Octavio Paz on the Limitations of Politics

Octavio Paz

BY CARL L. BANKSTON III

I ran across an excellent old interview by Spanish television with the late Mexican poet, essayist, and diplomat Octavio Paz, best known for his book on the national psychology of Mexico, El Labirinto de la Soledad [The Labyrinth of Solitude].  The interview took place not long after Spain’s transition to democratic government following the death of Francisco Franco, so the writer’s warnings to the Spanish not to put too much faith in the problem-solving potential of government are especially interesting. Regarding government in general, Paz advocated decentralization, observing that “el gran criminal del siglo veinte es el estado, el estado centralista que monopoliza el poder politico y el poder economic. Parecia que el gran tema del siglo veinte era la sustitucion del sistema capitalista por un sistema socialista … la critica de las anarchistas … ha side profetica. El gran criminal del siglo veinte es el estado”  [“The great criminal of the twentieth century is the state, the state that monopolizes political power and economic power. It seemed that the great theme of the twentieth century was the substitution of the capitalist system by a socialist system  … the criticism of the anarchists has been prophetic .. the great criminal of the twentieth century is the state.”]

Later in the interview, Paz connected this idea of the dangers of the centralized state to his view that the Spanish should be modest in their expectations of the new government. “Yo no creo que la politica pueda ofrecer una solucion a las problemas fundamentales de la condicion humana … la historia del siglo veinte es la historia de utopias convertidas en campos de concentracion … la politica es la arte de convivir y no la arte de cambiar el hombre” [“I don’t believe that politics can offer a solution to the fundamental problems of the human condition … the history of the twentieth century is the history of utopias transformed into concentration camps … politics is the art of living together and not the art of changing man.”]

I  find particularly insightful the idea that politics is the art of living together, of allowing individuals and groups with different goals and interests to work out their means of coexistence and not of making people “better” or of achieving someone’s scheme for a “more just” society. That phrase, “politics is the art of living together and not the art of transforming humanity,” captures the core of the democratic ideal.


The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Amazon.com Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?


Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.