We need new slogans: what if Greece went Argentina’s way?

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on May 25, 2012

Post image for We need new slogans: what if Greece went Argentina’s way?

With the Left poised to take power in Greece, we would do well to remember how Kirchner killed the piqueteros and saved capitalism in Argentina.

(To be read while listening to Sokratis Malamas’ song: Ta paidia mes tin plateia)

“There will come a magic night, just like it did in Argentina
And then, let’s see who’s gonna get on the helicopter first!”

That’s one of the slogans that the people in the square were chanting during that hot summer of 2011. It was a reference to the helicopter escape of Argentine President Fernardo de la Rua from the Casa Rosada — the Presidential Palace — in December 2001, amidst bloody protests and violent police repression.

Given the similarities of the socio-political condition of today’s Greece and Argentina in 2001-’02, the aforementioned slogan expresses the popular discontent that is targeted at the political and economic status quo of the country, which the indignados are dreaming to do away with. With this article, I would like to make a suggestion to the square: “let’s come up with alternative slogans!” Because if we stick to the ‘helicopter’ one, I am afraid that we are going to win a battle, at best, yet lose the war. Just like Argentina did.

The Piqueteros

The first to revolt in Argentina, already since the 1990s, were the so-called piqueteros. The movement of the unemployed, many of them victims of Menem’s privatizations, that had adopted the road blockade as a tactic (and later on the blockade of boulevards, bridges, supermarkets, as well as government buildings) in order to highlight the social, political, and economic problems of the country.

Yet the piquetero movement never managed to mobilize the masses or capture the support of middle-class Argentinians in its challenge to the country’s political and economic status quo; at least not until the so-called corralito: the banning of cash withdrawals higher than 250 pesos per week (1000 per month) that the De la Rua government and Finance Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed.

Only after they were denied access to their banking accounts did the middle classes — the ladies with the cacerolas and the pensioners that you may remember from TV — take to the streets. And it was exactly at that moment that things got dangerous for the system.

In an excellent documentary by Giorgos Avgeropoulos and his team, Exandas, there is a shocking scene: amidst protests against the coralito, and amidst screams referring to the thieves in Parliament (does it ring any bells, my Greek compatriots?), there appears an old man, presumably a pensioner, who faces the camera and cries out:

“Now we are fighting? Now that our pocket has been picked? Welcome coralito, it is one stage beyond consciousness. If that’s what it takes for the people to take to the streets, welcome coralito… the sheep have rebelled. The revolution of the animal farm.”

He was right. And the system knew it.

-“Que se vayan todos!” the Argentinians were shouting. Away with them all!
-“Να φύγουν όλοι!” they were shouting in the squares of Greece. Away with them all!

And their discontent was targeted towards similar directions: the Argentinians were protesting against the IMF for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it was demanding, but also against the country’s political establishment which it considered corrupt. The Greeks, on their part, are protesting against the Troika for the debt and the neoliberal reform conditionalities it demands, as well as against their country’s political establishment, which is characterized by corruption, nepotism, and clientelistic relations. And there’s one more thing the Argentinians and the Greeks have in common: they both started doubting the dominant economic paradigm as such: capitalism.

And if in Greece the squares have just started to learn how to ‘breathe freely’, to self-organize, to decide and act together, in Argentina things had become more dangerous for the political and economic status quo.

The piqueteros started coordinating with each other, started occupying workplaces and established workers’ cooperatives for their administration (watch Naomi Klein’s and Avi Lewis’ The Take for a wonderful impression of this alternative system of ‘grassroots socialism’), while at the same time they began experimenting with economic systems based on barter, or direct exchange.

The piqueteros also started operating communal kitchens, came up with neighborhood assemblies, and launched cooperative efforts to run bakeries, construction teams, and libraries. According to Benjamin Dangl, in Dancing with Dynamite, this process gave birth to more than 200 worker-run factories and businesses throughout the country, with more than 15.000 people working in these cooperatives in sectors as diverse as car-part production and balloon factories. All of this took place during the one year of Eduardo Duhalde’s transitional government.

And then came Kirchner…

In summer 2002, Eduardo Duhaldo resigned after backing Nestor Kirchner as his favorite successor. Elections were announced, and the main two competitors were Carlos Menem, the man who more than anyone else represented the Argentinian crisis, and Nestor Kirchner, a political outsider, former governor of Santa Cruz province – the only option for the Argentinean left.

Menem won the first round but, seeing that it would be virtually impossible to beat Kirchner in the second, he stood down. And so, Nestor Kirchner was elected President of Argentina, with the smallest ever percentage gained by a presidential winner: a mere 22 percent of the votes.

Upon his election, Kirchner refused to implement the IMF’s conditionalities, which included further cuts in social spending and a shrinking role for the state in the economy, while at the same time announcing that he would pay back to the country’s private creditors 30 cents on every dollar that it owed to them, using the effective threat of a total default instead. Of course, he paid back the IMF in full, but refused to continue receiving loans (and orders) from it.

In addition, Kirchner introduced policies that raised the minimum wage, protected workers’ and unions’ rights, and expanded social security programs to more unemployed and workers in the informal sector. He increased public spending on education and housing, and put limits on the prices of the formerly state-owned enterprises privatized by Menem. Moreover, Kirchner’s government took a solid stance on the prosecution of criminals involved in the 1976-83 dictatorship.

And of course, Kirchner did little to hide his intentions, which were to save the Argentine state from implosion and reconstruct the capitalist system in the country, reversing the extreme neoliberal measures that the previous governments had taken and replacing them with a more humanistic or social democratic orientation.

Kirchner’s measures brought middle class Argentinians back home from the streets — to the normalcy they were asking for. At the same time, while it cannot be denied (and it should not be underestimated either) that this certainly helped middle and lower class citizens to get back on their feet, it should also be noted that Kirchner’s measures clearly played a decisive role in the demobilization of the country’s once powerful social movements.

Some piquetero leaders were coopted and given positions in the government while certain civil society organizations were offered state subsidies. Those who insisted in their resistance were treated with police repression, isolation, and exclusion from the public sphere.

The rest was a matter of time. Soon, the radical experiments on direct democracy and life beyond capitalism lost their  momentum, giving way to Kirchner’s ‘capitalism with a human face’ (which, no matter how you mask it, remains capitalism, albeit slightly more regulated by the state). “In other words,” As Benjamin Dangl summarizes, “Kirchner was handing out crumbs, when what many demanded was revolution.”

What way forward for Greece, compas?

In a way, the challenges faced by the piqueteros were nothing new. Throughout history, social movements around the world have been faced with an eternal and seemingly intractable dilemma: how to bring about lasting social change? While some have opted for a revolutionary road to capture state power, others chose the electoral road to obtaining state power. Others still have chosen to ignore the state altogether and build alternative institutions of direct democracy and autonomous self-management from the grassroots up.

Ahead of the Greek elections, and against the backdrop of widespread excitement around Europe about the expected electoral victory of a ‘radical’ left-wing party, maybe we should turn back and try to remember what happened in other parts of the globe when a left-wing party answered the eternal dilemma facing social movements with a decisive choice for the ‘parliamentary path’ to state power.

Maybe then we‘ll be able to answer the question asked by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer: “Why do social movements consistently lose out to electoral institutional politics once the center-left takes over a regime?” And maybe then, at last, we will realize that we need to come up with new slogans to keep the Greek squares from falling prey to the same fate as the one that befell the piqueteros of Argentina.

P.S: “…if we manage to become powerful, by building a party, or taking up arms, or winning an election, then we shall be no different from all the other powerful in history.” (John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power).

Re-P.S.: The pink tide reaching the shores of Europe?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris May 25, 2012 at 16:54

Good article, the question is right, why do revolutions give in to socialist governments taking over when the initial demand is for direct democracy.
The answer is simple in my opinion. Prior to the last decade there hasn’t been a particularly good way of effectively implementing direct democracy. So a country with a socialist government will do better than a country wasting too much time on organizing and implementing a direct democracy solution which requires people to physically travel to a voting booth and be informed about laws to be voted on via newspapers.
But today we have the internet and it is widespread enough to create a direct democracy platform. Instead of people wasting 2 hours every day reading the news they might be able to spend 1 hours a day voting on laws via their pc-console-smartphone in effect making the news instead of passively receiving it.
Lets hope the Global Square platform will be ready in time before this global historical opportunity for direct democracy passes us.
And for people who doubt direct democracy because the population is too stupid to rule itself, I agree, but the whole point of direct democracy is to get people thinking again and participating which will solve a large part of the problem.

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Michael Kenny May 26, 2012 at 15:54

I’m glad to see that people are beginning to realise that Argentina is not a success story. 10 years after defaulting, it is still being sued in the US courts by its private creditors. In addition, the nationalising of a Spanish oil company and the renewed row with Britain over the Falklands (which seems to be about continental shelf oil) suggests that Argentina is having difficulty getting oil supplies, for which they have to exchange their largely worthless peso for high-value dollars. Outside the EU and without the euro, Greece would be in the same mess.
What is needed is not new slogans but new ideas and new ideas come from the young, not old men like James Petras (born 1937), Henry Veltmeyer (born1948 or 49) or John Holloway (born 1947). The leader of Germany’s Pirate Party, for example, is roughly the same age as Tsipras. It is precisely the closed-mindedness of the old that causes Petras not to understand that the very purpose of social movements is to cause a particular political faction (and not just the centre-left) to come to power via electoral institutional politics. People want to have their say and choose those who govern them. They turn to a social movement only when they are not allowed to do those things and will abandon the movement once they have achieved them. The movement is just a a means. Electoral institutional politics, representative democracy, is the end.

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Jerome Roos May 26, 2012 at 17:08

Your view of social movements is depressingly simplistic and institutional. Also, Argentina wasn’t a failure because it’s still being sued by foreign creditors (in fact, one could argue that that’s an affirmation of its only success: the fact that the country preferred to break a financial contract with its foreign creditors over breaking the social contract with its own population). The reason Argentina is not a success story is because, 10 years later, we are back in the exact same position: with a massive commodity price bubble feeding an illusory sense of growth that will sooner or later end with yet another socio-economic implosion. We’re going in circles. The only chance to break out of this vicious cycle of boom and bust is to step out of the institutional framework of liberal democracy and global capitalism and evolve new structures of social, political and economic organization that move beyond dependency on primary resources and foreign trade for the well-being of the average population. Holloway outlined just such a vision of social change. That is what today’s youth is asking for. Not the old-fashioned parliamentary politics you are cheerleading here.

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NingúnOtro May 27, 2012 at 00:55

Even if these new slogans and thoughts sidetrack the traditional left?

It’s not that it will happen immediately in Greece, as the line of thought is obviously not developed enough at the moment to be of any possible impact in the pending Greek elections and nobody wants to undermine Syriza as the only serious candidate actually to go against the wishes of the insane Troika, but the left vs. right oppositions are wearing out. What we get in crisis situations is not an increased support for the left, it is a protest vote at present governments. Wherever these present governments are already left, they are being voted out, like in Spain. In some country where the right is voted out, the first choice is not the left (like the Front de Gauche in France who got merely 11% of the vote) but the alternative franchise of big capital, the socialists.

Because the factions with the biggest statistical probability (left-of-centre and right-of-centre) are being sponsored as mechanical alternates to power by the same factual powers as their franchises… they finance both, and the cost to finance both is seen as the unitary cost of accessing power either way.

As long as people (or sheeple ;) ) behave statistically in such a way that only those with the biggest propaganda budget stand a chance of getting into government… the peoples stupidity will be the one to beat their own longing for freedom and self-determination.

The left was a virus invented by bourgeois forces to get rid of such a medieval landlord as the Tzar of Russia, that went out of control and had to be countered by a blue virus as virulent and merciless… and it is about time we recognize both viruses for what they are, so that instead of 49,5% of red humanity fighting the other 49,5% of blue humanity while the pragmatic 1% of elite just waits to collect the debris… 99% of humanists can go about getting rid of the logics of a very pragmatic and not at all ideologic elite that is the prisoner of a very logic dilemma. Once we recognize that dilemma we can treat them as sick people, which is what they are, and maybe, if the cure is not life-threatening… they might stop building up numantine defenses against annihilation.

If the world keeps accelerating towards the wall… it is because this wall always seems further away than the guillotines some (left) idiotly threatens with.

We won’t get out of the mess until we defuse that leftist threat and choose sound humanist solutions.

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