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Este blog trata basicamente de ideias, se possível inteligentes, para pessoas inteligentes. Ele também se ocupa de ideias aplicadas à política, em especial à política econômica. Ele constitui uma tentativa de manter um pensamento crítico e independente sobre livros, sobre questões culturais em geral, focando numa discussão bem informada sobre temas de relações internacionais e de política externa do Brasil. Para meus livros e ensaios ver o website: www.pralmeida.org. Para a maior parte de meus textos, ver minha página na plataforma Academia.edu, link: https://itamaraty.academia.edu/PauloRobertodeAlmeida

domingo, 15 de dezembro de 2019

Book reviews on environment and sustainability - Christopher Caldwell (WSJ)

From Saving the Earth to Ruling the World

The transformation of the environmental movement.

Christopher Caldwell
The Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2019

The year 1989 brought not only the end of the Cold War but also The End of Nature, one of the first books to address global warming, by the New Yorker journalist and climate activist Bill McKibben. Its title quickly crept into the folklore of environmentalism, overturning much inherited common sense about man’s relationship to nature. The legal philosopher Jedediah Purdy, for example, while not denying that there was such a thing as a “natural world,” nonetheless told an interviewer in 2015 that “‘nature’ no longer exists independent of human activity. From now on, the world we inhabit will be one that we have helped to make, and in ever-intensifying ways.”
Intellectuals have grown ever more confident that man is calling the shots. Some have taken to calling our epoch “the Anthropocene,” on the model of a geological epoch, like the Pleistocene or the Holocene. One is reminded of the wiseacre high-school-yearbook quotation that was popular in the middle of the last century:
God is dead.
     —Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead.
             —God
For surely the relevant problem is not that man has done away with nature but that nature might do away with him. We have courted danger in so many ways, with pesticides and disease research, with genetic manipulation, cloning, and nuclear fission. It was quite natural that, once the Cold War’s distractions had passed, our relationship with nature would move to the center of our political life. Less expected was that the specific obsession that would seize the imagination of political activists was the weather.

A New Ideology
Worrisome rudiments had long been known. Carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs heat. Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned at the turn of the 20th century that, as coal and oil burned and CO2 accumulated, the atmosphere would warm. In 1958 the oceanographer Charles Keeling set up a U.S. Weather Bureau observatory in Mauna Loa to measure atmospheric CO2 concentrations, which have shown a steep and almost perfectly linear rise ever since. Measurements taken of the Arctic ice cap in the 1960s showed alarming melting. But it was only at the end of the 1980s that scientists’ data came to preoccupy politicians, bringing hearings by Democratic senators Tim Wirth of Colorado (who sought a “New Deal for global warming”) and Al Gore of Tennessee. In 1988 an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded at the United Nations. Ever since, the IPCC, backed by a hard core of professors and political agitators worldwide, has been locked in battles with the American, Chinese, Indian, Russian, Brazilian, and other national governments over how serious a problem global warming is, what measures must be taken to correct it, and who must pay for them. A “Green New Deal,” going far beyond Wirth’s early proposals, may soon be part of the Democratic Party platform.
The novelist Nathaniel Rich, in a new history, Losing Earth, has focused on the late Cold War origins of climate consciousness. His claim is that we might have stopped global warming in its tracks back then, had we been bold enough to act. “[I]n the decade that ran between 1979 and 1989, we had an excellent chance,” he writes. “The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding framework to reduce carbon emissions…. [W]e came so close, as a civilization, to breaking our suicide pact with fossil fuels.”
No, we didn’t. We didn’t even come into the general neighborhood of doing that. A faithful reporter and a stylish writer, one with a gift for seeing complexity, Rich nonetheless has trouble thinking his way into the very different kind of environmentalism that existed before global warming became a global cause. But what did happen in those years is just as interesting, and visible at the margins of his book: a new internationalist ideology was born out of the ashes of the one that had just been vanquished.
The hero of Rich’s tale is Rafe Pomerance, grandson of the financier, philanthropist, and New Deal architect Maurice Wertheim, son of an important nuclear disarmament activist, and himself a welfare agitator until his awakening to environmentalism. That is fitting. Just as the “Christian Right” at the end of the 20th century was invigorated by imports from other, not conspicuously religious branches of the Republican Party, the climate movement is full of people from various non-meteorological walks of progressive life. To take just intellectuals, the anti-capitalist activist Naomi Klein writes increasingly about global warming. So do the prison reformer Michelle Alexander and the Indian novelist and literary radical Arundhati Roy. The novelists Jonathan Safran Foer, Amitav Ghosh, and (in France) Fred Vargas have all put their fiction careers on hold to write short, urgent non-fiction books about global warming—Ghosh, strangely, wondering why more people aren’t devoting their lives to writing about global warming. Rich’s own “climate fiction” (or cli-fi, as it is called) includes a love story set in a submerged Manhattan of the future.
It is fitting, too, that Pomerance should be not a scientist but a lobbyist. It is an article of faith today among those who deplore global warming that the debate on it is closed. They are right to say there is a scientific consensus around rising CO2 concentrations and increasing temperatures. But confidence in their own scientific rightness has made them science’s enemies as often as its friends. Many in the anti-global-warming movement are so confident about their science that they do not think they need scientists. They need uncomplicated activists, such as the Swedish high-schooler Greta Thunberg. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” the 16-year-old Thunberg said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.”

Politics and Pollution
So it has been from the beginning. If there is a low point for environmentalists’ hopes in Rich’s book, it comes with the 500-page National Academy of Sciences report Changing Climate, commissioned by Jimmy Carter in 1979 but not published until 1983, well into the Reagan Administration. Rich describes the moment as “lethal” to the climate activists’ cause. The report gathered dozens of the nation’s most distinguished oceanographers (including Roger Revelle of U.C. San Diego), economists (including William Nordhaus of Yale), climatologists and mathematicians—and lined them up behind a painstakingly documented case for the existence of global warming. So where is Rich’s problem with that? Not so much in anything the report argued but rather in the reluctance of most of its authors, at the press conference rolling out the study and thereafter, either to hector the public or propose remedies. They were scientists, not politicians.
Conversely, the giddy high point in the 1980s climate struggle came when television networks alerted the public to the “hole in the ozone layer” over Antarctica in the course of a debate over aerosols and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). It was a poor description of ozone’s place in the atmosphere—“[f]or there was no hole,” as Rich puts it, “and there was no layer.” But it resulted in a such a broad nationwide unease (albeit more over skin cancer than global warming) that Ronald Reagan, theretofore a skeptic, called for a 95% reduction in CFCs and signed the 1987 Montreal Protocol to limit greenhouse gases. The Antarctic ozone “hole” is now shrinking rapidly. If climate change (the science) is an “inconvenient truth,” climate change (the cause) frequently advances through convenient half-truths and even falsehoods.
Much of Pomerance’s work was in goading the climatologists he worked with (for example, the NASA computer modeler Jim Hansen) to be more attentive to P.R., and to recognize that “[p]olitics offered freedoms that the rigors of the scientific ethic denied.” These freedoms have always lain temptingly within the grasp of scientists, but Rich misses the Faustian aspect to them. The authority of science wanes in equal measure as the political engagement of the individual scientist deepens. In recent years the same rules have applied, mutatis mutandis, to political journalism and journalists.
One of the reasons Rich believes the 1980s could have been a watershed moment for climate activists is that many industry-affiliated bodies had shown themselves ready to investigate and solve ecological problems. In 1968, the American Petroleum Institute (API) commissioned a study from the Stanford Research Institute—“Sources, Abundance and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants”—in which the authors alluded to the possibility of “significant temperature changes” before 2000. Temperatures did indeed rise by just under 1°F over that period, according to NASA. Rich is not alone among climate-change activists in treating this API report as a “smoking gun”—evidence of oil-industry foreknowledge, and thus culpability. But to examine the original document, which is available online, is to see that it is no such thing. The report is tentative and deferential, citing Revelle’s warming theories, yes, but also research that warned of cooling.
The API did call it “ironic” that so much attention was then being paid to incidents of pollution here and there, so little to the overarching climate. They were right about this: in the early 1980s only seven of the 13,000 employees at the Environmental Protection Agency worked on climate. Yet you can see why an “abatement” approach, a mix of public-sector regulation and private-sector offshoring of dirty industries, was attractive in the 1980s. It was producing extraordinary results: the Charles River in Boston, so dirty at the start of the Reagan Administration that university rowing crews were required to get tetanus shots if they capsized, is swimmable a generation later. Today, wolves have returned to the woods around Washington, D.C., and bald eagles to the coast of Maine. That is one reason why the country was not clamoring for a climate-change program at the end of the 1980s. If the problem was a form of “pollution,” then why risk upsetting the economy to fix a situation that was visibly improving?
There is no inherent reason why a scientific question such as climate should divide one political party from another. There is no Democratic and no Republican position on the temperature at which water boils. If today Republicans welcome climate skeptics more than Democrats do, their differences are probably over policy, not science. Just under half of Republicans agree that there is a scientific consensus that global warming is happening.
This statistic infuriates Rich. It ought to be unanimous, as he sees it, and the 1980s mark the moment when Republicans descended from the reasonableness of those API studies to Reagan’s “thuggish” deregulation, on their way to the “mustache-twirling depravity” of today’s party. George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, whom Rich accuses of politicizing science, argues that no climate-change agreement was ever a possibility back then: “It couldn’t have happened,” he tells Rich in an interview,” because the leaders in the world at that time were all looking to seem like they were supporting the policy without having to make hard commitments that would cost their nations serious resources.”
Rich does not believe him, but Sununu is correct. When Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Senate, by a vote of 95-0, refused even to consider ratifying it. Barack Obama chose a different route after the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. He ignored the constitutional requirement for Senate ratification altogether. Instead, Obama “ratified” the agreements reached in Paris by signing a personal “deal” with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping on a visit to Hangzhou in September 2016, promising (promising whom?) to “accept the said agreement and every article and clause thereof on behalf of the United States of America.” That bit of legerdemain did not make the Paris accords the law of the land. It did make them government policy—albeit for a much shorter while than had been anticipated in the autumn of 2016.
Rich ends his book on a “woke” note, if we can use that word to mean orotund, incendiary, and blind to any possibility of good faith in those who disagree with him. He accuses any politician who so much as claims to be unsure about climate change of “crimes against humanity,” the offense that was established as a grounds for hanging Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. “There will eventually emerge a vigorous, populist campaign to hold to account those who did the most to block climate policy over the last forty years,” he writes, and today’s lawsuits “may seem tentative compared with the vengeance to come.” At this point, the reader who has been nodding off will snap alert and ask: am I reading too much into this, or is he proposing to string a few of these people up?

From Ecology to Environmentalism
Rich, perhaps without intending to, charts a shift of paradigms— from the “ecological” perspective common to hippies and other nature-lovers at the start of the 1980s to today’s hard, “environmentalist” perspective, which is in some ways diametrically opposed to it. In the 1960s and ’70s, almost everyone had thought as an ecologist. It was understood that problems were accumulating in the “outdoors”: smog, junk floating down rivers, broken glass. A frequently aired public-service ad showed an Indian in tribal dress paddling his canoe out of a primeval forest, beaching it on a pile of garbage, then having a paper bag full of fast food heaved onto his moccasins from the window of a speeding car. The old “ecological” paradigm conformed to a long Western ethical and intellectual tradition. Its manifesto, to the extent it had one, was Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), a collection of essays by E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher, refugee from Hitler, head of planning at the British National Coal Board, and brother-in-law of the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Schumacher’s message was simple: The earth’s resources are limited and, in many cases, unrenewable. We are wasting them.
The countercultural theorist Theodore Roszak placed Schumacher alongside Tolstoy, Gandhi, William Morris, and Lewis Mumford in the tradition of “anarchism, if we mean by that much-abused word a libertarian political economy that distinguishes itself from orthodox socialism and capitalism by insisting that the scale of organization must be treated as an independent and primary problem.” So while Schumacher was a kindred spirit to this hero of the hippie movement, he was also someone whose vision could inspire anyone who thought about life in a traditional or religious way. It might be necessary, Schumacher argued, to take a step back and reconsider whether our position is sufficiently respectful of nature, or sufficiently respectful of God. Our problem was that we were “inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves.”
This was particularly the case with fossil fuels. As people in the 21st century would, Schumacher worried that we were using them too much—although part of his worry was that we were using them up. Modern man, like a dissolute heir, was burning through his inheritance, treating his capital as if it were income. Schumacher noted especially that we were burning through “a certain kind of irreplaceable capital asset, the tolerance margins which benign nature always provides.” While this perspective vindicates the global-warming concerns of our time, it also repudiates our time’s simple solutions. Because if Schumacher is right that fossil fuels are capital, then once we have run through them, we will have run through them. Abandoning fossil fuels will not necessarily mean carrying on modern life in a wiser, saner way. It might mean giving up modern life altogether. We will either find another source of stored energy, such as nuclear power, or we will revert more or less to the way we got energy before: water, and the labor of animals, including ourselves.
Schumacher’s “ecology” was a system that ordinary citizens could understand by looking at it. Ecological damage consisted of things that citizens could pick up and filter out. People could thus judge the severity of the problem of pollution and instruct their elected representatives on how much they wanted done to fix it. The evidence from history is that they wanted quite a lot. That is why you can swim in the Charles today. The “ecological” understanding of nature and what it requires from us is compatible with democracy.
Modern “environmental” climate activism is less obviously so. Its science is mysterious to people, and science sometimes seems far from its main focus. To read almost any of the contemporary books that try to give an overview of climate change is to be struck by their non-scientific obsession with “capitalism.” Princeton English professor Roy Scranton, in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015), describes the environmental crisis as “the collapse of carbon-fueled capitalism” and warns that “global decarbonization is effectively irreconcilable with global capitalism.” Similarly, the Harvard historian of science, Naomi Oreskes, co-authored a science-fiction dystopia about climate change, The Collapse of Western Civilization (2014). She and Erik M. Conway of the California Institute of Technology cast the enemy as the “carbon-combustion complex,” backed not just by energy companies but also by those who profit from them (advertisers, public relations, marketing firms). As Oreskes and Conway envision the future, only China will succeed at managing climate change, owing perhaps to a sensible program of environmental regulation under Communism, and vindicating “the necessity of centralized government.”
These books are cult favorites among global-warming activists. The authors may be right that non-capitalist countries have a better chance of addressing climate change. But if so that is not because non-capitalist economic systems are better or cleaner: during the Cold War, Communist East Germany was the most polluted country on the European continent. The advantage of non-capitalist countries is rather in their greater willingness to command and interfere. As for the carbon complex, any industry that controls a dominant energy source in a free economy risks turning into a “complex.” If all our cars were solar, then advertisers, public relations companies, and marketing firms would shill for sunshine just as ardently as they now do for oil. Industry lobbyists and other insiders will fight for special favors, too. That is one of the lessons of the Obama stimulus package of 2009. It was notoriously a boon to the now-bankrupt California solar-cell maker Solyndra. Plenty of extravagantly expensive products appeared on the scene, like the solar-powered “smart” trash cans made by Bigbelly, which cost thousands of dollars apiece. (Eighty of them were scheduled for installation in San Francisco last fall.)
If Schumacher’s way of fighting pollution follows the pattern of a religion, Oreskes’s follows that of an ideology. It proposes not that we hesitate, or doubt ourselves and our present structures, but that we work through their contradictions to some new synthesis, as Karl Marx envisioned. Our overuse of carbon (which it requires esoteric expertise to quantify) calls for a new economic order (which it will require esoteric expertise to design). The case does not lack for supporting evidence. With a world population headed towards 10 billion, many of them in places with a precarious food supply, we might not have the luxury of a global economy subject to great fluctuation. But Oreskes and Conway have an additional gripe. Like Rich, they are frustrated that so many scientists resist being politicized. The scientists have been “hamstrung by their own cultural practices,” they write, “unable…to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power.” More power to experts: perhaps this has been the real climate agenda all along, whether the world is ending or not.

First World Problems
“Today,” writes Scranton, “global power is in the hands of a tiny minority, and the system they preside over threatens to destroy us all.” However true that might be as a description of economic privilege, it is diametrically wrong as a description of the politics of global warming. The problem is rather that access to (carbon) power has been democratized and decolonized, and that coal mining, traffic jams, and air-conditioned malls are now widespread in the most teeming parts of what used to be called the Third World. China accounts for 29% of global carbon emissions, the U.S. for 14%, Britain and other major European countries for a mere percent or two each.
If the United States still dominated the consumption of fossil fuels, we could make a dent in the world’s carbon footprint by setting off on a jag of self-abnegation, however out of the national character such an impulse might be. But as Americans were aspiring to clean energy, the rest of the world began to aspire to the lifestyle that we had acquired (and maintain) through carbon energy. Our old profligacy had passed almost unnoticed as long as there were only a few tens of millions of us living this way; but as Asia and Africa caught up, the whole carbon game threatened to become unsustainable.
We have little to do for poor countries except lecture them. Oreskes’s novel records that “a different version of denial emerged in non-industrialized nations, which argued that the threat of climate change was being used to prevent their development.” Is this really so unreasonable? The average Indian observing this Western paroxysm of climate moralism has reason to be suspicious about its timing. And since global-warming ideology always arrives with a spring-loaded, fully elaborated governing and regulatory agenda, “denial” might be the wrong word for what is more accurately described as a reluctance to pay with Eastern prosperity to solve a Western problem. Americans and Europeans not of the governing classes might have similar misgivings. What they are “denying” is not reality but the will of their rulers.
Solving the problem of global warming in the manner activists desire would require not only that we put our own moral house in order but also that we threaten those countries that insist on, say, burning coal to achieve the same lifestyle we already have. It would mean the equivalent of a non-proliferation treaty, to deny not weaponry but comfort and sustenance. (Although the weaponry would be denied, too, because to de-carbonize a society is essentially to disarm it.) Short of war, or statesmanship of the least democratic kind, it is hard to see how the anti-warming agenda can be carried out. Today’s climate politics are incompatible not just with this or that state but with the continuation of the state system in general.
At root, climate change is a Malthusian problem. The Canadian energy scientist Vaclav Smil said, in a recent New York magazine interview with the climate author David Wallace-Wells, that the depopulation of advanced countries might be a plus for the earth’s future. “Partially there is a ‘hope,’ I would say, in the sense that we are dying out,” Smil said. “As we have seen over the past three decades, once you get to 1.3 or 1.4 [children per woman per lifetime, the rate in many countries of Europe], there’s no…chance in hell that it could ever recover. Japan is losing now half a million people every year.” But this is a “hope” only so long as the green space freed up by depopulation does not get filled with migrants. If it does, then the level of economic sophistication will likely fall, and energy efficiency will fall along with it. More, not less, energy use will be the result. Most solutions to climate change are of this nature—miscalculation or poor execution can exacerbate the problem.
“As our technology grew more sophisticated,” Nathaniel Rich writes, “our behavior grew more childish.” It is a true and profound insight. Climate change is one of a family of crises of modernity involving Promethean hubris and unfunded externalities. It connects to all kinds of conflicts between nature and culture, or between barbarism and civilization, or between (to use Bertrand Russell’s dialectic) freedom and organization. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway speak for many climate-change activists when they imagine that future generations will marvel at “how we—the children of the Enlightenment—failed to act on robust information about climate change.” They probably won’t marvel at it so much if they recall that the Enlightenment has many aspects. It is the source of certain values, the source of a new type of domination by experts, and the source of energy-extracting technologies that have brought wealth beyond man’s wildest dreams. Like many problems the Enlightenment gets called in to solve, this is one of its own making.

Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of the forthcoming The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (Simon & Schuster).

Is Another Dose of Peronism the Cure for Macri Economics? - David Rieff (NYRBooks)

On Monday we published David Rieff’s deep analysis of Argentina’s recent general election, “Is Another Dose of Peronism the Cure for Macri Economics?” That dose of Peronism comes by virtue of a return to power, though this time as vice-president, for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who ruled as president from 2007 to 2015, after the presidency of her husband, Néstor Kirchner.
Living part of the year in Buenos Aires makes Rieff a truly embedded reporter—an acute observer who is able to explain not only why the previous, non-Peronist president, Mauricio Macri, had failed so badly to live up to his own boast of economic competence, but also the complex dynamics of Peronism, that uniquely Argentine form of populism. The article includes some choice examples of the delicious, wry details for which David has a special eye—such as the publication of an open letter of protest from 800 Lacanian psychoanalysts (only in Argentina!).  
But why Buenos Aires, was my first question to him when we caught up this week via email. “I went there about ten years ago for a conference, I found it fascinating, and kept returning,” he said. “Now I’m finally beginning to write about it. But I also spend time every year in Johannesburg and Dublin. Philip Roth used to tease me, saying that I came from an intellectual somewhere but an ethnic and geographical nowhere,” he went on. “I’m not sure that’s right but I am at ease—not at home: that’s a bridge too far for me—in many places.”
Roth and Carlos Fuentes were two of the many writers David edited during a decade at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “I’m not sure how useful I was to either of them,” he told me. “With Roth, I acted as a sounding board as he revised and revised drafts of the novels I helped him edit. I think the book on which I was of most use was The Counterlife.”
Quite an item to have on one’s curriculum vitae. But David’s résumé also includes hundreds of articles as well as more than a dozen books of his own. Most of them are based on his reporting from foreign parts—the book of journalism he’s most proud of is Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995), about the war in the former Yugoslavia. He was just back in Sarajevo last week to participate in a conference on art and politics. 
“It’s always interesting and disconcerting to go back in peace time,” he said. “And of course, the young, unsurprisingly and quite rightly, don’t want to hear about the war.” This time, he was struck by the way Bosnia has become part of a new and entirely different story of human struggle and suffering—as a staging post for migrants trying to enter the EU.

Is Another Dose of Peronism the Cure for Macri Economics?


2019 Getty ImagesA homeless man sleeping under posters of newly elected President Alberto Fernández and his running mate, Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Buenos Aires, October 28, 2019
Buenos Aires—There is an old Argentine wisecrack that says: a person who leaves Argentina for six months, and then returns, finds the country completely transformed, but someone who returns after an absence of ten years finds that things are more or less as he or she left them. It is a joke but one whose accuracy would seem to be borne out by the results of the October 27 general election that repudiated the neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri and his Cambiemos (“Let’s Change”) party that had been in power since 2015, and instead made Alberto Fernández president and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner the new vice-president. Thus restored to power were the Peronists who have ruled Argentina for nearly twenty-three out of the thirty-six years since the restoration of democracy in 1983.
The outcome seemed to confirm, then, what remains the conventional wisdom for a large part of the Argentine population, Peronist and anti-Peronist alike: that Peronism is Argentina’s natural party of government. This conviction helps explain why Macri’s election in 2015 was seen as a political earthquake: here was a neoliberal, albeit one of the softer type, elected in profoundly corporatist Argentina. But the same belief also accounts why Macri’s repudiation by voters now seems a reversion to the political norm in Argentina and consigns Macri to being the exception that proved the rule—since he has become the only sitting president in modern Argentine history to have stood for re-election and lost. 
Such meta-political considerations aside, there were sound practical reasons for Argentine voters to return the Peronists to power. Macri had promised much, from the curbing of inflation to a “business-friendly” modern economy and financial system freed from the shackles of the currency controls imposed by de Kirchner—usually known as Cristina. Argentine politicians increasingly go by their first names, in fact, but not Macri, which is testimony in itself. Macri had also vowed to the rampant corruption that first Néstor Kirchner, who had preceded Cristina as president of Argentina (and died in 2010), and then Cristina herself and her cronies, had indulged in—to an extent outrageous even by Argentine standards. As the former Peronist politician turned political commentator and novelist, Jorge Asís, put it to me recently, compared to Cristina, Carlos Menem, a notoriously corrupt Peronist president of the 1990s, had been “little more than a pickpocket on the subway.” 
Most daringly of all, Macri ran in 2015 on a platform to reduce poverty to zero. As president, he never repeated that promise, but Macri did encourage the Argentine people to judge him on whether or not he had successfully reduced economic hardship. And they did. 
In short, although there have doubtless been worse governments in Argentine history, not to mention the six times in the twentieth century the military has seized power, none has failed to live up to its promises quite so spectacularly and ineptly as Macri’s. All politicians are narcissists, granted, but Mauricio Macri was an incompetent narcissist: headstrong, unwilling to take advice from all but a small circle of sycophants, and given to mistaking his wishes for reality. Corrupt as Cristina is, even her enemies acknowledge that she’s highly intelligent, whereas even many of his supporters concede, at least off the record, that Macri is not all that bright. More important, the distance between the radiant economic future Macri promised and the havoc his administration wrought is all but immeasurable. As Federico Sturzenegger, who headed the Argentine Central Bank during the first two-and-a-half years of Macri’s term, wrote in the immediate aftermath of Fernández’s election: “With a fall in per-capita income of close to 10 percent and cumulative inflation higher than 300 percent in his four years, it would be easy to declare his [Macri’s] presidency a failure—which, in terms of economic results, it was. Alberto and Cristina could hardly have said it better themselves.
Vastly rich himself, besotted by fantasies about the wisdom of the global markets, Macri often came across as a left-Peronist caricature of a neoliberal—utterly out of touch with the way poor Argentines lived. So much so that the inhabitants of Buenos Aires slums into which the Macri government had poured money—notably Villa 31, a sprawling immigrant area in the shadow of an expressway—voted overwhelmingly for Alberto and Cristina last month. This dumbfounded the Macri people I spoke with after the August primary election: they had been expecting gratitude, but as polls showed, and as reporting in La Nación, a conservative newspaper that had supported Macri, confirmed, his team were thinking like technocrats not politicians: people might accept the government’s largesse but since they perceived it as offered with disdain, they were, if anything, less favorably disposed to Macri than ever.
The disdain, in fact, flowed both ways. There was a snobbery toward Macri throughout his term, particularly from the political elite, that it’s important to distinguish from the resentment toward Macri so common among poor Argentines. In Argentina, this elite traditionally goes to high-powered public high schools and public universities, whereas Macri’s circle largely went to private Catholic schools and universities, institutions more noted for their rugby prowess than their academic rigor. Indeed, one of the dismissive terms for Macri and his close advisers was “Newman Boys,” after the prep school Macri attended. As José Natanson, the left-leaning editor of the Argentine edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, who was then writing a book trying to explain Macri’s victory, told me in 2015: “For the most part, we quite simply don’t know many of these people. They come from a quite different world from ours.”
But if the political elite was dismayed, the cultural and artistic elite, which, as in most countries, overwhelmingly breaks left, was appalled and outraged. Both in private and in the pages of the “Cristinista” daily, Página/12, there was much hysterical talk about Macri’s victory representing a return of the military dictatorship. This Buenos Aires-based intellectual circle, always jealous in guarding its privileges, is inordinately full of itself—the only other country that comes close is France. This can be picturesque. Argentina, after all, is a country where 800 Lacanian psychoanalysts can issue an open letter protesting the overthrow of Evo Morales in Bolivia and violence against the anti-government demonstrators in Chile. During the presidential campaign, another such open letter supporting the Alberto–Cristina ticket attracted many, if not most, of the nation’s leading writers, artists, musicians, and theater and film people. In contrast, an open letter in support of Macri garnered the support of only a handful of cultural notables, though it did slightly better with economists.
For all that lopsideness of signatories, a number of the best-known on the Alberto–Cristina side were not Peronists in any traditional sense, but had rather been won over by the Kirchners themselves. The gospel of these Cristinistaswas not the writings of Juan Perón or even the cult of Evita, but rather the left-populist theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, combined with Bolivarian fantasies of the sort that Fidel Castro once succeeded in schooling the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. Their enthusiasm could become so extravagant that Horacio González, a distinguished sociologist and head of the National Library of Argentina during Cristina’s second term, could tell me in all sincerity that reports of the Kirchners corruption were wildly overstated. “Were they true,” he said, “one could not breathe.” He paused and, after a histrionically deep breath, added, “but you see, I’m breathing!” In a less defensive vein, the Argentine political theorist Ricardo Forster, who, along with González and a few others, had founded in 2008 the pro-Kirchner Carta Abierta” (Open Letter) group of intellectuals, told me that his support for Cristina was based partly on his conviction that she was “the most transgressive” of all political leaders in the Americas.
The recruitment of these intellectuals’ moral support was carefully planned, in fact, by the Kirchners. According to Julio Bárbaro, an old-line Peronist who had been secretary of state for culture during Menem’s presidency, and served under the Kirchners on the agency regulating communications, Néstor came into office in 2003 by something of a fluke, with only a small share of the popular vote. A governor from the deep south of the country with little recognition in Buenos Aires, he saw that he needed to legitimize himself. Undoing the impunity that the Argentine military had enjoyed since the end of the dictatorship in 1983 was an obvious way of gaining favor with leftist intellectuals, particularly an older generation of writers and artists such as Luisa Valenzuela and Mempo Giardinelli, and leading human rights activists like Horacio Verbitsky and Hebe de Bonafini (of the “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” group). 
Another such move, in 2008, was a trust-busting initiative to break up the media empire of the Clarín Group (with which the Kirchners had been on good terms until then). Bárbaro’s view is a jaundiced one: he believes the left intelligentsia was flattered by the Kirchners’ attention and their willingness to appoint some among them to senior roles in the cultural apparatus of the Argentine state. Such outreach cost the Kirchners little, he says, but gave them the moral high ground, as well as support from circles outside of Peronist ranks, even as they robbed the country blind. 
This helps explain why many Argentines accepted, for a surprisingly long time, Macri’s claims that their hardships were caused by the mess Cristina had made of the economy. There was some justification for this—or surprisingly little way of proving it either way. For during the last years of Cristina’s government, Axel Kicillof, the then-minister of the economy (now the governor-elect of the Buenos Aires province) ordered the national statistical bureau to stop publishing its research relevant to poverty. As a result, it is difficult to know by how severe the increase in poverty has been during the Macri years, providing at least some room for Macri’s supporters to defend his record. 
From the beginning of 2018, however, this position became unsustainable: as inflation and interest rates rose sharply and the value of the Argentine peso plummeted, poverty spiked—most of all in and around Buenos Aires. Leaders of left-wing social movements—notably, Juan Grabois, a charismatic young activist from a Peronist background widely seen in Argentina as having the ear of Pope Francis—report there is now a nutrition crisis, particularly for children, in poor areas of the city and the surrounding province. Grabois is often accused by his critics of being an alarmist, but statistics gathered by the Catholic Church, as well as testimony from the priests who run emergency food centers, largely bear him out.
Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty ImagesThen-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at an unveiling a bust of her husband and former president, Néstor Kirchner, on her last day of office, Buenos Aires, December 9, 2015
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Voting patterns in Argentine presidential elections have been fairly stable since Néstor became president: the Cristinistas can count on about 35 percent of the vote, and Cambiemos on about 32 percent. So, as in so many democratic countries, the voters in the middle are the prize. Argentina’s singularity, though, is that many, maybe most, of these voters in the middle are Peronists, just notKirchnerists. In other words, they are more narrowly Argentine nationalist and less Third Worldist—albeit that Cristina’s actions in government have rarely, if ever, matched her more militant rhetoric, what might be called “Maduro Lite” (some of her supporters are a different story). In electoral terms, this means that when Peronism is united, it is likely to win; when divided, likely lose. 
In 2015, it was divided, with another senior Peronist leader, Sergio Massa, opposing the Cristina-anointed Daniel Scioli in the first round of elections. Under Argentina’s somewhat Byzantine electoral system, this entailed a run-off between the two candidates with the most votes: Macri and Scioli. Playing on Cristina’s widespread unpopularity, Macri won—but by a vote margin of less than three percentage points. From this can be inferred that, as Argentine political opinion now stands, a Peronist can win in the first round, but an anti-Peronist can’t. The challenge for Cambiemos, then, in 2019 was to secure enough votes in the first round to thwart an outright Peronist victory, and then to hope to repeat its winning strategy of 2015. 
A year before the election, Macri and his people were relatively sanguine about their chances. Cristina was thought to be as hated as ever by wide swaths of the population, so much so that old-line Peronists made no secret of their opposition to her running again and their quest to find someone who could stand in her stead. In the Macrista scenario, Cristina would stand and a center-right Peronist, Massa again or perhaps Alberto Fernández, who had been Néstor’s and then briefly Cristina’s chief of staff but, like Massa, became a fierce critic of her corruption, her economic policy, and her authoritarianism. For his part, Macri and his surrogates would turn to the one weapon remaining in their ideological arsenal: the fear many Argentines, particularly among the middle classes, felt when contemplating the prospect of Cristina’s returning to power. 
So this was the Cambiemos plan: Macri would come in second in the first round, and then go on to defeat Cristina in the run-off. It all seemed to make sense, until, one day in May, it didn’t.
For Cristina was way ahead of them. For all her fiery rhetoric, Cristina has shown herself to be a canny politician. She saw just as clearly as the Macri people what Peronism’s challenge would be in the 2019 election, she first assented to a reconciliation with Alberto, which some commentators claim was brokered by Pope Francis (himself a devoted Peronist as a young man). Then came Cristina’smasterstroke: on May 18, she announced via a YouTube video and on social media that she had asked Alberto to run for president while she would run as his vice-president. Peronism was united in electoral alliance baptized, with some justice, as El Frente de Todos (The Front of Everyone).
This left the Macristas’ strategy in shambles—made worse when Sergio Massa, having reportedly turned down feelers from Macri’s team to become Cambiemos’s vice-presidential candidate, rallied behind Alberto and Cristina. Meanwhile, there was nowhere to hide from Macri’s catastrophic stewardship of the Argentine economy, after the Argentine president Macri had been forced, in September 2018, to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund to secure a $57 billion loan, the largest in the IMF’s history. It was clear from the start that Argentina could not honor its repayment terms and economic conditionalities and that these would have to be renegotiated after the election, whoever won. 
The Macristas soldiered on, as though the iron law of electoral politics in any country not in the grip of a war, environmental disaster, or refugee emergency—“It’s the economy, stupid,” in James Carville’s phrase—somehow did not apply to Argentina. Never wavering in their defense of radical individualism, they would tell you that Argentines did not want to go back to the corporatist past. Only when the results of the primaries that Argentina holds two-and-half months before the general election showed Alberto and Cristiana winning by 47 percent of the vote to Macri’s 32 percent—a margin of victory so crushing that there was no realistic chance of Macri making it to a runoff—did the Macristas realize the delusion of their “It’s Cristina, stupid” strategy. “They tricked themselves,” Grabois, the activist, suggested to me. 
But if defeat in the presidential election did indeed prove to be inevitable, the Macristas could derive some comfort that their leader managed to claw back 2.2 million voters in the second leg, and that in the lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, Cambiemos won only one seat fewer than the Peronists. This mattered because any constitutional change Alberto and Cristina might propose would require a two-thirds majority, so Cambiemos have an effective veto over any measure they deem too radical. A closer look at the vote, though, confirms that when Peronism is united, it wins.
Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty ImagesA mocking portrait of then-Argentine President Mauricio Macri after the peso had tumbled in value against the US dollar, Buenos Aires, August 31, 2018
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In Alberto, the voters have elected a sort of Peronist everyman. In Spanish, there is a distinction between the words “persona” (person) and “personaje” (meaning a personage or important figure). Cristina was the latter; so was Macri. But as one of Alberto’s friends put it in a documentary by La Nación, “Alberto is a person, not a personage.” 
Alberto also reflects the protean nature of Peronism: it can be anything: right, left, corporatist, capitalist. Carlos Menem’s government in the 1990s represented rightist Peronism at its apogee. Néstor Kirchner veered rightward during his presidency, while Cristina flirted with left-populist Bolivarian rhetoric but—unlike Maduro in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia—remained on excellent terms with most multinational interests, most controversially awarding the US oil giant Chevron, for example, a sweetheart deal over the development of the Vaca Muerta shale oil and gas fields in northern Patagonia. In this, Cristina often seemed to live up to another favorite Argentine joke in which Juan Peron’s motorcade arrives at a red light and his chauffeur asks, “My general, what should I do when it turns green?” To which Peron replies, “Turn on the left indicator—and make a right.”
For all her formidable qualities, though, Cristina is no Perón, and once Alberto is sworn in on December 10, it seems highly unlikely that she could force him to do her bidding, let alone stand down in her favor—as some Macristas continue to predict will happen, even though it has done so only once in Argentine history (in 1973, when the left-Peronist politician Héctor José Cámpora was elected president but resigned in order to clear the field for Perón himself, newly returned from his Spanish exile, to run and win). This is not to say that Cristina will not be the most powerful vice-president in modern Argentine history, not least because of the influence—her enemies would say, the control—she exerts over the Peronist deputies and senators in Congress. 
It is far from clear, though, that Cristina still wants to be president. She has an adult daughter who is extremely ill and being treated in Cuba. She is also under pressure from numerous pending court cases charging her with corruption, though it is improbable that she will be convicted let alone incarcerated. (In Argentina, indictments tend to rain down on the party that is out of power, not on the incumbent leaders. As the great investigative reporter for La Nación, Hugo Alconada Mon, has documented in his book La raíz de todos los males(The Root of All Evils), the Argentine political system is organized around “corruption and impunity,” and whatever else divides them, both the Peronists and their adversaries are enthusiastic backers of winners thanks to this system. Alberto is no exception to this, and shortly before the president-elect’s inauguration, Alconada published an article linking a close adviser of Alberto’s to one of the worst corruption scandals of Cristina’s second term.
Alberto will certainly need to revise the unfavorable terms of the deal Macri concluded with the IMF. But this may not be as difficult as some observers think given that, if Argentina is on the hook, so is the IMF. It is far from clear that the institution’s new director, Kristalina Georgieva, can afford the political and institutional ramifications of yet another Argentine default, which could be as catastrophic as the one that occurred at the end of 2001, not to mention the effect such a default would have on any future political ambitions she may have, most importantly, or at least so it is widely rumored, either at some point becoming head of the European Central Bank, the job her predecessor at the IMF, Christine Lagarde, has just assumed. 
It is easy to wax apocalyptic about Argentina. Most, though not all, of its industries are uncompetitive; it is too dependent on exports of agricultural commodities—above all, soybeans; its labor unions are wildly corrupt and exert too great an influence; the public sector is bloated and phantom jobs are commonplace; education is underfunded and overstretched; and social mobility has ground to a halt. The country may indeed be a very “unfinished utopia,” as the political commentator Ignacio Zuleta once called it, but it’s hardly on the brink of collapse—as much as alarmism is a national neurosis in Argentina.
The country remains a highly desirable destination for immigrants—not only from Andean countries and the disaster that is Venezuela, but also from East Asia and, in smaller but growing numbers, Africa. The higher education system may not be what it once was but Argentine universities continue to turn out extremely well-qualified and motivated young people. And the country’s cultural prowess, above all in literature but also in music and the plastic arts, remains a jewel. There are even some industries, nuclear energy being the most obvious, that can compete with the world’s best. Perhaps most important, Argentina is coming to seem an oasis of calm and stability in Latin America, compared to what is already happening in Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela, and what may occur in Brazil with Lula’s release from prison galvanizing opposition to the Bolsonaro government.
Argentines themselves often complain bitterly about the country’s being riven in two ideologically. Yet that divide, which they call “la grieta,” the crack or the rift, does not seem worse than what one sees in the United States, the UK, or France, let alone Brazil. Rather unwisely, though, Alberto has promised as president to close la grieta. That scarcely seems likely; the fault line simply goes too deep. And according to some who know him, his flaws are uncomfortably close to Macri’s, most notably an inability to delegate. 
Let’s assume Alberto successfully renegotiates the IMF loan. The four major trade union federations—which are Peronist, after all—as well the social movements led by people like Grabois will surely give Alberto some months’ grace, perhaps even a year. This will be very good news, but what will he do for them, and what will happen after? 
Sooner or later, though, Alberto’s status as the anti-Macri will pall just as surely as being the anti-Cristina palled for Macri. The economist Simon Kuznets once joked that there were “four kinds of economies in the world: developed countries, underdeveloped countries, Japan, and Argentina.” He meant this in the most negative sense imaginable—and one might be mistaken for thinking that Guillermo Nielsen, one of Alberto’s chief economic advisers, agreed with him when he insisted during the election campaign that “Argentina today is not a feasible economy.” But the emphasis was on “today,” and what Nielsen implied was simply the conventional wisdom of the Argentine political establishment that, Peronist and non-Peronist alike, prefers to blame that the country’s economic travails on opponents’ policies, rather than on any permanent structural problem. 
But Kuznets had a point, and economic success in Argentina has been the exception, not the rule. Menem’s government in the 1990s, for example, stayed afloat on monies accrued from the privatization of state industries. The prosperity coinciding with Néstor Kirchner’s first government owed much to a vertiginous rise in the prices of agricultural commodities in world markets. No such deus ex machina is likely to smooth Alberto’s passage as president. Even if he defies the expectations of both his neoliberal critics and the radical social movement activists, and turns out to be a much better president than Macri, it is difficult to see him extracting either the economy or the polity from the morass in which Argentina finds itself.