Economy

Argentina's Twisted Definition Of Liberalism

False visions of political concepts thrive in Argentina, where dictatorships past and spin doctors present employ their own forms of double speak.

"Respect for the Constitution..." is always a good defense.
"Respect for the Constitution..." is always a good defense.
Marcelo Alegre and Julio Montero

-Essay-

BUENOS AIRES — There is confusion in Argentina over concepts such as democracy, human rights, the market, competition, authority, and what constitutes progressive views. There is a similar misconception about the notion of liberalism, which in Europe and Latin America is often associated with free-market economics, and in the United States with progressive economic and social policy.

In our country, a skewed notion of this term is capable of shackling us to mistaken choices. Argentina's last dictatorship helped confuse us by appropriating the word “liberal,” using the same method as the Stalinists who baptized their states Democratic Republics — though that hardly makes us reject democracy.

In our country’s dominant collective imagination, liberalism is a selfish ideology that defends a minimal state, where unfettered ownership and free-market rights are pitted against income redistribution, social justice and economic equality. Liberalism here means Washington Consensus, flexible labor laws and trickle-down economic theory.

By this definition, if you oppose the perpetuation of poverty, concentration of income and wealth, or a state that only protects property owners, you are anti-liberal.

And given the failure of real socialist systems, anyone who is anti-liberal is obliged to embrace some version of populism. And if populism degrades democracy, it then becomes the inevitable price of equality. That, however, is the populist trap laid out with the complicity of politicians and intellectuals who hate modernity and constitutional democracy.

It is a false vision of liberalism and derives from a distortion of one of its distinctive features, the particular value given to liberty (in the words of the Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen).

Indian-born Sen won the 1998 Nobel in Economics

Liberalism denies populism’s affirmation that advancing toward social and economic equality requires weakening the rule of law, disrespecting constitutional rights, and dividing ourselves into the elected and the inevitable losers.

There are no good and bad inequalities. Genuine liberalism, through rule of law and human rights, protects us against all of them and notably against their vilest examples — like racial, ethnic and religious inequalities. It is also a barrier against political inequalities: factious propaganda, persecuting dissidence, falsifying public information, harassment of those who investigate the state, etc.

Liberalism has been an emancipating ideology that fought the privileges of the nobility and favored equality and democratic revolutions. Today it defends the separation of church and state, decriminalization of “moral offenses,” gender equality, poverty eradication and action to benefit the underprivileged.

Special protection of liberty does not signify a commitment to Washington Consensus ideas or trickle-down theory, which occupy marginal rather than representative positions in the wide avenue of liberal thought. In fact, the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Washington Consensus in the "90s, and the Tea Party today are products of Libertarian thinking, a school represented by authors such as Robert Nozick, in reaction to the liberal ideal.

The real liberal utopia

Modern liberalism is essentially egalitarian. It inspired European social democracy, the New Deal in the United States, emancipation of women, and the global human rights revolution.

As the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin explained, liberal values lead to the welfare state or a democracy of market socialism. In his Theory of Justice, John Rawls observed that a just society respects civil and political rights, and provides real equality of opportunities, distributing resources in such a way as to raise those who have less. Rawls proposes a democracy with ample distribution of property and incomes.

Carlos Nino has, meanwhile, written that liberalism demands the expansion of individual autonomy through a redistribution of resources serving the freedom to plan one’s life. That demands recognition of social rights, progressive taxation, and universal education and health care.

The real liberal utopia is contemporary Scandinavia, not Chile under General Pinochet. In Argentina, real liberals have been scarce. The closest to us was the late Raúl Alfonsín, the great social democrat who said democracy should feed, cure and educate and that there was no education without full equality.

Pinochet (center) one week after the 1973 coup (National Library of Chile)

The option between anti-egalitarian liberalism and a populism of liberal handouts is not real. There is a much better alternative: egalitarian liberalism that combines respect for pluralism and division of powers, with a state intent on making the equal more equal. Liberalism is the doctrine of liberty and equality, and dissipating confusion in that respect would be a great step forward.

We could then understand that authoritarianism, demagoguery, corruption, and a belligerent discourse are not the price of equality, which requires a full-fledged democracy. When that happens, it may prove to be year Zero for our democratic life.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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