We asked comrades of Cuadernos de Negación from Argentina some questions about the local conditions during the pandemic.
Can you briefly describe the economic impact of the current crisis and give examples of attacks on wages and conditions of local workers by the bosses and the state?
For several years the economy in the region has been suffering from a process of stagnation, with serious social consequences. The situation finally exploded in the context of the coronavirus, with the unleashing of a social and economic crisis that was being forecasted. The pandemic has served as a justification for brutal repressive and adjustment measures, where the government echoed the military rhetoric so widely heard around the world.The real wage has decreased markedly in 2020, with cuts in many sectors or raises completely below inflation. The national currency has continued to devaluate at a fast pace, with a resulting impact on prices. This situation, accelerated in 2020, has been repeating itself in a cyclical manner for decades. In the last 4 years the cost of the basic food basket for a “typical family” has multiplied by 4.5, as well as many staple foods have increased by 1200% in 10 years.In addition to this attack on wages, last year the enormous mass of unemployed increased, which constitutes a central issue in the region. Millions of people live in poverty, not even reaching the basic food basket. According to official figures, one out of every three Argentines is poor (more than 14.3 million people, a figure that amounts to practically half of the population if we take into account the 0-14 age group). Poverty has intensified in the last year, which is undeniable in the city streets where the number of people begging and going through the garbage has grown. Hunger is an inevitable consequence, which adds to the worsening quality of food and nutritional problems. It is said that the annual beef consumption in 2020 was the lowest in the last 100 years, and of course this is not because of an environmental concern, being this territory an exporter of beef.As has been the case for decades, governments are trying to keep the proletariat in line on the basis of crumbs, with economic aid that takes different forms, often with precarious jobs as a counterpart (which in turn lowers the official unemployment rate). During 2020, the government paid three miserable subsidies in one of the world’s longest quarantines. This “Emergency Family Income” reached 9 million inhabitants (workers in the informal economy, single-income earners, salaried domestic workers and the unemployed). Other equally insufficient and much less far-reaching economic aids were granted to self-employed workers in particular sectors. The government also set some guidelines related to public services and real estate, such as freezing rents, fees and suspending evictions for lack of payment. It also sought to safeguard some food and basic goods prices with the “Careful Prices” Program and to encourage consumption with financing plans in installments.
But beyond these crumbs, as always the most subsidized were the capitalists. The state took over the bosses’ contributions and part of the wages of most of the country’s legal workers through what was called the “Emergency Assistance Program for Work and Production”, which was continued from the beginning of the quarantine until December 2020. Zero-rate, subsidized rate credits and other benefits were also launched. Nevertheless, in many sectors a reduction in wages, that is, the employer’s share, was agreed upon with the complicity of the unions. At the same time, many workers only have a portion of their salary paid legally, and another portion is paid “under the table” so that the wage cuts were easier to make on that part of the workday. It should be noted that this refers to legal workers, since about 40% of the economically active population of the country are informal workers. With such a large number of workers in the informal sector, social isolation meant a direct attack on the livelihoods of millions of families who depend on being able to go out on the streets every day. The repression took the lives of dozens of workers who went out into the streets because they needed to work, to assist a family member, or simply because they needed to reunite with a loved one.
State workers also had low wage increases in relation to inflation, including sectors such as public health that were among the most affected in this context. On many occasions, provincial and national orders have forced them to work dozens of hours of overtime without pay. The unions have echoed the sacrificial call of the rulers justifying all these abuses. With regard to education, while indoctrination as a whole has been transferred to the homes, those who teach children and teenagers, as well as their parents, have been completely overtaken. The difficulty of teaching via the Internet was aggravated by the complexity that this entails for many adults who do not understand computers or cell phones, or even the lack of access to them in a country where some 8 million people don’t even have safe drinking water. At the same time, many public schools maintained their canteen functions, where some 3 million children have breakfast and lunch daily. The armed forces also took on this role, distributing food in the neighborhoods, while at the same time reinforcing control to guarantee compliance with the quarantine and to break proletarian sociability. The neighborhood soup kitchens (many run by pro-government political organizations) continued to function despite the difficulties, and new soup kitchens sprang up from neighbors’ solidarity. This time, unlike in 2001, these meeting points were not set up as an instance of organization and struggle to confront the situation, but mainly for mere survival. In the domestic sphere we experienced a greater pressure, either because of an intensification of domestic tasks – for example the education and care of the children mentioned above, or the health problems in the face of the reduction of treatment in the different effectors – or at the work environment, working from home or absorbing the effects of unemployment. During the quarantine, various forms of teleworking were imposed without any additional remuneration, and with little or no training. Forced adaptation to work via the Internet is a new reality for millions of workers employed by private companies and state institutions. In addition to the separation from fellow workers, this situation further blurs the boundaries between waged labor activity and the rest of life, while being a strong impediment to the struggle in the workplace. In the city from which we are responding to these questions, Rosario, there were transport strikes that totaled more than 100 days in the year, while we, the “essential workers,” had to continue to go to work. The home delivery service, with its distinctive precariousness, and the internet marketing companies, expanded significantly due to social isolation. The situation experienced during the long months of quarantine has reminded us of the deep meaning of the fetishism of the commodity, through which social relations are in fact relations between things through people: only commodities continued to circulate, and people were only allowed to circulate as a commodity – labor force. Some by imposition, such as workers engaged in “essential activities”, and others because they had no choice, such as those informal workers who went out to the streets out of necessity and were exposed to punishment or even murder.
The crisis puts the state in the centre of political demands, both from workers and from capital. How does the state react to this? – in some cases the state might try to diffuse this focus, in other situations it offers itself as a political channel for workers’ discontent.
The current administration of the State in this territory has had a certain peculiarity, a president who presents himself as paternal, and even “maternal” for the feminists in the government. The needs and demands of the proletariat are treated as if speaking to a child, at least by the presidential voice, and although this is not so important it is worth highlighting it to have an impression of the present moment.
In the previous answer, we described various aspects of the State’s activity in the face of the demands of workers and Capital, with the intention of stopping any hint of social overflow, by holding a conciliatory discourse that seeks to reaffirm at all times the defense of life in the face of the economy. We have denounced the absurdity of this opposition and the reality is that on the health, economic and social spheres the results have been catastrophic.
In Argentina we have suffered a process of progressive institutionalization of the struggle from the revolts of 2001 onwards. We highlight this issue because it is in this way that the State has managed to maintain the present situation. After the three administrations of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, from 2003 to 2015, the alternation with the opposition from 2015 to 2019 allowed the renewal of the credibility of the current government of Alberto Fernandez together with Cristina Kirchner. The democratic logic of the lesser evil has imposed itself, seeking to strengthen the State and politics as the only possible means for social transformation.
What happened at the end of 2020 is very illustrative. With little to distribute, the State began to promote laws with which to channel social discontent and achieve greater approval among the workers. The first of these was the “Tax on Large Fortunes”, defined as a “solidarity” contribution to be made only once, with the aim of mitigating the “effects of the coronavirus”. This new measure was announced with great fanfare by the progressive sectors of the government as a defense of the workers and a “redistribution of wealth”, accompanied in the streets by pro-government demonstrations. The entire apparatus is ready to make clear how popular the measure is. In reality, its scope is reduced and the majority of the proceeds go to other sectors of the bourgeoisie itself, but on the discursive level it achieved its goal, diverting the attention for several weeks.
In this desperate situation, the government has even tried to monopolize the funeral of Diego Maradona, contradicting once again its own policies of isolation.
On the other hand, the legalization of abortion was finally approved on December 30, which had been postponed for years. The government pushed for the approval of this demand at the most difficult time, seeking to ensure a peaceful end of the year. Once again, the streets were opened to demonstrations, as long as they were in support of the government itself and its initiatives.
At the same time that the legalization of abortion was approved, a cutback in pensions was approved for 2021, a reason why strong protests had taken place years before when the opposition was in power.
In the economic arena, the State promises investment projects such as the production of pigs for China, with all that this implies, in addition to infrastructure and transport plans to ease the export of meat and grains, such as investments in trains and railroads, or at the local level, increasing the draught of the Paraná River for the circulation of cargo ships. The State talks a lot about economic reactivation trying to bring calm, but it is reduced to an expression of desire without any projection.
Have there been protests against the state lockdown or other pandemic related measures? What was the content of the protests and their composition? Was there a connection between ‘the streets’ and representatives of capital?
As the days and months passed, several voices were heard, but if there was something that the media highlighted, it was the anti-vaccine and “conspiracy” prone movements, which are not very numerous, but nevertheless eye-catching. On the other hand, sectors of the petty bourgeoisie have come out to protest, in order to reopen their stores and keep their profits flowing. A clear example has been the bosses of the gastronomic sector, known for not registering their workers, as well as for the low wages and lousy working conditions in the sector.Diverse sectors of unemployed workers took the streets to demand jobs and economic aids to alleviate the quarantine, but without confronting it. Slogans have been seen on flags and banners like “for a quarantine without hunger”. The measures were not openly questioned by almost any sector, but were even justified, with requests that the conditions be guaranteed to be able to put them into practice. The acceptance of quarantine and isolation was imposed as the politically correct thing to do. The situation was similar in the work setting. Numerous conflicts occurred over the months, but they were atomized, with specific demands from each sector, without questioning the situation in general.But beyond these more or less organized expressions, much of the proletariat has suffered confinement as a condemnation. Sooner or later it realized that, in addition to the strictly economic necessity of being able to get out, it was necessary to preserve human bonds, and disobedience flourished everywhere, although most of the time anonymously, without openly assuming a position, or even in a contradictory way, repeating the dominant discourse but in practice doing the opposite.On the question of street demonstrations, we’ve already expressed a couple of things in the previous answer about the institutionalization of the struggle. Protests tend to be organized according to what happens inside the buildings of the State, in their own language, even with their own organizations. This strong canalization is presented as an inevitable result of the recuperation of the last radical expressions of struggle in the region by the State.In turn, the mass media took a preponderant role in times of isolation, contributing to the suppression of all expressions of critical thought, reproducing a discourse of national unity during the first months of quarantine that brutally condemned all expressions of disobedience, later resuming the typical confrontations between the government and the opposition.
What were the main workers’ protests and strikes against the impact of the crisis or attacks?
Workplace protests emerged timidly in the first weeks of the quarantine, and grew markedly over the months. Some of the first protests were by bicycle riders as well as other “essential” workers, such as food production workers who never stopped working.
These were mainly wage conflicts, against cuts and layoffs, but very isolated from each other as mentioned above.
The unions played a completely conciliatory role. Better wage increases were only achieved in those sectors with a high rate of profit, like the banks, oil companies, the truck industry, the ports, and other specific sectors. The leaders of the unions at the national level are completely aligned with the government and their functions and speeches are often mixed up. Trade union confederations put their hospitals and hotels at the disposal of the government, and more than once appeared speaking together on the management of the crisis. It is only now that they are beginning to mark some discrepancies when the state has begun to cut economic aid to workers and enterprises.
The care surrounding the contagion, the panic installed, along with teleworking, submerged thousands of workers in a dynamic of virtual or no communication with their co-workers, making it difficult to discuss and organize struggles, reinforcing the role of the unions as mediators.
As is common in contexts of crisis, there is confusion between the defense of the workforce and the defense of the work source, that is, the identification with the job that is done and through which it we are exploited. This situation that affects the whole of the proletariat became more evident in sectors such as public health, where many workers answered the sacrificial calls of the government and the unions.
Another weakness has been interclassism. In some sectors hit by the quarantine, such as restaurants, tourism, gyms, culture, entertainment, as the demand to be able to continue operating was often tied to wage workers, the self-employed and the employers.
Above we also mentioned the demands of the unemployed workers. We must add the various land occupation that took place in different parts of the country, the most significant being in the town of Guernica in the province of Buenos Aires. Some 2500 families (10,000 people approximately) settled on land destined for a private urbanization and resisted for two months until they were fiercely repressed. Lack of housing is another major social problem in the region that has worsened in 2020.
These occupations in several cities, as well as the territorial recuperations that radicalized sectors of the Mapuche proletariat have been carrying out on Patagonian land, provoked the reaction of the bourgeoisie in defense of private property, a subject that circulated in the media for a while.
Workers’ control or self-management did not appear as expressions of the proletariat. This is another aspect that has been completely absorbed by the State and Capital in recent years. Occupation of workplaces or their reconversions are not thought of as instances of struggle but of subsistence and a source of employment. We have expanded on this in issue 12 of our magazine Cuadernos de Negacion entitled Critique of Self-Management (available in english). If we emphasize this it is because we have suffered in our own flesh the weight of self-management of production as a canalization of conflict.
Regarding the discussions about the reconversion of some workplaces that have developed in other regions, such as the production of breathing machines, we must say that we do not find much sense in this, much less in regions like this where hunger and overcrowding are the main enemy of the immunity of millions of proletarians. It is necessary to address the situation in a broader and deeper way. The bourgeoisie must be expropriated, but not to make respiratory equipment.
Regarding the last question, there has been no confluence between the struggles in general. There have been expressions of solidarity like the one we mentioned before about the popular soup kitchen in the neighborhoods, but not a coordination of the struggles, nor mass demonstrations against the crisis. Another reason for protest was the repression, which we refer to later.
Beyond the consequences directly related to the coronavirus and the measures adopted, there were conflicts in defense of nature and against the advance of capitalist devastation, which year by year are taking place throughout the country. In Chubut, the conflict against mega-mining and its devastating effects such as water contamination continued. In Rosario, a long conflict against the burning of the islands of the Paraná River broke out and did not stop for months despite the demands and state intervention. Although it was positive to be able to meet in assemblies and demonstrations within the framework of the quarantine, the struggle took as its main axis the sanction of a new law in defense of the wetlands. We took part in the conflict where we sought to contribute by bringing our reflections and criticisms, which we also expressed in flyers and texts. We made a short film on this subject called “Humo. Reflexiones más allá de las quemas” (Smoke. Thoughts beyond the burnings), which is available with English subtitles.
Which new divisions emerged within the local working class and have some divisions become weakened?
At the organizational level, no expressions of rupture with a radical perspective have developed, which is what matters to us. And regarding the leftists organizations, there have been no major changes. Rather than divisions, unity has been sought in a progressive united front against the right or “neo-liberalism” that embraces practically all left-wing sectors. Those who still pose as critics of the government or who maintain their structures outside of Peronism, as is the case with the Trotskyist parties, do nothing but demand from the government what it does not do or does not do well, immersed in the same statist and electioneering logic.
But beyond the organizations and acronyms, the atomization of the proletariat as a whole has deepened, above all in the beginnings of the quarantine where the panic installed even provoked the accusation among the workers and neighbors themselves for the violations of isolation. Virtuality in the workplaces has also contributed, as said earlier, and a blaming of the youth for the increase in contagion has taken hold lately.
Which new or oppositional political forces emerged as a response to the crisis and to the lockdown?
As in other countries, the emergence of a local “alternative right” and more extreme liberalism has been visible. This is not quite new, but it is manifested in a new and broader way, since it is mixed with the opposition to the national government. Therefore, they manifest themselves in defense of freedom, while accusing the Peronist government of being communist, criticizing the vaccine and 5G, and defending individual liberties while rejecting democracy and politicians.
The problem does not seem to be so much the coronavirus and the way to fight it but rather to politically oppose the adversary. The defenders of the government who treated as irresponsible and murderers those who went out on the streets without a mask, or those who demonstrated against quarantine, did not hesitate to go out to support the government in the massive demonstrations mentioned above, where little or no respect was shown for government measures.
The mass media acted accordingly, associating any criticism of the confinement with conspiracy and liberalism, and then either criticizing or justifying the government for the demonstrations organized. There were not many movements on the political chessboard, but what changed was the topic of discussion as a result of the new context. We are far from being able to collectively face the crisis and confinement from a class perspective.
Has the lockdown impacted workers or political groups when trying to organise protests? Has the form of repression changed? How do people react to this?
Yes, the unions urged to stay home and any conflict in the first months was condemned, except for those “essential” sectors that continued to work, where some occasional conflicts were unleashed as we said. The general tone was one of pacification and terror, and the quarantine made it possible to impose during the first long months a ban on all types of meetings, events and mobilizations. It was not even easy to circulate along the cities during the months of the most acute quarantine.
As weeks went by, once the initial paranoia had passed, there were more and more protests, many of which required the establishment of protocols, while the number of infections remained low in much of the country.
The repression did not change its form, but it intensified. The slogan “stay at home” empowered the repressive forces. The high rates of killings by the police were maintained despite the poor circulation of people. Dozens of proletarians were murdered during the quarantine, with the emblematic case of Facundo Astudillo Castro in the province of Buenos Aires, whose body was missing for several months. As is often the case in these situations, there were protests by family members, friends and neighbors against these atrocities, but generally without much effect. The land occupations were also harshly repressed, in an exemplary manner so that these would not occur again.
People have responded contradictorily, since although there is great discontent about the crisis and the confinement, they end up justifying it because of the pandemic, without being able to hold the State and Capital responsible for the situation and act accordingly. There is struggle and discontent, but also acceptance and submission.
At this point, it should be emphasized that for us repression is not reduced to the action of the repressive forces, but also to the multiple channels established by Capital and the State to divert the struggles. Much of what we have been expressing in our materials points in that direction, since during 2020 we have been subjected to one of the greatest situations of proletarian impotence on a world scale in history.
What is the current theoretical and practical effort of your group in order to relate to the new situation of crisis? How could an international collaboration be useful for you in that regard? What are your concrete questions to comrades abroad?
As a group we tried to keep our activity, seeking to face the isolation measures and the crisis unleashed. We continue to meet in our city, keeping in touch with comrades from the region and other countries, with the intention of understanding and addressing this particular context. From our publishing project Lazo Ediciones we printed two books on this subject matter. The first one was a translation of the article Social Contagion. Microbiological Class Warfare in China by the Chuang group in March, and then Coronavirus, Crisis and Confinement in September, a compilation of articles by various groups and authors from different parts of the world. From our bulletin La Oveja Negra we made a special number entitled Coronavirus and social issue in the month of April that was translated into English, French and German, and we continue to address the current situation of the pandemic and the measures in the following issues. These materials circulated in paper and digital format, making it possible to reach a few cities with the intention of keeping contact with fellow groups. We also denounced the situation from our radio program Temperamento, contributing to breaking the isolation with the addition of comrades from different parts of the country.
In this sense, we find it useful as an international collaboration to spread what we do from here, as well as to collaborate in the translation of our materials. This questionnaire is a good exercise to share the actual situation of each region and its differences, and to draw as much lessons as possible. We are also interested in discussing this global crisis internationally.
We have placed great emphasis on denouncing disciplinary measures and repression from the very beginning of the declaration of the pandemic, while seeking to deepen our understanding of this particular crisis. The proliferation of various viruses linked to the capitalist mode of production is a problem that we dealt with in depth in the article by the Chuang group mentioned above. But, at the same time, we found ourselves in the need of making some reservations about the centrality given to this issue in various critical spheres, often leaving completely aside the mechanisms and measures that the declaration of the pandemic has allowed to generate and promote, and that directly attack our living conditions and struggle. In this way, the door has even been opened to the justification and “critical” support of State action, in many cases only pointing out its “excesses”. The focus has been so much on capitalism as a producer of viruses that it has turned away from how this virus has served as a great producer of measures. It is not the same to say that a virus caused health, economic and repressive measures, as to say that a virus is used to take economic and repressive measures, with health protection as an excuse. The first postulate certainly allows evidence of the inability of the State and Capital to deal with a harmfulness that its production itself causes, and about which there were already a few forecasts. However, this reading of reality places the virus, and the reasons for its emergence and expansion, as the causal center of the events we are experiencing. There seems to be a reluctance to investigate or criticize certain decisions that the bourgeoisie and the states are currently making, making it easier to criticize capitalist production as a whole. Perhaps one of the reasons is the rise of conspiracy theories in the framework of the coronavirus, which contribute so much to sowing confusion, even reinforcing, by opposition, confidence in the institutions and specialists, as well as in the free flow of information. While we openly combat such explanations that explain nothing, we try to analyze how the measures taken are articulated with the needs of the economy as a whole, taking note that, throughout the history of its existence, Capital has made from exceptional circumstances, exceptions for itself.
The novelty of this crisis is in its argument, the discourse of justification installed, as well as in the way it has been unleashed. But clearly this is not the case with its social consequences and effects on the dynamics of capitalist valorization. In this sense, a crisis means a sacrifice in the present with prospects for future growth: death and proletarian misery, destruction of commodities and fixed capital, restructuring of certain sectors of production. Wars in capitalism have been a clear example of this process, and for that reason the military rhetoric that we have had to endure around the coronavirus is not surprising. Once again, whatever is said, the battles have been fought against the needs of the proletariat and in defense of the economy. In the last decades, we have witnessed various crises of a relatively lesser depth, extension and severity than others of the past, but which at the same time have not allowed Capital to go beyond a sustained though weak growth. According to some economists, the pre-coronavirus indexes suggested stagnation, but it seemed highly improbable to predict an imminent crisis. However, the arrival of the pandemic seems to have precipitated all forecasts. We ask ourselves then: is the virus catalyzing the crisis, or did the virus come to justify a crisis of such dimensions for which no one dared to take responsibility? Are they trying to mitigate a disease so that the health system does not collapse, or are they seeking to strengthen the health of the capitalist system, imposing a deeper and more lasting cure to its recurring crises?