Understanding the Rise of Javier Milei

Javier Milei, an outspoken right-wing libertarian economist, took Argentina’s political establishment by storm when he was elected to the country’s parliament in 2021. A former radio show host and media celebrity, within just two years, by the end of 2023 he had been elected President of Argentina.

With his signature look featuring a lion’s mane hairdo and all-black outfits, Milei appeals to youth and working-class constituencies disenchanted with traditional Peronist and center-right political parties. He rails against all forms of state intervention and promises to eliminate inflation through extreme free-market policies.

While his theatrical antics and rebellious image initially proved popular, controversies have steadily grown around Milei. Progressive critics point to his reactionary stances against abortion rights, climate action, transgender recognition and other social issues. For feminists and left-wing activists, Milei represents a dangerous backlash against their long-fought gains in Argentina. Economists are also divided on Milei’s revival of 1980s style neoliberal shock proposals that critics feel could further destabilize the country. Questions have even emerged around Milei’s libertarian purity given rumors of alliances with establishment right-wing factions for political survival. Milei however remains defiant against criticism, playing the anti-establishment crusader.

In this interview, Argentinian political scientist Sergio Morresi, discusses the phenomenon of Javier Milei, giving rich context to his rise, that reflects global trends of populist extremism tapping public anger with the system. Morresi is a Professor at the National University of the Litoral and researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research of Argentina (CONICET).

Sergio Morresi

Satya Sagar (SS): The election of Javier Milei as President of Argentina made headlines around the world. What exactly are his politics? Who backs him? Where is his support coming from?

Sergio Morresi: Well, I would say that the politics of Javier Milei is a fusion of different right-wing branches of the Argentina political landscape. He presents himself as a libertarian, but at the same time, he pushes for an agenda that has conservatism, reactionary ideas,  he is anti-abortion, anti-leftist. It’s a merging of different positions from the right wing – some liberal in terms of economics, some conservative ideas in politics, culture, some nationalism, nativism – that merges in his one-person party. It’s a party that combines different agendas from the right wing.

His main support came from the lower classes in Argentina, disenchanted with the poor performance of the last three governments – two from the Peronist center-left parties and one from the center-right Together for Change party. The poor performances of the last three governments alienated lower classes from Argentina, especially those from the different provinces outside Buenos Aires. Significantly, it alienated these lower classes from their traditional support of the social-democratic policies of Peronism.

Javier Milei’s rise builds upon the social and cultural spaces that have grown in of Argentina since 2012, 2014, gradually evolving into an alienation from politics. This alienation in general was used by Javier Milei, when he was a radio show host and celebrity to denounce the mainstream, made up of politicians, media, other celebrities, academics, cultural figures, as ‘la casta’ – or ‘The Caste’. This is the idea of  caste is taken from India but also taken from Spanish politics. But in Spanish politics, this denouncement of ‘la casta’ was  originally made from the left by Podemos ten years ago.

In Argentina, this denouncement of the casta was first made by those on the right. However, it is not an anti-politics movement. It’s an anti-elite, anti-establishment movement with great support in the lower classes, not the lowest, not the extremely poor, but middle-class to low-class sectors that were impoverished in the last ten years. It’s also a reaction against the state and overall against the centralised Buenos Aires-focused state.

And this is also an eclectic movement, like Javier Milei himself, that co-opts different cultural, social, economic, anti-statist, anti-leftist, anti-globalist agendas. But all this is strange, because Milei is himself a globalist, an Atlantic globalist – pro-USA, pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin, anti-China, anti-BRICS. At the same time, he is against the UN because he claims they are anti-liberty, pro-leftist agendas.

He is also against workers’ organizations because he claims they were part of a conspiracy to restrict people’s freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also is against climate change and other UN agendas.

Javier Milei’s eclectic agenda is embodied not only in him and his leadership, but also in his popular base, in the grassroots of Liberty Advances, which is the name of his party. In our analysis of his supporters, we’ve found they back him because of his stance against legal abortion, against state regulations, anti-Peronist or specifically anti-Kirchnerist given that Kirchnerism is the center-left flavour of Peronism in the 21st century. His supporters are also against what is called gender ideology in Argentina (and I imagine exists in India too) – because the phrase “gender ideology” became mainstream in Argentina ten years ago when it was previously just a marginal theory or marginal idea from the extreme right. 

SS: Sorry, I didn’t get that. What is ‘gender ideology’? 

SM: They denounce gender ideology – the idea that there is a sort of conspiracy to impose a radical feminism, gay and lesbian political agenda; one they claim is anti-national, anti-family, and against traditional values. And they call all the state-driven measures like legal abortion, creation of a Ministry for the Protection of Women, and introduction of sexual education in schools as part of pushing this so-called “gender ideology”. The fight against this “gender ideology” was ten years ago limited to radical, right-wing radicalized fringe movements but today has become mainstream in Argentine politics. 

SS: I think this all sounds familiar to what’s happening in other parts of the world, particularly North America, and also countries like India. And a lot of this links to the rise of social media as the main vehicle and source of information for people. One can imagine that everything that you’ve mentioned so far is the same discourse going on online from country to country. 

SM: Yes, that’s true here too. But I look at social media and physical spaces like the streets and traditional political meetings as a continuum, not as isolated spheres. There is as an unbroken continuum of public discussion. It began in Argentina around 2010-2012 in marginal political meetings and spaces but by 2013-2015 such ideas gained traction in social media, which enabled very speedy dissemination. But at that time, eight years ago, it was still confined to fringe echo chambers and bubbles on social media platforms.

We observed very insulated discussions among certain segments of people online back then. However, in the last eight years, the ideas that were isolated in niches spread rapidly through social media and gained a prominent place in mass media – TV, radio, mainstream publications, journals and also onto the streets.

For example, when the topic of legal abortion was first widely discussed in the Argentine Congress in 2018, the raw public mobilizations, for and against abortion rights, were massive in the streets across the country. And it was at that point that ideas around “gender ideology”, earlier confined to niche political meetings and social media fringes, entered the mainstream, becoming part of normal public conversation and discourse.  

SS: Just to clarify – does Javier Milei or the political forces supporting Javier Milei, have any links to think tanks in the US or to right-wing groups in the US?  

SM: No, not really. No direct links with Milei himself. However, some of the  right wing groups that became affiliated with him more recently, over the past couple of years,  certainly have ties abroad. For example, in Argentina there is a traditional libertarian think tank called “Fundación Libertad” (Freedom Foundation) founded back in 1989 with libertarian political ideals and which has historically received support from international backers like the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Germany, the Atlas Network in the USA, the Acton Institute, the Cato Institute – the usual suspects.

And this think tank, Freedom Foundation, was against Milei’s ideas until as recently as 2021 because they saw him as too conservative, not sufficiently libertarian in the classical sense or globalist like themselves. However, over the past two years, they shifted strategy and decided to try and ride Milei’s sudden political popularity. Various other international foundations and financiers also want to back him now, despite not supporting him initially – they see Milei as a vehicle, an instrument through which to possibly advance their interests and agenda, even he is not the ideal figure they might have dreamed of originally to do so.

But Milei’s real active support still comes from ordinary Argentinians themselves, especially from the disenchanted lower-income sectors looking for something different beyond traditional parties of the past decades.   

SS: Milei’s ascent seems part of a continuum of similar political events and figures we’re witnessing globally around the world lately. How would you link Milei to these global phenomena more precisely?  

SM: Well, in Argentina there has been a customary tendency among the political class and commentators to pay a lot of attention to political developments, elections and leaders gaining prominence in other Western nations. For example, there was a lot of interest here after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 US presidential elections. There was subsequently chatter among local pundits about wanting to find “the Argentine Trump” as a model to emulate. Similarly, after the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, many called for discovering “the Argentine Bolsonaro”. Similarly, when Jose Antonio Kast did well recently in Chile, questions were raised by observers about why Argentina does not have its own version of Kast’s party emerging.

So there’s constant benchmarking against prominent Western right-wing figures and a quest among the local elite to manufacture corresponding Argentine clones of them as kind of ‘celebrity saviour’ figures. Regarding India though, even when there really is scant attention paid to details of Indian politics in Argentina, in my view as an observer, there are certain clear parallels between the agendas of Milei emerging now and Narendra Modi’s template.

Like Modi, Milei pushes a vision that combines the extremes of neoliberal economics with an ultra-conservative, reactionary ideology – a peculiar blend of radical capitalism and nationalism-populism that openly despises minorities, dissent and pluralism. So it is this potent fusion of brutal market logic with majoritarian religious conservatism that finds echoes across regions, encapsulated in the image construction of apparently “maverick” individual leaders.  

SS: Yes, that is an extremely sharp observation and very accurate analysis I feel. At the same time, it is perhaps important to recognize that, at least in the Argentine context Milei represents not just an emergence out of a vacuum but also a reaction to what existed before – that is, the post-war social democratic, state-led welfare model. It was a model that was perhaps inefficient, had its flaws and limitations but still delivered a lot. Now, it’s almost as if the world has got bored with social democracy itself in any form over the past decade or two. Would you agree? 

SM: Yes, I would agree completely that is an important backdrop. In Argentina’s case, the very meaning of social democracy is strange and complex because technically you could categorize the Peronist movement itself as a uniquely Argentine brand of social democracy. However, Peronism as an ideology does not identify with the social democratic label at all. In fact, Peronism often expressly despises and rejects social democracy as a ‘foreign concept’, something linked to the European leftist tradition which it sees as distinct from itself.

So this anti-left component within the ostensibly center-left Peronist movement is what makes Argentine politics very tricky for outsiders to grasp properly. Essentially, there is no Argentine party or force that openly embraces the social democratic banner in terms of signalling clear fidelity to progressive welfare state ideals in the mould of Western and Northern Europe historically.

For example, there is no substantial party calling itself a Labour Party-type social democratic party or a Socialist Party along European lines. There is no self-proclaimed progressive liberal party aligned to the American liberal tradition either. That role as standard social democratic force is largely occupied by Peronism, which itself rejects such identification or branding. So unlike Europe, due to the fluid nature of Peronism, in Argentina there has been no neat, predictable left vs right cleavage or pattern around social democracy as its reference. And this anomaly has prevented emergence of a coherent progressive pole, which in turn allows the right-wing forces to present themselves as the sole anti-system options.

SS: The world is currently in a transitional phase. The first 50 years after the Second World War saw relative global stability – due to the rivalry between the Soviet and US camps as part of the Cold War. This allowed the spread of social democracy – which is a compromise between the communist and capitalist models. The bipolar world order also ensured that international norms were upheld in some manner.  But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the emergence of a US dominated unipolar world, all that seems to be unravelling rapidly now. So would you concur that much of the social and political – even cultural – upheaval what we witness worldwide today in some ways represents a cyclical return to the volatile past of the pre-Second World War period? And how is this broader shift affecting Argentina in your analysis? 

SM: Yes, very much so. I fully agree with your reflections. In Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America like Chile, Brazil, there is this wrong tendency to see our societies as exceptions, disconnected from wider global shifts or patterns. There is a wilful rejection of facing up to deeper shared problems across humanity.

We wrongly make proud assertions like “only in Argentina does this happen”, “no other country faces these odd things” and so on. But clearly the contemporary resurgence of national populism typified by extreme right-wing authoritarian personalities gaining support among masses represents a truly global phenomenon with local variants.

Observing closely, we can discern the links across rabidly racist and xenophobic anti-immigration movements in North America and Western Europe, evangelist radical movements in Eastern Europe and South America, Hindu supremacist nationalism in India and Myanmar’s weaponization of Buddhist chauvinism and so on. While direct organizational links may not exist between each of these dispersed groups, their fundamental ideological source and grammar bears deep connective roots.

For example, while no overt institutional channels tie something like Trumpian groups in the US to Javier Milei in Argentina, there are certainly indirect peer-to-peer intersections and mimicry at work. A clearer, more visible intimation of such bonds can be seen in the direct ties between Brazil’s Bolsonaro and key figures of Spain’s emerging far-right Vox party. Similar ties abound between right-wing formations across the world that coordinate, share propaganda techniques and nudge domestic contexts in toxic directions.

So this is undoubtedly a mass global transformation underway marked by collapse of progressive vision and exhaustion with post-war Keynesian economic and social contracts between labour and big business that had kept social peace intact for the wider public good. The post-war vision allowed capitalist liberal democracies to offer some welfarism and upward mobility prospects to ordinary citizens while Soviet style regimes competed in trying to deliver economic security to their publics. Both sides had to neutralize the appeal of radical ideologies to great extent domestically through such centrist policies that are now fraying badly. And in these volatile, insecure times we inhabit today, triggered by capitalism’s recurring crises, the radical right has been much quicker, adept and organized at capturing and steering such widespread public disillusionment. Steered towards self-serving ends – by manufacturing and targeting false enemies through hate and extreme individualistic libertarian rhetoric that further divides vulnerable sections.

SS: How long do you think Javier Milei’s honeymoon will last? He’s popular now, but do you think this is something that is going to last very long or is it going to be a very shortlived honeymoon?

SM: It could be very short. His own supporters are talking about four, six months of tolerance. Our research group is monitoring the discussions in the social media, in the political meetings.

And the expectation in these meetings is, things on the inflation front will be a little better  by March or April of 2024. May 2024 is the date that some supporters have marked as the turning point, the deadline for Milei to deliver a better life to them. Otherwise his supporters will desert him.

But there is another thing. The  direct support for Javier Milei is from only 30% of Argentinian voters. The other 25% that voted for Javier Millet are not its own supporters. They belong to the Together for Change movement, who are not very happy with Milei himself, but are extremely happy that the Peronists were defeated. These voters dislike Peronism so much that they will continue to support Javier Milei even after his own supporters begin to leave.

SS: Interesting. I will basically ask one last question. What are the kind of wealth inequalities in Argentina? Does that play a role in politics in terms of concentration of holding  and money? Do you have a very big gap between the wealthy elite and the public?

SM: Yes. We have. Our Gini index currently is 60. 20 years ago, it was 50. And 40 years ago, it was 30. So in only 40 years, we have concentrated wealth and richness in a very, very speedy way.

SS: Yeah, that’s the constant everywhere. Wherever populism, right-wing populism is rising there is also in parallel rising wealth inequality. It’s almost as if the people who are benefiting from wealth inequality are financing right-wing populism as a distraction from real issues.

SM: Yes, that’s true. I agree.  However, the supporters of Javier Milei don’t think that way. They genuinely think that their own impoverishment is due to state regulations, labour unions feminists and a liberal, left-oriented elite. They genuinely believe that the state itself is the problem.

For example, new kinds of labour as in gig workers – like taxi drivers or delivery boys. They see state regulations as a tool for their impoverishment. They don’t want to be unionized. They don’t want to be regulated. They want to be free as individuals, as entrepreneurs, even if they live in the lowest economic condition.

They don’t see the state as helping them. They don’t see state intervention as something good. They don’t see unions as something that are close to them. And they see the state-dependent agents or the traditional workers as part of the elite.

They are against beneficiaries of state-subsidies or support. They think those who get such support are ‘parasites’. They say to themselves, ‘My neighbour is a parasite. I am a real worker, I’m a hard worker, and I deserve a better life than him.’

So there is a demand for inequality coming from the lower classes. A real and honest demand for political and social inequality that they see as a moral obligation. So the working class has been divided.

One section of the working class sees the other as being privileged. And their idea of elite is somebody who gets a state pension or unemployment benefit. They’re not willing to look at the really rich people who are concentrated well.

Satya Sagar is a journalist and public health worker who can be reached at [email protected]

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