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Creating “Other Power”: Lessons for the US from the Argentine Elections

By: 
Marina A Sitrin
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    “We were inside the government building…we put our hands on the walls, and said ‘we do not want this,’ the idea of taking power is archaic…and we went back to the neighborhoods...”—Paula, Argentine activist

The popular rebellions of December 19-20, 2001 began a process that threatened the legitimacy and power of the Argentine state. These rebellions forced out five consecutive governments, and created an atmosphere of protest, direct democracy and popular power. The state was largely ignored, unless it was in the way. There was not a desire to “take power.” The desire was, and continues to be, different: the creation of another power.

It is not a good day for state power when the people ignore it. The Argentine state responded with repression, in an attempt to restore “order,” and then tried to secure a people’s mandate through elections. Both tactics brought attention back to the state. It was not so important that the attention was negative. Any attention, especially that which coincides with engagement, can help bring back some legitimacy.

When the government called for the elections, many in the movements did not plan to engage in them at all. Others organized counter events, designed to reflect concretely what they both desired and were creating. Then far-right neoliberal Carlos Menem (so right wing, in fact, that many refer to him as a fascist) not only became a candidate, but it appeared that he might win. In reaction to this frightening prospect, some in the movements decided that it was now important to vote, even while they did not support the system of representation.

While this vote-against philosophy did result in Menem’s defeat, it also helped the elected government claim legitimacy. One year later, the new government continues to feel empowered to do as it pleases, arguing that the people voted it into power. So far, this has resulted in repression, evictions, and continued hunger. Neka, from the MTD Solano, has concluded that, “nothing has changed for us since [the current president Nestor] Kirshner was elected, nothing…we still live in the same desperate situation of poverty, and just as we continue to create and organize, the state continues to criminalize us.”

Many in the movements do not engage in elections, or the system of representation, and I would argue that they are stronger and have deeper roots in their communities as a result. These movements, and there are many, continue to create autonomous spaces, build on the goals and tools of horizontalism, autonomy, direct democracy and “other power.”

There are two important conclusions that many in the movements derive from this experience. First, we need to remain focused on what we desire and what we are creating, no matter how much the state tries to distract us. I believe that we cannot focus simultaneously on voting against a terrible person, and by doing so putting some faith in the state, while creating something different and autonomous in our communities. Second, a vote against someone or something is never just that simple. We always end up with something, and that something will claim we asked for it. This is not meant to oversimplify things here, nor to pretend that everything is clear and easy. The Argentine experience, however, suggests clearly that elections can be an obstacle to real social creation.

The following selections of interviews took place over the course of a year, beginning days before the elections in Argentina. The voices below represent a few of the autonomous social movements, from the neighborhood assemblies to the Unemployed Workers Movements (MTD) as well as the occupied factory movement.

Pablo, Asamblea Colegiales
Two months after the elections

The popular rebellions of the 19th and 20th had caused a fissure in the system that the state could not close. The state had lost all legitimacy, and was without authority or order. It saw two ways to reconstitute itself, one, with repression, and the other through reconstructing legitimacy. The state tried both ways: repression and then the call for elections.

In response to the call for elections many in the neighborhood assembly movement decided to organize a counter campaign. The campaign was for people to not vote, vote a blank ballot, or annul their ballot. The goal was to not permit the state the legitimacy it so desired. In the end, this counter campaign did not take place to any large extent. Ultimately many in the movements were not able to imagine another, different, path.

There was a great deal of disinterest in the elections at first. People considered voting a blank ballot, or writing, “Que se vayan todos” (They all must go) on their ballots. Many felt that voting for a candidate was about transferring power to someone else, again, even if with little confidence or interest.

In the end what appeared was effectively a situation of blackmail, and in the final days and weeks people’s attitudes changed a lot, for the following reason: At a certain moment the most far right, neo-liberal sectors appeared to be in a position to potentially win the elections, it appeared as a real threat. Many people said, “I do not believe in any of them, but I am not either going to let ‘these guys’ take control of the state apparatus.” For that reason many people voted for the candidate less horrible, and that was Kirshner, the current president.

Paula, various women’s rights and Queer collectives
One month after the election

I haven’t voted in many years. In Argentina, elections are obligatory, and I could care less for either the elections or the obligation to vote. I do not believe in parliamentary democracy, or anything decided in this way, it is an absolute political farce. In Argentina there have been military governments. One of the supposedly progressive arguments is that we need to use our ability to vote, because in other epochs we were not able to vote.

This is absolutely ridiculous and false, because the vote today is not the same as when we were not able to vote. It is not the same to have a fascist government as a democratic one. But today, the vote means nothing, all that the vote does is legitimize the perverse functioning of the political and economic system. People that go and vote are only legitimizing the state, and nothing more.

Myra, Asamblea Colegiales
Between the first election and the runoff

What we did in the assembly with respect to the elections was organize a carnival against the farce. To show and ridicule what the elections were going to be. Really, it is quite ridiculous because there is no change. If people place hope there…I just don’t know…

Daniela, Marta and Ariel, MTD Almirante Brown
In the days between the election and the runoff

The system and State are there, and as long as they continue to be there, they will continue to oppress us. Our construction is here, in the day to day, in the neighborhood. I believe that for us the change in President is not as confusing as it appears. They will give us the same…Duhalde, Kirchner or Menem. Ok, in this case Menem is a bit worse, but no matter who is there the situation will continue to be the same for us and we will have to continue to struggle. I believe that more than anything our communities are tired of politicians, who are always puppets, people just do not believe in any of them anymore.

By way of example: There was a workshop in my neighborhood, organized by the MTD, on the topic of the elections. We had a written go-around, where each compañero wrote what they were going to do in relation to the elections, and the majority of the compañeros said “I do not want any politician” or “I vote for work” or chose other things. It is important that we are all talking about it though, because no matter what, even if we do not want them to, the elections will affect us.

We have, like many of the different movements, a ballot that expresses our desires, more than anything to use as a protest vote. I personally do not vote because I do not believe in it. Change does not come from a ballot box, but rather in what we are doing ourselves. The system wants to sell us that voting is the way out—for me, it is just one more problem, yet another gravedigger.

Today in the neighborhood assembly we spoke about the question of water, because the garden is important to us so as to keep the communal kitchen. That’s what we spoke about days before the election. The same thing happened in an assembly that we had with other autonomous organizations is our neighborhood one week before the elections. We discussed how to better collaborate, how to get to know one another better.

At no moment did someone say, “ as an organization, who are you voting for?” The contrary. We were discussing things to bring to an upcoming collective event. The Mapuche (indigenous) community plans to bring the honey and sweets, we are brining some cheese and making bread, others are bringing lettuce and vegetables. That is what we spoke about, and in no moment did we think to discuss who might win the election. Whoever wins, we know that we will have to continue struggling for our most basic things.

Toty, MTD la Matanza
Eight months after the elections

We believe our new visions are a threat to the system. It is not that we are so many, or that we are so powerful in strength, but rather that we have another logic, another way of constructing thought. They are not able to control us, for two reasons. First because of our horizontal practices, to co-opt a leader would mean co-opting all of us, because all of us have opinions and share them, and we have a common strategy. It is not as if one depends on the movement, but the movement depends on one.

The other reason is our daily practice. They cannot change what we do every day, how we relate to one another or capture our vision. Compañeros continue believing in the path of autogestion (self-organization). We see this as both a possible and viable path, it is the path of happiness for our children and community, it is a different path.

Ernesto, Cooperativa Chilavert
One year after the elections

What is most important for me is direct democracy. There is a lot of conversation about participatory democracy, but it is different. One thing is to participate, and another is to decide. In Chilavert we strive for all our decisions to be made in a directly democratic way, with each participating in all decisions that affect each of us, and our factory. For me, an important aspect of our social creation is the creation of a different society. Because of this, it is important that we deepen and develop the experience of direct democracy.

There is some inevitable deviation from absolute direct democracy, for example when we speak of the necessity of delegation, but it is always possible that the group controls all decisions. As well, if we do choose delegates, they can be accountable through being revoked and changed. There is a question of scale, the Greek polis are impossible because our cities have grown so much, what happens if we are not able to have an assembly with 35 million people in Argentina…how then…I do not know, but I know we can.

A group of young women, MTD La Matanza
Eight months after the elections

No, state power, no thanks. (All are laughing)

I believe we are creating popular power in this space. Everyone that comes here can decide how things are going to be…it is an open space. Creating new education and a new school here, our work, all of it I believe is creating power, not state power, but popular power. Power that radiates within us.

We talk about this sometimes, that it is not about loosing or wasting energy worrying about “this power,” but rather to try and create a new one. If the one that exists does not work, we need to do something else. Why would you want to spend time thinking of how to take or change this power when it has no use at all? Especially when you can hope for and make something better.

Neka, MTD Solano
One year after the elections

The most marvelous idea is not to think only of the future, nor to deposit our lives in others who say they will guarantee this future, but rather it is the recuperation of life. It is that we come back into ourselves to live and believe more than anything, that our life, today, is what we can transform and live in a way that is different.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marina spent the Spring in Argentina working with the autonomous popular movements and developing an oral history of the movements for a book entitled “Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.” She returns to Argentina periodically to continue this work.