Reviewed by Jerome Warren
Naomi Klein’s popular documentary La Toma (The Take) presented the phenomenon of Argentina’s Empresas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores (or firms recovered by their workers) to a wide international audience. However, Marcelo Vieta’s recent Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina is the first such comprehensive English-language review of ‘the largest movement in the world of worker-led conversions of capitalist businesses into cooperatives’ (xv). Klein’s contribution may have been the popularization of the idea, but this book will help bring a more detailed understanding on what ERTs are, where they originate and to what they contribute.
In fact, it is actually quite unfair to call this book Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina, as its scope is far broader than a review of this concept in the context of Argentina. In fact, Vieta has written two books with this entry: firstly, an analysis of Marxist and other socialist theories on worker-self management and secondly, an application of this theoretical lens to the Argentine case, with a social history of Argentina thrown in for good measure.
Driven by the slogan ‘occupar, resistir, producir!’, Argentina’s countercultural ERTs ‘have defied their numerical weight and have stepped up to the task of saving companies from closure, addressing under- and unemployment, stabilising local economies, and securing the social well-being of surrounding communities.’ (Ibid) This has given much clout and endorsement from communities across Argentina, as Vieta points out with countless examples from numerous case studies. Moreover, the more than 400 firms have a survival rate of ‘almost 90 percent’ (115), putting lie to the notion that entrepreneurship requires the presence of risk-taking investors. Indeed, Vieta’s greater purpose with the book is to point to this fact and the resulting opportunities for new ‘imaginaries’.
Vieta, an Argentine-Canadian scholar with Italian roots, has been researching and teaching on the themes of social and solidarity economy, cooperatives, worker-recovered enterprises, critical theory and the sociology of work for decades. He has also long been involved with the International Workers’ Economy Network, amongst other projects as a pedagogue. Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina is rich in both theory and practice, and is a welcome contribution to the study of the phenomenon of workplace democracy that should interest a wide ranger of readers.
Citing Gramsci, Vieta employs a ‘[c]onjunctural approach’ (521), in which theories are grounded in the particular situation of a time or place. Accordingly, Vieta develops in precise detail the situation ERTs face today, quickly surveying Argentina’s migratory history, the ascent of the Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) paradigm of development, as well as the simultaneous buildup of a working class movement connected with the fate of Juan Peron and the later regression into a military dictatorship. Vieta recounts these events, as well as the aegis of the present era of Argentine neo-liberalism most notably linked to menemismo (a term that describes President Carlos Menem’s policies).
Born out of the macroeconomic crisis which Argentina faced at the turn of the millennium, ERTs ‘articulate ways of moving beyond the capital–labour relation, illustrating for working people how to overturn the power vested in employers to determine the working conditions and life circumstances of employees’ (551). However, what makes the ERT phenomenon stand out is that it ‘ha[s] workers initiating the recuperation of the firm while also fully converting it to workers’ collective ownership and administration’ (135).
Vieta continually stresses the relationship between Argentina’s lackluster economic performance and the rise in recovered enterprises and particularly places emphasis on the role of the 2001 sovereign debt default in drastically exacerbating conditions, tracing out a clear non-linear relationship between economic downturn and the number of occupied or recuperated firms in the country (106). The book divides ERTs into three distinct stages: a first period, between the early 1990s and 2004 (108); a second period, from 2004 to 2009; and a third period, from 2010 to 2015. Each of these periods was marked by a different stage in the conjunture of Argentina’s economy. The first being a period of macroeconomic instability, the second by a consolidation and institutionalization (110) of the ERT movement and a move from imminent macroeconomic to microecomic instability, where recuperated businesses were also increasingly supported in the public eye (111).
One of the book’s great advantages is its lucid analysis of the notion of autogestion, normally rendered in English as self-management. This is an essential and timely analysis, as the English-language discourse on the topic is deeply influenced by several notable examples of failure, such as the U.S. Pacific Northwest’s plywood and reforestry cooperatives. These examples have colored English-language research on cooperatives with a decidedly negative aspect, which emphasizes issues like degeneration (this term describes a process in which cooperatives convert to investor-owned firms) and undercapitalization. There are other prejudices that linger within the domain of cooperative studies and cooperative economics as well, such as the notion that labor-managed firms function best in labor-intensive or highly skilled sectors. Vieta does an excellent job of further eroding these prejudices by providing facts that appear to explicitly contradict this prejudice.
This conjuncture begs reexamination, and books like Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina contribute to that effort. Vieta’s book features a clear positioning away from the above paradigm and prejudices described above. Vieta instead takes up a ‘class struggle Marxism’ approach, outlined further below. This approach focuses on the positive contributions self-management can offer in the task of uncovering innovative modes of organizing productive human activity.
For the reader interested in ERT experiences beyond Argentina’s border, Vieta offers an overview of international ERTs, including of Latin American and European experiences. He puts great effort into showing how, in each of these cases, the ERT phenomenon connects with the greater struggle for working class identity. In drawing up this overview, the book lays the groundwork for a comparative study of ERT legislation, pointing out local strengths and weaknesses. Thus, those interested in adapting the Argentine experience and learning from global best practices have another reason to read this book.
Throughout the book, the idea of autogestion is tied to both the Peronist tradition of Argentine political economy as well as to a singular conception of class consciousness, namely the reconstitution of class. In later chapters of the book, these two conceptions are merged into what can ultimately be labeled a phenomenological account of working class custom, theory and history. The book affirms that the construction of the working class proceeds as an endeavor to continuously re-appropriate, reconstitute and reclaim, at distinct conjunctures and with numerous devices, ideas of dignified work, community and of an underlying sense of solidarity with other ensembles of underprivileged workers globally. In this, Vieta places himself in a lineage of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, no less than Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England. This is to say that relations of solidarity advance via common experiences instigated by a shared sense of precarity (219). The reader is repeatedly reminded that class isn’t merely a ‘brute fact’, but a process and, moreover, that new modes of consciousness are forged by shared experiences. As Vieta writes, ‘[a]t the same time that these experiments were resisting neo-liberalism […] people also began to co-create community-based solutions that looked beyond the mediation of competitive markets, austerity, and cumbersome state or union bureaucracies’ (103).
In fact the dynamic notion of class is reinforced by the ‘ambivalent’ relationship with unions, the long most established force for realizing workers’ struggles for dignified labor. These, in many cases, have tended to in fact ‘distance themselves’ from ERT workers (129), showing that even here, the bounds of solidarity between members of the working class are not as static and unchanging as one might intuit. Vieta makes this point brilliantly throughout his book, especially when pointing to the need for creating autonomous ‘ERT unions’ like FACTA to lobby Argentinian governments, both local, regional and national, for more recognition and support.
Vieta suggests at the outset that his book is intended to contribute to the ‘critical sociology of work’. Indeed, particularly chapters 4 and 5 are valuable in this regard, as they deal with the history of conceptions of labor and of autogestion, respectively. One of the most interesting conclusions that Vieta makes is that ‘ERTs symbolically tear down the walls that segregate a workplace from the community’ (513). Indeed, the notion of ‘new economic imaginaries’ (526) is vital, especially at times of great social transformation, as we are experiencing at present. As the gig economy rises and the old model of industrial capitalism fades further and further into the background, it is exactly the ideas contained within books like this that help outline such ‘imaginaries’, recuperating, reclaiming and reconvening an organic relation between economy and society and pushing communities in directions that embrace mutual aid and solidarity.
Another question raised by the case studies and theoretical expositions of the book comes from the fact ‘that workers can effectively run productive enterprises without bosses.’ (107) In fact, Vieta goes to great lengths to dwell on a point that is frequently raised in the Marxist literature: the role of cooperation in the production process. In this vein, ‘cooperation on capitalist shop floors brings workers together and forms “the collective worker”’ (530). This ‘positive side of capital’ nevertheless begs the question, posed by Michael Lebowitz: ‘Why, then, “are the producers [that is, workers] them- selves not able to capture the fruits of cooperation in production?’ (Ibid) Because, answers Vieta, ‘the capitalist’s “planned cooperation”, mixed with detailed divisions of labour and managerial control, focuses cooperation squarely on the extraction “of the greatest possible amount of surplus-value”’
Thus, a reclaimed and recuperated workplace, in the eyes of Vieta, may not itself spell out Shangrila, but points to a new imaginary: cooperation beyond capitalism: ‘When workers collectively control and self-organise the means of production and their labour in a worker cooperative, they recuperate the “productive power of social labour” for themselves, break the mediating role of capital, do away with wage-labour as property, and take back control of their working and non-working lives’ (531).
One of the book’s most stunning achievements is a contribution to a tradition – shared by others like Proudhon, Robert Owen, Marx, Kropotkin and more recently, Bruno Jossa – of tying the cooperative movement to the larger workers’ movement. That the relations between autogestion and the achievement of socialism aren’t one-dimensional is clear. Vieta repeatedly points to the challenges that ERTs specifically and cooperatives generally face: their ‘dual reality’ of practicing economic democracy, while at the same time competing in capitalist markets, often leads to compromises, conflicts and ‘compensatory tendencies’, where hierarchies, the privileging of certain skillsets and intensification of the labor process (‘self-exploitation’) sets in (539ff.). These are real challenges and Vieta does them justice in his analysis.
With its catalog of 7 social innovations and 6 ‘recuperative moments’, Vieta’s book offers a theoretical lens as well as an intimate portrait of a movement many have heard of, but few have studied in such detail. This tome is certainly a valuable contribution to any scholar of workplace democracy and organizational democracy; yet also for practitioners or students of the international cooperative movement, working class history buffs and those searching for theoretical and practical examples of a post-capitalist imaginary that seeks to move beyond a system of wage labor and to a notion of social solidarity. Workers’ Self-Management in Argentina is a welcome addition to the – surprisingly sparse – empirical discourse on self-management and economic democracy. This is the most detailed analysis of the recent experiences in Argentina that this reviewer has encountered (there is a larger literature in Spanish). It is hoped that this book will inspire similar efforts towards understanding self-management in other settings and times, thereby advancing Vieta own observations that workers are capable of developing a new awareness of themselves, as well as an active intercourse with their communities, via a process of recuperating their work and reclaiming their own creative capacity.
11 February 2021