Argentina After Kirchner

Tomorrow's Argentine elections will mark the end of Kirchner rule. What should the Left's strategy be going forward?

Argentine presidential candidate Daniel Scioli with Christina Fernández de Kirchner and Nestor Kirchner in 2007. Cristina Fernández / Flickr

Socialist Democracy (DS) is a revolutionary organization in Argentina that supports the Workers’ Left Front (FIT) in the upcoming presidential elections.

The article below, written by DS, outlines their view of the political situation in Argentina and raises certain criticisms of the FIT leadership, specifically of the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas (PTS — Socialist Workers Party) to which the FIT presidential candidate, Nicolás Del Caño, belongs. They place this criticism in the context of the ongoing international discussion of socialist electoral strategy and tactics.

When referring to “Kirchnerism,” DS means the state-led populist policies developed by Justicialist Party (as the Peronist party is called) presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK, as she is often referred to), who ruled Argentina from 2003 until this year.

Termed out this year, Kirchner’s handpicked heir Daniel Scioli offers little of his mentors’ populist flair or policies, though he is favored to win the elections against his main rivals on the Right, Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri and dissident Peronist regional boss Sergio Massa.

We are coming to the end of a general political cycle, that is, the end of Kirchnerism in government, although not necessarily the liquidation of Kirchnerism as a political and social experience. Kirchnerism constituted what has been called a “state with weak commitments.” Examining mutations in the state machine in relationship to the class struggle and the accumulation of capital allows us to understand the possibilities open to different political forces, their potential tactics, and perspectives for anticapitalist militancy.

As we know, Kirchnerism comprised a clear response on the part of the ruling class to the crisis of legitimacy suffered by the state on December 20, 2001. The popular rebellion that exploded on that day did not aim to go beyond capitalism, but simply rejected its neoliberal brand (which still rules today), as well as a generalized popular repudiation of the existing political parties. This situation generated, in other words, a change in the correlation of forces between the social classes.

The Kirchnerist political elite elaborated a complex game of continuity and rupture with the brutal austerity policies of the 1990s which allowed it to effectively reconstruct (even if with its own limitations) the legitimacy of the capitalist state and its mechanisms for creating consensus. Yet this consensus was based on relatively weak objective foundations, not radically distinct from the preexisting neoliberal policies.

In economic terms, it stressed continuity with the forms of accumulation (including even deepening national reliance on agricultural exports as the most important motor force for growth), an increase in economic dependency, and an intense exploitation of the workforce, made possible through a sharp devaluation of the peso (which cut real salaries) and the massive creation of an informal and precarious labor market.

This was all made possible by the restoration of capitalist accumulation which began in 2003 as well as a series of state initiatives that coopted popular anti-neoliberal slogans and demands. Government support for policies, which were often as social, political, and even cultural as they were economic — including reforms such as Universal Aid for Families with Children, support for equal marriage, and putting military officers on trial for crimes committed during the dictatorship — helped Kirchnerism reposition the state as the apparent guarantor of the reproduction of social consensus, developing new forms of class compromise.

The weakness of this social pact stemmed from various factors, among them, the frailty of its objective economic pillars and the development of a “self-cancelling” dynamic in the correlation of forces that made the pact possible in the first place. The combination of what we might call two de-linked elements led to a slow-motion turn to the right within the government. It began with the “fine-tuning” carried out by CFK in 2011 and ended with Daniel Scioli’s candidacy today.

First, economic limitations made themselves felt when growth slowed dramatically at the start of the 2008 crisis, leading to one of the worst capital accumulation bottlenecks in the history of Argentina’s dependent development. Second, Kirchnerism only managed to stabilize social conflict without completely liquidating it, therefore allowing for the reemergence of the subaltern movements born during the popular mobilization in 2001.

In this sense, the Kirchner government generated the conditions for a counteroffensive against the ruling class. At the same time, the elite demonstrated that they were not willing to continue making social, democratic, or popular concessions, but were rather disposed to take the reins of the state and society back into their own hands.

Enter the FIT

At this point, two new phenomena appeared. First, no center-left alternative managed to oppose the government. All center-left options over the past few years were integrated into the Peronist ruling party. This blockage of a potential center-left opposition has to do with Kirchnerism’s relative success in constructing a social consensus.

The government’s concessions, retreats, and vacillations appeared to be in the interests of the popular sectors, promoting state intervention in the economy and broadening ordinary people’s rights. In other words, Kirchnerism appealed to “progressive” voters. And when faced with the choice between a center-left government and a center-left opposition, progressive voters worried about opening the door to the Right by splitting their votes, so they elected to stick with the Kirchners.

Moreover, given the successful “Kirchnerization” of Scioli in the current campaign (along with the threat represented by right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri), we can say that Kirchnerism has succeeded in containing the center-left or progressive threat. No left split has emerged from the broad and diffuse Kirchner movement; it has shown itself to be gelatinous and creative, capable of adapting itself to new conditions, able to bend, but not break, at least for the moment.

This context also determines the limits and the potential for the anticapitalist left in the current conjuncture. Given the relative success of the Kirchner consensus and the persistence, for the moment, of the idea that the state will guarantee the continuation of the social pact between the classes (although with reverses and mutations), it is not possible today to create an anticapitalist left that can become a truly mass political alternative.

Instead, faced with Kirchnerism’s hegemony (including even Scioli’s version), the Left is faced with the task of constructing an active and non-sectarian minority which can accumulate forces, resist the ruling class’s offensive, and prepare ideologically and politically for a more favorable period. Tactics which seek to increase the Left’s electoral base by adapting to progressivism will be cut off at the pass by Kirchnerism, as we see being confirmed in this election cycle.

However, it is possible to construct a left that can lead resistance and opposition, even if there are no immediate perspectives for power, as long as this is based on clear independence from the government. The push to the right in the political spectrum is a product of the class struggle, but it does not correlate to any such turn to the right in society as a whole.  The Left must build an alternative to engage with sections of the electorate who voted for the governing party in the past but who today, unhappy with Scioli as CFK’s successor, are open to voting for a more radical political option.

Our hypothesis is that the Workers’ Left Front (FIT), even with its limitations, has filled this alternative space, for the moment, and is capitalizing on the generalized discontent. The fact that the FIT is the left alternative at this stage requires little explanation.

It is the only left-wing force which has built its own parliamentary bloc, one free from all alliances with ruling-class parties. Its forces have developed a certain level of implantation in the workers’ movement and in other important areas of struggle. Its elected officials have personally participated in social conflicts and are gaining experience in using parliament as a platform for supporting the movements.

At the same time, the FIT has important limitations as an alternative. It has not completely succeeded in making itself into the active minority which can give voice, at least electorally, to the rejection of the consensus among the capitalist candidates. These limits have to do with, in part, the FIT’s inability to bring together, in a broad manner, the totality of the Argentine left as well as, despite some of the political lessons it has learned, some difficulties in implanting itself in mass politics.

The limits of the FIT’s growth can be seen in its insertion into the social movements and the working class, but these limits are also reflected in the August primary election results. If we compare the conditions in 2011 to those prevailing today, we can see that the front has grown, but only relatively.

In 2011, CFK won more than 50 percent of the votes, while her main opposition was the neoliberal, but cosmetically social-democratic, Hermes Binner. Today, Kirchnerism has moved well to the right, and the alternatives (Macri, Massa) are not even cosmetically social democratic.

Taking this into account, the FIT has gained very few of the votes lost by the Front for Victory (Scioli’s Peronist-led electoral coalition). Instead, these voters have turned to the Right.

The FIT must consider, if it aims to constitute itself as a genuine pole for regrouping the Argentine left, a thoroughgoing methodological and organizational renovation. It must develop the broadest socialist democracy possible, promote a radical pluralism of left parties, and champion the construction of a militant culture where ideological disagreements are handled in a fraternal manner based on anticapitalist unity. For the moment, the FIT has limited itself to being an exclusively electoral front between three Trotskyist organizations.

The two currents within the FIT which competed against one another during the August primary elections also raised the question of the very nature of the FIT as a political front. The Unity List tended to promote, even if within its own limits, the FIT as a pole for regrouping the Argentine anticapitalist left.

Headed by the Workers Party (PO) and Socialist Left (IS), this list opened itself up to a relatively broad level of participation from groups outside it. On the other hand, the Renovate and Strengthen List (whose Nicolás Del Caño won the internal FIT primary), led by the Socialist Workers Party (PTS), advocated a sectarian exclusion of groups which it characterized as populists, reformists, or Chavista (those supportive of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela).

They want to maintain the FIT as an ultra-left formation, whose lines of demarcation are not based on independence from the Kirchnerist government, but rather by more ideological discussions such as how to characterize the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, Podemos in the Spanish state, or Syriza in Greece. In the current context, arguing about Chavismo as a precondition to an electoral agreement in Argentina means putting a sectarian roadblock on the development of the FIT as a whole.

Strategic Clarifications

Below, we suggest some strategic and programmatic clarifications which we see as necessary in order to construct, in the long run, a political alternative for the working class and subaltern social sectors.

Struggle Inside and Outside the State

In a context where capitalist states, despite various limitations, possess significant hegemonic capacities, we must not imagine a revolutionary process which can be reduced to a strategy of dual power, completely external to the preexisting institutions.

The struggle within, against, and outside of the state has a strategic and programmatic value today. Processes, such as the one which took place in Argentina in 2001, show us that capitalist crises inevitably lead the class struggle to become concentrated at the political level. The Left must consider a strategic hypothesis for taking advantage of social radicalization within the electoral arena in order to initiate a series of progressive reforms which can lead to a revolutionary rupture with capital.

The state, which structurally guarantees the accumulation of capital, can be permeated by the class struggle and it can express changes in the correlation of forces as well as the forms in which power blocs are constructed. Moreover, the state itself intervenes to shape the balance of forces.

Today it is difficult to imagine going head-to-head with the capitalist state based on a “counter state” which is completely external to it, one which has arisen from counsel or soviet-type organs, or from a revolutionary working-class party. These strategies, tied to a mythical and dogmatic interpretation of the October 1917 revolution, are condemned structurally to disaster in a context where the state has the ability to isolate them.

Instead, our epoch must combine social struggles and disputes within the state institutions. Given this, hypothetically gaining access to state power through an election does not lead to a definitive break with capitalism, although it may represent a milestone (an important, but not definitive one at that) of a fight that is just beginning.

Any step forward of this sort, oriented as it is to the capitalist state, brings to a head the inevitable choice between reconciliation to the needs of capitalist reproduction (which coincide with the capitalist state’s own needs) and taking a revolutionary leap. This means that, in cases such as this, gaining access to state power and the social revolution do not take place at the same time; the need for a revolutionary leap flows from the pressures which arise because of the Left’s access to power.

Democratic Commitments

There can be no genuine socialist project which is not radically democratic. Socialist democracy is built in both representative forms and organs of direct popular participation. Popular power, as a unity of self-organized working-class spaces, is one strategic aspect of the construction of socialist democracy. The other strategic aspect takes place at the representative level, where a plurality of socialist and anticapitalist parties carry on strategic discussions and clarifications.

This strategy also demands the creation of a political party which operates as a strategic actor, a task which still remains to be accomplished in Argentina. The transition to socialism, save during insurrectional moments of an exceptional character, must be carried out by means of deepening, subverting, and radicalizing democratic liberties conquered during the capitalist era.

Class Politics

Class politics refers to the necessity for the working class and subaltern social sectors to govern with a program which is incompatible with capitalism. We oppose, as advocates of class politics, reformist projects which seek to administer capitalism in a progressive sense. History teaches us that there is no solution under capitalism, not only because it is a social order opposed to each person’s self-determination, but also because its chaotic development is putting the entire planet in danger.

However, it is also clear that the barrier between reform and revolution is subject to change. It depends on the balance of forces between the contending classes, the lines of conflict, the changing forms of the state, etc. An anticapitalist party can never lead a revolutionary break by abstractly and dogmatically declaring the necessity of transcending capitalism.

A revolutionary demand is any reform which is truly incompatible with capitalism, but which is backed by a mass force able to impose that demand on it. A real class program, therefore, must go beyond a tautology which simply states that the working class must govern. Instead, it must link anticapitalist and socialist propaganda to the struggle for reforms which have a transitional character.

Being a revolutionary means making an insurrection in order to achieve a reform. The reformist, in this respect, can be defined as one who is disposed to retreat in order to avoid a rupture with capital. Recent developments Greece put this definition to the test.

Syriza’s anti-austerity policies comprised one such transitional program. Its implementation would have brought about a break with the EU and the troika, constituting an important marker in the process of rupture initiated from inside the state and propelled outside it by social struggle.

Tsipras’s capitulation, which led to the breakup of the party, crystallized a decision to proceed with an anti-austerity program only insofar as membership in the eurozone would permit. On the other hand, the Left Platform, today Popular Unityexpressed their willingness to advance this program beyond the euro’s framework, which would have enabled future ruptures and opened up the horizons.

The Need for Broad Movements

This strategy requires the building of a new type of political force, a broad anticapitalist movement, or party, which brings together, in a plural and democratic manner, many political currents, traditions, and sensibilities. How broad should such a broad party be? Everything depends on the class struggle. The lines of demarcation cannot be fixed in an abstract manner, but rather in relation to the concrete situation.

Today in Argentina, an anticapitalist political pole can only be a minority. Given the brake that Kirchnerism has placed on the class struggle, this party must be built from those elements that, independent of their prior trajectory or specific ideological beliefs, agree to an anticapitalist line of demarcation and a clear agreement on the (bourgeois) class character of the government.

This implies a broad, but minority, party from the point of view of the class struggle. The FIT, strengthened by its latest results, could take advantage of the potential to build this type of broad anticapitalist party, even accounting for the limits mentioned above. Yet, it appears this potential scenario will be left hanging.

In other contexts (Greece, Spain, Venezuela), a broad political regroupment might not be so clearly delimited, and could basically be oriented toward an anti-neoliberal project, one capable of initiating real breaks with capitalism’s framework.

The fundamental demarcation in these cases is defined by the decision to carry forward radical (transitional) reforms which drive the process of rupture. In these scenarios, anticapitalists can organize themselves inside the popular process and its organizational forms, without losing their ideological and organizational autonomy with respect to vacillating or ambiguous leaderships.