Soldiers and Workers in Argentina, 1976-1983

Authoritarianism and Democratization: Soldiers and Workers in Argentina, 1976-1983

Munck, Gerardo L

Authoritarianism and Democratization: Soldiers and Workers in Argentina, 1976-1983 by Russell C. Crandall, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, (334 pages,)

The uncertainty now brewing in Chile surrounding the arrest of former dictator Augusto Pinochet is a firm reminder that the issue of transition from authoritarian to democratic rule is complex and potentially destabilizing. In Chile, the transition to civilian rule in 1990 was what political scientists call “pacted”, in this case characterized by an agreement between the Pinochet government and the opposition that, in return for greater democracy, ensured the dictator’s immunity and continued political influence. The Argentine transition to democracy in 1983, on the other hand, was “unpacted” and saw a discredited and humiliated military virtually disappear from the political realm.

Gerardo Munck, in his book Authoritarianism and Democratization, takes a look at a period of authoritarian rule in Argentina (1976-1983), specifically focusing on the dynamics between the military and organized labor. His work is a fine case study of state-society relations in Argentina and further synthesizes the academic work on regime change.

Munck presents his thesis within the theoretical framework of what he labels the “political institutional model” that divides the phases of a regime into: origins, evolution, and transition. Munck’s main thesis posits that upon seizing power from the imploding government of Isabel Peron, the Argentine military faced an institutional crisis endemic to all newly installed regimes– that of creating a legitimate government. Part of the solution, the military believed, would invariably involve dealing with the vociferous and influential organized labor movement that was first given a political role under Juan Peron. The military eventually decided that the best way to deal with labor would be with a combination of both repression and co-optation in order to turn workers into “responsible allies”. Ultimately, however, Munck believes that this strategy, as well as the military’s experiment with political rule in general, was doomed by a “lack of cohesion” within the ranks. In other words, in the process of dividing and conquering the labor movement, the military soon discovered that it had divided and conquered itself.

The author’s most stimulating assertion- and something that will surely provoke debate within the relevant academic community– is that the 1982 Falkland Islands fiasco was not the crucial element in the military’s subsequent removal from power. Rather, Munck posits that the war merely expedited an already inevitable transition process whose roots lay in domestic state-society relations. More boldly, he writes that the military’s fate would still have been sealed even if they had been victorious in the conflict, an impossible to prove counterfactual statement that, if true, would greatly bolster his domestic politics based analysis of the transition.

One weakness of this otherwise fine study is Munck’s almost complete neglect of the role that economic factors played in determining the nature of the transition in Argentina. The dismal state of the Argentine economy during the military’s tenure definitely influenced the decisions of both generals and labor leaders, yet Munck is virtually silent on this issue. Moreover, seeing that Munck presents his work as a “synthesis” of the disparate literature on regime change, it is surprising that he does not better integrate the political economy explanations for regime change by authors such as Stephen Haggard and Robert Kaufman.

Munck believes that his political institutional model helps explain the dynamics of not only the Argentine transition but also regime change universally. This may well be true, but the fact that the model is predicated specifically on the analysis of “bureaucratic authoritarian” regimes makes its applicability problematic since, as he admits, there have actually been very few cases of bureaucratic authoritarianism: Argentina (1976-1983), Chile (19731990), Brazil (1964-1985), Uruguay (1973-1985), and Greece (1964-1974). Munck attempts to substantiate the universal nature by applying it to the transitions in Chile and Brazil. But the fact that these two cases are also some of the few bureaucratic authoritarian examples makes one wonder just how useful the model is in studying transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in countries — contemporary China, for example — that are not labeled bureaucratic authoritarian.

This methodological quibble notwithstanding, Munck’s work on the military and labor in Argentina is a definite contribution to the literature. His detailed and fascinating footnotes which at times are more gripping than the narrative might be the most impressive aspect. However, Munck’s work should also serve as a reminder that future work on regime change should embrace both political and economic factors, especially seeing the extent to which the current protracted economic crisis in Asia has influenced the course of events in that region.

Reviewed by Gerardo L. Munck

Copyright Dr. George Kourvetaris Summer 1999

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