Javier Milei: Captain Ancap

Don’t cry for Milei, Argentina

The election of an anarcho-capitalist eccentric as president is the latest example of bourgeois politics descending into irrationality, argues Paul Demarty

In the great Argentine caper movie, Nine queens, two conmen set out to sell a fake set of rare stamps for vastly more than they are worth. By the end, they need only get their money from the bank - but they discover that, as a result of the disastrous financial crisis that afflicted the country at the end of the last century, the bank itself has collapsed, robbing them of their bounty.

A rather different sort of conman is now president-elect. Javier Milei is, by all accounts, an odd bird. A ferociously laissez-faire economist by background, he is given to the mystical - by his own account in the process of converting to Judaism, his interest in it (beyond a geopolitical bias in favour of Israel) seems mainly to be in the gnomic sayings of the kabbalah; he is also apparently a trained tantric sex instructor, who proudly boasts that he can go three months without ejaculating.

He has busied himself in recent years building a media profile, with endless television appearances and a regular radio show, from which he launched his presidential campaign. He has created a superhero alter-ego, ‘Captain Ancap’ (anarcho-capitalist), complete with ridiculous latex costume, and has posed waving a chainsaw around to illustrate his intentions towards the “socialist” Argentine state.

He presents himself as utterly sincere about this anarcho-capitalism, repeatedly citing the ideology’s greatest proponent, Murray Rothbard (pupil of Ayn Rand). His concrete proposals for Argentina, beyond selling off what remains of the family silver and tearing apart what remains of its welfare state, include notably ditching its peso currency altogether in favour of the dollar. He has won, remarkably, without the support of either of the major parties - the Perónist Justicialists and the conservative coalition, Juntos Por El Cambio (Together for Change, abbreviated to JxC). Some reports suggest that his candidacy was not intended to be serious, but rather a stunt, perhaps to put pressure on JxC.

But we will never know: JxC’s candidate, Patricia Bullrich, was knocked out in the first round, and the last president to have emerged from that big tent, Mauricio Macri, all but openly campaigned for Milei throughout.

Milei thus found himself in a runoff with the Perónist, Sergio Massa, outgoing minister for the economy. On paper, it was an easy brief, with the Argentine economy once again floating in the toilet - inflation is running at 140%, with poverty at 40%. Massa, nonetheless, is no lightweight. He is a sharp critic of the recent Perónist dynasty, including former presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, and even called for criminal investigations into them a few years ago. In head-to-head debates, he is generally considered to have the better of it (Milei is a little too fond of Margaret Thatcher for the tastes of ordinary Argentines, who remember the humiliation of the south Atlantic war). All that counted for little in the end; in the second round, as a better fit for those conservative Bullrich votes, Milei won by more than 10 percentage points - the most convincing victory for the right since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983.


Comparisons between Milei and Trump have piled up in recent weeks, though the stated politics of each differ considerably - dollarisation of Argentina versus steep tariff barriers, libertarianism versus vague authoritarian populism. Both share the aforementioned rumour that they did not really want the job of president, but “had greatness thrust upon them”; and both share an essentially opportunistic adoption of certain cultural-conservative shibboleths. Both, above all, share their status as real outsiders - men who muscled the prevailing party machines out of the way.

Both, moreover, capped long periods of dysfunction. Trump rode to victory after 15 years of slow-motion military disaster in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and eight of ‘jobless recovery’ from the 2008 financial crisis. The Argentine backstory is more ‘economic’, and more complicated. The 1990s saw the presidency of Carlos Menem - Perónist by party affiliation, but a good neoliberal soldier even by the standards of that decade. He implemented large-scale privatisations, and pegged the value of the peso to the dollar.

The resulting picture was one of superficial economic success, but the peg demanded large dollar reserves for it to work. When a series of crises afflicted emerging markets in the far east, and later Russia, international investors got spooked, and began to pull their reserves out. This resulted in a series of mass bank runs and the effective collapse of the Argentine financial system. The US succeeded, as it often did in that period, in offloading the cost of an investors’ ‘haircut’ to the periphery.

The successive presidencies of the Kirchners stabilised things, and a relatively strong economy based on raw material and agricultural exports was duly built. Things were good for a while, and the Kirchners popular, until commodity prices crashed in the 2010s. Various efforts to manage this problem, from both the Perónists and conservatives, have resulted in enormous debts, and then the collapse of the peso and widespread penury. Various epic corruption scandals have come to light; and the Kirchners are also widely accused of covering up a terrorist attack in the mid-1990s, to the point of having a prosecutor murdered before he could lay out evidence against them in 2015. How real all this is hard to grasp at a distance, but it is always a danger for a political dynasty to start to look like a mafia family - the two being quite closely related social phenomena.

Peronism is a phenomenon given to such dynamics, starting of course with Juan Perón himself to say nothing of the cult of personality around his first wife, Eva ‘Evita’ Duarte. The movement founded around him has long been the bane of academic political scientists, who cannot make up their minds whether he was a fascist, a social democrat or a run-of-the-mill third-world nationalist. In all fairness, the Peronists have been unable to make up their minds either - they have long been divided left versus right, with the infamous dirty war starting as a conflict between these two poles, before the military took over and made the killings altogether more efficient.

Perón favoured a corporatist regime, with managed relations between labour and capital that were redistributive towards labour. Argentina under his rule notoriously became the home of a number of Nazi war criminals, but he did not rule as a fascist dictator, won elections handily, and indeed was overthrown by the military in 1955. Corruption plagued his regime, as it has plagued ‘justicialist’ administrations since - and for that matter other administrations.

The attraction of his quasi-social democratic nationalism to the left should be no surprise to those familiar with the history of the 20th century ‘official communist’ movement especially, which strove for alliances with the ‘national bourgeoisie’ against the comprador classes. In Argentina, as in many other countries, this phenomenon spread to the Trotskyist movement, with the followers of Nahuel Moreno forming a significant faction of left Peronism in the run-up to the dirty war.


The most minimal account of why we have just seen a total clown appear as the chainsaw-wielding ‘saviour’ of Argentine prosperity is just that, in the long run, Peronism - like left nationalism - just does not work. We ought to have learnt that already from the rise and fall of Menem, of course, and the bloody disasters of the 1970s and 1980s. (At least Milei’s chainsaw is, for the time being, metaphorical.) The economy just is international: an extractive economy like Argentina needs buyers, but if it succeeded in controlling more of the supply chain, it would still need imports. Those structures of trade are governed globally. Punishment beatings are always possible.

The decision of the left to make itself partisans of these forms of nationalism is therefore always an opportunistic and, in time, disastrous error. There is always the possibility of some tactical arrangement, of course; but the idea that socialism lies the other side of a prolonged alliance with the ‘national bourgeoisie’ leads only to defeat, because the bourgeoisie is an international class, just as much as the proletariat.

The Trotskyists posed against this idea the theory of permanent revolution, that in pre-capitalist or (later) subordinated countries the proletariat needed to pursue both the ‘bourgeois-democratic’ and proletarian revolutions. Yet the record of actually-existing Trotskyism is to behave in quite the same way as ‘official communists’, with a few marginal exceptions; to Morenista Peronism one could add support for the ayatollahs in Iran in 1979, for Sinhalese chauvinists in Sri Lanka, and so on. Permanent revolution versus socialism in one country turns out to be a distinction without a difference. Why? Because the bourgeoisie is not a democratic class. The ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ is a misleading name for revolutions in which the subordinate classes - above all the proletariat - force democracy on a reluctant bourgeoisie.

The trouble with Milei is that he is, again, an odd bird; and so it is difficult to miss how normal he is. He accuses the pope of being a communist, and people mock him for it; but the entire British press more or less did the same thing to Ed Miliband, with no more justification (indeed, there was only slightly more justification in the case of Jeremy Corbyn).

Some parts of Milei’s programme will be difficult to achieve for merely practical reasons - the fiscal disasters of recent years have left Argentina rather short of dollars, which you would think would be necessary for dollarisation. For all the chainsaw stuff, he may well have enough support in the legislature, since, after all, this is merely the sort of thing that Macri and even Menem were up to before him. A few culture-warrior gimmicks may be easily done in the same way. He may rant, and rave, and don a leather cape, but at the end of the day, Milei is just a relic of the 1990s.

It is too early to pass judgment on the ‘meaning’ of his election. There is certainly a discernible drift towards the right in global politics. Yet Milei is not exactly that kind of rightist, in terms of political substance: he is more like Republican rival Ron DeSantis than Donald Trump, in all respects except his success. Perhaps he is a beneficiary of more diffuse forms of political ferment instead. Only two of the last 20 or so elections in central and South America have returned the incumbent party or president to power.

Pink tide

We are not in the second pink tide, as some say (or a vast black tide, as others do), but in a situation where the power of the global hegemon is unsettled, but as yet not seriously threatened by rivals. It is not clear, in this context, where to jump, or even what exactly obeying the existing regime entails. After all, adding the US to our tally of recent electoral results would only further reduce the incumbent ‘advantage’; stability is not exactly the thing people look to Washington DC for nowadays.

In the meantime, the workers and oppressed of Argentina will have some fighting to do, and starting from much the same kind of reduced condition as the rest of us. The age of Milei will pass, one way or another, and it would take a fool, after 80-plus years of Peronism, to pronounce it dead after this reversal. But getting out of the Peronist-conservative death spiral takes more than Milei (thank god), more than the pope, and more than a fitter, stronger Peronism. It takes a far wider approach that at least looks to political unity across South America - and ultimately victory in the belly of the beast itself.

Nationalism has failed a thousand times already.