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(en) Organise! #58-Spring - How should we view recent and ongoing events in Argentina? I. (1/2)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 11 May 2003 12:04:06 +0200 (CEST)


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The economy has gone into freefall with IMF-inspired restrictions on the
movement of capital (even down to ordinary withdrawals from bank accounts).
Sections of the middle and working classes are threatened with immediate
impoverishment. Loans on a whole range of things have been taken out in
dollars but must now be repaid in heavily-devalued pesos. High utility
bills and taxes forced upon Argentina by foreign capital and corporations
hit the waged. Diminished spending power has reduced the income of people
in the informal economy far below the poverty line. A range of largely
passive actions designed to gain a bare subsistence in the form of hand-outs
(a traditional practice in Argentina) have been met with armed force, both
private and state-sponsored. The government owes $150bn to external banks
and lenders, money that will need to be squeezed from the working classes
through retrenchment and cuts in welfare. The chronic 20% unemployment rate
is bound to increase despite the untold social misery this will create. A
Radical Party president and government have resigned. The ruling class,
fearing military intervention, invite a corrupt Peronist politician to take
his place. His period in government is short as a moderate populism is
deemed insufficient by provincial power-brokers and those who see political
advantage from paralysis; the working class pay the price in arrests, injury
and death on the streets.

The economic situation of Argentina has been aptly summed up as follows: The
attempt to push through expanded industrialization [ ] led to a deepening
balance of payments deficit which could be met in the short term by foreign
loans while awaiting a hoped-for expansion of exports of the new industrial
products. This foreign exchange bottleneck had inevitable inflationary
results. As the deficit worsened, Argentine governments were forced to turn
to traditional agricultural exports in order to pay interest on foreign debt
and maintain industrial inputs To increase the value of these exports at a
time when world market prices for them were generally declining, Argentina
resorted to successive devaluations [which] helped fuel and inflationary
spiral But this was Argentina of the 1960s, not today. The government's
solution, which is the same as today, was an emergency, IMF-sponsored
stabilization plan.to restrict industrial production by limiting credit and
squeezing the home market by salary limits and increases in public
tariffs.The result for the working class was immediate and drastic: an
industrial recession which saw unemployment rise dramatically.and continuing
high levels of inflation which inevitably adversely affected real wages. If
social relations and the prospects for revolutionary change are at least
partially dictated by economic forces, what can those battling on the
streets today learn fro this period in Argentina's history?

In 1955 the charismatic populist, Peron, was overthrown in a military coup.
Peron had created a social and political power-base focused on the large
industrial unions and their federation, the CGT. His power initially came
from the strength of the organized working class, which had adopted the
syndicalist and increasingly anarcho-syndicalist method of organization.
But the CGT allowed itself to be absorbed within a corporatist state and a
corrupt union bureaucracy developed. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s a
series of social contracts had been forged in which a Peronist government
mediated between antagonistic social classes and forces. Argentina was
highly industrialized, with an economy larger in value that almost the rest
of South America put together. Argentine workers had long enjoyed time
wages based on hourly rates based on standard contracts protected in a
variety of institutional ways. This period led imperceptibly to the
creation of a political culture in which trade unions were an accepted,
normal, even valued partner in managing society. The Argentine working
class began to see themselves as an authentic part of national life,
socially and politically, and with a positive role to play in shaping the
nation's fortunes. But this role and sense of self, which developed and
intensified, had the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the self-interest
of the working class, of confusing it with the interests of the ruling
classes, often articulated by the union leaders and bureaucrats. Peronist
ideology was essentially corporatist, and through hundreds of decrees and
laws, an attempt was made to thoroughly integrate the working class and its
institutions with the state. Peronist union leaders depended on their
relationship with a (Peronist) government to deliver their side of the
social contract but This relationship implied a commitment on the part of
the union leadership to the notion of controlling and limiting working class
activity within limits established by the state; this implied..working class
passivity. Peronist opposition to periodic attempts to worsen terms and
conditions was often couched in terms of the justicia social, in liberal
bourgeois terms, not the class struggle, nor did it have the revolutionary
idea of (for instance) proposing worker's control of factories: workers and
bosses were one. This cultural feature of Argentina made it relatively easy
for the military and their puppet governments to isolate militants and those
genuinely engaged in the class struggle.

The period 1955-58 was a period of intense resistance to government attempts
to re-shape the social contract by dissolving or reconstituting factory
committees, regional sindicals and indeed whole unions. Mass sackings and
arrests provoked serious strikes, wildcat actions, sabotage, the formation
of clandestine cells in unions and factories. As today, the city of Rosario
and its environs, was a center of radical resistance which the army had to
crush during September 1955. The aim of the ruling class was not to destroy
the Peronist unions or their federation, the CGT, but to tame them: If the
unions recognized the need to stay within their own sphere, and if the
corrupt demagoguery of those most closely compromised with Peron could be
erased, then the Peronist-led unions had an important role to play in
post-Peron Argentina as organs of social control and channels of expression
of the working masses. Working class resistance was, however, almost
entirely defensive: "one had no idea in what way an insurrection could have
been carried out, since there was not even a hint of organization, nor could
one glimpse the existence of any group with. authority", as one militant
said. The union leaders hesitated and a general strike in November 1955
defeated. Why? As one union leader, Miguel Gazzera admitted, "We were
satisfied with what we had already lived through, tasted and enjoyed. We
were inexorably finished, totally exhausted" - an apt description of
politicians and union leaders of the left in Argentina today, and an
explanation of the total contempt for them held by the workers there. The
struggle continued and intensified, led by grass-roots activists and
clandestine groups of militants who replaced those who had been arrested or
who gave up, defending sacked workers and articulating practical grievances.
As today, neighbourhood resistance groups were formed to give focus and
direction to working class solidarity. Slogan-painting, arson and attacks
on food merchants, sabotage of communications, power stations, Radical Party
buildings and in factories where slow-downs and poor production went
hand-in-hand with actual sabotage convinced the military that some
compromise was needed if their long-term aims were to be achieved. Exiled
in Madrid, Peron tried to organize an insurrection in terms we would
understand today: All attempts at confronting the military regime where it
was strongest, on the purely military level, were to be avoided. Far more
effective, said Peron, were the thousands of small actions which would
gradually wear down the military and undermine its will to continue in
power. In the social arena, the resistance should keep the workers in a
constant state of upheaval with strikes, go-slows, low productivity. On a
more individual level thousands of both passive and active actions should be
undertaken..All these myriad acts of resistance would eventually make the
government ungovernable and prepare the ground for the revolutionary general
strike which, Peron considered, would be the signal for the national
insurrection. But no political program capable of unifying the working
class or creating a mood for total civil resistance emerged from Madrid, nor
were local union leaders, under intense pressure to recuperate the working
class and by now hopelessly compromised, capable of articulating one.
Divided, exhausted, incapable of creating the objective conditions under
which an insurrection could succeed, they hesitated. The militants too were
themselves divided: some favoured the route of the clandestine commandos,
others (the majority) argued that reconstituting the unions and recapturing
them from state-appointed leaders and officials was the only way to confront
the ruling class on more equal terms.

Defeat at the national level and gradually, as strikes were declared
illegal, strike leaders hunted down, working class areas patrolled by tanks
and armoured cars and, with defeat mass sackings, at the factory level led
to the rise of more pragmatic leaders. Over time exhaustion and
demoralization set in, coupled with fragmentation, with thousands of
militants on the run or black-listed; activists were increasingly isolated
and alienated from the 'base'. The defeat of the Resistance enabled the
bosses to introduce those measures to increase labour productivity
(especially piece-rates and incentives for performance) that a confident and
combative working class had managed to resist. The inevitable decline in
living standards which followed was the result of political defeat, the
overthrow of Peron, not an economic one..The government and employers
imposed by legal means and the power of the state what they could not impose
through the discipline of the labour market. The long-term solution to the
problem of class conflict, once profits had been safe-guarded, was also a
political one - to allow for such conflict but to define and constrain it
within the boundaries of a national consensus in which the working class
would be forced to see itself not as antagonistic but merely a competitor
for a share of national wealth, alongside all other forces in society.
Frequent cyclical downturns in the economy in the 1960s made it easy for
moderate union leaders like Augusto Vandor to gain tight control of
organized labour and crush dissent through the burocracia sindical in the
name of protecting workers and their institutions; so long as they did the
bidding of the military or the Ministry of Labour, they were safe.

Rejecting revolutionary syndicalism, leaders like Vandor increasingly made
use of the electoral power of Peronism, mobilizing the working classes to
vote for union candidates, a strategy that brought important gains but only
for the leaders themselves. The leaders gained power by threatening
pro-Peronist mobilizations and electing Peronist slates of candidates (and
often won concessions from the ruling class). Their mistake (inevitable
given the nature of Peronism) was to believe that policies necessary to
effect changes in the Argentine economy could be implemented within a
context of class consensus. A historic compromise throughout the 1960s
resulted. The union leaders would control their militants and in return
were allowed to rebuild their power base on the back of large welfare
programs. The state would pass laws giving it the right to control union
affairs and in return union leaders would get access to government and an
understanding of their difficulties. Now controlling vast areas of
patronage via the political spoils system, corruption began to run
uncontrollably through the institutions of labour and its parallel political
formations. Unions became big business, with laws passed to make workers
pay union dues, to contribute to the union's social and welfare programs and
unions getting a share of any wage increase negotiated. Union leaders were
also rewarded with laws that made it very difficult for opposition
candidates or lists to win elections which effectively secured their power.

Inevitably this could not last. In 1969 an authoritarian president with an
agenda to rationalize the Argentine economy and modernize the Argentine
state took power. The union leaders were immediately forced to respond to a
wholly unlooked-for series of threats and into crisis. As in Argentina
today, the crisis of leadership was characterised by a number of features: a
growing problem vis--vis their rank and file at a time of radicalized
social conflict; the emergence of a vigorous opposition movement within the
unions; a growing problem of internal divisions amongst themselves; and an
increasing danger of isolation as their traditional domination within the
movement was challenged by new actors. Political activity was banned and
with it the unions' main source of legitimacy. An authoritarian economic
plan to stimulate the economy through shifting wealth from wage earners and
agriculture towards urban employers, alongside wage controls and massive
cuts to the public sector, was imposed - solutions also designed to reduce
inflation (which stimulates wage demands and cuts into the purchasing power
of the middle classes) and reward foreign capital. Strikes and protests
were made illegal again and the army and paramilitaries used to defeat
labour action. Police powers were greatly extended. Under this blanket
authoritarianism, reform of the economy was pushed through, but at a price
of solidifying opposition, uniting previously competing parts of society and
suppressing social forces previously harmlessly channeled by social
institutions like the unions.

Once again revolt broke out in those industries and regions most affected by
'structural readjustment' in particular Cordoba, led by mostly young
militants opposed to burocracia sindical and the too-close relationship of
military junta, employers and unions. Years of repression, attacks on
working conditions and poverty led to massive social mobilization, given
initial focus (largely because political activity was largely banned in
Argentina or else heavily-controlled) through action in the workplace. What
distinguished the ideology of clasismo and its organizational form,
sindicalismo de liberacion was the frequent use of direct action, plant
occupations, taking management hostage, and paros activos, unofficial and
direct strikes which included demonstrations aimed at taking the conflict to
the wider community. This new militancy was intensely anti-bureacratic and
challenged existing models of leadership, offering personal honesty in
contrast to corrupt or co-opted union leaders, based on democracy and
accountability, constant consultation and the ability to recall delegates.
Its strength was its questioning of capitalism but it aimed only to create
a socialist society via nationalization of production and worker's control
of industry - more partial solutions which left capitalism intact.
Clasismo, because of its ability to spread social unrest and action beyond
the factory gate, threatened not only the social contract between unions and
employers but even the military state itself. The initial unrest, the
Cordobazo, had led to the resignation of President Ongania. A second
uprising, the Viborazo, removed another. However, as in Italy in the 1970s,
the militant leadership could not persuade the rank-and-file to embrace
their revolutionary aims. Democracy, overthrow of the dictators, a revised
social contract, progress - these the workers and impoverished middle
classes would march and vote for and did, forcing the junta to dismantle the
worst aspects of its Revoluccion Argentina and reintroduce civilian
government. But the factory opposition's consciousness-raising could carry
them only so far. Failure to carry through a revolutionary program in
August 1971 allowed the Peronist unions to swing the workers back behind
their leadership - a more moderate regime allowed political activity to get
under way and paved the way for Peron's return (in 1973).

The events of 1971-73 are being played out once again. First economic
crisis, then social unrest and uprisings which the police and army cannot
quell. The fall of a president, an interim president installed (the
Peronist Duhalde), elections promised which will solve everything, two years
of economic and social paralysis, then an electoral fix that solves nothing.
The cycle begins again. Back then the opposition could not go beyond
strikes and protests. The threat of more militant actors, Marxist urban
guerilla groups who unleashed a campaign of murders, attacks on military
installations, kidnappings and bank robberies in the early 1970s, forced the
ruling class and its allies, church, parties, unions, to close ranks.
Out-manouvered, the working classes and their young leaders were abandoned
after Peron regained power. The new Pacto Social froze wages and prices,
recreating the historic alliance of unions and employers. National
reconstruction would commence but at a price the workers would have to pay.
Business and unions were re-integrated into the formal institutions of the
state, alliances made with rival parties to take the heat out of politics.
New laws against terrorism were used to crush the clasista opposition, who
were first removed from office in the unions, then sacked, then declared to
be outlaws.

What lessons have been learned? Firstly, there are few limits to the
combativeness of the working class in times of social upheaval or class
mobilization as we witnessed over the last few months. Secondly, without a
unified set of demands that are achievable and organizational forms and
methods that cannot be reclaimed (for instance, not just factory occupations
but requisitions and expropriations), revolutionary forces will either be
used, then isolated and crushed or will be recuperated. The left parties
and groups played their historic role of putting forward easily mediated
demands in order to build support for an "independent, self-directed
organization of the working class with the aim of establishing a government
formed by the workers and the people" (the Trotskyist MAS group) - as if
governments solved anything! This was the role of the socialists in the
1970s too. But MAS has learned some of the lessons of history too, and
called for "popular assemblies, plenaries, co-ordinating bodies, congresses
and any other means that permit us to decide freely from below". The
Asambleas Populares that have sprung up have begun to develop as
revolutionary organizations, putting forward radical demands. But will they
go further? They demand things (the abolition of the Supreme Court, the
freeing of political prisoners) but also need to carry these things through,
by declaring the Court at an end, prisoners free to go and enforcing these
demands. These popular assemblies call for those in power to step down or
aside but have not (at the time of writing) posed the ultimate question of
power, not who controls it but its abolition, by undertaking actions that
directly confront the ruling class with the mass power of the working class.
Any recuperation of the revolutionary forces is far more likely if
institutional actors, in this case political parties and unions, have not
been dissolved, creating (as it were) an open field where the working class
and ruling class directly confront each other. It is clear that for this to
happen there must be the capacity to organize both inside and outside the
factory, or to form strategic alliances with political and community groups
that share the revolutionary agenda.

The revolutionary group Organizacion Socialista Libertaria posted the
following on the internet: "we were up until the late hours of the morning
in each street, each militant discussing in his or her neighbourhood the
best way to establish a minimal territorial organization with the aim of
defeating the state of siege". This geographic and political 'spread'
creates the necessary critical mass of consciousness and fighting spirit
which alone gives people the feeling that there is an alternative and it is
achievable now. These territorial organizations must not be of defense
only. In each of the territories (neighbourhood, township, county and
province) the Asambleas Populares will need to do more than agree
resolutions and pass decrees but physically expropriate the ruling classes.
By quickly forging territorial alliances around common demands (for instance
via the comisiones de enlace), holding conventions of the dispossessed,
entering those places (whether factory or barrio) where people await a
spark, the workers of Argentina could go on the political offensive, taking
power where it exists (in people's minds and on the streets) and abolishing
it, through mass action against the institutions of the capitalist state -
banks, shops, state-controlled media, loan sharks, police stations, courts -
by abolishing or expropriating them. First the means to live: food shops
and all places preparing food taken over and production and distribution
organized on an egalitarian basis. Debts (eg local taxes, to the utilities
and so on) cancelled, the records destroyed. Power stations occupied and
power lines strung to all who need them. The police stations emptied or
blockaded, only those who throw away their uniforms and hand over their
weapons to be fed. Next, political and social institutions of reaction -
parliament, courts, political parties, all forms of media, local
bureaucracies, churches and so on - to be declared abolished, at an end,
dissolved, their power ended, the offices emptied, their resources
appropriated. And at this moment new ways of organising society would need
be developed (as did not happen previously), using provincial and national
"popular constituent assemblies" only to declare the power of the ruling
class abolished and to decree its expropriation everywhere throughout
Argentina (and, if necessary, to order a national insurrection against the
remains of the armed forces) before standing aside in favour of the local
Asambleas. Obviously, for this to happen a situation of dual power must
develop but the decisive struggle will not be won if the working class wait
for orders or for the ruling class to step aside. Only when the ruling
class moves to take and abolish power can we call the situation truly
revolutionary. If the people of Argentina have waited to be led, the
revolution will not have occurred - not the siren song of the worker's state
or government but of freely federated assemblies and councils, a commune of
communes, must be the call.

Quotes in italics are from Resistance & Integration: Peronism and the
Argentine Working Class, Daniel James, Cambridge University Press 1988

Argentina: What Next? (Organise! #58-Summer)

The months following the tumultuous events of December 2001 have seen a
deepening and broadening of the movement that brought down the governments
of 5 Prime Ministers in three weeks. A few examples have been the growth of
the Popular Assemblies (P.As) and the continued militancy of the Piqueteros
(picketers) - there have also been factory occupations (Brukman, Zanon) and
strikes at the privatised oil refineries (Chubut, Santa Fe etc), whilst the
'pots and pans' protests (cacerolazo) have continued unabated. The protests
have spread throughout the country with the working classes of Rosario and
Cordoba being particularly active and radical, the latter going so far as to
burn down the town hall. It's clear that, irrespective of the medias
representation of a united Argentina, pulling together for the good of the
country, the social tensions that brought about Decembers eruption have not
disappeared, and that if anything they have deepened - people are preparing
for the states new assault, which has to come. Two of the most interesting
aspects of this have been the birth and spread of the Popular Assemblies and
the activities of the Piqetueros, and the possibilities for link ups between
the two.

The Popular assemblies grew directly out of the December protests, and were
originally concerned with the Governments restrictions on withdrawals from
private bank accounts - which in itself hints at their class composition.
They were generally attended by people who were officially employed -
whether by the state, the newly privatised utilities or family businesses -
in distinction to the 60% of the population that is employed in the black
market or precarious casual labour. They were further distinguished by being
drawn largely from the city areas of Buenos Aires rather than the
surrounding suburbs and shanty towns (Villas de La Miseria) where the
Piqetueros live.
As the crisis developed more and more of these assemblies sprung up,
twenty were formed in the two weeks following the resignation of President
De la Rua, and today there are more than fifty, covering almost every area
of Buenos Aires. The average attendance is around 3 000 autoconvocados
(self-convened) which demonstrates the grass roots interest in political
activity away from the dead hand of leftist representation. Recallable
delegates from the P.As are also sent to interbarrials (inter-neighbourhood
bodies), which operate as a co-ordinating centre. Essential local services,
such as water and electricity supplies are now being taken care of by many
P.As, as the government is not up to the task - a lesson which the
assemblies have picked up very quickly, as they continue to take back
control over more and more areas of their communities functioning. A number
of neighbourhood initiatives have also been established - community kitchens
and cafes, credit unions, barter clubs etc. These are helping to build up a
strong feeling of social solidarity, and destroying the idea that only
government is capable of organising society.
The speed of advance of the idea of Neighbourhood Assemblies is
actually drawing strength from their more middle class composition - these
people are the ones who voted for the governments of the IMF in the belief
that it would bring stability, only to find themselves proletarianised, they
are looking to make a clean break with Party's, politicians and
institutional politics, so much so in fact that politicians are no longer
safe to be seen in public - they are chased from their favourite restaurants
and spat at in middle class areas by people who would previously have voted
for them. This rejection is reflected in the P.As, which have moved on from
concern over personal savings to wider questioning of the way society is run
as a whole.

Mobilisation Among The Working Class
The unemployed movement is a much more working class phenomenon and has been
around for a number of years. The movement is made up of those who have been
laid off from formerly state-owned companies, and those who operate in the
black economy and who are not guaranteed a wage - it is also noticeably more
even in terms of gender representation than the assemblies. Though it draws
the majority of its supporters from the areas surrounding Buenos Aires it is
emphatically not a lumpen or rural movement, many of its members worked in
factories, auto-plants or oil refineries for years before the drastic
layoffs of the last decades, and have long experience of fighting against
capital.
The main activity of the unemployed is called 'picketing' (hence,
piqueteros) - but that covers a much broader area than what is traditionally
understood by 'picketing'. The most popular form of picketing is the closing
down of main highways or transport networks in order to stop the circulation
of commodities, they understand that they have no power in the production
process but that capital must complete its circuit if valorisation is to
take place and so they attempt to block that part of that circuit that they
have access to. (And thereby demonstrate a much firmer grasp of how capital
functions than those 'Marxists' who condemn them as powerless lumpens)."In
August 2001, a nationwide mobilization of highly organized unemployed
groups, numbering over a hundred thousand people, shut down over three
hundred highways in Argentina, paralysing the economy, including the
previously invulnerable financial sector." (The Unemployed Workers Movement
in Argentina - Monthly Review January 2002)
Clearly, this is a confrontational and militant tactic, and large-scale
battles often break out, but it is well suited to the achievement of
immediate aims. A further appealing approach the piqueteros make use of, is
the refusal of delegation when dealing with capital - if they are blocking a
highway for a specific demand, rather than respond to the governments or
businesses summons to come into Buenos Aires to discuss the matter, they
make the responsible party come to them - all discussion is carried on in
front of and by the unemployed themselves, which minimises the risk of
buying off of leaders and puts the bosses at a distinct disadvantage.
Unlike the Popular Assemblies, the 'Unemployed movement' is not a recent
invention, it has been in existence since the early to mid 90s, and
pioneered the use of assemblies, holding two national conferences in 2001,
and regular mass assemblies. It also part of the wider movement and concerns
itself with other struggles - members recently blocked transports in and out
of oil refineries in Chubut, Neuquen, Chaco and Salta in support of striking
workers.


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