Historia de la clase media argentina: Apogeo y decadencia de una illusion by Ezequiel Adamovsky

Adamovsky, Ezequiel. Historia de la clase media argentina: Apogeo y decadencia de una illusion, 1919-2003. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2009. 538 pages; ARG$125.00.

A dominant discourse of “Argentine exceptionalism” maintains that a vibrant middle class coalesced by the 1910s, setting the nation apart from the rest of Latin America. Historian Ezequiel Adamovsky does not challenge the narrative of national consolidation, immigration, and capitalist expansion leading up to this conclusion. However, he dedicates a large part of his sweeping and sharply written history of the Argentine middle class to disproving its emergence until well into the 20th century.

Adamovsky looks less at the characteristics that have defined the middle class, than at who has defined it, and to what ends. Beginning in the late 19th century, he demonstrates how the middle class emerged as a “counterinsurgent” political invention imposed by intellectuals and political elites to contain popular social struggles. In the 1920s and 1930s, politicians, essayists, and church leaders promoted an idea of the middle class—made up of mid-level urban professionals, doctors, teachers, shop owners, and small land owners, among many others—to keep at bay the growing influence of communism and, to a lesser extent, fascism. By the late 1940s, “middle class” was common currency in public life. Following the rapid rise of Peronism, which championed the role of the industrial worker in Argentine progress, elites vehemently defended the middle class as the moral center of the nation. The image of the middle class family formed a cornerstone of anti-Peronist opposition and a bulwark against the continuing resonance of the movement. The tension between a national identity rooted in the power of the manual laborer and the propriety of urban “professionals,” Adamovsky argues, has been at the heart of political contests in Argentina ever since.

The book is divided chronologically into four sections. The first part begins in the late 19th century, when the first vestiges of what would become a middle class identity began to take shape. Adamovsky emphasizes that this identity was rooted in race: Argentina’s liberal elites staked their aspirations for modernity and individual mobility on the massive waves of European immigrants who settled in Buenos Aires and the surrounding pampas. Moving into the 20th century, the second part addresses long-standing academic debates regarding the inception of the middle class. This is the book’s richest section. Adamovsky mines a wide array of records from professional associations, unions, novels, and plays. He determines that, contrary to reigning historical interpretations, no “cohesive” middle class identity existed in the early decades of the 20th century. Yet, he demonstrates the anxious zeal of political leaders in promoting a national character defined by consumption, comfort, and private family life in which the middle sectors were eager to take part. Part three focuses on the emergence of Peronism in the 1940s. This moment constitutes a turning point in Argentine history, and in Adamovsky’s narrative. By 1954, a middle class identity existed, and it was anti-Peronist. The “golden age” of the Argentine middle class lasted until the mid-1970s. Bolstered by new theories of developmentalism and modernization, the middle class embodied the optimism of economic and political progress. The final section focuses on the dictatorship period and the return to democracy in the 1980s. Rhetorically, the idea of the middle class “triumphed” with the transition to democracy. In the midst of repeated cycles of economic crisis, however, the recent history of the middle class has been dedicated to preserving a tenuous identity threatened by recurrent bouts of inflation and the installation of neoliberalism.

Adamovsky emphasizes the Argentine middle class as an intangible ideal. This is both the strength and weakness of his monumental and impeccably researched study. Adamovsky’s socially grounded intellectual history documents how the middle class functions as a powerful metaphor for national identity and belonging that simultaneously justifies on-going forms of social exclusion. Upon conclusion, however, we are still left wondering just what defines the middle class. The picture that emerges presents a middle class that is social climbing, individualistic, descended from immigrants yet highly xenophobic, and politically bankrupt. A key argument of the book focuses on the historic diversity and lack of cohesion of the middle class. Yet Adamovsky’s depiction is decidedly uniform. He gives short shrift to the role of the middle class in producing powerful movements for social change and revolution throughout the 20th century. At the same time, he often overlooks critiques of middle class life from self-indentified members of that class. The individuals that make up the middle class do not drive this history. However, the strongest parts of the narrative are those moments when Adamovsky lingers on the middle class voices that emerge from popular culture and political activism. This evidence hints at a much more complicated process of identity formation, one that was continually appropriated, contested, and transformed by middle class individuals themselves.

As the first comprehensive historical survey of the middle class in Argentina, Adamovsky has written an invaluable contribution to a growing literature on Latin American middle class life. Going forward, this work will be a key reference for students and scholars, and a foundation for future research on the confounding and multifaceted concept of the Argentine middle class.

Jennifer Adair is a doctoral candidate in Latin American history at New York University. Her dissertation, “In Search of the ‘Lost Decade’: The Politics of Rights and Welfare During the Argentine Transition to Democracy,” focuses on how government food, education, and welfare programs transformed popular notions of democracy during the 1980s. Her research interests include the history of neoliberalism, consumption, and food security in Latin America.