Argentina, Milei, and the International ‘New Right’
A conversation with Agustín Laje, author of Batalla Cultural: Reflexiones Críticas para una Nueva Derecha.
The victory of Javier Milei in the Argentine presidential election open primary took the political world by storm. Milei, a self-confessed anarcho-capitalist, famously known as el peluca (the wig) because of his eccentric hair (which he claims is combed only by the invisible hand), rose to stardom as a radio host and frequent TV guest while Argentina’s economy collapsed under rapid devaluation, three-digit inflation, and rising poverty.
For 80 years the Argentine political landscape has been dominated by Peronismo, a big tent movement created by Juan Domingo Perón after WWII as a nationalist and populist third-way between Soviet communism and Western capitalism. But it took a hard turn to the left in 2003 with president Néstor Kirchner, a close ally of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. So, it might appear obvious why a populist uprising seems set to thrust a libertarian into power in Argentina.
But as The American Conservative’s Bradley Devlin has asked, how does a libertarian that wants to end the Argentine central bank and privatize state assets fall under the umbrella of the international “New Right,” which is typically more skeptical of capitalism and less scared of wielding state power? The political trends variously called the New Right, populist right, National Conservatism, or whatever you might prefer, remains a new phenomenon. Precisely because of this novelty, it lacks a unified ideological and conceptual foundation to help define the strategic direction of this movement of new populist conservative parties around the world.
One of the intellectuals making a conscious effort to make sense of this political moment and to build a coherent philosophical system for it is Agustín Laje, an Argentine political scientist and authors of books such as Generación Idiota (“The Idiot Generation”) and Batalla Cultural: Reflexiones Críticas para una Nueva Derecha (“Culture War: Critical Reflections for a New Right”). Laje has become one of the leading voices of the New Right in the Spanish-speaking world.
Laje, a close ally of Milei, spoke with The American Conservative about Milei’s rise to stardom, the apparent contradictions of the New Right and its differences with old-school conservatism, and Donald Trump. The interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity and length.
Edgar Beltran: Why did Milei win the primaries in Argentina and why is he now leading the polls for the presidential election?
Agustín Laje: Kirchnerismo, a mixture of Peronismo—a catch-all populist movement that has dominated Argentine politics for 80 years—and 21st-century socialism, has been the most significant player in Argentine politics since 2003, since the beginning of the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, now vice president of Argentina. And they manipulated public opinion through public television and radio, buying journalists, the movie industry, schools, universities and through intellectual groups paid by the state.
But there was a group of citizens who waged a culture war as we could, writing books, giving conferences, giving workshops, hosting debates, using our social media, doing podcasts, creating YouTube channels, writing on Twitter. And some of them were able to get into the mainstream media. That is the case of Javier Milei. He managed to get into the system's media, due to the intrinsic characteristics of his personality—he has a very TV-like personality.
Thus, our culture war began to be successful in terms of public opinion and the limits of public discourse. And at a certain moment Javier Milei decided that it was time to reap the fruits. We had been sowing, and now it was time to reap the fruits through an electoral struggle by creating a political party, La Libertad Avanza (Liberty Advances).
This is very important to understand Milei’s victory in the primary: public opinion in Argentina has turned to the right in such a way that the other two political alliances have had to opt for figures as far to the right as their own spaces allow. Bullrich is the most right-wing that exists within Juntos por el Cambio, the center-right coalition, and Massa is the most right-wing that exists within Kirchnerismo.
You do not have any politician talking in the name of social justice, you do not have politicians talking in the name of social and collective rights, you do not have politicians talking about redistribution of wealth, and you do not have politicians in campaign talking about leftist cultural issues; you do not have politicians at this moment raising feminist flags, multicolor flags, or using the so-called “inclusive language.”
They have realized that the culture war in Argentina is beginning to be lost by those sectors, and even if they still believe in these ideas, they cannot politically win based on them. In 2019, things were very different, Alberto Fernández—now president, then the candidate of the Kirchnerista left—in his campaign appeared with the green scarf of abortion, raised rainbow flags, met with feminists, exhibited his drag queen son, and tried to speak in inclusive language. That was only four years ago. Today, it would the biggest political blunder a candidate could make, but it shows that the culture war has taken effect.
Those are the ideological conditions to understand Milei. On the other hand, you have the material conditions: Argentina is going through a thundering economic, political, and social crisis. Some basic numbers that may be useful for readers who want to understand this: We are already heading towards 150 percent inflation; we have 45 percent of the population below the poverty line; six out of ten children do not eat every day; we have a fiscal deficit; we have a huge devaluation of the currency; the country has 2 million more poor people per year—in a country of 42 million people; we have around 160 different taxes, and one of the highest tax pressures in the world.
E.B.: Something that has confused some in the United States is that, although Milei is allied with the New Right—as he claims to be an admirer of Trump, endorses Bolsonaro—he seems to be cut from a different cloth, doesn’t he? In the United States, the populist right shares a certain level of skepticism of the free market and capitalism, while Milei is a confessed anarcho-capitalist on a theoretical level and libertarian in practical terms. How does Milei fit into the New Right?
A.L.: In practice, what we can call the “New Right” is an effort to articulate three sectors that in principle would seem incompatible, but that in the framework of the 21st century are becoming more and more compatible. These three sectors are libertarians, conservatives, and sovereigntists or patriots.
Now, not all libertarians, conservatives, and sovereigntists are compatible with the New Right, but only some of their particular manifestations. For example, a progressive libertarian does not fit into the New Right, but the most important libertarian politician in history, Ron Paul, was allied with conservatives and was completely opposed to the abortion agenda. Among conservatives you have some more flexible, others more dogmatic who can only read politics under religious glasses, these cannot belong in that articulation. Finally, you have the patriots or sovereigntists. On the one hand, you have the statists and on the other, those who do not confuse love for the homeland with love for the state. With the former, it is difficult. With the latter, it is possible to articulate an alliance.
When these three forces exist, dialogue, and reach an agreement, what we call the New Right appears.
Now, depending on the circumstances of each country, one of these three expressions will take the lead within the alliance. In the case of Spain, it is quite expected that the one taking the lead in this alliance will be the sovereigntist or patriotic sector because the problems afflicting Spain have to do with the E.U. government in Brussels, with illegal immigration, and with a government that has a 2030 Agenda ministry. In the case of the United States, something relatively similar could be said. In addition, the United States has a geopolitical situation of confrontation with China that calls for protecting American industry from unfair competition against a political force that uses slaves to generate wealth, which leads to a certain skepticism with the free market on the right.
Now, in Argentina, it is to be expected that, under the economic conditions of the country in the last 20 years, the sector capable of articulating and leading the new right will be libertarianism. But when you look at Milei’s space with a magnifying glass, you will find the three parts of the alliance.
E.B.: But what differentiates the New Right from the traditional right? Is it a change in attitude, is it a change in priorities, is it both?
A.L.: There are several things. First, the equation is relatively new. We have already seen this alliance between libertarians and conservatives with Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. But here you add a new member, which are the sovereigntist sectors that—in a 21st century where you are no longer governed only by the Leviathan, but by NGOs and supranational organizations—appears as a new political actor in a potential right-wing alliance.
On the other hand, there is a novelty in the political forms. If you look at the styles of the leaders of the New Right, they are all charismatic styles. You mentioned Bolsonaro and [Santiago] Abascal [ed. note: leader of the Vox party in Spain] and we were talking about Milei; you also have Donald Trump. They are disruptive leaderships that have nothing to do with the restraint and meekness typical of the right wing of the 20th century.
Thirdly, this New Right has a profoundly anti-elitist discourse; that is to say, this new right wing repudiates the power elites: It rejects the corrupt big businesses; it rejects the system’s media; it rejects owners of social media; it rejects directors of international organizations; it rejects large multinationals. The right in the 20th century did not oppose these structures, but now they see some private or non-state entities as a threat.
Fourthly, the New Right has a populist discourse. For the first time, the right resorts to a discourse that claims popular representation. We say now that we represent the people: The elites are by definition are anti-people, those who dominate the state apparatus are anti-people, they are the political caste, as Milei would say, or the deep state, as Donald Trump would say.
That populist discourse has been snatched from the left, which is ceasing to be populist and becoming more and more fragmentary, appealing to more and more specific identities. It no longer seeks to speak to minorities, such as the LGBT people, but within them, it also separates them into transgender, gender fluid, and all this diversity. All this ridiculous fragmentation is exactly the opposite of the New Right’s populist discourse.
For the first time in a long time, the right is gathering broad sympathies in the working class while the left finds its natural electorate in the upper classes, in the children of the rich. What is the favorite electorate of the left? The university students who live off their parents. In Chile, that was the sector that voted for Gabriel Boric, then the left-wing candidate, and catapulted him to the presidency, in Argentina that sector is totally dominated by Kirchnerismo.
This New Right has a revolutionary ethos, as opposed to a left that is beginning to embrace a conservative ethos. I know this might sound odd, but in what sense do I say it? If we take “conservative” as that which wants to preserve a status quo, the left is the one who today want to preserve a status quo in Argentina, while the right is trying to destroy this status quo.
E.B.: There is a certain sector on the right in the United States that does not want to get involved in the culture war, on LGBT issues, abortion, or racism because they say those issues are not popular. This is happening recently especially with abortion, now that the right has lost several referendums in conservative states on the issue. So, they say that we have to focus on the economy, on the real problems of the people, because they believe that the other things distract and lose votes. Do you think that the right should give in on these aspects to win more votes?
A.L.: The game has two different logics. On the one hand, you have the culture war where we are not subject to the popular vote. The objective of any culture war is to establish the direction of public opinion. Therefore, in culture war, one does not ask oneself whether this issue is more popular or less popular than another. One in culture war asks oneself whether I should try to orient public opinion this way or that way around a specific issue.
The other logic of the game is that of the electoral battle. In an electoral battle, one has to shape a political discourse that is appetizing to the masses. The electoral battle has to do with getting votes and not losing them. In that context, one can tread a little more carefully because those are the demands of the game.
Now, to say that the right should not get involved in cultural issues is to continue a failed strategy that has been the strategy of the old right, where they thought that the right should only talk about the economy and security. That awakened a vicious circle from which it has been practically impossible to get out.
The right was satisfied with adjusting finances, if anything, when it came to power and improving security. In the meantime, the left is doing a work of cultural reform, is fighting a culture war, it is changing the orientation of public opinion and, through that cultural discourse, the left, dominating the narrative, comes to power. And what does it do? It destroys the economy and destroys the conditions of the social order that allow you to live securely.
How do you get out of this vicious circle? By having a right that gives a culture war because individuals bet on the one who sells them the best story and the one who does that, in general, is the left.
E.B.: Call it what you will, be it hegemony, cultural Marxism or whatever: It is clear that the left has a quasi-monopoly of social and cultural institutions in the West. What do you think were the mistakes of the right that allowed this monopoly and what can it do to remedy it?
A.L.: This monopoly has to do with the domination, in the first place, of the academic world, which has consequently generated a domination in the world of communication, in the world of the arts and in the entertainment industry, and which has been combined in the 21st century with the political and economic interests of certain elites. In other words, for the first time the left finds that its ideological interests can be articulated with the interests of big pharmaceutical companies, articulable with the interests of United Nations bureaucrats, articulable with social engineers concerned about overpopulation, articulable with multimillionaires who hold enormous foundations and supposedly philanthropic NGOs.
The right made the mistake to neglect the home of culture, which is the university. Universities are factories of culture and there the right thought that there was nothing significant to do, with the exception of the faculty of economics. Now, philosophy, sociology, art, anthropology, history, ethnology, even the faculties of law and political science, which for a long time were more balanced, are also taken over by the left.
As I told you before, in the Cold War there was a prevailing discussion about the economic system. The right stayed there, but the left began to migrate very quickly towards culture. Gramsci already represents an early turn towards culture, the Frankfurt School is a turn towards culture, the French theory of the ’60s and ’70s is a turn towards culture, the gender paradigms of the ’90s are a migration towards culture, so that was the area where the right did absolutely nothing and that is the area that is now trying to recover, but way too late.
E.B.: Ironically, this anti-elite sentiment of the New Right must be aimed precisely at taking over the elites or building new elites.
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A.L.: Exactly. In the first place, it would be to use this popular force to confront those who hold power far above the people. An owner of social networks, the director of a United Nations agency, the one who manages the budget of an entire country, the ones who hold a communications oligopoly—these are elites to which the popular force must be opposed and that is what the new right is trying to do, but if you do not also build a “counter-academia,” if you do not have organic intellectuals who generate an alternative academia, you will not have a clear orientation of what to do.
Few people are interested in abstract principles. In general, when people think of politics they do not think of abstract principles, but those abstract principles are fundamental because without them you cannot move on to strategically organized action. Behind all the great revolutions, there have always been great thinkers and there have always been great discussions about abstract principles. The French Revolution is inexplicable without the Enlightenment; the Russian Revolution is inexplicable without Marxism-Leninism.
The great revolutions in history have always had an intelligentsia that, generally, is not part of the academic establishment, but rather it has been a counter-academia that has begun to corrode the official academy. That is something that the New Right has to build up.