but which is often far from clear. Such sentences include : ‘ public life remained moribund during the occupation’ (p. 100) ; ‘ public life remained relatively stable’ (p. 241) ; ‘ public life remained relatively flat and one dimensional throughout the decade’ (p. 340). The chapters on civic associations, electoral clubs and debates in the press are not uninteresting, but they are almost exclusively descriptive. Although Forment does group his examples into different categories (say, ‘Associativepractices in Civil Society’, ‘Associative practices in Economic Society ’, etc.), the telegraphic style employed – Forment favours the term ‘ ‘‘semi-thick ’’ description ’ (p. xx) – gives one the impression of reading the author’s note cards. Too often hetakes his evidence at face value. He rarely interrogates his sources and, on occasions, infers too much from them. Or, at least, that is the impression produced by the style. In covering so much ground, it would seem, Forment is forced to paint with too broad a brush, so that many subjects in his canvas are only implied and sometimesbecome unrecognisable.

In his introduction, Forment rails against ‘the abstracted empiricism, hyperpresentism, jargonistic cant and scientism that passes for common sense in Latin American Studies ’ (p. 11), but he is himself guilty of some glib and muddled reasoning. Sentences such as ‘ like a jazz musician who improvises a new melody from an old tune, Latin Americans used their own judgment to reconcile their own vision of the future with their memory of the past in terms of the constraints and opportunities they faced in the present ’ (p. 428) are common. The noun/verb ‘practice ’ is rendered almost nonsensical by its careless use: ‘the practice of antipolitics weakened democratic life ’ (p. 359), and ‘Peruvians adopted a Jacobin notion of politics and construed themselves as ‘‘ the nation-at-arms ’’, which led them to practice democracy primarily in guerrilla groups’ (p. 365). The impression of methodological and rhetorical sloppiness is not helped by the fact that some translations are poor (in one quote Abajo el Puente, the popular name of Lima’s Rímac district on the other side of the Rímac river, becomes ‘underneath the bridge ’ (p. 222)) ; some typos have crept in (the city of Tumbes becomes Tumber (p. 378), the district of Chorrillos becomes Chorrillo (p. 381)) ; and there are a number of errors in the footnotes (the author of ‘El probabilismo en el Perú en el siglo XVIII ’ is Pablo Macera, not Luis Macera (p. 87 fn 72)).

Forment makes some bold claims for his book, both at a theoretical and at a political level. This study, he suggests, contributes to a ‘new science of politics ’ (p. xxviii). Readers are invited to consider ‘whether I have also succeeded in reviving the democratic tradition in Latin America’ (p. 12). In a sea infested by Tocquevillian ‘ egoists ’ – his short hand for ‘ guerrilla socialists ’ and ‘ neoliberals ’, who now control all positions of power in Latin America, ‘ like a pearl diver ’ (p. 14) the author heroically plunges into ‘the breach that now exists in the democratic tradition with the goal of salvaging whatever treasures remain scattered in the wreckage that is Latin American public life ’ (p. 13). He ends his book in a celebratory tone and states that ‘the most enduring contribution Latin Americans have made to the theory and practice of modern democracy is their faith in civic democracy’ (p. 422).

Forment seems to want to provide Latin Americans with ‘what Albert Hischmann calls possibilistic accounts of democratic life in the region’ (p. 8) to counteract their ‘ [diminished] capacity to imagine and practice democracy ’ (p. 4). Perhaps this flows from his contention that ‘ it was in the twentieth century, not the nineteenth, that authoritarianism became rooted in the region ’ (p. 36). He seems to suggest that, contrary to received wisdom, Latin Americans have a democratic tradition. It just happens to be different to democracy in the core countries : ‘In contrast to New Englanders, who relied on doux commerce  (economic society), and French Republicans, who relied on state governance (political society), Latin Americans relied on sociability (civil society) ’ (p. 431). Forment brings together a large body of evidence to back up his argument but his treatment of the historical evidence is unconvincing and his failure to address the fact that, as he himself admits, ‘ Latin Americans practiced democracy in daily life and ranked each other accordingly, except in the case of indigenous peoples, blacks, mixed-bloods and women’ (p. 435) raises the question of whether there is much to celebrate about Latin America’s democratic tradition.

Originally published in Journal of Latin American Studies 37:02 (2005), pp 387-389