Argentina by Javier Milei

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By MARISTELLA SVAMPA*

Autocracy, pedagogy of cruelty and a great “piñata”.

Is Argentina on the path to becoming a new authoritarian and exclusionary society under the mandate of ultra-rightist Javier Milei, who took office on December 10, 2023?

This possibility is indicated in the recent measures, included in the first mega decree 70/2023, announced on December 20th. With 366 articles, it repeals important laws and modifies many others, proposing to “refound the country”. This is a general social and economic restructuring of a negative nature.

Likewise, on December 20, the Minister of Security (Patricia Bullrich, former right-wing presidential candidate, known for her repressive positions) inaugurated an aggressive anti-picketing protocol aimed at restricting social protest. This protocol was soon accompanied by an excessive use of national security forces in the city of Buenos Aires, aiming to prevent the demonstration (ritual, on that date) of around five thousand people, belonging to left-wing piquetero organizations.

A shock strategy accompanied by a policy of social discipline is a well-known recipe and comes from dictatorial times. Symbolic protests were launched, twenty-two years after an unforgettable event for the Argentine middle classes. At that moment, the pots thundered and ended up overthrowing a weak and stunned president (Fernando de la Rua), in the midst of a major economic and social crisis and a repression with more than thirty deaths.

All of Javier Milei's behavioral and conceptual extravaganzas, as well as Javier Milei's surprising discursive turns, have already been extensively researched and analyzed. Even a first and broad analysis of emergency social conditions was advanced to explain what the hell happened to us, the Argentines, as a society.

How did we end up in a situation as dangerous and insane as the current one? How, after two years, did a boring economist, arrogant speaker and shouter who appears on prime time television come to power? One outsider Self-defined as an anarcho-capitalist, he comes to question a society in crisis, he comes to shift the structure of Peronist sentiment to reach the government with the endorsement of fifty-six percent in the recent November second round.

Even so, many seem to have been surprised by the radicality of Javier Milei's first measures. But the truth is that they are in line with his campaign promises, in which he placed the State as a fundamental enemy. He predicted a stronger fiscal adjustment than the IMF's request, openly questioning one of the founding pillars of Peronism. He preached that social justice is “an aberration” in the speech he gave before his followers after his victory in the primary elections (August 2023).

I would like to clarify that I am not here trying to repeat what has already been said about Javier Milei. I propose to make some first comments of a political and institutional nature, with a national and global historical perspective, in light of the mega decree of December 20th and its consequences.

Regime change

The shock strategy (fiscal adjustment and complete liberalization of the economy) promotes a “regime change”, as expressed by Javier Milei’s economic advisor, Federico Sturzenegger (a dogmatic neoliberal, several times a civil servant in previous failed governments). Mega decree 70/2023, announced by Javier Milei on national television, addresses key issues such as economic deregulation, advances in State reform, profound liberalization of labor relations, foreign trade, energy, airspace, justice, health, communication, tourism , sports, some mining (much more can no longer be modified in this unregulated field) and even the automotive regime.

The bus decree thus contains the sum of many other decrees in its extensive eighty-three page articles, combining more general aspects in terms of deregulation/state regulation in favor of the market, such as the disappearance of the figure of state-owned companies and mixed companies (with state participation) to be replaced by public limited companies (i.e. total privatization), the reform of the customs code, the repeal of the Land Law (which imposed limits on foreign participation), the restriction of the right to strike, the repeal of Rent Law, any measure to control the price of basic foods, among many others, even more specific articles, such as the deregulation of internet services “to allow competition from foreign companies”, such as Starlink”. This point was shamelessly announced by Javier Milei on national television, in the form of special music for the ears of Elon Musk, the company's owner.

Unconstitutionality of the decree and autocracy

Regime change is not only economic-social in nature, it also aspires to be political-institutional. A wide range of constitutionalists – from right to left – consider the decree unconstitutional, due to its advance over other powers and because its measures, to a large extent, do not justify it, as they are neither “necessary” nor “urgent”. Could anyone justify the transformation of football clubs into public limited companies as a measure of “necessity” and “urgency”? Or the reduction in maternity leave days, among many other changes?

It has been repeatedly said that decrees of necessity and urgency (DNU) with legislative scope are frequently used by Argentine presidents, especially since the 1990s. However, they have never had such a dedemocratizing scope as this. With the stroke of a pen, a set of social and labor rights is swept away: this eliminates inclusive laws that imply better access to basic services and restrictions on oligopolies, aiming to favor the most fragile sectors, through a mega decree that explicitly delivers everything to the most powerful economic forces in the market.

If the economic and social reasons are justified as emergency (“the only way out is adjustment”), politically speaking, for Javier Milei it becomes something more. As is known, he is a weak president in parliamentary terms, although he is “very empowered” – as his presidential spokesperson recently said – after receiving fifty-six percent of the votes in the second round (although in the first return only came in second place, with thirty percent).

Although the Argentine system is hyper-presidential, its objective seems to be to give itself the sum of public power, thus becoming a “strong president”. In this way, he would achieve a reconfiguration of the political scenario around his figure, without the active participation of the other powers of the State (which would only validate his will, acting as an inevitable parade). In fact, Rodolfo Barra, a lawyer with a Nazi past and former legal advisor for Carlos Menem's state reform in the 1990s, has just declared that “our president is a figure analogous to a king”.

In short, your “all or nothing” strategy is about the survival of your project. If Javier Milei fails, he will have to abandon his ideals of pan-capitalist radicalism. If he succeeds, he will be crowned a strong president and can bet on deepening the changes. It is not impossible for the new president to bring together an important bloc, bringing together the most conservative right with other minority sectors, capable of endorsing this decree.

The opposition political forces in Parliament (broad Peronist sectors, sectors of the Radical Civic Union, small “federal” blocs and the Trotskyist left) must reject the decree in both chambers, accompanied and encouraged by growing social mobilizations. Because, in addition to the social and economic effects, the severity of institutional change is exceptional; behold, it can have important political effects in the future.

If this mega decree ends up being imposed (that is, if it is not rejected by the National Congress in its two chambers, nor by the Supreme Court of Justice for unconstitutionality in view of the cascade of protections that will certainly be presented), autocracy, that is, that form of government in which the will of a single person is the supreme law, seems to be the most likely scenario that opens up for a country so broken, at the end of a cycle as convulsed as the one presented by Argentina.

Short and medium historical memory

In the last fifty years, there have been three strong attempts at dedemocratization in Argentina. The first of these was the civil-military dictatorship of 1976, which imposed a program of economic and social restructuring, of shrinking the State, intrinsically linked to State terrorism. It was about disciplining a mobilized society, strongly rebellious in its popular and middle classes. In an authoritarian context, the result was the murder and disappearance of hundreds of activists and thousands of supporters of popular causes.

The second attempt, which ended up consolidating the social legacy of the dictatorship and imposing an exclusionary society, did not come from the military, but, with Peronism triumphant in the 1989 elections, with Carlos Menem, who in his electoral campaign had promised to (re)present a egalitarian and social justice project. However, Carlos Menem's audacity was to turn those promises linked to the ideology of the first Peronism like a glove and install a radical neoliberal program that surprised a society exhausted and traumatized by the experience of hyperinflation, at a time when the Berlin Wall was falling and the Washington Consensus was written.

As I wrote almost two decades ago, “behind the image of a devastated country, the crisis of social ties experienced during hyperinflation left the door open, too open, for the radical transformations carried out during the Menem decade.”[I] On the other hand, Menem did not need to resort to the DNU all the time, as he imposed his state reform and privatization package through laws approved by Congress, as he had a parliamentary majority that was as obedient as it was overwhelming.[ii] Menem, like no other constitutional president, would leave the scales unbalanced – as political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell would say – in favor of the richest sectors and consolidate the great social asymmetry inaugurated by the last military dictatorship.

After twelve years of Kirchnerism (2003-2015) and in the midst of a growing economic crisis, Mauricio Macri tried to implement a fiscal adjustment and dedemocratization project. The adoption of “gradualism,” however, left it less likely to produce major change. Despite the accelerated depletion of his political capital, he managed to impose on society the burden of an external debt of forty billion dollars granted to him by the IMF. This loan was taken out outside of all regulations; These resources soon escaped to the coffers of friendly businessmen and financial capital. For many, there is no doubt that the medicine was worse than the disease.

Javier Milei embodies a fourth, hyper radical attempt, after the terrible government of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2019-2023), through a shock strategy that began with a mega devaluation of sixty percent and now with a mega decree, which will be followed by other deregulation and fiscal adjustment decrees. In fact, the new president has already called extraordinary sessions of Congress, between December 26th and January 31st, 2024, to validate more decrees, measures that aim to deepen the liberalization of all sectors of the economy and society.

New pedagogy of cruelty

It is a matter, impeccably, as in times of dictatorship, of building political authority on the altar of a new “pedagogy of cruelty”, to freely use the category coined by anthropologist Rita Segato. The lack of empathy for the weakest and least favored, for the “fallen” (as the new president called them), is not only reflected in Javier Milei's speech. It also appears in the words of counselor Sturzenegger, when he was asked about the people's first protests (cacerolazos) against the DNU: “Freedom is dizzying” – he said.

This new pedagogy of cruelty has its complement in the anti-picketing protocol that Patricia Bullrich seeks to foster and apply to brutally discipline a historically undisciplined society, with plebeian outbreaks that are highly destabilizing for the economic and political elites. The others, the “convicts” that Mauricio Macri referred to in an interview, through an openly dehumanizing gesture, have no right to protest. In the political imagination of the renewed right and the extreme right, social protest is a crime – as it was in the civic-military dictatorship – and repression is an inseparable part of the new economic-social model that is sought to be imposed.

Nothing new under the sun, even if the rays fall differently here in the south of the planet

Javier Milei reproduces in a vernacular key what is currently written in the primer of right-wing populisms, by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States, among others, who use the electoral tools of democracy to pulverize the republican institutional structure and further erode declining democratic values.

On a global scale, we can detect different recent attempts, failed or successful, depending on the case. Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro failed to implement regime change in their (so far first) presidential terms, although they called on their followers to civil disobedience and the violent seizure of state headquarters. But Orban and Netanyahu were successful in their respective countries, after achieving electoral victory with more conservative alliances, which led them to consolidate power and implement openly authoritarian policies.

What are Javier Milei's chances now that she has just started her term and has a newly created political party? The reality is that the possibility of implementing a shock strategy (promised in the campaign) is based on the explicit desire for social and political revenge from the harder right, which supported him and facilitated his triumph in the second round. A right that regrets having opted for a gradualist policy between 2015 and 2019, when Mauricio Macri was president and the political climate was not favorable, despite everything, to so much savage neoliberalism.

It was necessary to sit back and wait for the resounding failure of Kirchnerism, in the hands of the Fernández-Fernández binomial, the great catalyst of this right-wing process, in a global context of expansion of the extreme right, to return through a new energized experience. Thus, the more conservative right guaranteed Javier Milei's electoral triumph in the second round and made teams and ministers available, offering a space for empowerment and political expansion to a leader with little democratic vocation. An “empowered” president, who will seek to make the most of this revanchist obsession of the now radicalized representatives of conservative neoliberalism, to establish an openly autocratic leadership.

Limit to democracy

When many of us said that Javier Milei was a danger to Argentine democracy, unfortunately we were not wrong. In addition to his insistent economic references to anarcho-capitalism or aggressive criticisms of “cultural Marxism”, Javier Milei's constant appeals to Alberdi's nineteenth-century Argentine Constitution explicitly leave out other constitutional advances, which go in the democratizing direction (1949, 1994 ), but above all it leaves out the democratic experiences from 1916 (with the inauguration of universal suffrage) to the present.

His laments about “Argentine decadence” and his Trumpist invocation of the past greatness of Argentina (which Javier Milei names as “the main world power at the beginning of the 1920th century”, something categorically false) are assimilated to those of the ultra-conservative and pro-fascist sectors of the decades of 1930-1930, which created armed shock groups (such as the famous “Patriotic League”) to face the mobilized proletariat of the time and knocked for the first time on the doors of military barracks to break the institutional order (civic-military coups began in XNUMX).

It is no coincidence that, in 2020, Javier Milei did not want to answer an Argentine journalist's question about whether or not he believed in democracy, to which he insistently repeated: “Do you know Arrow's theorem?”[iii] According to Milei, this theorem, although it refers to preferences in general, would demonstrate the impossibility of democratic planning of the economy and society in general and, therefore, would justify an undemocratic treatment of the country's major issues.

The mega decree as a large piñata (a pot of gifts)

Hundreds of measures contained in the mega decree not only benefit large companies, crushing any previous social, economic and environmental rights, but in certain cases benefit “certain” companies. A well-founded and increasingly widespread rumor says that several of the legal teams of large companies were involved in drafting different DNU articles, enthusiastic about this type of “Piñata” that Javier Milei graciously offered them, hand in hand with an anarcho-capitalist speech, with the support of right-wing sectors that are once again collecting outstanding bills…

Private medicine, the banking and financial system, the media, pharmaceutical products, large industrial organizations, supermarkets, hydrocarbon companies or even sugar mills, even Elon Musk himself, benefited from this mega decree that literally leaves the most of the country's popular and middle classes, including the hard core that voted for Javier Milei, as well as a large part of Argentina's rebellious sectors.

We do not come from the brave new world of Peronism

Once again, the resounding failure of Kirchnerism is far from innocent in this tremendous political defeat that alienated a large part of society from inclusive proposals that call for equality and social justice. Added to this is the lack of self-criticism from these sectors regarding their responsibility for the increase in impoverishment and high inflation.

The fact is that Javier Milei managed to capture a large part of this discontent, faced with a widespread and deficient state, which left many people out and tolerated a lot of corruption, aggravated by the multiple effects of the crisis and the long confinement of the pandemic. Although Peronism continues to control part of the political structure of the Justicialist party, it no longer feeds the feeling of social justice with which it was able to mobilize subordinate sectors in other times. Milei rearticulated these feelings and aspirations under another ideology, where the ideas of “freedom” and “political caste” were able to be highly effective against the idea of ​​an increasingly hollowed-out social justice.

Faulty or flawed ideology

Who wins and who loses with this crazy adjustment in Argentina? For many, the answer is obvious, but for others, not yet. As many have pointed out, the defense of “freedom” and the excessive attack on the State constitute some of the particularities of Javier Milei’s ideology within the map of the global extreme right. Thus, the mega shock decree aims to remove all regulatory capacity from the State, supposedly leaving the ability to act and choose in the hands of the “individual”.

It is clear that it is an ideology that ignores basic structural inequalities and therefore minimizes or completely ignores relations of domination. This is the core of the ultraliberal ideology that condemns the State, which through regulations – whether social, environmental, economic, political or cultural – restricts the freedom of individuals. Let us not forget that in 2018 Milei had compared the State's action to an act of rape: “The State is the pedophile in the kindergarten where the children are chained and bathed in Vaseline. And those who command the State are the politicians.”

According to sociologist Eva Illouz, who has just published a highly recommended book on “the emotional life of populism”,[iv] the aspect of emotions involved in ideologies has always been neglected and today, given the rise of right-wing populism, it deserves a detailed analysis. Illouz reads the mismatch between the ideology proposed by the extreme right and understood by its voters, and its concrete political and economic effects (which harm many of its voters), in terms of “flawed ideologies”.

This means that “the following conditions are met: it goes against the basic principles of democracy, while citizens really want political institutions to represent them; whether your specific policies (for example, purporting to represent ordinary people and yet favoring policies that make home ownership extremely difficult) conflict with your stated ideological principles or goals; displaces and distorts the causes of discontent within a social group; and whether he is oblivious or blind to the leader's shortcomings (e.g., corruption for his own benefit or his disregard for the well-being of the nation).”[v]

To paraphrase Eva Illouz, it is not that the brand that gave rise to this social experience (of humiliation, of tiredness, of anger) is false, but that flawed ideologies (such as right-wing populism) distort, provide flawed pictures, false explanations of processes social and economic. It is true that the disconnect can be associated with multiple ideologies and not just exclusionary populisms.

But this interesting approach can help explain why Javier Milei's voters believe in the “freedom” that their leader promises (a false freedom), seeing and considering that this freedom in fact benefits the same old people (the caste he claims to fight). ; a freedom that, by freeing the economic forces of the market, favors the most concentrated and powerful sectors (which make the DNU a great “piñata”, as in times of dictatorship and menemism) and leaves the most vulnerable without protection, widens the gaps in inequality and further strains the space of a weakened democracy.

Corollary

Everything is very dynamic and volatile in this world where tectonic plates are moving quickly. We are in times of civilizational polycrisis. I would say, however, that in the short term there are three paths that I hope can converge and be reinforced to stop this autocratic onslaught given its enormous and negative consequences (dedemocratization, greater inequality and social exclusion).

(i) That different protections be filed and, based on this, the Supreme Court of Justice rules against the DNU, declaring it unconstitutional; (ii) that the different political forces of the opposition in Parliament (in both chambers) quickly assume (the political times demand it) historical responsibility and reject the DNU and other exclusionary policies that will come; and (iii) that popular mobilizations in different cities across the country (marches, general or partial strikes, cacerolazos), led by sectors of civil society, unions, territorial organizations, feminists and environmentalists, repudiate this attempt by the Executive Branch to assert itself sum of public power, pushing and promoting the rejection of the DNU, and demanding that the other powers of the State (especially Parliament) assume this urgent historical responsibility.

Let us hope that the democratic reserves of the Argentine people lead us to create “healthy zones”, as Argentine writer Marcelo Cohen said.[vi] I hope we can learn to recover this social experience of exhaustion and humiliation that broad social sectors suffer today, to generate truly egalitarian and inclusive projects, with the least possible ideological imbalance.

We need this more than ever.

*maristella svampa is a professor at the National University of La Plata.

Published on the portal Without permission [https://www.sinpermiso.info/textos/la-argentina-de-milei-autocracia-nueva-pedagogia-de-la-crueldad-y-gran-pinata]

Notes


[I] M. Svampa, The Excluding Society. Argentina under the sign of neoliberalism, Buenos Aires, Touro, 2006, pp. 29-30.

[ii] Although, as stated in one of his decrees, N° 2284/91, he also called for the deregulation of the economy.

[iii] Interview in “Truth / Consequence”, in All News, August 12, 2021 (see from minute 35 onwards).

[iv] E. Illouz, The emotional life of populism. How fear, disgust, resentment and love undermined democracy, Buenos Aires, Katz Editores, 2023. [https://amzn.to/3TQnA4O]

[v] Ibidem, p. 14.

[vi] Quoted by Graciela Speranza in “The cultural magazine ‘Otra Parte’ celebrates 20 years”, in the newspaper Clarín, December 14, 2024

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