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Repsol-YPF: the left and nationalisation today

It has been a long time since people used to get up at Labour Party meetings and casually demand the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies, even in speeches supposedly addressing the need for better traffic light provision in Leytonstone.

Even so, nostalgia alone makes it likely that many comrades will find their hearts gladdened by news that Argentina has brought oil company Repsol-YPF into government hands.

Moves like this have been extremely rare since the failure of the Mitterand experiment three decades ago. After neoliberal orthodoxy went global in the 1980s, public ownership has been derided as unthinkable.

The principle exception, of course, is when state takeovers have taken the form of bailouts. Even though New Labour’s free market credentials were sadly not in doubt, it felt itself reluctantly compelled to save Railtrack and a clutch of financial institutions when expediency so dictated.

But blue collar workers at Rover were notably not deemed worthy of the same salvation extended to pinstriped bankers.

Received wisdom has it that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s move will blow up in her face. No savvy foreign capitalist will be willing to invest in Argentina for at least a generation, the Financial Times fulminates this morning.

Don’t bet on it. Repsol will be generously paid off. The Spanish conglomerate is reportedly demanding $10bn for assets probably worth about half that. While it will no doubt bluster about the hideous unfairness of it all, a settlement of, say, $7bn should be enough to buy their silence and overcome any inconvenient attachment to principle.

So long as the Argentines cough up, few multinationals will turn their nose up at a slice of any lucrative propositions going, especially in the energy sector. If US and west European firms get sniffy, China and Russia will bite Kirchner’s hand off.

I was among those who in the 1980s advocated what was then called the Alternative Economic Strategy, which entailed the nationalisation of around two dozen concerns in key sectors, thus giving a state planning body some leverage in British economy. I still think such ideas are worth re-exploring.

But even for old times’ sake, I am not getting worked up over what Kirchner has done. There is no indication that the YPF takeover is the first tranche of a left reformist strategy to transform Argentine capitalism; this is an act of pure state capitalism, with perhaps a dash of nationalism thrown in by way of secondary justification.

In Marxist terms, Ms Kirchner heads a bourgeois government that – despite its Peronist traditions of sometimes radical-sounding populism – will never act in a way that will challenge the country’s class relations. Nobody on the left should delude themselves otherwise.

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