Argentina protests offer a lesson for the international struggle against the rise of the far-right

The resistance we’re seeing in Argentina shows how to build strength that is needed worldwide, to stand up against the resurgence of the far right.
Last Updated : 21 February 2024, 09:14 IST
Last Updated : 21 February 2024, 09:14 IST

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By Phoebe V Moore and Luciana Zorzoli for The Conversation

In the first 24 hours of his reign, the new president of Argentina, Javier Milei, halved the number of previously existing government ministries in a manner resembling a dystopian science fiction novel. Milei amalgamated education, culture, labour and social welfare into a “Ministry of Human Capital” led by his friend and former television producer, Sandra Pettovello.

Milei is a far-right populist leader who labels himself an “anarcho-capitalist libertarian”. In his presidential campaign, he used social media expertly, attracting many young men and those who feel left out of the political class and want something different.

More than 40 per cent of Argentina’s population is very poor. These people, who sometimes do not know where their next meal is coming from, voted for the “complete reset” promised by Milei in viral memes and videos where he brandished a chainsaw or hoisted a huge USD 100 bill with his face on it.

Milei admires western versions of cutthroat capitalism. His legislation mimics the Washington Consensus fiscal policy “discipline” of the 1990s, and makes explicit attacks on human and workers’ rights, social welfare, and all forms of political activism.

Thus, comparisons have been made with 1976, when an Argentine military junta seized political power of the country. After taking power, the dictatorship regressively reformed labour relations. Given this history, and the rising autocracy that is now sweeping much of the world, it’s no surprise that tensions are arising.

Milei’s radical economic programme is designed to clear the terrain for a free-market society. People will supposedly be unleashed from the perils of the welfare state, free to become millionaires and consume the suddenly flowing bounty of goods and services in a capitalist paradise.

Milei’s “shock therapy” started by weakening the value of Argentina’s currency by 50 per cent against the US dollar. This move has driven up prices, particularly for internationally obtained goods like medicine, and has eroded the purchasing power of salaries and pensions. The currency devaluation was also accompanied by severe funding cuts to health, social benefits, culture, science and more.

Just 45 days after the new government was instituted, the General Confederation of Labour called for a general strike. Businesses and educational institutions closed, and tens of thousands of Argentinians took to the streets in protest at the severe cuts to funding and the outright market-facing stance that Milei is taking.

Popular assemblies, student gatherings, and judicial and political actions are limiting the government’s initial plans. In January, an Argentine court suspended the labour reforms Milei had brought in by emergency decree after taking office.

Under those reforms, the probation period for workers would have increased, employees who were dismissed would have received less compensation, and maternity leave would have been shortened.

Argentina is no stranger to left-wing mass mobilisations. But this one stands out for its aesthetic prowess.

Protestors held signs with the message “La patria no se vende” (the homeland is not for sale). They carried plaques depicting a father and son, where the son asks “Papa, que es rendirse?” (Father, what is surrender?), to which the adult replies: “No se, hijo, somos Peronistas” (I don’t know, son, we are Peronistas).

Peronism is a political movement based on the ideas and legacy of former Argentine president Juan Perón (1895–1974), who called for the state to take a leading role in the economy.

Another protest sign resembled a health warning label frequently seen on sugar-laden treats. But, rather than “Exceso de azucar” (too much sugar), it said “Exceso vaciamiento de la cultura” (too much cultural destruction).

One of us (Phoebe Moore) attended the general strike protest in Buenos Aires on January 24 with a group of social science researchers working for Argentina’s national research agency, Conicet. Their trade union represents state and public sector workers.

Conicet researchers Julia Soul, Clara Marticorena and Maurizio Atzeni said that public sector workers have been specifically targeted by Milei’s radical reforms. Soul stated: “Milei asks: ‘What do state researchers do? What do we produce?’ Apparently, nothing. We are called ‘gnocci’.” Gnocci is Argentinian slang with a similar meaning to “jobsworth” in the UK.

Milei has repeatedly engaged in a cultural battle against the idea of universal rights, the provision of basic needs, and anything held in common. He advocates for the privatisation of education, healthcare, and even the introduction of market forces into child adoption processes to gain “efficiency”.

However, according to Atzeni: “Public research in science and technology systems has always been closely intertwined with innovation”. This can be seen in the development of treatments for health issues such as the Chagas disease, and new patents for genetically modified crops.

Marticorena warned that Milei’s actions are going to lead to reduced state sovereignty. Ignoring local talent even where it has been successful and recognised internationally will probably lead to a brain drain, diminishing the ability of the state to make independent assessments and decisions. This concern has been repeatedly voiced by members of the scientific community, who warn that prioritising private interests and granting advantages to private capital will undermine Argentina’s economic, social and cultural development prospects.

Milei’s radical organisation policies align with privatisation and neoliberal capitalist mythology. But fundamentally, he aims to reshape relationships between the state, civil society, and the market. This is something that Argentine society has already experienced, and to which it responded for more than 40 years by saying “Nunca más” (never again).

History doesn’t always repeat itself, but we may have to go through some battles more than once. The resistance we’re seeing in Argentina shows how to build strength that is needed worldwide, to stand up against the resurgence of the far right.

(Phoebe V Moore is a Professor of Management and the Futures of Work, at the University of Essex; and Luciana Zorzoli is a Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations, at the Essex Business School, University of Essex)

Published 21 February 2024, 09:14 IST

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