By Michelle C. Crabtree
Nearly a decade after Trump’s surprising victory in U.S. national politics, a new television personality with a striking appearance and rightwing populist tendencies is capturing the voting public’s attention, this time in Argentina. Sporting ample sideburns and a long black leather coat, Javier Milei looks like a cartoon villain as he wields a chainsaw during campaign events.
Source: Tomas Cuesta, Getty Images via Fortune
In fact, he is the recent winner of the primary round of voting for Argentina’s next president and will head off against the center-right Patricia Bullrich and center-left Sergio Massa on October 22, 2023. Milei’s risible presentation and goofy antics, though, belie the pernicious politics he espouses as a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist. It is this combination of bluster, unlikely charisma, and radical cynicism that calls to mind another Argentine character well-known to many readers of 20th century Latin American fiction, el Astrólogo.
El Astrólogo is a central figure in Roberto Arlt’s Los siete locos, an avant-garde novel that explores classism, humiliation, and despair in a decadent 1920s Buenos Aires. He is not the main character of the novel or its sequel, Los lanzallamas, but is notable for his idiosyncratic malevolence. In his 2019 exploration of the work of Roberto Arlt, Modernidad sublimada, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Culture Studies at Michigan Technical University Marcelino Viera gets to the essence of el Astrólogo and his effect on people, describing him as a “personaje megalómano de siniestra habilidad para fascinar a sus interlocutores” (278). Like Milei, his self-serving political project inspires both admiration and revulsion. The character’s particular megalomania becomes evident as he lays out his convoluted plan for world domination through secret societies fashioned after the Ku Klux Klan, a fascist revolution, and the amplification of existing systems of exploitation.
While he may not represent such an extreme threat as the antagonist of Arlt’s novel, Javier Milei is a reactionary whose political platform is cause for concern. He has mainly garnered a following for promising to deal with the country’s economic issues by dollarizing the national currency, a totally empty promise given that it would be financially infeasible (see Gromazan, 2023).
Source: France-Presse, Getty Images, via The New York Times
One particularly shocking proposal from Milei is allowing for the sale of human organs on the open market. Many Spanish-language news outlets have reported on this, but given that the suggestion is so unorthodox, it is surprising that more reporters have not dug into this story. A 2022 article in Ámbito Financiero quotes him: “‘Si alguien se lo quiere vender, ¿cuál es el problema?’” he has said with a straight face, either unaware or indifferent to the extremely deleterious effects that dealing in human body parts would have on society. Like el Astrólogo, Milei relies on subterfuge to gain followers:
Source: @chequeando on X (formerly Twitter)
Such blind trust in the free market is to be expected from a radical capitalist, yet the fact that the supposedly anti-statist Milei also insists on repealing the right to legal abortion clues us into the hopeful politician’s ultimate aims.
Source: Ronaldo Schemit, AFP/Getty Images, via Time
Harriet Barber lays out in her piece for the Guardian, “‘We are Fighting for the Girls who Come After Us’: Abortion Rights at Risk in Argentina Election,” how those who fought for and finally won abortion rights just three years ago are reeling from Milei’s recent primary win. As the election draws closer, the specter of regression looms large for many Argentines. We may never know which of Milei’s many contradictory views are true convictions, but his cynicism is sincere. In Los siete locos, El Astrólogo’s success lies in his ability to convince others to believe that they will personally benefit from his sinister, self-serving vision of the future. What the characters in Arlt’s novels come to realize too late –after their money is gone and their hopes are dashed– is that el Astrólogo was a fraud all along. Anna Björk Einarsdottir, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Iceland, lays out in her 2021 article “‘El bacilo de Carlos Marx,’ or, Robert Arlt the Lenninist» how the main character of the novel “naively believes in el Astrólogo’s plan for a future dystopic society that will offer him a place as an inventor-capitalist” (117). Will average Argentine voters fall for the erstwhile TV personality’s fever dream of an anarcho-capitalist society that strips women of bodily autonomy and promotes the sale of human organs? What do they hope to personally gain from Javier Milei’s future dystopic society? What will be their recourse when they realize they’ve been hoodwinked? Readers of Arlt shudder to find out.