By Kari Lydersen
This article was originally published on Working In These Times, at InTheseTimes.com/working. It is permanently archived at: http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6342/
What happens after you win?
After the wave of worker factory takeovers following its economic collapse a decade ago, such questions played out on smaller scales in Argentina. Taking cooperative control of the factories was only the first step; the workers had to actually run them competitively in a capitalist economy. Similarly, after movements of union members, indigenous activists and other previously marginalized people bring leaders like Bolivian Evo Morales and Venezuelan Hugo Chavez to power, how do they make sure their struggles aren't declawed and co-opted by the new government?
In his captivating soon-to-be-released book Dancing with Dynamite, Ben Dangl explores the complicated choreography between unfettered popular struggle and the state institutions that are necessary to a functioning civil society—yet by nature are forces of moderation, compromise and cooperation.
Using a very literal metaphor, Dangl invokes Bolivian miners to describe the “dynamite” of uncompromising popular struggle. The miners and displaced former miners who played a major role in bringing current president Evo Morales to power are part of a movement forged through intense repression and violence, followed by perhaps even more insidious economic suffocation.
In 1964, the government sent in troops against miners in Oruro who were protesting the government’s bloody crackdown on labor rights activists. A miner named Domingo spoke of the violence that began when the soldiers attacked his community. “They even entered into houses of families and took people out, forcing people into the streets in their underwear and killing them. We miners in Itos tried to defend the mines. We put up a fierce resistance with dynamite...” The soldiers won the battle, and Domingo has suffered from insomnia ever since.
Bolivian mines were privatized and closed in the 1980s in keeping with larger neoliberal restructuring of the continent, breaking the “backbone of the country’s radical workers’ unions” as Dangl describes it.
In Argentina, Dangl describes how neoliberalism’s strangulation of the labor movement gave rise to the processes that would ultimately topple the status quo and a series of presidents within months:
Thus was born the piquetero movement which drew from waves of unemployed workers. Piqueteros—the name is based on the word piquete (picket or road blockade)—hit the streets together to demand work and social assistance. This movement set itself apart from the dominant Peronist labor movements and federations in which workers called for better conditions and salaries, partly because the older movements had been repressed extensively under the dictatorship, and because economics were changing the country, forcing social movements to change with it.
With previous movements weakened by neoliberalism, the piqueteros rose up from the wreckage of the 1990s as a formidable force in 2001.
In Argentina's economic crisis of 2001, formerly middle-class people suddenly found themselves unemployed and desperate, becoming instantly politicized with a sharp new understanding of the class system.
Dangl describes this dynamic among the workers who took over a quarry in early 2003. The company had told workers to take a sudden unscheduled, unpaid vacation over the holidays, and when they returned they saw their employer had left town without paying them severance or other wages. The workers armed themselves with shotguns for self-defense and proceeded to occupy the quarry. It became a grueling exercise in survival as they ended up using the guns to hunt rabbits and fished from the lagoon. By that spring a judge awarded the workers legal control of the quarry, and it’s run as a cooperative business to this day.
First of all, Kirchner effectively demobilized and bought off the middle class…After applying these divisive, demobilizing, and repressive tactics, the government used the simple strategy of patience and attrition while public activism died down.
A similar thing happened in Uruguay, where Tabare Vazquez of the left Frente Amplio party was elected in 2005. As Dangl describes it, he proceeded on a
…reformist route, sprinkling his own neoliberal projects with social programs that didn’t address the root causes of poverty and exclusion. And yet, given the record of past governments, these small nods to social change were enough to placate many voters.
Current Uruguayan president Jorge “Pepe” Mujica, also a beloved man of the people and former leftist guerilla, summed up the typical transformation from radical to reformer himself, as Dangl quotes, telling business leaders he is a “wild cat that has turned into a vegetarian.”
In this dance, the urgency of survival trumps the law, people acting based on the rights they were born with makes the state irrelevant, and anything is possible when the community moves.
Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for various publications, including the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.