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Elections vs. Democracy in Argentina

In most of the world, it's the sign for peace, but here in Argentina it means war. The index and middle finger, held to form a "V" means, to his followers, "Menem Vuelve," Menem will return. Carlos Menem, poster boy of Latin American neo-liberalism, president for almost all of the 1990s, is looking to get his old job back on May 18.

Menem's campaign ads show menacing pictures of unemployed workers blockading roads, with a voice-over promising to bring order, even if it means calling in the military. This strategy gave him a slim lead in the first election round, though he will almost certainly lose the run-off to an obscure Peronist governor, Nestor Kirchner, considered the puppet of current president (and Menem's former vice-president) Eduardo Duhalde.

On December 19 and 20, 2001, when Argentines poured into the streets banging pots and pans and told their politicians "Que se vayan todos," everyone must go, few would have predicted the current elections would come down to this: a choice between two symbols of the regime that bankrupted the country. Back then, Argentines could have been forgiven for believing that they were starting a democratic revolution, one that forced out President Fernando de la Rua and churned through three more presidents in twelve days.

The target of these mass demonstrations was the corruption of democracy itself, a system that had turned voting into a hollow ritual while the real power was outsourced to the International Monetary Fund, French water companies and Spanish telecoms — with local politicians taking their cut. Carlos Menem, though he had been out of office for two years, was the uprising's chief villain. Elected in 1989 on a populist platform, Menem did an about — face and gutted public spending, sold off the state, and sent hundreds of thousands into unemployment.

When Argentines rejected these policies, it was hugely significant for the globalization movement. The events of December 2001 were seen in international activist circles as the first national revolt against neo-liberalism, and "You are Enron, We are Argentina" was soon adopted as a chant outside trade summits. Perhaps more importantly, the country seemed on the verge of answering the most persistent question posed to critics of both "free trade" and feeble representative democracies: "What is your alternative?" With all of their institutions in crisis, hundreds of thousands of Argentines went back to democracy's first principles: neighbors met on street corners and formed hundreds of popular assemblies. They created trading clubs, health clinics and community kitchens. Close to 200 abandoned factories were taken over by their workers and run as democratic cooperatives. Everywhere you looked, people were voting.

These movements, though small, were dreaming big: national constituent assemblies, participatory budgets, elections to renew every post in the country. And they had broad appeal: a March 2002 newspaper poll found that 50 percent of Buenos Aires residents believed that the neighborhood assemblies were "a way forward, a new way of governing."

One year later, the movements continue, but barely a trace is left of the wildly hopeful idea that they could someday run the country. Instead, the protagonists of the December revolts have been relegated to a "governability problem" to be debated by politicians and the IMF. So how did it happen? How did a movement that was building a whole new kind of democracy-direct, decentralized, accountable-give up the national stage to a pair of discredited has-beens? In Argentina, this marginalization process had three clear stages, each of which has plenty to teach activists hoping to turn protest into sustained political change.

Stage One: Annoy and Conquer. The first blow to the new movements came from the old left, as sectarian parties infiltrated the assemblies and tried to drive through their own dogmatic programs. Pretty soon you couldn't see the sun for the red and black party flags, and a process that drew its strength from the fact that it was normal — something your aunt or teacher participated in — turned into something marginal, not action but "activism." Thousands returned to their homes to escape the tedium.

Stage Two: Withdraw and Isolate. The second blow came in response. Rather than challenge sectarian efforts at cooptation head-on, many of the assemblies and unemployed unions turned inward and declared themselves "autonomous." While the parties' plans verged on scripture, some autonomists turned not having a plan into its own religion: so wary were they of cooptation that any proposal to move from protest to policy was immediately suspect.

These groups continue to do remarkable neighborhood-based work, building bread ovens, paving roads, and challenging their members to let go of their desire for saviors. Yet they have also become far less visible than they were a year ago, less able to offer the country a competing vision for its future. Stage Three: Just Don't Do It. Argentina's screaming and pot banging went on, and on, and on. Just when everyone was hoarse and exhausted, the politicians emerged from hiding to call an election. Incredulous, the social movements made a decision not to participate in the electoral farce-to ignore the churnings of Congress and the IMF and build "counter-powers" instead.

Fair enough, but as the elections took on a life of their own, the neighborhood assemblies began to seem out of step. People weren't able to vote for the sentiment behind December 19 and 20, either by casting a ballot or boycotting but demanding deeper democratic reforms, since no concrete platform or political structure emerged from those early, heady discussions. They thus left the legitimacy of the elections dangerously uncontested, and the dream of a new kind of democracy utterly unrepresented.

The campaign slogan that won the first round was the astonishingly vague "Menem knows what to do and he can do it." In other words, maybe Nike was right: people just want to do something, and if things are bad enough, they will settle for anything.

Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn't filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.

This article first appeared in The Nation.

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