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OP-ED | 20-06-2020 09:37

Flag-waving nationalism or a smart state?

Arguing for and against the state has been overtaken by events – the debate can only be over how to better the state.

Today is Flag Day and this editorial proposes to mark it in two ways – one formally referring to the occasion and the other more oblique, reflecting on the state of the state.

Firstly, a tribute to flag creator Manuel Belgrano with 2020 quite rightly named as his year since he was born 250 Junes ago, while today is the bicentenary of his death. A democratic generation of Argentines should remember this versatile personality (lawyer, diplomat and journalist as well as soldier) as a seminal political, legal and economic thinker rather than for his improvised and perhaps involuntary military leadership with a mixed record (in football terminology he won all his home matches, but always lost away). But those who do remember his thinking often reinvent it to push their cause quite anachronistically, even presenting him as a precursor of feminism (in reality he expressed frustration over the idle lives of ladies of his class rather than advocating any genuine gender equality). The complexity of his ideas is perhaps best rendered by the startling fact that this independence hero and founding father strongly favoured constitutional monarchy over a republic – this would place him behind his times but including the indigenous Inca dynasty among his candidates for the throne placed him well ahead.

Moving on a couple of centuries, Flag Day in this pandemic year finds Argentines more deeply divided than ever over right and wrong ways to wave the flag with the Vicentin nationalisation, the exit of the LATAM airline and a looming default all acclaimed by some and deplored by others as a national triumph or disaster. “Food sovereignty,” blue skies ahead for an Aerolíneas Argentinas flag carrier monopoly and the notion that default makes sovereign debt more sovereign than ever – such perceptions would add extra patriotic punch to Flag Day this year, especially for many government supporters. To which critics might reply that “food sovereignty” is not only contradicted by the volume of farm exports but conspires against them – how can foreign investors be attracted if the danger of Vicentin falling into foreign hands was given as a prime reason for nationalising it? LATAM’s complaints about loaded dice in favour of a subsidised Aerolíneas could foreshadow a more general exodus by other international corporations. Nor is there much cause for national pride in the debt negotiations if the upshot of novice strategies is perhaps the most absurd default in world history – over a debt payment of 0.15 percent of Gross Domestic Product with a difference of under two percent of GDP between the two sides – where the potential costs hugely outweigh the sums at issue.

Such debate has temporarily eclipsed an escalating coronavirus pandemic (with worse to come as winter begins tomorrow) in the last fortnight and some arguments are better than others, but almost all on both sides have a common flaw – if the past is a foreign country, then no formula anchored in the past can be nationalism any more than it can be realistic after this pandemic. All the protests against state encroachments on the private sector as symbolised by Vicentin and LATAM are well and good but the trend towards state empowerment from the pandemic is irreversible. This government might be magnifying and exploiting this trend but coronavirus is not a creation of its ideology.

Yet while the government is going with the flow, it should not push its luck and confuse this with a reversion to its past. The Vicentin expropriation threatens to resurrect the anachronistic ideology, corrupt practices, crony capitalism and arbitrary market interference of the previous Kirchnerite decade. In this particular case change might also be inevitable since it is futile to pretend that the debt-ridden conglomerate can either return to the past or stay in its present but the citizenry has every right and perhaps the duty to resist this change.

Arguing for and against the state has been overtaken by events – the debate can only be over how to better the state. The government can take the lead here by looking ahead to a new and smarter state, which can only start credibly by owning up to and disowning its past. Otherwise a new state would have time and authority on its side but will not be inclusive (which also applies to Vicentin management with the need to add co-operatives, creditors and the province to the ruling party). Unless a new nationalism is born in Manuel Belgrano’s year, patriotism will continue to be last refuge of a scoundrel, in Samuel Johnson’s words.         

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