Like most things that really matter, the Argentine tendency towards popular mobilisations and direct action stems from the origins of our country. The migratory currents between the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th brought European anarchist and socialist ideas that were prospering in a time of growing resistance to old aristocracies (think Nicholas II of Russia, the suffocating monarchy in Spain, or the feudal mafia leaders that still ruled over much of Southern Italy).
Forged over centuries, this inherent scepticism towards authority is reflected in some of the idiosyncrasies that form part of our identity today, from hurried and impertinent responses to those who psychoanalyse and question everything. It was also crystalised institutionally via the early formation of trade unions, mutual societies, neighbourhood clubs and other bodies that contributed to the consolidation of an egalitarian impulse, an awareness of rights, and a common imagination more deeply embedded that in any other country in the region.
Protests against the 1902 ‘Law of Residence‘, the ‘Tragic Week‘ of 1919, and the strikes in Patagonia in 1920 were the first modern uses of non-institutional methods as a typically Argentine way of questioning power. Later, in stark contrast to the contemporary populist movements led by Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, which were institutionally contained with limited mobilisations, Peronism, which was founded on the march of 17th October 1945, saw people in the streets as a means of political construction. The street was also the backdrop for Peronism’s internal conflicts, including the Ezeiza Massacre in 1973 and Perón’s split with the Montoneros in 1974.
Like a claustrophobic person sweating in a lift, Argentine society feels suffocated inside rigid institutional walls: when it is anxious, frustrated, or enraged, it comes out on the streets.
In more than eight months in power, Mauricio Macri’s PRO adminsitration has overseen a rise in poverty levels, from 29.0% to 32.6% according to the Catholic University of Argentina (UCA) or from 19.8% to 33.2% according to CEPA-Indep. Official figures from SIPA show that nearly 100,000 people have lost their jobs, with the unemployment rate rising to 9.3% according to national statistics office Indec. In contrast with the Kirchner governments, which despite all of its enormous problems managed to maintain the purchasing power of wages, pensions, and social benefits above inflation in all but one or two years, the PRO government has provoked a 10-15% fall, something only comparable with the declines seen during the hyperinflation of 1989 and the crisis of 2001.
GDP growth is set to fall up to 2% this year, inflation could reach 40%, and the budget deficit will remain at a similar level to that of 2015. It is a disappointing performance even by the government’s own measures: leaving aside the classic debate over whether a budget deficit causes inflation, that is what the government’s economists believe and yet have not been able to reduce the shortfall. Beyond the discussion over the merits of waiting for investment to rain down as a result of creating a good business environment, the fact is that so far there is barely a drop. In other words, the PRO strategy is not working according to its own criteria of success.
In this context, and considering the Argentine inclination to get out on the streets, everything seems to suggest that we should be experiencing a popular uprising that, however, has not materialised. Of course, since December there have been all types of protests, marches and demands, including the union march in April, the gathering of social movements in August, and the protests against the utility hikes in July. But even when these were large mobilisations they remained discrete and disperse actions. None of them forced a change in the government’s policy direction or had a major impact on the president’s approval rating, which has fallen somewhat but remains above 45% according to most polls. In short, they weren’t political events that altered the course of power.
How can we explain this? At first glance, you could say that after three decades of uninterrupted democracy Argentine society has overcome its ‘hormonal’ problem and is now mature enough to patiently await the solution to problems that were raised during the electoral campaign. Opinion surveys that show more than 70% of the population think electricity and gas rates were too heavily subsidised and a surprising 28% agree with the mega-hikes introduced by the government reveal what an important segment of society considers the economic legacy of Kirchnerism. At the same time, the combination of relative economic stability, low unemployment, and wide-ranging social policies left by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has softened the initial impact of Macri’s austerity.
However, this sociological perspective must be complemented with more political analysis. Against the wishes of those that see a triumph of the masses every time 50 people gather in a square, without leaders able to transform this anger into change it is difficult for social discontent to turn into mobilisations that can really shake up the status quo. From the French revolution to Argentina’s December 2001, from the Arab spring to Spain’s 15M, the moments in which society seems to break out from its institutional structures are destined to remain just “moments” if they cannot be channelled politically.
So far, the two bodies potentially capable of leading the resistance against government policies – unions and Peronists – are not doing so. In the former’s case, it is because union leaders decided to launch a process of reunification which would have been impossible if also adopting a strategy of hard opposition that does not have universal support. In the case of the latter, Peronist governors are prioritising the urgent needs of their districts over forming a national opposition movement, which they say there will be time for later. Against the backdrop of a self-destructive Kirchnerist movement and social movements that have reached a pact with the government, it is telling that Plaza de Mayo, where things are really decided in Argentina, has not witnessed a really important mobilisation against the Macri government. It may be a question of times, but recall that in September 1989, after less than three months in power, Carlos Menem faced his first major protest (against the pardons for military dictators) and within a year had organised his first big act of support (La Plaza del ‘Sí’), which drew another protest a month after that (La Plaza del ‘No’).
Contrary to what many expected, neither the Panama Papers scandal nor the presidential veto of the ‘Anti-Layoff Law’ had a major impact on Macri’s image or policy mix. The tarifazo, on the other hand, did become the first really serious political problem since the government took office last December. But even though consumer associations called the protests, the key blow came not from civil society or the streets but via a court order from the aristocratic, opaque, and almost always conservative judiciary.
Nothing indicates, however, that the situation will remain like this forever. My view is that the political defeat for Kirchnerism in last year’s elections has not yet become a social defeat. The values that directed politics in the last decade may be weakened, but they have not been changed completely. The PRO government has not yet been able to construct a new cultural climate nor establish a stable and common identity for this era, as Menem did with the Convertibility Law and his victory in the mid-terms. In the words of Jorge Asís, we are in the Menem era before Domingo Cavallo (the economy minister who introduced convertibility).
Perhaps because of this, the sensation now is that we are trapped in a social stalemate that will not be broken until the mid-term elections next year, when the battle is not just government vs opposition but also between the branches of Peronism (Sergio Massa, Kirchnerist, and the group that lies uncertainly in the middle). Aside from a premature collapse of the government – something no-one wants – it is the popular will expressed in the ballot boxes that will determine whether PRO can consolidate a hegemonic political force or if it will be remembered in history books as just another mediocre chapter between two Peronist administrations.
The coming elections are not just about winning territories and seats in Congress, but a broader battle between austerity and distribution, the state and the market, past and future. A month ago, in the Instituto Patria, ex-Kirchnerist official Martín Sabbatella said that the “positive social memory” of the Kirchner decade will grow “as a contradiction to current policues”. But, in reality, the opposite is happening: though it may be partly unjustified and could yet change course, the Kirchnerist legacy, marked by the video of the Báez family counting dollars, is deteriorating with time.
It’s curious: if populism is accused of sacrificing the future on the altar of the present (“squandering” being the key word), and economic liberalism calls for an effort today to support a rosy tomorrow (key word, “sacrifice”), Macri’s party is reaffirming its identity as a contrast to the previous decade, and is demonstrating a strong capacity to rewrite the legacy he received. From its beginnings the PRO party was constructed as one that, in contrast to traditional politics, would stand out for its ability to manage: what we didn’t know then is that its best achievement so far is in managing the past.