The Fall of the Argentine Assembly Movement
Why Did the Neighborhood Assembly Movement in Argentina Disappear?
New social movements based on open assemblies is emerging in ever more places in Europe and North America as a response to bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and growing economic inequalities. This is not the first time in history that assembly movements have appeared, and there is a great deal to be learned from the gains and mistakes of such past experiences.
One of the most recent instances appeared in Argentina in what has been called the first rebellion against neoliberalism in the 21st century. The people’s assemblies in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires and other cities have been described in earlier articles on New Compass, including Popular Assemblies in Revolts and Revolutions, From Argentina to Wall Street and Is Power Always bad?.
However, there is a lack of literature in English that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the assembly movement in Argentina. Most of the publications in English were published during the Argentinian rebellion, and attempted to convey the spirit of the activists in Buenos Aires or muster solidarity for the movement in Europe or the U.S, rather than approach them with at critical look.
Even fewer publications have dealt with why the movement failed and eventually disappeared. One rare exception from this is – surprisingly enough – a bachelor thesis written by Mariah Thompson at the University of Oregon in 2010. This thesis, called The Disappearance of the Neighborhood Assembly Movement in Buenos Aires – Argentina 2001-2004: A Phase of Demobilization?, is based on secondary literature written by Spanish speaking scholars and activists, as well as interviews conducted by Thompson with people who participated in the assembly movement.
I have chosen to write a short review of Thompson’s thesis, because I think the lessons learned in Argentina may be valueable for the assembly movements emerging around the world. If we are going to succeed in our struggle for "real democracy," we have to learn from the success’ and failures of past movements with similar ambitions.
Brief Introduction to the Argentine Assembly Movement
For people who are not familiar with the assembly movement in Argentina, here is a short summary. As Thompson writes the assembly movement was born in a power vacuum that occurred following a nation-wide economic crisis that struck Argentina in 2001:
Following days of protest, members of the middle class that had lost their savings, jobs, and livelihoods came together in an attempt to organize a movement out of the chaos in the streets. The neighborhood assembly movement was their attempt to meet the immediate needs in their communities, while also forming an alternative method of public participation that was truly democratic and responsive to the people.
Just a few months after the beginning of the rebellion there were close to 120 popular assemblies in Buenos Aires alone, and more assemblies were being established in other cities around the country. The assemblies became very popular among the citizens of the capital. At one moment in the uprising, a poll by a local newspaper showed that one third of the residents had participated in a popular assembly or an activity organized by them.
There were even attempts to gather all the local assemblies into a city-wide assembly. This Asamblea Interbarrial, as it was called, met for a few times with several thousands of people, and passed resolutions on questions of national importance. The local assemblies also took on some communal activities. As Thompson explains:
The assemblies were active in the development of their communities. Members met daily or weekly to discuss the economic crisis and to plan weekly mobilizations against the State. After realizing the negative impacts that the crisis was having on their neighborhoods, they began to organize free community kitchens, classes, nurseries and other needs-based services in their communities. The assemblies also participated in the protest actions of other social movements such as participation in the human rights movement, the factory takeover movement, and the unemployed workers movement. Eventually, some assemblies began to establish their own spaces within buildings, some of which were taken through illegal occupation of vacated spaces. With this, the assemblies took on more ambitious projects including productive enterprises such as community bakeries.
Most of the assemblies in Buenos Aires sprung up in December 2001 and the first few months of 2002, but by the end of 2002 and early 2003 most of the assemblies had already disappeared and the movement had lost its momentum. Thompson offers two main explanations of why the assembly movement so rapidly vanished. The first is the exhaustion of its members due to the involvement and actions of political parties. The second is the concessions made by the government to the demands of the assembly movement, and the subsequent return of their trust in the state political system.
Political Parties – Division and Exhaustion
The involvement of left-wing political parties had a twofold effect on the members of the assemblies. On the one hand people who did not belong to any (left-wing) party grew tired of the intra-party discussions that were brought into the assemblies. On the other hand people who had joined the assemblies because they hoped it would lead to a new type of direct democratic politics, got disillusioned as the assemblies increasingly divided along party lines or were used as tools to secure votes in the national elections.
In some neighborhoods one of the result of the involvement of political parties, was that the assembly was divided into many small assemblies with special party affiliations:
Some assemblies formed with an overtly political agenda when party loyalists capitalized on citizens’ desire for organized action and successfully channeled their energy into party-affiliated assemblies. In both the neighborhoods of San Telmo and Villa Crespo, what began as one large assembly of several hundred neighbors quickly split into three separate assemblies, each with a different level of party affiliation. [...] This meant that some of the energy that could have been aimed against the state institutions was redirected into reform politics as these assemblies pushed for the election of particular parties instead of a whole new political system.
Especially the city-wide assembly – the Asamblea Interbarrial – was ridden with debates over ideology and strategies that weren’t very much related to the issues and challenges facing the assembly movement:
The political parties did not just try to institutionalize individual assemblies but rather attempted to co-opt the entire movement through the Interbarrial assembly. This occurred soon after the creation of the Interbarrial, with local newspapers noting the heightened presence of parties at the Interbarrial only one month after its creation. [...] The parties saw the assemblies as a blossoming middle class movement of high potential and each of the left wing parties had their own vision of how the energy of the assemblies could be used most effectively.
Thompson mentions several amusing examples of how the political parties viewed the assembly movement, and one of the more telling was "the Socialist Workers Party – who held the assemblies in high regard for their practice of direct democracy (which was similar to the Soviets during the Russian revolution) the assemblies and the Interbarrial were a method of entering into the ‘scene of the principle battalions of the working class’ and gaining the ‘support of the proletariat’."
There were attempts to resist the influence of the parties. Voting rules at the city-wide assembly were for example changed from one vote per-person to one-vote-per-assembly, so that the parties could not take over the city-wide assembly by crowding it with its own members. But in the end these attempts did not save the movement:
The parties were successful despite this resistance and had strong influence on the movement as a whole. The same month that independents successfully changed voting rules at the Interbarrial, left-wing parties pressured the movement to create a new coordinating body at a level higher than the Interbarrial. Openly partisan, this organization, known as the Coloumbres Group, was an attempt "to create a supreme decision making body for the entire assembly movement, despite the complaint of other groups and of independents."
The influence of the parties eventually undermined the movement. Three months after the creation of the Interbarrial, members of the Workers Party and MST broke the peace when talks over mobilization strategies for an upcoming May Day ended in physical violence. It was following this dispute and the internal chaos it caused that the Interbarrial gradually fell apart. With the increasing intervention of party hardliners in the Interbarrial “many independent [assembly members] felt infiltrated and decided to leave... some assemblies ended up dividing themselves over it.” Eventually, the assemblies could not even come to agreement over collective action plans or the movement’s objectives, and by the end of 2002 the Interbarrial ceased functioning.
Thompson also treats another important division in the movement that quite early occured in between what can be called "neighborhood" and "popular" assemblies. The neighborhood assemblies were more moderate in their political orientation. They saw the economic crisis of 2001 as a result of a corrupt political system, and thought that this system could be modified. The neighborhood assemblies also focused their energy on activities that could satisfy some the immediate needs in their neighborhood, such as community kitchens, classes, nurseries etc. The popular assemblies, on the other side, were revolutionary in character and rejected the entire representative political system. They also saw themselves as part of a broader anti-capitalist movement, and focused their forces on organizing actions together with other anti-capitalist organizations such as the radical unemployed worker’s assocations.
In my mind, one of the shortcomings of Thompsons thesis is that she view this division as a result of the involvement of political parties. Although these parties – and other ideological forces such as anarchists and autonomists – might have augumented this division, I think it is a logical contradiction that might be expected to rise in any movement of this type. It both reflects the tension in between short-term goals (immediate community needs) and long-term vision (an alternative society), as well as the fact that any assembly movement will consist of both moderate and radical forces that will have to co-exist in the same organization. Regretably, the assembly movement in Buenos Aires didn’t manage to handle these tensions and this subverted the movement at an early stage.
Concessions by the Government
There were attempts by the government to both repress and co-opt the movement: "In February of 2003, the government instituted a campaign against various social movements in Buenos Aires with the intent of clearing out occupied buildings and factories. The police began a series of forced evictions of the assemblies which often turned violent." The government also tried to co-opt assembly members by involving them in state-sponsored offices called Centers for Management and Participation.
But in general these attempts were rather ineffective. What had a greater impact, were the concessions made by the government at a time when the movement was already breaking up due to political divisions:
State-sponsored repression of the assemblies was paired with attempts to satisfy the most moderate demands of the movement, which led to the re-legitimization of traditional political institutions and the end of the movement. Following the large anti-state mobilizations that occurred after the deaths of the two MTD activists, the government began handing out six-month work plans to leaders in the MTD movement, and also to the assemblies. [...] Even more influential in quieting anti-state sentiment was the process of partial unfreezing and repayment of middle-class bank accounts. This strategy helped to begin the process of power consolidation at the national level and drove a wedge between the assemblies (which were receiving some of their main demands through the end of the corralito) and the MTD and Piquetero movements (which were still disenfranchised and begging for concessions in the form of work plans).
Then, in 2003, came the national elections. In stark contrast to the anti-state sentiments that lead to the creation of the assembly movement, many of the activists in the assembly movement threw themselves into election campaigns for left-wing parties. This furthered the divisions that already existed within the assemblies. "The assembly of Colegiales, for example, suffered an irreparable fracture in the lead up to the elections. Party-affiliated members organized a street festival in support of various leftist political parties while the independent members, as a protest, coordinated their own festival to denounce 'the farce of the elections'."
But as a fact, even more radical proponents of direct democracy and anti-capitalism within the assembly movement, involved themselves in the elections in order to prevent Carlos Menem – the president that led Argentine into the crisis with his extreme neoliberal policies – from being re-elected: "According to Martín Krymkirwicz, long-time member of the Colombres assembly, participation in the elections was not a representation of hope but rather an action motivated by fear of what could happen if the extreme right took power once again. Krymkiriwicz explained ‘we were against the elections, but if Menem won it could have been much worse for all of the social movements’."
Néstor Kirchner from the populist Perionist party won the presidential elections in 2003, on a campain to – among other things – "purge corruption from the national Congress and Supreme Court (two of the assembly movements’ key demands)":
Kirchner’s policies successfully tranquilized the majority of protests and recuperated state legitimacy in the eyes of the middle-class. As the assembly members slowly gained access to their savings and were able to return to a lifestyle more similar to that which with they were accustomed, the reasons to continue resistance to the state declined. As one assembly member explained, "The assemblies existed to confront the politicians, but also to act as a response to basic needs, like the community kitchens...the things that people didn’t have...to provide a response with basic solidarity and to look for solutions to concrete problems. This was the motive of the assemblies." Therefore, while the assemblies emerged with an anti-political message, the state was capable of changing the minds of the middle-class with the strategic implementation of key reforms.
Despite having only received about one quarter of the vote during elections, after two years Kirchner’s approval rating was close to seventy percent. As basic needs were met once again, the reasons to continue participation in the assemblies declined until the movement lost its pertinence as a relevant societal and political actor.
Thompson herself does not write what she thinks are the lessons for other assembly movement from the experiences in Argentina, but if I´m going to give it a shot I would say the following:
- Political parties are a big threat to assembly movements. They are not interested in building up popular assemblies as an alternative to the present political system, but rather to use the assemblies to recurit members to their own organizations or to mobilize votes in and through assemblies during elections.
- Assemblies – or rather tendencies within the assemblies who wish to strengthen the assemblies vis-a-vis the conventional political system – have to find ways to minimize the influence of political parties over the assemblies. This does not mean to expel members with party affiliations (popular assemblies have to be open to all citizens within a certain area) but rather to device strategies to prevent them from taking over the assemblies and divide them along party lines. Such strategies could be voting systems that gives preferences to local assemblies (like what was done in the Asamblea Interbarrial in Buenos Aires), or banning party symbols from assembly meetings and manifestations (like what is done in the current assembly movement in Spain).
- Activist within the assembly movements need to acknowledge that assemblies will be populated of people of both moderate and radical convictions. To gain mass support, these moderate and radical forces will have to cooperate – at least for a certain period of time. This puts a huge responsibility on people who wish to construct an alternative politics through the assemblies, because this means that they have strike a balance on what proposals and demands to put forth to ensure that the assemblies both retain popular support and advances forward.
- If the assemblies are not only going to be a mayfly phenomenon, they will have to avoid that too many assembly members fall off once the government concedes to its minimum demands. This is especially true of assemblies that are born in periods of social and economic crisis, like the ones in Argentina or the current assemblies in Greece or Spain. The assemblies will need a long-term politics and to be able to radicalize their demands and actions in their communities and on a national level. Such a long-term "assembleist" politics will not be developed by the political parties or moderates within the movement, but rather by people with a vision of a participatory democratic society.
I'll end this review of Mariah Thompson's thesis by saying that it contains more stuff than what I have summed up above. What I find less interesting is her use of Sidney Tarrow's "social movement theory," even though this serves as an analytical tool to bring up many of the findings I have listed above. Nevertheless, her thesis contains a fascinating account of the emergence and fall of the assembly movement in Buenos Aires (which is much more detailed than what I have been able to convey here), and I strongly encourage readers of New Compass – and especially those who are involved in assembly movements – to read it to get the full wealth of Thompson's story.