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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 27-01-2024 09:19

The limits of Milei’s ‘synthetic power’

While his digital energy can be translated into real world power, Javier Milei and his team must be careful not to confuse their popularity with actual muscle.

The construction of Argentina’s first-ever self-proclaimed libertarian, “anarcho-capitalist” president into the global phenomenon that he has become is inevitably tied to his incredible capacity to leverage social media to accumulate political capital. It’s in this way that Javier Milei has managed to set the agenda and lead the public opinion, despite counting with absolute minorities in both chambers of Congress, to the point where his La Libertad Avanza coalition has already secured at least two political victories over their opponents, namely the pan-Peronist Unión por la Patria and the centrists that have emerged from the ashes of Juntos por el Cambio. 

Earlier this month, Milei jetted over to Davos to lecture the global elite on the perils of “socialism,” securing multiple retweets from none other than Elon Musk, the world’s most powerful digital influencer — which is more important than the fact that he’s also the richest man in the world these days — that allowed the wild-haired economist to claim victory, adding to his political capital back home (even if it meant preaching to the choir). It’s also the reason why the face-off between the government and one of Milei’s favourite enemies, the Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) umbrella union grouping, could be seen as a technical draw in some sense – an analogical expression of power like a mass mobilisation clashed with a digital version that is in some element, synthetic, as are the messages sent from the Casa Rosada to the nation over the virtual airwaves.

Ahead of the general strike held on January 24, there was a sort of split among polarised lines about what was set to happen. Those close to Milei and his inner circle – which includes sister Karina, main advisor Santiago Caputo, his English mastiffs and Cabinet – were optimistic that the strike would undress the union leadership and expose them as part of the “caste,” an expression of the past that has no place in a nation revolutionised by the ideas of freedom. Among members of the opposition to Milei there was a sense of heroism surrounding the protest, with several union leaders suggesting more than a million people could take the streets to put a stop to a totalitarian leader that has been trampling over acquired rights. For many, it was ridiculous that the union leadership was calling for a general strike barely a month into the administration — the quickest-ever general strike in Argentina — while for others the brashness of the Milei administration’s decision to try and impose a general reform of the state through two administrative instruments (a DNU emergency decree and the so-called ‘Omnibus bill’ that together combine over 1,000 articles) bordered the tyrannical.

Union leadership with Pablo Moyano (teamsters) and Héctor Daer (healthcare) at the forefront lambasted the Milei government, with the former going as far as to say that workers would throw Economy Minister Luis ‘Toto’ Caputo “into the Riachuelo” river. Depending on whom you ask, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands marched on the Plaza del Congreso, where they demonstrated organisational skill and adherence to union mandates. Physical bodies crowded the streets, doing their best to avoid flagrantly breaking Security Minister Patricia Bullrich’s new anti-picket protocol. There was a clear intention to avoid conflict with the police and other security forces. There was also a clear intention to make sure the main event concluded quickly so that the masses could catch the last of the public transport services to make their ways back home before early suspension of the service in order to comply with the national strike. A humorous contradiction.

Power, in its many dimensions, has to do with the capacity to get things done while at the same time setting the expectations of the recipients of a certain message by virtue of a high level of confidence in what was communicated, regardless of one’s preference. If Milei derives power from his social media following, which translated into a popularity that allowed him to reach the presidency, then the CGT derives power from the potential disruptions they can create through mass mobilizations and general strikes. One digital, the other analogical. 

These mass protests were a typical element of 20th-century politics through which sectors that did not concentrate the levers of power were able to stand up and even overcome those in charge. While in most Western countries these types of manifestations are now few and far between, and generally associated with a wave of apprehension or public outcry, in Argentina they’ve become the norm to the point where the “piqueteros” have political representation, a public budget, and a large number of detractors. Given their ideological affinity with Kirchnerism and Peronism, the new “grieta” or socio-political dialectic that has taken over equates those who mobilise and cut streets with the political “caste” and their ignorant victims, or those who spuriously receive welfare plans and state assistance. They are a perfect antagonist for Milei, the libertarian revolutionary.

The power of the union system is clearly on the decline, as is the symbolic capital of organised mass mobilisations. The CGT protest was structured in a way as to minimise conflict and adhere to the anti-picket protocol, despite the boastfulness of a few leaders who called for further disobedience, demonstrating real docility. The limited duration of the main act, and the fact that the City’s main arteries were relatively open should be read as a sort of victory for the novel libertarian government, despite Bullrich’s lifelong experience in the matter on both sides. There are structural issues that speak to the decline of the union system in Argentina as well including the stagnant number of registered voters (as opposed to the exponential growth of informal labourers), a failure to protect purchasing power given consistent economic contraction, and the entrenchment of leadership to the point where dynasties have become rich at the expense of the unions they control.

At the same time, harnessing the power of the digital ecosystem has allowed a random TV panellist to outmanoeuvre the two leading political coalitions with an absolute lack of party structure in just two years. It’s given Milei a sort of laser focus that allows him to target whomever he chooses, marking them as “caste” and then unleashing the digital trolls on them. Teaming up with Musk, the president can return from Davos turned into a global superstar giving him further political capital. For him, it’s all about reach and engagement.

While this digital energy can be translated into real world power, Milei and his team must be careful not to confuse their popularity with actual muscle. Despite substantial minorities in both chambers of Congress, La Libertad Avanza managed an initial victory at the commission level in order to get their omnibus bill to the Chamber of Deputies, yet an uphill battle awaits. Negotiation and flexibility will be necessary to get it over this obstacle as the Peronist opposition seeks to keep a united front and the fragmented Juntos por el Cambio crew will expect concessions. Social support for Milei remains high but is waning, meaning the streets could get increasingly volatile if the economic situation remains frigid.

There are many benefits to being a social media influencer, but there’s also a real world out there that doesn’t conform to the boundaries of the algorithm.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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