Argentina's 2001 crisis: The lessons for Greece

Issue section: 
(405)

The debt crisis that is tearing Greece apart has echoes in Argentina at the beginning of this century. Heike Schaumberg draws out lessons from the workers' response to neoliberal strangulation.

The similarity of the debt problem, the revolts, social movements, and pending default have all tempted comparisons between Greece today and Argentina’s crisis and popular uprising at the turn of this century. In December 2001 media and activist attention centred on Argentina like it does on Greece today for more or less the same reasons.

Firstly, an unsuccessful government negotiation that tried but failed to avoid the then world historic default on the country’s £92 billion debt on 26 December that year (for Greece today estimates reach £270 billion), and secondly, massive mobilisations against neoliberalism and economic collapse.

Argentina was the first country where the people rose successfully, on 19 and 20 December 2001, to defy the neoliberal onslaught. Their slogan, “¡Que se vayan todos, que no quede ni uno solo!” (Everyone [in power] must go, not one of them must stay!) articulated a “politics of rejection” directed at all economic and political elites.

Initially the antagonism extended to trade unions because of their complicity with privatisation, and all political parties including those of the left for failing to stop it. The left and the trade unions nonetheless participated in the uprising and the social movements that followed.

Indeed, strikes were growing during the year running up to the uprising despite the hostility of the trade union bureaucracy. The working class had been battered by almost three decades of repression and monumental defeats and divisions, especially in the 1990s.

The uprising that followed was successful because it toppled the government and enabled a re-organisation and re-politicisation “from below”. But it fell short of being able to implement some of its most revolutionary aspirations such as collective self-government by assembly.

The labour movement’s political and organisational weakness was a crucially limiting factor: the resources for the social movements’ emergency food distribution did not come from factories controlled by workers, but from the state, which remained in the hands of capital.

Factory occupations began to emerge as a movement, the Empresas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores (Companies Reclaimed by their Workers, ERTs). They usually involved small and medium-size enterprises, where workers’ only option was to restart production in the bankrupted company or face destitution.

Their struggles forced the state to amend the laws of expropriation and bankruptcy in order to make the workers guardians of these companies as “social enterprises” in compensation for lost wages. By 2004 this movement included 170 companies with over 9,000 workers between them. But the active labour force nationally was 14 million, of which 8 million were still in formal employment.

Argentina’s default was followed by nine months of depression. Over half the population was thrown below the poverty line. The government printed non-convertible currency, and wages and pensions were paid in bonuses. 2002 was a year of massive mobilisations actively involving countless people of all ages.

But there was also a climate of fear. Schools in many urban centres reported malnutrition among their pupils. The same affliction killed the young and the old in the impoverished northern provinces, in a country which is historically a global export leader for agricultural produce.

The aphorism “Look after your job, if you still have one” began to make a lot of sense. Workers accepted heavily reduced wages and even none in order to make the economy tick over and thus hold on to the source of their livelihood — their job. By the end of 2002 the economy began to register minor signs of recovery.

Politically the aphorism drove a wedge between unemployed workers and the rest of society. The unemployed workers’ movement used roadblocks as their equivalent of the strike — and was then blamed for putting employed workers’ jobs at risk when they couldn’t get to work on time. Right wing politicians claimed that the right to protest undermined the right to free movement.

This marked the beginnings of demonisation and criminalisation of protest.

People self-organised wherever they were. Many activists recognised their inability then to replace the old order with a new one and agreed that they were in this struggle for the long run. They focused on shaping the agenda of the new Kirchner government through conflict and negotiations, which earned the mistrust of the international elites.

Over these past 14 years many social movements have persisted in one form or another, including the militant piquetero struggles (the movements of unemployed) which have pursued alternative production strategies; the ERTs; and popular neighbourhood assemblies that imposed direct democracy and challenged government power in the nation’s capital.

There were several other short-lived movements such as the mortgaged-home owners who fought repossessions, akin to the Indignado movement that developed several years later in Spain.

Rank and file trade unionists organised to protect jobs and reclaim their right to unionisation. Trade union density had halved during the 1990s, but union membership began to register a slow increase after 2000 from 31.7 percent to 37 percent by 2008.

Today Argentina has the highest trade union density in the Americas. The uprising opened the doors to political reorganisation from below, including a sizeable “independent sector”, which kept the pressure up on both the government and the political parties of the left.

Over the past few years the autoconvocados (the self-mobilised) have begun to leave their mark in the political arena of mass protests. This is not a specific group but a tendency of collective self-mobilisation in pursuit of shared aims in trade unions, neighbourhoods, and so on. It is just one of the legacies of the 2001 uprising that occasionally gives governments and capitalists a headache.

The ERTs have experienced a small but steady expansion over the past four years, and they have created a new vibrant movement, the Bachillerato Popular (popular baccalaureate). It caters for mostly young adults from deprived working class areas who have fallen through the net of public schooling.

So how does all this compare to Greece? Hundreds of self-organised solidarity networks have emerged across Greece. Large mobilisations have brought the Syriza government to power on an anti-austerity ticket.

It is interesting to ask why there have been comparably few factory occupations and no alternative production strategies. The reason is Syriza’s commitment to a capitalist EU.

Militant

EU bosses tend to be wary of Greece’s militant and politicised trade union movement because of its hard opposition to neoliberal adjustment programmes throughout the 1990s. Greek unions benefit from more legal and political autonomy than is the case in Argentina. However, union density in Greece in 2011 was 25.4 percent — even lower than at Argentina’s worst point.

A small minority within the GSEE, one of the two Greek trade union federations, covers the private sector, where union density is now less than half the level it was in the mid-1980s, and in the civil service, exclusively organised by the ADEDY trade union federation, it is now 50 percent higher than it was 20 years ago.

Labour organisations reflect the history of a country’s economic development and that of its working class. Greece’s industrialisation was not only late and slow but also “incomplete” when it retreated in favour of the expanding service sector upon entry in 1981 into the European Community, the forerunner of the EU.

Greece’s short-lived high technology manufacturing sector could not compete with the likes of Germany, France or Italy. At the same time, its agricultural sector had suffered from the industrialisation process. Most of Greece’s manufacturing sector is low-intensity technology related to food production, which tends not to be unionised. In comparison to Greece, Argentina is an old industrial country with militant labour organisations dating back to the late 19th century.

Furthermore, Argentina’s population is just under 42 million while Greece’s is just under 11 million. Yet you would have to go back to 1969 to find Argentina’s GDP per capita higher than that of Greece, reflecting its late industrialisation.

Greece’s rate of unemployment at over 25 percent has already surpassed that of Argentina at its darkest hour of 19.6 percent in October 2002. As of yet, Greece has no comparable movements of the unemployed as were seen in Argentina.

When Argentina’s crisis unfolded, global capitalism was still growing. Indeed, most commentators described it (wrongly) as a national crisis. That illusion no longer existed by the time Greece defaulted following the 2008 financial crash in Britain and the US.

But there are economic, social and political similarities precisely because it is the same systemic crisis. Free-market fetishism was brutally imposed everywhere irrespective of religious, historical or national sensibilities and hence, similar concerns mark the agendas of national uprisings, but new differences are created.

In Argentina it was clear that IMF plans were encroaching upon the political sphere in the late 1990s. But this was a long way from the colonising aspirations of the Troika — the EU, IMF and European Central Bank — revealed in the latest bailout agreement with Greece. Itself a futile effort to confine the crisis by smothering it economically and politically.

The European Monetary Union cannot overcome its internal contradictions, so Greece’s exit has only been delayed. Socialising production could have been a feasible grexit route with the help of a Syriza government and international workers’ solidarity.

With the Troika’s prominent presence in Greek internal affairs, it will now be harder to pursue this option. Syriza’s leader Alexi sTsipras’s call for new elections is little more than blackmail of Greek workers to back the government in the absence of alternatives, and fear is left to do its worst on the Troika’s behalf.

The challenge is to the Syriza left, to fight back by joining forces with the left outside of Syriza and begin to propose an alternative.

Collective self-organisation in politics and production is one of the most potent working class tendencies developing today in the fight against austerity. Economically stronger British and European workers should be inspired by the anti-neoliberal struggles by workers in countries such as Greece and Argentina and raise the stakes in their own fight against austerity-capitalism.

Only then will the self-organisation of the working class be able to transcend its current limitations in countries such as Greece and Argentina.

Heike Schaumberg is an activist and anthropologist specialising in Latin America. Next month she will look at the left in Argentina