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

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

My latest proposal for my doctoral research into workers' control in Argentina

“Occupy, Resist, Produce”: An Historical and Phenomenological Inquiry into Argentina’s Worker-Recovered Enterprises Movement

On December 19-20, 2001 Argentina was the site of a massive popular uprising that brought the country’s dramatic economic and political crisis to a breaking point. But crisis is, potentially, an opening to the creation of “new social possibilities for living” [12, p. 2; see also: 15, pp. 82-83]. In response to the blighting of Argentina’s working class by the national governments’ acquiescence to the neoliberal reform policies instigated by the International Monetary Fund over the past three decades, organized movements of the unemployed, neighbourhood assemblies, human-rights groups, and—the group at the heart my PhD dissertation—the worker-controlled and -recovered enterprises movement (empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores, or “ERT”), are contributing to the creation of myriad autonomous spaces for social renewal [29, 30]. Through forms of direct democracy and community-based social initiatives, these movements are directly addressing the inability of Argentina’s traditional institutions to contain historically high levels of unemployment and poverty [22, 23]. Within this crisis, the ERT movement in particular is crafting promising—and workable—alternatives for Argentina’s workers.

Mapping the empirical terrain. Gleaned in part from my internship with the ERT movement, my studies at the University of Buenos Aires, and my work with the ERT Documentation Centre, the current methods of studying ERTs in Argentina are based on either case studies [8, 11, 16] or quantitative approaches that ask questions such as “How many?” and “Where and in what economic sectors are they located?” [19, 26]. This research suggests that the political and economic impacts of the ERT movement are “related to its symbolic dimension” rather than to its size [22, p.72] since, to date, the movement involves roughly 180 or so mostly small and medium sized enterprises estimated to include between 9,000 and 10,000 workers [26]. Nevertheless, the ERT movement has inspired new possibilities for social change in Argentina [6, 22, 27], showing potential routes out of chronic unemployment [28] in spite of the ongoing difficulties its worker protagonists face. In creating these alternatives, a common story of struggle and hope unifies the movement.

Argentina’s under-regulated free-market, with recent roots in the market liberalizations of the ‘90s, has encouraged precarious work conditions. ERTs are an outcome of this. After ERT workers suffer months of not receiving pay from management due to, in many cases, the imminent bankruptcies of their workplaces caused by owner embezzlement and desertion, workers’ struggles continue when they occupy their firms in order to prevent the vaciamiento (“emptying”) of machinery and inventory by returning owners or corrupt court trustees [11, 13]. Once in control of their workplaces, workers’ struggles carry over into their efforts to reclaim lost market-share, restart production runs, and learn new entrepreneurial skills [26]. As well, most workers lose their union affiliation in the transition from salary or wage earners to members of workers’ cooperatives [22]. More optimistically, researchers point to the promising alternative forms of economic relations being experimented with by the movement, such as the budding inter-ERT “economies of solidarity” (i.e., bartering products and sharing customers, prime materials, and even machinery) [6, 10]. Further, much weight is placed on how ERTs engrain themselves in the neighbourhoods that surround them; many ERTs double as alternative schools, art galleries, and even community centres and clinics [11].

Research objectives. My dissertation aims to contextualize these contemporary experiments in cooperative self-determination among ERTs that were once devastated by the crisis of the neoliberal model. My approach will be interdisciplinary and two-pronged, exploring both a “bottom-up” phenomenological perspective and the historical political, economic, and cultural dimensions of the ERT movement within the crisis. In particular, my doctoral work strives to directly address a crucial gap in the ERT literature: While current research alludes to the innovative ways that capital-labour relations are being challenged by workers’ control in Argentina [22, 26], putting into question the neoliberal privileging of property rights over the right to work [11, 16], it does so in an embryonic way because of researchers’ over-reliance on either case studies or quantitative methods. These research strategies, while necessary, are usually conducted independent of other methods, thus underplaying a broader historical context, as Bryman [2] argues. In response to this, my doctoral project strives to unearth the historical roots of the country’s ongoing crisis (a macro-level analysis) in light of how, from the ashes of that crisis, thousands of individuals throughout Argentina are creatively, actively, and cooperatively making alternatives in which they shift from the status of employees to that of autonomous workers in control of their own working lives (a micro-level analysis).

An historical political economy of worker resistance. To begin to understand the roots of these transformations into self-managed-worker subjectivities, I have already begun an historical survey of the political, economic, and cultural circumstances that gave rise to the crisis. This historical perspective contextualizes the upsurge of experiments in recovered enterprises in Argentina and compels me to ask questions such as: What are the historical moments that led to economic crisis in Argentina? What can government documents, policies, union literature, the ERT movement’s own political pamphlets, legal interpretations, and cultural practices and myths tell us about the everyday political practices that permeate ERT protagonists’ lives [9, 31]? How is the movement linked to the labour traditions and the sociopolitical tensions of Argentina dating back at least to the time of Perón’s worker-supported presidencies (1946-1955) [24, 25, 29]? Conceptually grounding this dimension of my research, and acting as theoretical links to the phenomenological dimension, are theories of “agency” and “workers autonomy” found in both the critical theories and histories of capitalist processes of production [1, 7, 14, 17, 21, etc.] and the literature on workers’ control [3, 4, 5, 18, 20, etc.]. Both literatures recognize that there exists in the capitalist system’s very “technical and social environments” [7, p. 47] openings for workers’ resistances to forms of exploitation and alienation [1]; both traditions underscore how production skills and know-how tend to ultimately belong to workers, not managers [3, 7, 21]. Current ERT research, however, lacks deep roots in these traditions due to the paucity of Spanish translations. This denies ERT research the explanatory power that these more traditional literatures offer for understanding the political economic and historical nuances inherent in the change from employees to self-managed workers. My doctoral work will make a vital contribution in correcting this gap.

A “bottom-up” phenomenology of workers’ control. Alternatively, it is clear to me that the ERT movement contributes a powerful case study to the projects of critical theory and theories of workers’ control, revealing important phenomenological contours to “the ongoing struggles of workers” to craft “better, alternative forms of social life” [3, p. 10] within moments of political and economic volatility. Hence, my second research dimension will add further phenomenological understanding to the empirical mapping of the movement by beginning to qualitatively unravel its protagonists’ reclamations of their own labour. Rooted in ERT workers’ own everyday lives [9], this dimension will see me conduct extended interviews with ERT protagonists, inquiring into the self-understandings of the meaning and significance of their experiences of struggles for autonomous workplaces, their fears of unemployment and poverty, and the tribulations and joys of self-management. As well, I will carry out participant observation case studies of four exemplary ERTs from differing sectors (Chilavert, Cefomar, IMPA, and Hotel Bauen), focusing on their cooperative modes of organization; processes of production or service delivery; and cultural connections to the neighbourhoods that surround them. The anticipated outcome of this phase of the research will be to articulate what I am calling the “empowerment contagion” of ERTs stemming from their cooperative and horizontal modes of organization inspiring social movements the world over [13, 27].

Looking forward. Most importantly, I believe that the ERT workers' struggles teach us many things about imminent political action aspiring towards social transformation that directly contests the logic of capital, the prejudices of the Washington Consensus, and that ultimately 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 workplace 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. Throughout my research work 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, you 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" [11, p. 62].

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