Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cry for Argentina

Last week, The Economist ran a long cover story about the decline and fall of Argentina.

Today Roger Cohen reports from Argentina and summarizes the nation’s problems well.

In his words:

Argentina … is a perverse case of its own. It is a nation still drugged by that quixotic political concoction called Peronism; engaged in all-out war on reliable economic data; tinkering with its multilevel exchange rate; shut out from global capital markets; trampling on property rights when it wishes; obsessed with a lost little war in the Falklands (Malvinas) more than three decades ago; and persuaded that the cause of all this failure lies with speculative powers seeking to force a proud nation — in the words of its leader — “to eat soup again, but this time with a fork.”

A century ago, Argentina was richer than Sweden, France, Austria and Italy. It was far richer than Japan. It held poor Brazil in contempt. Vast and empty, with the world’s richest top soil in the Pampas, it seemed to the European immigrants who flooded here to have all the potential of the United States (per capita income is now a third or less of the United States level).

Argentina fascinates because decline fascinates. Those who believe that progress is linear have a problem explaining what happened to Argentina.

For my part, I am less interested in the moral predations of Juan and Eva Peron. I am intrigued by the fact that Argentina is a world leader in psychoanalysis. I am persuaded that on a per capita basis Argentinians are leading the world in psychoanalysis.

For many years Argentinian psychoanalysts tended to follow the lead of Melanie Klein. Over the past few decades it has become entranced by the teachings of my old friend, Jacques Lacan. It is not an exaggeration to say that among Argentinian psychoanalysts Lacan is something of a deity.

If you ever criticize Lacan, a leading Argentinian analyst once told me, they will run you out of town.

Cohen notes the Argentinian love affair with psychoanalysis:

In psychological terms — and Buenos Aires is packed with folks on couches pouring out their anguish to psychotherapists — Argentina is the child among nations that never grew up. Responsibility was not its thing. Why should it be? There was so much to be plundered, such riches in grain and livestock, that solid institutions and the rule of law — let alone a functioning tax system — seemed a waste of time.

Of course, one might argue that Argentinians need all of the treatment because their morale has been declining with their nation’s fortunes. Yet, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that psychoanalysis is as much the problem as the solution.

Psychoanalysis values regression over progress. Could it be that all of the regression has turned the nation into a “child among nations?”

I grant that Argentinians know what they really, really want, but has all the effort put into accessing their desire caused them to forget about accessing the credit markets?

Has psychoanalysis gotten them so involved in their minds that they have lost touch with reality?

Have they so thoroughly absorbed Freudian blame-shifting that they cannot take responsibility for their own failings?

And then, there are the politics, both cultural and economic.

As we know well, French Lacanians proudly situate themselves on the radical left. In their youth many of them were Maoists and Marxist-Leninists. Today they have become strong supporters of the Socialist party.

Some psychoanalysts consider themselves the last line of defense against an invasion by an alien Anglo-American culture. Some of them reject cognitive-behavioral treatment for autistic children because they fear a back-door American cultural invasion. They have nothing better to offer themselves, and they know that the American treatments are more effective. They do not care.

Being good culture warriors they are opposed to anything that smacks of British and American culture. That includes industrialization, free trade, free enterprise,  liberal democracy and Margaret Thatcher.

Unfortunately, these attitudes are in perfect harmony with an Argentinian tendency to live off the land, to assume that the soil will provide, to avoid large-scale industrialization and to disparage free trade.

All reputable analyses accept that Argentina has fallen behind because it has failed to embrace the modern world. Perhaps, Argentinians have taken all that Freudian regression a bit too literally.

Cohen describes Argentinian political philosophy as a mishmash:

Argentina invented its own political philosophy: a strange mishmash of nationalism, romanticism, fascism, socialism, backwardness, progressiveness, militarism, eroticism, fantasy, musical, mournfulness, irresponsibility and repression. The name it gave all this was Peronism. It has proved impossible to shake.

Obviously, some of these qualities are dissonant with Freudian theory. And yet, a nation that values romanticism, eroticism, mournfulness and irresponsibility has certainly made progress in its psychoanalytic treatment.


Sam L. said...

I'd think Cohen, being a NYTsman, would be quite happy with Argentina and its rejection on capitalism and love of strong-man rulers.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Maybe, he's seeing the light. Though I suspect that he does not see it in quite these terms. At the least he has enough journalistic integrity to analyze the situation reasonably fairly.

Lastango said...

There might be something even more primary than Peronism: the culture of Spain.

I have read before that the retrograde political cultures of the South American countries are a deep humiliation to the continent's peoples. They know they have had the benefit of 400 years of advanced western societal structure, but nonetheless made a mess of everything they touched.

The old joke, "Brazil is the nation of the future - and always will be" has a bitter taste in the mouths of South Americans.

So, I do not quite agree with Mr. Cohen that "Argentina invented its own political philosophy". I would prefer to say they derived it, and at its core it is true to its Spanish roots.

Anonymous said...

Wow, here's a long article about therapy from last year, so they really have embraced therapy!
Therapy around the world
Number of psychologists per 100,000 residents, 2011
Argentina: 202 (calculated separately); 106 reported to WHO in 2005
Austria: 79.88
Australia: 62.48
France: 47.90
Canada: 46.56
Switzerland: 40.78
Iceland: 31.89
Cyprus: 29.99
United States: 29.03

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... that's a very helpful article.