Argentina: The Return of the Political Just in Time

Gustavo Guille has an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies on Subjectivity and is currently a PhD researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina, working on the politics of deconstruction in Ernesto Laclau and Jacques Derrida. He is also a teaching assistant in Philosophy at Universidad de Buenos Aires

After four long years of Mauricio Macri’s neoliberal government (2015-5019), last December Alberto Fernández took Presidential office in Argentina, leading an alliance between Kirchnerism (left-wing populism) and Peronism [1] which aimed to represent vulnerable groups. During Macri’s time the state was ruled by CEOs – who publicly stated their dislike for political activity and even the state itself – as if it was a private company.

The neoliberal recipes concocted by the technocrats left the country buried in an alarming economic and social crisis: an unsustainable debt of more than US$311 billion (almost 90% of Argentina’s GDP); 40.8% percent of the population living below the poverty line, a number that rises to 59.5% percent among children and adolescents [2]. Given this scenario, one might think the change of government came too late. The damage was already done.

In this regard, former president (2007-2015) and current vice president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has often said that Macri’s government had made a mess of people’s lives. Quoting Derrida’s reading of Hamlet, one might say the new government could make the prince’s exclamation their own: ‘The time is out of joint. Oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!’ [3]. To put this ‘time’ in order, during the first months of office Fernández tried to reach a debt-restructuring agreement with its foreign creditors and the IMF, while providing urgent aid to the most vulnerable sectors of society and slowly reactivating the economy by strengthening the internal market and small industries.

Then, unexpectedly – let us say, at a bad ‘time’ – coronavirus arrived. Argentina was already a high risk patient. However, the outburst of COVID-19 may show us the new government came just in time. In fact, one of its first measures, in December 2019, was the reinstatement of its former personnel to the Ministry of Health as well as the Ministry of Science and Technology, both demoted by Macri’s administration as a part of his austerity programme.

This political decision became essential in articulating a national health strategy for facing the coronavirus crisis. Early in March (when Argentina had only 97 infected people and 3 deaths) the president ordered the Preventive and Obligatory Social Isolation measures, which has so far proven to be an effective measure to flatten the curve of infections and avoid the collapse of the healthcare system. Meanwhile, the government is trying to mitigate the impact of the crisis alongside social organizations. For instance, through the Emergency Family Income fund almost six million people will receive monthly financial aid from the state. These kinds of measures can be better appreciated when compared to the course of events in other countries in the region such as Chile, Ecuador or Brazil.

Despite the high degree of compliance (even among those who did not vote for Alberto Fernández), there still remains a cluster of political opponents consistently trying to call the government’s isolation measures into question. With the support of mainstream media, they present health and economy as mutually exclusive choices: if we choose health over everything else, we will destroy the economy, they argue. Of course, what they are not saying is that by ‘economy’ they actually mean their million-dollar earnings. In fact, just a few days after the isolation was declared, the multinational company Techint laid off 1,500 workers, as a way to put pressure on the government. 

Moreover those who oppose Fernandez’ leadership deride the government’s political interventions as ‘too populist’. Former president Mauricio Macri suggested a few weeks ago: ‘Populism is more dangerous than coronavirus’. More dangerous for whom we might ask. There is no doubt that populism, or more accurately, left populism, can constitute a threat to the establishment, the financial markets and multinational companies, especially when it represents the possibility of structural changes such as redistribution of wealth.

In the last few days, this debate has reached its climax due to the government’s proposal to tax the richest 1% percent of the population. This sector has responded to the initiative by mobilizing a portion of the urban, middle class to protest against the government, demanding tax cuts on their wages: the cacerolazos are ringing once more [4]. 

Alberto Fernández, who has been betting on a unity speech and calling for the end of  la grieta [5] or the gap between Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism, seems now to be caught right in the middle of this gap. Antagonism has returned along with Peronism and the desire for a fairer and more egalitarian society. In Argentina, as well as in the rest of South America, the big question is in which way this antagonism will be resolved this time. In other words, who will paying for the crisis? This time, will it be Argentina’s richest 1%? For the first time? Just in time?

Time, but also political decisions, will tell.

NOTES

  1. Peronism is the largest political movement in the country. Born during the 1940s, its main leader, Juan Perón, was three times president of Argentina (1946-1952, 1952-1955, 1973-1974). In its roots, Peronism was a labour party  based on ideas close to welfare state, industrial development and social equality. However, as Ernesto Laclau pointed out, Peronism may be better understood as an empty signifier in Argentinian politics.
  2. According to a report by the Argentina Observatory on Social Debt at the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA).
  3.  As Jacques Derrida says: “In ‘The time is out of joint’ time is either le temps itself, the temporality of time, or else what temporality makes possible (time as histoire, the way things are at a certain time, the time that we are living, nowadays, the period), or else, consequently, the monde, the world as it turns, our world today, our today, currentness itself, current affairs: there where it’s going okay (whither) and there where it’s not going so well, where it is rotting or withering, there where it’s working [ça marche] or not working well”. And Hamlet is destined “to put things back in order, to put history, the world, the age, the time upright”. J. Derrida, Specter of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge: New York, 1994, pp. 21-23.
  4. Cacerolazo is a way of protest consisting in banging pots and pans. The last few years (2008-2015) it was used to demonstrate against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Government.
  5. La grieta, literally ‘crack’ in Spanish, names the political chasm between Kirchnerism and anti-Kirchnerism in popular political discourse in Argentina.

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