Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: Your new book Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentinatraces Argentina’s recent history from its sovereign debt crisis in 2001 through the bartering systems that emerged and the workplaces that were recuperated. The public’s demand, “They all must go!”, expressed a radical shift from parliamentary politics towards participatory democracy.
The financial crisis in 2001 obviously wasn’t the first crisis in Argentina’s history. What could begin to explain the different response?
Marina Sitrin: There are a number of things that can help explain the difference in response. One is the depth of the crisis: While there had been crises in the past, this was a growing crisis where privatization had reached a tipping point. In addition to this was the moment of the Cacerolazo, where protestors banged pots and pans. The government also froze people’s bank accounts and this was the spark when people began to realize how deep the crisis was. The government feared that there would be a run on the banks, like in 1930s America, and people would withdraw all of their money and devalue the currency.
That is on the issue of economics, though, and I guess you are asking why the new political form emerged in that moment? I think this is a really important question and we can begin by placing Argentina in the context of social movements that started in the mid-90s, particularly with the Zapatistas. We’ve also seen many forms of autonomous organisations form all around the world, but especially in Latin America. Then as we move towards the end of the ’90s, a big part of the conversation was the rise of social justice movements such as the anti-IMF.
I think Argentina is part of this global experience rejecting institutions of global finance and, in turn, rejecting the course of action that looks to them to solve our problems, and even not wanting them to even if it was possible. I think this is where the shift in Argentina comes from in a global context, but in terms of Argentina itself, in the book I talk about the group HIJOS – the children of the disappeared – who started organizing in the ’90s. You can see the roots and forms of horizontal organization, direct democracy and direct action in their work, as would also be seen after 2001 in groups like the unemployed.
History is a very tricky subject because one could go on and on about all the different connections that are probably true and, at the same time, none of them have to be necessarily or absolutely true. In Argentina you could look back to the late 1800s and early 1900s and find there was the largest Anarchist-Syndicalist movement in the Americas, at least, and in terms of publications probably the most in the world during this period. At the time workers were taking over parts of the South of Argentina, running workplaces and running towns.
This is a part of the history, but at the same time we have to ask does that have a direct connection with what happened in 2001, and also question why it didn’t happen earlier. I don’t know. I think history can have an influence on our imagination instead of the idea that something happened at some point in history and we are now attempting to replicate it. There are a lot of examples like this in Argentina, and there is also, if you look at the political forms that emerged after 2001, a rejection of a lot of political forms that is consistent with what’s been taking place in Latin America, and now with Occupy and the movements in Greece and Spain. These movements are essentially rejecting the political party formation, hierarchical forms of organising and looking to institutions of power to answer people’s problems or demands. Rather, people are coming up with their own alternatives together and this is a big rejection of party politics and the guerilla struggles of the ’60s and ’70s.
JGF: You argue that the co-operators and neighbourhood organisers are wrong to ignore the attacks of academics. However, Naomi Klein praised the fact that “the theorists are chasing after the factory workers, trying to analyse what is already in noisy production.”
When a philosopher turned up to speak to the students in ’68 they said, “Sartre, be brief”. It seems that those in Argentina would not even have the patience to say, “be brief”.
Apart from being an obvious justification for writing the book, why do you think they should be so worried by the industry of commentary?
MS: Well, I think it is important to engage with some of the high-profile public intellectuals and academics, especially when there is so much disagreement with them. The reason for this, unfortunately, is because it is their voices that predominate. So if it’s an academic voice that is heard speaking about the movements and they are saying the movements are dead and have no horizontal processes, I think this does a huge disservice to the movements whose voices don’t get shared in the world. I think it’s also important in terms of the historical record, but also because there is increasing repression of autonomous movements around the world. When it comes to mobilizing support and defence on behalf of the movements it is important to have as many allies as possible. So, some of it is just strategic and the other part is the historical record.
Now, I don’t think anyone should spend too much time engaging with them but I cannot tell you the number of times I do presentations, one just a few weeks ago, and someone with authority said, “I’m an academic whose spent time in Argentina studying the recuperated workplaces and they are completely consumed by the government and they’ve been shrinking over the years in number”. That is completely false and I’m not even sure where he got his information. I then had to politely tell him it was completely false and give him citations of how he could find out the real information.
Spreading that misinformation, though, doesn’t help anyone, and it also doesn’t help those in Thessaloniki, Greece where there is a recuperated factory now. Those in the movements had been mobilizing and were shown the film The Take, as well as the oral history book I had done on the first few years of the movements in Argentina, which had been translated in Greek. So they had been really engaged with the idea of recuperated workplaces and it succeeded in one place called ?? in August. Then, in September someone from the recuperated workplace movement from Argentina came to Greece to help share their experiences. Had the workers in Greece believed this experience had only happened for a few years and then completely failed, they may not have tried it. The disturbance that misinformation can do is huge.
JGF: In your conversations with those involved in recuperated workplaces and neighbourhood assemblies, many fiercely resisted being called “political” and would refer to themselves as “protagonists”.
While it’s a critique of the “revolutionary party” — say in its Russian or Chinese incarnation — it is also of the exclusion of people that occurs in every single form of representative governance.
Do you think what is happening in Argentina is part of a global movement towards self-governance?
MS: Absolutely, and I think the recuperated workplace movement is one of the best examples of this impulse and desire, I’m hesitant to say instinct, for self-organisation that comes from a combination of necessity and reaction to what came before. Interestingly, though, it is not coming from an ideological place, which, I think, makes this historical moment (say through the mid-90s to today) different. People are no longer only rejecting institutional power and the state and creating horizontal forms but are doing it through self-organisation, and not because some book said this is how you make a more free society. Instead it has come through the process of organising out of a real crisis and necessity in places like Argentina and Greece but also in other places where the crisis hasn’t hit as deeply. This form of organising, self-organising, is about asking to be left alone to do it and it is going on everywhere. What is most inspiring to me is in places like the recuperated workplaces where they say, ‘We’re not political’, and in the US in the anti-foreclosure movement, based in the neighbourhoods, where a lot of times it’s just neighbours who get together and say, ‘Who is expecting to be foreclosed? Let’s have a BBQ in someone’s backyard and talk about how we are going to defend the houses’. These people are not going to protest outside of the banks, or at least not at the beginning. The first thing they do is make sure people stay in their homes and support each other. This, I think, is a growing phenomenon.
JGF: This resonates with the Transition Network — a decentralized group of people responding, primarily, to the environmental crises around climate change and peak oil. Whilst it started from a certain scientific approach, which is undoubtedly important, one of the co-founders said that he was surprised that that the biggest shift had been a cultural change. Through neighbourhood organisations — known as ‘Transition Streets’ — people started to associate with each other again and used this collective activity to approach these environmental problems in turn. It seems that things start to happen when we start associating on a local level and not only in response to scientific facts or political statements.
MS: I think this subjective change, which is also a material change, is so much more powerful. Keeping your neighbours in their home, stopping people from getting evicted, or running a factory together in a co-operative way changes social relations. I don’t want to say it empowers, because empowered is a word from the old forms of organising, but people say they feel happier and they feel power with each other. The rejection of the ‘political’ isn’t just a rejection of political parties but also of a certain way of doing politics. It is more about social relationships where we can discuss how to stop an eviction at a neighbourhood BBQ, and this has a different kind of sentiment. At Zanon, now called FaSinPat (‘Factory without Bosses’) in the South of Argentina, so much of the organising before they took over the factory was at football games where they were building relationships with one another on a very human level.
JGF: One challenge to self-governance and non-state organisations is the arrival of someone who is perceived as a better political leader. The election of Obama had the effect of reinvesting hope in mainstream politics — if only for a short while — and the election of Kirchner had the same effect in Argentina.
You talk about the divisions caused by Kirchner’s election in relation to the Madres de la Plaza Mayo. Don’t you think there is a difference between the organisations that have formed since 2001 and their relationship to the state, when compared to the Madres de la Plaza Mayo who formed in opposition to a particular regime (in this case the Dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla)?
MS: The response from the more autonomous movements has been quite mixed. They’ve managed to maintain a form of self-organisation and autonomy and I would also include the recuperated workplaces and unemployed in this. It got very complicated when the Kirchner government came into power and not only because the government was offering people material things that they needed but because of some political changes. It is important to understand the history of the dictatorship in Argentina during which more than 30,000 people disappeared and all the governments up until Kirchner passed a law saying let’s all forgive and forget.
You have to remember that at this time there were still thousands and thousands of people who were involved in the military and acts of torture during the dictatorship still living freely in society, and this is how Argentine society was supposed to move forward. So, when the Kirchner government started prosecuting and doing some very important symbolic acts early on, it resonated with everyone. This didn’t mean that people had an orientation towards the state but found it was really difficult, as a movement, to be against the state when the state is taking a really important course of action whilst also acknowledging the fact that only the state is in the position to prosecute thousands of people in this particular historical moment. This gained some popularity for the government and made things a little bit confusing. Then there was the question of material support and the government, responding to ‘They all must go!’, offered material support to restore some sort of legitimacy to the state. They also went after campaigners and leaders to come out as supporters and even take positions in government — it was a very disorientating time.