Milei: The Meteor

26 January 2024

Translated by Cross Lawrence

An Accursed Era

In 1999, J.M. Coetzee wrote: “Robert Musil would call the times in which he lived an ‘accursed era’ ; his best energies were spent on trying to understand what Europe was doing to itself” It is not difficult to recognize that we find ourselves at the dawn of a new accursed era—the difference is now we must understand the Europe’s self-destructive behavior alongside that of the Americas and the even the entire world.

The Shock

According to The Guardian, Javier Milei is “bad and dangerous.” To the New York Times, he is a “mini-Trump.” Le Monde more gravely describes him as an “ultra-liberal;” L’Humanité calls him “a dangerous fool.” David Copelle, writing in AOC, calls him a “sub-tropical Joker.” John Ganz, author of the publication Unpopular News on Substack, says the following: “Javier Milei’s surprise landslide win in Argentina’s presidential election still managed to shock the world. That’s because he might be the most manifestly insane figure in the entire crop of right-wing populists.” Olivier Compagnon and David Copello underscore that “with the victory of Milei, a new democratic dam has been breached.”

Even before the final victory, Gustavo Franco, formerly an economist at the Central Bank of Brazil, wrote: “there’s a lot at stake in the Argentine election, the international themes seem all interconnected in a great worldwide polarization that we must stop before it is too late.” The central element behind these happenings is perhaps that which was indicated in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: “the alarm comes from Argentina, the Italy of the other hemisphere: populism is more alive than ever.”

If we add to these declarations the congratulations sent by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to the tenant of Casa Rosada, we understand the magnitude of the global political shock presented by the electoral successes of this “outsider.” Milei reinforces the global tendency towards the emergence of a new far-right in the same way he is a product of it. As such, his success can be added to that of the far-right in the Netherlands and the anti-immigrant pogrom that happened in Dublin.

Argentine Singularity

Despite its successes and its magnitude, this very worrying tendency is also meeting challenges: the victory of Biden against Trump, Lula against Bolsonaro, Sanchez in Spain, and the opposition parties in Poland. Even if the emergence of fascist populism becomes generalized, Milei’s victory still possesses singularity. Like Pablo Touzon and Frederico Zapata, we can speak of Milei as one would of a meteor:

66 million years ago, a meteor with an unpronounceable name, Chicxulub, caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. According to geological studies, the impact of the asteroid destroyed all forms of life over a radius of thousands of kilometers and caused a tsunami with waves hundreds of meters in height, and the dust it kicked up all the way to the atmosphere blocked the light of the sun for months. Not only did it kill everything that existed, but it changed the biosphere of the life that came after. In a way, in contemporary Argentina, the name of this meteor is Javier Milei: the instrument which is used by the majority of society to complete the task started with the August primaries: to put an end to the political system organized around the figure of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner since 2008.

Let us then try to understand the singularity of this meteor in two parts: first, the role and crisis of Kirchnerist Peronism from the perspective of the December 2001 disruption; then, the relationship between democracy and uncertainty. There must be a look at the third part, the most important, the destruction of the currency, but that will be covered in a coming article.

The Two Populisms

In Latin America, the rise of the far-right does not signify that there would be a singular populist turn, but that there are now at least two populisms: the new one, which is fascist in nature, and the other, the “traditionalist” one. It is, thus, not an accident that many analysts, including many linked to the Kirchner government, commented that it was as if Peronism had won in the United States with the victory of Donald Trump in 2016.

In August 2019, the Peronist Kirchnerist Alberto Fernandez formulated this reply to Jair Bolsonaro’s criticisms: “With Brazil, we will have splendid relationships, Brazil will always be our principal partner, Bolsonaro is a turning point in Brazil’s life just like Macri (the center-right President who was running for re-election) is a turning point in Argentina’s life.” Fernandez’s words seemed to be confirmed by his own victory and then by the return of Lula to power. But it was connected to something else: the anti-metamorphic habit of Peronism to remain or to return to power. Peronism does not adapt itself to the era, but the era adapts itself to Peronism.

Contrary to the image that we have overseas, what is happening in Argentina is not the arrival of populism into power, but the development of a new type of populism which itself has fought that populism which has long dominated the politics of Argentina. In the case of Brazil, the left-wing populist variant can appear to be relatively recent and emerging only because of the popularity Lula acquired during his two terms as President. But its roots are found in the developmentalist, centralist and authoritarian experience of Vargas. Indeed, Getulio Vargas was a dictator who was very close to Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany from his arrival to power in 1930 up until his alignment with the United States in 1942.

In the case of Peronism, the direct connection to fascism did not happen because Peron started his career later (practically after the end of Second World War), but his policies were similar: state intervention, protectionism, and nationalizations. When Peron had to leave for exile in 1955, he left for Francisco Franco’s Spain. However, without entering into the details of Peronism’s rise and fall, it is important to remember that the movement would remain even without Peron, all the while being influenced by very diverse political and social currents. At the beginning of the 1970s, the left of Peronism was turning towards armed struggle (with the Montoneros), while the right—mainly composed of trade unions—was leading repressions against those sectors. Such as in June 1973, when the return of Person in Argentina became the backdrop of a veritable battle against the two factions at the Ezeiza Airport (13 dead and an indeterminate number of wounded).

Referring to this period, and certainly that of the military dictatorship that followed from 1976 to 1983, Albert O. Hirschman defined Argentina as “the Latin American society that experienced the worst internal conflict over the last fifty years.” The mythological animal which Pepe Mujica speaks of—Peronism—is a chimera filled with aberrations and very violent contractions while being capable of incredible transformations at the same time. During the downfall of the dictatorship—after the defeat in the 1982 Falklands War—the democratic transition was led by Raul Alfonsin of Unión Cívica Radical, an anti-Peronist. He was determined to investigate and punish the crimes of the junta and proved incapable of getting inflation under control at the same time. As a result, in 1989, it was a Peronist that won the Presidential elections. Carlos Menem, who governed for two terms from 1989 to 1999, enacted an amnesty law for the junta members and led an economic policy of ultra-orthodox adjustment, notably a monetary policy which was intended to control inflation by the absurd imposition of parity between the Argentine peso and American dollar. From that moment until now, Peronism would continue to govern with only two short interruptions, which Fernandez calls “turning points:” the government of the radical Fernando de la Rua from December 1999 to December 2001 and that of Mauricio Macrí from 2015 to 2019.

Louis Althusser attributes the title of autobiography, The Future Lasts Longs, to Charles De Gaulle. The title works just as well in Argentina if one simply replaces Future with Peronism. Peronist populism, thus, had several highly different and unstable spirits, but with an uncanny ability to always remain in power. As Touzon and Zapata said: “all Peronism is a version of Peronism, without a definite edition ever existing. Since the definitive edition, the last, the ossified, the ‘permanent’ edition is the prelude to death.”

Over a long time, anti-Peronism was represented by radicals that, justly, positioned themselves as non-populist liberals. An initial innovation happened among the anti-Peronist with the nomination and the victory of Mauricio Macrí in 2015: For the first time, not a member of the radical party. We saw, with him, the birth of a new anti-Peronist order.

The Reversal of the Reversal

While in 1983 Alfonsin inherited a disastrous military government, in 2000, De la Rua had to manage the cursed heritage of the Peronist and ultra-liberal decade of Menem. The different attempts at adjustment have the fall of two Ministers of the Economy as its only result up until De la Rua nominated Domingos Cavallo, the same economist who implemented the dollar parity policy under Menem. Between the implementation of many different and inefficient economic measures, the one that made the government collapse was the corralito. Decreed on December 1st, this restriction on bank withdrawals was intended to avoid bank panic but wound up causing just that.

An important detail must be underlined: the “future” of this destruction of the confidence in the currency lasted much longer than the “future” of Peronism. De la Rua was forced to abandon power after semi-insurrectionist riots of the movement Que de vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo in December 2001. The most important indication of this slogan is that it shows the protestors were not fools: though they were protesting against the radical President (De la Rua), they also knew that the Peronists bore just as much responsibility and that they most certainly were not a solution. Here, the debate over the meaning of the movement is of great importance. Once the radical government fell, it was the old Peronist bureaucracy that returned, first with Adolfo Rodriguez de Saá, who left power after a week, then with Eduardo Duhalde who opened the door for Nestor Kirchner of the left wing of Peronism.

Schuster and Stefanoni define the victory of Milei as a “sort of anti-progressive electoral mutiny,” and it would be anti-progressive instead of anti-Kirchnerist (anti-Peronist). According to them, Milei “took up the slogan of 2001, the Que de vayan todos in ‘reversing’ its significance: contesting neo-liberal hegemony in a new right-wing war cry.” But in truth, this is a reversal of a reversal; the movement of December 2001 was against “all forms of representation” against the “caste” and not only against one of its levels. The masses that fought (there were dozens of deaths during the protests) organized assemblies, occupied factories and derelict hotels, engaged in cacreloazos, besieged banks, printed alternative currencies and were not at all worried about the neo-liberal hegemony of Peronist and leftist pamphlets. What they tried to create was new forms of political and productive mobilization.

Of course, that moment did not last long. The productive spontaneity of the masses did not at all resolve the challenges of its organization, and it still has not. It was through these limitations that Peronism captured the movement and went back on the innovative dimension in the spirit of a reaction to neo-liberal hegemony, in the name of an impossible return to developmentalism; something like “make Argentina great again.” As a result, Touzon and Zapata speak of a “Que de vayan todos 2.0” and they underline:

The power of the caste concept that Milei imported from the Spanish left (Podemos) finds itself in the realities of Peronism. The diagnosis and propositions of Milei present many problems, but they still have a ring of truth. The common epistemology which unifies the old Argentine political, economic and cultural elite to civil society is now destroyed. Milei is the son of the rupture.

Enjoy Uncertainty?

In 1986, at a seminar in Sao Paulo, Albert O. Hirschman made a highly contrasted prediction about the democratization process in South America. On the one hand, he postulated that “the starting point of all serious thought on the chances of democratic consolidation in Latin America must be pessimistic. The apparent strength of democratic currents in these countries is not necessarily encouraging. It seems that the omnipresent characteristic of all political regimes in the most developed Latin American countries is instability, which even affects the political forms of authoritarianism.” He then continued in saying that it is a very grave error to think that democratic consolidation depends on very strict conditions: “I think it is much more constructive to think of ways through which democracy can survive and reinforce itself despite a series of situations where unfavorable and persistent evolutions arise in many of these domains: economic growth, distribution of incomes, national autonomy, the press…” Here, Hirschman cited an article by Adam Przeworski whose Portuguese title is clear enough: Enjoy Uncertainty and You Will be a Democrat. “In an authoritarian regime…, one is much more certain of the type of policies and positions which would never be adopted. To accept the uncertainty in relation to one’s own agenda is, therefore, an essential democratic virtue.” As a result, continued Hirschman, “I must assign more importance to democracy than to the success of agendas and of specific reforms, fundamental as they are. I can reason that they are necessary to achieve progress, whether democratic, economic or anything else.”

Let us remind ourselves that the perception that many authors had of fascism in the 1930s was to offer (false) security to those who feel threatened by change. In reading the journal of Robert Musil, J.M. Coetzee wrote, according to Musil’s analysis: “fascism was a reaction to the disappointments of modern life—mainly industrialization and urbanization—for which the German people were not prepared; a reaction which eventually transformed into a revolt against civilization itself.”

Thus, we also plunge into another one of the paradoxical dimensions of this electoral result: voting for a folkloric figure with a “foolish” agenda (the abolition of the Central Bank, legalization of the sale of organs, etc.) contains—on the part of the voters who did so—an important dose of tolerance for uncertainty. In the words of Mario Riorda, the Argentines “in voting, have bought their ticket to a new spectacle with Milei as the protagonist.” A protagonist who literally shows up to a manga convention dressed as “Captain Anarcho-Libertarianism.”

For the Argentine historian Frederico Finchelstein: “Milei is much more excessive and unstable than [Jair] Bolsonaro and [Donald] Trump. It is, therefore, very difficult to predict what he will do in power.” Gedan, head of the Argentine Project at the Wilson Center, thinks that “it’s a huge gamble but not a completely irrational one […] The real risk is that Argentina melts down in his [Milei’s] attempt to radically transform the economy.”

The response that Milei’s head of political marketing gave on Brazilian television the day after the election confirmed this vision. Pablo Nobel recognized the high dose of uncertainty that characterizes his personality and was quick to explain that the support of centrists (Macri and Bulrich) “gave a dose of security to the adventure.” Milei’s victory seems to contradict this approach, which would have us believe that to be democratic you have to love uncertainty: according to most analysts, it’s a leap into pure uncertainty, the choice of the unpredictable, which poses a very serious threat to Argentine democracy, and not just that. It is therefore necessary to reexamine the idea of far-right populism (or fascism) and to  reconsider its relationship with uncertainty. 

Fox or Moosbrugger?

The moderate press, in Argentina or Brazil, underlines and exalts all the signs of a moderate shift from the new President. The idea is that over the course of the next weeks and months, the radical agenda of Milei will pass through the inevitable shock of reality and will be reconsidered in the context of the parliamentary composition with which the government will be working.

According to Furquim Werneck, the aversion to Peronism would be much more important than adhesion to its ideas. This is also the argument of a very long editorial in O Globo:

Milei’s problem is the economy. The inflation rate of 2023 will reach 200%. Interest rates are at 135%. The national debt of $43 billion to the IMF is not repayable. The amount in the hands of foreign creditors is insane. […] Before even officially investing, Milei must face facts: the promise of resolving the cambial crisis through dollarizing the economy is not viable. […] the Argentines’ problems will not be resolved through monetary alchemy.

For Fernando Laborda, writing in La Nación “the lion’s roars have given way to the prodigious listening of the fox.” The economic ideologue (Emilio Ocampo) was already discarded, the dollarization left for another time and the Foreign Affairs Minister has already visited Brazil. For Touzon and Zapata, Milei must avoid the trap of multiplying cultural wars (which Bolsonaro did from the beginning of his term) and “to understand and to make others understand that, in this plan, less is more.” In this cursed era, understanding the victory of Milei is an exercise just as complex as translating one of Robert Musil’s phrases, just as we remember Coetzee. Did he want to say: “if humanity could dream collectively, it would dream of Moosbrugger” or “the dream would be Moosbrugger [a psychotic killer]?”

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