Argentina's latest presidential election offers plenty of sensational fodder for the presses. But there's a deeper issue here, a politics of desperation, that we would do well to watch as it rises in the world.
On November 19, Argentina elected Javier Milei as its next president, to take office this December. His politics have been compared to those of Donald Trump (in his showmanship) and Jair Bolsonaro (in his rightwing extremism and denialism), but his ideas go further than both. Milei calls himself an anarcho-capitalist (a form of libertarian), whose stated aims are “blowing up” the central bank, changing the Argentinian peso for the dollar, permitting the private sale of human organs, and closing ministries for education, health, women, and culture while slashing welfare payments.
Milei has also been called a “minarchist” for his minimal-government belief that the state’s only purpose is to protect citizens’ rights to free action. To this end, proposed bans on abortion and loosened gun laws run in lockstep with his acceptance of trans identities and desire to legalize more drugs. He denies the scale of Argentina’s brutal history of state terror in 1976 to 1983, and when he first rose in the polls, there was a panicked rush among citizens to change their pesos for dollars, fearing economic disaster.
So why did he win?
And not just by a hair, but with 56% of the vote against his runoff opponent, Sergei Massa?
The historical underpinnings run deep, but human behavior in response to the current economic moment is also not complex. Urban poverty hit 40.1% in 2023, as inflation reached 50.7% earlier this year. When the official exchange rate was devalued by 22% the day after the primaries (in which Milei’s popularity caused panic), it caused a 12.4% inflation spike. This is in an enconomy where some 48.1% are informally or self-employed, and thus without salaried protections against the greatest financial hits.
An outsider expecting rational economic actors might assume that if Milei’s presence in the polls only destabilized an already precarious situation, surely humans would avoid voting for him again. But the logic of longstanding financial stress runs deeper than traditional economic configurations of the “rational actor”: when there is no confidence in existing state structures, perhaps it is best to pull off the bandaid quickly. The immediate pain will be hard, but maybe, just maybe, the destruction of the old order will bring about something new.
This is the politics of desperation and disillusionment.
The world would do well to pay attention to its rise.
Argentinian histories of low confidence in the state
There’s a famous, apocryphal, and above all cruel expression in economics: “There have only been four types of economies in the world: advanced, developing, Japan, and Argentina.” The point driven at here is that Japan seemed to rise from the ashes, with everything working against it, after World War II and even now with an aging workforce. Meanwhile Argentina, a country with a natural bounty, seemed to destroy confidence in itself at every turn.
This is a cruel expression for a few reasons: one being that Argentina is not alone even in South America, as a country with great internal resources that has struggled to turn its holdings into wealth for its citizens. Another reason is the why. While Japan recovered from WWII by growing a commercial empire through top-down industrial relationships with surrounding countries, Argentina under labor-nationalist Juan Domingo Perón had the audacity in the 1950s to try to nationalize its British-owned railways. This choice met with swift reprisal from Western powers, thereafter unwilling to invest. Before World War II, Argentina had relied heavily on military rule. After inflation spiked and labor strikes surged as global investors pulled out, it was back to decades of fraught authoritarianism.
One of the worst coups started with a 600 percent inflation surge in 1976. That seven-year period yielded up to 30,000 disappeared human beings during the state’s “Dirty War” against leftists, and ended only after the military attempted to take the Falkland Islands from the British. This failure would yield the modern democratic state, but with a low opinion of both the military and the bureaucracy. In 1989, ahead of a massive inflation crisis of up to 4,900 percent, only 30,000 out of 30 million citizens were paying income taxes.
Now, inflation can address domestic debt, but Argentina’s massive fiscal deficit was informed centrally by external debt, in dollars to the rest of the world. During the banking crisis of 1990, banks forced client deposits into bonds under the BONEX Plan, essentially taking citizens’ savings from them with a promise that their investment in the future of the country would pay off. Citizens were not happy about this, of course.
The government then introduced the Convertibility Plan in 1991, which tried to peg the Argentinian peso to the US dollar at a 1:1 rate. This process involved Argentina embracing US neoliberal state policies: relaxing labor protections, massively privatizing industries, and otherwise bringing the world back into Argentinian markets. Did the plan reduce inflation? Yes. It also raised unemployment, reduced wages, and stratified class outcomes. And it led to more austerity measures over time, because the government’s debt kept rising, forcing more of the annual budget into “debt servicing” to other countries.
Being open to world markets also meant being more vulnerable to their downturns, such as a major wobble in 2001, which sparked labor collapse and food riots in Argentina despite its local wealth of grain and beef. The peso was unpegged in 2002, after the government had restricted bank withdrawals to keep citizens from “financial flight” into other currencies and markets. Once the peso was floating freely, though, people panicked anyway. After years of seeing the dollar as the more valuable and stable currency, they rushed to exchange their holdings (which were now all in pesos) back into US dollars by other means. That rush caused another inflationary spike.
Argentina underwent two major debt restructuring deals in that decade, but they just created more problems. A deal in 2001 allowed Argentina to pay interest only to those who had opted in to the restructuring plan, and the exclusion of “holdouts” was reasserted after 2010, when the debt plan was agreed upon by 93% of bondholders. The remaining 7% weren’t having this, though: a few hedge fund creditors sued the Argentinian government for breach of a principle of equal treatment for bondholders, pari passu. The South District Court of New York agreed with them, and even though Argentina tried to continue paying its “holdin” creditors, as per the debt restructuring plan, those payments were not permitted until Argentina paid the holdouts, too, in compliance with the court’s rulings.
Why? Because Argentina’s banking system isn’t an independent force. It is yoked to a highly litigious set of international players, and vulnerable to every global market crash as well.
Seen this way, why wouldn’t the average Argentinian want to bring it down?
Dollarization and other flawed promises
The complex problem for Argentinians voting out of desperation is twofold:
For one, as much as they might associate the days of the dollar with a period of relative stability, it was never a simple matter of pegging one currency to another. The arrangement expressly came with Argentina’s willingness to embrace neoliberal policies that yielded stark divides in civilian life and other market outcomes. For Milei to “dollarize” the country now would require a similar willingness to play ball with international institutions and their policy demands. The moment the peso is eliminated, by being exchanged in its entirety for dollars, Argentina cedes a great deal of financial policy to external players.
And yet, that is precisely the issue currently plaguing Argentina’s banks.
But also, not just Argentina, despite the glibness of the apocryphal economics saying.
The problems of our global financial system are serious enough that they will require a much more holistic reckoning with the consequences of fifty years of neoliberal policy. In July, a UN joint commission released “Soaring Debt Threatens Global Prosperity”, a report that highlights the staggering rates of debt servicing endured by 40% of the developing world. If these debts were simply between states, that would be one matter, more easily resolved; but the hyper-privatized yet undertaxed nature of our global economy has the vast majority of these countries forced into austerity measures to pay off complex debts to groups like the hedge fund creditors who pushed Argentina into default in 2014.
In other words, this will keep happening until we develop policies that can offset the private-investment predation currently facing many countries in precarity.
The second problem is one that Colombia also experienced this past year, when many on both the left (with excitement) and the right (with trepidation) expected the first leftist president to bring about dramatic reforms: Milei is just one person in his government. Just as Gustavo Petro found himself embroiled in parliamentary quarrels between competing groups, so too does Milei’s victory not come with the resounding legislative presence needed to steamroll all his grand plans into operation. He, too, is going to have to negotiate.
In practice, this means that Argentinians currently thrilled by the possibility of change are again going to meet with disillusionment. Either Milei will pull off his dollarization, and they will learn that this move makes the country no less vulnerable to global shocks and creditors, or he won’t, and amid his interim achievement of “easier” goals (e.g., the demolition of whole ministries), Argentinians will experience socioeconomic shocks that again bring them to the streets in protest… or else to live, having nowhere else to go.