Monday, February 26, 2024

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 10-02-2024 00:36

‘Synthetic’ in a world in flux: Milei faces a political defeat

What will the near-future of the Milei administration look like after having effectively demolished bridges with the “moderate” opposition that sought to offer a helping hand?

The political crisis that the Javier Milei administration finds itself in is in great part self-generated. It was evident from the day it announced its massive DNU emergency decree — which remains mainly in place — and gigantic ‘omnibus bill’ that teetered on the verge of unconstitutionality and impracticality. 

That the bill got as far as it did was already a sort of political miracle generated by certain sectors that are essentially circumscribed to the remains of what was the Juntos por el Cambio opposition coalition and have the urgency to see this government succeed, at least partially. They were the ones leading the legislative debate and negotiations, the ones with the most skin in the game and amongst the most scarred from this whole process. 

Rodrigo De Loredo, deputy for the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and head of the caucus broke into tears on the steps of Congress in a televised interview. Miguel Ángel Pichetto, head of the newly formed Hacemos Coalición Federal and the star of the show, reiterated that they were looking to give the newly minted administration the tools to govern. Behind closed doors, Interior Minister Guillermo Francos and Lower House Speaker Martín Menem were probably licking their wounds as well, with president Milei’s right-hand man Santiago Caputo indicating the negotiations had finished and the Executive branch would remove the bill. 

From abroad, the president took to social media with rage, retweeting late into the Israeli night lists that individually named deputies who voted against his law, labelling them “traitors,” scoundrels and thieves. The only ones celebrating – and by no merit of their own – were the pan-Peronist coalition Unión por la Patria and the left-wingers, who actively worked against the bill. From the shadows, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner closely followed the vote.

The construction of Milei’s political capital is built on what we’ve come to call “synthetic power” in this column that is derived from the digital ecosystem. All power is based on communications, whether it is physical in the form of the crack of a whip, analogical in terms of speeches and decrees communicated through traditional media, or “synthetic” if it’s constructed purely digitally and on top of activated web and social media communities. 

Even before the election, when it seemed plausible that Milei could take the Casa Rosada, the issue of governability was raised for myriad reasons. The focus was initially put on Milei’s sanity and his capacity to work in teams in a stressful environment — also whether he would continue to receive advice from his canine “children.” Traditional political governability would also be an issue for the first-ever “anarcho-capitalist,” libertarian president who in two years went from zero to hero and therefore had no territorial structure, counted with no governorships and absolute minorities in both chambers of Congress. This begged the question as to how he would pursue his ambitious reformist agenda that sought to upend the Argentine political class and the state, reducing it to a minimalist expression in order to free the forces of individuality and therefore create wealth, according to the president’s worldview.

Milei built his popularity on a combination of aggressive and ideologised discussions on news shows that aired late at night, in which he “tamed” “lefties” and “fools” in the same way wild animals are domesticated. These sound bites were cut into short clips, edited, and distributed on social media, where a burgeoning community grew around the figure of the wild-haired and bad-mannered Milei. It was social media gold and it was so powerful that it managed to outperform both the massive communications apparatus held up by the government and utilised by the Peronist candidate Sergio Massa, and the supposedly professional and well-funded structure of Juntos por el Cambio in the hands of Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and Patricia Bullrich. 

After winning the Presidency, Milei and his crew congratulated themselves when his intervention at Davos became the most watched speech of the World Economic Forum, beating French President Emanuel Macron exponentially and getting multiple retweets from Elon Musk, among others, including a graphic meme. Milei had gone globally viral and consolidated himself as a social media influencer-president. To a certain extent it’s similar to Donald Trump’s rise to power, even though the orange one counted with decades of TV exposure and managed to seize the Republican Party.

Milei’s aggressive retweets aimed at the deputies that voted against the omnibus bill are at the apex of a broader digital community of libertarians and a host of other related groups who are part of what has come to be known as the “New Right” in Argentina. They bundle in some of the more extreme elements of the traditional “far right,” including neo-Nazis and dictatorship deniers, with new communities formed on the web and observed worldwide. Their anti-system ideology is attractive and has seduced large portions of the population that are relatively apolitical but have become ideologised with Milei at the centre as the Great Leader. It’s not so much about Austrian economics or anarcho-capitalism as sticking it to the man in a global context where traditional Western values are coming under fire. It is part of a global paradigm shift.

Back to reality. What will the near-future of the Milei administration look like after having effectively demolished bridges with the “moderate” opposition that sought to offer a helping hand? There should be little doubt that the president can continue to count on his superior “synthetic” power to garner the support of a substantial portion of the population. At the same time, Economy Minister Luis ‘Toto’ Caputo noted that the collapse of the mega-reform bill does not change the policy path for this government, noting they had already managed to reach a situation of economic balance in January. The combined voracity of sustained double-digital inflation and aggressive austerity will allow the government to continue working towards a budget surplus. It’s also clear that the people are struggling and will struggle even more, as inflation is expected to easily top 300 percent on an annual basis, only to recede to the 200 percent level by December. 

Is a social flare-up in the cards for Milei? Will he be able to contain them through synthetic power? Will he adapt and seek ways forward within the realms of Argentina’s democratic institutions? It remains mysterious why, after having spent so many days negotiating the bill at the committee level and then in the Chamber of Deputies, and with a political victory in sight, the president took such an extreme measure. Yet, if they can achieve their economic policy objectives without the need for the bill, why did they make such a big deal about it in the first place?

At the moment, it’s all in flux.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia


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