The rise of the far right as a result of the crisis of neoliberalism: the case of Argentina

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Soledad Magno

Mar, 2024
MUSIC:
Javier Milei’s rise to the presidency in Argentina represents one of the most striking outcomes of the crisis afflicting the current neoliberal system. This crisis is both systemic and global, and it encompasses multiple dimensions—including food security, climate change and public health—, but it is also compounded by the breakdown of the social contract and the advent of new information and communication technologies.


Neoliberalism: A look back

Neoliberalism originated in the mid-1970s as a response to the crisis of capitalism. The system was no longer generating profits adequate to produce wealth and sustain itself. In countering this downturn, the system’s mechanisms were enhanced through specific measures: globalisation, deregulation, flexibility, and the reduction of state intervention.

Initially, neoliberalism created an illusion of success, setting unrealistic expectations among its proponents. An example is the acclaimed scholar Francis Fukuyama, who declared “the end of history” and argued the impossibility of a superior alternative to the neoliberal system. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of socialist economies were seen as the unequivocal victory of financial capitalism reinventing itself and expanding globally.

Photo_ José Carlos Cortizo Pérez_CC BY 2.0
Neoliberal policies, championed by international financial institutions and major global powers, facilitated a worldwide redistribution of wealth, increasing the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest individuals. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, twenty-five years ago, the income of the wealthiest 10% in OECD countries was, on average, seven times higher than that of the poorest 10%. By 2018, this gap had increased, with the wealthiest 10% earning over nine times as much as the poorest 10% [1][1] KEELEY, B. (2018), Income Inequality: The gap between Rich and Poor, OECD Insights, OECD Publishing, Paris. Available here: https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264246010-en. The Covid-19 pandemic further deepened this gap.

Neoliberal capitalism characterised the 30-year period leading up to the 2020 pandemic, experiencing a series of swift consecutive crises: the global inflation of the 1970s, a surge in public debt during the 1980s, and escalating private debt in the 1990s, culminating in the financial market crash of 2008

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist economies were interpreted as the undisputed triumph of a financial capitalism that reinvented itself and expanded on a global scale.
Marked by the collapse of the financial markets, the 2008 crisis of neoliberal capitalism triggered widespread scrutiny of its underpinnings from various perspectives. This questioning had, to some extent, started in Latin America at the beginning of the century, and paved the way for the rise of progressive governments that initiated transformative processes in the region.

In the 1970s, the Southern Cone served as the testing ground for neoliberal policies through state terrorism, beginning in Chile and swiftly extending to Argentina and beyond. Years later, the neoliberal experiment forcefully shifted to the North, embodied by the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom.

In the early 2000s, Latin America grappled with a debt crisis that was a direct reflection of the neoliberal system’s failures. Some years later, the international financial crisis laid the groundwork for phenomena such as Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States.


The Covid Pandemic as a catalyst for contradictions

The onset of 2020 saw the world grappling with the crisis unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, challenging the core principles that neoliberal capitalism had advocated for over five decades. The unfolding global humanitarian crisis underscored the indispensable role of a robust state presence—essential in enforcing lockdowns or social distancing measures, ensuring healthcare provision, supporting the economy, and facilitating the rapid development and distribution of vaccines. None of these feats would have been achievable under the neoliberal mantra advocating for a “minimal state”.

Market solutions were sidelined, and leaders of major corporations, banks and multinational companies sought state intervention. Yet, paradoxically, once the immediate crisis subsided, much of the populace attributed the economic, social and health fallout of the pandemic primarily to state actions.

With few exceptions, the majority of governments managing state affairs during the COVID-19 crisis were defeated in elections throughout the post-pandemic period. Lockdowns presented the perfect moment to question the system, contemplate new possibilities and propose alternatives. However, these initiatives came less from the grassroots movements, as would have been preferable, but rather from the right wing. Reactionary factions managed to forge an alternative that, while probably ephemeral, has inflicted significant damage at the political, social, and economic levels, with consequences too far-reaching to fully assess yet.

The individualistic subjectivity generated during years of neoliberalism deepened its own contradictions with a global crisis that did not distinguish between rich and poor, but at the same time cut social ties and isolated us from one another.
Notably, in the Americas, two far-right administrations in power during the pandemic—Brazil and the United States—also faced election defeats and intense scrutiny over their handling of the crisis. Despite this, both left office with considerably stronger popular bases than upon their entry. Those were narrowly contested electoral defeats, leading to subsequent uprisings and coup attempts in both countries after the elections.

Last, the isolation enforced during the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside the resulting rise in reliance on technology for communication, sparked another less-discussed crisis with ongoing implications: a mental health crisis that has especially affected younger demographics.

In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst, exacerbating the contradictions of individualistic subjectivity, fostered by years of neoliberal policies in the face of a global crisis that made no distinctions between rich or poor, men or women, nationals or foreigners etc. Yet, it simultaneously slitted social bonds and isolated us from one another.

We find ourselves now in the midst of a multidimensional crisis that emerged in what is known as the post-pandemic era: the world persists under a waning neoliberal regime while the development of alternatives feels slow and erratic.

This presents, in the words of Bolivia’s former Vice-President Álvaro García Linera, a “paradoxical case” that defines our contemporary era: “Neoliberalism is incapable of devising a long-term plan that that isn’t just a violent and melancholic attempt to return to the past, but progressivism too seems unable to overcome the challenges that have emerged from the pandemic, and the economic and environmental crisis” [2][2] GARCÍA LINERA, Álvaro (2022), Politics as a dispute of hopes, CLACSO, Buenos Aires. Available here: https://www.clacso.org/la-politica-como-disputa-de-las-esperanzas/.

In this scenario, Javier Milei’s rise to the presidency constitutes a disruptive byproduct of the global crisis of neoliberalism. Disruptive and innovative, as Milei supposedly aims to implement the principles of the Austrian School of Economics, a model yet to be tested in practical terms. Distinguishing his movement from other far-right ideologies, Milei’s project is deeply rooted in neoliberalism, focusing on reapprising the same liberalisation and privatisation policies that faltered in the 1990s, and which, to a certain degree, contributed to positioning South America as the main alternative to the neoliberal agenda in the 2000s.


Foreign debt as a tool for neoliberal discipline

As 2023 drew to a close, Argentina commemorated 40 years since the restoration of democracy. In December 1983, the nation welcomed back a government elected by the people, following a brutal dictatorship that aimed at instituting a neoliberal system. Orchestrated by the military, fuelled by economic elites and in collusion with elements of the Catholic Church, this civic-military and ecclesiastical dictatorship instituted a regime of terror that took thousands of lives (with forced disappearances and the theft of infants among its most infamous practices. However, it also laid the groundwork for an economic system, which became further entrenched during the 1990s by the so-called Washington Consensus. This system was chaperoned by cycles of national debt—one invariably tied to the adoption and intensification of neoliberal policies. This cycle was disrupted in 2003 with Néstor Kirchner’s rise to the presidency, followed by a joint effort with Lula Da Silva’s Brazil to repay the debt to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The administrations of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner marked a departure from neoliberal dominance in Argentina. This shift was mirrored by similar progressive movements across the region, and together, they became a countering force to the prevailing global neoliberal order.

The public debate has become violent, adverse to plurality and coexistence and characterised by a growing contempt for democracy.
However, the cycle resumed in 2015 upon Mauricio Macri’s assumption of office, initiating a new period of indebtedness and returning Argentina’s economic policies to the auspices of the IMF. Despite substantial resistance from segments of the governing coalition, Alberto Fernández’s administration entered into a new agreement with the IMF in 2019 under terms comparable to those of Macri’s regime. Thus, the cycle of indebtedness continued. In addition to this debt crisis and the effects of the pandemic, climate change manifested as one of the most severe droughts in the nation’s history, catalysing Javier Milei’s rise to the presidency of Argentina. This drought further decreased foreign exchange earnings in a country already burdened by substantial debt and constrained by an IMF agreement, leaving little space for flexibility.


The incompatibility between neoliberalism and democracy

The resurgence of indebtedness under Mauricio Macri’s administration was marked by media and judicial actions against political opposition leaders in Argentina, prominently targeting former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. This campaign led to an escalation in political violence, encompassing physical and digital attacks, as well as harassment against activists, human rights organisations, feminists and political, social and trade union representatives, perpetrated by entities and individuals associated with the far-right. The public discourse became fraught with violence, displaying an aversion to diversity and peaceful coexistence, and was marked by an escalating disdain for democratic principles.

The attempted assassination of then vice-president and former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner represented the pinnacle of a series of escalating attacks in a country that believed it had already established an unbreakable consensus on democratic coexistence. The responses of the judiciary, the political establishment and the media further confirmed the breakdown of this democratic consensus. On 1 September 2022, the stark reality became apparent: violence and the manipulation of the judiciary, precipitated by the erosion of social contracts, were deemed necessary to facilitate the impending enhancement of neoliberal policies.


Violence as a form of government: anarcho-capitalism & the Far-right

Society’s disenchantment with a system in crisis, seemingly devoid of solutions, led to Javier Milei’s “Chainsaw Plan” becoming an unexpectedly feasible alternative. Democratic dissatisfaction, as articulated back in her day by former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was manifesting its repercussions.

The tradition of political debate as a democratic exchange of ideas gave way to aggression and violence against dissenting voices. Disqualification and hostility from right-wing candidates marked the 2023 electoral campaign. A narrative advocating the dismantling of everything was increasingly resonant. Despite Peronist candidate Sergio Massa coming within three points of victory in the first round, he faced defeat by over fifteen points in the second round.

Massa’s campaign was unable to bring future-driven ideas into the conversation, elevating it beyond a government—led by President Alberto Fernández and Massa himself as Minister of Economy—branded by foreign debt renegotiation, inadequate income distribution and the absence of inflation-slowing price controls. These factors, compounded by the previously discussed effects of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the drought—along with the judicial prosecution of the leading Peronist figure and the unrest stemming from divisions within the government coalition—culminated in widespread disenchantment among the people of Argentina. For the first time in the country’s history, a government with an explicitly far-right agenda was elected.

It is not the first time in human history that an aggravated version of the system has been used as a lifeline for the system’s own survival.

The dystopian and anarcho-capitalist agenda now at the helm in Argentina represents an extreme manifestation of neoliberalism. It embodies both a symptom of the systemic crisis and a strategy for its deepening. This is not the first time in history that an aggravated version of an existing system is instituted to ensure the continuity of the system itself.

The ideological foundation of Javier Milei’s project champions individualism, private ownership and the market as the central organising principle of society, alongside a societal structure that itself operates without a state. In her book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism [3][3] BROWN, Wendy (2019), In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics in the West, New York, Columbia University Press. Available here: https://traficantes.net/sites/default/files/pdfs/TDS_map64_Brown_web.pdf, Wendy Brown describes the characteristics of these movements very well: They eschew collectivism and the ideals of social justice. They combine a self-perceived moral and aesthetic superiority (in Milei’s very words) with amoral and foul behaviour. While endorsing the idea of authority, their leaders exhibit a notably public lack of restraint and unprecedented levels of hostility. They vehemently criticise relativism yet simultaneously harbour a disdain for science and rational thought. They express contempt for politicians and the political process, all the while exhibiting a relentless thirst for power and political dominance.

In Argentina, a thorough investigation into social psychology is imperative to grasp (and counter) this ultra-neoliberal phase, to understand its emergence, and evaluate the potential for this movement/ideology to proliferate globally. What is evident—for the time being—is that the rise of the so-called “libertarian” far-right is a consequence of decades of neoliberal assaults on democracy, equality, and the principles of social justice. While it cannot yet be stated that this perilous phenomenon was deliberately engineered by the system to further entrench and perpetuate itself, it is unmistakably a byproduct of neoliberal subjectivity.


Conclusions

The crisis in political representation, spurred by the broader crisis of neoliberalism, precipitated the rise of far-right movements in Argentina and throughout the world. In the Global North, these movements were predominantly marked by xenophobic and anti-immigration rhetoric, coupled with a disdain for the European Union. The Brexit saga, alongside the ascension and consolidation of various far-right factions within European parliaments, served as a stark indicator of this trend, mirrored in the United States by Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 and the speculation around his political comeback.

In Latin America, this reactionary surge propelled anti-democratic, right-wing factions to power, employing tactics of lawfare and hate speech to destabilise societies previously nurtured on a decade of inclusive policies and human rights advancements.

The middle ground, the ways of the middle, have created radicalised monsters.
Yet, amid this regressive backdrop, an array of grassroots movements offers resistance against the far right. These movements herald a citizens’ alternative, led chiefly by feminist and environmentalist ideologies, advocating for a novel paradigm of political and social organisation, defined by its pursuit of a society that is more free, just and equal. These horizontally-structured and inclusive movements, emerging in response to the disenchantment with traditional political parties and trade unions, are committed to reinventing political engagement and power dynamics. Despite these traditional entities having incorporated social movement agendas into their platforms, they have fallen short of disrupting the status quo or fulfilling the broader aspirations of the societal majority. It is hardly surprising that the notion of “caste” has emerged as a central theme in Milei’s political rhetoric.

As discussed throughout this article, the neoliberal system has indeed managed to evolve in a bid for survival, yet its recurrent crises underscore its lack of sustainability. We find ourselves under a regime increasingly incapable of addressing its inherent challenges.

Creating an alternative to neoliberalism is imperative, and fortunately, we are not starting from scratch: the first decade of the 21st century in Latin America provided numerous examples and alternatives which, through creativity, empathy and hope, disrupted the status quo and proved that building anew was indeed feasible. Currently, figures such as López Obrador in Mexico, Petro in Colombia, and Lula in Brazil are examples of leaders in our region capable of spearheading this transformative process and illuminating the path forward.

In response to a right-wing that vehemently opposes the waning of its archaic world order—no longer seeking to persuade but to obliterate, not to include but to penalise, driven by animosity towards dissent—it becomes critical to reconsider democracy and foster alternatives.

These alternatives must transcend the neoliberal paradigm, mindful of the reality that it is precisely political moderation that gave birth to extremist monstrosities. Recent Latin American experiences have demonstrated that societal contracts should be forged with ample social majorities rather than with concentrated economic powers.
The opportunity to establish the new democratic frameworks we need is now right before us.

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