Get Rid of the Lot of Them! (Argentinian society stands against politics)

By Horacio Tarcus, 28 November 2002

Since 19 December, 2001, the day when the citizen masses overthrew the ‘super-minister of Economy’ Domingo F. Cavallo, and forced the fall of the Radical government of President De la Rúa on the following day, a profound political crisis has engulfed Argentina. Nine months (at the time of writing) down the line, there are still no clear signs of a solution. Here, Horacio Tarcus explores the history and meaning of the crisis, the forces and personalities involved, and its possible outcome Translation by Adolfo Olaechea

The collapse of an economic model

The extraordinary social protests that erupted last December were a reaction to the ‘corralito’ (fencing) regulations. ‘Corralito’ means the restrictions imposed by the government on the withdrawal of bank deposits at the beginning of that month. This measure was the last impotent throw of the dice by a bankrupt economic model. This model, blessed by the IMF, was established by the neo-Liberal economist Domingo Cavallo in 1993, under the neo-Peronist regime of Carlos S. Menem. It remained in place during the two years of the Radical government of Fernando de la Rúa, when Cavallo was also the Minister of Economy.

One of the pillars of this model was the so-called ‘convertibility’ which pegged the Argentinian Peso to the US Dollar and established a parity rate of ‘one peso to one dollar’. Following the traumatic hyper-inflationary experiences of the 1989-1991 period, the monetary stability afforded by convertibility conferred long years of legitimacy to the Menem government and his super-minister Cavallo. For the salaried, retired workers and pensioners, it meant that their incomes (fixed and in pesos) would not continuously erode. For the middle classes it meant a chance of keeping their savings in dollars, buying imported products at artificially low prices, and travelling abroad. For the local bourgeoisie it signalled an opportunity to undertake spectacular business deals.

Some sectors, however, were driven to the wall. For example, local producers such as the textile manufacturers who were unable to compete against imported products while the dollar was artificially undervalued or the traditional farming industries who saw the value of their exports decline for the same reason. However, a new ‘export/finance’ bourgeoisie did grow at breakneck speed, under the wing of the political power. The apparent success of stability, the consumer boom and the emergence of the newly rich pushed issues such as the Menem government’s absurd levels of corruption and the scandalous submission of the judiciary and parliament to the executive into the background. Even though these were the main political themes for the opposition, they only confronted the government from a democratic-institutional and ethical stance and the Menemists were therefore able to respond with the legitimacy of efficiency. That was sufficient for Menem to get re-elected in 1994, following constitutional reform.

Nevertheless, another hidden iceberg was the asset stripping of the state used to pay for the costs of their economic model. The Menem/Cavallo regime began an extraordinary process of privatising the patrimony of the state. Thousands of millions of pesos received from the sale of oil and gas fields, railways, airlines, telephone networks and the metropolitan underground transport systems, etc., silently financed the model, supplying the dollars needed to keep up the ‘one to one’ convertibility. Within the framework of monetary stability and convertibility, Menem’s offer of the state’s industrial and service companies was more than tempting for international investors who did their billing in overvalued Pesos and then returned their profits abroad, having previously exchanged them into dollars. It was a fabulous business indeed. At the end of the day, the model was financed by the creation of chronic indebtedness.

Of course, the model had its winners and its losers, the latter consisting mainly of the lowpaid and the unemployed. However, it did work for the first 5 years with the support of the middle classes. Finally, after several years of recession, the system broke down in December 2001, causing the most serious social cost imaginable. Given that it was inevitable, the escape from convertibility to a clearer system could have been achieved in a negotiated, gradual and less traumatic fashion. Also, convertibility could have lasted many more years. This would have required the government to shift the economy from a deficit into a substantial surplus by collecting outstanding taxes, investing productively and promoting exports.

The collapse of convertibility occured because it became impossible for the State and private sector to obtain any more credit to paper over the ongoing monetary deficit. In permanent expansion, this deficit had three causes: firstly, the public deficit generated by gigantic tax evasion and the state retirement system covered by external loans; secondly, the private deficit generated by the incapacity of local industry to compete in the global market; lastly, the accumulation of interests on contracted loans feeding back into the public deficit. The prohibition on withdrawal of cash from the banks was a side effect of the wave of speculation which started when the masses of depositors realised (several months after the banks who had taught them to be incapable of thinking beyond the parameters of convertibility) that the rate of exchange was unsustainable and that dollar funds were at risk. Efforts to avoid the collapse of the banks led the government to embargo the savings of hundreds of thousands of depositors and caused the collapse of both internal savings and external credit. The collapse of economic activity resulted in a spiral of bankruptcies, wholesale lay-offs among the work force, as well as a new drop in salary levels.

Given all this, the collapse of convertibility is a by-product of a type of profit generation and a form of relationship between the state and the private sector based upon the most parasitic and primal tendencies of capitalism. Companies harvested monopolist rents from the internal market, totally unsupervised by any form of user or consumer organisation. These companies subsequently exchanged these profits into dollars sold to them by the state at bargain basement rates. This was an ultra-inefficient role for the state, incapable of planning or using resources within socially valuable criteria and subjected to the individual demands of companies and economic blocs. (Aronskind, Ricardo, 2002).

Crisis of the State

In parallel with the economic crisis, an unprecedented crisis of the state has developed. Without a doubt, this is also the result of 25 years of persistent neo-liberal policies aimed at reducing the state’s capacity to regulate so as to ‘liberate’ the market forces. Left to its own dynamics, the ‘invisible hand’ of the market led to something slightly different from the ‘productive revolution’ promised by Menem in 1989: it led to a truly unproductive revolution. If any doubt remained, today it is clear that there is no place in capitalist globalisation for Argentina. In the space of a few years, one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries had gone from role model to basket case.

The fragility of the State is such that it hardly seems to exist at all. It lacks all substantive attributes and does not perform any of its essential functions. For instance to guarantee compliance with the law? The government of De la Rúa fell when the population challenged the state of siege. To maintain public security and to issue and support its currency? Not only the public, but also certain state institutions keep their reserves in dollars abroad. To collect taxes? The Argentinian tax system is completely regressive. The Argentinian bourgeoisie does not pay and has never paid their taxes. To safeguard property? Consider the way the property of the bank depositors has been dealt with. To defend the unity of the country? The former Governor of San Luis Province, who was president of the country for a few brief days after the fall of De la Rúa last December, recently began to speak about ‘secession’...

A rebellion of the middle classes?

Having said all this, I would suggest that the system of classical analysis which holds that ‘an economic crisis gives rise to a sequel of political crisis’ does not address all the nuances of the current scene in Argentina. Moreover, the equation: Economic model in crisis + seizure of depositors’ savings = sudden mobilisation of the ‘middle class’, not only devalues analysis but in fact distorts it.

During the events of 19 – 20 December, a new social protest movement was born in Argentina. The direct trigger was the run on the banks of 30 November and the economic measures that followed the fencing of bank accounts and fixed-term deposits. This led many observers to point out that it was the middle class that propelled the social protest of December and hence it was dubbed a ‘French revolution’ in the mass media and other quarters.

There is no question that the fencing of bank accounts directly affected and maddened the small and medium sized depositors, and that the lack of ready funds did the same to shopkeepers and other traders. However, it also affected, directly or indirectly, all workers as well as the retired and other state or private pension recipients. A special characteristic of the social protest was that very diverse types were swept along with it: unemployed workers and youth who had never been employed, ordinary workers and retired workers, small depositors, shopkeepers and other traders.

Did the working class stay away? Obviously it was absent in its classical trade union marching columns. Nevertheless, one should rather say that it was the trade unions that were not present in December. This was particularly true of the two factions into which the Peronist CGT (Confederación General del Trabajo) is divided: the hard-liners and those in favour of the government. The more militant CTA (Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina) was slow to come on board.

For example, the massive demonstrations in the Plaza de Mayo or in the Plaza del Congreso (Parliament Square) lacked the characteristics of traditional mass actions accompanying general strikes, with each worker marching under the banner of his own union, political party or union tendency. There is no doubt that the workers took part in these events, but they did not come out into the streets and squares in organised columns. They came alone or at most in small groups and were then amassed by way of some sort of molecular dynamics.

The spontaneous character of the mobilisation, the deliberative role adopted by the groups that swarmed the street corners and squares in the various neighbourhoods were – in that sense – reminiscent of the mass mobilisations of Holy Week 1987. However, those were mass actions either to support or to put pressure on – according to the different tendencies – the democratic government in the face of a military rebellion. Today, after 15 years, the scene is different. In a country in ruins, a popular uprising has overthrown a government impotent in the face of national and global economic power. Cavallo was the symbol of that economic power, De la Rúa, the embodiment of an impotent government.

Social dynamics of a political crisis

Within the span of a few hours, the masses that on 19 December began by demanding the resignation of Cavallo, the minister, were demanding the resignation of De la Rúa, the president. And along with the ghostly round of presidential musical chairs that occurred between the end of December and the first days of January, the cry: ‘Get rid of the lot of them’ increasingly became the slogan of the different sections involved in the social protest.

According to a Buenos Aires newspaper, the government believes that by somehow relaxing the bank deposit fencing regulations and by granting a measure of ‘social welfare’, the protest will start to die down. (‘Talks between Duhaldeism and the UCR seek to avoid attacks on politicians’, Clarín, 3 December 2002). This suggests that the so-called political class believe that, even if a revival of social enthusiasm for politicians cannot be effected, at least society can return to its passive, sceptical state.

The problem is that while the present political crisis blew up days after the introduction of the bank fencing regulations, it results from a social process with much deeper roots. For example, the elections of 14 October, 2001, with their towering levels of absenteeism and invalid or spoiled ballot papers, had already given electoral expression to a very serious political crisis blowing across the whole of Argentina. These (non)voters were once believers. Aware, now, that they had been defrauded, they had lost faith in politics. Up until the events of Argentina’s ‘hot summer’ their protest was almost individualistic, an impotent expressions of political discontent.

Taken together with the secession of a younger generation raised in a world where politics was devalued, these elections could have given discontent a collective and political meaning, but the political class and the mass media had, for many years, ignored and glossed over these phenomena. However, on 14 October, its impact could no longer be disguised. Barely two months later, and ever since, the so-called protest vote has ceased to be something passive and has turned into mass action. It has gone beyond the electoral booth and into the streets.

The aspirations of different sectors within this movement converge and, in the process of unifying this diversity, those aspirations are partially modified and adopt new meanings. Horizontally, the crisis is cutting across diverse social and political strata. Men and women, old and young, employed and unemployed, pensioners and people in active service, wage earners and bank depositors, union members and non-union workers – all are converging into a movement in which the only common denominator appears to be the desire to ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’

What is the meaning of this? The demand has spread like wild fire and is chanted in all public demonstrations. There is no doubt that it is less naïve and more complex than it appears at first sight. It expresses the libertarian protest of society against the State and all its institutions, from Parliament to the police as well as the entire official mass media. It is the protest of the little people, the common men and women, against a political class they now perceive as a parasite preying on society.

Maybe this is the best symbol of the Argentinian political crisis. Antonio Gramsci defined a political crisis in terms that may be useful today: ‘At a certain moment in their historical development, social groupings divorce themselves from their traditional parties. This means that traditional parties, given the organisational form they embody, with those specific persons who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised as the appropriate expression of their class or of a section of a class’. For the Italian thinker in ‘these situations of contrast between the represented and their representatives’, the political crisis ‘is transmitted to the entire organism of the state’. Gramsci held that such situations could arise ‘when the leading class had failed in some political enterprise for which it had demanded or compelled by force the consent of the wide masses.’ He pointed out that these situations could also arise ‘alternatively, because a broad mass of people... went suddenly from political passivity into a certain activity and proceeded to make demands that in their chaotic whole amounted to a revolution’ (Gramsci, 1962: 76-77).

Gramsci’s ideas seem to offer useful angles from which to consider the crisis in Argentina, where the emptying out of political content from the parties was extended to the entire organism of the state. From 1984 to the present, the ruling class of Argentina has repeatedly failed to create its hegemony – a social order that the masses would at least accept. The masses, in turn, moving beyond the protest vote, have extracted themselves from political passivity and gone on to win the streets and the public spaces.

However, we are far away from what Gramsci understood by the term ‘revolution’. We are a little bit closer than we were on 18 December 2001, but a protracted process of collective building lies ahead of us. If, as Rosa Luxembourg believed, the crisis is the expression of the fact that the old is dying but not yet dead and the new is being born but not yet out of the womb, we have crisis ahead for a long time to come.

Today the state is waiting for a certain erosion to occur from so much social mobilisation so that it can try punish all those who violate article 22 of the National Constitution which states that: ‘The people do not rule or deliberate except by means of their representative’. This is precisely how Senator Raúl Alfonsín (a Radical Party leader, former president of Argentina between 1983 and 1989) put it in his speech of 21 February last year in the Senate. It is a fact that Peronists and Radicals are holding consultations seeking a legal framework to curtail mobilisations and ‘escarches’ (impromptu mass protest meetings) so as to return the masses to their jobs and homes. They aim, by means of a de-politicising of society, to put politics back in the hands of the State. However, President Eduardo Duhalde warned them that ‘If this ever gets interpreted as a self-serving corporate law, or as a barrier to the democratic freedom to demonstrate, we will be throwing petrol on the flames’ (Clarín, 3/3/2001).

In other words, it will be impossible today to repress all of society by declaring it in rebellion just because people are holding public discussions and wish for self-government while patently repudiating their so-called representatives (“Get rid of the lot of them!”).

Nevertheless, a latent threat against the ‘movimientos piqueteros’ (the picket movement) and the neighbourhood assemblies exists. On 26 June this year, ferocious police repression of a picket in Avellaneda on the outskirts of Buenos Aires City, two unemployed youth, Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki, were gunned down.

Picket movements and neighbourhood assemblies

The ‘villas miseria’ present a postcard image from the Menem decade. These are the cardboard shacks of the homeless, hardly noticeable when one is driving fast along the highways. However, this changes when the unemployed climb onto the tarmac and form a ‘picket’, burn tyres and block traffic while bellowing out their battle cry of ‘Piqueteros, carajo!’ (The Pickets are here, damn it!)

While it is true that pickets interrupting traffic is something that goes back a long way in the history of Argentina’s workers’ strikes, the characteristic feature of the new pickets is that they are made up of the unemployed. The movement was born in 1996 in Neuquén province, when Menem was still president. There the sacked workers of YPF, the state oil company, erected a blockade on a key highway. Five years on, the movement has spread like wild fire all over the country at the tempo of the crisis. It was born of dire necessity, a desperate measure to force the government directly, bypassing the patronising structures of Church or political parties, to give the strikers access to ‘Planes Trabajar’ (the State’s monthly unemployment allowance of 150 pesos – around 40 dollars today). Once the ‘planes’ were granted, the picket was lifted. From then on ‘misery became socialised’. The picket movement is not limited to blockading highways; a remarkable solidarity network has grown up alongside it. It is a network that runs communal kitchens, allotments, school supplies, health centres, libraries, etc. Each ‘picket-man’ collecting his $150 pesos must survive the entire month on that money, less the $3 he pays to the movement. That money goes into a common fund for the organisation’s expenses. Moreover, they are obliged to help at the Picket Action Centres for 4 hours a day from Monday to Friday. The pickets run a horizontal organisation, but, nevertheless, some leading figures do arise. The leaders are members or former members of the leftist movements but the rank and file has no political formation of any kind. They come to the pickets driven by unemployment and hunger. The most militant and hard line sections are the least inclined to negotiations and the most anti-politics in outlook.

There are three tendencies in the Picket Movement: The first one is affiliated to the CTA, the Central de Trabajadores Argentinos (Argentinian Workers Union) and one of its leaders, Luis D’Elía, comes from the militant wing of Peronism and currently leads the ‘Federación Tierra y Vivienda’ (Land and Housing Federation). Its other leader, Juan Carlos Alderete, is close to the CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa) which is linked to the Maoist party (PCR). A second tendency, the ‘Bloque Piquetero’, is an umbrella for the picket groups linked to the leftwing political parties, such as the ‘Polo Obrero’ run by the Workers Party (Trotskyist) and the ‘Movimiento Territorial de Liberación’ (run by the CP). However, the most important current in this bloc, the ‘Movimiento Teresa Rodríguez’, led by Roberto Martino, is independent. The third tendency, and perhaps the one most independent and remote from the world of political parties, is the ‘Coordinadora Aníbal Verón’. The two picket youths assassinated by the police on June 26 belonged to this organisation.

While this movement was born prior to the mobilisation of December 2001 and its aftermath, it is from that date on that it began to garner more popular support and to grow spectacularly. At that time two new movements were also born. Firstly, the movement of the bank depositors demanding the return of their funds, and, secondly, the movement of neighbourhood assemblies. The former, while basically limited to the middle classes, has not lowered its banners during nine months of mobilisations. But the latter, without any doubt, is the most novel because of its organisational form and its collective discussions on street corners and in public squares. In this movement citizens of all ages, walks of life, professions and social extractions, hitherto uninterested in public affairs and hardly ever bothering to vote, are now debating what is to be done. What concretely is to be done about the serious crisis in the neighbourhood hospital or school? They also discuss how to tackle the problems of security - without giving more power to the police. Each assembly in turn sends its delegates to an assembly of assemblies, the ‘Interbarrial’ (Inter-Neighbourhood Assembly).

Strong tensions between the independents — non-party members, who generally have no previous political experience and who are much more ‘horizontal’, more libertarian and more averse to political/institutional ways— and the old left wing movements seeking to seduce those social strata, also exist, just as they do within the picket movement. A program of ideas and action for a left that is open to criticism, for a left that is in tune with the era should, among other things, try to help strengthen pickets and neighbourhood assemblies. It should try to ensure their democratic operation and to enrich their political culture. The left wing currents that take part in these movements would benefit from this too, because this type of participation would rebound upon them, raising their own political culture and their internal democracy. There are left wing groups who dream of the neighbourhood assemblies playing the role of ‘soviets in embryo’. Many attempt to sneak in their slogans or boast about how much they exert control over these assemblies. Maybe there are sections of this militant left who are overlooking the libertarian mettle the social protest is demonstrating. The political crisis is affecting the left wing organisations too in good measure, along with their leaders, their apparatuses and their instrumental approach to politics.

It is not simply his own weakness in directing the transitional period that has dictated the President’s call for early elections in March 2003. Eduardo Duhalde, who was invested by Congress as President, is precariously supported by a makeshift federation of Peronist governors who, in turn, are involved in serious wrangling amongst themselves. The decision to bring forward the elections was also dictated by a need to defuse the mobilisations and social protests.

The electoral calendar and the tempo of the social movement are not in tune. The left vacillates between taking part in a process – where it sees the prospect of increasing its vote – and marching alongside the most militant sections of the social movement, those who are rejecting the government’s call for elections.

So what is to be done? ‘Get rid of the lot of them!’ — say some. Others respond: and then, what happens? Take part in official politics? Reject all politics? Create a different type of politics? These are the issues being debated today by the social movements and the left wing groups in Argentina. At the same time, there is talk of rejecting politics and politicising society. The State is rejected, but at the same time there are demands for education, health, security, social policies. There is rejection of paternalism and of the substitution of the self-led actions of the masses by a political leadership, all within a vacuum of political leadership in general. Argentinian society has transformed itself into a great Assembly. There is a willingness to talk and also to listen, learn and build. There is no better moment than the present for the birth of a new collective will. A New Left.

Horacio Tarcus <htarcus AT> is a historian. He is a lecturer and researcher at Buenos Aires University and the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. Author of The Marxism that Argentina Forgot (1996) and Mariátegui in Argentina (2002), co-editor of El Rodaballo, a cultural and political magazine. He is also director of CeDInCI (Centro de Documentación e Investigación de la Cultura de Izquierdas en la Argentina) (Center for Documentation and Research of left wing Culture in Argentina)

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