The architecture of power experienced a tectonic shift in Argentina in the aftermath of Mauricio Macri’s surprise electoral victory in 2015. After eight years of populist Peronism led by Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — financed by rising commodity prices first and the printing press second — Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition is slowly generating a cultural change that can be most easily, albeit incompletely, understood by a pivot to the right end of the political spectrum. For years, business leaders were harshly criticised by the Kirchneristas, who saw in them conspirators and speculators, while the markets and anything related to them was immediately assimilated to ‘vultures’ and usurers. CFK’s cultural construction, or relato as it came to be called, was, of course, a farce, as her close circle grew immensely rich at her side.
With Macri, the businessman has regained lost ground, positioning himself in the centre of the field of power. Capital, in its crudest form, is once again becoming the primordial parameter, giving investors — particularly overseas funds — the keys to the country and the highest spheres of power. Peronists value loyalty above all. Cambiemos idolises the investor. And those that manage to understand the reigning logic capitalise from it. Macri’s relato is shaped by orthodox macroeconomics and peppered with an appeal to voters’ emotional reactions. He tells the truth, he’s a family man (who is constantly exposed in the privacy of his home through Snapchat and Facebook), and his government’s main goal is to eradicate poverty. Yet the ‘real’ Macri that talks directly to voters through social media is a carefully crafted construction that took a decade to perfect at the hands of Jaime Duran Barba and Santiago Nieto. Marcos Peña, María Eugenia Vidal, and Horacio Rodríguez Larreta are all excellent supporting actors cut from the same cloth.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the ethos of Cambiemos was displayed to the fullest. The president told global leaders, CEOs, and journalists that the “populist cycle” is over, that inflation has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, and that poverty and unemployment are shrinking. Macri and his entourage — Finance Minister Nicolas Dujovne, Production Minister Pancho Cabrera, and Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie — begged the world’s leading mining and energy companies to invest in the country, while several of the country’s most important businessmen — most of them Davos veterans — pledged support.
Interestingly, the core of Cambiemos’ power comes from opposite ends of the societal pyramid. Wealthy businessmen and the so-called “Circulo Rojo” or the select group of decision-makers are the obvious candidates, as their hatred of Cristina’s populism and their natural affinity for pro-market policies make Macri the default choice. At the same time, Cambiemos’ message resonated strongly across the country’s villas, where poor and marginalised members of society were touched by Macri’s emotional message spread on smartphones through Facebook (rather than traditional media outlets), while public works projects like MetroBus effectively improved their wellbeing.
Their modus operandi is one of appeasement, as opposed to the Kirchner’s use of confrontation and verbal violence. While Cristina denounced the ‘vulture’ funds, went to war with the media, and blasted Britain for the Malvinas, Macri settled with holdout creditors, helped Clarín to consolidate its business by allowing it to absorb Personal, and signed a collaboration treaty with Theresa May. In CFK’s worldview, the axes of power were determined by strength and resistance against the system, while Cambiemos has moved the goalposts: now the field is delineated by “telling the truth” and completing public works. And generating investment and therefore returns. Cristina had ideology, Mauricio has “honesty.” And profit. The danger for Macri will come his pact that his relato has allowed him to create with his base is broken. With Cristina, her populism generated rampant inflation which in turn destroyed trust in her capacity to redistribute wealth to the poorest. Instead, she destroyed wealth. With Macri, economic benefits to his inner circle threaten his credibility. Since coming to power, businessmen close to the president have generated incredible returns. The Grupo Macri companies, owned by his family, had a US$70-billion debt condoned by the state for the Correo Argentino, while in the past few weeks Perfil reported on how the group re-sold a wind farm for a cool US$50- million profit in just a few months. Macri’s cousin, Angelo Calcaterra, sold the construction company Iesca — under suspicion for bribes in the Odebrecht scandal — to businessman Marcelo Mindlin last year, while Macri’s “brother” Nicky Caputo just cashed out with his fellow shareholders to the tune of US$120 million after selling construction company Caputo SAIC to a consortium that includes Federico Weill and hedge fund PointState Capital.
In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains that a cultural hegemony of taste exists, imposed by those who, by virtue of having been born into a particular social class, have developed enough cultural capital to accept or understand high-brow culture. This generates a form of symbolic violence, as the lower levels of society or forced into a cultural category that defines and restricts them.
Macri and the business elites have to come to expect profit-generating opportunities as theirs for the taking (with them accessible only to those with capital and information). They believe they are doing nothing wrong. And while legally that is probably true, their profits contrast with the woes of the middle and lower classes, which continue to suffer from doubledigit inflation and rising costs of living, and obviously don’t have access to deals generating double digit gains. Unless Cambiemos can also generate “profit” for the rest of society, their relato will be as empty as Cristina’s.