Wanderings & Meanderings.
Digressions & Detours.
Freewheeling reflections on Latin America in relation to the UK (2006)
The following is an interpretation of merely a few facets of the contemporary situation in Latin America some of which are regularly commented upon, others not so. They concern ecological issues; ones related to violent drug gangs, ones related to armed struggle and ones related to the transcendence of art. Interest was sparked by attending a number of Latino events and conferences in London plus speaking to a number of individuals from the continent now working in England presumably for shite wages in the burgeoning service sector. Neoliberal policies have generated a huge out-migration with many ending up on England's shores and in Ecuador, remittances from these migrants have become the second largest source of the country's revenue after the export of oil.
Curiosity turned to fascination and then in no time you were completely hooked. Around the same time Phil Meyler in Dublin had been asked by Joao Bernardo (a significant ultra-leftist intellectual who's written a number of good books including: Para uma Teoria do Modo de Producao Comunista & Ecologia - O Inemigo Oculto) to help write an introduction to a book on Combate, the ultra left organization which sprang up in Lisbon and Porto during the revolutionary wave engulfing the country between 1974-76. Living in Lisbon, Phil was intimately connected with Combate and wrote what has come to be regarded as the definitive critical account of that amazing time: Portugal: The Impossible Revolution? For the future it is to be hoped something of the complexities of the relationship between soldiers and workers which, at the heart of the Portuguese revolt, and honestly presented in the Combate weekly magazine may be of assistance to Latin American struggles today.
More to the point we'd rapidly become aware how much the Portuguese events were raised in present day conversation among many young Latinos desiring a new revolution. Immediately they emphasise Copcon and Otelo and how that battalion of soldiers breaking with the limited aims of the Captains' revolt assisted all kinds of workers in occupying many factories and rich landed estates in Portugal. It seems the closest experience historically and where parallels could possibly be drawn with the here and now in Latin America. Many too have been the grave words we've recently heard pronounced on the subsequent fate of Otelo (the battalion's commander) who, framed as a terrorist, spent 15 years in jail only to die of a broken heart soon after his release. Today there are sufficient number of people in Latin America who are aware that something of the same fate could befall them if they don't take full account of this precedent incorporating it into their present day critiques.
Then we were in for a shock! Evidently Otelo is alive and kicking despite remembering reading - rather sadly - his obituary two or three years ago! In reality it would seem some Dadaist joke/sleight of hand was practised here as Otelo - or a prankster perhaps - had written a 'self-obituary' which was uploaded in Wikipedia for all the world to read and must have provided the spur to various newspaper obituaries. Now all have been withdrawn from the Internet though a Wikipedia 'ghost' remains which cannot be accessed. Perhaps there is a story to tell and maybe the last laugh resides with Otelo?
Then there was a pleasant surprise. Time and again relatively recent incidents from the history of social subversion in these islands were brought up in almost casual conversation. It was exhilarating as it proved just how internationalist in perspective the present situation in Latin America is, generally marking how quite small events throughout the world can have a positive impact elsewhere sometime later rather like that familiar comparison whereby the consequences of a butterfly flapping its wings can end up thousands of miles away as a tornado. Equally though and sadly, Blair's 'third way' or the real life Blair Witch Project has also had a devastating effect in Latin America. Inevitably such drift evolved in the thinking process behind this text meant reflections on the UK and 'the west' in general ended up included here. Stylistically it's resulted in a certain haphazard construction with lengthy digressions inserted here and there though hopefully in a meaningful context. Footnotes have been avoided and what's written here now no longer really has a beginning or end and can be opened at any page.
As this bit of writing moved towards some kind of provisional conclusion comparisons between the UK and Latin America increasingly looked more and more wooden and an inaccurate description as ineluctably a grotesque indivisible world system began to shape-up as a simple centre ground. Similar factors were at play everywhere like de-industrialisation, the end of welfare, community break-up and increasing isolation, the longevity of the property price bubble, drug gangs and anti-social behaviour to name the most salient, pressing factors. The only difference rapidly became a difference in emphasis though this could be a yawning chasm, and what was bad enough in the UK like say, welfare cutbacks usually were utterly catastrophic in poorer parts of the world. The fact that UK PLC has so far been able to limit and stagger these disasters has meant a semblance of social peace reigns though how long this can continue is another matter.
Finally there are some general doubts. Perhaps the whole thing can be criticised simply because of its geographical distance from Latin America, which means necessary nuancing coming from direct experience is lacking so if there are any appalling mistakes or lapses here we apologise in advance.
Everyone has a problem seeking to explain why Latin America has drifted 'leftwards' like it has. The Chiapas uprising in southern Mexico during the early 1990s appeared totally isolated - ringed by a huge army - and going nowhere. Nonetheless, it was the first clear sign launched on the eve of the NAFTA agreement being put in practise, that the days of the free market in Latin America were numbered. Moreover Chiapas communicated to the Euro-American world in a way no other Latin American revolt had ever communicated appealing to the high points of the 1960s reformulations of revolutionary theory. Or so it seemed. In comparison, the earlier Cacarazo of 1989 in Venezuela appeared a typically bloody Latin American event in which probably 2000 people were killed by the police and military. It was a revolt against price rises in food stuffs, petrol, transport etc., triggered by a demand from the IMF. In fact the repression was so bloody in a country that fancied itself more 'civilised' that most of Latin America it broke the traditional Venezuelan oligarchy apart once it reflected on what it had done. Many in the oligarchy were mortified. Out of its bad conscience there emerged from the military a lower ranking officer named Hugo Chavez. Imprisoned in the mid 1990s he said at his trial when sentenced: "I will be back". He must have known there was irresistible support behind him.
Then there were the weeklong anti-globalisation riots in Seattle in 1999, which, in turn were more than a tad influenced by the slightly earlier anti-road protestors in England. Seattle though galvanised the whole world having a particularly deep impact upon Latin America encouraging emerging forces. It brought into inspiring relief the alliance of "teamsters and turtles" - of workers and ecos - that the killing of the rubber tapper Chico Mendes, in the Amazon rain forest had, unbeknown to him, detonated. In the following years all this was followed by further anti World Trade Organisation revolts, especially Genoa, until impact became mere repetition and the creative sparks lost their lustre as Davros faded into Gleneagles and sheer hypocrisy as the multi-millionaire pop musicians took hideous control.
Maybe too the Argentinazo of December 19th-21, 2001, was also extremely significant. It was the moment when the world's investment banks on the prompting of the IMF pulled the plug on Argentina's indebtedness causing mass bankruptcy over night. Presidente de la Rua went on TV to admonish the people like an over-bearing schoolmaster telling people they shouldn't loot supermarkets. He takes off his glasses at the end of the broadcast saying; "enough is enough". In fact the Argentinean people had had enough. Someone then came out onto a balcony in Buenos Aires and started banging pots and pans and the hint was taken up and in no time the whole of Buenos Aires was deafened by their sounds. Spreading to the rest of the country for two weeks all one could hear was the sound of pans banging together. The police and military were stunned and dared not intervene as harshly as under the Generals. Nonetheless, 38 protestors were killed in the largest mass battle since the1969 Cordabazo. Shortly afterwards De la Rua had to resign. This was the beginning of the recovery of Argentina's historical memory marking (perhaps) the beginning of the rest of Latin America's savagely repressed historical memory. And most likely it is no coincidence that Argentina's bankruptcy coincided with the election of PT (Partito Trabalho) and Lula in Brazil. It was a stern warning shot though capitalism needn't have bothered as PT had been rendered useless years previously. Yet it was Lula who had led the biggest working class engineering strike in Brazil's history mainly based in Sao Paulo in 1980 - even perhaps the world's - and sent shock waves throughout the country's military. Lula had played on the fact the strike was a break from traditional trades' unionism and had an autonomous character. Years later elected as Brazil's president, Lula has gone from wearing boiler suits to wearing Armani suits and is regarded as weak and bribeable. Chavez likes to upstage him.
For example, in 2005 Lula held an open-air meeting in the southern city of Porto Alegre "the most 'radical' city in Brazil" at least in Social Forum circles. Few people turned up. Chavez had been invited to attend - which he did - flying in over Lula's head in a helicopter to land in a local football stadium next to PT's venue where there were 100,000 there to greet him. What an astute showman rivalling his offer to send medical aid to New Orleans after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katarina later in the year! Chavez's red beret is now becoming a symbol of defiance amongst American Blacks, which hopefully may mark the end of the baseball cap, gangsta rap image. However, emphasis here is on the image and fashion must have its way at a time when Leopardi's comment: "Fashion. Mr Death. Mr Death." becomes more prescient than ever.
Latin America is undergoing deep cultural shifts. Evo Morales in Bolivia is the first indigenous president. Chile has elected in Michelle Bachelet its first woman president. At the same time indigenous Bolivians are resisting the sinking of mine shafts in the Andes by American companies looking for coal ' their search predicated on the on-going energy crises. In fact one could say that Latin America has woken up to the reality it possess enormous amounts of raw materials the west and China are avid for and are in a position to play off Washington against Beijing etc. And they know it!
Turmoil at the heart of Andean capitalism.
Nevertheless, all this background sound and fury is merely surface as behind the mask lurk entangled forces difficult to define and separate. There is an overlap between the real, active movement of people at the sharp end and an increasingly ideological state representation, which sits uneasily on top of this ferment and which has to pretend there is no fundamental conflict between the two that cannot be sorted out through open discussion. Would it were that simple! Put bluntly, the former is heading towards a sort of international workers' autonomy, the latter towards a never previously realised form of "Andean Capitalism" as Bolivia's second in command Garcia Linera described it. More precisely Etcetera in Spain recently prefixed an article in their magazine entitled: "Workers Assemblies or an Andean Capitalist Utopia." It's capitalism if you like based as much on swaps and exchanges as the usual round of brute competition and exploitation. A Cuban initiative ALBA (Dawn) emphasises the Bolivarian alternative of mutual cooperation and aid together with inter-regional bank cooperation etc. Set beside NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) openly pushing a rapacious free market it is an attractive form of capitalism limiting usurious interest rates and "pillage and run" policies. But beneath the rhetoric of 'the people' deployed by this new generation of statist populist patricians in Latin America there can never be any question that enforced wage labour or commodity production be abolished. More likely people will be exhorted to work for nothing - a familiar Cuban example - in order to build this 'new' society.
Increasingly too it is an unstable mix and must indefinitely remain so marking extreme fluctuations bordering at times on chaos which this particular (Bolivarian) form of left wing social democracy must always exhibit finally giving way to a renewed endgame right or international social revolution. Essentially it is now marked by celebrity-like masquerades for passive (or not as the case may be) TV audiences deploying much demagogic rhetoric and vaudeville window dressing - like a political Living Theatre - knowing full well it is riding the wild tiger of an awakening people. Personality politics rule in a period where contradictory alliances are "formed and re-formed by the week" (Josie Appleton). Heated anti-imperialist rhetoric, especially anti-Bush rhetoric is a sop to the people as well as a somewhat soothing balm for the traditional Latin American oligarchy, which has always hypocritically deployed the anti-Yankee card when appropriate to do so. Shout and rave as much as you like on TV while behind the cameras ambassadors engage in quiet diplomacy! In reality, Chavez practises social welfarism and neoliberalism. Away from the spotlight, discreet trade pacts have been signed with Texaco-Mobil and Exxon to exploit the Orinoco gas and oil fields and many American and European banks are doing OK through the auspices of Chavez. Not great but OK and so far their mutual relationships are pretty stable.
Indeed it could be said that Chavez practises a kind of bellicose version of a Brownite public private partnership, which means he still wants the Venezuelan elite on board with the rider they need to abandon their traditional arrogance by simply obeying him, even grovelling at his feet if necessary. It's one of the main reasons why Chavez hasn't arrested any of the big shots that have plotted coups against him. Behind the scenes policy turns out to be rather more complex than simply saying Chavez is scared of them.
Using the example of Gordon Brown here is appropriate as no one can deny the huge effect "the third way" Blair government has had on Latin America. This massive change in social democratic emphasis to the point of denouement has had everything to do with the obliteration of the UK miners after their defeat in the yearlong 1984-5 strike. It was an incredible struggle and their defeat meant something then equally incredible unfolded, terrible though it was. No wonder the British miners' strike is mentioned so wistfully often in somewhat hushed awe by young Latinos determined again to try and make a new world.
Almost immediately defeat in the UK dramatically changed the composition of the PT (Partito Trabalho) in Brazil, the most consequential country in Latin America in capitalist terms. Prior to this change the party life of PT was described somewhat naively as creatively 'chaotic' full of worker initiatives and participation plus big practical involvement in strikes. Blair's high profile but poisonous example meant sudden death to these old ways. Critical lefties and assembly gatherings - despite only being a pale reflection of the real thing - were gotten rid of replaced by the serious business of cultivating city gents, hip entrepreneurs and a general emphasis on a Brazilian version of Will Hutton's baneful "stakeholder" garbage meant to satisfy the lower orders. The UK election of 1997 proved to be the killer punch as the triumphant Blairistas rapidly proved to be worse neoliberals than the Tories. In Brazil this sunk in. On coming to power in 2002, Lula immediately aped the antics of his friend Tony and within days proved to be more right wing than the previous Cardosa regime. It was cleverly executed. An Orwellian newspeak language was quickly deployed making everything appear the opposite of what it was. Thus 4 state banks and the Central Bank were privatised described in the media as moves towards "autonomy" from elected officials (obviously suggesting corrupt clientalism) playing on what's become a favourite term culled from the grass roots. Political Correctness was brought on-line with Blacks and women in the cabinet, all so reminiscent of Blair's Babes etc and just like in the UK strikes have been virtually abolished as Lula, even more than Blair, generously over-fills neoliberal financial goals. Truly both laboristas are as Brazilians say, "Robin Hoods for the rich" though unlike Blair, Lula as the worker worm who turned (the other way) is able to deploy the popular sentimental touch crying 'real tears faced with child poverty then abruptly follows with a major reduction in social spending and a massive transfer of wealth to the creditors.' How depressingly familiar! Though we don't have a Lula as head of state in Britain we do have in the figure of John Prescott a similar second in command, ex-leader of the 1966 seafarers' strike, who rapidly turned against the very workers he was part of and whose major contribution to reaction came many years ago before he was nicknamed "2 Jags" or showed a marked predilection for sucking-up to wealth. During 1984 Prescott was probably the only patsy around able during the miners' strike to get the British dockers back to work 'resolving' (i.e. undermining) the Hunterston conflict in Scotland thus ensuring the miners' most formidable support was broken meaning general defeat was, from then on, well on the cards.
Despite all of this, when referring to social democracy in Latin America it is wise to be careful as put like this it's a relatively meaningless catchall phrase. It is and it isn't like its present day western European counterpart. In terms of personal past histories the comparison couldn't be more inappropriate where in the UK governmental personnel, despite the presence of Prescott, have only known well-protected middle class environments and for certain have never had a job at the coalface. In Latin America many of these new leaders at a state level have not only spent at least parts of their lives doing gutty, low paid work but have spent periods in jail - even tortured - during the previous period of military dictatorships. All these experiences have permanently marked their psyche and are visibly uneasy when having to deploy any kind of heavy police measures. In exasperation they tend to lash out right and left. One such head of state is President Michelle Bachelet of Chile who was tortured by Pinochet's goons. In early June 2006 she responded to "The March of the Penguins" (the school kids revolt) by raving against those kids who had engaged in violent demonstrations, looting, plus assaulting intrusive journalists/cameramen etc yet merely a few hours later she was dishing-out the same medicine to the police dismissing ten officers through the auspices of her Minister of the Interior. This was followed by further rants against "impossible" student demands only to give into a fair number of them (like low public transport fares) a few hours later.
What we are getting in Latin America, though in unique Bolivarian form, is something more akin to an earlier moment of left social democracy one more characteristic of PM Atlee in Britain from 1945-51 around the syndrome of "the pits belong to the people," or else it exhibits aspects of Roosevelt's New Deal minus, mega public works schemes. Not that nationalisation is something new in Latin America - far from it - and it came from both left and right. For instance, some Generals who had destroyed guerrilla uprisings in their countries also took power in Peru in 1968 and Bolivia in 1969 seizing vast tracts of lands from traditional latifundistas. The difference is its reappearance in a seemingly more aggressive left wing form than previously though much of this is for the benefit of the cameras guaranteeing media attention and subsequent fashionable status. You can get an echo of Atlee in Bolivia where Presidente Evo Morales of MAS (Movement for Socialism) proclaims that the country's oil and gas reserves are "under the control of the Bolivian people" but behind the demagoguery what does it mean? The ex-owners haven't been expropriated without compensation and the government is now finding it difficult to find the money to weigh them out. Moreover these installations are certainly not clustered into autonomous collectives but are functioning capitalist enterprises where foreign investment is still very influential though profit margins are considerably down though nonetheless,hovering around a healthy 20% to 25%.
Development NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations)
If we have a problem with the Blairistas; if we have a problem with old time "red in tooth and claw nationalisation" as the Yorkshire miner John Dennis mockingly - though with underlying serious intent - put it, we also have another. In this entire shift in action and perspectives the presence of 'outside' NGO's must seriously be looked at and assessed. It's not easy. Leaving aside organisations like Oxfam and Medecines sans frontieres concerned with instant aid when war, famine or natural disaster strike, we concentrate here on the developmental (even eco-oriented anti-development) NGOs. The vast majority of the NGO's in the world now numbering up to 40,000 came into existence in the 1980s, followed by a big acceleration throughout the 1990s as the state was rolled back further with the demise of the Soviet state capitalist bloc. In the interim between post second world war social democratic consensus throughout much of the highly developed world (and not so highly developed) and the rise of neoliberalism, the para-state, especially throughout the 1970s, had appeared. They were informal organisations usually anchored in issue politics marking the collapse of total critique demanded by the aborted revolutionary explosions of the late 1960s, and were discreetly funded, though often only minimally, by the state. The experiment hardly survived the seventies decade.
In the following lacunae the NGO's shakily evolved. Indeed many of their earlier employees merely transferred their allegiances from the para-state and were from radical left or feminist movements with funding coming from various sources especially private sponsors often on a hands-off, discreet basis and were resignedly seen by some committed employees as a necessary evil. However, right from the word go the World Bank figured high though it was a World Bank still reflecting a social democratic disposition. All this was to be slowly jettisoned as the Thatcher/Reagan generation welcomed the emphasis on private economic initiatives. Today this generation are now in commanding positions. The NGOs were slowly and cleverly manipulated as their orientation moved from voluntary and non-profit often claiming charity status into accepting a financial game plan. Over the years they've finally become "strategic partners" in the neoliberal project.
On the ground the practise wasn't as simple as that. It very rarely is and the original NGO projects were simply too leaky as too much cat was let out of the bag. Indeed occasionally it's still true. In Latin America faced with really impoverished though rebellious people they swayed this way and that. Down there on the ground, despite having their own programmes which meant encouraging grass roots initiatives around alternative projects their employees were also attracted to the emerging mass movements. On the one hand they mediated between the grass roots and external donors supplying usually measly sums of money for eco initiatives and what have you, while on the other hand in one spectacular instance, the NGOs were well to the fore of an un-worked out but near insurrection in La Paz on October 18th 2001 when 5000,000 people took over the city in the biggest demonstration in Bolivia's history.
Such things led to alarming though interesting overlaps. It's only a few years ago that the World Bank set up PRODEPINE (The Development Project of Ecuador's Indigenous People & Blacks) encouraging alternative development prioritising an indigenous agenda with the aimed for recovery of ancestral identity. More importantly it's real though hidden aim was to try and break collective indigenous insurgency that was making great strides. This intent was so cleverly disguised it even wore the mask of working in tandem with the mass movement, a movement that was reaching a crunch point headed by CONNAIE (Confederation of Indiginenous Nationalities of Ecuador), a huge combative grass roots kind of union that, along with others, was so powerful it was able to literally occupy the very centre of the state in January 2000. (We all saw it on our UK TV screens sandwiched between Cherie Blair's gurus and freebies and David Beckham's thongs). Within days not knowing what to do or where to turn the movement floundered. Seeing it's historical chance, PRODEPINE rushed in immediately offering the head of CONNAIE, Antonio Vargas, it's top managerial job. Vargas accepted immediately and is now handling an account estimated at 25 million dollars. Today the mass movement is still reeling from having hit such magnificent heights and such gully low betrayal.
One further point just in case people read this and see in it a cynical excuse to do nothing having decided in advance that all attempt to fundamentally change the world is doomed from the start: An insurrection of such magnitude in a small country like Ecuador in present historical circumstances probably must end like this despite all the local ins and outs (was Gutteriez, the future President in league with the CIA etc?) if on the very next day insurrection isn't joined by another adjacent small country, followed immediately by others and so on. It's unfortunately the grim reality of the world market and a local autarchic road leading to immediate emancipation from the economy just isn't possible.
Neoliberalism also learnt from all this and though saving its skin in the nick of time was no longer going to allow such things to continue if it could possibly prevent them. Remember neoliberalism is a project full of self-critical re-examination with a willingness to change tack ever ready to begin afresh. It cleverly learns from its enemy. It's also why it is well down the road of creating the most effective and ruthless totalitarianism in history making fascism and Stalinism look like hide-bound, child's play. Thus some NGO power brokers, almost exclusively financiers, can also see the 'Washington Consensus' as too atrophied, too imperial and discreetly say so yet get away with it.
The NGOs have finally become the instruments of outside interests and many well meaning but naive individuals have unwittingly become their instruments. The mask though is falling off. An umbrella organisation of American NGOs even threatened their members recently with the big stick saying they'd better fully acknowledge where they were coming from, their ties to governments and especially financial institutions otherwise they risked losing their funding. Independence from donor sources is most likely now a thing of the past. Today, especially after the experience of Latin American insurgency there must be no encouragement to direct action or getting all cuddly with the people you are dealing with. Professional impersonality has become the benchmark possibly cloned on the Bill Gates model. It means in practise that NGO employees are increasingly now between a rock and a hard place.
Similarly the NGO brief has become more and more limited. Broader educational perspectives have been cut out as knowing something about your own history, especially all those difficult moments that should be permanently hidden from view, might encourage restlessness. Emphasis is now on the 'skills training' approach in hi-tech, building trades or whatever, subsidised on an individual basis by low level poverty grants - they are called "alleviation funds" - and forcibly guided towards self-employment in the small business interpretation of that euphemistic term. It's also applied in Imperial donor countries and may have originated there as, for instance, the Prince of Wales trust in the UK operates on similar lines. The paltry grants handed out come with so many strings attached you are forced into accepting the given structures of capital domination. Recipients are forced to take full responsibility for themselves in fulfilling the neoliberal agenda where all rules fall on the lone punter's shoulder. In modern cognitive therapy language - incidentally a language it adores - it's an'empowering' of the poor without disempowering the rich. Most importantly, in Latin America, minifundista mustn't oppose latifundista.
Funded now by so many IFIs (International Finance Institutions) and not only the World Bank, major NGOs like USAID and the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) have become contemporary neo-Christian missionaries sporting an up-to-the-minute, polite fresh face of the future weightless economy of subtle imperial domination doling out clever terms like "relations of difference" which not so long ago wouldn't have been amiss in some bright-eyed social forum. Increasingly too, these bodies are advertising for skilled admin staff those with IT spread sheet skills plus a good knowledge of accountancy etc, so money flows can be more vigourously monitored.
Greenwash and Green-lite? Ecological critiques in sustained mass action? Has Cuba ecologically reinvented itself?
Generally - and in this respect like everywhere else in the world - production is no longer accepted unconditionally as a universal good. It all depends what is been made and are their harmful effects etc. The difference is, in Latin America thousands take to the streets unlike in Europe or America where only a handful have the temerity to oppose the truly unsustainable with the rest bowed down by depression, grief and isolation. (As one of the slogans of the early spring uprising in France 2006 said: "War on Sadness").
In Fray Bentos in Uruguay - meaning here the town and not the canned food tins we in the UK are familiar with - it is proposed two vast Finnish and Spanish owned pulp mills be constructed on the side of the Uruguay River. These new factories will use up enormous amount of Amazon rain forest timber, pollute huge areas of water and emit potentially cancerous gases and local people, both Uruguayan and Argentinean, are up in arms. This situation has rapidly developed into a pointed example of seeming opposites, of "front line workers and fence line communities" whereby it becomes necessary to make common cause between those who need jobs to survive under capitalism and those who fear the effects of these jobs. Like the flowing Uruguay River it's probably one of the most difficult bridges to cross there's ever been historically and we await with fascination the outcome.
Despite being a kind of wilderness over large areas of land, nevertheless pollution and toxic waste is rife in Latin America. It really could be no other. To take two examples among hundreds: In the poor state of Minas Gerais in Brazil in 2003 3bn tonnes of toxic waste was dumped in the Paraba do Sul river. More recently pulp mills (again the dreaded production required for the society of the spectacle's relentless publishing blitz) owned by the Aranca group is held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of black-necked swans in Chile's Rio Cruces nature reserve.
Behind this left social democratic recuperation, indigenous people are being reintroduced into natural parks in Ecuador by radical ecologists from where they'd been expelled. In Bolivia the indigenous people of Amazonia live in communal form largely engaging in a hunter-gatherer existence where any kind of state is absent. Considering the gradual return of a primitive inclination at the peripheries of western society sickened by the calamitous industrial waste of capitalism these remnants are acquiring a mythic status a bit like the old village meer was to the Russian communal tradition, 19th century anarchism and even the later Marx, though of course, these pre-historical remnants go much, much farther back.Thus communal rights to natural resources are now encouraged in a desire to restore the Q'uollasvyo, the anarcho-primitive communes of the original ayulla people. In the Chiapas uprising the ancient form of the village council (the caracoles) was more than respected, it was updated becoming the central form where discussion and consensus are the guiding principles through constant encuentros which the Zapitista guerrilla army gladly submits itself to and though Subcomandante Marcos writes respectfully about Che Guevara - who doesn't in Latin America? - this is exactly the type of behaviour Che would have ridden roughshod over.
Perhaps the messages of the social ecologists are getting through, something that would have warmed poor old Murray Bookchin's heart. One must also remember fear of America is ever-present in poor peoples' minds and what they have done and will do again if they can. What is emerging throughout Latin America is an immense yawning dual gap existing side by side: One, the dominant force, fostering unsustainable modernity, the other, a recently encouraged neo-primitivism something that for the time being no longer happens much in Europe or America or, at least, has low profile. Groups of people actually wish to preserve a traditional way of life. They now feel empowered by the amount of ecologists/archaeologists/historians etc visiting them and saying that their ways of life are sustainable and ours in the west is not. It is a form of future primitive in practise, which we in the west have no choice but to learn from. Indeed it is one of our only hopes. It's also one of the main reasons Morales was elected reinforced by Castro's reinvention of himself and the revival of old ways of agriculture Cuba was forced to return to once the supply of oil dried up following the collapse of the Soviet Union and East Europe.
Even before Cuba's mainly agricultural trading partner the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 the scientific and technical community with the support of an all-powerful state, had began to opt for alternative farming methods considerably reducing chemical fertilisers. The demise of the Soviet Union massively accelerated this process. Now most farming deploys biological controls rather than chemical ones. Manure, sugar cane derivatives, organic fertilisers, compost, bio soil, worm humus, shade, honey syrup and micro-organisms have been developed to produce soil nutrition and combat erosion.
No longer having the support of a Soviet Union, Castro had to switch from industrial farming to more organic forms and from horticulture back to agriculture with horticulture pushed to the margins of fields and the wayside just as in the title of a pre Second World War book in the UK, "Flowers of the Wayside and Woodland", for horticulture was pretty much a bourgeois invention and concomitant with the rise of industrial capitalism. Tractors were replaced by oxen and horses and roof gardens turned into kitchen gardens etc in urban centres. The latter was a genuine innovation with no precedent in Cuba's past though none of these developments should be taken as implying that Cuba is a post-capitalist society. (With the developing energy crisis it's almost certain that something like this will happen in Europe and America). What we have now in Cuba are huertos, which resemble British allotments, organoponics that resemble large urban farms and autoconsumos are attached to hospitals, schools and workplaces whereby they are able to grow much of their own food. Unfortunately all such splendid directives ' and Cuba has become an ecological beacon to the world ' have been carried out from the top down. It would have been so much better if all this essential experimentation had fully come from the people themselves and not via a state programme no matter how inspired. Inevitably though it's packed full of typical work scene initiative by all kinds of individuals which vitiates the paternalism of the former. At the moment it's also something of a market/state solution. The dominant form means the state takes 50% of the produce with the rest up to the gardeners' choices whether for sale in cheap farmers' market or for barter. The state looks after the gardeners providing them with a roof over their heads and free food.
In a way this can still be viewed as an extension of the land reform program, which runs like an unbreakable thread through the wars of liberation and what happened subsequently in Latin America. It is popularly said in Latin America that Simon Bolivar died "ploughing the sea." It's a beautiful description. As a student Che Guevara was much impressed by the land reform program of the short-lived 1953 Bolivian government, in particular the resettlement of the indigenous people on the barren wastes of the alti-plano formerly theirs prior to the arrival of the conquistadors. He was less impressed by the nationalization of the tin mines if all it amounted to were a few pesos more for the miners many of whom were indigenous. He also quickly realised that all hopes of a revolution in Latin America would fail if the indigenous peoples were not brought into the revolutionary process. His failure to make meaningful contact with them in Bolivia such as had happened somewhat in the Sierra Maestra in Cuba (made easier probably by the fact the peasantry there were mainly Spanish speaking liberated slaves) doomed his Bolivian adventure and sealed his fate. Though championing land reform, (as the last consequential Bolshevik by default, slipping with Fidel almost unintentionally into the mould, that meant under the aegis of a new class state already present in guerrilla foci) at no point did Guevara ever question the mode of production i.e. the application of industrial methods to modern agriculture - though to be fair no one outside of a handful of people in the USA did at this point in time and most were related to the ultra leftist Contemporary Issues group. We cannot be so blase and by insisting on a change in the social relations of production (expropriation of ranchers, big farmers, the residues of the latifundistas derived from the colonial past) we are obliged to vigorously argue for a change in farming techniques, the actual mode of production. In this respect Latin America again is leading the world but, apart from Cuba, only on the peripheries, and then under the guise of neo-primitivism, a label that renders this only hope as somehow innocuous and even a bit cranky. Hopefully over the coming years this perspective will change.
What happened to Industrialised Agriculture?
In considering these formidable changes or reversals to the agricultural mode of production - a welcome stepping back into the past as it were - we must also consider what happened in Cuba in the aftermath of Castro and the communist party coming to power.
There is literally no doubt that Castro and co abolished the old ways of farming almost immediately after the 1959 'revolution'. INRA (National Institute of Agrarian Reform) was established imposing industrialised farming almost everywhere. Mechanisation was given maximum priority. Thousands of peasant farmers were evicted once the Agrarian Reform law was enacted making way for gigantic state farms essentially based on the Russian kolkhoz model. This resulted in a long and drawn out guajiro (peasant) uprising whereby some took to the Escambray Mountains becoming guerrillas yet again. The Cuban state organised a Che Guevara Trail Blazers Brigade run on strictly militaristic lines which cleared huge amounts of lands for large scale industrialised state ranches (ironically usually called cooperatives) often given over to sugar production for export especially to the Soviet Union. The farm was declared dead.
The transformation and updating of agriculture was carried out in such haste that disaster was the outcome. Giant crop harvests failed and food shortages kicked in as the country resorted to importing a high percentage of staple foods. Things like this had never happened before even under the most repressive right wing regimes. In a country where bananas are literally everywhere - and even more than bread the staple diet - at one point nearly ceased to exist! Around this time the leftist French agronomist Rene Dumont initially sympathetic to the new Cuban regime, finally ascribed shortages to the abolition of the small peasant holding. Given the restricted circumstances he was probably right, as after all he had worked out a way to make the capital city, Havana, self-sufficient in foodstuffs more or less surrounding the urban centre. Dumont suggested in his book, Is Cuba Socialist? that the hypertrophied city of Havana be surrounded with a 'green belt' of market gardens and fruit farms together with a concentric belt producing sweet potatoes, potatoes, plantains etc and that a dairy farm should be established, all to be administered by a federation of small cooperatives. Moreover he concluded, "If every family that wanted to had been able to have a small garden plot, it could have raised a good portion of its own food." His plan was rejected though you can't help but feel Dumont's plans have recently been dusted-down from library shelves as Cuban bureaucrats, nearly 50 years later, have finally responded to his proposals though, no doubt, as a post-festum add-on.
Workers' Control and the beginnings of the transformation of production or just another damp squib and we've been here before?
De-industrialisation is not only a North American and western European phenomena; it is also having major impact in Latin America. Nowadays, according to the ideologues of the "new world [dis]order" apart from India and China, industrialised factory workers are now being abolished everywhere. Yet throughout Latin America workers over the last few years, admittedly in fits and starts, are occupying factories, a large proportion of which have been abandoned by their owners. It is heartening to reflect that the biggest continent-wide meeting in history of delegates in occupied factories took place in Venezuela in 2005. Those who were present at these meetings were visibly reminded of the Portuguese experience of 1974-6 noting a similar breadth of vision and desire to learn even asking questions after all these years about the year long miners' strike in Britain in the early 1980s when here it's all but forgotten! It would seem in these conferences that the dense ideological rhetoric of revolution is markedly absent which seems all to the good, concentrating more on questions of everyday survival, taking into account the local community and therefore more social than the activities of typical capitalist enterprises. Well this is what's been said though we have to be careful about its veracity.The question of the transition from capitalism to what is still referred to, as socialism is latently but quietly uppermost. Accounts relating to past experiences of workers' control are avidly read and especially there's rejection of the post Second World War Yugoslav and East German experiments around competing 'socialised' enterprises. It remains to be seen if they are taking into account all the contradictory tendencies inherent in the Portuguese experience between 1974-76 and it's doubtful if texts like Nicholas Will's Lip's Self-Managed Counter-Revolution (in the early 1970s in France) or Chris Pallis's The Bolshevik's and Workers Control or even Otto Ruhle's from way back even get a look in. Though cooperatives have long been numerous throughout Latin America there's recently been a big extension. However, the old time practise of one competing with another is vigorously condemned. Indeed the latter type is often rightly seen as a setup engineered by the state.
Cogestion is the name Venezuelan workers have given to the process that guarantees different levels of workers' participation and 'control' in the management of companies. Specifically and reinforcing what was said above, they insist this cogestion has nothing to do with the European model of co-management as say in East Germany after the end of World War Two arguing that particular form meant the cutting of their own wages and conditions. Again though, we have to be careful of the propaganda factor in all of this. Also, Chavez encourages occupations like the one at Invepal, a valve-making factory tied to the oil industry, which has recently been taken over after a bitter two-year standoff. We suspect in the Cogestion movement that Trotskyists play quite a part as there's more than a few mentions about the German revolution of 1917-21 and all the old shibboleths of "expropriating and nationalisation of Venezuelan industry under workers control" together with "revolutionary trades unionism" is well to the fore. When all is said and done and with all flimflam cut out there's also a difficult conundrum here where material circumstances impose severe restrictions on any kind of leap into the unknown: the cogestion movement in Venezuela has no choice at the present time but to make use of state expropriation otherwise there would be no wages paid at the end of the week as the factories are often bankrupt and remember despite all the 'socialist' rhetoric you are still dealing with rampant capitalism.
In Argentina and Venezuela - though spreading elsewhere - a fair number of occupied factories are the result of the owners having fled to safer countries where they can put down plant and machinery and profits are guaranteed. Such occupations are often able to utilise holes in the law and like the 'temporary permit' in Argentina are able to bend legal limits to their own ends. There they are referred to as "recuperated factories" ("fabrica recuperado") or more precisely as reclaimed or recovered factories. (Incidentally this doesn't refer to recuperacion in the French sense of the term). Discussions about "autogestion" are everywhere but you wonder just how much cutting edge they possess. Obviously sometimes there is a quite remarkable state of flux at play but equally such occupations don't seem to transcend the old razzmatazz. In Argentinean factories workers bring in artists and musicians at the weekend to do 'their thing' banging on about social conflict in a pretty airy-fairy way. At a distance it seems not too dissimilar to our own dim and distant rebellious past in the UK.
In Argentina the factory occupations have now been fairly well contained and for awhile at least, the movement is all but over, largely displaced from a none too insistent form of workers' control to full-blown state management. Under Kirchner the Argentinian state has often been able to coerce these firms into becoming profit-oriented cooperatives in exchange for legal recognition removing the anxiety of being forcibly evicted by police or even worse, paramilitaries. Often too, self-managed factories have been clearly subordinated to the big boys placed in a sub-contractor type position meaning workers often have to work longer hours for lower rates etc. Others have been able to play on a kind of radical chic to supplement their incomes inviting rich kids (perhaps well-heeled professional social forum attendees) from North America or Europe to come have a ball while paying for the privilege of submitting to weeks of hard graft in liberated space! Other occupations are a thorn in Kirchner's side and interestingly tend to be those that have thrown up the most clued-in workers who in their daily lives have broken free from the dumb and dumber media prolefood in that telling Orwellian phrase. One such former enterprise is the large Zanon ceramics factory in Neugen province where there's no pay differential between skilled and unskilled. Aren't we surprised that Kirchner doesn't like such class-conscious action and refuses to recognise the Zanon cooperative.
Looked at from a European, specifically British perspective of the early 1970s a lot of these occupations and cooperatives are work-ins, which, as well as taking a somewhat desultory interest in we would have also condemned at the time as "workers control of your own alienation." Places like Fisher Bendix in Liverpool, The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders or, the Triumph motorcycle factory in the West Midlands. There were many more. We were gobsmacked to find out that these occupations still resonate in the renewed workers' control movement throughout Latin America. Somehow you felt really good inside and Marx's pertinent comment "well grubbed old mole" referring to the hidden underground memory of subversion seemed very apposite. It was just like yesterday as the pain inside, testimony of years of increasing counter-revolution, momentarily lifted. So all these aborted experiments weren't useless, they did matter and still do. Then you suddenly realised there'd been no good accounts of these events coming from those distant days. Why at the time hadn't you scribbled down a few notes because you certainly had ideas on the subject?
Then, finally like a blast from the past, the Lucas Aerospace plan from the mid 1970s was given another airing, if only in passing. And yes it made sense especially in the Latin American context for here was a serious attempt at the heart of the military industrial complex to redirect production to socially beneficial ends. Had there ever been anything similar elsewhere in the world? Yet again, even in the most unlikely discussions the question of the military had reared its head in Latin America! Lucas Aerospace in Bristol; The Shop Stewards Plan; The draughtsmen and Mike Cooley: Unconnected thoughts flooded through the brain. A few hours later, looking at a yellowing book on the subject stuck away on a dusty bookshelf you remembered your take at the time. Why all the rhetoric on nationalisation under workers' control when at the same times in Portugal this rhetoric among Combate (& others) was undergoing telling scrutiny? Then there was the Parliamentary perspective as the Bristol constituency was that of lefty MP Wedgewood Benn who gave full support to the initiative. And as for the plan itself, you felt many of the proposals were somewhat nutty like updated Heath Robinson machines. Why design a bus that also has wagon wheels that can be placed on railway lines? Wasn't all this like the Russian Constructivists, say the Ornithopter minus Tatlin's often breathtaking flair? But then there were the innovative kidney dialysis machines and you couldn't fault that.
Inevitably too, you also thought of a more significant moment at Lucas Aerospace, which was to happen nearly ten years later. During the miners' strike of 1984-5 there was constant talk about opening up a second front and it did unfold somewhat though tragically only in dribs and drabs. A strike at Lucas Aerospace was one of them as barricades went up around the factory. At the time you felt this made a lot more sense that the previous alternative technology plan because breaking the UK's power structure was - and still is - the essential prerequisite for realising a future of liberatory technology. Those who thought like this - and there were more than a few - weren't wrong'
On the level of thoughts and future projects in Latin America there seems nothing to compare at the moment with the Lucas Aerospace plan but does it really matter when on the ground essential small but significant moves out over are being made as in these circumstances, practical communication rather than airy-fairy schemes means everything. Thus in Venezuela large tracts of land surrounding factories have been handed over to the local community for allotment-type cultivation. Perhaps it's all influenced by the organic Cuban huertos or, more likely, it's an obvious move to make. At the same time, increasingly, peasants are occupying land probably more or less for the same reason though some in the Chavez government oppose it. This is hardly surprising as private companies own 99% of the land in Venezuela and in recent years paramilitaries on behalf of landowners have killed 164 peasants in the country. Even the National Land Institute (INTI) is afraid of taking over land, as so often it is are owned by giant corporations or powerful individuals. In fact most of the privately owned land wasn't bought back in the mid 19th century when it was parcelled out, but stolen by robber barons. Most small farmers and landless peasants know this and recently have threatened to occupy INTI offices when told by officers to wait the outcome of official court procedures which endlessly delayed, probably won't take place. One recent dispute is concerned with our old sparring partner, Lord Vestey as peasants have occupied some of his land at his El Charcote ranch. Interestingly, though probably only for the moment, Vestey has backed down. More to the point here as we've been discussing all these unfortunately historically-staggered though potentially insurrectionary overlaps, it's worth pointing out that in 1972 it was Vestey who managed to get 5 pickets arrested at his Midland Cold Storage depot in east London precipitating an impressive UK national dock strike. More recently the McLibel trial in London had Vestey firmly in its sites. We have been told that the most clued-in small farmers and landless in Venezuela are now acquainted with these facts.
Interplay between workers and community is becoming quite something in Latin America. During the bosses' lockout in Venezuela in 2002 (described even in The Guardian as a workers' mini general strike (!) against Chavez) the oil workers, after repairing the extensive sabotage to the installations perpetrated by managerial goons, ran the industry for 60 days whilst outside the refineries, the mass presence of the dispossessed local poor defending the area ensured no right wing military unit could come along unannounced and turf them out. And later as an extension of this spontaneous coming together, say a self-managed factory becomes commercially successful, are the profits to be distributed to the workers or used to facilitate the funding of community amenities? Perhaps it's payback time. Perhaps also an idea whose time has come as workers and local community get it together. Apropos of what was just said about cooperatives, throughout Latin America there's now much condemnation of self-contented cooperatives shutting themselves off from the world. There are more than a few!
Interestingly too, Sem Terra ("Without Land" see later) in Brazil and contrary to what a lot of people think, isn't just a movement among traditional peasantry, it's also made up of the dispossessed urban poor fed up with the difficulties and anxieties of trying to survive through the black economy who simply wish to cultivate abandoned land guaranteeing that at least they have regular food in their bellies.
Finally are these the first faltering steps of a transition that cannot be avoided though openly acknowledging all the many inevitable pitfalls once this path is pursued? Though we are talking money here we are also talking about its potential disappearance. Abolition of money, abolition of the wages system are fine ringing slogans to shout at the top of your voice but how do we get from exchange to use? A transition from capitalism to the new society is inevitable if there is to be any hope for life continuing. Having said goodbye to the state as the false mediator in this process we are left with the moves we make among our collective selves. Responding to the needs of those right next to you is an essential pre-requisite even if it is a gesture that can find no means initially for full realisation. The essential thing is are we embarking on the path of human fulfilment, the one which allows all the unexpected additions to be immediately included in the process of freeing ourselves from the spectacular commodity economy and finally hopefully avoiding any hardening of the arteries throwing us back into the arms of the old ways. It's easier said than done! Certainly, in these new self-managed agri-somewhat-industrial-setups some direction has been delineated. Perhaps we must trust our hearts here; our gut instincts because if not, in the further pursuit of ever more consumer madness, we are certainly courting our own self-destruction.
All these, or some of these constitute first transitional steps. What more is meant by transition? Is the Participatory Budget practised in Brazil's Porto Alegri, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, part of this transition? Porto Alegri, home of the World Social Forum: It seems the latter thought it was possibly impressed - before PT came to national power - because Porto Alegri had gained a UN habitat prize for best governed city in the world. You cannot help but ask: Did any among the Forum see this official 'recognition' as a kind of death knell?
The Participatory Budget has been active for a fair number of years administered by PT rank 'n' file members. Basically it's a form of city government whereby activated neighbourhood blocks often from the 'periphery' or small peoples' assemblies decide what should happen to a limited city budget whereby manipulations of all-powerful local officials and technicians are circumvented and financial decisions are no longer taken behind closed doors. The PB started off with a critique of voters as 'mere spectators' (Silvio) needing to transform themselves into protagonists of social change as "the world is experiencing a huge social collapse" (Silvio again). This much is true. A permanent, on-going activity rapidly developed and though initiated and sustained by grass roots PT militants it did finally mean that transparency about money matters was forced on the legislature. It also means that money from the federal state for public use no longer goes to rescuing banks and bankers as happens elsewhere in Brazil and city councillors have been forced to approve the spending decisions of the assemblies. Thus under their pressure the PB has been able to invert spending priorities in favour of the poorest neighbourhoods bringing about very basic improvements relating to extensive road maintenance, street lighting, bus routes, building sewers and municipal housing and as time has moved on, is now able to concern itself with health centres and schools. One can say this is all very pedestrian even though necessary with the PB having "a half-in, half-out relationship to the state" but how about all the real big, big, big things?
The problem is the PB in Porto Alegre is basically a local para-state and as such really nothing like some kind of insurgent assembly as it must more or less obey the paradigm set by the federal government though pushed beyond the limits of remit. Is it really that different to the time in the early 1980s when the Trotskyist Militant Tendency controlled Liverpool Council even though more obviously contemporary in methods and in turn didn't Liverpool tend to somewhat ape Red Bologna in the Italy of the late 1970s? All that though belonged to the time of a loosening but still patrician Stalinism especially in Bologna. The Porto Alegre experiment however skirts the farther reaches of radical social democracy even suggesting its own future negation. In this city today hip rhetoric tends to outstrip the more mundane backdrop citing experiments like the Paris Commune or the Workers' Soviets from 1917-21 in a way that even British Solidarity of forty years ago, the Solidarity of Chris Pallis's The Bolsheviks and Workers Control would not have completely disagreed with though doubtless would have been wary about all those still extant old power structures still functioning albeit feebly. In Porto Alegre today a relatively popular slogan proclaims: "All Power to the Participatory Budget" mimicking in tone that old more genuine chant: "All Power to the Workers Councils."
A real subversive assembly ushering in a new world (if indeed there is to be another such assembly or even new world which is now plainly doubtful as the times are so bad) must take on an ever-widening connotation heading towards some kind of totality where all major problems - and possible solutions - become practically indivisible. Porto Alegre's PB quite quickly hits a ceiling after having dealt with immediate bread and butter issues. It cannot even intervene in the growing drug problem and related violence in poor areas, as this is not part of local authority remit but a federal issue etc. However - and this is a difference and something new - these PT ideologues foresee the end of radical social democratic limitations (its realisation if you like?) talking of a 'rupture' to come. As we know from our own European pasts these limits were breached in an often wild, unrepressed explosion, a convulsive rupture, if you like. Raul Pont, one of the instigators of PB, tries to explain something about this referring back to Rousseau's utopia where a time and space is reached where there's no delegation, no transfer of power and sovereignty is completely undivided. It may happen; this break; this rupture - call it what you will - and the PT reformers of the Participatory Budget may joyfully join in a much more authentic example of revolutionary becoming, but don't hold your breath!
The Big Bad Guys: International companies, compliant unions and no workers' control
The big bad guys yet a short story! What should here be the largest section on the workers sadly turns out to be the smallest and a sure reflection on these appalling times. Although there are conferences and much talk about the fabrica recuperado among Latin Americans, conversation tends to trail off when it comes to the trans-nationals somewhat on the lines of: "For sure we would like to do something about Firestone or whatever but we'll have to put a rain check on that one until there's movement elsewhere' and then silence ensues as if not wanting to say, 'we're stumped until European, American or Chinese workers joining in the fray make a break for it." Maybe somewhat nervous about ruffling feathers in a foreign country our Latino companeros make no mention of the sheer passivity and sense of complete impotence workers in America or Europe presently experience. The weeklong Seattle riots of 1999 seem like light years away when all those American trade unionists took to the streets mainly in a peaceful capacity objecting to cheap out-sourcing and global wage reductions. Then there were perhaps higher hopes for the emergence of the international global strike even if bureaucratically organised initially by trade union hierarchies. It had been long awaited. We are still waiting! Despite more recent promise of international action like say at Wal-Mart stores globally they are only straws in the wind never materialising into something really significant.
The most that can be said optimistically here is there's a renewed awareness among energy workers throughout the world who increasingly realise decreasing supplies of many basic raw materials from oil, gas, coal, iron, tin and copper give them increasing power as the companies they work for make giant profits. Latin American workers recently are no exception as violent strikes have broken out in Mexico and Argentina copper mines and oil installations though there is never a word about this in the UK press. Evidently Mexican workers recently lost a bitter 3 month strike ending up unceremoniously dismissed replaced with scab labour and in Patagonia in the spring of 2005 and centered in the town of Las Heras there was one heck of a set to during an oil workers' strike. People were killed in clashes and the police sealed off the town. No doubt it's part of President Kirchner's vision of "normal capitalism."
Finally the news blackout seems to have broken as the strike in the Chilean Escondida copper mine owned by the Anglo Australian consortium BHP Billiton, the world's largest miner, threw world energy leaders - even Russia's Putin - into panic. On Wall St the two concerns on commodity brokers' lips were the fall in US house prices and Escondida afraid other fulcrum energy workers throughout the world could receive an upbeat message, do the same shit and ask for substantially higher wages. All we can say for the moment will there be copycats and will practical links be forged between workers throughout the world via internet and email? We've seen this breakthrough elsewhere and it's been an excellent high-tech development but it must happen now on the transnational workers' front. International, concrete open-ended dialogue and contact must be established one capable of transcending trade union bureaucratic hierarchies which, always manage to cut out the real voices of those at the sharp end. For sure miners both in Patagonia and Chile have gone in for direct action known as cortas de ruta - blocking highways to the plants. And considering what's gone down over the last few years in Latin America they may have taken their tactics from the piqueteros.
Most of the copper workers in Chile are highly paid by any standards but that doesn't mean they are simply bought off. Radicalism was always strong among the Chilean miners and indeed were well to the forefront of the increasingly wildcat, self-organised, often armed upsurge that flourished beneath President Allende's weak
Presidency before being crushed by Pinochet's goons in late 1973. It's not a unique contradiction: before the Yorkshire miners were vanquished across the River Styx to eternal damnation they tended to get quite upset if anyone in some patrician pitying mode making them cringe, suggested they were poor, penniless victims. They'd hit back with genial contempt, "Fuck off, we earn better wages than most round here." In Chile as one can imagine the mines aren't united into one homogenous block owned by the state, as was the case more or less before 1973. Now everything is diversified as outside transnationals like BHP Billiton have grabbed lucrative holdings as part of the neoliberal deal. Nevertheless BHP's miners are not the highest paid; that honour goes to those who work for Codelco, the state-owned mining group.
However, any significant move away from neoliberalism in Latin America will be - make no mistake about it - sternly resisted by international capital markets and the IMF. Thus Repsol, the Spanish company owns Argentinean oil. People in that country want renationalisation of basic industries and in the era of the mad privatisations of the 1990s Repsol was bought for a song off of the state but President Kirchner also knows full well that the rate of profit for outsiders has to be perpetually increased as that's the neoliberal game and he knows he has to conform to it. Rock and hard places spring to mind. It's the same for Brazil, which still could move towards Roosevelt-like mega public works projects providing the PT government has done with neoliberalism by cancelling debt repayments and the incentive initiatives of global companies. Fat chance.
Trade unions throughout Latin America would generally welcome such moves but there again some big wigs among them get cut a good deal from neoliberalism. Peronist unions in Argentina are among the worst and are often funded like a private business setup opposing any shade of militancy and local officials were even down on the Patagonian oil workers' strike. In fact Peronist unionism is so corrupt most officials own large share portfolios in the companies they deal with.
The general situation in Latin America is now so edgy - at least that's what we've been told - that small conflicts over wages and TU recognition can quickly become a full blown fracas. Remember too, like everywhere else unions have been completely decimated and for instance, in Ecuador in the mid 1980s 'only a meer 20 years ago ' unionism covered 40% of the workforce. Nowadays it's down to 5%.
The Argentinazo. The Escrache. Telesur. Latter-day derives and cultural expropriations. Down with celebrity!
When the military lost all heart after the dirty war from 1976-82 it was the Peronist Menim who took over. Although feared by the armed forces in Argentina nonetheless Peronism is all things to all people and Menim was no exception as he became the chief architect of neoliberalism and privatisation abolishing runaway inflation and achieving parity of the real (the Argentinean peso) with the dollar. So began the decade of sleep in Argentina. For the first time expensive electronic goods - computers, mobiles, camcorders, cameras etc - became much more evidently available. At the same time privatisations ruined many in the statist middle classes built up over many decades. These newly ruined middle classes with entrenched middle class aspirations suddenly found themselves having to participate in local barter schemes (Lets) and myriad different kinds of neighbourhood currencies appeared with (sort of) local labour vouchers. But all this was obscured, brushed under the carpet as it were, on account of Argentina achieving the economic stability (miracle) long craved for and finally on par - it seemed - with Europe. Also the country was now free to massively borrow money from any source throughout the world as exchange controls had been abolished. Everywhere people and institutions were eager to lend and bit-by-bit the country became massively indebted so much so that in 2001 the International Monetary Fund and World Bank declared Argentina a bad investment risk. And that was it: it was all over for the many illusions fostered on that decade of privatisations.
The Argentinazo seemed to focus a critique of culture and the Paris of the South 'Buenos Aires' began to live up to its reputation. However, it was all building up beforehand throughout the 1990s. In fact, the assemblies had started to come into play before the 2001 uprising, as had those wild, jubilant street youths, the piqueteros. In1999 the first escrache (a collective personal denunciation) took place. Someone in the streets encountered Artiz - the notorious naval commander - and torturer. Perhaps influenced by the Madres de la Plaza Mayo protesting against their disappeared sons and daughters (30,000 people disappeared more than were killed by Pinochet in Chile around the same time) they decided to humiliate Artiz harassing him through non-violent condemnation. Other escraches followed. It would be good to know some of the unknown colourful details though basically escraches initially involved painting slogans all over the walls of the neighbourhood of a person targeted explaining their past misdeeds and what they were up to now.This is then followed by other tactics like a number of people surrounding a particular individual on the street demanding detailed explanations of what they did. The Argentinazo led to a much greater expansion of these activities becoming almost commonplace. Maps were produced (the cartographia des control) which were clearly influenced by the Situationists maps of the late 1950s in Paris. Hardly surprising they were mainly aimed at the military and the police and rather different from observing human flows, which the early Situationists had done in Paris. Groups such as "Grupo de Arte Callejero" - street artists and the Colectivo Situacones, helped these spontaneous actions. (An oral history on CD about them by Marina Sitrin is to be published funded by Anarchist International Studies but we have an inkling that the necessary sharp questions will probably be lacking, though more on this later). As for eschraches today, although Kirchner had little choice but to repeal the laws of amnesty designed to protect the generals responsible for the mass killings, surprise, surprise, they haven't been tried for their crimes. This guy sure knows how to tire a movement by endless stalling but that's capitalism the world over.
Though Argentina was temporarily a success in neoliberal terms there were not the same amount of sweeteners as available in Thatcher's Britain and the stability was very illusory. However the subsequent economic implosion created situations, which have become relevant pointers to all our futures anywhere in the world. This is especially true in the way hi-tech commodities can be put into play when redirected towards communal ends as throwaway culture takes a step backwards towards sustainable maintenance now that reserves of raw materials are near to exhaustion. When the real collapsed and imported electronic goods became incredibly expensive the country had become well equipped with these consumer items. A pooling of resources suddenly took place and seeing there were now many electronic experts and engineers around, a demand went out for all old computer equipment, abandoned terminals, peripherals etc because they could all be repaired/adapted for redistribution. The Argentinazo ensured an end to the practise of throwaway electronic goods with the emergence of hi-tech repair shops where equipment was redirected for next-to-nothing towards social ends, a process which would have warmed Vance Packard's old - but unfortunately always sociological - heart. And not one factory occupation went by without its filmed accompaniment and film was used like never before in Argentina to raise support for particular struggles. For an all too brief period various collectives would swop their particular tradeable expertise with others with different expertise for free. Thus a printing coop like Chilavert would print stuff for a collectivised medical clinic in return for free medical treatment and in turn the same clinic struck a deal with an IT collective who then provided customised free software, and so on'
Apropos of this salvaging and re-directing tendency even Latin American states seem to have picked up on something of the same. Recently the PT Brazilian state has thrown out Microsoft opting for file sharing in the shape of Open Source programming. Microsoft has replied threatening a lawsuit but it probably won't get anywhere. In a way Open Source fits more the prevailing Bolivarian mutual aid ideology beginning to dominate Latin America as it also challenges the sheer domination of money and sickening recourse to patent laws and copyright, a tactic usually hypocritically insisted on by robber barons ensconced in the top drawer of the computer universe. Something else is also at play. The development of computer science is the only technology since the beginning of the industrial revolution which tends to put something like the rejection of money at the heart of its technical practise even though this recognition has been pushed well to the side over the last decade or so. It's a history yet to be written never mind realised. Railways in the 19th century were never anything like this even though they brought into central focus the reality of the mass public. For those who are understandably in many respects very critical of the computer age accusing it of technolatry and increasing isolation, it is well to remember these enlightened tendencies within the field of high tech. And for all we know maybe something of this relating to the very core of computer science is stirring in Latin America? Equally though, or rather not so equally, so-called 'illegal' free file sharing exhibiting a momentary freedom from the economy can open doors to new ways of doing business mainly via 'unseen' advertising revenue. At the heart of neoliberalism there's also a perversion in practise of the rational need to abolish money where cut-price drifts into no price at all.
With the Argentinazo, many independent media organisations began to appear like a group of independent filmmakers. One cannot help but feel this was the initial spur to the recent Telesur initiative in Venezuela, which sounds like a far more radically recuperative Channel 4 in Britain. It is possibly the most 'radical' TV channel in the world even though it probably draws the teeth of independent film makers, counter information services, etc on whose example Telesur is based. Its advent is hardly surprising as the right in Venezuela control 90% of the media in print, TV and radio. 70% of the funding comes from Venezuela though it is open to participation from other Latin American countries and Argentina avidly participates. Chavez wishes to be a real cinematic celebrity within his own terms. Recently he has launched an $11 million film studio to counter the 'dictatorship' of Hollywood though careful to take what were once called the traditional Yankee 'swimming pool reds' with him. Thus Oliver Stone is about to make a film of the failed coup attempt of 2002 against Chavez.
A recent blockbuster movie Encuestro Express (Kidnapping Express) has quickly come to be regarded as "the most successful Venezuelan film of all time" and as a home produced, independent movie directed by a Venezuelan guy called Jonathan Jakubowicz, has been picked up by a major distributor.Though probably empirically accurate as a portrayal of a drug gang into kidnapping members of the rich - a familiar Latin American experience - it employs a Meyerhold-like mix of professionals and amateurs in an archaic storyline/novelistic form. The film frowned on by the Chavez administration and 'punished' in a mild sort of way and from a director who spending most of his life in Los Angeles, doesn't even approve of the recent rather mild redistribution of wealth. Instead Jakubowicz suggests that a solution to the ills of Venezuelan society can only be found if the poor and rich find a way of coming together. Some forlorn hope! Nonetheless, though purely for reasons of greed and celebrity, the film does at least raise the thorny problems of hard drug gangs when those with a more genuine hope for society still absolutely refuse to get to grips with. There is no question though, a broad, theoretically based, perhaps somewhat documentary-like film discussing contemporary crime in the megs-slums of Latin America in all its complicated ramifications and really biting the bullet, would be an excellent thing to do. Perhaps even some of the arguments deployed here could figure if made more precise?
More to the point, you wonder how much Telesur is an attempt to stifle better forms of media dissent or even moves in the direction of a certain autonomy one playing with skilled technical negation. This happened a few years ago during the revolt of the Intermittents in France when those individuals computer-savvy in their ranks were able to disrupt live consumer TV with pointed agitational slogans. Whilst nothing so inspirational has yet occurred in Latin America, in some of the Argentinean barrios the main Channel 5 TV has been intercepted to make different local transmissions organised by "Abajo la TV" (Down with TV though plainly it's merely alternative TV). In La Gomera barrio - one among others - alternative TV was broadcast for up to 5 hours replacing official broadcasts with videos of the Mothers of Plaza Mayo, shorts made by local children at barrio schools plus, independent documentaries. Though welcome, the problem with much of this type of thing is that it quickly becomes merely another mode of entertainment, a mode here cemented by chacerera-style (Argentinean folk dance) of Rolling Stones numbers which 'Abajo la TV' emphasises etc.
Essentially, Hollow-woodisation was pushed aside by the mammoth social event of the Argentinazo though the same process was beginning to happen all over the world, though much more discreetly. In Argentina it received its clearest expression up to date. These independent films coming out of the turmoil must be seen in terms of the increasingly imaginative tactics deployed in the escraches. Thus for example, street signs were removed in Buenos Aires. At this moment too there was a lot of street theatre, which was more theatre than contestation. In itself these types of activity from the late 1960s onwards, especially throughput western Europe were easily prone to recuperation, and were in fact, often its very essence. For instance, the reality of renaming street signs can easily become funded by the local state like has happened fairly recently in the UK in Newcastle and used as a kind of ad in the Tyneside Metro. Here it's totally devoid of interest apart from the installation artist who did this renamed the job centre in Latin the slave market because Newcastle was one of the far-flung outposts of the Roman Empire.
In Argentina however one must bear in mind that such actions (not funded by the state) were taking place within the context of a reawakened people with sizable street corner meetings taking place everywhere often discussing profound problems. A reawakening of everyday encounters rapidly unfolded.
How relevant is this for elsewhere? Though the Argentinazo released at one and the same time currents which clearly harked back to the radical experiments of the Lettrists and the Situationists in Paris in the mid 20th century as well as earlier phases particularly between 1918 to 1925 ' when there was genuine radical avant garde art about - a kind of cultural conservatism based on a dilution of the latter quickly spread. In Argentina from the financial crash onwards the latter persuasion was still able to release a plethora of political theatre to packed audiences. The same applied to cinema too. No doubt for any na've not to say brain-dead alternative artist in Europe or America it would be a dream come true. Unfortunately subversive reality cannot cradle their illusions. In May 1968 or 1977 in Italy the culture houses were massively ignored and deserted to such an extent Dario Fo in Italy after writing The Accidental Death of an Anarchist and feeling he was being pushed into the background and no longer the radical he thought he was ' in order to reclaim his relevance - was reduced to the absurdity of occupying his own theatre rather than burning the fucker down.
In this respect the Argentinazo indicates how retrograde the critique of culture has become and marks a step backward in comparison to May 1968 in France or Italy 1977. Maybe though we should see the artistic tendencies in the Argentinazo not merely as cynical recuperation but also as means of employment within a world economy where survival has become much harsher than 30 or 40 years ago and where it's more a question of survival than total rejection. It may also for some people simply help in getting by as they flog their DVDs for a few quid that they've made on computers interpreting this or that event. However, it clearly still holds true the subversive act can be the first step up the career ladder because even in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, all recuperative mechanisms have since been put in place, especially now Telesur is in existence. Might not Telsur buy and occasionally show films of factory occupations or is there a creeping process of censorship?
It's probably not too far from the truth that the Argentinazo saved the footballer Maradona's life. Grotesquely overweight with a mega-cocaine habit as an uber-celeb he was the equal of David Beckham but without the fashion, style and wife. He became a tribune of the people with his own TV slot and thus able to save himself from ridicule and a pathetic end which David Beckham will never be able to do. We will listen to Latin American superstars like Gilberto Gil or Bianca Jagger - she can put interesting questions to Chavez - because they talk more sense. Those of similar status in Europe or America cannot. Once - two or three decades ago - it was felt that the pressures on western superstars, their tantrums, freak outs etc would lend them to a clearer appreciation of their position as private prisoners of paradise-syndrome simply because everything about their lives is so utterly false. We can no longer have any faith in this.
Today, once media celebrities are involved in any charabanc of protest or obvious social injustice it spells its ruin, all authentic passion having been spent as celebrities join the bandwagon simply to keep their names in lights which, they know they have to do to keep cash flows lubricated. These events can also add a little essential finesse to their image further oiling the dollario machine. Thankfully, this is now becoming more and more well known. Moreover, celebrity and in particular, stadium rock is only for the benefit of those people in such desperate plight they're hardly capable of helping themselves and there's now so much of this bullshit around that people everywhere are getting sick of it as it finally sinks in that money made only really benefits the celebrities themselves. (Poor things, these celebrities; are they finally beginning to feel somewhat unwanted?) Moreover you can hardly imagine this unsavoury crew touting for support for an awakening people beginning to give the authorities hell like is happening throughout Latin America. Standing on your own two feet also means a developing critical capability is on the move and sooner or later, it could end up taking out celebrity. Celebrities don't like this as celebrity demands passive, unconditional worship and obedience, ever in awe of their grace and favour. Celebrity can abide no criticism of their avowed role of saving the world, which is why the sooner finks like Emma Thompson and Greg Wise are clobbered the better it will be for all of us at the sharp end.
Past counter-revolutionary strategies and the failings of urban guerrillas
Though our view of the Montoneros and other similar armed groups tend to be negative, the Argentinian magazine, Lucha Armada, (Armed Struggle) containing accounts of former Montoneros activists, sells out practically instantly even though there isn't a sign that the classic form of the urban guerrilla is likely to put in a reappearance in the immediate future. A number of recent books available throughout the continent have also appeared on the subject. It seems one of the most telling: De Los Sesenta a La Tablada (From the Sixties to La Tabalda) was written by Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, an Argentinian guerrilla - obviously influenced by Che - who together with the ERP (Peoples' Revolutionary Army) tried to create a 'free zone' in the poor province of Tucamen. The guy was larger then life and after many hair-raising escapades, was responsible for assassinating the former brutal dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Samoza after he fled to the safer havens of General Stroessner's Paraguay in the wake of the brief armed Sandinista victory. Basically, Merlo's book - the guy recently died - seems more an exciting memoir than a critique though he does admit a few mistakes especially continuing with armed action after Peron's return to Argentina in 1973. But that's as far as it goes. Nonetheless, the book helped prise open the door for essential reminiscences.
These various guerrilla reflections were influenced in turn by the heady atmosphere in the aftermath of the Argentinazo. However, it seems that was the case up to a little while ago. Nowadays the editors of Lucha Armada are finding it a lot more difficult to continue prising articles from past insurgents exposing a problem current everywhere in the world where very few people wish to reflect on what happened to them. In Argentina, it's probably extra difficult as opening up such wounds for all the world to see is like reliving a dreadful trauma risking recurrence of mortifying personal pain as the defeats and state murders of the past are mulled over. Nonetheless it must be done if only to make sense of a nightmare of historical memory, which, may help find a way out even if it does entail a lot of reflective self-criticism regarding terrorist organizations. After all, the question of the armed struggle and the arming of the people are still very much to the fore in Latin America and is seen as an absolutely essential question and one of immediate relevance. The problem of finding the right path probably remains elusive as ever because maybe there isn't one though some directions make a lot more sense than others.
The Argentinazo has been interpreted as one of the great epochal events of Argentine history but what about its equal, the Cordabazo of 1969 when thousands upon thousands of people in what was then, a heavily industrialised city went on the rampage and smashed the police and army? This event was clearly influenced by Paris'68 and the Autumno Caldo in Italy over a year later (there are many Italians in Argentina). In 1967 Che met his death in the Bolivian jungles. Che believed in the primacy of peasant guerrilla movements and had completely lost faith in workers' insurrection in the urban centres. One could say from the Cordabazo you get the beginnings of an urban guerrilla movement and the foundation of the Montoneros. The concept of the urban guerrilla was marked by a profound voluntarism and substitutionism spreading everywhere through the highly developed and less highly developed world -Weathermen, Angry Brigade, Baader Meinhof, Action Directe, Red Brigades, Tupmaros and so on - who all believed they were essential detonators of struggle and on some occasions they were though mainly in small ways. (Obviously say knee capping a particularly sadistic factory foreman was helpful to the workers undergoing their daily grind in the Turin factories). More importantly terrorism was easily manipulated by the state and we refer to that summaily in the section here on Toni Negri although anybody wanting to follow this up should read Sanguinetti's "On Terrorism and the State" published in London by BM Chronos.
We have to ask the question were they consequential? So far it seems not. Essentially they played into the state's hand creating the fearful ogre of state manipulated terrorism we have no means seen the end of and has over the last decade fed directly into militant Islam. During the same period a fair number of guerrillas did a quick about turn becoming increasingly opportunist and some ended up with top jobs at the heart of increasingly neoliberal state apparatus's throughout Latin America. The paradox is in Argentina the reaction to the brutal liquidation of the Montoneros by the military created Los Disparachos (the missing ones) formed by the madres and abuilas (mothers and aunts) of the Plaza de Mayo, which has been very consequential. During the era of privatisations and well being for more than a few and the historical amnesia that engulfed the country it is now recognised that these brave women were the conscience of the nation. One could perhaps say the 'cultural revival' ' would it had been an 'anti-cutural revival' - in Argentina started from resistance to the military and brought to greater prominence through the Argentinazo, as previously mentioned. Now alas too the example of the madres has faded as, demonstrating an all too familiar Achilles Heel, they welcomed the Peronist Kirchner's presidency with something like open arms.
Spontaneity, autonomy and assemblies
The greatest thing to emerge throughout Latin America is the collapse of vanguardism and the rise of the belief in self-activity and "auto-convocados" (the self-organised). It's general thrust is so powerful it marginalises all leftist parties of a Bolshevikh stamp and there are still large-ish amounts of them about. All of these leftist parties whilst initially welcoming the sentiment behind 'que-se-vayan-todos' (to hell with the lot of 'em - meaning politicians of all sorts) gradually have fallen back on the old rubbishing now seeing it as a terrible threat that is going to hand power throughout Latin America over to the extreme right and military once again. However, nervous of the real movement these cadres are still afraid to say so openly. What they hate about "que-se-vayan-todos' is the fact that it really is not political in the best sense of the term" i.e. it is actively anti the state. Trotskyists like the British SWP's Mike Gonzales think 'que-se-vayan-todos' should be translated as "don't vote it only encourages them" - a basic anarchist slogan - and that is its inherent weakness as it rejects politics in toto. It really is beginning to freak them out as for the first time in the history of Latin America they have to confront a vague 'anarchism' that is everywhere. Interestingly John Holloway (see elsewhere) elicits an interesting take on the slogan suggesting it has a more contemporaneous ring to it referring to the flight of capital neoliberalism has imposed on all of us meaning when we resort to protest, capital 'flies' to another country. The slogan then becomes: "Let them all go away". However we may interpret "que-se-vayan-todos" it is also a mood that's somewhat skin deep so the lefties needn't worry too much as two years after the slogan was on everybody's lips 65% of the Argentineans voted in Kirchner.
Historically anarchism in pockets has been around in Latin America for a century or so though usually very marginalised. In the late 1920s Chile boasted having 20,000 members affiliated to the American Wobblies (IWW) proving that not all Yankee influence was to the bad and Durutti carried on his agitation in Argentina in the 1920s holding up banks and the like before returning to Spain etc. Anarcho-syndicalism has also played its part since especially in Argentina though we really don't want to go into that here as that's a story in itself. By the early 1970s a tendency towards libertarianism, though by then not specifically referring to itself as 'anarchist' more assemblista, was very much there during the workers' uprising under Allende in Chile and present in the 'cordones industriales'. COBI (Communist Organization of the British Isles) based in Edinburgh and a disintegrated Leninist outfit (in fact so disintegrated, unlike Autonomia Operaia, ended with an outright rejection of Lenin!) produced a very interesting report from the early internment camps set up by Pinochet after the 1973 coup. It vividly spotlighted that even under such brutal conditions autonomous workers refused to communicate or even pass the time of day with vanguard cadres
Throughout Latin America - though more so in some countries than others - many actions are assembly led or throw up coordinations rather like in Spain in the mid 1970s (See the book Wildcat Spain Encounters Democracy elsewhere on this web) The film: Bolivia is Not for Sale which catches the ebullient insurgency and life-enhancing mood of the times covers the resistance to water privatisation in Cochabamba. A participant casually mentions the Coordination of Water and Life ' what a great title ' passionately emphasising that 100, 000 people made collective decisions and not by way of 3 or 4 self-appointed leaders. True the assemblies weren't 'pure' organisations like that. Old and new union formations were in there somewhere though they went with the flow. In the same film Oscar Olivera of the Federation of Factory Workers of the faviles says; "We don't believe in parties anymore." Later, on April 18th 2006, Olivera further states: "We work towards the strengthening of autonomous organisations, such as the cooperatives, the water committees, to obtain our own management of water." After Morales' election he participated in a blockade of the runaways of Jorge Wilsteram Airport in Cochabamba during a pilots' strike. The action came up with another inspired name - a roadblock of the skies - and the police detained Olivera for deploying aggressive tactics. It seems the guy is no longer afraid of jail though for sure, Morales must increasingly dislike Olivera as through the evolution and changing character of the autonomous movement Morales once thought his own, there are clear signs it is turning against his presidency. Like "que-se-vayan-todos" autonomy is a word on many people's lips in Latin America. However, a word of caution is needed here. It feels more like the 'autonomy' of the disintegrating Leninism of Autonomia Operaia in the Italy of the 1970s which is perhaps why Negri's Empire book was so popular in Latin America three or four years ago and to some degree still is. It's none too clear and Olivera is possibly part of this syndrome. He seems to like his name in lights readily accepting the 2001 Goldmann environment prize and on July 19th 2006 wrote a small, quite tepid article in The Guardian for the benefit of UK readers.
A kind of instant form of direct action has appeared in some countries of Latin America which can probably be summed up in the activities of the radical piqueteros who for nearly a decade "have been grappling with the problem of strategy and tactics in the epoch of de-industrialisation, precarious employment, temp jobs and mass unemployment, a period in which the old workplace-centred strategies no longer seem viable" (Clausewitz on the Pampas - see later). These activities apply just as much to the huge new shanty city of an insurgent El Alto surrounding La Paz in Bolivia as to Argentina where the piquetero was founded around 1997. In a way this movement is a combination of the displaced working class and middle class often grouped together in survival gangs touting for temp jobs. According to Latin Americans we've listened to some of these collectives are really clued-in and some not though all are constantly in flux regarding size, 'membership' and consciousness. When writing about consciousness here it's a bit of a hazy concept. No doubt the ex-middle class members who came into the piqueteros around 2001 at the time of the Argentinazo, took with them their bookish learning and, no doubt, high among the readings were the often Delphic comments of Subcomandante Marcos ('leader' of the EZLN in Mexico's Chiapas province) which paved the way for the far more academicised ramblings of John Holloway in his book How to Change the World Without Taking Power along with the somewhat impenetrable mumbo jumbo of the Hardt/Negri book Empire. Boy, did they impact both to the good and the bad but more on that a little later! Now this influence has it seems waned what, if anything, has taken its place? We don't know but what you have (or did have) in the piqueteros was a quick unformulated direct democracy in action quite unlike the debating atmosphere of the oft-mentioned neighbourhood general assemblies of a few years ago usually situated in more middle class areas which were prone to infiltration by leftist vanguard parties causing bewilderment and demoralisation to set in as people simply no longer turned-up at these gatherings. More proletarianised spontaneous piqueteros action has had the advantage of curtailing any such manoeuvring but how long can spontaneity continue simply under its own momentum alone?
Recently, the piqueteros in Argentina have developed a bureaucracy as part of an ever-changing broad inclusion, which is at the heart of the Peronist Kirchner's social plans. Remember too, inclusion has always been part of the amazing Peronist umbrella and the main reason for its surprising longevity, well,'until the shit hits the fan which, is never too far off. Kirchner though has developed 'work plans' - essentially work for your welfare plans that local, self-appointed piquetero leaders oversee. Typical Peronist clientalism is at the heart of this welfare programme and those piqueteros who are the best at drawing attention to themselves get given the most money. Not to be excluded from the umbrella, "barrio bosses" also get in on the act salting away dollops of welfare relief for themselves and dodgy business acquaintances. As an ad hoc extension of the state and a divide and rule tactic it is brilliant as those clued-in and intransigent piqueteros are cut out the loop in a way not dissimilar to the class conscious factory workers whom Kirchner hates. Moreover, the piqueteros could tire and with people getting older in the movement - losing perhaps their youthful exuberance partially through getting nowhere - some could decide to throw in their lot with their gangs - if only a little - and make a bob or two simply because you cannot keep fighting all the time. Weakening like this are precisely the openings where worse things can begin to flourish although for the moment such pessimism is perhaps ill judged. Nonetheless, it could maybe be said that the challenging moment of the piqueteros has past. We hope not, though there's only a slim chance at the moment that something better is in the offing and anything approaching the size of the Argentinazo is unlikely in the near future.
Brazil. Tropicalia. The favela and the lost dream of avante garde urban transformation. The hell of drug gangs, maimed street culture and the contradictions of endless despair
When mentioning under-development in Latin America it's wise to be careful. Openness amidst savage repression seems to be a fundamental characteristic and the influences of many up-to-the-minute radical tendencies, especially from Europe, were never far in the background even forty years ago. May 1968 in France had a massive impact and the critique of art also played a part especially in the more economically advanced Latin American countries though without the finely tuned cutting edge acquired in France. This was particularly true of Tropicalia in Brazil. Tropicalia was a kind of combative hippy phenomenon founded in the 1960s and took its name from a 1967 installation by Helio Oiticicia exhibited in London's Whitechapel art gallery. The movement was a kind of combination of music and happening espousing at its height a watered down critique of recuperation, which again had been most clearly announced in France. Remember though this was the moment in Brazil of a tightening military dictatorship lasting from 1964 to 1985 and what could be interpreted as a light and somewhat mildish upset in democratic Europe resulted often in heavy repression in Brazil ensuring certain jail and even torture. Oiticicia daubed a slogan "be an outlaw, be a hero" on the national flag protesting against a military death squad shooting of a favela marginal 'criminal' for which he was banged-up. Others like the musician Gilberto Gil were exiled to England after a stretch inside. Later returning to Brazil and stellar fame, finally in 2003 he became PT's minister of culture.
Riding manifest contradictions Oiticicia as an installation artist condemned the mode of a 'devouring TV' railing against the "bourgeois voracity" of cultural commoditisation eating up everything living and vital ' a familiar case if you like of having your cake and eating it as he in turn was devoured culturally, via recuperation Brazilian-style. The musician Velosa even recycled a May '68 wall slogan in a song E Proibido Proibir (It is Forbidden to Forbid). And so on. Os Mutantes of increasing underground prestige - and recently revived - even did commercials for Shell whilst incorporating concrete poetry (a banal fall out from the much more incisive Lettrist critique in the late 1940s), the atonality of Stockhausen plus John Cage sound effects which all became blended seamlessly together as merely another cultural example of the cornucopia of modern day commodity production. Finally, these experiments merely teased with rebellion and there was nothing more explicitly liberating in the offing.
Emphasis on the street did indeed play a major part in Tropicalia or as Oiticicia put it, "the art of the streets, of unfinished things, of vacant lots." Many of them bigged-up their poor backgrounds hailing from the multiracial province of Bahia (the poor north eastern sugar producing state) as against the rich white-ish elite of Rio. Having, whether they liked it or not, accepted the enforced paradigms of the cultural set-up the outcome could only have one conclusion that of pro-moing the emerging mystique of favela fabuluous when singing the praises of the attractive marginal hooligans of those times in the early 1970s who were very different kettles of fish from the monsters they evolved into two and a half decades later. Nevertheless favela fabulous helped outline the shape of things to come as a misshapen Pandora's box of sheer horror threw open its lid over the next two decades.
The relatively recent Brazilian film Cidade do Deus (City of God) has captured something of this ghastly transformation and setback. In one episode, a 1970s Rio gang in the favela holds up a petrol tanker truck in order to requisition it for a no doubt cut-price social redistribution. Behaving in a splendidly spontaneous cavalier style they happen upon a stash of bank notes in the tanker's cab that they partially joyously throw in the air scattering the notes to a strong wind. Characteristic of the time the image of Guevarist guerrilla is reinterpreted by the favelas social banditry. Hardly surprising such acts became the stuff of local Robin Hood folklore.
How times change. The on-set of the free market made a relatively free and somewhat easygoing gang structure serious business indeed. Money became God along with the latest armaments as the gang or posse often became more tooled-up than the police, sporting today 9mm automatic weapons which neither the population or police are allowed to own. Indeed nowadays some posses work in tandem with some police regarding the division of monetary spoils. And for those people living cheek by jowl with the posses in the favelas adoration of the romantic rebel has given way to fear and hate though very rarely dare they express such opinion. Within the gangs a psychotic active nihilism has become the predominant tendency which when taken to ludicrous extremes ' which actually does occasionally happen - can blow virtually everybody else away on ridiculous whims. The film ends in nightmare.....
Although the transition from social banditry to full time capitalist setup has been so devastating it's been equally assisted by a distortion of language which throughout the world has become the a nightmare of our time where "the people" means "the corporation" and "reform" means "reaction", though these are the very worst instances, underlying the rest. We have alluded to this before in relation to PT's newspeak. Thus in Brazil the guerrilla description now exists as front and cover for everything but. The Red Commando has nothing to do with social liberation and PCC (or first Command of the Capital drug faction) are not the initials of a now virtually defunct Brazilian Communist party (in any case ' PCdoB - was slightly different) and 'soldiers' today aren't the brave, foolhardy but visionary guerrillas of forty years ago merely drug mules - "souljas" - prepared to die for the next slug.
This situation has taken quite sometime to build up to its present manic proportions. Well before, in 1993, leftovers of the Tropicalia movement no longer singing the praises of the romantic rebels, adopted a more anxious even social workery role. After a police massacre in the Rio favela of Vigario Geral the band AfroReggae was founded with the express aim of converting 'drug soldiers' to music proclaiming an anti all substances message whether cigarettes, alcohol or class A drugs. Ten years later and the bureaucrats of PT offer similar exhortations emphasising education and career as the way out for youth. Inevitably such messages fall more or less on deaf ears as the career gang structure ensures - at least if nothing else - you can grab the latest techno-gizmo consumer durables immediately. In this process there's no gratification delay and no sublimation. Nothing else really matters. Spontaneity is all imitating in a warped kind of way the 'Quick' of revolution as another slogan from May '68 in France is horribly turned into its opposite!
In the 1950s, the perceptive French academic Henri Lefebvre, (along with a growing number of other individuals and groups, was responsible for putting together some of the rudimentary building blocks of a total revolutionary critique) praised the Brazilian favelas as a human alternative environment to the aridity and egotistical pretension of modernism, Le Corbusier style. He was right and how longingly did this growing subversive critique of architecture compare these higgledy-piggledy shacks and alleys with the pristine machine emptiness of the new urbanism. Today we cannot say the same without immense qualification.
The once human scale of the favelas now masks the sheer inhumanity of what has taken place inside them recently, factors not directly related to disease, lack of sanitation etc which could be countered in Lefebvre's time. Over the past 30 years of triumphant neoliberalism the subjective perception of the favelas (and barrios) has changed completely. We no longer see in them the slums of hope, of informality and a kind of freedom from constraints with an enormous diversity of vistas and possibilities. They've become threatening and menacing and people are afraid to go in them. It is hard to believe today that great liberatory dreams that came from the cultural avant garde were once, not without good cause, projected onto these slums.
In practise though, the chief instigators of these transformations of perspectives were a loose grouping of individuals around the Architectural Association in London especially the anarchist architect, John Turner who during the 1960s contributed many articles to the British anarchist paper Freedom. His early viewpoint was not dissimilar to that of Colin Ward another urban anarchist theoretician, planner and AA escapee, or rather, liked to pretend he was. Even back in the late 1960s we always found these people unbearably positivistic and gullible because though they emphasised human praxis in architecture and planning in the sense of defining your own urban space and DIY building, they never insisted upon the basic need for thorough revolutionary overthrow for anything of this to become possible. Colin Ward once turned on a friend, Nick Holliman - a guy who embraced a radical revolutionary perspective giving up on town planning to become a plumber - saying exasperatedly, "The trouble is with you Nick you are so damned negative." In fact Ward, Turner and others allowed themselves to be taken up in what was to become one of the most colossal, consequential acts of recuperation in the post war years and which is almost unknown. This naive positivistic anarchism was to buttress neoliberal reconstruction in the developing mega slums of the world but especially in Latin America.
And who were these guys to influence? Well, chiefly no other than Robert McNamara, who'd help mastermind the Vietnam War and subsequently failing and flayling was now looking around for other more seemingly benign fish to fry, even if not bigger. He was helped on his way by the right wing Peruvian economist, Hernando do de Soto who'd also become interested in John Turner's ideas. (Some people refer to de Soto as liberal/left but his obsession with capitalising the poor in minor ways, the syndrome of "titling untitled assets" puts him on the free market right). Turner had in fact spent many years working in Peru from the late 1950s onwards and had stressed what he'd believed to be the collective genius of the squatting poor in the burgeoning Peruvian shantytowns. He wasn't wrong but because of his lack of rigour so typical of anarchists he laid himself wide open to forces he could never possibly approved and De Soto seeing a soft, friendly wimp of a guy took rapacious advantage. He set about ransacking Turner even taking over the Scottish ex-Situationist, Alexander Trocchi's notion of an "invisible insurrection" mutating and mutilating it in into an "invisible revolution." What of course it all boiled down to was creative entrepreneurship, individual property rights and the gradual break-up of potentially insurgent collectivity. The likes of John Turner just goes to further underline the immense influence - usually to the bad - Britain still has despite having relinquished its overt imperial role and Turner's effect on neoliberal strategy must be likened to Blair's pernicious example especially on the Brazilian PT.
This development was an historic shift away from the state capitalist "workers' cities" monstrosities of the east and also the west particularly in Britain, France, Italy, Germany and even The Projects in American cities. There was much that was incisive to their criticism because essentially it was about the poor mobilising and doing things for themselves, a complimentary to strike action if you like and as such had a liberatory edge.
Nothing could be starker than the contrast between Turner's niave anarchistic vision, which stemmed from the Peruvian shantytowns and that of Hans Meyer, the Bauhaus communist architect and educational administrator who took over the institution after Walter Gropius resigned. In turn the German Nazis turfed-out Meyer. Later, When Orachu, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) mayor of Mexico City employed Meyer to build barrack-like housing for the workers it was almost an inevitable kind of thing to do: Nazi persecution added to Meyer's dissident though still official image and just the type of institutionalised rebel the PRI liked. The Bauhaus had always believed in the role of the architect who would straddle the different economic systems of capitalism and communism. The point behind people like Ward and Turner no matter how na've they were, questioned this viewpoint essentially undermining in the process the role of architect and planner and though never ever able to push the self-destruction of these professions through to their logical conclusions paved the way for others who could. In turn and ever since, those with a sharp critique of these specialisms have unfortunately been more or less silenced by overwhelming reaction.
In parenthesis it is worthwhile noting the immense influence on architecture and town planning the Architectural Association in London had ensconced in its Georgian town house in Bedford Square. It must be regarded as the equivalent of the pre-war Bauhaus as not only did it profile the technocratic idiocies of Archigram but groups like ARSE (Revolutionary Architects - a sure contradiction in terms!) and would welcome squatters 'leaders' in their midst to give lectures on the squatters' movement in the UK almost as if suggesting they were an equivalent of the mass shantytown squatting in Latin America. None of this would have been possible 300 miles north in Newcastle where a prominent architectural school gave birth to a Sir Terry Farrell who after playing for a few moments with radical theory was essentially a signature architect in the international celebrity league. In a way the latter more traditional course was to win out but not without deploying significant chunks of the former perspective. Today, for instance one can see a huge private luxury development on the Leeds waterfront which mimics in high-rise, precision-engineered steel, glass, brick and concrete the rising slopes and bending shapes of a Rio favela curling up a steep hillside. Sickening to be sure.
The idea of the informal economy comes from Latin American and was a sudden recognition that certain categories of people over the years didn't figure within national audits. This recognition and the fact they weren't registered appealed to the liberal anarchist sentiment of people like Turner and Ward but with the neoliberal it was seen as a failure and that these people had to be included in the tax base in the institutionalising of property rights in the favelas and barrios as it then became the prime means of doing this.
Within the UK and other EU countries the informal economy was a polite PC redistribution stemming basically from the TUC and the left of the Labour party of what was formerly called, the black economy. This also did not figure in the national audit but the TUC and Labour left were wise enough to see that it constituted part of the social wage, illegal though it may have been because many people in the informal economy were in receipt of welfare payments.
In Latin America as a by-product of a monetarist shift and increased social division within the barrios and favelas which began to grant property titles and legal land tenure to shanty town dwellers forcibly ending squatting, gang structures were also to alter in the wake of this legislation becoming increasingly capitalised. Everywhere in the shanty towns those that could afford to buy property with the aid of World Bank loans did buy and also were able to afford basic improvements to their properties (again with the help of loans from donors like the World Bank.) So began an increase in property consciousness in the shantytowns and with it mini slum landlordism. In a manner of speaking the slums were becoming much more money aware as the old collectivity withered on the vine.
In Britain, the nub if you like of neoliberalism, PM Thatcher began to organise the infamous selling off of council houses to whomever wanted and could afford to buy them. Thus the poor whether in the shantytowns of Latin America and elsewhere or on council estates in Britain, were no longer an homogenous force they once were and were to become increasingly divided against themselves. In this divided terrain it was increasingly possible for criminal gangs (criminal in the worst sense of the term) to operate especially capitalised drug gangs. In Britain council estates were no longer the safe havens they were once up to the end of the 1970s and many became no go areas. This was nothing in comparison to what was to happen in Latin American cities especially the Brazilian favelas and elsewhere in the world.
Today a parallel state exists in the favelas run by drug gang warlords who exclusively decide what goes down. These warlords are relatively safe in their new citadels simply because there just isn't sufficient manpower for the central state to adequately deal with them without enormous loss of life on both sides. Basically the favelas are now arenas of an on-going complex civil war between competing drug factions and between drug gangs and the police. 3,000 people are killed in the Rio de Janeiro favelas every year and half a million have been killed in Brazil in the last 20 years in drug related deaths. In raids, police arbitrarily kill anybody foolish enough to be on the streets at the time and according to local tenants' committees are more an enemy than the traffickers. Moreover, it's not as though one can easily separate traffickers from the local population. Most boys and men from 10 to 70 smoke marijuana even with their meagre breakfasts, which, of course though harmless enough tends to mask the fact that Brazil is the second largest consumer of cocaine after America. More importantly, cheap drugs are readily available to the local population simply to keep enough people sweet. Gangs also have the strategic sense to go in for crude kinds of internal investment though almost exclusively of the bread 'n' circuses variety rather than say, subsidising a self-help hospital, which the Hezbollah in Lebanon do and it's doubtful if they could ever develop the wit to do so. It could also be their fatal weakness. There is however, within some of the big gang structures, a semblance of order and mules are now paid monthly wages. The communality of regular drug-funded street parties covers up the reality that cheap drugs further destroy the traditional supportive family structure of the favelas already under immense pressure anyway.
The background to all this is hellish poverty and a realisation that all hope of a new social order has been almost entirely extinguished so much so that you might as well simply mimic the broad outlines of the dominant system in your revolt. Recently a French Trotskyist called crime in Latin America "the lowest form of revolt" although he never went on to explain what he meant by this but those working in the informal economy now concerns nearly 50% of Brazil's population. Drug trafficking on minor and major scales figures large in all of this giving a livelihood to millions unable to live on the minimum wage of $80 a month. "Micro-finance" and "micro-credit" are the terms deployed and the bottom line for those at the sharp end of these miserable handouts care of a huge macroeconomic world agenda. Recently in Sao Paulo the subway system announced 30 job vacancies to which 126,000 applied!
The favelas though have gone putrid with hate though in this there's little difference to what's taken place in the cities of the USA or, to a lesser extent, the council estates in the UK at the same time. Yet little generalised connection is made as everything worldwide on this level has become paradoxically so utterly localised. If gangsta rap took America in the very late 1990s, it was in turn quickly followed by a similar urge in Brazil even if somewhat different in the sense there's less chance of making it big time in the music biz. The common outcome is however the same in that it's impossible to talk to the protagonists - "tatted-up, slugged-up, thugged-out," (However in the North American Projects black on black killing is popularly perceived as payback time for civil rights though there's no such backdrop in the favelas.) Though there's all these different nuances, the musicologist Nik Cohn puts the general thrust very starkly: "Even more than viciousness and misogyny, what made gangsta rap so troubling is its absolute sense of hope.'' "The drive to destroy and be destroyed is too intense to hear reason. Live fast, die young and leave a bling-ful corpse." The backdrop to all of this is that street culture has now become programmed promoting nothing but murder Musak, a sick and hideous business and those with the most power the worst of all. It reflects one brutal fact: The only surviving absolute and given is the truth of money at the moment when all other values are decomposed or have disappeared. It's the expression of nihilism pitched to an unimaginable degree where human community has ended up as nothing more than raving madness in a cage. "No rapper has ever made moved any records by pushing messages. The only topics that sell are about sex and killing, the more graphic the better. Finally it's not much more than a ticket out." Pushing messages - that's the point. Behind all the previous rhetoric of lefties plus a general drift in people vaguely desiring a new society, hypocrisy was its very heart. It's certainly the essence of PT in Brazil, so why not crudely emphasise the obvious bald truths revealing them in their vilest essences: money and sex intertwined, inseparable and revelling in it. And though the capitalised drug gangs everywhere throughout the world are horrific they pale into insignificance beside all the institutionalised hypocrites of these terrible times staffing the hierarchical gateway to a capitalism about to take out most life on this planet and selling destruction as its eternal bottom line.
For many a year throughout the planet we've long known a parallel economy exists increasing in size the more broad based factory type employment disappeared or was relocated to another country but the parallel state in the favelas and to a lesser extent some barrios based on drug activism really is something new. And along with it like all states, regulated or unregulated, a bizarre system of parallel rights has slowly emerged one that, in particular, grants special privileges to the top gang hierarchy which, the central state has in some ways been forced to respect. It's been slow in preparation fuelled also by well meaning but na've politically correct ideologies from a recent yet bygone time when rebel music, marginality and issue politics really was cutting edge stuff. Willy-nilly, the central state has thus taken on board a broader notion of civil liberties no longer relevant in contemporary conditions at the moment a more down to earth definition is desperately required one more anchored in modern realities where an intensified and overwhelming consumer image reigns supreme spear-headed by essential drug accessories. What was once liberatory marginality a mere 20 years ago has given way to dog eat dog lumpenisation. Always a retard, the state can only put in place responses to what once existed when what we are witnessing today is a wildcard capitalisation helping tear the lives of ordinary people apart already over-burdened by all the insecurities and miseries of neoliberal economic exploitation.
Drug gangs and drug revolts -with sincere apologies to the cocaleros - plus a possible new counter-revolutionary strategy?
So far throughout Latin America there seems to be little discussion about this pressing but incredibly thorny question and the essential difference between romantic criminality and serious mafia-type structures, which have much of their base in the vast new peripheral shantytowns. It's almost as if the subject can never be raised as it presses so many contradictory buttons. A former coca farmer himself, Morales simply daren't go into it and Chavez deliberately fluffs the question. Hardly surprising it's from an American - Loren Goldner - who has set the ball rolling alluding to it in his interesting account of a visit to Buenos Aires in spring 2006 in Clausewitz on the Pampas at http://home.earthlink.net/~lgoldner. Though not saying so directly Loren comes almost to the point of highlighting the essential contradiction between the splendid and combative social aspirations of the coca growing peasantry and the real must have consumption patterns of modern day capitalism in which class A drugs are pandemic and to some extent the numero uno consumer item. It's also the means by which the right wing is able to emphasise through sensationalist media the leftist narco-guerrilla in Latin America even though increasingly such organisations are being challenged in the countryside by ordinary people through non-violent means armed with nothing but wooden staves. (This seems especially true of the Leninist FARC in Columbia at the same time as the rightist para-militaries are given short shrift. Horrendous rubbishings of Chavez regularly occur in the pages of the populist, right wing British Daily Mail emphasising the protection FARC are now accorded in the border regions between the two countries and implicit in this protecting big time cocaine dealing).
In reality too, we cannot separate all of this from those seemingly endless, action packed, Bruce Willis type Hollywood blockbusters we've been compulsively watching for years which, endlessly big up the power of the Columbian drug cartels to the extent they make former cold war James Bond movies look like Teddy Bears picnics. In the end you just cannot make out what's going down and wonder if even the CIA can? The first real evidence of big time, Class A drug dealing occurred quite a few decades ago in Paraguay patronised by the arch-military dictator, Stroessner and well before the same accusations were laid against General Pinochet in Chile. Finally, it's not a right/left issue in Latin America but simply about capitalism and survival and there are clearly class lines between the two.
World wide, the contradictions inherent in the over-production and consumption of drugs must remain with us until the long-awaited general world upheaval intervenes. (So far there's not even a glimmer of a re-awakening in sight!) In this respect revolution in South America cannot be separated from revolution in North America as the two continents are inextricably connected especially on this level. However our young Latino friends are a lot more optimistic on this front than we who've written this!
Although much has been made, and quite rightly, about the possibility of deploying right wing military intervention against the developing social movement in Latin America what nowadays could be a popular pretext seeing a fair section of the commercial petite bourgeoisie or the self-employed (like the infamous example of largish section of Chilean truckers in 1973 who paved the way for Pinochet with their blockades) have been scorched by free market policies? Perhaps drug rackets could be the card to play? It would certainly find a welcoming response in the middle class neighbourhoods where kidnapping and extortion are an everyday occurrence and often carried out by drug gangs. Just recently there was a large demonstration, 150,000 strong in Buenos Aires voicing these very fears. Populism though is of the essence in this thorny question and such a show of numbers will have found more than an echo in the favelas and barrios of Latin America exasperated by heavy dealing and the subsequent killings which invariably follow.
Maybe it can be said that drug gangs are limbering up the terrain whereby new coups become a possibility? How though could this unfold in practise? On the one hand there could be the simple, old-fashioned 'clean up our cities' message directed by some charismatic media-savvy military-man cynically using the drug question and behind which lurks the hidden agenda (yet again) of the free market. On the other hand, it could be the exact opposite! Military personnel could work in chaotic tandem - it surely couldn't be other than chaotic - with the armed souljas of the gangs promising them status, civil rights, even a place in government sweetened by cheap cocaine or any other concoction produced on a mass scale ' even perhaps teleguided by the CIA. Simply create mayhem. Grants could be offered or a PFI engineered - who knows - and you can always double-cross the gang big shots later? In any case today, we now have the ludicrous situation where some gangs wish to achieve NGO status and you might well wonder what IFI they will apply to for a grant! All this could have the desired effect of completely disorientating the poor in town & country, de-railing social conscience and activism replacing it with fearful passivity with neighbour no longer able to communicate with neighbour. Far fetched? Well, hang on a minute.
Today rival gun-toting drug gangs well into their private wars have the effect of keeping doors firmly shut at night amidst what was formerly some of the most convivial social arenas in the world. In the swarming slums of the city of Managua in Nicaragua today, rival Latino gangs deported by the US federal government from south central Los Angeles re-enact their turf wars even though hope of the big time has been replaced with desperate poverty! Their new neighbours, the majority of inhabitants not involved in what has you imagine become largely a bizarre ritual, remain battened down night after night as large rocks reign down incessantly on their tin roofs and bullets whizz by makeshift, thin walls. How on earth can any meaningful social revolution of the poor develop in such an atmosphere when casual though pointed chats with neighbours at the end of the day about what's going down plays such an important part in the process? In such an atmosphere too there is no way even a tepid, revamped Sandinista movement can even make it from a few plans drawn on the ground. For the moment what would be most valuable is there any information out there noting if such activity is still on going or are these guys beginning to see some kind of sense? Is there any evidence these guys are changing their ways picking up on the tremors in the atmosphere causing them to tack more with a sweeter wind?
As a rider and counter-argument to all of this there are also huge, even probably insurmountable obstacles to right wing military success. Any generals into coup d'etats can only use the omnipresent drug question as a ploy to take power as they simply don't have a hope in hell of clearing up big time dealing as the bottom line is: the armed drug gangs are far more effective given their limited and gross aims than any former urban guerrilla movement ever was. The Montoneros, the Tupermaros etc could be defeated militarily, the drug gangs cannot - at least not by military means - or, as it happens, any other means as long as capitalism is omnipresent. What has intervened in the meantime to make way for this development is the grim development of 'the periphery' throughout Latin America that today is such a vast, intricate sprawl no army could possibly win on such terrain. In his recent book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis simply points out that the American army was defeated in the shantytowns of Sadr City in Iraq and Mogadishu simply because they were shantytowns and the insurgents were able later to mock them with impunity shouting "Vietnam, Vietnam!" It's also the same geo-political reality, which allows the drug gangs of Latin America to mock authority with increasing impunity.
We need to be aware of the role Latin America has played both in the elaboration of a new urbanism of the poor i.e. the legitimisation of shanty town living or, more crudely, the slums, and in the new ideas of counter-insurgency think tanks especially in America. In fact the new mega shantytowns have redefined the notion of "urban guerrilla," which appeared to have been definitively defeated with the crushing of armed urban resistance especially the Montoneros. Shantytown resistance has given a new meaning to the 'lucha armada' and drug gangs have played a huge role in this as police and petty officials are gunned down and installations and offices blown up by the militarised gangs. Indeed, especially in major Brazilian cities the drug gangs are beginning to see themselves as part of the revolution of the really oppressed, as an ersatz new guerrilla army. As Carlos Amoruin, author of Brotherhood of Crime says: "It is an unrecognised civil war - only they are not political groups involved. It is the poor person versus anybody who has something, and that something need not even be very much." The leverage in all of this is hard drugs as ripples in a huge pond spread out over. The PCC (First Command of the Capital) even claims to be 'a party' fighting "repression in the prison system" as part of a wider "revolution of the poor".
The stage was thus set for the jail revolts of May 12th to 17th 2006 in Sao Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil as drug barons fuelled by a crack & ice-ego attempted to impose their will cynically deploying human rights legislation. In reality it was a grotesque front for small fry robber barons using the media to increase special privileges brutally hugging the spotlight and maybe in a bizarre kind of way aping real robber barons such as Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch or the get-rich-quick outfit of the Google entrepreneurs, though it's more The Sopranos mixed with Mad Max. It's really only through a recent realisation of their own formidable power that the gang alphas have been able to mastermind all this sheer cheek knowing they can get away with it and in this process of intensified capitalisation, many of the protagonists will no doubt still give a nod in the direction of Che!
The contradictions of the drug industry between the producers and consumers is more apparent and extreme in Latin America than anywhere in the world. Coca growing in the Andes is millennia old having a social function that beer drinking tends to have elsewhere. As an article of consumption (reducing appetite in places where food is often scarce and for health reasons etc) it's only the way the crop is altered and manufactured that makes it so different and then it's not a question of chemistry but big business. As the locals who work on the land well know, if the global food trans-nationals hadn't cynically cut out all other food production like growing vegetables or pineapples making them utterly unprofitable they would have diversified. After all who wants such never-ending hassle which coca growing now implies. As it stands the coca eradication programmes directed from the USA are seen locally as an attack on indigenous culture. Undoubtedly due to the predatory raids by armed forces the coca crop has been massively reduced as many people know but it's often the only guaranteed work and income they can fall back on. In Bolivia in 1985 miners kicked out of their jobs as neoliberal economic policies kicked-in went to Tropica in search of work where the only available source of income was the coca crop. Understandably they have become lucidly bitter: In Bolivia they say, "We don't know what coca is because we don't have the money". "No one tells the Yankees to stop making atomic bombs" and "Coca or death" (see the film: 'Bolivia is not for Sale'). Finally though, what must essentially be born in mind is unlike the poppy growing small farmers of Afghanistan the cocaleros of the Andes have a much more developed social conscience. Thus the contradiction of the drug trade among the cocaleros resulted also in the expelling - through direct action - of US giant Bechtel, the biggest engineering corporation in the world brought in to privatise the publicly owned water supplies of Cochabamba in Bolivia from Nov 1999 to April 2000. It was a stunning victory.
Meanwhile 3000+ miles away
First though a digression is necessary and though possibly the wrong place to do it, finally fits into the general pattern of this drift. It was sparked by a particularly horrible personal situation you had no choice but to confront in London 3000+ miles awa from South America's Atlantic coastline. If nothing else it sure did sharpen and change sympathies and perceptions as direct experience usually does although you have to be careful to arbitrarily impose the same situation on to a Rio favela.
To begin at the beginning: Bro' came out of hospital in late 2001 after a very severe heart operation - one far worse than a normal heart by-pass as it involved repairs to holes in the aorta with evidently a 20% chance the operation could be fatal - although this was only learnt post-op ' only to be confronted by a crack dealing gang determined to drive him out of his council flat through 24/7 noise and direct aggression. Before the operation we'd confronted the gang and tried to talk to them. No verbal answer though there was a reply; the ante was upped and the aggression then actually increased meaning you were punished extra hard for even daring to try and speak. We had underestimated them thinking them mere variants of the hooligans we'd known since childhood and which sometimes we were part of ourselves joining gangs and invading other gang territory etc with the usual punch ups, bloody noses and 'twisted in' alliances whose oaths of solidarity and secrecy were later to remind us of Luddite baptism enacted in the same area some 140 years earlier. Unlike our contemporary experiences, those gangs of yesteryear weren't immune from people outside their rank talking to them, as money was never involved seeing we all were more or less penniless. We'd regularly get into trouble breaking into places etc but it was more about ego and territory and not much else although at the times we thought some of the punch-ups could get pretty frightening.
We were more than wrong. This was a new and terrifying phenomenon. Moreover (horror upon horrors) the trouble took place on three fronts simultaneously. It was a stroke of unbelievable bad luck and there was no way you could fight this head-on after a very major operation. Yet that's precisely what you had no choice but to do. Furthermore there was nowhere else to hide, no convalescence home to go to etc as all those social democratic measures had long been abolished in the on-rush to a triumphant free market. This was England in late 2001/2002. If the crack dealers were bad the response of the authorities was ten times worse as you locked horns with council housing management, independent housing advisors, new labour MPs and the police. All of the latter ' without exception - were complete brutes even doubting a major operation was involved. Essentially, in the era of litigation culture, we were ambulance chasers in it for the money! Moreover, denied all necessary post op treatment these bastards in authority also mounted a vicious and scurrilous campaign pretty much around a PC driven agenda more or less surreptitiously suggesting we were nothing but white working class fascists though never saying as such, nonetheless it was the obvious broad undertow. Need it be said that these people are never up front and what you see is never what you get. Through months and months and months it turned into a hellish, long drawn out battle. It wasn't a race or ethnic issue neither as a majority you were taking on were white although, in one particular uglyish conrontation in the heat of anger you also calmy noted the one good thing about these gangs: they were racially integrated, a mixture of white, black and brown.
Fortunately a small very loose group came together composed entirely - and interestingly - of alternative working class individuals (in that they were employed in manual jobs or, had been until relatively recently) to fight this complicated new scourge. Perhaps it could also be said that collectively throughout our lives our loose grouping had taken a greater variety of drugs than those we were combating! Inevitably too they were very far left in persuasion and life style. Other tenants, particularly minorities and single parent women were understandably too scared to join in living in fear behind locked doors completely terrorised. One single parent Muslim woman even wished us well in our fight then fearfully scurried away down a corridor. Over a period of a year or more the fight was relentless. We were more than scared shitless. In our loose group we knew instinctively if we'd had respectable middle class positions in the hierarchy none of us would have been treated like this and as we lived in social housing we were further pigeonholed as untogether failures anyway. No wonder later when reading the theories of ultra left 'autonomous' academics writing on Latin America a lingering bitter smile played on the lips knowing full well these people with their smart jobs would never have to go through the shit we were going through. And yet it's fashionable to say class is a redundant concept!
Considering all of this, amazingly we really got somewhere in the end with all of us taking various individual initiatives even engaging in direct action like super gluing the locks of a crack den, although truth to tell it was difficult getting collective coordination going and that sometimes really pissed you off. Finally what really mattered were our pretty coherent written exposes, reflective and angry we handed out here, there and everywhere, which in the end were largely responsible for closing down the 5 million pounds "crack cocaine queens" - as they came to be called - who plagued our part of west London. The latter end of the story received big coverage in the London Standard evening newspaper The closing down of the crack houses resulted in general tenants' jubilation and in one block an all-night party resulted! It was a fight conducted autonomously mainly due to the high state of awareness of those principally involved who had no truck whatsoever with official tenants representatives and organisations rightly viewing them as a form of company unionism particularly the local TMO (Tenants Management Organisation).
And what was our reward? Some among our tiny unofficial grouping were threatened with eviction notices from top council officials just at that moment we needed some protection knowing full well the crack capitalists knew by now exactly who we were. We'd cost the authorities an awful lot of money and they in turn wanted our guts for garters hating us far more than any crack dealers. Furthermore, there was no way any of us could ask for police protection being utterly loathed by the local top brass. We didn't even have the modicum of a certain little bit of media recognition and recuperation - a pulling of radical, genuine sting from a situationist perspective - that would perhaps have indicated to council management and crazed drug mule alike 'lay off'. We fought the fight only to be ruthlessly airbrushed out of it come the official day of reckoning. It was as though we never existed as the authorities claimed our struggle lock, stock and barrel as their own initiative rather in the manner of the old totalitarianisms of fascism and Stalinism who taking policies from others would then shoot the instigators of these policies. Our position though was rather different as the authorities by wiping the floor with us gave the crazed mules the nod and the wink to do the shooting. Make no mistake about it that's exactly what was there and a brave gal - a super market shelf stacker - who took part knew there was a contract out on her. Fortunately, the mule seconded to do the business was also half in love with her and couldn't pull the trigger! All of us though were very, very scared and footsteps behind in the dark of night brought heart to mouth as you waited for the bullet. During the conflict, the Daily Mail got hold of the story and wanted to do something on it as a way of having a go at Tony Blair's government. However on finding out who the instigators were, their general thoughts on society, their inclinations and drift they reacted in fear not wanting their grubby rag to be turned into a vehicle of what they saw simplistically as 'anarchist' propaganda especially as this may have besmirched the image of the Royal Borough where this conflict took place. (We have a feeling some secret deal was struck behind locked doors but were not privy to these facts.) Anyway in retrospect scared off by our very forthright opinions it is just as well they didn't print anything! Some of the story did though get printed in a quasi-medical journal specialising in clinical depression though without the edge and oomph needed. Most of the individuals involved were forced to move flat and our brave gal was forced to flee to a town many miles away and begin a new life!
None of the above is a lie though obviously well abbreviated without all the fascinating nuancing such a real life story entails - for instance how another teeny step and fetch it for one of these rackets always harassing our brave gal didn't know whether to rape her, mug her, buy her a teddy bear and ask her to be his gal, or persuade her to become his new Mum and make him some nice square meals! Essentially though this long drawn-out affair had left you completely wrecked and shattered inside. What we did do though was a test case and the fall out helped changed the face of official responses to the crack gang menace and the fuckhead activities alongside it. It's a story of the rampant free market if ever there was; how marginality was capitalised and about those who should have been our allies and we theirs but were no longer so. At the time we also knew full well people in European countries at the time probably wouldn't have had a clue about such a situation, severely mistaking your endeavours and only fully understood by American or say, Brazilian counterparts.
Fuckhead revolt certainly amounts to one of the most complicated difficulties of contemporary times, at least, as far as analysis is concerned. Why cannot we talk to these people? This situation probably has no historical precedent as every other insurgency tended to be open responding to others. On the contrary this 'rebellion' - if one can even call it that - is openly hostile and completely closed down in advance of any action which then becomes completely self-defeating and nothing more than a foil to the increasing assault of the commodity manufactured in over-drive. Unfortunately much of the recent revolts in the French banlieus can also be characterised in something of the same way. And so on.
Locally a guy in west London wanted to get a website together starting by airing some of the above along with lots of other things in and around roughly the same basis of public sector housing and how all these new and horrible problems were being dumped on us. The guy, a tenant himself, was an ex-Maoist so there was no chance here of racism etc. Some amazing stories were collected or in the offing and quite quickly some kind of drift developed particularly theoretically in say discussing the changing face/disappearance of the liberatory edge once plainly there in some sub cultures at least or how they'd become distorted by a dog eats dog atmosphere etc. Moreover, despite reservations it seemed a good idea and also had the advantage of honing and developing web skills which you still weren't very proficient at meaning the more confident you got technically the greater the independence from techies who can be pretty expensive. At this sensitive moment in time there was a falling out with close friends who regarded your involvement with this problem as not far short of the utterly ridiculous and of no more importance than a few alcoholics giving you some grief. The effect was shattering and subsequently you felt far too demoralised to carry on with the proposed housing web and sufficiently disheartened to pursue some further attacks on the housing authorities, MPs, police etc, which in any case you needed plenty of geeing-up to do. As you suspected at the time the proposed web wouldn't fall into the trap of 'militantism' you further were accused of but would be undermined by a tepidly bureaucracy-bound orientation where a new reader surfing the web would die of boredom. This is exactly what happened. A more than half-completed account - one with plenty oomph - telling the real story and which quite possibly may have been useful to a lot of other people and tentatively destined for a website in the States was abandoned.
What this half-completed account did do was raise the question of "protected crime" - a phrase which Subcomandante Marcos deploys in relation to Latin America - and how the authorities can use certain patterns of what's commonly referred to as anti social behaviour for their own ends, encouraging and dispensing with such behaviour according to their priorities at the time. As regards social housing in London capitalised drug gangs were to some extent perceived as an effective means of subduing tenants preventing them getting together say, over increasing rents and/or the massive sales of housing stock.
In retrospect a few years later and still alive and kicking, it was this stark, horrible unwanted experience setting your mind ablaze that precipitated interest in the Latin America no critique ever wants to go into in-depth. A serious situation at home forced comparisons with abroad though with no rose-coloured spectacles to kid you. If hard drugs had become such a deadly business here, God knows what it's like in a Sao Paulo favela. Yes, that was the drift alright so there's no deliberate, strained montaging effect at work here sitting in a London cinema watching the film Cidade do Deus then coming home in the dark shit scared this was the night you were going to be whacked. Would it be a gun with a silencer but did it matter as you'd heard the dull sound of revolvers outside your flat window punctuating yet another episode in a gang turf war. Yes, these were the thoughts tumbling over each other in your mind as you put the key in the street door lock.
The on-going collapse of the ultra-repressive state apparatus? Can the police revolt in any meaningful way?
There is obviously much support throughout Latin America for charismatic political figures like Chavez and Morales and others who may join their ranks shortly. These figures though pro-nationalisation nevertheless see and carry out nationalisation in a different way to the Russian Bolsheviks. Though failing to expropriate the owners - they hope to do the same thing through stupendous taxation - maybe until Dennis Healey's ( Labour's Chanchellor of the Exchequer in the 1970s) "pips squeak" - or rather becomes a roar - they somehow permit for the moment the self-organising of the people even encouraging them though ultimately they will have to disown their activity because it will get out of hand. These charismatic Bolivarian figures respect more the bourgeois democratic process than the Russian Bolsheviks ever did despite the fact the Bolsheviks had no choice but to tolerate workers' councils for a brief period. Nonetheless it is a more favourable terrain on which the real revolutionary impetus can develop than ever under Bolshevik diktat. In some Latin American countries a dynamic has been let loose which is essentially unstable and cannot last forever. Sooner or later there will be a showdown and only on that point can one agree with the Trotskyists. The experience of Chile in the 1970s weighs heavily on Latin America. Chavez and Morales are very aware of the critical failing of President Allende's government not to arm the workers but rather appease the traditional military. However they also know that to arm the workers giving them vocational military training means crossing a Rubicon, which no other social democratic leader has ever done. Also one must be aware that the standing army does not wish to do away with its job and fears dispossession by the people. They are not inspired guerrilla leaders whose ultimate success depends on the arming and training of the people.
If Venezuela was to produce a form of Home Guard it is hoping it can sincerely keep the traditional oligarchy at bay as well as outside powers (i.e. the USA) making them think twice before launching an invasion or coup ensuring there would be no cakewalk. One must remember even in Britain during the Second World War (1939-45) the ruling elite didn't like the idea because they felt it was the revolution armed. Indeed Orwell recounts when organising civilian recruits in London's luxurious Swiss Cottage of all places on how to make barricades and the like he was reliving the May Days in Barcelona in 1937 as well as preparing for revolution in Britain! How far this was in the minds of his recruits is another matter though it was true in some parts of northern England. One things for certain, it's unlikely that if the workers and poor were armed in Venezuela one of the outcomes would be a TV sitcom 'Padres Ejercito' i.e. Dad's Army!
The military is still used against many factory occupations in Argentina and it seems Rio de Janeiro but elsewhere in Brazil repression is more clandestine shaded from the media. If anything, paramilitaries at the hire and service of latifundistas and landlords have increased.The First Rural Command (Primeiro Comande Rural) is one of the most hideous. After PT was elected minifundista individuals who gave testimony to a UN envoy on the countryside situation were murdered shortly afterwards. Assassinations of the landless are as frequent as ever numbering about 10 per month usually preceding mass evictions. On the other hand the number of assassinations could be proportionally decreasing due to a very big surge in land occupations as landless labourers are fighting back like never before. Indigenous people are claiming ancient lands like in the Matto Grosso do Sul and are heavily to the forefront of these actions. PT are careful of the Sem Terra landless movement which occupies fallow land which is constitutionally protected by the Brazilian state thus able to make use of legal loopholes. Also quite opportunistically Sem Terra electorally supported them but it's all rather touchy as Sem Terra launched a massive occupation movement in April/May 2004 which irked PT bureaucrats though in some instances Sem Terra have also partially repressed land takeovers. Moreover Sem Terra can be diplomatically silent about PT's agre-export strategy defined largely by multi-national corporations who uproot areas of Amazon rain forest the size of Wales almost on a yearly basis for Soya bean crop. Such blatant contradictions are not so true of the MLST (Liberation of the Landless), which though much smaller than Sem Terra takes a more aggressive stance. On June 7th 2006, 500 demonstrators from MLST invaded the Brazilian Parliament vandalising the pristine building and destroyed a car waiting to be raffled off to congressional staff members. Parliamentary security guards (and not the official police) battled the protestors trying to enter the main floor of the Congress while in session. Although this was a punch-up reprisals were nothing like what would have taken place in the old days of the military regime. This must be clearly born in mind. And to make a telling comparison: there is absolutely no way 500 demonstrators in sweet consumer Britain could invade 'their' Parliament ' never mind to some extent getting away with it, despite Lula and other PT bureaucrats being impotently apoplectic about their audacity. Repressive Latin America? It sometimes makes you wonder pondering on whether Brazil or the UK is the greater police state!
The police are still very heavy throughout Latin America though a lot more contradictory and, here and there, willing to resort to the strike weapon. During the so-called Tax war in Bolivia in Feb 2003 - the Impuestazo - students went on the rampage burning many important government buildings and the police went on strike. The army was called in and a shoot out commenced between police and soldiers after francontados 'snipers' shot unarmed civilians. Yet remarkably only a few months earlier in Sept and Oct 2002 during the so-called Gas war in Bolivia the police merrily shot dead demonstrators. Women involved in the demonstrations openly called them "heartless bastards" face to face, so maybe their insults had finally struck home. Obviously alliances are fluctuating dramatically. And remember though Chile returned to democracy in 1990 there have still been over 30 activists murdered by the police and army. Hundreds have been arrested.
However, as previously stated the lessons of what happened to Allende in Chile weigh heavily on Latin America. As for the example of Otelo and Copcon in Portugal between 1974 and 1976 - not much more than a few months after Pinochet's coup in Chile - you get the impression people in Latin America are only beginning to get any idea what went down way back then. It's as though they are in the process of ridding themselves of Castro's interpretation of these events who used the example of Portugal for his own ends declaring that social revolution was quite compatible with military dictatorship. Quite obviously Fidel completely blocked out what was really happening between Copcon soldiers and various workers' initiatives. Truly a detailed account of this interplay would probably come in handy in the here and now. There's an increasingly broad feeling that the people have to be armed in Latin America this time and that they have to receive some kind of military training. Chavez knows this but whether he dare go through with it is another matter. There's certainly a wide spread feeling in Latin America that things cannot remain like this and there will be a resurgence of the right. This time though the people must be prepared. There's also a general realisation among the people that while America is pinned down in the Middle East it buys great time for the whole of Latin America. True but never forget 1973. The American military seemingly mortally wounded was finally chucked out of Vietnam yet it was also the year the American state struck back with the CIA instrumental in launching the Chilean coup guaranteeing the birth of the terrible neoliberal period we, the world over, are still living through as Milton Friedman and his Chicago School of Economics Mafia through brutal murder, grabbed centre ground.
Unsurprisingly Venezuela is to the forefront in all of this and various new militias like a territorial guard unit have come into existence. What they are like is still difficult to pinpoint though the influence of Chavez is strong but whether this amounts to full top down control is quite another matter. Despite the fact that the new militias have been partially at least armed with guns from Cuba it's doubtful if this means they are modelled on the Cuban example in its heyday in the 60s and 70s where the militias, rapidly neutered and strictly supervised, became adjuncts of the national army. This scenario is unlikely in Venezuela where in any case, the army is split down the middle and if you remember, only three years ago, one side tried to launch a coup against the side supporting Chavez.
Essentially though what you have in Latin America is a drift and this applies to the military question as much as anything else. There's a constantly radicalising process at work everywhere, which means that an ossified Stalinism that once gripped Cuba is no longer an option. Breaks and breakthroughs are almost occurring daily. Catholic liberationist theology was not so long ago a big factor in protest movements in Latin America. The Sem Terra in Brazil was spawned within it. Then one fine day a significant number of them said - metaphorically speaking - "Well gee thanks but it's now time to leave the church behind." (It wasn't just this of course, basically as 'democracy' gained a greater foothold, the church visibly weakened in militancy). The new social initiatives in Venezuela, the missiones, as their name suggests came from within the bosom of the Catholic church and then, low and behold, the same secularising process kicked in. Why shouldn't this be so with the military units? Chavez inspired today, tomorrow a far more formidable and contemporary revolutionary force?
Perhaps it could be said new ground is being opened up here. Essentially the older perspectives, the guerrilla perspective came from various failed, more or less spontaneous insurgent movements in the early 1950s especially Bolivia. In 1953 the COB miners' union in Bolivia managed to completely smash the standing army into little bits but instead of replacing the army with autonomous armed units among initially, the miners' themselves, the COB leadership finally decided to remake the army more or less in the same mould. Having done so, surprise, surprise, the army then turned on them! In the meantime also, a 'radical' government had taken over in Bolivia and workers and peasant militias were formed. It was short lived and the weakness of the movement also allowed the army to reorganise thus fundamentally reinforcing COB's weakness. It could be said this was a defining moment for the emergence of the Leninist rural guerrilla suggesting that the peasants acting by themselves could only arrive at a limited notion of defensive self-activity - rather like town or city workers before them could only arrive at trade union consciousness according to Vladimir Ilych - and needed a guerrilla elite to take them forward. Thus Castro and Cuba in 1959 followed with Guevara's return to the Bolivian jungle followed by Regis Debray.
Debray's book, Revolution Within the Revolution had an enormous influence though more on France's intellectuals and pensioned academics like Sartre than on people in Latin America. One must also remember Debray was a star pupil of the intellectual fraudster, Louis Althusser - still never out of print - and thus incapable of escaping the Stalinist heritage in his absurd put down of Trotskyism. "Trotskyism, in its final state of degeneration, is a medieval metaphysic." Obviously his model is Cuba rather than Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. He describes the zones of peasant self-defence in Columbia and zones of worker self-defence in Bolivia among mainly the tin miners as an utter failure pointing to the need for a rural guerrilla army which could take on and defeat the national army supported by the State Dept in Washington. Debray essentially saw the Trotskyists as workerists unable to think militarily moreover seeing the workers in the towns as 'soft', compromised and petite bourgeois in comparison to the hard life of the peasantry and especially, the guerrilla army. Contact with the mountains and jungles and the sheer difficulty of living there makes the person a 'communist'. It is nature romanticism a la Wordsworth and Rousseau pushed to an ultimate extreme though at the same time it wanted to install the indigenous people of the jungle and the Andes whether peasant or tribal (hunter-gatherers) into some soviet-style, highly mechanised, collective agriculture ruled over by the state.
Debray in his book provides the most graphic description of the alto-plano 14,000 feet up the Andeas where the Siglo Veinte, Huanuni and Catavi mines employing 20,000 tin miners were situated and how easy it was for the Bolivian military in May and September 1965 to move in and bomb the wasteland with not a tree in sight, devoid of cover. When Debray dismissed the urban terrain he was essentially thinking about formal employment and the housing and accommodation of the gridiron plan which traditionally has sprung up around factories. It is very easy for army and tanks to navigate such terrain. However, the sheer informality of shantytowns were reproducing in a way the jungle terrain within an urban context and hence became classic guerrilla territory which up to now only the drug gangs, as we've recounted elsewhere here, have been able to exploit.
A Cuban Irrelevance? Or should Bolivarians read the following?
Amidst all the rebellions throughout Latin America we again have to confront the example of Cuba and "Lider Maximo" Fidel Castro. By way of the cunning of reason, this guy and the Cuban example is more influential than ever and yet so strange seeing the Soviet Empire collapsed long ago. Nonetheless, this somewhat tiny Caribbean island satellite gone into free-floating orbit, remaining cut-off from the rest of a poisonous free market world has become a pole of attraction like never before. Equally it has again roused the ire of the United States and with it the usual rubbishings. Forbes Magazine recently declared Castro the richest man in the world seeing his dictatorial signature is probably required for all state transactions, which is rather different from saying he owns massive amounts of personal property like Microsoft's Bill Gates.
Hopefully by now you are aware we are rather critical of Cuba though not so much on the revaluation of Cuban agriculture (see elsewhere). Today in describing Cuba old familiar ideologies have been given a renewed airing though not really daring to speak their names. Things like: the great socialist Cuban republic, the workers' state; the beginning of communist society etc are spoken of in hushed, unsure tones though from a slightly different angle than previously. Again it is necessary to rebut this still feeble regurgitation. One can still do worse than read Sam Dolgoff's very readable and passionate account published in 1976 by Black Rose Books in Canada called: The Cuban Revolution. A Critical Perspective (It's probably now out of print). In page after page, Sam, a New York painter and decorator and though a trad-style, splendid revolutionary anarchist remorselessly exposes the betrayal of a genuine revolutionary explosion in 1959 hi-jacked by the Castro clique which, finally managed to turn the country into an appendage of Russian state capitalism succumbing, perhaps inevitably to the real politic of cold war times. It's certainly difficult considering circumstances and Cuba's basic lack of raw materials like oil, coal and steel how it could have been otherwise short of an immediate radical explosion of the dispossessed throughout the rest of Latin America.
Sam's contribution was very well researched and probing. It is a fascinating account though inevitably marred somewhat by his unshakeable belief in industrial and anarcho-syndicalist unionism as well as laying too much faith on what were then modern subversive tendencies like delinquency, dodging work or even growing your hair long. From today's harsh reality it can even seem oddly but nostalgically quaint, as none of the latter manifestations were able to sustain the hope people originally had in them.
We can never forget however, the way Castro quickly instituted censorship of press, TV and radio, declaring a total ban on strikes - "A strike is a counter revolutionary act in a socialist country." Remember too, subsequently Castro jailed, shot or exiled thousands of his revolutionary compatriots. Many were sent insane through torture much of this carried out by G2, Castro's secret police. It is still worth recalling a statement put out by libertarian anarchists from Cuba, Peru, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and the USA in Miami 1974 which, among other things, said, "Executions and murders of fighters for freedom are daily occurrences in the prisons and the total of these is already more than ten thousand. Over half a million persons have already fled Cuba, by every means imaginable. These have been of all social classes, but mostly peasants and workers.''
All genuine initiatives like workers' coops or collectives created by an insurgent people were crushed or dissolved as giant state organisations took over all production. This was followed by a massive militarization of labour in most spheres even including the creation of a vast university called The Camile Cienfuegos University or Cuidad Scolar built symbolically at the foot of the Sierra Maestra. By 1966, militarily organised labour corps were established to rehabilitate delinquents. 'Voluntary' work was enforced and a Youth Army of Work controlled by the armed forces was created. These 'voluntary' work battalions rapidly became commonplace and were coupled to incentives for workers who demonstrated 'exemplary' behaviour (like working 30 hours a day). Arms for self-defense quickly encompassed the militarization of teenagers barely having left childhood. (Sam, horrified and aged 50, recalls how a uniformed lad barely 16 showed him around a university faculty machinegun in hand).
Not that Cuba wasn't a lot subtler when required being so. Over the years the state has been quite responsive responding to the images of the times especially so during the late 1960s. Between 1966-70, Cuban state capitalism 'tried' to devolve. And going back to seeming basics - mostly influenced by some of Guevara's later ideas emphasising the need to do away with money - evolving hand in hand socially with a growing free distribution of goods and services thus creating the foundation finally for "the new man." (No wonder Castroite/ Maoists in Europe seemed like your bosom buddies at the time!) For sure it was all fine and dandy and Guevara out in the Bolivian jungles, ever ready to take on board newer ideas, may also have meant it in a messed-up kind of way. In reality, good intentions aside, it turned out in practise to be all front. Sam Dolgoff describes it as mere "camouflage" for the complete militarization of Cuban society, a stage that subsequently has been described as the "mini-Stalin era" turning Cuba into the most formidable military power in Latin America. Furthermore, Castro initially said he wanted to abolish the army replacing it with peoples' militias amusingly adding he was prepared to distribute arms 'even to cats'! Ironically, though hardly surprising, the opposite happened and over the years militias were put under army control with guns confiscated and locked up every night.
Militarisation paralleled and invaded a kind of Cuban-style Committee of Public Safety named The Organisation of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) present in all housing blocks and neighbourhoods which, as well as dispensing much needed welcome additions to ordinary Cuban citizens via health initiatives like mass vaccinations and fair food distribution, even school attendances - things denied by the previously hated Batista regime - nonetheless evolved into a spying network weeding out not only genuine revolutionary dissidents but those into unacceptable sexual behaviour like gays or even wife/husband cheating. The CDR finally organised police raids on 'suspect' houses sometimes delivering them to the death machine. It wasn't as though this was unique in Latin America. Somewhat similar, in Argentina a network of Peronista wards and committees - known as the manzanerosa - exist as intermediaries from the top down over dispensing social community favours more often than not finger misfits, undesirables and leftist troublemakers. Maybe not as nasty as they previously were these kind of things can always return if the right wing get back on their feet. Interestingly today in Cuba the CDRs once so virulent have completely seized up and to all intent and purpose no longer function. In fact nearly all aspects of Cuba's state directed forms of 'popular democracy' withered away through probable lack of interest. To combat this sclerosis, a vetted and controlled Workers' Parliament came into existence around 1995 but that too quickly fizzled out.
Nonetheless, in 1976 and putting Sam Dolgoff's book in retrospect, it was much easier to knock Cuban society than now. In the interim, a massive counter-revolution of unimaginable scope has hit the world guided mainly by Anglo/American capitalism and showing few signs of faltering. In Latin America repression and death in Cuba has been far superseded by the atrocities of the militaristic right in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere. Guided by the experience of this most dreadful and weird form of capitalism ever experienced, perceptions of Cuban society have dramatically changed and for concrete reasons. Conscription or even the militarization of society has meant crime in workers' neighbourhoods is much lower in Cuba than most places elsewhere in the world, never mind Latin America. Seriously capitalised drug gangs aren't a menace and the threat of inter-personal fuckhead violence is much less than in most places. Women are less scared to take a stroll in the streets or among green spaces and not so afraid of the dark. These things really matter making people in much richer societies envious of these communal givens sighing 'if only we had them here' - half in love with military solutions calling them soft names in many wistful musings - as crack addicts give them hell. How long Cuba remains like it is - stuck in welcome aspic- is a different matter. Consumer tourism is becoming important to the economy. How long before decomposition really undermines the militarised temperament? And what happens after Castro, now an octogenarian, dies or is forced to quit?
Calls for genuine forms of popular democracy are returning to Cuba. Increasingly old revolutionary thinkers like Rosa Luxembourg and Lukacs are giving an airing and, needless to say, Trotsky is everywhere. It won't stop there. And to hedge a bet: Considering the effect of all the emancipatory tremors running throughout Latin America, how long before genuine peoples' revolts of the dispossessed ironically say, influenced by examples from Argentina, Chile or Bolivia etc, take off? At long last perhaps, a future grass roots explosion in Cuba is now unlikely to be hi-jacked by calls for the return of the Miami gangsters because despite the unwelcome presence of MTV, the present American way of life is finally losing its aura. But don't bet on it! No doubt Washington wants to finally kill off the virus of social revolution and these monsters are well aware of these truly liberating tendencies at play in Cuba today. Increasingly the US is seeing Cuba as the weak link in the Latin American chain and eschewing military intervention for the moment, they will throw money at Cuba like it was going out of fashion. Filthy lucre is always an old but workable solution! What perhaps is most likely is a bizarre mix of the two tendencies: a grass roots movement heavily manipulated, if not quite hi-jacked by a US inspired on-going cultural disco-like jamboree on the lines of the recent orange 'democratic revolutions' which, thankfully have failed so miserably in the former Russian satellite bloc and the middle east. A stupid film "East of Havana" is now doing the rounds. Starring glitz mad Hollywood celebrity Charlize Theron it contains a sub-text calling for artistic rights (you guessed it, rap-style) above everything else. Later, commenting on the film Theron says, "The foundation of Cuba is censorship. You have to ask: would I like free healthcare and education and accept being a prisoner in my soul." Fine words which when interpreted mean the weapon of choice will be cultural rather than militaristic in privatising everything of value in Cuba especially the national health system which, by the way, is in far better shape than the UK's.
Chile and what may have been a May '68 in the offing?
One gets a clearer sense that bit by bit, trouble is escalating throughout South America and short of an unforeseen calamity is unlikely to be snuffed out in the near future. Audacity is on the increase and could again perhaps start to acquire that utopian edge so sadly snuffed out a few decades ago. Once such movements take off and refuse to die down individuals everywhere begin to transform themselves becoming almost newborn - in that good old anti-religious sense of the term - overnight. The Revolt of the Penguins in May/early June 2006 in Chile when over one million school students were joined by striking teachers, truckers, health workers, shopkeepers and employees from big dept stores like LIDER had all the hallmarks of classic revolt. It finally turned out to be the biggest strike in Chilean history! Incidentally, the only school on Easter Island 1000 miles out among the ancient totemic statues in the Pacific was occupied and weren't the truckers instrumental in Pinochet's coup of 1973? Strangely nowhere did anybody comment on the quickly extending momentum. Why, why, why? Although so-called radical journalists like Gary Younge in The Guardian (June 12th 2006) poured cold water on the Chilean revolt it was an insipid interpretation: "These are not middle-class students seeking an alliance with the workers; they are working-class students seeking passage to the middle class" which simply negates that momentum where limited aims at the onset are quickly transformed by the spreading but happy contagion of raw rebellion. Sure enough - like a blast from the past - as young kids fought endless running battles with the police throughout the night of May 30th, the photos over the next few days showed up wall slogans aptly incorporating the resurrection of the familiar encircled A of anarchism. A word of caution, though not in a depressing Younge-like sense; this 'blast from the past' could be worrying. Is it just repetition, a repetition that will fail? We now know that the encircled A in the UK in the 1970s was little more than a fashion logo with even less depth to it and merely part of the punk paraphernalia that was to be so easily snuffed out once the free market horror story set in. In Chile, "anarchopunk para latino america" together with "reggaeton" is everywhere but can it also mean something better in the offing?
Indeed moments in present-day Latin America do seem like throwbacks to the Europe of the mid 1970s as this freewheeling rambling so often intimates. At the time such tendencies did seem to be heading somewhere positive in a revolutionary sense. We know only too well how these initiatives were brutally cut down, especially in the UK by emerging free market forces presenting themselves as a new attractive path, which sufficient numbers of gullible people fell for. In Latin America, the free market was imposed by military dictatorships slightly earlier before any such 1970s style experimentation took off. In a way the youth of that continent are re-visiting that moment, though for them it's a first time, exciting, fresh experience. One thing remains in their favour. Having experienced the full horrors of the free market there's no way Latin America can be conned a second time. Thus such alternatives, at least, have the chance of embarking down a much more fulfilling creative path.
Or can our Latin Americans companeros be conned all over again? Just like we did in the UK many years previously we note well their naivety at times. The neo-liberal free market is a devastatingly subtle opponent. A few setbacks, a few failures don't mean the imminent demise of the many-headed hydra guarding the gates of an Inferno greater in horror than anything Dante could have foreseen. In a way the challenge can mean a redoubling of energy for the psychotics ruling what's left of the world. Neoliberalism has been proclaimed dead for many a year especially during these early years of the 21st century in Latin America. Nonetheless its protagonists remain standing, waiting, waiting and waiting to pounce yet again.
An Endgame to end all Endgames. The Terminal Right
May one must ask a simple question? Though the armed struggle is a central question in Latin America will it ever be again of such importance in Europe? It is a moot point though for certain, we can rule out any renewed terrorist perspective. Will not direct action, reconstituted permanent rioting getting ever more lucid, persuasion and critique applied with deft punches be the determining force rather than military conflict? In the 1970s there was a threat of a military coup in London. It would have been met with incredible resistance in the mines, factories, and docks and on the streets and collapsed within hours and the generals involved retired ignominiously after a very short period in prison. And if it had happened there would have been no Thatcher and certainly no cowed and acquiescent population as is the unhappy case today. Defeat would not be a sad word on our lips and neoliberalism would not have been so intense in Eastern Europe, Russia or Latin America.
Inescapable facts finally make contrast between Britain and somewhat 'advanced' countries in Latin America if not a misnomer, something now virtually impossible to make despite having made many connections in these pages. Although much is glibly said about the minor wave of nationalisations throughout Latin America and the visibility regarding rudimentary welfare states much, much less is spent on social provision than any country in Western Europe despite the overwhelming presence here of neoliberalism. In Britain consumption reigns supreme a situation Latin America can only aspire to. They will never achieve it simply because the world doesn't possess in its bowels enough raw materials to make it happen. (Interestingly Chavez is aware of this). Community networks still exist in Latin America while in the UK ultra-commoditisation has ravaged community to the point of virtual extinction reflecting a very apposite comment from Murray Bookchin in 1991, "Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy." The working class exists in Latin America while here all visibility has evaporated. Yet alienation in the UK has extended its terrain to a point inconceivable thirty years ago. If it is another moot point that we won't have a workers' uprising (as part of that fashionable end of class syndrome) neither can this inhumanity, isolation, depression and deepening derrangement continue indefinitely. It is becoming "neurotically insupportable" in the sense Freud would have understood though he would never have made these connections. Depression is now regarded in the UK as a major social problem acting dysfunctionally against capitalism though essentially as yet it's depression in a mild form despite becoming a mass phenomenon. Once it progresses - which it must do - everything in society will really begin to seize up as a passive, lengthening daily, ever-extending general strike of unlimited duration - without even knowing it is one - could be the outcome. On top of this, finite material resources will probably bring about an abrupt halt to the moment of unsustainable commoditisation here and in other countries like this hellhole and these two things together will inevitably cause rebellion to snap back into centre focus.
One must also be aware that the mega slums of Latin America (and the rest of the world for that matter) have become so disturbing to the native bourgeoisie there has been periodic destruction of shantytown dwelling throughout the world. The latest are Harare and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe but it was probably first practised in Latin America in the mid-sixties in Argentina and a military government initiative. This surplus population at best has only received the most marginal security from the state and in the future seeing it is here that the 2 to 3 billion surplus population is concentrated and which reinvents the categories of political economy could become such a strain upon the earth's resources that world capital could carry out an act of genocide that will make Auschwitz look like the gassing of badgers in their sets in Hertfordshire. For the capitalist mentality, these people are useless: they may drive our buses, clean our apartments on a temporary basis yet they can kill us if we don't kill them first. Let's eliminate them forever in the name of eco-survival! The American eco-theorist Howard Kunstler intimates something of this in his book, The Long Emergency centered on peak oil and other basic raw materials. The one solution that will be applied and it won't be those emanating from the Institute of Social Ecology but ecological capitalism which means getting rid of the surplus population erasing the shantytowns and killing all the inhabitants as they are neither use nor ornament.
This grim scenario could also be the final, hypocritical ecological scenario as the upper echelons of society, those generally with the really massive carbon footprint, who, finally ridding themselves of their seemingly eternal, holier-than-thou, aestheticised and much-publicised green image making or green con, and finally forced to take ecology seriously, brutally turn on those socially beneath them seeing their surface squalor, grossly bad taste trivial consumption and cheap, appalling eating habits as the source of all ills and in the name of the planet's survival, simply exterminate them. You know it makes sense.
It is obvious that the world cannot support the increase in the world population projected for 2050 seeing its sources are already over-burdened. The question, which each one of must answer, is: are we prepared to accept the destruction of 3 billion plus of our fellow humans? The mega slums pose that question. The problem is there's a horrible rationality to it and most of us cannot accept it. On the other hand, the only real solution is the transformation of human kind, which makes a complete transformation of sexual relations particularly the family and the selfish need to perpetuate our DNA an imperative. It must also require an over-riding of biology the like of which has never previously been comtemplated. Moreover it cannot be done through coercive means. We also have to think what the consequence will be of the destruction of billions, as after Auschwitz we cannot doubt the reality of survivor-guilt. We can only wonder what life will mean to those few million that have survived the ultimate holocaust. And if there are real ecological tipping points how long in turn will the murderer-survivors be safe from self-extinction?
A passing half-sentence/comment was placed in the previous text somewhere near the beginning. It intentionally wasn't elaborated on. It referred to the endgame right. As a world phenomena it is yet to appear and signs of its life in Latin America are probably at the moment, non-existent. But given any Latin American contagion, any extension of coherent revolt to Europe or Latin America and we'll begin to see its bare outlines. Its prime aim will be to preserve capitalism at literally all costs. Previous right wing movements always had a goal, an image of life, which could materialise once free from the tumult of those below who questioned the purpose of capitalism. It emphasised values like religion and family, peace and tranquillity, often with a vision of growing old in some idyllic rural setting where order and knowing your own place quietly reigned supreme; a life outside pain. Now such vague yearnings would become an impossibility as an endgame right could only embrace the sheer emptiness of money and commodities they will never be able to use or enjoy. Moreover, they won't even be able to experience the perplexing conundrum of King Midas as everything hotly crumbles in the blood spurting from their paws as a state of pathological ethereality engulfs them knowing full well earth is hurtling towards incineration as they quote Revelations from the Christian bible's last chapter as The Rapture takes them and amidst the second coming are lifted up through menacing, John Martin-like clouds to eternal bliss! Though such a description can sound in our mouths like one of those dreadful West Yorkshire Methodist hymns of the late 19th century intended as solace for the all-consuming misery experienced by the industrial working classes of that period and which, as children, we so hated, it was a scenario first accurately described in France a few years ago as 'suicide capitalism'. Nonetheless, its protagonists, whether Christian, Muslim or any other religious idiocy, will have to embrace a form of "Viva la Muerta" (Long Live Death) never remotely envisaged by the Spanish Falange who first shouted out this horror as they destroyed the insurgents of 1936. A neo-Falange will somehow have to welcome their own death and the death of everyone close to them as the worthwhile price - they may even deploy such a positive words at their final moments - to be paid for ending the lives of those beneath them who still desired, even at this late moment, a new world as well as all those idiot conformists who always no matter what want everything to be mundane and 'normal', never prepared to risk anything. Wasn't this final rock or a hard place Rimbaud tried to get at when he said - maybe intuitively groping towards a future barely visible- "Decomposition must be swept aside but the clock was not yet striking the hour of pure pain." No matter, it's a line from a Season in Hell though we can still hope this hour can still at this very late date be thwarted by an unprecedented world social revolution.
Ending on a slightly lighter note the following final section discusses some of the the theorists/groups occasionally referred to in this freewheeling ramble.
Who are Toni Negri and John Holloway?
Round about the turn of the millennia a tome called Empire was published, co-authored by Michael Hardt and Tony Negri. This big, wide-ranging book had a huge impact on Latin America especially, one suspects, among the freshly, thrown down over, ex-middle classes product of the new free market insecurities. As people they are often passionate and angry about what is taking place and though well-meaning are often naive. As for the authors, Hardt, an American literary Prof at a New York university plays second fiddle to the Italian scholar, Antonio Negri, the leading protagonist of Autonomia Operaia, in the profound melting pot that was the Italian experiment for some of the future of world reaction as well as world social revolution during the 1970s.
The book itself may on purpose be a deliberate misnomer. The name Empire, though dismissing European ultra-imperialism, seems to imply American Empire and maybe one of the reasons for its popularity particularly among insurgents in the Southern Cone. Cleverly, the contents distance themselves from such a strictly traditional definition of 'Empire' but neither is it a reference to the Empire of the commodity in the sense Ron Hunt once described, "They pulled out of India only to entrench themselves more deeply inside our heads."
Throughout the 1970s many of us were widely critical of Autonomia Operaia remarking on its hidden, mass party Leninism (AO was only willing to openly accept "mass party") as it included in its ever-widening brief all of the most up-to-date tendencies like sabotage, the revolt against work, the mass assembly line worker, plus the general decomposition of societal institutions from education to the nuclear family marking a departure from simply criticising the Catholic Church etc. At the time we referred to this phenomenon probably correctly as "disintegrating" Leninism. We were equally pleased to note that some of the most clued-in Italian theorists of that remarkable epoch, individuals like Sanguinetti, Salvadori, Georgio Caeserano, Sergio Bologna plus groups like Ludd and Puzz were of similar persuasion though able to flesh out the calamitous inconsistencies of Autonomia with an experience we, from the safer distance of the UK, profoundly lacked.
The most calamitous inconsistency was of course terrorism, which, Autonomia flirted constantly with never able to grasp the nettle of what was an authentic act and what was set-up evolving into the crucial laboratory of state manipulated terrorism especially regarding the Red Brigades. It was a laboratory that shortly after was to be applied worldwide and the incubator of a developing counter-revolution still in the process of developing into the worst in history. In fact, we live under its dark cloud more now than ever even though the crude ideology of the perpetrators has since stepped back in time as Stalinism has given way to Islamic Jihad. In flirting with terrorism at an early stage Negri was to be no exception so much so that he was charged by the Italian state in the time of the "strategy of tension" as the mastermind of these grandiose operations. House arrest, detention, imprisonment, exile and escape followed, though each act of persecution foolishly handed out by the Italian state over a considerable period merely added by now to his growing, though undeserved, reputation of theoretician, par excellence.
Thirty years later and nothing has changed. Negri was unreadable back then. He still is! Well, in saying that, there is a crucial change: In Empire all mention of terrorism has been dropped as at the same time there isn't even a line about hard drugs and the brutalised gangs that go with them. Both subjects, sometimes inseparable are now absolute essentials in any discussion pretending towards some totality and Empire does have such pretensions. However, many other familiar themes are re-engaged with the addition of further backup of an almost universal dimension mentioning in passing Bodin, Rousseau, William of Ockham, Dante Alighieri, Hobbes, Melville, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Celine, Descartes, Spinoza to Marx etc, etc together nowadays with the addition of more contemporaneous phenomena relating to American Abstract Expressionism, the Wobblies and even a discussion of the posse form, along with so much more with no doubt, much of the latter provided by Hardt. Nothing though ever hits the nail on the head obscured by a dense language, full of clauses and queries giving the effect of sheer profundity but which, is by en large, gobbledy-gook, academic intellectualese always giving itself plenty of get out.
Although a New Left Review commentator, Gopal Balakrishnan, called Empire "a work of visionary intensity" essentially, it's a theory for beginners, for those in awe of the shining path, temple of truth that is the modern-day university. A veritable empire of indexing and footnotes underpins Empire giving the impression that these guys are really learned ferreting out obscure theses. Yet every reference falls into the pantheon of the university bookshop rubber stamped by respectable publishers. Thus in discussing the revolt against work which figured so high during the rebellions of the late 1960s and 1970s, Hardt and Negri don't mention the Situationists, Echange et Mouvement etc, never mind countless other authentic, suss, underground ' as we called them at the time - groupuscules with their cheaply produced, limited run publications. Obviously they aren't worthy of an entrance into the hallowed portals of academia.
Moreover Empire's vast field of reference often isn't all that accurate. Take one among many: The Wobblies did have a sizable presence in Latin American countries outside of Mexico. Although Rebel Voices: an I.W.W. Anthology, edited by Joyce Kornbluh in 1964, is recognised, the more recent excellent book on Joe Hill written by Franklin Rosemont, the doyen of American Surrealism, isn't. Cynically, you cannot help but reflect Rosemont wasn't worth a mention seeing he was nothing more than a simple New York chef who achieved the distinction of becoming virtually unemployable by way of eating most of his employers cuisine on sight! As for cutting edge theoretical interpretation you can forget it. The account relating to Jackson Pollock and Motherwell - again one among many - are really run-of-the-mill little different in content from some blurb written by any art history hack for any fashionable magazine typical of the early 1960s on the lines that America has thrown off stifling European cultural traditions. Elsewhere, broaching the themes of today's streets, their eulogy on the form of the posse as a relevant example of non-hierarchical organisation is ludicrous. Where have these guys been! For certain they've never lived next door to a crackhead drug gang dependent upon the willing submission of slavish mules to further bolster its brutal hierarchy.
Negri and Hardt want to transform so much they seem to need to transform the human body itself into a form which will make up a biopolitical society feeding into radical mutation prefigured tepidly in punk fashion, tatoos and piercings! Beyond this nothing is specified as to what is meant by this. Are they seeing it as the moment when Mary Shelley's Frankenstein becomes some OK revolutionary or maybe one of the 'new' barbarians which perhaps they see in Walter Banjamin's searching re-appraisal of barbarians? There's little obvious down-to-earth critique of where science is going in Empire and apart from scientific control mentioned almost in passing you don't know where you are. You won't find any condemnation of GM food here nor any recognition that any chemical/physical alteration of human beings maybe one of the few ways capitalism has got to ensure people will adapt to its forthcoming monstrous demands. Instead our authors posit the "nomad" as something of the hybrid being based on mass migration, a new multitude preparing new ways of existence, "incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life and so forth." Well, OK, as if it was as easy as this whereby with a few tweakings of the multitude and a spin of the dice we'll all be on the plain of social utopia with a new dawn on the horizon. Finally, what about the grim reality of the here and now where grandiloquent word flows just don't fit the bill? If ever Hardt or Negri read any of this and deigned to reply it would be put in a way you couldn't possibly understand anyway. But there's no need to trouble ourselves on this account as we're too gullylow in the hierarchy anyway to even register on any acceptable Richter scale of the theoretically acceptable!
To cap it all, aren't we finally surprised how this duo just love post-modernist cultural celebrities: Guattari, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Lyotard (in leotards) you get all their muddled-up obscurantism further distilled in Empire. Those more insightful theorists of desire, though nowhere near as media savvy but nonetheless of far more sincerely genuine revolutionary persuasion like Marcuse, Norman O' Brown or even, Annie Le Brun, don't get a mention. Well, maybe Marcuse though just to say.
Obviously, what has been somewhat hastily cobbled together here on Negri & Co is really a mere precis though one day it may perhaps be a good idea for somebody to go into their woolly formulations at some length say perhaps within the practical context of the heyday of Autonomia in Italy. It may though turn out to be a colossally boring exercise.
We've known about Negri for a long, long time. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, appeared the figure of John Holloway, an Irishman who became a Prof at Edinburgh University before taking a further step up becoming a more grandiose Prof at the University of Puebla in Mexico in the early 1990s. Fortuitously it was to coincide with the Zapatista Chiapas revolt. Holloway almost immediately became a slavish admirer of the writings of Sub-commandante Marcos, a 'leader' who disavowed leadership, evolving theories that ran in tandem, though the influence of Negri in the background is palpable. Indeed Holloway and Negri have become indivisibly linked throughout Latin America. This is fair comment though Holloway has a far crisper edge and some of his starker realisations cannot be denied. Nonetheless, when writing his seminal theories he had the full support of his Director of Faculties in Puebla University and was able to crystallise his ideas in extensive seminars in the Philosophy and Letters Faculty of the University of Rosario in Argentina and as soon as they were in some kind of order were published in Rebelda in Mexico. Some people don't half have it cushty but no wonder students throughout Latin America have gone on a bomb on him.
Holloway accurately pinpoints the central malaise of our horrendous age: "Perhaps the saddest legacy that the 20th century leaves us is disillusionment, loss of hope." Looking back to the revolutionary moments from 1917-21 he notes the essential bond of optimism between a 'revolutionary' like Rosa Luxembourg and a social democrat like Eduard Bernstein as their public disagreement was over how their visions were to be achieved and not about whether you had a cat-in-hell's-chance of achieving them. There's no need here to go into a catalogue of all the horrors which have unfolded since those near yet so distant days but Holloway notes that all the terrible defeats from the late 1960s onwards has meant that in "Latin America the death of optimism has perhaps been even more bitter." You cannot disagree with the guy except to note how many older people you've met in the present Latino re-birth who, despite their broken hearts, are again gripped with some kind of hope, if that's not too strong a word.
Holloway in his most significant book places a huge emphasis in page after page, on the fetishism of commodities though deploying a kind of overlay, a separation between the doing and the done. The doing implies social flow, attempted creativity, the done is capitalisation, all of which, reflects a Negri notion of 'multitude'. It's the done, the frozen categorisation, the labelling, the false identities which must be broken. The fetishism of commodities is a relatively short chapter in Das Kapital, nonetheless it remains the most important and explosive bit of writing ever and will remain so until capitalism is completely overthrown. Holloway respectfully gives the thesis the rich attention it deserves and in some respects you are glad the concept has been rewarded with a renewed airing and placed in a more contemporary framework. It's an omission though that is the most interesting factor in this update as the all-important artistic nuancing in the shape and feel of commoditisation and central to fetishistic makeover has been pushed aside or rather denied. Not so long ago we had the (harebrained?) idea of subtly re-writing or rather tinkering with Marx's original thesis whereby the artistic dimension is dragged into commodity fetishism complimenting the table-turning, quasi-mystical effect Marx made central to his original description. It still would be an interesting experiment if only to see how it panned out. In Holloway the separation between doing and done endlessly sealed in commodity fetishism can only be transcended by different behaviour, by overthrowing linear, homogenous time; 'the time that denies creativity' that dons masks and identities. Finally we must assert ourselves and discover dignity as "dignity and capital are incompatible." If not we will go down "a straight path that leads to the self-destruct of humanity" and nobody in their right mind can disagree with that.
Holloway links himself to the history of heterodox Marxism specifically naming Bloch, the young Lukacs, Adorno, Marcuse, Pannekoek and Council Communism. He then jumps to the Italian operiaists naming Negri specifically (ignoring Bologna's trenchant criticisms) and then ' so typically ' on to the post modernist lit-up-in-lights pantheon of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari and the rest of 'em, though he more pointedly than ever Negri could have done slips in a rider which can easily be overlooked: 'The fragmented world-view of post-modernism is a coming to terms with disillusionment.' Also - again like his mentor Negri - in all this eclectism Holloway never mentions the Situationists, though deploying the formula of the Society of the Spectacle, now and again and just like what happens in Empire. But the prowling, deeply hidden, though intense presence of Raoul Vaneigem is there behind much of Holloway's ruminations. Absent in name, the writing lacks that lapidary edge, experience and knowledge that informed Vaneigem's early writings which, had a quality of often, off-the-cuff comment which, could simply blow you away. Behind Holloway too, and hardly surprising considering his occupation, lies the "state derivation debate" among German academic Marxists of the early 1970s who, incidentally, at the time, also went along with emerging Autonomia in Italy in itself a movement so often guided by academics.
Unlike Negri however, in the meantime, Holloway has become much more direct and is unequivocally anti the state clearly seeing that in the moment of absolute capital there is little chance any kind of meaningful reform that can help the oppressed can be achieved through state directives. (Remember this was just before the recent re-nationalising wave of basic energy resources though this isn't what Holloway is going on about). Holloway doesn't put forward any easy positivism, any pat answers regarding step by step transitions and as an enduring apologist of the Zapatistas emphasises their "preguntado caminos" ("walking we ask questions").
Firstly there is the inward, individual refusal. OK but the trouble is too much is then placed on alternatives as a final fall back via a hoped for, expanding and unravelling process that will somehow make it on through to the other side of capitalism minus not too much confrontation or violence. He writes about the need to "ground that refusal in alternative creation" which, as we've pointed out here, is finding a renewed release of life in Latin America. For sure we nostalgically respond warmly to piqueteros proposals like "organising first from a base of affection" ("politica afectiva") as the button of the 1977 Metropolitan Indians in Italy is once more pressed because, "In the very act of struggling against capital, alternative social relations are developed." Again fine but we then must ask why have such alternative hopes fallen into disuse and/or broken apart in Euro/America? And how did a creeping, ever more invasive capitalism intent on patenting and privatising our very essence, find it so easy to conquer all alternatives wiping out any hope we may once have had in them? As for affection - our pressing question is why has it been so ruthlessly wiped out, especially here in the UK - when all we seem to encounter are maimed, mad, psychotic responses? It's more than a sad situation. It could damn well prefigure the end of the world in what was formerly referred to as 'the west' unless we are lucky enough to precipitate a major economic catastrophe before an unimaginable ecological implosion will do the same but with little hope then of any transcendence for humanity after capitalism self-destructs. For the moment we can only hope that unimpeded capital is beset with so many problems in Latin America it is unable to kybosh alternative paths.
In Holloway's book: Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today former categories of negation - workers, gender, race, or whatever are pushed aside - as emphasis is placed on The Scream. (Again you cannot help but feel this has been culled from Vaneigem's revaluation of the Munch painting of the same title when going into the ins and outs of nihilism in his book The Revolution of Everyday Life). In Vaneigem's capable hands it's a profound one-off, in passing, interpretation but with Holloway's it becomes a central category. Here the scream is the initial recognition inside our psyche of refusal; the first step emotional rejection of capitalism. Holloway clearly recognises how dark everything is becoming, that endless night is visible on the horizon and with it, "the absolute destruction of humanity." Well yes but isn't it equally true that the discharge from un-worked out desperation can just as surely go the other way? The edge if you like of the pandemic of bullying culture, crazy rages and brutal, un-called for assaults, responses which fill us with so much despair at their stupidity. Holloway quickly rescues himself (the man is nothing if not cleverish) suggesting an empowering and welcoming of 'damaged humanity'.
These alternatives, these screams along with Zapatismo are as good as it gets with Holloway. Beyond is the need for "interstitial change" - a change if you like at the molecular level slowly communicating and reverberating throughout alienated society finally overthrowing it. However in no time the thread of argument is lost unwinding in a process of almost quasi-mystical trance: "Our struggle, is not the struggle of Revolution, not just of rebellion, but of revolution. Not just rebellion, not Revolution, but revolution." At such a point you begin to feel that so much of Holloway's theorising ends up as Hardt and Negri-like pie-in-the-sky mumbo jumbo and having come full circle, not too distinct from his mentors. All of them have spent so much time playing around with words and formulas they've become lost to everyday life. Maybe too, Holloway wouldn't have gone on so much about "urban Zapastistas" - seeing the new world as emanating from alternative social centres - like some precious nature reserve - if he'd also confronted his own academic role. Instead he carries on as a Professor hoping something will come of it noting that good academic research is made pretty meaningless these days as thumbscrews everywhere are tightened because, "the problem of the social sciences is not correctness. The problem of the social sciences is complicity" if we abandon in our work the exploration of the possibility of radical change "do we not then become accomplises in the exploitation of person by person, accomplices in the destruction of humanity?" Holloway probably thinks and perhaps rightly that he's not as bad as most academics but perhaps rather than admire the Chiapas rebels from the safer shores of the Autonomous University of Puebla, it would have been better if he'd gone down and out on some Edinburgh housing estate with no visible role or position in society or had survived among the Chiapas rebels for a couple of years or so. Then perhaps all the good pointers in his theorising might have acquired that extra oomph, that extra dimension of sheer experience, that extra sense of 'I was there' that is invaluable. As it stands, despite an enjoyable Irish nuttiness that keeps grinning through - "the samba crisis of 1998/99, the tango crisis of 2000" - you simply cannot feel pulsating real life in Holloway's writings as the dead hand of the academy takes him by the throat.
Finally having got all of that off your chest it is also utterly essential - to be fair - to note how terrible the official attack on Negri and Holloway is in the context of present day Latin America. It isn't critique but rubbishing, even obsessively relentless rubbishing finding perhaps its real basis among the myriad Trotskyist sects as, most likely mainstream politicians probably don't have much of a clue who Holloway and co are anyway. Thus, Negri's 'theories' are never explained in much detail almost as if these sects live in fear of them. Surprisingly, they don't even pick up on Negri's occasional lapses into ultra-Stalinism as for example, his sometimes wistful reminiscences about 'tank socialism' in Eastern Europe during the late 1940s.
Trotskyists and people of roughly that persuasion at any rate often deliberately conflate the 'no power' concepts and anti-statism which they attribute to the bad influence of Negri and Holloway with the at times very dubious practises of some of the non-governmental organisations which nowadays studiously avoid any confrontation with economic and political power or indeed anything that could be interpreted as 'agitation'. Typically, Hardt and Negri's discussions of the NGO's are so vague as to offer not much help here and in Empire an undecipherable sentence winds the discussion up: "What they really represent is the vital force that underlines the People, and thus they transform politics into a question of generic life, life in all its generality. These NGOs extend far and wide in the humus of bio-power; they are the capillary ends of the contemporary networks of power, or, (to return to the general metaphor) they are the broad base of the triangle of global power." Maybe though we are just too stupid to grasp such profundity'?
The Trotskyists also deliberately obfuscate the difference between micro-economic patronage engineered by those NGO's funded by the World Bank or other IFS's with the genuine but vague autonomy of many piqueteros and the 'horizontal structures' so declaimed especially by Holloway though there are many hints pointing in this direction from Negri. Prof James Petras and a 4th Internationalist teaching at a New York university condemns "a vocal sect of ideologues who made a virtue of the political limitations of some of the unemployed by preaching the doctrine of "anti-power" or "no-power" - an obtuse melange of misunderstandings of politics, economics and social power." He reserves special scorn for the "Colectivo Situaciones", which, no doubt the latter should be rightly proud if they are still in existence (see later). Inevitably courting an ideology of pure, undefiled workerism these Trotskyists also accuse Holloway of a university orientation with "university disciples" spreading a garbled message. Although this might be true isn't it also a case of the kettle calling the pot black?
Knocking fellow academics is always an easy aunt sally even though they usually deserve it though Trotskyist academics - hypocritical on this score - always change their tune when it comes to events on the ground mirroring somewhat the tendencies they rubbish when originating in the mouths of paid-up intellectuals. Thus they are kind of forced to be sympathetic to Subcomandante Marcos as after all he is a guy of action, rifle in hand. Flummoxed, though never daring to say so, they cannot make head nor tail of his writings. What the Trotskyists refuse to recognise is that much of the drift they condemn comes from Marcos himself in such comments as, "We want to change the world, but not by taking power, not to conquer the world, but to make it anew." Equally they are unable to rubbish a certain worked-out refusal at the heart of the Chiapas rebellion to join any of the usual structural offers ready to hand such as electioneering and the clientelism and patronage so common in Latin America.
In Argentina, the Trotskyists praised the spontaneous mass character of the popular uprising of 2001 yet inevitably; still see its strategic weakness as a failure to create the revolutionary party. And though the machinations of the 1001 revolutionary parties helped fuck-up the neighbourhood assemblies ("asambleas barriales") which, because such tactics received so much bad publicity in the world's press, really irked their cadres, they nonetheless today turn around triumphantly saying, "Where are your piqueteros now?" "Whatever happened to Naomi Klein?" "We're still here and there's more people than ever viewing our websites" If nothing else the latter is probably spot on though due to a still mildly combative upturn throughout the world, it's probably true of all other websites including those really saying something.
Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo 11
Seeing we are discussing individual theorists here it's probably timely to bring in Marcos and Taibo because we cannot leave them out as both have contributed to a vague anti-art disposition which, over the last six years has spread more widely across Latin America.
In his book, Our Word is Our Weapon published in 2001, the "university-educated poet warrior" - as the blurb would have it - subcomandante insurgente Marcos has made a selection of his writings, many in letter format, relating to his long time in "the mountains of the Mexican southeast." This and earlier writings have proved to be extremely attractive to a fluffy kind of critical tradition in Euro/America supporting an equally fluffy notion of revolution. The problem is, these writings for most hangers-on have become an end in themselves, cultural icons to be judged according to literary merit as idiot poets and artists in 'the west' struggle ever so hard to express themselves. One exception to this was the French book, Tendre Venin (Tender Venom or rather, Tender Fury, published by Editions de Pheromone in 1995), deploying a choice Marcos phrase for its title and put together by some of the ex-Os Cangaceiros people in France, really did present a first hand account of the early years of the Chiapas uprising as one of their guys was living in the place when it happened.The book largely made up of a series of informative letters discussing to some degree the collectives - although you wished there had been more on this - is sprinkled with smatterings of conversations with people in Chiapas, often EZLN guerrillas together with simple observations, interspersed with a selected history of revolutionary Mexico mainly in the 20th century which also emphasises the importance of the present day village assembly. Though lacking something of a sufficient critical edge - there was no group like the Portuguese Combate of the 1970s around in Chiapas at the time - the book was way better than anything that appeared in English. (Incidentally, Os Cangaceiros originally referred to a 19th century Brazilian social bandit foci who robbed the rich to give to the poor so ironically the name was returning closer to its home turf.)
Whatever one can say about the EZLN army, chiefly, it seems, its authoritarian anti-democratic disposition, Marcos has subverted the image of the guerrilla/revolutionary role in Latin America and that is no mean feat implying the authorities might not any longer know who or how to deal with insurrection. Through Marcos's concept of "ordinary-therefore-rebellious" is well known, his inkslingings are almost crazily diverse throwing any attempt at categorisation. At times in Marcos's writings there is little solemnity left as seriousness can suddenly tip towards an intentional, playful absurdity that found some of its birth pangs in moments relating to the revolt of modern art particularly those episodes where the very concept of modernity is undermined. Speaking in rational letters, addresses and essays that portray in great detail and observation the misery and poverty of the peoples of Chiapas often adding a tone of passionate fury, Marcos can write in the spirit of the fairy tale, quoting Eluard's Between Dreams, Nightmares and Awakenings and speaking through the beetle Durito, Old Don Antonio and The Sea tries to re-invent old creation myths written in the Papal Vuh, a sacred text going back deep in time though it ends up at times like something out of Lautreamont's Maldoror minus the essential edge of psychotic decomposition and transcendence at the end of that travail.
There's no getting away from it unlike much revolutionary theorising, Marcos's book Our Word is Our Weapon is often fascinating picking up on so many tendencies particularly a deliberately cultivated child-like approach which can begin by quoting Lewis Carroll and end up as a strange short bedtime story with a moral ending like a 21st century Aesop's Fables or perhaps, an experimental Haiku-type riddle. Marcos can then switch and play with artistic perceptions enchanting his fellow travellers in far-flung countries. Thus he discusses in a letter to art critic, John Berger a painting by John Constable from the viewpoint of two little children who's parameters begin and end with the outskirts of their village as they notice the painting on the cover of a book - one of Berger's - Marcos is reading. "Constable's painting does not transport Heriberto and Eva to the English countryside. It does not take them outside the Lacandon Jungle. It leaves them here, or it brings them back. It brings them back to their land, their place, to their being children, to their being campesinos, to their being indigenous, to their being Mexicans and rebels. For Heriberto and Eva, Constable's painting is a coloured drawing of La Muneca, and its title, Scene On A Navigable River, is not a valid argument: the river is the stream in 'La Realidad,' the horse is the mare La Muneca. Manuel is riding it, and his hat has fallen off. That's it." You simply cannot get away from it such other ways of seeing make Constable memorable because the guy was really dull and closed down in comparison to his fellow East Anglian, the poet John Clare who's social breadth and traumatic, on fire descriptive lines were remarkable and surely more in tune with the Chiapas rebels. Nonetheless, whether Marcos knows about Clare or not his unusual, memorable comments on Constable are way beyond the ken of some mealy-mouthed art historian looking yet again at the Norwich School of Painters.
At other times Marcos's writings can look a bit like an vante garde surrealist experiment. Perhaps Marcos also picks up on something of the old French Surrealist tradition with its fascination with Mexico's amazing profound primitive past full of strange myths and remarkable structures built high on jungle mountain tops. Mexico figured big in the Surrealist map of the world alongside a diminutive USA just as Ireland dwarfed England. The profound anti artist Arthur Cravan had disappeared there (or rather somewhere in the jungle). Paul Eluard, a few years later and before he became a Stalinist performed something of an imitation only to disappointingly return to France. Breton was more than disappointed, he was disdainful as Eluard had sabotaged what could have been an unsurpassable gesture. Artaud reinvigorated himself in his quest to find the Mexican Tarahumana shamans only to also note they'd become somewhat corrupted lacking the original powers their elders had possessed long ago. As for Benjamin Peret he hated his wartime sojourn in Mexico surprisingly disagreeing with Breton - seeing he was regarded by more independent minds as Breton's butler ' as his master had spent such a convivial time there especially in those conversations he'd had with Trotsky who surprisingly at the latter's residence in The Blue House in Coyoacan outdid the "pope of surrealism" in foreseeing a day when art would no longer exist having being superseded by the liberated creativity of the masses.
As for Taibo's book, '68 dealing with the amazing Mexican student revolt of that annus mirabalis, a revolt tragically cut down in blood by the military leaving 400 dead with many 'disappeared' nameless corpses tossed into the Gulf of Mexico from helicopters - thus providing the first instance of murderous sky drop in Latin America - simply because the exuberant revolt was getting in the way of the Olympic Games sales pitch scheduled for a little later. It's the best account yet as previous accounts had also been 'disappeared' from official history. So much of these details were previously unknown what with small mobile action groups, the brigadero, who held lightening "flash" rallies calling themselves "new vandals" with names like "the Marilyn Monroe Brigade" communicating between themselves via quick impassioned conversation Taibo has named "Radio Rumour". Everywhere buildings were painted in red and black, the colours of the strike. Even more unknown to us we never realised how slowly small sectors of workers spontaneously joined in from oil refineries, railroads, electricity etc. Invading the General Motors Plant Taibo recalls how, "the workers looked at us with a mixture of sympathy and bemusement, reminding (him) of how people used to look at Mister Ed the Talking Horse on television" but unlike in France a few months previously, the movement never really resonated with the workers. (Apropos of all this you cannot help feeling that the recent revolt in Chile, the Revolt of the Penguins had some of this quality though fortunately without a subsequent severe repression which may imply future hope).
Taibo however is today known as a "distinguished historian and essayist and renowned world-wide for detective novels.An international literary figure." And yet what really comes through in '68 is memory of a beckoning pointing to a palpable fulfilled terrain beyond art and though the guy filled "three fat notebooks" at the time with telling details "as raw material for a novel" he just couldn't hack it. Something irreducible had happened: "I was never able to write that novel. It's a novel that does not want to be written" because what he'd experienced in this failed insurrection was far richer and subsequently far more traumatic than anything that could be squeeezed back into redundant artifice. It's almost as if - and you can feel it in page after page - that through becoming a world famous novelist and writer he has essentially killed off the best part of himself. It goes farther for in that time of exultation, Taibo unable also to even write a poem was nonetheless capable of putting negation into more coherent perspective and having read in 1968 Carlos Fuentas's recent factual book about the new Mexican big bourgeoisie: "Where the Air is Clear" could see living "proof that the novel was history too." Indeed the first chapter heading spells it out in large letters: "Wherin It Is Explained That With Stuff LikeThis I Could Never Write A Novel."
Having polemicised a bit too much let's finish here with some of Taibo's memorable lines:
'Living then did not mean remembering. Living then was easier'
'The madness that stalked us at life's every turn was a global madness'
'We didn't watch television'we were too busy inventing life to waste time on reactionary dream factories'
'Foreigners in our own country, foreigners in our own history'
'The laws of 1968 were replacing the laws of the University'
'There was no day or night, just action, the street and vibrations that called for interpretation by someone'
'According to our national traditions, an authority that negotiates surrenders its power'
'They thought their studies were simply a stepping stone to a job, but had begun to question the attraction of leaping into a society in which there were more suicides than parachutists'
'Even Liars Know the Truth'
'Everyone had their own madness back then. And if there was one thing we respected, it was everyone's own particular madness'
This group really does seem to have made quite an impact throughout Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America since the turn of the millennium firmly placing themselves in an autonomous perspective with some probably initially influenced by Prof John Holloway on a face-to-face, tutorial/seminar basis. Having erupted as students in a university milieu - and it shows - there's no question they have been enthusiastic and as a collective have put their heart and soul into whatever they've gotten involved with and now have a long track record of interventions. They seem to work as an exemplary, theoretical collective with praxis firmly etched on their efforts and no individual gives out their full name thus refusing any enticement to career advantage. Appearing as a group sometime in the mid-1990s like so much else before the Argentinazo they seem to have produced an astonishing number of well produced, even flashily presented books numbering about 13 in all. The first were completed before the Argentinazo, one on Che Guevara in Argentina via a series of witty photographs on the icon - taking the gentle piss perhaps - although remember nearly everyone loves Che in LA. Interestingly, another seems to be a reflective look at the Tupamaros guerrilla movement in Uruguay and again possibly personally sympathetic as throughout Latin America the "fallen ones" - even though one disagrees with them - are held in great esteem. Then the real break: 19/20 deals with the impact of the Argentinazo whilst another deals with - and is called - Utopian Labyrinths and so on. For sure they're enthusiastic about what unfolded after the 19th to the 21st of December 2001 emphasizing the assemblies, the organic gardening initiatives, the neighbourhood kitchens, the occupied factories, the swaps and the use-value bartering etc though you wonder if their somewhat self-important interviews between and among themselves aren't lacking in sufficient analysis, historical awareness, general knowledge and reflection? They consider themselves part of a "new social protagonism" of "horizontalism" eschewing the state though assisted by "the presence of the Internet and the new technologies." They do though pick up on a serious difficulty: when in collectivity is individual initiative stymied as growing collective ennui with no real breakthrough in sight masks growing impotence.
You get the feeling though there's been quite an improvement over the years the more they've simply gotten older forced to distance themselves from university milieus having to move out into real life and earn a living. Some of them have set up an alternative, collectively run, free school. Obviously one or two have hailed from moneyed backgrounds but they have, it would appear, put their money where the mouth is spending their inheritance on worthwhile publications. Some of the post-Argentinazo books are structured as dialogues seeing perhaps there discussions as a form of new dialogue piched at a higher level though you cannot help but feel the presence of an often tiresome intellectual jargon coming from some post modernist university base. Distancing themselves from the Situationists they seem to home in on another fucking Prof, name of Gilles Deleuze, quoting him very approvingly on creativity ("creation as resistance, resistance as creation") somehow suggesting it's a far more profound comment than anything the Sits could have come up with. The Argentinian collective says "situations are to be extended or taken on, but cannot be invented by ones' own will" as essentially we must work on concrete problems. However it's not an either/or and obviously something of a misinterpretation but thinking Deleuze is better merely ends up in a cul-de-sac regarding any perspective pointing to the transcendence of art and much else beside. Deleuze was pro art, very intent on reviving its corpse post May '68 and particularly fascinated with a lot of junk sculpture we all dismissed as lamentable rubbish in the late 1960s. Yves Tingueley, Ceasar's compressed car bodies and Armani's charred violins delighted him in Anti-Oedipus as he built up some draining obscurantism around 'desiring machines'. Remember the old grafitti: "Art is Dead. Do Not Consume its Corpse": Deleuze basically wanted that slogan removed from the walls of Paris forever the more he saw the 'liberation' inherent in art qua art as one of the basic means of overcoming the limitations of psychoanalysis. (Now if the guy had been talking about the transcendence of art he really would have been saying something!) As it stood this guy from way back just didn't get it as, to add to the mess, he referred to the Russian Revolution as: "This great Leninist break"! Unfortunately a general acceptance comes through as Colectivo Situaciones really do want to see some form of engaged art get off the ground out their on the streets which, is why on their website they endorse a link with grupo de arte callejero and have collaborated with them on a recent book entitled Blanco Movil (Moving Target). They are also pretty tolerant of the theatre and music workshops thrown up by the Argentinazo.
Grupo de arte callejero aren't stupid however despite straggling a compromise that will be their undoing.They themselves wish to "escape" from the traditional exhibition circuit going on "to appropriate public spaces" as their work is aimed at, "the casual, transitory spectator passing through city spaces." Their intention is to subvert the dominant "institutionalised system of messages" like "the spectacular aesthetic of TV" etc. without too much theoretical elaboration as they reckon, "the explanation of each action can only be understood through the action itself." Like AD Busters before them in the US they tend to make too much of a visual thing out of creativity freezing too much possibilities in other directions not least developing a more coherent historical understanding of where they are at. They therefore allow themselves to be recuperated willingly submitting (photos, digitised images, DVDs, nothingness, what?) of their efforts for display at the 2005 Venice Biennale. Obviously they are clinging on to the last vestiges of the artistic role not daring to fully cast aside "the ball and chain of art" as Andre Breton called it in the late 1920s, something which Breton singularly and hypocritically never did himself. Now - ever since as far back as May '68 in France - we have no choice but to take this direction otherwise a niche awaits already mapped out in England by Banksy and the school of Banksy as from Hoxton in London's East End and outover, they cover selected walls and what have you with relatively meaningless visual provocation which isn't going anywhere apart from ironically, to the real bank! Cultivating anonymity, yet acquiring lucrative sponsorships, Banksy's media-savvy publicity machine is nothing but canned subversion (an ironic monetarist twist maybe on Marcel Duchamp's "canned chance") even exhibiting in galleries many of his diverted paintings on the lines of his well known Monet's Waterlilies with Supermarket Trolley which, he makes a small fortune out of without once even raising the beginnings of a valid total revolutionary critique. Increasingly Banksy is a stage-managed stuntman engineering choice situations thus improving his marketability. His recent intervention in California's Disneyland where he replicated a Guantanamo Bay prisoner was really only about promoting an exhibition of his wares in a Los Angeles abandoned building where a painted live elephant was tethered in a room thus further guaranteed to grab headlines in every newpaper/TV channel in America if not elsewhere. Hollywood Royalty were attracted in droves and the price for an original Banksy shot up six fold which must have ensured Bansky came away with at least 3 million dollars. Quite frankly, Grupo de arte callejero have shown far greater potential than this though if not careful, could succumb to something similar along such lines.
As for Colectivo Situacones, in their more recent publications it's something of a relief to see sizable portions of po-mo speil slipping away as the years have rolled by and the afterglow of university dips beneath the horizon.They've yet though to confront one very important basic fact: that the whole post-modernist edifice is one giant con, a sophisticated throwback based on extracting the sting of the original situationist critique and nullifying it. Interestingly one of their best efforts has been one of their most recent when in March 2006 they discussed "El Kirchnerismo" in a 17 thesis document called: "Is there a new governability?" Sadly they think there is subtely noting how this has come about. The concept of recuperation is at its core; a recuperation that is sucking the life-blood out of the many horizontal initiatives, often deftly using divide and rule tactics and deploying an ambiguous language that plays well with international finance as well as not ruffling too much the feathers of the Argentinean people. This ambience has one intention: to bring back triumphant neoliberalism though slowly this time. Most of this change in emphasis couldn't have happened without some minimal welfare state being put in place allowing a 'new' dialogue between the movement and the state as the intelligentia submit to being dumbed down. In this text there is yet again an unfortunate predilection for artistic activity when they should now be raising the central question inherent in a renewed and relevant critique of culture: that is the ever intenser combination of commodity fetishism now inextricably locked into the moving rise and fall of artistic form partaking if you like as its basis, the Hegelian historical analysis of culture. This combination has to be explained most likely in a tentative, exploratory way through a renewed political economy of art or, rather, a renewed critique of the political economy of art, a question Ruskin once posited though obviously without the content Ruskin inserted in Victorian times. In short, in the highly developed world especially the UK and USA, though to a much lesser degree in Latin America, how the manufacturing "steel, mining, workshop economy" is giving way to the aesthetic economy in the moment when globalisation has increasingly removed manufacture to the cheap labour regions of China, India and elsewhere. Essentially what has to be elaborated is how this seeming dialectical combination of commodity fetishism and the movement of artistic form had been realised in contemporary society as a false dialectic in this moment of extreme capitalism and endgame.
Dave the fucker Wise (1848)
See also on this web: Spain & Assemblies - the very best account ever of the internal momentum of the workers' assembly movement in the Spain of the mid 1970s. As yet nothing as profound as this has yet appeared from within the present Latin America assembly movement.Photos on separate page marked "photos" next to Home and Up. Strange Defeat - on the Defeat of President Allende in Chile in 1973.
O Jornal Combate- This is a very interesting and all too brief account written by Phil Meyler of the activities of the Portuguese ultra leftist group Combate during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-76. It is placed in this section simply because so many young Latin Americans today refer back to this event. Especially interested in the practical collaborations between insurgent soldiers and insurgent workers they wonder if such an example has any contemporary relevance.