Milei's Victory In Argentina: The Cult Of Personal Freedom At All Costs
Javier Milei has scored a stunning victory on a populist far-right platform promising maximum personal liberties and a shrunken state. But the deep rifts and economic hardship in Argentinian society present huge risks for the nation and its incoming president.
Updated Nov. 20, 2023 at 12:55 p.m.
BUENOS AIRES – Riding the cult of unfettered personal liberty, Javier Milei, the far-right populist Libertarian candidate, has scored a stunning victory to become Argentina's next president. The rival to Milei in Sunday's second-round runoff, Economy Minister Sergio Massa, called him to concede, trailing by a 10-point margin after nearly 90% of the vote was counted.
It's another populist victory in a major country (Indeed, former U.S .President Donald Trump was quick to congratulate Milei whom he said would "Make Argentina Great Again!"), and defied pollsters and the political establishment that questioned whether voters would elect someone who'd vowed to "blow up" the central bank and carry out major changes to the economy and politics.
Milei had seemingly swayed a significant enough portion of public opinion by promising to unleash a new era where personal freedom would be supreme. Regularly exercising his freedom to shout at viewers, he had declared that, if elected, he would maximize liberties at the expense of state powers. But after October’s first-round results showed Miei trailing Massa, the runoff realized the worst fears of many that a society based almost solely around individualism was here to stay in Argentina
Against the establishment
It's easy to criticize the Argentine republic today, mired as it is in economic problems and unable to assure citizens a minimal level of public goods essential for peaceful living. The economy is in crisis, inflation runs at abnormal rates, the streets are unsafe, and inequalities have ballooned.
Meanwhile, social media warriors keep fanning the primacy of personal rights over the collective. They are aided by the internet’s grammar that allows individuals to create autonomous online networks, needing neither references nor sanction from authority figures on what to think and whom to follow.
In parallel, there’s growing disapproval of established structures — from the state itself to political parties, trade unions, and even courts of law — which acted, or at least were perceived, as representing the disparate classes and stakeholders of Argentinian society.
The discourse thus seems to be moving toward paradigms that assert the individual as the arbiter of legitimacy and reject the "impositions" of institutions. Increasingly, people are intolerant of any imposition. Younger generations raised and fed on social media narratives are quick to reject established power structures and a bureaucracy that many no longer consider legitimate.
Many Argentines perceive the state and its institutions as a tyrant that must be toppled.
In 1548, a very youthful French thinker, Étienne de la Boétie, wrote in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude (Discours de la servitude volontaire), that he should like to know how "so many men, cities and nations can suffer everything of a tyrant whose only power is the one given him..." It's a pertinent question today. de la Boétie, who died of the plague aged 32, believed the refusal to submit was the first step toward recovering freedom. He urged his readers to no longer "sustain" tyranny with a simple and non-violent resolve "to reject subjection," and "you will see how, like a colossus detached from its base," tyranny would "collapse and break for its own weight."
A Massa voter in tears after Sunday's election
Daniella Fernandez Realin/ZUMA
Meaning of freedom
The coupling of an inefficient state and people's dismay with politics, the rule of law, and a struggling economy suggests that the institutions shaping the nation's life must brace for change. There is an imperious sense among voters that something new must replace the endless, endemic crisis we've been living through for decades. Milei’s campaign, however hyperbolic, tried to latch on to what could have been the moment when personal freedom became the ethical principle on which Argentina’s governance is based and evaluated.
Can people really be free when they lack education, when their health is not protected?
Still, we need to ask some urgent questions about the state of personal liberties given the socioeconomic realities of Argentina.
Can people really be free when they lack education, or when only the wealthy are educated? Can you be free when your health is not protected or if there is no state to assure control of weapons? What happens when the state fails to be the guarantor of equal opportunities? Does the culture of freedom not need as a component what de la Boétie termed friendship or 'amity’? There is no friendship, he wrote, where there is "cruelty, disloyalty, injustice; what there is among the wicked when they are together is not company but a conspiracy; they do not like, but fear each other. They are not friends but accomplices."
We're at a point in our society's evolution when the old is passing away and the new has yet to clearly emerge. The future is open, and the public can still shape it with its long-term choices. These choices will determine whether we have a freer or more restrictive country, and whether we become more or less responsible for our own fate.
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