Lessons in citizenship

Making Citizens in Argentina
Edited by Benjamin Bryce and David M K Sheinin
2017, University of Pittsburgh Press
263 pages, paperback

IT IS important to discuss citizenship right now, as many countries in Europe grapple with the social consequences and political fallout of mass migration and the US turns its back on the migrants that have been its lifeblood.

As Argentina can demonstrate, this is an issue that Latin America grappled with over a century ago and, as a result, the region can offer us hard lessons about the implications of immigration for debates about citizenship and wider questions of belonging.

Ideas about citizenship shape those about national identity and, hence, the wider political process: in short, they have concrete implications for the social order.

At an anecdotal level at least, Europe’s contemporary flirtation with populism – fuelled as it is primarily by questions of migration and notions of cultural tension that, rightly or wrongly, seem to be associated with these – has some parallels with the populism that emerged in Argentina.

Just as Argentine political leaders were compelled to find narratives that could appeal to either or both native and large immigrant populations alike, so it is with contemporary Europe.

For anyone embarking on the study of citizenship, therefore, Making Citizens in Argentina is an excellent place to start.

This collection provides a highly accessible exploration of what this term means and why it is important, as well as well grounded historical case studies teasing out its various dimensions.

Although these are historical case studies, they remain pertinent to the present, which by any standards makes for a valuable contribution to political analysis. That is because, as the book points out, citizenship describes the relationship between individuals and the political community. It is a barometer.

Making Citizens in Argentina explores how factors such as ethnicity, race, physique and culture were implicated in the narratives that sought to define citizenship in Argentina at various stages in its history, and how the state and powerful interests such as the Church have intervened and shaped these.

Among the valuable contributions in this book, Raanan Rein’s examination of the Peronist decade provides a fascinating insight into a hidden aspect of Argentine populism at a time of rapid political change: multiculturalism.

In this period, ethnic identities became less of a threat to argentinidad, and the reason, it seems, is that the country was undergoing transformations in political representation and was moving towards a revised model of participatory democracy.

In this context, Rein explores the efforts of Peronism to mobilise support among Jewish Argentines, and how Perón’s vision of Argentina as an essentially Catholic country evolved to a more inclusive vision that should celebrate its diversity – something at the time that was rather revolutionary.

This had much to do with the political changes that were going on, as Argentina began to move towards a more corporatist structure of representation in which ethnic groups were also recognised as “organized communities”.

There are lessons here for Europe – from the broad acceptance that citizenship and the methodology of political representation are closely related, to the role forms of corporatism can play in challenging exclusive identities.

As Rein writes: “The regime did not see any contradiction between Argentine identity and the loyalty of the immigrants and their descendants on the one hand and the ties many of them developed or maintained with their mother countries on the other hand.” [pp 104–05]