I recently returned from a trip to Greece and keep wondering if there is a way to think about left governments, autonomy, self organization, power from below, confederation and the forces of the State all together – in the same conversation. The answer to this question is still outstanding …
For over 150 years one of the main political debates among those wanting to change the world, get rid of capitalism, and create something new based on equality and freedom is if this must be done through the state. The debate has been especially strong in Latin America over the past 15 years and has begun to dominate political discussions in Southern Europe with the rise of Podemos in Spain and victory of SYRIZA in Greece.
I am among those who do not believe that the state can be transformed from within. I am however a supporter of using left governments so as to open more space for movements, change repressive laws, codify gains the movements have made and receive material support for autonomous projects – as long as they are kept autonomous. How these things are accomplished is a complicated question and one that Latin America has been experimenting with for over a decade, particularly in Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina.
This position, of supporting a left government victory but not the left government itself is often confusing to people. Many believe that if a person is not an uncritical supporter of a left government then they must either be a reactionary or identitarian anarchists (one who does not believe in organization or structure). Those of us who are critical of the new left governments are often seen as undermining their power, and have been told we should not critique them and must wait longer to give them time to make change. And then there are those who are supporting the left governments who are sometimes told they are undermining possible power from below, real democracy and freedom by supporting a capitalist state.
Not believing that the world can be transformed through the state is not the same as never relating to or using the state. To ignore the state is to give up all of the wealth we have created as working people. The state holds the money, sometimes the industry and the national forces of repression. Second, a world without critique is one that will never change. So, how do we get the wealth and power the state holds and disperse it, “dispersing power” to use the title to Raul Zibechi’s book on Bolivia. The beginning point of dispersing power must start with how, if and when to relate to left governments.
I have begun a project with movement participants in Greece to help facilitate the direct exchange of ideas and experiences with movement participants from Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela. Each country situation is quite different, with each government being progressively more radical and responsive to movements, though at the same time all are full of challenges. Each relationship the various autonomous movements have chosen with regard to the governments provide myriad of lessons and strategies on how, if and when to relate to the government, and most importantly, how this relationship can help strengthen autonomous projects and power from below. Each movement involved in the discussion so far is generally against the relationships that capitalism produces if not explicitly anti capitalist and believe in the development and expansion of power from below and to the left (as opposed to above). All movements, in Europe and Latin America, are involved in concrete projects, from recuperated workplaces, free health clinics, alternative forms of education (including degree programs) and some are mass community based movements, such as the Communal Councils and Communes in Venezuela.
I will explore a few of the lessons shared so far from Argentina, and delve into other experiences in future pieces. The political debates, questions and issues currently being raised by the more autonomous movements in Greece are so similar to those in Argentina over the years it is as if there is a long echo that spans time and space.
I lived in Argentina after the 2001 economic crisis, recording and participating in the efforts of movements to recreate society in a horizontal and equitable way. I continue to spend large amounts of time there, engaging with people in movement, and recently spent two months meeting with autonomous movements and discussing the situations the movements are in today. People in the autonomous movements have been struggling with the question of power, a left government, the state and autonomy for the past fourteen years. No matter what tactics people were and are choosing, the consensus is clear, power, the sort of power they desire, the power they are creating, is not located in the government or formal institutions of power. What they are creating and theorizing are new and different forms of power. Some people have come to call it potencia, distinguishing the relational and active interpretation of the word. Others simply put it that power is a verb and not a noun. The state holds power as a thing, something to wield over others, when really power is a verb, something one creates, uses and shares. With this in mind, as a sort of utopia, the movements have been creating power from below.
Distinct from the Zapatistas in Chiapas, where other power and autonomy is created in one specific geographic location, in Argentina the creation of other power exists in pockets throughout the entire country. This is seen with a wide range of movements from recuperated workplaces, defense of the land movements, alternative education, healthcare and media projects as well as the variety of autonomous unemployed movements. All of the movements discussed strive for self sufficiency, and all ground their organizing in prefigurative relationships based in horizontalism. This is done with the movement attempting to set their own agenda with regard to the state, neither ignoring it nor accepting whatever the government may offer. It is an incredibly tricky balance to maintain a movement agenda and set of value relations, while also working to any extent with the capitalist state. Any movement participant will tell you that the past fourteen years have been filled with many more mistakes than successes, but mistakes from which they are rapidly learning.
It is especially because of the mistakes that movement participants in Argentina said they want to share their experiences with people in the Greek movements – as Claudia of Lavaca.org said, “We must share what we have learned so our compañeros in Greece do not have to go through what we have for all these years. For us in Lavaca and Mu, the most important thing has been to know ourselves and know what we want, and then from there decide if there is a way we can have that codified by the government. For us this has meant getting a law passed so that we, and the other 60 self organized alternative media projects in Argentina, no longer have to pay an 18% tax. We won. The law was passed. This has been a big difference in all of our ability to survive – continuing our projects of autogestion sin patron (self organization without a boss). To be clear, this was after years of taking money from the government, rejecting it, meeting with them, refusing a relationship … we went through it all and finally realized we needed to stop – look at and to ourselves and first see who we are and what we want.”
Below is an overview of lessons movements have shared, with specific explorations of these experiences based on each movement to come in future articles.
When the Kirchner government won the elections in 2003 and in the subsequent years, from Nestor to Cristina Kirchner, one of their main agendas has been to try and regain social and political legitimacy – the Que Se Vayan Todos (They All Must Go!) sung in the streets by millions was something felt deeply in society and a government without legitimacy is a government in crisis. A few of they ways they tried to do this was: directly involving the social movements in the construction of the new government, giving money to movements and asking for participation from the movements in various processes of government decision making, especially the prosecution of those involved in the military dictatorship.
One of the earliest and most consistent challenges movements face and faced was what to do when the government offered them money. While this might not appear to be a challenge, particularly in the context of an economic crisis, the fact that money was offered, but on the governments terms, resulted in massive difficulties and divisions. For example, for the unemployed movements money was offered, and accepted by all but a few. The first challenge was that it was never enough to survive on, even if all participants in the movements received it, which they never did. In fact, each movement tells a similar story of receiving a certain amount of subsidies, always an amount much less than the number of participants in the movement. This put the movement in the position of deciding who did and did not receive subsidies. For a movement striving for horizontal relationships, yet deciding who gets money and who does not, brought up all sorts of power relationships of the vertical sort. For example, the government insisted that those people who received the subsidy participate in a certain type of activity in the movement – the movement was/is thus in the position of monitoring if the participant is indeed active, and if not … what? They do not give them the money they need to help them survive? In some cases, movement participants in anticipation of the money argued against self organized projects as they believed they would no longer be necessary. The movements were also required to report the number of participants and their activity to the government, an activity that both violated many of their cultures of security as well as bogged them down in paperwork. In addition, over time the amount of money consistently was reduced, so those movements that choose to pool the money collectively for projects found themselves dependent on the money and when it was cut or reduced their projects ended.
Ultimately many of the movements became less autonomous and horizontal. A number still do continue, including one of the larger networks, the Frente Dario Santillan, which still struggles with how to distribute the subsidies and organize projects while relating to the government, a few others have chosen a different route. One such alternative way of relating has been to demand material resources over money. For example, in Patagonia the Movement for Dignity in Allen first organized around what they needed, and from there made a list of what this would require in a material sense and demanded it from the government. In the end they were able to build their community buildings, a kitchen and get the raw materials needed to cook food for the movement as a whole. Their decision was based on an attempt to maintain autonomy and horizontality, with the movement as a whole participating in the building, cooking etc., but it not being tied to whether or not they got to eat or have shelter. The supplies they demanded were necessary, but not for their survival, thus if the government did not give them, or was late in sending them, there were always creative solutions for finding building material, flour, sugar etc. Rather than the house and bread they demanded the supplies and did it themselves.
As a whole what movement participants shared about the challenge of the government offering them money was that the government – intentionally or not – dominated their agendas. So, for example, rather than talking about what their alternative health care project is doing, or how they will network with other movements, the movement agenda is dominated by if they will receive money, if they have received it and how. As Neka from the unemployed movement of Solano explained to me a number of years ago, “we have to fight to maintain a movement agenda – our agenda – and not let the government interfere with it. Their intentions are not important, ultimately we were only talking about what they offered us and not what we want.”
For the recuperated workplaces money was offered, and continues to be accepted in the form of loans, but the paperwork that is increasingly given to the workers assemblies has often been tying their hands so they cannot engage in all the political projects they might otherwise. Since they are so constantly filling out forms and details about the workplace, the time that would go into networking and future planning is limited. This has been something hard to get around. Some try and limit the amount of paperwork they fill out, others ask for help from the community, and others do not do a lot of it, waiting to see how the government might respond. Another challenge in the demand of paperwork is that the government is asking for information that the workplaces do not want to share. The specifics around how they are managing financially, who might be helping them, what production and exchange networks they are engaged in, etc. these are things that most workplaces want to keep autonomous. Again, there are different ways this is handled by the various workplaces, from not filling out information to inventing it.
Many of the movements had individuals who were offered some sort of consultative role in the government. This might not seem bad on its face, but when one considers the horizontal relationships to which the movements have been striving, having a representative who must make decisions in the name of the movement, without being able to consult back with them, is incredibly divisive. HIJOS, the children of the disappeared who focus on ending social silence in society and not looking to the state to resolve or make whole those who suffered the dictatorship, ended up split in part due to the discussions of whether or not to participate in the new government commissions set up to prosecute those involved in the dictatorship. The option of participating and not speaking in the name of the movement was not open. This created discord within the movement, often dominating agenda after agenda, thus reducing, for example, the number of escraches (direct actions against those who participated in the dictatorship) organized, as well as made the affective ties more strained.
As with the question of money, the issue of participating in the government or not dominated so many of the discussions of the various movements that many people left out of frustration that concrete things were not being done, or the group, such as HIJOS, divided and is thus weaker.
I am not taking a position on whether one should accept money or a government position, but beginning to share the obstacles in each discussion based in the Argentine experience. Some movements found that limiting times to talk about such issues helped, as did tight time keepers so that the movement had time to discuss the other issues on the agenda. Others found that there was and is more flexibility in what one can get from the government but most important is to demand what is desired on the movements terms and not wait for an offer from the government. As for example with Lavaca and the 60 other alternative media outlets discussed earlier. They created a network that pushed for a new law that would then help in their ability to survive autonomously. There is a clear relationship to the government here in the form of demanding a law, but not the same sort of dependent relationship that receiving money each month results in. The question however of how and if to relate to left governments while trying to build autonomy and power from below is still outstanding.