Reports from Argentina
Zanon and electoral politics
Posted: Mar. 01 2003, 21:58God fucking damnit shit! I spent almost two hours last night writing about Zanon and the Neuquén elections tomorrow, and right as I hit the "Preview Post" button I get a message that "Internet Explorer has stopped responding." How I despise fucking Microsoft! I am going to propose an anti-Microsoft section for our international manifesto at the summer camp in Prague – something along the lines of "our goal is a communist society and for Bill Gates to be executed and his corpse to be hung upside-down from a lamp post so it can be spit upon by millions of people from all over the world who are fucking sick of all this buggy, ureliable software. "
So I'm going to begin the tedious process of trying to remember what I wrote and then writing it all out again. My only hope is that my burning hatred of all things from Redmond, Washington can be converted into flowing prose about the wonders of Zanon.
I should try to give you an idea of the size of the Zanon factory without falling back on abstract terms like "huge" or "really fucking huge." The main section of the factory, where the production lines and the ovens are located, is about five hundred meters long, three hundred meters wide, and two stories high. Then there are smaller sections on the sides with offices, workshops, and machines that don't seem to have any function since they're never in use. Attached to the back of the factory is a shed about five stories tall that holds the storage tanks.
In other words, "really fucking huge."
After arriving in Neuquén I spent the night at Zanon. Even though I slept really terribly – I was so tired the next day that I passed out on the floor of the PTS headquarters – it was still an interesting experience. Walking through the factory at night is about the spookiest experience in the whole world. It's the perfect set for a horror movie: a dimly-lit airplane hangar filled with a forest of giant machines. Tall metal carts will start beeping and lurch into motion with no warning. The ovens burn at a thousand degrees celsius and let out an eerie oragne glow. In the extreme distance you can see individual workers walking between the production lines – "If I was being chased by a serial killer and cried out for help, these are the people who wouldn't quite be able to hear me."
What was so spooky at night becomes pretty cool during the daytime, though. The whole production process is highly automated, with conveyor belts constantly loading and unloading carts, big robotic arms sorting and stacking boxes of ceramic tiles, etc. Maybe I'm in a state of arrested development but I always love standing right in the middle of this high-tech production whirlwind.
Of course, that is not what makes Zanon so cool. Every factory has robots and conveyor belts and control panels with blinking lights. What makes the Zanon factory unique is what it lacks: owners.
You get the feeling that something isn't quite right when you see workers standing around chatting or assembled in team meetings. Never once do you hear someone yelling over a loudspeaker "GET BACK TO WORK!"
Most of the workers wear brown shirts with a gear-shaped logo printed on the back, a proud sign of the ceramist union which they won back from the bureaucratic leadership over a year ago. And everywhere are little notices – all bags must be searched upon entering or leaving, please help maintain the "culture of security," etc. – signed simply by "The Assembly." These signs stand in sharp contrast to the posters that were put up everywhere by the owners: the workers' signs inform you of the decisions made democratically by the all-factory assembly, while the owners' signs are limited to patronizing slogans about "let's be safe" and "try not to go blind."
Zanon recently incorporated 16 local piqueteros (unemployed workers in combatitive organizations) as a sign of solidarity between employed and unemployed workers. These piqueteros have been in charge of security for two weeks now, and even though the job can be boring at times – an eight-hour shift with nothing to do but wander around the factory grounds on the lookout for intruders – they now enjoy the Zanon standard salary of 800 pesos a month, compared to the 150-peso unemployment subsidy they got from the government. In typical piquetero style they patrol not with batons or pepper spray, but with slingshots and little ceramic balls from the factory for ammunition. I couldn't fire the pellet more than twenty or thirty meters (you can tell I was a nerdy kid), but I'm told that with a good arm you can fire this thing hard enough to break through a police shield.
It wasn't just the spookiness that kept me from sleeping at Zanon, I also spent a number of hours talking to one of the piqueteros from the MST Teresa Vive (piquetero movement of the electoralist-Trotskyist party MST*) about the provincial elections in Neuquén tomorrow.
These provincial elections, like the national elections coming up in April, are just a worthless political maneuver. All elections in the capitalist system are of course just tricks to distract the workers from real political struggles, but these particular elections are worse. Last June, when the police executed two piqueteros in cold blood, Duhualde moved up the presidential elections, originally scheduled for this December, by more than six months. The idea was to distract from the protest against bourgeois government in general, and convert it into a protest against this particular bourgeois government. Duhalde knew that broad sections of the population were beginning to reject capitalist democracy, and announced early elections to try to bring back the illusion that people could change things just by voting. A similar maneuver was carried out in Neuquén, where the local caudillo moved up elections to distract from a corruption scandal. In Neuquén the ridiculous nature of these elections is made clear by the fact that even though the elections will be held tomorrow, the new government won't enter office for seven months!
The working class cannot fall for such an obvious trick. Large numbers of Argentinians view the current government as completely illegitimate, since Duhualde was never elected, he was named by Congress after the previous president had been expelled by massive protests. If these elections are successful, the next president will be able to say "well you did vote for me." The only way to maintain the current air of illegitimacy is to make sure that as few people as possible go to vote.
The Zanon workers have decided to denounce this maneuver and reject the elections. This follows the PTS' policy, which isn't surprising since Raul Godoy, Zanon worker and general secretary of the Ceramist Union, and several members of Zanon's internal commission are PTS militants. This call has been seconded by the indepent piqueteros movement of Neuquén, the MTD, as well as the Regional Coordinator, an assembly which groups leftist parties, combatitive unions, and piquetero movements.
Unfortunately, the two big Trotskyist parties, the Partido Obrero and the MST, can't see this logic. They have been concentrating on building up their membership over the last year (forgetting that building a party is not an end unto itself, just a step on the road to socialism) and thus feel sure that they can win an election this time around. It doesn't seem to matter to them that they only end up strengthening the bourgeois regime by supporting these ridiculous elections.
Both the PO and the MST agreed that the leftist militants in Neuquén needed to create a workers' front for the elections headed by Raul Godoy. Godoy and the Zanon workers were in agreement and thus created such a front: a worker's front for an active boycott of this electioral deception.
But the PO and MST didn't have that in mind: they want seats on city councils, they want state subsidies, they want to further build up their party aparatus. So both parites spent months denouncing the PTS for ruining this proposed front (even though the Zanon workers decided on the boycott in an open assembly) and meanwhile they could not even reach an agreement between themselves! They began to squabble about details of how the workers' front would be organized, and before long there were two workers' fronts: the MST is in it's long-standing "Izquierda Unida" (United Left) coalition with the Communist Party, a party that is openly hostile to the Zanon workers and especially the Regional Coordinator; the PO on the other hand is in the "Workers' and People's Front" with a group called "Patria Libre" (Free Fatherland), a leftist split from the Peronists that advocates populism a la Evita and is thus decidedly anti-worker. Just look at the name – free Fatherland? That doesn't sound like a revolutionary, internationalist workers party. The confusion is only increased when they explain that their tradition is from Evita Perón and Che Guevara.
This strategy makes sense if you know the parties. The PO is convinced that a new Argentinazo-style semi-insurrection is only months, if not weeks, away, so they need to do everything possible to increase their numbers and prepare to seize power. The MST, on the other hand, has always believed that they just need to win an election or two in order to begin to construct socialism, and are positive that with the new popular discontent they can finally win one this time.
While the traditional left dreams up these pathetic phantasies, the Zanon workers, local union activists, the independent piqueteros, and the PTS, all grouped together in the Coordinator, are giving a reasonable analysis of the elections. A revolutionary situation is an acid test for every revolutionary party – the PO and MST have clearly failed.
– Dzhon Rid
* This is a confusing naming scheme in my opinion. The party is called Movimiento Socialista de los Trabajadores (Socialist Workers' Movement) while the piquetero movement is called Movimiento de los Sin Trabajo - Teresa Vive (Movement of the Jobless - Teresa Lives).
Trivia #1: In Argentina voting is mandated by law; failure to vote is punishable by a non-trivial fine. Therefore, boycotting an election is not just a sign of political apathy but a genuine act of civil disobedience. In order to boycott in Argentina you either need to nullify your vote or risk a fine by not going to the polls.
Trivia #2: In Argentina the elections are supervised by the military. Armed soldiers stand watch at the polls to make sure that no one does any campaigning in the two days before the vote, and then the ballots are taken away to be counted in military vehicles. You can see that Argentina's transition from military dictatorship to "democracy" was never 100%: the message here is that you tell the soldiers who you want to be in charge and they'll take your opinion into consideration.
I shouldn't over-glorify the political conciousness of the Zanon workers, though. I had a short interview with Raul Godoy yesterday and he assured me that in the assemblies where the workers decided to reject the elections, there was a sizable number who wanted to simply ignore political questions, and a few who wanted Zanon to participate in a list. Zanon has a very determined leadership which keeps the workers from falling victim to electoralist or a-political opportunism – not by bureaucratic dictates, of course, simply by patiently explaining their policies to the assembly.
On the other hand I shouldn't under-glorify the workers' political conciousness either. In assembly they decided to stick with a unitary 800-peso salary even though that meant some senior workers have had their pay reduced. All extra money is donated to community projects or used to incorporate more compañeros from the piqueteros movement. In this sense the workers' conciousness in amazing: they have decided to keep their salaries fairly low in order to express solidarity with their class comrades. When I donated the $311 from Berlin I told them they could decide what they wanted to do with it. No one even proposed using this money to give everyone a five-peso bonus; there was an immediate agreement that this would go to the national strike fund to help other workers in conflict.
This is a big step up from a few years ago, when Zanon workers who couldn't get to the factory because of the piqueteros' blockades didn't even read the fliers and called the whole experience "annoying."