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Beyond disillusionment

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

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In Buenos Aires, a demonstration by angry depositors in December 2002.-ENRIQUE MARCARIAN/REUTERS

In Buenos Aires, a demonstration by angry depositors in December 2002.-ENRIQUE MARCARIAN/REUTERS

Worker-owned cooperatives are fast becoming a major sector of the crisis-ridden Argentine economy.

"SOCIAL change used to go from the head down to the feet. Today it goes from the feet to the head. The problem is, will it get stuck at the stomach?" Sitting in the office of an "occupied" health clinic, Alicia was explaining how Argentina's social movements were learning by doing, as opposed to starting from theory and moving to practice. The clinic had been a well-equipped facility that serviced the Portuguese community in Buenos Aires through the 1990s, until it closed several years ago. With the wave of factory occupations that occurred across Argentina in 2002 about 150 factories were occupied by workers and are being run as cooperatives several neighbourhood `asambleas' (community-based organisations that are playing a significant role in Argentina's social movements) got together and took over the Clinica Portuguesa. The equipment had remained idle for long, the building needed a good deal of cleaning and repairs, and sympathetic medical staff had to be found. All these obstacles are being overcome.

Alicia outlined the Portuguesa's plan, an ambitious project that starts from a politicised concept of health and seeks to serve the health needs of the communities in their homes and at work places. Part of the project, already under way, is to form mobile medical teams including a doctor, a nurse, physiologists and psychologists to treat workers in the occupied factories. Alicia said: "We want to take health to the factory. Under a traditional system of health insurance, the worker takes her own free time to see the doctor. In our system, the worker sees the doctor at work, and the medical team can assess the workplace health situation and make recommendations for prevention." These medical teams use a great deal more of information than that used in the traditional medical practice a patient's medical history is considered, but so is the patient's family and work history. Workers are asked what they expect from the health system. Their investment in the system is sought. Other aspects of the plan include a nutritional programme with emphasis on education and on the political and economic aspects of access to food; and a mental health programme that emphasises the social context. Alicia said: "In the poorest families, there are problems of mental health and domestic violence. These go beyond having a history of violence in the family. When the state represses you, violently attacks you for asking for food, this violence multiplies in the family and elsewhere." The Clinica Portuguesa's political concept of health is one innovative idea among many to be found in Argentina's social movements. Like many other sites of this movement, it is a product both of the present crisis and of the past.

IN the 1970s, when India had its brief flirtation with dictatorship in the form of Indira Gandhi's Emergency rule, Argentina was under one of the most vicious dictatorships in the world. From 1976 to 1983, a military junta, under which some 30,000 people disappeared, ruled the country. The repression was coupled with corruption and economic plunder, opening the country to neoliberalism. One of Argentina's most heroic dissidents, Rodolfo Walsh, wrote an `Open Letter to the Military Junta' in 1977, in which he condemned the regime not just for its political repression: the violations were "not the worst suffering that has been imposed on the Argentinian people nor the gravest violations of human rights that you (the military junta) have committed," the letter said. "In the political economy of this government, you can find not only the explanation of its crimes, but an even worse atrocity that condemns millions of human beings to planned misery." He was murdered by the police hours after he posted the letter.

In Argentina, as in Chile, it was a brutal dictatorship that made the country `safe' for multinational corporations and a model economy for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Argentina was one of Latin America's wealthiest countries. The Argentine peso was pegged to the dollar. But the debt continued to grow and the economic mismanagement of the dictatorship was not reversed under democracy. Instead, as Naomi Klein said in a recent article in The Guardian: "The wealth flowing in the 1990s Argentina was a combination of speculative finance and one-off sales: the phone company, the oil company, the rails, the airline." The mirage disappeared when the economy collapsed in December 2001, and a social movement surged that would overthrow four Presidents in succession. The neighbourhood `asambleas' with their community-level direct democracy, the piqueteros who fought for survival by blocking roads and disrupting economic life, and the caceroleros who marched and banged pots, were part of this movement. So, too, are the workers who occupied their factories.

Argentina's 150-odd occupied factories are the result of a remarkable confluence of factors. The first, and the simplest, is the abandonment of the factories by their owners. The economic crisis struck so quickly that in many cases the owners took what was in the bank and fled the country and their debts, rather than trying to liquidate all the assets and pay their creditors. With the owners gone, the workers had little to lose and everything to gain in trying to take the factories over and keep them running.

Again, the workers emphasise that their action is not based on a revolutionary theory, but instead they are responding to events. At the Bruckman clothing factory, one of the first and most famous occupied factories, one worker said: "If they [the owners] had showed up [the day after they left] with 50 pesos in their hand, wanting things to go back to the way they were, we would have taken the money and gone home. We would have been back at 5:30 a.m. the next morning like every other day. But since they abandoned us we've learned a lot. We've learned that we can run the place, we can produce, manage, sell, work and have good relations among ourselves. And I don't think you need anything else." While the disappearance of owners is enough to make occupying factories worth a try, it is not enough to make it legally possible or economically viable. For legality, the factories have sought incorporation as worker-owned cooperatives. In many cases, the government has passed laws expropriating the factories to the cooperatives. For economic viability, the factories have relied on the devaluation of the peso.

When the economy collapsed, the value of the peso went from 1:1 dollar to 3:1 and the economy contracted by 11 per cent. The result of the devalued peso has been that while imports have quickly become prohibitively expensive, the domestic market, despite significant contraction, still has tremendous unmet demand that can no longer be met by imports.

The movement has been helped by another fact: `Taylorism' is less advanced here than in some other kinds of economies. Acrow Steelworks was occupied in the first months of 2002 when the former owners, an English consortium called the Roberts Group, stopped paying the workers and cut the power supply. While the owners wanted to liquidate the plant, the workers sought expropriation. Today, while the workers hold the idle plant, the owners covertly continue to seek liquidation. When asked which side the engineers were on, the workers replied: "They are with the owners. But the engineers learn from the workers here. We know more than they do. The workers design, and the engineers sign off." This would have been impossible in the computerised oil industries of Venezuela or Colombia, where owners and engineers can run or shut down the entire industry for weeks in the absence of workers. But in Argentina, between demand, unused machines and skilled workers, the occupied factories have a chance of survival.

Some factories have done better than merely surviving. The Impa plant in Buenos Aires makes aluminum tubes and has become a model for the occupied factories movement and a community space complete with craft and art workshops, dance lessons, and a daycare centre. A topic of debate at Impa recently was whether or not the workers should increase production and raise their salaries from 800 to 1,400 pesos a month. Such an increase would mean a change in the more leisurely, humane pace of work in worker-controlled factories.

Many people would prefer to see the workers at Impa use their surplus to help other projects. It was in this context that Alicia from the Clinica wondered if social change would `get stuck in the stomach'. In the asambleas, communities are working to set up systems of exchange that could pull the occupied factories and the neighbourhoods into a `solidarity economy'. One assembly is proposing a "Centre for Alternative, Solidarity Consumption and Distribution" that will match the demand in the neighbourhoods with the production of the occupied factories. A similar initiative is the `piquetero central market'.

The most difficult expense for such initiatives is transportation. Devaluation has not reduced the price of basic needs like fuel. Repression by the government is a constant fear and threat, as is cooptation by political parties and factions. Alicia described the problem: "The occupied factories need a source of capital, of credit, to keep running. They need the backing of some economic sector. Who can they turn to? The multinational corporations? They want to destroy the occupied factories. The national bourgeoisie? It doesn't exist any more. If we turn to the state, we risk becoming bureaucratised." In its rejection of representative democracy, the movement has developed a defence against cooptation.

At the El Cid neighbourhood asamblea, 40 to 60 people meet every week at an abandoned, occupied bank branch, now a community centre with a library, a kitchen, meeting rooms, and a dance hall. The asamblea is now the base for community organising and political education, and a community kitchen.

A recent debate was not over whom to vote for during the April elections, but whether or not the anti-election demonstrations would involve civil disobedience. Unable to distinguish between the corrupt, neoliberal candidates, social movements are campaigning on a `vote for no one' platform. The possibility that a blank vote could `win' the elections is intriguing in a country where voting is obligatory.

However, the activists in the movements worry about what the government will do. "The government cannot tolerate this level of social mobilisation," said Ezequiel, one of the members of the asamblea. "I fear that sooner or later they will try to repress us. Then it will depend on how the rest of the country reacts."

In spite of the difficulties and the precarious situation, the building of the social movement and of the solidarity economy continues. The occupation of workplaces is a fitting answer to capital flight. Owners can clear bank accounts overnight, but when workers occupy factories they bring the conflict to a physical and political terrain where they can win.

In late January 2003, teachers occupied a private school that was set to be closed. Occupation has taken place in a variety of workplaces from steelworks to clinics and from clothing shops to schools. As worker-owned cooperatives reach more and more sectors of the economy, with links to community asambleas and to one another through an alternative distribution network, a parallel economy could be developing. From the feet, upward.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 14, 2003.)

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