Javier Milei's chainsaw

Image: Karolina Grabowska
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By WILLIAM CALLISSON*

Milei's most destructive characteristics are yet to be seen

Having led the libertarian party alliance freedom advances in Congress in 2021, far-right Argentine politician Javier Milei once again exceeded expectations. In the August presidential primaries, he obtained 30% of the vote – thus defeating the center-left candidates of the Citizen Unit, which obtained just 27%, and the center-right of Together for Change, which was 28%. Now, in the run-up to the general elections on October 22, Javier Milei is alone at the top of all the polls. The only uncertainty is whether he will be able to overcome the limit to avoid a second round.

For many viewers, Javier Milei's politics have been difficult to classify. He is a former semi-professional football player, rock musician, comic book cosplayer, tantric sex guru and economics professor. He is also a red-faced television commentator and a self-created internet meme. The face of this admittedly cartoonish figure is the crutch of countless opinion articles, which reduce him to an imitation of Donald Trump, someone with an even more eccentric hairstyle (his nickname is “The Wig”).

Others see Javier Milei as yet another eruption of Latin America's amorphous “populist” phenomenon. As an article in Foreign Affairs, the region’s socioeconomic volatility tends to produce “radical iconoclasts”: “Milei, Castillo, Bolsonaro, Chávez and Bukele would probably not have emerged in a more stable scenario”. In this binary framework – liberal stability versus populist demagogy – all variants of “anti-establishment” politics are grouped together, without any attention to their local particularities.

Another line of commentary focuses, more precisely, on the growing economic crisis in Argentina. Reaching close to 120% per year, inflation is burning all the assets of the richest population. The public debt/GDP ratio is around 80% and there are no liquid reserves at the central bank.

The IMF has forced harsh austerity measures as a condition for new loans, which trickle in every three months. The real estate market does not operate in Argentine pesos, but in US dollars, which are often difficult and expensive to acquire through the black market, where the US dollar is called “blue".

The post-pandemic labor market is precarious and increasingly flexible, with a large informal sector characterized by overemployment rather than underemployment: for many workers, multiple jobs and temporary work are a necessary means of survival. Meanwhile, private financing is increasing household debt, pre-pandemic advances in gender equality are being reversed, and high prices are holding back the momentum of working-class organizing and social movements.

The fact that a plurality of voters can rebel against a establishment partisan management of this type of crisis is no surprise. Public debt first exploded under the conservative government of Mauricio Macri in 2015 and has remained more or less stable under the Peronist administration of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It is also not surprising that such a “populist” message spreads among the population. But a question remains: why does Javier Milei appear at this juncture; What could his eventual victory mean for the future of the country?

At election rallies that double as punk concerts, Javier Milei combines a hyper-individualist creed of “life, liberty, property” with a populist denunciation of “political caste.” He begins and ends most of his speeches with his catchphrase: “Long live freedom, dammit.” His adoring audience is mostly men who live online, many of them Bitcoin enthusiasts.

They are, however, first-time voters. Javier Milei promises them that he will “burn down” the central bank, dollarize the currency, eliminate most state agencies and privatize public companies. Just as he describes anthropogenic climate change as a “socialist lie,” he also denies the torture and disappearances that occurred during the dictatorship, planning to pardon military officers imprisoned for such crimes.

Fueled by virulent sexism, he hopes to reverse the progress made by the country's powerful feminist movement, particularly the legalization of abortion, and defeat the LGBT community's so-called “gender ideology” in education and culture writ large.

Javier Milei's perspective represents a reactionary mutation of neoliberalism in response to the current conditions of the economic crisis. It is the latest eruption of Latin America’s long authoritarian free market tradition – what Verônica Gago calls the “original violence” of its peripheral neoliberal model.

In a moment of despair, as Pablo Stefanoni observed, Javier Milei managed to build the only “truly ideological candidacy” with an electoral program and a utopian image of the future. This explains why, somehow, he managed to win over so many young males in the vilas of Buenos Aires (the equivalent of Brazilian favelas in the country), while outperforming its rivals in regions that previously favored the Peronist left.

More than Jair Bolsonaro – whose candidacy was boosted by young online activists from Movimento Brasil Livre after he promised them to nominate the chicago boy Paulo Guedes as Minister of Finance – Javier Milei is a card-carrying neoliberal. When asked how he adopted this political line, he speaks of an almost religious conversion – from neoclassical Keynesianism to the Austrian School. Javier Milei is also planning to convert from Catholicism to Judaism – even though his presidential work ethic may be incompatible with observance of the Shabbat.

In his victory speech after the primary elections, Javier Milei thanked both his supporters and his pet English mastiffs, named after Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas and Murray Rothbard. “After all, what is the State if not organized banditry?” – wrote Rothbard in his Libertarian Manifesto (1973). “What is taxation if not theft on a gigantic and uncontrolled scale?” “What is war if not mass murder on an impossible scale by private police forces?” Fifty years later, these lines can be heard echoing on prime-time Argentine television.

Following Friedman, Javier Milei distinguishes between three types of liberalism: the classical doctrine of Smith and Hayek, which he holds in high esteem; Mises' minarchism, with which he identifies on a practical level; and the anarcho-capitalism of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to which he adheres philosophically. Milei developed these views in several books: The Return to the Path of Argentine Decadence (2015) Freedom, Freedom, Freedom (2019) Pandenomy (2020) The Libertarian Path (2022) and The End of Inflation (2023)

Many of his titles have been accused and persecuted over allegations of plagiarism. But this is not a concern for Javier Milei, who is proud to have absorbed the teachings of his Austrian idols, line by line. Unlike any other type of property, your truths belong to everyone and no one.

However, Javier Milei's philosophy is not just on paper, but manifests itself in his concrete plans for dollarization – a project for which he has already started seeking foreign financing. For many voters, outraged by inflation and accustomed to trading in US currency, this policy seems intuitive – or at least worth the risk. For Javier Milei, however, it is less about resolving the current crisis than about defending a timeless principle.

In the tradition of the Austrian School, the return to the gold standard is the Holy Grail. In the absence of such a setback in history, the next best thing is to tie the hands of central bankers – or else cut them off altogether. There are several ways to do this. El Salvador's would-be dictator Nayib Bukele adopted Bitcoin as the country's second official currency, hoping to mimic the deflationary characteristics of the gold standard.

Republican Party presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has proposed using a basket of goods, including gold, to support the dollar. And Javier Milei praised the replacement of the peso with the dollar, along with the abolition of the central bank – which he calls “the worst thing in the universe”.

In contrast to rudderless “artists” like Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, Javier Milei is zealously committed to a coherent ideology. Initially it was unclear whether he really wanted to be president or whether his main goal was to use his candidacy to weave his ideas into the cultural fabric. It is partly for this reason that international financial markets are restless. Immediately after his victory in August, the value of both peso and dollar bonds plummeted, recalling the reaction to former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss's radical neoliberal reforms in 2022.

Of course, as chief economist at one of Argentina's largest companies and consultant to numerous national and international public bodies, Javier Milei is adept at carefully reading market signals – as well as adjusting his levels of radicalism to his audience. When speaking with the Bloomberg, he resorts to abstract classroom lectures on macroeconomic theory. As The Economist,, he emphasizes the good faith of his establishment and rejects accurate characterizations of his program as “hyperbole.”

In this most reassuring note, Javier Milei explains that the welfare state should certainly be destroyed – but not all at once. “It's the enemy, so let's dismantle it. But with a transition… During the first few years, we would try to reconfigure [donations] so that social policy does not focus on well-being, but on human capital.”

To this end, it proposes reducing the number of government ministries from eighteen to eight: it wants to get rid of the Ministries of Culture, Education, Transport, Public Health, Environment and Sustainable Development, and Women, Gender and Diversity, among others. Some of its functions will be integrated into the Ministry of Human Capital, which will condition well-being at work.

The social security reform, he adds, will follow the model established by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. A new era of shock therapy is on the way; but, as Javier Milei guarantees, in accordance with what the The Economist, predicates, this will not cause problems for international institutions or investors, as their own tax and spending cuts will be much more severe than the IMF's proposals.

However, in a report on Javier Milei's growing prospects, the Financial Times quotes a consultant from a London-based investment firm who questions his ability to execute such policies: “There are concerns about…governability – the extent to which he would be able to control the protests if he were able to implement his radical measures.” .

Would the backlash against his agenda be too strong for the state to contain? Once again, Javier Milei responds that he will handle his chainsaw – the tool he symbolically carries and puts to work at his rallies – with care. He knows which arms of the State to cut off and which to use against his opponents. “We are working on a new internal security law, a new national defense law, a new intelligence law, reform of the penal code, reform of the criminal code and reform of the prison system.”

In addition, security will be entrusted to his running mate, Victoria Villarruel. Nicknamed “Villacruel,” she spent her legal career defending military personnel convicted of crimes against humanity. She is a long-time supporter of the so-called “two devils theory” of the Argentine dictatorship, placing equal blame on communist dissidents and the state that systematically tried to eradicate them.

Javier Milei's foreign policy evokes the same themes. Upon assuming power, he intends to begin an “automatic alignment with the US and Israel”, while refusing to work with “socialist countries” such as China, Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Mexico. What this means in practice is subject to debate. After all, Jair Bolsonaro said the same thing about China during his election campaign, before embracing the country as president.

Javier Milei could pull off a similar turnaround. However, his ideological commitment – ​​along with his neocolonial fixation on the virtues of “Western civilization” – should not be underestimated. Nor the unpredictability that accompanies his particular brand of libertarianism.

When asked about Argentina's agreement between Mercosur and the European Union, Javier Milei attacked it, but also expressed his opposition to the idea of ​​replacement tariffs. His administration would certainly expand the extractive frontier in the Lithium Triangle, which is already violently displacing indigenous communities, in line with the IMF's demand to pay sovereign debts in US dollars.

Oriented towards Washington and Wall Street, Javier Milei would be a lonely figure in the region; the Uruguayan president and the current favorite for the presidency of Ecuador would be among his only allies. However, as she recently explained in an interview with Tucker Carlson, the far-right's effective transnational organization, this isolation may be short-lived.

Javier Milei has established ties with Spain's far-right Vox party. It is allied with reactionary leaders from across the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America through initiatives such as the Madrid Forum, which aims to bring together the moderate far right and the far right “to confront the threat posed by the growth of communism on both sides of the Atlantic ”. Javier Milei sees himself as part of a New insurgent right which is focused on the cultural front – waging a long war of maneuver against gender equality and racial justice, with the help of online social networks.

The interview with Javier Milei, carried out by Carlson, was viewed 420 million times in the United States, following Elon Musk's endorsement!

Javier Milei's promise to “make Argentina great again” is not just the latest Trumpian ploy used by a far-right nationalist. It is also a genuine appeal to liberal palingenesis – a vision of national rebirth through a return to Smith, Hayek and their heirs. When Javier Milei uses this phrase, he is not just participating in the rehabilitation of the military dictatorship; he also calls for a return to the golden years of Argentine history – the first decades of the XNUMXth century, when it was among the richest nations in the world.

This prosperity, granted by “classical free-market liberalism,” was supposedly erased by Juan Perón’s socialist state “inventism,” which has since mired the country in decadence and decline. To recover such greatness, Javier Milei defends a “libertarian revolution that will make Argentina a world power again in thirty-five years”. However, its anarcho-authoritarian program does not exactly resemble those of past dictatorships. Its possibly more destructive characteristics are yet to be seen.

*William Callisson is a political scientist. Author, of Mutant neoliberalism: Market rule and political rupture (Fordham University Press).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website Sidecar da New Left Review.


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