Naomi Klein: “Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina”

2003-05-19

Richard Moore

Friends,

An important article by Klein, and well-timed for our 
Transformation thread.  My comments at the end.

rkm

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Date: Thu, 15 May 2003 13:15:30 -0700
To: •••@••.•••
From: Sam Lightman <sam_lightman<at>saltspring.com>
Subject: Re: Transformation: re/ How deep must the scalpel go?

You should be aware of this. This is what happens to
"movements" the minute they get beyond the talking
stage. Very instructive.  -- SL

---<downloaded>---

The Nation
column | Posted May 8, 2003
http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030526&s=klein

    LOOKOUT by Naomi Klein
    
    "Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina"

THe "V" sign - in most of the world, it's the sign for
peace, but here in Argentina it means war. The index
and middle finger, held to form a V, means to his
followers, Menem vuelve, "Menem will return". Carlos
Menem, poster boy of Latin American neoliberalism,
president for almost all of the 1990s, is looking to
get his old job back on May 18.

Menem's campaign ads show menacing pictures of
unemployed workers blockading roads, with a voiceover
promising to bring order, even if it means calling in
the military. This strategy gave him a slim lead in the
first election round, though he will almost certainly
lose the runoff to an obscure Peronist governor, Nestor
Kirchner, considered the puppet of current president
(and Menem's former vice president) Eduardo Duhalde.

On December 19 and 20, 2001, when Argentines poured
into the streets banging pots and pans and telling
their politicians, que se vayan todos, everyone must
go, few would have predicted the current elections
would come down to this: a choice between two symbols
of the regime that bankrupted the country. Back then,
Argentines could have been forgiven for believing that
they were starting a democratic revolution, one that
forced out President Fernando de la Rua and churned
through three more presidents in twelve days.

The target of these mass demonstrations was the
corruption of democracy itself, a system that had
turned voting into a hollow ritual while the real power
was outsourced to the International Monetary Fund,
French water companies and Spanish telecoms -- with local
politicians taking their cut. Carlos Menem, though he
had been out of office for two years, was the
uprising's chief villain. Elected in 1989 on a populist
platform, Menem did an about-face and gutted public
spending, sold off the state and sent hundreds of
thousands into unemployment.

When Argentines rejected those policies, it was hugely
significant for the globalization movement. The events
of December 2001 were seen in international activist
circles as the first national revolt against
neoliberalism, and "You are Enron, We are Argentina"
was soon adopted as a chant outside trade summits.

Perhaps more important, the country seemed on the verge
of answering the most persistent question posed to
critics of both "free trade" and feeble representative
democracies: "What is your alternative?" With all their
institutions in crisis, hundreds of thousands of
Argentines went back to democracy's first principles:
Neighbors met on street corners and formed hundreds of
popular assemblies. They created trading clubs, health
clinics and community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned
factories were taken over by their workers and run as
democratic cooperatives. Everywhere you looked, people
were voting.

These movements, though small, were dreaming big:
national constituent assemblies, participatory budgets,
elections to renew every post in the country. And they
had broad appeal. A March 2002 newspaper poll found
that half of Buenos Aires residents believed that the
neighborhood assemblies will "produce a new political
leadership for the country."

One year later, the movements continue, but barely a
trace is left of the wildly hopeful idea that they
could someday run the country. Instead, the
protagonists of the December revolts have been
relegated to a "governability problem" to be debated by
politicians and the IMF. So how did it happen? How did
a movement that was building a whole new kind of
democracy -- direct, decentralized, accountable -- give up
the national stage to a pair of discredited has-beens?
The marginalization process had three clear stages in
Argentina, and each has plenty to teach activists
hoping to turn protest into sustained political change.

Stage One: Annoy and Conquer. The first blow to the new
movements came from the old left, as sectarian parties
infiltrated the assemblies and tried to drive through
their own dogmatic programs. Pretty soon you couldn't
see the sun for the red and black party flags, and a
process that drew its strength from the fact that it
was normal -- something your aunt or teacher participated
in -- turned into something marginal, not action but
"activism." Thousands returned to their homes to escape
the tedium.

Stage Two: Withdraw and Isolate. The second blow came
in response. Rather than challenge sectarian efforts at
co-optation head-on, many of the assemblies and
unemployed unions turned inward and declared themselves
"autonomous." While the parties' plans verged on
scripture, some autonomists turned not having a plan
into its own religion: So wary were they of co-optation
any proposal to move from protest to policy was
immediately suspect.

These groups continue to do remarkable neighborhood-
based work, building bread ovens, paving roads and
challenging their members to let go of their desire for
saviors. Yet they have also become far less visible
than they were a year ago, less able to offer the
country a competing vision for its future.

Stage Three: Just Don't Do It. Argentina's screaming
and pot banging went on, and on, and on. Just when
everyone was hoarse and exhausted, the politicians
emerged from hiding to call an election. Incredulous,
the social movements made a decision not to participate
in the electoral farce -- to ignore the churnings of
Congress and the IMF and build "counterpowers" instead.

Fair enough, but as the elections took on a life of
their own, the unions and assemblies began to seem out
of step. People weren't able to vote for the sentiment
behind December 19 and 20, either by casting a ballot
or by boycotting the election and demanding deeper
democratic reforms, since no concrete platform or
political structure emerged from those early, heady
discussions. The legitimacy of the elections was thus
left dangerously uncontested, and the dream of a new
kind of democracy utterly unrepresented.

The campaign slogan that won the first round was the
astonishingly vague "Menem knows what to do and he can
do it." In other words, maybe Nike was right: People
just want to do something, and if things are bad
enough, they will settle for anything.

Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn't filled with hope,
someone will fill it with fear.

----------------------------------

rkm>

In our previous posting re/Tranformation, Janet
McFarland shared with us a New Democracy editorial (A
REVOLUTIONARY ALTERNATIVE) praising the Agentinian
movement. But alas, Naomi tells us now that the movement
failed.  Why?

Naomi diagnoses the problem this way -- she blames
the lack of an emerging "concrete platform or political
structure".  She bemoans that the "dream" was
"unrepresented" in the elections.  She wanted the
people to demand "deeper democratic reforms".  I
suggest, god bless her, that she misses the point
with those words.

What if there had been a concrete platform?  We know
what would have happened then, because it has happened
every time in history.  Some opportunistic politician
would have stepped forward and adopted that platform.
Think back to LBJ's "War on Poverty" or to FDR's "New
Deal".  

Perhaps more relevant, consider the popular movements
that ousted the Soviets from Eastern Europe. When
elections came, we all thought the movements had won.
We hoped a better society would arise.  Instead we have
collapsed economies, exploitation, and neoliberalism.
We have parents by the hundreds abandoning their
children to prostitution because there's not enough
money to feed them. The web is filled with child porn
sites originating in Russia, the Czech Republic, and
the Ukraine.  Nothing like that happened under the
Soviets.

What if there had been democratic reforms?  Think back
to the Freedom of Information Act, campaign-contribution
reform, and the impeachment process that led to
Nixon's resignation.  Us flower children of the sixties
thought we had won.   People wrote books about the
emerging new age.  In the end, it all vanished like so
much smoke.  It was all an illusion, a holding action,
a deception.  And again -- this is entirely typical of
the historical experience generally.

A reformed predator is still a predator.  You might
force it to eat vegetables for a while, but as soon as
you turn your back it will attack you from behind. 
When will we ever learn??  Elections of centralized
governments are in the long run autocratic.  Always 
have been and always will be.

---

Naomi makes a great deal more sense when she talks
about "a whole new kind of democracy -- direct,
decentralized, accountable".  The question is not "Why
didn't this spirit influence elections?", but rather
"Why didn't this spirit do away with elections?". 
Let's reconsider Naomi's "three stages" in this light.

Her first two stages tell us about sectarian parties
pushing their programs, and the popular response to
that.  Wary of co-optation, the "autonomists" avoided
any attempt to move from "protest to policy".  By
"policy", apparently, she is making her later point
about a "concrete platform" -- something to bring to
the table during national elections.  Here's where she
and I start to see things differently.

Consider this paragraph:
   "These groups continue to do remarkable neighborhood-
    based work, building bread ovens, paving roads and
    challenging their members to let go of their desire for
    saviors. Yet they have also become far less visible
    than they were a year ago, less able to offer the
    country a competing vision for its future."

I see the problem this way.  Rather than a "platform"
of national policies, it seems to me the focus of the
neighborhood assembles should be to insist on their
right to govern.  It is not their program that matters,
but their sovereignty.  Their program is what they
actually DO:
   "They created trading clubs, health clinics and
    community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned factories
    were taken over by their workers and run as democratic
    cooperatives."

The vision they needed was a process for generalizing
this kind of direct action.  Something along these lines:
   "These movements, though small, were dreaming big:
    national constituent assemblies, participatory budgets,
    elections to renew every post in the country. And they
    had broad appeal. A March 2002 newspaper poll found
    that half of Buenos Aires residents believed that the
    neighborhood assemblies will 'produce a new political
    leadership for the country.'"

Here, I suggest, we are getting to the crux of what
real democracy is about.  Neighborhood assemblies is
where it begins... but how does this generalize?  I think
the answer lies in the definition of "constituent
assemblies", and in the purpose of such assemblies.

At the beginning, I believe the purpose of a
constituent assembly should be to consolidate the power
of the neighborhood assemblies.  At first, it is too
early to focus on "policy" either at the local or the
national level.  Power comes first, policy later. This
is in fact true whether we like it or not.  In our
current political systems, for example, the promises of
politicians have little to do with their actions in
office.  If the people truly have power, then we must
trust them (ourselves) to develop sound policy.  If we
don't have this trust, then we don't really believe in
democracy and we might as well resign ourselves to what
we have now -- being ruled by one elite or another.

How to consolidate power?  I can't give you a
blueprint.  It's open for discussion.  But it begins
with the understanding that power is the name of the
game.  In fact, the political leaders must have
realized that for a time the people DID have de facto
power.  Otherwise the leaders would have called out the
troops to disband the neighborhood assemblies and
retake the occupied factories.  Evidently, the troops
would not have obeyed such orders.  After all, it was
their own families who made up the local assemblies.

This brings us to Naomi's next stage:
   "Stage Three: Just Don't Do It. Argentina's screaming
    and pot banging went on, and on, and on. Just when
    everyone was hoarse and exhausted, the politicians
    emerged from hiding to call an election. Incredulous,
    the social movements made a decision not to participate
    in the electoral farce -- to ignore the churnings of
    Congress and the IMF and build 'counterpowers' instead."

I wasn't there on the ground, and I could have it
wrong.  But what I take from this is that the movement
wasn't focusing enough on the power issue.  "Screaming
and pot banging" is about influencing someone else to
listen to you.  You don't waste time with that if you
see your neighborhood assembly as the origin of power
-- as the fundamental unit of sovereignty.  When you
see that you don't ask for things -- you do things.
Perhaps that was what was meant by 'counterpowers'
and the question then becomes, "What is the agenda
of these 'counterpowers'?".

I agree with Naomi that it was a mistake to ignore the
electoral farce.  But I disagree that the options were
to either participate or to protest.  Instead, I
suggest something else was needed -- something that
invalidated the elections totally.  Perhaps occupying
the polling places and destroying the ballots...and
occupying the government offices and establishing
communication with the military to stand down.  These
kinds of acts would be the beginning of actually
seizing power -- the beginnings of a true counter power,
of we-the-people power, of true democracy.

imho,
rkm
-- 

============================================================================

    For the movement, the relevant question is not, "Can we
    work through the political system?", but rather, "Is
    the political system one of the things that needs to be
    fundamentally transformed?"


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