Analysing Argentina

by Paul Segal on August 12, 2023

Most visitors to Argentina are attracted by its famous meat and wine. Personally, I come for the Freudianism and Marxism. I grew up in north west London in a family of socialists and psychoanalysts, acutely aware of the contempt with which most of Great Britain held both of those vocations in the late 1980s. So while I spoke barely a word of Spanish when I first visited Buenos Aires in 2003, I had an extraordinary feeling of coming home. Now, twenty years later, my children are half-Argentine, and we’ve just had a semester in Buenos Aires, much of it spent in the traditional past time of discussing the personal and the political over endless coffees (and, I admit, also consuming plenty of meat and wine).

Argentina probably has the most psychoanalysts per capita of any country in the world. I would guess that every Argentine I know is in or has had therapy – at least, I’ve never met an Argentine who told me they never had it, and the topic usually comes up. What is clear is that they have a remarkable love of admitting to and talking about experiences of trauma, its causes and its effects, both at the personal level and at the social level. I’ve mentioned before the historian John Womack’s argument that Latin Americans are subject to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the ongoing stresses of poverty, violence, and political oppression. One of my in-laws recounts the story of being stopped by a soldier in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s, under the military dictatorship, and the soldier pointing his rifle at her baby while he waited for her to produce her papers. 45 years later her voice still shakes as she describes the experience. Trauma is endemic and enduring, and also quite plausibly a root of the dynamism and creativity, the refusal to meekly accept the status quo, that visitors to Argentina often extol.

The popularity of Marxism is intimately related. It’s the only framework that has any purchase on the multiple overlapping economic, political and social conflicts that people experience. Where psychoanalysis helps make sense of personal conflicts, structuralism does the same for social conflicts. Recently it’s been popular among Europeans to use the term ‘polycrisis’ to describe our current condition; Argentina, and to some extent Latin America more broadly, has long been home to the permapolycrisis. Inflationary crises, political crises, banking crises, currency crises, institutional crises, and the ever-present threat of military oppression by elites, often supported by interventions from the US. Sometimes it’s made worse by drought or natural disasters, almost always by international markets. You know that feeling when you repeat a word until it feels like it loses its meaning and just becomes an empty sound? That’s what crisis is like in Argentina.

In the four months I was in Buenos Aires, prices rose over 30%. Presidential elections are due and Argentines can’t decide whether they hate inflation or corruption more, and no candidate or party has a very plausible story on what to do about either. A libertarian candidate who wants to privatize all public services, abolish the central bank, and allow a market in human organs is polling at about 20%. I like to think that this is a protest vote against a dysfunctional economy and political system rather than an affirmation of his proposed policies, but I can’t claim to know for sure.

At the same time, the juggernaut of Peronism, a political movement now almost 80 years old, continues to morph. Peronism is perhaps the original ‘third way’, a phrase used by Juan Perón decades before Tony Blair, intended to balance the demands of capital and labour through centralized corporatist institutions. While it has strong social democratic elements and embeds powerful workers’ unions, it is also an institutional movement that exhibits, shall we say, ideological flexibility in the face of historical exigencies.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Peronists are deal-makers. In the context of the country’s federal structure, in some provinces it has historically made accommodations with oppressive and semi-feudal families and institutions in order to push through its national priorities. It went through a neoliberal phase in the 1990s, leading a huge wave of liberalisation and privatizations. It returned more to its social democratic roots in 2003 first under Néstor Kirchner and then his wife Cristina Fernandez, dramatically increasing social spending and successfully reducing inequality over the following decade. But its authoritarian tendencies and its combativeness – its opponents are portrayed as idiots and liars, which comes across as aggressive even when it is true – are alienating for many even on the left. Cases of egregious corruption within its ranks further erode support, though corruption is found across the political spectrum.

Most importantly from the economic perspective, the one-term right wing government of 2015-19 saddled the country with a vast foreign debt. That is the root cause of today’s extravagant inflation rate, and the fact that real wages have fallen to around 2009 levels. This debt tightly bound the hands of the Peronist government that came to power in 2020, compounding the covid shock that hit all countries. But even most Peronists seem to agree that the current president has been hopeless, and he has been persuaded not to run again.

It should not be surprising that the Argentines I speak to tend to be somewhat blasé about upheavals in Europe. In Britain it was a great shock not to have tomatoes on the supermarket shelves. That’s because we’ve structured globalization to ensure that when disaster strikes one tomato-producing country, we can simply replace the lost production from another tomato-producing country. Great for British consumers of tomatoes; cold comfort for the country whose production just collapsed. To be fair, the UK also has falling real wages and a large increase in interest rates. But what commentators in Europe and the US describe as global catastrophe, from down here it looks more like the bursting of a bubble for a small number of people who hitherto had successfully shunted the costs of global volatility onto others.

Still, I haven’t found Argentines to gloat. Perhaps because of all that talking therapy, on the couch and in the cafes, they are not tempted by the opportunity to indulge in schadenfreude. The sentiment is more, ‘welcome to the club’.



engels 08.12.23 at 10:00 am

Also the only place in the world (to my knowledge) to have a nightclub named after Slavoj Zizek.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 08.12.23 at 1:28 pm

Read: Uprooted Minds: Surviving the Politics of Terror in the Americas by Nancy Caro Hollander

Dr. Hollander is a psychoanalyst and holds a doctorate in History. The text is mostly about Argentina, where she spent many years during and after the generals.


oldster 08.12.23 at 3:57 pm

“I grew up in north west London in a family of socialists and psychoanalysts….”
Are you related to Hanna Segal?


LFC 08.13.23 at 2:30 am

Thank you for the interesting post. Re Womack’s argument “that Latin Americans are subject to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder”: is there a particular place/piece where he discusses that?


Chris Bertram 08.14.23 at 8:52 am

I see some “libertarian” economist has done rather well in primary elections with his snake oil. What’s the lesson we should learn from that? Desperation?


Paul Segal 08.14.23 at 9:47 am

LFC @1: I don’t think he ever published it unfortunately. But I know that some of his former students hope he will publish his Harvard lecture notes on Latin American history, in which case it might appear there.

Chris @2: Yes it’s very depressing. One thing is that we mustn’t give up hope yet – it wasn’t the real election and there are various reasons why the real election in October might be different. But if he doesn’t win, the other very right wing candidate is likely to. Perhaps a lesson from this is that the left can’t afford to let inflation get out of control. But Argentina faced really nasty constraints on that front, not least the foreign debt that the previous government built up, and it’s not that clear what they could have done. Argentina is famously difficult to govern for various reasons arising out of its political economic structure and history.


TM 08.14.23 at 12:17 pm

Right wing libertarian populism, friends – or is it populist libertarian fascism? In any case the libertarian pedigree is unimpeachable:

“Mr. Milei has said that his economic policies would represent an austerity package that goes beyond even what the I.M.F. is requesting of Argentina.
He could also have a profound effect on other parts of Argentine society. He and his running mate, a lawyer who has defended the country’s past military dictatorship, have suggested they would loosen gun laws, reverse recent policies allowing abortion and even permit the sale of human organs, an example of commerce that Mr. Milei says the government has no business restricting.”


J-D 08.14.23 at 1:16 pm

I’ve mentioned before the historian John Womack’s argument that Latin Americans are subject to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the ongoing stresses of poverty, violence, and political oppression.

I don’t know about chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, but surely the majority of people in recorded history have been subject to ongoing stress from poverty, violence, and political oppression?


engels 08.14.23 at 4:53 pm

Buenos Aires also featured heavily on the Zizek! film, which I only just discovered was directed by one-time timberer Astra Taylor.


Dilbar 08.15.23 at 12:53 pm

I spent time in SA. I was just a working stiff though. For me Uruguay had recovered from the terrors with a more robust vision for not repeating them. If you have insights to other countries in SA, I’d appreciate it. Currently my impressions are: Chile; best in class administration. Peru: Worst in class administration. Bolivia: Borderline conflict zone. Argentina: Why throw paradise away? Uruguay: Mujica was a revelation. Ecuador: Destabilized. Columbia: marginal. Venezuela: Failed state. Surinam and the Guyanas: Criminal failed states. Paraguay: ZZ


MFB 08.16.23 at 10:26 am

If nakedcapitalism is to be trusted, Milei wants to redollarize the Argentinean economy, because bankruptcy was such fun last time.


Robert Weston 08.16.23 at 3:26 pm

“Surinam and the Guyanas: Criminal failed states….”
You mean including French Guyana?

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