A rainstrom deluged this capital and its populous suburbs one day last month, killing more than a dozen Argentines and driving tens of thousands of families from their homes.

Within hours, suburban mayors and relief officials were issuing desperate appeals for assistance. But the response was a rude shock: first, gas station owners throughout the stricken region refused to sell fuel in expectation of a scheduled monthly price increase; then, Congress failed to act for lack of a quorum.

Finally, one irate suburban mayor went on the radio to suggest radical solutions. The congressional vacuum should be filled by government decrees, he declared, and the recalcitrant fuel dealers should be rounded up and shot.

No such action was taken, and the storm was soon forgotten amid the political and economic tumult that so often fills Argentina's daily life. Here, however, was a symptom of the societal illness that once again is threatening to ravage this nation and its fragile new democracy.

Political freedom, Argentines are discovering, is proving only a slow and uncertain cure for the social nihilism, reflexive authoritarianism and roller-coaster extremism of their isolated land.

"We have a great country," said a senior government official, offering an old saw with a sad smile. "The problem with Argentina is the Argentines."

Strangely, few here expected events to develop this way. Despite more than eight years of a disastrous military dictatorship and a half century of national stagnation, the inauguration of a reformist democratic government in December 1983 reignited periodic dreams of instant national greatness.

Just as during the last days of the 1982 Falkland Islands war, however, reality has returned with crushing speed. The civilian government of President Raul Alfonsin, like half a dozen before it, has fallen out with the military, business associations and powerful unions, which once again have assumed leading roles in the political game.

Congress, the nominal center of political power under a constitution modeled after that of the United States, has proved weak and ineffectual as opposition political parties have shattered into feuding fragments. Scattered violence by well-organized paramilitary groups has proved difficult to control. Inflation has soared to more than 1,000 percent annually and a new recession has begun.

Much of the public seems to have revived the sense of fearful cynicism and frustrated longing that has become an Argentine trademark. A recent poll showed that 25 percent of the population would like to leave.

"The fear of disorder among the middle class is tremendous," said Roberto Cortes Conde, a respected historian. "What they are really afraid of is that there will be another disaster in a year or two."

The situation in fact seems far from desperate. Alfonsin has finally acted decisively to stabilize the economy, and Argentines both inside and outside the government are slowly taking steps toward meaningful political and social reforms. Military dictatorship remains discredited as a political option, free expression is flourishing and groups espousing violence no longer attract popular support.

Nevertheless, many Argentines now predict that years of painful economic and political struggle will be necessary to stabilize and democratize their country and that the slow process of modernization could easily be overwhelmed by the shadows of history.

"We are at the beginning of an ideological transformation in Argentina, the beginning of a greater realism in economics and politics," said a local businessman. "But it is a slow process, and there are a lot of people who are stuck in the past and don't see the light."

To a large extent, Argentina's crisis is that of a prosperous developing country for years unable to modernize its economy or its self-image. It has been a nation frozen with the economic infrastructure of a generation ago and politically paralyzed by a destructive cycle of alternating military and civilian governments.

Buenos Aires, once glittering, is now overrun with the shells of collapsed or uncompleted buildings, cracked pavements and knots of illegal telephone lines. They overhang avenues whose paved-over streetcar rails have reemerged in glimmering streaks.

Everywhere in the city are the icons of an outmoded, inefficient economy. There are Ford Falcon sedans still produced with 1960s body styles, and telephone equipment in use since its installation half a century ago. Subway cars imported by British companies in the 1920s still rattle on one of the hemisphere's first metros.

Since 1970, Argentina's economy has stood still, growing no more than the minimal increase in population. The output from manufacturing has decreased.

"The last 10 years have been the worst out of the last 50," said economist Jorge Dominguez. "The decline has been incredible, and not just economically -- in education, in culture, in everything."

Politics seems equally antiquated. Since the early 1940s, the structure and discourse of Argentine politics have been shaped by the semiauthoritarian populism of Juan Domingo Peron, a charismatic leader who organized the working class and twice ruled with its support.

Despite hopes that the new democracy would end the influence of the bureaucratic, corporativist institutions encouraged by Peron, little seems to have changed. Political parties outside of Alfonsin's Radical Civic Union have been unable to consolidate large followings or produce public leaders, and unions managed by tight governing cliques have assumed the leadership of a destructive opposition, mounting increasingly militant "battle plans" of marches and strikes.

The military, rulers of Argentina for 15 of the last 20 years, remain equally impervious to reform. Despite the ongoing court-martial of nine former commanders for human rights crimes during the 1970s, and attempts by Alfonsin to reorganize the services as a modern fighting force, officers remain unrepentant for past repression and, apparently, mired in barracks politics.

Argentines are still best defined by the degree to which they embrace Peron's program of extreme nationalism, state-directed industrial development and populist stimulation of consumption.

Nationalist Peronists and extreme leftists frequently find themselves aligned with right-wing generals and conservative Catholics. Alfonsin, nominally a social democrat, is viewed in Argentina as a centrist because of his relatively moderate nationalism.

Peron, who died 11 years ago, would find the terms of political debate almost unchanged. The nation's industry, or "productive apparatus," is regularly contrasted with local and international banks and investors, the "financial fatherland" allegedly seeking to destroy it. Politicians who support a reduction of the state's role in the economy, or the end of protection for inefficient industry, are labeled "antinational."

In an age of television and direct mailing, the most powerful political recourse of Argentina's president remains the Peron-patented mobilization of a crowd in front of the presidential palace to hear a fiery speech from the balcony.

"We have been in an ideological straitjacket for decades, completely in the power of outmoded ideas," complained a local bank president.

"We need telephones because a communications revolution is coming and ours still don't work," he explained. "We don't have capital, so we need capital from abroad. But since we know all multinational companies are bad, we don't do business with them. So we go on not having modern telephones. Thus the country is paralyzed, because every simple economic development becomes political."

"What has to be changed are mental structures," said German Lopez, the president's general secretary. "We have to convince people that the solution doesn't come through controlling tariffs, but through controlling satellites."

Optimistic observers can point to evidence that as democracy endures, change is gradually seeping through the society. Alfonsin, who began his government with a variation of Peron's expansive economic policy, has now reversed course, embracing a program of austerity and economic modernization.

Unions and political parties have been challenged from the inside by democratic reformers, and their bureaucratic elites can no longer count on the unquestioning support of members. Even Peron's Justicialist Liberation Front has divided in a struggle provoked in part by efforts to oust traditional bosses whose strong-arm tactics have fallen out of fashion.

In the past, Argentines have had little patience for such slow change. With the onset of economic and social hardship, public opinion has repeatedly opted for the quick, drastic solutions offered by the military or political extremists.

This time, however, few politicians here can yet imagine a viable alternative. The military's bloody repression in its last administration continues to discredit it, and no other party, institution or public leader seems capable of replacing the current government.

"This time, people may choose a bad reality over a worse unknown," said Cortes Conde. "That is what's different."