Javier Milei Has Tapped Into the Discontent of a New, Informal Working Class

Most surprising about Argentina’s election of far-right libertarian Javier Milei was his capture of a large part of the working-class vote. His ability to speak to the anxieties of the country’s growing precarious sector should be a wake-up call to the Left.

President of Argentina Javier Milei arrives for an interreligious service at the Metropolitan Cathedral after the presidential inauguration ceremony on December 10, 2023 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Marcos Brindicci / Getty Images)

Argentina’s “Milei phenomenon” first gained footing when the far-right politician scored an unexpected victory in the August presidential primaries. Now donning the presidential sash, Javier Milei is the first self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist and libertarian to lead a major national economy.

An economist by training, Milei first became known as a firebrand television and social media personality prone to expletive-laden and misogynistic tirades. Milei’s official entry into Argentine politics came shortly after, in 2021, when he won a national congressional seat. A longtime practitioner of tantric sex, devotee of neoliberal gurus Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, and owner of several cloned English mastiffs he calls his “four-legged children,” Milei proclaimed hours after trouncing his Peronist opponent that “everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be in the hands of the private sector.”

Milei has in mind all of Argentina’s 137 public companies, such as the state-owned energy company Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF), the country’s extensive public media network (Radio Nacional, TV Pública, and the Télam news agency), the postal service, and the national airline Aerolineas Argentinas. He has also hinted that he will dismantle Argentina’s public health system and privatize large parts of its primary and university education systems, including its publicly funded higher-education research institution. Milei has also courted US capital to conduct unregulated extraction of the country’s sizable lithium and shale gas reserves. Perhaps most brazenly, he has promised to do away with Argentina’s Central Bank, dollarize the economy (following the examples of Ecuador, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe), liberalize markets, and lift the country’s strict currency-exchange controls.

Shocking, yes, but these neoliberal proposals are not new in Argentina. José Martinez de Hoz, economics minister to Jorge Videla’s bloody dictatorship of the late 1970s, and Domingo Cavallo, Carlos Menem’s economics minister in the neoliberal 1990s, unleashed similarly regressive economic policies. In fact, Roberto Dromi, Menem’s public works minister, proclaimed almost verbatim the same message over thirty years ago: “Nothing that is state-owned will remain in the hands of the state.”

Milei’s “chainsaw plan” (plan motosierra, his version of Trump’s “draining the swamp”) will likely be challenged in the country’s two chambers of congress, where his Freedom Advances coalition has a minority. Nevertheless, the threats of austerity measures are credibly backed by the power of presidential decree, and many will no doubt come to pass. In the long term, the results will be devastating for Argentina.

Although, again, they are not without precedent. In the 1990s, the Menem administration oversaw the massive sell-off of public assets, the pegging of the peso to the dollar (effectively, a dollarization scheme), and market liberalizations, all under the banner of inflation control and belt-tightening austerity. Those measures eventually led to massive unemployment (officially over 20 percent), record rates of precarity and indigence (over half of the population), the offshoring of much of Argentina’s productive capacity, the takeover of the national economy by multinationals, and extreme social unrest.

Milei’s victory suggests that, if nothing else, the memory of these years has faded for much of the Argentine electorate, who are overwhelmed with an inflation rate of over 185 percent for 2023 and a sharp rise in insecurity, fanned by daily news and social media.

The coming months will show how far Milei’s new government will be capable of advancing its neoliberal agenda and whether his government will retain support as the announced measures are implemented. The response of Argentina’s historically militant popular sectors could be decisive. What is certain is that, for the political opposition and most working people, the road ahead will be rough.

“We Did Not See It Coming!”

Perhaps the true novelty of Milei’s ultraneoliberal agenda is how bluntly honest it is. The government’s new cabinet ministers and spokespeople have already warned Argentines to start preparing for austere days to come. Milei has also declared he will meet any form of social protest with extreme repressive measures — hearkening back to the darkest days of the civic-military dictatorship.

One of the big surprises of Milei’s November victory was that it drew on the support of Argentina’s traditionally left-leaning working-class sectors: 50.8 percent of salaried voters, 47.4 percent of pensioners, 50.9 percent of informal sector voters, 52.3 percent of workers in the trades, and almost 30 percent of the traditional Peronist base voted for Milei. In addition to the 25 to 30 percent of voters making up Milei’s right-wing base, around 53 percent of the under-thirty vote, and the votes transferred over from the traditional right and upper class who supported Mauricio Macri’s and Patricia Bullrich’s Juntos por el Cambio coalition, that constituency delivered a comfortable win for Milei.

Yet despite Milei’s resounding success in the August primaries and the November runoff — not to mention his long-standing media prominence — the line circulating in Argentina’s political and intellectual spheres is “we did not see it coming.” That was the official take of the outgoing left-Peronist government of Alberto Fernández as well as of the incumbent candidate Sergio Massa. Massa’s losing campaign tried to belittle Milei as a cartoonish political sideshow — to no avail.

Ignored by the political and media establishment, Milei’s far-right coalition marks the hardening of socioeconomic changes that have themselves received little attention. Upon closer analysis, stubborn and acute inflation without effective government response, lingering challenges left over from the pandemic, the deepening influence of social media, and the stark polarization of political discourse has made the rise of a personality like Milei — Argentina’s version of Jair Bolsonaro or Donald Trump — a predictable phenomenon.

The Elephant That No One Saw

The question, then, is why Milei’s “chainsaw plan” resonated among Argentina’s poor and working people, who will suffer the most from his policies. One explanation is that Milei is arriving at the crest of a neoliberal wave that, for decades, has been eroding Argentina’s welfare state and traditionally strong industrial base (reflected in the fact that, between the 1950s and 1970s, Argentina enjoyed extended periods of full employment). This neoliberal wave has brought with it a wholehearted embrace of an economic rationality that once seemed foreign to Argentine common sense.

During the neoliberal administration of Mauricio Macri, from 2015 to 2019, it became commonplace in Argentina to speak of “the elephants that passed us by,” referring to the regressive socioeconomic policies implemented by macrismo. Those policies included massive International Monetary Fund–financed debt, high inflation, and capital flight, which the country’s media mostly ignored or concealed. However, there was another elephant in the room that many failed to acknowledge: the sharp growth of the informal and precarious working sector, which existed outside of any larger labor organization or government social program. The sizable and growing informal sector has been conspicuously absent from Argentine public discussion for a decade now, still usually viewed by economists and political leaders as a passing phenomenon, unrepresented and with no political voice. It was only a matter of time before a figure like Milei would begin to use a language that resonated with this new sector of the working class.

Made up of gig-economy, freelance, casualized, and service workers, this sector grew exponentially during the pandemic. While many Argentines suffered during strict lockdown periods lasting most of 2020 and into 2021, the pandemic hit this new group of informalized and contractless workers particularly hard, as many continued to work throughout without the social protections other sectors received.

Officially known as the Aislamiento Social, Preventivo y Obligatorio (Social, Preventive, and Obligatory Isolation, or ASPO), the national lockdown mandate held in sharp relief the contradictions and complexities involved in having to choose between taking care of public health and taking care of the economy. Alberto Fernández’s government came to power in December 2019, only months before the pandemic forced the new administration to pass a package of measures like the ATP (Assistance for Work and Production) — wage subsidies for formal workers to avoid layoffs and business closures — and the IFE (Emergency Family Income), an income guarantee aimed at the most precarious and unemployed workers.

The government, however, miscalculated the number of beneficiaries for the IFE, as eleven million people applied for funds budgeted only for between three and four million. While taking a considerable toll on the national budget, the Fernández government eventually granted IFEs to ten million people. It was assumed at the time that the Fernández government made an oversight, at worst, giving some credence to accusations of administrative incompetence. In reality, the new government had failed to see the extent to which the structure of Argentina’s social fabric and labor force had fundamentally transformed and deteriorated during the neoliberal years of macrismo.

The Fernández government’s subsequent policies, echoed in Sergio Massa’s campaign, continued to ignore the new informal worker. Over the past four years, social policy has targeted Argentina’s two largest and most visible groups of working people: salaried workers and segments of what is known in Argentina as the “popular economy,” aligned with the social movement unionism of organizations such as UTEP (Union of Workers of the Popular Economy) which are formally authorized to receive and redistribute government subsidies and work-for-welfare plans to informal workers. In addition to the IFE miscalculation, what the Fernández administration’s exclusions showed was the existence of large sectors of the working class not included in either of the two groups.

This excluded group consists of a diverse range of unregistered, or en negro, workers without any social security benefits, and so-called monotributistas, a motley category that groups together self-employed contractors, workers in microenterprises, small entrepreneurs who do not generate enough revenue to figure in the national tax system, various professionals, and precarious state contractors, among others. Included in the latter category are also domestic workers, platform workers associated with delivery apps like Uber and Rappi, self-employed tradespeople, street vendors, young people who float between short-term and poorly paid jobs, and freelancers. Along with them, there is a smaller number of cooperative workers who, because they have never been regarded as maintaining a distinct employment relationship, also fall under the monotributista tax system.

If we further analyze this group, we find that, far from being a minority, they make up a considerable portion of Argentina’s working population, are overwhelmingly young, and, apart from those in domestic service work, are mostly male. Many of these working people have felt ignored by the bulk of Argentina’s public policies. For example, during the pandemic, when many of them could not work or had to work in unsafe conditions, they did not receive the ATP and were largely excluded from the IFE. As monotributistas or workers en negro, they continue to be excluded from most of Argentina’s social safety nets.

Susceptible to a media campaign that vilified the government’s handling of the pandemic, socially inhibited by lockdown measures, and chronically underpaid, the conditions were ripe for resentments to grow. For the vast majority of these workers, the state was not only absent but had forgotten them, even as they were deemed “essential” and delivered food and goods consumed by the “entitled” pandemic shut-ins.

As in virtually every aspect of social life, the pandemic exacerbated and accelerated existing trends that were already emerging more slowly and haltingly. The informal-worker elephant eluded everyone, government and opposition alike. It was ignored until the Milei phenomenon caught its attention. And Milei has returned the favor by acknowledging its despair and capitalizing on its sentiments.

A Proletariat Divided Against Itself

Transformations in the social structure emerge gradually and take time to be seen until, one day, they seem to explode. This is not the first time such an explosion has happened in Argentina. In the 1940s, the intensity of working-class support for Juan Domingo Perón surprised the ruling classes, the intelligentsia, the Left, and Perón himself. Raul Alfonsín’s triumph in 1983 for the return of democracy was another such moment. The mass revolt that shook Argentina on December 19–20, 2001, also appeared as a sudden, unstoppable hurricane with no clear destination. Argentina is now in a similar moment: mass discontent is palpable, as is the felt need for hope and a savior. But why does Milei represent such a savior for so many Argentines? Why is it that a far-right utopia is now seducing a large part of the working class?

Milei’s appeal to these disenchanted and angry sectors of the working class lies in a discourse combining radical (if magical) solutions, an easy enemy, and an imaginary future: an unhinged fiction that promises a new life by getting rid of the state and “the political caste” that has for too long ignored workers and the poor and left them to fend for themselves. Milei’s discourse of “disruption” is based on an ideology of extreme neoliberalism whose ultimate goal, to paraphrase David Harvey, is the reconstitution of class power. Where before this ideology’s villains were the welfare state and communism, new proxies are close at hand. For macrismo, it was the populism of kirchnerismo, the movement associated with the left-wing Peronism of Néstor and Cristína Fernández de Kirchner. For Milei, like Bolsonaro, it is a vague socialism and communism that conflates centrists and the most radicalized of leftists.

What makes this new extreme-right neoliberalism unique is that its ideology is too crude for the wealthy classes, who want dominance but also predictability for their business interests. Milei’s message is not a discourse primed for the business class, even if Milei himself thinks it is, and even if many entrepreneurial and business interests held their noses and voted for Milei in the end. In actuality, Milei articulates a nihilistic discourse for the new proletariat against itself and its own interests.

The backstory of that nihilism is the impotence of Alberto Fernández’s government to even nominally satisfy the elevated social expectations that brought it to power in 2019. The ineffectiveness of the outgoing administration can be linked to various factors: its unmet goals for a “calm government” (gobierno tranquilo); the permanent factionalism that immobilized it, creating an internal opposition oftentimes harsher than the official opposition; and its failed aspirations to broker agreements with the opposition and leading economic sectors. Overall, the Fernández administration has been marked by a lack of theoretical and political acumen that was exposed when it failed to respond to the structural problems of Argentina’s new social configuration.

Of course, this is not a problem unique to Argentina. The parallels between Milei and Trump, Bolsonaro, the European far right, and other Latin American far-right proponents, such as Chile’s José Kast and Colombia’s Rodolfo Hernández — two figures that almost reached government in recent elections — show that Argentina is not the exception but the new rule.

Is There No Future?

Milei’s ability to tap into the frustration of a large part of Argentine society does not absolve the outgoing government and the political project associated with kirchnerismo. As in other countries where authoritarianism has taken hold, the Left has been unable to communicate a compelling alternative project to a large swath of the working class it claims to speak for. Too often, we leftists — in Argentina and globally — have failed to offer anything more than a return to the “good times,” ignoring that for the most marginalized, that period was never actually that good. Whether it is lukewarm progressivism or the radical left, we have been so busy defending past victories that we have rarely offered clear and comprehensive proposals for alternative futures.

The Argentine left can seemingly only offer more of the same — which is precisely what Milei and his followers have effectively reframed as the cause of all ills. There is no project, let alone an alternative discourse, for those on the losing end of the current socioeconomic reality. Even the “popular economy” and the once hopeful prospects of social movement unionism feel too conservative for Milei’s forgotten informal sectors, its vindication of work programs sounding too much like the drudgery from which self-employed and informalized, freelance, domestic, and platform workers want to escape.

If we do not manage to articulate a project to improve the income, living conditions, and productive capacities of all working people, the solutions currently on offer by organizations representing Argentina’s working class will never be enough. If the Left does not manage to construct and effectively communicate a transformative project that gives hope to the growing ranks of the emergent proletariat, the best we can do is wait for the failure of this latest wave of ultraright authoritarianism, which will no doubt come at an intolerable social, economic, political, and cultural cost.

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Andrés Ruggeri is director of the University of Buenos Aires’s Programa Facultad Abierta and professor of economic analysis and development models at the Universidad Nacional Arturo Jauretche. He is the author of numerous books and articles on working-class history, the labor movement, and the workers’ economy.

Marcelo Vieta is associate professor in the program in Adult Education and Community Development at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina and coauthor of Cooperatives at Work.

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