“Didn’t I tell you? Peronistas are neither good nor bad; they are incorrigible.” – J.L. Borges.
Hours of forgotten tape recordings of the master Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges have just been discovered yesterday and The National Library in Buenos Aires has just recently found an unpublished manuscript of Argentina’s most significant writer. As current Peronist president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s popularity starts to wane, it might be worth revisiting the work of Borges in relation to her populist political phenomenon.
Borges belonged to the tradition of the elite, European gazing liberalism that can be traced from the lineage of Argentines Domingo Sarmiento who wrote possible the most famous of Latin American novels, ‘Facundo – Civilization and Barbarism.’ This tradition rejected popular control that Perónism would come to embody in Argentina. As for many of this generation, Borges wrote of Perónism that it was made up of ‘stories and myths suitable only for idiots.’ Borges and Perónism represent the two major opposing political trends in Argentine history – that of the liberal elitism of Borges, and the nation-populism of Perónism. While liberal elitism is a well-known dead end, offering little guidance toward the construction of a social order base on liberty, equality and solidarity, it does offer a useful critique of the empty rhetoric of nation-populism.
For a very long time in Argentina, Borges had been read mostly by those who wanted to see in him the hero of the cause of art for art’s sake, or the hero of conservative elitism whose writings will work as a ready-made antidote for all things populist such as Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, two of the most successful – Peronist – politicians Argentina has seen. And indeed mid term elections last month suggest that some of the sheen may be wearing off Cristina Kirchner’s presidency, with the loss of the largest and normally Kirchnerite electorate of the Province of Buenos Aires. Turning to Borges (who now seemed to be near universally admired, but in the past was reviled by certain Peronist groups) and his criticism of the mythology of Peronist populism may give us another possible reading into the loss of support for Cristina Kirchner.
Borges rejected truths and grand theories, which is in stark contrast to the current Kirchner government that is dependent on often simplistic ‘us and them’ definitions to explain their program, and more importantly to define enemies. This along with growing economic problems has revealed a cul-de-sac in the centre left program. In Borges poem ‘La Luna’ (The moon) he beautifully brings to the fore the problems he sees in using populist narratives to legitimize political programs:
History tells us how in that past time
When all things happened, real,
Imaginary, and dubious, a man
Conceived the unconscionable plan
Of making an abridgment of the universe
In a single book and with infinite zest
He towered his screed up, lofty and
Strenuous, polished it, spoke the final verse.
About to offer his thanks to fortune,
He lifted up his eyes and saw a burnished
Disc in the air and realized, stunned,
That somehow he had forgotten the moon.
The story I have told, although a tale,
Can represent the witching spell
So many of us use when at our craft
Of transmuting our life into words.
Reading this, one sees that Borges depicts that attempts to neatly tell of the world always end up in missing something, even something as obvious as the moon. Kirchner style populism is dependent on narratives that are often simplistic and have been part of the success of their project. Both Nestor and Cristina have rallied their ideas around their ‘people’ versus a roughly defined ‘elite’. As philosopher Judith Butler has stated, ‘social transformation occurs not merely by rallying mass numbers in favour of a cause, but precisely through the ways in which daily social relations are rearticulated’. But if the daily social relations in Argentina do not correspond to these narratives, their political legitimacy begins to drop. At the moment in Argentina inflation remains high, crime is ever so slowly on the rise and social gains made at the start of the Kirchner government are starting to slow. In addition the restriction of dollars and blatant manipulation of statistics may undermine much of the positive view the population has of her after nearly a decade of social gains.
For Borges, the world is an incomprehensible place, like his famous infinite Library of Babel. If one attempts to order experience, it is ultimately a doomed project which he relates in the story, ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ in which grand narratives are rejected on a created imaginary planet. Narratives which pitted the popular classes and rural against the urban and international elite which the Kirchners have represented with their fights against international capital (for example Spanish oil company Repsol and media conglomerate Clarin) through these texts would be condemned by Borges as foolish and overly simplistic. And I would extrapolate further that unless accompanied by real change will eventually be rallied against.
In another essay in Sur called ‘Nuestro pobre individualismo’ Borges argued that Argentines did not identify with the State: ‘the Argentine is an individual, not a citizen’ he wrote. He drew a political lesson against the nationalists of his time and stated that ‘the most urgent of the problems of our age is the gradual intromission of the state into the acts of the individual.’ For Borges the strong state interference into the daily lives of Argentines would be something that would eventually rejected. And he may be right as criticisms from both the left and right of the Kirchner regime are gaining traction as the support for Kirchner’s strong statist, but still bourgeois capitalist reforms starts to stutter.
It has been asked by Perónists, especially of the popular center left, but what relevance does his elitist and escapist ideas have for a nation that has been trapped under corrupt governments and poverty? Borges would respond to this in his preface to ‘The Book of Sand’ writing that ‘I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as ‘The Masses’. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in.’ As the finding of his new writings which continue to shun these simplistic narratives come to hand, it appears Borges may have a point with the limited life span of this type of populist political agitation.
But Borges’ rejection of ‘the masses’ also points to a contradiction within the current opposition’s political project. How does one stop a non-liberal leader such as Kirchner who still has the majority support of the population, even if it has been reduced? In Borges’ time it was only through the rule of a brutal, unrepresentative elite however this seems to thankfully be a far-fetched idea today. Borges mistrusted democracy but of the majority of the anti-Kirchner opposition on both the left and right believe in democracy. But also Borges did not trust ‘the people’ since for him they were ‘chained to ideological myths’ which is more often than not the line of the right wing, claiming that Kirchnerismo is duping the Argentine people with slogans and no action.
In ‘El Hacedor’ he wrote that the battle of the civil wars may be forgotten, and even Perón may be forgotten, but the dual between two gauchos – which can be read as the tensions within Argentine society between liberals and national-populist – would be infinitely repeating: ‘the visible armies have gone away, and only a poor duel remains; this dream of one man is part of everybody’s memories.’ Given his pessimistic and conservative outlook, Borges’ political observations serve, at best, as cautionary yellow lights along the road ahead, rather than a roadmap indicating where we might want to go. But he understood Argentina better than most, and Cristina Kirchner might do well do to read his advice about the limits of national-populism as she attempts to make further social gains while retaining political legitimacy.