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The Specter of Plunder Neoliberalism

By Verónica Gago

April 3, 2024

The political experiment unfolding in Argentina today has interrelated global and local dimensions. At first glance Javier Milei, the country’s recently elected anarcho-capitalist president, is just one more right-wing politician sprouting like mushrooms out of social discontent around the world; his particular eccentricities are colorful data points in an international pattern. I want to push beyond this perspective. The Milei phenomenon has unique and unsettling characteristics both anchored in local circumstances and relevant to the wider world. His ultra-neoliberal program for Argentina is an example of what I call plunder neoliberalism—a strategic war against social reproduction, a form of counterinsurgency.

On one reading, Milei is pushing a familiar neoliberal agenda. One of the features of his governance that stands out is the velocity of his ultra-neoliberal reforms. During his campaign, he promised even greater austerity measures than those demanded by the IMF; that is exactly what he has been implementing. The government’s whole package of laws and decrees points to a logic of a predatory capitalism, symbolized by the “chainsaw” he hung around his head at campaign rallies, promising to make deep cuts to the state. The velocity of this transformation since taking office—an example of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”—constitutes a capitalist revolution, accompanied by a social media campaign displacing traditional politics. Across platforms Milei both vindicates the Washington Consensus of the 1990s and, in a clear fascist gesture, the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s. He has mockingly taken on the persona of a social media troll, decreeing the irrelevance of democracy exactly 40 years after the end of the dictatorship. His colorful address at the World Economic Forum in Davos—celebrated by Musk himself on his X platform—has made him the self-styled star of a global capitalist and anti-democratic revolution.

A shift from a global to a national and local frame reveals the predatory aspects of Milei’s particular brand of plunder neoliberalism in Argentina, marked by concerted attacks on women and LGBTQI+, the poor, and the environment—all in the service of a capitalist revolution.

Milei’s offensive against women and LGBTQI+ must be understood as a reaction to the success of grassroots feminist struggles over the past decade. In his Davos talk, Milei singled out radical feminism and environmentalism as synonymous with social justice, the so-called “aberration” that he aims to eradicate. In Argentina, the feminist struggle has taken on extractivism—the plundering of common goods and especially the land speculation that directly impacts food prices. With his equation of feminism with social justice Milei is joining an ongoing battle over social reproduction in which both austerity and hunger are at stake, indirectly acknowledging that feminist struggles are not just a matter of culture wars but have a strong material dimension (even as he also joins the chorus of those attacking “gender ideology” as a form of indoctrination). The feminist movement remains resilient in the face of these attacks. The massive protests that have taken place every year on International Women’s Day since 2017 to counter multiple and interconnected forms of sexist violence are ongoing. This year’s March 8 peaceful protests and self-organizing assemblies overflowed in the streets once again, sending a strong signal of resistance to Milei and his allies.

Milei’s plunder neoliberalism is also directed at the poor and those threatened with poverty by his fast-emerging austerity policies. The direct power of finance has taken on the Foucauldian form of a “Ministry of Human Capital,” absorbing the Ministries of Labor, Education, Social Development, and Culture, headed by a minister with a degree in family science from the Opus Dei university, a self-proclaimed “expert in mindfulness, life crises and grief, relationships, and couples.” She has already slashed public support for the community-run soup kitchens run by women that feed ten million impoverished Argentinians each day and launched attacks on social welfare recipients with a cold “Hunger Games” logic. The new governing structures uphold and strengthen the power of financial interests, finding new ways to wage war on the population while reinforcing the existing debt burdens that expanded significantly through the pandemic’s “financial inclusion” policies.

A third dimension of Milei’s plunder neoliberalism is doubling down on the extractivist policies that favor mining and large agricultural interests at the expense of the wider population. His government is seeking to implement a territorial partition of the country that differentiates among existing provinces according to their possession of natural resources— in particular, lithium. This envisioned revision of Argentinian federalism recalls earlier government campaigns to seize natural wealth. Not surprisingly, Milei and his allies defend the infamous “Desert Campaign” of the nineteenth century—the deliberate genocide of indigenous populations to steal their land. Control over Argentina’s agricultural and mining resources—and their concentration in the hands of wealthy elites—is at the core of a neo-extractivist strategy with a political logic that both builds on and moves beyond its nineteenth-century origins.

Milei’s plunder neoliberalism—with its three-fold attack on women and LGBTQI+, the poor, and the environment—is a form of counterinsurgency designed to dismantle existing forms of social reproduction and resistance and to dismantle the institutions of Argentinian democracy.

It is important not to represent Milei’s victory and his fascist mode of governance as a clear expression of the voters’ will. It is worth exploring how decades of neoliberal dispossession created a permissive environment for different social groups, especially men and youth in precarious economic circumstances, to embrace Milei’s empty promises. The ideology of neoliberalism is one of individualism and self-sufficiency—a mandate to optimize and monetize one’s own resources. Citizens are to imagine themselves as agents making strategic decisions—even as an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity tie their hands. By doubling down on the idea of individual freedom and the project of “patriarchal restoration” in the family and society, Milei seeks to attract men in particular to his coalition—a flip side of his openly anti-feminist agenda. Feminists, for their part, reject the focus on individual rights as ideological and illusory, articulating a broader vision of common goods and social transformation while making very concrete demands on specific issues.

Milei’s electoral victory was the result of popular discontent with Argentina’s economic and social precarity that deepened as a result of the pandemic. After four months of his government, that precarity—intensified by hyper-inflation—can no longer be papered over by increasing household debt and community-based emergency mutual aid networks (although they continue to fight tooth and nail in the most affected regions). The economic frustration that Milei tapped into and addressed with his promises of stabilization will turn against him as his austerity measures make survival impossible for many of those who voted for him. Only the wealthy are likely to remain fiercely loyal to Milei; for them, his promise of deregulation opens up a horizon of wealth and power they could have never imagined.

Milei’s embrace of plunder neoliberalism, while a national disaster, is also relevant for the world. We can analyze the current moment in Argentina as part of a larger international trend: counterinsurgency tactics with a strong personalist and social media dimension; an “economy of obedience” boosted by inflation and calls for austerity after the pandemic; and an era of renewed violence and war. Milei wants to go down in history as the one who “hit the gas” for a new global era—from Argentina, a location at the end of the world.

Verónica Gago is a political theorist and activist working on issues of feminism and political economy.