This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.
By Julia Kornberg & Pablo Pryluka
By the end of 2019, Argentina looked like an unexpected outlier in South America. Amidst ongoing protests in Chile, a coup in Bolivia, and social unrest in Ecuador, the country seemed relatively calm. Such a political gap between Argentina and its South American neighbors felt atypical, particularly given the country’s long-lasting culture of social unrest, the political activism of powerful trade unions, and an overall enduring vitality of grassroots mobilizations. However, behind this façade of relative institutional stability, the country experienced the combined pressure of increasing social inequality and people’s frustration after ten years of economic stagnation.
Does Argentina have the solid political institutions that many claims? Some recent events suggest that the country might face a horizon of political turmoil and the crisis of its political system. A weak hegemonic tie explains this situation. The hegemonic tie describes what happens when two opposed social and political forces cannot impose themselves over each other. In turn, it is weak because none of these forces could effectively address some long-standing social demands—and this has opened the door for the potential rise of an outsider.
After the financial crisis of 2001, the administrations of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández’s first term (2007-2011) launched an economic recovery program that improved the living standards of the middle classes. However, after 2011, Fernández’s second term could not maintain the previous levels of economic growth and, as a result, economic dynamism and social mobility halted. Between 2015 and 2019, Mauricio Macri’s right-leaning administration was marked by stark economic mismanagement. Poverty climbed to 35% in 2019, while foreign debt increased. In 2019, Alberto Fernández, former Néstor Kirchner’s chief of staff, won the Presidential election. His political alliance, the Frente de Todos, must renegotiate the International Monetary Fund’s debt and address long-standing economic injustices, which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The history of Argentina in the second half of the twentieth-century illuminates some of the challenges faced by the Frente de Todos’ current administration. In 1977, sociologist Juan Carlos Portantiero recovered Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of hegemony to articulate the idea of a “hegemonic tie.” In his account of Argentine history between 1958-1973, Portantiero described a “tie” between two hegemonic blocs, an unstable balance between two political projects. These projects represented different social sectors and economic interests that are capable of counteracting, vetoing, and blocking each other’s advances without fully being capable of imposing their own. On the one hand, the Peronist dream of industrialization, supported by an alliance of the working class, industrialists, and an active welfare state; on the other hand, an export-led rural elite and conservative groups, aiming for economic liberalization and the use of comparative advantages linked to the agricultural sector.
This tie and its subsequent stalemates serve as a productive lens for appraising contemporary Argentina. After 10 years of economic stagnation, the country currently deals with a renewed, weaker form of a hegemonic tie. This time, the tie confronts two political alliances that differ on three main issues: the extent of welfare provision, the kind of integration to the world economy, and the tensions between economic growth and inequality. A right-wing coalition, Cambiemos, led by Mauricio Macri, places growth before inequality and stands for an open integration to the global economy led by allegedly stable institutions. Frente de Todos, the ruling coalition, aims to strengthen a sound welfare system that would reduce inequality as a first step towards growth, while trying to buffer the local impact of international shocks with capital controls.
Neither of these two hegemonic projects seem able to impose its visions. Although this could (and has been) read as a sign of political stability, there are visible symptoms that signal a potential for deepening crises and a structural feebleness. Two reasons explain such a fragility. First, a third of the national population does not align with any of these two political sides. Although both Frente de Todos and Cambiemos claim a sound 30% to 35% of the votes, neither of them holds enough support to seize the place of an undisputed democratic champion. Second, the internal tensions within the two alliances. Frente de Todos navigates the frictions between a more traditional Peronism, identified with the national party structure and labor unions, and a more radical left-wing identified with the leadership of former President and current vice President Cristina Fernández. Cambiemos, on the other side, emerged from the juxtaposition of a modern liberalism still under the spell of the Washington Consensus and a far-right branch that has been looming large inside the coalition lately.
The COVID-19 pandemic deepened tensions as it struck a country and its people at the worst possible time. Contemporary Argentina has more than a third of its population living under the poverty line, high inflation rates, economic stagnation, and a foreign debt to repay. Under these circumstances, an increasing social unrest combined with people’s frustrations about the ability of the political system to improve their living standard created a potentially explosive cocktail.
What should radical politics look like in this context? In the last few years, a diverse array of youth-led political movements, both partisan and non-partisan, have emerged in Argentina. Activists have occupied the streets to host, with an almost huitard aesthetic, their own revolutionary-adjacent demands. Most of them were driven by a new generation of feminist activism. Legal abortion, the regularization of prostitution, and the recognition of unpaid care labor performed by women have been at the center of the more left-leaning trends within the current political landscape. Moreover, social movements have been pushing for radical economic policies, such as the establishment of a universal-income and higher taxes for the super wealthy. All of these happened before the new government took office.
The new political scenario opens up a debate about means and goals, about tactics and strategy. A straightforward analysis would suggest the need to radicalize, evoking the idea of a revolution within the revolution: a stronger left inside Frente de Todos that moves forward with abortion rights, redistributing policies, the nationalization of economic resources, and environmental justice. After its electoral victory in 2019, the most left-leaning sector of Frente de Todos sees the contemporary landscape as favorable for pressuring inside the coalition to achieve and galvanize the most radicalized version of the government. However, another political alternative would lean towards preserving the hegemonic tie, weak as it is, without pushing it too far, and otherwise disengaging with radical policies that might alienate the overall architecture of its voters and supporters.
A convulsed regional scenario frames the Argentine conundrum. Over the last few years, we have witnessed a militarized coup in Bolivia, Lula da Silva’s imprisonment under overall dubious circumstances, Rafael Correa’s exile from Ecuador, and Jair Bolsonaro’s fascist rise. With a handful of exceptions, Latin America is rapidly heading towards an increasingly authoritarian political landscape. Beyond Latin America, the situation is not more auspicious. The Modis and Trumps of the world are launching a tribalist crusade. Though radicalized conservatism has not yet taken over Cambiemos, there is certainly a “Tea Party” of sorts nesting inside its coalition. Under these circumstances, both a social crisis and a political turmoil could foster and nourish an alt-right seizure of power in Argentina.
The risks of moving forward with radicalizing politics are, therefore, palpable amidst this weak political tie. So far, representatives of Cambiemos holding office, such as regional or local governors, have been actively working and collaborating with Alberto Fernández’s administration and Frente de Todos. An incipient alliance raises the question about the possibility for establishing a dialog with the more democratic factions within Cambiemos in order to avoid a far-right turn. Even some progressive demands, such as legal abortion, could be supported by the liberal wing inside Cambiemos.
More broadly speaking, these unsettling times open the door to recover the démodé strategy of popular fronts. In the 1930s, several left-wing parties built wide political alliances in order to confront emerging fascist movements. Such a strategy demanded the search of a common ground with social democrats, centrists, and liberal groups. In Argentina, though not ideal from a radical standpoint, this could work as a contention wall against the most conservative sectors of the local political spectrum. Almost no radical measures will come from a coalition like this, but no radical politics will be possible if Argentina engenders its very own Bolsonaro.
Julia Kornberg is a writer living in New York. She works as a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University in the Spanish & Portuguese Department. She has published Los Infiernos Analógicos with the Press María Susana. Her novel Atomizado Berlín will come out with Scaraboquio (México) and Club Hem (Argentina) in the Fall of 2020.
Pablo Pryluka is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University. His main fields of interest are modern Latin American and global history, with a focus on social and economic history. His ongoing dissertation project is called “Expectations and Inequality: A History of Consumption in South America (1930s-1970s).” Pryluka has published his work at Latin America in Economic History, the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, H-Industria, and Pasado Abierto, among others.
Title Image: Cristina Kirchner y Mauricio Macri – Photo by Pepe Mateos
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