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Debating the lessons of the Argentine Insurrection

Many on the left now hope that we may be reaching the end of a long dark period in our history.  The Blair regime is facing a rising tide of contempt and hatred.  Bush is on the slide in the US.  Young workers have scored a significant victory against labour liberalisation in France.  Even Bertie and Fianna Fail are in decline in Ireland.  New social movements are arising around the globe.

A focal point for this notion of revival lies in Latin America. A series of new social movements have grown up. New governments have been elected and in a number of countries they have found themselves in sharp conflict with the USA, a country with a long tradition of treating Latin America as its ‘backyard’ and of intervening militarily to depose governments that seem to oppose its interests.  A focal point of these movements is President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The new developments have led to new positions on the left.  Does the working class occupy the central position that Marxists assign to it? Do we need a new politics to face new challenges? Can other classes or social movements bring about the defeat of capitalism and the revolutionary transformation of society?

All these questions were posed in a recent upsurge in Latin America – the 2001 collapse of the economy followed by a period of popular mobilisation.  Below Joe Craig reviews a new debate in the magazine ‘Historical materialism’ in which a number of Marxist writers respond to an earlier attempt to explain the Argentinian events.

Joe Craig

12 May 2006

The latest issue of ‘Historical Materialism’ (volume 14 issue1 – 2006) has a series of responses to an article on the Argentinean insurrection of 2001 published in an earlier issue of the journal (volume 10.4 issue 4) by Ana Dinerstein.  This latter article – ‘The Battle of Buenos Aires: Crisis, Insurrection and the reinvention of Politics in Argentina’ is an analysis of the significance of events at the end of 2001 when a popular uprising against a show-case example of neoliberalism resulted in the President escaping from popular anger by helicopter and the quick despatch by popular opposition of his successor.  For many on the left this was anticipated as a harbinger of things to come and for some the fruition of a pre-revolutionary crisis.

Now however the introduction to the series of responses to the Dinerstein article notes that ‘the crisis seems to be a thing of the past.’ (HM 14.1 p. 155)  This clearly calls out for explanation and all the articles provide informed discussions of events.  In examining the various arguments the subsequent retreat of the mass movement and the restabilisation of capitalist rule is an important pointer to evaluating their respective explanatory power.


Ana Dinerstein provides an enthusiastically optimistic analysis of developments and along with other contributors devotes considerable space to an analysis of the economic development that led up to the crisis.  We will not reprise this part of the debate but will briefly review the strictly political aspects of the discussion.  Dinerstein states that ‘the aim of this paper is to explore the political meaning of the December insurrection and of some of the forms of mobilisation and participation which followed it.’ (HM 10.4, p. 7)

Her view of the insurrection may summed up in the following paragraph:
‘Although the insurrection condensed many struggles of the past, it was not led by any particular group or ‘interest.’  It was an insurrection with no subject and no purpose.  It can be explained as a moment of ‘fusion’.  The power affirmed in December 2001 in the streets of Buenos Aires was, in fact, a negative power.  The mobilising force of the insurrection was not the identity or the organisation that people join or the type of demands they put forward, but what I would like to call the unrealised.  The unrealised is what we are not.  It is critique.  It consists of a universe of needs, ideas, practices, experiences, desires, frustrations, dreams that were postponed and repressed.  The unrealised is the undefined, that which cannot be, or exist, or be done or accomplished, that which cannot be developed or realised, that which cannot be explained but felt, that which inundated the streets in December 2001 and still remains in the streets.’ (HM 10.4, p.24)

Her analysis revolves around an approving evaluation of the popular slogan of the insurrection – ‘¡Que se vayan todos!’ – ‘All of them out,’ a reference to all the politicians etc. ‘The critique entailed in ¡Que se vayan todos! is extremely meaningful, since it initiated a movement of renovation of the political as anti-politics.  The popular insurrection led to a progressive reconciliation of the people with politics in a new – hitherto unknown – form.’ (HM 10.4, p. 28-29)

She quotes approvingly the statement ‘we don’t believe in ‘taking power’.  Our struggle is not about how to reach power in a system impregnated by values which don’t have any response to society . . . we work to change the system and we believe that the starting point for that is the construction of something new from below, among us.  We are concerned with recovering what is human, with creating collective solidarity relations among our mates.’ (HM 10.4, p. 30-31)


The first reply to Dinerstein’s analysis by Alberto R Bonnet (¡Que se vayan todos! Discussing the Argentine Crisis and Insurrection, HM 14.1 pp157 – 184) accuses her of presenting a populist economic analysis of the economic crisis rather than a Marxist one and most of this article is devoted to explaining what this means.  He also lists a number of factors that have contributed to the restabilisation of the regime since the insurrection.  These are important as the class struggle is a battle between two sides and the left appreciates too little the ability of the capitalist class to learn and apply lessons of its own.

The actions of the government included devaluation of the currency (without prompting hyperinflation) and the consequent reduction in real wages, the staged reversal of the freezing of bank accounts, a tougher negotiating stance with imperialism (which does not in the least imply any genuinely anti-imperialist content) and blunting the edge of opposition movements with the help of the trade union bureaucracy.  Finally the government moved to prevent the collapse of the banking system and economic growth returned.  The opposition movements retreated and declined and relative political stability was reintroduced.

All this is interesting but the failure of the popular movement despite the extreme economic and political crisis is of most interest to us.  The second and third replies to Dinerstein have most to say on this.

Capital accumulation

The article by Juan Iñigo Carrera makes an immediate impression by pointing out that the state of siege announced by the government in December 2001 was not precipitated by the cacerolazos – the demonstrations of pot and pan banging –and by the march on the symbolic Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires but by widespread looting.  This ‘evinced very little spontaneous political action, let alone elements of a horizontal political organisation’ but was ‘rooted in the hopeless misery to which the Argentine working class was finding itself condemned.’(HM 14.1, p. 188)  He notes that there was no looting after December 2001 despite the living conditions of many workers getting significantly worse.  He explains that it was the apparatus of the Peronist party commanded by Duhalde, who shortly became President, that spearheaded the looting, a weapon they had used before in 1989 when it assisted the transfer of power to president Menem.  For Carrera this was the predominant popular political action that precipitated the downfall of the government on 20 December.

Carrera then gives an analysis of the political condition of the Argentinean working class that explains its political consciousness as a product of the way capital is accumulated in the Argentinean economy.  This approach recalls Marx in the Communist Manifesto stating that the bourgeoisies creates its gravedigger in the working class.  Carrera argues that the character and potential power of that working class is to a great degree determined by the nature of the capital accumulation that takes place in the country.  He also argues that ‘we must avoid embracing the illusion that an apparent rise in the political awareness of the Argentine people will per se engender a radical change in the national process of capital accumulation.’ (HM 14.1, p. 191)

This means that for Argentina the failure of capitalist industrialisation has left the working class with ‘a mass of obsolete means of production materially unfit to support the development of the productive forces of society. . . and an increasing transformation of the working class into a surplus population for capital.’ (HM 14.1, p. 200)  All this is important for understanding the political position of the working class on the eve of the 2001 insurrection.  For Carrera this, and its recent history, ‘are clear indicators of the significant weakness suffered by the political and union strength of the Argentine working class during the last quarter of the twentieth century.’ (HM 14.1, p. 201)  This fundamentally accounts for the ability of Peronist populism, with its ties with the trade unions and their bureaucracy, to navigate the insurrection and impose more drastic attacks on the working class while at the same time imposing some political stability.

Carrera is thus damning about the central motif of Dinerstein’s analysis.  For him there was no qualitative rise in political consciousness entailed in the events of 2001 and the demand contained in ‘out with them all’ reflected the wish for the continuation of the historical pattern of capital accumulation in the country without its necessary and inescapable consequences.  ‘Out with them all’ thus expressed ‘the inability to seize power with one’s own hands’. (HM 14.1, p. 205) 

In judging the various sides of the debate this ability to provide some explanation for the failure of the popular movement after December 2001 is certainly more persuasive, as is the method of analysis itself, but even more so is the information and arguments on the components of the popular movement itself.  Carrera looks at these and compares them with Dinerstein’s claims that ‘everything has changed’ and that politics had in some way been ‘reinvented’.  He looks first at the neighbourhood assemblies.

Popular Organisation

Having ‘played a significant role in the rapid succession of governments’ these have declined from attendance of ‘several hundreds of people at best’, for average populations of 25,000 to 156,000, to the few surviving ones attracting dozens but still claiming to speak on behalf of their populations.   ‘The so-called ‘inorganic horizontal organisation’ has no other content than the absolute centralisation of the decision making process by those who control the assemblies.  Thus, while some assemblies voted to exclude anyone who was affiliated to a political party, others are directly controlled by this or that party.  Some assemblies voted for resolutions against the IMF, the nationalisation of the privatised companies, but, in practical terms, their achievements come down to some minor urban improvements and cultural activities.  They also provided some food and clothes to the impoverished.  Clearly these activities satisfy real needs, given the current situation, but they have nothing to do with the overthrow of the capitalist mode of production’  Far from escaping the well known pitfalls of political organisation associated with parties ‘as soon as the same activities became systematic, they started to show all the marks of political clientelism and charitable relationships.’(HM 14.1, p.205 - 206)

These asambleas are also analysed in the third response to Dinerstein, ‘Argentina: On Crisis and a Measure for Class Struggle’ by Juan Grigera. (HM 14.1, pp 221 – 248)  Grigera claims that the asambleas ‘actually started after the 19-20 December demonstrations’ and are ‘the expression of a fraction of the urban middle class.’ (HM 14.1, p.242)  While agreeing that Dinerstein deals with some interesting aspects of them he is rather more critical.  He states that by the period between January and March 2002, despite ‘a peak of general social interest in the phenomenon’, they were ‘no longer quantitatively relevant.’ (HM 14.1, p.242)  Outside of the capital they had generally disappeared and in Buenos Aires they numbered around 45, each with an attendance of around 20 people.

Of their political relevance he points to the 2003 elections when ‘they urged voters to vote blank or spoil their ballot, and the election registered 16% more participation than in 2001 and the smallest quantity of blank votes since 1946.’  Their adhesion to a new politics’ where power is unimportant or resides in their ‘realised relationships’ is countered with the observation that these are ‘fragile, marginal and non-scaleable’ and ‘do not ‘overcome’ or even represent any kind of threat to capital.’ (HM 14.1, p.243)

Grigera summing up his analysis of the asambleas states that ‘no matter how progressive or ’advanced’ the social relationships, forms of decision-making and activities of asambleas are said to be, their small scale, lack of influence and flawed co-ordination between themselves and other movements render this movement unable to overcome very narrow limitations.’ (HM 14.1, p.244)

The organisation of the unemployed, the piqueteros, is generally held up as a new and very positive development of popular organisation.  Carrera argues that they ‘were decisive for the implementation of extended unemployment subsidies, which reached almost two million people and have been effective since 2002’ and says that even ‘today the piqueteros retain their capacity for mobilisation.’  However he adds that ‘their power to transform the current social conditions has not gone beyond that immediately emerging from the reproduction of unemployment itself: the struggle for subsidies (which fall short of the limit of extreme poverty), community kitchens and orchards, complementary schooling, some very small-scale production, health care, and so on.’  (HM 14.1, p.206) 

Carrera notes however that this activity is a long way short of the potential to overcome the capitalist mode of production.  He points out that the organisation of piqueteros claiming to be the biggest openly supports current president Kirchner and the common exemplar of the movement has been plagued by internal power struggles and has gone through successive splits, ‘clientelism permeates the piqueteros movement, a fact pointed out by the organisations themselves as they exchange accusations.’ (HM 14.1, p.207)

Grigera notes positive, defensive, features of the movements’ fragmentation, making ‘it impossible for the government to negotiate with the piqueteros unilaterally.’  He notes that their method of protest, road blockades, was popular where strikes in marginal areas of production such as bankrupt factories and some state services were of little use and that they required a high degree of organisation.  But he also provides evidence that supports Carrera’s argument that ‘clientelism permeates the piqueteros movement.’

‘State subsidies are by far the most important source of finance of these organisations,’ and notes that their initiatives in productive ventures ‘are insignificant and the dependence of the unemployed workers’ movement upon government social programmes remains total.’ (HM 14.1, p.233)  These are ‘mainly distributed in the context of long-standing clientelist relationships . . .
a good deal of unemployed workers discourse is directed to confronting clientelist practices which are deeply rooted in political activities in the suburbs.  This does not mean, however, that this actually succeeds nor that all of them have a genuine intention to overcome clientelism.’ (HM 14.1, p.235)

An indication of clientelism is shown by the lefts’ inability to mobilise the movement on wider questions and its weakness evidenced by the experience of the leader of one of the largest organisations who stood for election as governor in the province of Buenos Aires and received only 0.76% of the electorate’s votes.

The state has used its position to try to split the movement by a mixture of repression and co-option.  Grigera compares their development to that of the origins of trade unions under Peronism.  ‘In other words, we can expect in the short term the rise of a piqueteros bureaucracy just as we witnessed a trade-union Peronist bureaucracy after 1943.’ (HM 14.1, p.237)

Carrera and Grigera make critiques of the factory occupations and barter clubs which also demonstrate their unsuitability for a total assault on capitalist rule and these too are worth reading.  Briefly in the former case they confirm the old Marxist axiom that islands of socialism are not possible in a capitalist system and in the case of barter clubs Grigera asserts that ‘there is, to speak frankly, nothing revolutionary about barter clubs.’ (HM 14.1, p.242)


The overall balance sheet given by Carrera is that ‘everything has changed so that everything can remain the same.’ (HM 14.1, p.208)  He argues that the essential props of the Peronist regime continue and notes that ‘Kirchner enjoys high rates of popularity after a year and a half in office.’ (HM 14.1, p.208)  The Peronist trade unions are now invited to take to the streets to stop the more combative piqueteros.

Carrera is scathing of Dinerstein’s approach: ‘shaped as a utopian critique of capitalism, Dinerstein presents us with yet another fashionable attempt to excise working-class revolutionary action from its necessary base in objective knowledge.’ (HM 14.1, p.211)  ‘The current fashionable ideological rejection of seizing state power, that is, of seizing the power of the general political representatives of social capital, does not express the power of a social movement in order to overthrow capitalism.  On the contrary, it expresses its impotence to do so.’ (HM 14.1, p.215)

Carrera thus traces the failures of the insurrection to the ‘mutilation suffered by the historical powers of the Argentine working class . . . reflected in the leading role played by the unions within its political organisation’ leading to working class political action being subordinated to trade union action. (HM 14.1, p.216 217)

Carrera’s whole analysis of the development of the Argentinean working class is full of suggestive parallels with the development of the Irish working class including its political weakness being a reflection of the predominant role of trade union organisation and its subordination to the local ‘populist’ party of capitalism.

Grigera makes the complementary point that social movements are no substitute for working class organisation and notes that their rebellion was not accompanied by proletarian struggles.  He states that the crisis is over and that ‘bourgeois normality is back in place.’ (HM 14.1, p.245)  His criticisms are not made from any belief in his own superior intellect or capacity for understanding.  He states that ‘the left as a whole (including this author) failed totally to present any alternative or make any relevant intervention in the development of the crisis,’ (HM 14.1, p.246)

For Irish Marxists this debate is important because the Argentinean crisis is held up as a paradigmatic episode in challenging neoliberalism.  The Irish left has a duty to study its lessons and challenge its own often infantile championing of social movements and uncritical devotion to trade union organisation.  The lessons to be learnt from these contributions stretch from the importance of the Marxist method of analysis to the concrete evaluation of existing movements.  Contempt for theory is a deeply ingrained feature of the Irish left.  The Argentinean experience demonstrates that unless this is addressed theoretical mistakes will lead to practical failure.

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