Monday, January 25, 2010

The speaking tour of an Argentine comrade from Red Libertaria through Ontario and Qu├ębec continues apace. Here's a review from the Common Cause (the sponsors of the Ontario wing of this tour) website about the first stop on this tour in Waterloo Ontario. See the Common Cause website for details about further public meetings in this tour.
Workers Without Bosses tour - A short review of the Waterloo stop:
On Saturday, January 23rd I attended the first stop in the Ontario-wing of the “Workers Without Bosses“ speaking tour, held in Kitchener-Waterloo. The stop was organized by a local Common Cause member with help from the good folks at Anti-War at Laurier (AWOL) and the KW Community Centre for Social Justice (KWCCSJ).

These are the same people who take much of the credit for building a vibrant activist community in the past few years. From Six Nations solidarity work to anti-Olympics organizing to the opening of the Centre for Social Justice, these hard-working people have made K-W a regional centre of anti-authoritarian, direct action based organizing.

Earlier in the day, I had the pleasure of spending some time with the speaker, Sebastian, a militant with the Argentina-based social anarchist group, Red Libertaria (Libertarian Network). Sebastian is a student of radical Argentinian history and we talked about the anarchist workers movement in early 20th century Argentina, an era where anarchist-socialism dominated the worker's movement.

Some of this material is covered in the recently published book, "Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Mass Anarchism and Syndicalism"written by two members of the South African anarcho-communist organization, Zabalaza and a must read for all anarchists. It turns out Sebastian collaborated with the authors on the Latin American section of the two-volume work.

We also talked about the current situation in Argentina and what has happened to the social movements there since the 2001 economic crisis and social explosion. This was also the subject of Sebastian's talk later that night, in front of a packed house of 40 or so people.

I won't go over his talk in detail. For that you'll have to attend one of the remaining tour stops or tune in on here once we have an audio recording up. But to summarize, the presentation began with a brief history of neoliberal economic policies in Argentina, and the reasons behind the 2001 economic collapse. From here, most of the talk provided an overview of the three main social movements involved in the social uprising: the unemployed workers movement, the factory occupations movement, and the neighbourhood assemblies. If you've seen the documentary "The Take", you'll appreciate how Sebastian brings the story up to date as well as the details added that we don't hear in the film.

For example, the talk makes clear that the social uprising was not as spontaneous as is made to be seen in "The Take". The unemployed workers movement, known as the "piqueteros" for blockading major transportation routes, had been organizing before the uprising. Also, behind the most militant factory occupations, including the Zanon occupation, lay years of patient organizing and struggle, often involving the various radical left groups. In short, while there certainly was a lot of spontaneity to the 2001 uprising, especially among the neighbourhood assemblies, some of the groundwork had been laid in advance.

The picture that emerges 9 years after the uprising is decidedly mixed. With few exceptions, the neighbourhood assemblies have disappeared. But some of them morphed into social centres or neighbourhood cooperatives and many of the participants became radicalised and have swelled the numbers of the radical left, including the anarchist groups. Red Libertaria itself is a product of the uprising's aftermath.

The unemployed workers movement won employment insurance but in the process much of it has been captured by political parties, with a few still clinging to autonomy.

Hundreds of occupied factories remain in the hands of workers, successfully producing with drastic improvements in working conditions. Some factories double as cultural and social spaces: places of work by day, community centres in the evenings. But all struggle to survive in what remains a capitalist economy where competition can turn workers' control into self-managed exploitation. And some bosses have figured out a way to create "fake" cooperatives taking advantage of state subsidies and new legislation.

In short, the Argentinian ruling class and their allies have managed to recover control. They've done this with difficulty using a mixture of repression and cooptation, meeting some of the movements' demands in return for their moderation and bureaucratization. That they were able to stabilize the economy was also central to their ability to regain control.

According to Sebastian, this outcome is due in large part to a major weakness of the 2001 uprising. The movements that emerged knew what they were against: neoliberal capitalism. But they did not have an alternative nor an idea of how to go about building it. For example, Sebastian recounts how his neighbourhood assembly voted to nationalize the banks, without any idea of what this would look like or the power to make it happen.

As for the anarchists, like the rest of the radical left, they lacked the organizational and political unity to pursue a common strategy inside the movements. In one struggle, two groups of anarchists even found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict within the local unemployed workers movement. Division is even worse among other political tendencies.

It is hard not to see the similarities here with more recent uprisings such as the Greek revolt of 2008-2009. And we can see the same thing happening today in Ontario and North America. While there is more anger today towards capitalism and the ruling classes than there has been in decades, no alternative has even begun to capture the popular imagination. And the libertarian, anti-capitalist left is in no position to propose and start really building towards an alternative. I hope that, like last night, those who come to see Sebastian talk will use the time to reflect on the lessons offered by the struggle in Argentina, and will continue the discussion long after Sebastian has rejoined his fellow anarchists in Buenos Aires.


Larry Gambone said...

I wonder if the situation of the anarchist movement in many countries could not be analogous to that of the early socialist movement in Canada. According to the recent study of Canadian socialism, "Reasoning Otherwise" by Ian McKay, prior to 1905, socialists were very few in number, in a couple of minuscule and short-lived groups and had almost no influence on the general working population. That year was the brief flowering of the Socialist Party of Canada and 6 years later the Social Democratic Party. But by 1914 socialism was in bad shape again, weak and split into tiny groups. However, only 5 years later came the Vancouver and Winnipeg General Strikes, the OBU swept across the West, and the ILP won seats in parliament. Socialism had become a mass movement.

According to McKay, this rapid development occurred because all those little groups in the previous decade had, through their media and their actions, opened a significant number of workers up to socialist ideas. When the conditions were right – as with the disastrous war and the crippling loss of real income – these ideas were then the basis for a popular critique of capitalism and the action to go with that critique.

Today, many countries have literally hundreds of anarchist, near-anarchist, or anarchist-led groups. Each group may only influence a relatively small number of people, but added together, the number of people would be many thousand.

While many anarchists are guilty of lack of strategy and sort of going off in all directions, one could have said the same for the early socialists as well. The OBU concept, though it had obviously been raised by the IWW, really didn't take hold until 1919, in other words, during the major events of that period, and not before.

mollymew said...

Personally I hestitate to try and predict the future. What you describe is indeed within the realm of possibility. How likely it is depends on too many other factors for me to hazard a guess.