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ARGENTINA | 06-01-2024 07:23

Pablo Gerchunoff: ‘People voted for a scream of fury… inside it lies change’

Renowned economist, essayist and researcher Pablo Gerchunoff analyses the ascent of Javier Milei to the Presidency.

Pablo León Gerchunoff, 79, is an economist, essayist, researcher and specialist in economic history in general, but in particular of economic policy as applied in Argentina throughout its history.

In a feature interview, he reflects upon and analyses the ascent and triumph of Javier Milei, one of the most disruptive presidents our country has ever had, due to the transversal cross-section of his voters and the distant eras of history invoked by the head of state’s personality.

 

You have said that [former president Raúl] Alfonsín knew how to capture the spirit of his times, as did [fellow former presidents Carlos] Menem and Néstor Kirchner. Along those lines do you think that Javier Milei is also capturing the spirit of his times?

The first thing I would say is that these are times which are changing at a very dizzying pace, so that almost for sure he clearly captured for an instant the annoyance and fatigue of society. I don’t know if that was because he really had the intelligence and intuition to capture it. As sometimes happens, for example with Alfonsín, permanent convictions simply overlap with the times, so much so that somebody captures them without their stubborn thinking making contact with reality. And I believe that from the pandemic onwards, the scream of Milei – because it cannot be described otherwise – overlapped with society’s perception and sensation of annoyance. 

 

In a previous interview we had spoken about something characteristic of your thinking: the two nostalgias for the Peronist Argentina of 1945 and the more conservative nostalgia, we might say, for the Centenary of 1910. Now Milei’s discourse takes us back in time to the nostalgias of the 19th century, firstly for the 1880s and then even further back to the generation of 1837.

He has indeed gone back to the generation of 1837.

 

What does it mean going back to an ever more remote past in the search to try and find a new beacon?

What I am going to tell you has nothing do with his government because when one comes into office, a whole lot of things change but that emphasis he places on the 19th century and the conviction with which he transmits the idea that everything started to fall apart in Argentina 100 or more years ago reveals a reactionary spirit. That’s not a value judgement, it’s a way of thinking about reality and a nostalgia for a remote past. In his case we’ve never seen anybody who thinks of such remote times as ideal. And when I say reactionary, what I’d like to convey is that when he says over 100 years ago, he means [former president Hipólito] Yrigoyen. 

 

And universal suffrage.

Exactly. And when he says Yrigoyen, he means the secret ballot and compulsory universal male suffrage. In that sense I think he transmits something always present in libertarian thinking, not totally nor in all of them, but a certain mistrust of democracy. Because social democrats or socialists used to say that the reality of inequality was like a fox in the chicken coop where the fox could eat all the chickens. If I remember correctly, Benjamin Franklin, who had quite a bit of the libertarian about him, spoke of wolves among sheep but he was referring more to the wolf as democracy with the sheep obliged to defend themselves. The discussion about democracy was very intense in the 19th and 20th centuries and we arrived late in 1912 with our reforms to free the suffrage. Beforehand it was very much a matter of wait and see but it is worth bearing in mind that somebody mentioned by Milei in his speech on the steps outside Congress was Julio Argentino Roca, who was against the Ley Sáenz Peña [electoral reform], not in favour, afterwards fighting against the law’s effects in broadening democratic participation in public life to ever greater masses. Milei is honestly like that and the question we have to ask is to what degree that disconnects him with the present. One tends to take a linear outlook on history, believing that the past has been left behind, that the present is the present and that the future will be different. And maybe not, perhaps the future might turn out to be something very similar to the past and maybe he knows how to capture that.

 

At the same time this is contradictory with his more populist approach to the masses, which is not typical of elitists, who mistrust the people. It would seem, on the contrary, that he trusts in the masses as the true force behind his drive.

That is completely true. I would say that instead of the words you used, let us put the word “personalism” on his relationship with society, people, and the masses. Roca was also pretty populist, if we want to use a word which was not of those times.

 

Like a conservative paternalism.

Exactly. In that sense he is a novel personality who brings libertarian ideas to us, ideas of liberty if you like – that’s debatable. He brings us libertarian ideas on the social base which supported him and, as we have all seen with some perplexity, it is a transversal cross-section and in that sense there is an abysm between him and [former president Mauricio] Macri who is a personality of the ‘círculo rojo’ establishment. Milei is a pleb, also unlike Roca. In that sense Milei is a 21st-century personality and we have to ask ourselves again whether he is perhaps capturing the spirit of Argentina at the end of the first quarter of the 21st century.

 

The changes you saw in the first week of Milei, not dollarising, not dynamiting the Central Bank, recruiting Macri people, a certain pragmatism, if it could be called that, does that calm you down a bit? How would you judge that?

Firstly, it strikes my attention and in that sense I take my hat off to Milei. The word “pragmatic” has been used. I don’t like that word much, it’s insufficient for what I wish to transmit and I cannot find another word to replace it but there is a certain subtlety in what he did. In [the Molière play] Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain is an extraordinary personality who contracts a philosopher to converse with him for his enlightenment, a classic of the bourgeoisie, and at a given moment the philosopher tells him: “There is poetry and there is prose. We are speaking in prose.” Jourdain is taken by surprise and says: “How come we’re talking in prose?” Monsieur Jourdain is speaking in prose without knowing it. Much of what Milei has done since he arrived is to speak in the language of Argentines without knowing it. A concrete example: he is thinking through something which looks like a stabilisation plan. We shall see if it succeeds or not. Now I’ll give you a brief historic rewind. He has some things of [Alfredo] Gómez Morales and much of [Adalbert] Krieger Vasena. Afterwards, if you like, we can chat about that in a bit more detail. He has a great deal of [Juan] Sourrouille. He has quite a bit of [Domingo] Cavallo, although Cavallo opened up the economy in a way which distinguished him from the other plans. What I mean is that there are classic programmes of stabilisation and growth in Argentina. Milei does not transmit that idea conceptually but that idea has gone taking hold of him. In the Argentina of Krieger Vasena, Argentina fixed its exchange rate, introduced export duties and increased industrial protectionism so that industry could grow and modernise. That idea, in broad brush-strokes, is present in Milei. Now as an administrator, the anarcho-minimalist Milei is Krieger Vasena.

 

Does that model of development throw libertarian ideas out the window, might we say that he left those ideas at the door of Government House?

I don’t know if he left them. It might be that at nightfall he starts thinking again in those terms. But he is a responsible man who has to govern and when he governs, he must not fall in love with his philosophy, rather setting it aside to govern and face the unforeseen, the difficulties presented by reality. It’s not that he deliberately leaves anything aside but that at every moment he has to make a decision and the sequence of those decisions goes towards making up a different Milei to the philosopher, if we can call him that.

 

I see you as more optimistic than I imagined.

I don’t know if you haven’t already told me that. 

 

On other occasions, yes.

I’m not just talking about you, simply everybody tells me that about anything I say. That has to do with the fact that I do not believe myself to be an optimist. I believe myself to be, to use Hirschman’s word, a possibilist. All the time I’m looking at who is governing and what is their diagonal exit route from something which seems impossible to overcome. That tends to be confused with optimism. 

 

In our last interview, you said: “I don’t know if Juntos por el Cambio is veering towards the right but Macri is.” Has Macri interpreted a changing society’s drift to the right in moving closer to Milei? Did he see before anybody else the phenomenon underway and is his own shift to the right an artífice of that? Did he help along society’s move to the right or did he simply join something happening anyway?

No, Macri had a political intuition of the first magnitude. He saw Milei coming along ahead of any other politician, I would say. Many people had spotted him beforehand but he saw Milei as a political project ahead of anybody else. That hunch showed great political talent on his part. Now what happened? He fell in love with the creature he had constructed in his mind and falling in love with that creature, he bet on and was firmly convinced that there would be a Milei-Bullrich run-off but [Sergio] Massa got in the way. And when Massa got in the way with Juntos por el Cambio vanishing from the second round, his marvellously talented intuition ended up destroying his own political force with a deadly blow.

 

His idea would have been Juntos por el Cambio winning with Milei as the ally, not the other way round.

The first step would have been a Bullrich-Milei run-off, which is why I say that his failure was Massa sticking his nose in there. Afterwards I believe that yes, he obviously would have preferred somebody from his own political creation winning, he would have capitalised that far more. In that sense he had a hunch which showed much talent and then a huge subsequent failure as to his nose as to what the results were going to be.

 

Did society veer to the right or was it simply a protest vote expressed via an  anarchism which does not belong to the right? Could it be that society voted for Milei but not for privatisations, fiscal surpluses or economic policies, which went unnoticed but rather because it perceived his anarchistic shriek like Trotskyist yells at a determined moment?

I believe that people voted for a scream of fury. Society does not need to know or understand it but the intuition is that inside that scream of fury, to use the fashionable word, there lies change. There was a promise of change and whether that means privatising or not privatising a company really seems secondary to me. Later on we’ll see.

 

Can a plan be carried forward when you have so few legislative representatives with even the Supreme Court opposed and not a single governor. Is it possible to put any plan into practice, whatever it might be?

If we were having this conversation in a European country with a parliamentary regime, I would tell you: Yes, it is possible. It is possible for somebody with 30 percent of the vote and few representatives to somehow put together a government and advance. There the idea of pacts and transactions is fundamental and he does not have that. But in a presidential democracy that becomes considerably more difficult. Nevertheless, the political scientists, like the economists, invent conceptual categories and multiply them until they reach 1,492, for example. Among others, presidential democracy based on coalition, like Brazil, shall we say, which comes out of fragmentation and Argentina is suffering a process of political fragmentation. So I don’t know how this story is going to end, but what I do know is that he has the obligation and the duty to try and in order to try at any time, he is going to have to arrive at the idea of a more stable and deeper pact with other political forces.

 

Do you find any reminders, similarities or inspiration in Milei from non-Argentine phenomena like [former US president Donald] Trump, [former Brazil president Jair] Bolsonaro, [Italian Prime Minister Giorgia] Meloni, [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban and other movements of the extreme populist right which have enjoyed electoral success?

Milei, seen from afar, looks a lot like some of the figures you named. Placed in the Argentine economic tempest he does not look like any of them and does not even have time to pick up the telephone and ask Trump: What would you do in a situation like Argentina’s? Because Trump could not answer him anything and neither could Bolsonaro, I would say. 

Milei is in some very difficult and chaotic economic dynamics which he has to face with his own weapons and I don’t know how it will go for him, we’ll see. Any resemblance to them is diluted every time the Milei government moves forward. I cannot imagine, for example, Milei accumulating sufficient force to reach the end of his term with any idea like seizing Capitol Hill. Something which seems interesting to me: no matter what he might think deep inside, I see Milei as a more democratic figure than Trump and even more democratic than Bolsonaro.

 

And more intellectually honest.

Definitely more honest in almost any sense, also intellectually.

 

What role has Milei come to play in Argentine history? Was it necessary to hit falling real wages and purchasing-power even harder? Was it a necessary medicine which society had to undergo? Is it useful for Argentine history?

We are still unable to make a value judgement on whether it will be useful or not for Argentine history. I’m very far removed from the reflections over the economic programmes of an Argentina to come, I know them, I know the discussion but it does not interest me as a personal project. Now what I can tell you is that the programmes of Massa, Milei and Patricia Bullrich were almost as alike as three drops of water. There was a sense of radical change without shades of grey since we were faced with all the three main candidates having that vocation for giddy change. Far be it from me, I lock myself up at home every time I face anything like that, but of the programmes which I have seen or were explained to me by those who designed them, I would say that if they are honest today, they should say so. What Milei really did, not what he thought beforehand but what he really did, seems pretty similar to what we had in mind.

 

What final message would you leave to somebody who goes so far back in history with nostalgia for the mid-19th century, having dedicated all your life to economic history and also happening to be an economist? If he were to ask you for a reflection, what would you tell him?

I would tell you my own reflection about history itself. Firstly, a phrase of Antonio Gramsci: “History teaches but has no pupils.” Secondly, a phrase of [Giovanni] Gentile about [Benito] Mussolini: “To seek analogies in history is to falsify history.” Beware of analogies. When my nephew comes along and says to me: “What does this look like?” I don’t know what it looks like. I look at it as a phenomenon in itself which has some evocative things for me and for all of us who experienced the Menem period, something is doubtless evoked but only that because we have never seen a president with these ideas, so weak and taking on a programme which seems impossible.

 

Walter Benjamin said that we will never see history’s flashes of lightning again because we will always see them with eyes which are not of that same moment. 

Indeed.


 

Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.

Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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