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International Socialism, Spring 2003


Robert Sáenz & Isidora Cruz Bernal

The driving forces behind the ‘Argentinazo’


From International Socialism 2:98, Spring 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Our reflections on the events in Argentina must develop on two different levels. First, we will look at the conditions that made the ‘Argentinazo’ possible, conditions which continue to exist and continue to drive the process forward. Second, we must examine what it is that inhibits the process from advancing in a direction that favours the interests of the working class. In fact, the same phenomena explain both at once. For the factors that set the Argentinazo in motion are the same factors that now set limits on its development.

What are these factors? First, the structural dysfunctions of the process of accumulation of Argentinian capitalism (what has now come to be called, in a kind of shorthand, ‘the crisis’). Second, the question mark that now hangs over the bourgeois democratic order installed in 1983 – a questioning captured in the slogan ‘Que se vayan todos’ (‘Out with them all’). Third, the rebellion of the hungry, driven by mass unemployment and the increasing marginalisation of the poorest sectors of the working class, the expression of which has been the looting of shops and supermarkets. Fourth, the incipient involvement of workers with jobs, expressed among a vanguard of workers in the movement of factory occupations. Finally, there is the willingness of a growing sector of militants to enter the political struggle and take on the governing regime – this had its expression in the events of 20 December 2001. But while this layer is very combative, it is not a highly politicised group.

The problem of the social model of accumulation

The model of capitalist accumulation first installed by the military dictatorship of 1976 and radicalised by the Peronist government of Carlos Menem through then 1990s has brought Argentinian capitalism to the point of collapse. Argentina has experienced an exaggerated version of a tendency observable throughout the capitalist system – rising profit levels that do not reflect even a moderate growth in the market or any expansion in popular consumption (what the ‘regulationists’ called Fordism). In Argentina in the 1990s the destructuring of the internal market (with the consequent meteoric rise in unemployment) and the transnational activity of the local ruling class were the factors that led to the bankruptcy of the Argentinian economy. One immediate result of this is the emerging position of US imperialism as the arbiter of any restructuring of the country.

This represents an obstacle to even the most timid attempt by the capitalist state to compensate the popular classes. Of course, this is a general picture which needs refinement. At the present time the bourgeois state is pursuing that kind of policy towards the unemployed (especially where they are organised). But that does not change the fact that in general terms Argentinian capitalism cannot subsidise the petty bourgeoisie or raise the wages of workers. On the contrary – the living standards of the popular classes must continue to fall if the Argentinian capitalist class is to find its way out of the crisis. This situation has opened a space for the revolutionary left in the aftermath of 20 December.

But where the poor and the exploited are living in conditions of desperation, or near-desperation, and where the mood of the people is extremely volatile and explosive, revolutionaries have an enormous political responsibility to provide political and organisational leadership. It will be the decisive factor in determing whether the balance tips in favour of the working class and the oppressed. Desperate material conditions do not necessarily work in our favour. Capitalism has plenty of experience in managing situations in which explosions of popular anger and class hatred become regular things. And furthermore, conditions of scarcity quickly demoralise the exploited. We should remember that in the earlier highpoint in the levels of working class struggle, between the ‘Cordobazo’ (the insurrectionary workers’ movement in the city of Córdoba in 1969) and the military coup of 1976, the revolutionary subject emerged in an Argentina whose crisis was nothing like as deep or unstable as it is today.

These problems affecting political intervention are more structural in character, but we should also recognise that up till now the revolutionary left has provided very little help in enabling the workers and popular classes to turn the movement into a political offensive against their bourgeois and imperialist enemies. On the contrary, while being instrumental in moving the struggles of some sectors – the Partido Obrero with its piquetero (unemployed workers) populism, the MST colluding in the bureaucratisation of the popular assemblies where it has influence, or the PTS2, with its sectarian, bureaucratic politics in the small group of occupied factories where it has influence – have played a conservative role, objectively helping to ‘calm the waters’ among the exploited by keeping them stagnating in separate organisations.

The democratic rebellion against ‘democracy’ and political power

The Argentinazo of 20 December crystallised the collapse of the bourgeois democratic institutions established in Argentina after the end of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict of 1982. The fundamental layers of the population see the current regime as their enemy, hostile to their interests and unconcerned for their material welfare. This expresses itself in the unanimous rejection of the ‘políticos ladrones’ (thieving politicians), but also extends to the major economic actors (especially the privatised sectors), the question of the debt and, in a more limited sense, to imperialism.

There is no doubt that the mediating institutions of bourgeois democracy are in deep crisis – its ‘progressive’ character went no further than holding elections and keeping the institutions alive, but in the wake of the structural changes carried through after 1976 there was no possibility that they could represent the interests of the dominated classes. In the first years of bourgeois democracy, it is true, the popular classes regarded the new regime as ‘something to cherish’ – they had very recent memories of the repression under the military dictatorship (1976–1983). That much was clear during the Easter Week of 1987. But later, as other military crises followed and economic policies moved in an increasingly reactionary direction, people began to realise that this bourgeois democracy was not a tender bud about to blossom. And since the ‘democratic’ government faithfully pursued policies that favoured the powerful economic groups in society, it was in very little danger from some imaginary anti-democratic military plot. As time went on, the links between the governing political elite and the people grew more and more tenuous.

These events did not evolve in a simple rising curve, of course – there were different phases characterised by different moments of crisis. The convertibility of the peso, for example, certainly enabled the ruling class to maintain its hegemony, despite its fragility, at least in the early years. These two contradictory aspects – hegemony plus internal and external weakness – serve to explain why the collapse of the convertible peso was such a quick, unexpected and bruising awakening to reality for large sectors of the middle classes, who until then had simultaneously shown rage, confusion and a desire to be incorporated into political life. Things may have seemed to be going fine in this regime of convertibility that was some kind of lost paradise for some kind of ideal consumer, but in fact most Argentinians already saw the politicians as a bunch of crooks. Yet somehow these depoliticised complaints turned into the demand ‘Que se vayan todos’ – let’s get rid of them all. The bourgeoisie complains that this is an impossible, utopian demand – and in fact it offers very little in the way of an alternative – but at the same time it has the virtue of questioning the value of representative democracy (that is, a bourgeois democracy that treats everyone equally as a ‘citizen’ but denies the real inequalities that continue to exist) as a way of producing decisions in favour of the majority. The feeling that ‘no one represents me’ has turned into an energetic ‘get rid of them all’ that has returned to politics. Where that demand then leads will depend on the unfolding of events in the future, but one element in that process will be the politics of the revolutionary left and how it proposes to draw together all the elements that make up the Argentinazo.

But that future is set in a framework defined by the fact that the democratic rebellion from below against the ruling ‘democracy’, which took shape in December and found expression in the slogan ‘Que se vayan todos’, cannot be stabilised at its present level of organisation and political understanding. It must go forward or retreat. ‘Que se vayan todos’ is an excellent expression of a rejection of this democracy for the rich in which we live, but it does not offer any way of going beyond it. It does not address the question of how we can build a different social and political order in which the working people can decide their own fate rather than simply choose between candidates selected by the powerful. For revolutionaries, this represents a wonderful political opportunity to expose the insuperable limitations of bourgeois democracy by referring to the experience that the popular classes have had in this regime over a 20-year period. The challenge for us is to transform that experience into a political consciousness among the masses of the need to expropriate the bosses and destroy capitalist relations of production in order to make possible a true democracy led by the working class and its allies. This is what we mean when we argue for ‘working within the historical perspective of socialist revolution’, a perspective which can once again be brought into play in the wake of the Argentinazo. It initiated a new situation, but to maintain its initial democratic impulse and avoid the betrayal of the popular rebellion, it must travel beyond those initial demands, in an anti-capitalist and socialist direction, and call into question bourgeois private property itself. Either we go forward or we go back.

The rebellion against hunger, recomposition and territorial power

One of the movements driving the Argentinazo forward was what we might call ‘the rebellion of the hungry’, crystallised in the massive looting of shops and supermarkets in Greater Buenos Aires and Greater Rosario. In fact, the process has a long history with its origins in the local risings (puebladas) of the interior and the movement of the unemployed in and around the capital. The puebladas began in Santiago del Estero, Jujuy, Cutral-Có and other towns, at first in isolated incidents but later in a more connected way, spreading from one to another as the Menem government reached its crisis. The decline during the last Menem period occurred because it was impossible to produce another period of expansion like those of 1991–1993 or 1996–1998. The reason it was impossible had to do with the ‘neo-dualism’ – the combination of a rising level of profits with a contraction of both the labour market and consumption – into which capitalist globalisation had thrown Argentina. The result was that many small towns in the interior found their capacity for survival reduced to an absolute minimum – some because they were reliant on companies exploiting a natural resource (like oil in Tartagal) whose privatisation or ‘rationalisation’ left their workers on the brink of starvation.

On the one hand these struggles were defensive, since the demands were minimal; on the other they were volatile and explosive and characterised by forms of direct action which soon became methods of offensive struggle. Sometimes they were spontaneous and disorganised (in Santiago for instance), in other cases they were equally violent but tried (and usually succeeded) to organise through popular assemblies and direct democracy (in Cutral-Có, for example). These movements had the great virtue of undermining the legitimacy of Menem and his economics minister Cavallo during the convertibility period, as well as letting it be seen that there were social movements through which the most marginalised sectors of the working class and of the popular classes were beginning to organise.

A second wave of struggle, ‘the rebellion against hunger’, was meanwhile developing among the unemployed in the Buenos Aires conurbation. This was a manifestation of the same ‘neo-dualism’ that drove thousands of workers and middle sectors out of the labour market and consumption. The majority of these sectors were incorporated at first by the Duhalde regime through patronage and welfare. In the first half of the 1990s this had proved a successful method of social control for the class, but the quantitative increase in poverty and marginalisation, added to the decline of Peronism, meant that it was no longer possible for this political apparatus to contain the explosive contradictions produced by the events of the 1990s.

To say that the Duhalde machine is broken would be a distortion of reality, but its ability to operate across the country is severely weakened. The movements of the unemployed are testimony to that. On the other hand, the fact that they are still a minority of the total number of unemployed reveals that the collapse of the base of Peronism is still relative, even in the wake of the Argentinazo. Another problem is the fact that the majority of the movement are led by old and new reformists like the CTA and the CCC. [1] It is clear, nonetheless, that the Argentinazo introduced a new dynamic into the situation which favoured radicalisation (though this did not express itself in open splits within the reformist groupings).

We should emphasise that the formation of a broad movement of the unemployed has certainly driven a wedge into the relationship of forces between the capitalist state and its political instruments of containment and control of the popular masses, all of which, naturally enough, produce conflicting social pressures within these movements. The central issue is the overwhelming predominance of economic over political demands. The movement has grown as the unemployed have looked for new ways to resolve their material situation, but unless questions of politics and self determination are introduced into the equation, the movement will simply be a pressure group dependent on the initiative of bourgeois social forces. No one would deny the importance of getting baskets of food for those comrades who have had their only means of survival (a wage) taken from them. But if our unemployed comrades do not take their own independent political direction, then sooner or later they will become passive pawns in the hands of the enemy.

It would clearly be madness to abandon the field of economic demands. We socialists believe that one way of bridging the gap between immediate economic demands and the urgent need for a higher political level would be to make the struggle for genuine jobs a priority in their programme. This brings together a response to the urgent problems that the comrades face and a perspective that allows them to see the reasons why they find themselves in this condition. At the same time it would help them to break with forms of day to day political activity which have a strongly clientistic character (and this is reproduced in organisations that claim to be independent, like the MIJD and ‘Polo Obrero’) that absorbs all the class-antagonistic elements of the movement.

The social base of Peronism in Greater Buenos Aires is criss-crossed by the different policies of the forces now involved in struggle, but none of them has a hegemonic position. The looting was the result of the explosion of all the accumulated contradictions. The plebeian subject (workers and the ruined middle sectors) that carried out the looting represented a broad alliance of forces which was never able to crystallise into something permanent. This does not mean that the active protagonists of the rebellion of the hungry have disappeared from the scene, but it suffers from the same sorts of problems as the unemployed movement. Their urgent material needs can transform them into the passive object of whatever benefits they may be offered to alleviate their misery – plans and projects not very different to those now being offered to the unemployed. But the truth is that the crisis of bourgeois power is developing faster than the capacity of local authorities or national government to absorb the demands of the movement. In many ways the future will depend on how the consciousness of this broad popular front evolves and which direction it chooses to take.

Private property, the factory occupations, the employed workers
and the question of ‘class unity’

Since 19/20 December, a remarkable phenomenon has begun to occur – the occupation of factories on a scale and of an intensity that has not been seen in 20 years. It is true that until now the factories concerned have been mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, but the situation is markedly different from what it was throughout the 1990s when workers, faced with job losses and closures, invariably accepted the ‘sweetener’ of redundancy pay. Now, however, in what is an obvious situation of socioeconomic bankruptcy when the loss of a job signifies a ‘social death’, more than 100 manufacturing workplaces have been occupied.

Yet within these activities there is developing a sharp strategic debate between two fundamentally opposed perspectives. On the one hand, the argument falls into an ‘economistic’ argument that loses sight of the political value of occupation, and of building links with the rest of the workers’ movement, to concentrate on running the enterprise as an end in itself. In these terms, the implicit questioning of private property in these occupations gradually dissolves. It has been a common feature that these activities have come to be seen as an ‘informal solution to the crisis’, assuring the workers of the minimum means of survival and implicitly leaving open the possibility of a ‘return to normality’ (if the process that began in December is ultimately defeated). If all that is involved is continuing to produce within the existing framework and according to the logic of competition, profit and the law of value, then the possibility that the workers might move forward towards self determination and control over their own lives disappears altogether. That is the situation, for example, of the co-operatives organised into the National Movement of Recovered Factories, where reformism is hegemonic, together with the Catholic church and fractions of Peronism and the Duhalde machine articulated through local and regional government.

On the other hand, there are a number of experiences whose character is very different, advocating renationalisation and workers’ control of the enterprises. The most important, emblematic examples are the Rio Turbio mine and Zanon. This is not the place to discuss the limitations of these struggles (and they do have them), but only to point out that in general terms they suggest a different way forward, not an economistic one (or at least they have problems with this perspective) but one in which is recognised more or less explicitly the challenge to private property that is implicit in these actions. They express a political questioning of bourgeois domination of society and recognise that the survival of their activities depends, in the final analysis, not on an economic calculation but on the ability to relate politically to the rest of the working class and to propose the expropriation under workers’ control of the principal areas of the economy.

What is on the table here, then, is the profoundly significant fact that in a revolutionary process these activities express a clear challenge to one of the central bulwarks of the system – private property itself.

But it is not only the factory occupations that are important. What is absolutely decisive is to find ways of encouraging the development of those groups of workers who still have jobs and who have, as yet – even in the barbaric conditions the country is in and faced with the ‘social death’ that unemployment entails today in Argentina – by and large stayed quiet. Part of the reason for this is that the traditional trade union bureaucracy, even with the loss of membership that the unions are experiencing, is still an obstacle to be overcome if the workers’ movement is to be rebuilt on independent class terms. This has not happened yet, but it is essential if the Argentinazo is to progress.

The involvement of workers with jobs in the process that began with the Argentinazo would represent a qualitative leap forward in the political struggle. But this would not mean the presence of individual workers within the population in general, but a working class whose numbers and methods of struggle would win it authority within the movement. This is the decisive factor in addressing the problems of social and political recomposition, as well as in overcoming the limitations of a process which has questioned the framework of the current political regime but which as yet has not challenged the regime of private property or the capitalist class as such.

In this light, the problems of unity and division in the working class become the central issue, because we have to begin with the working class as it really is. This is more difficult today, after 25 years of social change, than it was at the time of the Cordobazo (in 1969) when industrial workers were in the absolute majority. Today’s working class is divided between what we could define as the super-exploited workers, who labour for ten, 12 or 14 hours, and the unemployed who have no real prospect of ever returning to work. Taken separately, neither of these sectors is strong enough to persuade the other popular classes to acknowledge it as a point of reference. If the working class is to have any possibility of offering a political or historical solution to the rest of the oppressed it must become a class at once respected and feared. And the unity of the class is the indispensable prior condition for this to happen – the whole working class needs to think of itself as a single class. We should think of class unity in a dynamic way, as the unity of a class seeking hegemony over the other popular classes. For this to happen it must build its own unitary organisations (for example, an authentic national assembly of employed and unemployed workers) that express its social power as a class. The working class is not an occupational category or a statistical group – when Marxists speak of the working class we are referring to a political and social subject that only assumes a real and effective existence when it appears as such in the class struggle.

We should take as a first priority the turn towards employed workers, especially those in the large production centres – the big factories, the large transport firms, the major commercial centres. Neither the unemployed, marginalised from any link to production (as the Partido Obrero believes), nor the factory occupations (as the PTS argues, while ignoring the fact that all the occupations have taken place in small plants) have the power on their own to represent the working class as a whole. The working class cannot become the centre of the movement on the basis of these isolated examples of workers’ struggle. Neither the energetic militants of the unemployed movement asking for financial support in the street, nor the workers who restart the machines in their small factory can present themselves as members of a class aspiring to political hegemony. That can only come as a result of fighting to bring the employed workers as a whole into the Argentinazo and working for class unity among the employed and the unemployed.

Social struggle, political struggle, the vanguard and the masses

One feature of the current process is that the recomposition of social classes has progressed further on the social terrain than on the strictly political. This does not mean that there have not been political advances, but the social aspect is still dominant. The result is that the process of recomposition has pronounced movementist characteristics, as the tendencies within the movement multiply on a mass scale. And this poses a problem, especially given the obvious difficulties of the vanguard in processing and projecting their political experience into the class as a whole.

As in all sociopolitical processes, there is an obvious distinction between the vanguard and the rest of the comrades. Even within the vanguard there are differences between the political vanguard and the leaders of the social struggle. The first consists largely of activists who belong to political organisations. The second consists of a wide and varied range of comrades working in the unemployed movement, the people’s kitchens, the factory occupations, the workplaces in struggle. It is important to distinguish the two groups of activists because their practices, and therefore their problems, are very different. In fact they represent two different (though potentially compatible) principles. The social activist comes into the movement driven by necessity, and bearing economic demands. The political activist enters the struggle because of a general principled political position, and connects with the demands of the movement from that perspective.

Each position expresses both possibilities and limits. It is very easy for the bureaucrats (like the CTA or the CCC) to separate the economic and the political struggle, the struggle for the fulfilment of immediate needs from the struggle for power, for the transformation of society as a whole. For the combination of economic and political struggle represents the highest stage of the class struggle, the mass political strike.

In this sense, the political cadre introduces the line of his or her organisation into the social movements. That is their specific contribution to the process. Leaving aside whether the line of each organisation is right or wrong (and this is not a minor problem by any means), they should provide an understanding of the problems of the existing social movements as a whole. This is absolutely essential if they are not to turn the movements in which they work into simple transmission belts for the growth of their own organisation, using them for their own ends and losing sight of the objectives of the movement as a whole. This will end by depoliticising the movement by unconsciously reintroducing bourgeois forms of political activity. This is completely different, of course, from the necessary and sometimes implacable political and ideological struggle between organisations.

In any event, although these issues are a huge problem, we do not believe that our understanding is helped by drawing neat demarcation lines between ‘good’ social movements and ‘bad’ political organisations. The problems of regroupment and recomposition affect everyone, from the role of political organisations to the social practices of the various social movements. This becomes very clear when we look at the unemployed movements – their difficulties in moving beyond day to day activities of provision of food and work schemes are a very good example. But if the unemployed movement is to have a role in the future, it must go beyond looking for palliatives to relieve the immediate problems and begin to fight for solutions. And that is a political fight, but it must be a politics for the movement as a whole. If we are to advance together we have to escape from the double bind of party activism on the one hand and a semi-clientilistic economism on the other.

We can see similar examples in the popular assemblies – they are less driven by necessity, but for that very reason they often lack cohesion. We have to differentiate here between an important section of the assemblies in Greater Buenos Aires where local demands, the product of deepening urban poverty, often provide a focus for united action, and the assemblies in central Buenos Aires or in the suburban areas where the dominance of the middle classes gives them a very different character. In these cases, the absence of immediate collective demands means that they are more like either a party meeting or, in other cases, like meetings to discuss local economic development and investment plans.

The problems of recomposition have to be taken as a whole, whether it is the distance that sometimes separates the vanguard from the masses because of the way that political parties operate, or the consequence of the self imposed limits of each sector in pursuing their own particular demands. The key objectives for the present must be the unity of the different strands of the movement, the growth of the movement as a whole and its deepening politicisation.


This article first appeared in Socialismo y Barbarie, journal of the MAS, Argentina.

1. These two organisations are national labour federations whose role is essentially to open negotiations with the government over work plans, etc. In the context of the Argentinian crisis, they are reformist alternatives.

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