October 25, 2014
Ruined: the progressive legacy?
It happens very frequently: a convinced liberal (as neo-conservatives like to dub themselves in this country) could feel insulted when his or her ideological aspirations for Argentina are judged in the light of the experience of the Carlos Menem presidency. Is the Kirchnerite administration leaving a similar and negative heritage for progressive projects in Argentina?
The final crisis of the state and import substitution economy imposed by the disastrous military dictatorship, which could not be avoided by Raúl Alfonsín in a difficult world environment, delivered in the 80s a new “common sense,” skillfully implanted by a small but influential group of journalists and ideologues at a time when television and newspapers did not have to compete with Internet.
Liberalism, by then, had been formatted by the “conservative revolution” of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, so it had to adopt an extreme, merciless version — and far more so in a peripheral country like Argentina.
Menem did it — but in Peronist-populist terms. If that was a time for privatization, the new scheme did not give birth to a new competitive market but to one dominated by new private (and often inefficient) monopolies in utilities. If deregulation was needed, it came in a drastic form, which created a market, again controlled by major financial interests. If the economy had to be opened up, the task was faced with total disregard for jobs and for the battered and weakened industry that the military could not destroy. If inflation had to be controlled, it was accomplished with a curious mix of fixed peso-dollar parity and a uncontrolled fiscal deficit, financed by irresponsible and massive public indebtedness. And last but not least, corruption and control of the judiciary was at odds with any genuine liberal view of a desirable institutional framework.
When all that brought about an unavoidable crisis, a new political and economic era dawned. It was necessary, even more acutely after the 2001 collapse, to restore social balances and (especially a role for the state) that meant a progressive agenda. With their pros and cons, that challenge was faced, again, by a Peronist leadership.
The beginning of that task was in the hands of Néstor Kirchner, who, given the deep discredit of the political class, avoided questionable institutional excesses. Many of the Kirchnerite achievements quoted even today by their more passionate followers hark back to those initial times: Supreme Court overhaul, abolition of the miserable amnesty legislation, human rights policies, better social protection, more economic inclusion, restoration of the role of the state, etc.
But time went by, politicians felt safer from social anger and the best intentions degenerated, once again, into excesses which disfigured in part the initial purposes.
Useless expenses like the ones oriented to unnecessary subsidies to final consumers of energy absorb today far more money than that assigned to the valuable universal child benefits. As another example, less serious in terms of actual pesos but symbolic enough, the Football for Everybody programme was transformed into a vehicle of official propaganda and thus resigned almost every possibility of money-spinning private advertising and even the chance to finance it via a cost rise for viewers who prefer to watch the games through their cable systems.
All that, and much more, explains a growing fiscal gap at the root of a good many of the current economic problems.
Will those economic difficulties lead in the future to a broad, right-oriented impugnation of plausible initiatives like the universal child benefits, broader state pension coverage, the Procrear housing programme or the recently announced Progresar plan for unemployed and underpaid youth?
Will the inflation generated by a particular administration style (aggravated by the Indec deceptions, which deprived society and the government itself from putting up with it on better terms) weigh heavily on any future progressive vision, as a fast way to contradict and discredit it?
If future progressive views will likely have to deal with those difficulties, what should be said about the tangible achievements of Kirchnerism?
Those are real, and even the opposition should recognize them as a platform to build its own project for 2015. But much of that legacy depends on the final outcome of the Kirchnerite experience, especially open-ended in the midst of the current economic turbulence.
A traumatic end to the Cristina Kirchner administration would facilitate the stigmatization of any progressive view by its rivals as inherently flawed and aimed at causing inflation and crisis. Social reform would then be depicted as basically unrealistic and dangerous. Moreover, it would lay the basis for future abandonment of its more virtuous social policies, when a new and possibly different government considers them fiscally unsustainable.
On the other hand, if the government can stabilize the situation, avoid a shock and, at least, keep up the current employment and social coverage levels, the verdict will be more positive.
The administration could help itself towards pursuing a more comfortable place in history, not only by solving those self-inflicted problems but also by institutionalizing its achievements. For instance, why does the universal child benefit not have an index-linking mechanism like the pension system? Why does not it rest on a Congressional law instead of a weaker presidential decree?
By believing a little bit more in rationality and in institutions, Kirchnerism will not only help itself. It will also relieve the burden which, like any actual political experience, it unavoidably leaves on the shoulders of its heirs.
* Marcelo Falak is a political scientist and international news editor at the daily Ambito Financiero.