IN MAY 1871, Europe was in crisis: France and Prussia were embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for France and the toppling of King Napoleon III and the initiation of the Paris Commune, writes The Resident’s Chris Graeme.
Germany, finally uniting as a new emergent industrial nation made up of 16 previously autonomous principalities and duchies, was flexing its economic and military muscles on the international stage with its great statesman Otto Von Bismarck vying with England, the richest economic power the world had ever seen with an empire that covered one-fifth of the globe.
Portugal, too, was in crisis: governed by an ineffective liberal constitutional monarchy, it was backward, poor and lagging behind the leading industrial powers. The reality was that the country was deeply conservative, fearful of French commune-style revolutions, and over 70 per cent of its population was rural, agricultural and illiterate.
It was at that time that a cycle of conferences was held to debate the future of democracy in what is now the LiberOffice in Chiado, but was then a well-known casino. Taking part in the conferences were groups of intellectual youths, who included thinkers such as Oliveira Martins, Batalha Reis, Teófilo Braga, Eça de Queiroz and Antero de Quental.
Although not true socialists, as Russian Revolutionary movements and the British Labour Party would be defined 50 years later, these typical liberals were tired of the level of bureaucratic inefficiency in Portugal, the lack of education, corruption, nepotism and vices that marked a succession of weak monarchical governments run by mediocre figures.
These often literary figures, like writer Eça de Queiroz, who made fun of the incompetence and national inertia, defended the legitimate rights of man and his moral dignity against authoritarianism, repression and the mediocre corrupt vices and petty ambitions of the time. Lead by Antero de Quental, this series of casino conferences, promoted by the Cenacle Cultural Group, were ultimately shut down by the authorities, who saw them as subversive and socialist in nature, representing a threat to the system.
So what of Portuguese democracy today? There are those who argue that Portugal in the 1870s shared striking resemblances to some of the problems that have blighted governance and the economy in recent years. There are those in the press who say that Portugal has, once again, fallen into a state of deplorable decadence and mediocrity, with a succession of inept governments that have been unable to tackle the country’s pressing social, economic, political and judicial problems.
Professor Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, reflecting on the ‘State of Portugal and Democracy’ 135 years after the Casino Conferences, argues that Portugal is afraid of changing, fears for the future, is concerned about being judged by others and scared of not being able to rise to the challenges of the 21st century. Nevertheless, the balance is positive.
“We live in a country which, in several aspects, is quite different. Looking back at what has happened in the past 30 years alone, Portugal has faced four main challenges:
• Decolonisation and the end of its empire.
• Rediscovery of democracy and liberty following decades of paternalist Salazarian rule.
• A Portugal that, economically and socially, integrated in a new reality of the EU, which wasn’t just the geographical and cultural integration marked by the late 19th century.
• The construction of a new economy that was not simply the resolution of a transport dilemma, but an economy broadly involved in a new role at state and social level in the European Union context.
For Portugal, meeting these challenges was difficult – colonial wars and decolonisation during a revolution, at a tense bi-polar period of European history marked by the Cold War, and the construction of democracy following a long period of democratic deprivation, with democratic roots that were insufficiently developed. Finally, the construction of an economy that was non-patriarchal, not inward looking or colonial-based, replaced by one that was outward looking towards the new Europe.
The challenges were met in various cycles: the first between 1974 and 1985 (democratisation and decolonisation), the second between 1985 and 1989 (joining the EU and privatisation), and the third between 1995 and 2006 (marked by political instability and a return of some of the ghosts from the past). These were marked by problems of European economic divergence, competitiveness and productivity.
What was the balance of the last 30 years when compared with 135 years ago? “I would say clearly positive. We now have an independent and open economy, one that is democratic, without an empire prolonged to exhaustion.
“Obviously, there are less attractive aspects in this balance: the return of hundreds of thousands of people from our ex-colonies who needed jobs, our culture isn’t yet liberal neither to the right or left, the traditional Portuguese right-wing oscillates between conservative Bonapartism and a right concerned with social and rural issues. The Portuguese left is traditionally state-led, Marxist at its extremes, but interventionist rather than liberal,” Rebelo de Sousa said.
“However, we have achieved in 12 years, since joining the EU, a rapid acceleration and modernisation not seen in the 50 years prior to April 25, 1974, with a sophisticated commercial and financial base and a relatively high average standard of living,” he stressed.
“I don’t think we need to have the same pessimistic vision that thinkers had at the end of the 19th century. Instead, we have to valorise training, education, culture and society, building links with the Lusophone world, represented by our former colonies and our émigré communities, and accept the reality of immigration from Brazil and Eastern Europe. In the creation of a new economy, the challenges are now radically different in the need for reforms at educational, company, judicial and administrative levels.”
One different issue is that, today, we live in a media-lead society, which trumpets the nation’s failures and echoes its pessimism rather than looks to its triumphs. However, if the Portuguese want to construct a new economic reality, they can’t “continue to play like a second division team while expecting to belong to a first division one,” he concluded.