The Argentine Conundrum

September 25, 2007

The subtitle of Andrés Gaudin’s report from Argentina ["Thirteen Days that Shook Argentina," p. 6] fairly shouts at us: "And Now What?" The good news from that troubled country is that its military, which not so long ago presided over one of the more brutal dictatorships of the many that have plagued South America, seems content to watch this financial and political crisis from the sidelines. The commander of the Argentine Army told a New York Times reporter that "the military option was no longer possible...because both civilians and the military preferred it that way." Amen! This good news, of course, is tempered by the suspicion that the Army’s lack of intervention is motivated by their soldierly reluctance to commandeer a vehicle that has rolled into quicksand.

While everyone agrees that quicksand is a nasty place to be, no one—left, right or center—seems to know how to get out of this particular stretch of it. While leftists have long presented cogent critiques of the neoliberal model—the model that drove us into this quicksand—there is no organized left in Argentina waiting for a propitious moment to take power; there is conspicuous confusion on all sides regarding a way out of the country’s financial impasse. Left-of-center activists talk about making the global model "less savage"; about slowing capital’s mobility by imposing taxes on financial transactions; about alleviating the burden of debt-dependency by allowing countries to declare bankruptcy. But there is no "really existing," credible set of proposals to move away from the privatized, deregulated, export-oriented model now in place. The ground, for now, has been removed from under our feet by the undisputed power of highly mobile global capital—capital that can move in a day from Buenos Aires to Jakarta and back again. All the major players in the Argentine crisis, populist rhetoric aside, have been maneuvering to entice global capital—a good deal of it of local origin—back to Argentina.

The country’s most notable opposition, as reported by Gaudin, is represented by the small, local "self-convoked" groups active in neighborhoods, channeling demands and practicing mutual aid. These groups may be the building blocks of a new movement, one that can eventually contest for power on a democratic, participatory, inclusionary basis. But for now their principal slogan is strictly negative: "Que se vayan todos"—get rid of them all.

President Eduardo Duhalde—a leading candidate to be "gotten rid of"—has the unenviable task of pulling his country out of a crisis while his approval ratings linger in the single digits. But the bright side for Duhalde, and the dark side for the country, is that no one has ratings that are any higher. Silence answers the questions: After "we get rid of them all," who shall we invite in? Once our people hold the reins of power, what shall they do? Those are the questions to which Argentina’s left has no ready answers. There is no "alternative" at the door, waiting to set things right.

Thirty years ago, a dozen or so leftist groups—of varying degrees of "respectability"—would have been maneuvering for position and arguing among themselves about capitalism and socialism, means and ends, brutality and counterbrutality, democracy and participation, the shape of the good society, but hardly about the desirability of coming to power. This time the left—always articulate about the big picture, and increasingly vocal at the neighborhood level—is tongue-tied when it comes to coherent national alternatives: How does a "popular" government generate domestic investment without giving the country to the investors? How does such a government move a country toward social and economic democracy when its role in the world economy is to provide ever-cheaper costs of production and an ever-more disciplined labor force?

A good ways north of Argentina, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a military man of the left, has just bowed to "the markets’" disapproval of his left-of-center populism. He has devalued the bolívar, making it cheaper to do business in Venezuela, and announced plans to cut social spending and raise regressive value-added taxes. The IMF quickly noted that Chávez had moved "in the correct direction" to counter capital flight and attract new investment to his country. Chávez’s followers have thanked the IMF "for joining the Revolution." Well, maybe.

Back in the 1970s, the hard-right British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, coined the ominous slogan, "there is no alternative," and over the past quarter century, the world’s elites have worked hard to turn those words into reality. In that context, the gaps between rich and poor, included and excluded, those with choices and those without, have all grown. In different ways in different places, this has eroded coherent politics, coherent debate, hopes that "another world" may be possible. Without hope, without politics, we will live in a world of pure resentment. That is the hard reality that must be overcome in the early twenty-first century.


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