The trajectory of a workers’ struggle that began in the trade union movement and worker-recovered factories in Argentina has led to a new debate about the global economy.
Author: François Soulard, November 2016
The threat of climate change, the turbulence of global politics and the dénouement of forty years of expansion of neoliberal socioproductive models have led once again in almost every corner of the planet to the exploration of new social cultural and economic paradigms. Worker-recovered companies in Argentina, as local seeds of these new paradigms, undoubtedly represent an experience previously unheard of, designing a plural movement at national and regional level, sustained over time and similar to what we can find in other territories battered by great waves of deindustrialization and economic crisis (Detroit/USA, Brazil, Mexico, Greece, France, Spain, Totnes/England, etc.) Today, after two decades of struggle and growth to promote a social economy boosted by a virtuous period of people’s governments in Latin America, a new initiative is emerging that aims for the reform of the global economic system through the Wealth Observatory for a new global financial and communication system.
Occupy, resist, produce… resignify
It is no simple task to sum up such a symbolic struggle and there is probably no better way than to recount its specific history. Worker-recovered companies in Argentina and in other countries of Latin America began as a combative response by the workers to the economic violence of the 1990s, when merciless social exclusion, deindustrialization and labour instability measures multiplied hand in hand with the ideological criteria of the Washington Consensus absorbed by local elites. Industrial companies reached the point of bankruptcy and their workers, who had no protection from the government, the unions or the courts, opted to defend their jobs, occupying the production space and reconverting it in many cases into a collaborative form. Or to put it in colder, more conceptual terms: where the State and the market considered a given productive space to be economically disposable, abandoning the financial asset and management of the business, the workers socialized the material capital (and therefore other capitals), through the physical occupation of the productive space and by sustaining a conflict against the governmental and legal apparatus. As well as succeeding in keeping jobs and a certain level of production, the worker-recovered factories demonstrated greater resilience1 to macroeconomic variations than private companies and even traditional SMEs.
The industrial basin of the area of Quilmes, Berazateguí and Florencio Varela in the south of the Greater Buenos Aires conurbation spawned the first experiences with the active support of the metal workers’ trade union UOM.2 These experiences found solidarity subsequently with other initiatives to drive the national movement of worker-recovered companies3 and other federations. At present, there are around 370 worker-recovered companies in Argentina (around 700 in the region4), mobilizing around 16,000 workers, with greater territorial presence in the capital city and the Province of Buenos Aires, but also in the rest of the country. The vast majority of these appeared in the 2002-2004 period in the metal, food, printing and textile industrial sectors. Nonetheless, such companies have continued to sprout up to the present day. Two continental conferences took place in 2005 and 2006, leading to further international ties.5
The emblematic company IMPA, a key piece in this movement, is based in the Argentine capital and spawned a particularly influential experience. Created in 1928 to design aluminium parts for the aeronautic industry, it was nationalized in 1944 and became a cooperative in the 1960s. The company went bankrupt in 1998, at the height of state deregulation and monopolistic pressure from the Aluar industrial group. After bankruptcy, the company was recovered by the workers, though not without contradictions, sabotage attempts and heroic moments such as are found in each of these experiences. The company managed to maintain its production line and successively opened 22 000m² of covered premises, including a workers’ university, a secondary school, a cultural centre, eight theatre rooms, a cinema, various health facilities, a television channel and a community radio station.
That is to say, a worker-recovered company left behind the traditional private property model to become a “village square” or a laboratory, a hub, a meeting place for urban, cultural, socio-political workers’ movements. Many of the characteristics that Economic Sciences Nobel Prize Elinor Ostrom showed in her international analysis of the use of shared resources can be found here, but always bearing in mind that the conflict constitutes a central element for enabling the communalization stage. This hub of resistance and support for people’s self-organization in the face of the maelstrom of a globalized economy sustained the struggle of other workers, such as the case of Scotiabank in 2001, or LAPA in the aeronautics sector. This support was made against the stream of restrictions and even vetoes from opposing traditional trade unions. At present, it continues to support the company La Salamandra and a vegetable oil factory in La Matanza (west Greater Buenos Aires.)
Guillermo Robledo was part of this story and is now a coordinator of the Wealth Observatory. He says it’s evident that new micro-models have come into being because of this plural front of companies in a situation where their own workforce disobeyed and recovered the company. Some public policies have been passed to facilitate reconversion (expropriation law, state loans and incentives programme.) Various social movements have accompanied this dynamic. But it also has to be admitted that in twenty years, even within the historic advance of people’s projects in Latin America boosted by an extraordinary cycle of high prices for raw materials, tied to China’s growth, these micro-models of economic independence have become encapsulated and peripheral, unable to climb higher or question more deeply the “centre-dependent” structure of the labour, legal, monetary and financial system. This has fixed a ceiling to capacity for transformation, not just for recovered industries and the popular economy but also more broadly for the regional economic matrix. These limits come to the surface precisely with the current world recession and the advance of a neo-colonial-revanchist process in Latin America.
In search of new hubs and synthesis
For the leaders involved in this movement, it is clear that the paths of emancipation do not end solely with this form of direct resistance and its potential expansion in the gaps of economic orthodoxy. The need to become more deeply involved in idea systems, whether they be new, ignored or latent, capable of changing the minds of the elites and of the movements themselves, has become evident. The diverse streams of emancipatory theories that feed this movement include the school of ecological economics around the physicist Frederick Soddy6 at the start of the twentieth century, overlooked by the intellectual establishment for his scathing criticism of the monetary system as a wealth control mechanism. He is joined also by Silvio Gesell, Henry George, Joseph Shumpeter and Eva Perón at the heart of the Peronist movement. There is also the lesser known work Grundisse7 by Karl Marx, mediatized by the German Martin Nicolaus, which among other elements drew attention to the phenomena of the transfer of pension funds, the atomization of the working class, the financing of the means of production, and the expansion of an international middle class.
Today, as we all know, these new or postponed currents are once more under discussion at global level with the deepening of the capitalist crisis and the emergence of new complexities. Critical or alternative spaces are multiplying, often outside of traditional apparatus, while structural changes continue very slowly. In the forty years since the first official alert sent out by the Meadows Report and the Club of Rome in 1972, advances have been very fragile and scarce in favour of a post-productivist paradigm. It is undeniable that places of innovation are multiplying, but within a reinforcing of the lobbying exerted by the dominant system to guarantee its reproduction, as the Transnational Institute reminds us.8 Although organized civil society has been fundamental for advocacy in certain issues, it has yet to consolidate a real agenda of its own capable of stopping the capture of power by corporate actors and having a bearing on the agenda of the States as a whole.
It is in this scenario that a sector tied to the movement of worker-recovered Argentine companies and various popular movements have interpreted Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ –Pope Francis had previously expressed solidarity with the experience of recovered companies in Argentina9– as a new horizon, not only in ethics and civilization, but also politics, that is, as a “world project”, as emphasized by the theologian Leonardo Boff.10 This is not a clerical proposition, but rather that the Laudato Si’ contributes a new convening element “not only to rethink things but also to develop a synthesis that might overcome the fallacies of the last 200 years.” The word synthesis here is synonymous with political synthesis, that is, of the fact of assuming the challenges of the new times as social subject, with new programmatic and ideological agendas.
The perspectives accumulated over the course of international meetings of popular movements,11 stimulated by the Vatican and accompanied by various international movements (including the Bolivarian movement) echo this idea. The centrality of the battle against the colonialism of the economic and financial system is prioritized. They call on the people and civil society to break loose of the straitjacket of “sector politics” and question mainstream politics. They highlight the need to replace the globalizing ideological model, sometimes reproduced in the social sectors, with circular paths from the local to the universal, respecting the identity of the peoples.
Towards the Wealth Observatory
It is in the light of this journey that the Wealth Observatory was created in 2016 for a new global financial and communications system, with its main base in Buenos Aires. Its starting point lies in drawing attention to the importance of a new debate on the financial and communications system as a whole, based on the following premises:
• After 2008, the opportunity to reform the financial system more extensively was missed; today we are facing new systemic risks with a monetary deflation, which makes it necessary to pick up this discussion again.
• There is a global deflation of prices without a set lower limit, due to the effects of the technological and productivity revolution, which inevitably creates objective and subjective conditions for a new concept of wealth and communication (today the recovered companies in Argentina, like many other companies, are victims of this phenomenon and so tweak their struggle with the creation of the Observatory); this enables new approaches to human work, the collaborative economy and consumption.
• New neoliberal reconversion projects are emerging, following two main aspects: nationalist-authoritarian and neo-colonial-globalist, hence it is necessary to favour a new internationalism and internalize the debate in the movements (this perspective is highlighted in Europe by the Diem25 movement, Thomas Piketty12, and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas; China, on the other hand, is renewing its foreign policy towards a horizon of “human community with a shared destination.”)
• Free market models have been profoundly eroded; it is enough to see the phenomenon of the return of critical or reactionary opinion politics such as Brexit, the emergence of Donald Trump, and also the low level of consensus for the most recent transnational free trade treaties.
• The evolution of fossil fuel reserves and the cost of extracting them is pushing an energy matrix towards renewable energies, implying a number of profound structural changes.
One central aspect of the Observatory’s work13 has to do with breaking the artificial monetary dam that acts on popular alternatives in all strategic fronts: conceptual, informational, political, economic, spiritual and emotional. Another aspect is related to the preparation of a new world modelization similar to the line of the Meadows Report, based on the first global Latin American model elaborated in the same years by the Fundación Bariloche.14 A third aspect has to do with experiencing specific proposals and organizing convergences at local, regional and global level.
Obviously, there is still a lot to be done. What is evident to the author is that this movement, like others that are emerging in the wounds left by a convulsed world, is putting down roots in a territory that has a profound message to offer the world. Battered successively by genocide, colonization and imperial violence in the name of civilizing processes, its strength lies equally in its combativeness, the veracity of its perspective, and the capacity to overcome its resentment.