Argentina: Milei Declares Class War

14 January 2024

By Martin Suchanek

Argentina’s new right-wing President Javier Milei is off to a flying start. In December, he announced shock therapy in the form of a Decree of Necessity and Urgency (DNU), intended to abolish or radically amend 366 existing laws. At the end of the month, a mega-legislative package with 664 articles was launched with the euphemistic title ‘Foundations and Starting Points for the Freedom of Argentines’, known as the Omnibus Law.

In presenting the DNU he also proclaimed state of emergency over economic, financial, fiscal, administrative, pension, collective bargaining, health and social welfare matters. The DNU and Omnibus Law represent an unprecedented attack on the working class and the oppressed.

This includes the lifting of state price controls on rents, public utilities, mining and industry – and their privatisation. State shares in a total of 41 institutions, such as ports, postal services, air traffic, nuclear power plants and other energy companies, are to be sold off, and consumer protection in trade and finance eliminated.

The offensive also attacks workers’ rights, such as they are. Probationary periods, with little or no rights for employees, will be extended and protection against dismissal undermined. Penalties and controls for the employment of unregistered work are to be abolished.

At its rotten heart is an attack on the right to strike. Workers can be sacked for participating in industrial blockades. Strikers will have to maintain half of production or services in ‘essential’ areas, including medicines, rail, road and air transport, radio and television.

The political rights of the unemployed are also being undermined. For example, workers can lose benefits for going on demonstrations. Indeed all political gatherings with more than three people will be subject to approval. Leaders of gatherings that obstruct traffic face up to five years in prison.

Milei’s Support Base

Argentina’s ruling class wholeheartedly support Milei’s plans. In Congress, in addition to deputies from the extreme right and Milei’s alliance La Libertad Avanza (LLA, Freedom Advances), like Vice-President Victoria Villarruel, his government can rely on ‘tried and tested’ members of the conservative Macri government (2015-19).

Luis Caputo is Minister of the Economy. Foreign Minister Diana Mondino has promised to abolish all foreign trade restrictions and break with the BRICS group. Defeated conservative presidential candidate Patricia Bullrich is in charge of Homeland Security, while her party colleague Luis Petri holds the office of Minister of Defence.

Even if Milei and his party seem an eccentric bunch – and some of their pledges, like replacing the peso with the US dollar, have little chance of being realised – the rule of capital, both Argentine and imperialist, will be more unbridled than ever.

The financial sector, in particular, has high hopes, as Milei promises lucrative investment opportunities; the stock market jumped 22% after the cabinet was formed. Even if Milei is closer to Trump than Biden, Washington and the IMF welcome most of his neoliberal measures and privatisations.

The new government will increase spending on the military and internal security. Milei has overhauled the Ministry of Defence and all three branches of the armed forces, appointing new commanders-in-chiefs.

Institutional obstacles

Nevertheless Milei does face important barriers. In the both chambers of parliament La Libertad Avanza has few MPs – 38 in the 257-member Congress, eight in the 72-member Senate. Even if, taken together with the conservative Juntos por el Cambio (United for Change), he theoretically has a majority in the lower chamber, this could prove shaky since it is unsure about some of his measures.

The Peronist Unión por la Patria has a plurality in both chambers (109 out of 257 in Congress, 34 out of 72 in the Senate) and could block a government majority in the Senate with the votes of two of the six independents. However, Villaruel has been able to attract some right-wing Peronist forces in the provinces, so it cannot be ruled out that the government will be able to secure a majority.

Also the courts could throw a spanner in the works, as they did recently when the Supreme Court annulled some decrees on labour market reform.

Even though Milei could get a number of his measures through, such a form of governance would also require lengthy negotiations and compromises with the Peronists, which Milei has denounced as ‘the caste’, along with the bureaucracy, the labour movement and the left. Milei appealed not only to the traditional base of middle class conservatives but also a significant part of the ‘declassed’ unemployed and precarious, for whom the Peronist promise of a welfare state had long since evaporated.

Indeed Milei’s project, is to clean up the legacy of Peronism, which the Argentine bourgeoisie can no longer bear the costs of, and wants to put an end to. This includes the limited concessions it made to the trade unions at various times. As a populist movement, Peronism incorporated the working class through the apparatuses of the trade unions as well as clientelist organisations of the unemployed and other social groups.

The Peronist party is a cross-class alliance, a kind of popular front in party form – at the expense of the working class, of course. Workers have paid a high price for this corporatism with falling wages. For years wages have failed to keep pace with inflation, currently at 160%. Around 40% of the population was already living below the poverty line before Milei took office – and the trend is rising.

Milei is aware, however, that the real opposition will not be in parliament or the judiciary, but in the workplaces and on the streets. The Argentine working class is weakened by the crisis, unemployment and a very large sector that no longer enjoys collective bargaining. But it is not yet defeated, despite a corrupt and authoritarian trade union bureaucracy.

Enabling Act

The Omnibus Law not only contains a program of neoliberal attacks at all levels but also cedes most of parliament’s legislative powers to the government for two years. It is therefore an Enabling Act, an emergency law giving the president and government quasi-dictatorial powers.

The next few weeks will show whether Milei succeeds in this move. It is by no means excluded that the Congress will concede, since a vote by both chambers is needed to block the law. A second hurdle would be the Constitutional Court, because the Enabling Act actually contradicts the Argentine Constitution. But the court is no reliable defence against emergency measures.

In addition, if the institutions block his Act, Milei will blame them for the continuing crisis. He is already ramping up the rhetoric that the country must choose between his ‘rescue measures’ or a ‘catastrophe’. This is no idle threat. Even if none of its measures are implemented, the social situation will deteriorate dramatically.

Milei will try to take advantage of economic collapse, blaming ‘old’ Argentina, a caste of corrupt Peronist politicians and trade union bureaucrats, plus ‘lazy’ workers dependent on welfare. In this way, he could prepare the ground for an even tougher stance, up to and including a presidential coup, in order to remove the institutional obstacles to ‘saving the country’.

General strike

The only force that can repel this general assault is the working class. As early as December associations of the unemployed and the smaller trade union federation Central de Trabajadores Argentinos Autónoma (CTAA) organised demonstrations against the government. The Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT), the largest trade union federation, is calling for rallies in front of parliament during the legislative debate and for a general strike on 24 January.

The four Trotskyist parties (PO, PTS, MASD, IS) that together from the Workers Left Front (FIT-U) correctly support these mobilisations and call on trade unions and social movements to form a united front against the government’s attacks. Protest actions, demonstrations and a one-day general strike can help rally the resistance against the threat of a neoliberal massacre and the Enabling Act. But they will not be enough to stop Milei’s cabinet.

The only thing that can is an all out general strike. The trade unions must be called upon to organise it and to break with their subordination to the parliamentary Peronists. This requires workplace, local and regional grassroots assemblies and class-struggle opposition that forces the union leaders to struggle or takes over the initiative itself.

The united front for the general strike must also draw in the unemployed organisations (Piqueteros), women’s and LGBT+ movements, indigenous communities and student organisations.

Since the level of union organisation has declined significantly in recent decades and many wage earners are unemployed or casualised, mass assemblies– in the workplaces and working class districts – are necessary. These must lead the struggle by electing strike and action committees, centralising them as organs of struggle at the local, regional and national levels.

The government will certainly repress any major resistance with the police and possibly reactionary thugs. The powers of the Department of Homeland Security have already been expanded – and there is no doubt that minister Patricia Bullrich will use them. Therefore pickets and self-defence organs, building up into workers’ militias, must also protect a general strike.

The Road to Power

An indefinite general strike would also inevitably raise the question of who holds power in society as a whole – the question of whether a bourgeois government should continue to wield power or whether a workers’ government, based on organs of struggle created in a general strike, should do so.

This would mean winning over rank and file soldiers, breaking the power of their commanders and arming the workers. Such a workers’ government would not only have to reverse Milei’s measures but would also have to implement its own emergency programme against inflation and poverty, and to reorganise the economy in the interests of the masses, secure a living minimum wage for all, adjust wages to price increases and to reorganise the economy according to the needs of wage earners. This would require the expropriation without compensation of large corporations, the banks and the financial sector, placing them under workers’ control.

This programme – one of socialist revolution – also needs a political force, a revolutionary workers’ party. The FIT-U faces the challenge of taking decisive steps in this direction in the here and now. Otherwise the victory of the extreme counter-revolution threatens.

But this means that the FIT-U must cease to exist as a mere electoral front of several Trotskyist organisations. It must become a party, based on a revolutionary programme of action, in which all militant trade unionists, piqueteros and activists in the social movements who want to fight for such a programme can become members.

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