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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-01-2024 06:53

Milei goes to the Magic Mountain

What goes down splendidly with teenagers in La Matanza does not necessarily appeal to fabulously wealthy individuals who could be persuaded to invest in Milei’s ambitious project.

President Javier Milei may feel that his performance in Davos was a resounding success, but while by most accounts he was the star of this year’s show, by overacting the part of the wild man who wants the world to return to the 19th century, he surely failed to convince those who welcomed him that under his management Argentina is about to enjoy a spectacular boom.

What goes down splendidly with teenagers in La Matanza, who have good reason to think that what the country needs is a strong dose of capitalist savagery, does not necessarily appeal to fabulously wealthy individuals who, if approached in a hard-headed manner, could be persuaded that it would be in their interest to be among the first to invest in Milei’s ambitious project.

In Davos, Milei gave a rousing rendering of some of his greatest hits to a bevy of billionaires, politicos, technocrats, journalists and representatives of cultural activities recruited in order to reassure onlookers that the world is not being run by a bunch of materialistic philistines. In addition to condemning – in his habitually forthright fashion – socialism, feminism and other ills he thinks are bringing the West to its knees, Milei told entrepreneurs that they are the true heroes of our times because they are the creators of the “most extraordinary period of prosperity the world has ever known.”

However, Milei also warned them against having too much to do with a political caste obsessed with its own corporate privileges. There was nothing particularly new about this; Adam Smith also thought that the willingness of members of the mercantile elite to conspire with politicians in order to reduce competition only served to perpetuate poverty.

In any event, it was stirring stuff, but though Milei was rewarded with a round of applause, it was a bit tepid because even many who agreed with much of what he said were put off by his impassioned oratory. While it may be assumed that deep down the businessmen who make the annual pilgrimage to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain have always believed that they really are far more important than politicians and their ilk, let alone academics and media personalities, of late most have been decidedly apologetic about such feelings.

Among members of the business fraternity, boosterism has long been out of fashion, so instead of telling folk that if it were not for them all economies would grind to a halt and in return getting lambasted by upstarts who regard them as greedy parasites, they either do their best to keep a low profile or, as has happened in several notorious cases, they try to put on some protective colouring by backing causes favoured by would-be progressives and giving individuals from ethnic and sexual minorities stellar treatment in their advertising campaigns.

On occasion, this ploy has so offended once loyal consumers that those responsible have had to beat a hasty retreat. They learned the hard way that – in their line of work – the gleefully repeated slogan “go woke, go broke” was based on rather more than wishful thinking. There are some out there who do not take kindly to being preached at. 

Milei’s tub-thumping defence of untrammelled capitalism will not have come as a shock to the many Argentines who know just how harmful attempts by politicians to tie it down can be. Though varieties of “crony capitalism” – in which businessmen get politicians to guarantee them virtual monopolies by taking protectionist measures of one kind or another – can be found in most countries, few have been so successful in such endeavours as their Argentine counterparts, who have managed to paralyse the economy by draining its lifeblood and then enclosing it in a bewildering web of rules and regulations. Milei’s government has made the elimination of restraints that benefit only those who have friends in government a priority; as much of the population seems to agree that bureaucratic red tape is a major problem, a reluctant Congress may finally give the okay to the “Omnibus Law” bill legislators are currently perusing.

Had Milei limited himself to reminding people that free-market capitalism works far better than any alternative and that all too often attempts by politicians to make the economy behave as they would like have had unfortunate results, his performance in Davos would not have motivated much controversy. What did was his insistence that the West runs the risk of being overwhelmed by “socialism”: by going on about this he gave the impression that he is unaware that decades have passed since the Soviet Union bit the dust and China decided to jettison Marxist economics before going on to become a commercial superpower.

Though ideas that socialists came up with do continue to influence almost all governments, on the whole the parties and factions that proudly swear they adhere to the creed are very different from those that, as Milei pointed out, led to the murder of about a hundred million people. Perhaps he was referring to the deleterious effects he and many others attribute to the “woke” identity politics large numbers of leftists, especially in the English-speaking countries, have adopted in order to justify their attacks on everything the West presumably stands for. If so, he should have made it clear.

As for feminism, which Milei includes in the forces threatening the West, the challenge it poses is somewhat more complicated than he evidently supposes. While it is true that some feminists have gone out of their way to discredit everything associated with what they call “toxic masculinity,” changes in the relationship between the sexes are being encouraged by the way advanced economies are evolving. In Europe, North America and Japan, most families need at least two breadwinners, while not that long ago it was habitual for the man to earn money and his wife to stay at home and raise the kids, something that these days is far less common than it used to be.

Milei told the Davos crowd that he has it in for feminism because he thinks forming ministries dedicated to helping women is a waste of money. A far more serious charge is that it is contributing to the rapid fall of the birth rate in almost every country in the world. In some, such as Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany and many others – among them China, which last year lost almost three million people – the decline, which appears to be irreversible, has been so sharp that by the end of the century or soon after they will have ceased to exist in any meaningful way. Unless feminists get far more enthusiastic about maternity than they have been for a great many years, they will continue to help bring about the extinction of humankind, an objective which, let us hope, few have ever had in mind.

James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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