Reports on the Argentine movements over the last 12 months have been scattered between the issue of the national debt and the IMF, the struggles of the middle classes, the ‘piqueteros’ unemployed movement, and the generalised ‘rejection of politics’. How do all these aspects fit together – do the various struggles ion Argentina constitute a proletarian attack against capital? Is the ‘rejection of ‘politics’ a radical advance for the movement, or an expression of sectional fragmentation? We suggest that the ‘neo-liberal’ attack has resulted in a massification of the class in which the middle classes are being absorbed into the proletariat. This is happening in specific conditions of a country on the periphery of capital, where an immediately social mobilization around the neighbourhood is possible. We examine the history of Argentina to explain the origin of the current situation.
A nation implodes…
Following years of ‘neo-liberal’ restructuring in Argentina, and with thousands of private and state workers not having been paid in the last half of 2001, by the end of that year the social situation was deteriorating fast. The collapse of a heavily indebted economy threatened ever wider social sectors with the loss of their livelihoods. This situation was not going uncontested, however. There were twelve general strikes in 2001 alone. On just one day in August of that year, a huge piquetero 1
action involved over 100,000 people and blocked 300 roads.
On the 17th of December the government of De La Rua announced further cuts. The state budget was to take a further 20% reduction. This meant more cuts in services, wages and pensions. Unemployment already stood at 20% and the corralito (banking restrictions) had been put in place on December 3rd to prevent people withdrawing their savings. A generalized insurrection gripped the country. And on the 19th, huge sections of Argentine society mobilised not only against De La Rua but against the whole Argentine political class. On the 15th, organised lootings spread through Argentina’s provincial cities; on the 16th and 17th they hit Buenos Aires, where thousands attacked supermarkets, warehouses and shops, as well as official buildings. In Quilmes, in greater Buenos Aires, 2000 people besieged a supermarket and refused to leave until they were given 3000 twenty-kilo bags of food. The movement spread spontaneously. Many banks in the heart of Buenos Aires were burned on the 19th.
De La Rua denounced this ‘anarchy’ and instituted a state of emergency. This threat of state repression, a very tangible threat to Argentines with their memories of the terror of the dictatorship, instead of demobilising people became the spark for an even wider mobilisation. More than a million people filled the centre of Buenos Aires and headed for the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in the Plaza de Mayo. There were also hundreds of thousands on the streets of most of the other cities: Cordoba, La Plata, Rosario. The impoverished middle classes came out into the streets, in a mass cacerolazo, a symbolic protest involving the beating of pots and pans. At exactly the moment when the state attempted to intimidate and create division, with a call to order against the looters, people filled the streets chanting “the state of emergency – they can stick it up their arse.” This crucial moment became effectively an endorsement of the insurgency of the previous days. More than 30 people died on the 18th and 19th, shot by shopkeepers and cops at lootings around the country, and in the streets around the Plaza De Mayo in Buenos Aires during riots; but the ‘party of order’ was decisively pushed back. The massive defiance of the state of emergency appeared to lay to rest the ghost of fear and intimidation from the years of the dictatorship; the phrase “No te metes” (“Don’t get involved”) was no longer heard.
All the main protagonists of this story were involved on the 19th. There were the unemployed, who participated in both the piquetes and the lootings all over the country. The ‘middle classes’ were also there; in the following few days, they would set up popular assemblies in their neighbourhoods. Prefiguring this, people met and discussed on street corners, where many stayed until late into the night, lighting fires in the middle of the roads at the intersections of wide avenues – reminiscent of piquetero tactics of the last few years. The workers from the Brukman factory, occupied on the 18th, were there too.
As the 19th turned into the 20th, the cacerolazo protest escalated into open confrontation with the state and there was massive street-fighting in the centre of Buenos Aires.2
At the Obelisk, in the centre of Buenos Aires, hundreds engaged in running street-battles with police – including the motoqueros, the motorbike couriers, who gave aid to the fighters from the back of their bikes, charging the police, rescuing those overcome by tear-gas and bringing loads of stones for others fighting. People celebrated, as De la Rua fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter, with music, champagne and bonbons looted from nearby shops. The banks burned in the centre of Buenos Aires on the 19th and 20th, an expression of anger at the corralito; the bank freezes affected not only the middle classes but also many workers with small savings and those who depended on cash by working in the black economy. The demos, riots and lootings took place throughout Buenos Aires province and in more than 12 cities around the country. Barricades were erected in some areas of the capital and massive riots ensued. Many joined the weekly vigil of the mothers of the disappeared in the Plaza de Mayo; some tried to storm the Casa Rosada; the Ministry of the Economy was set alight; and people besieged the home of the hated minister of finance, Cavallo. In Cordoba, the second city, site of Argentina’s declining car industry, the breakdown of negotiations over the payment of wages between municipal workers and the council led to an occupation of the council offices, where a popular assembly was held. Thrown out by the police, they tried to burn the building down and build barricades in the street, helped by workers from various factories that had just gone on strike. As in Buenos Aires, lootings occurred involving different sectors of workers and the unemployed. A new slogan against the political class resounded in the streets all over the country, one taken up and much-debated ever since: “Que se vayan todos” (Out with them all). 3
The new mood appeared to be summed up in a statement by one of the piqueteros involved in the MTD Solano (Movement of Unemployed Workers): “We heard rumours of deaths [from repression] but we knew we were participating in something historical and you could feel the solidarity there. We weren’t piqueteros or middle class; we all felt the sensation of being ‘one'”. But this provokes the question: What was the nature of this feeling of ‘being one’? A problematic cross-class solidarity in which the proletariat were in danger of losing sight of their class needs by joining with other classes affected by the Argentine crisis? The present article seeks to answer this fundamental question of the composition – or re-composition – of the movements which have been threatening the social order in Argentina over the last 12 months.
In order to gain an understanding of the nature of the current struggles, we need first to place them in their historical context, beginning with Argentina’s ‘golden era’, when the economy revolved around the agro-export business. The rise of Peronism heralded a new ‘settlement’ with the working class which helps explain some of the peculiarities of the present-day struggles. In this context, we trace the origins and outline the trajectories of the different sections making up today’s movement: the unemployed and piqueteros, the situation in the factories, and the impoverished middle classes and the neighbourhood assemblies. While there appears to be a generalized ‘rejection of politics’, there remains the question of how all these aspects fit together – do the various struggles in Argentina constitute a proletarian attack against capital? Is the ‘rejection of politics’ a radical advance for the movement, or an expression of sectional fragmentation? We suggest that the ‘neo-liberal’ attack has resulted in a massification of the class in which the middle classes are being absorbed into the proletariat. This is happening in specific conditions of a country on the periphery of capital, where an immediately social mobilization around the neighbourhood is possible.
1. The contradictions of the ‘golden era’ of the agro-export business 4
As thousands of Argentines loot stores for food and goods while grain and meat is shipped away to the western markets, the ‘iron’ laws of economy are exposed as reified expressions of the class war. Indeed, the whole history of modern Argentina, of its changes in economic strategies and its various crises, is the history of the Argentine bourgeoisie’s battle to reimpose, again and again, capital’s control on a fierce, riotous proletariat.
In 1914, Argentina’s economy was based on agricultural exports, mainly of grain and beef. The Argentine bourgeoisie was composed of landowners, who had control of large latifundias, and export businessmen, and confronted a huge number of discontented agricultural workers whose pay and conditions were appalling but whose dispersion in a large backward countryside was a great obstacle in their attempts to organize. In the rural region of Patagonia the meat-processing, service and transport workers of the small towns of Rio Gallegos and Puerto Deseado were already developing organizations based on small federations. Patagonia’s largest union organization, the Sociedad Obrera de Rio Gallegos, was centred in the small capital Rio Gallegos and had been active since 1911.
While Argentina’s rural hinterland was left underdeveloped, the agro-business trade had necessitated the development of some subsidiary industries and services, such as meat-processing plants, cargo transport, railways, docks, triggering the expansion of a few coastal cities and a growing urban proletariat. The urban workers could organize more easily and by 1914 they were already a combative force and a challenge to the status quo.
The urbanization of the coast, functional to the export-oriented economy, involved the growth of an urban middle class and petit bourgeoisie composed of shop-keepers, petty businessmen, professionals, and civil servants. The development of the urban middle classes and the threat of the proletariat 5
gradually started undermining the power of the agrarian oligarchy. By 1911, the conservative government had to concede to the struggles of the middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie and extended the electoral franchize to include middle classes and to the bulk of the working class with the law Saenz Pe-a (1912). In 1916, Hipolito Yrigoyen, candidate for the Radical Party, which represented the middle classes, was elected President of Argentina. Yrigoyen’s populist government would combine repression with attempts to recuperate urban and rural working class struggles.
The dominant agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisie had little interest in promoting industrial production or the development of the countryside. However, the viability of Argentina’s agrarian export economy depended on the ability of the Argentine exporters to realize profits by selling on the world market. The vulnerability of this economy, and of the class settlement which it expressed, was exposed by the First World War. Causing disruption to international trade, the war stirred up in Argentina a wave of strikes and insurrections which seriously threatened the bourgeois order. This was the beginning of the end of the era of an economy which was golden only to the extent of the Argentine agrarian oligarchy’s pockets. As we will see later, the world crisis of 1929 was to give it the final blow.
Already before the First World War, Argentina’s extensive but backward agriculture had begun to reach the limits of cultivable lands, and a change in economic strategy would sooner or later appear necessary to the bourgeoisie. However, with the First World War, the demand for agricultural export goods from the belligerent countries temporarily increased, pushing prices up and rewarding the agro-businessmen with huge profits. But, at the same time, the war caused a shortage in the import of raw material and capital goods, and led to a crisis in many industrial sectors. As unemployment rose and pay and working conditions worsened, waves of strikes affected transport and urban service sectors, as well as the mostly British or foreign, meat-processing plants, in the towns along the coast.
Meanwhile, there was also a change in the representation of the working class. By 1914 the largest union federation in Argentina was the Federacion Obrera Regional Argentina (FORA), which in its fifth congress in 1905 had adopted an anarcho-communist position. In September 1914 the syndicalist Confederacion Obrera Regional Argentina (CORA) dissolved themselves to join FORA. The syndicalists opposed FORA’s anarcho-communist position and their entry to the federation was conditioned by a promise from the anarchist unions to discuss the problem of common objectives and principles in the forthcoming ninth congress of FORA. During this congress, in 1915, FORA’s revolutionary positions were discarded in favour of a position of neutrality towards different political currents within the labour movement – this included the Socialist Party and other parliamentary and moderate currents, but, as we will see, it also gave freedom to the union leaders of FORA to accept any compromise with whoever was in power. 6
Also the revolutionary positions which had up until then characterized the syndicalists were toned down. In fact, while up until then revolutionary syndicalism had encouraged the use of the general strike as a tool to overthrow capitalism, the general strike was now accepted ‘only when it is exercized with intelligence and energy to repulse the aggression of capitalism and the State’. 7
While moderation took root in the mainstream FORA, the now minority unions who were still faithful to revolutionary principles left FORA to create the ‘FORA of the fifth congress’ (FORA V). The syndicalist FORA was then known as the ‘FORA of the ninth congress’ (FORA IX).
With his election in 1916, the Radical President Yrigoyen sought a conciliatory approach with the working class and started a ‘special relationship’ with the unions of FORA IX. The Radical government took steps towards introducing labour reforms and intervened in industrial disputes through a representative of the President (the governor), sometimes on the side of the workers. On the other hand, Yrigoyen’s government severely repressed strikes when no political gain or conciliatory agreements could be obtained or when important interests of capital were at stake.
FORA IX found it difficult to bridle the proletariat into submission and compromise. After 1918 news of the Russian Revolution added to the material conditions of crisis by encouraging the Argentine proletariat towards a uncompromising confrontation with the system. It was the revolutionary FORA V which took the lead of the new offensive. In January 1919 a major insurrection, which would be known as the Tragic Week, exploded in Buenos Aires, provoked by the death of workers during armed confrontations between the police and strikers in the occupied metallurgical plant Pedro Vasena & Hijos. FORA V called for a general strike and the on the 9th of January a march of 200,000 people led by about a hundred armed workers turned to a victorious battle with the police, while looters raided the city. FORA IX was obliged to join FORA V in calling a general strike for the 10th, whilst at the same time opening negotiations with the government. The struggle continued for the next four days and strikes paralysed the city, while FORA IX, who were able to negotiate and obtain petty concessions limited to the dispute within Vasena, tried to discourage the workers from carrying on and appealed for a return to work – but in vain. The insurrection was not really about one isolated dispute in an isolated factory, but about the general discontent shared by everyone, and the workers felt strong enough to prosecute the strikes while FORA V was pushing for the extension of the strikes to the revolution. Only the intervention of the army was able to reimpose social peace.
After the end of the First World War, a fall of international wool and meat prices affected the rural region of Patagonia. 8
Unemployment and the general worsening of the conditions of rural workers caused by the crisis encouraged the Sociedad Obrera de Rio Gallegos, affiliated to FORA IX, to call for a regional strike of ports and hotels in July 1920. The repressive response of the State triggered an escalation of the struggle, which extended among the rural workers in the hinterland. Armed nuclei composed of rural workers raided the countryside, spreading terror among the landowners and the bosses, recruiting, and propagating the struggle from hacienda to hacienda. Presidential appeals for reconciliation to the ‘genuine-and-peaceful’ workers were answered with armed defiance both in the coastal towns and in the countryside, and scabs sent from Buenos Aires were shot at by the workers of Rio Gallegos. Patagonia did not want a compromise, they wanted to go further: “This is not a working-class movement” said the governor Correo Falcon “but something much worse”. The strike ceased first in the capital Rio Gallegos and later in the countryside in front of a total lack of support from the central FORA IX and of the promises of generous concessions by the new governor, Varela, who presented himself as a defender of workers’ rights and was able to obtain an agreement with the rural workers. The promises were not met; but another attempt to organize strikes and armed struggles in 1921 was murderously repressed by the governor Varela. 9
The upsurge was over, to the relief not only of the Argentine bourgeoisie but also of the English and the German bourgeoisie, who had appealed to the Argentine chancery to protect their property in Patagonia.
Between 1919 and 1929 Argentina’s economy recovered, real wages rose, unemployment decreased. This gave the government the economic basis for a renewed compromise with the working class. New laws to regulate the labour market were introduced (e.g. a legislation which made payment in cash obligatory came in 1925, the restriction of the working day to 8 hours, except for rural and domestic workers, came in 1929). The working class were demobilized and most of the unions merged to form the reformist confederation Central General de Trabajadores (CGT, 1930). Only FORA V and a few communist unions stayed out.
2. Import-substitution production and Peronism 10
The fall of world trade that followed the end of the First World War prompted some within the Argentine bourgeoisie to disengage with the world markets and look towards industrialization based on import substitution. 11
However, a concerted attempt at national industrialization required a break with the established class settlement. The emerging industrial bourgeoisie, in whose interests it was to was to really push for this new economic policy, was in fact weak and squeezed between the agro-trade oligarchy on the one hand, entrenched in their conservative free-trade oriented interests, and a militant and restless working class on the other. It was only with the economic crisis that followed Wall Street crash in 1929, which saw a collapse in world trade, that became possible to break the existing class settlement and pursue a policy of import substitution led industrialization. Even then the Argentine industrial bourgeoisie was too weak and the army had to step in.
The army overthrew the Radical government in 1930, installing a military presidency. In order to regulate overproduction caused by the international crisis, the military government placed agricultural trade under State control, against the entrenched interests of the agrarian and mercantile bourgeoisie. The monopoly of the agro-trade profits allowed the State to channel capitals into the development of a modern army, and a State apparatus which favoured industrial development; and (above all later with Peron) to channel profits into productive and industrial development.
At the same time the military government acted against the working class so as to increase the profitability of industrial capital. As soon as it took power, the new governments started repression of both militant and conciliatory unions. Despite the fact that the moderate CGT did not even condemn the military coup, declaring themselves ‘politically neutral’, the new government took repressive steps against the unions. The industrial bourgeoisie regained the ground previously lost to the working class. The labour laws conceded after the insurrection of 1919 were repealed; regulations were neglected by the bosses with the approval of state authorities and during the next ten years the average wage decreased. In the same period industrial production expanded and overtook agricultural production. This was accompanied by a recomposition of the Argentine working class: made redundant by the economic restructuring, masses of rural workers moved to the urban areas and provided the labour force for the new industries.
However, unable to find a stable form to mediate class conflict and to integrate the working class with some form of corporative compromise, the military government found itself caught between the interests of the old ruling oligarchy and rising popular discontent, and they were obliged to progressively concede power to bourgeois politicians.
In June 1943, during the Second World War, in the face of a bourgeoisie split by conflicting interests, the army, led by Generals Rawson and Ramirez, took power a second time in order to ensure Argentina maintained a neutral position in the Second World War. There was an ideological motive in the coup, since the right-wing army was inclined to maintain a friendly relationship with the fascist side and many among them, Peron included, openly expressed their admiration of Mussolini. In fact the military was looking at fascism and corporatism as an answer to growing working class militancy. In 1942 the number of working days lost to strikes in Argentina was three times higher than in the past two years.
Indeed, in 1943, the new Labour and Social Security Secretary, Juan Domingo Peron, started a coherent economic and political policy based on the introduction of protective tariffs to support national accumulation and industrial development and on a corporatist compromise with the industrial working class. By 1944 he had become Vice President of Argentina. His popularity with the working class became so high that when the army tried to remove him from his post and send him into internal exile in 1945, a wave of grass-root struggles spread through the country obtained his return. In 1946, he was elected President with the support of the urban working class. 12
In 1946 Peron initiated an industrialization plan, based on the income from the State monopoly of the agro-export, which would be reinvested in new industries through State-owned banks.
The introduction of protectionism and the State control of industrial development provided the material means to integrate the working class through economic concessions. And at the same time the real improvement in working class conditions, particularly higher wages, was functional to the expansion of Argentina’s internal market, and to the development of the import substitution economy. Indeed, the ideology of Peronism, based on the idea of a State ‘above all particular class interests’, was an ideology that the Radical government of Yrigoyen (and General Uriburu, with his corporatist commitment) had tried to propose in vain because it was challenged both by the old oligarchy and the working class, and as a result was contradicted by its actual economic policies. Only with the Peronist compromise this nationalistic ‘third way’ was grounded in the actual role taken by the State in the control of the economy. And by allowing for a real change in the conditions of the working class it was able to secure the material basis for its credibility.
The gains of the working class were to some extent comparable to those of workers in European social-democratic countries. A bureaucratic union apparatus would represent the workers and guarantee their ‘interests’ within a system of collective bargaining with the state as interlocutor (the unions received the status of persona juridica in 1945).The centralization of wage negotiations became a feature of most trades (already in 1945 there were 142 collective bargains signed at the National Department of Labour for Buenos Aires and 279 for the rest of the country). Legislation which benefited the workers was passed, including a steady rise of wages, the introduction of an extra month bonus at Christmas (the Aguinaldo, suspended only in August 2001), the implementation of health and safety regulations, free health care and new guarantees for rural workers.
These ‘generous’ concessions were offered in exchange for the workers’ submission to the State and the social order. For Peron the good worker had to go ‘de casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa’: from home to work and from work to home – and give up class struggle. Peron’s nationalistic ideology condemned communism and capitalism as ‘foreign’ and spurious ideologies, in the name of the ‘third way’ of justice and welfare provided by the Argentine State. The Peronist party was called ‘Justicialist’. The other side of this ‘third way’ was of course military repression, which was turned against those unions and militants who opposed the regime (the socialist splinter of the unions’ federation CGT was suspended).
Instead, the more moderate unions were encouraged and integrated into the State structure. The union’s complicity with the corporatist state and their moderation was guaranteed in concrete by a redefinition of their role within the system of wealth distribution. The unions were in fact put in charge of benefit provision and they would run the health service and even holiday resorts for the workers. This control on resources was an element of real power and control on the individual workers based on relations of patronage.
However, the union representation found itself in a contradiction. In order to maintain their privileges which were the token for their submission to the State apparatus, the unions had to strive not to lose their control of the workers’ movement; but on the other hand they had also to strive to maintain their legitimacy in face of the workers, whose militancy was growing. Indeed, contradictorily, in their efforts at recuperating the proletariat through representation, Peronism encouraged the workers to meet and participate in union activities, and to organize. Unionization was made obligatory for the state sector, and new unions promoted. The same fact that unionization was encouraged meant that while between 1940 and 1944 there were 332 strikes with a loss of one million working days, between 1945 and 1949 392 strikes soared to a record of nine million working days. In fact, while the main union federation CGT had become a bureaucratized mechanism at the service of the government, struggles proliferated around the shop stewards and the official representatives in the factories (comisiones internas), escaping the control of the leaders.
With its nationalistic and militaristic ideology, and with its attempt to suppress class conflict through a state-imposed corporatism, Peronism appears strikingly similar to European fascism. However, although Peron openly sought to emulate Mussolini, and although many commentators have seen Peronism as merely a form of fascism, there were vital differences. First, Peronism did not arise out of a mass movement rooted in the despair following a decisive working class defeat. Second, in his efforts to modernize Argentina through a policy of rapid industrialization, Peron was unable to rely on the backing of a relatively strong industrial bourgeoisie in order to overcome entrenched conservative agrarian interests. Instead, as we have seen, Peron came to power with the support of the working class. Far from smashing already demoralized working class organizations, Peron was obliged to establish a modus vivendi with such organizations.
The fact that Peron was obliged to establish an alliance with the working class has led some commentators to suggest that Peronism was essentially a form of social democracy, or at least a cross between social democracy and fascism. However, to the extent that social democracy becomes the representation of the working class within the state and capital, it represents the working class as individual commodity-owner/citizens. As such, social democracy tends to lead to the demobilization of the working class and the atrophy of its self-organization.
In contrast, although Peron could maintain an iron grip at the national level, at the grass-roots level both formal and informal working class organizations and networks were not only preserved but left with a large degree of autonomy. At a national level, Peron tied the working class as a whole to Peronism through substantial material concessions, while at a local level the various local grass-roots organizations were tied to the state through a system of patronage.
This co-option and preservation of the pre-existing forms of working class self-organization was further consolidated with Peron’s move towards democratization. In doing so, Peron established a system of clientelist relationships which guaranteed political and financial autonomy to the electoral base. Peronist local organizations were left totally or almost totally free from any political control on their activities. They would support their politicians at electoral times, receiving in exchange financial help and jobs. This encouraged identification with, and support for, Peronism, since such support actually meant welfare, state-guaranteed rights against the employers, and also space for militant actions and self-organization.
It is worth noticing that the Peronist structure of power, by giving a limited autonomy to its electoral base, encouraged and reproduced a traditional practice of self-help and solidarity at neighbourhood level. This tradition was rooted in the life of the pre-1920s conventillos, large buildings where working class families used to, and indeed some still do live (they have the structure of convents, with shared kitchens, and central patios). Workers’ cultural associations, popular libraries and anarchist schools proliferated around the conventillos’ patios, as well as instances of organized neighbourhood-based struggles. When, by the end of the 1920s, the workers were rehoused in individual houses in the suburbs of the cities, they tried to overcome their isolation by organizing themselves in the neighbourhood (barrio) through social and sport clubs and cultural associations – however, as Ronaldo Munck stresses, the new social heterogeneity in the suburbs would ‘tend to dilute the harsh proletarian experience of the pre-1930 period. 13
This base activity was encouraged by Peronism, when welfare was provided by the union structures through a network of associations (such as recreational groups, co-ops, etc.); this situation probably reflected the weakness of a bourgeoisie which could not afford to provide the working class with a modern welfare system. The ‘mafia’-like structure of Argentine power was one side of the coin of this weakness; the failure of the Peronist ‘welfare system’ to fragment and individualize the working class (as was achieved instead by the western welfare state) was the other side of this same coin.
This had allowed the Argentine working class to experience communal self-organization as a central part of its reproduction and survival, balancing the obvious pressure of capitalism towards bourgeois individualism. 14
This tradition of solidarity in the neighbourhood and at street level, which Argentine capitalism could not afford to dismantle, was an important element in Argentina’s historical insurrections. One tradition which has reoccurred from pre-Peronist times up until today is the organization of ollas populares, community kitchens during episodes of strikes. But above all this experience is important for its revolutionary potential – the fact that struggles which start from certain categories of workers can actually involve other proletarians and expand to whole towns.
3. The end of the import-substitution economy 15
By the end of the 1940s, import substitution-led industrialization was reaching its limits. Concessions for the working class and the its institutionalized strength restricted the rate of exploitation and hinder profits. The State apparatus necessary to Peronist patronage, with its army of white collar workers employed in the unions, hospitals, schools, etc., was a growing burden on the realization of surplus value at national level. Argentina’s archaic agricultural trade, whose profits still constituted the main source of finance for the State, and which were challenged by competition from more advanced western countries, began to impose increasingly pressing limits on the Peronist system. As a consequence, inflation began to rise and real wages declined. A mounting petty bourgeois, middle-class and bourgeois opposition to Peronism emerged, politically articulated by the Catholic Church and by increasingly nervous associations of industry bosses.
It was increasingly apparent that Peronist power could survive only by changing the terms of its ‘compromise’: In order to deal with the increasing State deficit, Peron had to seek foreign investments, and in order to contain inflation had to discipline the working class. Already by 1948, the government responded to strikes with repression more frequently than by making concessions. In 1953 Peron had to abandon his commitment to his flagship policy of protectionism: causing outrage in public opinion, he allowed the USA to invest in a new a steel plant, and started negotiations with the California-based Standard Oil Company for the exploitation of oil sources in Patagonia. All this weakened both the ideological and the material basis of the Peronist class compromise.
In fact a change at international level in the post-war settlement presented Argentina with the opportunity to shift towards export-led industrialization. The Bretton Woods agreement, together with multilateral agreements promoting free trade, established the dollar as world currency and stimulated a sustained recovery in world trade. Argentina’s bourgeoisie could now in principle take advantage of an opening up of foreign markets, particularly in the USA and in Europe, to sell the products it could now manufacture. The governments which succeeded Peron’s would make increasing efforts towards liberalization. But there was a fundamental problem confronting the attempts to pursue export-led growth. The industry developed under the Peronist compromise was backward and inefficient by world standards. Argentine industry needed massive investment to be able to compete on the world market, and this could only come from abroad. But Western Banks were not prepared to make large the large scale and long term investments in Argentina necessary to modernize its plant and machinery while the post-war boom was generating high profits in the Western countries.
However, the need to attract foreign investment and to discipline the working class into better standards of efficiency, faster work pace, higher intensity of work, meant that the bourgeoisie had to get rid of Peron and attack the privileges of a ‘spoiled’ working class. In September 1955 a military coup replaced Peron, populistically playing also on the disappointment of the public opinion about the deals with Standard Oil. The aim of the new military government was first of all to redefine the balance of power between employers and workers, since, according to the employers’ federation of the metallurgical industry, workplaces were ‘like an army in which the troops give the orders and not the generals’. 16
In the years following the coup, anti-labour laws were passed; the base structure of the Peronist union, the comisiones internas, were subjected to State intervention or forced into clandestinity. In 1958 the Radical government led by Frondizi implemented a series of privatizations and rationalizations, to patch up the State finances and encourage foreign investment. After 1958 production was restructured sometimes with the introduction of new technology; but often the effort of increasing productivity just meant imposing a faster work pace and discipline on the workers.
There was a strong grass-root workers’ response to the new economic measures. Between 1955 and 1959 about four million working days were lost every year to strikes. In 1959 the days lost to strikes soared to ten million. The workers did not hesitate to consider occupations, sabotages and the use of explosives. Despite this resistance, the bourgeoisie recovered ground. Wage concessions were related to productivity; piece-work was introduced; speed-ups were imposed. It was a period of defeat for the class, paradoxically amidst a level of struggles which we may only envy today in the UK.
At the end of the 50s, however, a peak in militant factory occupations and strikes encouraged the CGT to get involved, both to control this militancy and to use it for achieving more political and negotiation power. With Augusto Vandor as leader, the CGT made every effort to minimize grass-root influence on the assemblies with the use of intimidation by stewards and impose a total control of the struggles from the top. The workers’ energies were channelled into ‘controlled struggles’, controlled in every detail by the union leaders, which were aimed to gain concessions for the union’s power and for the workers, but also to weaken the Radical government and pave the way for a return of Peron. In particular, in 1964 a ‘controlled’ series of factory occupations involved eleven thousand factories and four million workers. 17
Amidst growing social tension, a students’ struggle swept the country in 1966. A new military regime took power the same year and smashed the movement, but it could not stop the process of politicization in universities which had started with it. The student’s radicalization and their involvement with the workers’ struggles would in fact be an important element in the later insurrectional events of 1969.
The new military government, led by General Ongania, initially presented itself as ideologically corporatist and its coup was welcomed by most of the unions. But in 1967 the government’s economic policies shifted towards liberalization and rationalization, adopting anti-inflationary policies which led to the collapse of uncompetitive businesses, reducing barriers for the entry of foreign capitals, and cutting the powers and the resources of the CGT. However, a general strike called by the CGT for March 1967 met a cold response from many unions. In 1968 the CGT regrouped in a moderate CGT Azopardo and a more militant, and only initially large, CGTA (‘of the Argentines’), created by base militants, and involving stalinists, left-wing Peronists, left-wing Catholics, and groups of the far left.
From 1968 however the workers rose up again in a crescendo of strikes which culminated with major insurrectional events in 1969, the Cordobazo. Tension in the industrial town of Cordoba built up mainly around the issues of the abolition of the five-day working week and the establishment of quitas zonales, regions where the bosses were allowed pay less than the wage nationally agreed, which included the region of Cordoba. The metal mechanical workers, the bus drivers and the car mechanics, and their respective unions UOM, UTA and SMATA were mainly at the centre of these struggles. The immediate trigger for the insurrection was a series of protests after murderous police repression of student struggles. The 29th May in Cordoba a march organized by SMATA, Luz y Fuerza (the local power workers union), UOM and UTA, joined by white collar workers and by students, soon transformed itself into a battle on the barricades. The whole town was on the streets and the centre was seized for many hours. But the day after the army counterattacked, numerous arrests were made, and militants were killed. In September a new insurrection exploded in the town of Rosario, in the Cordoba region; the town was seized and defended on the barricades against the police. Police headquarters, banks, shops and hotels of the city centre were raided.
The insurrections were heavily repressed, but the State had to restore collective bargaining with the unions and moderate their new economic policies. The participation of white-collar workers in the Cordobazo was the first major instance of participation of this sectors on the barricades. With the cuts on the state services, the participation of dissatisfied white-collar workers in the proletariat struggle was to become increasingly frequent: the piquetero movement of 1995 emerged precisely from a combative struggle of teachers. The Cordobazo is also another example, rooted in the Argentine tradition, of a struggle which does not stop at the factory gate but spreads throughout the town – a tradition which has become very important in today’s movement.
During the Peronist period, the unions’ ‘corruption’ had been for the workers a comfortable means of obtaining benefits within a clientelist relation while as a by-product part of the State finances were redirected to the pockets of union bureaucrats. But with the political and economic reorientation of the ruling class, the bureaucratic union ‘corruption’ and their collaboration with a system, which was no longer generous, became a reason for resentment on the part of the working class. That the union was part of the bourgeois system was indeed apparent in the fact that the union bureaucrats were even owners of industries and businesses. 18
The movement of clasismo which started in 1970 with the rank-and-file struggles in the Fiat factory in Cordoba expressed this resentment. The unions of SITRAC and SIMAC were seized by the workers, who imposed rank-and-file leaders (mainly Maoist or independent Peronists), against the resistance of the union bureaucrats and of the State. A new insurrection in Cordoba, called the Viborazo, exploded in 1971 precisely around the new rank-and-file movements and in particular around a struggle in the FIAT car factory.
This hot climate, which also included raids by Peronist and Trotskyist terrorist groups (‘guerrillas’), could not be defeated with the army or with the help of right-wing paramilitary groups. The return of Peron, who could still be seen by many as ‘above the parties’, was then accepted by the bourgeoisie: the Peronist Campora was elected in March 1973, and Peron was president later the same year. During this period strikes broke out everywhere in the country, with occupations, clashes with the police, raids on bosses’ homes. ‘Guerrilla’ actions also multiplied.
While allowing a rise of wages, and making an attempt to control import prices, Peron carried on a policy in the three years of his power which was systematically and mercilessly repressive; he criticized Campora for his ‘excessive concessions’ to the workers. A redundancy law allowed the State to get rid of militant employees and a new ‘Law of Professional Associations’ allowed the trade union leaders to overthrow decisions made by the committees and increased the bureaucrat’s control over the shop floor. Isabelita Peron came to power after her husband’s death, and prosecuted his repressive policy. The repression had the consequence of isolating and radicalizing small vanguard groups – armed ‘guerrilla’ groups, in particular the Montoneros, got stronger and their kidnappings and murders of trade union bureaucrats and other members of the bourgeoisie earned general public support and sympathy. 19
4. Petrodollars and the restructuring of the working class 20
The quadrupling of the price of oil in 1973 precipitated a severe financial crisis in Argentina. The sharp rise in the price of oil triggered an inflationary spiral that soon led to hyper-inflation. At the same time the Central Bank sank deeper into the red. Yet this oil crisis not only brought the dangers of debt and hyper-inflation, it also offered the Argentine bourgeoisie new opportunities. The oil price rise of 1973 led to a huge increase in the revenues of the oil producing States. Unable to spend or invest more than a small fraction of these revenues at home, the oil producing States deposited their ‘petro-dollars’ in Western banks. As a result Western bankers found themselves awash with money-capital to invest. Faced with rising working class militancy and declining profits in Western Europe and the USA in the 1970s, the Western banks were prepared to channel a large part of their petro-dollar funds into the more developed parts of the periphery of the world economy, such as Latin America. As a consequence, the oil crisis gave Argentina’s economy the opportunity to present itself as a profitable place for the Western banks to invest their petrodollars. Foreign investments could then ideally be used to modernize Argentina’s industry and economic infrastructure so that it could compete in the world market. But such a strategy required a further concerted attack on the working class to guarantee the potential profitability of investments in Argentina.
Similar calculations were made in neighbouring Chile, when in 1973 a military coup d’état opened their doors to the ‘monetarism’ of the new bourgeois economists, educated in the ‘Chicago school’ of Milton Friedman. The prescription of the American ‘monetarist’ economists was to fight inflation by cutting state spending and privatize state enterprises; and abolish protectionist policies and subsidies for state industries, forcing the ‘inefficient’ industries to close down in the face of international competition. In 1974 the average Chilean wage fell by one half and unemployment exploded, while the welfare system, which was based on the profits of the national industries, collapsed. At the same time massive military repression hit Chilean workers and their organizations. In a word, the restructuring devised by the Chicago School was a class counterattack, whose rationale was founded in the imposition of the ‘hard laws’ of international competition.
In 1976, using the justification of the need to fight the ‘guerrillas’, the army took power in Argentina in a coup. The concept of ‘guerrilla’ was extended to that of ‘industrial guerrilla’ to launch a massive attack against workers’ organizations. Indeed it was clear to the military that the main obstacle to restructuring was the proletariat. A wave of arrests and murders of militant workers and union leaders was carried out with the collaboration of paramilitary groups. A period of terror started. Militant workers would be sacked or resign for fear of arrest, torture and death, with a total of 30,000 dead or ‘disappeared’. Laws were passed to attack the militancy of the rank-and-file (reduction of the number of shop stewards to half; limitations to the access to the role of shop steward in the unions, the obligation of a pre-approved agenda at union meetings).
The CGT was dissolved by the military regime, and legislation was passed to ‘democratize’ the unions. The right of collective bargaining was restricted to weaken the power and legitimacy of the unions. Their control on welfare and resources was withdrawn. The interest of the military to ‘democratize’ the unions was one with the attempt to break down their power based on patronage, and in the same time to make the workers look at the State as individuals for their benefits rather than seeking to belong to a group. But this attack on the unions had contradictory consequences. First, by losing the concrete basis for their power over people, the unions would cease to be an efficient form of social control of the proletariat. And, second, losing their privileges, which were the reason of their complicity with the government, many union leaders did not have any choice but to be drawn into the struggle and radicalized their position in an attempt at maintaining control of the situation.
However, this restructuring and liberalization of the economy had to be gradual, because of the backwardness of Argentina’s industries in terms of technology and organization of work, which was the other side of the coin of the strength of a working class which had not allowed capitalism completely to follow its laws of free competition. Indeed when the State spoke about efficiency, it was the strength of the working class that was under discussion. The industries doomed by the neoliberal policies would be precisely those where the workers were stronger and had been able to gain and maintain high wages and comfortable working conditions. The restructuring meant dismantling those industrial sectors which, not uncoincidentally, were the strongholds of workers’ militancy. The industries which would survive had to be competitive to face foreign competition, and the workers had to be efficient to face the pressure of a rising unemployment – this meant imposing labour discipline and speed ups on the workers, the reimposition of capital’s control on labour. The introduction of wage differentials was a way of encouraging efficiency and competitiveness in the workers, and at the same time a way of trying to break class solidarity in the workplace.
As in Chile, while productivity increased, wages were halved in the first year of the coup. Unemployment rose and the gap between rich and poor increased. In the years following the coup a third of Argentina’s industrial capacity was closed down in the face of foreign competition. A large part of the redundant workforce was absorbed by self-employment in the tertiary sector, but in 1981 the government was obliged to admit that forty per cent of the working population was under-employed, and in 1982 they had to introduce unemployment benefit. With the restriction of the state sector, between 1976 and 1980 half a million white collar workers employed in the state sector were also made redundant, contributing to a split in the middle class support for the state.
But Argentines were not willing to accept their fate of starvation and submission. Even in a situation of repression which obliged the leaders not to come out openly, even if repression and economic blackmail would tend to fragment them, Argentines continued their struggles. From 1976 there were hundreds of thousand of workers on strike every year and a general strike in 1979. After 1979 struggles intensified while the unions were unable to contain the grass-root activity. In 1980 the government and bosses of Argentina faced street protests and a solid general strike in Buenos Aires.
The middle class support for the military regime was severely undermined by the beginning of the 80s, with a new economic crisis provoked by the second oil prices surge in 1979 and the subsequent recession in the developed economies, which caused a widespread debt crisis (Mexico defaulted in 1982). Facing workers’ resistance to their best efforts towards ‘efficiency’, and facing falling demand for its exports in the West, Argentina’s economy confronted a growing balance of trade deficit and a mounting foreign debt to finance it. Foreign debt rocketed from about $8bn in the mid-seventies to $45bn in the mid-eighties. Unrest spread, as far as the army and even in the police, which came out on strike for wages in 1982. The government, seeking a desperate way to regain their support, invaded the British colony of the Falklands/Malvinas to inflame Argentine nationalistic hearts and obtain the support of left-wing workers’ organizations (which they obtained, in the name of the leftist ideology of ‘anti-imperialism’!). Unfortunately for them, they lost the war.
5. Democracy 21
For the middle classes the fact that there was a problem in Argentina was undeniable. But this was not seen to be due to capitalism, but to moral issues which were superimposed on it – like the brutality of the military regime. Furthermore the crisis was not seen as a question of class struggle, but as the problem of the corrupt ‘trade union barons’ who were asking too much. In fact, this perception became the bourgeoisie’s pretext for its need to carry on and intensify its attack against a working class reluctant to be sacked and sacrificed at the altar of the new monetarist and neo-liberal policies – as was expressed in the Radical Alfonsin’s electoral pledge to ‘clip the wings of the trade union barons’, and to deal with the problem of ‘uncontrolled union demands’. Alfonsin triumphantly won the elections in 1983 with the support of the middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie but soon faced the problems of recession and inflation by prosecuting the neoliberal policies of his predecessors. In 1987 the Radical government restricted the wages to fight inflation and it introduced a second currency, the austral, a move which did not solve the inflationary crisis. Between 1983 and 1989 the wages of State employees were substantially reduced, while discontent and strikes grew. Unable to stop inflation, Alfonsin resigned in 1990.
In the same year the Peronist Menem was elected as president of Argentina in the midst of the economic crisis, with the electoral promise to stabilize the economy, devalue the peso, increase wages, and provide ‘social justice’ (words which appealed to the memory of the old Peronist times). On the other hand, he assured the USA of his commitment to neo-liberal policies: With this commitment, the magic word ‘justice’, key word of the old Peronist class compromise, was deprived of any chance of a concrete backup.
In fact there was no choice for Menem. 22
During the 1990s the International Monetary Fund intervened in Argentina in order to bail the country out of the debts that it had been piled up since the dismantling of the import-substitution economy. The enormous loans that were conceded to Argentina were conditional on the adoption of concrete steps (‘Structural Adjustment Programmes’) whose stated aim was to guarantee the influx of foreign capital to enable Argentina to pay back its international creditors. In order to make Argentina attractive to investors, the IMF recommended the stabilization of the Argentine currency with respect to the dollar, a rise in interest rates and continuation of the process of privatization of state companies (water, gas, airports…) – together with further cuts in State spending. Whatever the Peronist promises might have meant to the electors, Menem had to be subservient to the IMF’s requirements. Under Menem the austral, which was then worth one ten-thousandth of a peso, was suppressed, and a different monetary strategy was taken. In 1991, the government passed the ‘Convertibility Law’, which fixed the ratio between peso and dollar to 1:1. New laws on state reform sanctioned more deregulation of the economy, the privatization of gas, water, telecommunications and the postal service. The government also removed all restrictions on the transfer of foreign capital in or out of the country.
Menem dealt with economic ‘inefficiency’ with a reformulation of labour laws, which allowed the extension of the working day to 12 hours with no overtime paid, the possibility for employers to postpone weekend and rest days at will, deprived women and young people of labour rights (e.g. protection against dismissal), took away the right to paid days off and to strike and gave the employers the right to define job description to allow for introduction of multiple tasks. This practice heavily restricted those collective negotiations which still survived and rendered the workers more atomized and weaker in their bargaining with the employers. Industries, above all textiles, were allowed to relocate from the coastal towns to inland, where there was a ‘more tranquil labour environment”, and where labour regulations were less restrictive, with the conscious intent of making the country more attractive for investment.
Under this neo-Peronist government the exposure of Argentina to international competition was speeded up. In 1990 the government signed bilateral agreements (the Act of Buenos Aires) with Brazil that aimed to establish a new trade bloc modelled on the European Union. The following year Uruguay and Paraguay joined this agreement with the treaty of Asuncion which established the Mercado Comun del Cono Sur (MERCOSUR). Under these agreements it was decided to establish a custom union between the four countries by January 1995. All tariff barriers were to be dismantled between the four countries exposing Argentina’s industry to the full competition of Brazil. 23
However, Menem’s policy of a highly restrictive monetary policy to counter inflation meant that capital was unavailable for the medium and small companies to prepare themselves for liberalization. The weakest industries were closing while capitals were concentrated into large Transnational Corporations and domestic ‘Great Economic Groups’.
By 1993 Menem’s neo-liberal policies had begun to bear fruit. This dismantling of financial regulations, along with tough anti-labour laws, wholesale privatization and the pegging of the peso to the dollar, had transformed Argentina into an enticing prospect for foreign investors. With diminished investment opportunities due to the recession in the USA and Europe, international capital flooded into Argentina, preying on the national services, land, natural resources (oil) sold off by the government. The government of Argentina was duly praised by the IMF and the USA.
In contrast to the period under Alfonsin, in which the incomes of all but the very rich failed to keep pace with hyper-inflation, Menem’s rule was a time of relative prosperity for the majority of the Argentine population. With the stabilization of the peso the middle class no longer had to fear inflation eating into their savings and financial deregulation opened up opportunities for profitable investment for even small or moderate savers. For the part of the working class which was still in secure jobs, wages began to rise faster than prices.
However, a large part of the wave of foreign capital encouraged by Menem’s neoliberal policies did not go into productive investments. Foreign capital was more interested in buying up industries if they could quickly make profits by running them more efficiently – i.e. by sacking half the work force and making the other half work harder and more flexibly – rather than in building new factories and equipping them with up to date machinery. As a consequence, the inflow of foreign capital tended to increase, rather than decrease, unemployment at the same time as depressing wages for those at the bottom of the labour market. Between 1991 and 1999 both unemployment and underemployment more than doubled according to official figures.
As a result, the burst in economic prosperity of the early to mid 1990s was far from being evenly spread. Those amongst the Argentine bourgeoisie and middle classes who were in a position to become local agents for international capital – bankers, lawyers, consultants, accountts, managers and politicians – were able to make a fortune. At the same time those who lost their jobs through downsizing and public spending cuts found themselves swelling the ranks of the poor. Inequality rose sharply between the richest and the poorest. In 1990 the richest ten per cent of the population had an income fifteen times greater than the poorest ten per cent. By 1999 the richest ten per cent had increased their income to twenty three times that of the poorest tenth of the population.
With many of its more militant sections ‘downsized’, the bulk of the Argentine working class faced the prospect of steadily rising wages if they kept their heads down or the poverty of unemployment if they did not. As a consequence, militancy declined in the workplace and, as we shall see, the site of struggles shifted to the poor and the unemployed.
Yet this burst of prosperity under Menem was to be short lived. The flood of international capital into Argentina had allowed Menem to adopt more expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. Although a large part of the money pumped into the economy by higher public spending or through tax cuts would end up being spent on imports, thereby increasing the demand for dollars, this would be offset by foreign investors wanting to sell dollars for pesos in order to invest in Argentina. Such expansionary fiscal and monetary policies then gave a further boost to Argentina’s economic prosperity which in turn attracted foreign investors anxious not to miss out on the profits to be made from this ‘newly emerging market economy’. However, in the mid-1990s the dollar began to rise against the other main world currencies dragging the peso up with it. As a consequence, Argentina’s exports lost their competitiveness leading to a strong deterioration in its balance of trade.
The rise in the dollar had caused similar problems for the ‘newly emergent market economies’ in Asia and in 1997-8 led to financial crises in Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea. After the crisis reached Russia in 1999 fears spread that next in line would be Argentina. As a result the financial flows into Argentina went sharply into reverse as foreign investors sought to get their money out of the country before the peso collapsed. The IMF stepped in with a $40bn loan to defend the peso and settle the nerves of international financiers. But in return the IMF insisted on major cuts in public spending, further privatization and more liberalization. As a consequence, Argentina went into recession. The ‘virtuous circle’ of high levels of foreign investment, expansionary policies leading to economic growth and more foreign investment went into reverse.
The IMF-inspired austerity measures deepened the recession, discouraging foreign investment that then led to the IMF demanding even more austerity measures before it would roll over its loans. Tension increased between the Argentine government, increasingly unable and unwilling to make further cuts to appease the IMF, and the IMF, increasingly reluctant to bail out recalcitrant governments.
In 1999 the Radical de la Rua became President, after Menem was involved in a corruption scandal. In his electoral campaign, de la Rua promised ‘order and honesty’ in Argentina’s political affairs. However, the scandals which were going on discouraged investors and undermined Argentina’s economic credibility. By November 2001, with the government unable to impose further cuts without causing public outcry and fearing that the IMF would carry out its threat of not renewing its loans, (leading to the collapse of the peso), the well-off started converting their credits from peso to dollars or other reliable currencies and withdrawing money from the banks. In order to prevent a collapse of the banking system, de la Rua imposed the corralito, restrictions on the money that could be withdrawn from the banks ($1,000/month). 24
The middle classes, who had supported policies of successive governments since the 1970s, and who had prospered quietly during the 1990s, were now hit with the full brunt of the crisis, losing not only their savings but often also their jobs. Swathes of the Argentine middle class were proletarianized almost overnight! Driven in to the street, the middle class now joined the protests of the working class (the piqueteros) that had been going on since 1997.
6. The Piqueteros
The new forms of organisation which emerged drew some of their very strength from the drastic nature of this ‘neo-liberal’ restructuring. Whilst the economic experts were accusing Argentina’s political class of implementing the changes too slowly, the bourgeoisie in fact created a new problem for itself by having implementing them too quickly. When a large number of closures and redundancies hit almost overnight, the workers laid off en mass found themselves with common needs in a new situation where their social ties and continuing links of solidarity could be turned into new form of organisation. The mass worker becomes the mass unemployed worker. The first visible expression of these proletarians against their growing immiseration were sporadic street riots. In 1989 the province of Chubut in Patagonia exploded in a week of struggle, which ended with the resignation of the governor. The same year riots started in Rosario and Buenos Aires, where supermarkets and grocery stores were looted. From then on riots occurred throughout the country. However, the growing number and worsening situation of unemployed workers deprived of their means of survival necessitated more concerted action.
Whilst the tactic had been used from about 1993 onwards, the co-ordinated piquetero movement was born in Cutral Co and Plaza Huincul, two towns of Patagonia created around the State oil company, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales. It was privatised by Menem in 1994-5, and as a result 80% of its workers were suddenly laid off. Privatisation means more efficiency: whilst in the past it was the only major oil company in the world to report losses, due to the high wages and benefits conceded to its workers, after privatisation its profits rocketed while the living standard of the populations of the oil towns declined. By 1996 the two towns had an unemployment rate of 37.7%. The first riots exploded in June 1996 when the local government failed to reach an agreement with a Canadian corporation to set up a fertiliser plant in the area. The rioters were placated by promises made by the authorities. In March 1997, a teachers’ strike against layoffs and wage reductions evolved into the first of the now famous road blockages. When the police attacked the blockade, the towns of Cutral Co and Plaza Huincul mobilised in support. The popular assembly set up to negotiate with the authorities demanded jobs, tax moratoria and investments in the oil company. They decided to demobilise when some promises were made, including the creation of 500, (badly paid) jobs. The moderation of the assembly was due to the fact that people could see no good, in the situation, in an escalation of the protest. By the same token, the intervention in the assembly by local politicians was accepted.
The piquetero tactic of blocking roads was soon being taken up in other towns. It was used in Jujuy and Salta the following year, provinces in the north of the country. In Jujuy on May 7th 1997, piqueteros blockaded the Horacio Guzman Bridge, Argentina’s main link to Bolivia. Over the following four days, protests and blockades spread through the province, amongst both employed and unemployed. The movement was attacked by troops, (tear gas and rubber bullets were used), but provincial officials eventually capitulated and promised to create 12,500 jobs and increase welfare. 25
The spread of piquetero tactics and their forms of organisation moved first through the provinces, but then came closer to the capital when they reached La Matanza, in Greater Buenos Aires. This sprawling industrial suburb, with a population of two million, had been badly affected by unemployment. Here piquetero numbers grew substantially to 4,000-6,000 people. This new area of piquetero activity was also important because piquetero actions could now strangle the capital by blocking its major arteries, all within easy reach. We should also mention at this point events in Tartagal and Mosconi, both towns were occupied and held for a few days from the police in winter 1999/spring 2000, by forces including piqueteros. After the death of a demonstrator in November 2000, Tartagal was again rocked by riots – government buildings were set alight and cops taken hostage.
Typically, a piquetero highway blockage would have demands such as the withdrawal of police, the repudiation of state repression, the release of jailed comrades, unemployment benefits, food, health facilities, and demands for both ‘genuine’ jobs and Planes Trabajar or Work Plans – the later being effectively small unemployment subsidies (120-150 pesos a month per family, only available to those with families, and paid in ‘Lecops’, a national parallel currency or ‘bond’). 26
The state would give out these work plans to defuse situations. Over the years, piquetero actions for Work Plans have often met with success. The subsidies are given to heads of families – say, 100 out of 800 piqueteros – rather than forming the basis of a universally-shared benefit, minuscule though it would be. Work Plans are normally intended to be taken in exchange for light public works, like municipal gardening or the upkeep of roads. They amount to a pittance, representing in their value about an eighth of the material needs of a family of four. Echanges et Mouvement 27
however, also mention ‘organised looting’ by piqueteros in 1999, and an escalation of violent, direct appropriation of goods in 2000, especially around the December events of 2001. Goods vehicles trapped in pickets were looted, warehouses and supermarkets attacked in a concerted way, and anger expressed in attacks on government buildings. Already in June 2000, a violent riot in General Mosconi which left 2 dead, led to a country-wide response with 300 road-blocks. We must not forget these more violent and direct expressions of piquetero organisation, some of which may be more hidden. 28
Small groups of piqueteros, organising locally in their neighbourhoods in the first instance (e.g. MTD Lanus – MTD stands for Movement of Unemployed Workers), are often affiliated to a larger ‘Coordinator’ group, which is in turn affiliated to one of the four major piquetero confederations. These are the CCC (Class Combative Current) group and the FTV (Federation for Land and Housing) 29
, the Bloque Piquetero, and the Coordinadora Anibal Veron, which once formed part of the Bloque Piquetero but which has increasingly distanced itself from it, insisting on its total independence from parties and unions.
The FTV has a large membership and wide support in La Matanza, in the west of Buenos Aires province. It also includes groups under the banner ‘Barrios de Pie’ – neighbourhoods on their feet. The CCC is the (relatively autonomous) organised piquetero union arm of the (Maoist) Revolutionary Communist Party (PCR). 30
It too has a strong base in La Matanza, and also in the northern provinces of Argentina. The Bloque Piquetero gathers together dozens of piquetero groups including the Polo Obrero, (linked to leftist parties such as the trotskyist Partido Obrero -Workers’ Party), and a handful of other leftist groups. 31
The CCC and FTV-CTA group are considered the most reformist elements of the piquetero movement, with a tendency to negotiate with the government. Divisions within the movement over this led to the suspension of the third National Assembly of piqueteros planned for December 2001. A report from the Coordinadora Anibal Veron describes Anibal Veron’s eight-hour picket of seven bridges and access routes to Buenos Aires city on the 21st November 2001, contrasting it with another action, by the FTV grouping, which had started a few days before. The FTV piquete had in fact allowed transport to circulate on one side of the street from 5am to 10am and again from 5pm to 9pm, so as not to cause too much disruption in La Matanza. But, as they say, “While in La Matanza the third day of roadblocks with alternative routes… passed without a response…the firmness and organization of each of our bridge-blocks meant that, in spite of public declarations by the Ministry of Work that they would not receive the unemployed because we were ‘blocking roads’, in a few hours the same Ministry was sat in front of us at a negotiating table, publicly ratifying the commitment we sought.” 32
The statement goes on to criticise the FTV picket: “That which is generated by a road-block – born as a tool of the unemployed with which they can interrupt the movement of goods via national highways, to generate economic problems which, from a position of intransigence, forces the government to make concessions to the demonstrators – in the hands of these sectors ends up being a blocking … of the pavement, by the side of the road, while transport freely circulates!”
Importantly, Anibal Veron, (and perhaps other piquetero groups), eschew mediation, literally refusing to meet the state on its own terrain, forcing government negotiators to come to the pickets. This helps to ensure that negotiations over limited aims take place on the piqueteros’ terrain politically. ‘Work Plans’ and the rest are given out to families, rather than individuals, everyone can take part in the negotiations, the work plans are given out in a transparent manner, and everyone can decide on when to clear the road etc. 33
Limited aims, which from the outside look to be merely within the reformist dynamic of capital, are achieved with an understanding of the needs of proletarian struggles (such as refusal of mediation), which point to the importance of the process of struggle – social recomposition against the atomisation of capitalist social relations – as the real subversive current.
Groups like Anibal Veron criticise the CTA and CCC piquetero groupings for sending delegations to put their case to both government and employers (for example, in January 2002 CCC-organised piqueteros sent delegates to the oil company YPF-Repsol to demand 40,000 “genuine jobs”, and that working hours should be shared between those working and those who had been sacked; and another delegation was received by the Casa Rosada to demand Work Plans and food and the release of political prisoners). More generally, we can also see the incursions of the official unions into the piquetero movement as just an attempt at recuperation, or as an opportunity for cross-sector solidarity, maybe partly initiated by the base, which could eventually break free from its present limits. The bureaucracy may well have a need to increase its membership and leverage on the class by recruiting piqueteros under the banner of coordination and organisation, but piqueteros have their own reasons to understand the need for this coordination, one which, in a generalised proletarian offensive, could contradict the mediation of unions.
In February 2002 Duhalde, perhaps trying to regain some of the ground lost to mediating channels, declared that there would be a universal dole of 150 Lecops per family (piqueteros have demanded 380 – both at pickets and in the assemblies). The contemptuous response to this measly benefit was clear in the two huge piquetero mobilisations of May 2002 when hundreds of roads were blocked. The governments’ inability to implement a meaningful, universal level of unemployment benefit and its insistence on Work Plans has caused it endless problems. During De La Rua’s presidency, the Ministry of Social Development removed the administration of Work Plans from the local authorities in favour of their distribution by NGOs, partly to curb municipal clientelism in the province of Buenos Aires, and to limit the growth of small piquetero groups in the city. The policy backfired when unemployed organisations created their own NGOs to administer the plans and to set up their own social projects using the funds from them. This was a factor in the growth of the large and increasingly powerful coordinations of groups of unemployed activists in the poorest neighbourhoods, which form one aspect of the assemblies movement that we will discuss later. 34
Today, many of the grassroots MTDs (Unemployed Workers Movements) such as the MTD Solano, part of the Coordinadora Anibal Veron, are making use of the work plans to set up projects in their own barrios, such as bakeries, metal and wood workshops, schools and vegetable plots, as well as running workshops to discuss political questions. The projects are staffed by piqueteros in receipt of work plans (direct to their bank accounts) who put the four hours a day they are supposed to do in exchange for the money to the service of their immediate communities. The northern town of General Mosconi is perhaps the most advanced in the use of work plans, with piquetero groups setting up around 300 projects.
Here we can see that the organisation of the piqueteros is not demobilised by government concessions; the state does not have strong enough mediating structures to individualise people and recuperate them in a settlement. Whilst the moneys are given to heads of families or other individuals and go to their bank accounts, they effectively end up becoming funds for further collective, autonomous organisation. With the withering of mediating structures, the piqueteros, forced to meet their everyday needs autonomously, experience an almost constant state of mobilisation – with the heightened level of communication between social subjects that this entails – in which the existence of the ‘political’ as a separate sphere is increasingly challenged. Ironically, the very practical nature of official piquetero demands, (jobs, food parcels), are an expression of this, and are in fact the other side of the coin to the much publicised ‘rejection of politics’, which seems to contradict them. Even though it forms part of the attack against the living standards of the working class – is capital shooting itself in the foot by reducing the mediating structures of its state?
One problem with ‘work plans’ on the other hand is that they sometimes help to further undermine the salaries and security of waged workers. One kind of Work Plan for women called Madres Cuidadores (caring mothers) is little more than a way to replace teachers on the cheap, and has been denounced as such by teachers’ unions. We must also recall at this point that a neo-Peronist liberaliser like Menem was able to on the semi-autonomous, tentacular Peronist neighbourhood organisations when he was attacking state provision, channelling funds through this network to cushion the effect. De La Rua, as we have just seen, had similar policies. Other bourgeoisies across the region have also opened the doors to NGOs, charities and aided the informal, grassroots sector as part of the same process of economic liberalisation. In this maybe the executives of capital lean too much on forms of organisation which they will find difficult to control in the long run.
However, we must not fall into the trap of simply cheerleading this process as the rediscovery of grass roots autonomy and empowerment – the type of facile endorsements we criticise elsewhere in this issue. The problem is maybe precisely there – ‘autonomy’. There is a tendency for this class experience to become merely the management of survival within capitalism, tied loosely into the system through aid, charity and clientelism, but understanding itself to be autonomous from capitalist social relations. Identifying capital narrowly with international capitalism, (multinationals, financial institutions, the US and EU bourgeoisie) and the comprador 35
bourgeoisie which manage their operations within the country, ‘grassroots’ experience may be ‘naturalised’, seen as a given ‘thing’. Capitalism is not seen as a social relation which includes all social interaction including those within the barrio, but a rapacious, exploitative class outside the barrio. To put it another way, the relationship of exploitation within self-exploitation is externalised. If the class can externalise this relationship it will always end up preserving capitalism, in preserving its life and rebelling against the ‘capitalist class’.
Another important feature of the piquetero movement is the fact that it has become a node of struggle for different sectors of the class. People in work, especially those whose jobs are threatened, have participated extensively in piquetero actions, (as we noted, the first pickets were initiated by teachers). This is a critical point to keep in mind if we want to evaluate the long-term possibilities of the Argentinean movement. Although the work plans meted out to the unemployed may sometimes lower the wages of other workers, more importantly maybe different sectors of the class are recognising their needs in each other’s struggles. The bourgeoisie is finding it very difficult to decompose the class into antagonistic sectors fighting over jobs. The reserve army of labour is not performing its designated duty! As an example of this solidarity, on the 4th of April 2002 a Bloque Piquetero march, in the coastal town of La Plata, passed by the provincial government building before heading for the Family Office, to offer its support to state workers on strike there. Protesting at cuts in overtime, wages and other benefits, the workers had taken over various buildings and were in permanent assembly. When the piqueteros arrived, the gendarmeria were inside and the assembly had been suspended. But when the workers saw the size of the crowd which had come to support them, they shouted at the gendarmerie to leave and continued with their assembly. 36
Piqueteros have also defended the occupied factories from eviction, pushing back police attacks on numerous occasions, as have members of local assemblies and other neighbours.
Although in the early years of the movement the state and the bourgeois press could manipulate broad middle class opinion against what was painted as a dangerous, lumpen-proletarian threat, the increased immiseration of the middle classes has narrowed the gap between the two sectors. The new possibility of this situation was evident in the practical solidarity of the events of December 2001on the streets. It emerged in the days following the national cacerolazo of the 25th of January, that the police had blocked Pueyrredon Bridge, the gateway to Buenos Aires, to stop hundreds of piqueteros crossing to join the cacerolazo in the Plaza de Mayo. Furthermore, on the 28th of January 2002, a march of piqueteros from La Matanza to the Plaza de Mayo was greeted and given food by the neighbourhood assemblies who accompanied them the rest of the way. The slogan “Piquete y cacerola, la lucha es una sola” (“Picket and ‘pot-banger’, the struggle is the same”) was heard that day and soon became popular. In February 2002, after the announcement of the abandonment of the dollar-peso parity, a piquetero march coming into Buenos Aires from the poor suburbs, was again greeted by the ‘middle classes’ of the centre of Buenos Aires with food and drinks. It was of course understood that the inflation that would result from the devaluation, (together with the effect on savings), would affect everyone. Whether these expressions of solidarity can be further concretised remains to be seen.
In order to discredit the piqueteros in public opinion and possibly to prepare the terrain for repression, the State has attempted to smear the movement. In March, in a calculatingly menacing tone, Duhalde stated that: “in the piqueteros movement we believe that there is a part of authentic protest which is becoming smaller….and another part financed by extremist groups. We have been told that the finances [for the piqueteros in Salta, north of Argentina] may come from the FARC of Colombia, or in other words, from narco-trafficking.” 37
It is important to note that a US military base is planned for the area of Salta that Duhalde is referring to; the same place where, last year, US marines carried out joint exercises with Argentinean troops. This rhetoric also serves to separate the ‘good’ piqueteros from the ‘bad’. The looting panic whipped up by the media following the December events (when rumours, intended to keep people off the city centre streets, flew around the poor Buenos Aires suburbs that ‘looters’ were attacking people’s home and were on their way; fires were lit on many residential street corners and people prepared to defend their blocks against attacks which never came) was another attempt by the state to split the piqueteros from the ‘middle classes’. As we have seen from the links formed in January, the attempt failed.
On the 30th May, the piqueteros blocked 1,000 highways, bridges and roads throughout Argentina, as well as railway lines. Their mass mobilisation was accompanied on the same day by strike action by airport workers that brought Ezeiza, Buenos Aires’ airport, to a standstill. President Duhalde indicated his impatience with piquetero tactics, saying that road-blockings could be tolerated no longer. In light of this, it is clear that the police attack on the piquetero action of the 26th of June, in Avellaneda, that left the young piqueteros Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki dead and some 40 injured, were not simply the work of ‘maverick cops’. Importantly, thousands immediately descended on the Plaza De Mayo in response to the murders, growing to some 50,000 people two days later. The alert response to state repression reduces the options for the bourgeoisie.
7. The factories
Whilst the most striking and original feature of the Argentine movement is the piqueteros, our interest in this highly organised and radical movement, based on disrupting the sphere of circulation of capital, should not blind us to the question of what the class as a whole in Argentina is doing. The aspects of radical practice in the movement which go so far as heralding new social relations should not make us forget to look at the totality. The question that has come up in recent months for observers of the events is – what are the workers in the sphere of production doing? It is a fact that the radical organisations in the factories which we have discussed above in the context of the struggles of the 1970s, were severely repressed during the years of the military regime. Almost all the authors we have come across who spoke of the situation in Argentina today complain of a lack of militancy in the workplace. The complaint is that the unions are completely tied into the system, and so are cowardly and given to manipulating workers in tokenistic strikes, demos or days of action in order to both safely channel worker discontent and to increase their bureaucratic power. The reasons given for this situation in the work place range from the somewhat vague contention that the workers are simply sold into this official union structures (this, understandably, from a member of the independent motoqueros base union), to the belief that the workers in work are just too scared to lose their jobs; whilst Mouvement Communiste sketch an effective class compromise recently patched up between Duhalde and workers in key sectors. They think that with the possible rejection of electoral politics ‘the support of the CGT, the only mass organisation capable of ensuring social peace…is essential. Its inclusion into the government…is a possible hypothesis given the independent progress of the class struggle. This is why Duhalde is trying to make the middle classes, the petit-bourgeoisie and the workers of the state sector [organised by the CTA] pay for the State’s fiscal crisis. He traces out a new ‘alliance of the producers’ composed of the bosses of heavy industry, the workers in these industries organised by the CGT and some unemployed workers bought off by some precarious jobs within the state administration. To fly the flag of this new Peronist settlement [Duhalde] didn’t hesitate to promise the general secretary of the CGT, Rudolpho Daer, to withdraw the restrictions on bank accounts as far as they concerned salaries.’ 38
We cannot at this point comment much more on this, although it is an important point to keep in mind. Some of the moneys saved in the huge cuts of the past two decades could well be used to try and buy off the diminished number of workers in key strategic industries like oil production. It also gels with the political events in Argentina since December 2001 – the rejection of the Radical De La Rua, opening the way for the Peronist Duhalde to try and limit the damage of the uprising by re-opening the clientelist Peronist channels still connected to the workers, through the medium of the CGT.
We have mentioned the frequency of general strikes in recent years. Although union led and of course limited by the union’s own agenda, we must not assume that the workers simply march in step behind their mediators. We note that railway workers have been on strike more than once over the last year, and in September 2002 the transport workers of Metrovia mobilised to demand a reduction of their working day to six hours, a concession they held until only a few years ago. There are also numerous, ‘hidden’ strikes in small factories over closures, non-payment of wages etc.
We must not forget the instances of common piquetero struggles by (mostly) state workers and the unemployed in the provinces from the mid-’90s onwards. Workers in state industries threatened with privatisation have also used road blocking tactics on numerous occasions, for example at Cutral-Co and Plaza Huincul, when the petrol company YPF was sold to Repsol. 36.8% of all road pickets between December 1993 and December 1999 were made by waged workers! The struggles of the state workers has been a major feature of the Argentine movement and is still very much a live issue. It is a question intimately involved with state clientelism. As we have already noted, with the expansion of the state, the clientelist structure Peron tried to incorporate into his Justicialist settlement was partly achieved with the explosion of ‘phoney’ jobs in the central state and local administration. More recently, Menem, no doubt to placate the IMF which was making business with the central state and so complaining about its spending, sacked 110,000 federal state workers (as well as 107,000 provincial state workers). He also transferred 200,000 teachers from the federal budget to local government budgets. In Buenos Aires province for example (where Duhalde was governor), the number of state workers rises substantially from 280,000 in 1991 to 400,000 in 1999, no doubt soaking up the 110,000 workers sacked from the central state in Buenos Aires. The need for the Peronist governors (and at one remove, the Peronist president) to keep their huge electoral clientele is the reason for these machinations. This reluctance to attack state jobs decisively show how deep the Peronist class settlement was rooted, even in the ultra-liberal Menem years. As we have seen however, the attack did start in the late ’90s, but is still contentious – recent negotiations with the IMF have revolved around the issue of the provincial budgets, the IMF asking for 60% cuts. One would think that more massive redundancies might ensue, but the game is not so simple for the bourgeoisie, with an insurrectionary movement in near permanent mobilisation. Duhalde’s administration is squeezed between the IMF and the movements – during a bout of negotiation with the IMF, one government negotiator complained that the IMF didn’t understand that the administration is constrained by the fact that there are at least 30 actions a day in Argentina!
Most workers may now be keeping their heads down at work but what has emerged is that many of them are involved through the neighbourhood assemblies. They take part simply as neighbours and also report on the workplace organising that does go on. For example, at one neighbourhood assembly meeting, 39
a worker from the nearby Buquebus ferry service across the River Plate to Uruguay, described the actions that were being taken against redundancies and asked for support, to the assembly’s great approval, as did another who worked at the Clarin newspaper. Many other workers take part in the cacerolazos as well, a form of protest usually associated with the ‘middle class’. It is vital to keep these things in mind. Workers not actively in struggle at work may be in touch with the needs and actions of other sectors in struggle through neighbourhood organisations. Furthermore they take part in decision making, in demos and other organisations, as neighbours in concert with other neighbours, through these organisations. The positive thing in this is that a directly social dimension of struggle is available to many workers, one which looks beyond their specific, sectoral interests in particular industries. But the limitation may be that workers separate their everyday needs (which they see as belonging to their experience as neighbours), from their role as producers of surplus value at work. The later would have to be socialised too, and this understanding turned practically against capitalist social relations, to really paralyse the system.
The other form of worker organisation to discuss are the much publicised factory occupations. We must not forget that these occupations, and the startling expressions of solidarity that they have engendered, are few, but at the same time they do come out of a material situation now nearly universal for the Argentine proletariat, hence their radical potential and their maybe inflated fame.
The most widely reported factory occupations are those of Zanon ceramics factory in the province of Neuquén, and Buenos Aires’ Brukman textiles. The Zanon occupation started when the 400 workers were threatened with losing their jobs as the bosses of the factory stopped paying them and effectively started winding down the business. The workers responded by occupying the factory, setting it in motion using the materials still inside. Within two days they had produced enough ceramics to pay all their wages for a month. They sell their products at 60% of their previous price through a network of young supporters who take them from door to door. Organised through their trade union, SOECN, though with no support from the national ceramic-workers’ union FOCRA (part of the CGT), the workers have refused the owners’ attempts to negotiate the fate of the factory. They have totally rejected the ridiculous terms of a possible return of the bosses – wage-cuts, laying off 360 of the 400 workers. Instead they demand “the immediate opening of the plant under workers’ control, with no redundancies and no wage cuts, and with full payment of all outstanding salaries. If the bosses refuse to do this we will demand the nationalisation of the factory under workers’ control, as part of a scheme to provide public works to build houses, schools and hospitals, all which are much needed in our province. In this way, we can help provide an answer to the problem of unemployment by creating real jobs.” 40
They propose to share the jobs amongst as many unemployed as possible. In the 2002 National Assembly of Piqueteros, a motion was passed that abandoned factories, or those that made many redundant, should be expropriated from the owners and self-managed by the workers. This has also been voted for on numerous occasions at the Interbarrial, the weekly general assembly of the neighbourhood assemblies. Zanon workers have, from the start, forged fruitful links with other groups and won great respect for their resistance and level of activism. In the first month of their occupation, October 2001, they joined piquetero and other groups to blockade bridges and highways in Neuquén, and they have visited Buenos Aires and other cities to take part in assemblies and demonstrations. In return, as we have already noted, they have been successfully assisted by piqueteros and others in attempted evictions.
The Brukman workers in Buenos Aires, capital, decided to occupy on the 18th of December 2001 after a collapse in wages in the autumn months, (they were being paid in ‘vouchers’ of dubious value), and general contempt from the bosses. One 28 year old worker died after they refused to pay for vital medicines. They had not originally planned to set the plant in motion, but when an order of textiles became due in January, they decided to sell it to pay their wages. They have since taken responsibility for the plant – paying bills, fixing a boiler, and reorganised the factory floor to save on energy costs. “We maintain our struggle not through stubbornness but through principles and logic. The owners have demonstrated that they are incapable of running this factory – all they know is how to exploit us, steal our money and invest in non-existent companies. If we could get the company on its feet, why couldn’t they? … Brukman has a total debt of 8 million dollars, and its major creditor is the State, with more than 2.5 million owed to the National Bank. So the demand we make is that the company be municipalized … under workers’ control.” 41
Like Zanon, as we have seen, they are not waiting for the state’s endorsement, but are running the plant with the assistance of neighbours and others. They also offer to turn the plant’s production to providing for the needs of the ‘community’ – especially for hospitals, schools and the unemployed.
In La Mantanza, the closed Panificadora Cinco bakery was occupied by its workers with the support of the whole neighbourhood and put back to work to provide bread at reduced prices for the locals. There also, the piqueteros defended the occupation against a police intervention.
The workers’ own statements and some of the information above point to the limits of self-management. Their belief that they can run the firm better than the bosses may originally come from their antagonistic relationship to the capitalist imposition of work on the shop floor. Running it better may mean making it easier for the workers to work there, contradicting the valorisation needs of the bosses. The fixing of the boiler may be one such example – workers may experience this both as an everyday nuisance as well as recognising its need in the smooth running of the factory, whilst the bosses for their part want to cut costs. The boss is then both a problem because he doesn’t recognise the workers needs, but at the same time, he is seen as a sort of philistine of production, who ignores the qualitative aspects of production. As the workers occupy their work place and put it into motion under their own control however, this once antagonist relationship based on their immediate and intimate experience of the production process becomes a necessary identification with the business in itself – paying bills etc.
At this point the understanding of exploitation fixes narrowly on the incompetence of their particular bosses, as the workers, now in charge, need to prove to themselves and others that there’s a better way of doing things. In other words, it is forgotten that the bosses are themselves constrained by capitalism to fuck their workers over. And when the workers forget this, they gloss over their own link, as ‘self-managers’, to this constraining social relation. Isolated in this situation where an inward looking, voluntaristic mindset is required, the burden of exploitation may end up being doubly hard, and splits may emerge, with the most committed and militant driving the others and effectively becoming the new capitalist bosses as they try to make the (once collective) project work. Or the hard won collective control of the production process may not be relinquished resulting in the workers not having the necessary capitalist discipline required to make their enterprise survive in the unforgiving capitalist market. One way or another, the law of value will re-impose itself on the activity of the workers.
We must be careful not to simply dismiss these occupations however. These struggles are a process which form part of an extensive class mobilisation. Some of their radical tendencies, such as the proposal to produce for local need, (Brukman proposed to cover the textile requirements of public hospitals, Panificadora Cinco provision of bread) – even if they do not prove possible or ultimately stay within the frame of exchange relations – move to concretise the demand that immediate needs be met, facing up to the mediation of exchange value. This is the social possibility of struggles, which can challenge the fetishism of commodities. This process of collectivisation of proletarian needs is produced through a heightened level of communication on the ground in Argentina. These workers are experiencing every day the solidarity of other proletarians in different sectors, and so materially feel the need and possibility to reciprocate. Their reformist demands such as nationalisation could, in a more generalised class offensive, be subverted by these very social links. The everyday experience of decision making and power on the shop floor is another important aspect of their experience. Whether the Argentinean movement can or will extend enough to give them the opportunity to realise the radical moments of their struggles is a different matter. For its part, as we have seen, the state seems to be aware of the radical potential of the occupations, using force to try and retake the factories on a number of occasions and in fact, in some cases, ending up participating in their expropriation by the workers.
There are said to be 100 companies involving some 10,000 workers under some form of worker’s control in Argentina. Brukman and Zanon, along with the Clinica Junin of Cordoba, form the small, politicised wing, presenting themselves as an independent movement concerned with much more than just putting their factories back into production, and with an awareness of the pitfalls of self-management. As a Brukman worker said, “we don’t want to set up a cooperative ….where we would have to submit ourselves to 11 people who would boss everyone else around.” 42
Brukman continues to be a focal point for struggles, being a site for assemblies, workshops, exhibitions and organising. It is difficult to get a clear picture from the scant information we have available, but in general the others seem to have a different political orientation, calling themselves ‘co-operatives’, and constitute themselves in official structures involving state and unions. The two structures regrouping these companies are the MNER (National Movement of Recuperated Companies) comprising of 3600 workers, and FENCOOTER (National Federation of Co-operatives and Re-Converted Companies) with 1447 workers. In ‘co-operatives’ such as Ghelco SA., a producer of ingredients for frozen desserts, or the publishers Chilavert, the workers set up co-ops to restart production after the companies began bankruptcy proceedings. On the 12th September, the Buenos Aires legislature voted unanimously to permit the ‘recuperation’ by law of these two factories – the deal is that the government of Buenos Aires will pay the rent of the building for two years, while the equipment is ceded to the workers. After two years, the co-ops will apparently have first refusal on buying the plant.
A comrade from the German group Wildcat recently visited one of these co-operatives: “I visited an occupied metallurgical factory, La Baskonia, in La Matanza. There we met an advisor from the CGT. We soon realised that they’d opted for the legal route, for founding a cooperative before setting the factory to work. They are not interested in joining together with the other factories in struggle, nor in workers’ control, nor even in nationalisation. ‘It’s a Peronist occupation’, commented my comrades.” Another example is IMPA, an aluminium factory which has been functioning in the form of a co-op for some time. The good thing is that they lend out one of the factory floors for solidarity parties – a fantastic place for parties! – but I never saw the workers from IMPA at any demonstrations or assemblies.” 43
The last we have heard of the occupied factories at the time of writing is that Zanon and Brukman called a meeting on the 7th of September which attracted around 500 people, including leftist parties, where it was agreed to set up a national strike fund. On the same day at La Baskonia, the MNER also called a meeting attracting the same sort of numbers, but amongst the workers attending were members of Congress, senators and the vice-president of the cabinet.
8. The ‘middle classes’ and the neighbourhood assemblies
The French group Mouvement Communiste warn of the dangers of the alliance between proletariat and the middle classes in Argentina: “History shows the exploited have little to expect from these sectors of society, always ready, in the last instance, to save their own skins by allying themselves with the dominant class to the detriment of the working class.” 44
Time will tell if this turns out, again, to be the case. But this view ignores the rapid and drastic proletarisation of the majority of the middle classes. 45
Of course, the warnings of Mouvement Communist have a basis in reality, which proletarians involved in struggle recognise. Working class cynicism about the new ‘middle class’ movements in Argentina – ‘they’re only on the streets now because their pockets have been touched’ – neatly testify to this truth while simultaneously confirming the reality of the middle class’ changed situation. Some proletarians are reluctant to tie their fate too closely to that of the middle class assemblies movement for fear that they will eventually be betrayed. Considering the state’s near bankruptcy however, it is difficult to see how it will have the means to buy off the middle class. Even a patched up settlement involving new IMF money can only be a short-term solution for the bourgeoisie.
One of the biggest difficulties for us has been to try to understand the composition of this newly vocal and troublesome middle class. What does ‘middle class’ mean in Argentina? Some comment that, for an Argentine, ‘middle class’ can mean what we in the West would recognise as a secure proletarian job, even a factory job. This entails a problem of class categories being mixed up in translation, but the issue does not end there. It seems clear that a large number of people that we would recognise as middle class have plummeted into a life of bare survival. The papers are full of stories of academics and other professionals being reduced to selling candles in public parks, or well dressed Buenos Aires families exchanging their extensive wardrobes in the barter clubs, or even forced to collect rubbish on the streets. Echanges state that some 500,000 people have fallen into social immiseration to populate the villas miserias where banners ironically proclaim: “Welcome to the middle classes!” One Argentine economist states that “the middle classes understand that they’ve reached the end of the road. It’s now a whole new situation”. 46
But what of the teachers and other government workers which have been such a strong feature of this cycle of struggle from its beginnings in the mid-’90s? Would their traditional status and pay mark them out as middle class professionals? What about the petit-bourgeoisie? Are many of them losing their property in this economic climate? Are they involved in popular assemblies and in attacks against the corralito? What is the relation of the assemblies to the barter clubs and who is involved in these? All of these questions go to explaining the difficulty of understanding the phenomenon of the popular assemblies.
It is often stated that the neighbourhood assemblies – one of the forms associated with middle class organisation in Argentina – are so heterogeneous that it is almost impossible to study them. The fact that there seems to be neighbourhood assemblies in all areas of Buenos Aires involving proletarians in different situations as well can lead to lazy affirmations of diversity and openness for post modernist ideologues intent on shedding class as a social category. Echanges et Mouvement, dispel some of the fog by distinguishing between two broad tendencies of neighbourhood assemblies. 47
One as a phenomenon coming from a long tradition of neighbourhood organisation in working class areas and shanty towns, merging with the new assemblies of the piqueteros in the new situation of mass unemployment of the ’90s; and the other as a result of the sudden and more recent impoverishment of the middle classes. In recent months of course, with different sectors recognising each other’s needs in struggles, these two tendencies may have increasingly coordinated their actions and demands, (and certainly have talked to each other at the Interbarrial), further complicating the situation. But if the ‘middle class’ assemblies are dismissed, it is usually by identifying them with the merely middle class problem of the corralito, (in Argentina certainly, they are not understood in this limited way any longer). This identification is then useful to denounce the so-called middle class struggle and their supposed hegemony in the movement. Although it is true that these assemblies were formed around the time of the implementation of the bank freezes and that this problem mobilises a part of their energies, it is a mistake to limit them to this.
Twenty assemblies sprang up in Buenos Aires in the two weeks following the 19th and 20th, and there are now estimated to be 140 across the country, with some 8,000 regular participants. It’s sometimes said or assumed that the first cacerolazo, on the19th of December, was a protest about the corralito. Certainly there was widespread anger and despair over what many suspected was the permanent disappearance of their life savings. But it was De La Rua’s announcement of the state of emergency which mobilised people in an immediate, spontaneous reaction. Whilst of course the ‘middle class’ experience of the corralito was one of the reasons for their presence on the streets on the 19th, the radical meaning of the events that ensued is that everyone was on the streets refusing with disgust the state of emergency, (and the memories of dictatorship that it awoke), and in that could recognise each other as subjects in struggle, ultimately on the basis of a real, material rapprochement in their experience of exploitation. After that day, in the many cacerolazos that followed, placards saying anything about the lost savings were in a tiny minority. By the same token then, it would be wrong to characterise the assemblies as populated solely by disgruntled savers, who, presumably, would turn their back on the movement once their savings were returned to them. The problem of bank freezes takes up a relatively small part of the discussions of the assemblies and the Interbarrial. Though their appearance was sudden, the assemblies did not materialise out of a vacuum, but out of a developing situation of material impoverishment and the attendant disillusionment with politics, (in the general elections of October 2001, 22% of the (compulsory) ballot was blank or spoiled, whilst 26% of voters stayed at home). At the beginning it seems, the new assemblies, based on their middle class constituency, (apart from passing numerous resolutions on political subjects such as the national debt), were concentrating on organising new cacerolazos, the ‘symbolic’ form of protest associated with the middle classes. The cacerolazos had a life of their own anyway, attracting many more people than regularly attended the assemblies. They took place every Friday in the weeks after the 19th, in almost ritual fashion.
Violence was a feature of savers’ actions from the 19th onwards. Since then, savers’ protests inside banks have also been attacked by the police. This does not, of course, suffice as proof of the revolutionary intent of the middle classes. We note some of the statements that accompany middle class corralito protests – “we are the middle class, we send our children to school, we pay our taxes, and now we have been robbed”, “we never break the law, we are not criminals”, “without savers no credit, without credit no production – without production, no nation.” These slogans display classic middle class subjectivity of course – the implicitly anti-working class, self- righteous sense of betrayal of those that ordinarily play by the rules and do well by them, which is also a general identification with a properly functioning system of capitalist wealth production. But we are almost tempted to say ‘so what?’ The subjectivity of the newly proletarianised middle classes is going to lag behind their practice in a situation of impoverishment. It is not what this or that skint ‘middle class’ individual thinks about his situation at a particular moment which is important, but what they will be forced to do as a proletarianised class. Not all of them will be completely skint – and the slogans quoted above may sometimes come from the less badly off parts of the middle class – but it looks like their lot can only worsen and a large proportion of these people are having to come to terms with a situation where their traditional demands for a renewal of the political system, based on moans about corruption and the failure of mediators, is failing to meet their immediate needs.
Neither should we assume that the savers involved in actions against the corralito are only ‘middle class’, as it has also affected workers with relatively small saving, pensioners, and indirectly but very tangibly, as we have already noted, workers dependent on the black economy. Indeed, Echanges claim that the unofficial sector makes up 50% of the real economy! 48
On the 15th May 2002, an elderly couple in their eighties who had got a court order to force their bank, Banco de la Nacion, to release their life savings, found that the bank still refused, claiming that the law had changed since the order was signed. The couple, living on a pension of 150 pesos a month (£30), decided to remain in the bank until they got their money (US $38,000), and sat themselves in the window, refusing to leave. As night fell, two local assemblies arrived to support them, joining the crowd that had already gathered, until there were around three hundred people, banging pots and chanting “Give them their money back!” Having entered the bank that morning, the exhausted couple finally left at 9pm, with the bank’s promise of half their money the next day. 49
This example, we feel, ably demonstrates the possibilities of different needs, in a situation of class mobilisation, to be immediately recognised by others and their meaning transformed in this socialisation process.
Leaving aside the cacerolazos and protests against the corralito, what is perhaps more important is that, like the piqueteros, the assemblies are being pushed by immediate, everyday needs to develop radical practices which come into confrontation with the essence of capitalist social relations – the commodity form – all the while developing debates on the national debt and petitioning the state on certain issues. Many assemblies have set up communal soup kitchens, organised collective, self-reduction actions to reduce food prices; organised to defend impoverished tenants from evictions and set up groups (sometimes with workers from utility companies) to illegally re-connect people cut off for non-payment of bills to public water and electricity supplies. Assemblies have also negotiated with (or rather pressured) utilities companies for reductions in prices. There is strong support within assemblies for local facilities and schools in crisis – some school canteens, unable to function for lack of funds, are being run by assemblies. This is already an impressive list of steps of direct appropriation of use values by people for whom ‘paying for things’ – exchange value – must become a ridiculous notion, if they are to meet their human needs.
The other important mobilisation has been around the problems of health provision – hospitals and clinics being in absolute crisis due to the collapse of PAMI, the state medical service. In response to price inflation and shortages of drugs, (many drugs were withdrawn from the shelves at the start of the crisis in order to protect their prices), one group, including medical workers, set up a table in the centre of Buenos Aires where people could bring their unwanted drugs and perhaps find something they or a family member needed; a long and desperate queue quickly formed. At the same time the health committees of some 36 assemblies had made a written request to the government of Buenos Aires proposing that the committees participate or take over the running of faltering hospitals. The health department exhausted their patience with diversionary tactics, meagre concessions to the plan etc. A turning point was reached – “In the face of their failure to address our concerns in writing, we resolve to suspend meetings with these bureaucrats. And we propose to take control ourselves, forming Popular Health Committees in each hospital, following the example of the Belgrano-Nu-ez assembly, which got medicines and supplies for their hospitals through their mobilisation.” 50
The assembly of Belgrano-Nu-ez, a prosperous barrio of Buenos Aires, had joined with other local assemblies in April 2002 to assist the stricken local hospital, whose workers had informed them that drugs were being withheld by pharmaceutical companies, leading to price increases of 300% and 400%. The hospital workers and asambleistas produced a list of the drugs most sorely needed, and went en masse to the laboratories of Novartis, a pharmaceutical company, to demand the drugs. Within days, Novartis was forced to provide 25,000 doses of 1,129 different medicines. 51
In September 2002, the assembly of Flores in Buenos Aires occupied a clinic that had been disused for 6 years with the aim of opening it to workers from occupied factories who have been cut out of union managed health provision, and also for the use of the neighbours. The assemblies have moved also in the winter to occupy disused buildings to use for meetings and organising. The assembly of Parque Lezama Sur, occupying a disused bank building to which they invite piqueteros and other groups, describe this initiative encouragingly as “not about simply replacing the state in the functions in which it has absented itself [health, education], neither is it about simple humanitarianism, nor nostalgic actions destined to uphold the old national-state promises of integration and progress. Instead it is about taking responsibility/control of our actual conditions… proposing the establishment of social links where capitalism acts as a force of separation, of sadness and the formation of isolated individuals.” 52
As we have seen, there is a growing tendency within assemblies such as these to fill the gaps where the state has become unable or unwilling to act. As is clear from the health issue, the assemblies move, according to the urgency of their need, from discussing the national debt and making demands of the state to taking direct action. Assemblies have also been attacked by plain-clothes police and other armed gangs. Members have been followed, threatened and beaten. Goons gathered together by municipal Peronist leaders have attacked assemblies, such as the assembly of Merlo in Buenos Aires. These attacks are a seal of approval of the radical political significance of the assemblies which its members presumably cannot ignore.
Another issue we should consider is the ever present and contested attempts by leftist groups to bring their politics to bear on the assemblies. Initial press coverage of the Argentine movement was full of reports of participants rejecting leftist organisations from assemblies and demos. At first glance this may of course look like a radical rejection of politics, but more needs to be said and understood. The obvious thing to say is that if the assemblies were largely ‘middle class’, then the rejection of leftist politics could be seen as a rejection on the basis of middle class experience of class politics in general, in favour of a politics based of citizenry etc. On the other hand, as we have discussed, the ‘middle class’ cannot really afford this sort of politics any more, and their initial knee-jerk reaction against class politics, could well have quite naturally mutated into a more radical rejection based on their immediate needs and the autonomous forms of struggles they have developed to meet them. If a ‘middle class’ assembly is trying to organise school meals and stealing electricity and saving neighbours from eviction for non payment of rent, and discovering new forms of social cooperation in the process, the intrusion of leftists with their programmes and insistence on leadership would naturally be unwelcome! As one asambleista put it – “the assemblies belong to us, not to militants who look upon us with contempt and try to impose on us an experience that we do not need.” 53
Again we must advise caution in attempts at interpretation because of the opaqueness of this complex situation. We are not easily going to be able to know the class composition and histories of the different assemblies, and so examples of leftist involvement when they come up are going to be difficult to interpret. More generally, we must warn against generalising from isolated examples. Some assemblies will be successfully controlled by this or that leftist party; the general trend, however, has been for the rejection of trotskyist and other groups, although some attempts to manipulate assemblies, by trotskyist groups such as the Partido Obrero and MAS (Argentine Socialist Movement), have resulted in the collapse of assemblies.
Overtures by mainstream politicians have so far been rejected. And a transparent attempt by the CTA union confederation to co-opt the assemblies movement earlier this year ended in failure. A proposal had been voted through at the fifth Interbarrial to march around the National Congress on the 13th of February – “when the assembly members reached Congress, they saw that a stage had been put up, from which leaders of the CTA were already speaking.” 54
They were later vilified for this manoeuvring at the Interbarrial. Because of suspicion or outright rejection from the assemblies, the leftist parties have gravitated to the Interbarrial in an attempt to bring their influence to bear on proceedings. This has led to a reaction from the assemblies and wearying debates about representation and process. The weekly Interbarrial is supposed to be a coordination of autonomous assemblies, not a decision making body in its own right. It soon became clear to the assemblies however, that large numbers of militants and others, (cops and state agents have been mentioned too 55
), came to the Interbarrial to vote on issues proposed in the assemblies without being delegated. A debate on representation began, in which concerned asambleistas pushed for a one assembly, one vote system with revocable and rotating delegates. There were protests from leftist militants who feared they were being outflanked, knowing they would have little chance of becoming assembly representatives. 56
Many boycotted the debate, and a growing frustration and disillusionment with the Interbarrial, because of these problems, was reflected in a sharp fall in attendance, with some assemblies opting to liaise with others on a more informal basis.
However, limiting the Interbarrial to coordination only could in itself constrain the possibilities of the movement and, in any case, is difficult to keep in practice. To on assembly ‘autonomy’ and the repudiation of collective decisions to protect the movement from outside incursion could be formalised into the atomisation and isolation of (direct) democracy. Collective discussion and concerted action is needed for particular events and is essential for the long-term prospects of the assemblies – especially in the case of state repression. 57
The ‘moment of truth’ of Leninist politics is to recognise this need, and that is why they ‘lie in ambush’ at the Interbarrial to influence events. 58
A PO member told the newspaper Pagina 12, “If the assemblies limit themselves to running organic allotments and other neighbourhood questions, that for us is a step backwards.” 59
Apart from testifying to the condescending attitude of the trotskyist groups, this warning has some sense to it. What he cannot see is the relationship between neighbourhood questions and a wider struggle. He doesn’t recognise that the ‘political’ is the activity of the class, organic allotments and all. The revolution can only be the process of struggle of the autoconvocados, the ‘self convened’, (as the asambleistas call themselves). It is also too easy to blame the stagnation of the assemblies movement on the leftists – these problems may arise when the movement as a whole doesn’t know where to go and has lost the initiative.
The assemblies are also involved in the organisation of escraches, a practice inherited from the aftermath of the dictatorship. Escraches, meaning an ‘outing’ or ‘exposure’ in Argentine slang, were developed by the group H.I.J.O.S. – children of the disappeared – in the years after the dictatorship in order to break the conspiracy of silence shielding the murderers of the dictatorship. They can be explained as a reaction of individuals against the policy of impunity guaranteed by Menem in 1995 to the Generals. They take place at particular locations, often private houses intending to involve the local community to ‘out’ individuals. They boast an impressive amount of organisation and creativity and attempt to involve locals etc. Their glaring limit is the fact that, with their language of ‘justice’, they can identify the inequities they’ve suffered with particular individuals and not the social system as a whole. It is particularly in this that they seem open to be recuperated as merely the radical part of the normalisation process after the dictatorship. On the other hand however, they are also by their very nature a confrontation with the fact that democracy has itself normalised the era of dictatorship, and this could lead to a more far-reaching understanding of the interdependence of periods of democracy and dictatorship in a country like Argentina, especially in the present climate, when the weight of more immediate needs is pressing on its actors.
However, some members of the original escrache group, H.I.J.O.S., have expressed reservations about the new informal escrache practices, which target present members of the bourgeoisie. In this more generalised phenomenon, instances of corruption and other misdeeds of particular individuals are published on the net, in the streets, and even on a TV programme, with addresses and other necessary information. Once outed, judges, politicians, businessmen are then insulted, jostled, and sometimes attacked around their homes, to and from work etc. These attacks are also reported to happen spontaneously, on the hoof, when someone is recognised by chance in the street. Even members of the media have been targeted, the much-disliked Canal 13 TV station coming in for a lot of stick in particular. Whilst this could be an expression of a standard middle class rejection of a comprador bourgeoisie, the fact that the media is also being attacked is testament to the marginalisation of the middle classes. These actions may also be part of a generalised hatred of the representatives of capital which expresses itself spontaneously.
Another feature of the Argentine situation associated with the assemblies and the ‘middle class’ is the barter clubs. As the Wildcat comrade commented, “there are a huge number of people participating, but I don’t see it as a ‘movement’, instead as a method of survival, as a way of getting things that people are now unable to buy. But the rules are the same as in the wider capitalist economy: whoever has money can make a profit and can make others do something for him. For example, there are people who go to the supermarket to buy goods to take to the trueque, and exchange for other things or services that are worth more than they paid. And anyone who has no money or goods has no choice but to offer services, or in other words: sell their labour power -a well known model…I have even heard that capitalist frauds have reached the clubes del trueque, that there are forgeries of the credits which are the currency. And in the relation between people, there is little difference from the capitalist model. Each person appears as an individual to sell/ exchange their things or services.” We can compare this form of relation based on survival needs to the more interesting actions of assemblies and piqueteros described above which organise survival in a way which relies on collectivity and solidarity. The barter clubs are a largely ‘middle class’ phenomenon, but the quote above also suggests the subtle stratifications within the ‘middle class’ – with some impoverished and trying to converge their stock of belongings into cash to survive, and others maybe on the skids but being able to turn a profit because of greater liquidity. As a corrective to this view, Echanges feel we must keep in mind that this form of exchange may also take a more spontaneous, un-commodified form as the neighbourly exchange of needs based practically on skill, time etc. without these necessarily being measured and equalised. 60
A – ‘would you look after my kids tomorrow if I fix your sink on Tuesday’ – can be proposed spontaneously and goes on the one hand towards creating social links between neighbours, but on the other will have a tendency to formalise. In a situation like Argentina there is going to be both the pressure on this sort of relation to formalise and to de-formalise. It might be difficult to trace a dividing line between the two practices.
The events of last December hit the headlines across the world. What struck the bourgeois press was the mass protests which resulted from the banking restrictions that threatened the wholesale impoverishment of the Argentine middle class. However, as we have seen, there is more to the Argentine movement than the banging of pots and pans. We have shown how there has been a long tradition of working class struggles based on self-organization, of which the present piqueteros actions are a recent example. Also, at the current moment in Argentine history, the material conditions of the middle classes have shifted downwards, and this forms the basis for solidarity with proletarian movements based on shared experiences.
As we have seen, the movements in Argentina must be understood in the context of the effects of ‘neo-liberal’ restructuring in a country on the periphery of capital, where social ties in proletarian areas still form the basis of the organization of life. Whilst in the west, ‘neo-liberal’ policies led to the decomposition of the organized working class and a slide towards the ‘war of all against all’, in the periphery a different trend is noticeable. Neo-liberal policies, in attacking working class standards of living and its official form of organization and representation within capital, also halt the incomplete process of subsumption of labour to capital, a process which was intrinsically involved with the state and national development programmes. We have sketched the specific features of Peronist integration which has been one of the central dynamics of struggles in Argentina.
It is important not to be blind to the particularities of Peronism when we enumerate its similarities with European fascism (integration of class through trade union into corporatist system, nationalism etc.). Capitalism on the periphery could not complete the post-war integration into state-led capitalism in the same way as in Europe. Some level of class autonomy, of community co-operation survived where, from their daily experiences in meeting their needs, people recognized that it was as acting as a class for itself that produced results. Here, for example, we see the impact of the semi-autonomous base of Peronism, with its blurred edges (blurred precisely because it shades into un-institutionalised immediate community organization), which eventually became troublesome for Peron and was also an intractable problem for the dictatorship which followed (and which actually demanded Peron’s return). Later we see Peronist base organizations re-asserting themselves by default under Menem as an unofficial sector which would cushion the effects of reform. At this point, these networks actually assisted in the dismantling the very clientelist network that connected them to the state and under the period of industrial development were in a sense the guarantee of their survival. The loose associations now in place around piquetero groups and assemblies have a less mediated relationship to the state than they had with Peronist clientelism. In attacking clientelist waste in the state, De La Rua, for example, attempts to outflank the Peronist clientelist channels in local government by giving out ‘work plans’ to the unemployed through NGOs. Now these have effectively merged with piquetero organizing. This means that the informal channels of co-operation and neighbourhood provision are now freed of clientelist mediation and its distortions. Autonomous groups like Anibal Veron can work collectively in a way impossible before. They face a weak state directly and try to get what money they can out of it, disrupting the accumulation of capital without recuperating counterweights.
However, we must be careful not to fetishize the high points of the Argentine movement to the detriment of a more sober, wider perspective. Although the struggles have involved hundreds of thousands of people, there are millions who are not involved. How are we to consider this ‘silent majority’? No doubt many of them are sympathetic with much of the mobilizations, and may be involved, at one remove; some may have fallen into despair and the atomization of a war of all against all of survival on the streets; whilst others, maybe partly as a reaction to the threat they feel from this group, are fearful of the chaos that surrounds them. On the one hand, it’s the inertia of this silent majority which is the ultimate limit of the movement; but, on the other, their indecision is a block to the bourgeoisie resolving the crisis in their favour.
One way of looking at the development of the current situation in Argentina is to consider the events that led up to the calling of elections. There were two huge, country-wide piquetero days of action in May, with hundreds of roads blocked. Duhalde, trying to convince the IMF that he could keep his house in order, announced that the piquetero blockages could be tolerated no longer. Soon after, and presumably not by chance, the police attacked a piquetero action on the outskirts of Buenos Aires with live ammunition, injuring 30 and killing two. But the response was immediate, the Plaza de Mayo filled up in protest; 50,000 were there by the third day. Duhalde had no credibility in general and could not impose the violent will of the state because of the alertness of the mobilization. He then called the elections. This might be a dubious strategy for the bourgeoisie, as it might put the seal on the rejection of politics that has been such a strong feature of the movements, expressed as a massive abstention rate and/or spoilt vote. According to a poll in Pagina 12 newspaper, 71% of people thought that, whoever wins the elections, little or nothing would change.
If these democratic channels fail, the apparently obvious option for the bourgeoisie is the return of military dictatorship and terror. However, terror is never so simple as it might appear. Proletarians are not always the mere victims of it. The army in a country like Argentina was one of the essential linchpins of the state development programmes which now belong to the past. Soldiers are closer to the working class than the cops; they have to be convinced that they are fighting for the people, not simply coerced into killing, otherwise the weapons put in their hands could suddenly turn into the weapons of the revolution. The army comes in with a new social settlement. If it can’t, it may not be able to guarantee the loyalty of its soldiers. The problem with the restructuring is that it attacks unproductive capital and the state – in other words, sectors like the army; the Argentine army is now much reduced in size. One officer was quoted as not being certain enough of the loyalty of his troops to consider an intervention. We must remember at this point that Argentines feel that the events of the 19th of December – the most generalized and spontaneous mobilization – was a repudiation of this very possibility, burying once and for all the fear and silence of the years of the dictatorship in this huge collective affirmation.
Unable to impose the policies deemed necessary for the resolution of the crisis, the Argentine bourgeoisie face an implacable international capital organized through the IMF. The crisis in Argentina has demonstrated the limits of the neo-liberal policies imposed through the IMF over the past two decades. By making a few rich while impoverishing ever greater numbers, these policies have undermined the social conditions necessary for economic and political stability. Neo-liberal policies are pushing more and more countries in the periphery into the same predicament, particularly in South America. However, with the world economy entering into recession, the IMF cannot afford to back down. If the Argentine bourgeoisie is let off the hook then Brazil, Turkey, Nigeria and many others will be next. It will be the end of neo-liberalism. However, if Argentina explodes in a revolution – one which could be contagious given the rise in struggles in Latin America – America may have to intervene. But, given the fact that America is having to defend the neo-liberal world order in the Middle East at the moment, will it be stretched by its over-commitment on the world stage?