Thoughts on Argentina's Conjunctures :: Recuperating Work, Recovering Life (2005-2007)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

My PhD Project: “‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’: Workers' Control in the Most Recent Argentinean Conjunctures” (working title)

PART 1: Conjunctural analysis research and internship in Argentina, summer 2005

Between July 9 and August 15 of this year, I spent my time in Buenos Aires, Argentina looking more closely at the most recent phenomena of workers’ control in recovered enterprises. In addition to working the presses, copy editing books, working with off-set films, sweeping the floors, and having long chats with the self-managed workers at Artes Graficas Chilavert, a local and busy printing press workspace, I sat in three month-long seminars at the University of Buenos Aires's Faculty of Philosophy and Letters with labour historian Prof. Pablo Pozzi (“Argentina 1955 to the Present: Politics and the Economy”) activist Silvia Delfino who is featured in the documentary The Take (“Argentinean Social Movements from a Gender Perspective”), and recovered enterprises researchers and anthropologists Andrés Ruggeri and Carlos Martinez (“Empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores: Un nuevo modo de resistencia de los trabajadores a la exclusion y la desocupación estructural”). This joint university course and internship program was sponsored by the UBA, the argentina autonomist project, and the Institute for Social Ecology.

In addition to the course work and internship, I also conducted over 35 interviews with several recovered factory workers, unemployed workers, MTD activists, recovered enterprises movement leaders, government bureaucrats, officials of the executive branch of the national government, asamblea barrial leaders, national congress deputies and senators, an interview with a former vice-president of Argentina, and interviews with various activists and academics.

Generally, the 35 or so interviews I conducted in Argentina over the summer of 2005 were framed within a rubric of six general points of inquiry that revolved around the basic theme of the socio-political state of Argentina pre- and post-2001, with the goal of situating the recovered enterprises movement (ERT) more broadly within Argentina recent cultural and political conjunctures. As a guiding point, I tended to base these six broad questions on the experiential relief offered to me by my internship at the recovered enterprise of Artes Gráficas Chilavert (see the following posts: July 19, 2005. These interview themes included the following questions:

1. What lead to Dec. 19-20, 2001?
2. What did 19/20 and the subsequent economic and political crisis of 2002 help to articulate for Argentina's new social movements?
3. What were these new socio-political articulations post Dec. 19/20 2001?
4. Why is old-style politics still so persistent in Argentina if 2001 and 2002 were such benchmark years that shed a clearer picture on how destructive the neoliberal experiment that began in the early '70s in Argentina and that still continues is for the country?
5. What happened to the ostensible "multitude" that was so visible in 2002 and appeared to be so ready to counter the traditional hegemonies of Argentine society (state governments, the judicial branch, the military, the ruling bourgeoisie, the Church)?
6. What lies ahead for Argentina in light of the socially-aware, globally-contextualized, and community-driven politics being forged by Argentina's newest social justice movements such as the recovered enterprises movement; the unemployed workers movements; the mothers, grandmothers, and children of the 30,000 disapeared seeking "justicio y castigo"; the cartoneros movement, the growing indegenous movements; and the emergent groups spearheading reclaimed forms of cultural expression (e.g., murgas barriales, cooperative tango orchestras, reborn neighbourhood social clubs, etc.)?

Choosing one aspect of Argentina's newest social movements as my focal point for my PhD dissertation - the recovered enterprises movement rooted in workers' control - the questions I posed to the various institutional and social justice protagonists in Argentina ultimately aspire to contextualize the worker-recovered enterprises movement within Argentina's historically-informed, political-economic and cultural conjunctures. The questions I posed also explore how and if Argentina's ERT movement (empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores) has the potential for being an enduring legacy for not only recovering work, but also recovering social justice, dignity, and communal purpose to everyday life in Argentina and as an example for such a social project to the rest of the world. Put another way, the ERT movement, beginning with the ways that they democratize the firm (Feenberg, 2002, p. 159) and extending into how Argentina's recovered workspaces that I witnessed personally entrench themselves tightly into the community's cultural milieu and social networks, seem to be perhaps showing us a valid way to transition to a socialism rooted in direct democracy and that responds directly to issues of alienation. Might ERTs, then, be showing us actual ways of, as Feenberg (2002) puts it, "recomposing formerly divided mental and manual labour in order to reduce the operational autonomy of leadership and reincorporate the alienated functions of management back into the collective laborer?" (p. 159). And, if so, what does this mean for long-term civilizational change in Argentina and for other similar labour struggles from below in other parts of the world?

Was Gramsci was wrong? Can crisis lead to revolution? While perhaps too early to directly contest Gramsci, It seems that in Argentina’s case, crisis is at least leading to conscientization of particular workers if not a different kind of revolution that's slower, more intentional, and more rooted in the moment and in the daily community, familial, and personal needs of each of the ERT's protagonists [Gramsci in Morera; Day; Feenberg].

Together, the courses, the participatory research of the internship at Chilavert, my interviews, and the practice of writing emergent thoughts and observations in the moment on my blog, all make up what I’m calling my preliminary “conjunctural analysis” for my forthcoming PhD dissertation work on the political economic, the phenomenological, and the genealogical aspects of the most recent – and most promising – iteration of workers’ control in Argentina. The implications for the research I’m proposing to continue in my PhD work will help to not only understand the Argentinean situation better, but will also serve to inform the literature on workers’ control as well as critical theories of technology. In this respect, I believe the statement that Argentina’s experiments with new forms of socially just, local, and directly democratic forms of social organization are being conducted within a “living laboratory” (Colectivo Situaciones, 2003) is well stated.

A brief overview of the conjuncture that the empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (enterprises recovered by their workers) find themselves in

Chilavert is one of the many successful worker recovered workspaces in Argentina operating as a cooperative with no owner, boss or management. Instead, it relies solely on a direct democratic form of administration conducted within direct assemblies--one worker one vote--and on sheer worker motivation! And, yes, "specialist" managerial decisions; cost-benefit analyses; purchase orders; distribution, sales, and marketing functions; machine repairs and operations; accounts payables and receivables; and building maintenance all get done and get done well. In addition, the factory also supports cultural events on the second floor, often hosting dances, movie screenings, poetry readings, community-based education classes, and other social events open to the entire Chilavert neighbourhood.

Artes Graficas Chilavert is part of the National Movement of Recovered Enterprises (Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas, or MNER) and shares the story of owner-declared bankruptcy, worker resistance, and worker takeover experienced in various unique ways by roughly 170-200 other recovered workplaces in Argentina. Emerging out of the drastic and inhuman neoliberal policy’s of the Menem government of the 1990s and the subsequent implosion of the socio-economic and socio-political reality of Argentina that came to a head on Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, and in the ashes of a prolonged and smoldering deterioration of the middle and working classes’ economic wellbeing and the increased immiseration of the poor (now plaguing between 45 - 60% of Argentina’s population, depending on who you talk to), new possibilities for social and political life - such as the Bauen´s cooperative work space - are being experimented with everywhere in Argentina. Alternative and horizontal social realities are being explored and lived daily by the homeless, the unemployed, the socially marginal people of the myriad villas miserias (shanty towns)that dot the country, and among a plethora of nascent neighbourhood movements and recovered work spaces. Participants in these movements are struggling to not only change their own socio-political reality, but, as many have told me thus far, to also return dignity into daily life via a reawakening of a more human, more local way of existence that emerges out of social, political, and economic crisis.

For formerly bankrupt and now recovered work spaces like the Bauen, their workers´ stories, while all unique, have a similar plotline: The recovered enterprises movement is, in part, a bottom-up response to the IMF´s failed attempts to control the country´s economic policies in order for Argentina to be able to meet its interest payments on its massive foreign debt (economic policies which Argentina´s politicians and public managers wholeheartedly carried out throughout the 1990s). In addition, thousands of workers have been led to carry out risky factory takeovers because of inept or greedy owners that, capitalizing on the speculative and corrupt auction market made possible by the economic collapse, threaten to or declare bankruptcy in the wake of the failure of these structural adjustments. Especially after the Dec. 2001 economic meltdown, thousands of once-healthy businesses began to close their doors and evict their workers throughout the country. On top of this, workers are usually let go after weeks and months of not getting paid. Unemployed and with hungry families to feed, the inevitable vaciamiento (emptying) of a bankrupt enterprise´s machinery and assets by the owner and his creditors motivates thousands of workers to mobilize by first seizing the factory and occupying it, thus using their own physical presence - their own bodies - to ride out the six to eight and sometimes 12 months it takes for the courts to declare the ley de exproriacion (expropriation law) preventing the auctioning off of the company´s assets. Although sometimes the workers are allowed to legally use the machines while the backruptcy claim is still in the courts, the ultimate, and always precarious and to date short term goal, is for the workers to be able to control the machines free from the threat of eviction by the state, although even at this stage the workers still only have temporary control of the machines and the property under various burdensome conditons (e.g., in most cases the workers, directly or indirectly, take on the debt of the previous owner). During the long wait between the declaration of quiebra (bankruptcy) and the declaration of the expropriation law, desperate yet determined and well organized worker takeovers of the closing factory ensues, leading to lengthy periods of courageous workspace occupation by the workers. Often, as with the balloon factory La Esperanza, the print house Chilavert, and the now famous Zanon, the workers face the constant threat of persecution and attacks by repressive police forces, mafiosi union leaders, and bought-off government cronies. If all goes well, the occupation culminates in long battles with the federal and provincial courts for legal recognition of the work space as an official, worker run cooperative. Eventually, and sometimes during the tenuous weeks and months of occupation, the workers slowly begin to produce again or, as in the case of the Bauen, to provide hotel services.

For thousands of workers in this country, this direct action is the only solution left; out of the ashes of 19/20 thousands of Argentine workers are deciding to experiment with manager-free and horizontal work places run by themselves via assemblies and workers' councils. Initially there is no deep revolutionary rationale guiding the takeovers; what inspires the workers to action is the desperation and frustration of each worker and the need to feed and provide for his or her family. The workers rage and desperation at the possibility of being without work usually always foments their action. But slowly, throughout their struggle, the workers begin to change their own circumstnces for the first time in their lives in spite of and, indeed, because of a political system that remains unresponsive to their quotidian needs. Here in Argentina, politicians and union leaders continue to cater more to the whims of global markets than to the dire circumstances of a psychically and emotionally pummeled and evermore precarious citizenry.

Turning to each other rather than relying on experts, politicians, bureaucrats, or the church, a rich yet simple model of direct democracy and communitarian work ethic emerges out of the struggles of everyday life in Argentina. In the recovered factories movement, the workers’ everyday reality of struggle (lucha) informs the understanding of their plight. Their understanding comes from within the crisis, through the hope they create, and always, especially during the first stages of their struggle, from below. Their existential experiences are constantly forging their philosophies of cooperativism and community. And their understanding of what's at stake is eloquent, reflected in their daily practices and in the poignant narratives they recount. Here, in Argentina, amongst the workers’ and unemployed workers’ movements, the cartoneros (cardboard people), the piqueteros (organized picketers), the asambleas barriales (neighbourhood assemblies), and las empresas recuperadas (recovered factories), theory emerges always and directly from immediate experience. Any other kind of a priori theory risks sharing the same myopic perspective affecting those sabios (wise ones) in the seats of power. Perhaps the asambleas (people's assemblies) that guide all of these movements are the first signs of the flames of the slowly emerging Phoenix that received its first drafts of generative wind from the impassioned chant of millions who took to the streets on Dec. 19/20, 2001 as they sang out “Que se vayan todos!” – “All of them (Argentina’s traditional institutional players) must leave now!”

The six conjunctures underscoring Argentina’s most recent experiences with workers’ control

1. Conjunctures of need

While Néstor Gorojovsky makes a good point (re: bosses have never being fired in Argentina's recovered factories movement), his comment addresses only part of the equation. As my friend Emily put it to me in an email: "[Gorojovky's] point that [no recovered enterprises ever fired] their bosses seems a bit irrelevant when the movement is analyzed, because they are actively doing away with bosses in a creative, and non-reactionary way". While I think both are correct, I think Emily's observation is more useful long-term, although Gorojosvky's conjunctural observation must not be ignored. This is particularly important when the inevitable question "Is Argentina's recovered enterprises movement exportable?" is posed.

That bosses have never been "fired" (yet) does speak to an important point that both Andres Ruggeri and Carlos Martinez reiterated throughout the fabricas recuperadas course that they taught at UBA this summer: the initial "tomas" (takes) and the early days of each factory's subsequent occupations weren't originally about taking over the factory for good and certainly not, initially anyway, about revolution or working for another possible world. Indeed, finding another job - albeit increasingly difficult in Argentina - is certainly much less risky than actively resisting the state and the juridical establishment. Indeed, as Andres put it, none of the "recuperaciones" (recoveries of enterprises/workspaces) were initially about kicking out the boss, which supports Nestor's contention. Each occupation was, rather, at the beginning of each struggle, about getting back the money each worker was due in back pay or securing their jobs (this is the case, according to Andres, in every single workspace recuperation in Argentina). Only within the process of occupying and resisting their workspaces - especially during the many months of occupation and afterwards, when the workers started the work process under self-management and after they started to see their own and other legal expropriations come to fruition - did many of the protagonists subsequently discovered the possibilities that open up to them in a world without a boss. This realization happened in the process of doing, in the moment, in the act of revolting and resisting and struggling.

This leads me to think about other related issues: Is the revolution possible when the ERTs (empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores) are still so enmeshed within the capitalist marketplace? Are the ERTs pointing a way through to a new type of alternative economy of solidarity? (Philosophically, I think they are but, in practice, at this early stage anyway, I don't think they are showing the way yet.) Or are the ERTs simply trying to survive the best way they know how within the current capitalist system, given their small numbers, and leaving the revolution to a future date? (This, I think, is closer to the reality for most workers at ERTs. In fact, most workers, my interview data is showing, might not even be thinking about anything more radical than guaranteeing that their families are fed and that their bills are paid. What the ERT movement leadership thinks, I discovered, is often not as pragmatic as what most ERT protagonists on the shop floor are thinking about.) What's the next phase of ERTs going to look like? Are alternative economies of solidarity that act autonomously from the nation state and global capitalism possible and are ERTs pointing the way ? (Establishing "economies of solidarity" is one of the visions of MNER's leadership, for example; click here to see another post on this. MNER would like to think that their more autonomist vision is they way to this solidarity economy. MNFRT (the other umbrella movement of recovered factories that split from MNER in 2002) seems to mostly be about securing work within the structure of the existing nation-state.) Can we simply export Argentina's model to Canada, the US, and the rest of the global north wholesale without taking into account the conjunctural realities of Argentina? The rate of new ERTs tended to peak during the 2001-early-2003 period, at the height of the economic crisis and external debt default in Argentina - and the rate of recoveries has now plateaued? Why? (Are ERTs being coopted by the state? Is the recovering Argentinean economy "normalizing" the situation in Argentina, effectively silencing the most-radical, civilizational changing possibilities inherent in the ERT movement? And, why haven't factories and workspaces been recovered to the same extent in North America and Europe after similar recesionary crisis periods (i.e., think of the dirty-thirties or the pulp and paper crises in Canada in the '90s)? What makes Argentina (and Uruguay and Brasil and Venezuela) so different?

2. Conjunctures of precariousness in everyday life

I´m quickly learning that most work is precarious in Argentina. Let me quickly describe a few of the labour realities that have led to the precarization of most sectors of society here.

First, the sobering realities for Argentina's workers post-Dec. 19/20, 2001 (official figures compiled by James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer, Las privatizaciones y la desnacionalizon de America Latina, Promoteo Libros, Buenos Aires, 2004):
- In 2002, the most chaotic year of the post-1990s economic chaos in Argentina, it wa estimated that 18.2 million Argentines, or 51.4% of the population lives under the poverty line. A large part of this extreme pauperization of Argentina began in the early months of 2002: Between Jan. and May of 2002, 3.2 million Argentines fell bellow the poverty line - that's 762,000 per month or 25,000 per day! While these drastic numbers have now stabilized a bit, poverty and indigence remains at historical highs for a former affluent country like Argentina (see my Sept. 22, 2005 post).
- In 1997 Argentina's average yearly income was U$S 8,950. By 2002 it had fallen to U$S 3,197.
- The mostly middle class city of Buenos Aires saw it's citizens' average monthly income suffer a drop of almost 60% in 4 months, from U$S 909 in Dec. 2001 to U$S 363 by Mar. 2002. The working class saw its income drop from U$S 626 to U$S 250 in the same time frame. For pensioners, their monthly cheques went from an average of U$S 437 to U$S 175 in greater Buenos Aires. The poverty line in Argentina is now at U$S 400 per month.
- In 2002, most of the working classes in greater Buenos Aires found themselves earning salaries and wages below the poverty line. In the city of Buenos Aires, 60% of the working sector found itself below the poverty line in 2002.
- In 1974, Argentina's top 10% of income earners monopolized 28% of the nation's wealth. In 1992, 34% of the wealth. By 2001, more than 37% of the nations earnings remained within this percentile of the population. In contrast, the poorest 10% of the population received 2.2% of the nation's wealth in 1974 and a measly 1.3% by 2001, just before the massive increase in unemployment. Given that the wealthiest classes in Argentina tend to under-report their income, Petras & Veltmeyer (2004) point out that the Argentine government estimates this wealth disparity to be even more marked than the official numbers indicate. As such, some official estimates place Argentina's wealthiest 10% with incomes that are 40 times higher than the poorest 10% and suggest that Argentina's wealthiest 10% control more than 80% of the nations entire wealth!

More examples of precarious life in Argentina. Much of the working population works either entirely or in part "en negro" (literally, "in the black"), meaning that they're paid "under the table" and their work activity is not recorded. Those that work en negro of course do not make pension contributions nor do they receive unemployment insurance, holiday pay, or health benefits. They also do not have union representation (although one of Argentina's most important historians, Pablo Pozzi, told me that there is a group of metalurgical workers based out of Cordoba who are currently meeting to try and unionize en negro workers). Another huge sector of the working population is made up of contract workers that also receive no benefits and have little job security, living contract to contract. And yet a third group of workers - many making up the ranks of the now depleted working classes that stoked Argentina's once mighty industrial base - work in jobs that they are overqualified for and are therefore grossly underpaid. Many of these underemployed workers work en negro and often hold down two or three jobs. Those that do have the good fortune of still having a steady jobe look forward to paltry fractions of the pensions, health benefits, and unemployment insurance they should be receiving.

Most workers that do receive an official salary (today making up about 12% of Argentina's total economic output, compared to 49% during Peron's first two presidencies between 1946 and 1955, the other 88% of the pie going to multinationals, large corporations, and government activity) have only a portion of their salary (between 25-50%) officially recognized for calculating benefits. This portion of one's salary is called "el basico de convenio" (Pozzi, 2005). That is, most people here only claim a portion of their income, the rest of their income is considered extra pay and, thus, is not recognized as a regular part of their salaries. While it is true that these additional add-ons to one's salary are non-taxable for most, importantly, they are also portions of one's income that don't factor into calcualting benefits such as unemployment insurance, retirement plans, and health benefits. Additionally, and literally overnight, the buying power of salaries fell by more than 60% when the peso was readjusted at a level of 3-1 to the US dollar after the "convertibilidad" policy of 1-1 was scrapped in 2002. This, coupled with the subsidization of many low salaried positions by Argentina's "planes trabajar" (welfare plans instituted during the crisis of 2002 by former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde), caused a general "flattening" of wages (Pozzi, 2005). This wage flattening is, in essence, a subsidy for businesses, reducing their variable costs of doing business and transferring the burden of Argentina's economic recovery onto the dwindling middle and working classes while Argentina's medium, large, and multinational enterprises continue to record huge profits in many instances (Pozzi, 2005; Petras & Veltmeyer, 2004).

Also, secure jobs with any type of regular and long term pay are becoming scarcer in Argentina and are rarely advertised, especially in the intellectual, administrative, or service sectors. This is compounded by the fact that nepotism abounds here still. Unless one is well connected, many - like my cousin who is a graphic designer - spend years looking for a steady paycheque after graduating from high school or university. My cousin, for example, took five years after graduating from one of Buenos Aires's best private universities to find a secure job that guaranteed her a decent income with benefits. "Freelance" is a commonly used word here. Moreover, there are millions who are underemployed and chronically unemployed. While the official unemployment rate is officially around 12% [EL CLARIN], this number, however, does not include the 10-20% that are receiving planes trabajar, those that have given up looking for work, and those that are underemployed. In Argentina, losing your job any time after your mid-40s pretty much guarantees that you'll most likely never find a similar job again. Age discrimination is a way of doing business here.

And, while the piqueteros have taken their unemployment quagmire to the streets, their demands - except for the the most radical and autonmous MTD factions - usually don't extend beyond asking for more subsidies (from $150 pesos a month to $350). These planes are not initially distributed to individuals but to umbrella organizations such as political parties, partisan municipal workers, and MTD organizations which then take on the job of distributing the welfare subsidies to its members. Usually kick-backs and political favours are involved. Because of this institutionalized clientelism, an entire mafia-like distribution system of welfare dependence and work-for-welfare has emerged that links the welfare plans to political entities. In addition, this clientelistic distribution system concentrates much economic and political power in the hands of a few welfare distribution managers, political parties, and government and union officials that regularly recieve kickbacks from the distribution of the the planes trabajar, turning the planes into political currency useful for exchanging political benefits to those individuals and organizations seeking power or already in power.

Here are a few more quick tastes of why working life is precarious in Argentina:
- Example: The average salaried worker makes around $800 -$1000 pesos, the average wage earner makes $500 - $700 pesos. The poverty line is somewhere between$500 - $600. An average rent is around $200 - $400 pesos.
- Example: University professors at the hightest levels get around $87 pesos a month per course taught (yes, you read right, $87 pesos, or around U$S 30!) Most professors and sessionals (called "adjuntos") teach about 4 courses per semester on average in addition to working in committees, publishing, going to conferences, etc. Thus, professors must subsidize their income with other jobs such as private teaching, private research, etc. Here, publish or perish has being taken to new lows. Many professors and sessionals leave Argentina and teach elsewhere. This has caused a dire brain drain here. Also, most intellectuals, except for the most committed left radicals, tend to be politically conservative or centrists, something one would expect from a cadre of intellectuals doing research for private corporations, government institutions, lobby groups, or state bureacuracies.

These are only a few examples of why I believe we have to think about precarity much more broadly here in Argentina than how the concept is framed when doing political economic analysis of immaterial labourers or minimum-wage earners and contract workers in the global north [REFERENCES]. Most of the working class in Argentina - be they wage earners, salaried workers, freelancers, contract workers, immaterial labourers or the underemployed - are living in some sort of precarious work/life condition. And one can't think of precarity here without thinking about the connections to the neoliberal structural adjustments and sellout of the 1990s, machista culture, the connections between race and class (still very visible here), the present and historical role of repression in Argentinean socio-political life, the sharp distinctions between Buenos Aires as the economic-cultural-political "centre" of power and the rest of the nation as the dependent "periphery" (very much in the Innisian sense), the frustrations related to the failed promises of attaining first world status, and the acceptance of "assistentialist" culture by many under and unemployed (Flores, 2005). Perhaps, then, Argentina, a once powerful industrial giant with a committed working class, offers an early look at the precarious future in store for other developed and developing economies in the thick of contemporary neoliberalist forms of capital accumulation.

3. Conjunctures of class divisions

Things in Argentina´s current political reality are intense, complex, contradictory, and inspirational. There are many conjunctions at play in all of the social movements and all of the struggles I´ve seen thus far (i.e., the MTDs, the recovered workspaces, homeless rights advocates, the fight for the basic needs of those that live in shantytowns, the piqueteros, the cartoneros, etc). The ravages of capitalism and consumerism are everywhere, especially in the villas miserias. We witnessed how the villeros live - literally - on top of and off of the garbage that wealthier porteños dump along the frayed outskirts of Buenos Aires. And, while there are many contradictions to the social justice movements here (as there are everywhere), it is clear that all are seeking a better way to live life in a society still deeply stratified, intrinsically racist and sexist, and volatile. I´m learning that we can´t generalize anything in Argentina, even within the loose community of 170-plus recovered firms. Actually, especially amongst the recovered enterprises movement as traditional union and party politics are always in tension with the workers' inherently autonomist tendencies (more on this later). Every situation experiences its own unique political quagmire and triumphs.

There is one thing sought by most protagonists of the "newest" social movements here, however: dignity. It is the one word said by most protagonists of the social justice movements that we've met thus far, suggesting a link between all of them, as fractured, emergent and uncertain as they all are. Within the chaos and precariousness of life here, the first thing they all seek - that is, the recovered enterpries workers, unemployed workers, cartoneros, villeros, activist retired people, piqueteros, etc. - after the basic necesities of life are are met (and the struggle of many like the MTDs, cartoneros, and the activists in the villas hasn't gone beyond fighting for basic human rights and the vital needs of the millions of Argentines in need) is to be treated with dignity and to be respected as important members within a greater community.

Notwithstanding their internal tensions and contradictions, and while there is much disillusionment amongst all social classes, there is also much hope, especially within the recovered enterprises movement. Throughout Argentina, life continues to be rich with social activities and joy. Even in the villa that we visted (Villa 21), where many eat the refuse dumped in mass trash sites by multinationals like McDonalds (a cheap and efficient way for McDonald's to get rid their waste), we saw music being played and children doing what children do within the squalor and misery of their daily realities. Here is a brief photo essay that I shot an compiled contrasting Villa 21 and other precarious life situations with pictures of the upper class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires a mere 10-15 km away - the intense contrast provides a clear and simple picture of the deep social and economic divisions currently plaguing Argentina.

4. Conjunctures of subjectivity

Today, I feel, was a breakthrough day for us in the program, a mere three days into this journey that will give us just a taste of the new possibilities for life being pioneered by a few visionary social movements here in Argentina. Why was it a breakthrough day? Because we finally set foot in two recovered workspaces during working hours. Today the workers of Gráfica Patricios (a four-colour off-set printing press) and Cefomar (a publishing house) let us into their space and their work lives for a few brief hours. Today we finally got to see these workers labouring in the actual spaces they occupied and fought for so valiantly against many odds. (A side note: It’s unfortunate that I find myself alone tonight. We all dispersed quickly after visiting the last factory, Cefomar, two hours ago. Although we’re all tired, I feel that we must share these experiences and learn from each other as we begin to individually and collectively process the stories that we’re hearing from the protagonists of Argentina’s many unfolding political dramas. [Update: We now meet often as a group. These casual and organic meetings where we share thoughts and experiences are proving to be invaluable for processing our experiences of Argentina´s socio-political justice movements and for whay they mean to us collectively and individually. We´ve also started a reading group where we hope to touch on some of the theoretical issues that are coming to the surface from our experiences].

Today we learned that the recovered workspace movement has to be one of the most inspriational groups within Argentina’s newest social movements for dignity in daily life. Rather than being vanguards, its protagonists are inspirational leaders through their example because they are, within their particular circumstances and in the thick of their specific crises moments, redefining the entire concept of labour. And, in their everyday praxes of work and solidarity under self-management, their everyday lives as a whole are transforming too.

The recovered workspace protagonists are engaging in many battles on many fronts. One of the most intense battles usually comes after the occupation of the firm: the fight for legal recognition of their cooperatives and for the reform of several national, provincial, and municipal laws - in particular, Argentina´s national bankruptcy and expropriation laws. For those recovered enterprises that fall within the Movimento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (MNER) (a loose and autonomist organization of almost half of Argentina´s recovered workspaces; the other organization being the Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores (MNFRT), which is more closely affiliated with unions and the state) the reform of current national and provincial laws sharply favouring private property at the expense of the right to work (both entrenched in Argentina´s constitution) is one of the most important early battles in the struggle for worker-controled workspaces.

In a nutshell, legal recognition of worker-controled cooperatives and, in particular, the legal recognition of the rights of these cooperatives to control and use a recovered firm's fixed and variable capital (machines, building, customer base, etc.) is crucial for the prevention of state repression, judicial corruption, and union thuggery. Symbolically and emotionally, legal status also acknowledges the value of the sweat and work of those workers that have laboured in factories, shops, and offices for years, giving both legal life and cultural recognition to the notion that workers invest something perhaps much, much more important than investors, speculators, owners, and decision makers do - what Marx (1983) labels "labour-power" or "labour-time" (pp. 35-41). At minimum, these grassroots worker protagonists fighting for more job security, a better community, and a better life want their labour and struggle to be valorized and their devotion to their work to be recognized by society as well as the state. What the workers seek more than anything, in other words, is to be in control of their subjectivity, their communities, and their future within spaces of labour that can be recovered as dignified sites for living life.

Do these workers have a critique of the nation state and of the global capitalist system of manufacturing, distribution, and consumption? Yes, some do, but the conjuncture in which they live in is extremely complex and steeped in the quotidian difficulties of paying bills and feeding their families within the highly precarized nature of life in Argentina, especially after the crisis of 2001/2002. While the struggle for and the potentiality of greater civilizational change for Argentina is palpable in the narratives that the workers shared with me, such lofty goals for societal change - i.e., the revolution - tend to be, at this early stage of the recovered workspace movement, immersed in the small daily struggles of work, family, and political life. Within the recovered workspace movement, social change since Dec. 19 and 20 2001 tends to be paced, patient, and emergent. The change being spearheaded by the recovered workspace movement is situationally bound, not linked to the inhuman pace and enigmatic wilo-the-wisp nature of the global financial marketplace. Perhaps this latter point is what the recovered workspace movement is teaching progressively minded social justice activists and intellectuals. At the same time, however, civilzational transformation is not in some distant future phase of the revolution for these workers but is, rather, ensconced in their daily struggles, in their daily acts of production and community, in their practices. Their small, quoditidian steps are slowly shaping the look and feel of a new, socially aware community-based cultural and political reality.

Do the recovered workspace protagonists engage in mainstream economic activity within Argentina's national marketplace and, indeed, with the state itself? Yes, for clear practical reasons of survival until an alternative economic model is more clearly demarcated. While a descendant of all past struggles for worker control which also has a rich history in Argentina (recall the thousands of factory takes during the Frondizi presidency in the early 1960s or the Cordobazo in May/June 1969, Argentina's version of May '68), this current and possibly more obstinate iteration of autogestion (self-management) is slowly beginning to build an alternative way of doing business: i.e., salaried work intermingles with worksharing; the common practice of voluntarism within and between recovered enterprises building networks of solidarity between workers and other empresas recuperadas; the sharing of resouces and supplies between related worker cooperatives; and the solidarity between recovered workspaces in times of political lucha (struggle) viz moral support, financial support, and the support of other workers from other enterprises in the movement during the occupations.

It seems to me that, in Argentina - a country still entrenched in the fallout of economic crisis and social uncertainty since the failed neoliberal free-market frontier mentality of the 1990s - it is too early to try to completely redefine the nation-state and the capitalist market economy. This is especially the case within the recovered workspace movements, with only 160-200 or so known workspaces working as official, worker controled cooperatives in Argentina making up a total of 10-12,000 workers. It is clear, however, that many in the movement would eventually like to reconstruct the socio-political and economic architecture of not only Argentina but the world.

Legal recognition. In these early days of the struggle, one of the first small steps for the recovered workspace movement is to get the courts and the state to valourize and recognize the right to work over the rights of private property and to reform Argentina’s bankruptcy and expropriation laws in order to faciliate the creation of worker-led cooperatives rather than the auctioning off of the assets of the factory at the expense of much needed jobs [INSERT STATS]. The moral imperative to privilege employment over private property, rather than the Argentinean establishment's predilection to privilege the rights of property owners over the rights of workers, is brought into releif when one considers that the cause of the workers' precarious conditions were more often than not a direct result of nefarious shenanigans, bad decisions, and shady deals cut between the previous owner and currupt lawyers, bankruptcy trustees, mafiosi union operatives, and even judges. In addition, the workers are often one of the main creditors because in almost all of the cases of declared bankruptcies which then led to worker occupations the workers were owned thousands of dollars in back pay that they had not received in months if not years in some cases.

In these struggles for workers' dignity and the guarantee of work, the logic of MNER, the more autonomist-minded political lobby collective of the recovered enterprises movement, when trying to convince indifferent, unconvinced, and sometimes recalcitrant judges, politicians, and the general public of the worthiness of their struggle is simple: Letting the worker keep on working ultimately benefits the community and the country much more than appeasing speculative creditors and certainly infinitely more than allowing illegal bankruptcies to take their course. And, in Buenos Aires so far, 12 recovered enterprises have won the first round of the legal battle using this logic. The Bauen Hotel and the balloon factory La Nueava Esperanza currently find themselves in this stage of the fight [I'll report on these two situtations and the legal battles in the city of Buenos Aires legislature in the following days. The cases for applying expropriation laws to the Bauen, Cefomar, and La Nueva Esperanza will be heard in the Buenos Aires city legislature either on Aug. 4 or 11 of this year].

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The first recovered workspace we visited today was Gráfica Patricios, where Luis and Pedro showed us around their extremely efficient print shop. The second recovered enterprise we visited was Cefomar, where Edith described to us in articulate language how four workers took the editorial house in 2002. And we've also had the privilege of talking to Chilavert´s Candido on several occasions already. All three workers’ stories were infused with a deep sense of experientially learned praxical knowledge. All three told us how the valiant occupations by the trabajadores (workers), often lasting months, prevented the vaciamiento (emptying) of their empresas by corrupt owners and court trustees after bankruptcy was declared. Their testimonies were rich with the dignity and determination of their struggle.

At Gráfica Patricios, a print house that takes up an entire block in the southern Buenos Aires barrio of Barracas a block away from the Riachuelo River, Luis took us on a tour of the plant. Ranging between 30 fulltime workers and up to 70 workers when deadlines are close, Patricios is a true hive of work. Between explanations of the complicated off-set process during the tour, Luis described to us their struggle to reclaim the factory that began on March 30, 2003 after their owner abandoned the factory and declared quiebra (bankruptcy). The workers of Patricios, Luis elaborated, took (tomaron), or occupied, the plant for nine months. During those arduous months the workers lived in the factory 24/7, receiving food and supplies from family members and neighbours [LINK TO STRUGGLE OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD]. A court order followed shortly after the take and the workers were ordered to evacuate the plant. They resisted and remained locked in, sleeping on the floor of the vast establishment and relying on family and neighbours for sustenance. Part of the reason for staying locked in the factory is so their printing machines - the embodiment and extension of their craft and skills - wouldn't be taken away under the stealth of night, before the official bankruptcy inventory was to officially take place. This latter point is a common theme that permeates and initially fuels almost all of the early struggles of occupation in Argentina, aptly narrated by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein in their documentary The Take (2004) and epitomized in the well-known experienced of Zanon, Brukman, and Chilavert. The occupation by the workers of Patricios was eventually "successful," meaning that the court order was revoked and no machines were illegally taken by the former owner. By the end of the occupation, however, most of their former clients which included the Buenos Aires daily, El Clarín and other high end publishing houses, were lost and their marketshare eroded to almost nothing. They are now, two years later, a fledgling print house, producing at 30% of their original capacity as they slowly reclaim their customer base.

Pedro’s thoughts. Pedro, a 25 year old printer who manages Patricio's dryer and is being trained in sales, takes over the tour guide duties from Luis for a while. He begins to tell us about the drying process in the printing cycle. We’re more interested in their struggle and their cooperative system of administration. Pedro’s discussion oscillates between giving us brief summaries of their history and form of administration and the intricacies of the printing process. We find out eventually that Patricios is run by a workers' council of a few elected representatives within a cooperative model that make most of the major daily decisions of the plant. This is complemented by monthly worker assemblies which involve all of the 30 permanent employees; in these assemblies major and minor issues are heard and dealt with.

We continue to persistently to ask questions about their struggle and their forms of organization. Pedro finally begins to talk about his feelings concerning the takeover and how the lives of all of the compañeros at the plant have been subsequently transformed. It is at this moment that we begin to hear from an actual protagonist of Argentina's recovered workspace movement, how their subjectivities as wage labourers are slowly transforming into subjectivities of self-managed workers:

“We worked here two years without pay,” Pedro tells us. “The previous owners wanted to tire us out, to force us to quit. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. Instead, we tired them out. Shortly after we occupied the plant the boss cut off our light, but we stayed. We lived and ate here for eight months after the boss abandoned the place.

“You see, it’s about private property vs. the rights of the worker, and we feel that the worker’s right to work should always be above that of private property.

“Now working here is like a dream. Coming to work is a pleasure. With the old boss, we were just workers running machines. We’re still not doing the best we could be doing, but now we have a steady income of $600 - $800 pesos and our income is slowly growing. And, on occasion, we even give ourselves bonuses whenever there’s a bit of money left over.

“La asamblea lo vas viviendo [You learn from and experience the assembly as you live it],” he adds passionately and with eyes that look like they might start to shed tears. “We live the moment and deal with things as they arise. Estamos siempre juntos y siempre unidos [We’re always together and always united]. We spend 14 to 15 hours a day here now, and we love coming to work. In fact, we often don’t want to leave! At other places once it’s the end of your shift you just want to take off and go home. Here, we want to stay, even though we’re only making just enough money to feed ourselves so far.”

A growing customer base and cooperation amongst the movement. We learned from Luis and Edith that many of the recovered factories support each other. Cefomar, for example, gets their books printed at Patricios and Chilavert while both print houses trade off and share jobs as well as barter with each other for materials. While many of the books Cefomar publishes service Argentina’s various social justice movements, all three recovered enterprises are also trying to secure mainstream customers. Cefomar, for example, still publishes textbooks recognized by Argentina’s Ministry of Education while it plans on publishing various books about the struggle for social justice in Argentina. Patricios still publishes several popular soap opera and gossip magazines (what would Marcuse have to say about this contradiction between one dimensional and two dimensional society?). And Chilavert continues to work on projects commissioned by the federal government such as several print projects commissioned by the office of the presidency (again, what would Marcuse have to say?). Both Chilavert’s Cándido and Patricio’s Luis justify this work by reminding us that change happens in small steps. While revolution and civilizational change in Argentina is in the back many of the workers’ minds, they claim, the quotidian needs of feeding their families forces them to, for now, think pragmatically. And, while the owners used to regularly cut shady deals with customers – which is how many of these firms went into banckruptcy in the first place – Cándido is committed to doing things differently now that Chilavert runs as a cooperative; for Cándido, Chilavert is now grounded in other values: “We work with the state, but the state is just a customer like all of our customers,” claims Cándido. “They too must now pay 50% upfront for all jobs and then 50% when we complete the job” (Sin patrón, 2004, p. 63). Patricio’s Luis expressed similar sentiments to us. (Cándido also repeated the exact same phrase almost verbatim to me in an interview I had with him a few weeks after our initial visit to the recovered firms).

Perhaps Gramsci was right, the revolution can’t happen in times of crisis. But perhaps the recovered enterprises movement that is growing out of Argentina’s socio-economic crisis of 2001/2002 is showing us new routes for social transformation, new ways to treat one another in our work and non-work lives, as well as setting the stage for a new ethics of life that might, just might, persist after the crisis is over. Indeed, perhaps these cooperative ways of life are the only roads out of Argentina’s chronic socio-economic quagmire.

5. Conjunctures of community

There is something interesting I’m beginning to notice within the recovered factory movement: This movement is a struggle ensconced in the neighbourhood. All of the plants we’ve visited thus far – Patricios, Cefomar, La Nueva Esperanza, Chilavert, and IMPA – are in densely populated neighbourhoods, physically and emotionally woven into the fabric of the local community. (Chilavert, Nueva Pompeya.) All of their stories of occupation share the common element that the neighbourhoods in which they’re located in supported their takeovers and continue to support their legal battles. Many of the workers’ neighbours shared in their struggle, directly and indirectly. All of the workers’ stories we heard spoke of neighbours and family members coming to their aid in their moment of greatest need, bringing them food, clothing, and mattresses during the long months of occupation. (The barrio of Caballito, from an open window at IMPA.)

The recovered workspace movement is, I’m starting to see, a neighbourhood struggle. The emotional and political support of the local community – and, indeed, even the community’s physical support as the community members also place themselves at times in harms way in solidarity with the workers’ fight against the state’s repression – was vital in all of the narratives of occupation and recovery we heard. All spoke of how much they appreciate and covet the love that their neighbourhoods and loved ones continue to give them in their continued struggles with the courts and the state.

Perhaps this is why the cultural and educational events and programs that the recovered plants host and sponsor are so integral to the movement. In fact, perhaps the cultural spaces that form within the recovered plants are merely extensions of the greater community they’re ensconced in. Hosting such cultural events is not just a way of giving back to the neighbourhood out of self-interested corporate “goodwill.” Instead, the cultural spaces within the plants are continuations of the neighbourhoods’ needs. They are always open to the neighbourhood and the neighbourhood uses them often. The workspace walls are not boundaries that protect the work inside from the community outside. Rather, the recovered workspaces are rooted deeply in the needs of the local community because they are also integral parts of the community. (La Nueva Esperanza, recovered balloon factory.) What is recovered in these workspaces is not merely work, but also rearticulated sense of community and belonging and that work need not be – and indeed, can never be – torn apart from the other areas of life. To live passionately, this movement is teaching us, is to understand that no clear boundaries ever exist between a healthy work life and a healthy communal life. They are, as it were, one and the same. As Chilavert’s Cándido González eloquently put it: “If one desires to defend one’s work one has to also defend the work of the other. And, to ensure one has food, one has to ensure the other has food, too."

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Chilavert facilitates numerous community events here on the mezzanine level. It’s a fantastic space where a number of activities such as art classes, poetry readings, and seminars are often held. Saturday night, as I understand it, is a particularly popular night for community gatherings and cultural events. Of course, it’s also a great place to kick-start an intensive program looking into Argentina’s recovered workspaces and newest social movements.

Today being Sunday, the print shop’s off-set devices, its printing machines, its binding machines, and the stacks of soon-to-be processed stacks of glossy paper and half-finished posters sit quite and still on the shop’s main floor.

This miscellany of machinery and stationary below as I look over the veranda from the mezzanine level resembles a mini skyline, a seemingly haphazard metropolis of contraptions, stacks of papers, and unfinished posters put into place by the pragmatic needs of the shop’s daily workflows. The first floor of Chilavert on a Sunday night gives witness to a highly productive workspace that has paused to give its citizen attendants time to engage in life’s other activities, such as participating in family events and, tonight, hosting the gringo students they’ve so warmly welcomed into their lives.

Upon entering Chilavert from the street I find myself in the interior receiving area at the front of the building. I’m one of the first AAP program students to arrive. Maria Rosa Gonzalez, Candido Gonzalez’s wife (Candido is one of the original eight that courageously occupied the factory three years ago) warmly welcomes me in. One of the first things I notice is the elaborately designed “Chilavert Artes Graficos” sign above the second main doors that lead into the shop. The sign is styled after the aesthetics of the tango bars and bordellos of early 20th century Buenos Aires. I’ve seen similarly designed signage in old Baires bars and I’ll soon see the style greeting us at other recovered factories such as Graficos Patricios and IMPA.

After entering the shop floor Maria Rosa turns sharply to the right and leads me up the stairs above the print shop’s main offices. We soon come to the cultural centre on the mezzanine floor. The second floor rings the shop about 15-20 feet above the main floor. From this perspective the shop reminds me of an old colonial villa with the shop floor resemblig the inner courtyard that was common in most Spanish colonial villas throughout Latin America. In these old villas, wealthy colonial families lived with their servants, ate, shared family experiences, and held court when hosting visitors. To the colonial Europeans that ruled Latin America for most of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the villas were mini fortresses that shielded them from the hurly burly of colonial business, the mestizo vagos (lazy ones) who chose to live in the surrounding countryside, and indigenous life outside the villa’s walls. This evocation to colonial times is appropriate, I think to myself. Chilavert’s recovery by its workers can be compared to the desire that early Argentineans had for emancipation from Spain’s colonial clutch. Chilavert’s previous owner could be compared to the Spanish viceroys. The graphic shop’s building and its internal layout resembles the panoptic shape of the traditional Spanish villa. And the workers, a band of mutinous ex-servants who have found freedom from the oppression and repression of the former colonial tyrant they once lived under.

The allusion that the building has to the dwellings of Argentina’s old colonial rulers symbolizes not only the continued struggles of living within a system of social organization still inflected by oligarchical power structures and caudillo politics, Chilavert´s physical presence also symbolizes how the oppressed can overcome a politics of domination and repression. In the case of the eight original Chilavert workers that took the factory on April 4, 2002 and occupied it for more than seven months after years of being underpaid (in the last year and a half, not paid at all), and in light of the corrupt alliance with judges, accountants, union bosses, and lawyers embarked on by the previous owner, Chilavert’s workers’ collective struggle for survival can be seen as a contemporary version of the following continuing tensions: Argentina’s centre (Buenos Aires) and its peripheries (the interior provinces); the vagabond gaucho and indigenous cultures vs. the 19th century desire by the elite classes for all Argentineans to become a civilized nation; civilisación vs. barbarie; the hierarchies of the state vs. the desires of individual and communal autonomy; the rights of the propertied classes (landed classes) vs. the aspiring dreams of the working classes; and Argentina’s first world pretensions vs. the global north/south realities of the 1990s.

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The mezzanine level of Chilavert is a phenomenal space surrounded by art works by local artists and some of Chilavert’s glossy art books from the old days when they were still under el patronal (the boss, or literally, the patriarchal chief). While Kelo and Yuli did a fantastic job of introducing us to the program and helped us to navigate our way through the Guia “T”, Buenos Aires’s notoriously complex bus schedule booklet, I was distracted by my enthusiasm at actually being here. While I sat with my new peers around four rustic wooden tables, I couldn’t help but think about what an appealing space this place is for not only work but also for cultural and community events, as well. Chilavert is pregnant with myriad possibilities for joy and life; after being at Chilavert for only a few minutes one senses that this place is about so much more than work. Indeed, it’s immediately evident that Chilavert is a space where work intermingles with play, where culture is infused in work and work is part of a greater culture, and where community and connection abound. One quickly notices that patronizing and heavy-handed supervision of life has been banished here. At Chilavert, the neighbourhood that surrounds it and its cultural riches intersects with the daily labour of producing books, posters, and pamphlets for Argentina’s newest social movements.

The paintings on the walls of the mezzanine floor; the quite machines resting from the previous week’s production; and the chatter and din of excited and expectant conversations between the northern visitors and the locals from Chilavert, the recovered factories movement, the UBA, and the AAP merge with the smells of the asado that is being barbequed this Sunday night by some of Chilavert’s workers on the street of this recovering community (no Sunday night anxieties with these workers!)

From old oil drums cut in half the excellent chorizos and cuts of costillas and lomo are prepared and served up to the hungry guests. In typical Argentinean style, we all sit at the table together and share the fine food in the midst of much conversation and laughter (and there’s enough spinach pies and veggie dishes for the non meat eaters, as well).

Tonight, on this chilly Buenos Aires July night, and barely one night into the five week program, we are all witnesses that another world, however tenuous and provisional, is indeed possible...

Summary findings from my summer situation analysis: Workers’ control find themselves within conjunctures of promise

To recover work and to fight for workers' control of their labour-time, labour output, and their relations to the machines and processes of production is to also recover their dignity and the already-always present connections, and the precarious links between, work and everyday life in Argentina from the abstractions of the commodity form and the rational logics of capitalist modes of production – this was one of the articulations made possible by the economic and social crisis of Dec. 19 and 20, 2001. In addition, it would be difficult for me to conduct a rigorous study of the conjuncture of workers’ control in Argentina without considering the interplay of the politically risky struggles to recover owner-abandoned firms and the process of concientization of the workers’ in the midst of and after the occupations, the precariousness of work and everyday life in Argentina, the links with the historical political economy of Argentina’s once-strong industrial base and union movements, the cultural symbolisms and practices that permeate working life in the recovered firms, and the entrenchment of the recovered firms deep within the local community that surrounds them.

And finally, any project studying the social and political roots of Argentina’s ERT movement cannot risk forgetting the political economic-historical-communitarian-cultural matrix within which the ERT movement finds itself deeply entrenched in.

PART 2: Key research questions guiding my dissertation work

Three general themes of inquiry, stemming from what I learned from my recent educational and internship experiences at the UBA and with worker recovered and managed enterprises in Argentina, guide my PhD dissertation work:

1) Why Argentina?

2) What is the point in which workers striving for worker’s control form a political consciousness? (Is this a class consciousness? Is this term useful?) Does conscientization happen before or after political action? Is it formed before, during, or after the crisis of recovering their workspaces? What motivates political action and what are the results?

3) What are the consequences of this conscientization for the democratic forms of work, the technological appropriations and desires, and the community formations permeating each worker-managed workspace and each protagonist's life.

Further articulation of the three questions just posed. How might I arrive at a conceptual and historical understanding of what many workers told me in their own words: That the struggle of occupying their workspaces, the subsequent threat of repression, and the continued fight for legal recognition of their worker coops have consequently helped to ingrain a radicalized consciousness in them that was, for most, not their before the occupation (see also: Ruggeri et al., 2005)? That is, how did the "events" of their struggles to recover their work, workspaces, and the role of their workspaces from the illegal bankruptcies that plagued many Argentinean economic sectors between 1995 and 2002 (Ruggeri et al. 2005; Magnani, 2004; Palomino, 2003), and fought within the cultural milieu of the ERT protagonists surrounding communities (Lavaca, 2004; Lewis & Klein, 2004) be forming these ERT protagonist’s new politicized subjectivities? Were these subjectivities already-always there and rooted in Argentina's strong industrial base and union culture or does this assumption lead to an uncritically “vanguardist” understanding of the ERT protagonists' new consciousness? Indeed, is the continuing “conscientization” (Freire, 2000, p. 19; Marcuse, 1964) of some of these protagonists influenced by, in some new way, the political and legal battles they partake of before, during, and after the occupations, from within their actual experiences of struggle? In other words, how do the struggles against state repression as experienced by workspaces such as Chilavert, Brukman, and Zanon, and the difficulties of reclaiming not only their workspace, but also lost market share customers, shape the new political subjectivities some workers transform into. And, how were these workers inspired or motivated to take the difficult journey of resistance and self-management against such daunting political odds in the contemporary Argentinean conjuncture rooted in the failed neoliberal experiments of the 1990s (Petras & Veltmeyer, 2004)?

Asking these questions, I believe, can get us closer to understanding two more specific and fundamental questions that I am asking myself constantly since my trip to Argentina this summer and that is beginning to frame my emerging PhD project: 1) Why did these workspace occupations happen in Argentina, in particular, and especially during and since the neoliberal economic meltdown of 2001-2002? and 2) what can we learn from these workspace occupations with respect to new forms of work within everyday life that take on other culturally significant aspects that override the focus on profit and wage-labour and give way to new forms of work life that merge with community and social solidarity? Answering the first question must take on a historically-informed political economic framework. The second question will require a more phenomenological and participatory line of investigation. Bringing them together and understanding the logic of these worker takeovers within Argentina's most recent conjuncture will require, I believe, a further genealogical component of research informed by Foucault's project of genealogical research (Foucault, 1971; "Geneaology (Foucault)," 2005; Hall, 1997) to get at…..

All three research phases will have to be brought together synthetically within a grid of inquiry that conjoins the political economic realities of Argentina within the phenomenological subjectivities of its recovered workspace protagonists, overlayed by a geneaologically historical project of inquiry in order to unravel the possible systems of "constraints" (Marcuse, 1964, p. xv) imposed on Argentina's working classes by its historical "regimes of truth" (Feenberg, 1999, p. 111), official discourses and "knowledges" (Foucault, 1971) such as the myths of " Argentinidad," the need to "civilize" new immigrants and marginalized groups, the Peronist ideal of hard work and a paternalistic nation-state, and the deep desires of many Argentine's to one day attain first-world status. Such a multidisciplinary approach, I believe, will position my dissertation work as a project that attempts to unravel the power relations at play in the conjunctural experiences of the ERT movement “under the local horizon[s] of the social practices, artifacts, and power relations” (Feenberg, 1999, p. 110) within which Argentina’s ERT movement is lodged.

Some theoretical beginnings: Thinking about the formation of a new political consciousness in the workers making up the ERT movement in Argentina

The Hungarian Marxist theorist Georg Lukács seems to be a great place to start. In his influential 1920 masterpiece, History and Class Consciousness, Lukács continues the Marxist line of critique of capitalism and its bourgeois advocates by extending the dialectic into the cultural spheres of everyday life. According to Lukács, his formulation of a theory of class picks up where Marx left off (Lukásc, 1920).

Lukács's Theories of the Reification of Class Consciousness
For Marx, his main project, finding its most cogent formulation in his three volume opus, Das Kapital, is to bring the hidden logic of capitalism to light by, as Braverman puts it, using the dialectic method towards "the demystifying of technology" (1974, p. 445), the meticulous detailing of capitalism's mode of production rooted in labour processes and social relations of domination, and the unraveling of the true "value" of the most fundamental aspect of capitalism: the commodity, the actual embodiment of "labour-power" (Das Kapital, chapter 1).

Like Marx, Lukács too is about unraveling the hidden and taken-for-granted logic of capitalism but, rather than rooting his analysis at the base (the economic) and starting with the commodity form, Lukács starts to look at the implications of capitalist logics at the cultural level. For Lukács , "formal rationality" (Feenberg, 2002, p. 167) - also called "technocratic thinking" (Ritzer, 2000, p. 142) or more broadly the privileging of "technological progress" (Marcuse, 1962, p. xii) by modern societies - "is the basis of capitalist culture" (Feenberg, 2002, p. 167). Lukács 's analysis, according to Feenberg, thus brings to the forefront how capitalist modes of thinking and action root themselves in an abstracted, fragmented, and piece-meal society; analytic forms of thought; the privileging of technological and scientific imperatives over human ones; and, ultimately, "the autonomization of production units under the control of private owners" (Feenberg, 2002, p. 166) (on this latter theme, see also: Braverman, 1974 and Noble, 1984). Based on Marx's discovery of the law of a commodity's value with its tendency, ultimately, towards domination of the labourer by the effacement of the real value of commodities - "labour-time" or "labour-power" (Das Kapital, chapter 1 - Lukács extends this logic to the cultural realm, showing how the "degradation of [the proletariat's greater] life and work" (Feenberg, 2002, p. 166) is a consequence of making abstract things - commodities - into objective, stand alone entities. For Lukács, it is in the interest of dominant social groups to protect the objectivity of things and processes, to conceal the social relations at the heart of capitalist processes and objects - in other words, to reify the capitalist system's processes and objects and hold them separate and apart from the social relations that bring them to bear and sustain them. This veiling of the real social relations inherent in commodified things and economic processes upholds hegemonic social structures and hides, in Marcuse's words, the "potentialities" (Feenberg, 2004, pp. xi-xii) and "real possibilities" at play in historically contextualized alternatives (Marcuse, 1964, p. xi). Ultimately for Lukács, it is only through the formation of a class consciousness that the working class can ever come to see these socially contingent alternatives to capitalist forms of domination and thus break free from the bonds of social control. (Note that Marx, Marcuse, and C. Wright Mills also have much to say about this).

The Formation of a New Workers' Consciousness from Within the Struggles of the ERT Protagonists
Might Lukács - in conjunction with Marx, Marcuse, Feenberg, Braverman, and others - be a good place to begin to understand the formation of a radical political consciousness amongst some of Argentina's recovered enterprises protagonists? Might it help me come to a conceptual understanding of what many workers told me in their own words: That the struggle of occupying their workspaces, the subsequent threat of repression, and the continued fight for legal recognition of their worker coops have consequently helped to ingrain a radicalized consciousness that was, for most, not their before the occupation (see also: Ruggeri et al., 2005)? In other words, how did the "events" of their struggles to recover their work, workspaces, and the role of their workspaces in the cultural milieu of their surrounding communities help form their new politicized subjectivities? Were these subjectivities already-always there and rooted in Argentina's strong industrial base and union culture (and does this lead to a vanguardist understanding of the ERT protagonists' new consciousness?) or were they transformed in some new way by the struggles they engaged in, from within their actual experiences of struggle? And, how were these workers inspired or motivated to take the difficult journey of resistance and control against such daunting political odds in the contemporary Argentinean conjuncture?

PART 3: Methodology - Interdisciplinary approach for coming to understand the ERT movement's contemporary conjuncture

[Note: This section is still mostly in note form.]

1. A political economy of the ERTs in Argentina: Historical and political economic realities making up Argentina’s ERT (macro analysis)

a. Roots in Argentina’s traditionally strong industrial base and high salaries for a Latin American country won via and militant union, anarchist, working class, and leftist guerilla struggles in Argentina’s labour history, and helped form the strong cooperative movement.
b. ERTs, however, must combat constantly the tussles with the hegemonic tendencies of the ruling, bourgeoisie, and land-owning class’s highly conservative and neoliberal ideals manifested in, historically, the support of conservative military governments, repressive policies towards militants and left-leaning members of society, unions, and economic policies favourable to free-market ideologies and detrimental to the hard-won victories of the working class.
c. The complicity through apathy of the middle class.

2. A phenomenology of ERTs in Argentina (micro analysis)

a. Colectivo Situaciones's strategy: writing in the moment, in the thick of the struggle, by participating in the struggle
b. Dialogic interviews (phenomenological questionnaires)
c. Workers’ Enquiry

3. A genealogy of workers' control: How ERT movement is rooted in Argentinean working identity, culture, and myths (meso analysis)

a. Rooted in Peron’s promise of a strong industrial base and work for all has forged Argentina’s working class’s subjectivity, even to this day. E.g., the ERT’s political leadership and most of the most militant spokespeople and leaders within the actual workspaces, tend to be former militant union leaders or children of 1960s guerrilla fighters of the left (ERP) or Peronist Montoneros. Their views, interspersed with the popularity and influence of autonomia theory in Argentina and especially articulated after the mass grassroots mobilization of Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, seem to guide the points of formation of some of these workers’ political subjectivities.
b. Also, the ERT’s workers’ cultural traditions (mate drinking, gelling the factory deep into the milieau of the “barrio”, etc.) seems to be rooted in Argentinean rituals, myths, biases, prejudices, and immigrant vs. creole tensions.
c. There are also, however, areas of subjectivation and domination of these subjectivities by traditional union and state-political and clientalist politics. We thus also see spaces of rupture within these identities.
d. But we also see, amongst the most militant factions of the ERTs, lead by MNER, spaces and tactics that capitalize on the natural ruptures in the dominant “regimes of truth” that afford workers new political, social, and physical community spaces to resist the faltering state and the ruling classes strategies of domination. As such, some, not all, of Argentina’s ERTs might be not only problemizing the capital-labour relation to a certian degree (or showing us the way), but also extending the de Certeauian and Fouculdian theory of the quotidian tussles of a dominated group’s everyday “tactics” used to manoeuvre within and resist a dominating institutional base’s “strategies” of “discipline” (p. xiv). (borrowing from Foucault (1977), de Certeau labels this dynamic a “microphysics of power” (1984, p. xiv)), and positioning such historically-learned tactics into potentially revolutionary aims, albeit aims that seem to be currently stalled on a mass scale due to the state’s cooptation. MNER’s most recent policies are trying to change this tendency towards cooptation.

Rooting this genealogical aspect of my investigation in documentary research (e.g., government labour policies, institutional actions and statements such as speeches; documenting the pamphlets, events, and posters of the ERT movement and labour over the past 50 years (Feenberg, 2001; Hobsbawm, 1982), analyzing discourses of work and unionism, looking at labour rituals, the narrative of "civilizacion y barbarie" which has permeated intellectual discourse since the 19th century (i.e., Sarmiento, Jauretche, etc.), taking into account nationalist myths (the cult of Evita and Che, Peronist propaganda, etc.). This latter genealogical aspect to my work will inform a cultural analysis that I see intersecting all three stages of my research, articulating my PhD dissertation within a grid of inquiry rooted in the cultural nuances that shape the current conjunctures of the ERT movement's worker protagonists.

Anticipated outcomes: A political economy/phenomenology/genealogy of workers' control
Ultimately, such a multidisciplinary genealogical and political economic research project would uncover, I anticipate, such things as:

    - the crucial role of the neighbourhood (el barrio) in the ERT movement's protagonists' struggles and emerging identity formations that are rooted in a deep sense of obligation to the communities that surround most recovered workspaces in Argentina;
    - the elements of the intersections of el barrio with Argentina's work culture;
    - how the rituals of the mate and the midday meal, for example, help articulate these workers' new subjectivities as labourer and labouring subjects freed from the domination of their former bosses and business owners;
    - the multiple dimensions of the cultural spaces within recovered enterprises (i.e., many of the recovered workspaces double as neighbourhood community halls, theaters, play spaces, day cares, dining halls, art galleries, etc.); and
    - the connections between the recovered factories and Argentina's culture of the neighbourhood assembly and cooperativism.

In sum, this political genealogical grid of inquiry would nuance the political economic and phenomenological phases of my research with a better understanding of the historical roots of the desires, motivations, fears, and hopes of the recovered enterprises protagonists. It would also help me better understand how [de Certeau] and the formations and reformations of the ERT protagonist's subjectivities into agents of social transformation.

Most importantly, I believe that these workers' struggles teach us many things about immanent political action aspiring towards social transformation that directly contests the logic of capital, the prejudices of the Washington Consensus, and that aspires to reformulate the capital-labour relationship, especially when there is no vanguard left to turn to, no formal organizational structures to cling on to, and no immediate possibility for political change at the state level to look forward to. They show us how complex and at times contradictory their lived-struggles are. They teach us much about both the tensions and possibilities in choosing risky actions like factory takeovers for the creation of civilizational change. Moreover, these workers' struggles point to the praxical routes necessary for transcending the enclosures of capitalist logics by forging alternative spaces of social life in ways that are incremental, local, and rooted in the moment. Whichever theoretical handles I decide to use to help me better understand worker control in Argentina, I can never lose sight of what the workers themselves taught me about their situations through their own words and the examples of their everyday lives, perhaps best articulated by Artes Gráficas Chilavert's Cándido Gónzalez, whom I spent many hours with when I was in Argentina this past summer: "If you want to protect your job, your have to protect the job of the other. If you want to ensure you have a meal, you have to make sure the other has a meal" (Lavaca, 2004, p. 62).

Possible chapter by chapter breakdown of my PhD dissertation
[Forthcoming]

Friday, July 29, 2005

Witnessing the political on the street in Buenos Aires: Flaneuring from 9 de Julio to Plaza de Mayo

Avenida 9 de Julio
I begin my walk through the cultural and political centre of Buenos Aires in the middle of what is ostensibly the widest street in the world: the 9 de Julio ("nueve de julio"). Protected from the chaotic pace of the waves of incessant traffic all around me by the wide centre boulevard I’m standing on, I close my eyes and listen. I hear the movement of Buenos Aires, the rumble of the "Reina de La Plata" ("the Queen of the Plate") – it is a velvety cacophony of white noise and dull grumbles interspersed with the staccato of car horns. I feel the rumble of the avenue below my feet throughout my body and think of it as the eternal gesticulations and movements of this vast, concrete Gran Aldea ("Great Village").

The traffic surrounding me – half of it made up of the infamous black and yellow cabs that pulse through this city 24/7 – allegorizes the vast Rio de la Plata located about three kilometres east of where I’m standing. Indeed, the broad boulevard can be seen as a mechanized version of the murky river. Like the Plata collects and pushes through the silt and sediments of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers that flow into it, the 9 de Julio collects the traffic of this city and redirects it southward and northward in steady streams of rubber and metal and flesh. Like the brown waves of the Plata caressing Buenos Aires’s riverfront, the unremitting flow of the polluted waves of traffic caresses the edge of the grey island perch I stand on in the middle of this vast metallic and concrete river of speed. The 9 de Julio is in constant motion, every day, all year, facilitating the daily north-south movements of porteños without discriminating whether its local navigators are bourgeoisie, middle class, working class, tourists, or cartoneros (the cardboard and bottle collectors and recyclers that populate Buenos Aires's streets at night).

Avenida de Mayo
I hurriedly cross the remaining half of the 9 de Julio and head east along the Avenida de Mayo (May Avenue). I leave behind the turbulent river of traffic and enter one of its slightly more pacified tree-lined tributaries. I’m walking on the southern bank of the street. From this vantage point the tides of traffic of this stately avenue flow towards me on my left. The traffic looks like it’s emerging from the Casa Rosada (the Pink House), the seat of Argentina's executive branch of government, barely visible between the overhanging branches about a kilometre east from where I am now. Each side of the avenue is lined with ornate French and Spanish neoclassical style apartment buildings not exceeding ten stories. The sidewalk is wide – roughly four to five meters. From here it is easy to understand why Buenos Aires is nicknamed the “Paris of the South” by travel writers. This ornate cityscape is occasionally broken by the straight and functional modernist designs of the street’s more contemporary office towers, such as the HSBC bank headquarters at Av. de Mayo 701. The architectural exhibit in this part of Av. de Mayo teaches the judicious observer what the late 19th century ambitions for Argentina were, while alluding to what that vision actually became: The ostentatious neoclassical facades crowned by their peaked cupolas – to a large extent product of late 19th century Buenos Aires mayor Torquato de Alvear´s Parisian vision for the city – remind the onlooker of the cosmopolitan, European, and sophisticated society Argentina has always wanted to be; the few functional, boxy, tattered-looking skyscrapers that share this avenue’s streescape are insipid witnesses to the enfeebled neoliberal orphan Argentina has become.

Avenida de Mayo and Calle Peru
I walk on eastward along Av. de Mayo and come to a protest festival with musicians performing on a mobile stage looking south onto the pedestrianized Calle Peru and backing onto Av. de Mayo. Written on a large sky blue and white banner acting as a backdrop is the event’s consigna, or the slogan underscoring the political demands that the festival wants to highlight: “Expropiación definitiva - Hotel Bauen.” The political festival is happening towards the end of Buenos Aires's financial district's, the Microcentro's, work day; it’s now about 3 p.m. The stream of people running their daily chores criss-crosses with those who decide to stop and watch the bands and listen to the political speeches.

That the Hotel Bauen’s workers are staging the festival in front of the city of Buenos Aires’s government house, and a mere half-block from the city’s legislative buildings, is no coincidence. The city’s councillors are, at this very moment, debating the expropriation law that could secure the Bauen workers’ right to run the hotel, located a few kilometers west of this spot near the nation's Congress, free from the control of its former boss and without hassle from the city’s authorities. The festival’s intention, according to the articulate president of the Bauen’s worker-run cooperative in his speach from the pulpit of the temporary stage, is to “soften” (ablandar) the block of councillors who are stubbornly opposing the expropriation law for the hotel at this very moment.

The joy of the music counteracts the broader sombre undertone of the event: recovering jobs for Argentina’s burgeoning unemployed and underemployed classes. Argentina’s political realities seem to often be infused with the pleasures of its social rituals - drinking mate, participating in public musical festival, watching futból on Sunday afternoons, smoking, debating politics, interchanging chismes (gossip) with friends. Even when grappling with the gravest of issues, joy seems to be often be ready-to-hand. Here, this public festival, sponsored by the Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (National movement of Recovered Enterprises), is situated, purposefully, in the middle of the commotion of everyday porteño life. In its collective concsiousness, its discourses, and its practices, the political and quotidian merge constantly in Argentina. This often pushes the political onto the street.

The threeway intersection of Calle Hipolito Irigoyen, Calle Bolivar, and Avenida Julio A. Roca, kitty-corner to the Plaza de Mayo
I leave the festival and walk east towards the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires’s symbolic and real centre of national power. Seduced by the chronic smokers that walk by me, I give in to my craving and duck into a kiosco to buy a pack of Philip Morris blandos (lights).

After negotiating my way through the crowded space under the portico of the colonial Cabildo (Buenos Aires's first municipal hall), I cross the street and begin to walk up Irigoyen, immediately south-west of the Plaza de Mayo. I pass by a café on the corner of Julio A. Roca and Irigoyen called “Gran Victoria”. I peer in and see people leisurely sipping café cortados (strong espresso with a shot of steamed milk) and dobles (double espressos). In the main window of the café glossy empanadas (Argentiean meat pasties) and media lunas (croissants) invite passers-by to pause from the intense speed of work life, if only for a few minutes, and surrender themselves to the pleasures of these Argentinean delicacies. Next to the café a police officer guards the corner with vacuous indifference. He is obviously lost in some daydream. While the state constantly invigilates, if ineffectually so, Argentinean society, drowsiness often sets in at around 3:45 in the afternoon.

I pass by a magazine stand overstuffed with books, magazines, pornography, maps, and the dozen or so dailies that saturate the porteño’s lust for news, sex, and gossip. The myriad magazine stands that occupy the city´s street corners seem to provide empirical evidence supporting the commonly-held – yet now mistaken – belief that Argentina is one of the most literate societies in the world. While Argentina once did enjoy an almost 99% literacy rate, this is quickly becoming an historical curiosity as the country continues to suffer through its neoliberal hangover. Many once middle and working class Argentineans continue to slip below the poverty line daily, the poor now making up around 50% to 60% of the country’s population, depending on who you read. And, with many of this country's children malnourished, a decreased capacity to learn is heightened by inadequate educational resources, adding to the country's immiserated condition.

On the wall to my right, as I walk under the promenade of one of the numerous federal government and bank buildings that surround the Plaza de Mayo, I read, in grammatically questionable Spanish (a sign of the diminishing literacy rate amongst the working class?), the following graffiti: “Todo estado es represor” ("All state (sic) is repressive") and "Policia asesinos del pueblo!" ("Police assassins (sic) of the people"). Another graffiti artist decided at one point to leave his communist sentiments on one of the columns of the promenade. I can’t make out what the consigna says because the stenciled graffito is faded, but I can still make out the hammer and sickle which, despite its age, continues to exude its ideological residue to passers-by. This reminds me of Argentina’s fractured left and the faded dreams of revolution that the vanguardist party once promised. I read yet another piece of graffito, this time anarchist. It reads “Autogestión obrera” ("Self-management for workers") surrounded by several circled As. This is more in line with the political tendencies of many of the social movements of the left, such as the empresas recuperadas (recovered enterprises) movement like the participants of the Bauen protest I just left behind. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this graffito looks newer than the others I read nearby.

A half-block later, another café with another magazine stand in front of it. The magazine stand is just as overflowing and seductive as the last one. The café is also just as sensually alluring as the one I just walked by at the other end of the block. The same middle and moneyed classes that were lounging in the previous café also people this one. And something trivial but nevertheless telling just hits me: I realize that I’ve never seen a café completely full in this city because there are so many of them. The limited choices of the poor, the homeless, and jobless contrasts sharply with the infinite amount of life choices enjoyed by Buenos Aires’s moneyed classes. For them, this is a city of unlimited abundance and possibilities. For a growing population of poor porteños and new migrants from the interior of Argentina and neighbouring countries that come to live in Buenos Aires, however, this is an insensitive city of crippling misery and social exclusion (I'm sure Bourdieu would have much to say about the oft impermeable social stratifications distinguished by this city's cultural practices).

Plaza de Mayo
I cross Irigoyen and enter Argentina’s representational centre of power, the Plaza de Mayo. The Plaza is surrounded by symbols of Argentina's main institutional powers: the old colonial Cabildo I just walked past, the national cathedral on the north side of the plaza, the Banco de la Nacion Argentina's main headquarters, the Casa Rosada on the east side, the Ministry of the Economy's headquarters to the south-east, various foreign investment firms, and just off of the Plaza to the north-east, the headquarters of the Argentine Army and the Navy headquarters, the Ministry of Communication further to the south-eas, and the headquarters of Argentina's secret services behind the Casa Rosada. And, in case one forgets the symbols of power that encircle the Plaza de Mayo, a handful of trinket salesmen do their bit to underscore the significance of this place by, somewhat irreverently, flogging cheap knockoffs of Argentina’s national symbols: flags, escarapelas, sky blue and white pins, and maps of the country etched onto leather wall mounts. Tools all used by the state for winning the population’s consensus, these patriotic symbols, it seems, are also great fodder for extracting tourist dollars.

Today, the tourists and trinket salesmen share the plaza with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. I had forgotten that they march around the plaza’s Pyramide today, as they have every Thursday starting at 3:30 since the early days of the last dictatorship in 1977. It seems to me that the Madres’ reclamations for “justicia y castigo” ("justice and punishment") for the impunity enjoyed by the barbarians quilty of heinous crimes against their own compatriots during the last brutal dictatorship, intermingling with la Madres' stubborn and noble desire to keep the political struggles of their disappeared children alive, are being cheapened by the symbols of the state being sold around them. Tourists add more tacky hues to the scene as they pose with broad smiles for pictures in front of las Madres who sombrely ignore the tourists and march on.

I come upon las Madres as they pass by the unemployed piqueteros (organized unemployed workers) of YPF (the former national oil company that President Menem privatized in the 1990s) who have, it seems, taken the plaza; about 15 former YPF workers have been camped out in the same spot since the first day I arrived here three and a half weeks ago. That the piqueteros are here, in the middle of Argentina’s various seats of power asking to be heard by their continuous presence in the plaza is, like the Bauen protest a few blocks away, also not coincidental. While the effects they seek – attention for their plight, new jobs – are diluted in the midst of the infinite protests that have carpeted Argentina since the financial meltdown of 2001, these piqueteros feel they are left with no other recourse, no other space to claim, no other voice. Perhaps their occupation of the Pyramide will eventually take on the same cultural and political force that the Madres’s march has. Perhaps they will eventually go away, exhausted by their invisibility despite their best efforts to be seen and heard. For many destitute Argentineans, these types of occupations seem to be the only political alternative left.

To the east of the Pyramide sit those conspicuous police fences which are stationed strategically in front of key locales of power around the city which tend to particularly attract the ire of protesters. These portable meshed barriers seem to always be ready to block an impromptu protest march.
Positioned between the Casa Rosada and the Pyramide right in the middle of the plaza and spilling onto the street to the north of the plaza, the metallic barricades of the Plaza de Mayo act as rigid sentinels that can be called to action at any time by the police in order to contain the protesters that often take the plaza and seem to spontaneously emerge out of nowhere. And patrolling the plaza on its north side, more than a dozen police officers stand idly by. The fences and police force point to the reactive force of the state that is much too often unleashed on the invigorated and active counterforce of the marginalized classes. These tools of state repression sharply contrast with the peaceful determination of the Madres’s campaign or the claims for dignity and work that make up the consignas of the piqueteros.

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On my walk of Av. de Mayo between Av. 9 de Julio and the Plaza de Mayo I saw evidence of the perpetual movements and tensions of contemporary Argentinean society, as well as the ebbs and flows of Argentina’s history and politics etched into the very cityscape I entangled myself within this afternoon. The impressions I experienced on my walk was emblematic of the neurotic, if not schizophrenic, state of Argentine society that is, at once, at the capricious whim of the world’s victorious capitalist system and always at the cusp of exploding into a sequel of Dec. 19/20, 2001. Frenzied traffic, protesters, cartoneros, and piqueteros merge with workers, tourists, and the moneyed classes. In its people, its architecture, its politics, and even its graffiti and its chaos, Buenos Aires is a network of criss-crossing cultural and political veins always pulsating and alive under the greying, scarred, and wrinkling skin of the porteño city.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

First encounters with recovered enterprises: Gráfica Patricios and Cefomar

On July 12 we went to our first two recovered workspaces, Gráfica Patricios and Cefomar. This post is an edited version of some of my initial thoughts from this pivotal day.

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It’s 10:00 pm [on July 12]and I find myself in a restaurant eating dinner on the Avenida 9 de Julio close to the border between the barrios (neighbourhoods) of San Telmo, Montserrat, and Balvanera. Today was a full day for us on our second day of our cultural immersion week. The week intersperses trips to several recovered factories with cultural and historical tours of various barrios of Buenos Aires. The pace of the program is intense this week: Spanish classes in the morning and trips throughout la Capital Federal between 1:30 and 8ish pm every day. I’m currently exhausted and hungry. Yet I need to write. Too many thoughts, too many images, to many ideas running through my head not to.

Today, I feel, was a breakthrough day for us in the program, a mere three days into this journey that will give us just a taste of the new possibilities for life being pioneered by a few visionary social movements here in Argentina. Why was it a breakthrough day? Because we finally set foot in two recovered workspaces during working hours. Today the workers of Gráfica Patricios (a four-colour off-set printing press) and Cefomar (a publishing house) let us into their space and their work lives for a few brief hours. Today we finally got to see these workers labouring in the actual spaces they occupied and fought for so valiantly against many odds. (A side note: It’s unfortunate that I find myself alone tonight. We all dispersed quickly after visiting the last factory, Cefomar, two hours ago. Although we’re all tired, I feel that we must share these experiences and learn from each other as we begin to individually and collectively process the stories that we’re hearing from the protagonists of Argentina’s many unfolding political dramas. [Update: We now meet often as a group. These casual and organic meetings where we share thoughts and experiences are proving to be invaluable for processing our experiences of Argentina´s socio-political justice movements and for whay they mean to us collectively and individually. We´ve also started a reading group where we hope to touch on some of the theoretical issues that are coming to the surface from our experiences].

Today we learned that the recovered workspace movement has to be one of the most inspriational groups within Argentina’s newest social movements for dignity in daily life. Rather than being vanguards, its protagonists are inspirational leaders through their example because they are, within their particular circumstances and in the thick of their specific crises moments, redefining the entire concept of labour. And, in their everyday praxes of work and solidarity under self-management, their everyday lives as a whole are transforming too.

The recovered workspace protagonists are engaging in many battles on many fronts. One of the most intense battles usually comes after the occupation of the firm: the fight for legal recognition of their cooperatives and for the reform of several national, provincial, and municipal laws - in particular, Argentina´s national bankruptcy and expropriation laws. For those recovered enterprises that fall within the Movimento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (MNER) (a loose and autonomist organization of almost half of Argentina´s recovered workspaces; the other organization being the Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores (MNFRT), which is more closely affiliated with unions and the state) the reform of current national and provincial laws sharply favouring private property at the expense of the right to work (both entrenched in Argentina´s constitution) is one of the most important early battles in the struggle for worker-controled workspaces.

In a nutshell, legal recognition of worker-controled cooperatives and, in particular, the legal recognition of the rights of these cooperatives to control and use a recovered firm's fixed and variable capital (machines, building, customer base, etc.) is crucial for the prevention of state repression, judicial corruption, and union thuggery. Symbolically and emotionally, legal status also acknowledges the value of the sweat and work of those workers that have laboured in factories, shops, and offices for years, giving both legal life and cultural recognition to the notion that workers invest something perhaps much, much more important than investors, speculators, owners, and decision makers do - what Marx (1983) labels "labour-power" or "labour-time" (pp. 35-41). At minimum, these grassroots worker protagonists fighting for more job security, a better community, and a better life want their labour and struggle to be valorized and their devotion to their work to be recognized by society as well as the state. What the workers seek more than anything, in other words, is to be in control of their subjectivity, their communities, and their future within spaces of labour that can be recovered as dignified sites for living life.

Do these workers have a critique of the nation state and of the global capitalist system of manufacturing, distribution, and consumption? Yes, some do, but the conjuncture in which they live in is extremely complex and steeped in the quotidian difficulties of paying bills and feeding their families within the highly precarized nature of life in Argentina, especially after the crisis of 2001/2002. While the struggle for and the potentiality of greater civilizational change for Argentina is palpable in the narratives that the workers shared with me, such lofty goals for societal change - i.e., the revolution - tend to be, at this early stage of the recovered workspace movement, immersed in the small daily struggles of work, family, and political life. Within the recovered workspace movement, social change since Dec. 19 and 20 2001 tends to be paced, patient, and emergent. The change being spearheaded by the recovered workspace movement is situationally bound, not linked to the inhuman pace and enigmatic wilo-the-wisp nature of the global financial marketplace. Perhaps this latter point is what the recovered workspace movement is teaching progressively minded social justice activists and intellectuals. At the same time, however, civilzational transformation is not in some distant future phase of the revolution for these workers but is, rather, ensconced in their daily struggles, in their daily acts of production and community, in their practices. Their small, quoditidian steps are slowly shaping the look and feel of a new, socially aware community-based cultural and political reality.

Do the recovered workspace protagonists engage in mainstream economic activity within Argentina's national marketplace and, indeed, with the state itself? Yes, for clear practical reasons of survival until an alternative economic model is more clearly demarcated. While a descendant of all past struggles for worker control which also has a rich history in Argentina (recall the thousands of factory takes during the Frondizi presidency in the early 1960s or the Cordobazo in May/June 1969, Argentina's version of May '68), this current and possibly more obstinate iteration of autogestion (self-management) is slowly beginning to build an alternative way of doing business: i.e., salaried work intermingles with worksharing; the common practice of voluntarism within and between recovered enterprises building networks of solidarity between workers and other empresas recuperadas; the sharing of resouces and supplies between related worker cooperatives; and the solidarity between recovered workspaces in times of political lucha (struggle) viz moral support, financial support, and the support of other workers from other enterprises in the movement during the occupations.

It seems to me that, in Argentina - a country still entrenched in the fallout of economic crisis and social uncertainty since the failed neoliberal free-market frontier mentality of the 1990s - it is too early to try to completely redefine the nation-state and the capitalist market economy. This is especially the case within the recovered workspace movements, with only 160-200 or so known workspaces working as official, worker controled cooperatives in Argentina making up a total of 10-12,000 workers. It is clear, however, that many in the movement would eventually like to reconstruct the socio-political and economic architecture of not only Argentina but the world.

Legal recognition. In these early days of the struggle, one of the first small steps for the recovered workspace movement is to get the courts and the state to valourize and recognize the right to work over the rights of private property and to reform Argentina’s bankruptcy and expropriation laws in order to faciliate the creation of worker-led cooperatives rather than the auctioning off of the assets of the factory at the expense of much needed jobs [INSERT STATS]. The moral imperative to privilege employment over private property, rather than the Argentinean establishment's predilection to privilege the rights of property owners over the rights of workers, is brought into releif when one considers that the cause of the workers' precarious conditions were more often than not a direct result of nefarious shenanigans, bad decisions, and shady deals cut between the previous owner and currupt lawyers, bankruptcy trustees, mafiosi union operatives, and even judges. In addition, the workers are often one of the main creditors because in almost all of the cases of declared bankruptcies which then led to worker occupations the workers were owned thousands of dollars in back pay that they had not received in months if not years in some cases.

In these struggles for workers' dignity and the guarantee of work, the logic of MNER, the more autonomist-minded political lobby collective of the recovered enterprises movement, when trying to convince indifferent, unconvinced, and sometimes recalcitrant judges, politicians, and the general public of the worthiness of their struggle is simple: Letting the worker keep on working ultimately benefits the community and the country much more than appeasing speculative creditors and certainly infinitely more than allowing illegal bankruptcies to take their course. And, in Buenos Aires so far, 12 recovered enterprises have won the first round of the legal battle using this logic. The Bauen Hotel and the balloon factory La Nueava Esperanza currently find themselves in this stage of the fight [I'll report on these two situtations and the legal battles in the city of Buenos Aires legislature in the following days. The cases for applying expropriation laws to the Bauen, Cefomar, and La Nueva Esperanza will be heard in the Buenos Aires city legislature either on Aug. 4 or 11 of this year].

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The first recovered workspace we visited today was Gráfica Patricios, where Luis and Pedro showed us around their extremely efficient print shop. The second recovered enterprise we visited was Cefomar, where Edith described to us in articulate language how four workers took the editorial house in 2002. And we've also had the privilege of talking to Chilavert´s Candido on several occasions already. All three workers’ stories were infused with a deep sense of experientially learned praxical knowledge. All three told us how the valiant occupations by the trabajadores (workers), often lasting months, prevented the vaciamiento (emptying) of their empresas by corrupt owners and court trustees after bankruptcy was declared. Their testimonies were rich with the dignity and determination of their struggle.

At Gráfica Patricios, a print house that takes up an entire block in the southern Buenos Aires barrio of Barracas a block away from the Riachuelo River, Luis took us on a tour of the plant. Ranging between 30 fulltime workers and up to 70 workers when deadlines are close, Patricios is a true hive of work. Between explanations of the complicated off-set process during the tour, Luis described to us their struggle to reclaim the factory that began on March 30, 2003 after their owner abandoned the factory and declared quiebra (bankruptcy). The workers of Patricios, Luis elaborated, took (tomaron), or occupied, the plant for nine months. During those arduous months the workers lived in the factory 24/7, receiving food and supplies from family members and neighbours [LINK TO STRUGGLE OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD]. A court order followed shortly after the take and the workers were ordered to evacuate the plant. They resisted and remained locked in, sleeping on the floor of the vast establishment and relying on family and neighbours for sustenance. Part of the reason for staying locked in the factory is so their printing machines - the embodiment and extension of their craft and skills - wouldn't be taken away under the stealth of night, before the official bankruptcy inventory was to officially take place. This latter point is a common theme that permeates and initially fuels almost all of the early struggles of occupation in Argentina, aptly narrated by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein in their documentary The Take (2004) and epitomized in the well-known experienced of Zanon, Brukman, and Chilavert. The occupation by the workers of Patricios was eventually "successful," meaning that the court order was revoked and no machines were illegally taken by the former owner. By the end of the occupation, however, most of their former clients which included the Buenos Aires daily, El Clarín and other high end publishing houses, were lost and their marketshare eroded to almost nothing. They are now, two years later, a fledgling print house, producing at 30% of their original capacity as they slowly reclaim their customer base.

Pedro’s thoughts. Pedro, a 25 year old printer who manages Patricio's dryer and is being trained in sales, takes over the tour guide duties from Luis for a while. He begins to tell us about the drying process in the printing cycle. We’re more interested in their struggle and their cooperative system of administration. Pedro’s discussion oscillates between giving us brief summaries of their history and form of administration and the intricacies of the printing process. We find out eventually that Patricios is run by a workers' council of a few elected representatives within a cooperative model that make most of the major daily decisions of the plant. This is complemented by monthly worker assemblies which involve all of the 30 permanent employees; in these assemblies major and minor issues are heard and dealt with.

We continue to persistently to ask questions about their struggle and their forms of organization. Pedro finally begins to talk about his feelings concerning the takeover and how the lives of all of the compañeros at the plant have been subsequently transformed. It is at this moment that we begin to hear from an actual protagonist of Argentina's recovered workspace movement, how their subjectivities as wage labourers are slowly transforming into subjectivities of self-managed workers:

“We worked here two years without pay,” Pedro tells us. “The previous owners wanted to tire us out, to force us to quit. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. Instead, we tired them out. Shortly after we occupied the plant the boss cut off our light, but we stayed. We lived and ate here for eight months after the boss abandoned the place.

“You see, it’s about private property vs. the rights of the worker, and we feel that the worker’s right to work should always be above that of private property.

“Now working here is like a dream. Coming to work is a pleasure. With the old boss, we were just workers running machines. We’re still not doing the best we could be doing, but now we have a steady income of $600 - $800 pesos and our income is slowly growing. And, on occasion, we even give ourselves bonuses whenever there’s a bit of money left over.

“La asamblea lo vas viviendo [You learn from and experience the assembly as you live it],” he adds passionately and with eyes that look like they might start to shed tears. “We live the moment and deal with things as they arise. Estamos siempre juntos y siempre unidos [We’re always together and always united]. We spend 14 to 15 hours a day here now, and we love coming to work. In fact, we often don’t want to leave! At other places once it’s the end of your shift you just want to take off and go home. Here, we want to stay, even though we’re only making just enough money to feed ourselves so far.”

---

A growing customer base and cooperation amongst the movement. We learned from Luis and Edith that many of the recovered factories support each other. Cefomar, for example, gets their books printed at Patricios and Chilavert while both print houses trade off and share jobs as well as barter with each other for materials. While many of the books Cefomar publishes service Argentina’s various social justice movements, all three recovered enterprises are also trying to secure mainstream customers. Cefomar, for example, still publishes textbooks recognized by Argentina’s Ministry of Education while it plans on publishing various books about the struggle for social justice in Argentina. Patricios still publishes several popular soap opera and gossip magazines (what would Marcuse have to say about this contradiction between one dimensional and two dimensional society?). And Chilavert continues to work on projects commissioned by the federal government such as several print projects commissioned by the office of the presidency (again, what would Marcuse have to say?). Both Chilavert’s Cándido and Patricio’s Luis justify this work by reminding us that change happens in small steps. While revolution and civilizational change in Argentina is in the back many of the workers’ minds, they claim, the quotidian needs of feeding their families forces them to, for now, think pragmatically. And, while the owners used to regularly cut shady deals with customers – which is how many of these firms went into banckruptcy in the first place – Cándido is committed to doing things differently now that Chilavert runs as a cooperative; for Cándido, Chilavert is now grounded in other values: “We work with the state, but the state is just a customer like all of our customers,” claims Cándido. “They too must now pay 50% upfront for all jobs and then 50% when we complete the job” (Sin patrón, 2004, p. 63). Patricio’s Luis expressed similar sentiments to us. (Cándido also repeated the exact same phrase almost verbatim to me in an interview I had with him a few weeks after our initial visit to the recovered firms).

Perhaps Gramsci was right, the revolution can’t happen in times of crisis. But perhaps the recovered enterprises movement that is growing out of Argentina’s socio-economic crisis of 2001/2002 is showing us new routes for social transformation, new ways to treat one another in our work and non-work lives, as well as setting the stage for a new ethics of life that might, just might, persist after the crisis is over. Indeed, perhaps these cooperative ways of life are the only roads out of Argentina’s chronic socio-economic quagmire.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

On precarity in Argentina

I´m quickly learning that most work is precarious in Argentina. Let me quickly describe a few of the labour realities that have led to the precarization of most sectors of society here.

A few statistics concerning the increasing precarization of life
First, the sobering realities for Argentina's workers post-Dec. 19/20, 2001 (official figures compiled by James Petras & Henry Veltmeyer, Las privatizaciones y la desnacionalizon de America Latina, Promoteo Libros, Buenos Aires, 2004):
- In 2002, the most chaotic year of the post-1990s economic chaos in Argentina, it wa estimated that 18.2 million Argentines, or 51.4% of the population lives under the poverty line. A large part of this extreme pauperization of Argentina began in the early months of 2002: Between Jan. and May of 2002, 3.2 million Argentines fell bellow the poverty line - that's 762,000 per month or 25,000 per day! While these drastic numbers have now stabilized a bit, poverty and indigence remains at historical highs for a former affluent country like Argentina (see my Sept. 22, 2005 post).
- In 1997 Argentina's average yearly income was U$S 8,950. By 2002 it had fallen to U$S 3,197.
- The mostly middle class city of Buenos Aires saw it's citizens' average monthly income suffer a drop of almost 60% in 4 months, from U$S 909 in Dec. 2001 to U$S 363 by Mar. 2002. The working class saw its income drop from U$S 626 to U$S 250 in the same time frame. For pensioners, their monthly cheques went from an average of U$S 437 to U$S 175 in greater Buenos Aires. The poverty line in Argentina is now at U$S 400 per month.
- In 2002, most of the working classes in greater Buenos Aires found themselves earning salaries and wages below the poverty line. In the city of Buenos Aires, 60% of the working sector found itself below the poverty line in 2002.
- In 1974, Argentina's top 10% of income earners monopolized 28% of the nation's wealth. In 1992, 34% of the wealth. By 2001, more than 37% of the nations earnings remained within this percentile of the population. In contrast, the poorest 10% of the population received 2.2% of the nation's wealth in 1974 and a measly 1.3% by 2001, just before the massive increase in unemployment. Given that the wealthiest classes in Argentina tend to under-report their income, Petras & Veltmeyer (2004) point out that the Argentine government estimates this wealth disparity to be even more marked than the official numbers indicate. As such, some official estimates place Argentina's wealthiest 10% with incomes that are 40 times higher than the poorest 10% and suggest that Argentina's wealthiest 10% control more than 80% of the nations entire wealth!

More examples of precarious life in Argentina
Much of the working population works either entirely or in part "en negro" (literally, "in the black"), meaning that they're paid "under the table" and their work activity is not recorded. Those that work en negro of course do not make pension contributions nor do they receive unemployment insurance, holiday pay, or health benefits. They also do not have union representation (although one of Argentina's most important historians, Pablo Pozzi, told me that there is a group of metalurgical workers based out of Cordoba who are currently meeting to try and unionize en negro workers). Another huge sector of the working population is made up of contract workers that also receive no benefits and have little job security, living contract to contract. And yet a third group of workers - many making up the ranks of the now depleted working classes that stoked Argentina's once mighty industrial base - work in jobs that they are overqualified for and are therefore grossly underpaid. Many of these underemployed workers work en negro and often hold down two or three jobs. Those that do have the good fortune of still having a steady jobe look forward to paltry fractions of the pensions, health benefits, and unemployment insurance they should be receiving.

Most workers that do receive an official salary (today making up about 12% of Argentina's total economic output, compared to 49% during Peron's first two presidencies between 1946 and 1955, the other 88% of the pie going to multinationals, large corporations, and government activity) have only a portion of their salary (between 25-50%) officially recognized for calculating benefits. This portion of one's salary is called "el basico de convenio" (Pozzi, 2005). That is, most people here only claim a portion of their income, the rest of their income is considered extra pay and, thus, is not recognized as a regular part of their salaries. While it is true that these additional add-ons to one's salary are non-taxable for most, importantly, they are also portions of one's income that don't factor into calcualting benefits such as unemployment insurance, retirement plans, and health benefits. Additionally, and literally overnight, the buying power of salaries fell by more than 60% when the peso was readjusted at a level of 3-1 to the US dollar after the "convertibilidad" policy of 1-1 was scrapped in 2002. This, coupled with the subsidization of many low salaried positions by Argentina's "planes trabajar" (welfare plans instituted during the crisis of 2002 by former caretaker president Eduardo Duhalde), caused a general "flattening" of wages (Pozzi, 2005). This wage flattening is, in essence, a subsidy for businesses, reducing their variable costs of doing business and transferring the burden of Argentina's economic recovery onto the dwindling middle and working classes while Argentina's medium, large, and multinational enterprises continue to record huge profits in many instances (Pozzi, 2005; Petras & Veltmeyer, 2004).

Also, secure jobs with any type of regular and long term pay are becoming scarcer in Argentina and are rarely advertised, especially in the intellectual, administrative, or service sectors. This is compounded by the fact that nepotism abounds here still. Unless one is well connected, many - like my cousin who is a graphic designer - spend years looking for a steady paycheque after graduating from high school or university. My cousin, for example, took five years after graduating from one of Buenos Aires's best private universities to find a secure job that guaranteed her a decent income with benefits. "Freelance" is a commonly used word here. Moreover, there are millions who are underemployed and chronically unemployed. While the official unemployment rate is officially around 12% [EL CLARIN], this number, however, does not include the 10-20% that are receiving planes trabajar, those that have given up looking for work, and those that are underemployed. In Argentina, losing your job any time after your mid-40s pretty much guarantees that you'll most likely never find a similar job again. Age discrimination is a way of doing business here.

And, while the piqueteros have taken their unemployment quagmire to the streets, their demands - except for the the most radical and autonmous MTD factions - usually don't extend beyond asking for more subsidies (from $150 pesos a month to $350). These planes are not initially distributed to individuals but to umbrella organizations such as political parties, partisan municipal workers, and MTD organizations which then take on the job of distributing the welfare subsidies to its members. Usually kick-backs and political favours are involved. Because of this institutionalized clientelism, an entire mafia-like distribution system of welfare dependence and work-for-welfare has emerged that links the welfare plans to political entities. In addition, this clientelistic distribution system concentrates much economic and political power in the hands of a few welfare distribution managers, political parties, and government and union officials that regularly recieve kickbacks from the distribution of the the planes trabajar, turning the planes into political currency useful for exchanging political benefits to those individuals and organizations seeking power or already in power.

Here are a few more quick tastes of why working life is precarious in Argentina:
- Example: The average salaried worker makes around $800 -$1000 pesos, the average wage earner makes $500 - $700 pesos. The poverty line is somewhere between$500 - $600. An average rent is around $200 - $400 pesos.
- Example: University professors at the hightest levels get around $87 pesos a month per course taught (yes, you read right, $87 pesos, or around U$S 30!) Most professors and sessionals (called "adjuntos") teach about 4 courses per semester on average in addition to working in committees, publishing, going to conferences, etc. Thus, professors must subsidize their income with other jobs such as private teaching, private research, etc. Here, publish or perish has being taken to new lows. Many professors and sessionals leave Argentina and teach elsewhere. This has caused a dire brain drain here. Also, most intellectuals, except for the most committed left radicals, tend to be politically conservative or centrists, something one would expect from a cadre of intellectuals doing research for private corporations, government institutions, lobby groups, or state bureacuracies.

These are only a few examples of why I believe we have to think about precarity much more broadly here in Argentina than how the concept is framed when doing political economic analysis of immaterial labourers or minimum-wage earners and contract workers in the global north. Most of the working class in Argentina - be they wage earners, salaried workers, freelancers, contract workers, immaterial labourers or the underemployed - are living in some sort of precarious work/life condition. And one can't think of precarity here without thinking about the connections to the neoliberal structural adjustments and sellout of the 1990s, machista culture, the connections between race and class (still very visible here), the present and historical role of repression in Argentinean socio-political life, the sharp distinctions between Buenos Aires as the economic-cultural-political "centre" of power and the rest of the nation as the dependent "periphery" (very much in the Innisian sense), the frustrations related to the failed promises of attaining first world status, and the acceptance of "assistentialist" culture by many under and unemployed (Flores, 2005). Perhaps, then, Argentina, a once powerful industrial giant with a committed working class, offers an early look at the precarious future in store for other developed and developing economies in the thick of contemporary neoliberalist forms of capital accumulation.

These are things that I'll be writing more about over the next few months.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Bauen Hotel fights for a temporary permit of expropriation

From a web cafe next to the Hotel Bauen, Calle Callao, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Hundreds of social justice supporters were on hand outside the Bauen Hotel yesterday afternoon in solidarity with the hotel workers in their fight with the city of Buenos Aires's legislature to be recognized as an officially expropriated enterprise (see: Pagina/12´s Thurs. Jul., 12, 2005 article "Otra marcha por el Bauen". Also see Indymedia Argentina's two recent reports on the matter: BAUEN: 7 de julio, todos a la Legislatura por la ocupación and Intento de clausura del Hotel Bauen Cooperativa). The hotel's staff of 150 self-managed workers, together with the supporters and federal government deputy Patricia Walsh, daughter of the famed disappeared reporter and author Roberto Walsh, eventually marched to the porteño city's legislative buildings where the hotel workers' case for temporary expropriation recognition was slated to be heard. The Bauen´s workers are fighting for the hotel's right to exist as a cooperative, a legal designation the hotel still does not hold. The previous owners of the hotel, Bauen Sacic, are seeking to regain control of the hotel under the legal rubric of being "original proprietors of the hotel" (Pagina/12).

The Bauen workers have been seeking to be recognized as an official cooperative in order to be able to run the hotel without harassment from city officials and the Federal Police. These past few weeks have been tense for Bauen workers. On July 14, several city officials with Federal Police in tow raided the building and sought to close it down and evict the employees due to unspecified "security reasons" (Pagina/12). According to Indymedia Argentina, at the time the Bauen was fully booked with over 400 guests staying in its 160 rooms. In addition, five theatrical events were playing at the hotel catering to the winter break demand for entertainment in Buenos Aires's theatre district.

Just about an hour ago I went to the Bauen for dinner and everything seemed normal. The lobby was humming with activity and the cafe was catering to dozens of guests.

The fledgling hotel cooperative announced that a festival to support the workers´struggles to be recognized as an official cooperative will be held on Thurs. July 28 at 1 pm in front of the Buenos Aires legislative buildings on the corner of Peru and Avenida de Mayo.

I also discuss the Bauen briefly in my July 9 post.

For more info see: http://argentina.indymedia.org/.

Monday, July 18, 2005

General observations on my first week in Argentina

Things in Argentina´s current political reality are intense, complex, contradictory, and inspirational. There are many conjunctions at play in all of the social movements and all of the struggles I´ve seen thus far (i.e., the MTDs, the recovered workspaces, homeless rights advocates, the fight for the basic needs of those that live in shantytowns, the piqueteros, the cartoneros, etc). The ravages of capitalism and consumerism are everywhere, especially in the villas miserias. We witnessed how the villeros live - literally - on top of and off of the garbage that wealthier porteños dump along the frayed outskirts of Buenos Aires. And, while there are many contradictions to the social justice movements here (as there are everywhere), it is clear that all are seeking a better way to live life in a society still deeply stratified, intrinsically racist and sexist, and volatile. I´m learning that we can´t generalize anything in Argentina, even within the loose community of 170-plus recovered firms. Actually, especially amongst the recovered enterprises movement as traditional union and party politics are always in tension with the workers' inherently autonomist tendencies (more on this later). Every situation experiences its own unique political quagmire and triumphs.

There is one thing sought by most protagonists of the "newest" social movements here, however: dignity. It is the one word said by most protagonists of the social justice movements that we've met thus far, suggesting a link between all of them, as fractured, emergent and uncertain as they all are. Within the chaos and precariousness of life here, the first thing they all seek - that is, the recovered enterpries workers, unemployed workers, cartoneros, villeros, activist retired people, piqueteros, etc. - after the basic necesities of life are are met (and the struggle of many like the MTDs, cartoneros, and the activists in the villas hasn't gone beyond fighting for basic human rights and the vital needs of the millions of Argentines in need) is to be treated with dignity and to be respected as important members within a greater community.

Notwithstanding their internal tensions and contradictions, and while there is much disillusionment amongst all social classes, there is also much hope, especially within the recovered enterprises movement. Throughout Argentina, life continues to be rich with social activities and joy. Even in the villa that we visted (Villa 21), where many eat the refuse dumped in mass trash sites by multinationals like McDonalds (a cheap and efficient way for McDonald's to get rid their waste), we saw music being played and children doing what children do within the squalor and misery of their daily realities. Here is a brief photo essay that I shot an compiled contrasting Villa 21 and other precarious life situations with pictures of the upper class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires a mere 10-15 km away - the intense contrast provides a clear and simple picture of the deep social and economic divisions currently plaguing Argentina.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The wit of the porteño catches up to my long absence from Argentina: I feel that I am from this country but not of this country

My stunted castellano (and I remind myself that it always takes me a few days to get into the groove of speaking the language here) symbolizes how fractured and at times disconnected I feel from this country. Can I even call myself argentino? I realize that identity is what I make of it in conjunction with what the society I’m ensconced in makes of me, but I feel a longing to belong to this place. Where does this longing come from and can I ever call myself argentino?

Can I call myself argentino if I was spared from the horrors and pains that this country suffered over the past 30 years, safe within my privileged place in Canada? Can I call myself argentino when I am, in fact, an émigré protected from the brutal realities of Argentina’s recent history? Can I call myself argentinoif I didn’t live through the brutal military repressions of the mid- to-late 1970s, if I missed the period of its fledgling democracy in the ‘80s, if I was absent from the the hyperinflation years of the late ‘80s, if I saw from afar the giddy neoliberal experiment of the ‘90s? Can I call myself argentino if I only witnessed the massive protests on the streets during the argentinazo of Dec. 19/20, 2001 on television, if the corralito was something I read in the online version of the Clarín and learned of from my family’s email messages to me. Can I ever call myself argentino if I can never really feel that uncertainty towards the future that most Argentineans feel?

And, now, I’m back here in Buenos Aires, the city I claim to love so much. Can I ever call myself argentino when speaking in castellano porteño takes so much effort at times. I want to speak freely with my compañeros here but the exact word in castellano – that word or phrase that would tip off to the other that I am one of them - so often eludes me. Will I ever be able to speak like a porteño speaks? If identity is a construct, a political quagmire of complexity, why do I want to be called an argentino? Why do I want so much to be able to call myself argentino? What I have I lost in my absence from this place, and what have a gained from my life in Canada?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The wit of the porteño and politics as unusual

I’ve been staying staying with the Fleitas family for the first 10 days. On July 19, I’m going to moving into a flat in San Telmo. For now, I’m enjoying spending time with the Fleitas family, who are friends of my good friend Laureano. The members of the Fleitas family who live in an early 20th century four story house in the middle of the Congreso neighbourhood of Baires include the mother and two sisters. A third sister is married. A traditional Peronist family, the middle daughter has more activist leanings and we talk about the recovered factory movements and Argentina’s other social movements into the night.

People come and go in the Fleitas family home; it is a hub for the social activity of a group of twentysomethings whose members include cousins and schoolmates. On my first night at the home a lively discussion breaks out peppered with much porteño slang. I understand everything but the terms are all new to me; local slang changes monthly here it seems. I feel frustrated because I can’t contribute to the conversation in the same way – I’m relegated to the living room castellano I speak with my parents back in Canada. This makes me feel fractured, split into many pieces. What is my identity? Argentinean? Argentinean-Canadian? Does it matter? I too want to break into the porteñoisms at the same verbal speed, but I can’t.

So I decide to remain quite and listen. The conversation quickly meanders into politics. Whenever Argentineans talk about local and national politics the conversation is, although often sarcastic and auto-critical, always interlaced with humour. Sometimes, Argentineans make a concerted effort to find some good in all of the political chaos that is infused in Argentinean socio-political history. Political or not, conversations are more often than not interlaced with much wit and double entendres. When discussing politics, no major politician is spared from the wrath of the converationists. The humour tends to keep the contradictory state of Argentinean politics in perspective. One thing that is never referred to in a humours way, however, is the last bloody and repressive dictatorship that Argentina suffered between 1976 and 1983.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A few more brief and early notes from a returning ex-pat


  • The look of the city of Buenos Aires: The city looks more worn than last time I visited it in Dec. 2000, exactly one year before the socio-economic meltdown of Dec. 19/20, 2001. There’s much more graffiti, much more garbage on the streets, many more homeless people, but also a more intense political fervour in the air. Of course the graffiti is also an inspiring testimony to the passionate political times Argentina is ensconced within. The graffiti is also an aesthetic reclamation of public spaces by the marginalized, the dispossessed, and the politically aware - a creative expression of the politics of the streets and an aesthetics of resistance using Buenos Aires itself as its canvass.
  • Piqueteros, I: Protests marches are a daily occurrence. They are also contradictory: Piqueteros continue to block major arterial routes in and out of the Capital Federal. To many, if not most, middle and working class porteños they are mere obstacles on their daily commute to and from work and shopping. Morning traffic reports here always also include where local protests are to be held. It´s interesting to note that this probably means that the mainstream media is monitoring the alternative Argentinean press, such as IndyMedia Argentina, where these protests are often announced. (A related note: I must look into how these protests are organized and communicated.) Piqueteros, themselves made up of unemployed workers in the MTD movement, are also being accused of preventing other Argentineans from getting to work, especially if they live in the "Cono Urbano" that surrounds the Capital Federal. Have the piqueteros lost their political force? Has theeir method of direct action to block the veins of the economic trade routes of Argentina lost its resonance? I must look into this over the next few weeks.
  • Piqueteros, II: On my trip from the airport to my cousin’s house on July 8 when I arrived, a piquete on the highway from Ezeiza International Airport and the Capital makes the remisero (hired car driver) take an alternative route, which takes us into a paralyzing and crawling traffic jam. Again, is the piquetero strategy backfiring? Are Argentineans turning against the piqueteros because of the nuisance they cause the middle class? What other options do the unemployed have for raising awareness of their plight?

A few images from an afternoon walk through the Microcentro and San Telmo neighbourhoods

- "For the sake of love, use protection." El Che.

- Playing a little tango on Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo.

- "Mysterious Buenos Aires."

- National Bank of Argentina: ¨"Thieves, thugs, assasins, vultures..."

Monday, July 11, 2005

Asado de bienvenida: Welcoming us to the AAP summer program at Chilavert

Today at 4:30 p.m., Marcelo (Kelo) & Yuli introduced us to the program. Kelo is the Argentinean coordinator of Gracial Monteagudo’s AAP summer program that I’m involved with this month in Buenos Aires. Kelo is also a PhD candidate and sessional in the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras (Faculty of Philosophy and Letters) at UBA. Yuli, an anthropology graduate student at the UBA, will be Kelo’s assistant throughout our first week, which will be an intense cultural immersion into the complex and contradictory facets of Buenos Aires’s cultural, political, and social milieu. All 19 of us participants (two of us are from Canada and the rest American) met today on the mezzanine floor of Chilavert Artes Gráficos, the worker recovered enterprise where I’ll be interning starting next week (see "Where I`ll be interning next month").



Chilavert facilitates numerous community events here on the mezzanine level. It’s a fantastic space where a number of activities such as art classes, poetry readings, and seminars are often held. Saturday night, as I understand it, is a particularly popular night for community gatherings and cultural events. Of course, it’s also a great place to kick-start an intensive program looking into Argentina’s recovered workspaces and newest social movements.

Today being Sunday, the print shop’s off-set devices, its printing machines, its binding machines, and the stacks of soon-to-be processed stacks of glossy paper and half-finished posters sit quite and still on the shop’s main floor. This miscellany of machinery and stationary below as I look over the veranda from the mezzanine level resembles a mini skyline, a seemingly haphazard metropolis of contraptions, stacks of papers, and unfinished posters put into place by the pragmatic needs of the shop’s daily workflows. The first floor of Chilavert on a Sunday night gives witness to a highly productive workspace that has paused to give its citizen attendants time to engage in life’s other activities, such as participating in family events and, tonight, hosting the gringo students they’ve so warmly welcomed into their lives.

Upon entering Chilavert from the street I find myself in the interior receiving area at the front of the building. I’m one of the first AAP program students to arrive. Maria Rosa Gonzalez, Candido Gonzalez’s wife (Candido is one of the original eight that courageously occupied the factory three years ago) warmly welcomes me in. One of the first things I notice is the elaborately designed “Chilavert Artes Graficos” sign above the second main doors that lead into the shop. The sign is styled after the aesthetics of the tango bars and bordellos of early 20th century Buenos Aires. I’ve seen similarly designed signage in old Baires bars and I’ll soon see the style greeting us at other recovered factories such as Graficos Patricios and IMPA.

After entering the shop floor Maria Rosa turns sharply to the right and leads me up the stairs above the print shop’s main offices. We soon come to the cultural centre on the mezzanine floor. The second floor rings the shop about 15-20 feet above the main floor. From this perspective the shop reminds me of an old colonial villa with the shop floor resemblig the inner courtyard that was common in most Spanish colonial villas throughout Latin America. In these old villas, wealthy colonial families lived with their servants, ate, shared family experiences, and held court when hosting visitors. To the colonial Europeans that ruled Latin America for most of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the villas were mini fortresses that shielded them from the hurly burly of colonial business, the mestizo vagos (lazy ones) who chose to live in the surrounding countryside, and indigenous life outside the villa’s walls. This evocation to colonial times is appropriate, I think to myself. Chilavert’s recovery by its workers can be compared to the desire that early Argentineans had for emancipation from Spain’s colonial clutch. Chilavert’s previous owner could be compared to the Spanish viceroys. The graphic shop’s building and its internal layout resembles the panoptic shape of the traditional Spanish villa. And the workers, a band of mutinous ex-servants who have found freedom from the oppression and repression of the former colonial tyrant they once lived under.

The allusion that the building has to the dwellings of Argentina’s old colonial rulers symbolizes not only the continued struggles of living within a system of social organization still inflected by oligarchical power structures and caudillo politics, Chilavert´s physical presence also symbolizes how the oppressed can overcome a politics of domination and repression. In the case of the eight original Chilavert workers that took the factory on April 4, 2002 and occupied it for more than seven months after years of being underpaid (in the last year and a half, not paid at all), and in light of the corrupt alliance with judges, accountants, union bosses, and lawyers embarked on by the previous owner, Chilavert’s workers’ collective struggle for survival can be seen as a contemporary version of the following continuing tensions: Argentina’s centre (Buenos Aires) and its peripheries (the interior provinces); the vagabond gaucho and indigenous cultures vs. the 19th century desire by the elite classes for all Argentineans to become a civilized nation; civilisación vs. barbarie; the hierarchies of the state vs. the desires of individual and communal autonomy; the rights of the propertied classes (landed classes) vs. the aspiring dreams of the working classes; and Argentina’s first world pretensions vs. the global north/south realities of the 1990s.

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The mezzanine level of Chilavert is a phenomenal space surrounded by art works by local artists and some of Chilavert’s glossy art books from the old days when they were still under el patronal (the boss, or literally, the patriarchal chief). While Kelo and Yuli did a fantastic job of introducing us to the program and helped us to navigate our way through the Guia “T”, Buenos Aires’s notoriously complex bus schedule booklet, I was distracted by my enthusiasm at actually being here. While I sat with my new peers around four rustic wooden tables, I couldn’t help but think about what an appealing space this place is for not only work but also for cultural and community events, as well. Chilavert is pregnant with myriad possibilities for joy and life; after being at Chilavert for only a few minutes one senses that this place is about so much more than work. Indeed, it’s immediately evident that Chilavert is a space where work intermingles with play, where culture is infused in work and work is part of a greater culture, and where community and connection abound. One quickly notices that patronizing and heavy-handed supervision of life has been banished here. At Chilavert, the neighbourhood that surrounds it and its cultural riches intersects with the daily labour of producing books, posters, and pamphlets for Argentina’s newest social movements.

The paintings on the walls of the mezzanine floor; the quite machines resting from the previous week’s production; and the chatter and din of excited and expectant conversations between the northern visitors and the locals from Chilavert, the recovered factories movement, the UBA, and the AAP merge with the smells of the asado that is being barbequed this Sunday night by some of Chilavert’s workers on the street of this recovering community (no Sunday night anxieties with these workers!) From old oil drums cut in half the excellent chorizos and cuts of costillas and lomo are prepared and served up to the hungry guests. In typical Argentinean style, we all sit at the table together and share the fine food in the midst of much conversation and laughter (and there’s enough spinach pies and veggie dishes for the non meat eaters, as well).



Tonight, on this chilly Buenos Aires July night, and barely one night into the five week program, we are all witnesses that another world, however tenuous and provisional, is indeed possible...

- 1136 Chilavert, Neueva Pompeya, Buenos Aires

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Independence Day, protest, and Hotel Bauen: Reflections on my first full day in Argentina

This is my first full day in Argentina. It also happens to be Argentina's Dia de Independencia, Independence Day. The flight to Buenos Aires was long and uneventful, except for the unexpected extra passengers we picked up at Santiago de Chile on their way to Baires. The reason for the extra passengers? Aerolineas Argentinas' pilots went on a one-day strike (paro) yesterday. This was my first encounter with the daily socio-political realities of Argentina post Dec. 19/20, 2001. And I wasn't even in Argentina yet!

On my first outing into the "Paris of the South," "La reina de la Plata," I decide to head to my favourite street, Av. Corrientes, Baires’s theatre district and home to some of the best used bookstores and bohemian culture anywhere. On my way back to where I'm currently staying (close to Congreso - Argentina's Congress - on Calle Rincon between Av. Belgrano and Calle Moreno) I stumble onto my first protest march. And so my five week adventure begins…

Thousands of protesters march peacefully and soberly. Chant leaders conduct the marchers' resistance slogans by singing protest songs into a mike connected to an amplifier and speaker on trucks that slowly move to the determined but staid pace of the parade. The protestors are made up of a vast swath of Buenos Aires’s working classes and Argentina’s ever-growing underemployed and unemployed classes. Illustrating the splintered state of the Argentinean left, some of the groups in the march include numerous groups from the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD, or the Unemployed Workers Movement), the Federación Universidad de Buenos Aires (FUBA, or the University of Buenos Aires´ student union), and other social justice movements, such as Convergencia Socialista, Movimiento Territorial de Liberacion, Partido Obrero, Polo Obrero, Comision de Derechos Humanos, and even Urugayos Presos en Argentina (Uruguayans Imprisoned in Argentina).

Political protest marches are a daily occurence in post Dec. 19/20, 2001 Argentina, but this is a particularly large one. Also, that this massive, well organized march is taking place today is no coincidence; the protestors are capitalizing on the heightened significance of this day where, in 1816, a group of caudillos from the ragtag affiliation of southern provinces lead by the Unitarist movement declared independence from Spain in the northwestern province of Tucumán.

I first cought site of the march at the buzzing intersection of Av. Callao and Av. Corrientes (see above picture) as the march turned the corner southward towards Baires's famed Obelisco at Av. 9 de Julio. Callao and Corrientes is the merging of various tributaries for all such marches; all marches that follow this route eventually end up either at the Obelisco, the national Congress a few blocks south, or at Argentina's square of power, Plaza de Mayo, further southeast.

After watching the eclectic social justice march on the street, I decide to duck into the Bauen Hotel's coffee shop a few meters away from the corner where I first encountered the protest. I watch the rest of the march from this vantage point while sipping an exquisite café at the only window seat looking onto Callao and the march. While my actions might seem suspicious to the veteran protester, this shouldn't be confused as bourgeois flight on my part; this is not an escape from the sweaty and enraged horde. First, I need a space to write down these thoughts that you´re reading right now. Second, the Bauen is a symbolic locale from which to view the march. Indeed, and not meaning to trivialize the protestors on the street, my decision to enter the Bauen and order a coffee could be considered a humble political act. The Bauen, you see, is Buenos Aires’s only worker recovered hotel and its workers’ struggle to have it recognized as a legal cooperative continues on a daily basis.

The Bauen is part of the National Movement of Recovered Enterprises (MNER) and shares the story of owner-declared bankruptcy, worker resistance, and worker takeover experienced in various unique ways by roughly 170 other workplaces in Argentina. Emerging out of the drastic and inhuman neoliberal policy’s of the Menem government of the 1990s, the subsequent implosion of the socio-economic and socio-political realities of Argentina that came to a head on Dec. 19 and 20, 2001, and in the ashes of a prolonged and smoldering deterioration of the middle and working classes’ economic wellbeing and the increased immiseration of the poor (now plaguing between 45 - 60% of Argentina’s population, depending on who you talk to), new possibilities for social and political life - such as the Bauen´s cooperative work space - are being experimented with everywhere in Argentina. Alternative and horizontal social realities are being explored and lived daily by the homeless, the unemployed, the socially marginal people of the myriad villas miserias (shanty towns)that dot the country, and among a plethora of nascent neighbourhood movements and recovered work spaces. Participants in these movements are struggling to not only change their own socio-political reality, but, as many would later tell me, to also return dignity into daily life via a reawakening of more humane, more local ways of existence that emerge out of social, political, and economic crisis.

For formerly bankrupt and now recovered work spaces like the Bauen, their workers´ stories, while all unique, have a similar plotline: The recovered enterprises movement is, in part, a bottom-up response to the IMF´s failed attempts to control the country´s economic policies in order for Argentina to be able to meet its interest payments on its massive foreign debt (economic policies which Argentina´s politicians and public managers zealously carried out throughout the 1990s). In addition, thousands of workers have been forced to carry out risky factory takeovers because of inept or greedy owners that, capitalizing on the speculative and corrupt auction market made possible by the economic collapse, threaten to or declare bankruptcy in the wake of the failure of Argentina's macro- and micro-structural adjustments. Especially after the Dec. 2001 economic meltdown, thousands of once-healthy businesses began to close their doors and evict their workers throughout the country. On top of this, workers are usually let go after weeks and months of not getting paid. Unemployed and with hungry families to feed, the inevitable vaciamiento (emptying) of a bankrupted enterprise's machinery and assets by the owner and sketchy court trusties has motivated thousands of workers to mobilize by first seizing their workspace and occupying it, thus using their own physical presence - their own bodies - to ride out the six to eight and sometimes 12 months it takes for the courts to declare the ley de exproriación (expropriation law) preventing the auctioning off of the company´s assets. Although sometimes the workers are allowed to legally use the machines while the backruptcy claim is still in the courts, the ultimate, and always precarious and to date short term goal, is for the workers to be able to control the machines free from the threat of eviction by the state, although even at this stage the workers still only have temporary control of the machines and the property under various burdensome conditons (e.g., in most cases the workers, directly or indirectly, take on the debt of the previous owner).

During the long struggle between the declaration of quiebra (bankruptcy) and the declaration of the expropriation law, desperate yet determined and, in many cases, well-organized worker takeovers of the closing enterprise ensues, leading to lengthy periods of courageous workspace occupation by the workers and many supporters from the neighbouring communities. Often, as with the balloon factory La Esperanza, the print house Chilavert, and the now famous Zanon and Brukman cases, the workers face the constant threat of persecution and attacks by repressive police forces, mafiosi union leaders, and bought-off government cronies. If all goes well, the occupation culminates in long battles with the federal and provincial courts for legal recognition of the work space as an official, worker run cooperative. Eventually, and sometimes during the tenuous weeks and months of occupation, the workers slowly begin to produce again or, as in the case of the Bauen, to provide hotel services.

For thousands of workers in this country, this direct action is the only solution left; out of the ashes of 19/20 thousands of Argentine workers are deciding to experiment with manager-free and horizontal work places run by themselves via assemblies and workers' councils. Initially there is no deep revolutionary rationale guiding the takeovers; what inspires the workers to action is the desperation and frustration of each worker and the need to feed and provide for his or her family. The workers rage and desperation at the possibility of being without work usually always foments their action. But slowly, throughout their struggle, the workers begin to change their own circumstances for the first time in their lives in spite of and, indeed, because of a political system that remains unresponsive to their quotidian needs. Here in Argentina, politicians and union leaders continue to cater more to the whims of global markets than to the dire circumstances of a psychically and emotionally pummeled and evermore precarious citizenry.

Turning to each other rather than relying on experts, politicians, bureaucrats, or the church, a rich yet simple model of direct democracy and communitarian work ethic emerges out of the struggles of everyday life in Argentina. In the recovered factories movement, the workers’ everyday reality of struggle (lucha) informs the understanding of their plight. Their understanding comes from within the crisis, through the hope they create, and always, especially during the first stages of their struggle, from below. Their existential experiences are constantly forging their philosophies of cooperativism and community. And their understanding of what's at stake is eloquent, reflected in their daily practices and in the poignant narratives they recount. Here, in Argentina, amongst the workers’ and unemployed workers’ movements, the cartoneros (cardboard people), the piqueteros (organized picketers of the unemployed), the asambleas barriales (neighbourhood assemblies), and las empresas recuperadas (recovered factories), theory emerges always and directly from immediate experience. Any other kind of a priori theory risks sharing the same myopic perspective affecting those sabios (wise ones) in the seats of power. Perhaps the asambleas (people's assemblies) that guide all of these movements are the first signs of the flames of the slowly emerging Phoenix that received its first drafts of generative wind from the impassioned chant of millions who took to the streets on Dec. 19/20, 2001 as they sang out “Que se vayan todos!” – “All of them (Argentina’s traditional institutional players) must leave now!”

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I sip the coffee, look onto the march, and soak in the radicalized air bookended by the protest outside and the casual pace of the self-managed hotel staff as they go about the business of tending to a hotel inside. As the parade outside stops for a few seconds I notice that several members of a workers’ rights group from Quilmes - the southern Baires suburb of my birth - turn to face the Bauen as they beat at the air with their arms chanting the following in the style of Argentinean futbol supporters: “El Bauen, el Bauen, es de los trabajadores, a el que no le gusta, que se joda, que se joda!” (“Teh Bauen, the Bauen belongs to the workers, and for those that don’t like it, they can go fuck themselves!”) (Soccer and politics forever overlap in this country; the habits of the soccer stadium also shape the style of protesting and one’s political allegiances.)

A few minutes later, at around 3:56 pm, when the march is over and traffic resumes on Callao, a busload of passengers begins to chant something else and this time the hotel staff chants back in reply — impromptu gestures of solidarity spontaneously materializing between commuters on a bus and the Bauen's workers inside. Meanwhile, people in their cars stuck in the chronic traffic jam that ensues after the march ends all look up at the Bauen Hotel sign above me and over my left shoulder and then glance down to me at the window seat. By the looks on their faces I can see that the drivers know what the Bauen is about. I sense a deep respect in their faces. At the same time, a group of five men at a table to my right further inside the Bauen’s resto-bar are discussing something regarding the politics of this place. In the midst of the smoke-filled air that surrounds them, the din of distant and near conversations, and the clanging of cutlery and dishes, I overhear them uttering words like “lucha” (struggle) and “19/20”. Someone with knowledge of the workers´ movements told me that the Bauen is currently experiencing some trying legal battles, placing their cooperative status in jeopardy. These men sipping coffee and talking feaverishly among themselves at the table near me are perhaps the hotel workers' lawyers and MNER (National Movement of Recovered Enterprises) representatives. All the while, the hotel workers are busily going about their jobs, continuing to efficiently and professionally run the former five star hotel where, paradoxically, Menem’s cronies often met in the heady days of the 1990s and the IMF experiment in Argentina.

Whatever the Bauen’s advocates and lawyers are discussing at that table near me, whatever the ultimate outcome of the workers’ precarious legal status, the Bauen workers’ experiment with direct democracy and self-management can be already viewed as victorious: My server, the bellhop, the staff at the front desk, the mucamas (chaimber maids), all of them in their daily tasks, in their weekly and monthly assembly meetings, and in the dignity they’ve reclaimed for themselves through their ongoing struggle, are inventing a new model for life that returns the empowering living labour possessed by each worker back to each worker and reformulates each workers’ subjectivity in every act of solidarity with their compañeros (comrades). And in every act of mutual aid and cooperative work, remnants of the old, coercive, hopeless, and sad ways of life ensconced in the decaying hierarchical power structures of capitalist work scenarios slowly perish. In its very existence as a worker-run enterprise and out of the personal crises of each of its workers, the Bauen puts into question the need for any human being to control another human being - for the need for wage slavery - and shows us social imperatives infinitely more important than the hegemonic ideologies of profit and greed.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Esteban Magnani's website and book El cambio silencioso

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Argentina, I'm currently reading Estaban Magnani's El cambio silencioso: empresas y fábricas recuperadas por los trabajadores en la Argentina (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2003) (The Silent Change: Enterprises and Factories Recovered by Workers in Argentina) . This was the first book published on the recovered factory movement in Argentina (for another good book on the subject, see
Sin patrón: fábricas y empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (Without Bosses: Enterprises and Factories Recovered by Their Workers). Besides being an independent journalist and author, Magnani was also a crew member (Argentinean field producer) on Lewis and Klein's The Take.

Magnani takes the reader on a facinating journey into the praxical realities at the heart of Argentina's recovered factory movement since Dec. 2001. In the first half of the book, Magnani details the history of the movement and its connections to Argentina's neoliberal restructurations and disastrous failures of the 1990s; briefly touches on the greater historical imperatives of worker takeovers and worker managed workspaces; delves into how new subjectivities are being forged within the direct democracy at the heart of the recovered factory movement; outlines the main theoretical pillars of the recovered workspace movement; and details the parallel economy and new social structures it is undergirding in Argentina. The second part of the book relies on the plethora of interviews and personal on-site observations Magnani made while a crew member on The Take to evocatively illustrate the everyday experiences of the movement via five exemplar case studies: Zanon, Union y Fuerza, Confecciones Brukman, Chilavert (the factory I'll be interning at starting next week), and Instituto Comunicaciones.

The book has yet to be translated into English. Perhaps with permission of the author, I'll be able to translate some passages or even a few chapters. While the entire book is very pertinent in documenting this newest iteration of the history of worker control and workers' struggles, the book's introduction, chapters 1 and 2, and the conclusion seem to me particularly relevant for the current global social justice literature with reference to Argentina's workers' struggles.

A good analysis of the value of McLuhan's media analysis...

A few sites documenting the history of anarchy

Good selection of papers on Argentina's recovered factories (in Spanish)

http://www.iisg.nl/labouragain/argentineantakeovers.php

The Take's website, with key links

Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's award winning film The Take's NFB website, with excellent supporting links and resources on worker recovered factories, worker cooperatives, and some aspects of the social justice movement.

A good article on Zanon, from WikiNews (April 26, 2005)

Argentinean Workers Preparing to Defend Control of Factory.