On the nights of the 19th and 20th of December 2001 hundreds of thousands of Argentinians joined what became known as the “cacerolazo”. At the height of the Argentinian debt crisis they flooded onto the streets around the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) famously banging pots and pans, until within the space of a fortnight a series of five governments had resigned.
President Fernando de la Rúa was forced out of office amid the rallying cry “Que se vayan todos” – “Away with them all”. The uprising was spontaneous, lacking the central axis of organisation that had marked the rising in Ecuador only a year previously. In the aftermath of the revolt local assemblies and factory takeovers sprang up across Argentina. One opinion poll estimated that 40 percent of those in Buenos Aires viewed the assemblies as the best way of running a new society. It is these formations, rather than the debt crisis itself, that are the focus of Marina Sitrin’s new book.
The book centres around four main themes: horizontalism, self-management, power and “affective” politics.
The real strength of this book lies in the sense we get of the fluidity of ideas. Workers assemble on street corners to make decisions and defend their factories from the police. Many interviews focus on how those involved have regained dignity, confidence and self-esteem. One worker explains that the revolt originated with “many different feelings, but two certainties. The first was the general certainty that if people themselves didn’t set things right, nobody would, and the second was whichever way out was chosen, it would have to be taken democratically.”
Irrespective of what happened to the movements we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of leaving such sediments of struggle behind. As Walter Benjamin so eloquently put it the memory of previous struggles can be “a secret rendezvous between past generations and our own”.
The portrayal of ideas in flux, as ordinary people generalise from their economic experiences of the crisis to draw broader political conclusions, is inspiring. But, of course, sadly, inspiring is not always enough.
From the offset Sitrin’s main influence seems to be the theorist John Holloway (author of the seminal work, Change the World without Taking Power).
Her main thesis, that the “cacerolazo” represented a fundamental rupture with the past – what she calls using Holloway’s words a “crack” in capitalism – is never fully articulated. The notion that every “crack” in capitalism represents a less alienated form of living fundamentally misunderstands what Marx means by alienation.
Alienated work is not just work we don’t enjoy or find miserable – it is something much more precise. Holloway (and Sitrin) are right to look to Marx’s explanation of “abstract labour” in Capital (1867) as the key to alienation. For Marx, abstract labour is alienated labour. But that doesn’t mean, therefore, that concrete labour (the specific act that produces useful things) can come to pre-figure a non-alienated future. Far from it.
Under capitalism labour is simultaneously abstract and concrete. And any concrete forms of labour today that do exist in a socialist society will have been essentially transformed.
Towards the end of the book Sitrin attempts to explain how “value” within the factories has been transformed: “Imagine a mode of value production that has as its principle the worth of the person and not what is accumulated.” She says that workers decide their own exchange values and so ten Argentinian pastries can be exchanged for one French lesson. But, whatever the workers decide, in reality exchange values remain entirely subsumed to the laws of the global market.
Everyday Revolutions is a gripping read. It is well written, well structured and doesn’t skirt around criticisms of “horizontalist” movements. The discussion of “informal hierarchy” is particularly interesting. But it is the legacy of the movement itself that provides answers to the unasked questions in the book.
The recuperation of political stability in mid-2003 following the election of the Peronist, Nestor Kirchner, led to some of the most radical grassroots groups allying themselves with the new regime. The spontaneity of the movements that had overthrown the previous president provided no overarching alternative to him – nor did they want to. And so the real political choice became variants of the old order.
Throughout the book the author returns to one moment that had arisen during the uprising: “Person after person would say to me there was a chance of taking over the Casa Rosada, the pink house, but they did not want to do that”. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if they had.
Everyday Revolutions is published by Zed books, £14.99