Is What Has Happened to Argentina an Ominous Warning to Us All?

Roundup: Media's Take

Jim Straub, an organizer based in Richmond, VA, in (March 2, 2004):

In 1999, the global justice movement first captured mainstream attention in the U.S. when, on the streets of Seattle, it protested and shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization. The motley, if energetic, collection of groups ranging from environmentalists to trade unions to anarchists to farmers who coalesced into a single movement at that time were taking on nothing less than the preeminent economic development of the age: corporate globalization.

Since then, the forces of global justice have become perhaps the largest and most inspiring progressive movement seen in North America in three decades. But auspicious beginnings do not automatically mean victory; with a stated goal of nothing less than the reorganization of the global economy for the benefit of the planet rather than corporate profit, the global justice movement, as the past five years have shown, will simply have to get much bigger if it is to have any hope of succeeding. To this end, the movement has begun to look to the global south for inspiration. There, mass movements have been fighting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other global economic institutions for decades.

But while rural organizations like Mexico's Zapatistas and Brazil's Landless Movement have much to teach us, there is a limit to the practical usefulness of such groups as organizing models here in the US. In the global north, we need to find modes of organization that are applicable to a highly urban, modern, partially de-industrialized country, where much of the population has historically had relatively high living standards. As globalization's "race to the bottom" pushes down on these living standards, progressives and radicals in the United States hoping to turn dissatisfaction with corporate power into a mass movement would do well to consider another "downsized" nation that has recently seen a prolonged nationwide uprising: Argentina.

Long known as "the European country in South America," Argentina once had a social structure akin to those of the developed world. Of its 34 million citizens, 87% live in cities, where a cosmopolitan and literate populace long enjoyed the least unequal class structure in Latin America. But over the past 20 years, Argentina's relatively large middle class and well-off industrial working class have gradually had their living standards worn away by corporate globalization. (In this sense, Argentina may give us a peek at the economic future of many northern cities and rust belt states in the U.S.) Once the world's breadbasket and an industrial power, plant closings, wage losses and social cutbacks have gradually plunged many of its city dwellers into poverty and economic insecurity.

As unemployment and inequality rose throughout the 1990s in Argentina, the International Monetary Fund's "star pupil" -- so called, because Argentina's rulers applied the IMF's dictates of privatization and social cuts more rigorously than almost any other nation in the world -- eventually entered an economic tailspin that plunged startling numbers of its once-comfortable citizens into poverty. The final and dramatic economic crash, in December 2001, sparked a mass uprising that brought literally millions of enraged Argentines into the streets against their government with the slogan, "All the politicians must go". In the first ten days of this popular insurrection, no less than four presidents were installed and overthrown.

Even more significantly, millions of those who came into the streets stayed there, and created a rich and inventive set of new social movements. In 2002, it was estimated that half of Argentina's population was actively participating in these new movements, which ranged from factories first occupied and then managed by their workers to democratic Neighborhood Assemblies where entire communities undertook to plan new forms of mutual aid and political protest together.

Given the fact that the U.S. is far more similar to Argentina than, say, to Bolivia or India, these new Argentine social movements have a nuts-and-bolts significance for those of us in North America hoping to someday chase a few corrupt presidents out of office with our own mass movements. Of course, similarities between the United States and Argentina are only relative and can be overstated: for one thing, ordinary Argentines were never as well off as many ordinary working- and middle-class U.S. citizens. For another, the U.S. is a much more multiracial society than Argentina, especially significant since in North America the ill-effects of corporate globalization fall disproportionately on people of color; and, of course, our recent political history bears little resemblance to Argentina's. There, tens of thousands were murdered during a military dictatorship that lasted from 1974-83. However, for concrete examples of building a mass movement against corporate globalization in an urban, semi-deindustrialized society where millions have gradually lost once-high living standards, the Argentine uprising, or Argentinazo, is second to none right now.

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