Javier Milei Wants to Ignite a Far-Right Cultural Revolution

Pablo Pryluka

Newly elected Argentine president Javier Milei outlined his radical libertarian vision at Davos. During his speech, he made it clear that any opposition to his free-market utopia would be crushed by authoritarian means.

Argentina's president Javier Milei delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos on January 17, 2024. (Fabrice Cofferini / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

Depending on who you ask, Javier Milei’s speech at the 2024 World Economic Forum was one of two things: an endorsement of free-market fundamentalism so bold the Wall Street Journal called it a “spine transplant” or an uninspired list of Hayekian clichés, replete with outdated talk of “defending Western values” against the creep of “socialist serfdom.”

The forum was, if nothing else, a coming-out party for the anarcho-capitalist president of Argentina. Certainly, calling the Davos elite a “socialist cabal” was an attention-grabbing stunt. However, back home, Argentines have had over a month to come to terms with Milei’s slash-and-burn approach to politics. And, as they do, they are beginning to realize that their new leader is not bluffing.

During his first month in office, Milei has announced his intention to deregulate and liberalize the economy, sell off public assets, drastically cut spending, and raise taxes on low-income earners, all in the name of eliminating the country’s deficit. Contained in an omnibus bill currently under debate in Congress, the battery of measures is a bold statement of intent backed by the credible threat of state violence.

Whether Milei’s government will actually be able to pursue its authoritarian brand of “crack-up capitalism” remains to be seen. As several note, much of Milei’s agenda reads like it was lifted from the 1990s Washington Consensus playbook.

To get a better sense of Milei’s short-term agenda and long-term prospects, Jacobin commissioning editor Nicolas Allen spoke with historian Pablo Pryluka.

Nicolas Allen

It’s been over a month since Javier Milei took office. What have the first weeks of the Milei presidency revealed about his plan for government? What has the reaction of the political opposition been like?

Pablo Pryluka

Milei’s cabinet is a mixture of establishment conservatives like Patricia Bullrich and political outliers like Diana Mondino, who is a hard-line libertarian from Milei’s own party, La Libertad Avanza. He has even brought back some of the more unsavory figures from the Menemist administration of the 1990s, like the ultrareactionary Rodolfo Barra, who oversaw the privatization of public assets as secretary of interior. There are neoliberal heavyweights like Domingo Cavallo who, without holding an official position in his government, are very active in counseling Milei. Cavallo was the infamous minister of economy during the government of Carlos Menem, the one who oversaw the peso-dollar parity program that led to economic catastrophe in the late 1990s. In other words, on a personnel level, the Milei administration is about as bad as anyone expected.

On a policy level, these first weeks have been interesting, to put it mildly. It’s important to remember that many people who voted for Milei also suspected that his radical libertarian proposals were empty posturing — i.e., that they were not really feasible. In a sense, that “protest vote” has been proven both right and wrong.

As a declaration of intent, Milei has established three main goals that have varying chances of prospering in the mid-term. The first goal of the Milei administration is to eliminate the fiscal deficit, and the way he has chosen to do so is if not the most regressive way possible, then pretty close to it. In other words, to close the budget shortfall, Milei is putting all the pressure on the working class while higher-income sectors are left untouched.

It’s worth mentioning that many governments in Latin America are also desperately trying to balance budgets, but without the strongly regressive emphasis. In Brazil, for example, Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] and his finance minister, Fernando Haddad, are trying to balance accounts by capturing some rent from the top income brackets. Milei wouldn’t consider that, though.

Nicolas Allen

The way Milei is doing that is by eliminating public services and state subsidies, correct?

Pablo Pryluka

Milei is eliminating many government subsidies — but not all subsidies are the same. Among the most controversial measures is the elimination of a subsidy to public transportation. One could argue that public transit in Argentina is way too cheap — a subway ticket in Buenos Aires costs the equivalent of ten cents — but it’s so cheap because it is a subsidy that goes directly to the working class. There are other subsidies, like those for energy consumption, which are arguably less progressive since they tend to benefit middle-income households in Argentina.

Absent a comprehensive income policy, the transport subsidy is one major way the Argentine state has to prop up working-class income. If Milei intends to simply abolish those types of subsidies, there will be serious levels of immiseration. The same could be said of price controls: those are not especially helpful in terms of combatting inflation, but they guarantee that the working poor have access to basic household goods. With the elimination of price controls, that may no longer be the case.

So there will be a predictable rise in social unrest, which takes us to your question about the political opposition. Patricia Bullrich, the ultrareactionary minister of security, has essentially declared war on any form of protest and announced that almost all forms of public demonstration are hereafter criminalized. This is, in a word, the second goal of the Milei government.

Now, the goal of state repression is not exclusively or even primarily about crushing dissent. If we look at the current economic indicators and consider how Milei’s plan will affect them in the short term, we know that things are only going to get worse: the peso has been massively devalued, from 350 on the dollar to 800. That will have a big effect on inflation, which has already shot up above 200 percent and is going to reach higher levels. Higher inflation will directly affect poverty levels and so on. So the near future will bring economic stagnation, higher inflation, and probably considerable job losses in both the public and private sectors.

With the levels of unrest that will come, the government is going to need some kind of symbolic battle to convince supporters that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. To go the distance and give that hardship a sense of meaning, the administration will be looking to stoke up a cultural battle against the Left and any other groups it can assign blame to. And the prospects of that happening are quite terrifying; that’s when we’re going to see the dictatorship apologists in government assume a prominent role. People like Vice President Victoria Eugenia Villarruel, who rose to fame for her open defense of state terror, could move to the fore and take a leading role in government. The Argentine left, broadly defined, should be wary of that and do everything it can to preserve a broad democratic front.

Nicolas Allen

Are you suggesting that the Argentine left should be circumspect about mass protest because it could play into the government’s narrative of a cultural battle?

Pablo Pryluka

The Argentine left is sometimes a little too eager to indulge in its own cultural battles. For example, from 2009 onward, the [Néstor and Cristina Fernández de] Kirchner administrations engaged in a very public war with the right-wing media monopoly Clarín. While the official goal was to democratize media access, that ended up being a cultural battle whose unstated goal became to deflect attention from a national economy that by 2013 was growing stagnant.

The Right does the same thing. Milei has already reversed a number of campaign promises that are going to dissatisfy his base. Take taxes: he’s going to reinstate an income tax and increase certain export tariffs on agricultural products —something he’s loath to do but feels is necessary to eliminate the deficit. Also, for the time being, there doesn’t seem to be a viable way for him to pursue his banner cause — the dollarization of the Argentine economy — although that could change. With all these possible sources of discontent, Milei is going to need some kind of supplemental ideological crusade to steady the ship.

Of course, I would never say that the Argentine left should not engage in mass protest. But I think that they should be very careful and pick their fights. The right moment would be one when his supporters started to openly express discontent. Otherwise, the Left will rush out into the streets and give the government the excuse it wants to crush them. Remember, many Milei voters associate street blockades and public demonstrations with the Kirchner years and feel that, somehow, state repression is a way to put that past behind them.

Milei’s third goal is to implement major structural reforms and essentially dismantle the Argentine welfare state. That means not just budget cuts but actually eliminating the state as it exists in its current form. The main way he is doing that is by privatizing public companies, many of which are essential for Argentina’s infrastructure.

Milei still hasn’t given up on the idea of dollarizing the economy, even if he’s had to cool his heels a little bit. For reasons we can get into later, dollarization would radically restrict Argentina’s ability to manage its national economy. But even if he doesn’t get his way on dollarization, Milei will push to reform Argentine society in profound ways. Milei’s crusade is not just about reaching a perfect libertarian utopia; it’s also about ending a long national history of collective action, organized labor, and popular solidarity. Milei is really trying to ignite a cultural revolution.

Nicolas Allen

You mentioned that Milei has embraced some right-wing establishment figures whom he’d previously attacked as part of the so-called “political caste.” What exactly does Milei mean by “the caste,” and, given his reconciliation with parts of that more traditional right, is his about-face something that could hurt his image as a political outsider?

Pablo Pryluka

His idea of the caste is a little bit unorthodox since it’s distinct from the populist attack on a vaguely defined ruling elite. For Milei, the caste is basically the forty-five million Argentines living in the Argentine Republic. In other words, Milei’s theory of the caste is based on his diagnosis of the main problem in Argentina: democracy. According to Milei, Argentina has been following a century-long path of decline because democracy allows a group of evil politicians to exploit the masses.

To stay in power and hold onto their privileges, these devious politicians use state revenue to “buy” the support of certain groups that will, in turn, provide them with political backing. So, the caste is essentially clientelism on a nationwide scale. Politicians use the state to provide political favors and money and thus get reelected.

That theory also explains why, for Milei, the fiscal deficit is so baleful. It’s not just because deficits tend to distort market signals or because they lead to inflation. It’s because it lays the basis for a whole power structure whose existence depends on those “distortions.”

In a sense, Milei’s rhetoric is reminiscent of the anti-Peronist discourse that was so popular among the Right in the ’70s, especially during the dictatorship. One of the leading ideas of the dictatorship was that society was under siege by private rent seekers — which could be businessmen, politicians, or labor unions — who wanted to capture the state and use it to their own benefit. Today, the unions no longer have any power, but the same rationale has been shifted onto other scapegoats, like the so-called planeros, i.e., the working poor who receive government cash transfer plans.

Now, as you mentioned, practically all politicians were members of “the caste” when Milei was on the campaign trail. But now, as he tries to build a governing coalition, he is expanding the borders of his La Libertad Avanza to include large parts of the traditional right. For example, former president Mauricio Macri is no longer part of the caste — contradicting lots of Milei’s previous statements. The official line now is that whoever wants to be part of the “forces of heaven” — a terrifying biblical allusion that Milei has been using recently — can become part of Milei’s movement. It’s still too early to say whether that move will be seen as selling out to the caste or if Milei can actually absorb the more traditional right and restructure the whole political field.

Nicolas Allen

You say that Milei is trying to lead a “cultural revolution.” But, at least under a democracy, it’s hard to sustain a cultural battle while parts of your constituency are unable to put food on the table.

Pablo Pryluka

That’s true, and it begs the question of how to characterize the broader electorate that voted for Milei. We know that some people voted for him because they were drawn to his weird mixture of economic libertarianism and a super-conservative agenda. But there were a lot of people who just wanted a change of any kind and could be sold on the idea that Argentina needed to go through a temporary period of austerity to get it.

The trick is to convince those voters that the negative effects of austerity won’t reach them. A large part of the caste rhetoric is about convincing supporters that austerity is only coming for corrupt politicians, trade unions, welfare recipients, etc. But you’re right: the moment the middle classes start to feel the effects of austerity, potential fissures might start to appear.

The key word is “potential” because everything will depend on how the Left reacts to that eventuality. Unfortunately, the entire political spectrum in Argentina seems to have fallen under the spell of the culture wars and has convinced itself that politics is about spinning narratives. A historian might trace that trend back to the Kirchner years when the government took on the Clarín conglomerate and tried to de-privatize large parts of the media sector. While laudable in its intentions, one of the effects of that battle was that politics slowly became a synonym for things like communication, “discourse,” and the ability to “control the narrative.”

If anything, though, Milei’s victory is a reminder that people don’t care about narratives when their living conditions are deteriorating. A renewed left in Argentina will need to be able to speak to those material conditions in a more convincing manner.

Nicolas Allen

Before, you mentioned that one of the central planks of Milei’s ideology is his opposition to democracy. That seems to follow regional trends, which have seen economic stagnation go together with democratic disenchantment. That’s arguably been the case in Chile, where a new constitution was rejected by popular vote, but also in places like Ecuador, where banana mogul Daniel Noboa won the presidency amid widespread political violence. Is Milei part of a broader negative trend in Latin America where people go to the polls to vote against liberal democracy?

Pablo Pryluka

That might be what’s going on. Brazilian political scientist Daniela Campello has a theory that fits nicely with this discussion. She says that whenever the international context leads to stagflation in Latin America — basically when commodity prices fall and the Federal Reserve raises interest rates — you also find rapid turnover in governments.

As export revenues decrease and states are forced to finance deficit spending through high-interest international loans, administrations struggle to stay in power. In that scenario, negative voting and constant political turnover become the norm. What’s happening in Argentina is a perfect example of this: economists agree that Argentina needs to reduce its levels of public spending and find ways to reinsert itself into the global economy; until it can do so, society will be torn apart by different groups fighting over diminishing returns. When people talk about the social rift — be it in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, or the US — that’s what’s going on.

However, I would add that the social divide is even wider in Argentina for reasons having to do with the historical antagonism between Peronism and anti-Peronism. There’s a certain historical weight to Argentina’s social polarization going back more than eighty years that’s hard to find in other countries.

Nicolas Allen

There has been a lot of discussion about informal labor as a deciding factor in the Argentine elections. Is informality connected to the polarization of Argentine society?

Pablo Pryluka

In a way, yes, that’s a good way of thinking about how labor informality affected the recent elections. On the one hand, the election was really about the migration of an increasingly precarious working-class vote. When the Peronist coalition tried to discipline that electorate, saying that they would lose their social benefits if they voted for Milei, the precarious workers responded: “Those rights don’t even exist for us.”

What Milei did was recognize the reality of the informal worker — who has no real health benefits, pension, or labor protections — and declare that this should simply be the natural state of affairs: a world made up of individuals who need to increase their productivity to maximize their market utility (to guarantee their well-being). That may sound dystopian, but compared to the complete disconnect of the Peronist worldview, it at least shows some awareness of the lived reality of precarious workers.

The politicization of informality is what feeds into social polarization. If I can engage in a little armchair sociology: the polarization of Argentine society is about the dualization of the labor market that people have been analyzing for the last twenty or thirty years — the idea that there is a formal sector of the labor market that is unionized and enjoys what seem like privileges relative to an informal sector with no protections or rights whatsoever.

Informality is a challenge to mass democratic politics because as the dualization of the labor sphere hardens and the traditional public sphere disintegrates, people start to settle into completely different, nonintersecting realities. You can have two people working a similar job, but one is in a union and has health insurance, and the other is left to fend for himself. Two workers who should feel themselves part of the same struggle are adrift in completely different realities. That process of “deracination” can be politicized, creating the conditions for social violence, racism, and other kinds of reactionary politics.

Nicolas Allen

This talk of informality as “weaponized” against the Peronists is interesting. For a time, the thinking was that the informal economy was a key hunting ground for the formation of a left-wing Peronist base. Taking into consideration that, for nearly two decades, the governments of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner mobilized the working poor with redistributive measures, shouldn’t we be asking how the Left lost one of its erstwhile constituencies?

Pablo Pryluka

It’s hard to talk about the universe of the informal economy as a single thing. For example, many waste-pickers and street vendors are represented by a large labor union, the Union of Workers of the Popular Economy [UTEP], which is part of the existing Kirchnerist coalition. I couldn’t say how much of the informal sector is represented there as opposed to, say, the sizable number of platform workers. What I do know is that those two groups are very different because members of the UTEP were recipients of government subsidies and work-for-welfare plans.

The issue is that the state-subsidized services provided by members of the UTEP are not competitive within a global capitalist economy. They are included as part of public works programs, but ultimately, the jobs of waste-pickers and street vendors are slated to disappear. And that’s a problem that the Peronist left needs to deal with head-on.

Contrast that with the platform workers who are performing a job that, for the time being anyway, has been deemed necessary to a global market economy. But economic stagnation is hitting them the same as everyone else, and since they are lower on the income ladder and lack the state protections of the more organized informal sectors, they tend to suffer more from economic downturns — as they did during the pandemic. Hence their growing resentment toward a fraction of informal workers that have come to be seen as enjoying “undue privileges.”

So, as a progressive government, what do you do with the platform workers? There have been efforts by parts of the Left to unionize platform workers without much success. But discounting that possibility, the obvious answer is that the economy needs to grow so that these people can find decent jobs, develop skills, get a better income, and so on.

But then the question is, how does the country grow when to do so means to shift from inexpensive, informal labor to higher-waged skilled workers? How does a country like Argentina, occupying the place it does in the global division of labor, provide a decent standard of living for most of its workforce amid the cutthroat, hypercompetitive global economy? Argentina has historically reached a certain level of development that puts it on par with other Western social democracies, but it is also underdeveloped in ways that make it difficult to eliminate informal, precarious work — hence a series of public works programs that really amount to social subsidies for an increasingly marginalized class of workers.

Nicolas Allen

This discussion reminds me of Argentine political scientist José Nun. He theorized that, in the capitalist periphery, a reserve army of labor, which should create capital-friendly “loose” labor markets, could instead become a permanently marginalized pool of unemployable workers. Is that what we are talking about?

Pablo Pryluka

In a way, yes. But right now, it’s like the reserve army is the entire country of Argentina. As we all know, in the constant search for cheap labor, capitalists look for countries with devalued currencies or poor labor regulations. In Latin America, countries will compete with one another on those terms to provide ideal investment conditions. It’s been that way ever since Latin America was integrated into the global economy in the nineteenth century, but since the 1980s, that trend has grown worse. And Argentina has arguably been one of the countries in the region that has fared worst — i.e., deindustrialized the most — from its global integration into the economy.

A realistic left-wing project in Argentina is going to have to figure out how to integrate the country into the global economy in more nuanced ways. To use the language of value chains, Argentina, like other peripheral economies, needs to find holes in certain supply chains where it can capture a greater share of value. That additional value can help you build a more skilled labor force and invest in technologies while creating a surplus product for public services and social reinvestment. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Nicolas Allen

We’ve discussed why Milei’s supporters feel reasonably disenchanted with the Peronist party, but it’s less clear to me why their discontent has taken the specific form of Milei. Is it because Milei can play one form of precarity off against another?

Pablo Pryluka

It’s really the other side of the disenchantment coin: you identify with Milei’s discourse and feel you’re one of the victims he’s describing, the one whose income is being siphoned off to finance cash-transfer programs for the poor who don’t even bother to work. Of course, those people work a lot, but they still need government subsidies to get by.

Milei’s supporters also express an intense resentment toward formal employment. Many formal workers in Argentina are in strong labor unions, and Hugo Moyano, the former head of the largest labor confederation, is public enemy number one.

And then part of that social resentment is ironic: there are parts of the precarious working class in Argentina that have completely naturalized things like the Universal Allocation per Child (a universal cash-transfer program), fuel subsidies, and other forms of social welfare. I say ironic because many informal workers feel they are not benefiting as much as their neighbors — which may be true, depending on the circumstances — but they have also completely internalized certain forms of government support and no longer even see how they might be benefitting from them.

Nicolas Allen

That sounds like the story of how [Jair] Bolsonaro rose to power: the easy credit and cash-transfer programs of the Lula governments were supposed to alleviate poverty and spur the domestic economy, but they also bred a consumerist individualism that undermined the collectivist goals those policies wanted to achieve. In what way is Milei comparable, and in what ways is he different from other far-right politicians?

Pablo Pryluka

I agree that we need to look at the rest of the world to understand what’s going on in Argentina. Even if Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador are different creatures than Milei, I think it’s important to dwell on their similarities before pointing out their differences.

I think the rise of the far right has been a reaction to two phenomena. In Latin America, it has been a reaction to the pink tide and the fact that there was a coalition of left-wing governments trying to take the region in a very different direction. At this point, I think that’s an uncontroversial point to make, but it’s worth insisting on how much of the right-wing backlash is a response to the Left coming to power over the last two decades.

Now, the case of Argentina is unique in one way: the Argentine feminist movement has become a major political force, and even if Milei is not the poster boy for conservative anti-feminism, his rise is inseparable from that backlash. The feminist movement really changed Argentine society in profound ways, and the fact that Milei’s core support is overwhelmingly male should underscore how the growing anti-feminist backlash was channeled into Milei’s libertarian program.

The same is true for LGBTQ and gender issues, which shot to the top of the national social agenda very suddenly over the last decade and a half. The animus of the Milei government is not about attacking “gender ideology,” but only because it views those issues as completely foreign to matters of the state — which, in their eyes, are about strengthening the free market. For example, Diana Mondino, the foreign affairs minister, recently said something like, “What one does in their home is an individual choice. One can fuck a dog if one wishes. But marriage is a conventional institution celebrated between two people of the opposite sex.” Those kinds of dismissively homophobic comments leave little doubt about where Milei’s social agenda lies.

But there are also more conventionally reactionary figures like the aforementioned Barra, who was once a member of the neo-Nazi formation Tacuara, or José Luis Espert, who is one of the country’s most vocal antiabortion crusaders. Add to that picture the rising presence of neo-Nazi figures — like the individual who attempted to shoot Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — or the growing impact of far-right influencers like Agustín Laje, and it seems safe to say that there is potential for the administration to drift to the harder ideological right.

Nicolas Allen

Do you think any part of the Milei phenomenon is so uniquely Argentine that it only makes sense in the context of national history?

Pablo Pryluka

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the “true explanation” of Milei lies in Argentina’s past. But there are certain historical episodes worth revisiting. The Rodrigazo comes to mind: in 1975, following [President Juan] Perón’s death, the government of Isabel Perón implemented a major economic shock policy that devalued the currency to bring inflation under control and reduce the deficit. That measure led to a huge recession and, with the help of the United States, fed into the chaos that created the background to the 1976 military coup. I’m not saying that this is what will happen, obviously, but I think the Left needs to remember that episode because some of the ingredients are presently there.

Milei also draws a lot of comparisons to the neoliberal administration of Carlos Menem. However, I’d argue those similarities are more apparent than real. The major difference, which can’t be stressed enough, is that Menem was part of a neoliberalized Peronist tendency that went largely unopposed during the first part of his administration in the 1990s; today, the opposition is a Peronist coalition that is quite strong and is much more radical than the Peronists of the early ’90s. In other words, the political context is completely different.

The other main difference is that, precisely because of the lasting effects of Menemism, there are very few public industries or services left to privatize in Argentina. To create a more stable exchange rate, Menem took on astronomic foreign debt and did a fire sale of all public assets. Aside from Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Alberto Fujimori in Peru, the Menem years were really one of the most radical neoliberal experiments ever seen in Latin America. The result of that today is that, except for state-owned energy company YPF, there is very little left to privatize. Still, Milei has made known his intention to privatize those few remaining public assets, ignoring the catastrophic results they’ll bring for everyday Argentines.

Also, different from the 1990s, Argentina is locked out of most foreign money markets. Because of the debt assumed under Mauricio Macri, Argentina owes a huge amount of money to multilateral lending institutions and private investment funds. The current minister of economy, Luis Caputo, went with a team to the United States, thinking they were going to easily broker a deal to get the dollars they needed to dollarize the economy. They came back empty-handed because no one wants to lend to Argentina.

The one thing that is similar is the issue of inflation. Sure, Milei has some of the Menemist old guard in his cabinet, and yes, he may talk about privatization and liberalization of the economy; however, the major commonality is that in both administrations, inflation creates the conditions of possibility for shock therapy. Only when there is hyperinflation is it possible to convince the Argentine people that it would be a good idea to dollarize the economy — something along the lines of what they tried to do in the 1990s.

The Argentine left needs to do everything in its power to avoid going down the path of dollarization. Once you dollarize the economy, you’ve effectively locked the door and thrown away the key — there’s no way to reverse that decision without inducing massive economic chaos like Argentina saw in 2001.

There are plenty of other things the Left will need to fight against: the loss of working-class purchasing power, the privatization of the remaining public assets, etc. But all that pales compared to the urgency of fighting Milei’s plan to dollarize the economy. If Argentina loses the peso, the results will be dire.

If that happens, it will be impossible to pursue a development agenda — no country in world history has ever done so without being able to issue its own currency. Even the US had to abandon the gold standard to get a handle on its constant crises.

Not only do you lose the ability to create a monetary policy, but you end up pegged to economic cycles radically different from those of your own national economy. While all the emerging economies will be devaluing their currencies to make themselves “cheap” in the global economy, Argentina will be up locked out of everything but the most predatory forms of foreign capital. Dollarization might provide some price stability and momentarily give the Argentine people some purchasing power, but it works directly against the interest of developing the Argentine economy. There are lots of ways Milei can damage the country, but the effects of dollarization would be felt for decades.