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Argentina: The National Crisis and the Proposal for a Constituent Assembly

As Argentina’s economic crisis deepens, agreements have been signed behind the backs of working people that ensure the country’s continued plunder. Meanwhile, debate on the left has centered on the call for a Constituent Assembly and the role that this could play in the struggle for a workers’ government.

Matías Maiello

October 12, 2018
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Argentine President Mauricio Macri and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have responded to the crisis engulfing the country by plunging it into recession. Unemployment and poverty are rising, and education, health and retirement benefits are under attack. El saqueo (the looting) is now in full swing.[1] Behind the backs of working people, all the regime’s political parties, which ultimately serve the capitalists and the IMF, are negotiating a pact of austerity, misery and unemployment. This agreement will do nothing but finance the flight of foreign currency abroad, pay off the fraudulent public debt and prop up the profits of all those who are ransacking the country. The upcoming budget of 2019 will see Macri and all the provincial governors—whether from the center-right Republican Proposal (PRO), the Radicals (UCR), the mainstream Peronist Justicialist Party (PJ) or the dissident Peronist Renewal Front (FR)—carry out a real conspiracy against the vast majority of the population.

With the U.S. dollar now worth 40 pesos and rampant inflation drastically devaluing wages, the second half of 2018 will see one of the worst historical falls in popular food consumption. All the while the bourgeoisie screams bloody murder at the mere idea of a less-than-1% increase in the wealth tax paid on personal assets held abroad. They have no shame. At the minimum there should be an impuestazo (tax hike) imposed on the great fortunes that this minority has accumulated from exploitation, tax evasion and speculation, not just on the $120 billion they have laundered, but on the full $400 billion that has left the country, much of which has ended up in tax havens. But ideas such as this do not pass through the heads of the political parties. They are little more than paid (millionaire) agents of the capitalists, fully bought and owned by them. That is why they take food off the tables of workers to pay their bills.

The union bureaucrats have the same boss. Working with the government, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the powerful transport union leader Hugo Moyano have made a scandalous truce, which they want to combine with paros domingueros (Sunday strikes, meaning stay-at-home strikes with no active mobilization). These leaders hold the silver platter for Macri and the governors while they plan their plunder. The Kirchnerists entertain themselves with their anti-Macri chatter on TV, while they surrender workers’ rights in unions such as the telecommunications union, guarantee social peace for the government as they did in the Subte (Buenos Aires subway) and betray the enormous university struggle and thousands of mobilized teachers and students for a few crumbs.

We have to say basta (enough), just as we did on December 14 and 18 last year, when we demonstrated against pension reform. But to effectively defeat this pact against the working people, we need to become so much more. We need an active 36-hour national strike and a plan de lucha (plan of struggle, action plan) that culminates in a massive general strike, one that sees the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and the main squares across the country overflowing with millions of people.

The mass movement in Argentina has already shown that it can overthrow governments that plunder the people, just as it did with De la Rúa in 2001. But we cannot repeat what happened in 2001, when, after popular mobilizations overthrew the government, the parties of the regime maneuvered to put Duhalde in place who then imposed a new saqueo, with its mega-devaluation of wages and the murders of the young piquetero activists Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán. That is why it is fundamental that the Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores (FIT—Left and Workers’ Front), all its militants and members, its elected deputies, legislators, councilors, labor movement leaders, students and public figures across the country develop a massive campaign of agitation for a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly, and that it reach increasingly broader sections of the masses with this demand.

A Constituent Assembly Against el saqueo and Pacts From Above

The FIT clearly calls for the capitalists to pay for the crisis. Among other measures, the FIT calls for the nonpayment of the public debt, the nationalization of the banks and a monopoly of foreign trade, measures that are part of an overall plan that curbs the looting of the economy and reorganizes it in favor of the interests of the vast majority. This all requires a workers’ and people’s government established through the mobilization of the exploited and oppressed.

In this context, a debate is taking place within the FIT about the need to agitate for the slogan of the Constituent Assembly as part of a program for defeating Macri, his government of plunder and this rotten political regime. Why does the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS, Party of Socialist Workers) propose to the parties of the FIT that it raise the slogan of a Constituent Assembly? What does our proposal consist of?

We are socialists. We stand for the expropriation of the capitalists, and we fight for a democracy far superior to that of the most democratic of bourgeois republics—for a republic organized through councils of delegates elected by production unit (business, factory, school, etc.), so that workers can govern in the broadest sense of the term: by determining both the political direction of society and the rational planning of economic resources on the basis of state ownership of the means of production. But we know that most workers and people do not currently share this perspective. They still place their trust in the mechanisms of representative democracy. Working people, who with their families make up over 30 million people in Argentina, see in representative democracy the possibility (or the perceived possibility) of imposing their will. The vast majority of the population feels that, in opposition to the tiny minority of the rich, they can rely on their sheer numbers to solve their problems. This idea is being manipulated by the regime’s “opposition” parties, which argue that the solution to austerity is to vote in the next elections, scheduled for 2019. But these same “opposition” parties are going along with the government’s austerity plans today.

Therefore, in the face of the historic looting now underway, and in opposition to the pacts that Macri and the governors, senators and deputies of the parties of the regime are making behind the backs of the people, we propose that the workers’, students’ and women’s movements, the unions and the organizations of the mass movement fight to impose the most democratic institution conceivable within the limits of representative democracy: a Constituent Assembly.

We are most certainly not referring to anything like the farce of the 1994 Pact of Olivos, the agreement signed by then President Carlos Menem and opposition leader Raúl Alfonsin to reform the constitution. With its so-called Nucleus of Basic Understanding, this pact established in advance that only formal details of the regime’s operation could be discussed, while expressly excluding any real reform that could affect big capitalist property in the interests of the vast majority. Small property can of course be confiscated, as happened to small savers in 2001, when it suits the regime. But the big capitalists are untouchable by divine principle.

We propose a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly, one that can truly express the will of the people and that is made up of one deputy for every 20,000 inhabitants. To ensure that its members do not form a privileged caste like those in the current National Congress, all deputies must be recallable and paid the same wage as a teacher. A Constituent Assembly must have full powers to address all major national problems without any limits, it must not be restricted by any supposed “counterweight,” and no institution of the current regime can have the right to suspend or veto any measures that the Constituent Assembly votes on.

A Challenge to the Bourgeois Regime

From the governing center-right Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition to the Peronists of Christina Kirchner’s Frente para la Victoria (FpV—Front for Victory), all the parties of the regime that are full of talk about “democracy” fear a Constituent Assembly. They fear that they will lose their grip on power and that, in the face of the looting now underway, measures that strike at the heart of capitalist interests can be democratically decided. These parties have confidence only in the mechanisms of representative democracy that they claim to defend when they can count on a whole series of institutions designed to separate the masses from real government.

They can count on an oligarchic Senate, which shuts down laws voted on by the congressional deputies, such as the one that aimed to legalize abortion. Thirty-eight senators from all the main political blocs granted themselves the right to condemn hundreds of women to clandestine abortions, while demonstrating the clerical nature of all these bourgeois parties. But even when the Congress as a whole votes for something that is even minimally in favor of workers, there is a president with quasi-monarchical powers who can veto these laws if they are thought to affect the capitalists. This is just what Macri did in 2016 with the Ley Antidespidos (Anti-layoffs Law), which barely even restricted layoffs, and again in May of this year with proposed minimal restrictions to the tarifazos (utility price hikes). Cristina Kirchner vetoed the Law to Protect the Glaciers in 2008, and then the 82% móvil, the indexed pension for retirees, in 2010. And if all this fails, they know that in the last instance they have the judicial caste—appointed by the president and the senators, with ridiculous salaries they don’t even pay taxes on—that has the power to say whether such and such law is unconstitutional and then invalidate it.

It is only this tutelage that makes them feel safe. They know that a Constituent Assembly that expresses the will of the vast majority of workers and people, without any limitations or “counterweights,” would not allow 4,000 large landowners to own more than half of the country’s farmland while poverty and hunger grow among working people. Nor would it allow speculators in the space of a few months to escape with over $20 billion, the equivalent of six times the budget for all national universities, while public education collapses. Nor would it allow the country to sink into austerity and recession to guarantee the payment of a fraudulent public debt, over $500 billion, of which has been paid since 1982. Nor would it allow the handling of foreign trade to remain in the hands of a few large grain companies and imperialist monopolies that ransack the country, while wages tumble under the weight of rampant inflation. They know that radical measures such as the expropriation of the landlords and the nonpayment of the public debt would be hugely popular in a Constituent Assembly that is not protected and kept in check by the institutions of the capitalists.

As revolutionaries, we are convinced that the more democratic our proposed Constituent Assembly is, the more influence our solution to the crisis will have—that is, making the capitalists pay and attacking the structural foundations of austerity.

Class Power to Confront Capitalist Resistance

In a letter to the FIT, the Partido Obrero (PO—Workers’ Party) criticizes the PTS, arguing that it has “rejected our proposal for a [Constituent Assembly] with power … emptying the slogan of its revolutionary quality, which can attract the attention of the masses because it has the power to satisfy popular demands and to take emergency measures that ‘make the capitalists pay for the crisis.’”

When we say that a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly has “power,” what we mean is that there is no institution of the bourgeois regime that can limit it, review it or veto its decisions, that it has full freedom to address all the nation’s problems, to address popular demands and to adopt emergency measures that make the capitalists pay for the crisis and solve these problems in a sovereign fashion. With all this we can only agree. In this sense, the free and sovereign Constituent Assembly that is proposed does not only replace the government but all institutions of the regime. It is a very different thing to say that a Constituent Assembly would have the power in itself to “satisfy” all these demands, which would necessarily imply overcoming the capitalists’ resistance.

The more a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly moves to take radical measures, the greater that resistance will be. The Constituent Assembly, as Trotsky said, is “the most democratic form of parliamentary representation.” But the capitalist state is based on an army, on repressive forces that have a bourgeois character. No one should expect them to peacefully accept any decision that truly opposes the capitalists, for the simple fact that the bourgeoisie and imperialism will not accept them either.

There is no need to go back to the military coup of 1976 to be conscious of this. In 2008, the rural bourgeoisie was willing to “set fire” to the country when it faced no more that the threat of higher export taxes.[2] So it does not take much to imagine their response if a radical measure such as the expropriation of the 4,000 main landowners were put forward, a measure which is indispensable if we want the capitalists to pay for the crisis. There should be no doubt that they will rise up in arms, with all the military, police and paramilitary force that they can mobilize against the Constituent Assembly or any other body that takes such a measure.

The point is that the set of measures needed to make the capitalists pay for the crisis must have such radical content. Government plundering will be curbed not with transport and energy subsidies, slightly higher agricultural export taxes or a renegotiation of public debt, but with measures that liquidate the structural foundations of austerity—i.e. subordination to imperialism, the public debt, landed property, private appropriation of large national savings, the handling of foreign trade by a handful of large capitalist conglomerates, etc.

That said, the more openly the capitalists resist the democratic resolutions of a Constituent Assembly, the more the masses will see just how little representative democracy the capitalists are actually willing to accept, and the greater will be the sectors of the mass movement that conclude that a real power of the working people must be constructed, including a revolutionary party with mass influence that can lead this process.

The Development of Experience in a Mass Movement

In this sense, the proposal for a Constituent Assembly fulfills an enormous pedagogical role in organizing the masses around an anti-imperialist, anticapitalist and truly democratic way out of the crisis. It will also strengthen the revolutionary party, which encourages the masses to move forward in struggle. This is a key issue because, as Ferdinand Lassalle pointed out in his classic pamphlet, “On the Essence of Constitutions”: “The King’s political instrument of power, the army, is organized, constantly mobilized, disciplined and ever ready to act; the power of the nation, on the contrary, even when it is far greater, is unorganized.”

On the one hand, the great potential of a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly consists in the possibility of agitating and convincing sectors of the great masses of the need to impose the radical measures necessary to stop el saqueo, in an infinitely broader way than in a “normal” parliament.

On the other hand, in the face of both legal (Armed and Security Forces) and paramilitary (gangs and fascist bands) resistance from the bourgeois order, the very struggle to impose these measures will increasingly see larger sectors of the working people bring their experience with representative democracy to an end and arrive at the need to organize themselves on the basis of their workplaces, companies, factories, transportation, schools, faculties, etc., to develop their own democratic bodies of power—the councils that arise precisely in this way—and their own organizations of self-defense.

A Strategy of Action, Not Speculation

As part of Constituent Assembly debate, the Partido Obrero argues in one reply that “for this to be a real slogan of power, it must be preceded by the slogan ‘Out with Macri and the whole corrupt regime of Kirchneristas, Pejotistas members of the Peronist PJ] and Macristas.’” This is an attempt to polemicize with the PTS, even though [our original letter argued that “our proposal is to put end to not only this government of starvation and surrender, but also to the political and social regime on which it is based.” We understand that on this point, leaving aside the formal aspect of the matter and the tactical question about the appropriate time to raise the call for the fall of Macri and the whole regime by way of mobilization, the question is whether or not the Constituent Assembly “must be preceded” by such a demand.

Trotsky addresses this same issue in his writings on China in a very different fashion to the PO. He argues,

If the Kuomintang government [Chinese Nationalist Party at the head of the then military government] at the moment of its collapse tries to convoke some kind of a representative assembly, what shall our attitude be towards it, that is, how shall we best utilize it in the interests of the revolution, by boycotting the elections or participating in them? Will the revolutionary masses succeed in forming an independent governmental body which takes on itself the convocation of a constituent assembly? Will the proletariat succeed, in the course of the struggle for democratic demands, in creating soviets? Will the existence of soviets make the convocation of a constituent assembly superfluous? These questions cannot be answered in advance. But our task consists not in making predictions on a calendar but in mobilizing the workers around the slogans that flow from the political situation. Our strategy is a strategy of revolutionary action, not abstract speculation. [3]

The proposal of the Partido Obrero has little to do with Trotsky’s approach. For the Russian revolutionary, the main question hinges on the possibilities posed by a Constituent Assembly from the point of view of revolutionary action. As far as the PO’s proposal goes, who is going to dismiss Macri and the entire political regime before the convocation of a Constituent Assembly? Given the categorical nature of its proposal, the PO should be able to answer this question without any problems. But the truth is that it does not have an answer, because this is no real answer yet. What this shows is that the form that the PO wants to give to the slogan of the Constituent Assembly is no more than a propagandist and electoralist one, since it does not propose it as a real and concrete challenge to the bourgeois regime today.

For us, on the contrary, this is precisely the critical role of the Constituent Assembly proposal. We of course support the need for an active, 36-hour national strike and an action plan that culminates in a general strike to defeat Macri, the IMF and all its accomplices. But we also propose a campaign of agitation, as broad as possible and by all means available, for the slogan of the Constituent Assembly as both a challenge to the regime and a challenge to all those who spread the poison that current struggles should propose only partial, defensive objectives, while the real solution will be choosing between one or other capitalist option in the 2019 presidential elections.

We challenge all those who call themselves democrats to agree to this mechanism of their own representative democracy in order to truly express the will of the people, to establish a free and sovereign Constituent Assembly, with one deputy for every 20,000 people, who are recallable at all times and paid the same wage as a teacher. Here is the key to the discussion and the turning point that this poses for the FIT, as well as the development of the struggle to defeat Macri’s government, the bourgeois regime and the capitalist plunder now underway.


[1] Translator’s note: El saqueo (The looting): Name given to periods of rapid currency devaluation, rampant inflation and food shortages. The last two periods of el saqueo occurred in mid-1989, when protests, riots and supermarket looting forced the early resignation of President Raúl Alfonsin, and again during the Argentinazo of December 2001, when a strong devaluation reduced workers’ wages by 30%.

[2] In 2008, Cristina Kirchner’s government tried to impose a substantial increase in the taxes on exports (“Resolución 125”) that would primarily affect the profits of agricultural producers. The rural bourgeoisie responded by setting fields on fire, blocking highways throughout the country and dumping products like milk on a massive scale. The “countryside” ultimately won the struggle and the taxes on crop exports were not implemented.

[3] “For a Strategy of Action, Not Speculation: A Letter to Friends in Peking,” October 3, 1932, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1932), p. 214 (italics added). A slightly different translation can be found here: “A Strategy of Action and Not of Speculation: Letter to Pekin Friends” (October 1932).

This article was first published at La Izquierda Diario on September 11.

Translation: Sean Robertson

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Matías Maiello

Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).

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