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Latin America Goes Bottom Up

Latin American development has, over the last decades, been defined by its experimentation. Innovative development strategies — both progressive and regressive — have seen the introduction of untested new policy measures, bringing dramatic transformations to countries throughout the region.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, state-led populist development strategies produced massive industrial transformation, rising wages, welfare state provision and dramatically expanded institutional representation for labour. From the mid-1970s, the neoliberal counter-revolution reversed many of these changes, bringing political repression alongside wage depression and a process of de-industrialisation that reconfigured economic relations within Latin American countries and between these countries and the rest of the world. And in the last decade, the so-called Pink Tide has seen left and centre-left governments consolidate power in countries as diverse as Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Nicaragua.

Whilst each of these countries adopts distinctive positions on developmental issues, at the core is an explicit rejection of the neoliberal consensus that has dominated since the 1980s. Development strategies across the Pink Tide countries involve a return to many of the earlier state-led, populist measures that preceded the decades of neoliberalism. The state once again plays a leading role in supporting economic growth, developing new leading sectors in these economies and, to a varied extent, supporting the rights of labour.

However, each of these experiments has been seen as a top-down experience, with the state, or leading firms within the economy, enforcing changes from above. Such a focus on these actors and their activities conceals important, and potentially even more radical, social and political experiments that can, and oftentimes have, provided a genuine bottom-up alternative for development. Age-old tensions between peasants and landowners in Brazil and Mexico, conflict between international producers and non-unionised workers in Chile, unemployed movements in Argentina, and community-led organisations and mobilisations in Bolivia and Venezuela have all played, and continue to play, an integral role in their respective societies.

To understand the developmental potential of such conflicts, and the actors involved in them, it is essential that we look beyond the attempted settlements offered by the state or economic activities of powerful firms. Instead, we must focus our attention on the alternative strategies and institutions from below that have emerged and are still under construction — often in conflict with remnants of old ruling elites or the new powerbrokers in state and society — and which seek to directly benefit those that lead them: the workers, peasants, the unemployed, indigenous communities, and the poorest members of society.

In Chile, the transition from two of the earlier top-down developmental experiments was punctuated by one of the most interesting, and potentially transformative, bottom-up development strategies the country has seen. The cordones industriales (1) were a series of worker-led occupations of large, medium and small industrial establishments that occurred (primarily) between 1970 and 1973 under the socialist government of Salvador Allende. Backed to some extent by the leftist parties of his ruling Popular Unity coalition, unionised and non-unionised workers mobilised, initially in defensive responses to owner lockouts, unpaid wages and even sabotage, to maintain production and support what many saw as “their” government and its process of nationalisation.

Over the three years, as conflict intensified, these nascent forms of political organisation took on a momentum of their own, surpassing the demands of government to maintain production, and beginning to reorganise relations within and between the factories as a means to establishing a radical developmental alternative from below. Examples abound of workplace assemblies organising increased output in previously stagnant industrial sectors, hiring new employees and reorienting production away from luxury goods towards those items most needed by workers and their families in the surrounding communities. Worker occupation extended into new forms of worker self-management that began to transcend the dominant strategies of capitalist development propounded not just by the old factory owners, but even by those in the socialist government.

A more recent example of a bottom-up experiment comes from Argentina and the fábricas recuperadas (reclaimed factories) that, again, emerged during the transition of two of the top-down experiments — in the aftermath of the 2001 crisis. In a similar vein to the cordones in Chile, this movement has comprised worker-led occupation of small and medium factories, taken over in response to the actions of owners. Unlike Chile, however, the primary outcome has been the formation — backed through the legal system in Argentina and elements within the state — of legally constituted cooperatives. As documented by the Lavaca Collective — a cooperative media organisation run by the journalists themselves — growing recognition of the corrupt and exploitative practices of domestic and international owners inspired these activities. Workers with little or no political experience faced lay-offs, non-payment of wages and threat of bankruptcy from their employers, and, in response, took control of their factories, not to halt production but to ensure its continuation.

Despite protracted legal battles and in the face of employer intransigence and even state-sponsored violence, several hundred of these cooperatives are currently in operation, spanning diverse sectors (from large modern establishments producing products for the international market to smaller workshops producing simple domestic consumer goods). Most significantly, in many instances these now worker-managed firms have increased output and, through profit-sharing arrangements, ensure a new developmental strategy in which it is the workers rather than the (now former) owners that reap the rewards.

These two experiences offer a vision of radical bottom-up development alternatives within a region that has long been typified by economic, political and social experimentation. But they do (and did) face serious limits.

In Chile, these were obvious. The violence of the 1973 military coup was targeted at political leaders linked to the ruling coalition of leftwing political parties, but its bloody response to the radical alternative emerging within the workplaces of the cordones was even more brutal. Claiming international communist infiltration and decrying the presence of armed Soviets, the new military government justified a violent crackdown on the (mainly unarmed) workers that still occupied and defended their factories.

In Argentina, the workers’ cooperatives of the fábricas recuperadas, despite facing violent eviction often by employers and the police, have not been subject to the same degree of violent repression. But their existence faces a precariousness that results from the form that this strategy for development has taken. Unlike the cordones,these firms continue to produce for the capitalist marketplace, even retaining many of the firms’ former customers, and so are shaped by the pressures and imperatives of this system.

The viability of these alternative strategies for development, and many others in Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela and across the region, are tied not just to their internal characteristics — relations in the workplace, technologies adopted, products that are produced or the income accumulated — but also to often violent external constraints.

Adam Fishwick specialises in the political economy of labour and development in Latin America; he is affiliated with the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex.


(1) Translated literally as the “industrial belts” and named after the industrial districts that ringed Santiago where these movements were initially based.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.


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