Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

10 thoughts on “Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

  1. Paul Brooker wrote about this quite extensively – he pointed out that even autocratic dictatorship that are functionally lawless strive to portray themselves as constitutional and legalised, not just as an external public relations exercise but even to themselves. This is especially true in Latin America and was, he argued, an ironic testimony to the strength of democratic values in the region that even when democracy as a practice was marginalised, the ideology of democracy remained very strong, even among anti-democrats. This is one of the key differences between regimes that are “merely” autocratic and those that are actually totalitarian, and is presumably part of why the latter is much rarer, since it requires a much great ideological leap from the consensus.

    I dont know about Auckland but when I was a grad student at Vic in the 2000s we had several such discussion groups although the focus was more on Asia and American politics than Latin America. Still, good times. I am sorry you were not able to connect to a similar group, Pablo.

  2. Thanks Di.

    I have reached the age where the limits of mortality have become apparent amongst my peers. It gives me pause to take stock.

    Over the years I have worked hard to allow the things I saw and learned about during the human rights work to recede into the fog of time. I will never forget much less forgive those who committed the sins I unfortunately had to record, but I try to fuzz my memory of them so that I can more clearly remember the inherent good of most people. Your link helped in that regard.

  3. I’m glad it helped in some small way, Pablo. Music and art can be of great comfort in the worst of times.

  4. I was an undergrad at Vic waaaaay back in the ’60s.
    Maybe I was lucky,but at that time a very new and large restaurant/cafeteria and a “good sized “common Room” had been established This development included office space for student media press. It was a”happening place with a lot of vociferous debates. Academics were occasional visitors to the pubs as well (this was 6 o’clock closing days).

    The discussions were permanent snd vociferous.

    My commiserations to you at the loss of your valued friend

  5. @Peter: The Vic pub has physically moved but is still very lively and, as you say, academics are not unknown there. The staff room is also quite busy.

    Maybe it is a difference between Auckland and Vic. Would be interesting to hear people’s takes on Otago, Canty, Massey, Waikato etc

  6. Long friendships are one of life’s joys, especially if they include a meeting of minds not just longevity.Condolences on losing your friend. I can attest to lively discussion at Vic back in the day. Later I completed a Masters in Applied Linguistics at Waikato with the formidable Winnie Crombie whose everyday discourse sounded like a fully formed academic essay. Later still I did my Law degree at Auckland. Always a part-time student I rarely had the luxury of engaging in on campus discussions always having to rush off to paid employment I have a strongly held perspective of NZ’s anti-intellectualism and judging by your experience it does not just belong (please excuse!) to the great unwashed but reaches right into the ivory towers. Some of the more ignorant of our local commentators don’t help either.

  7. Along with myself and other three students, Bob shared Schmitter’s house in Kenwood Ave, in the early 80s. Three of us, including myself, were grad studentes from Pol. Sci, but, by and large, we had a lively everyday life, trying to share more than Pol. Sci., the dominant background of the house. The house was marked by fresh dinners we all were required to cook to the other four, once a week. Bob’s cooking was the best, and, as a result, we were all stimulated to improve the dishes we cooked. All of us were allowed to bring a guest to the dinners, and that was how I met a very special woman in my life. Sadly enough, I was about to visit him again in Argentina last fell. Saudades. Bob, RIP.

  8. Eduardo:

    I left campus in 1982 to do archival and field research in DC and Buenos Aires. Did we overlap? I saw Bob in 2017 when I visited BA. I also spent time with Carlos Acuna and his wife Elsa. It was great to see them. Carlos was the one who informed me of Bob’s passing.

  9. Hi Pablo,
    It’s Sophia, Bob’s daughter.
    I was looking up “University of Chicago Alumni Directory” to see if my dad appeared, but I couldn’t access it since it’s only for alumni and faculty. And then the link to this post appeared. I read it with my mom, Valeria, and we are very happy we found this post. It’s great to hear stories of my dad.
    Thank you for sharing this post!

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