Peronism and anti-Peronism

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By FERNANDO NOGUEIRA DA COSTA*

A candidate emerges, in Argentina, with the notion of “immolating oneself for freedom” as a literal meaning of proposing death as salvation

In the book What is Peronism?, Alexandre Crimson distinguishes three levels of analysis to understand political situations. These three constitutive dimensions are confused. Firstly, there are political actors. Strictly speaking, they are the leaders or forces capable of leading a situation, with their electoral and political capital, their abilities to influence events in the short and medium term.

At one extreme, there may be powerful governments with scattered oppositions. In another extreme scenario, there are governments with little political capital and an opposition preparing to govern.

Secondly, in a relatively autonomous way, there is the relationship of forces between social components. In the traditional sense, it would be the “relation of forces between classes”. It remains valid, but it is not exhaustive, because today there are several social identity movements such as feminism, indigenous peoples, human rights, environmental, student, LGBTQI movements, among others.

The ability of a government to impose a plan, as well as the capacity for social mobilization to expand rights or face a certain measure, do not derive from political identities, but rather from this relationship of forces.

Thirdly, there are disputes about the common sense of the population. At the same time, they are crucial in defining power relations to achieve and maintain power.

The political dynamics of any historical situation are the result of the intertwining of these three dimensions, in addition to economic processes and international trends. Thus, the emergence of Peronism implies a simultaneous change in all three: (i) in power relations, (ii) in common senses and (iii) in political identities.

Finally, it is worth noting that the relationship between intellectuals and Peronism has changed over time. In more than seventy years, Peronists and anti-Peronists have acquired “a thousand faces”. Even with multiple meanings (and despite them), Peronist populism emerged in Argentina in different situations such as language and identification of opposition regrouping or government organization.

Now the book Brief History of Antipopulism: The attempts to domesticate plebeian Argentina from 1810 to Macri (Siglo Veintiuno) written by Ernesto Semán contrasts with the neoliberal vision of systematic critics of populism. This critical stance comes from “a perpetual past”.

The obsession of authorities and political or religious elites with the “dark forces” capable of putting the harmony of the Nation at risk by getting out of control and breaking the internal balance in search of greater participation of the masses in political decisions, in expanding of rights or in the distribution of wealth. The idea of ​​barbarism has always appeared in the language of those who promise to correct these “populist” deviations.

Recently, Mauricio Macri was the first representative of the Argentine elites to win democratic elections. He governed for four years (2015-2019) with suicidal loyalty to the mandate of correcting the original sin of mass politics with an anti-populist and neoliberal agenda.

The central question of this essay by Ernesto Semán is how, in the last half century, a specific form of anti-populism, with a neoliberal and conservative charge, prevailed over the rest. It was based on (and distorted) an extensive tradition of conceiving political forms in which gauchos linked to livestock farming, manual workers or the poor would be included in the system, if this inclusion did not put the leadership of the elites at risk.

After the military dictatorships, other criticisms of populism – and Peronism in particular – lost prominence or relevance in the national discussion. After all, anti-populism has become almost synonymous with part of Argentine economic liberism (neoliberalism).

Ernesto Semán states: “'populism' has almost never been an identity adopted by any political project, but rather the combination of a description, a category and an accusation against specific ways of imagining the relationship between politics and society. Today it is, above all, a concept used more as a weapon rather than as a category of analysis”.

With isolated exceptions, among which the work of Ernesto Laclau stands out – where it is presented with the meaning of a legitimate social demand –, “populism” means above all “a problem to be solved”.

In addition to the strong personalist representation – “speaking on behalf of the people” – everyone sought better participation of the most neglected social layers in the results of industrial modernization and the economy within the limits of post-war capitalism. They all met this social demand with similar instruments: (a) strong State intervention in the economy, (b) nationalizations, (c) more and better labor regulations, (d) expansion of social and economic benefits, (e) broad presence of unions and (f) a control by the populist leader over supporting political and union organizations.

These “populist governments” were formed around multi-class coalitions: they pragmatically combined doses of confrontation and negotiation.

At the ideological center of Latin American populism is the notion of social rights: (1) the belief that certain groups have been systematically deprived of the nation's economic benefits, (2) the government, compensatory, must provide additional benefits, guarantees and rights to these groups, (3) the recognition of the rights and individual qualities of their members and the economic performance of their work.

In the case of Latin American populism, these social rights were thought of as a way of accepting the prominence of workers in society and the power of their union representation in politics. It aligns itself with the ideas of European social democracy.

Five ideas run through this essay by Ernesto Semán to question this “anti-populist” normality. The central argument is that Argentina is based on the invention of a threatening plebeian world and the promise of the elite to defend itself from this threat.

Secondly, the prehistory of anti-populism is as important as its own history. It is organized around an idea of ​​a past that refuses to disappear and stubbornly seeks to revive in the present, deforming it.

The third element is the transnational character of anti-populism as a political identity. From the outsider's prejudiced view of what Perón represented, conclusions were drawn about what should not happen in Argentina.

The fourth theme, the articulation capable of uniting Argentine populism with the world, is the concept of transition. This is the idea that, at different times, the masses need some form of guidance to evolve from social forces to political subjects.

Finally, he faces two paradoxes. One is that anti-populism became stronger when populism, as a historical experience, disappeared along with the industrial society in which it germinated. Another, in the opposite direction, from the 1980s onwards, some legacies of post-war populism would have been combined with the social struggle of the 68 generation to produce the human rights-social rights complex – and this identity agenda became the real enemy contemporary anti-populism.

Since 1983, when the Argentine dictatorship ended with the election of Raúl Alfonsín, anti-populism began to proclaim Argentina to be against time and the world. The triumph of a profoundly neoliberal consensus would be the only possible update.

The claim of the individual as a political subject par excellence and as a rational economic agent capable of progressing through merit and reason is no longer an alchemy. It became an agenda with concrete measures to unlock Argentina.

Mauricio Macri and his political movement Cambiemos they had already found a universe of empathy with Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

If the United States and Brazil showed the psychopathic forms of this triumph of the alliance between neoliberalism and the neo-fascist extreme right, unfortunately, they also made it clear: after all, it was possible... Hence a candidate emerges, in Argentina, with this notion of “immolating oneself for freedom” as a literal meaning of proposing death as salvation.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). [https://amzn.to/3r9xVNh]


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