Que se Vayan Todos

17th July.2002

Beneath the Masks

The bus drops us beside a dirt track which is dotted with perilous pot holes filled with rubbish. The sulphurous smell of raw sewage rises from shallow channels of grey water that run alongside. We have arrived in Admiralte Brown, a huge sprawling neighbourhood somewhere beyond the southern edges of Buenos Aires. It feels like a hybrid of shanty town, wasteland and a crumbling soviet housing estate, a place where hope is in short supply and jobs are even fewer - unemployment runs at over 80 per cent here. Yet this is a stronghold of one of the most radical groups of Piqueteros, part of the Annibal Veron network that was targeted on the 26th of June when Dario and Maxi were murdered. This network is itself is part of the larger Movimento Trabajero Desocupado (MTD - Movement of Unemployed Workers).

A small, hand-painted sign marks the entrance to the MTD bakery. We pick our way through a pile of bicycles parked in the passageway which leads to a courtyard where about twenty people are sitting in a circle taking part in a workshop. Most are in their early twenties - some a lot younger, a few a lot older. Despite the occasional barking dogs, the gusts of wind, crowing cocks and small children running between the chairs, the participants seem intensely focused as Lola, the energetic young piquetero facilitator, hands out strips of paper. Stuck on the rough concrete wall in front of them is a large sheet of flip-chart paper divided into two columns, the left labelled: "MTD", the right one: "CAPITALIST SYSTEM OF PRODUCTION".

The workshop is about to begin. As if on cue Astor bounces into the courtyard carrying a basket of warm doughnuts which he passes around. Astor works in the collective bakery. Short and stocky, dressed in bright colours - and occasionally nicknamed 'monkey' - his wide face continuously beams a cheeky smile. He sits down munching a doughnut and joins the workshop.

"What's the difference between a bakery here and a bakery in the capitalist system?" asks Lola. "Who are we producing for here?"

"We produce for our neighbours," pipes up Yvette, a grey-haired woman in her fifties, her brown face furrowed like a deeply ploughed field, "and to teach ourselves to do new things, to learn to produce for ourselves".

"For whom do the bakers work in a capitalist system?" Lola continues.

"For the managers, for a corporation," replies Maria, who sports a silver ring in her nose.

"The people working in bakeries are people like us," says Astor, "but they have to work long hours, often up to 3am in the morning when the dough goes in the ovens, they work their bodies to the bone."

Miguel, slouched in the corner and wearing an Iron Maiden sweat shirt, butts in: "And yet the people who work hardest get the least reward, they work in subhuman conditions, earn nothing and continue to work. But we produce so that everyone can live better." For a moment the group falls into contemplative silence.

Each strip of paper that Lola handed out has a statement written on it about either the self-organised collective "MTD" form of production or capitalist forms of production. The idea is they attach their strip of paper on the appropriate column of the flip chart and explain why they think it should go there.

A glum looking guy with long shaggy hair in a polyester black and red Nike track-suit stands up first. He reads out his strip of paper.

"The most important aim is to make profits." He shakes his head.

"In the capitalist system, they don't care about peoples health or nature, to them all that is interesting is to make money. We produce for the needs of our neighbours, we all need a little bit of each other, we need each other."

Yvette is next. "Only one person makes decisions." She slaps the strip onto the "capitalist" column. "We decide things together here, and the money we make we share between all of us..."

One by one they all take turns, standing up, eloquently explaining the ways the different systems are organised and discussing each point at length.

Suddenly two cats start to fight in the tree that overhangs the courtyard. Tanya, a punky 21 year old who wears a chain and padlock around her neck, and is in charge of the piqeteros Security, throws a stone at the screaming cats, who scamper across the roof tops.

The workshop winds down with a long discussion about the problems of working collectively. They discuss the issue of some people in the groups who didn't participate in the process of contributing part of their income to the collective and how the assemblea after much discussion decided to expel them. Then one young woman explains how she is confused about how to manage her handicraft work group in a non-capitalist way. "We work five days making things, it takes so much time, materials are expensive, we have to pay for travel to the markets at weekends to sell stuff. It's so difficult." She worries that she is falling into capitalist ways by selling things so far away from the neighbourhood, things that people don't really 'need'. The group comforts her, telling her that there are different ways of producing things, that some compromises always have to be made, and suggesting that she tries selling stuff at the craft fair run by the social movement the Madres de Placa de Mayo.

"Do these principles we have been talking about really happen in the MTD ?" asks Lola, provocatively. Her extraordinary facilitation had meant everyone in the group has contributed to the debates.

"When we work together there are always some problems, not everyone is used to common work." says Yvette.

"We are so used to a capitalist work system," exclaims Maria. "My father worked in a capitalist system, so did his father - we are all so used to being told what to do. For many people it's difficult to have any initiative, they just wait to be given orders. And you know what?" she continues, grinning. "We still have some authoritarians in our group ! I'm not going to name names." Everyone bursts into laughter.

As I sit there witnessing this extraordinary workshop, I try to imagine a similar group of young unemployed people in my own country, Britain, on a crumbling housing estate at 9.30 on a weekday morning. I wonder if they could ever have such an engaged and keenly developed critique of the system that had excluded and marginalized them so utterly from society.

next part: The Strength of Sharing | Que se Vayan Todos | Argentina