Forrest Hylton

Attempting to speak directly to el pueblo rather than Congress on his inauguration as president of Argentina last month, Javier Milei named Julio Argentino Roca as the country’s most important statesperson.

On his way to the presidency in 1880, through a genocidal military campaign in the late 1870s, Roca cleared the pampas and Patagonia of Indigenous peoples (Huilliche, Tehuelche, Pehuenche) to make way for the greatest economic boom – based on exports of beef, wheat and corn – in post-independence Latin America. It lasted fifty years, consolidated Buenos Aires’s hegemony over the hinterlands, and put the country ahead of other settler colonial societies in the British orbit, such as Canada and Australia, in the race to capitalist development. Roca and those around him expected to surpass the United States.

Between 1880 and 1930, Argentina received twice as many immigrants (proportionally) as the US. The incomers from Europe and the Middle East settled the pampas and swelled the cities. In Buenos Aires they built a remarkable socialist and anarcho-syndicalist labour movement, which crested in a wave of strikes in 1917-19 and was violently repressed thereafter (especially during the 1930s). The working class was unable to prevent the use of strikebreakers or unite native craft labour with unskilled immigrant industrial labour.

A reactionary, xenophobic, martial nationalism, coupled with company unionism among landlords and urban employers, carried the day, even as the middle class took over the machinery of government through the Radical Party from 1916 to 1930, demanding public sector jobs, education, patronage and political democracy. This state of affairs held until the military took over in the Great Depression, from which Argentina was largely shielded by the Roca-Runciman Treaty of 1933 as well as domestic demand, and the Second World War, when the country rejected an alliance with the US at the 1942 Rio Conference.

When conservative, oligarchic liberalism finally gave way in the 1940s, the push did not come from a newly organised industrial manufacturing proletariat, as in Chile (or the US) during the 1930s, but from the right, in the figure of Juan Domingo Perón, who helped organise the military coup that made him minister of labour in 1943 and was elected president from 1946 to 1955. The efforts of the US ambassador, Spruille Braden, to prevent Perón’s election – Perón told voters they had a choice between peronismo and bradenismo – backfired.

Perón put the General Confederation of Labour, the CGT, at the heart of national life, and, under pressure from his left, broke ranks with right-wing Catholic nationalists. The Argentinian working class – most important, the meat-packing sector dominated by US firms such as Armour and Swift – was thus incorporated into the nation-state from above during and after the Second World War, as Perón forged an anti-communist, corporatist nationalism through a range of labour and social welfare policies and institutions, along with the redistribution of wealth, that went hand in hand with protected manufacturing.

Much of the new proletariat since the 1930s had come not from abroad but from the pampas, and many of the workers were women. Before Perón, they had had no rights or benefits; after Perón, they fought to defend and extend what they had won in and through him. Peronism, initially integrated into the state through unions, education and social welfare bureaucracies, became a resistance movement of remarkable tenacity after Perón was overthrown by a coup in 1955. It incorporated key layers of the middle class, including liberal professionals, civil servants, university teachers and students, as well as writers and other artists.

As a form of popular nationalism, rooted in public institutions and services (such as railways), as well as industrial unions, Peronism had legs. It swerved sharply left in the 1960s and 1970s, as urban guerrilla forces appeared, even as Argentina’s economy reached the limits of import substitution industrialisation and went into a crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

The ruling class never accepted working-class organisation and social citizenship. With the help of sectors of the military and police, the Catholic Church and the reactionary fraction of the middle class, it tried and failed to eliminate a radicalised Peronism, until the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 – whose surviving members are represented by Milei’s vice-president, Victoria Villarruel.

When the Peronist Carlos Menem became president in 1989, his first move was to launch a neoliberal structural adjustment programme nearly identical to the one implemented under General Videla in 1976, moving Argentina towards a model based on financial and speculative rent capture as well as agri-business. Menem was to Peronism what Tony Blair was to Labour. He never sought to destroy organised labour, since he could not have governed without the CGT, even as he dismantled what remained of industrial manufacturing, not least in the meat-packing industry, which had become peripheral to the larger economy and society.

When Néstor and Cristina Kirchner came to power on the Peronist ticket in 2003, following the ‘Great Depression’ of 1998 to 2002, they had to pick up the pieces from the banking and currency crisis triggered in late 2001 by the economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, which led to the resignation of Menem’s successor, Fernando de la Rúa. (Cavallo had previously served as Menem’s economy minister; his protégé Federico Sturzenegger now occupies a top post in the Milei administration.)

Repressing and co-opting the new unemployed workers’ movements (piqueteros), the Kirchner’s stitched together a coalition broad enough to allow for economic growth based on commodity exports (soy in particular); moderate, state-driven redistribution through social welfare and labour policies; and debt-driven consumption, which had first taken off under Menem.

The Kirchners had to restore the role of the state – although many of their cadre first gained political experience under menemismo – without altering the basic co-ordinates of capital accumulation, or building a stable productive structure rooted in a coherent industrial policy. (Menem had sold off most state-owned industry and utilities at fire-sale prices.)

Voters, dissatisfied with this peculiarly hybrid, shapeshifting nationalist political tradition, elected the millionaire businessman Mauricio Macri in 2015 to destroy it. But Macri’s centre-right coalition, Cambiemos, failed on his own terms, and, on the Juntos por el Cambio ticket in 2019, he lost to Alberto Fernández, a kirchnerista apparatchik, who was unable to improve living standards or rein in inflation, and proved inept in his handling of Covid.

Enter Milei, who broke out of his niche as an economist-cum-influencer, and, following his sister Karina’s plan, moved into electoral politics in the 2021 mid-terms, uniting the fractious right around opposition to abortion.

Patricia Bullrich, who ran for president on the Juntos por el Cambio candidate in 2023, with a law-and-order campaign that was considered centre-right in the current climate, was persuaded by Macri to support to Milei in the second round. She is now his security minister, responsible for the new authoritarian protocols to suppress protests against Milei’s austerity package. The police now have powers to prevent demonstrators from blocking traffic.

But protesters, led by the left-wing group Polo Obrero, refused to be confined to the roadsides ahead of Milei’s presidential address last month, announcing the most radical privatisation and deregulation plan in Argentinian history. They took to the streets, converging en masse on the Plaza de Mayo in the early evening, and staging a cacerolazo, or pot-banging session, outside Congress, as Milei spoke at nine o’clock. Synchronised cacerolazos took place nationwide. Bullrich, Luis Caputo (the economy minister, who was Macri’s pointman with the IMF) and the rest of Milei’s cabinet of ‘outsiders’ were at his side.

Since Perón, there has been no way for wealthy Argentinians to disappear el pueblo from politics. Neoliberalism and heavy policing are (once again) the tools being deployed to remove Peronism, along with hard-won labour and social rights, so that markets will be able to perform their magic, and individual citizens will at last be free from the sin of ‘collectivism’ to accumulate wealth and property.

And yet, however spent Peronism may be as a political force, the CGT will not go quietly into the night, and nor will Argentina’s militant labour and social movements. A general strike is set for 24 January, to convince legislators to vote against Milei’s Decree of Urgent Necessity. His radical experiment is unlikely to go as planned.


  • 6 January 2024 at 5:02pm
    Guillermo Makin says:
    It is the first time in more than 4 decades reading journalistic and academic work on Latin American and Argentina in particular that I've come across a piece that is accurate and even handed in apportioning responsibilities, successes and failures. Guillermo Makin -

  • 12 January 2024 at 10:11am
    Andrew Pearmain says:
    Yes indeed, an unusually thorough and measured account of Argentine history. From a British perspective, Peronism is best viewed as a rather more malleable variety of Labourism, a "passive revolution " from above overseen by a relatively progressive Caesarism, to go all Gramscian about it. And of course there are strong connections to Italian society and politics, because of the scale of Italian immigration.
    This all includes a relatively strong left wing politics and culture

    • 16 January 2024 at 2:11pm
      Guido the Younger says: @ Andrew Pearmain
      Daniel James, Resistance and Integration, is a classic Gramscian study of Peronism in relation to class and state formation, from which the author likely drew liberally.

      See also, Raul Burgos, Los Gramscianos Argentinos.

  • 12 January 2024 at 10:14am
    Andrew Pearmain says:
    My own 2020 biography of Antonio Gramsci was recently published in Spanish in Argentina, in a much more handsome edition than Bloomsbury managed in the UK/US!