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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 01-06-2024 05:56

The greatest show on earth

Milei is playing the leading part in an imaginative cosmic drama he himself dreamed up in which, backed by heavenly forces, he battles the leftist foes of everything that is good.

Many politicians think the Roman satirist Juvenal had it right when he sardonically pointed out that, if you gave people “bread and circuses,” they would be happy enough with their lot and would not concern themselves with public affairs. Javier Milei seems to agree. Though in this part of the world bread – meaning hard cash – is in short supply and, unlike his predecessors, the libertarian is determined to keep things that way until inflation has been squeezed out of the system, he is more than willing to provide the populace with the modern equivalent of ancient circuses in which slaves hacked away at one another or got devoured by ravenous wild beasts to make a Roman holiday.

As luck would have it, in the West at least tastes are less bloodthirsty than they were back then, or still are in countries such as Iran in which public hangings of protesters, homosexuals and others continue to take place. Nowadays, the scenes of carnage so many delight in can be generated by computers, so there is no need for flesh-and-blood participants.

To keep people entertained while they suffer the rigours of what he proudly describes as the fiercest bout of fiscal belt-tightening the world has ever seen, Milei is playing the leading part in an imaginative cosmic drama he himself dreamed up in which, backed by heavenly forces, he battles the leftist foes of everything that is good. Woe betide the foreign potentate who dares to confront him; like the Spanish socialist Pedro Sánchez, he will, metaphorically, be put to the sword and sent straight to hell.

In this undertaking Milei has been remarkably successful. He must be the only person alive who can persuade large numbers of youngsters to attend a rock concert in which he stars and then, to round off, instead of belting out another atrocious song, have them listen patiently to a lengthy and highly technical lecture on economics. Perhaps he exaggerated a bit when he said he was the world’s most influential fighter for freedom, but he has certainly made a name for himself on the international stage where his performances are feted by a host of plutocrats who enjoy being told they are the saviours of mankind, as well as by ordinary folk who are fed up with the way things are and would very much like to believe that the Argentine prophet offers them an attractive alternative.

In the virtual universe in which Milei feels most at home, he is up there with the best of them; if Rishi Sunak had a fraction of the charisma the President’s fans credit him with, he would be the UK’s prime minister for decades to come. Down here on planet Earth, however, Milei’s ability to control events is less evident. Of course, this could change. One should never underestimate the power of abstract ideas. For thousands of years they have done far more than anything else to shape events. Had it not been for the many religious and political doctrines – some benign, others quite appalling – that germinated from a notion or a phrase that suddenly occurred to someone, human societies, had they developed at all, would surely have become very different to the ones we now take for granted. 

Milei wants to persuade people that everything started to go wrong when greedy politicians and their hirelings deprived them of their individual freedom, so once they get it back, the world, led by Argentina, will stride into a golden age. It is an appealing message. Not only here, where economic conditions for most are deplorable, but also in most other Western countries, there are many who feel that their prospects have become far gloomier than they had expected and blame it on the local politicians, most of who these days are bland middle-class technocrats who seem incapable of understanding the world they live in. This no doubt is why almost everywhere politicians are in bad odour and many sitting governments, including ones that are relatively free from corruption and by all accounts have been reasonably efficient, fear that, when the opportunity arises, the electorate will give them the boot. 

The sharp decline in the birth rate, which in most developed countries and many poor ones has fallen well below the level needed for the population to survive for much longer, is a striking symptom of the malaise that has overcome much of the world. Another is the apparent fact that in many prosperous countries only a minority of young men would be willing to take up arms in defence of their native land. Why should they, if they have had it drummed into them that it is a thoroughly rotten place?

Milei speaks as though he believed he knew what would have to be done to cure Western civilisation of what looks very much like a death wish. The extreme self-confidence he exhibits when chiding the phenomenally rich for their failings at Davos and other venues they favour has helped make him a star of the “new right,” even though he does not have that much in common with other members of the movement, such as Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen and Giorgia Meloni, who – like their supporters – are obsessed with the dangers posed by mass immigration from Muslim countries and have little interest in economic theories.

While Milei’s resounding success in the virtual world of social media will have done much to bolster his ego, it has yet to benefit Argentina. His many admirers in the United States, Europe and here at home are still reluctant to invest large amounts of money in a country which has let them down badly on far too many occasions. For understandable reasons, they fear that his “experiment” will fizzle out long before it has produced anything of value even though, to the surprise of many, the opinion polls suggest that most Argentines are determined to stick with it despite the deep recession the country is going through and warnings from liberal economic sages that it could last for many months, even years, to come.

This could happen, but the fact that Argentina does possess enough marketable resources to allow it to begin recovering from its self-inflicted wounds while potential investors are making up their minds suggest that Milei could reach his initial objective, which is to shore up the country’s financial structure. By itself, this would surely enable the economy to perform far better than it did under the Kirchnerites and others like them whose answer to everything that worried them was to make the printing press whirl even faster. ​

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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