Argentina and Peronism

The Jewish Humanist, February 1997

I loved Evita. I loved the musical. I loved the movie. And, I thought that Madonna was an extraordinary Eva Peron.

But seeing Evita made me reflect on the politics of the modern world. After all, the fascism of the Perons was a unique fascism, an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Historically, in most conservative countries, the army allies itself with the clergy and the upper classes. But not in Argentina under Peron. As we can tell from the frustrated oligarchy in the Webber musical, singing in their upper class accents, the old ruling class were not happy with the Perons. Eva hated them. She was happiest when she was mesmerizing the descamisados, her shirtless workers.

Fascism is on the Right. But it is not conservative. It is a radical response to the traumas of modern capitalism. Unlike Communism which glorifies the industrial worker and the international working class, fascism glorifies the peasant, the soldier and the patriot. The soldier, in particular, is the hero of fascist intellectuals. The soldier is also peasant and patriot. In a capitalistic world he is seen as the victim of the masters of money, the corrupt politicians of democracy and the effete and indifferent upper classes. His rescue can only be effected by a soldier of honor, a leader who embodies the will of the people, a hero who will turn the whole nation into an army of virtue and mutual support.

Both Hitler and Mussolini hated the upper classes. They played to the lower classes, to their sense of victimization in a cruel capitalistic world, to their hatred of urban life, to their fear of foreigners, to their yearning for self-esteem through military glory. Both Hitler and Mussolini were veterans of the First World War. Their first followers were lower class unemployed veterans, filled with hatred of the rich and the privileged, and open to any conspiracy theory that featured foreigners and Jews. The gauleiters of the Nazi Party were not aristocrats. They despised aristocrats. They preferred German leaders who talked like Huey Long, George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. Unlike the old conservative ideologies of pedigree and property, fascism had the power to mobilize the masses.

But neither Hitler or Mussolini succeeded in winning over the leaders of industrial labor. The urban workers voted against fascism. In the end, both dictators were forced to make alliances with the aristocrats they despised. It was the Perons, in the very hour when the forces of fascism experienced their terrible defeat in both Europe and Asia, who succeeded in making an alliance between the army and the labor unions. Behind the songs and biography of Evita lies an extraordinary and frightening political development.

Argentina had become a rich country by the beginning of the twentieth century. British investment, the invention of refrigeration and the European demand for Argentine beef and wheat produced enormous wealth. But this wealth was very unevenly distributed.

A small number of landed aristocrats controlled most of it. They indulged themselves with excessive luxury and monopolized all positions of political power. Needing workers for their economic empire, they imported large numbers of Spanish and Italian immigrants who transformed the port city of Buenos Aires into one of the great metropolitan centers of the world. Many of these immigrants created a new middle class who struggled with the aristocrats for political control. For a short time in the 1920’s the middle class prevailed. But most of the peasants and urban workers remained excluded, oppressed and ignored. They were the ‘losers’ of an emerging modern economy.

The key to the success of Juan and Eva was that they spoke to the ‘losers’ in a language that the lower classes could understand – language of paternal and maternal love, a language of patriotism and lower class resentment. The turn-off language of intellectual socialism and sophisticated atheism never burdened their communication. The lower classes did not want democracy. They wanted jobs, recognition and revenge. Eva understood them. That is why in poor neighborhoods in Argentina she is still remembered as ‘Santa Evita’.

In time, without Eva, the Peron regime collapsed from its own economic mismanagement. The upper and middle classes rejoiced. The army returned to its traditional alliance with the rich and the clergy. But the new government, including the present one (which is ironically Peronist without any of the programs of Peron) had not found the solution to the problem of the unhappy ‘losers’, the workers that modern capitalism so easily displaces.

Evita makes you think. In an America where so many workers are discovering that their standard of living is falling, that their jobs are disappearing to automation or to foreign competition, where foreigners abound in ethnically, mixed cities and where the separation between the winners and ‘losers’ is growing wider – is it possible that disgruntled labor could make an alliance with undemocratic politicians and soldiers in an outburst of impulsive resentment. L think not. But Evita makes me think of the danger of a world where the winners indulge their right to self-absorption and where the ‘losers’ are cast aside, alienated from the economic game, and consumed by envy and anger.

The problem of Evita will not go away.