Argentina's President Javier Milei arrives to deliver a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos on January 17, 2024. Picture Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

The once and future Right?

Could Argentina’s “madman” President rescue his country from a century of decline?

The Critic Essay

Though few in the progressive West guessed it, four Sundays ago in the sweltering mid-December heat of a decrepitly elegant Buenos Aires, an economically failed state became leader of the free world. If surprise and mockery—followed by indifference—was the initial complacent response of many in the English-speaking press, they were sharply reminded of the seriousness of the revolution in thought on Wednesday, as Argentina’s new president took to the world stage at Davos to warn the West that “collectivist experiments are never the solution to the problems that afflict the citizens of the world”.

It’s a mantle Argentina takes up not in the Cold War-esque spirit of a moral crusade against global evil—at least not for now. For all of Javier Milei’s scorn towards the “communist China” he pledged to decouple from, his barbs at Pope Francis on similar grounds, his rebuff of the revisionist BRICS, his ideological feud against the São Paulo Forum, his backing of Ukraine and Israel, and his recoil from the 2030 Agenda, the earth will swing plenty before Argentina regains its rightful place as a first-world liberal beacon. This rejuvenating purpose, though situationally aroused by the country’s unrelenting world-rank decay, begins no further than betwixt its northern salt flats and the Patagonian desertscrub—at home. It runs through an inward shock therapy that may not bear fruits until mid-2025, will meanwhile strain the patience of Milei’s base, and may give austerity an even worse name internationally—to say nothing of the odds of a Chile-style “social outburst” paving the way for yet another round of nostalgic left-populism. With stakes this high, the propositional nature of Milei’s pitch to voters—the moral case buttressing his platform—gets clouded in the fog of power politics.

The country entered the last century flaunting one the world’s highest rates of GDP-per-capita, far richer than the parts of the Old World

Yet that proposition—not the right-wing demagoguery nor the techno-economic calculus his detractors jarringly obsessed over—is what ultimately swung mid-November’s presidential runoff 12 points in Milei’s favour. Beneath his various policy fetishes—workfare, balanced budgets, and the dollar—lies a radical re-envisioning of man’s role in society that has unsettled the Argentine imaginary of the past century. It has lent congruity to an otherwise boisterous and pugilistic rhetorical career, propelling Milei from plateau-inflaming caste-basher to chainsaw-wielding campaigner, and then to ribbon-donning ruler—all while claiming a moral high ground seldom conquered through histrionics. This isn’t to deny that Milei’s a culture warrior in the right-populist mould, a competent economist—he’s certainly both. It means that, as Ralwsian notions of economic justice have become culturally hegemonic in Argentina, the partisan ballgame has grown to encompass heretofore autonomous realms. Dispelling the Peronist myth of the “present state”, as Milei sets out to do, demands waging a culture war about material questions—thereby mixing the genres on the chopping block of ideological contestation.

What was Milei’s moral proposition to Argentina? His campaign conjured an alternate paradigm where honest, hard-working Argentinians (Argentinos de bien) thrive on their own two feet, neither helped nor hindered by a self-serving caste disguised as benevolent. Besides leeching off the taxpayer and fostering dependency, Milei decried the all-encompassing Peronist state for draining the country’s immaterial resources and leaving the people spiritually enfeebled. “Argentina is infected with socialism”, he has kept intoning once in office. Social justice, he famously claimed, is unjust by definition. To the left-populist mantra of “where there is a need, let there be a right”, Milei’s response wasn’t simply to beg the question: “who pays for that?” (he has since banned locales from labelling amenities as “free” to remind users of their unwitting cost). Crucially, he spelled out that, whereas needs ebb, flow, and remain positional in nature, rights are God-given, unbending, and inalienable: life, liberty, and property. Liberalism in the classical sense, Milei hammers on, is less than a prescriptive ideology but more than a policy blueprint. It is—at bottom—the “unrestricted respect for everyone’s pursuit of happiness”.

Argentina’s lost century

Were Milei to successfully legislate this moral revolution, would that suffice to bend Argentina’s blighted trajectory? The country entered the last century flaunting one the world’s highest rates of GDP-per-capita, far richer than the parts of the Old World (primarily Spain and Italy) from which it welcomed migrants. The takeoff was launched from a platform of abundant arable land, minerals, and fossil fuels—enlarged upon further exploration—but up until the 1950s, Argentina thrived chiefly on the strength of its “human capital” (incidentally, the name of the super-ministry into which Milei has subsumed labour, education, and social development). A settler colony until its independence in 1810, the architect of Argentina’s 1853 liberal constitution and an enduring influence on Milei—Juan Bautista Alberdi—famously aphorized that “to govern is to settle”. In the 1880s, the still-embryonic state ruthlessly vanquished its various indigenous tribes in a bloody war over the country’s desertic expanses, in which Argentinian colonels offered large sums as bounty for the ears of dead Indians, leading many to escape death by self-cropping them. If anti-colonial indigenism hasn’t taken off much as a political cause south of the salt flats of Salta, it is perhaps because there aren’t many of the “original tribes” left.

Argentinian factory, circa 1900, when the country enjoyed one of the highest rights of GDP per capita in the world. Picture credit: Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Yet through the 20th century, unlike the US, Argentina remained open to large-scale immigration—and reaped the benefits. Every Spanish fortune-seeker, as if all hailed from the motherland’s northwest, were confusingly labelled Gallegos, while one saying likens Argentinians to “Spanish-speaking Italians”. Although later spun into a conspiracy theory about fictional plans for a Hebrew state in the Southern Cone, 19th century proto-Zionists, backed up by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, did work to canalise large Jewish immigration into Argentina’s heartland. These days, about half the country’s migratory intake arrives from the neighbouring landlocked statelets of Paraguay and Bolivia. As opposed to the slimmer, more recent but more crime-prone flows from Colombia, Chile and Perú, these communities of bolitas (marbles) and paraguas (umbrellas), as they’re endearingly called, assimilate exceedingly well despite being largely non-white. First-generation patriotic fervour is the norm in Argentina, even as economic inequities often fall along racial lines. Welfare chauvinism remains befuddlingly absent, which renders moot the standard libertarian reasoning—peddled by Milei himself—that where migrants rely exceedingly on benefits, the aim should be cutting benefits—not closing borders.

This enduring ability to absorb migrants—and channel them into unifying cultural bloodstream—remains the dissonantly miraculous standard against which to gauge Argentina’s misfortunes. These days the country boasts the world’s fourth-highest inflation rate, spiking from an annualised 180 per cent to 3.678 per cent through Milei’s inauguration on December 10, and a poverty rate approximating Sudan’s that covers one third of formal workers, among whom the private sector accounts for only 60 per cent. Although homicide rates stand far below the region’s most violent hotspots, subjective feelings of insecurity keep spiralling downwards—particularly in cities like Rosario—and have played a part in Milei’s election, with femicide spiking despite life sentences slapped on spouse-killers. 

Petty crime festers in the cities, too, with increasingly violent characteristics (a killing spree in the lead-up to the election, for motives as petty as the victim’s refusal to hand over her phone, doubtless boosted Milei’s law-and-order message too, including his allusions to liberalising concealed carry). Payoffs, kickbacks, and rank corruption are a persistent feature of public life—bribery and fraud are endemic in the private sector too—despite a nominally robust prosecutorial system and a self-consciously first-world citizenry. In a country producing food for 400 million humans, indigency afflicts 10 per cent of the population, while almost half of the under-18s suffer food insecurity and 7 in 10 of those in the following age bracket—18s-to-35s—wish to seek fortune elsewhere.

On that last metric, Milei’s election presents another bewildering contrast to the Old World, this time to the way “elite overproduction”—a landmark theory by “complexity scientist” Peter Turcin—has panned out in post-2008 Southern Europe. Argentina reached Western European levels of university access through subsidised tuition fees and credentialed urban employment upon the fall of its last military junta in 1983. Its share of the 25-to-64-year-olds having completed some tertiary education would stand today in the upper half of the OCDE ranking—towards 30 per cent—were it a member of the rich country club (it isn’t, but Milei plans to apply). Yet just like in Spain, Portugal, or Italy, well-intentioned policies paved the way to hellish outcomes: in both geographies, the era of mass higher education has far outpaced job market demands, sending the rate of graduate joblessness rising, particularly in the humanities. 

But whereas this mismatch has radicalised Euro-Mediterranean politics to the left—with frustrated over-credentialed jobseekers voting for left-populist parties like Podemos or the Five Star Movement—in Argentina the same phenomenon has tugged in the opposite direction, with the same demographic producing the reverse electoral outcome. At the core of Milei’s base, similarly, lie over-qualified and underemployed youths, but who warmed up, out of the same despair for opportunities, not to belief in an even larger state that would watch over their economic destinies but to radical libertarian ideas about eclipsing that tutelage. No less than 70% of the Argentinian under-24s voted for Milei in mid-November’s runoff. Confusingly, the candidate’s vituperations against the “caste” were uttered in almost exactly equal terms eight years earlier by Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed anti-neoliberal leader of Podemos, currently a junior partner to the far-left Spanish coalition government that refused to send an emissary to Buenos Aires on December 10.

History’s worst inheritance

What part of this hot mess should Milei seek to turn around first? The texture of daily Argentinian life points towards inflation: since 1945, prices have risen at an average annual rate of 60 per cent and the peso has lost thirteen zeros in value, with two peacetime hyperinflations since 1989 (defined as a monthly inflation rate above 50 per cent). It’s not just the well-to-do who avoid wealth erosion by saving in US dollars; much of the middle and lower-class keep a share of their hard-earned Benjamins vaulted or stashed away under the pillow out of mistrust towards their banking system, which already hoarded their savings in 2001 on the central bank’s orders to avoid a run on dwindling reserves, in a crisis dubbed “el corralito”. As a Friedmanite steeped in the monetarist imperative of “sound money”, Milei knows full well, and has written to this effect, that inflation amounts to a regressive tax on savers that, at high levels, impedes growth. Yet he’s no longer foregrounding a monetary solution to what he claims has never been a monetary problem in nature, but a fiscal one. Milei campaigned on dollarization and closing the central bank, hailing Ecuador and El Salvador as examples to follow, but those two twin goals now seem relegated to the long-term—if they remain goals at all.

After excluding from his cabinet three of his campaign’s top economic advisors, all staunch dollarizers, Milei appointed instead “Toto” Caputo as Minister of the Economy and Santiago Bausili to govern the central bank, both from the administration of Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), who in 2007 left the chairmanship of Buenos Aires football club River Plate to run against the city’s Peronist mayor on a renovated right-of-centre ticket, paving the ground for a successful presidential run in 2015. Milei’s stonking runoff win in November doubtless owes much—whether sincere or begrudging—to Macri’s support, which then triggered the endorsement of Patricia Bullrich, Milei’s first-round centrist adversary and now his security minister.

This rapprochement at first sowed doubts among libertarian hardliners that now seem assuaged by the boldness of Milei’s initial measures. In four years, Macri not only failed to tame inflation but left the country indebted to the tune of an additional 44 billion USD with the IMF, a credit line since frozen due to promised reforms that went unimplemented, and that Milei claimed weren’t bold enough anyway. That’s to say nothing of Macri’s toying with socially progressive causes like abortion, which played no small a part in Milei’s win either. In his televised address Tuesday after inauguration, a “Toto” Caputo suddenly converted to monetarist zealotry decried a 22 per cent lame duck, carry-over devaluation decreed by his predecessor and presidential loser Santiago Massa after August’s primary PASO race, which may have aimed to boost Massa electorally, screw his likely predecessor—or a contradictory mix of both.

It may well be one of the boldest deregulation drives in human history: 366 laws to be modified or repealed

And yet, amidst this “inflationary hungover”, Caputo went on to decree a 54 per cent devaluation of his own by hiking the official peso-to-dollar conversion rate threefold up to 800 pesos. Argentinians rely on several channels to buy US dollars (bank withdrawals, online purchases, and imports chief amongst them) but all exchange rates tend to follow that set by the central bank in its dealings with commercial ones, the so-called “wholesale” rate. Caputo has also set a monthly “crawling peg” for that higher exchange rate to oscillate between one per cent and three per cent, in hopes of keeping the rising dollar just below inflation and thus attaining a more “sincere” foreign exchange market. He has also pared back, and hopes to entirely dismantle, the so-called LELIQs (letras de crédito or letters of credit), a 2019 bond program through which the central bank bought pesos to keep pressure on the dollar down, but which fattened its passive account to the tune of 2.2 billion USD. A fortnight into inauguration, the LELIQs have already shrunk down to 10 per cent of the central bank’s liabilities—what Milei terms the “quasideficit”—which altogether make up two thirds of the overall fiscal-cum-monetary shortfall, or “consolidated deficit”. If that were still Milei’s aim, the total erasure of the LELIQs, and the clearing of other passive assets in the bank’s balance sheet, would be a necessary precondition to shut down the institution. If it weren’t, it would still go a long way towards the monetary aim Milei has held onto—reconstituting the bank’s reserves.

None of this means that Milei has U-turned on his monetary hawkishness. Peronism, he claims, has sought to alleviate poverty by rolling the money printer, and to tame the ensuing inflation by imposing currency controls, thereby trapping savers in monetary hell. Caputo on Tuesday was the first to reckon, in a pursed-lip acknowledgment of the “worst policy inheritance in history”, that price levels will keep rising, most probably into four annual digits and potentially into hyperinflation territory. Yet he intoned that, as these mid-term rigours keep unfolding, other draconian measures are being taken to tackle what Milei has consistently argued is the root cause of inflation—the fiscal deficit. Even with the world’s highest tax pressure as a share of GDP, he observed from the Casa Rosada surrounded by his Ministers the week after Caputo’s speech, Argentina has failed to defray its spending out of its own coffers, living structurally beyond its means and opening a gap that the “caste” has filled by either issuing debt, printing money, or hiking taxes further.

Rolling the money printer – in 2008 then President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner nationalised private pension funds. Picture Credit: DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images

To turn “History’s worst inheritance” around, Milei’s agenda will likely go down as one of the most draconian fiscal shocks in the history of developed economies, aiming to close the five per cent-of-GDP deficit within a year with 2 per cent coming from revenue increases and three per cent from spending cuts. Whereas two per cent of that reduction will need congressional approval—Milei’s party holds a meagre 15 per cent  of the bicameral Congress (39 seats in the 257-seat House and 7 seats in the 72-seat Senate)—80 per cent of the budgetary items in question can be—and are being—decreed by the executive.

On the revenue side, Caputo partially undid Massa’s lame duck largesse, such as by reversing the post-PASO raise of the income tax floor, which had been matched to 15 times the minimum wage to leave an additional 800.000 workers exempt altogether. Even as Milei’s campaign had decried the country’s so-called “retentions”, the world’s largest tax on gross export income as a share of public revenue, as a regressive penalty on export-driven entrepreneurs, Caputo went on to hike that excise up to 15 per cent on farm products, Argentina’s main export commodity. 

It’s a similar story with the so-called PAIS tax (Tax for an Inclusive and Solidary Argentina), a several-tiered levy on peso-to-USD conversions that peaks at 30 per cent for currency purchases aimed at saving, which Milei had lambasted for penalising savings-oriented work. And yet the last tranche of the PAIS tax—7.5 per cent for acquiring equipment to import—has been hiked to 17.5 per cent (the digital bureaucracy that issued import licences, however, has been dismantled). As for spending, Caputo’s decrees will save about 0.7 per cent  of GDP by slashing subsidies for transportation and energy and another 0.5 per cent by reducing “to a minimum” discretionary transfers to the provinces, even as Interior Minister Guillermo Francos will need to lull the governors and mayors Milei lacks—including Peronist ones—into logrolling their allied votes in Congress for the additional bills requiring a legislative thumbs-up. In addition, Caputo slashed state contracting, advertising, public works, and the state itself (18 ministries were trimmed down to 9, and 106 state secretariats down to 54).

Chainsaw economics

Vital though Caputo’s short-term fiscal shock will prove to be—referencing it in an interview last week, Milei quipped that “if we do it, we’re screwed, and if we don’t do it, we’re even more screwed”—it was only the beginning. At his televised speech the week after, Milei rolled out his so-called “mega-decree”, an executive order enacting a whole slate of structural reforms prompted by “necessity and urgency” that will nonetheless need an up-or-down vote by one chamber to pass, with the other able to overrule the first chamber’s veto. In Milei’s words, the decree will “dismantle the political-institutional scaffolding” of the state by “freeing up a whole slate of economic sectors”. It may well be one of the boldest deregulation drives in human history: 366 laws to be modified or repealed, including those overseeing the home rental market, food and commodity price-fixing, anti-competitive caps on supermarket space, industrial policy, bans on privatisations (it transforms public companies into limited corporations to clear the way for their sale), the labour market (modernised by extending trial periods and making violence on the picket line a fireable offence), the export licensing system (scrapped), investment-killing land laws, aeronautics, healthcare and a long etcetera. 

Not so much wielding the knife, as the chainsaw: Javier Milei is tearing up laws, privatising companies and closing down whole government departments Picture Credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps most contentiously in a country where a singularly impassioned form of football fandom (hincha) involves 85 per cent of the population—and where fan brawls routinely result in the odd death—Milei’s decree enables clubs, currently member-owned associations, to become corporations and sell off shares to international giants, with a two-thirds agreement of the board. Already, Chelsea has expressed interest in partially buying five Argentinian clubs—among whom Milei’s own Boca Juniors—whereas a 3 billion USD investment from Qatari is awaiting government clearance. This liberalisation of a sector where passion often overpowers market incentives is opposed by fans and football executives alike, but Milei decries Argentina’s exclusion from the globalised boom in football investment for having left rusting stadiums and untapped—or expatriate—talent. While a Peronist trade union successfully challenged in court—and temporarily held up—the entire decree alleging a lack of “urgency” right before Christmas, the package eventually passed—without the labour chapter, pending review—the week after.

The deregulating binge picked up pace the week after as Nicolás Posse, Milei’s powerful chief of staff—confusingly titled “chief of staff of the cabinet of ministers”—unveiled an even more ambitious package of “state reforms” that amounts to two-thirds of the overall reforming effort. An ambitious hodgepodge that aims to “restore the socio-economic order based on the liberal doctrine reflected in the 1853 Constitution”, Posse’s package begins with a confusingly named law on “money laundering”—more like a tax amnesty that forgives offences against decades of confiscation—that would allow tax-defaulting individuals to deposit up to 100,000 USD in cash, real estate property value or cryptocurrency without paying arrears. The road to privatisations is cleared further with a focus on Argentina’s state-owned players, such as Argentina Airlines, Banco Nación, and most importantly the gas company YPF (first privatised by reformist President Carlos Menem in 1992, later bought by Spain’s REPSOL, and expropriated by Peronist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2012 in a move that last September earned Argentina a 16 billion USD fine by a Manhattan district attorney to be paid to a consortium of hedge funds). 

Milei acknowledged on the campaign that 2024 will be a “lost year”. It now looks as though 2025 won’t see a proper recovery either

Posse’s reforms covered justice and political matters, too. Some federal courts will be folded into the local judiciary. The electoral system would do away with the PASO primaries—the first leg of a three-round presidential system—while scrapping proportionality in favour of a British-inspired system based on uninominal constituencies with 254 MPs. Fraud, which doubtless undermined Milei in the election’s first two rounds but was eventually prevented through the loaning of observers from Macri’s party in the runoff, will also be more sternly prosecuted. While this electoral chapter would admittedly enhance citizen confidence, notably by eradicating so-called “blanket lists” (where voters barely know the names below the top parliamentary candidate), it would also make the emergence of future upstart parties like Milei’s La Libertad Avanza (LLA) even unlikelier by favouring the big players, as in the UK’s first-past-the-post system. Whether the currently slimly represented LLA enters this privileged group on time will depend on its showing at midterm elections in 2025.

Even as Posse’s package requires standard congressional approval—absolute majorities in both chambers—the bill contains, controversially, the key to unlock this and future hurdles, were any whipping difficulties to arise among Milei’s right-of-centre partners and the right-flank of the Peronist bloc (he has already put them on guard, in the aforementioned TV interview, by suspecting them of seeking legislative bribes—coimas—were they to withdraw support). The unlocking mechanism lies in a clause that declares an across-the-board public “emergency” until December 2025, which would allow Milei to bypass Parliament in several lawmaking areas (the opposition press has already imported the “authoritarian” label from Europe’s rule-of-law wars for this usurpation). Milei has called on extraordinary congressional sittings until the year’s end to debate the bill, but headway is unlikely until the end of next year’s ordinary session, with the bill—which would pass heavily amended, if at all—not becoming law until late December 2024.

Milei is further courting the “tyrant” sobriquet by preventively cracking down on the protests that have unfailingly arisen and will doubtless continue. Two Wednesdays after inauguration, right after announcing the mega-decree, the dam broke with a much-hyped nightly “cacerolazo”—a banging of pots and pans—on the 12th anniversary of a repressive wave by the then-outgoing government of Fernando de la Rúa which ended with 59 dead and 500 injured. This time, you can bet the left won’t have as painful a memory to commemorate 12 years from now, and the reason is a combination of Milei’s security measures and the non-existing anti-Milei groundswell on which the outgoing Peronists are staking their fortunes. 

Another evening of Cacerolazo (the banging of pans) by Argentinians unhappy with Milei’s shock therapy. Picture Credit Tobias Skarlovnik/Getty Images)

Human Capital Minister Sandra Petovello decreed an “anti-picket protocol” to dissuade the routine troublemaking by taking away federal welfare benefits from street-blockers or those who take their school-age children to demonstrations. Posse’s legislative package hiked sentences to 4 or 5 years in prison for violent troublemakers. 

And yet, in a country that culturally sacralizes socially-minded protests—take a stroll around Plaza de Mayo and you’ll see—Milei’s iron-fisted turn is unlikely to cause a ripple beyond the opposition mediascape. For one, the rolling protests have outpaced in frequency Milei’s own executive activity (3 marches in 16 days). Secondly, they’ve barely transcended beyond the traditional base of kukas, the eponym for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Peronist campaigners, belonging to a longer tradition of activist pawns in a vast network of client politics where Peronist mayors and governors pay their acolytes to spend the day whooping and hollering in Buenos Aires (Milei is unlikely to ruffle feathers overmuch on this front because he needs the moderate Peronist votes these governors can help secure). And finally, these networks have revealed more than ever their coercive nature: 9.000 callers reached out to a helpline Casa Rosada set up to report threats from public authorities and Peronist NGOs. This time around, cold-headed observers can agree, the painful measures were legitimized at the ballot box, with political hecklers exposed as languishing on Peronism’s dole, and the people willing to give Milei a chance—if not outright standing with him.

What do these first three weeks augur for Milei’s presidency? Granted, any step other than burrowing into one’s own grave can be seen as revitalization. Milei’s first day in office was met with confidence—though less than buoyancy—in global markets. The gulf between the various exchange rates shrunk from 200 per cent to 25 per cent, the lowest gap in four years. While doomsayers forewarned Milei wouldn’t meet looming debt maturities, a nearly 1 billion USD repayment deadline with the IMF on December 21st was met under the wire. More importantly, the central bank pulled this off tapping not, as expected, into its currency swap program with China—a scheme worth 6.5 billion USD that threatened abrupt closure after Milei’s anti-China stump rhetoric but that finally remained, with strings attached, on the table for him to take—but into a new 960 million USD bridge loan from the CAF, Latin America’s development bank, signalling newfound confidence across the region. 

And although the electoral world-map currently doesn’t look favourable—a new bargain with China is still to be found, the Bolivarian “pink tide” sweeping the region since 2019 will take some time to unravel, Lula’s Brazil will be a thorn in Argentina’s side even as it remains its top trading partner, while Biden and the EU seem non-committal—changes may be on the horizon. A Trump comeback in 2025 would be best news. In June this year, a new right-leaning majority in the European Parliament (EP) could hold the Brussels Commission accountable on its plans to impose harsh environmental conditions on Argentina through the eternally stagnant EU-Mercosur trade agreement, which Milei campaigned on opposing, on precisely those grounds, after his predecessor Alberto Fernández inched towards a deal. Besides, Milei’s populism will always spring from a healthier root: a distrust not of experts but of expertly corrupt elites, anti-welfarism as opposed to welfare chauvinism, and an ambition to repair globalisation not through populist protectionism but through a theoretically bolder version of it. Though lazily likened to national-populists in the throne-and-altar, statist mould, Milei’s promise of blood, sweat and tears to cleanse the country of its self-deluding paternalism has an unmistakably anti-populist ring to it.

Milei has vowed war on a culture of dependency and a bloated state, but the underbelly of deceit and chicanery that has enabled these neuroses has metastasized beyond the economy—to social and cultural issues

And yet, Milei’s path is far from a bed of roses. The most immediate reality check is already coming not from global finance but from the incongruency between his fiscal measures—however conditioned by an inheritance he could otherwise be blamed for not fully predicting—and the themes he campaigned on. Milei conjured an Argentina crumbling under the sole weight of a caste-serving, clientelar state—and claimed that, borne by politicians alone, the adjustment would soon lead to recovery. When push came to shove—per his own reckoning—Caputo’s shock therapy spread the burden along totally different lines: 60 per cent of the austerity has aimed at “political spending”, whereas the remaining 40 per cent will slip right into the average Joe’s pocketbook. Begrudgingly again, Caputo made targeted boosts to social spending to buffer the hit, such as keeping a job training program in place—Potenciar Trabajo—Milei had vowed to scrap, raising food stamps—Tarjeta Alimentar—and the in-kind child benefit—Asignación Universal por Hijo

These compensatory measures are meant to tame discontent among working-class voters, but they won’t keep a lid on defections indefinitely. The government is hammering that “this time, the strenuous effort will pay off”, but how many Argentinians possess either the savings or the economic discernment to sense that the promised endpoint of economic sanitization is getting nearer, as opposed to being replaced by a different kind of calvary? Milei acknowledged on the campaign that 2024 will be a “lost year”. It now looks as though 2025 won’t see a proper recovery either. And even if it does, claims of an upward-wealth-transferring, unjust recovery of the kind slapped on Europe post-2008 will doubtless arise. Neoliberalism could follow Peronism in falling under the weight of its own contradictions, with one initially popular round of austerity laying the groundwork for a much longer—and nefarious—return of Peronist largesse.

Life, liberty and property

This seemingly unsolvable Catch-22 won’t be so daunting if Milei stays loyal to the national yearning to which he owes his election—an ambition that stretches far beyond the material. Argentina is running into an economic dead-end, but social and financial difficulties don’t exist in a vacuum. Their urgency is soothed or exacerbated by factors in national life that slip into the pocketbook but exist beyond it. Milei has vowed war on a culture of dependency and a bloated state, but the underbelly of deceit and chicanery that has enabled these neuroses has metastasized beyond the economy—to social and cultural issues. 

On abortion, Milei stands athwart the progressive tide of Anglosphere libertarians, having turned their logic inside out to advance life, a cause they increasingly shun. Whereas the latter construe “the right to choose” as a fundamental one, Milei insists that libertarianism is—at its core—a defence of the human against the state’s encroaching power—not an enabling mechanism for human-on-human violence. He centres that defence on three things—life, liberty, property—defining the former as “beginning at conception and ending with natural death”. Legislating this vision won’t be easy, but in a field where recent conquests are seldom undone, Milei stands a better chance than most to roll back an overreach. 

In 2020, one year into Peronism’s post-Macri return, Argentina joined Uruguay and Guyana as the region’s third nation to depenalize—making it free and medically assisted—abortion, not only in every therapeutic case legislated almost exactly a century earlier (1921) but in call cases until week 14 of gestation. It was a jarring outcome for conservatives, for the floodgates had been swung open by the avowedly pro-life Macri. In 2018, the so-called “green kerchief” movement gathered around Congress to press for a bill that Macri caved to. It failed in the Senate—not thanks to Macri’s opposition—but it would take only a year and a half for Peronism to return and finish the job. 

Milei is intent on rolling back the bill, claiming the pro-abortion movement has been “brainwashed by a murderous policy” and the vote was “rigged by international NGOs”. His path to restoring life, however, is a fraught one. He could have settled on a legislative counterattack but has instead pledged a plebiscite that won’t be easy to win. He will need to step into the shoes of the culture warrior, for he’s up against a form of first-world progressivism, assisted by global philanthropy, that will turn the “murderous” accusation against him, even with Argentina displaying the region’s lowest maternal mortality. And even then, with penal issues unsuitable for referendums, he will need to amend the Constitution—and secure absolute bicameral majorities immediately after.

The opening for a conservative social policy transcends abortion. Though he seems to have made peace with its current incarnation, Milei could grow to lead the regional counterattack against newer forms of sexual indoctrination in schools, a title currently held by Paraguay. He could also hold firm against the normalisation of transgenderism, a cause he has also bent libertarian logic to oppose. The opening points to a deeper coalitional dynamic to which Milei must remain attuned. Granted, he has converted 56 per cent of ballotage voters to his economic libertarianism—and led on that issue. 

But a substantial bloc of them, though assured of the imperative of righting the economic ship, remain radar-focused on their wheelhouse—social and cultural conservatism. Their conversion vindicates Milei’s fusionist strategy, but eventually—particularly if the economic slumber persists—they will demand their parochial share of meat. Beyond preserving the pre-woke social order, the reactionary pulses to be gratified concern wokeism’s chief manifestation in Argentina, one common to other post-fascist democracies but that has nowhere reached such institutionalised entrenchment: a victimhood narrative, appropriated by Peronism, about the 1976-1983 juntas—or military regime. 

Milei won partly by wrapping his liberalism in the language of national greatness

In his famous 1985 peroration in what became known as Argentina’s “Nuremberg trial”, prosecutor Julio César Strassera accused—and secured hefty sentences for—these military ringleaders of crimes that would later be labelled “against humanity” for kidnapping and torturing what was then an unknown number of political opponents, making many of them disappear. Strassera at the time relied on embryonic government figures that pointed to slightly upwards of 4,000 disappearances. With that lower-bound figure in hand, at around the same time, the Plaza de Mayo mothers, along with some anti-junta terrorists, showed up at the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ). They artificially pushed up the figure to 30,000, making for a gap of 22,000 fictitious disappearances, as was confessed two years ago in a viral TV interview by Luis Labraña, an unrepentant former member of Monteneros, the main such far-left terror group.

And yet Argentina’s democratic consensus of the following 40 years has taken the 30,000 figure at face value. It’s not hard to see why truth-finding has taken so long. Claiming one’s son was disappeared gives right to about an MP’s salary, a figure that escalates with the degree of violence. This consensus, most importantly, has led the country to ignore the 4,000 deaths—bombings, mutilations and rape not just of men in uniform but of intellectuals, businessmen and mere churchgoers—by Montoneros, ERP and other allied terrorist groups, largely out of a Manichean narrative that justifies all violence that didn’t come from the regime. 

Milei has thrown down the gauntlet against this victim-inflationary, fallacious narrative and has worn the “revisionist” label with pride: “there was a civil war, and both sides were equally bad”. The warring sides committed atrocities against one another, with many innocents caught in both sides of the crossfire—but somehow only one side has mattered thus far. Others in the past—chiefly Juan José Gómez Centurión, a Falklands war veteran who ran for President in 2015—argued the same, but they lacked the evidence. 

Labraña’s testimony for having concocted the 30,000 figure out of thin air to leech off the Court changed the ballgame. It warmed a lot of young libertarians who may have embraced Milei’s economic program but resented his rapprochement with national-Catholics to support him across the board. As for the cause of Montonero’s victims, it had been brandished by Victoria Villarruel alone—Milei’s Vice-President who best incarnates the national-Catholic vote but who has been stripped of many of her prerogatives—but it has now become mainstream. Milei has capitalised on it, but he now needs to deliver on the rhetoric. Granted, he will be challenged by those for whom economics should be the all-engrossing priority, but governments can walk and chew gum at the same time—and both fronts can be advanced simultaneously. Furthermore, the economic urgencies, if anything, point towards the need to settle the memory scores—the 30,000 figure has activated a gravy train that costs the state untold sums. 

And whereas Milei will be accused of denigrating the victims, he should find solace in defending the real victims, those whose pain—and allotted money—has been eclipsed by the inclusion of 22,000 literal ghosts. Milei’s own libertarian blinders may complicate the task, but he could begin by giving the state a minimal role in coordinating historiography and repairing—at least symbolically—the other side’s pain. Argentina has been ruled by lies, but they’re not just economic ones.

Perhaps the surest way to dispel Milei’s grouping among the world’s most unsavoury populists would be to remain their ally but refuse to emulate them in office. Whatever the future portends, Milei will be remembered for the astonishing feat of campaigning; not on the verse of economic utopianism, but on the prose of harsh material realities. Running up against the constraints of his office will doubtless take him further down the path of prosaization, but governance need not be reductionistically material. Whereas the unshackling of Argentina’s economic potential will remain the legitimising core of his mandate, Milei won partly by wrapping his liberalism in the language of national greatness—of restoring the country’s rank among the civilised West, recovering its self-confidence, and renewing its sense of collective purpose. As a liberal nationalist, there are countless avenues along which Milei could begin to speak the dialect of power in a way that addresses the full slate of Argentina’s urgencies. Whereas a nation’s flourishing rests on the fundamentals—reward for work, balanced budgets, sound money—the strength of its society is gauged by the health of its families, its communities, and its polity. Milei has a chance to make Argentina great again—he should seize it.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the Sr. Coordinator for the Iberosphere at the Center for Fundamental Rights (CFR) and co-hosts Uncommon Decency (@UnDecencyPod)

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