The neoliberal populism of Milei and Meloni

The leaders of Italy and Argentina represent a new brand of populism that serves not the people but the neoliberal order.

Published On 21 May 202421 May 2024Italy’s Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni welcomes Argentina’s President Javier Milei at Palazzo Chigi prior to their meeting, on February 12, 2024 in Rome, Italy [Tiziana Fabi/AFP]

When far-right “outsider” Javier Milei was elected Argentina’s president in November, hard-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was the first European leader to congratulate him. In February, Milei returned the favour by making Italy the first country in Europe he visited as president. Since then, the two leaders had nothing but praise for each other.

It is not surprising that Meloni and Milei support one another, given the many hard-right views and policy positions they share from opposition to abortion to hostility to the LGBT community. On paper, they are both socially conservative “populists” who capitalise on their people’s growing frustration with establishment politicians who they perceive as serving “globalist forces”. But the apparent bond between the two leaders – who both addressed a far-right convention in Madrid this past weekend – is not based solely on ideological affinity. In fact, Milei’s and Meloni’s politics are far from interchangeable: The Italian prime minister leads a statist, nationalist party with historic links to fascism while Argentina’s president self-identifies as a libertarian and an “anarcho-capitalist”. While Meloni views curbing immigration as a leading cause of her government, Milei is largely indifferent to the issue. The most important factor that brings the two leaders together appears not to be their shared ideological convictions but the hypocritical “neoliberal populism” they practice in the service of Western imperialism.

Indeed, a cursory review of the social reforms the two leaders enacted during their time in power immediately exposes the neoliberal spirit of their so called “populism”.

Milei won the presidential election riding a wave of anger about decades of economic crises and crippling corruption in Argentina. He promised to reset the system, and the main slogan of his election campaign was “out with all of them” in reference to the Argentinian elite and traditional politicians. He promised to reduce state spending through privatisation, cut inflation and put money in the pockets of long suffering Argentinians. In practice, however, his policies have produced nothing but more misery for everyday Argentinians while further lining the pockets of the elite. In fact, after assuming power, he made it clear that he has no interest in pleasing the public who brought him to power. He moved to cut state subsidies for fuel and transport while promising to reduce the budget for public universities by more than half, paying no regard to his plummeting approval ratings. He is still determined to pass highly unpopular reforms that would strip workers of most basic rights and privatise major state-owned enterprises. He has closed state agencies, fired tens of thousands of officials, and lowered pensions and salaries to attract more investors and drive market optimism. With society at large, and not the political class, bearing the brunt of his radical economic policies, many Argentinians are already questioning how populist Milei’s populism actually is. In the meantime, the International Monetary Fund, the flag bearer of international neoliberalism, has already praised the “ambitious stabilisation plan” promoted by Milei.

In Italy, Meloni’s populist credentials are equally in question.

In August, the prime minister dealt a surprise blow to Italian banks by imposing a one-off 40 percent tax on their profits resulting from higher interest rates after reprimanding them for failing to reward deposits. This was an traditionally populist move – on the side of the people and against the banks – and gained Meloni considerable praise and respect among her supporters. Just a few weeks later, however, a stern warning from the European Central Bank and backlash from the banking lobby led Meloni to reconsider her populist stance and heavily water down the newly introduced tax in line with neoliberal interests.

And this was not Meloni’s first about-face in dealing with Italy’s banks. Before the 2022 elections that brought her to power, Meloni and her party, Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), campaigned against the recapitalisation of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy’s oldest bank, which has been in crisis for a number of years. However, upon assuming power, they swiftly changed their stance and began advocating for privatisation.

More recently, Meloni appeared to turn her back on her party’s long statist history and abandon any pretence of populist protectionism, announcing her intention to raise about 20 billion euros ($21.7bn) in three years by selling off Italy’s most precious national enterprises, including the national railways and the postal service.

Unlike Milei, Meloni was elected on an exclusively protectionist ticket, and her core voters are inherently suspicious of free market politics and privatisation drives demanded by the US-led world order. This means she is less open about her intention to maintain the neoliberal status quo. Nevertheless, actions speak louder than words, and those of Meloni expose to everyone the hypocrisy and shallowness of her “populism”.

On the foreign policy front, we see a similar pattern. Milei openly and enthusiastically supports the neoliberal consensus on every front, paying no real attention to the popular consensus in his country. He is prejudiced, or even hostile, against China, supports the US in all its foreign adventures and considers himself a “fanatic of Israel”. He appears to be living in a black and white world, where the moral and free West stands strong against a dangerous potpourri of murderous communists, Marxists and socialists. Meloni, meanwhile, is talking the populist talk of standing up to the powers that be and putting Italy back on the map as a strong and independent nation but never doing anything that could actually upset the US.

Indeed, in her 2021 book, I am Giorgia, the Italian prime minister argued for a better relationship with Russia. When she became head of the Italian government, however, she immediately bowed to Washington and adopted its anti-Russia policies as her own. She firmly stood with the US not only regarding the war in Ukraine but also Israel’s war on Gaza. Basically the populist Meloni who won the election gave her seat to a neoliberal Meloni, so Italy could get a few crumbs (still substantial for a small country) from the giant cake that is the military industrial complex.

Meloni demonstrated the very same hypocrisy in her approach to Europe. In opposition, she was a staunch eurosceptic like the majority of her core supporters. But once in power, she swiftly aligned herself with hawkish European representatives like the German president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The populist Meloni occasionally reappears to criticise European rigidity in dealing with Italian debt, but these performances never translate into any action.

Today, both Italy and Argentina are suffering from acute problems – from the rising cost of living and crumbling social services to unemployment and a lack of prospects for young people – born out of the many excesses of capitalism. There is undoubtedly appetite in both countries for a populist agenda and an overhaul of the system. The supposedly populist leaders of both countries, however, rather than focusing on tackling these urgent problems seem fixated on countering hypothetical threats from Russia and China. They are waging a war against the ghost of communism as their people suffocate under the weight of unchecked capitalism.

Sure, Meloni and Milei are not the same, but their differences are only skin deep. They are both working to keep the populations they lead subservient to the neoliberal order while trying to create the impression that they are “fighting for the people”. Meloni and Milei are good friends and will likely remain that way, not because they share a belief system, but because they are both sovereignists without sovereignty.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.