Despite the pandemic, which in most places has put a brake on economic progress, in many parts of the world – notably China and other countries in East Asia which in the past were what one might call Chinese satellites – extreme poverty seems to be on the way out. But while elsewhere hundreds of millions of once very poor people are being incorporated into the consuming classes, here in Argentina the reverse is happening. For decades, at least a quarter, and then a third, of the population has been stuck below the poverty line, and the proportion will in all probability continue to rise even if everybody gets vaccinated before the end of the year.
Though the recent increase, to 42 per cent according to the latest statistics from INDEC, may be attributed in large measure to the onslaught of the coronavirus, few think things would have been much better if the nasty pathogen had left us alone. Unfortunately for many millions of people, Argentina has long been programmed to get poorer and the Kirchnerite government, dominated as it is by individuals who dislike almost everything to do with the only economic system which produces widespread prosperity, is clearly determined to ensure the slide downhill continues.
Politicians, the bureaucrats who do their bidding and intellectuals of one kind or another are naturally inclined to think they are more capable of running an economy than businessmen they say are only interested in making a profit. The rise of communism was helped by the belief that, once in power, such presumably well-meaning individuals would ensure that everybody got a fair shake; its subsequent fall had much to do with its abject failure to deliver the promised goods.
Thanks to the appeal of populist and xenophobic movements like Peronism, in Argentina full-blooded communism did not win many adherents, but most Peronists, many Radicals and supporters of smaller groupings have always shared the mentality that for a long time made it so attractive. Their approach is summed up in the slogan: “Economics must be subordinated to politics.” Most Argentine politicians, and those who vote for them, are convinced that this is how things ought to be.
Until the late 1970s, their Chinese counterparts agreed. Under the Maoist dispensation, they assumed that being “red” was what counted. But then they realised that unless they changed China would remain terribly poor and therefore weak, so they decided that, to quote Deng Xiaoping: “It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches mice.” With that, he released his country’s many hungry felines from the cages in which Mao had put them so they could go on a hugely successful hunting expedition. As Deng also said: “Poverty is not socialism. To get rich is glorious.”
It took barely two generations for China to transform herself from a chaotic backwater into an economic powerhouse able to challenge the United States. Of course, it helped that for thousands of years most Chinese have thought highly of businessmen, hence the admirable achievements of their overseas communities. Once freed from ideological constraints, they did what they have always done best and, while at it, greatly benefitted almost all their compatriots.
What Argentina needs to escape from the poverty that threatens to swallow her whole is a government led by someone like the Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew, an unsentimental realist who refused to let himself be led astray by ideological fantasies. Perhaps Mauricio Macri saw himself as a kindred spirit but, as he now seems aware, once in office he was not tough enough to challenge the populist consensus head-on. Would that have been possible? At the time, probably not: when he took over Argentina appeared to be still a going concern and opposition to any attempt to make big changes would have been ferocious.
Could a future government carry out the basis reforms that would be needed to prevent poverty from becoming so deeply entrenched that the country’s rulers, if they are in a charitable mood, would feel they had to devote all their efforts to setting up soup kitchens and supplying them with basic necessities until the money finally ran out? Like it or not, before long the country will have to choose between resigning itself to such a fate and adopting reforms similar to the ones undertaken by Deng, in what remained a ruthless dictatorship, and by Lee, whose first language was English and who rounded off his formal education in the London School of Economics and Cambridge University, in an authoritarian city-state which nonetheless retained democratic institutions.
For Argentina to follow the same route as Singapore, which is among the richest cities on the face of the planet, she would have to experience a cultural revolution. This raises an important question: would what the country evidently needs to break out of the death spiral taking it towards destruction be compatible with democracy? As things stand, changes like those which enabled the rulers of China and Korea, as well as Taiwan and Singapore, to take proper advantage of the talents of their inhabitants, are blocked by the Kirchnerite stranglehold over the enormous ramshackle slums that cluster around the nation’s capital. However, if, as some expect, economic distress becomes so intense that enough people living in them reject the status quo, a more forward-thinking group of politicians determined to put an end to decades of decadence would have a chance of reaching power as, indeed, happened in 2015.
Whether we like it or not, China is going to play a central role in international affairs for years to come. In many ways this is an alarming prospect: China is a high-tech dictatorship whose nationalistic rulers have no time for minority rights, let alone democracy. But there is a positive side; the Chinese and some of their neighbours have shown the world that with hard-work, pragmatism and a single-minded belief in the value of education, a desperately poor people can become relatively prosperous in a remarkably short period of time. Could Argentina do the same? Only if enough people find the alternative so grim that they come to the conclusion that they have little choice but to make an effort to emulate the East Asians. Until very recently, putting things this way would have seemed outlandish, but in a world in which China’s sphere of influence is rapidly expanding, it looks more like simple common sense.