Peronism Is a Sentiment: Loyalty, Suspicion, and Betrayal in Contemporary Argentine Politics
This dissertation examines the emotional life of populism among supporters of Argentina’s Kirchnerist Movement. In 2005, the late political philosopher Ernesto Laclau, himself, a Kirchnerist, argued that populism held the promise of radically democratic representation and governance, arguing that the identification of a common enemy had the power to unite disparate political forces across traditional social division. This bold endorsement of populism was met with skepticism and rebuke, as many scholars went on to argue that populism is a corruption of liberal democracy whose demonizing obsession with an enemy is revelatory of authoritarian and even totalitarian tendencies. Yet, both scholars that are against populism or for it share the assumption that it mobilizes “the people” against a common, known, and easily recognizable enemy.
In contrast, “Peronism Is a Sentiment” argues that in populist politics, affection is as least as important as antagonism; furthermore, populism’s intense valorization of comradeship produces a social environment in which populist comrades express more concern about the potential betrayal of their beloved comrades than they do about the machinations of a common enemy. Consequently, while antagonism towards an external enemy is certainly a central component of populist cosmologies, this antagonism is manifests itself most significantly internally, as formerly beloved comrades are denounced as traitors. I examine the social dynamics of populist comradeship through an ethnographic study of Kirchnerist activists known as “political militants” (militantes políticos). These individuals view themselves as carrying on the political tradition of Peronism—Argentina’s enduring brand of populism, which, through its complicated and contradictory history has always exalted the values of love and loyalty, while simultaneously warning of the threat of betrayal.
Over six chapters, I trace the affective vicissitudes of Kirchnerist militancy, investigating interconnectedness of affection, trust, suspicion, and accusation in the Kirchnerist and Peronist cosmology. In chapter 1, entitled “Peronism is a Sentiment,” I explore the relationship between ideology and affect through a description of the mercurial ideological orientation of Peronism over its contradictory history. Chapter 2, “The Place of Solidarity and Fellowship” focuses on community service activities of militants, who attribute different meanings to these practices, exposing fissures in supposed ideological consistence and the unity of comradeship. Chapter 3, “Only the Organization Can Defeat Time,” examines the dynamics of class difference within the Movement. Chapter 4, “A Traitor to His Class,” analyzes how notions of loyalty and betrayal are tethered to Peronism’s valorization of “authenticity” (autenticidad) and the consolidation of a cult of personality around Kirchnerism’s leader, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Chapter 5, “A Peronist Works for the Movement,” focuses on the role of oratory and charisma in performances of loyalty. Chapter 6, “I Embrace You with the Affection and Loyalty of Always,” investigates the relationship between personalism and fictive kinship to underscore the vital importance of the tensions between allegiance and alliance in notions of political community.
These chapters provide an intriguing and clarifying story of populist enchantment, the appeal of political brotherhood, and the accompanying preoccupation with internal enemies. “Peronism Is a Sentiment” makes a novel contribution to studies of populism that have been remiss in ignoring the centrality of affection in populist cosmologies, and the inevitability of sectarianism that comes along with it. This dissertation was written as populist movements and parties emerged across regions and ideologies, challenging and redefining paradigms of governance and remaking the rules of geopolitics. Consequently, it is a timely contribution to interdisciplinary dialogues that seek creative approaches to pressing contemporary problems, demonstrating the value of anthropological theory and ethnographic research methods in grappling with questions of politics and the political.