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dr.woooo on Sun, 15 Dec 2002 14:16:36 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Argentina and Empire


From: "David Bedggood (FOA SOC)" <dr.bedggood {AT} auckland.ac.nz>



"Empire and the Multitude: the Case of Argentina."

David Bedggood, Sociology Department, University of Auckland.
dr.bedggood {AT} auckland.ac.nz

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire has posed a challenge to right and
left to rethink the nature of the global economy. However, the main concepts
of 'Empire' and 'Multitude' are difficult to define and apply to the
realities of class exploitation and oppression. This paper is part of a
research project that attempts to put these concepts to the test in the case
of Argentina -a country currently undergoing a major economic and social
crisis. Can it be said that Empire is able to explain the momentous events
in Argentina better than other theories including that of the Marxist theory of Imperialism?


Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's book Empire (2000) has created a stir in
academia in the last two years on both right and left. It argues that today
world capitalism has entered a new stage of development. 'Empire' is
different from imperialism and is bigger than any particular country
including the US. 'Empire' is opposed by the 'multitude' which is different
and yet has greater potential for resistance than most former conceptions of
class organisation.

Most of the commentary from the 'left' has been welcoming. Hardt and in
particular Negri are seen as reviving an optimism of the intellect that has
been overcome by pessimism in recent years (Beasley-Murray, 2001). Zizek
asks if Empire is perhaps the Communist Manifesto for the 21st century
(2001). The return to a forthright and even enthusiastic focus on class
struggle is regarded as healthy, even if doubts remain about Negri's failed
workerist politics of the 1970's (Sheehan, 1979, Wright, 1996) carrying over
to the new millenium and underestimating Capital's power to impose its will
(Holloway, 2002).

Others have criticised Hardt and Negri for developing concepts that are not
directly related to actually existing anti-capitalist struggles (Munck,
2001). There is an almost unhealthy idealisation of 'America'
(Beasley-Murray, 2001) but no real reality testing when the US bombs
Afghanistan (Negri, 2002; Zizek, 2002b). There is no real test of
constituent power against constituted power. Yet the book is seen as a
challenge to both left and right that demands a response. In particular it
demands a response from those who would see in Hardt' and Negri's 'Empire' a
dangerous diversion from opposition to the 'US Empire' (Gowan, 2001).

I too welcome the challenge posed by H&N. I have major problems with H&N
method of analysis which owes more to Spinoza and Deleuze than Marx on the
question of constituent power (Negri, 1999).  This is particularly so in the
idealist and utopian attitude towards 'resistance' that fails to spell out
the actual nuts and bolts of class struggle. For that reason part of H&N'
appeal seems to be its 'fit' with the eclectic notions of multi-class
'networks' or 'popular frontism'  that is to be found in the World Social
Forum of Porto Alegre (Hardt, 2002b; WSF,2003). For me, the WSF is part of
the problem, not the solution, so if H&N are in fact providing a new brand
of reformism for the WSF project, then they are to be opposed and not
celebrated.

However, rather than indulge here in a wide-ranging and discursive
questioning of the political uses of H&N theory, my purpose in this paper is
to test some of its central propositions of Empire against the Leninist
concept of imperialism: in particular the manner in which Empire extracts
surplus value differently from imperialism, and the composition and
resistance of the Multitude compared with that of the more familiar
international proletariat. But to do that it is necessary to look closely at
a real example of Empire (Imperialism?) and Multitude (proletariat?) in
action.

I have chosen the current crisis in Argentina as a case study. Why? Because
Argentina today is in a similar situation to that of Russia in 1917.  It is
a 'weak link', if not the 'weakest link',  in imperialism. Argentina is in a
state of pre-revolutionary crisis as has been evident since the
'Argentinazo' of last December.  I argue here that Argentina is a classic
semi-colony of British, and more recently, of US imperialism,  which are
trying to solve their own economic crises at the expense of the Argentinean
people.  The Argentinean workers and oppressed are in turn 'resisting' being
the 'fall guys' of US imperialist plans. So casing Argentina should allow us
to see how far Hardt's and Negri's basic theory fits with the reality of a
semi-colonial country undergoing an economic, social and political upheaval.



Empire is not imperialism?

Empire puts forward the proposition that Empire is not located in any one
imperialist country, including the US. This is not to be confused with
Wallerstein's well-known position that US power is waning. The US is not
about to be replaced by Europe or China. Rather Empire transcends any nation
state and is a global power and legal/political repressive framework.

The strongest argument in Empire is that Empire and Multitude are now facing
off directly without mediating institutions. This is posed as the stark
opposition of the constituent power of the Multitude confronting the
constituted power of Empire (Hardt and Negri, 2000:184-185). The question
arises how do we identify the power protagonists on both sides? A problem
here is that if Empire has no official state backing what role is left to
the various states at the centre and the periphery? Do we ignore the US
sponsored invasions of Iraq, Bosnia (Gowan at al, 2001) or Afghanistan
(Zizek, 2002b) or are they a manifestation of the new world wide police
state of Empire?

If Empire is legal/political framework designed to extract surplus value
surely it has to have a territorial base i.e. states, MNCs and transnational
institutions. It cannot exist in thin air.  Are H&N claiming that the MNCs
now constitute Empire outside any national framework? Or is it the role of
'international institutions' such as the IMF/World Bank etc that represent
Empire? If this is the case, these would have to constitute new
transnational or multinational state forms.

Second,  who or what is the Multitude and how does it resist Empire on the
ground? If there are no barriers to resistance to Empire where is the
evidence of this? Where are the sites of class struggle? How does
constituent power emerge? Negri gives us some clues in his study of
revolutionary history (Negri, 1999) but not much more. Today H&N argue that
the proletariat has been reconstituted as the Multitude in which
communication workers who produce immaterial labour are the core. Does this
mean the Empire extracts most of its surplus from immaterial labour? What is
the theoretical status of immaterial labour (Blunden, 2001)? Recently Negri
has talked more about the Multitude(Negri, 2002) but without clarifying the
basis on which resistance occurs. So we need to put these concepts to a
reality test.

Lets summarise the arguments about Empire far. Empire is the product of the
shift from US imperialism under pressure from the Multitude below. US
imperialism had exhausted its power to operate as the method of extracting
surplus value. The ruling classes (which?) responded with Empire. Empire is
bigger than any one nation state and is deterritorialised in the sense of
being able to move about at will. Its locus of constituted power seems to be
the multinationals. But its mode of discipline is the police. Does this mean
that the MNCs, the IMF/WB/WTO regulation, and UN policing, are now what
constitutes Empire? Let's see how this notion of Empire operates in
Argentina, then we can look at how the Multitude's resistance to Empire can
be conceived.


The case of Argentina

Here we have a fairly classic crisis of a breakdown of the economy due to
excessive extraction of surplus value. The role of Empire is more than US or
EU MNCs who bought up state assets and control export production. Of course
the so-called global finance Institutions oversaw this process. Stiglitz
argues that the crisis is one of financial mismanagement of the IMF and
World Bank (2002, 69-70). Argentina went from IMF showcase to IMF
basketcase. Bhagwati says that this was the deliberate policy of the Clinton
administration to impose the rule of Washington and Wall St on the world
economy (2000). They propose liberal humanitarian (Blairite-type) solutions
to reform the international financial institutions and to 'rescue'
Argentina.

But the crisis is not one of one of a mere failure of these institutions.
They acted exactly as they were supposed to in pumping super-profits back
home in the interests of their shareholders i.e. the US ruling class. It is
utopian to try to reform such capitalist institutions. Nor can we blame a
failure of local institutions - the Argentinean military regimes or Menem's
neo-liberal regime. The policies followed by these states were driven by
external pressures and shocks (Rock, 2002).

The crisis resulted from the inability and refusal of Argentinean workers to
create more surplus to make more profits and pay back yet more debt. This
led to falling profits. The Banks and firms in Argentina started to go
bankrupt. The IMF and WB  stepped in to rectify this with more loans and the
whole structural adjustment package, demanding balanced budgets, cuts in
social spending, wages and conditions for workers. So who are the main
protagonists here and do they fit the criteria of Empire?

What of the roles of the Argentinean and US states in this?  There is a very
strong link between the Argentinean ruling class and the US as well as some
of the EU states. The political regimes act as the direct local agents of
imperialism, either in the form of Menem's neo-liberal regime or the crisis
regimes of de la Rua and Duhalde.

This fact is the foremost political lesson in Argentina today.  The single
most popular demand raised by the unemployed, the occupying workers and the
ruined middle class is  "they all most go"!  This refers to the 'political
class' from right to left. Is this a case where the Argentinean 'multitude'
is acting directly, and vertically, against Empire?

The 1990s under Menem saw Argentina exposed to structural adjustment.
The IMF/WB etc imposed a policy of balanced budgets and privatisation of
state assets. Who benefitted? The owners of capital invested in Argentina
and their local agents. Repayments on the national debt were kept up which
meant that the shareholders in the IMF, World Bank continued to profit. Who
are these owners?  The big multinational banks and the US  Treasury!

Second, state assets were bought up cheaply by US and EU MNCs.  Who where
these MNCs? An example Enron! The opening up of Argentina was engineered by
the IMF/WB institutions but on behalf of the big banks and big MNC
conglomerates.  So it seems that finance capital was the big beneficiary.
And that finance capital has one main location, the USA.

Who oversaw this profiteering?  The local state policed this process, backed
up by multinational police operations under the name of the 'war against
drugs' or 'terrorism' and UN convened military exercises (in Salta in the
north of Argentina). While multinational and UN resolutions were used to
mount these 'police operations', it was always US intelligence and troops
that were in control.  So despite the appeal to UN and multilateral
agencies, it was always the US unilateral interests that underpinned this
policing. No change here.


The Argentinean 'multitude'

If Empire is still US imperialism behind the face lift of multilateral
agencies what of the opposition to Empire - the multitude? Lets look at the
five sectors of the Argentinean opposition:

(1) unemployed (piquetero) movement,
(2) the ruined middle class,
(3) the workers occupations,
(4) the 'madres de la Plaza'
(5) students.

Do these categories suggest a move to a new proletariat engaged in
immaterial labour?  While H&N clearly anticipate 'uneven development' in the
global periphery where 'old' and 'new' forms of capitalism coexist, they
nonetheless write off 'horizontal' resistance. So what do we make of the
character of the Argentinean resistance?

We see that the nature of the crisis shows that the capital relation is
still dominant in the classical way. The neo-liberal program
deindustrialised Argentina creating massive pools of unemployed especially
in the regions such as Salta in the north. But we had almost no relocation
of labour into immaterial labour. More than 1200 companies have gone
bankrupt and cast hundreds of thousands onto the scrap heap. These are
across a range of domestic industries from steel, petrochemical, potteries,
to more everyday food and textiles etc. Over 30% of Argentineans are now
unemployed creating a reserve army of displaced industrial workers who have
recently dramatically entered national politics to get jobs and decent
welfare payments.

(1) The piquetero movement  is a major development. Originating in the north
of Salta around Mosconi and other towns in 1991, these protests threatened
to spread all over Argentina. Police repression was met by a rising militant
and armed defence by the movement. To contain this militancy, successive
governments have handed out job programs administered by the traditional
union leadership. The effect of this has been to dampen down the movement,
but it has not quelled a series of national assemblies which have continued
to make militant demands, elect an independent leadership, and develop a
range of effective tactics. James Petras commented last December after the Argentinazo that the nature of the demands were very 'left'. Today the
original piqueteros 21 point program which included demands to repudiate the
national debt and nationalise the banks and industries, now  also calls for
'workers and peoples government!'

How to explain the militant reserve army of labour? On the one hand
unemployed industrial workers do not figure in H&Ns proletariat, yet they
have staged massive insurrections in the north of Argentina that have spread
to other parts of the country. On the other hand as it clearly recognised by
Marxists,  unemployed workers by themselves do not have a direct lever on
the productive apparatus. Road blocks bring transport, and some production,
to a halt, but they expose the piquiteros to state violence isolated from
the employed workers organisations. So piquetero politics for that reason is
to make demands on the national state, even if using  increasingly militant
means of making them.  This suggests that if the unemployed are part of the
Multitude they are a force that can have progressive and reactionary
elements. This suggests that effective 'resistance' can only be determined
one way or the other by the intervention of organised workers power at the
point of production.

(2) The second sector is that of the ruined middle class. In Argentina the
term middle class is used loosely to mean well-paid professional workers, as
well as self-employed and even small bourgeoisie. It was the middle class,
especially that of Buenos Aires,  that prospered under the economic
nationalism of the post-war period, and managed to survive relatively intact
during the neo-liberal years. But with the onset of the current crisis this
middle class has been massively squeezed. It was hit hard by the collapse of
the banking system in late 2001 and it is the ruined middle class that is
the main force behind the formation of the Popular Assemblies (PAs), and the
massive rallies that brought down de la Rua in December 2001.

According to H&N the new immaterial labour is displacing the traditional
industrial factory worker as the leading edge of the Multitude (2000:53).
This can be tested by looking at the composition of the Popular Assemblies
and the demands that are being raised by the PAs.  H&N would suggest that
the PAs (or at least the immaterial workers in them) should be the most
politically advanced sector of struggle.  The evidence so far suggests that
this is not so. The PAs have been radicalised and put forward demands that
were formally of the 'left' as James Petras has claimed, but nowhere as
radical as the Salta piqueteros program of action. The PAs have taken a very
strong stand against political party representation of the 'left' as well as
the 'right'. What's more the broadening of the PAs to include solidarity
with other sectors has been slow in coming and usually on the initiative of
workers' movements or political parties.

(3) The third and potentially most important sector of struggle is the
factory occupations. As the bankruptcies mounted in the last year, many
employers simply walked out and abandoned their plant. Rather than accept
that they had lost their jobs, many workers stayed at work, occupied the
factories and kept producing. There are over 100 factories under occupation
and most are producing under workers control.

What began as sheer basic survival for most workers has proven to be a huge
political school for revolution. This has produced a real challenge to the
system of private property. Employers are trying to regain control and many
attempts by police and hired thugs to break up the occupations have taken
place. The workers have called on support from the piqueteros and the PAs
and this has seen most occupations successfully defended. The defence of the
occupations has become a catalyst for unity across the five sectors of resistance. We now see the beginnings of unity of employed, unemployed,
the ruined middle class, and the 'mothers' and students,  coming together.

(4) A fourth sector is that of the 'madres de  Plaza de Mayo' (Mothers of
the Plaza of May) who occupy national independence square in Buenos Aires
every week and have been a major force in bringing other sectors in struggle
together. This has challenged some of the traditional left organisations who see the killing of some 30,000 by the military dictatorship as a 'human
rights' issue.  There has been a reluctance on the part of the Peronist
unions (who were implicated in the military regime as was the Communist
Party) to join forces with the Madres. The result has been separate marches
and protests dividing the mass movement.  Recently Hebe de Bonafini visited
the Zanon factory occupation and forged an important link between the
mothers and the occupying workers independently of the bureaucrats.  The
Mothers add a strong moral force to the Multitude, that does not draw
directly on the proletariat, but which provides an example of collective
action vitally necessary to unite all the sectors in struggle. Neither
imperialism nor Empire could predict the vital role of the Mothers! Yet Hebe be Bonafini visits Zanon and says workers power is in workers production!
Hardt and Negri should visit Zanon!!

(5) The fifth sector are the students. Teachers' strikes have spread across
most areas of Argentina, and many students are now involved in struggle. As
an example, since 16 October,  Social Science students at the University of
Buenos Aires have been occupying the Vice-Chancellors office.  There 6
demands reflect the cuts in education made under IMF fiscal austerity in
recent years.  They want a single building for social science; more money to pay for teachers; scholarships for needy students; restitution of the
Director of the Faculty of Social Sciences who was directly elected by
students; more co-government of teaching and administrative posts; dropping
of legal action being taken against student activists Sergio Salgado and
Martin Ogando.


The key role of factory occupations

Of all these sectors, clearly the factory occupations pose the biggest
challenge to capital. The occupations have now become the ideological
testing ground for the whole movement.   Basic issues in this debate are:
First, the workers have control over means of production. Second, they are
proving that they can produce essential commodities without employers or
managers. Third, this has inspired other elements to defend these
occupations uniting sectors of resistance. Fourth, the political question of who should own and control these factories is being debated.

The state authorities and no doubt the US imperialists are alarmed by the
threat posed by the occupations. It is trying to find a way to return the
factories to their private owners by allowing workers to lease the factories
and pay outstanding debts before they retain any of the proceeds.  This is
opposed by some of the key occupations like Brukman and Zanon where there
is a campaign to get the state to nationalise factories under workers
control and without compensation to the private owners.

What is at stake here surely is the classic Marxist term 'dual power' rather than the H&N concept of 'constituent power'.  The new power that workers
constitute is not against the constituted power of Empire, but is the power
over the means of production owned and controlled by imperialism and backed
by state power. This can be the only meaning of 'constituent power' for the
working class -workers' power. In Argentina it is spoken of clearly, as does Hebe de Bonafini, as the basis for a workers and people's power over their
own lives. "If we win Zanon, we can win them all... we can be an example to
the world".


Why have these sectors of struggle emerged?  Could they have been predicted
on the basis of the classic theory of imperialism, or is it necessary to
develop a new theory of Empire to do so?

I suggst that what we find in Argentina today is a classic class struggle
argued by Marxists for more than a century. Argentina is a semi-colony whose infrastructure has been largely destroyed by restructuring. But it is those
traditional workers displaced by the neo-liberal de-industrialisation that
have formed the powerful piquetero movement. Similarly, the factory
occupations are not the response of immaterial labour to a global empire,
but the life and death struggle of manual workers for survival when their
factories close down. The ruined middle class is partly composed of
communications and social workers. Yet are they leading the 'resistance' to
Empire? They have been politicised but their politics does not go beyond
radical opposition to the 'political class'. A growing reserve army of
impoverished industrial workers, and a ruined middle class are both symptoms of classic capitalist depression and not Empire.

While the divisions within the proletariat and middle class are deep and
wide (the legacies of Peronism, the dictatorship and neo-liberalism) the
severity of the crisis has thrown the five sectors identified above into the same predicament where their common opposition to the US, IMF and the
Argentine political class is becoming clearer. Again, these divisions are
those we would expect from the theory of imperialism. Peronism was a system
of national patronage in which a large segment of the labour movement became clients of the national bourgeoisie. It is the inability of the Argentine
bourgeoisie to use its political patronage to buy off the five sectors in
struggle, that has created the 'crisis of Peronism'.  So the multitude in
Argentina looks very much like the old proletariat rising up against its
long-time local and imperialist exploiters and oppressors and raising the
possibility of a socialist solution to the crisis.


Question of state power is posed

The demand 'all of them out, not one should remain ' is interpreted by some
as a full-scale challenge to the bourgeois state, and by others as an
invitation for workers' leaders to contest elections. This difference of
opinion is currently centred on the question of boycotting the upcoming
elections for the Presidency called by Duhalde,  and the question of the
Constituent Assembly. Note that everyone whatever they political colour,
sees the Argentinean state as the locally constituted power.  How
appropriate that the debate over who should hold state power should be so
clearly posed as a test of H&Ns 'constituent power'.

The piquetero assemblies with the backing of the more radical PAs and
factory occupations have consistently called for workers to organise
independently of the state and put forward workers and peoples' governments.
This amounts to the replacement of the bourgeois state with a workers and
oppressed peoples' state. This is nothing else than the classic
Leninist/Trotskyist 'Workers' government' or workers' 'dictatorship.  They
back up this demand with calls for mass actions such as more road blocks,
indefinite general strikes and the formation of self-defence committees. Of
course this path which aims to take power responds to demands to contest the forthcoming elections with an 'active boycott' to bring Duhalde down."

Some left reformists, for example the 'Citizens' Forum' sponsored by Elisa
Carrio, Luis Zamora and CT chair de Gennaro,  see the elections as an
opportunity to put forward a Constituent Assembly under the existing
constitution. This of course cannot be a challenge to constituted power.
Others, want the Constituent Assembly to come out of an active boycott which either means that the 'active boycott' is expected to fail, or that the
Constituent Assembly is one way of making it fail (PO-Workers' Party). Yet
others want the mobilisation of workers direct action to result in a
Revolutionary Constituent Assembly (PTS-Socialist Workers Party).

What we have here is a case of old-fashioned class politics, where the
various currents on the left contest the leadership of the proletariat.
Those who want to contest the elections short of an active boycott and
general strike to bring down Duhalde are falling into the electoral trap.
After a year of pre-revolutionary struggles and the gradual uniting of the
sectors in struggle, Duhalde is using the elections to steer the workers'
movement into a blind alley. It is no accident that those on the left who
take this line are those who have historically taken a stage-theory approach to national liberation.

For this reason it is crucial for those on the left to take a lead in
organising and mobilising all these sectors under the banner of direct
democracy. This means national congresses of rank and file delegates of all
the sectors in struggle dedicated to putting forward and acting on a program
of demands such as the piqueteros 21 demands of 2001. It means the formation of self-defence organisations to defend the interests of the workers and
oppressed people from state and military reaction.

It is also the key to the fate of the ruined middle class whose politics can easily be drawn into radical right, or fascist movements directed at the
working class. The remains of the Peronist movement can easily turn into a
fascist front backed by the military to smash any new Argentinazo. Yet the
stronger the proletarian movement the more will the ruined middle class
gravitate to its leadership. But because this poses the question of state
power and private property, the middle class has to be convinced that its
survival as petty bourgeois is no longer possible, and that socialism will
at least provide them with a future less than barbaric.

This is why the program of the proletariat and oppressed people must include demands that allow the ruined middle class and self-employed farmers,
artisans etc to keep what petty property they have, so that they can be
included in the future plans for the economy. As well as demands that seek
to nationalise the big banks and big factories, other forms of co-operatives
and small holdings should be integrated into the plan to ensure that food
and other necessities are produced. It will become clear through this
experience that small holders, and the self-employed,  were never exploited
by the workers but by the rich owners of capital.

Anti-imperialist struggle

What this proves is that it is not H&N's  Empire or the Multitude that
figure in the Argentinean crisis, but the class forces found in Lenin's
'imperialism' and Trotsky's 'uneven and combined development'.  Argentina's
crisis can be understood as one that results from US imperialism attempting
to solve its own crisis at the expense of the workers and people of not only Argentina but of the oppressed workers and peasants world wide.

Just as the communists at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern recognised,
national revolutions in the semi-colonies cannot defeat imperialism alone.
The struggle of the Argentinean masses to survive and to take power at home
must have the support of workers in the US heartlands and the other
imperialist powers. Otherwise the US military will smash the revolution and
impose a client state of its own choice just as in Afghanistan and in Bush's
plan for 'regime change' in Iraq.

When Margaret Thatcher went to war against Argentina in 1982 to recover the
Malvinas,  revolutionaries in Britain sided with Argentina against Britain
calling for the military victory of Argentina and defeat of Britain. Not
because they supported the Videla dictatorship in Argentina, but because
imperialism was the main enemy and a victory for Britain was a defeat for
the Argentinean workers and peoples' struggle.

The US fully expects to have to intervene militarily in Latin America. That
is why it runs the various counter-revolutionary wars it calls 'Plans' such
as the Plan Colombia. It has recently included these interventions in the
'war on terror'. The outcome of the revolution in Argentina will be decided
in the last instance by the international solidarity of workers in the
advanced imperialist states refusing to allow their ruling classes to use
the 'war on terror' to smash the popular and workers revolution.


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