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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-04-2024 05:34

Milei and the new new right

Javier Milei has been warmly welcomed by adherents of the latest edition of the “new right,” but Argentina’s president sees just about everything through an economic lens.

Throughout the world, Javier Milei has been warmly welcomed by adherents of the latest edition of the “new right,” which is now a heterogeneous assortment of politicians and commentators who, in North America, Europe and elsewhere, are strongly opposed to the established order. Thanks only in part to their strenuous efforts, it is fraying at the edges, but unlike the best known among them, Argentina’s president sees just about everything through an economic lens.

Milei wants Argentina to become a free-market haven that is productive enough to prosper in a globalised world, an objective which cannot have much appeal to people who are prone to take prosperity for granted, favour many measures that would once have been considered left-wing, and would like to put the clock back to former times. He is also a fervent supporter of Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, while many of his allegedly fellow “right-wingers” have a soft spot for the Russian president-for-life, Vladimir Putin, who they think stands for traditional values.

When Milei turns up at a “new right” gathering, he subjects those attending to long lectures about the fundamental importance of monetarism, which puzzles many who prefer to hear their leaders accuse their foes of criminal behaviour and the harmful effects of anything smacking of socialism, which is something most like. But Milei has little to say about what really interests them, such as the threats they see posed by the unregulated influx of large numbers of unskilled immigrants from non-Western societies, the “woke” takeover of much of academe, green zealots who are determined to put an immediate end to the use of fossil fuels or the gender-fluid folk whose activities alarm those who take what might be described as a patriarchal approach to sexual matters.

As far as Milei is concerned, anyone who disagrees with his fiercely liberal views on financial questions, as presumably do most of those who are obliged to listen to him on such occasions, is a despicable ignoramus who should remain silent. Nonetheless, despite his indifference towards the issues that obsess them, individuals who are habitually included in the ranks of the “new right” continue to regard him as one of their own because he is clearly dead against the way things have long been done in Argentina.

Milei’s trenchant opinions about economic arrangements may not be shared by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, two politicians he is often associated with, but his public style is very similar. Like them he is happy to deride his adversaries, and any supporter who shows signs of shilly-shallying, in picturesque and sometimes scatological terms. While Trump and Bolsonaro are more like old-school political bosses than the European fascists they are frequently compared with, the intolerance that characterises both of them does bring back memories of the men who did much to bring about the murderous havoc that ruined so many lives in the 20th century and have many counterparts in today’s world.

Milei’s self-centredness and his inability to respond rationally to even mild criticism have scared well-wishers who suspect that he harbours dictatorial ambitions. As a proud libertarian, he is surely aware that trying to install a dictatorship would run counter to everything he swears he believes in, but history is full of rulers who, after reaching power by fighting successfully against a tyranny in the name of freedom, became even more authoritarian than the men they defeated. However, circumstances being as they are, the chances of Milei emulating people like Maximilien Robespierre or Vladimir Lenin who did just that must be close to zero.

Much as Milei dislikes the idea, he will have to continue to work within the bounds set by a Constitution which, though in its present form does grant the president what in theory are almost monarchical powers, contains enough checks and balances to prevent him from going too far, unless most legislators want him to do so. If he tries to overstep them without congressional approval, he could fall, and with him would go the programme of desperately needed reforms he is determined to carry through; like many other people, Milei is aware that the alternative to the liberal and enthusiastically capitalistic Argentina he dreams of would look far more like Venezuela than, say, Denmark. 

This is why many who are understandably appalled by Milei’s frequently boorish behaviour still give him their backing. Like Mauricio Macri, they distinguish between the irascible eccentric with mystic leanings who cares more for dogs than mere humans and enjoys tweeting insults against those who dare to criticise him, and the man who reached the Presidency by espousing, with no ifs or buts, a set of ideas that until then had been anathema to much of the political elite and who, once in office, went about applying them vigorously while retaining the support of over half of the electorate that has given him a big majority over his Peronist rival, Sergio Massa.

Exactly how long this apparently anomalous situation will last is anyone’s guess, but Milei has already done enough to convince many that Argentina could be on the way to recovering from the damage that was wrought by decades of short-sighted populist squandermania by governments such as the one that was voted out last year. Hard as it may be to believe, there are signs that the country is undergoing a cultural revolution, with Peronism getting replaced by something that looks like a turbo-charged version of the “neoliberalism” both progressives and clericalists agree is an evil doctrine favoured by oligarchs and other equally contemptible reactionaries.

According to the pollsters, leading the way are youngsters from poor families who believe the older generation has robbed them of a future by taking seriously promises made by corrupt politicians who have grown accustomed to stealing from the public purse. In other parts of the world, there are many disgruntled young people who, despite being better off than their Argentine contemporaries, take a similar view of what has happened in recent decades, which is one reason why political movements that are automatically tarred as “right wing” are doing well not only in the US but also in much of Europe, where they are expected to win many seats in the parliamentary elections that are scheduled to take place early next June.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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