Exchanging money

IMG_2158Before meeting Andres Ruggeri at Hotel Bauen, I needed to exchange money. I was living a high fa’luting lifestyle with my amiga in Recoleta (a fancy neighborhood in east Buenos Aires) so, I’d blown through the five hundred dollars I exchanged when I got here despite the favorable exchange rate. Officially, the exchange rate is 5.74 but the market for dollars is strong so you can sell them for much more.

The desire for dollars is an important political factor in Argentina. The value of the peso has been unstable for years. People are hungry for dollars, especially since the government makes it nearly impossible for people to purchase them. The peso has little value on the international market; so, it can’t be used to purchase imports which are needed for national infrastructure and development. Property is bought and sold in U.S. dollars rather than pesos. Instead of investing their pesos in a bank, people save dollars in teapots and under mattresses. Considering the thousands of dollars and pesos lost during the crisis when people were literally locked out of their bank accounts and many lost their entire life savings, this inclination is understandable. But the thirst for dollars preceded the crisis. Government approaches to currency management have ranged over the years with hyper-inflation at one end of the spectrum and the peso pegged to the dollar at the other (part of a neoliberal package supported by the IMF in the 90’s). During those expensive years, in Buenos Aires a simple white-bread ham sandwich at a diner might cost $32. People would say, ‘in Buenos Aires, you could buy the most expensive sandwich in the world’.

Argentinians remember times during the late 80’s and early 90’s, when stores couldn’t keep up with inflation. The price of goods changed so drastically from morning to night that stores were forced to close their doors. The current rate of inflation estimated at 10% officially, however, the ‘real’ number is supposed to be much higher. Many claim that it is 30% but most concede ‘real’ rates of inflation are somewhere in between the low and high estimates, maybe around 20%. On the international market, the peso has little value. Upon arrival to the U.S. one can’t exchange Argentinean pesos for dollars and the Argentine government makes it difficult forArgentines to buy dollars.

There is a $300 limit on the number of dollars the government will sell to individuals who are about to travel. One has to prove they are about to travel and there is a 20% tax on ATM and credit card transactions in dollars. The government wants to use dollars to build its infrastructure (for example to rebuild the recently re-nationalized oil company) and, therefore prevent them from flowing out of the country into foreign bank accounts. This strategy is understandable from a nationalistic perspective but people feel restricted by the policy. For example, the Peruvian guy who waited on our table last night was about to go home for vacation but the government wouldn’t sell him dollars so he asked if we would sell him 200 for the journey. I only had forty but I exchanged them with him for a rate (just under the blue) of 7/1). So, this demand has created a ‘blue market’ for dollars in which the exchange rate is much higher than the governmental one. On the blue market today, I got 8.7 pesos/dollar.  For perspective, a beer at a middle-brow place in El Centro Caballito, like Giribalda the one I’m working in at the moment, costs about 28 pesos and a coffee rings in at 15-20.

Meeting Contacts in Buenos Aires

I came to Buenos Aires with a clear agenda of where to begin. Web resources, books, newspaper and journal articles as well as John Baldridge’s dissertation pointed me in the direction of particular people and organizations. Ethan Earl (formerly of La Base and the Working World), graciously met me at the last minute in June when I was in NYC. –And he had some great suggestions of people and organizations to reach out to while I am here.

Below is a list of businesses, organizations and people from which my research begins, first at home on the computer and then out there in the wilds of Buenos Aires. As time permits, I’m linking them here in the blog. I’d like to with connect everyone but 20 days isn’t much time…

1) Alé Alé one of a chain of five well known parrillas (grill restaurants) in Buenos Aires including Don Battaglia, Los ChanchitosMangiata and La Soleada. The restaurants were taken over by the workers between January and May 2013 and (re)organized as self-managed businesses. All of the restaurants are doing well but Alé Alé is facing eviction from their location so their fellow co-operative restaurants and other recovered business, community members, customers and the Federation of Co-opertives of Self-managed Workers of Argentina have stepped in to provide support.

Links to a few articles and news clips about it: In Pagina 12In Argentina Indymedia, on Lanacion.com

2) Bauen Hotel a famous 20 story hotel that was taken over by its workers in 2003

Links to a few resources about Bauen Hotel: Video by Ginger Gentile and Ande Wanderer“Meet Diego Bandera from Bauen Hotel Co-operative” via ICA; Sammy Loren (2005) Upside Down World “Argentina’s Worker-run Hotel Bauen”Maria Trigona (2007) “Argentina: Hotel Bauen’s Workers Without Bosses Face Eviction”Maria Trigona (2003) Geo  “Worker Self-managment Threatened at Hotel Bauen in Buenos Aires”

3) Facultad Abierta (‘Open Faculty’ based at the national university) which is home to a number of scholars involved in the movement including its director Andres Ruggeri. Ethan Earle suggested I meet with professor Ruggeri who appears to be very busy. He has co-organized several international conferences for recovered businesses the most recent of which took place in Brazil, July 2013 and has authored and coordinated a number of books and articles on the subject.

Links to relevant resources: 10 Anos del Programa Facultad Abierta,la Universidad, los Trabajadores, y la Autogestion

Reed and McMurtry (2009) Co-operatives in the Global Economy: the Challenges of Co-operation Across Borders Cambridge Scholars Press.

El Centro de Documentacion on Facebook

4) La Federación Argentina de Cooperativas de Trabajadores Autogenstionados (FACTA, the Federation of Co-operatives of  Self-managed Workers of Argentina)

FACTA (website)

5) El Movimiento Nacional de Fábricas Recuperadas (or MNFR the National Movement of Recovered Factories)

MNFR (website)

6) El Movimiento Nacional de Empresas Recuperadas (or MNER, the movement of recovered businesses)

MNER (website) –a link to links

7) La Vaca Collective

8) La Base and The Working World in Argentina and specifically Esteban Magnani, author of El Cambio Silencioso (The Silent Change) available to purchase or read online for free.

Bienvenido a Buenos Aires!

The recovered factories of Argentina are famous world wide but not in all circles. During and after the 2001-2002 political economic meltdown Argentine businesses closed by the thousands and people were locked out of their bank accounts while dollars flowed like water out of the country. Workers took over the factories, occupied them and ultimately resumed production as co-operatives. For more information las fabricas recuperadas (the recovered factories) google it, watch The Take  (though this film is not endorsed by the all of the co-operatives themselves) and/or read Chapter Six in Co-operatives in a Global Economy by Vieta and Ruggeri and John Baldridge’s dissertation.

Buenos Aires is the center of world in terms of worker takeovers. There’s a difference between “occupied” and “recovered” factories… It seems. An occupied factory is, just that: a factory (or restaurant or hotel) that is occupied by the workers, possibly functioning but in legal limbo.  There are between 185 and 250 recovered self-managing businesses in Buenos Aires. But it’s a big city, you don’t just run into them wherever you go. Nonetheless, as we’re driving (very slowly thanks to a major traffic jam) into the city from the airport just after my arrival, my friend Lisandro points to a colorful metal doorway: “I think that is a cultural center of co-operative IMPA.” Indeed, it turns out to be just a few blocks from his house.

My contacts in Buenos Aires have very  different perspectives on Buenos Aires and Argentine politics in general. One is a Yale scholar of Latin American literature and the other is an American diplomat at the USDA in Buenos Aires. One lives in the middle-class neighborhood called Almagro and the other lives in Recoleta, an affluent residential neighborhood that is also a tourist destination. I am lucky to have these two extremely generous friends who are sharing their homes, experiences and knowledge of the city while I’m here.

I’m looking forward to meeting people in the movement, recording some interviews and seeing the recovered businesses themselves. Communication here is far easier than it was in Italy because I speak the language. However, now six days into my visit, I’ve done a lot of reading and written several emails but nobody has written back. My friends tell me that people here don’t work on the weekends and Monday is a holiday so my best chance for interviewing people at this point is to stalk them in person. Of course in a strange town that requires navigating the bus and subway system or paying for expensive taxis but I’m determined to do it.

In the meantime, I read articles and chapters ’empresas recuperadas’ (recovered businesses), catch up on posts from Italy, the review of The Deep Down Delight of Democracy by Mark Purcell.

(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…

Co-ops in Italy

In Coop in Bolsena

inCoop in Bolsena

Co-operatives in Italy are prolific, compared to most regions and countries in the world, highly networked. Estimates of co-operative enterprises in Italy vary ranging between 110 and 150 thousand. —Even the low number amounts more than three times the number of co-operatives in the US (a much larger country in size). One cannot travel through Italy without seeing co-operative enterprises. Consumer food co-operative and retail stores are among the most visible, especially in the cities. I saw retail food co-operatives in all of the cities and towns I visited including Rome, Bolsena, Emilia Romagna, Trento, Florence, and Naples.

Co-operatives across sectors have proliferated in Italy partly because they are and highly networked. There are four main “umbrella” organizations or federations  of co-operatives in Italy. These are: General Association of Italian Cooperatives; the Confederation of Italian Cooperativesthe Cooperative League; and the Union of Italian Cooperatives. These four federations are historically rooted in differing political and ideological traditions such as liberal, socialist and Catholic traditions, however, according to Vera Zamagni, these groups are consolidating. The strength of the co-operative movement in Italy can also be attributed to favorable co-operative legislation that provides a clear identity for co-operative enterprise as well as a law (the Marcona Law) that the co-operatives themselves pushed forward in the 1980’s that requires co-operatives to contribute three percent of their surplus to one a co-operative association for the purpose of development.

In Naples

Co-op n Naples

Here’s how Carlo Borzaga, Depedri and Bodini, describe the landscape of co-operation in Italy:

A general analysis of co-operatives by sector of activity shows that most of these organizations concentrated in four main sectors: construction, agriculture, business services, and transportation. However, the number of co-operatives active in other sectors was also quite significant.


The distribution of co-operatives by macro-regions illustrates that almost half of cooperatives was located in the South of Italy, less than 20% in the Centre and the rest in the North (21.9% in North West and 19.1% in the North East). The average age of co-operatives was of 17 years, which is higher than the average of other organizational types (13.5).


The data shows a significantly higher presence of agricultural and construction cooperatives in the South, while in the North services and transportation co-operatives were more developed. In the Centre the distribution of co-operatives across sectors was close to the national average. Borzaga, Depedri, Bodini (2010) “Co-operatives: The Italian Experience” Co-operative Oportunities Conference

Small grape farmers get together to produce and market wine co-operatively

Small grape farmers get together to produce and market wine cooperatively.

Less visible than the food, retail, credit co-operatives in the consumer sector are the agricultural producers co-operatives which are everywhere. For example man of Italy’s small grape farmers are members of wine production co-operatives.

Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy has a particularly high concentration of co-operatives. This region is home to more than 7,500 co-operatives and two thirds of them are worker co-ops. Per capita GDP in this region is impressive even by European standards (31,900 EUR 2008), in good part because of the many co-operatives in the region. In the capital city of Bologna, they are unavoidable. From co-op grocery stores to eye-wear, skin products, catering and books, you see them everywhere and many of the businesses that don’t advertise their structure, are also co-operatives.

Summer 2013 661The University of Bologna which is home several political economists and sociologists specializing in co-operatives. Vera Zamagni is one of them and my interview with her will be the focus of the next post!

Here are a few great resources on co-ops in Italy:

Zamagni (2006) “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success” International Economic History Conference, Helsinki. (Zamagni 2006)

Borzaga, Depedri and Bodini (2010) “Co-operatives: The Italian Experience” The Co-operative Opportunities Conference (Italian Experience Bazorga et al)

Italian Documentation Center on Co-operatives and Social Enterprises

Making Contacts Northern Italy

There are plenty of scholars and cooperativistas in Italy but my lack of Italian limits the number and quality of conversations I might have. I am particularly excited to meet two scholars who I suspect speak English because they’ve published extensively in English. Vera Zamagni is one of them. She and her husband Stephano Zamagni are famous around the world for their work on co-operatives and they are actively involved with the movement internationally, working for example in programs with John Hopkins and St Mary’s University.  Vera Zamagani is a co-operative/international economist based in Emilia Romagna; she has written several books and a plethora of articles on Italian co-operatives. Of particular interest, for work available in English is the co-authored book Cooperative Enterprise: Facing the Challenge of Globalizationas well as several recent articles including Menzani and Zamagni “Italian Cooperative Networks” in Enterprise and Society“Interpreting the Roles and Importance of Co-operative Enterprises in a Historical Perspective” in a fantastic new journal, The Journal of Entrepreneurial and Economic Diversity which publishes articles by long-term favorites mine like Johnston Birchal and Panu Kalmi.

Carlo Borzaga is the other person I am excited to meet. He is the chairman of Euricse, the European Research Institute on Co-operative and Social Enterprise that publishes data on said topics throughout Europe. Some of Borzaga’s work on social enterprises and co-operatives available in English includes The Emergence of Social Enterprisean edited volume on social enterprise, and “Testing the Distributed Effects of Social Enterprise: the case study of Italy” as well as a chapter in The Social: International Perspectives on Solidarity Economy in which several members of the Community Economies Collective chapters including one co-authored by Julie Graham and myself.

Summer 2013 680To my great surprise, both Vera Zamagni and Carlo Borzorga responded to my emails the very next day. Zamagni said she was available to meet with me the next Wednesday or Monday and Borzorga said Friday would work for him. So, I’m headed on the fast train to Bologna to meet with Zamagni and then up to Trento to meet with Borzaga.

Benvenuti a Bolsena!

Summer 2013 182It’s the morning of July 2nd so we’re headed to Bolsena!  There are 21 of us–here are our names here are in order of our working groups of three: Jenny Cameron, Esra Erdam, Sean Tanner, Claire Brault, Kath Gibson, Eric Sarimento, Kelly Dombroski, Rhyall Gordon, Yayha Madre, Janelle Cornwell (that’s me!), Ceren Ozselcuk, Boone Shear, Ann Hill, Ethan Miller, Kevin St Martin, Nate Gabriel, Oona Morrow, Marianna Pavlovskaya, Za Barron, Stephen Healy, and Maliha Safri.  We pile into a bus and hit the road.

I’m working with Boone Shear and Ceren Ozselcuk. Boone is an activist anthropologist/doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts. His research and organizing focuses on solidarity and green economy networks in Western and Central Massachusetts. He’s a prolific writer. For example, his work is widely available on the internet including several articles in Truth out, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Occupy LA as well as a bunch of academic articles in journals such as Rethinking Marxism, Urban Anthropology and Practicing Anthropology. He submitted two papers for the retreat. The first paper is about economic desire and building the economy as we want it. His second paper, co-authored with Stephen Healy is about defining the solidarity economy in Worcester MA.

Ceren Ozselcuk is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. She is a heterodox economist with interests in economic geography, political economy, psychoanalysis and ideology analysis. Her academic work in English can be found in Rethinking Marxism, Subjectivity, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society and Forced Migration Review. For the retreat, Ceren is working on chapter for the edited volume Performing Diverse Economies. Her chapter, “Communism and Sublimation: reading diverse economies with desire” is co-authored with another economies Yaya Madra. Both Ceren and Yaya have come to the retreat from Turkey.

My paper is about worker co-operatives building a movement of scale in Western Massachusetts. The paper began as a reaction to critiques of worker co-operatives that are based exclusively on the size of the movement (see scale rant). It took the theoretical approach obsessing over theories of scale. However it has become a paper about worker co-operatives leaving conceptual scale in the back ground.

Summer 2013 440

Summer 2013 197

Well in the cloister

We are staying at Il Convento Santa Maria del Giglio in Bolsena, maybe an hour and a half from Rome in Northern Lazio on Lake Bolsena. In the rush to get everything done before leaving the states, I hadn’t contemplated what the convent might be like… And, I’m so glad I didn’t. It is the most beautiful, peaceful place I’ve ever known. Wendy Harcourt welcomed and a young grounds keeper with German Shepard by his side welcomed us at the door. We walked through the arched entrances doorways wide-eyed, past 16th century frescoes down a long hallway to a sunny cloister where a lunch of local meats, cheeses, wines and bread waited for us alongside flowers, water and wine.

The First Supper

Summer 2013 354Before heading off to Bolsena, and breaking into working groups of three, we gathered at the Villa Benedetta in RomeI am surrounded by 23 scholars with a deep commitment to economic possibility and a rich diversity of interests. 

Wendy Harcourt is our local host/academic participant. She leads us to a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel where we introduce ourselves, get to know each other and/or get reacquainted over a seven course dinner, bottomless cups of wine and jovial conversation.

Boone Shear and Claire Brault are sitting on either side of me. Boone is an anthropologist who works with radical organizations on non-capitalist development in New England. Claire is a political scientist and theorist busy developing a theory of uchronia and translating The End of Capitalism into French. The introduction to the French translation is her project for the retreat. Seated across from me is Sonja Capello, whom I just met. If memory serves, Sonja is geographer working on food sustainability and climate change issues in Africa–Mozambique. She is completing a post doc at the Hague with Wendy Harcourt (I think they’re finishing a book together). Oona Morrow, another geographer, is next to Sonja. Among other things, Oona researchers Urban Homesteading in Boston. During the retreat, she is working on a book chapter about social reproduction, co-authored with Kelly Dombroski who has done research in China, Indonesia and Australia. Katherine Gibson and some 16 other Community Economies scholars with fascinating research projects are seated at this long table, talking, laughing and toasting.

In preparation for the retreat, we all read 21 abstracts submitted by fellow participants so we knew a little about what everyone was working on. Topics of conversation range from diverse economies to diverse loved ones; the projects we are working on, what we’re excited about and where we are stuck. The courses and wine keep coming. We talk about about our working groups and share initial impressions of the projects and the prospects of the retreat.

Cheers to us CEC!