Guillermo O’Donnell’s important monograph corrects some fundamental misconceptions about the relationship between socioeconomic modernization and political change in Latin America (and, by extension, in the entire late-industrializing Third World). He calls into question several liberal North American interpretations of political modernization and, by adding a new, technological dimension to dependency theory, he illuminates the collapse of populism in Argentina and Brazil.
The author first attacks the modernization paradigm most current in the 1960s. This paradigm, in its grossest terms, held that the richer and more modern a country becomes, the greater the likelihood that it will become a political democracy. Such thinking led many U.S. analysts to describe Argentina, the Latin American nation with the highest per capita income, as “paradoxical” or “deviant” because non-democratic politics have predominated there since 1930.
O’Donnell, an Argentine, argues that his nation’s political evolution is not paradoxical at all, except when viewed through the lens of this ill-founded but widely accepted paradigm. He criticizes the paradigm’s advocates for simply assuming—and for “proving” with faulty methodology—that the socioeconomic processes accompanying industrialization remain constant over time. Authors such as S. M. Lipset, for example, took socioeconomic indicators from numerous industrialized and industrializing countries at a given point in time (ca. 1952 for Lipset), correlated each country’s indicators with its type of political system, and upon finding that the most industrialized nations were most often democracies, concluded that the findings illustrated not only social requisites for democracy but also the process by which nations become democracies. As if by magic, data drawn from only one moment in history served to illustrate a process centuries long. O’Donnell cautions that only historical analysis can help us isolate constant from transitory components of modernization.
He then proposes a hypothesis to explain why high modernization in late-industrializing countries leads to nondemocratic political systems. He points out that by the 1960s, imported technology was transforming the socioeconomic structures of Argentina and Brazil in ways unforeseen by writers such as Lipset. New technocratic roles (i.e., roles that originated in the already industrialized world and which involve application of modern technology) increased in number and spread through the economy, public bureaucracies, military, and media. The proliferation of these roles multiplied contacts among their incumbents, created a sense of solidarity among them, and gave rise to a belief in their capacity to govern. Since the social context in the countries where these roles originated is quite different from that in Third World countries, the incumbents of technocratic roles experience “severe frustration stemming from a ‘failure’ of the context to meet their expectations” (p. 82). This frustration often leads them to attempt to force the social context to conform to their expectations. For example, before military-technocratic coalitions seized power in Brazil in 1964 and in Argentina in 1966, their members had usually blamed populist politicians and organized labor for their nations’ economic difficulties. Given an opportunity to reshape social reality after the coups, they put an end to populist politics, excluded organized labor from an institutionalized role in policy formulation, and repressed those who refused to conform.
What accounts for the short tenure of the Argentine bureaucratic-authoritarian regime when compared to its Brazilian counterpart? O’Donnell claims that Argentina’s failure and Brazil’s success in spurring economic growth—the indicator most dear to technocrats— had opposite impacts on the cohesion and self-confidence of their coalitions.
To sum up, O’Donnell makes a major contribution to our understanding of political modernization and of Argentine and Brazilian politics. He organizes and presents his thought with clarity, buttresses his arguments with abundant well-chosen data, and discusses the value structure of the technocrats with the authority of an insider, for he himself participated in Onganía’s technocratic team.