Starting Over

Argentines are re-inventing their economy from the ruins of corporate capitalism

Sleeping on the floor of the factory in order to keep her job was not exactly what Alva Sotelo had in mind when she started working as a seamstress at the Brukman Factory in Buenos Aires. Like most people, she figured her job would give her enough money to feed herself and her children, and that at the end of the day, she could go home and forget about it.


A seamstress from the Brukman garment plant, which was taken over by workers. Photo by Andreew Stern
For a while, that was true. Though the work was tedious and the workers had orders from the boss not to talk to each other while they worked the machines and hand-stitched the cloth all day long, they did get a 15-minute lunch break. And Alva was earning 100 pesos a week.

Then everything changed. By December of last year, Argentina found that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recipe it had followed had gone sour. Loans to prop up an overvalued peso, multinational privatizations of Argentine companies that stripped the country of control over its own industry and dumped thousands of people from their jobs, combined with political corruption, had created a national mess: an external debt of $132 billion, a 25 percent unemployment rate, and a middle class suddenly slipping into poverty. Businesses were going bankrupt, and people throughout the country were sifting through garbage for food.

On December 19th and 20th, the country finally exploded. Hordes of hungry families ransacked and looted grocery stores. Thousands of members of the middle class who had lost their money to a bank freeze defied President Fernando de la Rua's state of siege and filled the streets of Buenos Aires banging pots and chanting, “Get rid of de La Rua! Get rid of them all.” Street battles left 25 dead and toppled four presidents in succession. What had once been the world's seventh richest nation found itself in total economic, political, and social collapse.

Throughout all this, Alva Sotelo was just trying to hold onto her job and her salary. By December, she and her fellow workers' pay had fallen to only five pesos a week. The Brukman brothers, who owned the factory, agreed to meet with the workers. But, according to Alva, the owners never showed up. She and her fellow workers began sleeping at the factory because they kept hoping their employers would come back and pay their salaries. “At first, we were waiting for someone to tell us what to do,” she says.

Eventually, the workers at Brukman realized that wasn't going to happen—the owners had effectively abandoned the debt-ridden factory. The workers began, slowly, to run the factory themselves. They elected a six-member commission to coordinate the work. They paid off the company's debts with factory profits. They paid their salaries by dividing the remaining profits equally among themselves. The Brukman brothers—who claim they were locked out by the workers—wanted to sell the factory and use the profits to pay the workers, a proposal the workers rejected.

Alva and her 50 or so fellow workers continue to sleep in shifts at the factory. But now they are bringing home around 50 pesos a week, and they laugh and talk to each other while they work. “We've actually discovered that we get more done when we communicate with each other,” she says.

Alva Sotelo is one of many people in Argentina who have been forced by the collapse of the economy into creating alternatives. The result is new-found solidarity and empowerment and an opportunity to create new models that transcend the old individualist capitalist one. "Solidarity solutions" are sprouting up all over Argentina: streetcorner soup kitchens organized by neighborhood assemblies, food donations replacing money as the price of entrance to cultural events, neighbors buying food together, community food gardens. The most notable changes have been the explosion of worker cooperatives like Brukman's, the rise of neighborhood assemblies, and the proliferation of barter clubs.

Solidarity solutions
Worker-owned cooperatives are not a new phenomenon in Argentina. There are about 100 legal cooperatives in the country, some of which date back to the Peron years. They include printing presses and refrigerator factories, and range in size from eight employees to over a thousand.

But the current crisis has caused a “dizzying increase” in workers taking control of bankrupt companies, says Jose Abelli of the Confederacion Latino-Americana de Cooperativas y Mutuales de Trabajadores. Roughly 10 businesses a month are now being taken over by workers. Most of them share a model similar to Brukman's: the “directors” of the company are elected by the workers themselves, and the profits are split among the workers, or “associates.” In some companies, everyone earns the same amount of money. In others, the highest-paid associate makes no more than four times the amount of the lowest-paid associate.
Once workers take control of a company, they can use legal channels to apply for cooperative status. Owner attempts to evict the workers are often unsuccessful either because they are legally challenged or because members of local neighborhood assemblies show up en masse to support the workers and nonviolently prevent the eviction.

These assemblies, born in early January from “the pot and pan uprisings” (cacerolazos) of December, are another powerful force for innovation within a collapsing system. Breaking through the fear of activism instilled by the brutal military dictatorship, roughly 200 groups of neighbors throughout Buenos Aires have rejected traditional party divisions and opted for direct democracy and a “politics without politicians.” They are sending delegates to an inter-neighborhood assembly, publishing newsletters, requesting donations from local merchants for streetcorner community kitchens, and organizing demonstrations. In addition to confronting the practical needs of the neighborhood, the assemblies have become improvisational think tanks where people trade political, social, and economic ideas to create a new vision for the country.

“In December ,” says assembly member Hugo Perez, “we dissolved the trance we had been in of ‘Don't get involved.' We woke up and claimed the street, and once we had it, we didn't want to give it up.”

any of these middle-class professionals have lost their jobs. Some have had their utilities cut off because of lack of payment, and some worry about how and what they are going to eat. Pro-government forces have attacked and threatened neighborhood assembly members. Suddenly their own situation does not seem so different from the struggles of the working-class unemployed who have been protesting by blocking roads. A new slogan is chanted at demonstrations: “Potbanger and roadblocker, it's the same fight!”

Abundant social “money”
Social distinctions also blur at the barter clubs proliferating throughout the country. With 400,000 participants and 800 nodes, the barter system now accounts for $400-600 million worth of business. The nodes operate with slips of paper called credits, earned by trade in goods or services.

At one club in an office building in Alto Palermo, a posh Buenos Aires neighborhood filled with upscale cafés and multiplex cinemas, carefully made-up and coiffed women from the neighborhood rub shoulders with indigenous women with long braids who come in from the provinces. Hundreds of people mill around tables stacked with clothes, books, artwork, and food, while Tarot readers, manicurists, and hair dressers ply their trades. In rooms off to the side, doctors, dentists, psychologists, and masseuses attend to clients on the spot in makeshift offices.

Buenos Aires is teeming with psychologists, many of whom live and practice in this neighborhood. So it is not surprising to find that this club is filled with mental health professionals, who are either using the barter system to find new patients or supplementing their income trading artwork and other goods. The barter economy is not only an invention born of necessity. Many of them say it is also an unexpected tool of psychological health.

“It gets people out of their houses and interacting with one another,” says Nilda Cañon, who with fellow psychologist Alicia Aguirre sees patients on site.

Social economist and barter promoter Heloisa Primavera says the barter economy creates “social money” that fosters community rather than the isolation of traditional consumerism. “It's also a tool for replacing scarcity thinking with abundance thinking.”

How far can this thinking go? At least one Argentine writer has suggested that the country could use barter with other countries as a way to free itself from the leash of the IMF and the external debt. When an entire people wake from the trance of political passivity, as the Argentines did last December, it seems that anything is possible.

Economists are concerned about the contagion of collapse spreading from Argentina to other countries. But the contagion that spreads may be of a different sort: the contagion of people working together to think differently and create alternatives to a global economic model that for many is no longer working.

A recent cartoon in a Buenos Aires newspaper summed it up: “Doctor,” says a patient at a doctor's office, “I think I'm suffering from a solidarity worm.”

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