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(en) Argentina, Media: Diary of a Revolution by John Jordan (we are everywhere collective http://weareeverywhere.org)

From Dan Clore <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Sun, 26 Jan 2003 02:47:39 -0500 (EST)


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Rumours of a hurricane

'We know what they are against, but what do they want?' I
was tired of hearing this refrain, targeted at the global
anti-capitalist movements. We knew what we wanted: another
kind of globalisation, where life comes before money, where
direct democracy and ecological sustainability become the
norm, where progress is defined by the amount of diversity
and dignity in the world, rather than the amount of cash
that changes hands. The problem was that we didn't know how
to get it. Many of us realised that, however many economic
summits we protested against or GM crops we uprooted, we
weren't really bringing the new worlds we were dreaming of
any closer. 

In early 2002, while the movements were trying to come to
terms with the fear and uncertainty caused by September 11
and the war on terror, something happened that no one
expected. Through the movements' emails, websites and
face-to-face gatherings, stories emerged of a land where
politicians were so discredited that they were ridiculed
wherever they went, angry middle-class women smashed up
banks, occupied factories were run by their workers,
ordinary people held meetings to decide how to run their
neighbourhoods, and thousands of unemployed people blocked
highways, demanding food and jobs. It sounded like France in
1968 or Spain during the civil war, and yet it was lasting
for months across a country 11 times the size of the UK, in
a state that was recently one of the world's top 20
strongest economies, a sparkling model of emerging markets,
the most compliant pupil of the International Monetary Fund,
with a capital city known as the 'Paris of Latin America'.
It was happening in Argentina. 

I had always wondered what a real grassroots rebellion would
look like, how it would feel, what it would smell like. I
had imagined huge crowds spontaneously taking to the
streets, the smell of teargas drifting across barricades,
the noise of hundreds of thousands of voices calling for a
new world as the government fled from office and people took
control of their everyday lives. All of these things have
happened in Argentina over the past year, inspiring
activists from as far afield as South Africa, Italy,
Thailand and Belgium to visit and see how a crippling
economic tragedy was being transformed into an extraordinary
laboratory for creating alternative economic models, to
witness the reinvention of politics from the bottom up. 

Last September, after several trips to Argentina, I decided
to give up my job and my flat in England and move there for
an indefinite period, convinced that the lessons I could
learn could one day be applied to the anti-capitalist
movements closer to home. It did not take me long to realise
that it is not the stench of tear gas or the clamour of the
angry crowd, but the smell of cooking and the gentle chatter
of neighbours meeting late into the night that best reflects
the popular rebellion that is taking place here.

The piqueteros 

I met Carlos, an unemployed telephone technician in his 50s.
He is part of the MTD (movement of unemployed workers), one
of the most radical branches of the enormous unemployed
movement, the piqueteros, that kick-started the rebellion in
the mid-1990s with their road blockades (piquetes), in which
families blocked highways, demanding unemployment subsidies,
food and jobs. We met in a huge, abandoned electronics
factory, which Carlos's group dreams of transforming into a
self-managed organic farm, clinic and media centre. He said
that his most profound political moment since the December
2001 uprising was seeing three young piqueteros faint from
hunger. 'Our main aim now is to have enough bread for each
other,' he said. 'After that, we can concentrate on other
things.' 

The Argentinian media's image of the piqueteros has been one
of masked youths blocking roads with burning tyres. The
everyday reality is very different, but the smell of baking
bread does not make headlines. Their main work is creating
what they call the solidarity economy, an autonomous,
non-profit economic system based on need. During the
roadblocks, they demand a specific number of unemployment
subsidies, and usually get them from local government. The
subsidies are shared and used to fund community projects.
Some piquetero groups don't delegate leaders to meet
officials, but instead demand that the officials come to the
blockades so that everyone can collectively decide whether
to accept any offers - they have too often seen leaders and
delegates bought off, corrupted, killed or otherwise tainted
by power. 

A friend took me to an extraordinary MTD popular education
session. It was held in a back yard in Admiralte Brown, a
huge, sprawling neighbourhood on the edges of Buenos Aires
where hope is in short supply and unemployment runs at
40-50%. Most of the participants were in their early 20s.
Despite barking dogs and small children running between
chairs, they seemed intensely focused as Lola, the energetic
facilitator, ran a workshop debating the differences between
MTD and capitalist forms of production. 

The level of debate was astounding: these young people took
turns to stand up and eloquently explain how the different
systems are organised, describe their alienating experiences
of working for managers, their disdain for profit-driven
economies and the joy that collective work provides. After
the workshop, Maxi, one of the founders of the group, took
me on a tour around his neighbourhood. He listed the range
of activities they had organised. 'We have a group building
sewage systems and another that helps people who only have
tin roofs put proper roofs on their houses. There is a press
group that produces our newsletter and makes links with the
outside media. We have the Copa de Leche, which provides a
glass of milk to children every day. We have a store that
distributes second-hand clothes, two new bakeries, a
vegetable plot and a library.' 

That afternoon, we visited one of the two weekly assemblies
that were happening simultaneously in Admiralte Brown. A
group of 70 or more stood in a circle. They discussed plans
for demonstrations, the problems of the past week, how to
get children's shoes, and how to resolve conflicts between
group members. It was mostly women - earlier, Lola had told
me how women were hit hardest by unemployment: when there is
no food on the table, no clothes for the children, it is
women who are at the sharp end of poverty. Often the men
felt rejected and paralysed by the loss of identity that
followed unemployment, so it is the women who are first to
take part in roadblocks. 'Women's struggle is the pillar of
the movement,' Lola explained. 

After the assembly, Maxi showed me the Copa de Leche, the
project that distributes milk to children, housed in an
abandoned municipal building next to a plot of land the
piqueteros had taken down the fences that surrounded the
plot and used them to build the base of a huge, roaring
outdoor oven on the edges of a football pitch that had
probably never seen grass but was now surrounded by
newly-dug vegetable plots. Fences being pulled down and
turned into something practical struck me as a beautiful
metaphor for the transformation of the private spaces of
profit into shared tools of social change. A transformation
that involves people beginning to build the life that they
want and preparing to defend it - rather than simply
protesting against what they don't want. The piqueteros know
you can gain nothing by winning power. They don't want to
take over the crumbling centre; they want to reclaim the
edges, bring back into their community life that's worth
living. 'We are building power, not taking it,' is how Maxi
described it. 

Whenever I asked them what had changed in their lives since
they became involved in the piquetero movement, they told me
that the loneliness and isolation of unemployment and
poverty had disappeared. Tuti, a punky 21-year-old who is in
charge of the piqueteros' security, said, 'The biggest
change was the relationship with other people in the
neighbourhood, the development of friendship and the
possibility of sharing ... When you're on a roadblock and
you have nothing to eat, the people next to you share their
food. Now I feel I'm living in a large family, my neighbours
are my family.' 

The assemblies

A football careers across the bank lobby and hits the steel
door of the vault with a thud. 'Goal!' scream the kids whose
improvised game weaves between the soup kitchen, art
workshops and video screenings in the new HQ of the Parque
Lezama Sur assembly, an occupied bank. 

The local assemblies meet weekly, are particularly popular
in middle-class areas and are open to anyone, so long as
they don't represent a political party. The first one I
attended involved some 40 people: a breastfeeding mother, a
lawyer, a hippy in batik flares, a taxi driver, a nursing
student... a slice of Argentinian society standing on a
street corner, passing around a megaphone and discussing how
to take back control of their lives. It seemed so normal,
yet this was perhaps the most extraordinary radical
political event I'd ever witnessed: ordinary people
discussing self-management, understanding direct democracy
and putting it into practice. 

In the past eight months, there has been a shift that can
best be described as a move away from the politics of
quantity towards that of quality. The various projects are
bearing fruit and, most importantly, establishing links
between assemblies and other parts of the movement. Despite
the rising poverty, destitution and despair, there are
self-managed neighbourhood assembly projects right across
the city. In one of the several occupied banks, they cook
meals for 150 people every weekend, while on the top floor
independent media activists update their website. Assemblies
plant organic vegetable gardens in vacant lots, while a 
self-managed clinic for workers in the occupied factories is
being set up. 

The assemblies have also become a stand-by citizens' force
against police repression. Last June, while a book by
asamblistas was being printed at a self-managed printing
firm in Buenos Aires, police arrived to evict those in the
building. A call went out to the local assembly and
literally as the book was coming off the presses, they were
forcing the police away and securing the building. 

In the age of global networks, it is the small-scale and the
local that have the greatest strength, something that
activists in the global anti-capitalist movement understand
and that many in Argentina's social movements are
practising. 'Our groups don't get big and bureaucratised,'
one piquetera told me. 'They just divide and multiply.' She
knows the era of the giant political monster is over.

THINKING BY DOING 

Whether you talk to a middle-class member of an assembly or
an unemployed participant in the piquetero movement, there
is a common understanding that you can't change society with
an overnight revolution. They understand that change is a
step-by-step process of talking and listening, of dreaming
and constructing alternatives that are rooted in our own
neighbourhoods, and that each neighbourhood, each
participant, each place must be profoundly interconnected
and mutually supported. 

'We can't do it on our own, and we shouldn't do it on our
own,' says Fabian, a member of Mocase, the autonomous
peasants' movement from the northern province of Santiago de
L'Estera. 'No one can construct a new world by themselves.'
When I met Fabian, he was attending a meeting trying to
create a national network of the 'solidarity economy', where
goats from the provinces can be swapped for bread from
piqueteros bakeries, seeds traded for popular education and
so on. 

'The resistance can't stand still,' he says. 'It has to keep
moving to keep healthy. We have always made mistakes. It's
important to make mistakes.' He frowns deeply. 'At first we
were like this' - his huge brown hand jerks like a
rollercoaster - 'but now we realise that sustainable change
is slow.' His hand pauses in midair and begins to trace a
gently undulating wave, gradually rising higher and higher.
And it's that gently undulating wave, like a gentle tide,
that best describes the reinvention of popular politics that
is taking
place in Argentina.  

'Do you have any hope for what's happening here?' I ask
Pablo, an active member of his assembly. 

'I don't feel hope abstractly, only when I'm doing something
do I feel it,' he replies. 

In this economically devastated country, hope has become a
verb; not an abstract noun, but a process. Politics has been
freed from the icy grip of intangible ideologies, liberated
from abstract dreams of a pending revolution. The futile
dream of taking power and running governments has been
abandoned, and politics has returned to the physical
processes of everyday life, to the necessities of the
immediate moment. In Argentina, politics thinks by doing. 

· John Jordan is an anti-globalisation activist, and is a
member of a collective currently working on a book, We Are
Everywhere: The Irresistible Rise Of Global Anti-capitalism,
to be published later this year by Verso
(http://weareeverywhere.org ). 

-- 
Dan Clore

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