Saturday, December 22, 2012


The good news is that the world, as you might have noticed, didn’t end yesterday. So maybe the Mayans just grew bored with making calendars and decided to get into a new racket. 
The Mayan Calendar ended yesterday...we didn't.
I have a friend who’s an optimist (now and then you run into one and I keep him close—like you might, say, an African wild ass, Asiatic cheetah or other endangered species—just because he’s so delightfully rare), and he's

The African wild ass, like
optimists, an endangered
(Photo päts CC BY 2.0)
a student of ancient cultures to boot. He chided people all through the past year for repeating that thing about the Mayans saying the world was going to end (yesterday, as it turns out), telling them that the emergence of that idea was based on the ignorant theory of the Apocalypse. According to his studies, what’s going to take place—is, in fact, taking place, as we speak—has to do with the other root meaning of apocalypse: namely, a revelation. According to him, December 21 marked the start of a new, enlightened era in the evolution of Man. As of yesterday, the secrets and meaning of life will start to become clear to us all. Man will become more compassionate, more visionary, more in harmony with the world and his fellow human beings. The world, in short, since yesterday, will start living an aggiornamento that will, precisely, pull us back from the brink of self- and mutual destruction and lead us toward a state of grace in which everyone will work together for the common good. He further subscribes to a theory upheld by a number of obscure if clearly erudite anthropological researchers who, casting aside the findings of Richard Leakey and other noted scientists, claim that the origin and development of Man was just opposite to conventional belief. Man, these scholars say, didn’t first appear on the plains of Africa and then (for some inexplicable reason) make his way to the frigid north, only to then cross the Bering Strait and head back south, creating and leaving behind a string of Native American cultures in his wake. Instead, they say, Man originated in South America (Argentina, they believe), the precursor of the Inca, the Maya and the Aztec, and spread his culture northward, also becoming a great navigator and crossing vast oceans to sow the seeds of the civilizations that were to emerge in Minoan Crete, Phoenicia, Egypt and the Indus Valley.So, anyway, according to that theory, the Mayan Calendar is all about revelation, not destruction, and, if it is to be believed, Argentina might very well be the center of world culture and, thus, the very nucleus of the revelation that we should all be starting to experience as of yesterday at about twenty-four hundred hours, hora argentina.
I would really like to believe that theory. Really! Because, that would mean that I was living in the very epicenter of a marvelous new world of love, harmony and mutual respect and that I had something more edifying to look forward to in my old age than a plummeting decent into the inferno of human apocalypse in which all bets are off and we are back to a scenario of stick-wielding, rock-throwing survival of the fittest.
Unfortunately, the scene that Argentina woke up to on the morning of Friday, December 21, 2012, did little to support either of those theories and certainly did much to create a climate of apocalyptic chaos and anything but harmony. And the molten core from which that sensation emanated was right here, in the Andean mountain resort town of San Carlos de Bariloche, just 12 miles from where I live hidden away in the forest.  
I use the term “sensation” advisedly here, since this is the same word employed on numerous occasions by Argentina’s (in)Security Minister Nilda Garré to try and ward off criticism leveled at her as a result of ever more frequent and violent crime around the country. According to the minister, the insecurity nightmare that residents of Argentina’s cities and towns alike are experiencing is simply the sensation of unbridled criminal activity and juvenile delinquency (a feeling she blames, of course, on the anti-government media that, according to her, have blown the situation—or illusion of same—out of all proportion) not any real increase in crime. (Tell that to the daily victims and their loved ones, Nilda).
Looters turn Christmas into trick or treat by stocking up on stolen
pricey electronics.
Added to this sensation, we now have the December 21 Syndrome, which manifests itself as organized looting, but which has some much larger purpose behind it.
The detonator was located, as I say, here in Bariloche. First thing in the morning of an unseasonably cold, wet business day (December 21 is also the summer solstice in South America, but it was only a few degrees above freezing out), well organized looters marched mob-style out of their nearby neighborhoods on the rough Patagonian highlands surrounding the city and made their first incursion into the parking lot of the Changomás (Walmart) supermarket, which quickly became a sorry symbol and victim of this recurrent brand of terrorism. This was ironic, since before the arrival of Walmart, many of the working class and poor people who live in that windblown area far above the touristy Andean city whose downtown image graces postcards, posters and calendars, had to take a bus  down to town to do their shopping. Local supermarket chains had long ignored that area because they saw it as a market with too low a level of purchasing power to bother with. But they raised the roof when they heard Walmart had plans to come into town and set up out there, and tried to foster a municipal ban to keep the international chain out. A referendum was finally held and the City Fathers lost, as lower-class segments of the population (who far outnumber the well-to-do) overwhelmingly supported having a major store in their neighborhood. The compromise was Changomás (different name, different colors, reduced stock of merchandise: no Superstore for Bariloche). But then, as I say, the Friday attack wasn’t about social unrest. It was all about political skullduggery.
Looting...Patagonian style. 
Though driven back by vastly outnumbered and ill-equipped police (who used the store’s fire hoses, hockey sticks from its sports department and wooden curtain rods from the dry goods section to repel the attacking hoards), the rioters simply regrouped and returned, stronger than before, eventually overpowering all resistance, destroying the shopping center’s entrance, showering defenders with a hail of stones and other projectiles, flipping over cars in the parking lot or demolishing them where they stood, and even using one as a battering ram to knock out the store’s front doors. Once inside, although some did help themselves to food items, the real objects of their affection turned out to be clothing, electrical appliances and electronics (especially plasma TVs that went like proverbial hotcakes). So much for the argument about “the desperate hungry people” who had requested “Christmas food baskets”(see below).   
From there, the vandals moved on to other major supermarkets and a meat packing company, advancing like army ants, wrecking everything in their path and drawing ever closer to the city’s downtown tourist area. An unrelated incident added an even greater quota of confusion since, all morning downtown, local residents and visitors alike had been treated to the deafening petards, thumping drums and rasping chants of electrical workers protesting in front of the local light and power cooperative. But as word spread of the advancing looters in the hills above the mountain town, business people began circling their wagons. Residents scratched their heads as some businesses started surreptitiously locking up for their noon break an hour early. And baffled foreign tourists sat sipping their cocoa, munching pastry and worriedly asking each other what was going on as the town’s renowned chocolaterías started quickly rolling down their metal shop curtains over the display windows or covering the windowpanes with plywood, as if in preparation for a hurricane. By the afternoon, Bariloche gave the impression of being a ghost town, as it awaited the arrival of a detachment of Border Guards to reinforce beleaguered police units.
They demolished cars in the parking lot and used one as a battering ram to
take out the front doors of the store.  
Two years ago Bariloche was also the scene of rioting, which ended up with police shooting dead three of the violent demonstrators. Subsequent action taken against the police for being too quick on the trigger has brought ever more strict controls to bear on officers, which would tend to explain why in yesterday’s incidents cops were seen defending themselves by merely hurling back the same rocks that rioters threw at them. Some policemen were even seen using slingshots to return fire on looters who were armed with similar archaic weaponry.  
The flimsy excuse for the attacks was that the “social sector” had called on the city’s government to convince supermarket owners to donate “gift packages” of food (in the holiday spirit, you understand) to the poorest segments of the population so that they might have a merry Christmas, and that no answer to this “request” had materialized. So Christmas quickly became a sort of terrorist-style trick or treat. But it quickly also became clear that the attempted extortion and its aftermath were neither random nor isolated. Before people in Bariloche had a chance to even ask themselves if the problem was simply homegrown and the result of rich and poor living in such close proximity, the same scenes of violence, vandalism and larceny were being replicated in ten other provinces around the country and in suburbs of Buenos Aires, where looters attacked not only major supermarkets but also service stations and other stores. Scores of police and civilians have been hurt in the riots and two men died in the city of Rosario (one of a gunshot wound, the other after being knifed).
The question most people are asking themselves is, if these actions are politically organized—and they clearly are—whom could they possibly benefit?
Could it be the dissident trade unions that once again held a protest this past week and demanded that the government of President Cristina Kirchner stop overtaxing workers’ pay and start doing something about the rampant inflation that is making it harder and harder for laborers to cover their basic needs?  If it were, it would surely provide President Kirchner with a clear message about what a mess the unions could swiftly turn the country into if the government were to continue to ignore its demands for higher pay, decent retirement benefits and other worker entitlements.
Could it be the far left, which, having thrown in its lot with the dissident Peronist unions still has been unable to convince the middle class opposition to join forces with it? The middle class that mustered a million well-behaved and respectful protesters of its own last November isn’t ceding control of its own destiny to either the government or the dissident left and is standing its ground alone in the middle. Certainly this kind of lightning mass terrorism might be seen as a possible way of scaring both the government and the middle class into resigned acquiescence.
Could it be dissident Peronist politicians and strategists? There are clearly segments within the ever eclectic, cloak-and-dagger Peronist movement that feel the Kirchners have not only let them down but have also betrayed their interests. No one has been more relegated by the Kirchners than former president and powerful Peronist kingpin Eduardo Duhalde, who plucked the late President Néstor Kirchner from the obscurity of a southern Patagonian governorship to launch him overnight into the presidency following a major political crisis that rocked the country’s institutions, only to be paid back with ingratitude and disdain by both Kirchner and his widow, the current president.
Or could it be the Kirchner government itself? Its popularity has plummeted in recent months. The highly successful middle-class 8N demonstrations and successive open protests by Peronist labor unions and leftist workers movements have constituted the proverbial writing on the wall in this regard. Nor has the government been able to make good on its raison d’être: the destruction of the Clarín media group.  In the meantime, it has embarked on such obviously inflammatory moves as its plan to take over the traditional Palermo Fairgrounds in Buenos Aires from its clear-cut political rival, the Sociedad Rural Argentina, which groups the most powerful and conservative ranchers and landholders in this agriculturally rich nation. Drawing battle lines between the country’s poor and its well-to-do would be the worst possible thing that could happen to Argentina, but this government has never shown any sense of moderation and less still any spirit of cooperation and social harmony. It is a government that fosters head-on conflict constantly and which is adept in the use of lies and subterfuge for short-term political gain. If it thought that plunging the country into chaos might cover up a multitude of sins, while providing it with an excuse to invest itself with special powers, who—based on its performance up to now—could doubt that it might well do so?
In his highly controversial 1985 novel entitled El día que mataron a Alfonsín, Argentine author Dalmiro Saenz (in collaboration with Sergio Joselovsky) crafts a meticulous (and terrifying) blueprint of how mob violence is used in Argentina to hold democracy prisoner and bring about change by other means for the benefit of political power groups. What he describes is the kind of “social terrorism” witnessed in similar mass looting and rioting organized against the extraordinarily democratic government of Raúl Alfonsín in 1989, prompting the president to resign his post several months before the end of his six year term. And this was also the same sort of organized violence that cut short the elected government of President Fernando De la Rúa in 2001 and cast the country into institutional chaos for two years thereafter, until the democratic election of Néstor Kirchner in 2003. Saenz and Joselovsky make it clear in their book that in organizing such movements, the whole idea is to create suspicion and confusion by destroying every landmark with which a society can orient itself. And therefore, nothing is as it seems and anything is possible.
 Of that novel attorney Alberto Lampugnani, in his opinion “as an Argentine, as a democrat and as a jurist,” was quoted as saying that it was a story that “never should have been written,” adding that it was “sheer madness” and “with a pornographic ingredient.” In his complaint against the writers, he indicated that the book was a manual on “how to act as a mob and (provides) guidelines on how to lead one.” The lawyer went on to say that the book “teaches how important the element of surprise is in attacks on people and institutions, and it teaches that the people attacked remain paralyzed through fear and cowardice.”
I think it’s safe to say that Dalmiro Saenz would probably agree with the last part of that assessment. Perhaps he would even applaud it, since the whole idea of the book was to create a veritable X-ray of the inner workings of a “popular” coup and of who might benefit from it.
And just who might benefit is a question that depends entirely on the current situation and on who decides to use the method first, since a segment of the population long accustomed to receiving free handouts in exchange for fleeting loyalty is predisposed muscle just waiting for something to do, and if a few expensive items that can be fenced later for cash is part of the loot, all the better. But the main idea is to create a state in which the rules no longer apply, so as to be able to install new ones that benefit whatever power is behind the ploy. One of the nefarious characters in Saenz/Joselovsky’s story explains it best:  “Our intention is to carry out a power project…The motive and goal is to strip everything of solemnity, to disparage and undermine every social institution: family, society, churches, marriage, armed forces, justice, religion, honors, dignity, public offices, traditions, patriotic sentiment, the concept of shame and decency, [to render] innocence, holiness and heroism, etc., a joke.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Yes, my birthday is indeed on December 9, but no, I swear I had nothing to do with the extravaganza that Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner and Company staged at the Pink House in Buenos Aires last weekend. Though billed as ‘Democracy Day’, it more resembled a rock concert, and as if to ensure that everyone knew precisely whose party it was, La Cris—still not abandoning her mourning black, but wearing a shimmering body-clinging merry widow gown that managed to belie any hint of sorrow—decided to do her impression of Tina Turner’s ‘hip grandma’ twist-and-shout dance steps (a spectacle that would have been embarrassingly hard enough to watch,  even if she hadn’t been the nation’s current leader).    
Personal criticism aside, however, I hardly doubt the president would have ruled out standing on her head while smoking a cigarette held between the first two toes of her left foot if she’d thought it would better create the illusion of a relaxed, spontaneous outpouring of uncontrollable popular sentiment in favor of her administration, after the party she had planned for two days earlier fizzled, when Justice ruled she wasn’t allowed to dismantle the Clarín multimedia group just quite yet.

Oh, and she was so counting on it!  
For weeks, she and her surrogates had been gloating over the promulgation of the new Media Law that, among other things, would swoop down on December 7 and chop Clarín off at the knees. The pro-K camp was waiting with bated breath for that glorious 7D victory to rub it in the faces of the million-strong anti-K protesters who had their own night in the limelight on November 8.  

In fact, slaying the Clarín dragon has practically become the leitmotif of the president’s entire adminstration. In the cartoon world where Cristina Kirchner lives, inflation doesn’t exist (her pugnacious Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno has long since helped foster that illusion—delusion?—by having his henchmen muscle the national statistics bureau staff into only saying inflation is what he tells them it is), social security pensioners are “vultures” who bellyache despite living in the lap of luxury (with, on average, about USD 384 a month—that is, unless you believe the official dollar rate, another mirror trick that makes 384 look like 512, as long as you don’t actually try to buy that many dollars with the pesos they give you), the country is self-sufficient in petroleum (which is why Argentina spends millions daily to import crude from Cristina’s mentor, Hugo Chávez), there’s plenty of electricity to go around (Clarín just pulls the plug now and then to scare everybody and make the government look bad), the national railroads aren’t in crisis (the disaster in which a commuter train plowed into the Once Station in Buenos Aires was just a quirk of fate), people aren’t starving to death in Chaco and Formosa even if it looks that way (the pro-Clarín  media mafia is probably importing those horrid pictures of emaciated people from elsewhere with the aim of fostering the idea that the Kirchner ‘progressive’ model isn’t working), the Central Bank has plenty of reserves (as long as nobody tries to buy more than twenty-five bucks to go on vacation to Disneyland), and the moon is made of green cheese. The only imperfect thing in this perfect cartoon world, then, is the Clarín Group, which used to be a friend, and was okay then, but which is now an enemy and must be destroyed at all costs.  
And then, in a cruel anti-climax to such a build-up, the Kirchner clan’s 7D didn’t happen. But Cristina wasn’t about to go without her party, so 9D was born. And Cristina got her big-gun rocker friends, Fito Paes and Charly García, to help her celebrate, so as to draw a crowd. But wait! What were they going to celebrate? Clarín, if only for the moment, had won—at least the round if not the match.

Why, they’d celebrate democracy, of course!
Telling signs of how the government’s supporters feel about such democratic institutions as freedom of expression and division of the three powers of government came earlier in the week, right after the court decision was handed down, when clearly organized rioters smashed windows and hurled red paint at the offices of Clarín Group holdings. And it seemed a bit ironic too, in the midst of all the reveling, for the rock-queen-for-a-night president to be celebrating ‘democracy’ at the same time that she was threatening to impeach the judges who had ignored her desire (order) to make good on her vendetta against Clarín—especially since one of the clearest signs that some vestige of democracy still exists in the country was the independence with which the courts shot down the administration’s plan to make what is basically an anti-trust suit into a popular conquest, and so sidestep a few stages in the due process of law.

But then again, maybe that was no more surreal than the 9D crowd’s being led in cheers and hurrahs for the ‘democracy’ of Castro’s Cuba and the ‘democracy’ of Chávez’s Venezuela. Nor was it any stranger than the fact that the vast majority of the members of that “spontaneous gathering” arrived pretty much all together on a veritable fleet of chartered buses—that couldn’t be hidden despite being parked a few blocks away from Government House—and carrying huge banners identifying their political and Kirchnerist labor affiliations.
Perhaps it would be a good idea if this were the last ‘spontaneous popular democratic outpouring’ for a while, in what has basically come down to the case of a government that does little more than spend the day plotting how to neutralize its enemies before its enemies neutralize it. Argentina can’t afford any more such extravaganzas, and neither can democracy.


Thursday, December 6, 2012


Okay, let’s start from the premise that, by most US standards, I would probably be considered way left of center. In fact, just about any time I read a statement by Professor Noam Chomsky—perhaps America’s most eminent left-winger—regarding social ethics and values, I can barely contain my applause and find myself thinking, “Couldn’t have said it better myself!” (No surprise, since Professor Chomsky is, among many other things, one of the world’s foremost experts in linguistics). I mean I’m not talking armed-revolution Che Guevara leftist, but certainly far enough left that if the far-right choir boys like O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Beck were to read my comments, they might certainly refer to me as “a leftwing loon” (just as I might consider them overpaid mouthpieces for corporate fascism and pandering stooges to the me-first wealth-hoarders that comprise the nefarious upper one percent).
But here in Argentina, I’ve quite often been considered (accused of being) just the opposite, a “gorilón” (literally ‘big gorilla’), the term used to describe defenders of US-type political and economic ideals (the other catch-all term here for anything the slightest bit Yankee is “neo-liberal” and it is frequently spat out like a cuss word), which are widely considered to be synonymous with economic and cultural imperialism and overall exploitation of the working class. Gorilón is also the epithet attached to just about anyone who doesn’t toe the line of the majority Peronist Party, and certainly anyone who is an opponent of the current Kirchner regime. (Guilty as charged).
Somewhere in between these two caricature-like descriptions lies the truth about me. I am clearly liberal, but try, above all, to see each situation from an individual viewpoint and issue the most objective opinion I can, within the limits of “objectivity” that each person’s own background, education and life experience permit. Which is probably why, when I received an invitation from a Facebook friend to “like” a group that supports workers’ taking over bankrupt firms they once worked for and turning them into worker cooperatives, I was immediately in two (or more) minds about it. I couldn’t “like” it, but neither could I rule out situations in which I would consider it a positive possibility for serious consideration. What concerned me most was where the idea of how this might be done was coming from, and it was coming from my own backyard, in Argentina.

In her all-encompassing arrogance and lack of self-assessment, Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner, on more than one occasion, during her first term in office, suggested that Western leaders, including US President Barack Obama, might be taking their cue from her and her late husband (and president before her), Néstor Kirchner, in dealing with their own political and economic crises. Considering the state of impending and ongoing political and economic crisis which has accompanied her in the first year of her second term as a result of her autocratic, devil-may-care brand of governance, such suggestions seem ever more delusional, especially considering how legal insecurity in Argentina has grown in almost direct proportion to the Kirchner administration’s penchant for holding onto power at any cost.
In the trickle-down from that kind of contempt for the hard and fast rules of democracy regarding basic tenets of freedom and justice, one of the institutions that has suffered some serious blows—through land occupations, government takeovers, etc.—has been respect for private property.  So when I read that the international co-op group in question was, indeed (and incredibly) following the lead of cooperatives formed in Argentina after workers took over the installations of the bankrupt former employers, it set off alarm bells.   
What’s a Co-op? A cooperative (or co-op) is, simply defined, an independent association of people who decide to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit. Co-ops can act as non-profits in strictly social or cultural endeavors, but most often are economic institutions, nearly always based originally on some social need.
The idea of the cooperative is certainly nothing new. It’s basically a throwback to ancient tribal governance, in which so-called “primitive peoples” set up a cooperative order for their societies, a more or less (depending on the tribe) “pecking order” by which to allot jobs, duties, resources, etc., and so, maintain the peace, harmony and security of their social groups. Actual “trade” was largely external (‘non-domestic’), probably based on internal surplus and external requirements, and was for the mutual profit of the tribe. Or that is, at least, the popular anthropological theory. 
Eli Whitney, father of the Industrial Revolution

In more modern eras there have been hundreds of examples of cooperative-type social structures, but the one that is considered a classic early example of a highly successful co-op is the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers.  The Rochdale Society was established in England in 1844. Like the globalization, computerization and robotics trends that are today forcing so many downsized workers to have to seek other alternatives for making a living, the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution was doing the same thing to many of the manufacturing workers and artisans of those times. Also like many of the unemployed workers of today, who once thought their competencies would provide them with a way to make a good living for the rest of their lives, many skilled workers and tradesmen in the times of the Industrial Revolution also found themselves, all of the sudden, grossly underemployed and impoverished. The founding core of the Rochdale Society was made up of about thirty such workers around a third of whom were weavers downsized by the industrial age inventions of the likes of American Eli Whitney (1765-1825) and other stars of the industrialization era. (By the way, after inventing the cotton gin and a viable textile milling machine, Whitney himself got “downsized” through patent infringement and spent the rest of his days applying the idea of “interchangeable parts” that he had long championed to making standardized firearms and selling them to the US government for its Continental Army).
Like many other people put out of work by the newfangled equipment of the industrialization craze, the Rochdale Society wasn’t a union or guild bent on taking back what it had lost as a skilled labor force, but simply a cooperative group of individuals pooling their mental and (meager) financial resources to try and figure out how to survive in a world that had dealt them a raw and unappreciative hand. So their founding idea was a simple one: to combine their resources in such a way as to permit them to buy basic food items that they could no longer individually afford to purchase from middlemen. The method they finally struck upon was not only buying enough for themselves, but also enough to sell and thus pay for their own consumer needs. Each managed to scrape together £1.00 to buy into the venture, and, just before Christmas, opened a tiny shop with a very limited but affordable supply of sugar, butter, flour, oatmeal and candles to sell to the working public.
Why it Worked. First conceived as a mere survival tactic, the idea nevertheless quickly caught on in such a way as to make the Rochdale cooperative a sort of Industrial Revolution-style Mickey D’s. Within a very short time the co-op’s stores began to also stock more expensive high-quality items like tea and tobacco. And within a few short years, England saw the emergence of hundreds, and then, over a thousand cooperatives based on the Rochdale model.
The first Rochdale co-op store. Photo by Sacrletharlot69 via Wikipedia.
This was, however, no accident or mere stroke of luck. What was different about the Rochdale Society, in comparison with failed co-op ventures of earlier years, was that it had a strong “franchise model” based on a set of hard and fast rules for mutual cooperation that its founders laid down from the outset. These rules were called The Rochdale Principles. Some of the more salient premises of the Rochdale pact that survive today in what are considered sound bases for the establishment of successful co-ops include: open membership and general non-discriminatory treatment, motivation and rewards, democratic governance through member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence in the co-op’s governance and operations, information transparency, provision of education and training to members, cooperation with other cooperatives, and general concern for the community.
Since that time co-ops of all kinds—from farming and electric power to finance and entrepreneurial—have been formed and have tended to have a better general track record for stability and endurance than any other type of business. Reliable studies have shown that the survival rate for new businesses in certain major economies beyond their first ten years is only about two in ten, while co-ops fair far better at four in ten. And what is, perhaps, most important about them is the self-determination that is at their core: They frequently—if not always—fill a need that neither business nor government has been willing or capable of filling. So it is that co-ops have brought such standard of living improvements as electric power, telecommunications, cheap financing and agricultural marketing and trade to segments of society which would otherwise have remained relegated to a more backward existence for much longer, because of where they ranked on the list of institutional priorities.
In my native United States, in the years since World War II, the Cold War Red Scare—in which anti-communist witch-hunts were rife—and the advent of extreme corporate capitalism and its unhealthy influence on government following the fall of the Berlin Wall, have often given cooperatives a bad rap, mostly because of paranoia about their being based  on the premise of economic democracy, which is all about fair distribution of wealth, and which is often erroneously equated with some sinister Marxist plot to destroy capitalism. It is actually a philosophy that has to do with taking economic decision-making out of the hands of a tiny élite of corporate shareholders and putting it into the hands of a much broader segment of real stakeholders, which makes it not the enemy of, but an alternative to a system that, of late, has shown serious signs of failure.
Pros and Cons. Anyway, enough with Co-ops 101: What we’re interested in here are worker cooperatives, in which, basically, an enterprise is owned and operated by those who actually produce what it makes. If that were the plan for a business starting from scratch in today’s highly entrepreneurial world, I would be all for it since, ideally, the cooperative system tends to foster a lot of things that big business is only just now learning about, after decades of arm-twisting and foot-dragging: things like cutting waste, assuming full accountability to the actual owners (the shareholders) and to the surrounding community, social commitment, respect for worker rights, social inclusion, product quality improvement for reasons other than increased profits and legal impositions, and so on, as well as the loyalty of the capital involved to the place where it is produced (i.e., a cooperative doesn’t just shut down operations in, say, Ohio or Texas, or North Carolina, in order to reopen them in a maquiladora  on the opposite side of the Río Grande, where it can get away with exploiting cheap labor, abysmal working atmospheres and much lower environmental standards. Nor does it have fat cat executives pulling down multi-million-dollar pay packages plus sumptuous perks at the top.
But that wasn’t the proposal that came my way via Facebook.
Working World. The cause I was requested to “like” by my Facebook friend was that of The Working World. And let me just say that, right off the bat, I was indeed tempted to click the LIKE button. The Working World describes itself as “a non-profit organization that provides investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives using an innovative finance model.” The group explains how its model works as follows: “We support worker cooperatives using a finance model that puts money at the service of people, not the other way around. We help design, fund, and carry out productive projects, only requiring that cooperatives pay us back with the revenues the investments generate. As active partners, we are more motivated to ensure that these projects are successful, or in other words, that finance is only used as a tool to create real, lasting wealth for those that it serves. Upon return, all investment money is reintegrated to our locally-based revolving loan fund to be overseen by the cooperatives and the community it serves.”
So far, so good. But delving deeper into the little I could find out about the organization, I came across some articles regarding its work in the United States and the world. What particularly grabbed my attention was one posted by Steve Wong on the group’s blog in which he praised certain co-op operations that he had observed on a trip to Argentina to visit Working World affiliates (or potential affiliates). These were, according to the author of the article, “recovered businesses” which Wong describes as follows:  “For those who don’t know, the recovered businesses began as bankrupt companies that were occupied and reopened by workers after the Argentine economic crisis in 2001. While their paths have been difficult and fraught with challenges, as a movement these cooperatives have succeeded, going out of business less frequently than their traditional counterparts and serving as important anchors of employment in local communities throughout Argentina.”
The question here, however, isn’t whether or not the resulting worker co-ops have done a better job than their former employers in operating their businesses, but of how they got those businesses in the first place. And it is worthy of concern that The Working World seems to consider the Argentine “model” one that might well be worthy of replication elsewhere. “Occupation” models are a hallmark, for instance, of the current governing movement that has ruled the country for the past decade. And political as well as economic motives have been cited for at least one of the worker occupations that the group mentions: the fact that the factory in question was started in the late 1970s under the former military regime taking advantage of incentives the de facto government offered, and that its owner also took advantage of backing from the later democratic administration of Carlos Menem, the corruption and failed privatizations of which have made it a frequent target in the current administration’s efforts to buoy its own popularity levels.
But the point is not how inept or corrupt the former owners of occupied properties might have been. These are only sad or scandalous anecdotes in the process that led to their failure. What is indeed important is that any “model” that encourages the hostile takeover of private property is a dangerous precedent and one that can easily play into the power games of governments which don’t respect the law or the basic rules of democracy either.
Clearly, with what we know now about the kind of corporate corruption that has led to the world crisis that first broke in 2007, the rules of how business is done have to change. And this is also true of the noxious effects that globalization has fostered in terms of undermining worker rights and the democratic health of labor unions. But transformation needs to come through democratic channels, by encouraging, lobbying for, and demanding changes in the laws that govern business—with one such change being the placement of workers at the top of the list of a company’s creditors, so as to give them the legal clout necessary to negotiate such takeovers, while respecting the property rights of the former owner. If de facto takeovers of bankrupt businesses become the norm, then it is only one small step to businesses (and other sorts of private property) being snatched from their owners’ hands on the strength of any excuse at all, and that, to an autocratic populist government like Argentina’s current one, which has repeatedly demonstrated its bent for ignoring the law in this respect, would be a powerful temptation in dealing with its political enemies in business.