2001 as a Murmur, Looting as a Project, and New Promises for Social Change

The 2021 electoral scenario in Argentina puts several debates on the table. At the same time, however, it conceals others that are perhaps more transcendental. The twentieth anniversary of the events of December 2001 is approaching, and it is worth asking about their imprint, lessons, and projection for the future.[1] Is a cycle coming to an end?

The economic crisis and the pandemic tinge the 2021 election campaign in Argentina. After a decade of stagnation, instability, and high inflation, Alberto Fernández’s government is seeking to project a way out of the crisis; “Vamos que salimos” (Come on, we are coming out) is its slogan. It assumes that the opening of the economy and the postponement to 2022 (or the end of 2021) of the agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will help economic activity recover. He presumes that the economic upturn will help his electoral chances in November.[2] He also assumes that the social situation will not get out of hand. He believes he has the problem under control thanks to the network of compensatory policies, and because he has the consent of a large sector of the popular movements that have wholly joined the government alliance.

However, the fundamental question remains: can Argentine capitalism in crisis and during a pandemic (both of which we have not yet emerged from, and may not for years) overcome the structural limits that have led it to such a situation? Fernández’s government presents its strategy as a continuation of the hegemonic project built up over 20 years. With nuances, the central issue is to rebuild capital accumulation by relaunching the extractivist matrix, broadening its bases and presenting it as a progressive project.

Debt and Fiscal Adjustment

The first step was to start reorganizing the dynamics of the debt cycle. After the debt overhang crisis of 2018–19, the priority was to clear up the financial horizon. Relaxing the external constraint (the country’s difficulty in obtaining sufficient US dollars) appears at the centre of a strategy that, without removing Argentina from a dependent position in the global capital cycle, seeks to reposition it as a supplier of commodities and keep it integrated into the debt system. For this reason, the renegotiation with transnational private capital (and other organizations such as the Paris Club) did not include a substantial capital write-off but rather conditions for the financial sustainability of the debt cycle. The negotiation with the IMF is oriented in the same direction, although it includes—of course—the well-known structural reforms. For now, we only know that the agreement has been negotiated but postponed until after the national elections. The Ministry of Economy is announcing a process of ‚convergence‘ to zero deficit in four years (2022–25), accentuating the adjustment that began in 2018 (and was only partially interrupted during 2020). They are thus reorganizing and not disarticulating the debt cycle by guaranteeing ’sustainable indebtedness‘; changing plans is not on the agenda of a government that perceives itself as national and popular (or on the way to becoming so).

The adjustment has already begun, although few in the ruling party dare to admit it, and some still deny it. Just ask the retirees, pensioners, or state workers what happened with the fiscal adjustment; the incomes of most workers continue to lag behind inflation. Will wages end up above inflation in December 2021? In some cases, maybe (if inflation drops sharply in the next months); losses during the year can never be recovered, even less than those of the last decade. A 40 percent increase to start the year is entirely different from an increase in instalments that concludes with 40 percent accumulated by December; the wage bill (total wages received throughout the year) will be much lower in the second case. A comprehensive calculation that public officials (and many union leaders) try to hide.

The adjustment seeks to guarantee the fiscal sustainability of the debt, not its social sustainability. Alongside the adjustment is the strategy of capital accumulation based on export extractivism, one of the most solidly constructed hegemonic agreements since 2001.

Green Developmentalism, Extractivist Developmentalism

Neo-developmentalism, using public resources and regulations, systematically supports the foundations of a new plundering of our common goods. Transgenic soy and agribusiness (today faithfully represented by Argentina’s Agroindustrial Council, Consejo Agroindustrial Argentino) continue to be the articulating axis, together with mining extractivism.[3] In this case, it is no longer just gold and other common metals, but rather lithium which has become the new soya. At the centre of new green developmentalism is the promotion of destructive and polluting mega-mining. This plan includes projects to plunder the seas, and to build mega pig farms (‚healthy and clean‘ like Argentine prisons) or new nuclear power plants.[4]

The green developmental discourse has little to envy in the green capitalism promoted by big capital. Without questioning the destructive logic of capitalism in its dependent version, it accepts that our place in the world is to be a territory of sacrifice. Extractivism primarily affects the most vulnerable populations in territories where access to water and energy is a daily challenge. In turn, far from mitigating climate change, it accentuates it by deteriorating soils, polluting water, and obliterating natural habitats.

In this way, green developmentalism proposes that populations are dispensable and undervalued in the working class neighbourhoods of the big cities, and in the territories and communities of peasants and Indigenous peoples, which are among so many places marked as exploitable. Their opinions are worthless, let alone their lives, as is observed daily by the families of the fumigated villages, the populations in the territories occupied by transnational mining companies, or the Mapuche communities in the oil exploitation zones.

Of course, the star project, the Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow) shale deposit, does not fit into this green developmentalist discourse, but it does fit into the debt sustainability project.[5] Regardless of popular resistance and the social and environmental costs, Vaca Muerta aims to position itself as the alternative to the soya export complex, as a source of foreign exchange to displace external restrictions as much as possible.

The government says almost nothing and does even less to radically transform the restrictions on development in Argentina. The conflict over Vicentín (a commodity exporter that recently went bankrupt and was about to be taken over by the state, before the government eventually backed down from the idea) and the project to re-privatize the dredging of the Paraná waterway are cases in point to demonstrate the absence of a strategic project in this direction. The limits of vernacular capitalism are the foundations of the neo-developmentalist project. It simply seeks to displace them through financial means without confronting them or considering the costs that this societal pattern has for the reproduction of life.

The path taken by the government has only succeeded in consolidating the conditions of pauperization of our people. Poverty and hunger are at record levels, and the evolution of inflation and distribution dynamics do not point to an immediate solution.

The economy is recovering its growth, which could grant a temporary lift. However, this does not trickle down to the workers in terms of employment and income. Despite the increase in production, employment is barely recovering, and the average income continues to lag behind inflation, which is close to 50 percent per year. Structural inequality in the Argentine economy leads to the anti-development paradox: growth without inclusion.

Social policies are expanding but are insufficient and compete with other objectives (for example, making IMF debt repayments or subsidizing the Vaca Muerta project). However, the government does not see the problem and continues to feed the myth of extractivist-based development. Can they not see that more oil, lithium, or soya production will not lead to better living conditions if the precariousness of life and work persists? Do they not understand that this path also contributes to multiplying social and environmental damage in a project of death?

The Latent Explosion

The social situation is at the limit. Sectoral conflicts are multiplying, and the production and reproduction of daily life is in crisis, with a growing burden placed upon feminized labour and those who enact it. Only community organization and social and political organizations in the heavily-populated neighbourhoods are preventing an explosion. The very organizations that support the ruling party recognize the seriousness of the situation.

Twenty years after the Argentinazo, popular organizations face the dilemma of partial and conflictive integration with the state, and collective fragmentation. For example, the ‘trident’ of the UTEP (Unión de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular, Union of Workers of the Popular Economy), CCC (Corriente Clasista y Combativa, Classist and Militant Current), and the Evita Movement dispute their participation in a government alliance that they do not hegemonize. The contradiction between adding cadres to the state and managing insufficient resources, and the growing pressure exerted by the multidimensional crisis on the rank and file of these movements and the people as a whole, is evident. Making a virtue out of necessity, these organizations are making an anti-neoliberal (anti-Macrista) bid to resolve the absence of a strategy for radical transformation.[6] The rest of the organizations within the left are fragmented and/or have severe difficulties to build a counter-hegemonic project of the popular masses and collective leadership.

As widespread patterns of exclusion consolidate, the trident has shifted the focus of the debate to two axes. On the one hand, in the direction of consolidating the institutionalization of popular economy organizations—the characterization of which is still a matter of debate—starting with the UTEP’s attempt to break into the CGT[7] (albeit with resistance from specific sectors). On the other hand, the combination of the universal basic income (UBI) and guaranteed employment is at the base of the dispute for marginal redistribution.

The popular economy is a range of activities of a heterogeneous nature: from marketized subsistence in salaried employment or self-employment (with meagre pay and high precariousness) to unpaid community reproduction and care work. The centrality of the UTEP’s demand for state recognition (registration and income) risks freezing patterns of precariousness by not emphatically exposing the fact that the current conditions of these tasks are the flipside of brutal social inequality and the pattern of capital accumulation. In a way, by establishing a guaranteed minimum wage for any job or work, however precarious it may be, the state is ensuring underpaid employment for a fraction of the broader population that inhabits the popular economy. Could this be the basis of the new myth of growth with inclusion?

The UBI proposal (equivalent to one third or half of the minimum wage) does not guarantee an income that would make it possible to achieve decent living conditions beyond the possibilities imposed by contemporary capitalism. It is a wage supplement for unregistered workers, workers in the popular economy, or young people in ‚training‘ or seasonal activities, among other forms of work.

It is presented as ‚feasible‘ in the current framework as it would only require increasing public spending by a couple of percentage points of GDP. Thus, paradoxically, in the eagerness to present the proposal as ‚possible‘ without altering the foundations of capitalist reproduction, it is stripped of radicalism. By submitting the UBI as a supplement to an insufficient salary or as a transition mechanism to the employment offered by the capitalist market, the proposal only contributes to validating the hyper-precarious conditions of the labour market. Let us be clear: to think that the UBI can serve as a transition to formal employment implies the assumption that, without any structural change, Argentine capitalism will create protected jobs—jobs that it has not created in decades. On the other hand, its promotion of the training of young people to enter the labour market implies the assumption that what prevents them from being hired is their lack of skills or knowledge, thus blaming them for not being employed. Using the UBI to complement the meagre wages that workers in seasonal jobs receive practically validates the super-exploitative conditions in those branches of activity. Finally, the work of women workers in unpaid reproductive and care activities would be recognized monetarily but would persist as undervalued, below the minimum wage.

2001 Brushed Under the Carpet and the New Ecofeminist Promises

Overall, this strategy can contain the latent social outburst without resolving its material causes. The consolidation of a minimum income redistribution network is the leading transformation in the state from the cycle which began in 2001. The crisis of legitimacy of the bourgeois state and its political system has not been erased. On the contrary, it seems to have been ‘swept under the rug’. Kirchnerism and Macrism have reconfigured the political pendulum within the system of the “Parties of Order”.[8]

The dispute around the need for radical change (with ‚work, dignity, and social change‘) seems today to remain a distant murmur. Feminism and environmentalism emerge, heralding future battles than will span all planes of life reproduction. Experience indicates that they will only be able to avoid conflictive normalization, institutionalization, and pink/greenwashing if they manage to cross and intersect all popular struggles and organizations. It seems inevitable that they will be an integral part of a new opportunity for radical disruption, for anti-systemic rupture. Turning that possibility into the capacity for social transformation will require all our intelligence, experience, and imagination. Only then will the murmur of 2001 become a cry again.

[1] Over several days in December 2001 a popular uprising (popularly known as the Argentinazo) rocked Argentina’s society. People took to the streets in many major cities, demanding the end of austerity. The resignation of the Minister of the Economy (Domingo Cavallo) on 19 December 2001, and that of the President (Fernando de la Rúa, elected in 1999) the following day, led to a turbulent process. This ended with a senator (Eduardo Duhalde) being selected as the new president in the first week of 2002.

[2] Especially after a nationwide defeat in September’s PASO (open, simultaneous, and mandatory primary elections) where Fernandez’s political force lost several million votes in comparison with the 2019 elections.

[3] German as well as Chinese capital is behind Lithium exploitation in Argentina.

[4] China is pushing to install these mega-farms with thousands of pigs crammed together. Chinese capital is also financing the new Hualong-1 nuclear power plant.

[5] Vaca Muerta is a geological formation in Argentina’s southern province of Neuquén. Within it lies one the world’s most important deposits of shale oil and gas. Its name comes from the shape of the formation that resembles a dead cow’s head.

[6] Mauricio Macri is an Argentine businessman who was elected chairman of the popular football team Boca Juniors, then governed the City of Buenos Aires and later became President of Argentina (2015–19). He is the leader of the PRO (Propuesta Republicana, Republican Proposal), a right-wing political party.

[7] The Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT, General Confederation of Labour) is Argentina’s main and most traditional worker’s confederation. It coordinates the representation of most national trade unions. It was created in the 1930s and played a significant role in the foundation of the Peronist Movement in the 1940s.

[8] To paraphrase Marx, the Peronist movement (now led by its Kirchnerist faction) and the coalition led by Macri (Macrism) have become the main political spaces guaranteeing the socio-political status quo.