Mario Vargas Llosa has recently turned 80: his birthday was saluted with a great celebration in Madrid, with a two-days conference organised by the Fundacion Internacional Libertad. Vargas Llosa gave a splendid speech at his birthday dinner, along the lines of this article run by El Pais.

Many of the guests were paying their tribute to Vargas Llosa as an icon of classical liberalism in politics. The story is well known. In 1987, when the President of Peru, Alan García, was aiming at the nationalisation of the financial sector, Vargas Llosa published a forceful manifesto against García’s ill-advised policies. He understood well that by controlling banks and insurance the government would have increase it stronghold on the Peruvian economy. It begun as a statement by the country’s best known intellectual, but it soon evolved into a political movement, Movimiento Libertad, which got close to have Vargas Llosa elected President. He lost in the second ballot against Alberto Fujimori, whose drift towards authoritarianism Vargas Llosa opposed right from the beginning. Incidentally, the runoff for this year’s presidential election in Peru will be held next June 5th, and will see Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the former president, confronting the liberal technocrat Pedro Pablo Kaczynski.

Mario Vargas Llosa is then a most rare figure: a major character of the literary scene, indeed one of the masters of writing in our time, who also had a political interlude–perhaps unsuccessful, as far as the poll results were concerned, but which inspired many.
Gerardo Bongiovanni, the indefatigable head of Fundacion Libertad in Argentina, and Alvaro Vargas Llosa brought together eighty tributes to the newly 80 y.o., published in “Ideas en libertad. Homenaje de 80 authors a Mario Vargas Llosa“. It is a beautiful little book, naturally disomogeneous as a Festschrift should be: some authors contributed essays of a general relevance, some others focused on Vargas Llosa’s contributions. The editors had the brilliant idea of adding two indexes: one by subject, but the other by Vargas Llosa’s works mentioned by the contributors. The authors include Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo Lopez’s, a political prisoner of Venezuela’s president Nicolás Maduro; Mauricio Macri, the newly-elected President of Argentina, but also a true who’s who of classical liberalism in the Spanish and Latin American world.

I was particularly impressed by the essay of Carlos Rodriguez Braun, who used a splendid novel by Vargas Llosa, “El paraíso en la otra esquina” (The Way to Paradise, 2003) to share his thoughts about populism. The novel is based on the parallel lives of Paul Gaugin and his grandmother, Flora Tristan. Tristan was an “Utopian socialist”, Gaugin looked for his own Utopia down under, they both looked for something else than the imperfect and yet perfectible bourgeois society of their times.

Rodriguez Braun sees much in common between utopianism and what we call today “populism.” They are both rejection of that free society that, he writes “is founded upon modesty concerning the existence of any historical law, on the community of interest of free women and men, on realism over the nature of politics and on the respect of the individual in a liberal democracy”. Cutting to the chase: on the impossibility of building heaven on earth.
Interestingly enough, this is an element of populism which is seldom considered. Populists are typically vilified because they are uncouth, because they not only do not practice good manners in politics, but they are actively opposed to them. And yet there is something more serious than manners about “populism,” if it needs to be a suitable political category at all: it is the promise of the abolition of scarcity and pain, if only the good guys are in charge.

The richness and diversity of human experience militates against this tendency to oversimplify social reality, for the sake of selling snake oil. As such, a novelist of the complexity of Mario Vargas Llosa, who has spent his own life telling stories and exploring the hearts of women and men, is the best prescription against populism, precisely by means of his novels.