Helpless in Argentina

Democracy is often contrasted with tyranny.  There are many variants of tyranny, but whether the label is authoritarianism, totalitarianism or dictatorship, the theme is that decisions are made by one group of persons and imposed on the rest of the population.  Tyranny is objectionable when those decisions serve to enrich and protect the tyrants against the interest of the collective whole.  Then again, tyranny is sometimes justified because democracy (or the rule of the mob) was proving to be dysfunctional and an elite regime of national salvation was needed.

It is fine to sell democracy against the evil alternative of tyranny.  But how does democracy work in practice?  Democracy is usually sold in the ideal form of equality in which all citizens have a voice.  In practice, one cannot have 20 million eligible persons vote on every decision, major or minor.  That is why elections are held in which candidates state their positions on various issues and the voters choose those candidates whose positions that they like best.  Inevitably, there are some compromises in that no candidate may reflect one's preferences on all of the issues and one will simply have to choose the best fit.  The worst case scenario is one in which none of the candidates are acceptable.  As a Buenos Aires taxi driver said, "Here we have two parties: the thieves and the incompetents.  They are eating up Argentina."

In a free market democracy, such large-scale discontent should eventually lead to the emergence of new political parties and politicians who can respond to those needs.  Unfortunately, in today's world, democracy does not work in a frictionless manner.  Political campaigning nowadays require huge amount of money and resources and therefore, the 'best' candidates may be severely handicapped against the entrenched political machines who are aided by special interest groups.  In this atmosphere, it is no surprise that people feel helpless.

We will now cite some data from the TGI Argentina study.  This is a survey of 5,946 persons between the ages of 12 to 75 years old conducted during 2001.  Within this survey, the respondents are shown a statement "There is little that I can do to change my life."  In total, 34% of the respondents said that they either 'completely agree' or 'somewhat agree' with this statement.  We note that this statement contains many possible elements, from the personal (e.g. marriage) to the public (e.g. economy), but at this moment in the history of Argentina, political economy must be the grandest single issue.

The TGI Argentina survey was conducted during the early part of the year 2001.  The full political crisis of going through five presidents in a brief period of just 13 days would occur at the end of the year, some months after this survey was completed.  Nevertheless, the signs of that crisis has been evident for quite some time.  An economic recession had been going on for four years with no end in sight, unemployment was holding steady at around 20% and a debt default seemed all but inevitable.  All the remedies and fixes did not inspire any confidence that the problem was going to be resolved.

In the next chart, we show the responses broken out by the response to the consumer confidence question in the TGI Argentina survey.  It is no surprise to find that the sense of helplessness is highest among those who have seen their economic condition deteriorate in the past 12 months and those who expect that economic condition to deteriorate in the future.

The sense of helplessness is also expected to be different according to the life stage.  When one is young, there is still the possibility of pursuing a completely different course of life.  In the case of Argentina, anyone can see the long lines of visa applicants at foreign embassies in Buenos Aires.  For an elderly person, there are fewer degrees of freedom and flexibility.  Worse yet, at this moment, one's savings and pensions may be erased as banks accounts are frozen while a devaluation is being contemplated.  

In the next chart, we show how the responses vary by age and gender.  Just as we guessed, the response are lowest among persons 20-24 years old and highest among those who are 55 or more years older.

In the next chart, we show the responses broken out by socio-economic level and education.  The sense of helplessness is highest among the less educated poor, who have the least amount of financial resources and human capital.

But while some individuals and groups can be oppressed and disfranchised by other individuals, groups, social institutions and cultural contexts, they have the potential to empower themselves in order to be liberated.  There is no law of nature that dictates that some groups must be subservient to others.  The uncertain thing is the exact process by which this happens (or does not happen).  Karl Marx's third thesis on Feuerbach was: 

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.  Hence, this doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example).

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionising practice.

The manner by which things change may be surprising and unexpected.  In the case of Argentina, there was no obvious solution to the festering crisis.  Nevertheless, in December 2001-January 2002, two presidents were ousted because a large portion of the population went out into the streets, banging their pots and pans to voice their displeasure.  The chronology of events was:

The situation was very similar to the People Power revolution in which Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a matter of days by mass demonstrations in 1986.  While it is by no means clear that the fifth Argentine president Eduardo Duhalde would be the savior, there will always be the awareness of the power of the people.  As a sign written on the sidewalk across Casa Rosada says, "We are going to keep on coming.  Signed, The People."

(posted by Roland Soong, 1/22/2002)

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