These days, Carlos Pagni is Argentina’s most influential journalist and political analyst, read by both sides of the grieta chasm.
The 62-year-old’s first book, El Nudo, whose focus is Greater Buenos Aires and the crisis of 2001, ran through five editions within a month of its publication.
In an intimate interview, he discussed his approach to journalism, his childhood, Argentina's polarised politics and the legacy of the 2001 crisis.
Why do you think that you are read and followed on both sides of the grieta chasm?
I don’t know if that’s so clear to me. It seems to me that I make an effort to avoid double standards and that might be odd in a country where journalism has become so polarised. That is to say, I try to apply the same categories of judgement, interpretation and evaluation, above all, of the two blocs into which Argentine politics has been organised for the last two years at least.
Would you call that an epistemic effort?
Yes, and an attachment to a form of understanding journalism.
The academic helps although it commits you somewhat to that point of view.
There’s a Hegel phrase: “The first level of knowledge is doubt.”
Yes, doubt leads you to that equanimity and the exercise about which we were talking. And it is also supposing that truth and enlightenment are never found on one side but that things are more problematic than that.
Critical thinking and scientific method … It seems to me to have been beautifully portrayed in Anfibia in a great interview by Silvina Heguy, ‘The Pagni method.’ I have already asked you about the two sides of the grieta chasm and why you wrote your first book, already consecrated. What drove you to write it now and not before?
Perhaps I was writing too much. I work a lot, as you do, so for practical reasons which are very important you don’t have any time, one goes speaking a lot and writing all the time, excessively. Now there is something which impelled me to write a book – a sort of longwave writing and thinking which does not enter into the genres and work habits of our journalism, into articles. I like to give lots of talks, that is another genre. And then there is the genre specifically of the book, which probably permits you more complexity and a more extended treatment of issues. I had been thinking of a book of seven essays, of which one was going to be on Greater Buenos Aires. I entered that one-way street and have been stuck there for five years.
So the essays were knots too?
It [The book] was going to be called “Seven knots.”
And what were the other six which perhaps remain for six more books?
I cannot remember all six but there was corruption, the press in relation to power and the crisis of 2001 as an independent issue from Greater Buenos Aires.
You’ve already got two in the bag with 2001 and Greater Buenos Aires, what about press and power?
That was something else, for sure. I was going to study some aspect of that issue as an obsession when having seven things in my head to communicate. So instead I opted to study things I did not know about. I would say two-thirds of what I wrote were issues I did not know or about which I had no systematic knowledge. Economic issues, the whole question of patronage. I did a semi-ethnographic reconnaissance of the villa low-income neighbourhoods.
As [Polish anthropologist Bronislaw] Malinowski said on the role of myth, you must not only listen to what they say but see what they do.
Yes but listening too in the full sense of the word.
But also see them on the spot. You went there because you could have listened to them on a TV programme.
You have to go out and see those surroundings, that geography and see the difficulties. It makes a terrific impact on you and helps you to understand those half-lives a whole lot.
Turning from Greater Buenos Aires to the crisis of 2001, you say: “This is a date similar to the battle of Caseros [in 1852, Radical Hipólito] Yrigoyen reaching power, October 17  and the coups of 1976 and 1930.” Why?
Defining periods should not be capricious but is always pretty arbitrary. You pick a year which in reality is a kind of symbol for what you want [to say]...
Like [historian Eric] Hobsbawm’s short 20th century, for example.
Like Hobsbawm, for example. Why does 2001 resemble those other dates? Because they are all years identified with a change which makes you look at everything again and where the brain, to put it in very biological terms, registers what is no longer there, trying to understand things as they appear while having no categories to understand them. This obliges the whole interpretative machinery to be placed in crisis mode, looking for new dynamics. For example, in my judgement, there appeared a systemic phenomenon in 2001 – poverty. Obviously, there were poor people before but as a marginal, not central issue conditioning many other aspects of public life, including fiscal balance, while stimulating populism.
Making our country more Latin American?
More Latin American in the sense of shrinking the middle class, which is a crucial phenomenon, and generating new forms of political action, such as the social movements, for example. I quote in the book your long interview with [Movimiento Evita leader Emilio] Pérsico where a completely different vision of economics, society and labour appears. All as from 2001 – it would have been delirious beforehand.
The case of Chaco with the family of [Emerenciano] Sena is one consequence.
With that offshoot also. A huge problem of how social action should be put into practice, how it has been privatised within the social movements without much idea of what kind of institutional representation they might have.
The leading presidential hopeful to emerge from all this is Juan Grabois.
Grabois expresses much the same today as he did a fortnight ago because there is an entire sector of Kirchnerism which sees itself as reflected in Grabois more than [Sergio] Massa. One is used to and has become accustomed to all that but if you look at the course of history over the long haul, you say: “These things did not exist before.” Many of the things which did not exist between [the return of] democracy in 1983 and 2001 are central today. That is our working material from which we elaborate our everyday interpretations.
I’m left thinking of that Marxist perspective whereby superstructure is conditioned by infrastructure and such a dramatic fall in the standard of living might not correspond to a cultural change.
Indeed and a political change because from a long time ago but accelerated by 2001 and the pandemic, there has been an increasingly numerous presence of those not excluded but expelled [from the system]. There lies, I believe, an Argentine characteristic very difficult to find in other societies.
Is the expulsion permanent?
No, the excluded are those who never entered, such as – and obviously I say this with every respect – the “colla” indigenous living in the Puna plateau and now cutting roads in Purmamarca.
His father and grandfather were excluded, outside the system going back to the Incas.
That is what happens in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Colombia where the fathers, grandfathers or great-grandfathers of those persons were in the same economic condition. While what you are saying is that in Argentina their parents...
...are excluded, obviously. But furthermore, the systematic failure of the economy has uprooted in an extraordinarily and aggressively arbitrary way people partying within the system with a sense of entitlement to that as culturally their place. That generates a problem of political emotions. Those are not the same emotions as those who never entered and who feel that their place in the world is outside, unfortunately, and get used to that. You will be aware that emotions are probably the most important raw material in politics. To express it in rather silly terms, some people think: “It’s my right to go to Miami every year” while the political world tells them bit by bit: “Look, you’ll probably never go to Miami again.”
That former Banco Nación president who said: “Kirchnerism made people believe that they could have mobile telephones.”
Well, they got after him.
[Javier] González Fraga.
That is an extremely important structural problem in Argentina. We might translate it into the terms formulated by [Pablo] Gerchunoff: “We live beyond the means granted by the dollars which we generate.” And if we had the exchange rate which the competitiveness of the Argentine economy might warrant, the elections would be lost. Here there is a drama between economics and politics, equality and liberty, the market and democracy very difficult to resolve. We have probably been stuck in this problem for the last 50 years.
Why did you choose the word “knot”? Some reminiscence of the Gordian knot?
I was thinking of seven questions which are difficult to unknot. And I was thinking of Greater Buenos Aires not as geography but as drama and not just about poverty but about inequality, which is another question. When you say this country is becoming more Latin American, it’s a society which is becoming increasingly unequal and the urban expression of that inequality is different ghettos. When you go to the [San Isidro] villa shantytown La Cava, there is a huge wall behind which lie probably Argentina’s most opulent mansions. That’s literally so, physically speaking. That place expresses a drama, let us say, a knot which we have not been able to undo in a long time. And that may well be a Gordian knot, Gordian because of all the debate among so many political parties as to whether it should be cut or untied.
So is the discussion here whether it should be untied by Horacio Rodríguez Larreta or cut by Patricia Bullrich?
[The two methods] imply different time periods.
I was once asked for an analysis of a kind of Disneyland there used to be in La Matanza. A gentleman had constructed an amusement park which had fallen into disuse because it could not be made economically viable. I went to see it and it was surrounded by low-income neighbourhoods of houses made of sheet metal without sewage but with crime problems. “Who had the idea of building it there?” I asked the heir of its creator, and he told me that in 1984 it was all open field belonging to Ceamse metropolitan waste management company. If you look at the photo, two-thirds of Greater Buenos Aires had not been built up before the arrival of democracy 40 years ago. There is a phenomenon unfolding everywhere in the world where the population has doubled in the last 40 years – in Argentina from 20 to 45 million, creating problems of space and housing. An objective problem, independent of the economy.
There is a housing problem. How was this book born in my head and when did I first start asking myself about Greater Buenos Aires? In the year 1998. What was happening then? I was covering the second campaign of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. And there a journalist you know, [Roberto] Pompeu de Toledo, wrote a famous column in Bella, interviewing Cardoso in the form of a book entitled ‘O presidente segundo o sociólogo’ [“The president according to the sociologist”]. There Cardoso speaks of a great many things, among them Greater São Paulo. He says: ‘There are zones of the planet where the urban, human, and demographic load is so important, so dense that it overflows the institutions which we have created in the last 300 years to live.’ The school, the hospital, the prison, institutions on that scale, do not function. I don’t whether Cardoso remembered when he said that, although obviously he would know it, that Aristotle says that for the polis and democracy to work, they must function on a scale where the people can meet in the agora [“public square”] in a number permitting them to speak and listen without mechanisms of amplification, i.e. without a megaphone or a horn. If a horn is needed, the number of people exceeds that at which the isonomia [“equal rights”] and Greek democracy can function in a balanced way. Now studying all this, I found quite by accident a [Kenyan] social scientist dedicated to crime issues called Robert Muga, also very involved in Brazil. Having studied Rio de Janeiro intensely, he says that it is not just a matter of excessive urbanisation because Tokyo is very big and yet does not have the crime problems of Rio...
It works. So he says that there is a problem of what he calls “turbo-urbanisation,” i.e. the speed at which that urban human mass generates secondary pathologies and crime problems. Obviously problems of public services and the creation of communities, which is something much less concrete.
Concretely, São Paulo and Lula is the best example. In 1960 it was a smaller city than Buenos Aires but during the years of the Brazilian economic miracle, a million immigrants, mostly from the northeast, entered annually so that in four years the population doubled.
These things are never mathematical but it surprised me that what I saw was mathematical. The crime indices in Greater Buenos Aires districts are in direct relation to the speed of their demographic growth.
Did the year 2001 accelerate those times too?
Of course. The year 2001 is a bit deceptive because it prevents you from seeing the longer process from 1998 to 2003, which was too long a crisis and too recessive – five years of recession is a ton. But, of course, you have an operatic mise-en-scène accelerating everything, like the pandemic accelerated everything, along with the lockdown. We had already been creating a lower class out of the middle class but it was accelerated.
The photo of Greater Buenos Aires in 1980 is very impressive, it’s all countryside.
No doubt. Now look at the numbers. If we do so the day before the pandemic in order not to introduce its negative data which distort everything for the worse, there were at that time, in round numbers, 4,000 shantytowns in Argentina. Half were posterior to 2001 and a quarter to 2010. This means that there is a phenomenon, first of all an urbanisation of different kinds but then an urbanisation of impoverishment with slums and the unprogrammed installation of poor people in that rural frontier unfolding before our eyes without our completely perceiving it because it advances in slow motion but which has notoriously modified the socio-economic landscape.
You were very critical of polarisation, you said that it was a menace to your profession. Do you think that judging by a different political yardstick marks the difference between militant and professional journalism and that polarisation debases journalism?
Yes and I don’t think that should surprise you at all because you work along the same lines.
Do you see the media going down that path which strikes you as negative and worryingly excessive?
Until now, yes, but as I think that politics is becoming less polarised, I don’t know how journalism will be evolving in relation to that phenomenon.
Do you note personalities close to Kirchnerism treating you with more respect and appreciating you more in the past couple of years? If so, is it because with most journalism so polarised, they consider you a person who is not on their side but they respect you for maintaining a position of not falling into double standards?
There’s something in that and something derived from the practical work of the job because when you circle the wagons in one faction, you lose all communication with the other. So you then write without even complying with the basic rule of consulting, checking and trying to understand the latest gaffe by Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner]. How would she explain it? Or a gaffe by [Rodríguez] Larreta or by [Mauricio] Macri, how would he explain it? Well, I have to talk, it interests me to understand how heads work because if not, I isolate myself and begin to have problems with professional ethics. If I talk to Peter and not to Paul, that would also bore me.
Would it be another profession?
If you carry it to the point of purism, yes, it would be another profession beyond doubt. That is not what we sell as journalism. To put it more dramatically or solemnly, that is not the activity for which the law grants us privileges. The law does not give us those privileges to wrap ourselves up in flags and spread propaganda for a sector. Those privileges are not for us but on behalf of our audiences, public opinion. You have the right not to reveal your sources because that benefits society. Now if you use those privileges to wave the flag of a faction and pull wool over people’s eyes, you do not deserve those rights because you no longer exercise that profession.
You were talking about issues crossing across the grieta chasm - for example, the business class with its perks, the intelligence services, the federal judiciary, etc. I would like to go more deeply into the business class and its deals, which is an issue very few people touch but you so dare. What does the ‘Cuadernos’ [case – based on copybooks chronicling alleged public works fraud] reveal, compared with Brazil’s Lava Jato [scandal[, where billions of dollars were returned, people went to jail all over the show and companies lost value while here in Argentina there were no major advances?
I will perfect that comparison.
Go on, underline the differences.
So that the differences may be noticed even more. The Odebrecht case in Argentina had no sanctions because when you talk about Lava Jato, it is as good as the same case as Odebrecht, not two cases which might need matching. Nothing happened here because there is a political pact not to touch it because it involves people on all sides. A couple of months ago I was invited to give a talk in the United States on a very sensible and well thought-out issue on the consensus which would be required in Argentina for the country to come out of its chronic crises. I started to think of what I was going to say and the truth is that I would like to ask the question the other way round – what consensuses need to be broken in Argentina because that is what is needed? Patronage is a consensus. Setting up determined businesses in order to subsequently finance politics out of those businesses, even when of dubious legality and extortionate. For example, gambling, where there is always a problem with the decrees and legislation because the gaming executives depend on the politicians to keep it in place. That runs through the entire political spectrum.
You said that there are businesses established by consensus politics between the two parties in order to obtain financing.
That would be one consensus which would have to be broken before constructing new ones or probably to construct the new ones it would be necessary to break the pre-existing.
Exactly, break up a consensus which works fantastically.
The federal courtrooms.
The manipulation of the judiciary, the same.
That is another of the knots.
That has been happening to us for a long time and it is not normal. It doesn’t happen in other countries. If you are sued in a federal courtroom, the first thing you would ask yourself is to whom the prosecutor and judge respond, not the case itself, which should be the ultimate reason why you will be indicted or tried or not. Everything depends very much more on who are the protagonists, not the justice [of the case]. That is not what the Constitution calls justice.
I would like to turn full circle to the start of the interview. Is there any point of contact between the crisis of 2001 and what we are experiencing now?
I believe so. Beyond what we can compare between one crisis and another, there are many differences. Historical comparisons are always deceptive but what I do think to be a link is that we see them as part of the same process and there things get worrying. The crisis of 2001 and such acute economic discontent produced a very important crisis of representation, as is obvious.
Did it produce Kirchnerism and did it produce Macri?
Yes. So I think that in Argentine society, via 1,000 mechanisms, there are two methods, two paths for healing the relationship between society and politics. One is a novelty, which is the Kirchnerism within Peronism, which is an atypical subspecies for the entire democratic cycle from 1983 onward. And the other is the Macri phenomenon as a new product within the non-Peronist camp, competitive with Radicalism and also allied with it in a complex relationship. But these two novelties are two experiments which tended to heal the relationship between politics and two sectors of society.
Today that is in crisis. It would seem that the old magic is no longer there – that mission is beginning to be increasingly defective. There is massive abstention and more radical voting trends towards the Trotskyists and [libertarian lawmaker Javier] Milei. So what we are seeing is that the categories whereby we could interpret politics in the last 15 years, to give it a date from the conflict with the farming sector in 2008, the two blocs of the grieta chasm who covered everything until 2021 – which I would date as an important change – began to be anachronistic and lose their power to explain, needing to reread this social malaise which generates abstention, disenchantment and a crisis of representation, introducing tensions into the parties with a tendency to fragmentation. So the problem today is no longer the concentration of power, as it was in the previous decade. The problem today is the fragmentation of power, which could sterilise politics and make its relationship with the people yet more controversial.
Let me venture a syllogism. Are Macri and Kirchnerism the consequence of 2001 so that if 2001 had not existed, they would not have existed?
If there had not been that crisis, the previous party order would have probably continued.
Are we overestimating both Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Mauricio Macri by placing them at the centre of political discussions?
That is a very interesting question because I am going to put it in terms to make the answer more interesting than the anecdote of those two. There is an author called George Freedman, a specialist in geopolitical intelligence who wrote a book entitled The Next Decade, at the beginning of the [2009-2017 Barack] Obama presidency, a bestseller. And they told him: ‘You did so well with The Next Decade that you should write about the next 100.’ And he replied that the next 100 years is another problem because for the next decade the key is what is in the head of the actors and their conduct. But it is much more difficult to forecast what will happen in the next 100 years because it’s no longer about knowing what Obama, [Vladimir] Putin, [Silvio] Berlusconi or [Emmanuel] Macron are going to do since it will be the winds of the world. We always overestimate the hero, the subject.
Who supposedly is the agent of history.
Nowadays there’s something in the agent of history.
I don’t want to bother you with how you perceive yourself ideologically or politically but has anything in all these years of journalism changed your way of seeing your own political preferences, making you more pluralistic or less anti-Peronist?
The phenomenon of poverty made me view liberalism differently. There is an orthodox liberal discourse of which, for example, [the] Ámbito [Financiero newspaper] has probably been the most emphatic spokesman in the last 50 years of Argentine history and which presents enormous problems in the sociological context of Argentina today.
To put it another way, it has made me more inclined to untie than to cut knots.