Recuerdos de la Muerte (Memories of Death).

Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos”  (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.

For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.

The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.

The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.

It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities  so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.

These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.

We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”

All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”

NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.

23 thoughts on “Recuerdos de la Muerte (Memories of Death).

  1. This diatribe is a left wing version of those tea party cretins is think that universal healthcare is a communist plot.


  2. The Middle Eastern dictators haven’t really followed the Chicago-school economics model, either.

  3. IS, you’re a nitpicking troll. Please engage with the substance of the post. Clearly your attitude is a result of the failures of the New Zealand university system.

  4. I/S: Sorry, I was in a hurry to head to class this AM so did not catch the typos (that was not the only one). I have corrected the mistakes.

    Hugh: I was referring not the ME economic model but to the collective trauma brought on by dictatorships. My reference to the neoliberal model had to do with NZ’s adoption of policies (and approaches to policy-making) first trialled by the likes of Videla, Pinochet, Banzer (in Bolivia) and Geisel (in Brazil).

    JD: I guess you would have to experience first hand the full scope of dictatorial repression to understand where I am coming from, and why I draw the lessons that I have. Be thankful that you have not.

  5. I remember as a child in Holland my family camping beside an Argentine family and an American family escaping the draft for Vietnam. I had later assumed that the Argentine family were were also political refugees but you blog makes this unlikely due to the time frames.

    I agree with your point about victims being unlikely to easily forgive in the ME but I also wonder if it might be possible in the ME to come to an arrangement not too dissimilar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation model.

    Libya is obviously beyond this.

  6. Pablo. I read the first part of this post with growing bemusement. How could you have endured that and still be opposed to an invasion of Iraq. The first part of this post is exceptional analysis
    The second is just utter tripe where you attempt to bring new Zealand into the same frame as a murderous repressive right wing fascist regime.
    You would accept farmers as the cornerstone of the Nz economy. One of the biggest changes wrought by gthe 84 labour government was to remove agricultural subsidies. As the supposed right wing bastions of privilege that kills your comparison stone dead
    What new Zealand did was to restore some degree of individual freedom of association by making farmers stand on their own feet, reducing monolithic govt depts and unions with huge power of the
    elite. Those institutions had a much closer moral parallel to the kind if control you describe in Argentina. Albeit without the physical torture but certainly with elite control over the actions of individuals

  7. Thanks Phil.

    TBH I did not consider the farmers so much as I did the drastic de-regulation of the finance industry and devaluation of the national currency (both abjectly monetarist in nature), the way in which it was done, the labour market follow up that was the ECA (modeled explicitly on Chile’s Plan Laboral, of which I have written extensively about), and the ongoing reaffirmation of “the market” as the guiding hand of NZ society, with all of the atomizing and alienating consequences that it has brought.

    I knew of course, the folks like you and JD would freak out at the drawing of parallels between the murderous behaviour of the guardians of the Rogernomics inspiration, but I figured that I would lay it out there for all to see. As for the idea that having lived through a state terror experiment (actually, more than one) would make me a supporter of the invasion of Iraq–you seem to forget that being terrorised by a foreign occupiers and unconventional internationalists fighting against them in the absence of a viable national government is worse than being terrorised by a regime whose rules you are aware of.

    I hate to say it, but there are no absolutes and no black and white when it comes to the criminal repression of those who rule by force. Instead, there are degrees of terror, degrees of acquiescence, degrees of submission and degrees of collaboration. Vichy France, Franco’s Spain, pre-independence Algeria and pre-revolutionary Nicaragua are just some historical examples of the range of fear extant in regimes that use terror as an instrument of state policy. The “Proceso” in Argentina simply made it the basis of their rule, perfecting their methods and techniques to the point that to this day it has admirers amongst those who practice the dark art of internal repression–and some of these may well be in the US.

  8. Your personal experiences shouldn’t be an excuse to use such flawed logic.

    The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare.

    BTW if you want to be taken seriously outside of academia maybe you should tone down this kind of bizarre rhetoric. It sounds like your masturbating over those Italian marxists you’re so fond of.

  9. Dawg:

    You clearly have no clue about this subject, which is personal to me and is not just an academic concern to neo-Marxists. Not only that, but the concepts of atomizing infantilisation and survivalist alienation are concepts that come from psychological studies of victims of state terror undertaken over the least 40 years–there is a voluminous literature on the subject. In others words, I know fully of what I write about from a personal and professional standpoint, while you bark like a fool from the safety of your keyboard in a country where an axe thrown through a window is seditious and shooting a NZ flag, talking separatist rubbish while high, throwing petrol bombs in the bush and holding a hikoi is considered subversive. You silly puppy.

    If you do not like what I write just decline to read.

  10. Pablo

    It is very difficult to discuss these two utterly different themes in one post. I find it slightly undignified to trivialise the suffering of those in Argentina and South America by comparison with the liberalisation of the New Zealand economy in the eighties and early nineties.

    I don’t accept that the premise of your conflation of New Zealand with Argentina at all. Unlike JD I accept completely the premise that the terror of the state will bully people into submission. I see the after effects in my wife’s home country every time I visit. I like the point you make about the power seeping into all layers of the institutions of a country. There is a very worrying tendency with the Fidesz Prime Minister in Hungary right now. They are busy sacking anybody who disagrees with them.

    Where we differ is in the simplistic left/right labelling. To me the fascists are just as bad as the communists or the caliphate threat of the Islamists. They are all authoritarians. They seek to use the power of the state and the power of the institution to compel the people to the will of the elite. You know me as a National supporter and yet I voted New Zealand Party in 1984 and Labour in 1987. It is not the tribal party but the policies that count.

    New Zealand suffered in the seventies and early eighties from an excessively sized state and excessively sized unions who were both in cahoots with an import licence based business sector that both focused on managing its relationship with the state rather than competition. The power of the unions had to be broken. It is simply illiberal for people to be compelled to belong to a union. Equally it is illiberal for people to be forbidden to organise themselves into a union ala Walmart or Wisconsin. Once organised union power must be constrained from imposing its monopolistic will by preventing the use of outside labour if workers strike. If that sound contradictory to you it seems like the only intellectually coherent liberal approach to me.

    In terms of practical application New Zealand still has a long way to go. I have a huge amount of respect for the way the farming community accepted the removal of their cosy protection and simply got on with becoming competitive internationally. A big part of the reason why New Zealand has lagged Australia is that the benefits of competitive agriculture has been stopped by EU & USA. With the development of China and India and the demand for higher quality food I see New Zealand should prosper in coming years providing it gets its regulatory mechanisms matched to the assurance of high quality high price rather than simply competing in a race to lowest cost provider of protein.

    I will comment on Arentina vs Iraq in later comment

  11. JD, BTW if you want to be taken seriously outside of your own brain, maybe you could try to contribute something resembling an argument rather than bits of undigested chunder.

  12. Argentina, infantilisation, more recent interventions and the human psyche.
    I started off writing a comment about Iraq and the Bush doctrine but that would bore Lew so will instead off some further observations on the context of the time, human nature and where best to push for positive liberal change.

    Saddam Hussein had complete control of the Iraqi population after cowing them into submission. There was a clear moral case to intervene on that basis. There was a clear moral case to intervene in Libya. The people had risen up and they deserved protection from the terror of the state. My understanding of Argentina and the South American dictatorships is that they took place against a very different global context to that which exists today.

    Having just tactically lost the war in Vietnam, both militarily and in the popular mind America turned isolationist and introspective but those in control still recognised the Soviet threat. The oppression happened both because America was too feeble under Ford and Carter to respond and because of the “At least he is our bastard” attitude espoused the likes of US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on Argentina – “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement” and “because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”[wikilink ].

    That attitude is simply not acceptable today. That is the really big thing that Bush achieved by changing the nature of the debate at the level of state diplomacy rather than simply among intellectuals. Obviously it was partly enabled by the end of the failed Communist experiment but also recognised that the way to defeat militant Islamism is not through assisting friendly states to exist through oppression of democracy that might lead to Islamists gained power democratically.

    It is such a shame that the weakness of Obama is putting that change at risk. David Cameron has revealed himself to be a leader of moral principle by taking domestic political risks to protect the rebels in Libya. Obama just sits on his hands despite the efforts of his apologists to pretend that waiting was the best option.

    The lesson that you and so many on “the left” need to learn in my never humble opinion is from the parallel at the end of the first gulf war. Bush senior refrained from overthrowing Hussein because it would have made America responsible for the rebuilding. Bush Junior understood that attitude was short termist and doomed to failure after 12 years of no fly zone and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through the actions of the Hussein regime.

    It took nearly 30 years for the lesson of the irresponsibility of the Kissinger et al support for oppressive but friendly regimes to be learned by the Bush Jr administration. It would be a terrible shame for Obama to repudiate that policy simply because of who espoused it. And be clear that Bush included it in his second inaugural address so he did not make it for reasons of pre justification for Iraq.

    The point you make about institutions and the power of the state is important. I have followed the progress of Hungary over the last 20 years since the changes. It has been ruled by a variety of competent and incompetent politicians and civil servants who have varied only in the amount they steal. It is part of the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan and will no doubt impact on the newly liberated.

    Sorry I got onto Iraq and Bush anyway. I would be interested to develop the institutional theme because it seems the most valid from the post. I simply don’t accept the New Zealand parallels.

  13. Thanks Phil:

    We may disagree on most everything, including aspects of this discussion, but I appreciate the time, effort and thought that you put into your comments. Heck, maybe someday you will sway me over to your point of view! >>Tui Ad here<<

  14. the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through the actions of the Hussein regime.

    no, almost entirely through the actions of a US and UK-controlled UN committee enforcing a blockade of essential suplies.

  15. tochigi, BTW if you want to be taken seriously outside of your own brain, maybe you could try to contribute something resembling an argument rather than bits of undigested chunder.

    If Hussein had co-operated with the Oil for Food Program there would not have been an issue.

    Or do you think that people should be able to break the law with impunity and blame law enforcement rather than themselves?

  16. Phil:

    I do not want to get side-tracked yet again into Bush-Iraq given what this post is about. But I should note two things: 1) Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy actually did a world of good in curbing the dictatorial bloodlust in South America, as he cut off economic and military aid to human rights abusers and demanded the identification and release of political prisoners to the point that the dictators began to ease up on their repression (which was resumed once Ronald Reagan took office and abandoned the human rights policy); and 2) the US had no UN authorisation for its assault on Iraq, manufactured evidence, falsified information and exaggerated the threat in order to cobble together a coalition of mostly reluctant partners in what was a unilateral war of choice rather than necessity, and only belatedly, once the invasion was exposed as a neocon wet dream, started to talk about democracy and humanitarian objectives (the Iraqis can attest to how well that has gone). Obama has worked hard to take a low profile role in a UN sanctioned humanitarian mission under the R2P doctrine that was pushed by its allies who have a more strategic interest in Libya, and to which the Russia and and Chinese acquiesced (although they are now barking from the sidelines). The mission is deeply flawed, to be sure, but it has the sanction and limited goals that Dubya never received or enunciated.

    In other words, the two cases for intervention may seem similar on the face of things, but they are not.

  17. I, to, was bemused by the way US rhetoric on Iraq changed. The arc from George W Saying “I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us…” to the line they were in fact actually defending civilization and democracy from the evil darkness of Al Qaeda reminded me of a certain other states frankly ideologically driven unilateral invasion of another country whose justification morphed into a defense of western civilization from sub-human asiatic hordes…

    In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.

    Pablo, I read your piece several days ago and the word which has stuck in my head most is “softer”. Are you sure it is really softer here, or just that we are on the journey to it’s South-America style conclusion?

  18. Sanctuary:

    I meant “softer” in that NZ did not see the repression that Argentina and Chile did. But if we consider the way in which Rogernomics was imposed, the thrust of the ECA and National’s latest modifications to NZ labour laws as well as its use of urgency to ram through legislation and enact emergency powers, then I agree that the long term journey in market-driven policy-making has a distinctly authoritarian tone to it.

  19. Pablo – I did try to avoid writing about Iraq but got sucked in.
    To complete the rebuttal of your NZ parallel. The financial services boom in the eighties was based on an investor mania that was partly based on real privatisations such as Telecom but more so from a mania for “big” investor personalities and their supposed Midas touch like Brierley, Judge, Hawkins, Reynolds.

    That was again not a central elite but more a wild market. Some like Gibbs made out well with Telecom. Others like Fay used excessive influence to buy BNZ with its own money. So I dont argue that the corrupt corporate influence did not exist, instead that it was certainly not the dominating influence.

  20. Of more interest is the psychology of the people who are coming out of repressive regimes. We had a couple of posts some months ago now where we argued whether Iraq had been a success. I am now firmly of the opinion that it has achieved a resounding strategic success as powerful as “the changes” at the end of the cold war in eastern europe irrespective of what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves. They have been a trigger for change. Syrian democrats have patiently waited their turn and have seen the West support democratic aspirations in Libya, now they too are moving.

    The question I pose to you is how do you see the attitude of the people in the newly less oppressed countries. They are a long way from democracy but they have learned of people power. That genie has been uncorked from the bottle. There has always been the Iran path where revolution brought theocracy but that path seems to have been discredited. I find it difficult to believe there is a quick path to robust Western democracy but I find it equally difficult to believe the path lies towards establishment of an Islamist caliphate. What are your thoughts on the direction of the will of the people.

  21. If you do not like what I write just decline to read.

    Sorry but I just can’t help it. As a trained lawyer I feel its my duty to pour scorn on intellectual vacuity masquerading as knowledge. Why do you feel compelled resort to overblown academic verbosity – in order to gain some kind of credibility with impressionable undergraduates?

  22. J Dawg:

    It is a sorry reflection on the legal profession that you exhibit limited reading comprehension skills and a basic failure to comprehend rather simple points, to say nothing of an utter lack of compassion for the victims of murderous regimes. You clearly do not read much, because if you did you would not have difficulty with terms that even undergraduates of average intellect quickly master.

    Truth is, you got all bothered by my drawing parallels between NZ and these regimes and particularly the references to how NACToids took direct lessons from the South American macroeconomic “models.” So not only are you a dillitente posing as a scrutiniser of “intellectual vacuity” (and since when is that the role of a “trained lawyer?”) . You are also a partisan coward who simply cannot admit that you have no knowledge of the subject area yet do not like it when your side of the political divide gets linked to unpleasantries committed abroad.

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