By - Alain Peyrefitte

CHAPTER 12.a ................... Decadence

pages 99 - 102

We have seen France's natural movement blocked. We have seen this nation seize up just when the other northern nations began to bubble with a zest to live, create, procreate, to open out to the world and to conquer it. Now we must understand that this reversal was not exclusive to France.

A whole constellation of countries accompanied us in our misfortune. Why?

This is one of history's mysteries - one of those mysteries that are so blinding we refuse to see them.

A Strange Torpor

When the Middle Ages ended and modern times began, it still seemed that the key to the world's destiny would long remain in the hands of that part of Europe that was to remain [Roman] Catholic after the reformation.

The "Latin sisters" - Italy, Spain, Portugal, France - and then Flanders, southern Germany, Austria and Poland, waxed rich. They produced artistic marvels, their businessmen were the world's most gifted, their tradesmen enterprising, their craftsmen able; they sent sailors and adventurers to discover new worlds.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, that part of Europe had increased its territorial holdings immensely. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the French had conquered empires or established trading posts in Africa, Asia, even China.

The whole of America was in fact Latin. Italy, divided into dozens of states, could participate in this expansion only through such isolated pioneers or mercenaries as Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazano.

But the world's greatest artists and most efficient bankers were Italian, and its dominance in governing the [Roman Catholic] Church gave it enormous influence.

If there was a gap then between northern and southern Europe, it was the north that lagged behind. The United Provinces, Britain, Scandinavia, the Hanseatic League were merely the northern markets for a zone of prosperity controlled by the Latin countries. Then, shortly after the year 1600, a strange torpor overcame all the [Roman] Catholic countries, especially the Latin nations. The Dutch and the English took the lead in Western expansionism.

In a kind of historical landslip, the West's epicenter moved from the Mediterranean to the North Sea. There was no sign, really none, by which people then could have foreseen this shift, and historians today still find nothing in the preceding century to explain it.

The Decline of Portugal

In the sixteenth century, Portugal, enriched by countless overseas possessions, glittered with the gleam of its blue ceramic tiles, its cameos, its palaces, with the brilliance of the universities at Coimbra and Oporto, the poems of Luis de Camoens.

No sooner had the Moslems been driven back to Africa than Portugal's kings, seconded by their nobles and the country's middle class, rushed to conquer ports on the Moroccan coast, then Madeira in 1425, the Azores in 1427, the Rio de Oro in 1436, the Cape Verde Islands in 1456, Sao Jorge da Minha (in what is now Ghana) in 1465; they reached Angola in 1482, Brazil in 1500. None of this would have been possible without the thirst for adventure that drove the conquerors or the prospecting genius of such men as Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460), called the Navigator because, although he never sailed anywhere himself, he sent his captains to navigate the Atlantic.

Henry was no romantic dreamer. Realistic, a lover of concrete facts and painstaking detail, this organizer of voyages to the unknown was an amazingly modern manager attentive to every aspect of the ventures he promoted. For example, he was fascinated by scientific research. He encouraged the study of astronomy, meteorology, oceanography and surveying, especially their practical applications. As technician and impresario, he improved navigation instruments, improved his caravelles. His fortress at Sagres, on the continent's westernmost point, became a school of navigation and colonization; Diaz, Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Columbus studied there. Henry called in outside experts, promoting the kind of brain drain and scientific cross-fertilization we think we invented. He organized men into work groups, antedating the Americans' "think tanks" by five hundred years. From his clifftop fortress, he launched each caravelle a few days' journey farther than the last, ordering it back to report its observations - much like the successive Apollo rockets that finally reached the moon.

At the end of the fifteenth century, papal bulls gave Portugal dominion over all the new lands discovered in half the world; mastery of the other half was awarded to Spain.

Yet, one hundred years later, Portugal was immobilized. Since then, it has seemed incapable of adapting itself to a changing world. It let slip its chance for an industrial revolution. Until well past the middle of the twentieth century, it preserved the organization and attitudes of the Middle Ages.

Disconcerting Spain

Spain, too, was expanding triumphantly in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Even before Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519, the country had carved out an empire in America that included part of the West Indies, the isthmus of Panama, Florida. Within thirty years that empire swelled inordinately; Aztec Mexico, Inca Peru fell to a few men, a few harquebuses, a few horses, but chiefly to the absolute weapons of energy, imagination and faith.

The conquest of Central and South America soon brought gold - the "fabulous metal" which this Eldorado was "ripening" in "its far-off mines" - flowing into Spain. It wasn't hazard that brought this new wealth into the Iberian peninsula, for an economic mentality had burgeoned there in the Middle Ages. In the sixteenth century, Barcelona was heavily industrialized; in Seville, 1,600 looms provided work for 13,000 people; and Toledo and Segovia were crammed with manufacturies of silk and textiles.

Yet we next see a Spain enmeshed - even though colonization had begun to earn capital, to mobilize society, to forge fearless men. But values also changed, and radically. Public spirit burned what it had adored: adventure, the spirit of enterprise. Mercantile Europe noted in this hitherto ardent people what it called "Spanish indolence" - a disdain for economic activity. The nation turned away from everything touching on production and trade to concern itself entirely with affairs of the Church, the court, chivalry.

"They are infatuated with nobility," wrote one observer. In every society, the public tends to emulate an elite model. In Spain, Don Quixote replaced the conquistadores. Hidalgos - those entitled to wear a sword - monopolized the bureaucracy. In Aragon, no one who had engaged in trade was allowed to sit in the 'Cortes' (parliament). People snatched at the chance to claim status as hidalgos and those who could not pretended to it anyway. Everyone longed for conscription into the high bureaucracy of the equestrian order that dominated Spain.

Even before the French, the kings of Spain had expressed this new spirit by creating an administrative monarchy. Just as it drained off its colonies' gold, so it drained the nation's vitality, hoarding it in inactivity or spoiling it in luxury. Even more than in France, this hierarchical, centralized system neutralized every social class: the aristocracy, deprived of real power, was disgusted with land speculation and the notion of economic utility; the middle class turned away from trade and industry and aspired to public office; the clergy became an agent of political power; and the people were kept in awesome poverty. Spain stockpiled its treasure instead of investing it. The country imported the manufactured goods it disdained to produced.

Today, despite rapid progress since World War II, vast sectors of the economy are still archaic in Spain. According to a recent survey, 9 percent of the labor force at the end of Franco's reign had received no schooling. Small farms hold too high a proportion of labor on the land. Modernization of large-scale agriculture is slow because capital is short. Those industries which have been modernized are controlled by foreigners. Spain's trade deficit is impressive; like Portugal's, it is brought into balance only by two factors characteristic of underdevelopment: tourism, and money sent home by Spaniards working abroad. Consumers are imported and producers exported as the country feels its way along the path from dictatorship to democracy.

Latin America: Landed, Hierarchical, Archaic

It is not true then, contrary to the usually accepted explanation, that Portugal and Spain were sterilized by their colonies. The fact is that it was Portugal and Spain that sterilized their part of America, while the northern part, colonized by the Dutch and the English, sailed boldly into the adventure of development.

Latin America's assets, if they were to be properly exploited, are every bit as rich as those of the United States and Canada. But Latin America has shared the destiny of its Iberian mother countries. The descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese colonists have merely carved out fiefs for themselves. Despite countless revolutions, they have often held on to their land, their latifundia, haciendas and fazendas. This hereditary caste, anchored to its traditions, long used its income merely to build palaces for itself.

Such dynamism as exists in Latin American economies comes from abroad, and usually returns there: copper mines in Chile, iron in Brazil, oil in Venezuela. The countries' nationals, no matter how rich they are, make not the slightest effort to buy out foreign owners. The conquerors' heirs prefer not to be involved in trade or industry.

Has the United States pillaged these countries and is it still doing so?

In that case, why has the United States's hegemony over the American hemisphere fostered underdevelopment in Latin America and overdevelopment in Canada?

An economy, a nation, is colonized only if it is colonizable.

Why, with natural resources as rich in the south as in the north, and despite a considerably earlier start in the south, has so wide a gap opened between the two halves of a single hemisphere ?

In the 1820s, only half a century after the North American War of Independence, the Latin American colonists did shrug off the yokes of their mother countries. But their imitation of the United States was confined to political independence; it was not extended to include social organization, individual freedom or the northern scale of values.





By - Alain Peyrefitte

Translator - William R.Byron

USA Publisher - Alfred A.Knopf, Inc., NYC 1981

Canadian Publisher - Random House 1981

French Publisher - Librairie Plon 1976