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20 November 2023

Monster of the mainstream

Argentina’s new president Javier Milei embodies the zombie neoliberalism of the 1990s.

By Quinn Slobodian

Argentina has just elected a self-described anarcho-capitalist to be their next president. Commentary and reaction to the result will make Javier Milei seem like a monster. In many ways, the former economist, 53, has encouraged this depiction himself. His AC/DC haircut, chainsaw wielding at rallies, and newly acquired pin-up girlfriend intentionally provoke norms of moderation and the decency expected, in some quarters, of respectable politicians. His turns as Captain Ancap at comic conventions, clad in leotards and carrying a trident, further deepen this impression.

But there are two reasons why it would be wrong to fall too much for Milei’s self-presentation. The first is that it follows too closely the script he has written for himself, a script that has ended at the presidential palace and one that many of his followers celebrate. The parallel between Milei and Donald Trump is strained in terms of policy but when it comes to telegenic buoyancy of hair and glee at tweaking bourgeois norms, the similarities are clear. (In a low-energy show of support, the former US president congratulated Milei on his effort to “Make Argentina Great Again”.)

The second reason why it would be foolish to treat Milei as too much of a monster is that if he is a monster, he is a monster of the mainstream. Consider his résumé. Javier Milei spoke at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Panama City in 2014 hosted by Harvard Kennedy School professor Ricardo Hausmann. He was introduced with an impeccable set of mainstream credentials. He had authored more than 50 academic papers. He was there in his capacity as the chief economist of Corporación América, one of Argentina’s leading multinationals. Like DP World and Hong Kong’s Hutchison, it is a logistics operator, owning and managing dozens of airports around the world at the cutting edge of the supply chain capitalism of the 2000s.

Milei’s proposals are also not quite as radical as they seem. His banner idea is “dollarisation” – a project that has raised the eyebrows of his fellow libertarians. The libertarian Ludwig von Mises Institute points out that chaining your currency to the US Federal Reserve is not only subordinating yourself to American monetary governance but also replaying a gimmick that has been tried before to disastrous effect. When Peru tried to dollarise it only succeeded in creating economic difficulties and losing the next election for the governing party.

[See also: Maga’s foolish embrace of Javier Milei]

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As for Milei’s other ideas – slashing the size of government and privatising state-owned enterprises – these are standard features of the Washington consensus.

Perhaps the most telling commentary on Milei so far has come from the Economist, which, weeks before the second round of the election, lamented the end of the era of what it called “daredevil economics”. Harking back to the willingness to take perilous reforms, as in the former Soviet Union and other post-socialist countries, the paper tracked economic success through the lens of the Vancouver-based think tank the Fraser Institute’s index of economic freedom.

This very index has its roots in the “ancap” scene Milei subscribes to. The senior economist of the Fraser Institute until 1991 was Walter Block – who Milei has cited approvingly alongside better-known figures such as Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. When creating the index Block remarked, as Milei has done, that all taxation is theft and it makes no difference if this is done at the end of a gun or through the ballot box.

Since its creation the index has been used to assess the effectiveness of reforms along an extremely narrow metric of well-being. It is no coincidence that, as the Economist notes, one of the few places to experience a rise in the rankings in the last decade was Iraq. Starting from rubble, it turns out, is a great baseline for improvement.

At the end of its article the Economist gives a conditional endorsement to the man who is now president-elect. Maybe, it says, if Milei follows through on his plans it will be a return of “daredevil economics”. As always, the problem is “commitment”. How can a democratically elected government put in place policies that bind its own hands from action in response to the demands of its constituents?

Daredevil economics is nothing more than the undead zombie neoliberalism of the 1990s. The monstrosity of Milei is not his cartoonish novelty but his deadening familiarity. A new haircut on the same old monsters.

[See also: Why do you love capitalism?]

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