(incomplete thoughts) on John Baldridge’s dissertation

I met John Baldridge briefly at the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Geographers. I remembered him for his fantastic research topic: Argentina’s recovered Businesses. At the time I promised myself I would read his dissertation as soon as possible. However, “as soon as possible” turned out to be more than two years later. 240 pages into “Sociospatial Transformation in Argentina’s Recovered Businesses”, I wonder why I didn’t get to it earlier? I’m very much looking forward to the rest, especially Chapter 6 that draws on Butler, Bourdieu, Lefebvre and Gibson-Graham in “an exposition of the trialectic relationships between space, power, and subjectivity based in a review of theory and application of theory to recovered business workers as subjects.” (Baldridge page 31)

From the introduction:

To the uninitiated, Chilavert [a worker recovered business] would look like a typical, if somewhat run down, printing business, set up in a warehouse in south central Buenos Aires. But to Daniel and his coworkers, the print shop has changed dramatically since 2002. Some of the changes are noticeable on the surface, if one pays closer attention: the sign that reads “Cultural Center” above the stairway leading to the upper level; an office labeled “Recovered Business Documentation Center”; a poster in the entryway that declares this space an “open factory”; signs announcing the new accredited secondary school that has opened in one of the unused rooms in the building. But aside from these changes, which are indeed  significant, perhaps the most profound change in the factory has occurred in the workers themselves—their relationships to this place and its many socially-coded spaces; the way they negotiate their roles in the business, with one another, and in the communities with which they engage. When Daniel says that he sees the factory differently, he isn’t simply pointing out the material changes, which are relatively minor. The print shop appears and functions much as it did before 2002: same building; same machinery; same walls, halls, and stairwells. No, Daniel is hinting at something deeper: a change in his relationship to the world around him. And Daniel is not alone, nor is Chilavert an isolated case. (Baldridge 2010 page 12-13)

Indeed, Chilavert is not an isolated case. In a recent post on “The Guardian” Oliver Balch estimates some 300 “recovered factories” in Argentina (March 2013). A more conservative estimate of 200  came from Wayne Ellwood of the New Internationalist Magazine in 2012 (up from 161 in 2004) while Andres Ruggeri tentatively estimates somewhere around 250. These numbers may not amount to a structural revolution of the kind imagined by Marxist political economic perspectives like David Harvey’s which are described in detail by Baldridge in an historical account of Argentina’s cyclical crisis of capital. That is a repetitive cycle of capitalist accumulation, growth, crisis and decline; accumulation, growth, crisis, decline. This view of the capitalist system (as an hegemonic machine) is referred as a giant system like the weather–beyond our control.

Taken to the extreme, the logic of this Marxian political economic perspective suggests that the recovered factories (regardless of their political ideology or lack thereof) ultimately accomplish nothing but the restoration of capital. After all, the argument suggests, in the face of constant pressure from capitalist competition, workers will be driven to exploit themselves and/or hire non-member labor to exploit. Should the the state provide a sheltered market by promising contracts, they may not resort exploitation themselves but they are dependent on the surplus labor extracted and stolen by their capitalist suppliers and (non-state) buyers. In this view, anything touching the hegemonic capitalist system (ie: everything) is tainted, vulnerable, bound to be squashed or corrupted. On the off chance, they can survive, we are told, we can only thank them for their stabilizing affec which ultimately functions to prop up and perpetuate the capitalist system.

Baldridge’s historical account structured by a particularly strong (to the point of paranoid) political economic perspective is interesting (especially his own history of the recovered businesses in Chapter 2 and the story of the two national movements in Argentina) but the dominant narrative adds up to a story we’ve all heard before–one that suggests that nothing short of widespread global revolution can affect the ominous system. In this story we are either a minority class of powerful capitalist owners, victims of their system or frustrated frustrated revolutionaries.

For those protagonists who began as, or have become, committed to a struggle against capitalism, the irony is that their actions, at some levels, help to perpetuate the socio-economic processes they want to resist. (Baldridge page 176)

To my great surprise (and not a moment too soon) Baldridge turns on a dime in Chapter 4.  This is where, in my mind, he diverges from the “dominant” predictable story summarized above and the analysis begins to elaborate an exploration of his two primary research questions which are:

1) What new institutional arrangements have resulted from these workplace takeovers, and how do working people create and sustain them?; and 2) How are these emergent social institutions affecting conceptions of the workplace, the meaning of labor, and the identities of the workers themselves? (Baldrige page 14)

He offers “an extension of common property theory into the realm of industrial commons” and elaborates a theory of the “industrial commons” leveraging Elinor Ostrom’s framework of institutional analysis which has more commonly been applied to natural resource pools such as water, fish stocks and trees. He offers a review of literature on “the commons” demonstrating there is “precious little guidance on defining “the commons” as something other than common property”.

By adopting this term [industrial commons], I expand the discursive terrain of the commons to include sites of economic activity typically essentialized as capitalist because of their industrial nature. In so doing, I propose a language that allows industrial production sites to be characterized not merely as places where labor churns out surplus value for some other individuals’ profits, but as potential spaces of community solidarity and ethical economic practice. (Baldridge 212)

The practical value afforded by extending “the commons” to the “industrial commons” is the provocation of imagination and possibilities for documenting and analyzing the strategies used by members of worker co-operatives to govern and collectively benefit their “joint-use resource” that is their particular “industrial common”.

There is much more to say, I will return to this later…

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