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What’s the Matter with South America?

Though it is unclear which caused which, there is no doubt that South America's embrace of traditional values and corporatism has prevented it from reaching its economic potential. Whether the region can achieve prosperity in the future will depend on its willingness to stop worrying and learn to love free enterprise.

South America continues to lag behind most of the world in social and economic performance. At bottom, South America’s problems reflect widespread governance failures, owing to the institutions that emerged in the region and the values that underpin them.

The presence of some powerful values inimical to individual success and innovative pursuits has given rise to corporatism, a system that prevents political and economic competition in the name of social harmony and national unity. A result is an economy in which the business sector is enmeshed with the public sector and tied down by state restrictions.

Yet this corporatism is not the whole of the problem. In the near-absence of the modernist values that sparked massive, grassroots innovation in Britain, North America, Germany, France, and Sweden from the mid-nineteenth into the twentieth century, South Americans have remained wedded to a loosely defined traditionalism. A result is a continent in which only a minority of people are oriented toward careers of creating or venturing, and thus flourishing.

South American corporatism emerged from a search for a “Third Way” (La tercera posición) in place of American-style capitalism and Soviet-style socialism. In the 1930s, even the trade unions in South America abandoned the traditional class struggle, and the region became a laboratory for a new idea that pretended to offer a solution to the quest for social peace.

So, corporatism was a response to the global debate over socialism, and to demands for social arrangements that would be acceptable to both workers and employers – particularly during the Great Depression. With the belief that liberal democracy could not provide a solution to the crisis, populist leaders proposed a new form of representation that insisted on the unity of “the people” against their enemies. These enemies went by different names, most of which referred to imperialism, and specifically to the United States and the social classes associated with imperialist forces.

Moreover, the concept of a corporatist society – with new forms of organic representation hostile to political and economic competition and innovation – became embedded in nationalist and Catholic thought. A new look at ancient doctrines offered a way to overcome the political and economic conflicts of the 1930s. The search for collaboration and harmony among the social classes was particularly influenced by papal encyclicals, and driven by the need for national unity in relatively new nation-states with a high influx of immigrants from Europe.

Although the main foe was communism, capitalism was also regarded as a threat to traditional values – among them the centrality of the family – and as a mechanism for establishing a culture of materialist greed. The new corporatist vision proposed a society organized in guilds and embodied by a form of government based on participation in economic activity and social movements, rather than through political parties.

Though South American corporatism originally followed the model of European authoritarian regimes such as those of Benito Mussolini in Italy, António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, and Francisco Franco in Spain, it evolved and assumed its own form. It embodied a quest for a society in which social and economic conflicts, including political debate and market competition, would be controlled by a form of a corporatist representation. Trade unions and business chambers would discuss the main policy issues, under the arbitration of the government.

As this process implies, corporatism tends to give power to the executive at the expense of parliaments and courts, which are replaced in substance by interest groups representing capital, labor, and institutions like the Church. To justify corporatism, its advocates tried to adapt ancient and medieval organic ideals to modern societies, and opposed both political pluralism and economic competition.

At the heart of corporatism are the myths of political unity and social harmony. To maintain these illusions, the state would order employers to pay better salaries, require better working conditions, and penalize layoffs. Employers would be compensated with tariffs that impeded import competition, as well as limitations on market entry by new enterprises.

Moreover, new businesses would be discouraged by excessive labor costs and complex, expensive regulations that protected big corporations, punished beginners, and thus prevented innovation. Similarly, new trade unions were to be excluded from the centralized system, and had to seek incorporation into the existing structure. The central conceit of this tripartite model of social organization – in which government and peak labor and business associations controlled the commanding heights of economic policy – was that it represented a unity of all human activities.

Corporatist leaders see themselves reflected in the mirror of populism – as an association of charismatic leaders, advocates of industrialization through import substitution, and a rebellion against the constitutional system. Populism calls for a direct relationship between the people and their leader, and it rebels against constitutional constraints. It is an anti-status quo scheme that simplifies the political environment by symbolically dividing society between the “people” and the “other.” By conjuring a common enemy or oppressor, populism puts the rest of the citizenry in the same boat, rendering all seemingly equal.

Corporatism represents a moral change, proposing solidarity against individualism, which is seen as degenerating into egotism. Everyone must acknowledge their place in society and not envisage personal progress relative to others. In accordance with traditional religious belief, this form of politics makes poverty a virtue: one should embrace being poor and reject greed and cupidity. Because competition fosters periodic crises and breeds egotism, arrogance, and inequality, it should be abandoned in favor of a system said to favor stability and social equality.

With individualism condemned as a form of moral degradation and a source of political turmoil, personal freedoms are seen as deriving from collective rights. The community, organized around “solidarity,” is the antithesis of pluralism and the open society. As the Argentine autocrat Juan Perón put it in 1949, “The ultimate meaning of ethics is correction of egoism. The Platonic idea that man and the community to which he belongs are in irresistibly mutual integration seems to us fundamental.”

Perón’s description clearly follows Mussolini’s conception of “moral community.” The seventh of Perónism’s “Twenty Truths” holds that, “No Peronist should feel more than what he is, nor less than what he should be. When a Peronist begins to feel more than what he is, he starts becoming an oligarch.” Accordingly, some values are simply inimical to corporatism, among them individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit. Whereas the social ethics of corporatism consider poverty virtuous, acquisitiveness is insidious, divisive, and a manifestation of idolatry.

A corporatist economy is organized to end the anarchy of the market. It therefore permits only a limited number of dominant companies to bargain with state agencies and trade unions over public resources, and it features a revival of the corporatist organization of labor (centralized trade unions) modeled on Mussolini’s Carta del Lavoro of 1927. As Article I of that charter states, “The Italian Nation is an organism having ends, life, and means of action superior to those of individuals, singly or in groups, of which it is composed. It is a moral, political, and economic unity, realized wholly in the Fascist State.”

The founding myth of corporatism is one of the unity of the nation against foreign enemies and against the divisions created by political pluralism. Social bodies such as trade unions, business organizations, universities, and the Church are prized as natural institutions against the disruptive forces of political debate and extreme economic competition. The latter is said to upset the harmony among economic actors and sow conflict between owners, managers, and workers.

The ideology of unity necessitates a program of social coordination. The government participates actively in economic decision-making, and seeks to create the appearance of social justice by representing the people as a community with a common destiny that is threatened by enemies foreign and domestic.

A goal of the corporatist economy is to resolve social conflicts through money transfers, which become entitlements. But these handouts are not subsidies for work; on the contrary, corporatism relies on a political clientele that itself relies on state donations, including a centralized national pension system. Under this arrangement, around 80% of the Argentine population would receive some form of payment from the federal government.

Around the world, people take basic pleasure from their home life, personal friendships, and other voluntary associations that embody traditional values. People are also pleased when there is a general increase in incomes, especially when these come as the just rewards of hard work.

Many people (more in some times than others) have an intense desire to succeed at something – especially in a society that celebrates individual success. To see “your ship come in” is hugely gratifying. In America from the 1850s to the 1950s, immigrants and other new entrants in the economy were driven by the hope of “making it” – the true “American dream.” Under the right conditions, this drive toward success is capable of stimulating entrepreneurship, thereby fueling economic progress more generally.

The deep satisfaction that comes from imagining something new or embarking on a voyage of discovery and seeing what comes of it is also of great importance. Many people have a deep-seated longing to express their creativity and a willingness to venture into the unknown by pursing innovation. Many also find satisfaction in “making a difference” or otherwise “acting on the world.”

Such successful lives and the resulting innovation can come only to people with the “right stuff.” Values such as individualism, personal ambition, and self-expression are high on the list. These values arguably emerged from the Renaissance – making their way from Pico, Luther, Cervantes, and Shakespeare to Keats, Shelley, the Brontë sisters, and so forth. (Americans were further influenced by Melville and Twain, later Nietzsche and Robert Frost.) When these influences reached a critical mass – first in Britain and America, soon after in Germany and France – there was an explosion of modernism, largely displacing the traditionalism of their past.

The question at this point is whether the modernism that permeated the West, which still has great influence there, largely bypassed South America, thus leaving more space for traditionalism. Fortunately, in the political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s investigations into attitudes and beliefs across countries, we find evidence that modernism has been generally weaker in South America than in the West.

The survey data collected in 2000 show people in the West tending to value the “initiative” offered in the workplace distinctly more than people in South America do, on average. In the US, 62% rated this attribute important, compared to 58% in (pre-unification) Germany, 52% in Sweden, 43% in France, and 39% in Britain. In contrast, only 41% rated it important in Argentina, 45% in Brazil, 25% in Colombia, 40% in Peru, and 48% in Uruguay.

Regarding “achieving,” 84% rated it important in the US, 68% did in (pre-unification) Germany, 72% in Sweden, 58% in Britain, and 50% in France. Only 48% did in Argentina, 50% in Brazil, 44% in Colombia, 47% in Peru, and 60% in Uruguay.

Lastly, 82% in the US rated “interesting” work important, followed by 70% in Germany, and 66% in France. By contrast, only 39% rated interesting work important in Argentina, as did 28% in Brazil, 12% in Colombia, 33% in Peru, and 50% in Uruguay.

In such a complex matter, causality can be difficult to determine. Did South Americans’ traditional values pave the way to the crippling institutions of corporatism, as argued here? Or did corporatist institutions deprive South Americans of the modernism they would otherwise have acquired? The causation may run both ways.

Long adherence to traditional values, combined with more than 70 years of the resulting corporatism, has left behind a range of ill effects. Some are plain to see. Vast bureaucracies, centralized trade unions, and a business class protected by governments against foreign competition through a closed, autarkic system are all standard features of South American political economy. Bankrupt companies are routinely expropriated by the state or transformed into worker cooperatives to “protect employment” and avoid layoffs.

Other consequences are hidden. New endeavors are viewed with misgivings. There is great suspicion of innovation and distrust of young entrepreneurs who are ready to run the risks of offering new products and services to consumers. Few companies have employees oriented toward conceiving of novel products or better methods.

To be sure, productivity gains do occur in South America, and new products do emerge. But these gains have derived almost entirely from advances in the world’s leading economies, such as the US, the European Union and, now, China. Outside of agriculture, very few innovations are indigenous to South America.

Nevertheless, South America’s future performance may turn out to be better than it has been over the past 70 years. In the West’s current era of slow growth (which started in the early 1970s), the sources of innovation have narrowed, globally, to Silicon Valley, Beijing, Oxbridge, and little more. Hence, South America’s few cosmopolitan companies have an opportunity – after being in the shadows for a century or more – to flower and make a mark on the world stage – assuming, of course, that the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control quickly with minimal long-term damage.

Moreover, it now appears that factions in the West are pushing for a return to traditionalism and a rejection of the modern. Westerners today do not report as high an interest in their working lives as they did in the 1950s or even the 1970s. They are more interested in money than novelty, security more than adventure. Competition is giving way to state protection and interference. US President Donald Trump’s threats and favors to companies represent a further step toward corporatism in the US. Unless this shift in values reverses, the West could find itself resembling the South America of today.

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