Javier Milei in 2022 Javier Milei in 2022. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Milei’s dangerous new regime is preparing for major class battles, but it has been enabled by the establishment’s loss of legitimacy, and the lack of a left challenge, argues John Clarke

Though Argentina is by no means the only country where a reactionary but eccentric populist has won office, that country’s new president, Javier Milei, stands out as a particularly glaring and extraordinary example of this political type.

The Guardian has described Milei as ‘a volatile far-right libertarian who has vowed to “exterminate” inflation and take a chainsaw to the state.’ The paper adds that he is ‘a Mick Jagger impersonating TV celebrity-turned politician, who is often compared to Donald Trump’ and it characterises him as ‘a climate-denying populist who is known by the nickname El Loco (the Madman).’

Immediately after his electoral victory, Milei declared that ‘Argentina will return to the place in the world which it should never have lost.’ He has insisted that he has the solutions needed to deal with ‘a financial calamity that has left 40% of Argentina’s 45 million citizens in poverty and pushed inflation to more than 140%.’ During the election campaign, he confidently asserted that ‘I know how to exterminate the cancer of inflation.’

Right celebrates

A chorus from the right registered its joy at the outcome of the election. Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, gushed that ‘hope is sparkling in South America once again.’ For his part, Donald Trump told Milei that ‘The whole world was watching! I am very proud of you. You will turn your country around and truly Make Argentina Great Again.’ For good measure, X’s owner, Elon Musk, posted that ‘Prosperity is ahead for Argentina.’

Argentinian historian Federico Finchelstein warned that Milei may cut new and dangerous ground as a right-wing populist. ‘He is way more excessive and unstable than [Jair] Bolsonaro and Trump. So it’s highly unpredictable what this person could do [in power].’Some commentators have expressed concern that Milei’s application of drastic and untested remedies for Argentina’s problems may lead to severe economic dislocation and major social unrest.

Ominously, Milei’s right-wing views include historical revisionism when it comes to Argentina’s history of brutal military dictatorship. He ‘has also enraged millions of Argentinians by questioning the four-decade consensus over the crimes of its 1976-83 dictatorship, during which an estimated 30,000 people were killed by the military regime. His vice-presidential running mate is Victoria Villarruel, an ultra-conservative congresswoman who has played down the dictatorship’s sins.’

Milei entered the fray during political primaries in August, when he joined the race as leader and founder of the La Libertad Avanza party and established himself as frontrunner. However, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, running ‘for the Unión por la Patria, a centre-left coalition of Peronist political parties that have dominated Argentine politics for decades,’ was able to contain his opponent during the general election in October. Despite this setback, Milei won the run-off that was held the following month, taking an impressive 55.7% of the vote to Massa’s 44.3%.

It is worth noting that the office of president in Argentina carries with it very robust powers. The newly elected ‘self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” will exercise executive power, be the head of government and supreme commander of the armed forces. He will also be ‘politically responsible for the general administration of the country.’ If he proves to be as erratic and dangerous as many are predicting, he will have a considerable ability to act, even without an outright majority in the congress, and containing him will be no easy task.

Though Milei galvanised a very significant political base among disgruntled sections of the population, it is worth noting that the mood of dissatisfaction didn’t only express itself as a move to the right. Given that this election saw ‘the second lowest turnout since the recovery of democracy after the last military dictatorship (1976-1983),’ it is reasonable to suggest that a viable alternative on the left, based on hope rather than embittered despair, might have produced a very different result.

As it was, Milei was able to exploit the deep sense of disappointment and discontent. The previous left-Peronist government of Alberto Fernández had taken over in the wake of a period of hard-right neoliberal austerity that did great damage to Argentina’s socialinfrastructure and industrial base. Fernández failed, however, to improve conditions for most people and paid little attention to the needs of those who had been driven into the swollen ranks of the precarious workforce.

Andres Ruggeri and Marcelo Vieta, writing in Jacobin Magazine, argue that, given this failure ‘to even nominally satisfy the elevated social expectations that brought it to power in 2019,’ the ‘we did not see it coming’ refrain of those who went down to defeat is quite unjustified. As they put it, ‘upon closer analysis, stubborn and acute inflation without effective government response, lingering challenges left over from the pandemic, the deepening influence of social media, and the stark polarization of political discourse has made the rise of a personality like Milei … a predictable phenomenon.’

In this sad context, the message that Milei put forward reached significant portions of the working class. ‘50.8 percent of salaried voters, 47.4 percent of pensioners, 50.9 percent of informal sector voters, 52.3 percent of workers in the trades, and almost 30 percent of the traditional Peronist base voted for Milei.’ This was bolstered by ‘the votes transferred over from the traditional right and upper class who supported Mauricio Macri’s and Patricia Bullrich’s Juntos por el Cambio coalition, that constituency delivered a comfortable win for Milei.’

Major attacks

Even as he campaigned for office, it was obvious that Milei would rapidly put himself on a collision course with unions and social movements. He declared that ‘everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be put in the hands of the private sector.’ He has his sights on 137 public companies that provide some of the most basic and vital public services and he has already signalled a desire to ‘dismantle Argentina’s public health system and privatize large parts of its primary and university education systems, including its publicly funded higher-education research institution.’

To an even greater degree than comparable populist figures, despite his intention to attack working-class gains, Milei hasn’t won the confidence of the capitalist class. His ideas and plans are simply ‘too crude for the wealthy classes, who want dominance but also predictability for their business interests.’

It is clear that Milei is reckoning with the prospect of major working-class opposition to the measures he will now try to impose. The Argentinian currency has been devalued by more than 50% and a brutal round of social cutbacks is being prepared. In this context, Milei is bracing for ‘an anticipated wave of protests.’ He has declared that organisations or individuals who take to the streets will be identified and billed for the cost of policing their actions.

The president is particularly anxious to defeat ‘a traditional form of protest known as piquete, in which demonstrators blockade city roads and highways for hours, days – and sometimes even weeks at a time.’ Milei’s security minister, Patricia Bullrich, stated that we ‘have lived for many years under total and absolute disorder. It is time to put an end to this method, to the extortion suffered by citizens.’

The security measures adopted also increase the powers of police to search people and seize items they determine could be used in protests. The parents of young people who join demonstrations can now face legal sanction. One right-wing legislator proudly described the new regime’s method of dealing with social resistance as one of ‘prison or bullet.’ The political administration that Milei has assembled is charting a course that it knows will involve a major social confrontation and it is preparing accordingly.

Milei, like others of his political type, must be understood as a sign of the times. He is a product of an economic crisis, a deep and volatile mood of discontent, a loss of credibility by the political establishment and the lack of a serious challenge from the left.

It is clear that this exceptionally eccentric political figure is going to provoke major class battles. A powerful and effective mobilisation against his plans is the immediate question, but the framing of a viable socialist alternative to the reactionary ‘solutions’ he peddles is the most vital consideration of all.


John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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