Labour-Centred Development in Latin America: Two cases of alternative development

The_hand_that_will_rule_the_worldIn todays post, Adam Fishwick offers an overview of the main arguments and highlight some of the key empirical findings of research published recently in Geoforum. Co-authored with Ben Selwyn, the article discusses alternative models of development that go beyond the neoliberal and statist paradigms that dominate debate, and is based on two cases– the cordones industriales in 1970s Chile and empresas recuperadas in Argentina today – of “labour-centred development”.

The rise of the ‘Pink Tide’ of progressive left and left-of-centre governments in Latin America briefly offered us a set of seemingly new alternative models – from buen vivir in Ecuador to ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’ in Venezuela to ‘growth with equity’ in Argentina.

Yet with the stagnation and apparent collapse of these models, critics on the Left have begun to highlight the many underlying contradictions that the Pink Tide failed to address.

Whilst the ‘neo-developmentalist’ strategies adopted throughout the region have seen a growing level of state intervention favouring increased growth in domestic industrial sectors and some social welfare improvements, they have embedded deepening relations of exploitation, blocked and co-opted social movements that brought these governments to power, and sustained a socio-economic order over-written by neoliberal macroeconomics.

Put simply, the statist strategies of the last decade have – despite limited gains in distribution, welfare, and industrial restructuring – made little progress in overcoming many of the regressive features of the neoliberal development strategies of the 1980s and 1990s.

From this starting point, then, we offer a critique of Elite Development Theory (EDT) as it informs the neoliberal and statist political economy paradigms in Latin America (see Selwyn 2015, 2016 for a wider critique of EDT in development studies). Second, we present two cases of what we term labour-centred development (LCD) in its nascent forms.

Regarding the first, elite development theory can be identified with two dominant trends that run parallel to and have to some extent informed the last three decades of Latin American development.

The emergence of the Washington Consensus formalised in the 1980s and 1990s much of the emerging practice of development across Latin America, bringing with it a firm commitment to reducing states’ welfare spending and the removal of ‘labour market inflexibilities’. The result was a sharp reduction in redistribution towards the labouring classes and the direct and indirect repression of their capabilities to mobilise collectively across Latin America.

The response of Statist Political Economists to this position offered a stark challenge to the Washington Consensus that, for many, offered a real alternative model for development.

But the progressive claims of these statist approaches are problematic. Alice Amsden (1990), for example, describes how South Korean state-led development relied on ‘the world’s longest working week’ and ‘cheap labour’, also noting how ‘labour repression is the basis of late industrialization everywhere’. And, in his comparison of Brazil, South Korea, India, and Nigeria, Atul Kohli (2004) notes the significance of strict workplace discipline.

Recent state-led development in Latin America can also be seen in this light. Although led by left and left-of-centre governments, it often remains reliant on the restriction of workers’ mobilisation in the service of a state-led national development strategy.

Alternatively, then, we propose a view on development that directly privileges the agency of labour in pursuing and constructing what we term labour-centred development:

‘the core concerns for LCD analysis are not those of capital (how to secure accumulation), but those of labouring classes. These include workers’ ability to reproduce their wage labour outside work (i.e. to earn enough wages and have enough time to secure the basic necessities of life and to engage in culturally-enhancing activities such as socialising and education), extending to more free time (shorter working days) and more decision-making ability within the workplace (to reduce the burden of work)’ (Fishwick & Selwyn 2016)

We distinguish our perspective from the two strands of EDT inasmuch as we perceive the interests of the labouring classes as the starting point for alternative strategies of development. We highlight the often invisible and obfuscated dynamics of labour’s collective action and its role in producing unique developmental dynamics from within what Michael Lebowitz (1992, 2001) has termed ‘the political economy of the working class’.

Second, the two cases of LCD we discuss are drawn from distinct contexts – the revolutionary moment of the Allende government from 1970 to 1973 in Chile and the deep crisis and recovery of the Argentinian economy from 2001 to present – but both are demonstrative of the capability of labouring classes to construct real alternatives from below.

In assessing these cases, we highlight four factors: (1) growth and productivity (2) employment data (3) workplace organisation (4) production priorities. In each of these we analyse the contributions made by workers themselves, as well as the limitations that derive not from the internal failings of these cases of LCD, but from capital mobilising against them.

The cordones industriales in Chile were a powerful example of LCD that emerged under the socialist government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Comprised of a small occupied factories and large plants incorporated into the state-led nationalisation programme – the ‘Area of Social Property’ – they saw workers organise against a growing employer boycott to establish new forms of control over process of production and distribution.

Mobilising under the Communist Party-inspired ‘battle for production’ slogan, they revitalised output and productivity levels in a range of leading industrial sectors, transforming work, the workplace, and the priorities of production in the process.

Drawing on examples from the textile sector with data gathered from a range of trade union publications and political pamphlets from the time, we show how large and small plants saw increased levels of output under workers’ control, raised employment and wage levels, and even the establishment of facilities aimed to support workers and their families.

Strict Taylorist and paternalist management hierarchies were rapidly replaced by participatory forms of organisation, with workplace assemblies and councils building on the participation programmes promoted by Allende to produce genuine worker participation and control over decisions ranging from output to supply and credit to production priorities. Factories even transformed their produce in direct service of the poor communities and neighbourhoods from which their workers came and which surrounded these workplaces.

Nevertheless, despite these embryonic forms of LCD, pressures both from the socialist government of Allende and pressures from outside restricted the expansion of these strategies. And, on 11 September 1973, they were directly targeted as nascent ‘Soviets’ by the military as it violently reversed many of the gains that had been achieved in these years.

The empresas recuperadas in Argentina are a crucial contemporary example of LCD, in which several hundred workplaces have been transformed into legal and semi-legal cooperatives by workers pushed to the brink of unemployment. Often established following a long period of struggle with first the original owner and later the state, these enterprises first emerged en masse in the aftermath of the 2001 financial crisis in the country.

Typically involving workers with little or no political experience or affiliation, the transformations to work and the workplace have been profound – from the introduction of equitable pay to cooperative networks of financing and supply to the transformation of work.

Drawing on a range of sources and data gathered by the Open Faculty Programme in Buenos Aires, we show how, in recent years, there have been some significant improvements in productivity and output under workers’ control, how wages and employment have improved in most these workplaces, and how, most importantly, workplaces have been transformed.

There has been an increase in democratisation on the factory floor, whilst the introduction of job rotation and new divisions between labour processes and the organisation of the working day have ‘humanised’ these workplaces. Links established between the factories and the neighbourhoods, moreover, have had a tangible impact on the lives of the labouring classes across these communities, as well as contributing to the defence of factory occupations.

Nevertheless, despite these important gains, pressures on the initial formation of the empresas recuperadas, as well as the ongoing influence of their relationship with the wider capitalist marketplace points to the limitations of these examples of LCD. There have been attempts to overcome these through new networks and institutions, but they remain in their early stages.

To conclude, then, in our paper we show that the paradigmatic perspectives on development fail to capture these important dynamics that can – and, as we show, often do – provide fertile ground for genuine alternative development strategies favouring the labouring classes.

To identify these processes, and to correctly situate and overcome their limitations, we argue for the need to look beneath both the regressive logics of neoliberal development and the ostensibly progressive strategies pursued by states. By identifying the independent practices of workers in seeking to shape their own world around them, we can begin to identify how a real ‘political economy of the working class’ can emerge in theory and in practice.

Adam Fishwick is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies and Public Policy in the Department of Politics and Public Policy and a core member of CURA at De Montfort University.

This post was originally published on the ‘Progress in Political Economy’ Blog and has been re-published here with their permission.

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