On the "neighborhood assemblies" and something else

Gorojovsky Gorojovsky at arnet.com.ar
Tue Feb 19 09:31:18 MST 2002


Joefreemen sent an article to the list which will help me clarify some issues 
regarding the current Argentinean situation. Excuse me if I can't draft 
reports, but as you may imagine I am swamped in political work here. The 
article, BTW, is very insightful.

The article reads thusly:

********************************************************************
"February 14, 2002 

by the Inter Press Service

Argentina's Rebellion in the Neighborhoods

by Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 13 - Neighborhood assemblies are springing up in cities
throughout Argentina, particularly in the capital and surrounding areas, as
a groundswell of people seek to change the political landscape amidst the
country's social and economic collapse.

Many assembly participants are young people who are fed up with the
political parties they say have betrayed their ideals. But there are also
many unemployed, out-of-business shopkeepers, retirees, teachers and
professionals also taking an active role in the meetings. Many had never
taken part in any citizen-based mobilization before in their lives."

The last sentence above is essential here. The assemblies are, in fact, 
gathering mostly middle-class people (not all of them, there are a few where 
some working class citizens attend, but _as citizens_, not as "working class"). 
These people have been, during all the 25 years since 1976, mostly 
"apolitical". That is, they have been mild accepters of their fate under 
neoliberalism or its immediate predecessors. And the assemblies, though highly 
political themselves, still keep "apolitical" in the sense that their members 
don't accept (they _reject_ to accept) that while they were _apolitically_ 
carrying on their increasingly difficult lives there were people who fought 
consistently for almost all and every one of the slogans that the assemblies 
have begun to raise. 

That is, the assemblies were not born out of nowhere, but out of a general 
political climate that was generated by people who the now mobilised 
"caceroleros" and "asambleístas" systematically denied any importance. Now, in 
a very typical middle class reaction, they make the slogans their own, and they 
deny the authorship by all those who have been struggling for them. A general 
trend within the "asambleas" is _not to discuss the past_, that is not to 
debate whether there was some kind of mistake in the former political behavior 
of the "asambleístas".

As to the age composition, yes, there are many young people in the "asambleas", 
mostly because (a) we are on summer holidays now and thy have few obligations 
with schools and colleges, and (b) ordinary people have to sleep before they go 
to work next day in the morning. There are asambleas, however, which take place 
on Saturday afternoons, and these are the most massive and representative ones. 
Sometimes, the owner of a bar or café opens the shop up for the neighbors to 
gather. Usually, the case is of some "progressive" who owns a bar or cafe, many 
times being an affiliate or sympathiser of a mild "leftish" party such as the 
Communist Party. But anyway, of course, these are the most representative and 
honest assemblies.

The article goes on:

"[...]The vast majority of the neighbors participating in the assemblies 
believe that political leaders are ignorant of the people's needs. In many 
cases residents do not personally know their elected city council members and
local legislators, nor where they live. They are seen as mere representatives 
of political parties."

True, but the fact is that this is the way it has always been in Argentina. 
Usually, personal knowledge of city council members or local legislators is a 
privilege of the well-to-do. Argentina -particularly its largest towns, and 
certainly Buenos Aires- is a "mass society" from at least half a century ago, 
and people don't usually personalize their relation with the political 
representative. We rather tend to establish general political definitions, and 
vote for or against a whole party. There is a very reactionary move, coming 
down from the quarters of imperialism, for a further "depolitization" of 
Argentinean politics by turning it "cozier", more "familiar", fostering 
"personal" accountability towards "the voter". The journalist seems to be 
completely caught by this trend. She goes on, very aptly, like this:

"Now, however, independent citizens are adopting the terminology
characteristic of party politics: assemblies, agendas, motion for order,
moderators, committees, and liaison commissions."

But it would be mentioned that the "terminology" is no alien to Argentinean 
middle class, nor is it so "political" here. The experience of the mass 
struggles during the 60s and 70s, which did not of necessity stem from a 
concrete political experience, together with experiences in local governance 
(for example, in the old system of Concejos Escolares -District Education 
Commitees- which made up the essential link between community and school under 
the old but never surpassed national public educational system built up after 
1880; now they are highly bureaucratised), make that terminology quite 
"natural". Since most of the participants are young, however, there is another 
source for all this "political"verbiage, which is the experience of the 
students' movement at the Universities (sometimes also at high school), where 
all those practices are usual and, in fact, have been used to drown combativity 
into a flurry of "legalese" more times than it had been convenient. Not to 
speak, finally, of the practice of union struggles at the workshop, which has 
not been the milieu of most of the participants in the assemblies (both due to 
their class origin and the sad fact that by many different ways workers' 
assemblies at the workshop or the unions have been reduced to almost 
nothingness in today's Argentina), but which has permeated Argentinean 
political culture very deeply. So that the adoption of "political" ways is by 
no means surprising.

Then, the reporter states that:

"But few assembly participants have grand hopes for change. They say, at
least, that they want to remain alert to the government's measures, channel
their need for participation and expression, and try to put some new faces
in the political arena, even if the new politicians lack experience."

This is a very sharp observation. The assemblies lack that ultimate political 
attitude, which I will outrageously define as "lust for power". Most of them 
are reluctant to assume an _active_ political position. The prevalent mood is 
that of becoming a D.A. against "the power", giving vent to the feeling of 
helplessness that has pervaded the Argentinean middle classes since the fall of 
the currency board regime. This precludes clear political analysis, in fact. It 
is very difficult to consider the concrete situations and options in the 
assemblies, although there is a tense contradiction between this fact and the 
simultaneous one that the members of the assemblies know that without political 
action they will not be able to change anything. Thus, the following is 
characteristic:

""Everyone is completely fed up with corrupt politicians. We are not against
democracy, but the neighbors seem to be allergic to anything that smells
like politics," Carmen Fernández, a teacher from Buenos Aires' Palermo
neighborhood and head of her district's Education Committee, told IPS."

When I stated above that the District Education Committees were highly 
bureaucratised, I had not reached this point in the article I am commenting. 
But yes, this is a good sample of what I mean: a teacher from the high-middle 
class Palermo neighborhood, and head of a DEC, is exactly the kind of "natural" 
leader" that wells out in the assemblies. In fact, this people, today, are 
people with a long background in "administrative politics" and manoeuvering to 
reach the directing positions. The "democratic" structure of the public 
education system in Buenos Aires City, in fact, is highly bureaucratised and in 
the end politicized. But you can simply NOT tell to a neighborhood assembly 
that Ms. Fernández is no "newcomer" to politics (because "_SHE IS A TEACHER, 
HOW YOU DARE_"). These are some (not all of) the "new" leaders that can be 
generated at the assemblies.

"There is a great deal of talk at the assemblies about the "common enemy",
which everyone agrees are Argentina's political leaders. The neighborhood
organizations have been careful to maintain a horizontal structure, in which
everyone has the right to make proposals, and leaders seem to emerge based
on who best facilitates participation."

This is quite true, and portrays a great political mistake. The limitations of 
this cast of mind become evident when a political stance, a practical political 
stance, has to be taken. Take for example the current confrontation between 
Duhalde and the Spanish-owned former National Oilfields. It will be very 
difficult to make any neighborhood assembly swallow such an obvious position as 
to fighting for the immediate renationalisation of the company. Why? Because in 
their hatred of "politicians" (wisely fostered, by the way, by pro-imperialist 
journalists and media) they fail to see that in attacking Repsol, the Spanish 
oil company, you are attacking imperialism. They will, first and foremost, 
state that "we don't want to defend Duhalde". How much lingering anti-Peronism 
lurks beneath this state of mind, I don't know. But there must be some.

The following depicts a very good feature with the assemblies:

"Usually someone offers a warehouse for a meeting site in case of rain, and
someone else offers a printing press to print posters or a newsletter. At
one assembly, young filmmakers proposed to record the sessions for a
documentary. Attorneys, accountants and doctors offer their professional
services."

This could become a nucleus for something better, were it not for the fact that 
neither the janitors at the warehouse, nor the workers at the printing press, 
nor -of course- the workers at the Justice department, at the IRS, or at the 
public hospitals, are considered by the "asamblea". This solidarity must grow 
and become more pervasive if this trend can have some good conclusion. In fact, 
one of the things we are trying to do (by "we" I mean a group of organisations 
who have agreed in taking part of the assemblies, to which my own political 
organisation belongs) is to bring the participants of the assemblies to this 
recognition. And this because:

"The slogan heard most often is "all the politicians out", but the
assembly-goers insist this is not a call for an end to the democratic
system."

Although many agree in that

""...to get out of this crisis requires more politics, but real
politics. These meetings of common people on the street are the fundamental
form of doing politics," Roli Sampieri, an accountant in charge of the Press
Committee for the Almagro neighborhood assembly in the capital, told IPS."

The problem lies in that these meetings are as yet unable to raise themselves 
to _political thought_, as opposed to quite hollow declarationism or low level 
neighborhood  public service monitoring. This is the leap that the assemblies 
will have to give if they really want to be true to the next sentence by Roli:

"When a married couple decides to separate, that doesn't mean that they
won't go on to marry someone else. This is the same thing: we don't want
these politicians. We want a change," Sampieri said.

If the assemblies keep in that mood, then they will provide neither the new 
leadership nor the new political framework for the future. They will most 
probably fade away, instead of gaining momentum and grow as an effective tool 
of popular power. The moment when the assemblies will be able to issue commands 
to the policeman next door is not only very (VERY) far in the future. According 
to the current trend in the assemblies, one cannot expect such a moment to ever 
arrive. Which is a pity. Please consider the following by Roli Sampieri of 
Almagro (BTW, Almagro is a quite paradigmatic upper-wage-earning middle class 
neighborhood: supervisors, professionals, little shopkeepers, "politically 
correct" teachers, and so on): 

"Only the ongoing street protests by the Argentine people can convince the
career politicians to think of the common good and not about personal gain,
according to the activist. In the long term, there will have to be a change
in leadership that is founded on a more community-based conception of
politics, he added."

"A more community-based conception of politics" is, in fact, the agenda of the 
World Bank that the Buenos Aires middle classes foolishly follow. What we need 
is not a "community-based" conception of politics, but on the contrary, a 
"national-minded" conception of politics. Imperialism laughs at "good 
feelings", and from time to time some "best intentions" are allowed to come 
true, while the general schema of loot is kept safe and alive. The assemblies 
have not taken themselves up to a higher understanding of politics as yet. Back 
to the article:

"Another Almagro neighbor, Mario Colombati, agrees. "We are not satisfied
with merely casting a vote at election time. We want to participate and we
want them to listen to us more often, because that is the main problem, they
don't listen to us," he said in a conversation with IPS."

In last October's legislative elections (the vote is compulsory in
Argentina), Colombati annulled his ballot in protest to express his
discontent with the political parties. But, he said, "we cannot live without
politicians, because that would be anarchy. We want those who robbed us to
leave, and we want to closely monitor those who replace them," he said.

Yes, this is quite true. But the question is --who are "the politicians" 
listening to? That is, "who is the _actual_ enemy?" This is a question that the 
assemblies tend to dillute in generalities, scared probably at the actual 
dimensions of the enemy and the tasks that would immediately loom in front of 
the members of the assembly if THE name were mentioned.

[...]

What follows is less accurate, and misleading:

"...new leaders are emerging. The neighbors at the assemblies choose delegates 
who participate every Sunday in an inter-neighbourhood plenary session, which
draws some 4,000 people."

In fact, the Parque Centenario "city-wide" meeting has been becoming 
increasingly irrepresentative of what takes place at the actual neighborhood 
meetings, and its attendance has been consistently dwindling (the 4,000 people 
figure, not very relevant in a city of 12,000,000, has become 2,000 some 
Sundays). It has also begun to become a meeting-place for the most mainstream 
"leftist" activists, and ordinary people avoid this kind of gatherings because 
they are -rightly enough- fed up with empty sloganeering. For the time being, 
its resolutions have been distancing from the actual, living, debates that the 
local assemblies hold. The next paragraph includes some wishful thinking, in 
fact, but at any rate it is more or less reasonably true to immediate 
perception: 

"There, representatives from middle-class districts mix with those from the
wealthiest and the poorest neighborhoods Their proposals often become
radicalized, and protests are expressed on behalf of an array of groups: the
unemployed, merchants, former party activists, and savers who have been hurt
by the government's economic measures of the last two months."

What comes now is quite revealing, in fact:

"The non-governmental organization 'Poder Ciudadano' (Citizen Power) offered
the assembly participants a free course in institutional monitoring. The
program is called "Citizens as protagonists of change" and seeks to provide
practical tools to the movement that expresses itself in 'cacerolazos',
neighborhood meetings and marches."

"Poder Ciudadano", led by Martha Oyhanarte, is a characteristically "World Bank 
NGO". Oyhanarte, a member of the ruling classes who industrialized the 
kidnapping and murder of her husband, the owner of a manufacturing plant Eng. 
Spivak, to attempt to obtain some seat at the Parliament, turned to "citizen's 
power" once the ballots proved negative for her. She made the most pitiful and 
"traditional" political moves and barterings with the most "traditional" 
politicians before she refurbished herself as a torch bearer of "citizens' 
power". Happily enough, while the journalist gives this organisation some 
credit, the assemblies don't. And let us hope they keep in this way.

Again: what I said above in my comments was written before I stumbled on the 
following paragraphs, which give a good portrayal of the actual kind of people 
constituting the assemblies"

"But there are many who appear already to possess some working knowledge as a
result of their activism in student organizations, political parties or
labor unions.

"The assembly shall be considered constituted when at least 20 neighbors are
present. All who live in the neighborhood may participate with voice and
vote," reads a woman, aided by a brand- new megaphone, on a street corner
where more than a hundred residents have gathered.

"The executive committee shall meet 15 minutes prior to the assembly to
draft the agenda with the proposals provided by the neighbors," she says,
handing the word - and the megaphone - over to the "moderator". It is
clarified repeatedly that "here, no one is in charge, we are going to take
turns."

One of the proposals made during the assembly was to set aside 15 minutes
each week on a neighborhood radio program to provide updates about the
movement. The proposal was readily accepted.

But when the moderate announced that a television news program has sent a
reporter and a camera operator, the reaction is one of absolute rejection,
with the neighbors shouting for the media representatives to leave.

The reporter is from a program whose host has supported the government's
economic reforms in the past few years and who now is seen as inciting
protest with a right-wing discourse. The neighbors make it clear they do not
want anyone to use them to advance a cause they do not agree with."

Yes, this is the good seed within the assemblies. I have stressed the bad sides 
with them so that the list's members can have a more complete image. But some 
of the reactions are the demonstration that the middle classes are beginning to 
start a movement which, in a deeper and thus less ideologically clear way than 
in the late 60s/early 70s, should bring them together with the workers in the 
constitution of that most feared spectre of oligarchic-imperialist Argentina: 
the plebeian alliance of petty bourgeoisie and workers struggling together 
against dependency and injustice. This can be seen here:

"In fact, in the assemblies and in mass e-mails, Argentines are calling not
only for the removal of the career politicians and entrenched union leaders,
but also for the rejection of the privatized entities entrusted with public
services and of the news media which, they say, are not accurately
portraying the population's suffering.

"I am very surprised because there are people participating who otherwise
never left their homes. My 70-year-old neighbor had never taken part in
anything, but now she has such an extremist stance that it is truly
astonishing," said Palermo neighborhood assembly participant Fernández.

She said one of the slogans repeated in her neighborhood is "the politicians
must go because they do not understand a thing." Fernández explained that
this reflects the sentiment that political leaders no longer comprehend, nor
can they express, the citizenry's problems because they are too far removed
from that reality.

For Sampieri, the national crisis was a long time in the making and these
assemblies are a response to the loss of credibility of the political system
in general. "Politics continues to be the only way to express one's self,
but the people reject the political parties, and therefore are gathering in
the streets," he said.

Some of the initiatives coming out of the assemblies include organizing a
volunteer corps to provide assistance to retirees and the unemployed and to
help with the needs outlined by hospital personnel, but the priority is
ultimately to take their proposals to the national level.

The neighborhood assemblies are planning a march on the legislative palace
when the lawmakers gather to debate the government budget, protests outside
bank headquarters to protest the transfer to pesos - the national currency -
of dollar deposits, and demonstrations against the representatives of the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) who visit Argentina."

The march on the Congress was a failure, unfortunately. A new one will take 
place tomorrow, Wednesday. We shall see what happens. 

Bright and shady corners mark the assemblies. It is as if someone had tossed 
the Argentinean middle class to the air, and they were whirling around 
themselves. It depends on whether they fall head or tails that our movement can 
progress in the short term, or not.

In fact, this is the main feature of the Argentinean situation now: at every 
level one discovers that the whole thing is still undefined.

Let us hope that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, Mr. George Bush, 
and the greed of imperialists help in rapidly bringing light to the scene. In 
Bush I trust.

Hugs,

Néstor Miguel Gorojovsky
gorojovsky at arnet.com.ar

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Compañeros del exercito de los Andes. 

...La guerra se la tenemos de hacer del modo que podamos: 
sino tenemos dinero, carne y un pedazo de tabaco no nos 
tiene de faltar: cuando se acaben los vestuarios, nos 
vestiremos con la bayetilla que nos trabajen nuestras mugeres, 
y sino andaremos en pelota como nuestros paisanos los indios: 
seamos libres, y lo demás no importa nada...

Jose de San Martín, 27 de julio de 1819.

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