Peronism

Andy Daitsman adaitsma at mail.cc.trincoll.edu
Sun Feb 5 01:29:20 MST 1995


Yesterday, I wrote:

>Once in power, Peron moved vigorously to implement his redistributive
>program, and for the first five years or so of his rule workers did
>tremendously well off state handouts.  But Peron clearly did not have
>socialism on his mind.  A representative quote from 1944 directed to the
>Buenos Aires Chamber of Commerce:
>
>"It has been said, gentlemen, that I am an enemy of capital, but if you look
>into what I have just said you will find no defender, we could say, more
>committed [to capital] than I."

But I left open exactly what the nature of that commitment was.  In this
post, I'll try to provide what I think was the Peronist economic project,
why I think it failed, and what that has to do with enduring strength of
Peronism.  In 250 words or less...

Others have written that Peron's project involved supporting one fraction of
the Argentine ruling class against another.  I would revise that slightly:
the Perons (Juan and Eva) supported a different *model* of economic
development, Import-Substituting Industrialization (ISI), in opposition to
the reigning model of export-led growth.  In this, they simply followed the
new economic orthodoxy gaining ground throughout Latin America.  It's hard
to argue, I think, that they supported an existing class fraction, because
Argentina in 1943 had one of the most open economies in the world.  Exports
of beef and wheat paid for imports of almost everything; by the time of the
1943 reformist coup, that almost everything included not only almost all of
the manufactured goods consumed in the country, but had also begun to
involve food.  Argentina's balance of trade was negative, and only promised
to get worse.

Because of the extreme openness of the economy, there was almost no domestic
industry to speak of.  Rather than supporting the economic project of an
existing industrial bourgeoisie, ISI in Argentina involved *creating* such a
class fraction.  The Perons were not at all unique in having such an idea.
In fact, the overwhelming national consensus in 1943, after 13 years of
direct rule by the exporting oligarchy, was that such a project was in the
national interest.  The Peronist project, however, directly incorporated the
working class into the broader ISI project; specifically the Perons sought
to increase workers' purchasing power in order to broaden the domestic
market for the new industries they hoped to create.

(How can there be a working class if there is no bourgeoisie?  Well, these
are the lacunae that open up when you shorten complex historical processes
into email length analyses.  Trust me, there was.)

This explains the redistributive project implemented by the Perons from 1943
to about 1950.  A significant portion of the national income did in fact
make it into workers' pockets during this period.  Another portion went into
subsidizing the new import-substituting industries.  Where did this money
come from?  A series of economic measures that in effect taxed the export
industry.  These measures included some direct taxation, but more important
were exchange rate policies and the state monopoly on particular kinds of
export goods.  For example, the Peronist state established an agency that
would purchase all the wheat directed to the export market.  That agency had
the power to set the price paid to producers for their wheat, and its prices
were consistently much lower than the world market price.  In other words,
the state realized super-profits on its sale of wheat abroad, and producers
lost potential profits.

The result of Peronist taxation of exports was severe capital flight.
Rather than investing in new domestic industries, though, Argentine export
capitalists simply took their money out of the country, searching for more
profitable investments abroad.  In the meantime, the country's engine of
growth slipped into low gear.  This process, inherent in the development
project being pursued, set off the inflationary spiral in the early 1950s,
and ultimately forced Peron (Eva died in 1952) to abandon the redistributive
aspect of his development strategy.  He would shortly shift to a much more
regressive stance vis-a-vis workers.

By the time he was overthrown by the military in 1955, Peron's state was
much more likely to repress workers' strikes than to support them.  The
pro-worker rhetoric of the state had become a hollow shell -- and not just
because Evita was no longer around to articulate it.  Workers' incomes
meanwhile were falling far behind inflation, and folks were actually worse
off economically than they had been twelve years earlier.  Why then did
workers continue to fervently support Peron for years afterward?  (Peronist
parties won every election they were allowed to participate in between 1958
and 1972, and Peronist votes were the swing votes that decided all elections
from which they were banned.)  Let me just suggest a few reasons.

First, I think you have to go back to October 17.  The Peronist state,
although by no stretch of the imagination a workers' state, was brought into
existence through the spontaneous action of the working class *acting as a
self-conscious class*.  That this class lacked a revolutionary project of
its own, it seems to me, owed as much to subjective factors -- the left's
inability to articulate such a project, and their defeat in the working
class by the Peronists in 1943 and 1944 -- as it did to objective ones --
the particular stage of Argentine economic development.  So, once the
workers created the Peronist state, their lack of autonomous political
organizations and of a political project left them with no other option but
to abdicate control over that state to their charismatic leaders.

Second, I think you have to look at the real benefits workers realized under
the first years of Peronism.  Some of these benefits can be measured in
economic terms -- greater purchasing power, social security, health care,
subsidized vacation resorts, etc.  Others, however, are less material.  I
would argue that by recognizing unions, by giving workers direct
representation in the state, even by providing material benefits, Peronism
gave workers dignity, a feeling of inclusion in the nation, a sense of
participation in a broader social project.  Evita's appeals to the
"descamisados," I think, should be viewed from this perspective.

Third, I think the role of Eva Duarte was essential.  Playing off
traditional images of femininity, but profoundly revising and subverting
those images to attune them to the new industrial age, Evita represented
mother, sister, lover *and* politician.  Her tragic death at the height of
her power (it was practically broadcast live on national radio), cemented
her image as the light and salvation of the new Argentina.  Once Juan was
removed from the picture, by military coup and exile in 1955, it was easy to
transfer to Evita's partner the adulation the masses felt towards the
founding mother of the nation.  Juan's absence made it easy to forget the
negativity of the last years of his regime, and made it easy to remember the
heady early days when workers enjoyed power and prestige.

More materially, we also shouldn't forget that Peronists remained in
administrative control of the labor movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In any event, I accept the Jon's charge that I overspecify Peronism.  It
*is* a unique expression of populism, and its historical longevity is
directly tied to the circumstances of its birth.  This, by the way, accords
with my reading of the Laclau piece Jon cites (in _Politics and Ideology in
Marxist Theory_).  I read Laclau to say that there are no general populist
principles, but that the ideology of each particular populist movement will
respond to the precise configuration of the particular class alliance that
called it into being.  I don't know how Laclau would respond to my
discussion of Evita, and unfortunately my copy of his text doesn't even
include her in the index (curiously, Peron's second wife Isabel, practically
insignificant in the development of the ideology, does appear), but I think
she belongs in any historical analysis even minimally informed by feminism.

Instead of rambling on, I'll leave it here.

Andy

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