Autonomous Politics And The Autonomists

The recent rebellion in Bolivia brought some fresh air for Argentinean movements, at a time when the local political mood seems to be changing dramatically. The image of Bolivians banging pots and pans in La Paz and setting up road blockades all over the country, together with that of the escape of President Sánchez de Losada, was a reminder of the strange, discontinuous and unexpected ways of radical politics –more and more autonomous from the continuous and predictable times of state and party politics, more and more global in its shapes and tactics.

However, the mood in Argentina is now far from rebellious. In the first few months of the new administration, President Kirchner managed to bring hope to the disillusioned majority of the population that shouted ‘Get rid of them all!’ in December 2001. Kirchner accomplished this by means of a combination of anti-neoliberal gesture and rhetoric, and -so far- a few real ‘progressive’ measures: the renewal of the Supreme Court, a purge of the military and police leadership, some actions against endemic state corruption, and a reversal of previous policies to benefit criminals of the last dictatorship.

While the economy slowly recovers from the catastrophe of 2000-2001, most people support the new president and feel reasonably optimistic. The tacit alliance between middle and lower classes seems to be weakening, which gives the new government the confidence to test policies aimed at disciplining the unemployed piquetero movement.

Two weeks ago, the president himself suggested that a new ‘anti-piquetero’ police brigade should be created. After a strong demonstration of the unemployed movement and criticism from many quarters, the government was persuaded that the timing was still not appropriate for such a measure. However, the fact remains that the time of rebellion seems to be over, as most activists bitterly complain today. The people no longer follow calls from militant organizations (or not in the numbers that they used to, at least).

And yet, there are hints that point to the persistence of a sphere of autonomous politics in Argentinean society. The problem for activists is that that sphere is autonomous from the state but also from radical political organizations.

In the last couple of months a series of spontaneous popular manifestations has taken place. In a small town North-West of the country, a popular uprising attacked and destroyed a local police department in which a young piquetero activist had been beaten to death. This uprising was not a planned action of a militant group, but a genuine and spontaneous pueblada -a manifestation in which vast sections of the population participate. Smaller popular attacks on corrupt police departments also happened in other parts of the country in the last months, usually in connection to cases of police brutality.

This sort of spontaneous reaction of popular self-defense also became visible three weeks ago. As the government has been invariably refusing to increase the price of water, electricity and telephone without renegotiating all contracts, the privatized corporations that control those services are beginning to put some extra pressure: with increasing frequency they are cutting their service off with the excuse that they have no money for the maintenance of the public networks, which causes ‘failures’.

But something unexpected happened in the middle of this tough negotiation. During an electricity black out, the neighbors of a middle class area of Buenos Aires started to spontaneously bang pots and pans. It was the first spontaneous cacerolazo in over one year. Both the companies and the government immediately became worried about a type of collective action that they thought to be something of the past.

A new spontaneous cacerolazo took place last week, this time for a different reason. As the government is trying to control the notoriously corrupt police forces, gangs of policemen (often masked as common criminals) are raiding the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Their aim is to organize spectacular crimes tailored to the media to create a sense of general insecurity; this -they hope- will force the government to negotiate with them and thus stop the dismantling of Mafia-like police power.

The favorite crime of these gangs is the kidnapping of rich or middle class people, whom they return to their families (or sometimes kill) after being paid succulent amounts of money. In the last of these kidnappings, a boy had been kept for over 40 days and one of his fingers was sent to his family as a threat when his parents decided to make their case public. The media spread the news. Few days later, an anonymous email circulated across the city, calling for a cacerolazo against insecurity. To the surprise of everybody (including us activists), hundreds of people responded by coming out and banging their pots and pans.

However small (if one compares to the past), these displays of spontaneous protest based on some of the methods of the 2001 rebellion were enough to alarm the government and the mainstream media. For they show that the people may have given the government the benefit of the doubt, but the sphere of autonomous politics (that is, political action unmediated by politicians or institutions) opened in Argentina in the last few years is still there, and can manifest itself in vigorous ways.

Meanwhile, the ‘autonomist’ activists and movements in Argentina seem to be getting more and more disconnected from this sphere of autonomous politics. The transformation of many movements that initially were spontaneous -such as the neighbors’ Assemblies- into ‘professional’ militant organizations has meant the disconnection from wider sections of society. Not that this process was inevitable (professionalization does not necessarily mean isolation). But some of the new ‘autonomist’ political groups in Argentina seem to be quickly acquiring some of the cultural shortages of the old, traditional left: sectarianism, excessive concern for theoretical issues, disputes over leadership, and so on.

The recent split of the Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD) Anibal Verón -the biggest and most developed autonomist movement in Argentina, the source of inspiration of thousands across the country- is a sad reminder of this danger.

So far, the development of a sphere of autonomous politics has been remarkably good at stopping neoliberal devastation and defending communities –at least in Bolivia and Argentina. But however important, this is not enough to change the world; we still have to build political strategies and institutions for the new politics of emancipation that springs all over the world (the caracoles zapatistas may be a good beginning).

Perhaps the future of radical movements rests in finding the answer to one simple question: How to transform the undoubtedly enormous potential and strength of autonomous politics from defensive to offensive. If the autonomists are to find such an answer, they need to avoid the errors of the past.

Leave a comment