From Argentina to Wall Street

Benjamin Dangl writes: Almost overnight in late 2001, Argentina went from having one of the strongest economies in South America to one of the weakest. During this economic crash, the financial system collapsed like a house of cards and banks shut their doors.

Faced with such immediate economic strife and unemployment, many Argentines banded together to create a new society out of the wreckage of the old. Poverty, homelessness and unemployment were countered with barter systems, factory occupations, communally-run kitchens and alternative currency.

Neighbourhood assemblies provided solidarity, support and vital spaces for discussion in communities across the country. Ongoing protests kicked out five presidents in two weeks, and the movements that emerged from this period transformed the social and political fabric of Argentina.

These activities reflect those taking place at Occupy Wall Street and in other actions around the US right now. Such events in Argentina and the US are marked by dissatisfaction with the political and economic system in the face of crisis, and involve people working together for solutions on a grassroots level. For many people in Argentina and the US, desperation pushed them toward taking matters into their own hands.

“We didn’t have any choice,” Manuel Rojas explained to me about the occupation of the ceramics factory he worked at outside the city of Mendoza, Argentina during the country’s crash.

“If we didn’t take over the factory we would all be in the streets. The need to work pushed us to action.”

This was one of hundreds of businesses that were taken over by workers facing unemployment during the Argentine crisis. After occupying these factories and businesses, many workers then ran them as cooperatives. They did so under the slogan, “Occupy, Resist, Produce”, a phrase borrowed from Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST), which has settled hundreds of thousands of families on millions of acres of land through direct action.

In 2008 in Chicago, when hundreds of workers were laid off from the Republic Windows and Doors factory, they embraced similar direct action tactics used by their Argentine counterparts; they occupied the factory to demand the severance and vacation pay owed to them – and it worked.

Mark Meinster, the international representative for United Electrical Workers, the union of the Republic factory workers, told me that the strategies applied by the workers specifically drew from Argentina. In deciding on labour tactics, “We drew on the Argentine factory occupations to the extent that they show that during an economic crisis, workers’ movements are afforded a wider array of tactical options,” Meinster said.

Many groups and movements based in the US have drawn from activists in the South. Besides the 2008 occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, movements for access to water in Detroit and Atlanta reflected strategies and struggles in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where in 2000, popular protests rejected the multinational company Bechtel’s water privatisation plan and put the water back into public hands.

The Take Back the Land movement in Florida, which organised homeless people to occupy a vacant lot and pairs homeless families with foreclosed homes, mirrors the tactics and philosophy of the landless movement in Brazil. Participatory budgeting in Brazil, which provides citizens with direct input on how city budgets are distributed, is now being implemented by communities across the US.

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One thought on “From Argentina to Wall Street

  1. Steve Zerger

    There is always hope that new self-organizing social stuctures will find ways of addressing economic strife and dislocations, but I can’t help thinking that the Argentinians had options that are not generally available to us. With the maufacturing core of the country hollowed out, are we going to occupy Starbucks coffeeshops instead? Are we going to squat in suburban housing which is completely unsuitable for habitation in the absence of electric power and water service? We are very far removed at this point from resilient systems which can respond to people’s basic needs when the “efficient” systems which we are utterly dependent upon break down.

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