On 19 March 2003, we were on the roof of the ZanAfA3n ceramic tile factory, filming an interview with Cepillo. He was showing us how the workers fended off eviction by armed police, defending their democratic workplace with slingshots and the little ceramic balls normally used to pound the Patagonian clay into raw material for tiles. His aim was impressive. It was the day the bombs started falling on Baghdad.
As journalists, we had to ask ourselves what we were doing there. What possible relevance could there be in this one factory at the southernmost tip of South America, with its band of radical workers and its David and Goliath narrative, when bunker-busting apocalypse was descending on Iraq?
But we, like so many others, had been drawn to Argentina to witness first-hand an explosion of activism in the wake of its 2001 crisis - a host of dynamic new social movements that were not only advancing a bitter critique of the economic model that had destroyed their country, but were busily building local alternatives in the rubble.
There were many popular responses to the crisis, from neighborhood assemblies and barter clubs to resurgent left-wing parties and mass movements of the unemployed, but we spent most of our year in Argentina with workers in "recovered companies". Almost entirely under the media radar, workers in Argentina have been responding to rampant unemployment and capital flight by taking over businesses that have gone bankrupt and reopening them under democratic worker management. It is an old idea reclaimed and retrofitted for a brutal new time. The principles are so simple, so elementally fair, that they seem more self-evident than radical when articulated by one of the workers: "We formed the co-operative with the criteria of equal wages and making basic decisions by assembly; we are against the separation of manual and intellectual work; we want a rotation of positions and, above all, the ability to recall our elected leaders."
The movement of recovered companies is not epic in scale - some 170 companies, around 10,000 workers in Argentina. But six years on, and unlike some of the country's other new movements, it has survived and continues to build quiet strength in the midst of the country's deeply unequal "recovery". Its tenacity is a function of its pragmatism: this is a movement that is based on action, not talk. And its defining action, reawakening the means of production under worker control, while loaded with potent symbolism, is anything but symbolic. It is feeding families, rebuilding shattered pride, and opening a window of powerful possibility.
Like a number of other emerging social movements around the world, the workers in the recovered companies are rewriting the script for how change is supposed to happen. Rather than following anyone's ten-point plan for revolution, the workers are darting ahead of the theory - at least, straight to the part where they get their jobs back. In Argentina, the theorists are chasing after the factory workers, trying to analyse what is already in noisy production.
These struggles have had a tremendous impact on the imaginations of activists around the world. At this point, there are many more starry-eyed grad papers on the phenomenon than there are recovered companies. But there is also a renewed interest in democratic workplaces from Durban to Melbourne to New Orleans.
That said, the movement in Argentina is as much a product of the globalisation of alternatives as it is one of its most con tagious stories. Argentinian workers borrowed the slogan "Occupy, Resist, Produce" from Latin America's largest social movement, Brazil's Movimiento Sin Terra, in which more than a million people have reclaimed unused land and put it back into community production. One worker told us that what the movement in Argentina is doing is "MST for the cities". In South Africa, we saw a protester's T-shirt with an even more succinct summary of this new impatience: "Stop Asking, Start Taking".
The movement in Argentina is frustrating to some on the left who feel it is not clearly anti-capitalist, those who chafe at how comfortably it exists within the market economy and see worker management as merely a new form of auto-exploitation. Others see co-operativism, the legal form chosen by the vast majority of the recovered companies, as a capitulation in itself - insisting that only full national isation by the state can bring worker democracy into a broader socialist project.
Workers in the movement are generally suspicious of being co-opted to anyone's political agenda, but at the same time cannot afford to turn down any support. More interesting by far is to see how workers in this movement are politicised by the struggle, which begins with the most basic imperative: Workers want to work, to feed their families. Some of the most powerful new working-class leaders in Argentina today discovered solidarity on a path that started from that essentially apolitical point. Whether you think the movement's lack of a leading ideology is a tragic weakness or a refreshing strength, the recovered companies challenge capitalism's most cherished ideal: the sanctity of private property.
The legal and political case for worker control in Argentina does not only rest on the unpaid wages, evaporated benefits and emptied-out pension funds. The workers make a sophisticated case for their moral right to property - in this case, the machines and physical pre mises - based not just on what they are owed personally, but what society is owed. The recovered companies propose themselves as an explicit remedy to all the corporate welfare, corruption and other forms of public subsidy the owners enjoyed in the process of bankrupting their firms and moving their wealth to safety, abandoning whole communities to economic exclusion.
This argument is, of course, available for immediate use in the United States and Europe. But this story goes much deeper than corporate welfare, and that's where the Argentinian experience will really resonate with us. It has become axiomatic on the left to say that Argentina's crash was a direct result of the IMF orthodoxy imposed on the country with such enthusiasm in the neoliberal 1990s. In their book Sin PatrAfA3n: Stories from Argentina's Worker-Run Factories, to which this essay forms the introduction, the Lavaca Collective makes clear that in Argentina, just as in the US occupation of Iraq, those bromides about private sector efficiency were nothing more than a cover story for an explosion of frontier-style plunder - looting on a massive scale by a small group of elites. Privatization, deregulation, labor flexibility: these were the tools to facilitate a massive transfer of public wealth to private hands, not to mention private debts to the public purse. Like Enron traders, the businessmen who haunt the pages of this book learned the first lesson of capitalism and stopped there: Greed is good, and more greed is better. As one Argentinian worker says: "There are guys that wake up in the morning thinking about how to screw people and others who think: how do we rebuild this Argentina that they have torn apart?"
In the answer to that question, you can read a powerful story of transformation. Capitalism produces and distributes not just goods and services, but identities. When the capital and its carpetbaggers had flown from Argentina, what was left was not only companies that had been emptied, but a whole hollowed-out country filled with people whose identities - as workers - had been stripped away as well. As one of the organizers in the movement wrote to us: "It is a huge amount of work to recover a company. But the real work is to recover a worker and that is the task that we have just begun."
On 17 April 2003, we were on Avenida Jujuy in Buenos Aires, standing with the Brukman workers and a huge crowd of their supporters in front of a fence, behind which was a small army of police guarding the Brukman factory. After a brutal eviction, the workers were determined to get back to work at their sewing machines.
In Washington, DC, that day, USAID announced that it had chosen Bechtel Corporation as the prime contractor for the reconstruction of Iraq's architecture. The heist was about to begin in earnest, both in the United States and in Iraq. The deliberately induced crisis was providing the cover for the transfer of billions of tax dollars to a handful of politically connected corporations.
In Argentina, they'd already seen this movie - the wholesale plunder of public wealth, the explosion of unemployment, the shredding of the social fabric, the staggering human consequences. And 52 seamstresses were in the street, backed by thousands of others, trying to take back what was already theirs. It was definitely the place to be.