How are we to sum up the first month or so of Argentina’s new Let’s Change Politics ©?
Pro-business euphoria, bonfire of state jobs by the tens of thousands, something fishy in the Buenos Aires Province prison system and a dose of good old fashioned police repression for continuity’s sake have been some of the highlights. We live in interesting times.
The force 10 gale to hit the Casa Rosada since December 10, in the shape of an ex-business plutocrat and his adorable, media-friendly family, cast front and center into the limelight, has been anything but lackluster, first month vacations be damned.
No democratic quorum in Congress? No problem! Presidential decrees are there to be used goddammit, no matter what the in extremis softies say about giving democratic institutions a whirl first. That approach is old school, frankly, and congressional votes are so frightfully dull.
Underpinning the dazzling display of presidential willpower has been an interesting approach employed by the new government in its use of language, ahead of announcing the proposed strong-armed changes and any number of “emergencies” — such as the de-facto introduction of the death penalty, of which more later — that we have seen over the last six weeks.
We are now, they tell us, living in a state of security emergency, energy emergency, even a national statistics emergency (that will handily allow the government not to bother with those pesky numbers for some time longer, by the way).
On the one hand, it’s a refreshing change from the Panglossian approach to governance espoused by the former Victory Front (FpV) administration of ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who regularly declared that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds, even as the reserves depleted, inflation rose and more families struggled to make ends meet.
The bedside manner talk of the new administration, used to justify its tough love deployment of State power even as it frees up the markets appears to be an altogether different animal. It’s worth examining via a few examples so we can best divine our rulers’ motives and messages and all sleep a bit easier, bar the heat. Maybe.
Extreme Pleasures Spiked With Plane
Most recently and spectacularly, we were treated to the news that there is now a National Security Emergency, on account of all these drugs that just will not stop being wanted, shipped and taken in vast quantities in Argentina much like they are the world over.
“The current situation… merits adopting measures that allow us to make extreme use of State resources,” Macri said last week, towing the generic and generally silly War on Drugs line before jetting off to Davos for a bought of his business networking hobby and an altogether more chillaxed tone.
The language was revealing. EXTREME USE OF STATE RESOURCES. Doesn’t it all sound a bit too, err, well, frankly… in a manner of speaking… extreme?
Governments the world over are using the word extreme (plus suffixes ad infinitum) like it’s going out of fashion. What they are not doing is using it to describe themselves. In choosing to do so, Macri’s employing scare tactics and sending a clear message to his friends and enemies, both perceived and genuine, about how real this shit is getting.
It is perhaps a little concerning that the government feels the need to do this so quickly. At face value, the message is that there is clearly a serious problem and they want us to know that.
On the other hand, the words deliberately chosen in these announcements have the effect of placing the government, in our minds when we think of the connotations at least, squarely next to other political regimes that were or are called “extreme”.
Unless we’re thinking about Evil Kinevil, base jumping or those guys who climbed Meru recently, “extreme” doesn’t have particularly fun or positive implications, especially when it’s allied to “use of state resources.”
The language of the declaration itself may have been strong, but it was light on actual substance, as people have noticed. “If you consider the grounds of the decree, you will find a list of adjectives but you won’t find figures,” Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) executive director Gastón Chillier told the Buenos Aires Herald recently.
This was direct and deliberate Impact Discourse 101 and little else. But the political situation created by the emergency announcement also called for an immediate reaction and use of just the opposite from the government.
When the technical implications of this National Security Emergency were realized, the government was forced to beat a hasty linguistic retreat to minimize the bad press that erupted in the wake of the announcement, which was accompanied by a decree (Macri’s eighth of his six-week tenure), which gave the state overarching control over Argentine airspace.
As many different legal advisors, human rights groups and even former associates of the government — like Margarita Stolbizer and the CELS for example — pointed out, the security emergency decree gave the state the authority to shoot down any airplanes in Argentina airspace: an effective execution without trial were this to happen and contrary to Argentine law.
It fell to Security Minister Patricia Bullrich to provide the anti-inflammatory balm, applying soothing technical utterances on the concerned responses to the emergency declaration.
The move and subsequent “shoot-down” declaration, she said, was nothing more than a bid to “tighten the security around air traffic control.” Phew. That’s OK then. We can all sleep better now, provided we ignore the advice of renowned Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who helped interpret the deliberately confused casserole of jargon.
“The government is illegally establishing the death penalty and allowing the military to intervene in domestic security,” he said last week, backed up by opposition politicians and human rights organizations across Argentina.
But despite the doses of moderate statements amid the belligerence, Bullrich has not let up in recent days.
“We are here to give an historic and necessary battle,” Bullrich and the security ministry said, sounding every bit like San Martín incarnate, I’m sure we all agree. She didn’t stop there. Over the weekend, the security ministry via the government’s Official Bulletin called for everyone to be “uniting to combat the most dangerous enemy Argentine society has, drugs.”
Forget climate change and devastating floods, forget the most severe outbreak of dengue fever in years, forget the increasing vulnerability to international market slumps en route with Macri’s version of the NEP. Spliffs and lines are the most dangerous enemy for Argentine society.
This is needlessly over the top, as human rights advocates were again obliged to point out.
“They are using war rhetoric,” Chillier told the Herald.
“In order to give a response to legitimate social demands, once again sensationalist but inefficient announcements are being made, but with the aggravation that the punitive surge leads to the authorization of the death penalty by proxy.”
When it comes to doublethink emergency announcements, in fact, Bullrich has made a strong case for her candidacy as reigning Queen Bee of Spin.
The nationwide “extreme measures” announcement was preceded a couple of weeks ago by the Security Minister’s pre-emptive use of that “state of emergency” phrase now drilling itself into our hippocampussi with boorish precision.
Speaking to TN, Bullrich told us of “this necessity to have the power to struggle for our borders against drug trafficking,” sounding every bit the Davy Crocket or indeed Roca of Argentine politics I’m sure we agree.
Now no one would deny the porous nature of borders when it comes to the trafficking of illicit substances. But “the struggle for our borders,” sounds more lebensraum than it does 21st century democracy.
If we were in any doubt as to what precisely this “emergency” would mean for us proles, Bullrich extrapolated for us.
“Basically what this means is total power to the security forces…” Phew. That’s OK then. I will sleep easy knowing the same forces Amnesty International called “repressive” have got my back.
If total power sounds a bit, well, totalitarian to you, Bullrich had the antidote. A comforting cocktail of phatic language. It always goes down smooth.
“The concept of ‘emergency’ fundamentally has to do with organization. That all groups nationwide are working in the same direction,” she said. The implication being, then, that this had not been the case before, and that to achieve this fiendishly complex goal of having a coherent national security strategy required another declaration of “emergency.”
Otherness And Doublethink
The purpose (and possible effects in this caramel-colored honeymoon period of government) of the emergency statements was Route 1 fall-back for politicians of all shades of ambition. Establish a threat in the public discourse and stoke up fear of said threat, thus rallying support behind your cause.
It was just the same with Cristina’s approach to the vulture funds crisis and the latter stages of Scioli’s disastrous presidential campaign.
Yet it is strange to hear Cambiemos, who so completely denounced Scioli’s “fear-based campaign” and “use of fear” during the dying days of the Kirchner era now resort to the deliberate use of similar linguistic tactics on assuming office. It’s difficult to suggest they are not, given the fast and loose uses of the words “extreme,” “emergency” and phrases like “struggle for our national borders,” currently on show.
These phrases make us think of their previous uses, and so have the deliberate effect of sparking negative and serious connotations when they’re heard.
They are also to do with the construction of various threats — legitimate or not, imagined or real — in the public discourse and the creation of an intangible “other” against which we need to fight, be it energy concerns, unreliable statistics or drug cartels.
Otherness is one of the chief rhetorical weapons of political leaders, and has been for millennia. Romans othered Christians, Christians othered Muslims, the conquistadors othered indigenous populations, and over again. So it goes.
Cristina and the FpV did it with their own enemies while in power with much aplomb, as exemplified by her framing of the greed-monger hedge funds as “vultures” (though, as Cuban diplomat Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez pointed out last year, this was a somewhat generous description since vultures contribute positively to their ecosystems).
To what extent did we think Macri’s presidency was going to be any different? Did we take his administration’s words at face value when “a new era” for politics and prioritizing of multilateral cooperation was promised on election night?
Certainly a few less of us did when, not 24 hours later, Macri demanded Venezuela’s expulsion from Mercosur on trumped-up anti-democratic charges just weeks before he celebrated a Venezuelan mid-term election result.
In that case, unlike with our present perpetual emergency, the about face in language accompanied the U-turn. Now, they’re both smooshed together depending on which way the wind is blowing at any given moment.
The flip-flopping rhetoric of the first week in office was an “AWOOGAH” warning klaxon of what was to come, and likely what we can expect a great deal more over the next four years.
Ever since, Macri’s government has doled out the doublethink with muddled expertise worthy of the finest spin doctors, some of whom are likely working for the new regime.
The linguistic tricks and healthy doses of scaremongering are good news for Macri supporters. Their use is ample evidence that his core of right-wing politicians and businessmen have maintained or transferred their bullshitting abilities to the “new” political realm effectively.