Argentine Adam

Malcolm Deas

  • Argentina 1516-1982: From Spanish Colonisation to the Falklands War by David Rock
    Tauris, 478 pp, £24.50, May 1986, ISBN 1 85043 013 6
  • A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare by Andrew Graham-Yooll
    Eland, 180 pp, £9.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 907871 51 8

Most recent books in English on Argentine history are on economic history. On looking them over, readers who are not economic historians will probably reach the same conclusion as did J.O.P. Bland (better-known as the unwitting partner of the forger Sir Edmund Backhouse, the ‘Hermit of Peking’) after conscientiously preparing himself for a visit to the River Plate in 1916: ‘From the library catalogue point of view, the subject might well seem to have been exhausted ... Yet how few there be amongst all these works (as some of us know to our cost) that properly and worthily inculcate the profitable exercise of travel ... Say what you will, the great majority of them are so dreadfully infected with stodgy commercialism, so monumentally useful, that their general effect upon the mind (unless it be the mind of a bagman) can only be compared to a surfeit of suet pudding.’

The surfeit was the result of ‘this modern obsession for encyclopedic information about trade and manufactures, the all-pervading blue-book stodginess of statistics which permeate the works compiled by laboriously travelling politicians, economists and globetrotters, concerning lands which (could they but discern them rightly) afford matter for philosophical speculation at every turn of the road or river.’ It affected not only ‘works written by hungry hacks to the order of South American politicians and financiers’, but even ‘the standard works of reputable men, even men of high degree, like Lord Bryce, who went there to learn, or M. Clemenceau, who went there to lecture, not to mention the lesser fry of honest journalists and bona fide travellers. All alike seem to revel in compiling soporific statistics of marketable products, in recording the increase of whizzing machinery and the building of railways and grain elevators, just as if the entire population of these delectable lands lived and had their being for the sole purpose of producing pabulum and raw materials to feed our feverish industrialism ... And yet man in South America, even though he descend not to the mental state of an Amalgamated Engineer, is just as worthy of study as he is elsewhere; to regard him solely as a wheat-producing, cattle-raising machine is merely to proclaim that we ourselves ... have lost the secret and the art of living.’

The decrease in whizzing machinery, the deficit-generating capacities of Argentine railways, the uncertain future of River Plate grain elevators and the less than feverish level of our present industrialism now produces a different sort of stodge. The reader of modern works will become all too familiar with the arguments for and against the Roca-Runciman treaty, the evolution of Argentina’s terms of trade, the patterns of domestic meat-consumption, the blocked sterling balances and their relation to railway nationalisation, the errors of Peronist argicultural policy, the ‘beef cycle’, breeders versus fatteners – in short, the swings and roundabouts of Latin America’s most mismanaged yet so far most indestructible economy. ‘As some of us know to our cost’, one is tempted to add, but there is nothing wrong with these works in their place, which is that of more or less satisfactory accounts of the evolution of the Argentine economy. What will not do is to pretend, in the light of recent Argentine history, that they answer what Professor Rock calls ‘the central compelling question about Argentina ... What went wrong?’ To expect a satisfactory answer to that question from an economic history is, in the old Spanish phrase, to expect pears from the elm.

His book offers a competent account of Argentine economic history, though not one as readable or as stimulating as Professor Ferns’s short economic history published a decade ago. I am less sure, however, that even in the field of economics he has come up with sound explanations of what went wrong, or established the degree of Argentine responsibility for what went wrong. As is well known, quite a lot went right, even after the date of 1930, which is the one usually given as the end of the ‘golden age’. Rock sometimes reads as if he was as keen on industrialisation as any general dreaming of a safe post in industrias militares. He appears to value diversification for its own sake, and has an unreasoned penchant for an even geographical spread of growth. Is he quite sure that Argentina ought to be a ‘fully-fledged industrial society’? Was it inevitable that Argentina should have chosen this as its goal, and should now be saddled with ‘the failures of a debilitating forty year-long struggle to industrialise’? Beyond the broad assertion that modern times have not favoured peripheral primary producers, that we demand less of their pabulum and raw materials, the reasons for Argentine economic failure and mismanagement – and this book’s emphasis is heavily on economic history – are much less clear than the trends in its tables. They may lie outside conventional economic history.

Rock seeks to attribute much to a ‘colonial heritage’, but the argument is not convincing. There are a number of colonial heritages in the Americas which have produced rather different results. The Spanish Empire there embraced a variety of societies and economies, and their post-Independence history has also been various. The Vice-Royalty of the River Plate has less claim to have been typical of the Empire than most of the rest of it. What became Argentina, certainly the Province of Buenos Aires, was more mercantile, less ‘stratified’, to use one of Professor Rock’s favourite words, than the old heartlands Mexico and Peru. Moreover, Argentine society was palpably transformed in the 19th century. Wide acres, or hectares or leagues, in Latin hands has a fascination for the Anglo-Saxon academic, who cannot wait to deplore the lack of agrarian reforms which he would never think of recommending at home. This book gives examples of the lamentably massive estancias that came to exist on the pampas, but these can only loosely be ascribed to a colonial heritage, most having come into being after Independence. Whatever else it may have been, the system was neither colonial nor inefficient, and the argument that Argentina suffers primordially from a lack of small farmers is romantic. It looks especially odd as stated in this book’s epilogue, where the author ends his speculation on ‘the interaction of resources and early colonial institutions’ in a very bizarre fashion: ‘Had those institutions been different, the resources would have been sufficient for the emergence of a small farmers’ commonwealth. As in the United States, agrarian capitalism could have helped foster manufacturing, and, again like the United States, Argentina might have conquered or annexed the resources for industrialisation: Paraguayan timber, Chilean coal or Brazilian iron ore.’ This is a strange vision of United States history, as well as of the possibilities, let alone the moralities, of economic imperialism in the Southern Cone.

Professor Rock is also reluctant to question received views about Argentine society, though little evidence is produced in their support. Early on, we are told, it was ‘dualistic and later pyramidal’. In late colonial times matters are no better: the ‘ethnic diversity’ of Buenos Aires, the ‘large numbers of whites and mestizos gave a premature boost to social forms based on caste divisions’. With all those mestizos about, a boost was doubtless needed. For subsequent times one of the highest levels of immigration that the Americas have seen fails to shake Professor Rock’s desire to detect the persistence of layers and pyramids, and the reader is offered ‘large and stratified middle and working classes’ who have somehow come into being in this society characterised by ‘structural inertia’. Throughout, Argentines show an aversion to ‘structural change’, and their governments are too apt to do things to ‘buttress the social order’.

If it was always so pyramidal and stratified one wonders why it needed any buttressing at all. It is in fact highly unlikely that these caste divisions had much real existence, and the sort of late colonial fuss that Professor Rock notes is most likely to be evidence that such neat divisions, never much of a feature of the River Plate, were in the final throes of breakdown. There is no evidence to suggest that the kind of legislation cited here – forbidding intermarriage, assigning distinctive modes of dress, prohibiting the carrying of arms and ‘consuming alcohol’ – had the slightest effect. Similarly, the complicated nomenclature of colonial racial classification merely provided the titles on pretty series of costumbrista paintings. It would be easier to argue that Argentina was never a highly stratified society, even in colonial times, and that the society which emerged from the disorders of independence was less stratified than what had gone before. That indeed was the opinion of Juan Manuel Rosas, who possessed considerable powers of observation. He used to justify his system of government with the argument that what the country lacked was natural authority.

Unfortunately Professor Rock is not much interested in the caudillos of the early independence period, or what they represented. They are described as ‘upwardly mobile’, an anachronistic phrase which would certainly have raised a laugh at the time, had it been understood. Lopez Jordan, a figure of the third rank, is labelled ‘the last of the great caudillos’ in much the same way as any old jazzman can be called the last of the red hot peppers. Rosas himself is called ‘the embodiment of the federalist caudillo’ – though he differed in many important respects from the caudillos of the interior – and the ‘Caligula of the River Plate’, which is less misleading since any resemblance between the two is obviously remote. He does not refer to the classic account of those times, the Memorias of General Paz, anywhere in the book, and makes some surprising assertions: ‘In helping to revitalise colonial mercantilist and comunero traditions in the new guise of Federalism, British trade eased the way for the rise of the caudillos.’ Their ‘upward mobility’ should not however be any cause for conservative alarm, as ‘caudillismo became a means to revive élitism and patriarchalism, allowing the élites to adapt rather than disappear, while society at large upheld its hierarchical form.’ One suspects that whatever happens, there will always be hierarchies in this narrative. There was, Professor Rock continues, ‘neither social revolution nor successful egalitarian social movements’. In the circumstances of early 19th-century Argentina that should cause no surprise. And what on earth would a ‘successful egalitarian social movement’ have looked like then? Perhaps it would not have differed in all respects from the regime of Rosas.

Though it was the original country of the beggar on horseback – a common subject for visiting artists – it was of course not an egalitarian society in all respects. Nor was Jacksonian America. There are plenty of Jacksonian features in the early Argentine republic, and it was a much more mobile, less rigid society than any in Europe and most in the Americas. Much of Señorial Argentina was a late 19th-century invention, a creation of plutocrats, and the Jockey Club was not the bastion of an old society, but of a new one against yet newer ones. Compared to White’s, it has always been about as exclusive as the RAC.

A false view of society supports an equally questionable view of politics. Inveighing against ‘oligarchy’ of one ill-defined sort or another is one of the oldest habits of Latin American politicians, and in Argentina antedates not only Peron but also the Radical Yrigoyen, with roots as far back as Independence. It was never wise anywhere to confuse such rhetoric with scrupulous political or sociological analysis, but in the Argentine case such confusion dominates a historiography that has too much confined its cares to economic matters. The consequence is that in works of admirable economic sophistication conventional versions of the political past are swallowed whole, and correlations between political and economic developments blithely established where only one half of the connection has been properly examined. Take, for example, the ascendancy of General Roca in the 1880s, a spectacular decade of economic expansion that saw the end of the Indian frontier and the vast borrowing that ended in the Baring crisis. Were Roca’s generals, ministers and governors all men of similar origin? Did they for long form an effective ‘oligarchy’, and how did that show itself? What were their political methods? Did they all own land to start with, and all acquire more along the way? How did they translate land into power? That is not usually such a simple matter – was it in Argentina? These questions are here neither answered nor asked. A view of Argentine politics at the start of the ‘golden age’, which, with its ups and downs, ran from the 1880s to 1930, is always part of the chain of argument about ‘what went wrong’, and if that view isn’t right the likelihood is that there are going to be flaws in the rest of the chain.

The times of General Roca may seem so far away as to be the Argentine equivalent of the Middle Ages (in which case the ‘colonial heritage’ is as distant as the ‘Norman Yoke’), but the relevance of the institutional history of the Argentine Army should be obvious to the English reader. Here again he will be disappointed. It played a large role in the formation of the Argentine state in the last century, here dismissed in a couple of sentences. The founder of the modern Argentine Army, General Riccheri, the advocate of the universal military service that only Argentina enforced in Latin America, is not mentioned. The highly political role that the Army at times had to play in successive provincial intervenciones, the acts by which central government, ‘oligarchic’ or Radical, arranged local ‘situations’, is likewise ignored. On any definition, the part of the Army in ‘what went wrong’ deserves detailed treatment.

The fluctuations of staple exports may explain a good deal about why Argentina is no longer one of the world’s richest countries, but it will still not explain why this relative decline – and Argentina is still far from being one of the world’s poorest countries – was accompanied by the political disasters of the last thirty years. These are not, however much some Argentine commentators wish to have them appear so, logical consequences of cycles in the economy – a Hitler may emerge from a slump, but most slumps do not produce Hitlers. Peron did not emerge from a slump, but he was an equally unusual phenomenon, as untypical of ‘Latin America’ as was Rosas before him. Professor Rock gives an excellent account of his economic dilemmas, but here again he fails to offer a complete picture of politics, and shows a strange lack of curiosity. Peron lacked grandeur; morally, he was not a la hauteur de sa tâche. He was duplicitous. The Argentines have a word for it: he was a great chantapufi. At the same time he was a politician of more than ordinary talents. To what degree his malign qualities were an unfortunate accident that blighted his country, and to what degree they made him the man for the circumstances, are interesting questions. We are told little about his entourage: Peron surrounded himself with mediocrities, but it would still be interesting to know who more of them were – they certainly were not drawn in any great number from any layer of the working classes. Also lacking is a thorough institutional approach in the treatment of Peron’s fall, which was hastened by disputes with the Church. The 19th-century conflicts between church and state have previously been given only a single sentence, and the reader could have been forgiven for being unaware that he was reading about a Catholic country, and one whose Catholicism, with important consequences, has been closer to that of Spain and Italy, whence the 19th and 20th-century immigration mostly came, than to the ‘colonial heritage’ of Latin America. Argentina 1516-1982 is not much interested in civil or religious society, just as it is not much interested in culture – the author has certainly read a large number of academic monographs, but he refers to a scant few memoirs and no novels. There aren’t many human protagonists in this history, and he does not allow those that do appear to speak for themselves. Professor Rock first studied the Radical Party of Yrigoyen, a notoriously taciturn man, and perhaps that experience was formative. The result is a book that is needlessly depressing and inhuman – Argentines never seem to have achieved anything apart from statistical series.

Andrew Graham-Yooll’s A State of Fear: Memories of Argentina’s Nightmare (of which a shorter version was published as Portrait of an Exile in 1981) is a series of sketches that do not offer explanations, but which do memorably convey the singular awfulness of the 1970s. Sixty years before, in his firm British fashion, Bland had mused about ‘the systematic exploiting of productive industry by an unusually attractive, but none the less pernicious type of demagogue’, and the ‘fantastic modern supergrowths of hybrid Democracy, in which the old Adam struggles fitfully with fragments of the gospel of modernity according to Liebknecht and Lloyd George’. He did not muse very far, but to explain some things he was on a better track than what he would have called Professor Rock’s ‘monumentally useful’ book.