The destruction of Argentina’s higher education and science system

by Macarena Marey on April 30, 2024

Scientific research, academic knowledge production, and higher education are under an obscene and direct attack today in Argentina. Milei’s attack is not an isolated case. To a certain extent, it is part of a global phenomenon, i.e. the rampant anti-intellectualism of the “new” right-wing movements and governments, which has certainly accelerated its spread with the last pandemic. Regarding this, I have written about the relationship between anti-intellectualism and the elitist conditions of knowledge production, focusing on our real practices and material conditions as workers of science and higher education here (in Spanish). In this entry I want to stress a different aspect of today’s anti-intellectualism, its consequences vis-à-vis neoliberalism’s own goals.
By attacking higher education and public scientific research, any openly capitalist government is shooting itself on the foot. The purpose of Milei’s government can only be pushing Argentina into an even more subaltern position regarding the global knowledge production. But I think that knowledge production is, like nature, politics, and social reproduction, an area of the “non-economic” sphere of reality without which capitalism cannot survive for (too) long in a given place and time and (in the long run) in general, globally, so this latter aim is also a suicidal decision wherever it is carried out.
Like any ruthless attack, the assault on the science system is based on unjustified lies and prejudices. I want to dispel some of the most common ones in the attacks on the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), the institution that brings together a large part of public research in Argentina. The question that guides me is the logic behind the attack on Argentine science, but what interests me most about this attack is the defence that we are proposing and the one that we should propose so that in this struggle we do not end up losing our agenda and our critical orientation in the hands of right-wing projects.
Milei’s government began with an immediate and aggressive budget cut. As with the rest of the public administration, for the National Universities and the science and technology system in general, the budget for 2023 was frozen for 2024, leaving the system without funding before the middle of the year in an uncontrollable inflationary context. The defunding of the science and technology system violates laws 25,467, 27,614, and 27,738. Law 27,614 provides for a “progressive and sustained increase in resources destined to strengthen the System of Science, Technology, and Innovation.” Of course, respect for law is not this government’s cup of tea, so we can do little by insisting that they are violating the law: they just answer, like automats, “There is no money.” But this is an impertinent response because Argentine science has always been very cheap.

Today, the Argentine R&D system does not imply any budgetary burden that would jeopardize fiscal balances. In fact, CONICET stands out in global science rankings not merely for its positioning in the first quartile (see the SCImago ranking). ), but mainly because it is there even though it has a much smaller budget than any of the other institutions in the top fifty places of the ranking. Argentine science, with all its budgetary problems and all the challenges of doing science in the “Global South,” is actually too cheap for the levels of performance and excellence its researchers achieve.
Néstor Kirchner’s government (2003-2007) proposed many policies to increase the number of science and technology researchers and personnel, something that happily occurred. If we look at the number of R&D personnel per million inhabitants compared to other countries, we will see that we are quite well for the region with 1,284 research workers, but well below countries like Spain, Canada, Ireland, China, Czech Republic, Hungary, Korea, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Japan, Russia, Singapore, Denmark, Slovenia, Croatia, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Portugal, or the United States. We also need to increase the number of people with completed doctorates to approach the figures of these countries.
The percentages that so-called “developed” countries allocate to research and development are much higher than those stipulated by our Law 27,614, as can be seen in this map made with data from the UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.

Additionally, their GDPs are much larger than our GDP, so they receive much more funding than what we receive for research in Argentina. If we wanted to be a “developed country,” we would have to start by doing as they do, not the opposite of what they do. For those of us who do not have a developmentalist (capitalist) view of science, this is not a tenable argument, but it is a very valid argument if the premise is accepted, which much of the progressive political spectrum in Argentine science do and the Milei-Macri supporters claim to do.
What is often argued in response to these odious comparisons is that Argentina cannot afford to invest in research and development. It is precisely the opposite. It is not the case that “developed” countries can allocate more money to R&D because they have extra cash to expend. Development is also a function of centuries of sovereign production of knowledge. Capitalism, for instance, is not only the product of processes of land appropriation and capitalist accumulation but also of scientific progress. Neither agricultural nor industrial capitalist modes of production would exist without scientific knowledge produced by academies around the world in the modern era. For example, in the 17th century, the role of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge in driving scientific and technological advancement for the development of capitalism was fundamental. But this does not mean that scientific laboratories and the ideologues’ libraries can submit their own mode of knowledge production to the logic of capital. Even if they are to be instrumental to capitalism, they have to maintain the “non-economic” functioning of their own practice, in the same way that the modern state is not reduced to economic logic but fulfils its functions following its own political logic, even when it serves capital.
As recently argued by my colleague Federico Penelas, “the slogan ‘There is no money’ should not be read as descriptive but as normative: it does not matter if the state has money or not, what matters is that it should not have it, because assuming that duty would imply, according to the Mileist ideology, perpetuating the robbery that any tax burden entails. The foundation of the program is, therefore, moral.”

I think that this exclusively ideological foundation of the austerity program could be the cause of the implosion of the program itself because it accelerates a contradiction that capitalist “developed” countries take great care not to accelerate at home: the contradiction between capitalism and its “non-economic” conditions of possibility. In this case, the condition of possibility I am referring to is the production of knowledge. Defunding science not only harms the private sector (a euphemism that does not refer to any worker, no matter how “private” their educational and professional trajectory may be, but only to capital), it also contradicts the conditions of possibility of capitalism.
Established beyond all doubt that Bernardo Houssay’s phrase “Science is not expensive; ignorance is” has much truth to it, I am more interested in the question of what logic lies behind it.

Nancy Fraser argues that capitalism has three conditions of possibility whose rationalities and normativities are “non-economic.” Without these three spheres, there would be no capitalism (or any other system of production, we could add): the reproduction of life (care, health, education, sanitation conditions), nature (from which any mode of production extracts food, shelter, and energy), and political power (the democratic state, in our case). Of course, capitalism needs these three spheres, but it also forms a symbiosis with them, producing reality in each of them, shaping them to serve its own aim. The interesting point Fraser makes is that many capitalist crises arise when the logics of these spheres contradict the capitalist logic of value and viceversa. By their own internal logics, these conditions of possibility of capital cannot be absolutely subsumed under the logic of capitalist economic profit without provoking the collapse not only of social ties, the environment, and life itself, but also, and this is what the over-ideologized Milei’s government ignores, capitalism itself.
I believe that knowledge production within academic frameworks is a “non-economic” sphere of this kind: it is a condition of possibility, at this point in history, for any regime of production and any type of society and therefore cannot be subjected to an extrinsic logic. At the same time, knowledge production has an impact (that word so cherished by the neoliberal vision of academia) on all dimensions of social relations, not only in economic activity and capitalist value production. It has an impact both in the political sphere and in the social relations specific to reproduction and care, and in the metabolism between humanity and nature. Regarding this “impact,” it is impossible to establish a hierarchy between sciences and disciplines and it is much more impossible to do so with an economic normativity as the sole criterion of analysis.
To understand what it means to produce scientific knowledge it is essential to understand that academic knowledge production, by its own logic and normative principles, is not governed by the logic of value or the market, even when it serves capitalism. The same applies to the tasks of reproduction of human life: even when they serve capitalism, the encroachment of this terrain by the logic of capital ultimately harms capitalist accumulation itself –if the contradiction between accumulation by exploitation and the commodification of health, education, and care does not provoke the eruption of a huge crisis first. I am not a developmentalist and I believe that science should not, as it often is, be at the service of capital. The point is that those developmentalist arguments that most of the Argentine political spectrum likes so much advocate, all of them, for an increased public funding for research and higher education.

Milei’s government despises the social sciences and humanities more than any other area of knowledge production. Officials in Milei’s government and its supporters propose two arguments against public funding for these disciplines. One of them is that only the so-called “hard science” can be useful to society and meet its needs. The other one states that all the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities, the so-called “soft science”, are ideological or, better, that they have been invaded by ideology. In a way, the objection against soft science is twofold: it would be incapable of responding to society’s needs and, even if it were, it is currently so ideologised that it could not do so without a process of ideological reorganization o neutralization directed by the government. Note that the whole issue is based on an (ideological) distinction between hard science and soft science that is not seriously defendable from any informed perspective on scientific work and that denies the reality of transdisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. Besides, this differentiation has a historically dated metaphysical and ontological debt that is very difficult to discharge when it is assumed: the stark dichotomy between an immutably objective nature and a human freedom that is essentially the spiritual realm of the subjective.
Regarding the first argument: who and how determines what a given society needs? If we were to say “that same society”, that would answer very little. To know what a society needs, we need all the tools of many different “soft” disciplines. Questions about what a society is, what its needs are, how to organize those needs, how to know them in the first place, how to know if we are perceiving the needs of a society rather than those of a particular sector of it, how to know if we can access that kind of knowledge to begin with, are philosophical questions. Physics and mathematics do not answer any of them nor are test tubes the suitable tools to address them.
Neoliberalism differs from democratic visions of the world in that neoliberals are dogmatically convinced that they have the truth regarding each of these questions, no matter how many books contradict them. As a doctrine, neoliberalism is against freedom of research in the social sciences and humanities because it does not accept any questioning or dissent against its conservative view of the world. This does not imply that it does not have its own soft scientists both from public universities and think tanks. The difference between the former and the latter is that in the latter, unquestioned unanimity is guaranteed, and in the former pluralism, diversity, and freedom in research and teaching were achieved after centuries of students’ and scholars’ struggles. Neoliberals call this freedom of research “ideology” following the same rule by which they call “censorship” any assertion that contradicts them. To neoliberals, “Western values” such as academic freedom, debate, and criticism do not seem as Western as the hetero-cisnormative and Christian values they profess, to give a clear example.
Regarding the second point, it is simply false that there is ideological excess today in the soft science disciplines in Argentina that would distinguish them from the hard science ones. On the one hand, formal and natural sciences are not immune to ideology. Bu I want to insist in the implausibility of the supposed prevalence of ideology in soft science.

A real and robust development of plurality in the social sciences and humanities is a good tool against the proliferation of absurd theories. Frontal attacks by right-wing governments on CONICET are not new. We knew them in the 1990s when the research science system also experienced a scandalous defunding. Back then, Minister Domingo Cavallo (whose policies directly caused the 2001 Argentine crisis) famously told sociologist Susana Torrado to go “wash the dishes” (an expression that means, in a nutshell, “f*ck off”, but is specially demeaning when directed against women). Torrado had publicly shown the results of her research warning about the impact Cavallo’s convertibility policy had on unemployment. She was, of course, completely right. It is not difficult to realize that Cavallo’s anti-scientific animosity was directed against soft science’s capacity (in this case, Sociology and Demography) to expose the disastrous consequences of this policy, which was the flagship of Menem’s economic plan.
Like Milei’s current policies, the convertibility policy carried out in the 1990s derives from an abstract and idealizing theory, disconnected not only from the Argentine reality but from the reality of any real economic functioning. After decades of popular, student, and higher education worker struggles today in Argentina there is a high level of research freedom that includes neoliberal theorists and Professors in Public Universities and in CONICET. And nobody persecutes or censors them: they feel persecuted and censored when someone contradicts them because, as I said, it is part of neoliberal doctrine not to tolerate dissent. What bothers these liberal heirs of the Mont Pelerin Society (which was mostly composed of “soft” scientists!) is that well-done research has the virtue of showing the inapplicability of their economic and social theory, its own ideological character and its disconnection from reality. Neoliberalism is an absurd doctrine in several senses, but above all one: it is an unreal vision of social relations, the human person, and history. Serious research in social and human sciences exposes the fact that it is a deeply flawed vision of the world.
Along with the need to protect the absurd nature of their own theories from criticism, the right-wing government has another motivation for destroying Argentine knowledge production: creating a strong epistemic subjugation. Ultimately, it is not so much about the economic return of public investment in R&D as it is about annihilating any local production of knowledge so that transnational capital can relocate Argentina as a space for the reproduction of technologies from the Global North. The suffocation of genuine Argentine innovation is a necessary strategy to pave the way for a deepening of extractive practices. For capitalism in its current phase, Argentina remains a peripheral sector whose natural function should be to provide natural resources (such as lithium) at the lowest possible cost and cheap wage labour. Technological leadership is denied to us because producing knowledge is not the role that planetary capital wants us to fulfil today and historically.
A crucial aspect of the contemporary right-wing’s anti-scientific trend, which relates to both epistemic subjugation and the critical potential of scientific research, is the relationship between research topics, the state, and capital. This is where hard science shows its ideological biases.
Recurring questions: What is “Argentinian” science? What topics are of scientific interest to Argentina? What do we perceive as critical issues and problems to investigate? In order to research “things that are useful to society,” we must first know what those problems are. The real problem is, then, that we do not always perceive society’s “real” problems. We tend, instead, to perceive as problematic only what affects us personally. Not all collectives have the same problems. What is more important, the problems of one collective may be the privileges of another collective. This is one of the main teachings one can learn from black Marxist feminism with Angela Davis at the forefront. Our first task as knowledge producers is, then, to fight against our own ignorance, our own biases, and our own elitization.

I choose to believe that no scholar thinks that science has a guaranteed access to objective truth. No one with an academic background who has spent time reflecting on their own practices of knowledge production can believe that scientific knowledge is neutral, impartial, universal, and objective. We know that these are impossible criteria that hide parochial and economic interests. What we try to do as knowledge producers in academia is not finding The Truth of Reality. What we do is collaborate in the creation of a body of knowledge that helps us to understand the conditions in which we live and, consequently, to be able to transform them when they generate unnecessary suffering. Of course, we also disagree about what is that needs transformation, but unanimity is not our goal either. However, this is nothing like post-truth politics. It is about scientific communities relating to truth in a humble and anti-dogmatic way. At least, that is our aspiration, because the opposite is dogmatic thinking such as in neoliberalism and conspiracy theories.
The existence of a transdisciplinary and robust scientific community guarantees a counterbalance to the tendency of modern science to serve capitalist projects contrary to society’s interests and the ecological health of the territory. The greater the freedom of research, the more possible it is for research lines on neglected but necessary topics to proliferate. The more funding there is for basic research in all disciplines, the greater the likelihood that research will have positive impact on the needs and well-being of the people and the territory and not the interests of capital. Because they know this, right-wing governments need to weaken and reduce the scope of the R&D system. If there is one thing I know from my trajectory in CONICET, it is that in times when CONICET was underfunded, admissions depended less on merit than on factors of conservative political bias. CONICET’s elitization in other times did not guarantee the “quality” of the research; on the contrary, excellence was never the criterion by which someone was given a position there.

Against the absurd dogmatism of the neoliberal and conservative governments proliferating globally, the research community opposes its own polemical and critical character. This counter-pressure will more likely come from below than from the scientific elite, from the more proletarian strata of the scientific system sooner than from the established colleagues who always receive the lion’s share of funding and who always occupy decision-making spaces in universities and scientific institutions.
Useful, impactful, and non-ideological science can only be achieved by policies granting more science to more children, promoting scientific vocations, encouraging informed critique by rigorous researchers who listen to society’s problems as they are formulated by their actual communities. On our part, this calls for a greater commitment to the critical self-awareness of our role and our condition as science workers.


Happy International Workers’ Day for you all!




Alex SL 04.30.24 at 11:41 pm

By attacking higher education and public scientific research, any openly capitalist government is shooting itself on the foot.

Well, of course it is true that neoliberals and right-wing populists are wrong on the facts. The central flaw of their ideology is encapsulated in the saying, “nobody has ever spent their way to propserity” because, yes, that is precisely how one builds a prosperous economy, by investing into infrastructure, services, education, health, safety, security, and soft power on the world stage. These people are penny-wise and pound foolish, short-sighted instead of wise, reactive instead of strategic.

But it seems odd to me to analyse these people in terms of “shooting themselves in the foot”, because that assumes that they want prosperity, functioning capitalism, and progress. They really don’t. Neoliberals pretend to want these things but really only want to loot the public good for their own short-term gain. Contemporary right-wing populists do not even claim to want these things, they openly prioritise anger and hatred over everything else. If you offered them the choice between increasing their nation’s prosperity by 20% and some way of visibly hurting minorities and/or academics, they wouldn’t even deliberate for a second before picking the second option.

Go to any social media forum and read the comments posted under news pieces about the defunding of Argentina’s academia. They are not, “there is no money” or some sophisticated argument about how the taxpayers know better where to spend their money than a bureaucrat. Instead, there are rants about some anecdote they have heard of some postmodernist scholar wasting money on gender studies. This is the equivalent of burning down the entire hospital because you don’t like that it also has a mental health ward instead of only surgical theatres.

Milneists, Trumpists, Putinists, Brexiters, they can’t be influenced by reasoned argument or evidence, even about what is best for their own nation they claim to love. They just want to hurt the people they hate.


Phil H 05.01.24 at 4:06 am

That quote from Penelas is great, but still much too credulous:
“the slogan ‘There is no money’ should not be read as descriptive but as normative:”
Yes, this is really well put. Austerity policy are (almost?) always, as a contingent matter of fact, ideological rather than practical.
“…according to the Mileist ideology, perpetuating the robbery that any tax burden entails. The foundation of the program is, therefore, moral.”
Without knowing anything about Milei, I’m arguing from a position of ignorance here, but experience suggests that the budget slashers suddenly become very willing to spend money on their pet projects. Two years down the line, the infrastructure/military/corruption/vote-buying that they want to engage in isn’t robbery or immoral. In general, then, I think it’s mistake to even engage in the terms of these fake ideologies.


John Q 05.01.24 at 5:18 am

The right loves technology but hates science, including the natural sciences. Their ideal is the heroic entrepreneur epitomized historically by Edison, and in our degenerate times by Elon Musk. The combination of techn-optimism with scientific ignorance leaves them open to being defrauded by the likes of Theranos. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some local version of Elizabeth Holmes popping up in Argentina.


engels 05.01.24 at 3:23 pm

Very interesting and alarming. “There’s no money” was also a meme in Britain based on a stupid joke by an outgoing New Labour hack: I hope Argentina didn’t get it from us.


Guano 05.02.24 at 8:07 am

Knowledge has become too dangerous. It involves facing up to uncomfortable truths.


MFB 05.02.24 at 8:28 am

This post makes a great deal of sense, as does much of Alex SL’s response (although penny-wise, pound-foolish is not quite a description of neoliberalism, since the pennies are for others and the pounds for themselves and the former need to be monitored closely while the latter need not be scrutinised — what Arundhati Roy calls “gush-up capitalism”).

It is also, however, almost entirely predictable. Save money by defunding people who analyse society and might discover that government policies don’t work? Wasn’t that essentially what the Thatcher government was doing to universities in the late 1980s? One would expect that the next step will be to channel more money into the pockets of those who pretend to analyse society but actually repeat the jargon of corporate clowns.

Same as it ever was.


Macarena Marey 05.03.24 at 10:55 am

Omg Alex, this is what I say in the post. You “correct” me to point out somethkng I myself say. Anyhow, thanks for explaining my country to me!


Macarena Marey 05.03.24 at 10:57 am

Also, I am interested in the economic and political structure, not merely on feelings. I am a Marxist.


Alex SL 05.04.24 at 12:20 am

Sorry for misreading the post, but it literally, in the words that now follow, claimed that “By attacking higher education and public scientific research, any openly capitalist government is shooting itself on the foot”, which only makes sense if their aim is not attacking higher education for its own sake.

Conversely, I am sorry if my reply read like explaining Argentina, because that was not my intention. Despite sharing observations about English-language replies to news items on a social media network run out of the USA, the point of my response was meant to be my personal opinions about the nature of the populist right generally and internationally.

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