Meet Argentina’s Free-Market Authoritarian President-Elect, Javier Milei

Ezequiel Adamovsky

Argentina is reeling after self-styled anarcho-capitalist Javier Milei won its November 19 presidential election. Milei combines the worst elements of the global far right with the darkest episodes of Argentine national history.

Argentina's far-right president-elect Javier Milei after the polls closed in the presidential runoff on November 19, 2023, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Tomas Cuesta / Getty Images)

Interview by
Valentina Pucci

Argentina, no stranger to turmoil and misfortune, may have more in store for the next four years.

When all the votes were counted on November 19, the runoff election between far-right libertarian Javier Milei and centrist Sergio Massa was not even close: Milei trounced the incumbent Peronist government’s candidate by over 12 percent. The dim hopes of a last-minute upset only served to make the defeat that more crushing.

Milei, the president-elect, has been featured in several profiles fixating on his more outlandish qualities: the five cloned mastiffs, named after libertarians like Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, who supposedly provide Milei counsel; his background as a soccer goalkeeper and the front man for a Rolling Stones cover band; and his call to privatize and bring to market literally everything of social value (including human organs and children). In retrospect, those bizarre qualities may have lulled some into a sense of disbelief, even denial.

But beyond the iconic chainsaw — whose violence recalls the imagery of the global far right — and some fawning words about Margaret Thatcher (persona non grata in Argentina), Milei is a deeply Argentine phenomenon. That may be less obvious in a country characterized by price fixing, capital controls, and high union density — everything he stands against — but Milei is drawing on a deeper national history.

Valentina Pucci spoke to Argentine historian Ezequiel Adamovsky, author of A History of Argentina: From the Spanish Conquest to the Present, to learn more about how Milei is pushing his own brand of Make Argentina Great Again.

The interview, hosted by the Hispanic languages and literature department at Stony Brook University (SUNY), has been edited and abridged for clarity.

Valentina Pucci

Javier Milei is a self-described “anarcho-libertarian.” But he also imagines himself as part of a centuries-old legacy of classic Argentine liberalism. How important is that history for our understanding of Milei?

Ezequiel Adamovsky

I think it is very important to take seriously what Milei says about himself. There is a strong urge to label him a fascist — which is a whole other debate. But we shouldn’t lose sight of Milei’s avowed attachment to Argentina’s liberal past.

When it was first introduced in the nineteenth century, the goal of liberalism, as a body of ideas, was to create the Argentine state itself; that is, the state was founded and shaped by a liberal ideology. That would seem to contrast with today’s liberalism, which at least rhetorically is more concerned with destroying the state.

However, if one takes a long-term view, that’s not been the case. Argentina’s nineteenth-century project of state-building liberalism was completely aware of the fact that the market does not work without the state and that, in fact, a strong state is needed to lay the material and legal infrastructure for the market to function. Milei is no doubt aware of that history.

Bearing in mind this intimate connection between state formation and liberalism, Milei’s authoritarian version of liberalism begins to feel like less of an anomaly. In truth, that “radical” version of liberalism has always been present in different forms throughout Argentine history.

Even the way Milei speaks of his project carries strong echoes of the country’s liberal statesmen. Juan Bautista Alberdi, the famous nineteenth-century theorist of classic liberalism, used to say that Argentina would only progress insofar as its citizens were “intelligently selfish.” That is, Argentina’s progress depended on its citizens working for their own benefit without worrying about others.

Today, that kind of individualistic worldview has obviously been reinforced and radicalized. As a specifically liberal vision of the individual, it has served as an incentive — or a subtle pressure — coaxing people to orient their lives toward commodity production and the valorization of commodities. Again, as an individualist project, this liberalism expresses itself as a system of rewards and punishments, where economic power represents the fundamental reward.

Milei’s emergence represents, in a sense, the increasing social significance of punishment for the liberal project, in that it is no longer just indirect, impersonal pressures orienting our lives in a market-friendly direction; there is an increasingly open expression of animosity and hostility towards any life project that is not framed by capitalist goals.

I address this in detail in a recently published book of essays, Del antiperonismo al individualismo autoritario: Ensayos e intervenciones. There, I argue that this newer totalitarian liberalism, represented by Milei and the extreme right, is typified by a crusade to destroy any form of life that does not seek self-realization in the market. Again, this more authoritarian brand of free-market ideology is almost a hallmark of Argentine liberalism — it’s the same liberalism that has been associated with most of the country’s coup d’états.

Really, the true novelty of the current moment seems to be that this authoritarian, aggressive impulse seems to be coming from below as well as above. We see in Argentine society increasingly strong expressions of animosity and resentment among neighbors and common people. That dynamic is particularly palpable between those who feel “validated” by the market and those whose “failures” have led them to rely on state subsidies.

Valentina Pucci

What are the key elements contributing to Milei’s ascent?

Ezequiel Adamovsky

I think there are a lot of factors to consider when analyzing Milei’s shocking political success. Some are circumstantial and specific to the Argentine context, while others are more global and systemic in nature.

With respect to the short-term and specifically Argentine context, one thing needs to be singled out: we are in the middle of a perfect storm. We are coming to the end of the administration of Alberto Fernández, which, frankly, has been very bad. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis that began with the previous government but has in many respects grown worse under the current administration. It can’t be stressed enough how severe the current inflationary crisis is.

In addition, the legacy of the pandemic left deep wounds at the subjective level. Quarantine measures were very severe in Argentina, and that kind of heavy-handed state intervention left an unfavorable impression in people’s minds. Finally, a huge drought has deprived the country of nearly a quarter of the export revenues it usually receives. All these factors are converging to enable the emergence of a figure like Milei.

At the same time, there are a series of mid-term factors. One of the key issues is that we are witnessing the exhaustion of the Kirchnerist project, i.e., the political movement associated with Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

That project generated great enthusiasm and dominated Argentine politics for the first two decades of the twenty-first century. People placed a lot of hope in that movement, with its progressive slogans like “la patria es el otro” (the homeland is other people).

But that project has run out of steam, in my opinion. The proof is that this most recent presidential contest was the third consecutive election in which the Kirchnerists were unable to put forward a candidate of their choosing.

Now, I expect Kirchnerism will be reabsorbed into the broader umbrella of Peronism, which is a much more heterogeneous formation than Kirchnerism. The movement still has a few strong figures, like Axel Kicillof in the province of Buenos Aires. But the Kirchnerist leadership seems to be disintegrating and reabsorbing itself into the Justicialist Party (the Peronist party). Where that leaves the substantial number of Kirchnerist voters who want more profound changes than what Peronism can offer is anyone’s guess.

In other words, it strikes me that the current moment is part of a backlash against the Kirchnerist project, which had promised to remake the patria in a progressive direction. Its failure seems to have reinforced the only other alternative on hand, which is the idea that there is nothing but individual interest and every man for themselves.

Finally, and related to that individualism, there are a series of long-term factors that affect not only Argentina but the entire world. The rise of the extreme right is a global phenomenon that I associate with the current “implosive” stage of capitalism. Capitalism has covered every inch of the planet and is no longer able to grow outwards. It can only sustain the rate of profit by putting more pressure on the population, taking away rights, monetizing and reducing our free time, paying less taxes, and picking over the little that remains of the state.

In that context, the illusion that everyone can be an autonomous individual who develops his or her own life project without being bothered by others is revealed to be what it is: an illusion. We are increasingly pressed against each other as space runs out, and the demands and needs of others — especially when they are the collective demands of feminists, the LGBTQ movement, anti-racists, or trade unions — encroach upon the space we thought was our own inalienable property.

In that scenario, a new subjectivity emerges, which in my book I call “authoritarian individualism.” Authoritarian individuals believe they have the right to defend their living space from their neighbors, whom they perceive as a threat, rifle in hand if necessary. And they look for authority figures like [Donald] Trump, [Jair] Bolsonaro, or Milei, who promise to restore that personal space by using violence and going beyond the law, if necessary.

This subjective transformation also has a material substrate. For example, in Argentina, income redistribution for public assistance is increasingly being paid not by the rich, but by ordinary working people. There have been policies to increase pensions so that all people can have a retirement fund — as they should. But this is taking place in a framework in which only half of the labor force is on the books; that is to say, in concrete material terms, half of the population will receive a lower retirement because its contributions are being redistributed to the other half of the population that, because it is not formally recognized as employed, has not been contributing.

In other words, the state is distributing resources in a completely horizontal direction, across a single class, while the richest Argentines pay less and less taxes. When the cost of the welfare state falls hardest on working people, it tends to breed hatred and resentment among neighbors, especially when one person receives a small state benefit and the other does not. That resentment then turns into violence against one’s neighbor and the demand for a leader to put an end to what appears as undue “political privilege.”

Valentina Pucci

How much of the Milei phenomenon can be ascribed to antipolitics or a protest vote? If it is a sizable part of his electorate, couldn’t that turn against him quickly if the crisis continues or worsens?

Ezequiel Adamovsky

There is always a kernel of truth in these expressions of antipolitics. A truth, in the sense that, at the very least, they do recognize that politics as usual is not giving answers to the needs of the population. As I said before, we are in the middle of a huge economic crisis in Argentina, and it is hard not to share some of their frustration.

What the polls seem to be showing is that there is a core of “ideological” Milei voters, who are convinced of his program of extreme liberalism. There is also another sector that wants to give free rein to state violence. For example, the military and security forces voted overwhelmingly for Milei.

But another part of his base is less ideological. Some of the voters are anti-Peronists, i.e., people who detest Peronism and would vote for literally anything that opposes it. Milei is a graphic example of how far that logic can go.

But there are others who are simply fed up with the crisis and with bad government. Among them is an important portion of lower-class voters who traditionally support Peronism but this time voted for Milei. Some of these less ideological voters may grow disenchanted as his government leads to disaster — which it undoubtedly will. But I think it is important to insist that many of those once nonideological voters have moved to the authoritarian right, and that part of the electorate will be with us for the short and medium term.

Valentina Pucci

How does Milei compare with other far-right figures like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro? As you mentioned already, Milei seems to have in Argentine liberalism his own brand of “MAGA.”

Ezequiel Adamovsky

The Argentine right wing is a very strange phenomenon. Normally, we are used to thinking of the right wing as glorifying the nation — at least in the case of Trump in the United States and the far right in Europe. They present themselves as defenders of a nation that is supposed to be a reservoir of the best of moral values, which in turn is threatened by some external force — oftentimes immigrants — that could destroy it.

By contrast, the right wing in Argentina hates the nation and its people. This was the case with former president Mauricio Macri, and it is also true of Milei. To be honest, I see a lot of continuity between Macrismo and Milei. Macri himself has said that Argentina is a failed country, and Milei has echoed that sentiment in a number of ways.

In a sense, between the traditional right and Milei, there is a contest between competing visions of national decline. One of those versions, that of Macri, argues against the historical narrative of Peronism: i.e., against the idea that national glory took place mid-century under [former president Juan] Perón, when there was industrial development and a powerful state. The traditional right counterposes the Peronist narrative with a myth of prosperous Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century when the country was an exporting powerhouse. The idea, essentially, is that this prosperity would eventually be ruined by state intervention in the economy.

What’s interesting is that Milei keeps pushing back the start date of that decadence. Under Macri, the slogan was “seventy years of Peronism,” with the idea being that Argentine decline began with the rise of Perón in 1945. Milei has gone even further and suggested that the beginning of national decadence started with popular male suffrage, in 1916, under President Hípolito Yrigoyen. For Milei, that was the original sin that ruined Argentina, which had previously been a prosperous and liberal economic power.

Valentina Pucci

What is Milei’s relationship to the repressive wing of the Argentine state? That connection seemed to be more apparent in the case of Bolsonaro, who is himself a former military captain and a vocal apologist for the dictatorship.

Ezequiel Adamovsky

The idea of mano dura (“firm hand”) is present, in different ways, across the Argentine political spectrum. The right wing obviously has a more brazen vision of mano dura, consisting of reempowering the police and removing it from civilian control, and even changing the laws to give the armed forces a role in internal security. Macri and the Argentine right wing have been insisting on this for a long time.

As for Milei, it is very significant that he chose Victoria Villarruel as his vice president. Villarruel, who did not win Milei any new votes, served a different purpose altogether. The only political capital offered by Villarruel, who is one of the country’s most vocal apologists for the military dictatorship, was to win him the sympathy of the military sectors.

Although she did not make it past the general election, there was a similar expression of intent in Patricia Bullrich’s campaign for Juntos por el Cambio. She made it very clear that security forces would have a free hand to do whatever they wanted with total impunity. To me, that indicates that the right wing’s return to power comes with the expectation of state violence. As I was saying before, the Argentine right truly detests the country and its inhabitants, and they will have few reservations about using violence against it.

Valentina Pucci

And what about Milei’s more reactionary, illiberal stances? For example, are his anti-feminist declarations calculated to make circumstantial alliances or are they part of his political ideology?

Ezequiel Adamovsky

We need a little more context to understand Milei’s position on gender politics. Recently, there have been very dramatic changes in the Argentine state’s position on issues of gender and what we call sexual dissidents or minorities. In the last couple of years, Argentina saw the emergence of a very powerful feminist movement whose intense public presence led the government to legalize abortion. At the same time, the state announced a paradigm shift in its policy towards LGBTQ rights, by, among other things, legalizing same-sex marriage and creating job quotas for transgender people. The state also made progress in terms of legislating anti-racist policies to protect the rights of those who are often racially discriminated against by Argentine society: indigenous peoples, black people, and others.

That progress generated a backlash in society, and Milei’s very deep hostility towards feminism and all gender claims is a reflection of that. For Milei, the gender issue is itself a total abomination. True, he hides behind the typical liberal idea that what one does behind closed doors is one’s own business. But that’s obviously a very homophobic view to express because it denies the right to public visibility.

For Milei, the core issue is that no collective should be allowed to make a claim on the public in a way that would interfere with the regular functioning of the market. In that sense, Milei’s views are completely compatible with those of more reactionary conservatives.

One area where Milei hasn’t made any obvious public declarations is around immigration, or racial issues more generally. There are a few politicians in Avanza Libertad who have expressed more openly racist views, like Ramiro Marra, the candidate for head of government of Buenos Aires. But that kind of racially charged, xenophobic politics is more palpable in Macrismo and Juntos por el Cambio.

Which isn’t to say that Milei couldn’t move in that direction. There are competing national narratives that come into play politically at different points in history, and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t reenter the picture. One of those narratives says that Argentina is a European and white country, different from the rest of Latin America; a country built on European ideas but also the importation of European bodies who supposedly brought moral habits suitable for societal progress. That contrasts with a view, particularly strong among anti-Peronists, who see the Peronist phenomenon as a modern resurgence of earlier stages of barbarism and poorly or partially Europeanized mestizo populations.

Again, this racist perspective is strongest within Macrismo, as the political vehicle of anti-Peronism. We’ll have to see if it finds traction with Milei.

Valentina Pucci

Where is the Argentine left in all this?

Ezequiel Adamovsky

One of the unique things about Argentine politics is that, historically speaking, social movements have maintained a strong capacity to influence the public agenda, especially through street politics. What is odd is that those movements have found it difficult to translate their influence into electoral victories. We saw this recently in the Peronist primaries, where social movement leader Juan Grabois garnered a very small portion of the votes.

A few years ago, the independent left — which includes many of those social movements — decided to form an alliance with Peronism. At the time I did not agree with that decision, which I thought was a mistake. I think we are today seeing that it was in fact a mistake and that all that political energy could have been oriented in another direction. Now, more than ever, we need to create a left-wing political alternative that won’t be swallowed up by Peronism.

There is, however, an example of a political organization that, during the same period, maintained its independence from Peronism and built an important grassroots base. That organization, known as Ciudad Futura, is based in the city of Rosario, and it has become a very important local political force and even came within an inch of winning control of the city government. They did so by holding open primaries, where all the candidates from left to center-left and Peronism competed together, and the winning Ciudad Futura candidate was able to build a strong electoral base — even though he narrowly lost in the general election. We will need to see more political initiatives like that in the future.

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Ezequiel Adamovsky is principal researcher at Argentina’s CONICET (National Council for Scientific and Technological Research), professor of history at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín, and the author of the forthcoming book A History of Argentina: From the Spanish Conquest to the Present (Duke, 2024).

Valentina Pucci is a PhD candidate in the department of Hispanic languages and literature at Stony Brook University (SUNY).

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