How to stop tears in Argentina

Observations on direct democracy

The political and economic crises that have destabilised Argentina over the past year have prompted a growth in direct democracy that has some anti-globalisation protesters very excited.

As Argentina's IMF-trained economy began to deteriorate in 2001, the streets of Buenos Aires filled with gatherings of up to 1,000 locals, eager to discuss their problems. When the economy careered off the rails in December 2001, these unofficial neighbourhood assemblies multiplied: by February 2002 there were more than 50 in Buenos Aires alone.

Often the assemblies have acted as points of resistance to the extreme neoliberalism that has been imposed on Argentina: in one district, they organised mass pickets to prevent the eviction of a much-needed local baker who had fallen behind on his rent.

Other local assemblies have urged people who own their homes not to pay property taxes, but instead to turn the money over to local hospitals that are in desperate need of medical supplies. Many have also administered patches of public land and, in desperation, have turned these over for communal food production.

The government views the assemblies as dangerous. Several prominent assembly members have received death threats; and the assembly in Merlot was broken up by armed police. But anti-globalisation protesters hail the assemblies as models for a voluntarist, non-coercive way of organising society. However, it is a misleading image. A survey by the newspaper Pagina 12 has shown that, at most, only a third of citizens have attended a local assembly: it remains a minority pursuit, and as faith in the national democratic institutions is - very slowly - returning, the popularity of the assemblies is waning.

Johann Hari is an Independent columnist