National Sections of the L5I:

Argentina 2002

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“Through the movement’s emails, websites, face to face gatherings, stories emerged of a land where polticians were so discredited that they were ridiculed wherever they went, angry middle-class women smashed up banks, occupied factories were run by the workers, ordinary people held meetings to decide how to run their factories, and thousands of unemployed people blocked highways, demanding food and jobs. It sounded like France 1968, or Spain during the civil war, yet it was lasting for months across a country 11 times the size of the UK, in a state that until recently was one of the world’s top 20 strongest economies ... It was happening in Argentina ...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... inspiring activists from as afar afield as South Africa, Italy, Thailand and Belgium to witness the reinvention of politics from the bottom up.”
[John Jordan, UK anticapitalist actvist in the Guardian, 25 January 2003]

In the wake of the revolutionary days of 19-20 December 2001, new popular movements arose in Argentina and existing ones revitalised. The immense social and political catastrophe that befell the unemployed, working class and lower middle classes during the course of 2001 was the immediate reason. It was a crisis precipitated by the demands of the IMF for repayments on loans. President De la Rua imposed a freeze on bank withdrawals (the coralito) to stop a run on the banks and the collapse of the peso.

Strikes and demonstrations greeted this organised theft of people’s savings. When De la Rua reacted by declaring a state of emergency, hundreds of thousands – maybe a million – demonstrators took to the streets in an unprecedented popular uprising.

Only when Eduardo Duhalde, a more traditional Peronist leader, with a record of verbal opposition to Menem and Dela Rua’s neoliberalism, was finally summoned to power by the desperate Congress, was this challenge to the authrority of the state temporarily resolved.

But during 2002, as the economic crisis deepened, so the movements of resistance grew, became nationally co-ordinated and overlapped; in embyro if not consciously, they challenged the logic of capitalist private property and the legitimacy of the capitalist state. Together they gave a glimpse of a social alternative.


The “piqueteros” are members of a dozen or so nationally organised movements of unemployed workers (MTDs), with a variety of or no political affiliations. Some originated in self-help grassroot groups (often with Christian influence), some via intiiatives of far left parties and others – accounting for about two-thirds of the total – were the result of work by the independent and more radical trade unions such as the CTA or the CCC.

All piqueteros movements focus on the road blockade as a way of making their condition and protest visible, not having a place of work to centre their resistance on. They took their inspiration from the 1996 actions of the residents of Cutral Có and Plaza Huincul in the province of Neuquén. As unemployment rocketted after 1994 road blocs became more widespread; in 1997 there 140 reported. In the crisis wracked year of 2002 there were anywhere between 2,300 and 6,000.

However, the aims of the MTDs vary according to their poltical complexion. The union-dominated ones seek to reclaim lost jobs or acquire social rights. The far left ones seek to direct the MTDs towards the destruction of the state, while the smallest autonomous ones often in shanty towns, based on younger people with little prospect of formal employment, depend on welfare programmes and try to generate local projects that sustain the community. Most are charcterised by hostility to national politics – a scepticism born of decades of marginalisation and neglect by established bourgeois parties. Many are influenced by the Zapatistas, embrace horizontalism, absence of leaders and insist that education and training is essential before lasting political change is possible.

As Julio Ferreyr, a member of MTD Lanus says: “our principles are horizontality, autonomy and direct democracy, with that we want to create power to achieve social change. Our aim is to build from the grass roots. I am not a leader. I am here on the assembly’s mandate. We draw on “leading by obedience”, as Subcomandante Marcos says.”

The MTDs bore the brunt of police repression in 2002 as their actions most directly challenged the “rule of law”; assassinations and woundings were common. But as the crisis developed the hegemony of the reformists and local populists asserted itself and increasingly they became dependent on a range of social welfare programmes and even incorporated into the adminstration on a national scale.

Occupied factories

Bankruptcies proliferated from the mid-1990s in Argentina. In the second half of the decade factory closures or attempted closures led to a wave of workers’ occupations to keep jobs. By 2002 an estimated 120 factories were “recovered” keeping 12,000 in work who otherwise would have been thrown on the scrapheap. About 70 of these joined together early in 2002 to form the National Movement of Recovered Companies (MNER).

While all these occupied factories have many similarities in the way they are run (democratic decision-making, broadly equal wages) and face similar hardships (harassment from employers, repression from police, up-hill legal battles, difficulty in raising credit) there are also significant differences. Some have received help from local authorities with utility payments or debt relief as an alternative to providing social benefits for a sacked workforce. Some have got the municipality to expropriate the employer and hand the factory over to the workforce for a defined period (usually two years maximum).

Everywhere the workers showed through their example that you do not need mangers or owners to plan production, make products and find a buyer; everywhere productivity increased as workers were freed of the tyranny of management and felt they were working for themselves.

While some employers and local authorities (e.g Brukman in Buenos Aires) have chosen a frontal counter-attack against the recovered factories and used the courts and police to secure evictions, increasingly, local and national politicians have sought to deflect the challenge to capitalist property by creating a legal and financial framework that recognises them as co-operatives (either of the workforce alone, or jointly between employees, managers and creditors). Hence what started out often as an explosive challenge to the logic of capitalist private property has often become a form of it.

Barter movement

A movement with a similar anti-capitalitst or at least non-capitalist logic to the occupied factories was the Trueque movement – a national system of barter – that again originated in the midst of growing social and economic crisis in the mid-1990s. Faced with mass unemployment, high costs of credit and currency instability, working and middle class communities across the country decided to “opt out” of the values of capitalism and find alternative ways of finding the goods and services they needed in ways that encouraged social solidarity in their communities.

A massive range of foods personal services and consumer goods could be obtained by means of a myriad of locally recognised “currencies”. At its height one local authority even agreed to allow its inhabitants to pay local taxes with barter club credits.

From the first barter club in Buenos Aires in 1995 the movement escalated. In the midst of a social crisis of unprecedented depth and breadth in 2002 the movement exploded; more than 6,000 barter clubs existed across Argentina, drawing in about six million people, with an average circulation of credits of more than US$1bn.

The movement only really blossomed in the first half of 2002 before declining rapidly, succumbing to being overwhelmed with false credits, probably as a result of organised crime (sponsored by businesses threatened by the barter system).

Neighbourhood assemblies

In the first days of January 2002 “neighbourhood assemblies” were born. Groups of neighbours fresh from the protests gathered on streets corners and debated, “what now?”. Largely middle class they insisted originally on the prinicple of “horizontality”, a snub of leadership, representation and structure.

In the first three months of 2002 more than 200 assemblies sprang into life and by August at least 329 gathered local residents on street corners to debate everything, from local issues to the future of national politics. Many focused on providing practical solutions such as soup kitchens or opening up abandoned promises to provide local services to local people. Many local assemblies soon realised that for their impact to be effective inter-neighbourhood assemblies were needed. But these often proved to be merely a battleground for clashes between the political left and those elements of the middle class openly hostile to organised politics.

By the end of 2002 the level of participation was declining. In part this was because the depth of the social crisis had passed, but mainly because many of those participating were co-opted into alternative initiatives that emanated from local government – in particular, participatory budgeting, on the model of that seen in Porto Alegre in Brazil.

Indeed, the local budget meetings were soon called “neighbourhood assemblies” and even though these bodies were only responsible for discussing the allocation of 2 per cent of the municipal budget they were enough to derail the popular assemblies and steer it back into a mainstream bourgeois political process.

What all these movement had in common in 2002 was that they mobilised hundreds of thousands (millions in the case of trueque) in social and political struggles outside of, or against, the logic of capitalism. They directly challenged the bourgeois biased nature of the law, the political institutions, the financial system, and the idea that production could only be for profit.

The workers in dozens of factories contested exploitation, those engaged in barter rejected the idea that exchange could only take place through the “cash nexus”. The piqueteros repeatedly engaged in direct action to cut the means of transport, thereby disrupting commerce and challenging the rule of law. Everyone, everywhere turned their back on the corrupt class of professional parasites in Congress and created direct, popular democratic bodies to debate out alternative courses of action.

All this was immensely progressive and could – and should – have been fertile ground for a challenge to the capitalist state and the centres of capitalist wealth and property that deliberately restricted, derailed and suppressed the multi-faceted movement. For that was the choice: either the working class could overcome the limitations on the recovered factories movement by expropriating the centres of finance that control access to credit, or succumb to them. They could develop the movement to embrace thousands of factories not threatened with immediate closure but suffering under speed-ups and wage cuts, to develop workers’ occupations in all spheres to attack the whole of the capitalist class; or it could accept their status as islands of co-operative capitalism – only to be victims of the market in the future.

The same is true of the national assemblies; they needed to take themselves seriously as alternative centres of political power and develop themselves throughout the country, and crucially in the workplaces as well as the residential areas. Instead they degenerated into factional bear pits, organisers of soup kitchens or transmuted into providing democratic cover for local government spending plans.

But above all, this vanguard of hundreds of thousands needed to use the crisis to break the iron grip of the trade union leaders who kept the many millions of employed, organised workers on the sidelines from this great social movement. Worse, these leaders, mainly Peronist, continued to provide the social base for first President Duhalde and then President Kirchner to begin the process of re-legitimising the discredited class of bourgeois politicians and their institutions, that culminated in the massive vote in the April 2003 elections and the mandate given to Kirchner.

The revolutionary upheavals in Argentina in 2001-2002 rightly attracted the attention and solidarity of the global anticapitalist movement. It wasn’t just that another world was shown to be possible, another world was present on the streets and the factories. But shorn of a conscious strategy of seeking working class leadership in the struggle for power, these vibrant, overlapping but ultimately disjoined movements in the end were not able to become more than survival strategies for those thrown into acute social crisis.

Once the crisis eased and once the politicians co-opted and marginalised their leaders, their revolutionary potential was dissipated, leaving behind a reformist residue that ultimately has done little to solve the underlying structural crisis of Argentine capitalism.