The Milei Hurricane

A presidential election in Argentina might seem very exotic to us. And in fact, apart from Lundimatin and other excellent media, no one was really interested in what was happening in the “Pampas”. Yet Javier Milei, who, a few days ago, started hearing voices live on a TV stage, is now elected president of Argentina. With him, it is the paleo-libertarians who have just seized a state. This event is so bizarre that it will take us time to understand its historical meaning. The text that follows, by Pablo Stefanoni and Mariano Schuster, takes stock of what happened and what we can now expect. (from Lundimatin #404, 20/11/2023)

Seven keys to the Argentine election

Pablo Stefanoni and Mariano Schuster (Nueva Sociedad, November 2023)

An unprecedented scene opens in Argentina with the victory of the libertarian leader. How can we understand this political shift which brought an outsider of the extreme right to power?

The libertarian Javier Milei won the Argentine presidential elections with 55.7% of the votes compared to 44.3% for the Peronist Sergio Massa, a much larger margin than the polls anticipated. In just two years, this outsider aligned with the global far right went from the television studios, where he was known for his eccentric style and his wild hair, to the Casa Rosada. How did Argentina get to this point, something that seemed impossible months ago? For the first time in the country’s history, someone without any previous government experience, whose political party has never held mayoral or provincial government power, and without significant representation in Congress, enters the Presidency.

1. Javier Milei, a man with no political experience, known for his virulent anti-Keynesian speeches and for his contempt for the political “caste”, expressed, in the Argentine elections, a kind of anti-progressive electoral mutiny. This process certainly has local particularities, but it expresses a broader phenomenon that transcends the country that has just elected him. If economic foundations can be found in the reasons for the nonconformity that led part of the citizens to vote for Milei, in many cases, the expansion of libertarianism is also linked to a global phenomenon of emergence of alternative right-wing with anti-status quo discourses that capture social unrest and that rejection of political and cultural elites. The basis for the expansion of the right is not in all cases economic. The extreme right builds cleavages based on local realities and also grows in countries with high levels of prosperity. Milei incorporated over time many of the discourses of these global radical rights, often undigested, such as that climate change is an invention of socialism or “cultural Marxism”, or that we live under a species of progressive neo-totalitarianism.

To a large extent, the Milei phenomenon grew from the bottom up, and for a long time outside the focus of political scientists – and the political and economic elites themselves – and managed to colour social discontent with a “paleolibertarian” ideology without any tradition in Argentina (supply created its own demand). His slogans,  “The caste is afraid” or “Long live freedom, damn it” were mixed with a rock aesthetic that distanced Milei from the stuffiness of the old liberal-conservatives.

His discourse connected with a spirit of “que se vayan todos” [“that they all go”], to the point that he managed to turn that slogan, launched in 2001 against neoliberal hegemony, into the war cry of the new right.

2. A mathematical economist, originally a defender of conventional liberalism, Milei converted around 2013 to the ideas of the Austrian school of economics in its most radical version: that of the American Murray Rothbard. Milei’s political growth was driven by his extravagant style, his foul speech against the political “caste” and a set of ultra-radical ideas identified with anarcho-capitalism and distrust of democracy.

Since 2016, especially through his appearances on television, book presentations, YouTube videos or public classes in parks, Milei managed to generate a strong attraction among numerous young people, who began to read various libertarian authors and became his first support base. After his leap into politics in 2021, when he entered the Chamber of Deputies, he gained support across society, including in poorer, working class neighborhoods. There his discourse, which seemed to come right out of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, connected with ideas popular entrepreneurship and with the ambivalence – sometimes radical – of these sectors with respect to the State. The pandemic and state confinement measures also fueled several of the pro-“freedom” dynamics that Milei embodies.

3. The support of Mauricio Macri, former president between 2015 and 2019 and leader of the “hard wing” of the Juntos por el Cambio (JxC) [Together for Change] coalition, was decisive for Milei to have a change in the second round, runoff vote. With the support of Macri and Patricia Bullrich (who had been relegated to third place in the first electoral round), Milei’s anti-caste discourse – who seemed to have hit a ceiling at 30% of the vote – mutated into that of “Kirchnerism or freedom”, which had been Bullrich’s motto. His strategy, from then on, was to express his anti-Kirchnerist vote. From that base he became strong enough to confront Peronism. But, at the same time, Milei became enormously dependent on Macri. The latter saw in Milei’s lack of structure and organisational support the possibility of recovering power after the failure of his government: Macriism will not only provide cadres to the nascent Mileism, but the latter will depend on Macri’s legislators to achieve a minimal governance.

4. After the first round, Milei put aside his most radical proclamations about the total privatization of the State, as these clashed with egalitarian sensibilities and the fact that a large part of the electorate is in favour of public services. This Sunday, La Libertad Avanza (LLA) [Liberty Advances] candidate achieved impressive results in the strategic province of Buenos Aires, where he was only a little more than one point behind Peronism. The case of Buenos Aires is, furthermore, symptomatic: for years Peronism made a show of maintaining its political-spiritual bastion there. The fact that the difference in votes was small calls for a reconsideration of the historical territorial power of Peronism in the province – which had already been challenged by Macrism in 2015 – and, above all, in its most impoverished areas. Milei also swept areas of the country’s productive center such as Córdoba, Santa Fe and Mendoza, but also won in almost all of the Argentine provinces. The big question is what remains now of his most radical program, including the dollarization of the economy, which he never finished explaining, or the closure of the Central Bank.

5. Milei managed to reverse his defeat in the presidential debate in his favor. That day, Massa defeated him almost by knockout. He was the man who knew the State inside out, who knew which camera to look at and who “take any shots” despite being the Minister of the Economy with more than 140% annual inflation. In front of him was an almost dejected Milei, with no skills as a debater – far from his particular charisma at electoral rallies, in which he appeared with a chainsaw and called for “kicking the asses of impoverishing politicians” . But Massa’s victory, as it turned out, was pyrrhic. In addition to appearing as an Economy Minister who was only “feigning dementia,” he represented like no one else the type of hyper-professionalised politician rejected by a large part of the electorate. In the campaign, Massa embodied a kind of “caste” front, with the more or less explicit support of leaders of the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) [Radical Civic Union] and moderate sectors of the centre-right, such as the outgoing mayor of Buenos Aires, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta. Milei finally managed to transform anti-progress “trolling” into a presidential project.

After his victory on November 19, a crowd spontaneously took to the streets, as if it were a football victory. The vote for Milei combined the angry vote with a new type of hope, associated with a speech with a strong utopian and messianic weight and quite a few reactionary proclamations: Milei presented himself, even comparing himself with Moses, as a liberator of the Argentine people from “statism” and “decadence.” In just two years, he went from being a sort of Joker, who called for rebellion in Gotham City, to being an unexpected new president. “Milei’s strategy was a whirlwind, erratic at many times, disorderly, but effective and it served to bring together the unrest. People paid with their vote to enter a new show with, Milei as the protagonist,” analyst Mario Riorda wrote in an X thread.

How this utopia will land in a government program is the big question right now. Will it be something more than “macrismo 2.0”? It has already been anticipated that his cabinet will be an assembly between mileistas and macristas, with a central role for Patricia Bullrich. It will also be necessary to see what the role of Vice President Victoria Villarruel will be, a lawyer associated with the radical right, including ex-military members of the dictatorship, and who is referred to as the Italian Giorgia Meloni.

6. The progressive “micro-militancy” of recent days – ordinary people intervening in public transport and other mass spaces – were not enough to reverse a wave that was more powerful than expected. This micro-militancy, which emphasized Milei’s denialism – regarding the crimes of the last dictatorship, but also climate change – and his proposals against social justice (which he considers a monstrosity), sought to be a voice of warning. But they did not explain why Massa’s project could be attractive, only that a blocking vote was necessary to avoid losing rights. Much of this progressive micro-militancy ended up appealing to a defense of the political system (substantiated by Massa’s proposal for “national unity”), against which Milei himself had targeted with his discourse “against the caste.” On the other hand, rather than highlighting the qualities of the Peronist candidate (in which they often did not believe), the micro-militancy warned of the “fascist” danger of his opponent. The very weakening of Kirchnerism meant that these speeches were often inaudible or perceived as sermons for a part of the population determined to vote for “the new” – even when the new could, in fact, be a leap into the void. To which is added the fact that mileism had its own micro-militancy, much of it digital.

The result of the election ended up being almost a carbon copy of that of Jair Bolsonaro against Fernando Hadad in 2018. The “fear” that Massa’s campaign proffered faced the “fatigue” with the established order of Milei’s campaign. Argentine progressivism now confronts the need to assess these years; it must consider the need to reinvent itself in a new political-cultural context, that of a potential reactionary wave. “These elections not only represent a defeat of Kirchnerism, of the Unión por la Patria or Peronism in general. They are above all a defeat of the left; a political, social and cultural defeat of the left, of its values, of its traditions, of the rights acquired, of its credibility,” wrote the historian Horacio Tarcus.

7. Will Milei’s victory lead to a cultural change in the country in line with its ultra-capitalist ideology? Can it transform electoral support into effective institutional power? Will this new right, the product of the assemblage of libertarians and macristas, be able to govern “normally”?

If Milei surprised Juntos por el Cambio, he then depended on Macri and Bullrich to get the votes for the second round. Milei won the Presidency; Macri gained political power. Can he make the radical adjustment he promised? What will be the strength of the resistance – of unions and social movements – against a government that will be located very far to the right of Macri’s (2015-2019) and that promises a shock therapy? Will Milei manage to build a social base to sustain his reforms?

After 10 pm on Sunday, November 19, the president-elect regained before his followers the tone of the barricade and of the historical moment. There he presented himself as the “first liberal-libertarian president in the history of humanity”. He referred to the liberalism of the 19th century and repeated that in his project there is no place “for lukewarm people.” His followers responded by singing “Let them all go, let not a single one remain.”

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