Peronism is the highest level of consciousness reached by the Argentine working class.
Statement of the Movement of Priests for the Third World, 1971
We mustn’t pay too much attention to people who talk to us of prudence. We must be fanatical.
By whatever varietal name you call it, populist leftism is experiencing a rebirth, with the Vicar of Christ as an attendant midwife. Jorge Bergolio grew up amid extravagant devotion to Juan and Eva Perón. The agitated history of those years and the collapse of the peronato into violence and economic ruin is well documented. What matters here is that Pope Francis brings to the Chair of Peter an embrace of the Peronist mystique untempered by its lessons.
Argentina’s historic self-immolation illustrates that good intentions are not sufficient for good politics. Neglect of productivity—the means of creating income—in favor of income redistribution (between industries and occupations, between skilled and unskilled workers) proved lethal to the economic growth needed to achieve durable long-term prosperity. Yet the peronato is being revived, this time on a global scale. Peronism rebounds under the pretext of climate change.
Benito Mussolini served as a role model for Perón in the 1930s as he had for Hitler in the ’20s. A student of Mussolini’s control of the Italian economy and an admirer of his oratorical hold on the populace, Perón acquired shrewd appreciation for populist gestures. Eva adopted her husband’s politics and dedicated herself to advancing his social goals. A charismatic pair, they ruled more by force of personality—personalismo—than democratic procedure. Ushers of an “option for the poor,” they glorified the lower classes and denigrated the wealthy. [This, while amassing a huge personal fortune from the welfare foundation Eva created. And, it seems, with no sense of contradiction.]
Evita incarnated the enchantments of populism. She held weekly audiences and was routinely photographed kissing the sick, the leprous, the syphilitic. The Fundación Eva Perón ballooned into a mammoth patronage machine, insuring Eva’s status as a peronista heroine. The glittering First Lady wore her own wealth as a pledge of impending affluence to all. As she wrote in her autobiography:
I wish them [the poor] to accustom themselves to live like the rich . . . For
when all is said and done, everyone has a right to be rich on this Argentine soil . . . and in any part of the world.”
She railed against “the rich and powerful exploiters of the people,” adding “[God] will make them pay for all that the poor have suffered, down to the last drop of their blood.” In Paraguay, Pope Francis echoed the incendiary Peronist note. He instructed audiences “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
Eva’s image is said to have replaced the Virgin in many homes. Her titles included The Lady of Hope, The Mother of the Innocents, The Workers’ Plenipotentiary, The Bridge of Love, and crowning the litany, Spiritual Leader of Our Nation. Even today, she remains a semi-sacred figure. Her legend is still a force in Argentine politics.
This in mind, I turned to a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s 1974 The Return of Eva Perón. The title applies to a single essay out of four in the book, one evoking the alchemy that turned Eva into a saint and Peronism into a religion:
The Peronist revolution was going bad. Argentina’s accumulated wartime wealth was running low; the colonial economy, unregenerated, plundered, mismanaged, was beginning to founder; the peso was falling; the workers, to whom so much had been given, were not always loyal. But she [Eva] still cherished her especial pain that “there were people who were rich.”
Naipaul skims details of the cult of Evita—“the public passion play of the dictatorship”—to summon the atmosphere surrounding the pageant that was essential to the authoritarian mystique. Writing some twenty years after her death, he describes a villa miseria, not far from Buenos Aires’ proxy for the Bois de Boulogne:
[It was] a shantytown with unpaved streets and black runnels of filth …. Seventy thousand people lived there, nearly all Indians, blank and slightly imbecilic in appearance, from the north and from Bolivia and Paraguay; so that suddenly you were reminded that you were not in Paris or Europe but in South America. The priest in charge was one of the[marxisant] “Priests for the Third World.” He wore a black leather jacket and his little concrete shed of a church, over-simple, rocked with some amplified Argentine song. It had been whispered to me that the priest came of a very good family; and perhaps the change of company had made him vain. He was, of course, a Peronist: “Only an Argentine can understand Peronism. I can talk to you for five years about Peronism, but you will never understand.”
But couldn’t we try? He said that Peronism wasn’t concerned with economic growth; they rejected the consumer society. But hadn’t he just been complaining about the unemployment in the interior, the result of government folly, that was sending two Indians into his shantytown for every one that left? He said wasn’t going to waste his time talking to a norteamericano; some people were concerned only with GNP. And, leaving us, he bore down, all smiles, on some approaching Indians.The river wind was damp, the concrete shed unheated, and I wanted to leave. But the man with me was uneasy. He said we should at least wait and tell the father I wasn’t an American. We did so. And the father, abashed, explained that Peronism was really concerned with the development of the human spirit. Such a development had taken place in Cuba and in China; in those countries they had turned their backs on the industrial society.
Today’s climate change zealotry—its romantic hostility to development, to democratic (distinct from crony) capitalism and entrepreneurial culture, its appetite for state-controlled economies —replays Perón’s failed biases. The Thirties die hard. Karl Marx’s much-quoted comment on Louis Bonaparte comes straight to mind:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
Marx himself forgot to note that, however much farce informs the second time around, the repetition also bears the rancid seeds of tragedy.
Note: This post is an addendum to an essay of mine that appears today in The Federalist.