From September I will be working as Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at SAIS Johns Hopkins’ Bologna Institute for Policy Research. You can find my staff profile here. I will also continue to teach modern history at Oxford.
From Clayton to Macron
On Saturday, a reporter from the Cote d’Ivoire asked Emmanuel Macron a perfectly reasonable question; drawing an analogy with the Marshall Plan, the reporter asked how much money Europe was willing to commit to Africa, and (as a secondary question) what France’s position would be. In answering the question – or, rather, challenging its logic – Macron rejected any idea of a Marshall Plan for Africa, effectively stating that had it been that simple, it would have happened already. This is a peculiarly teleological view of progress, particularly from someone who just faced a fascist in a two-way presidential run-off, but I’ll leave that to one side by noting that it fits fairly neatly with the idea of ‘sensible centrism’ which finds itself in vogue in particular circles in 2017.
I am no expert on France, but I have taught enough French history (and followed enough news stories) to get a sense of how successive French governments demonstrate a posture of enormous entitlement to ‘guide’ or ‘advise’ Africa (with a focus on its Francophone nations), an asymmetric a priori position which has led frequently to military intervention. This mentality crosses the ideological spectrum within the mainstream of French politics too – it pertains to Mitterand or Hollande as much as, say, Sarkozy. [Note in that Economist piece on Hollande, the insidious phrasing: ‘Africa has a way of intruding on French politics’. Good grief. How terribly inconvenient that must be.]
In some senses, La Françafrique seems to echo the relationship between the United States and Latin America. While most of the latter has avoided formal colonisation since independence, many countries – particularly in the circum-Caribbean region – have experienced threats, destabilisation, and/or military occupation by the US since 1898. Hearing Macron attempt to shift the conversation from one of aid and economic stimulus towards one of criticising African attitudes (to say nothing of his comment on family sizes) reminded me immediately of President Truman’s stern rebuke to Latin Americans demanding their own version of the Marshall Plan in the postwar period. On 15th August 1947, the New York Times reported that at a press conference the day before, Truman had stated bluntly: ‘there has been a Marshall Plan for the Western Hemisphere for a century and a half known as the Monroe Doctrine’.
“¡Agua, Jabón y Estropajo… el Plan Clayton, abajo!”
Like Macron, Truman’s view was – broadly – ‘our way is best’. And the prescriptions which flowed from that attitude strongly favoured trade and investment over aid or loans. On 3rd September 1947, he opined: ‘Here [in Latin America] the need is for long-term economic collaboration. This is a type of collaboration in which a much greater role falls to private citizens and groups than is the case in a program designed to aid European countries to recover from the destruction of war’. The effects of occupation in Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and elsewhere were passed over. And here, for comparison, is Macron: “It’s by a more rigorous governance, a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, a successful demographic transition… As of today, spending billions of dollars outright would stabilize nothing”. He warns that any ‘plan’ must use “public private partnerships, and must be conducted on a regional and sometimes even national basis.” Markets, and self-improvement. Macron also raised security cooperation; it is notable that in 1947, US negotiators were successful in their attempts to de-couple security from economic cooperation, and deal comprehensively with the former first (at the 1947 Rio de Janeiro Conference for the Maintenance of Continental Peace and Security). Thus, Latin American governments lost a bargaining chip ahead of any economic settlement.
Truman having ruled out the extension of Marshall Aid, Latin America was included in what became known locally as ‘Plan Clayton’, part of the haphazard confection of what William Cromwell has called “the Marshall Non-Plan”. It was Assistant Secretary of State William Clayton who lent his name to the Latin American part of the post-war trade-and-aid policy. He was already a target for populist denunciation in Mexico since he had “issued the first warning that Latin America should not count on postwar economic aid” at the Chapultepec Conference in 1945. Two years later, when – in place of aid – Clayton suggested a relaxation of intra-hemisphere trade restrictions and tariffs, his propositions were denounced as “aggression on the part of imperialist forces”. La Voz de México – the newspaper of the Mexican Communist Party – urged the formation of a “National Democratic Front to Oppose Plan Clayton.”
That was then, this is now
Speaking at the weekend, Macron set out the following interpretation of the Marshall Plan: “a reconstruction plan, a material plan in a region that already had its equilibria, its borders and its stability”. Quite striking given that many of those equilibria were maintained by enormous occupying forces, and that borders or stability could be talked of as constants when just a year and a half had passed since the war formally ended. This was followed by Macron’s suggestion that “the problems Africa face are completely different and… are ‘civilizational.’” Yet how does the description Macron decides to give Africa – particularly that of “failed states, complex democratic transitions and extremely difficult demographic transitions” – sound fundamentally different to Europe in the immediate post-war years? [The most glaring difference is the postcolonial relationship, something which the US is essentially trying to define in Iraq and Afghanistan today, but was not directly relevant in postwar Europe. If anything, the postcolonial obligation is surely greater.]
My research on Plan Clayton (which I will work up into an article next year) has focused on the reaction from the Mexican left. In brief, the PCM (Mexican Communist Party), PP (Popular Party) and ASU (Unified Socialist Action) opposed Plan Clayton from broadly similar positions, emphasising the threat to “we, the Mexicans” as a whole. The manner in which the story was reported by La Voz de México or addressed in public pronouncements from labour leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano and PCM head Dionisio Encina implies coalescence of interest between the constituencies of the Marxist left (i.e. the urban proletariat, urban intellectuals and, to a lesser extent, campesinos) and the government, the embodiment of the ‘national bourgeoisie’. In the public discourse of the left it remained inconceivable that, first, the ruling PRI did not serve the national interest and second, that the national interest of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was not consonant with that of the Mexican working classes. The degree of subordination of class-based interest to nationalism here is highly significant, and something I have written about at length elsewhere. Only the ASU augmented this approach with a substantial appeal to class-specific concerns, yet they remained careful to cloak their pronouncements in broad, nationalist rhetoric.
I am therefore interested to see what sort of reactions emerge – particularly from African lefts – to Macron’s intervention. Because it was a set of comments during a question and answer session, there may be more leeway, less formal scrutiny. The implication, though, is clear. Any idea of responsibility for centuries of colonial (and decades of post-colonial) oppression, interference, or exploitation is shelved. Instead, two things emerge: first, a sense that Europe’s idealised economic mode – open, dynamic, neoliberal – must be embraced by external partners, Europe’s technocratic, asymmetrical and stultified inner-workings notwithstanding (some of these contradictions are noted in Perry Anderson’s recent piece on Macron’s meteoric rise); and second, that a degree of mass personal transformation must go hand in hand with this economic change. While the first fits very neatly with Truman and Clayton’s ideas of how best to ‘help’ Latin America (in practice, through fairly untrammelled extraction of surplus, one way or another, by the US), the second echoes broader civilising discourses which cross from formal imperial relationships (the ‘White Man’s Burden’) into informal empire and neo-colonial notions of ‘underdevelopment’. It is no surprise the most striking initial reactions to Macron’s statement came from those attuned to anti-colonial discourses; it will be fascinating to see if the current hero of liberalism loses any of his sheen with the broader polis.
A cartoon from La Voz de México, 23rd February 1947, urging President Alemán to stand up to President Truman, even if he must necessarily be courteous; Truman’s feet are muddied by his eponymous plan, that of Clayton, and imperialism generally.
 The New York Times, 15th August 1947, p.8. This ‘quote’ – reproduced in many books on the period – is not presented as direct speech by the Times. Instead it is reported as what Truman said, delivered without quotation marks. As such, there is a question as to whether it is in fact paraphrased.
 “Water, soap and scourer… down with Plan Clayton!” – a slogan from the campaign.
 Quoted by R. Trask, in “The Impact of the Cold War on United States-Latin American Relations, 1945-1949”, Diplomatic History, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1977, p.278
 W. Cromwell, “The Marshall Non-Plan, Congress and the Soviet Union” in The Western Political Quarterly, Vol.42, No.4 (1979)
 L. Bethell & I. Roxborough, “Latin America between the Second World War and the Cold War: Some Reflections on the 1945-8 Conjuncture” in Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol.20, No.1 (1988), p.181
 Plans for hemispheric defence cooperation were denounced just as furiously by the PCM. See, for example, “El Imperialismo Yanqui es Propiciador del Plan de Truman para la ‘Defensa Continental’”, La Voz de México, 9/6/1946, p.2.
 Tangentially, I think Mexico provides a good counter-example to Bresser-Pereira’s portrayal of Latin American ‘national bourgeoisies’ more generally. See Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira, ‘From the National-Bourgeoisie to the Dependency Interpretation of Latin America’ in Latin American Perspectives, 38:3 (2011)
“Hegemonic Nationalism, Subordinate Marxism: The Mexican Left, 1945– 7”
Abstract: The most significant weakness of the Marxist Left in early Cold War Mexico was that it subordinated itself to post-revolutionary nationalism. Both the Mexican Communist Party and followers of Vicente Lombardo Toledano supported the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), avoiding significant criticism before late 1947. Some dissident currents of Marxism did exist, but they were sparsely followed. Mexico provides an extreme case of Left subordination to popular-nationalist ideology, yet is indicative of trends visible elsewhere, e.g. among Marxist groups in post-war Cuba and the United States. Rather than promoting notions of communist political practice, the Mexican Marxist Left consistently advocated the elimination of class conflict and support for the ‘national bourgeoisie’. The Marxist Left held the Mexican government to different standards from those to which they held the governments of other countries. A near-consensus on the Mexican Left equated patriotism with progressive politics. The argument is illustrated with an important case study: the 1947 Marxist Round Table.
Some work news: from January I will be taking up a position as stipendiary lecturer in Modern History at St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, through until summer 2018. I will also continue with my current role teaching the history of Latin America and the United States in the Department of International History at LSE until summer 2017.
Some recent stories about/from Mexico:
The governor of Mexico’s central bank, Agustín Carstens, has announced he is quitting the role next year to take over at the Bank for International Settlements. He stresses it is not to do with the likely ‘Trump effect’ on Mexico’s economy, but many have expressed concern that he is leaving at this time. Trump has made it clear he will intervene personally – as with Carrier last week – to prevent US companies moving production sites to Mexico (and elsewhere). That said, the OECD aren’t too gloomy about Mexico’s short-term economic prospects. Over at La Jornada, Hernández looks forward to the restraining influence of James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Niall Ferguson is more sanguine.)
As anyone who has spent time in Mexico City knows, the city’s traffic and emissions management have been chronically ineffective for years. Now Mexico City is being heralded as one of four pioneering cities pledging to eliminate diesel vehicles from their streets by 2025. It would be great, in principle, to see this happen, but it is hard not to wonder whether the wealthy (and indeed others) of Mexico City will manage to get around this ban as they have so many other proscriptive initiatives.
Another chapter in the long-running battle between Mexico’s campesinos and multinational companies is covered by Hermann Bellinghausen, framed as the devouring of the land of Juan Rulfo. Meanwhile, as a missing dog went viral, David Agren asked: where is the concern for missing people?
Reactions to the death of Fidel Castro ran the full gamut in Mexico. López Obrador reportedly offered some rather fulsome praise, which Jorge Castañeda addressed here. In Proceso, Jorge Carrasco Araizaga casts a withering look at some of the tensions and contradictions in both Castro’s reputation in Mexico (not least the damaging support for Salinas) and in the wider Cuban-Mexican relationship.
A few words on Fidel Castro (1926-2016), a figure of world-historical importance (does his death mark the ‘end of communism’ for instance?) and without whom the teaching of courses on US-Latin American relations would be difficult to imagine.
I don’t want to say much here about the achievements of the Cuban revolution – in education, in health, in global anti-imperialism and anti-apartheid struggles, in disaster relief and medical solidarity, and very recently in helping to broker the probable peace between the FARC and the Colombian government. Others have covered these positives in great detail, along with Castro’s varying personal role. Instead I want to concentrate on some of the negatives, as a caution against what I see as a frequently hypocritical and in-bad-faith dismissal of Cuba tout court.
Some of Castro’s fiercest critics seem to be judging him by imagined contemporary standards rather than the standards of the Cold War (by which the Cuban regime emerges as unusually progressive). The period and region were characterised by violence, dictatorship, militarism and censorship and while Castro’s repressive government certainly demonstrated each of these traits, the Cuban regime’s crimes pale next to those of authoritarianisms almost everywhere else in the region. And perhaps Castro invited closer scrutiny by so publically judging the actions of other rulers and regimes, and acting upon those judgements with force of arms. But using overt or covert methods to export ideology to other parts of the world? That was Cold War 101 for all serious practitioners, whether US, USSR, China or lesser lights. It seems to me that a particular problem for the Cuban government was that it represented a small nation, was somewhat autonomous, and very vocal – a combination which greatly riled its enemies.
Others seem happy to write Cuba off as a ‘prison state’ or as part of the extended ‘axis of evil’ without acknowledging extrajudicial arrest and imprisonment, clampdowns on dissent, electoral irregularities, and foreign policy adventurism in its supposedly more palatable neighbours – and even closer to home. As I said above, while Cuba’s revolutionary government was undoubtedly (though not consistently) repressive, and made some significant missteps in economic and foreign policy, I think history will, on balance, be kind to Castro – at least kinder than political scientists and journalists seem to be. The impact of the revolution in inspiring Latin Americans and others to assert political and economic independence was huge, while the role Cuba played in opposing and defeating white supremacist regimes in southern Africa is also important.
We should condemn aspects of Castro’s rule and legacy, no doubt: the jailing and even killing of one’s political enemies, censorship, the disdain for multi-party democracy, the enforced isolation of HIV-positive Cubans in the 1980s (and ongoing temporary ‘quarantining’), the wholesale backing of Ethiopia against Somalia in the late 1970s. But we cannot pretend these things (or equivalents) are unusual in regimes we would perhaps prefer to think of as liberal democracies (and certainly not in their less ‘liberal’ allies) the world over.
Take imprisonment, for instance. The US is a carceral state, with around one per cent of the population in jail – that’s well over two million people, of whom (as is well publicised), most are people of colour, a form of political jailing in and of itself. Cuba’s rate of incarceration is high, of course, but it is well below that of the US – in fact only around two thirds of it.
And during Castro’s period of rule there were political prisoners in British, US, French and German jails, even if we rarely think about it that way. Nearly two thousand people were interned, that is to say imprisoned without trial for political reasons, in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, and many were tortured. The United States has a prison camp on the island of Cuba itself – Guantanamo Bay, probably the most notorious site of detention without trial in the contemporary world. It’s not only a reaction to 9/11, though – at least a hundred people were already being held for primarily political reasons as a result of the COINTELPRO programme set up by Hoover in 1956, the same year Castro’s expedition landed in Cuba.
Was Castro’s regime brutal? It was deadly of course, especially to begin with, when several thousand people were executed in the first ten or fifteen years of the revolution – mostly functionaries of the Batista dictatorship, though not all. Yet note that the death penalty was last exercised in Cuba in 2003 – and that wasn’t for anything explicitly political, it was for hijacking – since that time almost five hundred US prisoners have been executed. China, whose leaders successive British Prime Ministers have praised for being pragmatic modernisers, executes thousands of people each year. That doesn’t stop talk of a ‘golden era’.
As for elections, Cuba was and remains a one-party state. Castro didn’t exactly invent this state of affairs, nor did he show any inclination to remedy it. But ‘undemocracy’ creeps into even the most self-confident republic. Only three weeks ago the new US president was chosen in an election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act and where it increasingly looks like voter suppression may have played a decisive role. We in the UK are allowed to vote, and that’s an important and valuable right, but we don’t have an elected head of state or even an elected prime minister right now. Was the EU referendum a ‘free and fair election’?
I am not suggesting equivalence here, just that ‘democracy’, ‘voting’ and ‘elections’ in and of themselves are rather unhelpful and elusive terms. Venezuela was nominally democratic throughout the Cold War, but with little evidence of meaningful popular sovereignty. Democratic Britain spent the 1950s conniving to overthrow governments from Iran to Guyana, imprisoning and torturing Cypriots, and massacring political opponents in Kenya. And where conservative critics of Cuba have cited undemocratic tyranny as an irredeemable fault of the regime, they often fall silent on Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other strategic allies. Furthermore, a democratic mandate did not save Arbenz from a US-supported coup and dictatorship, nor would it save Allende.*
We should also remember that Castro did not rule alone (though there were some signs of a crisis of succession seen in progressive movements under siege since the English Revolution), that while political culture was limited it was nevertheless effervescent, that the government maintained a significant degree of public support (talk of ‘totalitarianism’ seems particularly off, even if dictatorship is arguable), and was buoyed by a patriotic and anti-imperialist popular spirit which was only increased by US foreign policy. I don’t think it is possible to unpick restraints on domestic Cuban freedoms from the greater constraint imposed on the Cuban island, society and economy as a whole by the United States and its allies. President Obama came very close to acknowledging this when he began the current rapprochement, talking of ‘cutting loose the anchor of the failed policies of the past’.
Anti-imperialist, anti-apartheid, egalitarian – all to be applauded. But authoritarian, militaristic, censorious? Yes, it was those too. And the question that many – critics and supporters – have come back to, is ‘was it worth it?’ I wouldn’t ask anybody to hold back in their criticism of Castro, and I am not at all advocating ‘whataboutery’. But I would ask that the same standards are applied elsewhere – to the eleven presidents of the United States who have stood in opposition to Cuba’s revolutionary path, to our own past and contemporary liberal-democratic governments, to our allies doing our dirty work elsewhere – otherwise it just looks like good old-fashioned red-baiting.
*An aside: Ben Smith has shown, one-party states can be lively sites of contestation at the sub-national level.
A couple of weeks ago I was doing some reading on early Peronism for a class I was teaching on Latin American populists. Alongside Vargas in Brazil and Cárdenas in Mexico, we were looking at the transition from the military junta (1943-6) to the odd melange of ‘democratic-authoritarian populism’ (!) presided over by Perón in Argentina from 1946-55. The more I read on this period of Perón’s political career – and granted, there are many distinct Perón phases – the more one contemporary figure sprang to mind: Theresa May.*
Clearly the question posed here is a facetious one – I don’t think May has demonstrated particular interest in or knowledge of Latin America, though notably the current visit to the UK of President Santos of Colombia has provided the British government with an opportunity to announce some bilateral deals of the sort that may define the post-Brexit course. I certainly don’t suggest she is an actual admirer or follower of Perón (who for all his towering importance in Latin America is only moderately known and very poorly understood outside the region). However, there are a number of commonalities that I find rather striking.
An important reason why Theresa May came to mind was the difficulty political commentators have had in placing her accurately on a traditional left-right spectrum. I don’t think it’s hard at all, myself; I think it’s fairly clear that this is the most right-wing government Britain has had for generations, and possibly much longer. That said, the British commentariat tied itself in knots following May’s walkover to the Conservative leadership, declaring her to be “curious hybrid”; aiming to “command and hold the centre ground”; a “hard edged version of centrism”; “unideological”, “super pragmatic” and “Tony Blair… in kitten heels”. As the last comment suggests, May has to contend with an awful lot of sexism before her politics gets full attention.
However, at the heart of May’s so-called centrism are sentiments with deeply troubling historical antecedents. “The lesson of Britain,” she claims, “is that we are a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship”. Everyone likes family, community, and citizenship don’t they? Of course they do. But the shift from those fluffy abstractions into concretely defined realities is behind many of the twentieth century’s most heinous political movements. (An episode of Novara FM covered some of this in relation to political theory in a fascinating way recently).
Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974, president of Argentina 1946-55, and 1973-4) similarly frustrates many who attempt to place him on a one-dimensional left-right spectrum, though the significant overlap with fascism is to my mind a pretty big clue. In his book The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War, Federico Finchelstein (T:@FinchelsteinF) gives a superb account of the genealogy of Argentine political culture. In the chapter on links between fascism and Peronism, he writes (and forgive the lengthy quote, but it is important):
Fascism and Peronism came to power as a result of the failure of liberal-democratic regimes that were thought to be solid or well-established. Both regimes gave a totalitarian answer to the crisis that modernity had provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state. Both regimes were clearly anticommunist and antisocialist. Finally, both regimes mobilized the population “from the top,” through their propaganda and various actions, promoting mass politics and convincing majorities that the regime represented them and the nation as a whole. But while fascism mobilized the middle classes, Peronism rallied the working class.
Let us call the incipient variant of right-nationalism that May and her cabinet represent Mayism. Admittedly this sets aside important ideological differences within the cabinet on matters of trade (though free traders are being allowed enough rope to hang themselves, it seems to me) and civil liberties (again, though, David Davis has changed his mind spectacularly on free speech post-referendum for instance), but there is enough of an emergent dynamic for this to be worth thinking about. To substitute into Finchelstein’s schema:
- Mayism came to power as a result of the failure of a liberal-democratic regime that was thought to be solid or well-established.
- Mayism seems to be seeking authoritarian** answers to the crisis that modernity has provoked in the public perception of laws, the economy, and the legitimacy of the state (see, especially, the rather terrifying “we will never again… let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave”)
- Mayism is clearly antisocialist.
- Mayism is attempting to moblize the population “from the top,” through its propaganda and various actions, convincing majorities that the regime represents them and the nation as a whole.
In addition, there are some echoes of Peronism where:
- Mayism promotes an openly racist immigration policy (though so have many successive governments in Britain).
- Mayism implicitly promotes a Christian public morality (though two caveats here: first, as far as I know it is yet to become explicit – David Cameron tried this, and was heavily rebuked; and second, a Catholic political morality as in Argentina may have significant differences to an Anglican political morality in Britain, though I suspect these differences would be overstated, and in any case there are some welcoming May’s apparent Anglo-Catholicism).
- Mayism has a contingent relationship with democracy, using popular sovereignty to disregard representative institutions where it supports May’s broad project , and vice versa where it does not.
Finchelstein notes that Perón turned from fascism’s middle-class constituency to the Argentine working class. Theresa May’s conference speech (from which the bulk of quotes here are taken verbatim) suggested she wishes to move from the liberal-ish broadly middle-class constituency which backed both Blair and Cameron to some kind of frightened and ‘left behind’ working class, which may or may not exist in that form (it’s certainly not a consistent picture with coherent political expression as James Meek has amply demonstrated in recent years, for example here). To wit:
Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you’ve been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn’t feel like it’s working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. Because it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.
That’s some epic outsider-populism right there, from someone who has been right at the heart of government for the last six years – a reason to be very sceptical that this cross-class appeal is anything more than a clear demarcation from May’s predecessor, the unrepentantly toffish Cameron. This nod to the less well-off continues, with vague pronouncements on wealth disparity (societal and regional), tax avoidance and (perhaps most interestingly) generational inequality. But the fix suggested is not structural reform of class inequality, it is an exclusionary localism.
Militarism and anti-cosmopolitan sentiment also bubble at the surface. May foregrounded “the servicemen and women I met last week who wear their uniform proudly at home and serve our nation with honour abroad”; she also, chillingly, declared “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” Build that wall!
When I note the floundering of the commentariat in the face of political rhetoric which borrows from left (a bit) and extreme right (rather a lot), it is most pertinent in the idea that Theresa May and her government ‘represent the nation as a whole’. Political journalists now – for a number of reasons, I suspect far more than in the past – report on language much more than actions. Curtain-raisers, teasers, speeches, leaks etc are the channel of distribution for political ‘news’, rather than longitudinal policy analysis. Hence, when May said:
I want to explain what a country that works for everyone means. I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics… built on the values of fairness and opportunity… where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person – regardless of their background, or that of their parents – is given the chance to be all they want to be
this was generally reported to be her political philosophy, and to be the basis for forthcoming policies.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that the situation in Britain in 2016 is like that of Argentina in 1946, but there are limited echoes – a volk-ish nostalgia for a fake kitschy past greatness crying out to be restored is definitely in the air, as it is explicitly for Trump of course.
Peronism went on to underpin Argentina populist political culture, which consisted of (Finchelstein again) “the marriage of social reform, state interventionism, nationalism, and anti-imperialism with the logic of single-party rule, social polarization, clientelism, censorship of the press, ostracism, and the persecution of opponents up to, in some cases, prison and torture”. These things are not on the cards, certainly not in that combination, in contemporary Britain.
Yet it is not difficult to imagine, for example, an attempt to de-secularise political culture (some of her cheerleaders are actively encouraging such a path, but this could only be done in a confrontational manner – the ‘family’-centred politics can be a code here, but so could a future elision of the difference between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’); targeted state economic intervention in politically important constituencies (“strategic value” industries, which May denies constitutes “picking winners”); the steady consolidation of a concrete and enduring Conservative parliamentary majority (and thus one-party rule for the foreseeable future in England at least); an unapologetic revanchist and chauvinist nationalism (we have that already in bucketloads, really); and most troublingly, an expansion of May’s clear authoritarian tendencies at the Home Office (which did involve appalling violence against – in particular – detained migrants, but also a broader disgust aimed at human rights as a concept) into government at large. All the more baffling, then, when a self-declared leftist like Giles Fraser celebrates May for ditching neoliberalism in favour of something else which by his own admission is vague and merely rhetorical, a conservatism “so much better for the poor than slick liberals”. Again, the religious angle is noted: “for the vicar’s daughter, the community comes first”. I’m sure many will think of Evita here, but I’m not sure that’s a very fruitful line of enquiry.
It’s early days for May and her nascent -ism. It does not pay to make political predictions in the current conjuncture, in Britain, in Argentina, in the United States, in Colombia. We might not see any of these past echoes grow beyond their current unsettling volume, a distant marching beat. But borrowing bits of far right and left-nationalist rhetoric, fooling commentators into declarations of ‘centrism’ or ‘the politics of unity’, pursuing economic independence and ethnically-exclusive communitarianism as a route out of political and economic crisis – these are all things we can draw upon for comparison’s sake in postwar Argentina.
To conclude, a snippet which I think could have come from either the current British PM or from Juan Domingo himself:
They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.
There it is: machista nationalism, dog-whistle communitarianism, and social authoritarianism, with a nod at the end to old labour. Or possibly Old Labour. We shall see.
*N.B. Peronism now means something very different from Peronism then.
**I shy away from the word totalitarian here, which is clearly not applicable.