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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 07-05-2022 00:16

The appeal of Javier Milei – an autopsy of the right

Why the outspoken liberal economist is growing at the expense of traditional politicians. Social network populism, hatred towards the state and a not-so discreet charm. The hidden keys of his biography.

The right has, like the left, its utopians. They are alike because each observes the world from a totalitarian perspective – either things are as I say and are done accordingly, or everything will go wrong and all other thinking is mistaken. 

Today’s utopian is Javier Milei who, very early in life, wrote an autobiography of sorts, El camino del libertario (“The road of the libertarian”).

Born in Palermo (here, not Sicily), he later went to live in Sáenz Peña in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Tres de Febrero. His father prepared him cruelly for life.

“My old man slapped me around. I’ll never forget how he beat me up on April 2, 1982, when I was 11. We were watching on the telly the whole Malvinas [invasion] thing and I had the bright idea of saying that it was insane and that they were going to kick our asses in. My old man went berserk and started hitting and kicking me all the way to the kitchen. As he got older, he traded in hitting me for psychological violence,” Milei previously told Perfil without any qualms. 

Since that beating up, his life is more or less common knowledge, but I’ll sum it up briefly for those readers who have decided not to bore themselves with details.

 

Back to the start

At the age of 18 (in 1988-1989) Milei tried playing football for Chacarita Juniors’ reserve team, but the full fury of hyperinflation made him realise that economics was his thing, although in those years he was also a rock singer. “We did Stones covers and composed our own songs,” he recalls. A history of teenage rock reaching the least accessible places of the educational and social structure.

He studied at Belgrano University where he graduated “with the typical centre-left analytical tools” fabricated by all the universities, according to Milei’s judgement, which he believes to be beyond dispute. 

Such is the balance drawn of the mistaken principles taught to him. He came away convinced, for example, that the state is important for regulating the economy. Milei then did a postgraduate degree at IDES (Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social) where he learned Keynesian thinking in all its different variants “in-depth.” He then entered Di Tella, “tired of getting so much wrong” with Keynesianism. He presented papers from a young age, gaining better theoretical and, above all, work assistance until economist Miguel Ángel Broda offered him the job of coordinator in his studio.

Evidently Milei combines intelligence with superlative luck. The corridors or lifts of office buildings can be scenarios for promises of promotion. Or a convenient relationship – economist Juan Carlos de Pablo shared a lift with him and since Milei was in a fury, as he tends to be, a dialogue commenced. Then came the television hosts – [Alejandro] Fantino “catapulted him into the media” when he invited him to his programme Animales sueltos, while Santiago del Moro took him to Intratables.

Let’s just say that he was blessed by being in the right place at the right time. This curriculum vitae presented by Milei at the start of his early autobiography reveals a hotbed of opportunities. That’s why he so sincerely confesses: “The joy knows no limits. For me that’s what life is all about.”

 

Generosity

Milei is not wrong when he writes that life has been generous with him. He got to know liberal economist Alberto Benegas Lynch at a meeting in New York and met up with Argentine-American economist Guillermo Calvo at Columbia University, where they conversed for four hours about the book projected by the young economist. The next meeting was in Punta del Este where Milei was a guest and could talk for 12 hours running with his distinguished host. The next day economist and ex-government official Guillermo Nielsen invited him to another asado barbecue.

Milei spends the first few dozen pages of his book dropping names all the time with grateful pedantry, something characteristic of snobs, the ambitious or opportunists.

In his autobiographical recital of friends, relationships and acquaintances, which I’ll cut off at this point, Milei inserts maxims defining his economic philosophy from the start as if he had had them straight from the start – the state is worse than a common thief because it robs everything, while the politicians are sociopaths because they want to make us believe that we cannot live without them; The state robs us and the politicians deceive us. 

In order to halt this trickery and larceny, Milei feels that he has to respond to the call to public action. He is sincere when placing the origins of his vocation in the first chapter of his biography: “I plunged into politics not to guide a flock of lambs but to wake up lions” – this could be rephrased to read: “to guide lambs by making them believe that they are lions.” Behind that acceptably expressed desire, the shadow of another desire can be traced – to hoodwink the lambs with his discourse. Those 2.5 million Argentines participating in Milei’s raffle of his parliamentary salary do not precisely seem future lions – it would not be off-target to judge this to be barefaced vote-seeking populism.

Milei maintains that the youth follow him “because they are rebelling against the status quo.” He proposes to these rebellious youth a voucher system permitting them to register in the (private) university of their choice so that education can cease to be a “brain-washing machine.” His hatred of the state and the public makes this devotee of opinion polls and rankings forget that the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) disputes Latin America’s top spot with São Paulo. 

Milei must know, as I do, that UBA graduates are easily admitted to the best universities in the United States. I know that because I’ve taught at those universities and if Milei does not know that, he’d better find out, because that ignorance seems to stem from prejudice.

 

The message

His gospel is simple. Every preacher must single out the demon, describing his wicked ways. Pastor Milei tells his lambs that capitalism is the only path to salvation and that those treading that path are mistaken when they “ignore the ethical and moral superiority of that system,” the most efficient for securing the welfare of the lambs, although these are frequently eaten by the lions, a food chain with which Milei does not concern himself.

In truth, Milei is a right-wing utopian. Like some utopians, he believes that the path which his favourable circumstances helped him to tread is open to all. In other words, he takes the egalitarian promise literally without bothering to create and strengthen the material conditions to make it a reality. Capitalism creates inequalities while it floats promises of future equality. Milei, a utopian dreamer, bets on those promises.

Milei knows that the style which suits him best combines exaggeration and a loud voice. He was the vocalist in a rock group influenced by the Rolling Stones and it is easy to imagine him being crazy to imitate Mick Jagger. His advisors or he himself must have examined the various political styles: the rational thinker, the smooth talker, the good storyteller with plenty of examples, whether rooted in history or hypothesis. From his academic training, Milei could have chosen any of those variants. But somebody, or he himself, reached the evident conclusion when listening to poor, underemployed ordinary citizens without perspectives of progress – they despise politics because they feel cheated and because they cannot be bothered to follow it patiently in the media, they have little contact with the written press beyond social networks quoting or misquoting professional journalists. Milei knows perfectly well the information circulating via the less professional channels and he knows that public opinion is produced or debased by these media.

He knows what we others also know. When interrogating citizens at random (something I do every day), the answers oscillate between scepticism, disillusion, a cynicism masquerading as realism and, a few times, a credulous optimism with no other basis than a statement of hopeful confidence.

He knows that this is the state of what we call public opinion. He also knows that local politicians conserve an important percentage of their voters but that those people can also be disillusioned with the results obtained. Today they expect little or nothing although the most optimistic, who are an exception, feebly believe that in some tomorrow with no date attached “things” will improve for everybody. Those who previously believed themselves to be destined for the “future we deserve” have grown old and only conserve traces of what they felt when democracy was restored.

He knows that a rock singer commands the style of the Zeitgeist, far more than a young academic who knows how to explain problems. That is why Milei has successfully combined both styles, not admitting great speeches but slogans shouted out like pop lyrics. He knows that sceptical or party-loving children have been born to disenchanted parents, above all those who have not finished secondary school (where half of adolescents are not registered).

He knows that the media (except for news channels with less than five per cent of total audience) construct the public imagination via a symbolic machinery where media success is the proof of quality and the road to consecration. He knows that very young voters and those who have not finished school will weigh heavily in all future elections and, in consequence, are as valuable as the unionised workers of yesteryear or the political militants of the 1970s. He knows that those youths genuinely represent the real. Anybody wanting to win an election must direct themselves to them. They come from the least protected sectors but also from the middle classes with parents who believed in a future of relative progress and became disenchanted with each one of the successive crises. The grandchildren of those who voted for Raúl Alfonsín in 1983 take no interest in their memories of the gigantic political rallies prior to those elections nor do they believe those grandparents fondly recalling the strikes for just demands headed by CGT chief Saúl Ubaldini. They know violence from up close but the assassination of José Ingnacio Rucci, another politically skilled CGT chief, is alien to them or leaves them indifferent. No traditions are older than those of the last decade. Not even Juan Domingo Perón would have been able to survive this process of oblivion. Just as 1920s Radical president Hipólito Yrigoyen survived in the memory until he too fell into oblivion and came to form part of a secondary school history textbook whose influence is zero, save, of course, the middle-class sectors which have conserved while transforming some of the ambitions of the past.

 

Populism

To those youthful sectors without memory, Milei proposes his right-wing populism. Populism was nationalistic and Milei is anti-nationalistic. Populism flirted with leftist identities and Milei abhors the left. His version of populism is relatively novel in Argentina although it was not novel in the preparation of European fascism in the past and the current authoritarian regimes, as the cases of Marine Le Pen or Vladimir Putin show. 

Today populism has gained by moving towards the right because the crisis of democracy clears the way for that shift. Everybody mistrusts the majorities and yet surrender to those who seem capable of manipulating them.

Right-wing populism has found the shortcut to thrill and conquer the disillusioned. They do not talk to them about the complexities and conflicts of democracies. On the contrary, they talk about how simple things would be if we got rid of parties. This simplistic discourse wins friends among citizens who have neither the time nor interest to intervene in the public sphere and, in consequence, prefer a leader who shouts out simple phrases.

Within this bleak panorama Milei is a leader who exhibits the charisma to chime in with the most elementary ideological and political reflexes. His yelling seems more genuine than the complicated speeches of the politicians of the left or right. To be convinced by those shouts you do not need more than a state of fatigue. Not even rallies are strictly necessary because in his defence of capitalism, Milei does not propose reforms which require civic participation to be achieved.

With Milei, we can all feel calm, whether at home or at work or collecting a plan. He does not ask any more of us. Thank you, Milei, for relieving us of our responsibilities.

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Beatriz Sarlo

Beatriz Sarlo

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