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OP-ED | 20-01-2024 06:57

More holes than a Swiss cheese?

No matter the distance from home, Argentine leaders always seem to be speaking to domestic galleries when addressing international audiences.

However disruptive a novelty he might be, President Javier Milei observed a certain continuity with his predecessors in his first appearance abroad – no matter the distance from home, Argentine leaders always seem to be speaking to domestic galleries when addressing international audiences. The bulk of his fervid diatribe to the global elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos last Wednesday was cut and pasted from his campaign rhetoric, even if his defence of even the most monopolistic extremes of capitalism would have gladdened the likes of Elon Musk. Thus the word “caste” is hardly common parlance abroad outside India yet was mechanistically exported to the Alpine conclave without any elaboration.

Milei was straining the problem of induction in extrapolating Argentina’s past experience to the world’s future with his warning of the West in danger – hardly original since last year was the centenary of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes with that sun yet to set while this year’s literary centenary, Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (“The Magic Mountain”), might seem to evoke Davos – but such criticism might seem unduly harsh given Milei’s total lack of international experience. Yet the local premises of the history lesson he gave his select audience were also unsound.

His starting-point of the 19th century (anything beforehand in the world is economic prehistory in his book) sees an Argentina free of any state regulation or democratic dependence rising to become the “first world power” and “the richest country in the world” by its close. Yet seeing the pre-democratic Argentina of under eight million people with over a third still illiterate as the planet’s leading country beyond being the granary of the world is a stretch – a middle class still awaiting empowerment remained in its infancy despite impressive upward social mobility with little sign of the “heroic entrepreneurs” praised by Milei in Davos. His perception of state absence in that period is also way off the mark – indeed it would be truer of the first half of that century with the chaotic strife of the caudillo warlords, despite its dominant figure being the “tyrant anointed by God,” Juan Manuel de Rosas. Much of the success of that second half stemmed from a sustained drive to create a modern nation-state and a national identity via such initiatives as public education from Domingo Faustino Sarmiento onwards and military conscription under Julio Argentino Roca, with the state walking tall.

Yet Milei is not a history professor but a political leader and should most aptly be judged as such. Whatever the veracity of his sweeping vision of Western civilisation as jeopardised by “the advance of socialism” and “radical feminism,” placing all his perceived enemies in the same collectivist bag complicates him gratuitously in the here and now with his reform mega-package at the mercy of a fragmented Congress – at such a crucial stage in parliamentary approval Milei has also unnecessarily removed from the scene such key players as Cabinet Chief Nicolás Posse and Economy Minister Luis Caputo with their inclusion in his Davos entourage. Also gratuitous was the injection of the abortion issue into this business forum – not only did this flout a consensus in much of the world but it also muddles his domestic agenda when not on any immediate horizon. At least this might be assumed to please Pope Francis, with whom Milei proposes to touch base more than once in this year, but the libertarian lion was also offensive on this front, needlessly including Christian Democrats in his long list of collectivist foes of freedom.

Milei’s Davos speech would lend itself to an analysis far exceeding the space available but this country has other urgencies. That address was a 20-minute monologue without any further debate – Milei was not required to substantiate his absolute defence of free enterprise (even if leading to virtual monopolies negating free competition) when capitalism surged in his beloved 19th century precisely thanks to a rules-based world order enshrined in constitutions and nation-states. Nor was he asked to explain the explosive growth of post-Mao Communist China for over four decades until faltering since the pandemic. 

In conclusion, Milei came across as almost a religious prophet offering a binary and simplistic vision which had little place in the hard-headed business world of mixed economies congregating at the World Economic Forum in Davos – in itself perhaps as far removed from the real world in its ideas as the exclusive sanatorium of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

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