The Myth of Peronism as Statist Original Sin in Argentina

In a recent article published at The Freeman, Argentine lawyer Ariel Barbiero gives us a well written, comprehensive and prototypical example of Southern Cone vulgar libertarian thought, ebullient as it is these days after more than a decade of almost continuous left-wing electoral victories in national elections across the region.

The article starts off with what is perhaps the favorite cliché of the Argentine intellectual right: Up until 1930 (which marks the beginning of the “Infamous Decade” with the coup d’état against Hipólito Yrigoyen by José Félix Uriburu, ending with the “Revolution of ’43” and the irruption of Juan Domingo Perón in the political scene), the country was nothing short of a free-market paradise:

We Argentines started very well. People tend to forget that by 1928 Argentina had the sixth-highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world. Income per capita was similar to Germany’s. Literature and music flourished… Immigrants viewed Argentina as a place where hard work made people prosper… What made that flourishing possible? Good land and hard work, of course. But also wise principles and noble ideals… Before [the ideological shift of the 1930’s], the men who governed and educated Argentina had embraced free trade and had thought that no progress was possible without respect for property rights. They read Tocqueville and The Federalist. Debate was free too, and sometimes fierce, but these men no longer exchanged blows, only ideas.

This is inevitably followed by an accurate and detailed description of the collectivist evils incurred during the Peronist era that survive in the country to this day, which the reader can get acquainted with by reading Barbiero’s article.

Similar versions of the same argument are repeated ad nauseam in the media across the region.

A good example is Peruvian Nobel laureate, neoliberal icon and cheerleader of the US invasion of Irak Mario Vargas Llosa, who recently claimed that Peronism was morally equivalent to Nazism, but was quick to point out that 20th-century Argentina before Perón was a “first-world country… enjoying an enviable prosperity”.

In short, Peronism is portrayed as a sort of Statist Original Sin committed in what hitherto had been a free-market Garden of Eden.

Obviously, the problem with this view is that it blatantly sweeps under the historical rug any reference to the deep structural causes that created the conditions for Peronist demagoguery to succeed in its seduction of the working class — namely its systematic exploitation by oligarchic interests who from the country’s foundation relied on the state for enforcing pervasive latifundia and cartelized industrial structures. Barbiero’s romantic notion of “respect for property rights” acquires a whole new meaning if one acknowledges their rather artificial nature.

The particularly stark peace-and-love incantations with which contemporary vulgar libertarians describe the early history of 20th-century Argentina add insult to injury. Let Barbiero indulge for as long as he wants in pious lamentations about how people forget the record-breaking Argentine GDP figures of 1928; but let’s in turn remind him that those figures were not exactly translating into prosperity for the majority of immigrants who supposedly “viewed Argentina as a place where hard work made people prosper” — as a matter of fact, from the beginning of the century they were engaged in a fierce battle against the oligarchy for obtaining minimally humane working conditions, a fight led by the anarcho-syndicalist national labor union FORA (Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation).

In his book The Ideology of FORA and the Trajectory of the Revolutionary Labour Movement in Argentina, historian and activist Diego Abad de Santillán estimates that during the period approximately comprehended by the first three decades of the 20th century, FORA militants suffered 500,000 years of accumulated time in prison, 5,000 of them had been killed by the military and police forces, hundreds had been deported, tens of thousands of their homes had been raided, and hundreds of their libraries had been burned down.

Another typical trait of Latin American vulgar libertarianism is a blind devotion to the state apparatus and intellectual intelligentsia of the United States of America as supposedly the supreme guardians of the rule of law and free markets, and Barbiero displays it eloquently by expressing his dismay at Argentine law scholars who condoned Argentina’s Supreme Court’s decision, during the financial meltdown the country was going through in 2002, to seize US-dollar bank accounts and forcibly exchanging them by bonds or pesos at less than half of the market value of the US dollar, but assuring us that,

If you tell an American law professor—even a ‘liberal’ in the American meaning of the word—that the government has seized dollars in private accounts and that the Supreme Court (after the necessary changes in its composition) has justified everything, you would expect to see him raising an eyebrow.

Heck, I don’t know how many professorial eyebrows have been raised since the American real estate bubble exploded in 2008, but they certainly didn’t stop politicians in the proverbial “Land of the Free” from launching a flurry of bank bailouts that amount to what perhaps is the largest confiscatory transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the financial system of any country in the history of humankind.

But the best must always be saved for last, and Barbiero does just that by closing his article with a veiled praise of Carlos Menem’s disastrously corrupt, IMF-sponsored “privatization” program that enabled politically-connected foreign corporations to seize Argentine assets for a fraction of their value — all this in the context of a dollar-peg monetary regime that was the fundamental cause of the financial meltdown and subsequent seizure of US-denominated bank accounts that Barbiero denounces in the first place.

There is no way that Barbiero’s brand of “libertarianism” has any chance to gain any popular support whatsoever in Latin America, because in the end people see through the false “free-market” rhetoric and realize that it is nothing else than neoliberalism, i.e., statist looting of the working class for the benefit of crony capitalists and politicians.

No wonder the impoverished masses of Latin America keep voting for populist, social-democrat regimes: as long as their choices are framed as limited to two equally statist systems, they will obviously prefer the one that weighs less heavily on their necks.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory