The End of Kirchnerism in Argentina Suggests Lessons for the American Left and Bernie Sanders’ Leftist Populism

The American Left would do well to attend to today’s Argentine presidential elections. At a moment when the Global Left is making electoral strides in Portugal, Greece, Spain, and to a certain extent Britain with the election of Corbyn as opposition leader, the movement sees a recession in one of the ‘pink tide’ South American countries. Following President Menem’s rule by neoliberal policy, an era of leftwing populism came to fruition through the presidencies of Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. With a strong focus on the protection and recognition of human rights and the prosecution of human rights violations by the military during the ruling junta from the late 70s to early 80s, economic policy pushed rapid industrialization and the implementation of an export based economy through serious devaluations of the peso that cut wages and created the need for expanded welfare programs, which they were most obliged to provide. With China’s economy slowing down, the failings of an export economy are now being felt. Against de Kirchner’s chosen successor of Daniel Scioli, the conservative businessman Mauricio Macri has won in today’s elections.

The American left must see this as a warning of the shortsightedness of leftwing populism, and the viability of any movement initiated by the Bernie Sanders campaign that does not progress past his narrow criticisms of capitalism. While his polemics on the wealthy may prove useful in awakening many to the injustices fostered by neoliberal capitalism, his populism might lead to only temporary redresses of capitalism; taking the threat posed to the Kirchner welfare-state vision as an example, a succeeding administration can easily roll back populist-based reforms. The next step is to go beyond criticisms of the 1% and to build a sustainable movement based in class analysis, to begin to create greater bonds between members of society by drawing attention away from income and wealth and focusing instead on shared identities as laborers and producers toiling for the benefit of the owners of the means of production.

An awareness of class will prove indispensable to the Democratic party if it wants to survive the growing divide in its midst between blue-collar and service industry workers and Silicon Valley professionals who welcome neoliberal capitalism, with it’s expansive trade deals, the tech-based sharing economy that is pushing out unionized workers, and the privatization of education. When the Democratic party will do anything that is politically expedient and Silicon Valley provides more in campaign donations to the party than unions, a realignment of regulatory policy will need to be brought about by awakening neoliberal democrats to their class status and challenge the free-market fundamentalist dogma they have been indoctrinated and brainwashed with in order to recognize that there is more to life than economic growth and increasing market share.

Moving the conversation away from class based on income level to a Marxist analysis of class would hopefully do much to alleviate the growing divide between workers on the lower end of the income scale, who out of frustration with welfare programs that they do not participate in, vote for a party that represents the economic interests of the owners of the means of production, and only as a side-effect the economic wellbeing of those producers who happen to be well compensated. In one part of a recent series of dispatches from the four towns with the lowest average incomes in the United States, Chris McGreal chronicles the spite that many living in poverty exhibit for the welfare state that benefits them. In the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Alec MacGillis argues that states that benefit greatly from federal welfare programs are states that vote Republican because the persons on welfare do not vote (though he fails to interrogate the reasons why) and the persons just a few rungs up the income ladder, who think their tax dollars are going to non-workers, do vote. Moving beyond an understanding of class as based on income, and to one based in the distinction between workers and owners might allow a deeper understanding that one of the principal failures of capitalism is how work is distributed among the labor force. This might invite new conversation about how work is to be administered in society, with new possibilities for investments in education in order to make more persons prepared for advanced employment, and more leisure time for those workers who have some of their working hours allocated to other workers.

In a recent Dissent Michael Walzer warns that, “The idea of the one percent and the 99 percent is not an example of Marxist analysis. It is a populist appeal, and it may be politically useful, but we should always be wary of populism, for it isn’t a sustainable politics, it doesn’t change the world, and it is available to the right as much as to the left.” Circumstances in Argentina would suggest this analysis is correct, and the American Left must heed this warning, and the example of Argentina. The question we face now, then, is when it will be most appropriate to move beyond Bernie Sanders’ narrow populism with a nuanced understanding of class that will allow for a truly sustainable alternative to neoliberal capitalism.

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