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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 28-05-2022 00:50

Jobs for the boys in the patronage state

As far as the Kirchnerites are concerned, a cat’s political colour is the only thing that really matters.

China’s economy started to grow soon after Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, came to the conclusion that, as he memorably remarked: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” In other words, he thought it was foolish to let incompetents run the show just because they were, as Mao had loudly insisted, appropriately “red.” This is something Kirchnerites refuse to understand. They admire China, but are reluctant to recognise that, had it not been for Deng’s determination to do away with the mental shackles which had been holding her back, she would still be as wretchedly poverty-stricken as in the days of “the great helmsman.”

As far as the Kirchnerites are concerned, a cat’s political colour is the only thing that really matters. This is why the government they dominate has given thousands of card-carrying members of La Cámpora cushy jobs in the grotesquely obese public-sector while sidelining others who do not share their emphatic views.

Exactly how many such individuals owe their employment and their income to nothing more than their political activism seems to be a state secret, but as is continually being pointed out by critics of the Kirchnerite administration, a great many of them occupy niches in the large organisations that have been set up to run the overstretched pension system, look after the millions of people who without handouts would go hungry, mismanage the loss-making national airline Aerolíneas Argentinas, the mainly state-owned oil company YPF and many other such enterprises.

Some of them may be talented enough, but most are where they are for exclusively political reasons and, since Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has chosen to wage a war of attrition against President Alberto Fernández, they are doing their level best to thwart what efforts he makes to slow down the country’s slide towards the bottom of the Latin American heap. Once upon a time, Argentina was by far the most prosperous country south of the United States, but average wages have shrunk so much that, it was recently reported, they are now among the lowest in the region.

Opinion polls have long shown that, even though openly leftist movements rarely get more than a handful of votes, Argentina is a thoroughly statist country in which a large majority has far more confidence in the public sector than in anything smacking of free-market capitalism. Despite this, few people show much interest in doing anything to improve the state’s performance which, it is generally agreed, is appallingly bad. 

In this part of the world, the idea that, as in some other countries, public servants (especially those who occupy positions near the top) should be rigorously selected from among the most intelligent, hard-working and honest men and women available, is anathema. It would appear that nobody wants Argentina to have a professional and, on the whole, apolitical “mandarinate” as can, or could, be found in Japan, France, the United Kingdom and, needless to say, China before populist pressures and ideological prejudices forced those responsible for running the relevant institutions to be less demanding. Here we have one big reason why Argentina has kept falling further and further behind countries such as Italy, Spain and Chile, with which she has much in common.

The rot started over a century ago. On becoming president, the Radical leader Hipólito Yrigoyen set about colonising the public sector, which until then had been unabashedly meritocratic, with people whose only qualification was their loyalty to him and his movement. As the years passed, others – most notably the Peronists – did the same with growing enthusiasm. They are still at it. The ability to hand out public sector jobs and gain access to the large sums of money the state disposes of are what most politicians are after and, if the electorate puts them in office, they have no qualms about using what they get their fingers on to make life easier for their friends and supporters.

This has been going on for so long that most have come to see it as perfectly natural, hence the dismay that is taking hold of the political fraternity as not only its leaders but also those who are lower in the pecking order become aware that the country can no longer afford to let them continue ripping off the rest of society as they and their predecessors have been doing for so long. The rapid rise of the histrionic “libertarian” Javier Milei, who gives the impression that he would dearly like to abolish the state and rages against the “political caste” which he sees as a gang of parasites, is one symptom of what is happening. Another is inflation, with banknotes getting printed at an increasing rate in a vain effort to give the state more money to spend and, while about it, allow the politicians who are currently in office to carry on as usual. Hard as it no doubt is for many of them to understand, the socioeconomic model they installed has been running on empty for far too long and, unless it is quickly replaced by something very different, it will break down entirely, leaving much of the population stranded in the middle of an unforgiving wasteland.

Argentina’s economy stopped growing over a decade ago in large measure because Cristina gave priority to the interests of her keenest followers who wanted to be rewarded for their efforts on her behalf with jobs in the public sector. Unlike Deng’s cats, they had no need to spend their time chasing mice. Instead, they were expected to make it clear that loyalty to her and the strange ideology her supporters had improvised would give them the upward social mobility and job security so many of them craved.

Until quite recently, this arrangement worked splendidly well, but now strong winds are blowing in a different direction. With Cristina’s approval rating dipping below 25 percent and not just the Kirchnerite wing but the entire Peronist movement likely to be thrashed in the forthcoming general elections, the prospects of many who did well when she was the most powerful politician in the land look grim. Milei is certainly not the only opposition figure who would like to make the men and women of La Cámpora pay for their contribution to the disaster they helped bring about. Among these are plenty of Peronists who blame them for their government’s evident failure and, being a vengeful lot, they can be relied upon to do their utmost to chase them back to where they came from.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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