Argentina’s Dilemmas have Lessons for Scotland
The Scotsman, July 30th 2011
For most of the last two weeks I have been located in Buenos Aires and its surrounding areas. This would seem at first glance to be as far from Scotland as you could imagine, excluding the ghosts of Ally’s Tartan Army of 1978.
I was there for the Copa America football tournament, which saw the favourites Argentina and Brazil knocked out, and Uruguay’s free-flowing football triumph.
Argentina in many respects felt very different. In the world of football, there was the celebratory nature of opposing fans, the humour, joy and strange lack of triumphalism. The games I attended had unsegregated fans, lots of families and even babies. People laughed, cried, argued and hugged one another including supporters of rival teams; missing was the sense of edge so prevalent in Scotland.
Walking to games with my friend Geoff in our kilts we were stopped hundreds of times for conversation and photos. One person asked whether I was from ‘Ecosse’ and when I replied in the affirmative, then stated ‘Rangers and Celtic’, and after I nodded, replied ‘battle of religion’. Another quizzed me about the popularity of golf and the quality of the St. Andrews and Carnoustie courses.
With all our obvious differences Argentina and Scotland have some important similarities about what they think about themselves, where they see their societies going, and their futures.
Argentina has experienced a dramatic history since the end of the Second World War. There was the Peronist era of heroic triumph and symbolism, the age of Juan and Eva Peron still glamorised and eulogised in Argentina, the division and chaos of the 1970s, the military dictatorship of 1976-83, the Falklands/Malvinas conflict of 1982, and the economic collapse of 2001-2.
This could not seem more far removed from Scotland than if you tried. And yet there are similarities. The Menem Government of the nineties embraced ‘modernisation’ while engaging in extensive privatisation from the railways to electricity and even zoos.
After the economic collapse of 2001-2 the Kirchner dynasty arose, with first Nestor as President from 2003, then his wife Cristina from 2007. She has just announced that she will stand for a second term in October.
The Kirchners spent the years of the military dictatorship in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz renowned for its few people, oil and penguins. This has led to the Kirchners and their allies being known as ‘the penguins’, Nestor ‘the King Penguin’, Cristina ‘the Queen Penguin’. It has also put a different take in Argentina on Jim Carrey’s recently released film, ‘Mr. Popper’s Penguins’.
The Kirchner era has seen them rail against ‘the Washington consensus’ while in effect accepting much of it; and placing much of the blame for Argentina’s woes and troubles on the catch-all term ‘neo-liberalism’ while embracing and extending it.
Platitudes abound in politics and media about the Argentinean and Latin American model, anti-imperialist slogans from the Falklands/Malvinas to solidarity with Chavez and Cuba, but this is all gesture.
Argentinians have a resolute attraction to the politics of symbolism and rhetoricalism, of believing in defiant gesture and romanticism. The air and ethos of such a culture fills discussions with a sense of hope and lyricalism, but also deluded escapism. And this vicious cycle underneath the bravado and celebration leaves an Argentinean sense of self-doubt and self-depreciation.
With all our differences Scotland and Argentina do have some similar predicaments. Scotland didn’t experience the darkness of dictatorship or a home grown free market revolution. And we didn’t have a financial collapse such as the Argentinians witnessed in 2001-2. Yet with all these qualifications, Scotland and Argentina have engaged more and more in a similar kind of political non-conversation.
Argentinean politics has a predilection for national myths, narratives and heroic symbolism, rather than nuance, complexity and addressing substantive issues. Argentinians like to believe in their Peronist and popular stories, carrying with it illusions of inclusiveness and egalitarianism, but which instead mask a reality of power and its uses, insider and fixer style politics.
The Peronist state may have become much more extensive than anything we have ever known in modern times in Scotland, but with its corporatist nature, peak period of the 1940s and 1950s, and morphing into a cronyist clientialism, there are similarities between the two.
Argentina’s public subsidies benefit the middle classes and affluent in a society in which one-third of the people are in poverty. Now Scotland’s inequalities and poverty is nothing like Argentina, but there is a wider distributional point here: about who we are supporting and who gains most from the public purse?
Argentina and Scotland might differ in their experiences on the football field in most respects, but these are both societies which have a remarkable sense of denial.
Both have deeply delusional accounts of their national mission and character which are built on a profoundly selective collective account of history, traditions and politics. Both like to trumpet their progressive credentials, to tell themselves and the world that they are the good guys, on the side of the angels, and that they oppose the vandals at the gates.
In this both Argentinean and Scottish politicians conduct a deeply disingenuous account of the past: of the villains of neo-liberalism, the World Bank, IMF and Thatcherism/Reaganism. This is used to avoid the difficult discussions about the balance between the state and market, the role of politics and democracy. And to mask the degree to which supposedly centre-left parties and politicians for all their rhetoric have bent and compromised to the gods they rail against.
The similarities amongst all the obvious differences beg the question: what is the point of the Argentinians or Scottish progressive belief when it sits so obviously to avoid confronting basic home truths?
Both Argentina and Scotland are transfixed by silence and omission on the questions and challenges we face? What kind of economy do we have after the explosions of turbo-capitalism? How do we support small and medium businesses, aid creativity and imagination, address the pressures on public spending, and widen and protect the nature of the public realm?
Underlying all of these are the challenges to the role and nature of politics and purpose of democracy itself. In my time in Argentina, I got a sense that the long delusion and distortion of Peronism was finally coming to an end, leaving a politics more messy, humble and perhaps focused on values, questions and outcomes, rather than national salvation. Would it be too much to hope that Scotland finally wakes up and senses it needs to radically change course?