Autogestión and the Worker-Recuperated Enterprises in Argentina The Potential for Reconstituting Work and Recomposing Life

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Autogestión and the Worker-Recuperated Enterprises in Argentina

The Potential for Reconstituting Work and Recomposing Life

Marcelo Vieta

Programme in Social and Political Thought

York University, Toronto, Canada

This draft: August 10, 2008

Paper to be presented at the 2008 Anarchist Studies Network conference,

Re-imagining Revolution, in the panel:
“‘¡Autogestión ya!’ The promises and challenges of self-management in
Argentina’s worker-recuperated enterprises”
Saturday, Sept. 6, 2008


The Argentine worker-recuperated enterprises (empresas recuperdas por sus trabajadores, or ERT) are direct, diverse, and non-traditional union aligned responses by roughly 10,000 urban-based workers to recent socio-economic crises. Over ten years since the first workplace occupations and their recoveries as self-managed workers-cooperatives, this latest wave of workers’ struggle in Argentina has shown promising alternatives to capital-labour relations and the neoliberal enclosures of life.

But why were almost 200 failing, closed, or bankrupted small- and medium-sized businesses spanning the entire urban economic base subsequently occupied and reopened as self-managed workplaces by former employees in Argentina since at least 1997? Why do most ERTs decide to reorganize themselves as workers’ cooperatives? Why do many of them also decide to open up the shop floor to the diverse communities surrounding them, symbolically and practically tearing down factory walls by sharing their workplaces with community centres and dining halls, free clinics, popular education programmes, alternative radio and media centres, and art studios? Finally, why Argentina?
To begin to answer these questions, I first explore some of Argentina’s key socio-economic and historical conjunctures motivating workspace occupations and the formation of self-managed workers’ cooperatives. Second, I begin to theorize the concept of autogestión (self-management) as it tends to be practiced by Argentina’s ERTs. Third, I sketch out some of the ERTs’ most common micro-economic and organizational successes and challenges, exploring how the struggle to reconstitute a once capitalist workplace as a self-managed workers’ coop interplays with an ERT’s reconstituted labour processes. I conclude by appraising the future possibilities of ERTs for social transformation in Argentina by mapping out four “social innovations” being spearheaded by the phenomenon.
“But now I know, looking back on our struggle three years on. Now I can see where the change in me started, because it begins during your struggles. First, you fight for not being left out on the street with nothing. And then, suddenly, you see that you’ve formed a cooperative and you start getting involved in the struggle of other ERTs. You don’t realize at the time but within your own self there’s a change that’s taking place…. You realize it afterwards, when time has transpired…. Then, suddenly, you find yourself…influencing change…something that you would never imagine yourself doing.”

~ Cándido Gónzalez, on La Tribu 88.7 FM’s La quadrilla,

Buenos Aires, August 2, 2005

Argentine labour researcher Hectór Palomino (2003) writes that the political and economic impacts of Argentina’s empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperated enterprises, or ERTs) are more “related to its symbolic dimension” than to the strength of its size. To date, the ERT phenomenon involves roughly 180-200 mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises estimated to include between 8,000 and 10,000 workers (Ruggeri, Martinez & Trinchero 2005), which represents between 0.55% and 0.62% of Argentina’s approximately 14.3 million officially active participants in the urban-based economy (Ministerio de Trabajo 2005).1 As Palomino points out, however, while it is true that this reflects only a fraction of the economic output of the country, the ERTs have nevertheless inspired “new expectations for social change” in Argentina since they especially show an innovative and viable alternative to chronic unemployment and underemployment (72) and the “institutionalized system of labour relations” (88).
I would add they also more fundamentally show innovative alternatives for reorganizing productive life itself in the aftermath of Argentina’s recent crisis of neoliberal finance capital. The team of activist anthropologists at the University of Buenos Aires working with a number of Argentina’s ERTs calls the innovative alternatives experimented by the ERTs their social innovations (Ruggeri et al. 2005; Ruggeri 2006).
Broadly, in this paper I specifically explore some of these social innovations in light of the tensions and challenges of self-managing formerly capitalist small- and medium-sized firms in Argentina—innovations that tend towards the communitarian, cooperativist, and directly democratic values and practices that ground the concept of autogestión (self-management) throughout many of the country’s ERTs.2
More specifically, in the following pages I begin to answer several complex and interrelated questions: Why did these new expressions of workers’ self-management take off in Argentina in the past decade? Why is it that they have survived as long as they have within and despite a stubbornly ever-present neoliberalist national economy? Indeed, if, as Croatian self-management economist Branko Horvat has asserted, “producer cooperatives, in a capitalist environment, [have historically] turned out to be a failure” on the path towards “socialist development” (1982: 128), how is it that Argentina’s ERTs have survived for so long when compared to other self-management movements in other conjunctures?3 Furthermore, how is it that they have forged several innovative and non-capitalist production processes and schemas—such as horizontalized labour processes, factories and shop floors opening up to the community, and incipient experiments with economies of solidarity—given the micro-economic and -political difficulties they continue to face? How do these challenges shape the less hierarchical labour processes and divisions of labour that emerge within each ERT? And, finally, how are the ERTs prefigurative of other potentialities for restructuring productive life outside of the enclosures of capital-labour relations?
With the aim of beginning to answer these questions and, in the process, report on some of my ongoing research findings to date, in this paper I specifically:

  1. point out some of the conjunctural factors that have contributed to the rise of worker-recuperated enterprises in Argentina since at least 1997-98 and that came to a head in the financial crisis years of 2001-03,

  1. describe and begin to theorize the concept of autogestión as it tends to be practiced by Argentina’s ERTs,

  1. map out several of the challenges that arise out of ERTs practices of autogestión and their workers’ direct action tactics adopted to defend their jobs and recover their workspaces, and

  1. explore four social innovations that subsequently emerge immanently and within ongoing crisis moments in the lives of ERT protagonists as responses to the challenges of autogestión in a continuingly intransigent environment of market capitalism.

I. The Conjunctural and Phenomenological Factors that Impel Argentina’s ERTs
From my political economic and in situ qualitative and participant observation research thus far, six conjunctural factors seem to have contributed to Argentina’s modest but promising surge in worker-recuperated workers’ coops over the past decade4:

  1. Conjunctures of need: Workspace occupations and their subsequent self-management under the legal rubric of a workers’ coop have not been, of course, about a national revolutionary cause or the total “civilizational” change, (as Marcuse would say) of Argentina’s socio-economic system by its working class. They are, rather, risky practices of localized workspace occupations and situational worker resistances that immanently lead to the subsequent worker self-management of once-at-risk capitalist firms. ERT protagonists take on the challenges of self-management in order to feed families, keep jobs, and safe-guard workers’ self-dignity in the face of a collapsing neoliberal system. In other words, the formation of most ERTs were first impelled by pragmatic factors: ERT protagonists’ deep need to protect their jobs, hold on to their diginity, and provide for their families’ necessities in light of a temporarily disintegrating economic model, the growing wave of bankruptcies and business closures that had peaked at the rate of over 2600 firms per month by late-2001 (Magnani 2003: 37),5 and the callous anti-labour climate of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Ruggeri 2006).6

  1. Conjunctures of precariousness in everyday life: The majority of these risky workplace occupations and struggles to make recovered enterprises economically viable—risky because of the continued threat of repression from returning owners and the state—were situated within a backdrop of the temporary implosion of the neoliberal model of the 1990s, propagated as it was by the multinationalization and privatization of the Argentine economy under the regime of President Carlos Menem. This neoliberalization ultimately led to a national export deficit, high rates of under and unemployment, high rates of bankruptcies of small- and medium-sized firms, high levels of homelessness, increased poverty, and little job security amongst Argentina’s once-strong working classes.7

  1. Conjunctures of deep class divisions: Everywhere in Argentina conspicuous consumption continues to intermingle with still high levels of poverty, albeit at lower rates compared the middle class’s high consumption rates and the high rates of indigence and poverty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In other words, deeply structurated economic and social divisions still etch everyday life in Argentina, with continued social tensions between the haves and have-nots.8

  1. Conjunctures of horizontalism and resistive subjectivities: Between 1995 and 2005, and especially between the years 2001-03, Argentina witnessed a deep radicalization of marginalized groups. The contagion of bottom-up popular resistance and horizontalism9 among Argentina’s marginal sectors throughout this period intermingled with a long history of working class militancy and workers’ collective imaginary of Argentina’s Peronist-led “golden years” of a nationalized and self-sustaining economy. Consequently, by the early years of the new millennium there was much socio-political cross-pollination between grassroots social justice groups, witnessed in myriad informal networks of solidarity and affinity that continue to crisscross Argentina’s social sectors. Much of the routines of daily life in Argentina were, up until 2005 and the relative recomposition of Argentina’s economy under Nestor Kirchner’s administration, peppered by constant protests, the occupation of land by the dispossessed, workplace takeovers, and road stoppages by myriad marginalized groups demanding political voice or social change.10

  1. Conjunctures of community: The ERT movement tends to be situated deep within the community each enterprise finds itself in. There is a spatio-temporal reality to the impetus for autogestión in Argentina. For example, networks of solidarity between the recovered enterprise and the greater community and with other local ERTs have in some cases emerged into neighbourhood links of mutual aid. This is further driven by the fact that most workers live in the neighbourhoods where the enterprises are located. Moreover, neighbours were often also active in and supportive of the various stages of recuperation of workplaces by their workers. Consequently, neighbourhood cultural centres and other community services tend to organically emerge within many recovered enterprises themselves as a way of giving back to the neighbourhoods that supported them and as a way of further valorizing and, thus, protect the ERT from repression and closure via the bonds of solidarity formed within these interlaced communities of mutual assistance.11

  1. Conjunctures of cooperativism: The practices and legal framework of cooperativism have a long tradition in Argentina extending as far back as the early waves of European immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the traditions of anarchism and socialism that they brought to their new country and that guided labour movements in the early part of the 20th century (Munck, Falcon & Galitelli 1987). Subsequently practiced in myriad economic sectors and entrenched in national business legislation, co-operativism serves as an important legal organizational model for the country’s ERTs in light of the paucity of other legal frameworks for these former owner-managed recovered enterprises.

Five Direct Micro-Political and Micro-Economic Influences on Workplace Takeovers

Emerging out of these six broad conjunctural factors, ERT protagonists consistently mention five direct micro-economic and micro-political experiences that influence their desire for and practices of autogestión (Ruggeri et al. 2005: 66):

  1. the practices of illegally “emptying” the factory of its assets and inventory by owners once bankruptcy is declared (called vaciamiento) (28% of cases studied);

  1. employees’ perceived imminence of bankruptcy or closure of the plant (27% of cases);

  1. employees not getting paid salaries, wages, and benefits for weeks or months (21% of cases);

  1. actual layoffs and firings (28% of cases); or

  1. lockout and other mistreatment (21% of cases).

Two Further Phenomenological Influences on Workplace Takeovers

In light of these precarious micro-economic and -political experiences, workers across the urban economic sectors began to take the drastic action of either occupying workspaces or beginning self-managed production starting around 1997-98.12 In addition to these five experiences, ERT protagonists tend to give two related and overarching phenomenological reasons for attempting the risky occupations of workplaces and their stubborn resistance against state power and owner repression (Fajn 2003; Ruggeri et al. 2005).

First, workers’ initial actions involving the seizure of deteriorating, bankrupted, or failed companies from former owners, their potential occupation of them for weeks or months, and their desire to put them into operation once again under autogestión, arise out of fear and anger. That is, most ERTs originate as direct and immanent responses to their worker-protagonists’ deep worries about becoming structurally unemployed, a life situation that Argentine workers term “death in life” (Vieta 2006).
Second, most ERTs reorganize themselves within the legal rubric of a workers’ co-operative only after workers gain control of the plant—and usually after many weeks if not months of struggle—not because the recovered firm’s workers come to the struggle with a vision of becoming cooperativists, nor because they possess presupposed political ambitions or clearly-defined working class identities. Rather, workers turn to cooperativism as a legal and pragmatically defensive strategy that emerged in the early years of the movement and that become known to them during or after their own struggle to occupy or seize their workplaces. This cooperativist strategy is passed on to new ERTs through informal networks of solidarity where the experiences acquired by older and supportive ERTs are shared through the facilitation of various ERT lobby groups, social organizations, and even sympathetic university student groups.
A Three-Staged Struggle on the Road to Autogestión, or “Occupy, Resist, Produce”

Theorizing these micro-political, micro-economic, and phenomenological motivators, Palomino (2003) identifies three stages on the long road to workers’ self-management in Argentina:

  1. The recognition and genesis of conflict with former bosses and/or the state,

  1. the transformation of workers’ perceptions of their capacity to change their situation and shift the terrain of conflict from their workspaces onto the streets and the houses of power, and

  1. the struggle to regulate and normalize their work once again.13

The National Movement of Recovered Enterprises (or MNER), the first and most influential of the ERT lobby groups between 2001-05, evocatively captures this three-staged struggle towards autogestión in the following slogan borrowed from Brazil’s landless peasant movements: “occupy, resist, produce.”

In sum, the micro-political and micro-economic strategies and tactics of occupation, resistance, and self-managed production under the legal framework of a workers’ coop have become important defensive maneuvers for the ERT movement. These maneuvers serve to: 1) counteract and struggle against the very real threat of repression on the part of the state and returning owners and bosses, 2) address the indifference of traditional unions to the plight of the ERTs,14and 3) directly challenge the roadblocks to autogestión put up by Argentina’s recalcitrant capitalist establishment.
It is from out of these initial phenomenological experiences and micro-political and micro-economic realities that the subsequent restructuring of workplaces as self-managed firms most immediately emerge. And as I will explore in parts III and IV of this paper, these experiences also shape the labour processes, divisions of labour, and solidarity economies being forged by ERT protagonists.15
II. Cooperative Production Under Autogestión
Conceptualizing Autogestión

According to Paul Farmer (1979) the word autogestión has a Greek and Latin etymology. The word auto comes from the Greek autós (self, same)” (59). Gestión comes from the Latin “gestio (managing),” which in turn comes from “gerere (to bear, carry, manage)” (59). More evocatively, one can conceptualize it as “self-gestation”—to self-create, self-control, self-provision, and, ultimately, self-produce; in other words, to practice autogestión means to be self-reliant. Tellingly, the English words “gestate” and “gestation” have evolved from the word gestion. Taken together, autogestión alludes to an organic, biological, and processual movement of creation and conception, having social political relevance in its implicit notion of immanence, becoming, and potentiality. Together, the words auto and gestión yield the perhaps inadequate English term “self-management.”

In critical theory, the concept of autogestión is rooted in a sense of workers’ bottom-up agency, human autopoiesis, and anthropogenesis even within the tendency for capital to want to capture all of life. In this sense, one is reminded of Max Horkheimer’s continued hopes for human agency, where “the good society [is] one in which [humans are] free to act as a subject rather than be acted upon as a contingent predicate” (Jay 1973: 57). One is also reminded of the classical anarchist desire to balance individual freedom and voluntary participation in economic life with the ethico-political commitments of communal life reflected in the well-known anarchist and socialist maxim “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” In this sense, autogestión is ultimately rooted in the desire for individual freedom via self-control, self-reliance, and collective and cooperative production in provisioning for the realm of necessity—what André Gorz called the “heteronomous spheres” of life—via the maximization of the “autonomous spheres” underprivileged by the productivist-capitalist paradigm (Little 1996: 41).
For worker liberation from the exploitation and alienation inherent to capitalist

labour relations, divisions of labour, and modes of production, autogestión was first articulated in Europe in the 19th century. First, by the utopian socialists in, for example, Robert Owen’s concept of and experiments with “federations of cooperative communities” (Horvat 1982: 112) and Charles Fourier’s theories of self-governing productive social communities he termed phalanstrères (114). Second, by classical anarchists in, for example, Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s writings on mutuellisme and its equitable systems of exchange, popular banks, small private posessions, and larger “collective properties of workers’ associations” (118), or in Peter Kropotkin’s notions of the predominance of “mutual aid” rather than detailed divisions of labour within the evolutionary process and traditional human societies (Kropotkin 1989). And, finally, indirectly by Marx’s mostly favourable views of worker-producer cooperatives (Jossa 2005), “labour in common or directly associated labour” (Marx 1967: 77), “living labour” (167-169), and the potential he envisioned for working class agency more generally.

As economic potential, from a workerist and reformist standpoint, autogestión has, since the late 1960s and 1970s, come to denote “a modernizing form of industrial democracy…in which administrative councils of workers, technicians, and managers engage in cooperative decision making, over-seeing all the aspects of industrial life” (New Republic, June 18, 1977: 20, quoted in Farmer, 1979: 59). Historical and theoretical examples from this standpoint that come to mind are council communism, anarcho-syndicalism, development theory, workers’ control in Yugoslavia, European works councils, traditional producer and workers’ coops, proposals for self-management in the production of socially useful products,16 and other experiences with self-managed work teams and enterprises in industrial settings. Limiting the definition of autogestión only to workerist, reformist, or development agendas, however, elides the capacity for the concept to overflow the self-management of life outside of the factory and beyond the point of production.
Inspired by the writings of Marcuse, Castoriadis, Gorz, and the Situationists, amongst others, eventually the students and militant union protagonists of the May 1968 events in France, the May-June 1969 events in Córdoba, Argentina, and similar late-1960s movements throughout the world adopted the concept of autogestión as a key demand and desire. By the late 1960s, the desire for autogestión for these militant students and workers was not only a struggle for more democratic workplaces, less alienated and exploitative labour processes at the point of production, and a return of the means of production to the producers. It was also characterized by a demand for the self-management of life itself. The changes in capitalist modes of production that were emerging with post-Fordism at the time meant that, increasingly in developed countries, workers were experiencing domination not only via control at the point of production but outside of the workplace, as well. Indeed, the individual within post-Fordism was being integrated more and more within the capitalist modes of reproduction itself (Boltanski & Chiapello 2007). This more total integration of the individual within the circuits of capital pointed to the increased futility of the free development of human beings outside of the established spheres of production, consumption, and leisure (Marcuse 1964; Littek & Charles 1996; Little 1996). Now, even “the intervals between the buying and the selling,” to quote Marx (1967: 155), were the domains of capitalist technological reason. As such, the desire for autogestión was felt by an increasing number of workers, students, and activists to be one where life itself had to be reclaimed from the ideologies and practices of workerism, productivism, and consumerism.
Arising as a direct reaction against the spiral of greed, exploitation, and consumerism of the 1990s and the eventual implosion of the Argentine economy, currently in Argentina autogestión means, most directly and in everyday practice, to self-manage work cooperatively as an alternative to capitalist and owner-managed work organization. For a not insignificant group of Argentines engaging in autogestión, the practice has also made them increasingly aware that, on the one hand, any stark separation between work life and the rest of life is a fantasy—sociality overflows the divisions between private life and public work. On the other hand, there is also an increasing awareness that the post-Fordist and neoliberal desire to merge capitalist production with the reproduction of life is a move by contemporary forms of capital to capture even the moments and spaces of “unproductive consumption” for the project of accumulation (Marx 1967: 573). It is, they realize, an ideological move by contemporary capital—its attempt at pacifying worker resistance while, at the same time, continuing to maximize surplus value and profits. In sum, for many protagonists of the ERTs and other self-managed workers collectives, autogestión means to self-constitute social and productive lives while minimizing the intrusive mediation of free markets, traditional bureaucracies, hierarchical organization, or the state.
In Latin America, myriad social justice groups are increasingly using the concept to articulate how the (re)invention and (re)construction of labour and social relations can take place. To autogestionar is the verb that drives how more and more groups are democratically and ethically reconstituting productive life.
In Argentina, especially since the socio-economic crisis years of 2001 and 2002, countless grassroots groups have been experimenting with and concretely practicing forms of autogestión that, as Richard Day (2005) points out regarding the newest alter-globalilization social movements, both contests the neoliberal enclosures of life while, at the same time, moving beyond them by prefiguring other modes to productive life. In the process, they are inventing new horizons beyond socio-economic crises by forging new and particular social and solidarity economies. In Argentina’s recent history, such groups have included not only the ERTs but also the movements of the unemployed (the piqueteros), the surging networks of solidarity spearheaded by self-managed microenterprises, affordable housing activists, Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and other human rights groups, popular education initiatives, and environmental and rural groups.
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