Issue 272 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mike Gonzalez got a taste of people when he visited Argentina recently
The wonderful thing about 15 February was that it felt like an exercise of power. But people's power is about much more than great gatherings in the streets. The demonstrations and meetings are enormously important. But our ambitions as socialists are much bigger than that. We are talking about a world where working people run their own lives directly--shape how wealth is distributed, what priorities govern what society produces, and how to develop new and freer lives.
We have had glimpses of how it might be. In Chile in 1972 the bosses declared themselves on strike against a government that was attempting to introduce social reforms. The lorry owners tried to disable the vehicles that carry most goods up and down the country. The response was immediate. Workers took over many factories, local people seized the lorries and made sure they went on running, and the communities reopened supermarkets and distributed food according to need. The organisations they built to coordinate the response of the majority were called cordones--joint committees of workers, farmers, local residents and others.
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution overthrew the Shah, and in the course of that struggle threw up similar kinds of organisation--the shoras. In Portugal, the end of a fascist dictatorship in 1974 was marked by the creation of organs of a very similar kind. In some cases, this kind of 'people's power' grows out of the feeling among many people that the government or the state can no longer defend their interests; they have to take on that responsibility directly. That collective self defence doesn't always arise in the best of circumstances, but as soon as it happens, it can very quickly grow over into something very different, as more and more people enjoy the sense of being in control of their own lives.
Just a few weeks ago, I was in Buenos Aires. We were invited to attend a popular assembly in the working class district of Montechingolo. The Argentinian economy has been in a state of deep crisis since 2001. On 19-20 December that year, an announcement that new restrictions on public spending were being introduced and that the banks would close provoked a mass response. The IMF and the World Bank had made it clear that these measures, which fell most heavily on the workers, the very poor, and the lower middle class, were a condition for further loans to save the economy. But when the government tried to obey instructions from the international financial agencies, they met with an overpowering popular rising--the Argentinazo. Governments came and went in the next few days as the capital and other cities filled with protesters and demonstrations every night.
Unemployed workers (piqueteros) cut off highways and blocked train lines--the banging of saucepans expressed the rage and frustration of ordinary people. In some areas, the bosses tried to close factories, sell their machinery and flee the country. The workers reacted in some cases by occupying the plant and taking it over The unemployed became active in addressing the problems of work--there are great debates within the movement about whether this means turning to government 'work to welfare' plans, or organising with the trade unions to protect and create jobs.
In local areas, the immediate problems were acute. There was almost no actual cash; people with jobs were often not getting paid; the banks were closed; supplies of food were irregular. Medicines were often not reaching hospitals; food supplies weren't reaching the city. The situation was affecting everyone--but in some areas, almost spontaneously, local people got together in halls or squares to debate the situation and decide what should be done. The asambleas populares (popular assemblies) were born.
This was capitalism's crisis. The multinationals who had squeezed Argentina dry were pulling out. The politicians had no solution to offer beyond accepting the dictates of the IMF. The answer, shouted on all the protest demonstrations, was clear--Qué se vayan todos! Get rid of them all!
The asambleas were gatherings of people trying to resolve an immediate problem; a defensive response. But then they began to become permanent--and to undergo a real, if subtle change. In Montechingolo they started a vegetable farm, to help to feed local people at a communal dining room; clothes were collected and cleaned, and then exchanged as and when they were needed; food and other necessities were bought in bulk.
In a real sense, a paralysed government--caught between the IMF and its own people--could no longer run the system. In a day to day sense, the mass organisations that had grown up out of the crisis had started to do so. But the police and the army still answer to government, and the rich are still rich and sitting on their wealth. And yet, in Montechingolo at least, the bigger argument about power--who should run society and in whose interests?--can now go on against the background of people taking control of aspects of their lives and linking with others who are doing the same.
Today, the key struggle is to link and unite those movements of resistance; tomorrow, the battle will be to fight for a society run by, and like, an asamblea popular.
Local people get together in halls or squares to debate the situation