Representation and the Social Movements

(translated by Justin Podur)
The social movement in Argentina gained strength and vigor with the formation of unemployed workers’ organizations, who arrived on the scene in the late 1990s, joining the indigenist and campesino movements.  It was not until more recently, however– in December 19-20, when the urban citizenry went out into the streets and impelled the resignation of two presidents– that the many facets of the social movement became known to the public by way of the weight carried in  the media of the (then) strong middle class.
The urban activism of those days was organized in people’s assemblies, the children of December 19-20.  From the beginning the assemblies were a  radical expression of the crisis of representation.  This was implicit in the slogan ‘que se vayan todos’ (everyone must go), but no one could measure the true depth of the crisis.  Some believed that the slogan was a kind of spontaneous, temporary outcry, as in: ‘everyone must go, so that we can finally arrive’.  Others interpreted the slogan as the birth of a new kind of radicalism: one that couldn’t be understood on the old terms.
From the first day these two very different political ideas co-existed in the assemblies.  The dividing line between them was over the question of representation.  One sector viewed the crisis as one of leadership.  To them, the solution would be exchanging the bad functionaries for good ones– in other words, putting the old wine in new bottles.  For this sector, the problem would be resolved with constitutional reform through the institutional mechanisms of the state.  The other sector believed that the political system had already collapsed, that the state was neither the place where national policy was decided nor the real centre of power.  Instead, they believed that power was held by the market, by finance capital, and the international organisms (IMF, World Bank) that represented them.
The short history of the social movement can be read as the play of the tension between these two political ideas.  The directives coming from the assemblies were for direct democracy, ‘horizontality’, and territoriality. They spoke explicitly in rejection of representative, centralized, and vertical organization that characterized the political parties upon which the state was based. Their message was also directed at the ‘old left’, who understood that message in its own way. 

The old left decided to interpret the demands for change as demands for a mere change of language.  The left political parties went to work in the neighborhoods and continued to apply ‘democratic centralism’: managing the lists of speakers, the megaphone, and the votes in the plazas, while using the inter-neighborhood commission as a theatre for internal  struggles for hegemony over the social movement.  The pre-revolutionary  situation we were living– without realizing it-was pressing, and was unforgiving of this stupid waste of time and energy.
The demands of the social movement went far beyond aesthetic changes. What was at stake was a new radicalism that could transform life by way of daily interactions that empowered people, made them subjects instead of objects, in newly created spaces that were outside of capitalism.  The idea was to subvert the system by putting human beings at the centre of the world, where they belong.  This meant not only questioning the market model of the world, but actively posing other values, another ethic.  One fundamental element of this conception was practical solidarity, the establishment of networks that restored the social fabric destroyed by the market with the goal of creating new and solid human relations that reached every sphere of social life.
The belief that the social movement was pure promise, without  theoretical recipes and in many cases without answers was repulsive to the old left and many others.  What is unacceptable about it is its resistance to being understood in terms of preconceived notions, not only by the old left, but also for many of the country’s intellectuals, who have declined their responsibility to adapt to the times, to understand reality, and think critically.
Seen from this angle, the slogan ‘everyone must go’ ceases to be a utopia and becomes, in Subcomandante Marcos’s words, a ‘real global program of political action’.  The most creative and solid sector of the Argentinian social movement comes from this base.  It’s not coincidence that it has been, and continues to be, the sector hardest-hit by state repression, which rarely fails to recognize a real threat when it sees one.  Alain Badiou said that the new radicalism doesn’t just ‘oppose’ the system.  Opposition is inherent in domination, which not only encompasses it but needs it.  Emancipation does not look to the state, nor make the state its final objective.  This is a phenomenon that capitalism attacks because it cannot understand: it cannot assimilate that which refuses to play by its rules.
During the year 2002, the assemblies and the whole social movement assimilated these ideas and there opened a confrontation between the old and new left that went far to show the true dividing line of the movement. The division had everything to do with political representation, and it cast a shadow over the whole social movement.
What brought this reality to the surface was the national elections.  As the campaign approached, the tensions in the movement rose.  The debate was prefigured by the relation of greater or lesser opposition between the unemployed worker’s movement and the state. From those movements more inclined to negotiation came negotiators, who later became media leaders, and ended up, against their intentions, becoming virtual clients.  Mobilization for emergency food aid drew many people. To draw many people it was necessary to ensure that those who received the aid were those who mobilized.  It was the simple logic of power at the petty level of our misery. That sled ended up in the predictable ditch of political candidacy in the province of Buenos Aires. At the same time, some of those who belonged to the assemblies made the leap to city elections, attempting to create an electoral force within the assemblies movement. The system’s capacity for co-optation is infinite, and in the last meeting of the autonomous assemblies, everyone could feel the burnout that came from the climate of accusations and counter-accusations between those who wanted political representation for the assemblies and those who rejected it on principle.
Fifteen days before the elections the confusion was huge. While the left parties were campaigning, the autonomous assemblies declared their plans to abstain. The daily newspapers and the television networks, in a campaign orchestrated by the government and cheered on by the right-wing candidates, threatened repression and pressed for a ‘tactical vote’ that would prevent bloodshed.  The fears stoked by the press were expressed in the assemblies. Autonomist sentiment could neither moderate nor stop the power of fear. The assemblies had argued that since elections were largely irrelevant to social change, there was no need to have a position on them.  Suddenly this position did not seem to hold water.
After the first round, both the progressive intellectuals and the press were quick to announce the failure, and irrelevance, of the assemblies. If 80% of the electorate voted and abstention was less than 3%, the representative system- from which many profited-was vindicated. ‘Democracy’ and the ‘rule of law’, are more alive than ever, at peace. There is relief in the establishment, who believe they have dealt a blow to a power that they can now force to submit to their agenda.
And yet, it is these very declarations of relief by the powerful that give us an idea of our own power. If the ‘progressive’ intellectuals and the press focus on the 3% abstention rate, and systematically forget the 40% who were ‘undecided’ in the polls one week before the elections, it is because they fear the ‘democratic apathy’ of this huge sector of the population who feel like their aspirations for change were contemptuously dismissed.
The day after the elections, the assemblies continued to discuss our counter-culture activities, our ‘solidarity-economy’ initiatives; we continued to develop tactics of active resistance against privatized enterprises, for the factories recovered by their workers; we continued to work on self-education, knowledge exchanges, and networking with other social organizations. As we do, we know we are undermining capitalist spaces, making another world possible.
I want to end with a personal anecdote. The day after the elections I boarded the train that takes me to the office with a book in my hand, that I had been reading for some time.  I tried to read on the train but I was distracted by a murmuring that sounded like a beehive, loud, sustained. It was actually made up of the voice of dozens of people from the unemployed worker’s movement. They were coming to the city with their caps and their folded flags, almost certainly to demand the food aid that the government had suspended. They were women and men, some very young, some quite old; they spoke in their relaxed way, in low voices, drinking mate, talking and laughing. What made me lift my eyes from the book was the absence of silence. From this sepulchral silence that accompanies me every day, this characteristic of the middle class on its way to its self-absorbed round of work, to its round of the daily cage, each one knowing and caring nothing about the others.

The people  outside, the poor people, were moving in a space that had neither the convenience of transportation nor the pressing rush of capital to produce. It was a world within a world. 

There’s no better metaphor for what the social movement is: a more humane world within a world that has lost its capacity for humanity. I felt that this was the only way forward, to build something that transcends all forms of representation, something filled with desire to rebuild the lost links of society, crossing it like a river looking for its way without knowing what it has already passed.  What we were looking for has already arrived.  For all that those who set the parameters of reality want to convince us otherwise, it is here.

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