Julia Fierman

“Peronism Is a Sentiment” – Loyalty, Suspicion, and Betrayal in Argentine Politics

I am currently working on a book manuscript and related articles based on my doctoral dissertation research among self-described “Kirchnerist militants”—activists associated with Argentina’s Kirchnerist Movement. In my current book project, Peronism Is a Sentiment: Loyalty, Suspicion, and Betrayal in Argentine Politics, I offer an ethnography of a contemporary populist movement in Argentina to argue that populist cosmologies are characterized by a reification of comradeship and loyalty that inevitable produces paranoia, suspicion, and an obsession with betrayal. Based on extensive fieldwork with Kirchnerist militants, I provide rich ethnographic description and theoretical analysis of how populist rhetoric promotes alliance and brotherhood, yet expresses a propensity to expel wayward comrades expressing even minimal critique or dissent. I conclude that populist politics encourages an emotionally driven politics that oscillates between a celebration of brotherly love and community, on one hand, and a paranoid preoccupation with treachery, on the other.

Kirchnerism is a contemporary iteration of Peronism—a brand of populism that has arguable defined Argentine politics since 1945. Peronism has its origins in the workers’ movements in post-World War II Argentina. Juan Perón, the founder of the movement, preached the preeminent importance of loyalty, emphasizing the sentimental dimension of being a Peronist. Consequently, loyalty to the leaders of the movement, and to one’s Peronist comrades, has endured as the preeminent principle of Peronist doctrine—an emphasis that is always accompanied by a preoccupation with the perpetual threat of betrayal. Kirchnerism has taken on Peronism’s valorization of loyalty, and the rhetoric of Kirchnerist militancy often consists of sentimental reflections on the importance of loyalty and the threat of condemnable treachery.

Based on intensive and extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2012 in 2016, Peronism Is a Sentiment draws on data collected as various field sites across socio-economically diverse neighborhoods of urban Buenos Aires. Drawing on material gathered from participant observation, interviews, and oral histories, the book provides an insider’s perspective of the every day practice of politics–a singular and distinctive close-up view of political ideology and the affective investments it entails. Focusing most explicitly on the year leading up to and months following the 2015 national elections, the research for this book was collected at a time of great internal unrest within the Kirchnerist Movement, producing an environment of generalized uncertainty and suspicion characterized by a proliferation of accusations of insubordination or betrayal. As a historically grounded anthropology of political sentiment, this book shows how these accusations restage and recapitulate conflicts that have marred claims to Peronist for decades.

In my theoretical analysis of my data, I draw on semiotics, political anthropology, affect studies, and political theory to produce a holistic depiction of the quotidian life of populist politics. I engage with affect studies, symbolic anthropology, and studies of kinship to examine political oratory, campaign practices, and clientelistic relationships of patronage that define and shape the social relations of populist cosmologies. While affect studies literature has provided invaluable perspectives into the role of emotion in politics, semiotic anthropology makes sense of how political rhetoric and practices mobilize these powerful affective states. Literature on kinship and exchange provides a lexicon for apprehending the complexity and nuance of social organization, elucidating the multivalent layering of hierarchy and egalitarianism at the heart of Kirchnerist organization and populist social imaginaries.

This work 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 were gaining ground across the globe, challenging and redefining paradigms of governance and remaking the rules of geopolitics. Consequently, it is a timely contribution to understanding what Slavoj Žižek has called the “populist temptation” (2006). Combining anthropology, history, Latin American studies, and political science, this investigation of Kirchnerist militancy offers ethnographic and analytical insight into the appeal of populism and the intensely affectionate social relationships it promotes.

After the completion of my first book and related articles, my interest in populism and political community will lead me to study concepts of solidarity and morality among the middle class of São Paulo, who voted in large swaths for Jair Bolsonaro in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections. This second book project, provisionally entitled Out with Corruption: Middle Class Morality and Authoritarianism in Brazil, looks at how educated middle class people are convinced to vote for and support authoritarian rightwing populism. This work builds on the extensive anthropological literature on the middle class in Latin America, as well as anthropologies of consumption, and theoretical meditations on social inclusion and exclusion.