The Take (2004), a film by Naomi Klein

In December 2001, a long-brewing economic crisis in Argentina matured into a run on the banks which precipitated a major popular rebellion. Argentina had been the poster child of neoliberal institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, but the policies that enriched foreign investors and gave middle class Argentinians a First World lifestyle created an acute poverty for much of the country. Anti-capitalist resistance was already widely developed among the unemployed, and after the middle class lost all its savings, millions of people took to the streets, rejecting all the false solutions and excuses offered by politicians, economists, and the media, declaring instead: “Que se vayan todos! ” They all must go! Dozens were killed by police, but people fought back, shaking off the terror left over from the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina in the ’70s and ’80s.

Hundreds of factories abandoned by their owners were occupied by workers, who resumed production so they could continue to feed their families. The more radical of these worker-occupied factories equalized wages and shared managerial duties among all workers. They made decisions in open meetings, and some workers taught themselves tasks such as accounting. To ensure that a new managerial class did not arise, some factories rotated managerial tasks, or required that people in managerial roles still work on the factory floor and perform the accounting, marketing, and other tasks after hours. As of this writing, several of these occupied workplaces have been able to expand their workforce and hire additional workers from Argentina’s huge unemployed population. In some cases, occupied factories trade needed supplies and products with one another, creating a shadow economy in a spirit of solidarity.

One of the most famous, the Zanon ceramics factory located in southern Argentina, was shut down by the owner in 2001 and occupied by its workers the following January. They began running the factory with an open assembly and commissions made up of workers to manage Sales, Administration, Planning, Security, Hygiene and Sanitation, Purchasing, Production, Diffusion, and Press. Following the occupation, they rehired workers who had been fired before the closing. As of 2004, they numbered 270 workers and produced at 50% of the production rate before the factory was closed. Bringing doctors and psychologists on site, they provided themselves with healthcare. The workers found that they could pay their workforce with just two days of production, so they lowered prices 60% and organized a network of young vendors, many previously unemployed, to market the ceramic tiles throughout the city. In addition to producing tiles, the Zanon factory involves itself with social movements, donating money to hospitals and schools, selling tiles at cost to poor people, hosting films, performances, and art shows, and carrying out solidarity actions with other struggles. They also support the Mapuche struggle for autonomy; and when their clay supplier stopped doing business with them for political reasons, the Mapuche began supplying clay. As of April 2003, the factory had faced four attempted evictions by the police, with the support of the trade unions. All were forcefully resisted by the workers, assisted by neighbors, piqueteros, and others.

In July 2001, the workers of the El Tigre supermarket in Rosario, Argentina, occupied their workplace. The owner had shut it down two months earlier and declared bankruptcy, still owing his employees months in wages. After fruitless protesting, the workers opened El Tigre and began running it themselves through an assembly that allowed all workers a part in decision-making. In a spirit of solidarity they lowered prices and began selling fruit and vegetables from a local farmers’ cooperative and products made in other occupied factories. They also used part of their space to open a cultural center for the neighborhood, housing political talks, student groups, theater and yoga workshops, puppet shows, a café, and a library. In 2003, El Tigre’s cultural center held the national meeting of reclaimed businesses, attended by 1,500 people. Maria, one collective member, said of her experience: “Three years ago, if someone had told me we’d be able to run this place I’d never have believed them… I believed we needed bosses to tell us what to do, now I realize that together we can do it better than them.” [1]

In the plethora of experiments that arose in Argentina in response to the crisis of 2001, the economics of solidarity and care for all members of society flourished. The economic collapse in Argentina did not lead to the dog-eat-dog scenario that capitalists fear. Rather, the result was an explosion of solidarity, and the elderly and disabled have not been left out of this web of mutual aid. In participating in the neighborhood assemblies, elderly and disabled people in Argentina got a chance to secure their own needs and represent themselves in the decisions that would affect their lives. At some assemblies, participants suggested that those who own their own houses withhold their property tax and instead give that money to the local hospital or other care facilities. In parts of Argentina with severe unemployment, movements of unemployed workers have effectively taken over and are building new economies. In General Mosconi, an oil town in the north, unemployment is above 40%, and the area is largely autonomous. The movement has organized over 300 projects to see to people’s needs, including those of the elderly and disabled…

The 2001 popular rebellion in Argentina saw people take an unprecedented level of control over their lives. They formed neighborhood assemblies, took over factories and abandoned land, created barter networks, blockaded highways to compel the government to grant relief to the unemployed, held the streets against lethal police repression, and forced four presidents and multiple vice presidents and economic ministers to resign in quick succession. Through it all, they did not appoint leadership, and most of the neighborhood assemblies rejected political parties and trade unions trying to co-opt these spontaneous institutions. Within the assemblies, factory occupations, and other organizations, they practiced consensus and encouraged horizontal organizing. In the words of one activist involved in establishing alternative social structures in his neighborhood, where unemployment reached 80%: “We are building power, not taking it.”[2]

People formed over 200 neighborhood assemblies in Buenos Aires alone, involving thousands of people; according to one poll, one in three residents of the capital had attended an assembly. People began by meeting in their neighborhoods, often over a common meal, or olla popular. Next they would occupy a space to serve as a social center — in many cases, an abandoned bank. Soon the neighborhood assembly would be holding weekly meetings “on community issues but also on topics such as the external debt, war, and free trade” as well as “how they could work together and how they saw the future.” Many social centers would eventually offer:

an info space and perhaps computers, books, and various workshops on yoga, self defence, languages, and basic skills. Many also have community gardens, run after school kids’ clubs and adult education classes, put on social and cultural events, cook food collectively, and mobilise politically for themselves and in support of the piqueteros and reclaimed factories.[3]

The assemblies set up working groups, such as healthcare and alternative media committees, that held additional meetings involving the people most interested in those projects. According to visiting independent journalists:

Some assemblies have as many as 200 people participating, others are much smaller. One of the assemblies we attended had about 40 people present, ranging from two mothers sitting on the sidewalk while breast feeding, to a lawyer in a suit, to a skinny hippie in batik flares, to an elderly taxi driver, to a dreadlocked bike messenger, to a nursing student. It was a whole slice of Argentinean society standing in a circle on a street corner under the orange glow of sodium lights, passing around a brand new megaphone and discussing how to take back control of their lives. Every now and then a car would pass by and beep its horn in support, and this was all happening between 8 pm and midnight on a Wednesday evening![4]

Soon the neighborhood assemblies were coordinating at a city-wide level. Once a week the assemblies sent spokespeople to the interbarrio plenary, which brought together thousands of people from across the city to propose joint projects and protest plans. At the interbarrio, decisions were made with a majority vote, but the structure was non-coercive so the decisions were not binding — they were only carried out if people had the enthusiasm to carry them out. Accordingly, if a large number of people at the interbarrio voted to abstain on a specific proposal, the proposal was reworked so it would receive more support.

The asamblea structure quickly expanded to the provincial and national levels. Within two months of the beginning of the uprising, the national “Assembly of Assemblies” was calling for the government to be replaced by the assemblies. That did not occur, but in the end the government of Argentina was forced to make popular concessions — it announced it would default on its international debt, an unprecedented occurrence. The International Monetary Fund was so scared by the popular rebellion and its worldwide support in the anti-globalization movement, and so embarrassed by the collapse of its poster child, that it had to accept this stunning loss. The movement in Argentina played a pivotal role in accomplishing one of the major goals of the anti-globalization movement, which was the defeat of the IMF and World Bank. As of this writing, these institutions are discredited and facing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Argentine economy has stabilized and much of the popular outrage has subsided. Still, some of the assemblies that made a vital niche in the uprising continue to operate seven years later. The next time the conflict comes to the surface, these assemblies will remain in the collective memory as the seeds of a future society.

Daniela describes women’s leading role in the movement:

Historically, women have been subjugated by the system, as well as by society, in general. Now there’s a change in the movements, and women are more and more the protagonists. Women play a leading role in the movement, and really have from the beginning. They were the ones to first initiate the movements. The movements were born from women…Women made up the movement, make up the movements, and really are the stars. Later they brought in their husbands.[5]

From Peter Gelderloos, Anarchy Works