Argentina’s crisis is fast emerging as a sort of economic Rorschach test, used by economists and theoreticians of all ideological persuasions to prove their point,” says the Financial Times. “Opponents of the ‘Washington Consensus’ say Argentina’s experience shows the perils of following the recipes of the IMF. Supporters of free markets say Argentina’s experience shows the danger of not opening up [the economy] enough.”
Argentina may well prove to be the crisis which irrevocably splits the ever-widening crack in the neoliberal armor, especially if things continue to unravel in other parts of Latin America. Recent events in Venezuela, and the possibility of left wing gains in this year’s Brazilian presidential elections, point to a shift away from the “Washington Consensus” across much of the region.
The last decade has seen the increasing delegitimazation of the neoliberal model, as a movement of movements has sprung up on every continent, challenging the seemingly unstoppable expansion of capital. From Chiapas to Genoa, Seattle to Porto Alegre, Bangalore to Soweto, people have occupied the streets, taken direct action, practiced models of self-organization, and celebrated a radical spirit of autonomy, diversity, and interdependence. The movements seemed unstoppable, as mass mobilizations got bigger, more diverse populations converged, and the World Bank, WTO, IMF, and G8 were forced to meet on mountain tops, protected by repressive regimes, or behind fences defended by thousands of riot police. Seeing them on the defensive, having to justify their existence, gave the movements an extraordinary sense of hope.
By identifying the underlying global problem as capitalism, and by developing extraordinary international networks of inspiration in very short amounts of time, it felt almost as though history were speeding up, that perhaps we could succeed in the next phase, the process of imagining and constructing worlds which exist beyond greed and competition. Then, history did what it does best, surprising us all on September 11th when the twin towers were brought down, and it seemed for a while that everything had changed.
Suddenly hope was replaced by the politics of despair and fear. Demonstrations were called off, funding was pulled, and mass backpedaling and distancing occurred within the movement itself. Commentators immediately declared anticapitalism dead. The editor of The Guardian wrote “since September 11th, there is no appetite for [antiglobalization], no interest, and the issues that were all-consuming a few months ago seem irrelevant now.” Others suggested that the movement was somehow linked to the terrorists. Clare Short, the UK development minister, stated that the movement’s demands were very similar to those of Al-Qaida.
September the 11th forced a reappraisal among activists, particularly in the global North. It challenged us all to take a deep breath, put our rhetoric into practice, and think strategically, and fast. Then three months later, history seemed to resume its accelerated speed, when Argentina erupted, followed closely by the collapse of Enron. It seemed that despite the blindly nationalist, racist, and indefinite “war on terror” to distract the world, neoliberalism was continuing to disintegrate.
Perhaps the biggest challenge the global movements face now is to realize that the first round is over, and that the slogan first sprayed on a building in Seattle and last seen on a burning police van in Genoa, “We Are Winning,” may actually be true. The “crisis of legitimacy” expands exponentially almost daily. Corporations and institutions such as the World Bank and the G8 are constantly trying to appease the growing global uprising, with empty promises of environmental sustainability and poverty reduction.
On May Day, 2002 a new book is being launched by academics who lament, “Today there is an anticapitalist orthodoxy that goes beyond a latent hostility to big business. Its a well-organized critique of capitalism.” The book argues that we must “start standing up for capitalism” because it’s “the best thing that ever happened to the world,” and that “if we want to change the world then we should do it through business,” and treat capitalism as a “hero, not a villain.” Perhaps a few hours on the streets of Argentina, or a chat with former employees of Enron would show them the true villainy and absurdity of capitalism.
With mainstream commentators falling over themselves to declare that capitalism is good for us and will save the world, it seems clear that the first round of this movement has been a victory. There has been a “…nearly complete collapse of the prevailing economic theory,” according to economist James K. Galbraith. But the next round will be the hardest. It will involve applying our critiques and principles to our everyday lives; it will be a stage of working close to home. A stage where mass conflict on the streets is balanced (but not entirely replaced) with creating alternatives to capitalism in our neighborhoods, our towns and cities, our bioregions. This is exactly where Argentina can show us an inspiring way to move forward.
The situation in Argentina contains many elements of the anticapitalist movements: the practice of direct action, self-management and direct democracy; the belief in the power of diversity, decentralization, and solidarity; the convergence of radically different social sectors; the rejection of the state, multinational corporations, and financial institutions. Yet, what is most incredible is that the form of the uprising arose spontaneously, it was not imposed or suggested by activists, but rather, created by ordinary people from the ground up, resulting in a truly popular rebellion that is taking place every day, every week, and including every sort of person imaginable.
Argentina has become a living laboratory of struggle, a place where the popular politics of the future are being invented. In the face of poverty and economic meltdown, people have found enough hope to continue resisting, and have mustered sufficient creativity to begin building alternatives to the despair of capitalism. The global movements can learn much in this laboratory. In many ways it is comparable with the social revolutions of Spain in 1936, of France in May 1968, and more recently, in southern Mexico, with the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) – all rebellions which inspired, then and now, millions around the world.
It was a spirit of innovative solidarity that sparked a transformation of the practice of politics, and led us into the first stage of this new evolution of people’s movements. The Zapatistas sowed the seeds for creating “rebellions which listen” to local needs and demands, and which are therefore particular to each place, and activists from around the world responded, not only through traditional forms of international solidarity as practiced during the 1970-80s, particularly by Central American solidarity groups, but also through applying the spirit of Zapatismo by “listening” at home.
This network of listening that has occurred between many different cultures has been a cornerstone for the first round of this global movement, as it wove together its multiple differences, forming a powerful fabric of struggle. The second round needs to maintain these networks that nurture mutual inspiration flowing, because no revolution can succeed without hope. But the global anticapitalist movement also needs the reassurance of seeing its desires and aspirations being lived on a daily basis. The Zapatista autonomous municipalities in Chiapas are a kind of model, but are firmly rooted in indigenous culture, are small enclaves within a larger state, and are largely unexportable. Argentina, however, is an entire society undergoing transformation. It is a model that is much easier for the movements, especially those of the global North, to imagine occurring at home.
However, the movement in Argentina is in danger of isolation; without the security and the mutual inspiration of international solidarity, it will suffer greatly. The mainstream press has mostly ignored the situation since the December riots, and most people we met felt that the world was unaware of their plight. For once, no one was chanting “the whole world is watching,” because of course, it is in the interest of capitalism’s defense team to ensure that we don’t get to watch, don’t get to see what’s really going on. Although many anticapitalists worldwide have said “Thank god for Argentina,” as we’ve had our hopes rekindled in the dark days post 9-11, most of the people on the streets of Argentina have no idea that they’ve provided such widespread optimism.
If Chiapas was the place from which the seeds of the first round of this movement blew, then Argentina could well be where those seeds land, begin to sprout, and put down roots. We need to find creative ways to support and learn from the rebellion there as we did with the Zapatistas. Some solidarity actions have been taken – the Argentinean embassy in London was occupied and an anarchist flag hung out front, cacerolazos have taken place from Seattle to Sao Paolo, Rome to Nairobi. A chant directed against the World Economic Forum when they met in New York, proclaimed, “They are Enron, we are Argentina!” But much more could be done, more stories could be exchanged, actions coordinated, and visits to the laboratory undertaken.
There is a joke currently circulating the Japanese banking community, that goes: “What’s the difference between Japan and Argentina ?” “About eighteen months.” These bankers well know that the economic situation in Argentina will occur elsewhere, and that it is inevitable that the tug of war between people’s desires for a better life and the demands of global capital will result in explosions across the planet. A recent report by the World Development Movement documents 77 separate incidents of civil unrest in 23 countries, all relating to IMF protests, and all occurring in the year 2001. From Angola to Nepal to Columbia to Turkey, the same cracks are appearing in the neoliberal “logic,” and people are resisting. A dozen countries are poised to be the “next Argentina,” and some of them may be a lot closer to home than we ever imagined.
We need to be prepared, not only to resist, but to find ways to rebuild our societies when the economic crisis hits. If the popular rebellion in Argentina succeeds, it could show the world that people are able to live through severe economic crisis and come out the other side, not merely having survived, but stronger, and happier for struggling for new ways of living.
As this goes to print, the economic crisis in Argentina continues to spiral out of control. Having succeeded in winning legal battles against the government (setting legal precedent that ricochets around the globe) and recovering their savings from banks, thousands of depositors are withdrawing their money from the banking system as fast as they can. In recent days a judge has sent a police contingent and a locksmith to a branch of HSBC to recover a claimant’s savings, while the vault of a branch of Banco Provincia was opened with the aid of a blowtorch. With the banking system about to go belly up, the government decided to close all banks for an “indefinite holiday.” When the IMF refused again to loan more money and the Argentinean congress threw out a bill that proposed converting the frozen bank savings into IOU government bonds, the new minister of economy resigned. In an emergency press conference,Duhalde declared “Banks will have to open again and God knows what will happen then. Banks cannot be closed permanently. It would be absurd to think of a capitalist system without banks.”
It may be absurd to think of a capitalist system without banks, but it is equally absurd to believe in the continuation of the present global system. Perhaps the most realistic thing to imagine at the beginning of this already war-torn century, is a system free of capitalism, one without banks, without poverty, without despair, a system whose currency is creativity and hope, a system that rewards cooperation rather than competition, a system that values the will of the people over the rule of the market. One day we may look back at the absurdity of the present and remember how the people of Argentina inspired us to demand the impossible, and invited us to build new worlds which spread outwards from our own neighborhoods.
Argentina’s own independent media centre, mostly in spanish, a great source of information straight from the streets.
Loads of links to excellent English language news and analysis about the crisis.
The Financial Times, always the best coverage of struggles in the global South! Why? Because they affect investment …
Argentina’s English language daily paper on line. Good for up to the minute news.
Regular English language news updates on the crisis in Argentina.