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(en) The Commoner #8 - Colectivo Situaciones - Causes and Happenstance (dilemmas of Argentina's new social protagonism) - Research manuscript # 4 I. (1/2)

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 25 Dec 2003 06:44:17 +0100 (CET)

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Translators introduction
This article was written by Colectivo Situaciones
during the three-week time mediating between
the first round of Argentina's last presidential
elections and the runoff--respectively, April 27 and
May 18th 2003. The two main contenders for the
runoff were Carlos Menem and Nestor Kirchner,
both from the Justicialista Party (Peronist).
Menem, who had ruled the country for ten years during
the 1990s, was notorious for a bold political style
that combined populist rethoric with the strictest
adjustment policies the country has ever seen. He
ended first in the first returns, with around 30%.
The polls taken during the week prior to the runoff
showed Kirchner, then governor of the sparsely
populated province of Santa Cruz, had more than
60% of support. Menem, who rarely gets
involved in battles he knows he is going to lose,
dropped his candidacy.
What was at stake in this election was much more
than the presidency. The election put to test the
ruling classes' ability to reconstruct the centrality
of the political sphere after one of the most
enduring challenges it has faced in recent years.
The night of December 19th, 2001, thousands of
Argentineans occupied the streets, squares and
public places of the major cities. Banging pots
and pans they chanted "al of them out, not a single
one should remain" in response to a state of
siege declared by the government. The following
day, after three dozen had died in street fights
with the police, president Fernando de la Rúa
resigned. The period opened by the revolt was of
intense social creativity. Hundreds of popular
assemblies were created across the country. The
unemployed workers movement, whose force had
been growing since 1997, acquired a new
visibility. Many factories and businesses that had
gone bankrupt were taken by their workers and
began to run under their control. Several of these
initiatives came together forming circuits of trade
based in solidarity principles helping to provide the
necessaries of life for the millions who had
been marginalized from an economy crippled by its
servile obedience of the dictates of IMF
inspectors. These and countless other examples of
a new social protagonism that invests its
efforts in decentred forms of politics and
resistance were the real antagonist in the presidential
elections of last April. Did Argentineans go from
the "al of them out" to the "al of them back," as
observers from the right, to socialdemocracy, and
the orthodox left claim? Perhaps an answer to
this question should start by considering how every
move by new the government is a recognition
that a threshold was crossed in December 2001
and a new era was opened from which there is no
Colectivo Situaciones is a collective of
researcher-militants based in Buenos Aires. For the last
three years, they have been working closely with
unemployed workers, peasants, human rights
activists and many other instances of Argentina's
new protagonism. They have collected this
experience in several books, articles, and
pamphlets, some of which are co-authored with the
movements themselves. Their book 19th and 20th:
Notes on the New Social Protagonism is
currently being translated into English. The
collective's website is www.situaciones.org
Nate Holden and Sebastian Touza
Causes and Happenstance
(dilemmas of Argentina's new social protagonism)
Research manuscript # 4
by Colectivo Situaciones

More than a year has passed since we published a
book entitled 19 y 20; Apuntes para un nuevo
protagonismo social.1 The effort of writing and
editing those notes in a short few months - while
the dynamic of events unfolded in the streets - gave
place to a reflection whose style was determined
by the vocation of writing on the spur of the
Contrary to what is habitually taken for granted,
that methodological premise stating that things are
better seen at a distance is not entirely convincing.
What the perspective of distance allows us to
see should not claim for itself any superiority.
Since, while it can aspire to a serenity that is usually
scarce among those who have been affected by the
unfolding of the events, those same affections
are the ones that constitute the possible real of a
situation. Hence the aspiration of what is written
"in the heat of the moment" to register a complexity
that might virtualize in the future, when
possibilities that were not thinkable then are
retroactively attributed.
The long year and a half between the insurrectional
events of December 2001 and the presidential
elections of April 2003 merits consideration. Many
questions come up: how to understand, in light
of the present phase of apparent institutional
stabilization, the events of December 2001? What
happened to the promise of a radical transformation
of the country glimpsed at from the slogan "all
of them out, not a single one should remain," when
the electoral process clearly speaks of a
notable participation of the citizenry in the
elections and when the five principal candidates - all of
them from the two main political parties for many
decades - receive almost 95% of the votes?
We cannot claim for ourselves the expertise, craft,
and dedication of political analysts. Neither the
preoccupations, nor the focus nor the assumptions
that animate us are connected to those of such
analyses. The word of the experts obtains its
consistency from a certain capacity to manage
information and dispose of a certain technical use
of language. Yet politics is not what occurs in
the world of pure facts waiting to be sanctioned by
the experts, but is rather a matter that concerns
the collective: the same "facts" are composed with
the interpretations made of them, prolonging
1 19 and 20; Notes for a new social protagonism, by the
Colectivo Situaciones first published in Argentina in 2002 by
De mano en mano (Tr.).
their power (potencia)2 and turning the same
readings into a field of disputes that, in turn, are
offered to interpretations by others.
What follows, then, is a reading done "in the heat
of the moment ": this text was conceived
between the first electoral return and the
announcement of the official resignation by Menem, that
is to say, between April 27 and May 13. The
intention is to examine the events that transpired
between December 2001 and May 2003, a lapse of
time that separates and communicates the
outbreak of an economic and political crisis without
precedents and the emergence of a new social
protagonism (piquetero movements, assemblies,
barter clubs, factories occupied by their workers,
etc.) with the pretended normalization whose point
of realization should have been the presidential
elections. The intensity of this period - no less than
its complexity - has remained beclouded by
those who have proclaimed that the results of the
elections constitute the death of the movement
of counterpower and the erasure of that which
opened with the events of December.

I. The surprise (rupture, de-stitution and visibility)

The insurrection of December surprised everyone.
The very notion of "insurrection" had to be
adapted to the novel character of the events. In
fact, during many months the revolt demanded the
intelligence of every one of us who was surprised
by its occurrence. What was this unexpected
event telling us? Each one prioritized one aspect.
According to some, the cause of all that
happened had to be found in a Buenos Aires'
Peronist conspiracy against the weak government of
the time. Others believed they could see behind the
strings that move the marionnettes the
implacable organization of certain proven
revolutionaries. There were even some who scorned all
that happened, attributing it to a middle class
whose savings in dollars had been seized. Be that as
it may, the most probable is that all these versions
are at once as truthful as they are insufficient to
give account of the effective dynamic of what
The insurrection of December had a de-stituent3
character. Its overwhelming efficacy consisted -
precisely - in its revocatory power. The cacerolas4
and the slogans covered all the urban space.
The ant-like presence of human bodies, the
occupation of the city, and the saturation with noises
that not only did not transmit any message, but
rather impeded that anything could really be said.
The conditions of institutional elaboration of social
demands were radically interrupted.
And when they could speak they insisted: "All of
them out, not a single one should remain." The
closure of the space and conditions of
communication with the political system rendered evident
the rupture of the political mediations, revealed the
impotence of the party and governmental
institutions, and opened an interrogation (festive
and anguishing) over the collective future of the

2 In Spanish there are two words for power, poder and potencia,
whose origin can be traced, respectively, to the Latin
words potestas and potentia. In general, poder refers to
transcendent forms of power, such as state power, and
potencia refers to power that exists in the sphere of immanent,
concrete experience. To maintain this distinction we will
indicate it between brackets when the original term used is potencia (Tr.).
3 We have chosen to use the expression de-stituent as a
translation of the Spanish word destituyente, which makes
reference to the power that unseats a regime, in order to
preserve the resonances that indicate a power opposite to
that which institutes or that which is part of a constitutive
process. We use the hyphen to avoid confusion with the
English word destitution, which carries connotations of
impoverishment (Tr.).
4 Loud banging on saucepans or cacerolas by large crowds has
been a common practice in the recent uprisings in
Argentina (Tr.).

The insurrection unleashed a rupture with multiple
effects. One on side - and from the beginning it
became evident that the irruption of the street
multitude in the city disturbed in a conclusive
manner the functioning of powers. Not only were
the powers of the state, the repressive forces,
and the government functionaries affected by the
unexpected irruption of an important segment of
the population, but the effects of such alteration
were registered in evident movements in the
economy, in forms of inhabiting the city, in business
decisions, in the relationship with banks, in the
communication policy of the large media, in the field
of the social sciences, in the form in which
politicians, militants, a good part of the artistic and
cultural field, etcetera, conducted themselves.
The combination of default, devaluation, and
political crisis turned the country into no man's
territory, where the daily demonstrations joined
defrauded ahorristas5 with piqueteros6 and
caceroleros7 together with audacious tourists who
came to learn at low price about the becomings
of the "Argentine revolution."
Another consequence of the rupture of December
2001 was the visibilization of a heterogeneous
set of forms of social protagonism that arose in
dissimilar periods and in relation to different
problematics and that, until December, were hardly
known, taken into account, and valorized.
The root of the new protagonism has to do, of
course, with peripheral capitalism in crisis. But the
new protagonism is not a mere reaction. The power
(potencia) of Argentina's current events takes
root, precisely, in the emergence of these
subjectivities that have, for many years, experienced8
new modalities of sociability in various spheres of
their existence.
Although today it seems evident, by those days of
December the then vigorous piquetero
movement was practically unknown. Despite the
fact that their existence built upon many years of
struggle in all the territory of the country, only few
months earlier had they become widely known
because of their coordinated roadblocks. But in
those roadblocks they were harassed, and the
very parties of the left - that despised them for
years - desperately came to construct their own
piquetero movements only a few short months
before the insurrection. The initiatives of various
piquetro organizations in their respective territories
- linked to food, health, housing, education,
recreation, etc. remained, for a long time, totally
unknown for a significant part of the population.
Almost as unknown as the piqueteros were
different nodes, networks, and circuits of barter
that came to bind millions of people in the hardest
moments of the crisis. After many years of
development, their extension came to be so large
that it was even accepted that the currency of
some of the networks could count as valid currency
for the payment of municipal taxes. The figure
of the prosumer9 had not been appreciated as the
subjective experience that sought to combine in
the same space productive capacities and
consumer satisfaction, displacing financial,

5 Literally "savers". Argentineans who had money in
banks found themselves facing a government imposed one
thousand dollar per month limit on cash withdrawals.
This limit, known as the corralito, has sparked actions by
ahorristas, people demanding access to their money (Tr.).
6 Piquetero literally means picketer. Unemployed people
in Argentina have staged pickets that block roads and thus
disrupt the flow of commodities, in order to demand that
their needs be met (Tr.).
7 A cacerolero is a demonstrator wielding a cacerola as
a noisemaker. Unlike piqueteros, who come from the least
privileged sectors of the population, caceroleros were mostly
workers with jobs, professionals, students, small business
owners, and, more generally citizens identified as members
of the "middle class" (Tr.)
8 In the usage given here, the Spanish verb experimentar
connotes both experiment and experience (Tr.).
9 Producer + consumer. The barter clubs were, as originally
conceived, spaces to exchange goods and services that
had to be produced by the people who were trading them. (Tr.)

bureaucratic, and commercial mediations. The same
can be said of the succession of businesses
occupied by their workers (large numbers of
factories, workshops, printing shops, bars, etc.) in
various cities throughout the country after they
were embezzled by the owners. These were the
object of attention for the institutional left only
when it believed it had found there the resurgence
of an absent working class subject.
All these experiences to which we could add,
among others, that of the escraches initiated by the
group H.I.J.O.S.10 against the unpunished genocide
of the last dictatorship, or the struggles
carried out by the Mapuches11 in the Argentine
south and the organization of campesino initiatives
in the north of the country, as with the case of the
Movement of Campesinos of Santiago del
Estero - were more or less known, but remained in
relative isolation. The events of December
provoked a visibilization as well as a mutual
relation and, in some way, a generalization - between
them and with those that rose up massively to
participate or to know those initiatives.
A third virtue of the rupture had to do with the
multitudinous emergence of hundreds of assemblies
in the urban centers of the country. As thousands of
neighbors met to elaborate - in a collective
manner - what happened in December, they
discovered a space of politicization in the light of
the expansion of the new social protagonism. The
de-stitution of the political institutionality and of the
parties as instruments of management or
transformation of reality placed before the assembly
members the dilemma of elucidating new modalities
of instituting collective life and attending
immediate necessities. From the beginning, the
assemblies - born after the 20th of December -
became crossed with such tensions as whether to
privilege the space of the neighborhood,
experimenting there with initiatives linked to the
territory, or whether, on the contrary, to try to
sustain the revocatory political capacity of the
cacerolas, while they debated what to do with the
parties of the left that sought to coopt the
neighbors' meetings toward the orientations of their
own apparatuses.
Strictly speaking, all the possibilities were
unfolded: there were those who dedicated themselves to
the political conjuncture, or to every type of
initiative linked to the neighborhood, and even those
who remained trapped in the networks of the parties
of the left, in addition to different
combinations between these variants. The
assemblies protagonized - during 2002 - the creation of
popular eateries, solidarity actions with the
cartoneros12, confluences with the piquetero
movements, inter-assembly experiments,
demonstrations, escraches, and, in some cases, fulfilled
a very rich experience of politicization for their


10 H.I.J.O.S. (Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra
el Olvido y el Silencio - Sons and Daughters for Identity and
Justice, against Oblivion and Silence) is a human rights
organization created by the children of those "disappeared"
and murdered by the 1976-1983 dictatorship. An escrache
consists in demonstrating in front of the house of former
torturers in order to expose their ongoing impunity, occupying
public space with colourful signs, graffiti, and street
artists (Tr.).
11 The Mapuche are an indigenous people living in the province
of Neuquen in southern Argentina (as well as in the
neighbouring region of Chile). Many Mapuche communities have
been expelled from their homes as part of land
seizures designed to facilitate the exploitation of the natural
gas and petroleum deposits. Mapuche in the Loma de Lata
region have been found to have high concentrations of heavy
metals in their blood due to water and ground
contamination linked to natural resource exploitation. (Tr.)
12 Cartoneros - literally "cardboard men" - make their living
picking through trash, sifting for recyclable and resaleable
materials. The Argentinean government estimates there may be
as many as 40,000 cartoneros combing the streets of
Buenos Aires on any given night. (Tr.)

On the side of the events that generated the rupture
one might point out a whole set of precedents
that operated decisively in its unleashing:
experiences of struggle - like those we just described -
whose origins can be found in an accumulation of
discontents and unsatisfied demands;
overlapping memories of lost struggles and
frustrated hopes; the helplessness of millions of
people by the crude effects of neoliberalism.
But perhaps it is fitting to speak of a second type of
historicity, linked to a certain capacity to read
the changes operated in the forms of social
reproduction and in the efficacy of political mediations
that in some way regulated social co-existence. In
this manner, the rejection of politicians, for
example, is not only related to a corporative or
neoliberal vision of the world, incredulous of
collective actions, but also feeds into an ensemble
of frustrations derived from the promises of the
democratic re-opening from 1983 to the end of 2001.

II. Phenomenology of an apparent reconstruction

The arrival of the government of Eduardo Duhalde,
in January 2002, set in motion the delicate
process of reconstructing statality after the rupture
of December. Until that moment, we witnessed
a pathetic succession of presidents elected by the
legislative assembly to finish the term of the
unseated Alianza president, De la Rua. The arrival
of Duhalde implied, in the first place, a hiatus in
this crazy dynamic.
The primary objective of the Duhalde government
consisted in calming spirits and preventing more
deaths. In second place, it reorganized - in time -
the conditions of the new scheme for reassigning
resources, and restituted the link with the financial
The declaration of default by the prior government
of Rodríguez Saa was followed by the
devaluation of the peso - that is to say, the end of
the peso/dollar convertibility - and the immediate
upsetting of prices, the debasement of products, the
suspension of services, the breaking of all
contracts in dollars (debts, deposits, etc.) The
growth of poverty and indigence followed in
geometric proportions.
As an effect of this end of the rules of the game in
the total absence of a power capable of
proposing new regulations, the summer of 2002 was
a generalized chaos in which, as usually
happens, the main benefits were for those who
possessed more resources to confront the
situation: the banks (compensated by the state for
the pesification), the large debtors in dollars
whose debts were pesified, the large land owners
and agrarian producers, and the transnational
export consortia for whom the high dollar is a
source of enrichment.
The political landscape fragmented around three
large blocs. On one side, those who openly
promoted dollarization, entry into the FTAA, and
the use of the armed forces as an instance for
control ing social conflict (Menem and López
Murphy being the visible faces of the project). On
the other side, the pesification-devaluation bloc, in
power through Duhalde (and now the recently
elected government of Néstor Kirchner). Finally,
the heterogeneous bloc of the forces of the center
left, left, alternative unionism, and the more
consolidated expressions of struggle that pronounced
themselves for a new form of taking political
decisions and producing and distributing wealth.

Duhalde's arrival in office was possible
fundamentally for three reasons: (a) the breakdown
of the pact of domination installed by Carlos Menem in
which hegemony corresponded to the nucleus of
privatized businesses and the transnational
financial sector; (b) the strength of Buenos Aires
Peronism,13 whose level of organization and of
penetration in the most impoverished strata of the
population allowed it to avoid the generalization of
the conflict by means of distributing some two
million of social plans14 of about 50 dollars
monthly; (c) because in front of the breakdown of the
political powers this party capital allowed the
Buenos Aires Peronism to impose itself with ease as
the ultimate guarantor of the remains of the political
The main contribution of the Duhalde government
had as its fundamental merit the fact of
surviving the game of crossed pressures and,
particularly, the constant threat of the cacerolas. In
this respect it is fitting to recall Duhalde's phrase
as he just assumed the presidency (having
actually lost in the presidential elections against De
la Rua): "with assemblies one cannot govern."
The second period of the recomposition of the
political system occurred at the beginning of the
second semester and revolved around three
aspects: (a) the arrival of the minister of the economy
Lavagna, and his serene politics of
compatibilization of interests together with the first
harvest Duhalde collected for that mere fact of "enduring"
that permitted to calm down the inflation of the
dollar and produce a moderate growth of the
benefited economic sectors; (b) the distribution of
social plans oiled the political apparatuses, which
by means of the networks of clientelism
achieved the consolidation of a certain social
tranquility; (c) the increasing repression in the
neighborhoods, which found its highest point in the
massacre of Puente Pueyrredon the 26th of June, 2002.15
It was precisely the scandal provoked by this
massacre that obligated then president Eduardo
Duhalde to set a date for the succession of the next
government, at the time that admitted the
impossibility of normalizing the situation in the
predicted time frame, circumstances that explain
the anticipation of the elections' dates.

13 Peronism is the name given to the movement founded by
Juan Domingo Perón in the late 1940s. During its complex
history, the features of Peronism that have remained
constant have been its populism, pragmatism, and dependance
on strong leaders. After the expulsion of De la Rúa by
the revolt of December 2001, Partido Justicialista, Peronism's
official party structure, was almost unanimously supported
by the political establishment as the most secure means to
reestablish institutional continuity. Peronist senator Eduardo
Duhalde was appointed provisional president in January
2002 after three members of his party failed to form a
sustainable government. During the 1990s, when he was the
governor of Buenos Aires, Duhalde consolidated a powerful
network of support in that province whose visible side
includes the exchange of votes for assistance plans and
political favours. Journalistic investigations have revealed that
these networks also include connections with organized crime
and the provincial police of Buenos Aires. Duhalde
openly put this political machine (or what was left of it
after the downfall of representative politics) to work for Nestor
Kirchner's electoral campaign. (Tr.)
14 In the late 1990s, Argentina's federal government
created monthly subsidies for unemployed workers specially
designed to apeace the rising wave of roadblocks and uprisings
of single-company towns such as Cutral-có, Tartagal,
Mosconi, and Ledesma. These subsidies became known as "Planes
Trabajar" (Work Plans) and are administered in
different ways by piquetero organizations. During the Duhalde
administration, the subsidies changed name to "Planes
Jefes y Jefas de Hogar" (Head of Household Plans). The
subsidies have also been extensively used by the networks of
clientelism of political apparatuses. (Tr.)
15 On June 26, 2002, police attacked a group of piqueteros
conducting a roadblock on the Puente Pueyrredon bridge.
Police shot and killed two protesters, injured ninety, and
arrested over one hundred, sparking massive demonstrations
in response. (Tr.)

The anticipation of the dates influenced, then, the
three virtuous tendencies on the basis of which
the government proceeded to carry out its program
of reconstruction of a minimum of
institutionality: (a) the consolidation of the dollar
price, and even its reduction, and the inevitable
even impetuous recuperation of an economy that did
not stop falling for almost 4 consecutive
years. This point was enormously relevant since the
ability of the government in this aspect
allowed it to achieve - as a triumph - an agreement
with the IMF and a feeling of progressive exit
from the crisis, at the time that it committed the
next government - among other things - to obtain
an enormous fiscal surplus for the payment of the
external debt; (b) the opening of an electoral
dynamic, even over the remains of the political
parties, and in conditions frankly unfavorable for
the candidates, none of whom had even a low level
of popularity - the Radical Civic Union16 and
the Frepaso17 (both making up the Alianza) have
virtually disappeared; and Duhalde himself
prevented the Peronists from presenting one single
candidate, forcing the three internal lines to
present themselves in separate lists. And (c)
increasing levels of repression of the experiences of
counterpower: on one side, the persecution of young
piquetero leaders in the neighborhoods,
many times at the hands of armed groups without
uniforms, and the reactivation, on the other side,
of the judicial apparatus, which in a few months
ordered - before the first electoral return - the
eviction of factories occupied by their workers (the
test case but not the only case being that of the
workers of Brukman18) and of tens of occupations
(some of them by neighborhood assemblies), as
wel as the detention of important piquetero leaders
from Salta.
The last months before the elections many began to
perceive with worry that the fragmentation of
the political system could come to generate an
unforeseen eventuality: the return of Menem.
In effect, the slogan "al of them out, not a single
one should remain" seemed, then, to have
remained obstructed in its own paradoxical nature:
given that someone was going to stay, it could
be that the candidate to remain would be precisely
the one whose insensitivity with respect to the
processes of social rebellion was most evident.
The possibility that Menem could return, sustained
by a by no means negligible percentage of the
population - some 20% of the electorate suddenly
turned into a frightening factor for a large
majority. One should add that before the elections
at least two circumstances took place whose
structure anticipated the dynamic that would
become visible with the elections.
In the first place was the American, English, Polish,
Spanish, etc. invasion of Iraq. On one hand,
the concentrated military power decided and
executed a war that was scandalous no less for its
intentions than for its effects. But in parallel a
gigantic movement against the invasion unfolded.
Both phenomena were able to coexist without
mutually affecting each other: each one developed
in a parallel path.
16 The Union Civica Radical (UCR) is a centrist
political party lead by De la Rua. (Tr.)
17 The Frente Pais Solidario or National Solidarity
Front is a coalition of five political parties. In 1999
Frepaso made a coalition (the Alianza) with the UCR in order to
challenge the electoral power of the Peronist
Partido Justicialista. (Tr.)
18 Brukman is a coat factory which was occupied
and operated by workers from December 2001 to April 2003. The
Brukman workers were forcibly evicted by police
because, in the words of an Argentinean federal
judge "life and physical integrity have no supremacy over
economic interests." (Tr.)

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