Staring down the chasm, gazing at the navel… Argentina and la grieta. An essay by Jorge Fontevecchia.
In a recent column, urging political proposals to transcend the so-called ‘grieta’ chasm that exists in Argentina, I wrote: “You cannot govern without certain agreements with the opposition, and part of the economic problem facing our country is the result of having chosen, or at least not ruled out, polarisation as an electoral strategy.”
The vicious circle is rounded out, if the preference is to pick a fight with the most distant rival in order to improve the government’s electoral chances, while at the same time the economy deteriorates, thus increasing the possibilities of that most distant rival winning.
That, in the short term but even in the long, if a government collectively treats the opposition as a gang of thieves responsible for the decline of the country in the last 70 years, it can hardly, at the same time, plan to appeal to investments as a source of development. Alternation in power is part of democracy, and sooner or later those incompetent thieves will return to government and the investments will lose their value, thus discouraging those who might want to make them in the first place.
A few days later I had to make a speech at the Italian Embassy which, pursuing the same line of thought, I entitled “Staring down the chasm or gazing at the navel.” I compiled texts on the topic which I had been writing in recent weeks, intermingled with both special aggregates for the occasion and new addenda to make up this article.
THE ATTRACTION OF MORAL REPUGNANCE
Freud explained it perfectly in The Taboo of Virginity and later in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.
“Nothing fosters feelings of alienation and hostility among people more than minor differences. I am tempted to expand on this idea because perhaps out of that narcissism of minor differences springs the hostility which in all human relations wrestles against fraternal feelings. Among all close groups – friends, married couples, parents and children – mistrust and hostile feelings compete with affection.”
In his book, The Warrior’s Honour, Michael Ignatieff wrote about the paradoxical relationship between aggression and narcissism: “Differences are expressed aggressively precisely to dissimulate the fact that they are minor. The less essential the differences between two groups, the more both go out of their way to present them as an absolute.” Ignatieff continues: “The aggression which maintains group unity is not only directed outwards but also within with the aim of eliminating anything separating the individual from the group.”
Ignatieff was trying to understand how, in the Balkan War, neighbours who had lived side by side all their lives could start killing each other during the separation of Yugoslavia, or the intertribal massacres in Rwanda and Burundi, or the civil wars of the late Cold War dividing brothers in Angola and Afghanistan.
“People living closely together,” he wrote, “are the rivals with the most mutual envy; a small canton which does not eye its neighbour with mistrust does not exist. South Germans cannot stand those of the North, the English pass all their defects onto the Scots and the Spanish despise the Portuguese. The less important the differences might appear to the external observer, the greater its importance for defining that difference.”
As Freud explained so well, antagonism is linked to narcissism. He understood the enormous dose of anxiety which accompanies the process of differentiation, while overacting the minor differences in order to reinforce identity. Out of fear of that identity becoming more fragile, upon perceiving that the differences are really no greater than the shared characteristics. Overrating yourself while underestimating the other is a mechanism for defending a false integrity of the Ego which depends on intolerance to keep existing.
In Freud’s eyes nationalism, or sectarianism, or group pride within a nation, is the egolatrous dimension of a narcissistic projection which only contemplates the other to confirm the difference. Gordian knots require solutions beyond their own dilemmas.
One case study would be Argentina: Peronists and antiPeronists, Kirchnerites and anti-Kirchnerites, military and guerrilla combatants have basic similarities which need to be buried in order to construct an identity which could be reformulated on other bases, thus permitting us to see that what horrifies us about the other is our own similarity to him, which traps us in yet another of those categorical frauds, used by manipulative discourse to magnify the petty and diminish the great.
One example of that contradiction in Argentina was the Carlos Menem period, when ex-Montoneros turned into businessmen with former guerrillas selling security services. Or the case of Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who was a montonera in her youth.
Among the harshest repressors, on behalf of democracy, were those who had fought it, which conventional wisdom might explain as the “zeal of the convert.”
Nothing new under the sun – in The Bible, the Book of Genesis tells of brothers being transformed into enemies because human history commences with the murder of a brother, not a stranger. Later God punishes the fratricide Cain by banishing him from Eden and into the real world. He and his descendants will build their towns and nations which, having originated from a murder, will have to exert themselves to overcome the spiral of revanchist logic. As Genesis 4:24 says: “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.”
POLITICAL ARTHROSIS AND THE DOLLAR AS SYMPTOMS OF THE GRIETA
Truth is mediation and reconciliation, while order is harmony. No economy can be ordered without being harmonised. The relationship between the Latin verbs spectare and respectare, one referring to show and the other to respect, reflect the difference between a society geared to scandal and a society based on rational public debate. It is the economy which pays the cost of the entertainment. A society of scandal is also an angry one, which prevents any dialogue between the reciprocally indignant. That emotional state does not engender any future or action because it is a double negative cancelling each other out. All this energy is consumed in a “tormenta de excrementos” hurled at each other.
That crisis of the spirit prevents the creation of any inclusive “we” on the part of most of society. If one verb defines its history, it is “acting.” According to Hannah Arendt, acting consists of a new beginning, doing things differently. In Argentina, as from the beginning of the 1970s, the economic statistics (and not the political use of history) show us that our decadence began then. The country tried left and right, democratic and authoritarian policies, but always sharing the same invariable confrontation and polarisation with its different expressions of the grieta chasm.
Our political arthrosis consists of continuing to do the same thing, while changing the faces and the issues. Our problem is emotional intelligence. The grieta is the product of narcissism, of the need to construct an identity while highlighting the differences. It arises from the fear of dilution by blending with the other in the manner of adolescents who, with their egos still fragile, overact the codes of the tribe to which they wish to belong, also obtaining an autoerotic pleasure. A biased and partial “we,” born of fear and insecurity.
Depression is negative narcissism. Within its vacuum it turns the information of the moment into an eternal present – if the dollar goes up, it will go up tomorrow and the day after. Information is thus based purely on perception of the instant. “Disaster” etymologically means without stars, “starless.” In his Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant writes lyrically that: “Two things fill the soul with ever renewed and mounting admiration and respect, the more repeatedly and persistently they become the objects of reflection: the starry sky above me and the moral law (reason) within m/e.
We should prescribe ourselves more reflection and realise that the grieta chasm is the self-inflicted punishment we wish on others. And that harmony is order and that no economic order is possible without harmony.
Hegel’s idea of the whole does not consist of the action of the individual parts but a “balance in repose of all its parts, of which one in itself remains linked to the other parts when moving freely.” Truth for Hegel is reconciliation and mediation:
“The parts and their specific opposition (he adds) do not persevere one against the other autonomously but are only valid as ideal moments reconciled in free consonance.”
The current presidency is not, as has been said, a political success and an economic failure – the grieta rift is its political failure and the economy its metastasis.
Again, I appeal to Michael Ignatieff, an Oxford and Harvard professor as well as a Central European University director: “I was reading Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann, which describes the loss of cultural authority, the attacks on knowledge, the love for extremes, the enthusiasm for easy answers, the aesthetics of power, the radicalisation of opinions on the left and right. We should reread the great books of the 1920s and 1930s and think about what they tell us.”
Freud wrote Malaise in the Culture i n 1930, when the world was incubating totalit a r i a n i s m and violence. Ignatieff is p r o b a b l y right. It would be a good time to read the texts of those years, in which malaise was converted into aggressive political action.
It could be very useful to extract lessons from the past applicable to this present, in which the trend to elect authoritarian leaders has returned with societies accepting restrictions on their legal rights in exchange for economic security in a kind of parallelism between the world economic crisis of the 1930s and the current, less dramatic but equally sustained and significant for the fall in the standard of living of the middle classes in the most developed Western countries.
The triumph of polarisation proposals in the Northern Hemisphere is explained by “collective narcissism.” The Washington Post newspaper wrote: “Collective narcissism is very similar to the individual variety, implying an emotional dependence on the admiration of others. The difference is that the collective narcissists seek privileges and recognition for the groups to which they belong.
“They are constantly monitoring their entourage for support and are hypersensitive to threats to the image of the group, to which the reaction is aggression. When, from its viewpoint, the group is criticised or insufficiently recognised, the collective narcissists attack and rejoice in the misfortunes of the adversary group.
“The negative emotions of collective narcissism are linked to a vulnerable individual narcissism, which indicates low psychological wellbeing – dissatisfaction with life and the inability to experience self-transcending emotions such as gratitude, appreciating the positive aspects of experience, feeling obliged to something or somebody and compassion for the sufferings of others.”
On the contrary, “positive social identification provides psychological resources which support individual welfare, clear self-definition, greater self-esteem, the sense of direction and the sense of true social connection.”
Recognising that there is more polarisation in the politics of the 21st century is objective. But what is worth clarifying, as I have done here, is that it is an interpretation to attribute its psy - choge - nesis to t he narcissism of the small differences and the pathological construction of identity in the process of individuation. But something must be done.
After writing on these topics, I received an email from one of my colleagues from the National Academy of Journalism, telling me: “I celebrate our enormous degree of agreement. And I accompany that celebration with an anguished question: Will we, the elites and society, be able to see it? I think that we need to reach a greater degree of comprehension. The anguish originates from the purest realism: the feeling of facing an unfathomable precipice, against which danger the grieta is irresponsible.”
So the polarisation, which we call la grieta in Argentina, is – above all – hugely irresponsible.
As Barack Obama explained so well: “If you have to win a campaign by dividing the people, you won’t be able to govern them. You can’t unite them later.”