Argentina and Parecon
Argentina and Parecon
Albert: It seems to me that if movements want to attain certain institutions as a part of their goal, they will need to use organiational forms that foster those institutions and can melt into them, rather than organizational forms that would be neutral regarding the sought aims, or that would obstruct their attainment.
I favor such goals as remuneration for effort and sacrifice, self management, and classlessness via worker and consumer councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory planning.
I wonder, whether these aims would resonate in Argentina, your home country. Can you give us a picture of the movements there that have formed local assemblies in neighborhoods and in workplaces? Are the assemblies early forms of workers and consumers councils?
Adamovsky: Four movements emerged in Argentina in the last few years, which I think are related to the spirit of parecon: the barter markets, the "Piquetero" movement, the Neighbors' Assemblies, and the occupied factories.
The barter markets emerged as a crazy idea of two guys, who set up the first experience in their own garage not too long ago. Basically, it was a simple idea: people who had lost their jobs are therefore where unable to get any money at all, could still exchange their talents and capacities with other people in a similar situation. So, for example, a tailor could repair someone else's clothes in exchange of, say, home made bread, or Computer training, etc. By using their own "currency" --at the beginning, badly printed notes called "credits"-- they were able to exchange goods and services with other people on a non-reciprocal basis, that is, getting by "credits" from one person, but buying from another.
In the worst moment of the economic crisis, it was said that over 7 million people were relying in the barter markets to get by. Unfortunately, barter markes started to decay later on, due mainly to the fact that some people started to use it as a means to enrich themselves, for example, by faking the "credits" (which was very easy) or by getting hold of real credits in areas where they were relatively cheap, and using them in richer areas, where their value was higher. These sort of activities made the barter markets more and more unreliable. Although they are still there, their importance is not what it used to be.
The Piquetero movement is a movement of unemployed workers, which started to organize after 1996. It is not one group, but many different organizations (at least 15), with different strategies. But they are all known as "piqueteros" because of the road blockades ("piquetes") that they usually use as a way to put their demands forward. The first "piqueteros" organized spontaneously to resist neo-liberal policies, and they did so by gathering in democratic and "horizontal" (meaning without hierarchies) assemblies. Later on, some Trotskyst, Communist, Maoists and populist parties "copied" the piquetero strategy, but without the radically horizontal approach. Some of the piquetero groups, however, still organize through real assemblies, and make decisions in a horizontal way.
In these cases (notably in the Movement of Unemployed Workers "Anibal Veron") the assemblies contain elements of what you have called workers and consumers councils. For example, the MTD Anibal Veron and other groups have set up their own productive projects, small cooperatives that produce bread, bricks, cloths, and other products. But production does not follow market rules, nor is it organized by any "coordinator class".
All the movement supports the productive projects, and makes decisions of new investments, etc., and the "profits", if any, do not go for those who work in them alone, but to the whole movement. The criterion is that every kind of work is valuable, so all must be remunerated, i.e., not only those who work baking bread, but also those who take care of popular education, campaigning, etc.
The Neighbors' Assemblies are a relatively new phenomenon. The mushroomed immediately after the rebellion of December 2001. In the main cities, neighbours started to gather in the corners spontaneously, to discuss and make sense of their own problems. After an initial period of catharsis -- people simply telling each other their problems, anxieties, and frustration-- they started to figure out what the causes of the crisis were, and to discuss possible ways out. In the case of the Assemblies, there's no clear element of workers councils -- although some of the Assemblieas, like the piqueteros, also set up productive projects.
Elements of consumers councils are more visible. For example, many Assemblies organized community buys, that is, buying large quantities of goods from retail suppliers, and then distributing them btween the neighbours according to different criteria. Other examples are the pressure they put on electricity, gas, telephone companies and the like, to get them not to raise the prices, and not to cut off users who weren't able to pay the bills.
Finally, the occupied factories is the newest movement. It consists in workers of (sometimes fakely) bankrupt factories, who refuse to become unemployed. When the factory owners announce the closure of the plant, they refuse to leave, occupy the factory, and start to run it themselves. The funny thing is that contrary to all predictions, and despite innumerable obstacles, they do it very well. The workers can run relatively large companies --like Zanon ceramics, for example-- and not only get them to produce, but also make them profitable. The occupied factories organize according to different criteria. But generally, the main decisions are made through horizontal assemblies of workers, and salaries tend to be more egalitarian than under the old bosses.
Together with these four movements, there are also innumerable smaller things going on, from peasants occupying lands and producing collectively, to artists and independent journalists finding non-corporate ways to produce and distribute their works. In the last few years, Argentina has been an extraordinary laboratory of new economic and political ways to orgainze and live together.
Albert: It is sad that such important projects to learn from get so little international attention -- but entirely predictable. CNN doesn't want to broadcast Argentina's innovations.
I wonder, would large numbers of people espousing a participatory economic vision like parecon, or say, self consciously advocating remuneration for effort and sacrifice but rejecting remuneration for output and of course for power or property, have helped with the Argentine processes, do you think?
Adamovsky: The first thing you need to know is that, before all these movements emerged, we had a strongly hierarchical and leader-oriented political culture. I am not only referring here to mainstream politics (think of Peronism and the innumerable military coups we suffered), but also to Unions (which, in general, are a highly corrupt bureaucracy), and the left. Almost all previous experience we had was that of Leninist and national liberation traditions, which are very hierarchical and sometimes authoritarian.
When the first piquetero groups, barter markets, assemblies, and vision emerged, it was not the fruit of years of patient campaigning (there was almost no-one advocating these kinds of organizations before they were born), but a spontaneous, I would say intuitive creation. The whole economy and political system collapsed, the people did not trust any of the parties, leaders, or unions available, so they simply gathered with other people like themselves and asked each other "Do you have any idea of what's going on here? What do we do to protect our lives?" But, unlike other countries (like, perhaps, the USA) we had no tradition of talking and listening to each other. We simply did not know how to have a community meeting. I remember the first meetings of my Neighbors' Assembly: people were literally fighting for the use of the megaphone. I mean it: physically fighting.
Taking this into account, I would say that any group with experience in simple procedures of direct democracy would have been very helpful. We had to learn everything the hard way, by ourselves. I think the group of "pareconists" you are imagining would have been extremely helpful had they been there to share that experience with us. I am afraid, however, that it would have been impossible to put forward any of the more elaborate principles of Parecon before we educated ourselves in direct democracy.
Nowadays the situation is different. After all the struggle Argentina has been through, the people in the movements became aware that we are actually experimenting with a different type of left politics, unlike anything we had seen in the past. And they are generally eager to learn about new ideas based in principles of direct democracy, autonomy, and horizontal organizing. By presenting a vision of a world organized according to those principles, Parecon could inspire us to gain confidence and a stronger sense of the direction our struggles are pointing to.
Regarding remuneration for effort and sacrifice, I believe that the experiences of occupied factories and, to some extent, also the piquetero productive projects would benefit from the ideas. I know they had (and still have) discussions about the best way to remunerate themselves, and I believe there is a natural tendency towards the sort of ideas parecon proposes. Undoubtedly, putting the practical issue of remuneration in the wider perspective of the economic vision that parecon proposes would have been very helpful for them.
Albert: Do you know the methods they are using now? In the factories, are they just retaining old salary structures, paying equally or at least more equally -- as the improvement -- paying by time only, paying by output, or what? How hard would it be to move toward paying according to effort and sacrifice? Who would resist it? Who would favor it, do you think?
Adamovsky: It is said that there are over 200 occupied companies now. The situation in each of them is different. Many of them are not producing yet: the workers are still building the preconditions to that. Others, like Zanon Ceramics, are doing so well that they actually had to "hire" new workers (which is surprising considering its former owners claimed it was impossible to make Zanon profitable). But on the whole, you need to know that many of the occupied factories are still fighting hard simply to survive, which for them involves fighting two "enemies" at the same time. Firstly, Argentina's endemic economic crisis. Secondly, police and judicial harassment, which disrupts production all the time.
In this context, I immagine it would be difficult to risk radical innovations in the short run. However, as far as I know, there were some changes in salary structures, at least in some cases. Salaries tend to be egalitarian, and paying by time only (I do not think that any of the occupyed factories uses paying by output). I believe that workers would agree that moving toward paying according to effort and sacrifice would be more fair. I imagine, however (although this is highly hypothetical) that, at the moment, they would not feel they are strong enough as to spend much energy in implementing such a change, which involves finding accurate ways to measure effort, adding extra meetings to those they already have for other issues (production, judicial strategy, defence against repression, political strategy, etc.).
Albert: Okay, what about self management? Do you think having a clear enunciation of that aim -- that people should influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them -- would have helped the
movements? Would understanding that consensus and one person one vote majority rule and other approaches are tactics, and that the key is to choose among them to fulfill the principle of self management have been useful, plus the idea of councils at diverse levels, of course? What might widespread advocacy of that have impacted in the current practice and programs, do you think?
Adamovsky: Self management is an old aspiration of anti-capitalist movements, in Argentina and elsewhere. And, naturally, the idea of self management includes the idea of direct democracy and councils. But again in this case, there is little practical experience in Argentina, and elsewhere too , I think, on how to organize self management. There is a long distance from general principles to concrete organizing. Take for example decision-making through assemblies or councils. There is much magical thinking about this: some people tend to think that all you need is to get as many people as possible to discuss and vote and, bingo!, you will always have the right outcome.
But that is not true, as we are learning painfully. Many times in my Assembly, for example, we faced the situation in which everybody has the same right to decide on a certain issue (and everybody defends that right passionately), but then those decisions do not affect all of us equally. And that unacknowledged difference ends up affecting us in unexpected ways: people blaming each other when things go wrong, etc.
One day we even had a vote on whether six of us, who were being prosecuted for trespassing, should appear before the Court or not; that was a decision in which those six people alone should have decided. But nobody raised this issue then.
Another example: I remember not long ago I had a conversation with a worker of Grissinopolis, one of the occupied factories, and they were facing similar problems. The degree of commitment of the workers to the project of self management was quite variable --some of the workers did not trust that they could make the factory work without managers, and therefore were not willing to take responsibilities, whilst others were working 24/7 to make their dream come true. And yet, all of them had one vote in every single issue, which, for the worker I was talking to seemed unfair. He was visibly upset and irritated. In sum, we still haven't found the way to relate decision-making power to actual commitment or to the different consequences of our decisions.
That is why I was immediately attracted to one of the ideas that parecon puts forward: that people should influence decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. It is a very simple principle, easy to understand and relate to, but one that changes the whole logic and practice of decision-making completely. Likewise, I imagine that the political engineering that Parecon proposes --councils at different levels and with different functions -- would have been quite helpful for the workers of occupied factories and generally for all the horizontal movements. It would have helped us to figure out concrete and efficient ways to translate general principles (like direct democracy and self management) into concrete realities.
Albert: Do you know how decisions are now being made in the occupied factories. It sounds like in the neighborhood assemblies it is pretty much one person one vote fifty percent plus one decides. But what about workplaces? And in them, are there still managers and other conceptual workers, and do they tend to dominate agenda setting, have daily power, even have more votes or otherwise greater say in large scale decision making, etc.? Do you think allegiance to self management could lead to changes in these matters of decision making relations that are otherwise not so likely to spontaneously change, and quite likely to fall back into old patterns?
Adamovsky: Again in this case, each factory is a different world. In the cases I know, major decisions are being made by workers' assemblies, one person one vote fifty percent plus one decides. This is not to say, however, that "conceptual workers" do not tend to dominate the agenda. As far as I know, the main political figures within the factories, and those with more knowledge about the productive process tend to have more power, in reality, than the rest.
But the dynamics of self management and direct democracy can sometimes reverce this. A few weeks ago, for example, the workers assembly of Brukman (textile) decided, against the will of its most visible spokespersons, not to allow any of the workers to run as candidates for left wing parties. As the 2003 elections for the Congress approach, trotskyst parties were doing the impossible (including threatening the workers to withdraw all kinds of support, including financial) to get workers of self managed factories to run as candidates. Their aim, of course, is to benefit from the legitimacy that these workers have. Celia, probably the most active and visible face of Brukman, was attracted to the PTS (a small trotskyst party), and decided she would run as a candidate. But her workmates voted not to authorize such a thing, on the grounds that Brukman should not be the patrimony of one party, but seek the support of everybody. Curioulsy enough, the PTS "rediscovered" then the value of individual freedom, and are now arguing that the workers assembly cannot decide on this issue, because by doing that they would be affecting the "individual right" of Celia to do as she pleases...
In sum, there is still a lot to be done in terms of building decision-making mechanisms which encourage real self management and egalitarianism, while maintaining criteria of effectivenes and fairness. Falling back to the beaten track is always a strong possibility. Making self management real involves a hard and patient work, and a strong committment to a political vision based in such principle.
Albert: How about balanced job complexes? If that idea of a new division of labor to permit and support new decision making methods and also the associated understanding of class relations including not only workers and owners but also the coordinator class had been prevalent as struggles grew and diversified, do you think it would have helped define the structures that were employed and perhaps also some of the demands that were made?
Adamovsky: In this respect, there is also an almost intuitive tendency towards the principle that people should share the heavy or unpleasent tasks. In my Assembly, for example, working people get immediately resentful if those with better education or higher social background do not help cleaning the floors, cooking, lifting heavy objects, etc.
Likewise, I know that some of the piquetero groups pay great attention to this, and generally to the issue of empowering everybody to do the most complex and qualified tasks --including political skills.
In general, people in the movements dislike the "coordinators" or "mandones" (i.e., those who are bossy), even if the idea that there exists such a thing as a "coordinator class" is not at all common. I also know that workers of the occupied factories share some of the tasks that were previously the province of specialized workers and of completely unqualified workers. But old habits die hard. Especially in the market environment, and with all the media messages, and all the rest enforcing them. If Argentine movements shared a clear rationale for chaging the division of labor, and especially for why classless job complexes would not only get the work done better than before, but even more importantly eliminate all kinds of harsh hierarchies, it would help even those who are most committed to that type of change, and it would certainly help everyone else, battle against those old habits and also against the individuals wanting to preserve them. Putting this issue in the perspective of an all-encompassing vision such as parecon proposes, would be undoubtedly helpful.
Albert: You seem to be saying that the working class constituencies in these movements would relate positively to the idea of eliminating coordinator class privilege and power - but would they go along with doing it by balancing job complexes, do you think? And how much resistance do you think you would get from the highly educated and empowered coordinators, if this kind of orientation started to take conscious hold?
Adamovsky: That's perhaps taking things a bit too far. One thing is to resent coordinators (which most workers do). But there is quite a gap between that and proposing that the coordinators class should be
eliminated. One of the most pervasive effects of capitalism and coordinatorism is that workers are disempowered to such an extent that they do not believe they can be their own "managers". One of the workers of Grissinopolis once explained to me, with a sad look in his eyes, how difficult it was to convince his workmates that they could actually run the company themselves. At the beginning, they thought he was mad. It took a long time for some of the workers to discover that they were not worse than any of the managers they had had before, and that, in fact, they knew their job much better. Actually, half of the workers decided to leave the ship and try to find a "normal" job under "normal" managers.
I imagine resistance to the principle of balanced job complexes would be quite hard, not just from the coordinators who would defend their privileges, but also from the very workers. People who feel disempowered tend to rely on the "experience" and "knowledge" of those who do not. And it is a fact of reality that nobody can become the "manager" of him or herself by a simple act of will. All relatively complex social enterprises -- be it running a company, organizing a political event, etc.-- requires a certain knowledge, confidence, and experience without which the whole thing is likely to fail.
So, if people do not feel they have the capacity to do something, they will "voluntarily" call a coordinator in. This happened to me in my Assembly many times. As I am a good speaker, my mates used to want me to represent them whenever it is necessary. But of course, that gave me the chance to improve myself as a speaker, whilst my mates remained silent, which reproduces and reinforces inequality in this specific field. So, at some point I decided I would refuse to represent the Assembly in some occasions, which would indirectly "force" other people to come out and try to do it themselves. But the funny thing is that I had to resist pressures from them to keep performing this coordinator-like role, and sometimes they would even
get angry at me. "You do it better, why don't you go" they would say. For some of them, daring to take control and responsibility was painful, and it was much easier to rely on someone else.
But, of course, after they broke the inertia and discovered they are capable of doing new things, they loved it and never again give it up.
In sum, I think resistance to the principle of balanced job complexed will probably find fierce resistance from above and from below. It will probably take a long and pacient work of those committed to it, to be able to share their expertise and empower others, without reinforcing themselves as coordinators. It is a risky thing, for in the long transitional period, coordinators may benefit from the pressures from below I just described to reproduce coordinatorism. Parecon is a needed visionary pole in this respect, for it provides a very clear analysis of the negative effects of both the propertied class and the
Albert: You mentioned the existence of various Leninist, Trotskyism, and otherwise old style parties with members interacting amidst all the other undertakings. No doubt there have been serious frictions. Do you think widespread clarity about rejecting coordinatorism, often called
market or centrally planned socialism, would have strengthened the more participatory and democratic parts of the movement as against the more centralized parts? Would the injunction that our projects should have structures embodying our values and consistent with attaining our aims have put pressure on the behavior and structures of these parties, do you think, thereby helping contrary approaches?
Adamovsky: Without a doubt. In the experience of my Assembly, some people had an initial prejudice against left wing parties, some others had not. But in both cases, they would defend the autonomy and horizontality of the Assembly against left wing coordinatorism, as you call it. This was and still is a permanent issue in the meetings of most Assemblies --I've just read an email from the Assembly of another neighborhood, with the announcement that, after innumerable problems, the members of the Trotskyite Partido Obrero were asked to leave the Assembly and never come back!
As members of the Assembly resisted left coordinatorism, we came across some texts and ideas that helped us gain awareness that non-hierarchical strategies were possible and that, actually, the left is pretty much divided about this issue all over the world. Undoubtedly, Parecon would have had a similar influence. It would help more people to become confident in our own non-hierarchical politics and in the principle that the way we struggle today must look the way we want the future to look. Means and ends cannot disagree.
Albert: In your brief description of things that were happening, I didn't see much about struggles within existing workplaces that haven't been taken over entirely. Struggles against owners and managers for better conditions, wages, more say, and so on. Does that lind of struggle within existing government institutions and private corporations also exist in Argentina? Is it connected with the movements you describe? And do you think pareconish allegiances could have helped with those efforts and also the interconnections?
Adamovsky: Traditional working class struggle, as you well know, is particularly difficult at times of economic crisis and high unemployment. In Argentina, over 25% of the population are unemployed, which undoubtedly prevents many workers from going on
strike, or otherwise resisting inside their workplaces. Add to this the fact that most unions are little but a mafia, and you will get a picture of how hard it is for workers. And yet, some interesting developments took place in this field.
Some unions --for example SIMECA, a new union of messengers and errand boys -- started to organize in horizontal ways, while the workers of some sections of Telefonica (one of the two main telephone companies in Argentina) carried out epical strikes against both the owners and the official unions. There are many other examples. Inasmuch as these struggles are ignored (or even attacked) by the official unions, they naturally tended to build bridges with the piquetero and Assamblies movements. There are many links, all the groups support each other and share ideas.
For these people, as for the cases mentioned earlier, Parecon provides both practical ideas for the short run, and a vision of a desirable future.
I believe that the most powerful engines of emancipation are the legends of past struggles and possible futures. Parecon is in the old tradition of utopian vision, but it makes utopia look perfectly possible, waiting for us round the corner.