Milei’s Chainsaw

Having led his libertarian party alliance La Libertad Avanza into Congress in 2021, the far-right Argentine politician Javier Milei has once again outperformed expectations. In the August presidential primaries he received 30% of the vote – beating the two candidates from the centre-left Unión por la Patria, who won only 27% between them, and those from the centre-right Juntos por el Cambio, who came away with 28%. Now, in the run up to the general election of 22 October, Milei sits alone atop every poll. The only uncertainty is whether he can break the threshold to avoid a second round.

For many onlookers, Milei’s politics have been difficult to classify. He is a former semi-professional footballer, rock musician, comic-con cosplayer, tantric sex guru and professor of economics. He is also a red-faced television pundit and self-made internet meme. Caricature of this admittedly cartoonish figure is the crutch of countless op-eds, which reduce him to a Trump knock-off with an even more eccentric hairstyle (his nickname is ‘The Wig’). Others view Milei as another iteration of Latin America’s amorphous ‘populist’ phenomenon. As an article in Foreign Affairs put it, the region’s socioeconomic volatility has a tendency to produce ‘radical iconoclasts’: ‘Milei, Castillo, Bolsonaro, Chávez, and Bukele would probably not have risen in a more stable setting.’ In this binary frame – liberal stability versus populist demagoguery – all variants of ‘anti-establishment’ politics are lumped together, with little sense of their local particularities. 

Another line of commentary focuses, more accurately, on the spiralling economic crisis in Argentina. At around 120%, inflation is burning through the wallets of the entire population. The public debt-to-GDP ratio is about 80%, and there are no liquid reserves in the central bank. The IMF has made harsh austerity measures a condition of fresh loans every three months. The real estate market operates not in Argentine pesos but in US dollars, which are often difficult and expensive to acquire through the ‘dollar blue’ black market. The post-pandemic labour market is precarious and increasingly flexibilized, with a large informal sector characterized by over- rather than underemployment: for many workers, multiple jobs and gig work are a necessary means of survival. Meanwhile, private finance is ballooning household debts, pre-pandemic advances in gender equality are being reversed, and high prices are arresting the momentum of working-class and social-movement organization.

That a plurality of voters might rebel against a party establishment overseeing this kind of crisis is no surprise. (Public debt first exploded under Mauricio Macri’s conservative government in 2015, and has remained more or less stable under the Peronist administration of Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.) Nor is it surprising that ‘populism’ should catch on in the country of its birth. But the question remains: why does Milei speak to this conjuncture, and what might his victory mean for the country’s future?

At electoral rallies that double as punk concerts, Milei pairs a hyper-individualist creed of ‘life, liberty, property’ with a populist denunciation of the ‘political caste’. He begins and ends most speeches with his catchphrase: ‘long live liberty, goddammit.’ His adoring audiences are mostly hyper-online men, many of them Bitcoin-enthusiasts and first-time voters. Milei promises them he will ‘burn down’ the central bank, dollarize the currency, eliminate most state agencies and privatize publicly owned firms. Just as he describes anthropogenic climate change as a ‘socialist lie’, he also denies the torture and disappearances that took place under the dictatorship, and plans to pardon the military officials jailed for such offences. Fuelled by a virulent sexism, he hopes to roll back the progress made by the country’s powerful feminist movement, particularly the legalization of abortion, and defeat the so-called ‘gender ideology’ of the LGBT community in education and culture writ large.

Milei’s outlook represents a reactionary mutation of neoliberalism in response to crisis conditions. It is the latest iteration of Latin America’s longstanding free-market authoritarian tradition – what Verónica Gago calls the ‘originary violence’ of its peripheral neoliberal model. At a time of desperation, as Pablo Stefanoni has observed, Milei has succeeded in building the only ‘truly ideological candidacy’ with both an electoral programme and a utopic image of the future. This goes some way to explain how he could win over so much of the male youth in the Buenos Aires villas (the country’s equivalent of Brazil’s favelas), while outperforming his rivals in regions that previously favoured the Peronist left.

More so than Jair Bolsonaro – whose candidacy was boosted by the young online activists of the Free Brazil Movement after he promised to appoint Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes as finance minister – Milei is a card-carrying neoliberal. When asked how he became one, he speaks of a near-religious conversion – from neoclassical Keynesianism to the Austrian School. (Milei is also planning to convert from Catholicism to Judaism, incidentally, although he worries that his presidential work-ethic might be incompatible with the observance of Shabbat.) In his victory speech after the primary elections, Milei thanked both his supporters and his pet English Mastiffs, who are named after Milton Friedman, Robert Lucas and Murray Rothbard. ‘What is the State anyway but organized banditry?’, wrote Rothbard in his Libertarian Manifesto (1973). ‘What is taxation but theft on a gigantic, unchecked, scale? What is war but mass murder on a scale impossible by private police forces?’ Fifty years later, these lines can be heard echoing across Argentine primetime television.

Following Friedman, Milei distinguishes between three types of liberalism: the classical doctrine of Smith and Hayek, which he holds in high esteem; the minarchism of Mises, with which he identifies on a practical level; and the anarcho-capitalism of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to which he adheres philosophically. Milei has developed these views in a number of books: The Return to the Path of Argentine Decadence (2015), Freedom, Freedom, Freedom (2019), Pandenomics (2020), The Way of the Libertarian (2022) and The End of Inflation (2023). Many of his titles have been dogged by allegations of plagiarism. But this is not a concern for Milei, who prides himself on having imbibed his Austrian idols line by line. Unlike every other kind of property, their truths belong to everyone and no one.

Milei’s philosophy is not just on the page, however, but manifest in his concrete plans for dollarization – a project for which he has already begun to seek foreign financing. For many voters, incensed by inflation and accustomed to dealing in US currency, this policy seems intuitive, or at least worth the risk. For Milei, though, it is less about resolving the current crisis than upholding a timeless principle. In the Austrian School tradition, a return to the gold standard is the holy grail. Absent such a leap backwards in history, the next best thing is to tie the hands of central bankers, or cut them off altogether. The means for doing so are various. El Salvador’s aspiring dictator, Nayib Bukele, has adopted Bitcoin as the country’s second official currency, hoping to mimic the deflationary features of the gold standard. GOP presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy has proposed using a basket of commodities, including gold, to back up the dollar. And Milei has touted the replacement of the peso with the greenback, alongside the abolition of the central bank – which he calls ‘the worst thing in the universe’.

In contrast to rudderless performers like Bolsonaro and Trump, then, Milei is zealously committed to a coherent ideology. (It was initially unclear whether he even wanted to be president, or whether his principal aim was to use his candidacy to weave his ideas into the cultural fabric.) It is partly for this reason that international financial markets are uneasy. Immediately after his victory in August, the peso and dollar bonds crashed in value, recalling the reaction to former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’s radical neoliberal reforms in 2022. Of course, as a chief economist at one of Argentina’s largest firms and an adviser to numerous national and international public bodies, Milei is adept at reading market signals – as well as adjusting his levels of radicality to his audience. When speaking with Bloomberg, he reverts to abstract classroom lectures on macroeconomic theory. With the Economist, he emphasizes his establishment bonafides and rejects accurate characterizations of his programme as ‘hyperbole’.

In this more reassuring register, Milei explains that the welfare state should certainly be destroyed – but not all at once. ‘It is the enemy, so we are going to dismantle it. But with a transition . . . During the first years we would try to reconfigure [handouts] so that social policy would not be centred around welfare, but around human capital.’ To this end, he proposes cutting the number of government ministries from eighteen to eight: getting rid of the Ministries of Culture, Education, Transportation, Public Health, Environment and Sustainable Development, and Women, Gender and Diversity, among others. Some of their functions will be integrated into the Ministry of Human Capital, which will make welfare conditional on work. Social security reform, he adds, will follow the model instituted by Pinochet in Chile. A new era of shock therapy is on its way; but, as Milei assures the Economist, this won’t cause problems for international institutions or investors, since his own tax and spending cuts will be much harsher than the IMF’s proposals.

Nonetheless, in a report on Milei’s rising prospects, the Financial Times quotes an adviser at a London-based investment firm who questions his ability to execute such policies: ‘There’s concern about . . . governability – to what extent he would be able to control protests if he were able to implement his radical measures.’ Would the backlash against his agenda prove too serious for the state to repress? Again, Milei replies that he will wield his chainsaw – the tool he symbolically revs 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 defence law, a new intelligence law, on reforming the penal code, on reforming the criminal code and on reforming the prison system.’ Security will, moreover, be entrusted to his running mate Victoria Villarruel. Nicknamed ‘Villacruel’, she has spent her legal career to defending military officers convicted of crimes against humanity. She is a longstanding proponent of the so-called ‘two demons theory’ of Argentina’s dictatorship, placing equal blame on communist dissidents and on the state that systematically tried to eradicate them.  

Milei’s foreign policy evokes the same themes. Upon assuming power, he intends to initiate 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 the subject of debate. After all, Bolsonaro said the same thing about China during his election campaign before he embraced the country as president. Milei may perform a similar volte face. Yet his ideological commitment – along with his neocolonial fixation on ‘Western civilization’ – should not be underestimated. Nor should the unpredictability that comes with his particular brand of libertarianism. When asked about Argentina’s Mercosur deal with the EU, Milei inveighed against it, but he also voiced his opposition to the idea of tariffs tout court. His administration would surely extend the extractive frontier in the Lithium Triangle, which is already violently displacing indigenous communities, in line with the IMF’s requirement to pay back sovereign debts in US dollars.

Oriented toward Washington and Wall Street, Milei would be a lonely figure in the region; the Uruguayan president and the current frontrunner for president of Ecuador would be among his only allies. Yet, as he recently explained in an interview with Tucker Carlson, the effective transnational organizing of the far right means that such isolation may be short-lived. Milei has established ties with Spain’s far-right Vox party. He is allied with reactionary leaders across the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America through initiatives like the Madrid Forum, which aims to bring the moderate and extreme right together ‘to face the threat posed by the growth of communism on both sides of the Atlantic’. Milei sees himself as part of an insurgent Nueva Derecha that is laser-focused on the cultural front – fighting a long war of manoeuvre against gender equality and racial justice, with the help of online social networks. (The Milei–Carlson interview was viewed 420 million times after an endorsement from Elon Musk.)

Milei’s pledge to ‘Make Argentina Great Again’ is not just the latest Trumpian gimmick used by a far-right nationalist. It is also a genuine appeal for liberal palingenesis – a vision of national rebirth through a return to Smith, Hayek and their inheritors. When Milei uses this phrase, he is not just participating in the rehabilitation of the military dictatorship; he is also calling for a return to the golden years of Argentine history – the first decades of the twentieth century, when it was among the richest nations in the world. This prosperity, bestowed by ‘free-market classical liberalism’, was supposedly erased by the socialistic state-inventionism of Juan Perón, which has since mired the country in decadence and decline. To recapture such greatness, Milei advocates a ‘libertarian revolution that will make Argentina a world power again in thirty-five years’. Yet his anarcho-authoritarian programme would not look like dictatorships past. Its most destructive features are yet to be seen.

Read on: Maristella Svampa, ‘The End of Kirchnerism’, NLR 53.