Back to the Future

The Return of the Ultraliberal Right in Argentina

(From CrimethInc. 26/11/2023)

Last week, the extreme right won electoral victories in the Netherlands and Argentina. The global reactionary wave that brought Donald Trump to power did not subside with his electoral loss in 2020, nor with the defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. In the following reflection, an Argentine anarchist explores why Javier Milei won the election and situates Milei’s politics in historical context. Although Milei’s “anarcho-capitalist” rhetoric may seem new, this is just the latest chapter of a story that is very old in Argentina: the combination of cutthroat capitalism with ruthless state violence.

Javier Milei, the newly elected President of Argentina, ran a presidential campaign in which he proposed abolishing the Argentine peso and adopting the US dollar as national currency, eliminating the central bank, privatizing healthcare and education, privatizing or shutting down all public media outlets, and privatizing most aspects of the country’s economic and strategic infrastructure.

Milei’s character and politics would make him perfect for the role of supervillain in an overly dramatic anarchist work of fiction. Until recently, he was running around in a black and yellow superhero costume as “Captain Ancap.” He could be found calmly pontificating about how the free market should regulate all aspects of society—including the sale of children and bodily organs, or one’s freedom to sell an arm in order to survive—and stating that a person forced to choose between starving or working 18 hours per day is “of course” free, since that would be his choice. When not engaging in such philosophical delights, he would appear on talk shows, frothing at the mouth and yelling about “piece of shit leftists,” “cultural Marxism,” the hoax of global warming, and so on.

Milei’s Vice President, Victoria Villaruel, is known only for her virulent defense of the military leaders who were jailed for their role in the torture and disappearance of thousands during Argentina’s last military dictatorship in the 1970s. Both she and Milei dispute the long-established figure of 30,000 dead or disappeared. Milei publicly denies that the dictatorship carried out systematic genocide at all, referring to the acts of the dictatorship simply as “excesses.” Those “excesses” included a network of hundreds of clandestine detention centers, the throwing of drugged but still living victims off helicopters into the Rio de La Plata, and the handing off to military families of several hundred newborn babies abducted from prisoners accused of being “subversive.”

Javier Milei as “Captain Ancap.”

His entourage is not much better. It includes “men’s rights activists,” flat earthers, a so-called philosopher who called for privatizing the oceans, and the like.

So his politics are a nightmare for anarchists. They are also diametrically opposed to the politics of large swaths of the Argentine populace. We are talking about a society that has a strong sense of social justice, in which the dominant political current of the last two decades has been Kirchnerism, a sort of progressive center-left Peronist tendency that grew out of the uprising of 2001. With the exception of Mauricio Macri’s presidency from 2015 to 2019, Kirchnerist governments ruled Argentina uninterrupted from 2003 right up to Milei’s victory. The first decade of Kirchnerist rule brought significant improvements in many Argentines’ quality of life, reducing both unemployment and poverty rates and bringing inflation under control (at least by Argentine standards). It represented a leftward shift in both public discourse and government policy, a significant departure from the neoliberal hegemony of the nineties.

But the second decade of Kirchnerist government was less successful, plagued by corruption scandals as well as one of the world’s longest-lasting COVID-19 lockdowns. Despite a battery of economically protectionist measures—limiting imports, taxing exports, and establishing currency controls and a host of different exchange rates for the Argentine peso—the last decade has seen a continuous devaluation of the peso. This led to a sharp increase in inflation—over 100% in the last twelve months—which has plunged millions beneath the poverty line. By the election, over 55% of minors and 40% of all Argentines were officially living in poverty.

Against this backdrop, Milei garnered almost 56% of the vote in the runoff election, after netting just 30% in the first round on October 22.

How did we get here? Where are we going? And what is to be done?

Clashes in front of congress during the 2017 pension reform debate.

“Viva la Libertad!”—Freedom to Work or Starve, to Submit or be Shot

At first, most people saw Milei as an exotic novelty—an obscure economist who became a regular guest on political talk shows and news channels, driving ratings by ranting against the “political caste,” yelling about “draining the swamp,” turning blood red as he vented about “gender ideology.”

His television appearances won him a fanbase of politically alienated young middle-class men. For them, he offered an outlet through which to channel their resentment against the welfare state, which they saw as supporting hordes of lazy bums with the tax money of hard-working Argentines. Against the immigrants, who they imagined came to Argentina to mooch off free public education and healthcare. Against political correctness, the globalist agenda, the COVID-19 vaccine, and quarantines. Incredibly, against “socialist rule” in Argentina, despite Argentina being a capitalist country with a government that was mildly left of center at best.

Coalescing online, largely through TikTok clips of Javier Milei and alt-right content from Brazil and the US, these young men became the activist wing of the budding “La Libertad Avanza” Party when Javier Milei announced his intention to run for congress in 2021. Yellow Gadsden flags and “Make Argentina Great Again” caps began appearing at his campaign rallies.

“Make Argentina Great Again.”

Milei was elected to congress by tapping a latent river of resentment coursing through a specific sector of the Argentine population—young, urban, middle-class, downwardly mobile men. But as their ecosystem, influence, and reach grew, these young men became instrumental in the far right’s success at channeling popular discontent with Argentina’s economic and political crisis.

This succeeeded because, at the same time that life is miserable, entrepreneur and hustler logic is creeping ever further into society, especially among young people. The logic of capitalism is more and more widely held to be common sense. If you’re poor, there’s no systemic reason for it—you simply must not be working hard enough. If you don’t make enough money, it’s not that your wages are too low—you simply need to work more. If you want to change your circumstances, if you want to be “free,” you shouldn’t join and organize with others—you should start your own business, selling some commodity, aiming not only to escape wage slavery, but also to acquire some wage slaves of your own one day. Freedom is understood as a wholly individual pursuit, a zero-sum game in which you must exploit others if you wish to be free.

As capitalist hegemony advances, “collectivism and socialism” are blamed for the failures of capitalism. Progressive rainbow capitalism, ideologically if not practically, addresses the struggles of some oppressed sectors of society while reducing large numbers of people to grinding poverty. This makes it easy to channel the rage of the unemployed and working poor away from the capitalist class into resentment against whichever scapegoats the pseudo-libertarian far right concocts.

There’s a good chance you’re thinking you’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t take the most acute analysis of world events to see the parallels to Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil. The similarities are all drawn directly from the handbook of the new fascist right. The politics of grievance, the culture wars, the racist dog whistles, the characteristically fascist obsession with a humiliated nation needing a strongman to lead it against its many enemies, both foreign and domestic. There’s also the hallucination of socialism everywhere, even among political actors who are the furthest thing from socialists. In Argentina, the actual left, which is dominated by the Trotskyist Frente de Izquierda (“Left Front,” an electoral alliance composed of four separate Trotskyist parties), garnered less than 3% of the vote in these elections. This shows the extent to which the left has failed to position itself as a viable alternative even amid massive popular discontent and mistrust of the political class.

Milei and his “libertarians” succeeded in painting the radical left social movements and the center-left Kirchnerist government as a single entity, much as Trump was able to conflate “antifa” with Democrats in the eyes of his supporters. From there, the culture war propaganda was simple. Socialists want a big brother state to control and oppress the good upstanding working people of the country; lazy, violent hordes live off of welfare programs while good workers struggle under the burden of taxes; and all this serves an entrenched and corrupt political class.

This segment of society alone represented 30% of the vote in the first round of elections in October. That was significantly more than the 15% or so that was originally believed to be the upper estimate of his support, but still not nearly enough to get him into power. This is where we encounter another striking similarity with US Trumpism. The former President, Mauricio Macri, and his former Minister of Defense, Patricia Bullrich (who came in third in the elections with 23% of the vote), immediately declared their support for Javier Milei in the runoff election. Their constituents were not the youth vote, nor voters seeking to radically change the system, but rather the classic anti-Peronist and anti-Kirchnerist vote of the Argentine upper middle-class and oligarchy. Just as traditional conservative Republicans did in the United States in response to Trump’s election success, they immediately dropped their scathing criticism of Javier Milei and pounced on the opportunity to wield power with and behind him.

While people like Mauricio Macri and Patricia Bullrich might frown on Milei’s extravagance and clutch their pearls in horror at the manners of a man who ran around rallies with a chainsaw to dramatize his intent to cut government spending, Milei’s politics undoubtedly represent their wildest dreams. This part of the electorate has always dreamed of privatizing industry, of streamlining the state to serve the interests of capital, reducing it to purely repressive functions to discipline society. They simply lacked the political capital to insinuate that they had those intentions without condemning themselves to political irrelevance.

Now, in the immediate aftermath of the election, the key posts of the upcoming Milei administration have gone to the ex-ministers and economists of the disastrous government of Macri. After Nestor Kirchner had finally released Argentina from the weight of debt to the International Monetary Fund, Macri took on the largest loan in the IMF’s history in 2018—much of which was not used to fund infrastructure projects or strengthen the economy, but to distribute payments to finance capitalists. Some of it was illegally siphoned out of the country.

The campaign promises to drain the swamp have already been forgotten before Milei has even been sworn in. The names of the newly appointed ministers and consultants are a who’s who of a quarter of a century of discredited right-wing politicians.

There are differences between Trumpism and the ultraliberal phenomenon in Argentina. Trump was somewhat economically protectionist, while Milei is a fervent and dogmatic champion of the free market. Trump is clearly an opportunist, a sort of empty vessel. Milei is a true believer in the most reactionary, vile, and outdated model of capitalism imaginable today. This ideology has led him to declare—openly, clearly, and repeatedly—that there is no right to education or healthcare, that if something is not profitable in the market, there is no need for it and it should not exist. Roads should be privatized and bodily organs should be a market commodity. For all Milei’s talk of “anarchism,” his second in command is a staunch defender of the Argentine military and its criminal past, whose plan to deal with social movements is naked violence.

The key difference between Trumpism and the Milei phenomenon is the age of their supporters. While promoting an economic model that would return Argentina to the 19th century, Milei has somehow managed to position himself and these ideas as new and rebellious. With the exception of small pockets of radicalized youth, the Trump base is generally older, rural, and isolated, while the majority of people under 30 staunchly oppose him. By contrast, Javier Milei has made significant inroads into popular neighborhoods and the working poor and has established a base among young people thanks to his agitated speeches, his imagery of his followers being “not sheep to herd, but lions to awaken,” his dominance of TikTok and new social media platforms.

As a result, the most widespread interpretation of freedom and rebellion among teenagers and twenty-somethings in Argentina today is not only diametrically opposed to our values of solidarity and mutual aid—it even coopts our language, openly appropriating the terms “anarchist” and “libertarian.” What they mean by these words is a carbon copy of the most rancid elements of “libertarianism” and ultraliberal capitalism. It’s the TikTok influencer entrepreneur vision of society.

Despite their differences, Bolsonaro, Trump, and Milei are staunch allies, with Bolsonaro expected to attend Milei’s inauguration and Trump recently announcing his intention to visit him in Argentina. Together, the three are the vanguard of a budding proto-fascist international. Despite proposing the tired old model of xenophobia, repression, and capitalist austerity, this right-wing resurgence has successfully positioned itself as a new alternative to politics as usual, at least in Argentina. As a consequence of the failure of the center-left to improve people’s everyday lives and the way that many social movement actors of the post-2001 period have been gradually incorporated into the state apparatus, the ultraliberal alternative has managed to position itself as the representation of youthful rebellion.

In the words of a post-election statement released by especifist anarchist organizations in Argentina:

For a far-right political option to grow this way, the defeat is cultural and ideological and has been ongoing for many years—mainly starting with the “retreat” of many of the emancipatory projects, not to mention the progressive ones, from the majority of the popular neighborhoods and unions; the absence of a concrete vision of how to confront this capitalist system, and of a revolutionary project that is unwavering in opposing the machine of impoverishing society that is neoliberalism. A process in which the state progressively incorporated and institutionalized numerous tools and practices of the people, taking all political action into its camp and transforming the ballot box into the only possible horizon of political action. That vacuum of rebellion, of a contestational presence, of social struggle, was filled with the pseudo-fascist and ultraliberal rhetoric of a handful of economists and reactionary elements.

Clashes in front of congress during the 2017 pension reform debate.

History Repeats Itself Again

Although repackaged and with improved marketing, Milei’s ideas are little more than the classic formula of ultra-liberalism. Ironically, if there were only one place in the world where such experiments in ultraliberalism have already been tried, it would be Argentina.

The Peronist movement emerged in 1940s around General Juan Domingo Peron, combining an economically protectionist capitalist project with a strong welfare state and rhetoric about “social justice.” Decades of antagonism between Peronism, which was often allied with left-wing forces, and the Argentine oligarchy and military eventually culminated in the military coup of 1976. It was the sixth coup in Argentina in the 20th century.

The military junta launched the infamous dirty war against the remnants of the country’s armed guerrilla organizations—the left-wing Peronist “Montoneros” and the Trotskyist “People’s Revolutionary Army,” both of which had been largely defeated and dismantled by late 1975, along with anyone else deemed remotely “subversive.” Hand in hand with the IMF, which provided what was at that time the largest loan ever to a Latin American country and demanded a series of market reforms in return, the junta imposed the first wave of neoliberal economic reforms on the country. They dismantled the protectionist policies of Peronism, eliminating tariffs on imports and decimating the national industry, while simultaneously eliminating all taxes or restrictions on exports. At the same time, they eliminated rent control, cancelled all subsidies to public transportation, and attacked unions and collective bargaining rights.

The results were disastrous for the majority of Argentine society. Workers bore the brunt of years of triple-digit annual inflation triggered by the country’s ever-increasing foreign debt. By 1982, an unpopular military junta drove the country into war with Great Britain over the Islas Malvinas in a desperate bid to deflect from its domestic problems, taking another thousand or so lives with it before the return to capitalist democracy in 1983.

But the burden of crushing debt to the IMF proved impossible to shake. The 1980s saw astronomical rates of annual inflation, regularly in the 400% to 600% range. By 1989, inflation had put 47% of the country below the poverty line. Then a wave of hyperinflation—200% in one month—led to widespread looting and clashes that left over forty people dead.

Enter 1991, hot on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Eastern bloc. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history,” the triumph of neoliberal capitalism as the best and only possible world. Argentina put an end to inflation through “convertibility,” which artificially tied the Argentine peso to the US dollar at a one-to-one exchange rate. This was financed by yet another IMF loan, this time to the tune of one billion US dollars—one of several IMF loans to Argentina in the course of the 1990s. At the same time, newly elected president Carlos Menem launched an unprecedented new wave of neoliberal reforms centered around the privatization of industry, loosening or eliminating import controls, restructuring the state, and economic deregulation. Private enterprise and market forces were the order of the day—and indeed, the first few years saw relative stability and prosperity. For the first time in decades, inflation was brought under control, the influx of fresh cash into state coffers allowed for some tax breaks, and the initial improvements in commerce and infrastructure through foreign investment coupled with the lack of import tariffs brought jobs, wage growth, and cheap goods to the country.

But it was a bubble. Unable to compete internationally, small businesses and factories began closing. The foreign investors who gobbled up public infrastructure began aiming to secure their profits and failed to re-invest. Unsurprisingly, this led to the rapid deterioration of public services, especially transportation. The trade imbalance in which more dollars were leaving the country than entering it made the one-to-one exchange rate increasingly unsustainable. As more and more people lost their jobs, open resistance to factory closures began to emerge in the mid- to late nineties, giving rise to the unemployed workers movement, which came to be known as the piqueteros—famous for using militant road blockades as a practical show of force and a symbolic tool to draw attention to their struggle.

All this came to a head in December 2001. Following a bank rush driven by rumors of an impending devaluation of the Argentine peso, the then minister of Economy, Domingo Cavallo, imposed what came to be known as the corralito, limiting cash withdrawals from banks to $200 per week. This created a crisis among the middle class, which converged with the wave of discontent among Argentina’s popular classes, hardest hit by an unemployment rate of over 20% and a poverty rate of over 40%. On December 19, 2001, widespread looting erupted in several cities across the country, particularly in the greater Buenos Aires region. In response, that night, President De la Rua declared a state of emergency—the first in the country since 1989. Tens of thousands of people immediately converged on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Presidential palace as hundreds of thousands more took to their balconies in solidarity to bang pots in an endless cacophony of rebellion. Police unleashed a fierce wave of repression; after hours of pitched battles, they succeeded in clearing the plaza and dispersing the demonstrators.

It might have ended there, if not for the fact that the night of the state of emergency happened to fall on a Wednesday. As one witness put it,1

Fate smiles upon the bold. How else can we explain that the morning after the fierce repression falls on a Thursday? Thursday. The one day of the week in which, since the darkest times of the dictatorship in 1977, the mothers and grandmothers of those abducted and disappeared by the military junta gather to hold vigils and demand justice for their children. Every. Single. Thursday. To my knowledge, without exception, rain or shine, they are there with their iconic white headscarves, marching in dignified and defiant silence in front of the presidential palace, at the Plaza de Mayo.

And so, on the Thursday morning of December 20, sometime after 10 am, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo arrived at the plaza. This was some five hours or so after a tense calm had finally returned to downtown Buenos Aires, after the police had eventually succeeded in dispersing the tens of thousands of people on the streets—although not before the crowd apparently managed several attempts at storming the congress. That night could have been the beginning and end of the “Battle of Buenos Aires.”

But as the morning wore on, scattered attempts had already been made by people to start re-taking the plaza, or to at least re-gather in the face of the prohibition of public gatherings. A young man could be seen on TV, imploring people to come down, to not go to work, to take a day, an hour, a moment, to help change the course of history. But as the Mothers arrived, there were probably no more than one or two hundred people there.

Shortly after they arrived, the police were given the order to disperse the one or two dozen Mothers and the hundred or so supporters present. Old ladies, many of them in their seventies and eighties, stood bravely against mounted police charges and whippings. Little old ladies, looking frail on the outside but carrying with them decades of unbreakable courage and conviction, facing off against the unhinged violence of a dying government. Armed with nothing but their dignity. The country watched it all unfold on live television.

I don’t know if the Argentine uprising needed another spark, or if the fire was already spreading out of control by then. We will never know. But I do know that the impact of those scenes was immeasurable. If a final spark had been missing, then these scenes provided it. They were also—and I’m sure that thousands of people shared precisely this experience with me—the last images I saw before I headed downtown myself.

That day, December 20, 2001, the youth, working class, and unemployed of Argentina laid siege to the presidential palace with tens of thousands of people “young and old, thrusting themselves straight into the gas and the bullets, not knowing if the one they shot at you would be rubber or lead.”2

By the end of the day, despite a murderous repression that claimed 39 lives over the course of those two days, we had forced the President to resign, and watched as he fled the presidential palace on a helicopter. It seemed, at the time, that it was the definitive end of the neoliberal experiment in Argentina, and a lesson about the intrinsic relationship between ultraliberal politics and repression, illustrating the enormous cost in human life of both neoliberal experiments.

We thought that would serve to inoculate Argentina against the return of neoliberalism for generations. The passage of time has proved us wrong.

President Fernando De la Rua flees the Presidential palace on a rooftop helicopter in the afternoon of December 20, 2001.

Ultraliberals, the Military, and Repression: A Love Story

Milei’s presidency does not even begin until December 10, but the bait-and-switch of the Milei campaign is already obvious. The promise that the austerity and budget cuts will be paid for “by the political class” has already pivoted to “It’s going to be six incredibly difficult months for everybody.” He has already announced the possibility of not paying year-end bonuses to public workers. His reassurances of an immediate solution to inflation have given way to “It will take 18 to 24 months.” Finally, in a nod to Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” the political caste he railed against now surrounds him and fills government posts, including many of the people responsible for the economic and social disasters of the 1990s and the Macri government.

In other aspects, however, Milei has made it clear that he will govern as close to his ideology as the balance of power in the branches of government and on the streets permits him to. The first day after his election, he announced his intention to go through with the sale or closure of all public media outlets and the halting of all public infrastructure projects. Unsurprisingly, we are already seeing a propaganda campaign in the corporate media to pit private sector workers and society as a whole against state employees and those who work for public media channels; corporate media have been publishing false and inflated salary numbers and framing state employees as wanting to preserve “their privileges at the expense of society.” Not content with the insecurity of poor-against-poor conflict that we experience in our neighborhoods, these reactionaries are now making a concerted attempt to provoke a social cannibalism in which workers who still have access to job security and benefits are portrayed as privileged at the expense of everyone else.

As resistance is already stirring against the upcoming layoffs, privatizations, and austerity—with workers, unions, and social organizations calling for open assemblies to discuss the situation and begin organizing their resistance—the symbiotic relationship between ultraliberal reforms, corporate media, and the repressive apparatus of the state is coming into view. Many in the media are warning of the danger of a “coup” in reference to potential unrest that might eventually topple the Milei government. This rhetoric is intended to conflate popular revolt with a military seizure of power.

At the same time, former president Mauricio Macri went on television to encourage young Milei supporters to attack those who might take to the streets to oppose layoffs and budget cuts. Dripping with racism and classism, he suggested that “the orcs,” as he refers to unemployed workers and other piqueteros, “should think very carefully about what they do on the streets, as the young people won’t stand to have them rob them of the opportunity to change the country.” The language, with Macri calling us “orcs” and Milei calling us “piece of shit leftists” who stand in the way of change and a “better future for upstanding Argentines,” isn’t just a reflection of the classism and racism of the Argentine upper middle class and oligarchy. It’s a consciously crafted and wielded tool to begin stigmatizing and ostracizing popular resistance in order to immunize as broad of a swath of society against solidarity with social movements when clashes inevitably begin.

Clashes in front of congress during the 2017 pension reform debate.

Less than a week after election day, Milei’s Vice President Victoria Villaruel’s first public appearance was a visit to a police facility, where she appeared flanked by officers as she spoke about the need to grant them more funds and equipment. Simultaneously, Milei’s camp is already announcing that they will try to modify the national defense law in order to allow the use of the military for purposes of interior security once more, including against “terrorists.” The message is clear for anarchists, the left, and anyone else considering taking to the streets to oppose this new government: we will be branded terrorists. From there, it’s one short step before the infamous Argentine military is once again unleashed against anything and anyone unfortunate enough to be considered “subversive.”

It’s no coincidence that Milei’s vice president is Victoria Villaruel, a fanatical defender of members of the military who have been convicted of crimes against humanity during the last dictatorship. The military and the repressive apparatus of the state as a whole are essential elements in the ultraliberal project, especially in countries with well-developed networks of resistance like Argentina. For all their talk about “anarcho-capitalism,” a ridiculous oxymoron, ultraliberalism represents a streamlining of the state to enable it to better defend the interests of property and the capitalist class. It is the state ridding itself of the baggage of the welfare system, social programs, and any responsibility towards the mass of society. It’s the transformation of the capitalist state into its crudest and rawest form: an instrument to preserve class society and discipline all who oppose it.

It’s no coincidence that Milei refused to answer when an interviewer asked plainly if he believes in democracy. The ultraliberal project places the market above all, seeing the rights to property, capital, and exploitation as the only inalienable rights. From that perspective, the “immaturity” and “whims” of society—even something as squarely within the framework of capitalist representative democracy as voting politicians out of power or rejecting their policies in parliament—are only an obstacle to be overcome. This mindset is best summarized by Henry Kissinger’s statement about Chile in the 1970s: “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

It’s also no coincidence that it was precisely in Chile, hand in hand with the dictatorship of Pinochet and with the material support of the United States, that the other major ultraliberal experiment in Latin America took place. In Chile, the “Chicago Boys,” a group of Chilean economists educated at the University of Chicago and adhering to the ideas of Milton Friedman (whom Javier Milei reveres), were able to implement a battery of neoliberal reforms. The necessary precondition for implementing those reforms was a military junta that killed and disappeared dissidents by the thousands, just as in Argentina. The lasting consequences of several of these reforms (such as privatizing pension plans, school and university voucher systems, and the privatization of public transport) were the catalysts behind the Chilean uprising of 2019.

Freedom for the market necessarily means exploitation for workers and misery for the majority of society. The history of this country shows this. Eventually, when this state of affairs generates enough popular resistance, the only way to maintain it is via the brute force of the state. Despite the empty rhetoric of freedom, Milei and Villaruel are the political heirs of the policies of Pinochet and the Chicago Boys, of Martinez de Hoz during the Argentine dictatorship, and of the neoliberalism of the 1990s that took 38 lives in one week before ceding power. Coddling state security forces and dismissing the crimes of the Argentine dictatorship are not just culture war maneuvers. They know as well as we do that sooner or later, ultraliberalism can only be imposed via repression and violence—and they intend to do it again.

Barricades surround the presidential palace on December 20, 2001.

The “Forces of Heaven” against the Orcs

Today, many of us are afraid. There’s no use trying to hide it. Many of us are not eager for battle. Maybe it’s because now, for the first time in decades we find ourselves squarely on the defensive. We are fighting some battles, such as the battle for the collective memory of what the last dictatorship represented, that we thought were definitively won twenty years ago. We are fighting other battles that we thought had been won a full century ago, such as the struggle for public education and healthcare.

I used to smile beneath the mask, reveling at the prospect of facing the guardians of the state head on. Now, I play my part in an assembly or a clash reluctantly, acutely aware of how many lives we lost to repression the last time around. Maybe it’s because those of my generation are older now. We have more to lose. Life has taught us the fear that was absent in the clashes of our youth.

Or maybe we are frightened because in 2001, when the last neoliberal experiment in Argentina reached its disastrous climax with a 50% poverty rate and the fury of the dispossessed culminating in widespread looting and the siege of the presidential palace, it was us—the youth—who were at the forefront of those clashes. Today, in a turn of events that has many of us feeling significantly older than we actually are, a large segment of the youth are the ones behind Milei and the new ultraliberal government.

This is yet another example of the failure of progressivism and the statist left, who fail to attack capitalism at its root. In Argentina, after the uprising of 2001, they failed to strike the final blow when the beast was wounded, discredited, and at its weakest. Instead, they attempted to tame and rule it. This process integrated hundreds if not thousands of the militants and fighters of the 1990s and the uprising of 2001 into the machinery of the state. Yes, the state took on a progressive appearance, legalizing gay marriage, taking on the rural oligarchy, challenging corporate media monopolies, finally freeing the country from the IMF debt, and even putting “redistribution of the wealth” into mainstream discourse. But associating the left with the state and the disastrous financial situation paved the way for the victory that the ultraliberal far right has won today.

Maybe we’re doomed to an endless cycle in which each generation must relearn the painful lessons of the past. Considering that this generation has known little more than 40% poverty, triple-digit annual inflation, the erosion of the quality of public healthcare and education, the grotesque corruption of a political class that preaches social justice and redistribution of wealth while vacationing on yachts in the Mediterranean… can we blame them for desperately turning to a man who promises them “freedom” from this? It makes no sense to warn the Uber driver or Rappi delivery kid that they will lose their benefits or right to a paid vacation when they already have neither. But the alternative that they are embracing is even worse.

How the coming months will play out will depend on a variety of factors. Will the mainstream bureaucratic unions withdraw and try to ride out the storm, or will they support their workers facing layoffs? Will they mobilize in solidarity with unemployed workers, will they call for a general strike if Milei attempts labor law reform or collective bargaining laws? Will people mobilize in defense of public institutions and publicly owned enterprises? Will the far right successfully leverage culture war politics to discourage solidarity with the country’s most oppressed and most vulnerable?

While Milei has the solid support of his base of young fanatics and the virulently anti-Kirchnerist and Peronist middle and upper classes, a significant portion of his voters are unemployed and working poor. These people voted for him out of a misplaced but genuine hope that he could actually change their lives for the better. They are not ideologically bound to his ultraliberalism and they are in no condition to wait patiently for six months as things “get worse before they get better.” If inflation spirals out of control and the weight of austerity and budget cuts falls squarely on Argentina’s most vulnerable, social conflict could spread once again.

Social movements in Argentina are demoralized right now. As far as the anarchist camp is concerned, the sad reality is that despite the commendable efforts of generations of anarchists, the movement is currently small in numbers and the presence of anarchists in social movements is marginal. While the movement maintains certain physical spaces and there are attempts to begin to pull together a more cohesive and visible anarchist presence, we are little more than a remnant of what was once one of the world’s most powerful anarchist movements.

But we should all be acutely aware of the fact that history does not magically trend towards liberation. Just because we defeated the forces of neoliberalism before doesn’t mean that they are destined to fall again this time. History will be what we make of it. Nothing more, nothing less. The defeat of the politics of ultraliberalism—whether in the 19th century, or under Pinochet, or during the latest dictatorship, or in the uprising of 2001—has always come at the expense of immense struggle, sacrifice, and loss of life.

The last neoliberal experiment in Argentina generated the worst economic and social crisis in the history of this country. Before the uprising of December 2001, revolutionaries, organizers, and, yes, anarchists—despite being few and far between then, as well—put in years of work. That meant generating networks of solidarity and mutual aid in neighborhoods. Building grassroots organizations of unemployed workers that were independent of mainstream unions or political parties. Holding assemblies in workplaces, schools, and universities. Standing in practical solidarity wherever we were needed. All of this will have to take place once again today.

Comrades, the times ahead will require us to redouble our efforts and strive for the broadest unity of the popular organizations, in the context of a strategy of popular struggle in the streets. (…) We need to undo the fragmentation and individualism that created the context which brought this character to power. There’s no use to preach to the converted. It’s our task to talk to each colleague at work, to each neighbor, always from the perspective of struggle and grassroots organization.

-“Y Ahora Que Pasa?” A joint statement published November 21, 2023 by Federacion Anarquista Rosario, Organización Anarquista Tucumán, Organización Anarquista Cordoba, and Organización Anarquista Santa Cruz.

Eventually, just as in 2001, the time will come to take to the streets—as young people and old people, as workers, as students, as various elements of society in solidarity with each other and fed up with the capitalist class and its politicians. With the cry of “Que se vayan todos,” our collective rage defeated them in just forty-eight hours in December 2001.

Hopefully, when the time comes, we’ll do it again.

Clashes in the vicinity of the Presidential palace on December 20, 2001.

  1. This is an excerpt from an upcoming book on PM Press about the Argentine uprising of 2001. ?
  2. Barricada #13, January 2002, “Argentina Erupts” ?
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