At the middle of the 16th century, Spain was the unquestioned superpower of the world, presiding over an empire more geographically expansive (comprised of the Philippines, much of today’s Latin America, most of today’s of Holland, Belgium, Austria and Germany as well as considerable portions of Italy and France) than any previous nation in history.
When the ruling Hapsburg family became conjoined to the Portuguese monarchy in 1580, Spain gained access to the vast overseas holdings of its smaller Iberian neighbor, which included coastal Brazil, the coastal areas of today’s Angola and Mozambique and myriad military-commercial outposts on the coasts of Africa and South Asia, places such as the Cape Verde Islands, Mombasa, Madagascar, Hormuz, Goa, Sri Lanka and Macau.
This impressive hegemony of the Iberians can be traced to many factors. However, two of these stand out.
The first was their dominant position in the realm of naval technology. At the beginning of the 15th century, Prince Henry of Portugal established a maritime academy in Sagres at the southwestern tip of his country. Over the next several years, the technologies developed there (which were subsequently spread to Spain through industrial espionage) allowed the Iberians to travel the high seas with a heretofore unthinkable degree of confidence.
The second was the fact that they were charging into both trans-Pyrenean Europe and the newly “discovered” overseas territories in Asia and America quite well-practiced in the art of what we would today call ideologically-motivated, low intensity warfare.
Why was that?
Because for over seven centuries, they had waged constant wars to “cleanse” the Peninsula of the Muslim settlers who had invaded it from North Africa in several waves beginning in 711 A.D.
This so-called Christian “Reconquest”--which was declared complete by royal authorities by the very same year that Queen Isabel sponsored Columbus’s first westward journey--left a profound stamp upon Peninsular life.
First, it enthroned military force as the prime “reason” of the state.
Second, and perhaps more important in the long run, it insured that the two country’s civic, and from there, and educational spheres would always operate under the force of religious dogma.
In practical terms, this meant a renewed emphasis on medieval scholasticism in Iberian schools and universities.
If one were to ask a teacher from that Golden Age of Iberian history, let’s say a professor at the prestigious University of Salamanca, to define scholasticism, he would probably tell you that it is a system of education rooted in the idea of learning through argumentation and dispute.
And, to a certain extent, he would be right.
What he would probably not say, or at least emphasize, however, is the fact that that those arguments and disputes would take place within a framework defined by a number of pre-ordained truths, the most important being that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (as opposed to those of Christ himself) were the world’s most important font of existential knowledge.
In other words, one was free to argue quite vigorously as long as this central “truth” and its many accompanying and/or underlying assumptions were not subjected to any serious form of cross-examination.
Nations and empires undergirded by a sense of religious certainty can do extraordinary things in the short run, especially--as was the case of Spain and Portugal for much of the 16th century--when great historical fortune is on their side.
The true test of a nation’s or a social project’s greatness comes, however, when those favorable historical conditions are altered.
It is at those moments when we see whether the guardians and promoters of the prevailing orthodoxy have been “ecologically” wise enough to cultivate, or at least tolerate, a healthy degree of intelligent dissent within the body politic, or have, on the contrary, fallen prey to their totalitarian impulses and have cleansed critics of the dominant paradigm from the country’s civic and educational institutions.
The story of Iberia’s long and often unseemly decline is the story of a failure to adapt to changing circumstances, especially those engendered by the advent of the Protestant Reformation and its ideological stepchildren: free inquiry and industrial capitalism.
However, the failure to rise to these challenges was not the result, as it is sometimes portrayed, of a sudden dearth of intelligent or vigorous people in the society.
Rather, it was because Iberia’s many highly intelligent and vigorous people were forced into an educational system--rooted in scholasticism and possessed of great, if highly misplaced, confidence in the universality and endless durability of its own suppositions—that implicitly (and often quite explicitly) demanded that they refrain from asking large questions of a systemic or paradigmatic nature.
I am reminded of all this as I observe the comportment of our policy-making elites during the current economic crisis.
For more than three decades, big money, working hand in hand with the big media it controls, has sought to elevate free market economics—understood here as the idea that economies work best for the citizenry when government involvement in them is at its lowest possible level—to the category of an unassailable truth in the public mind.
And, as anyone who has seen Inside Job knows, their efforts did not stop there. During the same period they used their financial largesse to a) pack university departments of economics with believers in their one true faith and b) buy off, through rich consulting contracts and impressive sounding sinecures, many of the already established academics who might otherwise be inclined to show that a government retreat from regulation is not actually as good for the public as the the one-percenters and their paid mouthpieces in the media constantly claim it is.
As a result, an entire realm of economic knowledge and experience having to do with the state management of both micro and macro-economic policy, cannot be talked about in “serious” company, or in any widely-known venue of our mass media
And this, despite the fact that our country’s greatest period of sustained and shared prosperity was achieved at a time when just such policies were in force, or the fact that the countries that have--despite intense pressures from the US government and Wall Street to deregulate their markets—clung unapologetically to a relatively high degree of state interventionism, are doing better than most in the developed world.
Yes, were the Spanish and Portuguese scholastics of the 16th century able to visit us today, they would, no doubt, be great admirers of todays’ economics establishment.
They would identify strongly with its ability to talk about “new” policies without ever questioning the philosophical and moral underpinnings or empirical results of the old ones, or, for that matter, the deep philosophical and moral underpinnings of any policy prescription.
They would love its naked obeisance to established power and its sublime confidence that most major questions about the optimal relationship between markets and governments have been definitively settled for some time now.
Most of all, they would celebrate, and revel in, its aggressive cluelessness, that is, its inability to ask, never mind answer, the type of human questions that might lead us and our children to a more dignified future within our rapidly evolving world.