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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 18-06-2022 08:00

Politics in the age of resentment

Argentina’s politicians realised they could turn widespread disgruntlement to their own advantage by encouraging it.

Though communism has lost the strong appeal it once had, most individuals who consider themselves intellectuals still insist that the capitalist alternative to it is downright evil. What would they put in its place? Apart from a few diehards who cling to a belief in schemes much of the world has rejected because attempts to put them into practice have always produced quite appalling results, nobody seems to know. If they agree on anything, it is that scarcity is bad and should therefore be abolished so everyone gets enough to enjoy life fully.

This straightforward proposal pretty well sums up what the Kirchnerites think they are up to. It is why they keep churning out freshly printed banknotes in the hope that they will make people happy while shrugging off the warnings they receive from economists they deride as “orthodox.” From their point of view, it would be far better to see the economy destroyed by an inflationary firestorm they could blame on Mauricio Macri or the owners of supermarkets than do anything that might be construed as belt-tightening. As is the case in most progressive circles elsewhere, for the Kirchnerite faithful “austerity” is a dirty word, something reactionaries force honest men and women to put up with because they want to grind them down. They may not be genuinely convinced that for men of good will resources are limitless, but they speak as though they assumed they should be.

Channelling the reverend Thomas Malthus, who said population growth would always outstrip that of the food supply, Thomas Carlyle called economics the dismal science because it was largely about scarcity: there was never enough money or goods available to satisfy much of the population. Until not that long ago, it appeared that the liberal capitalist order was well on the way to solving that particular problem, what with living standards steadily rising and social benefits for those incapable of holding a job getting increasingly generous, but then things started to change. Thanks to technological development, the people in charge of industrial and agricultural concerns in North America, Europe and Japan found they could produce more and more with far fewer workers. The ones involved in manufacturing goods also understood it would be in their immediate interest to export what at first were just routine jobs to low-wage countries in Asia and Latin America. After all, they owned the intellectual property which was what counted and this enabled them to reap handy profits.

To get away with what they were up to, they and their friends in politics argued that their recently laid-off fellow countrymen could easily be taught skills that would enable them to occupy positions higher up the economic food chain – education would do the trick. As should have been predicted, this proved to be an illusion. Instead of turning into computer programmers, management strategists or whatever it was government officials and the big business moguls had in mind, a growing number of North Americans and Europeans who had held decently-paid factory jobs or earned a respectable income shuffling paper in offices found themselves consigned to the scrap heap, while younger folk who had been to university and acquired diplomas which a generation earlier would have set them up for life discovered they were worth very little. This unhappy process shows no signs of slowing down, let alone coming to a halt, which is why in most Western countries politicians fear something very unpleasant could be coming their way.

For such politicians, Argentina’s experience serves as a warning of what can happen to societies in which most people feel that they have been cheated of what should be rightfully theirs and vote for those who allegedly share their sentiments. It also provides them with examples of what they can do to shield themselves from the consequences. Argentine politicians soon realised they could turn widespread disgruntlement to their own advantage by encouraging it and proclaiming themselves determined to confront the malefactors, both at home and abroad, they said were responsible for the country’s many woes.

This is precisely what Donald Trump did in order to reach the White House. If the opinion polls are on target, by hammering away at the same message he could move back after Joe Biden and the hapless Kamala Harris have done their allotted stint, although some Republicans do think it would be better to let someone more predictable be their party’s candidate in the next presidential elections. And while Boris Johnson – a man who if he thought it would help him would subject his compatriots to long speeches in classical Greek – does not really have much in common with Trump, he too has benefitted greatly from the natural resentment felt by the many Britons who are aware they have been left behind and greatly dislike what has happened to them. Much the same can be said about politicians in other parts of Europe who, like their Argentine counterparts, go on about the unfairness of it all without going into detail about what they would be prepared to do to make things better. 

Their inability to come up with straight answers is understandable. Those who say we live in a post-ideological age may be exaggerating because there are still plenty of people out there who would dearly like to reshape human societies in accordance with some preconceived pattern. However, there are so many of them, and the blueprints they have drawn up are so varied, that even the sworn enemies of Marxism look back with nostalgia to the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union when everything seemed far more clear-cut than it has become.

Without any ideological framework to help them arrange their thoughts, politicians and their advisors have little choice but to improvise, cross their fingers and hope that the measures they apply work reasonably well for as long as they are in office, after which they will be in a position to take advantage of any harm they might do by attributing it to the incompetence of worse of their successors. Somebody once said that while a politician thinks of the next election, a statesman thinks of the next generation. But that was when the future looked far less cloudy than it does today and it was easy to imagine that it would be a much improved version of the present. 

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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