Beyond the chainsaw: The Argentine roots of the Milei phenomenon

Argentina’s president, Javier Milei, is fast achieving cult status among the global far right. But the tendencies that contributed to his rise could also be the undoing of this extreme libertarian experiment

A supporter of Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei holds a fake chainsaw during the closing event of Milei’s electoral campaign ahead of the November 19 runoff election, in Cordoba, Argentina, November 16, 2023. REUTERS/Matias Baglietto
A supporter of Argentine presidential candidate Javier Milei holds a fake chainsaw during the closing event of Milei’s electoral campaign ahead of the November 19 runoff election
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | MATIAS BAGLIETTO

Argentina’s president, Javier Milei, is the new star of the global far right. At the inauguration of his presidency in Buenos Aires, Milei brought together such figures as the Hungarian prime minister, Victor Orban; Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro; and the founder of Spain’s radical right Vox party, Santiago Abascal. Italy’s prime minister Gioriga Meloni has expressed her admiration. Donald Trump, for his part, dedicated a congratulatory video to Milei and has promised to visit Argentina, reiterating his approval in a recent interview with Breitbart: “It’s essentially a MAGA-Trump movement,” he said of the extreme libertarian experiment.

But Milei, an economist by trade, is carving out a niche of his own within the far-right family. So far, the American continent has seen two models: a nativist one, with a strong religious influence, present in the United States and Brazil; and another driven by a security discourse and the promise of an iron fist, which has El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele as its main referent and has been deeply influential in countries such as Chile and Ecuador. Self-proclaimed “anarcho-capitalist” Milei has based his iteration on demonising the role of the state in the economy and the politicians who defend it. That brand is what distinguishes him, and it is already proving seductive. In Chile, for example, Senator José Manuel Rojo Edwards has split from the ultra-conservative Republican party to create a new libertarian force, inspired by Milei. Europeans need to understand the Milei phenomenon and the roots of his electoral success, given that his model seems also to have considerable appeal for the resurgent radical right in Europe.

The first 40 days

Milei has used his first weeks in office to present a shock doctrine. He has put forward a presidential decree that boasts more than 300 articles, as well as a mega bill containing more than 600. If they are approved, Argentina’s economy will undergo a dramatic transformation, including massive deregulation, the privatisation of public companies, and structural reforms in areas ranging from labour rights to the electoral system. The ambition and spirit of refoundation of the package can only be compared to that of Chile’s Friedman-trained “Chicago Boys” at the start of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in the country.

But, as Milei prepares for a long battle with Congress, inflation in Argentina continues to run rampant and food prices have skyrocketed. The president has warned that the next two years will be marked by ‘stagflation’, and it is unclear whether Argentina’s society will tolerate that. This week has already seen a nationwide general strike and the biggest protests against Milei since his inauguration just over 40 days ago.

Essentially, nobody in Argentina knows what will happen with the Milei government. Some pundits see success in their crystal balls; others are making bets on just how soon his departure date will be. The atmosphere is one of total uncertainty. Nevertheless, the arrival of the libertarian to the presidency of Argentina, a country that until not so long ago was known for its welfare policies, seems to be a significant moment in the country’s long crisis – and the bond between society and politics has never been so fragile.

The roots of the great unknown

The source of the unpredictability lies in three converging currents that led to Milei’s rapid rise. The first of these is the impact of Argentina’s seemingly perpetual economic crisis and the changes that has fuelled in society. Argentina ended 2023 with an inflation rate of more than 200 per cent, the highest since the 1990s, and has been stuck in economic stagnation for more than a decade. It should therefore come as no surprise that an economist wielding radical proposals for change, including the dollarisation of the currency (a scenario that is still far off, but not impossible), has been heard. His rise resembles that of other ‘outsiders’, who promise to sweep away the establishment after the failure of various political options. In Argentina’s case, just as in Brazil and the US, the decline of the traditional centre-right has also been significant.

But the economic crisis has also contributed a profound cultural change regarding the role of the state in economy and society, which benefited Milei. After several decades of state interventionism, from social policies to transport subsidies and cultural production, many Argentines seem to locate the state as the cause of their problems. They also blame the drivers of that state: politicians, whom Milei calls the “caste” and who were the primary targets of attack in his campaign. According to his narrative, politicians use the state to perpetuate their own power and enrich themselves via monetary emission, leaving a legacy of high inflation and corruption.

Argentina’s economic crisis has contributed a profound cultural change regarding the role of the state in economy and society, which benefited Milei

At a deeper level, however, Milei’s cultural victory is more sophisticated: many people, including some low-income Argentines, have begun to believe that the state is the main obstacle to economic progress. This is what researchers Pablo Semán and Nicolás Welschinger callmejorismo”: the idea that personal progress is possible and that it is based on individual effort. It is a political attitude, but one also imbued with morality. The “good Argentines”, as Milei calls those who oppose the “caste”, are people who work without anyone giving them anything for free, that is, without receiving assistance from the state.

This trend may make sense in the rest of Latin America, where the state’s presence has long been weak and fluctuating, but it is peculiar for Argentina. The traditional state investment in health and education, among other areas, was long a source of pride among the ruling class, especially the centre left. The crisis of that model suggests, on the one hand, that the quality of state presence has deteriorated, leaving more and more people outside the consensus, among them informal workers and young people. This is directly linked to the decade of economic stagnation. On the other hand, the consensus has also been threatened by a crisis of political representation, in which the ruling class is perceived as disconnected from the material reality of the majority. Rhetoric around the importance of state presence thus appears to be coloured by cynicism or, at best, simply outdated.

Secondly, Milei’s victory was achieved in the context of a cultural backlash against progressivism. This escalated following the success of the campaign to legalise abortion in Argentina in 2020, a moment of prominence for Argentina’s feminist movement. That, combined with some of the previous government’s public policies, for instance creating a ministry for women, gender, and diversity and promoting the adoption of a non-binary gender option for identity documents, cultivated a conservative reaction of which Milei was part. This is reflected in the strong male support that the libertarian garnered, but especially among young men under thirty, one of his main electoral bases.

Milei managed to combine the social reaction against the state and politicians with the rejection of the progressive discourse, turning them into the same thing. His conception of “caste” in turn also included the beneficiaries of progressive policies, such as academics, artists, public media journalists, and even state employees, who are perceived as privileged actors disconnected from the rest of the country. Like other extreme right-wing leaders, Milei roused an anti-elitist and anti-intellectual discourse that he has used to defend himself against criticism of his shock doctrine, which comes mainly from progressive sectors. According to this narrative, these actors are simply seeking to protect their privileges, as they were the main beneficiaries of the previous model, unlike the “good Argentines”. The “anti-woke” discourse thus merged with the “anti-caste” one.

Finally, the covid-19 pandemic was the perfect scenario for the deployment of these tendencies, and coincided with Milei’s leap into politics in 2021. The libertarian was a leading critic of the extended lockdown promoted by the then government, which was initially defended across the political spectrum. Milei thus distanced himself from the ruling class and managed to articulate a populist discourse that resonated with different demographics, from teenagers fed up with not being able to leave their homes, to small-business owners and informal workers who suffered the economic costs of the shutdown. Under the narrative of “freedom”, Milei synthesised the demand to “get out of the house” with the rejection of state presence. The pandemic also made evident the government’s disconnection with the social mood and the reality for the increasingly important sector of informal workers, whom the welfare state simply could not reach.

“Stay out of the way”

Milei seems to have obtained an unprecedented mandate to dismantle what is left of the Argentinian welfare state and implement his programme of deregulation. He has combined this with austerity gestures, such as cutting government spending on salaries, catering, and transport, in order to differentiate himself from the ruling class that preceded him. Milei also seeks to exploit the crisis of representation and the public rejection of political parties, which places Congress in a weak position to hinder his planned reforms.

This means that Milei has an exceptional window to implement his programme, and he has moved fast. But the experiment will ultimately depend on the country’s economic performance and the attitude of Argentine society in the face of an economic crisis that has already deepened in the first month of his administration. Milei could become a new victim of Argentine society’s weariness and disillusionment with politics. Or, if he manages to stabilise the economy after this difficult period, he may change Argentina’s politics for generations and consolidate himself as a model for the global far right.

Whatever the future holds, something big seems to have happened in Argentina. The week Milei took office as president, I went to Barrio 31, one of the most deprived areas of the city, to meet Hector Espinoza, a young man from a poor family in the north who settled in the neighbourhood and opened a ‘libertarian bar’ during the pandemic to oppose the government’s measures: “What do you expect from the new government?”, I asked. “We don’t expect anything,” came the response, “we just want them to stay out of the way.”

Juan Elman is an Argentine journalist who specialises in international affairs. His work has been published in Cenital, Diario Clarín,, and Open Democracy, among others. He is the author of the book “Nada será como antes. ¿Hacia dónde va Chile?” (“Nothing will be like before: What’s next for Chile?”, Ediciones Futurock, 2022).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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