James Petras on Argentina: “You have to take action from below”


From the Editors: Argentine society has been stirred to its depths. Protests are continuing in the wake of the spontaneous mass outpourings in December that ousted several presidents in a row. Peronist leader Duhalde, presenting himself as a “populist,” but also bringing out thugs to attack demonstrators, is seeking to defuse public outrage and stifle protest, but whether Peronist deception and trickery — or the use of goons — will succeed in stabilizing the discredited capitalist system remains to be seen.

In an effort to inform our readers about this fast-moving, rapidly changing, and potentially earth-shaking situation, we reprint the following interview with longtime socialist activist and author James Petras, dated January 11, 2002. We highlight the following passage to emphasize the significance of the ongoing events in Argentina.

“Nothing in the bourgeois press captures the degree of tension and polarization that exists in Argentina today. On the spot, activists and revolutionaries describe it as a pre-revolutionary situation. And certainly the degree of hostility to all the bourgeois parties and the degree of militancy of great masses of people would describe a pre-revolutionary situation.”

In this interview Petras correctly points to the absence of a revolutionary party having a mass base and capable of leading the working class and popular masses to a resolution of the crisis that would meet the needs and interests of the great majority, rather than the privileged few. But he seems clear that such leadership is needed to bring the situation to a positive outcome and avoid worse disaster.

During the past two years Petras worked with the unemployed movement in Argentina. Petras is the author of numerous books on Latin America — the most recent, co-authored with Henry Veltmeyer, is Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century.

This interview with Petras previously appeared on the web site of Z magazine and in Socialist Worker, newspaper of the International Socialist Organization, for which he was interviewed by Alan Maass. Petras also has an article on Argentina in the January issue of the socialist magazine Monthly Review.

A month ago, Argentina was a symbol of the disaster of the free market. Years of recession had driven unemployment to nearly 20 percent and pushed one-third of the population into poverty. And all President Fernando de la Rúa and his hated economics chief Domingo Cavallo could offer was more austerity — slashed wages, layoffs, spending cuts, privatization.

Argentina today is the symbol of something else — the hope of a better future. In mid-December, ordinary Argentinians said “no” to the misery of a system run by bankers and bosses. By December 20, every city and town in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, was paralyzed by mass demonstrations.

Cavallo was the first to go. Then de la Rúa. And one week after that, a new wave of demonstrations brought down another government.

Question: Where did the spark for the December uprising come from?

Answer: The driving force for these massive mobilizations has its roots in the large-scale, sustained activities of the unemployment movement. The unemployed workers’ movement has been gaining strength for the last five years. But in the last year, it’s spread throughout the country and has played a major role in securing subsistence programs from the government and public works for at least a sector of the unemployed.

Its tactics are to paralyze the circulation of commodities and transportation. So the piqueteros, as they’re called, meaning “the picketers,” block off major highways in order to make their demands.

The ranks of the unemployed movement include a preponderance of women, especially woman heads of households, which has grown with the unemployment. In some areas, unemployment is probably 50 to 60 percent. So many of the piqueteros are factory workers with trade union experience. Many are young people who’ve never had a job.

They organize and block the highways. Traffic piles up, trucks can’t move, factories can’t get supplies. These are the functional equivalents of factory workers downing their tools. In this case, instead of directly stopping production, they stop the inputs and outputs from production.

Then the government can send the police down, in which case there’s a whole confrontation. People have been killed, five or six recently in the north of Argentina. But the fear for the government is that if the confrontations continue, the crowds come in from the huge slums, and it could turn into a mini-civil war. So the government usually — after threats and mobilizations of police — negotiates an agreement.

These agreements are discussed by the participants themselves. They don’t delegate any leaders to go downtown. They make the government come to the highways, and the people there discuss what they should demand and what they should accept.

Their experience with delegated leadership is that they go downtown, they sit in a big room with the government or with the trade union bureaucracy, and they usually get bought out. The leaders get some payoffs, even the militant leaders. Or they get drawn into some tripartite agreement, and the rank and file is sold out. So their activity is about direct representation, direct negotiation, direct action.

These demonstrations have been enormously successful within the limited areas in which they operate. But recently, as early as September of last year, there were two national meetings trying to coordinate the committees from all the different cities and the regions and suburbs of Buenos Aries, and they created a kind of coordinating committee.

But what they taught the population as a whole was that you can’t rely on the politicians. You have to take action for yourself and from below.

Q.: How did the piqueteros’ struggles set the stage for the December demonstrations?

A.: I think that spirit began to manifest itself, even in downtown Buenos Aires, shortly before this latest uprising. There were several cases where grievances emerged, and shopkeepers and others decided to close off downtown streets.

There was a huge debate within the movement, because the so-called progressive trade union leadership thought it could win over the middle class by blocking main streets but allowing alternative streets to function. This was opposed by the more militant unemployed movements, which said you either close the streets, or you don’t.

So this spirit captured the imagination of not only employed workers and, of course, the young people, but also the impoverished lower middle class, and even sectors of more affluent petty bourgeois, including shopkeepers, small businessmen, and others who had accounts in the banks.

When the government finally confiscated the savings — billions of dollars in savings — of the middle class, these layers also became involved in street demonstrations. This is an impoverished, radicalized middle class.

It’s a mistake to think of it as simply the middle class. These are people who’ve lost all their savings. They don’t have money to pay their grocery bills, or their rents, or go on vacations, or what have you. So under the example of the unemployed workers, you had a coming together of various strands of the population.

You had the great mass of unemployed who were involved in some kind of informal economy. You had employed workers who hadn’t been paid because the accounts of their employers are frozen. And you have a great mass of public employees and shopkeepers and others forming a very broad front against the bankers.

The bankers have been able to get their money out. By using the purchase of Argentine stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, they have no problem getting their money out of the country.

So this is very much a class phenomenon, in which the unemployed workers formed one pole, drawing the workers, the petty bourgeois, and sectors of the middle class to the politics of extra-parliamentary struggle — to the politics of rejecting the major bourgeois parties.

This, I think, is the dynamic. Now whether this middle class will be a strategic ally — whether they’ll get a deal which allows them to take their money out of the banks — is an open question.

But I think the most important factor in this is that mass action, more than all the ritual strikes of the trade union bureaucracy, led to the ouster of the main leaders of neoliberalism and the main spokesmen for U.S. banks and U.S. imperialism in the government at that time.

Each time, they’ve been replaced by new faces, all coming within the framework of neoliberalism. There’s no way that the debt can be paid without precipitating a mass uprising — in which case, I think, the bourgeois parliamentary system will go down, and perhaps you’ll have a civil war, with the military coming into the picture.

Nothing in the bourgeois press captures the degree of tension and polarization that exists in Argentina today. On the spot, activists and revolutionaries describe it as a pre-revolutionary situation. And certainly the degree of hostility to all the bourgeois parties and the degree of militancy of great masses of people would describe a pre-revolutionary situation.

There isn’t at this time an organized revolutionary party with roots and support. There are thousands of local activists and militants who engage in these activities, and there is a broad radicalization of consciousness among hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Argentinians today — unprecedented in recent times in Latin America.

But the little left parties — all the Trotskyist and Marxist parties — spent most of their resources recently in electing officials to an impotent parliament. And nowhere have these parties — or the center-left, of course — exercised any kind of leadership. They’ve been out of sight. They issue manifestos; they sell their newspapers. In none of these growing mass confrontations — that are reaching proportions of hundreds of thousands in different cities — has there been any organized vanguard.

There are militants from the unemployed movement, who have some kind of street-fighting experience and preparation. Programmatically, they’re clear as far as their immediate demands — which is massive employment projects, living wages, unemployment benefits, and of course, no payment of the debt. And some sectors are calling for the renationalization of the strategic sectors of the economy.

Q.: What will Duhalde’s new government be like?

A.:  The current government of President Duhalde is clearly a provocation. He’s a man of the right, and he’s organized, in the past, a political apparatus of thugs. Despite what the press says, he is capable of putting right-wing street fighters out — fascistlike groups that can draw on lumpens and some disoriented unemployed to challenge for hegemony in the streets and take pressure off the police. There already has been one major confrontation with, of course, police taking the side of Duhalde’s Peronist thugs.

But this is, I think, a dress rehearsal. There is no honeymoon period for Duhalde. Right as we’re speaking today, there are massive demonstrations in Argentina, and there are preparations for a big show of force when he announces his economic program late this afternoon. More than any recent events, we’re dealing with a country that has a long tradition of trade union, collective action. General strikes are more common in Argentina than in any country in the world.

This is the country that has the biggest concentration of unemployed industrial workers in the world today. And thirdly, this is the country with the largest number of unemployed workers organized and engaged in direct action.

What is, I think, necessary or missing in this context is a recognized political leadership that can carry this dynamic process forward to the creation of a workers’ government. I think the ensuing struggle is going to raise that question very acutely.

We should keep in mind that the leadership in Washington will not rest until it buries that movement. And I think what you might see is the maintenance of the civilian political facade and the return of the military as a determining factor in politics.

And that’s like throwing wood on the fire. As we saw in the earlier dictatorship of 1976, it took 30,000 dead and disappeared to bury that movement. This time, there are many, many more activists and militants than there were at the height of the mobilizations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Q.: You talked about the conservatism of labor leaders and the unions’ “ritual” general strikes. But haven’t the unions played a role in the resistance?

A.: You can’t just speak of a general strike in Argentina. There are general strikes, and there are general strikes. And everybody knows that in Argentina. You can talk to a cab driver, who, when you ask, “What do you think of this general strike?” will tell you that the bureaucrats are using it to blow off steam.

They’re one-day affairs with no active mobilizations or factory occupations. The employers know it, and the government knows it—that if they sit on their hands for one day, everything goes back to normal. So they have little consequences. There’s little mobilization and little in the way of activating the class and creating class consciousness. They’re decided from above, and they’re shut off from above.

There are three trade union confederations in Argentina. The official trade union is the CGT, which has alliedd itself with every government since the dictatorship — and even had arrangements with the dictatorship.

There’s the CGT-Moyano — the dissident CGT led by Hugo Moyano, which has been critical of the official CGT for being so closely tied to the government. But in turn, this federation is run by another set of bureaucrats who utilize their opposition to the status quo to pressure the government to make concessions to their followers while maintaining a distance from any structural challenges.

The third major union is the progressive CTA, which emerged as a rejection of the CGT and has many of the public-sector workers—workers who haven’t had any relief with the shutting down and cutting off of services and the firings of hundreds of thousands.

The Moyano trade union bureaucracy has been more eager to engage in general strikes and to mobilize around specific issues. They use a great deal of populist rhetoric, but later negotiate on more narrow sectoral issues, constantly negotiating behind the backs of the workers. That’s why they’re distrusted by many sectors of the working class as being essentially an opportunistic opposition that is capable of putting people in the streets, but is also quite capable of bringing them out of the streets.

The CTA has been the most active and radical of the trade unions, led by the ATE, the public employees union. They have been involved with the piqueteros and the unemployed. They have raised very important structural issues. However, they have not at any point called into question the capitalist system. Moreover, they have a tendency to engage in militant actions and then step back and negotiate. They have been conscious of their position as state employees—and therefore very much engaged in negotiating with the state and paying lip service to the rest of the working class.

They say that we ought to unify the unemployed and the public employees. But the experience of the unemployed workers with the national leadership of the CTA — and, particularly, the ATE — has been that they become auxiliaries. And when the real negotiations take place, it’s over cutbacks in employment in the public sector. That’s why the unemployed decided to go and organize for themselves.

Now, there are powerful sectors of the public employees unions, plus sectors of the teachers union, that have engaged in mass struggle and confrontations — and have suffered some injuries and deaths even in these great mobilizations.

I think one has to distinguish between the national leadership — particularly of the CTA and to a lesser degree the Moyano group — and the rank and file. This is especially true in the provinces, where you will find very radical, very militant trade unionists, local leaders even, as well as the rank and file. For example, in Córdoba, in Salta, and in Neuquén, where the petroleum industry is located, you have a great number of trade union activists, some of whom have been influenced by the piqueteros, who have joined in struggles.

Q.: What do these links between the unemployed movements and rank-and-file union members look like?

A.: I can give you an example. Hospital workers in Neuquén were protesting for weeks, trying to get rid of an abusive director. Finally, the director called the police in to stop the strikers from blocking the entrance to the hospital.

Word got back to the unemployed. They jumped into their cars and buses—whatever transport was available—and went up there 300 strong. In less than an hour, the director was out, and the hospital workers elected a new director.

That was an example of the kind of solidarity between the health workers and the piqueteros that occurs frequently in the interior of the country. I think this is a very promising development. But it has to be seen in context.

The pronouncements coming from the general leaderships are not representative of what they do — and certainly don’t correspond to the kinds of alliances which are building up at the grassroots level. That’s the significant thing.

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual leaders in some particular sector of industry who’ve displayed militancy. But the militancy today has to be understood in a very concrete sense. Where were the leaders of the ATE and the CTA during the December 20 protests? The militants tell me that they were under the bed. They were notable by their absence in those great days that brought down the de la Rúa government. They don’t show face, as they say in Argentina. And that is very important, because action tells you a lot more than the speeches and programs.

Q.: Where do industrial workers fit into this picture of the labor movement?

A.: The bulk of industrial workers are unemployed today. They used to be 40 percent of the labor force. They’re under 20 percent today. So we have to think of the unemployed not as some kind of poor, urban street vendors. We’re talking about Argentina. We’re talking about guys that worked in auto plants, who were steelworkers, who were metallurgy and mechanical workers. When I spoke last May at a meeting in Argentina, I met a great many workers who had backgrounds in the trade unions.

And what’s even more interesting are the wives of former industrial workers. One of the things I’ve noted is the militancy and high levels of participation of wives of industrial workers—wives who’ve taken on even more family responsibilities because their husbands have become disoriented, in part because of long-term unemployment.

The women are the ones to call them out on the picket line — to go down and be active in order to get a job. Because if you’re not on the road blockage, you’re not there to get a job when the assembly meets.

To understand the union movement, think that the U.S. [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney and the mainstream of the AFL-CIO would be in the CGT. The left-of-center of the AFL-CIO would probably be with Moyano, the dissident. Very few trade unionists would be with the CTA. And of course, the militant section of the CTA would be totally foreign to American trade unionism--or even most of European trade unionism today.

We have to put this in perspective. The mass action and mass confrontations beginning on December 20 did more to change the political agenda and the physiognomy of the government than all the general strikes and symbolic protests of the trade unions in the last five or ten years. The general strikes are important when they have a social content—when the workers occupy the factories and come out and face the government.

That’s what I think these movements of the unemployed have. These are desperate people today. These are not employed workers fighting against a particular cutback. They’ve lost all their savings. They’ve been out of work for a long time. Many of them haven’t seen meat for months. This is a whole desperate mass of people that cuts across class lines — but in which class demands are articulated.

Q.: What are the prospects for the development of an organization or party that can take up the big political questions ahead?

A.: The organizing principle of the struggle has been hunger. That’s what started the sacking of supermarkets in December, and the organization of these road blockages before that. You had what we might call survival demands for jobs — even low-paying public works jobs at $200 a month — and for food.

Out of that struggle and organization, some of the more advanced workers in the movement — with trade union experience and some political experience — began to raise other issues, structural issues like repudiating the debt, large-scale public investments, and the renationalization of strategic industries.

There are Marxists and socialists who are involved in some of these organizations. But they are there as militants within these movements. They are not, certainly, the dominant force. And they certainly don’t have the following in these movements to give leadership and direction — at least at this time.

I think what you have is three levels. One is the grass roots, which is suffering horrendous deprivation. Here’s a country that is one of the leading meat and grain producers in the world, and the workers are hungry. They don’t have beef, they don’t have pasta, they can’t feed their kids — and they watch the trains taking tens of thousands of tons of meat to Buenos Aires to ship to Europe.

So this is a provocation. Here’s one of the most fertile areas in the world with large-scale unemployment and with hunger — unprecedented in the history of Argentina.

That’s one level. The second level is the emerging leadership, which has a conception of structural changes that we might call anti-capitalist and populist. And then we have a third level, in which the issues of socialism and of revolution come into play.

While the government continues to avoid measures to ameliorate the problems, increasingly the power within these mobilizations is moving toward the left. A month ago, the issue of foreign debt repudiation was a left-wing issue. Today, it’s the mainstream. The issue of massive public works was a left-wing issue. Today, it’s moved over into the mainstream. The renationalization of basic strategic industries had a very small group of supporters. Today, it’s gaining tens of thousands of adherents. Intervention in the banks was an issue for the minority. Today, it’s become a major issue.

So the whole political debate has moved to the left, as the left begins to gain ideological hegemony. But it’s the ideas, not an organized left.