- The Landowners of the Argentine Pampas: A Social and Political History, 1860–1945
The estancia, the large plot of land devoted to livestock raising has been—and probably still is—a stereotypical image of Argentine rural life and society. Nonetheless, we lacked a modern historiographical approach to the men that owned the land: the estancieros or hacendados.1 This absence is remarkable since the landowners played a major role in the Argentine society until almost mid-twentieth century. As Ramón Cárcano, a landowner from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, put it: “At the bottom of every Argentine heart there is an estanciero” (pp. 62–3).
Roy Hora’s book fills this historiographical vacuum and at the same time offers a challenging and original contribution to the study of the Argentine social and political development. First of all, Dr. Hora successfully discounts the popular image of a static, traditional, stable landed class. The Landowners... is mainly the history of the making of a social class. During the decades previous to the 1880s, Argentine’s economic elites had more powerful links to urban than to rural life. Livestock was part of their business portfolio, but they perceived themselves as merchants rather than estancieros. This is shown by the failure of the Sociedad Rural Argentina (an association created by the most forward-looking rural entrepreneurs) to appeal to most of the landowners and encourage them to a deeper commitment to the rural development and also by the frequent practice of proprietors’ absenteeism.
One of the achievements of Hora’s work is its dynamic analysis of the landowner group. Although agro-export was the main feature of Argentine economy during the 1860s and 1870s, the estancieros, as a rather homogeneous and cohesive group, began to play a more active role in Argentine society after 1880. The political stabilization, the end of the Indian threat in the frontier, the extension of the railroad, the building of public utilities, and other institutional reforms, allowed the landowners to pay more attention to their rural affairs and even to abandon the practice of absenteeism and move to the countryside. The pro-business tranquillity and order imposed by a stronger national government was exploited by the landowners to increase their fortunes and to modernize their enterprises, introducing technical and managerial improvements. The country’s economic progress was based on the impressive transformation of the rural sector, and the landowners claimed their right to social pre-eminence as the result of the contribution to that progress made by their economic success and their [End Page 1102] entrepreneurial skills. Hora challenges the common ideas about the “traditional” mentality of the landowners and convincingly proves that the legitimacy of the estancieros’ aspirations to the social upper stratum arose from their talent. They considered themselves a landed meritocracy rather than a regressive aristocracy.
This has been a shared feature of the economic elites in Western World since the end of the nineteenth century. The members of upper class have tried to justify their social ascendance on the grounds of their incarnation of the dearest social values—at the same time trying to model the social values themselves to fit them to their own characteristics. The pervasive influence of the idea of progress—to a great extent related to economic, technological and scientific connotations—in Argentina, as in many other countries, led the landowners to invent themselves as a group within this ideological framework. A rather similar story could be told about the “scientific” ideology launched by Fordism and Taylorism at the beginning of the 20th century with extraordinary success among the factory owners in Western World. Yet, the Argentine economic elites at the turn of the century were peculiar compared to their peers in other countries. Revealing and underlining this peculiarity is one of the most original contributions of Hora’s book, and it is worth further comment.
As a reaction to the static and conservative image of the Argentine economic elites, a historiographical trend...