Dogecoin Milei Argentina: Populism, anarcho-capitalism, cryptomagic and the world after growth

Javier Milei, the incoming president of Argentina, had no sooner won power than people round the world were competing to characterise him ever more outlandishly. The wild-yet-pudding-bowl haircut, the sideburns, the cheap suits, suggested anything from a 70s English football manager to an ageing Cosmic Psychos fan or an extra from The Sweeney.

Milei is the purest expression of right-wing small government free market policies to gain power in a large nation. Essentially, it’s if Ron Paul had become president of the United States. An economics professor and consultant, he favours the abolition of the central bank, the dollarisation of the economy, vast reductions in the size of government (including the abolition of numerous departments) and the vast deregulation of everyday life. Describing himself as that contradictory thing, an ‘anarcho-capitalist’, he is really a liquidationist in the style of depression economists such as Andrew Mellon, whose response to the 1929 Depression was to ‘liquidate everything. Liquidate stocks, liquidate bonds, liquidate capital’. His appetite for deregulation includes lifting bans on surrogacy arrangements and live organ transplants for profit. Labelling himself an anarcho-capitalist, he nurses a passionate hatred for the Left in all its forms, which he sees as both speech-controlling in the modern ‘woke’ fashion and lethal as per the days of the old Latin American guerrilla movements.

In true ‘libertarian’ fashion, Milei is also decidedly odd. His inevitable techno-futurist streak is combined with a love of dogs—well, one dog, his deceased English Mastiff named Conan the Barbarian, which he has had cloned into five new dogs all named after Austrian economists in a sort of Good Boys from Brazil. His TV interviews are grand guignol performances, in which he yells, rages and runs around the studio screaming. He is single and says his beloved sister will be his First Lady.

To the outside world, Milei has come from nowhere. To Argentinians he has now acquired a gloss of the inevitable, as Trump did in November 2016. Since the global crash of 2008, Argentina has been stuck in brutal stagflation. Its centre-left, high-debt, low-productivity, highly unequal Keynesian economy was overexposed when the crash hit during the long era dominated by the husband-and-wife presidential team the Kirchners, sending inflation spiralling. A subsequent austerity government shrank the economy while failing to fully tame it. The global wave of post-COVID, late QE inflation restarted hyperinflation. Conventional responses having yielded no results over twenty—or, since democratisation, forty—years, sufficient people have now seen Milei as a ‘try anything’ candidate, a disrupter.

While Milei’s antics draw on a certain carnivalesque strain in South American politics—he sometimes dresses as a superhero, named An-Cap—it also represents a new escalation in the global array of performative populism. Separate nations are not going through the stages of populism separately—from the plausible Berlusconi to the gonzoish Donald Trump, the cartoonish Boris Johnson and the sinister obsessive Bolsonaro—but in series, each outdoing the last. The global Right has certainly taken Milei’s victory as another stage in the great rightward match, ignoring the degree to which Argentinians have voted for anything capable of breaking through the ‘institutionalised populism’ of Peronism.

But Milei also takes his place among another set of global characters: those who have promised magical deliverance from stagnation and low expectations through the application of the intellect to the system. In the United Kingdom, Liz Truss was prime minister for forty-four days due to a faith in the importance of growth over system stability, which saw her propose to add £50 billion to UK borrowing in order to pay for tax cuts, which pushed the United Kingdom towards a Greece-style meltdown. In El Salvador, new president Nayib Bukele made Bitcoin (useless) legal tender and invested much of the country’s foreign reserves in it. Would it be fair to add Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, lined up for the role by oligarchs—a comedian who played, on TV, a comedian who becomes president? His valiance cannot be doubted. But now that the West is cancelling his war like, well, a failing TV show, he shrinks back into his role.

Finally, while Milei goes to the presidential palace, Sam Bankman-Fried the crypto king is going to prison. If Milei’s antics promise magic growth to poor Argentinians, Bankman-Fried personified the promise of crypto to a more rarefied crowd: that its complex architecture would make it immune from the normal laws of the economy. The crash of his SBX exchange dealt a blow to crypto from which, Bitcoin aside, it may not recover.

In the wake of the 2008 crash and the decade of QE money that followed it, the world is resisting the harsh message of the system—that, with its existing settings, there is little capacity to escape stagnation in capacity, productivity and living standards in numerous jurisdictions. Populists and authoritarians of earlier periods projected an air of paternal mastery, guaranteeing stability in a violent world. Today’s populists are clownish and performative because people look to them for instability, disruption, re-opening the future. Milei’s clownish aspect is complemented by his intent to make live organ donation for cash legal. What greater, more fearless, more audacious commitment to freedom could one man have but that he would let the willing dismemberment of the poor be drawn into the cash nexus? Surely, if we are now offering the ritual carving up of humans, the Gods of the Market will finally, finally return explosive growth to us?

Will Argentina—the great paradoxical nation of the West, the place where nothing ever works—be the place where these fantasies hit a harder reality? Milei is no Pinochet, but he may well create a situation in which he plays the role of one. Beyond that is the big daddy, Donald Trump, with every possibility of being re-elected on the back of an electorate angry at the relentless dissolve of prosperity, promising vengeance and camps for the wreckers and enemies. At the gates, the dogs bark, in unison, because they are cloned, and their clownish master marks either a farcical end, or a farcical beginning.

About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

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