Communal kitchens: Combating hunger, or helping us adapt to hunger?

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Our experience intervening in Argentina has led us to engage with those who are helping organize comedores populares, a version of the soup kitchen, whose missions have three objectives:

-          To hand out food to a specific number of people;

-          To provide academic and social education to those who need it;

-          To create a forum in which neighbors can discuss issues of interest to them; develop solidarity with each other; and reflect on the options available to combat the situations which capitalism puts  them in, each harder to bear than the previous ones.

We salute the attempt to build solidarity and to struggle against capitalism, which these efforts clearly suggest. However, we need to ask ourselves if these communal kitchens are really  the most appropriate medium through which these aims can be obtained.

Why the proliferation - in Argentina and other countries - of communal kitchens, Piqueteros[1], economic solidarity, etc.?

In the past ten years, Argentina and other countries have seen the proliferation of grass root organizations: communal kitchens, piqueteros, networks of economic solidarity, networks of self-regulated businesses, etc. The first of these organizations were created by people whose level of poverty meant that they could not always count on a daily meal. To these we must add as co-founders those whose minuscule income allowed them to share with their destitute neighbors what little they had; people who acted out of solidarity and at the same time out of necessity.

                A recurring problem many of these workers have been facing—especially workers from small and medium-sized businesses—is that upon returning to work after a weekend’s rest, they find their workplace shut down by the owners. Such situations have forced workers to take over manufacturing plants, and other former workplaces, to try to keep their jobs and incomes.

                The piquetero movement has such an origin. From 1996 to 1997, several regions of Argentina saw the use of roadblocks by the unemployed, who were fighting to obtain a means to earn an income. These first instances of Argentine-style picketing were genuine expressions of proletarian discontent. However, as these activities could not be extended to the rest of the working class, and were thus isolated, the piqueteros became demoralized and began to just “look for the means of existence.” A minority of them tried to maintain a primitive-style organization of the piquetes, but were slowly infiltrated by agents of radical syndicates, and by the ultra-leftists (usually, Trotskyists). The result was what we now know as the piquetero movement, a movement that no longer resembles its genuinely proletarian predecessor.

                The piquetero movement is now an institution with arms that reach to the pockets of the state, as it now accepts and counts on government-distributed subsidies and food rations. Its beneficiaries are required to attend meetings and approved political activities, or risk losing their benefits. Its leaders collect a portion of the money allocated to benefit the rank and file.

                What once was a proletarian organization directly traceable to the working-class struggle, has now become part of the state. In attempting to maintain the use of the piquetes during times when their use was not required,  attempting to make them a permanent organization, the piquetes have been absorbed by the state.

                This process of co-opting was more or less replicated with the other grass-roots organizations. Communal kitchens, for example, were founded by comrades who sought to find a solution to the problem of obtaining a minimum of food. These workers were reacting to a desperate situation. Quickly, however, they were offered “aid” from political organizations, syndicates, NGOs, and churches, who taught them how to coordinate their activities with the members of other communal kitchens, how to petition the state for assistance and benefits, etc. In Argentina’s Federal Capital alone, there are over 100 of these so-called coordinated communal kitchens, and in the southern area of Greater Buenos Aires there are another 400 or so.

                Little by little it has become obvious that in exchange for a few rations, for meager breadcrumbs that barely soothe hunger pains, the control of these communal kitchens has been away from its members. These organizations were thus transformed into entities through which the bourgeois state corners the workers, gets control over them, and uses them for their political aims.

Co-option by the state

Why are these organizations co-opted by the state and transformed into entities radically different from what was envisioned by their founders?

In the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, a time during which capitalism was still a progressive system, the proletariat could still build permanent organizations that retained their class origins: syndicates, trade unions, cooperatives of production and consumption, women’s and youth associations, popular universities, homeless shelters, etc. Although these organizations were many cases lost to reformist deviations, to the routine accounting of misery, globally they still belonged to the working class.

                Back then, these organizations could exist under a political platform that did not question the entirety of the capitalist system, because had to focus on their proliferation and their socio-economic development. These were authentically proletarian schools; where workers could meet and develop their class solidarity.

                This situation was radically changed with capitalism’s entry into the historical phase of decadence. Globally, capitalism could no longer grow, except in isolated or partial instances; it found itself impotent to act when faced with a worsening of the working class’ (and the oppressed masses, in general) living conditions. At this point, mass movements based on partial struggles against single aspects of exploitation no longer made sense; they lost their dynamic, their content. Notwithstanding the sincere wishes of their founders, the permanent existence of these organizations could only be guaranteed by becoming an extension of the capitalist state.

                The clearest example are the trade unions. Throughout the twentieth century there were attempts to build all kinds of class unions; assembly, combative, anarchist, radical, base, unitary etc. ALL OF THESE HAVE FAILED AS ORGANS OF THE WORKING CLASS. If for over 80 years trade unions have sold out and deserted the working class. This is  because it is impossible, in decadent capitalism, for permanent organizations to be able to conclusively address this or that partial aspect of exploitation. And, as the state in decadent capitalism tends to be totalitarian—and to hold all groups within society under its heavy weight—it cannot tolerate mass organizing of the exploited and the oppressed. These organizations need to be destroyed, and this can be done in two ways: through repression or through co-option.

                The latter is the easiest to implement, as these mass organizations have lost all of the meaning that they had in the past, and can no longer serve the real interests of the workers. On the one hand, the state through its many agents (parliamentary commissions, various institutions, trade unions, churches, political parties, NGOs, etc.), seek to devour and quell all attempts at the independent expression of the masses. On the other hand, all attempts at permanent organisations on a bases that dose not put capitalism into question facilitates this absorption.

Causes of Hunger and Misery

What cause the malnutrition that leads to the starvation of so many children in  Buenos Aires province, in the various Argentine provinces, in many countries in South America, Africa, Asia, (and now) Europe? Is it an incompetent government? A corrupt society? The unfair distribution of wealth? Injustice? The scarcity of foodstuff? The last question is the key to the answer.  We can easily state that there is no scarcity of food. If we just limit our study to Argentina, we can see that there is an abundance of meat, wheat, Soya. We can accurately say that gardens in Tucuman are full of all kinds of vegetables and fruits, while at the same time this is an Argentine province with one the highest numbers of childhood malnutrition.

                This is the case all over the world: there is an abundance of foods; grocery store windows are full with product displays, many perishable products that are not sold are thrown into the sea…Here we find a fundamental cause of the hunger and malnutrition that affects such a great part of humanity: overproduction. The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, says that “In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of over-production.” Capitalism is the first society in the history of humanity in which hunger and starvation can be traced not to the underproduction of foodstuffs, but to overproduction. The system is thrown into crisis not because it produces too little, but because it produces too much. Unlike hunger and misery in feudalism, the guilty party is not draught, or poor crops, or plagues of locusts. Guilt lies in the fact that “there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce,” according to the Manifesto, a fact that “brings disorder into the whole of bourgeois society.”

                The activity of searching for food in the surpluses  of the  food manufacturers or distributors, of seeking subsidies from state welfare agencies, traps a handful of comrades in an endless circle that can neither offer a solution to poverty or lessen the effects of these calamities. For, whilst the number of mouths that need to be fed proliferate , the communal kitchens cannot even come close to satiating anyone’s hunger.

                It is a question of the management of poverty. Hunger is not eradicated; people just learn to adapt to it. It also  means the communal kitchens being turned to auxiliaries of the state, of perpetuating the misery, hunger and desperation of the oppressed and exploited. Millions of human beings are abandoned to their fates by the bourgeois state. The nickels and dimes that the piqueteros distribute among their members, the soup that communal kitchens provide gives the impression that “something is being done” to end hunger; that “democratic” governments never forget the needy; that there is solidarity with the dispossessed…When in  reality, all that this is doing is perpetuating and worsening the situation; shutting it up as in a  ghetto within  shanty towns and poor neighborhoods.

Culture and good upbringing are necessary, but do not guarantee jobs

As mentioned earlier, communal kitchens have a secondary mission: to provide  cultural and  education to children and adults.
                Culture and education are a necessity for the working class if it is going to build a society free of exploitation, national borders, or nation-states; a society in which each man and woman can make personal and communal use of all that the history of humanity has taught us.
                In all countries—from the most developed, to the most underdeveloped—we can observe on the part of the state a growing abandoning of  services such as education. School buildings are allowed to decay; teaching—with the exception of that for the children of the elite— deteriorates or is directly abandoned in the poorest neighborhoods.
                The fact that the poorest and most forgotten neighborhoods in Argentina try to organize the provision of education, shows that those same people that have  been denigrated as  a “rabble” by high society—in the same way that Sarkozy referred to the rioting youth suburban France as “gangsters”—have a strong appetite for knowledge and the feelings of dignity that comes with it.
                As well intentioned as these efforts might be, their participants do not question the capitalist system, nor do they subscribe to a struggle against it. By themselves, then, these activities are co-opted and rendered impotent by the state; and in fact end up making it easier for the state to corner and control the masses.
                In addition, neither culture nor knowledge can guarantee a job. Over the years, the working class has required more and more formal education. However, even with a diploma the average worker cannot count on full employment. Capitalism has a recurring problem of out-of-control unemployment, and it often destroys many more jobs than it creates.
                What’s more, even with a job no-one is guaranteed a living wage, as real income continues to fall to levels that do not permit even a mediocre life. Let us remember the words of a worker from
Garrahan Hospital: “A monthly income no longer allows you to stay alive!
                It is not a lack of culture or education what causes the unemployment of thousands upon thousands of young workers. Instead, the cause is the permanent crises of capitalism, a phenomenon which renders the system incapable of integrating a young workforce into the productive activity of society, and excludes them from social life. The legion of human beings who have been alienated from the productive process, and thus have been condemned to a life of crime and miserable lack of security, continues to grow dramatically in many countries.

A place to meet, discuss and organise?

It could be said that at the very least, communal kitchens serve to meet with others, pose questions on social problems and discuss ways to solve them; that they could help win people to the cause of revolution and revolutionary struggle.

Comrades who participate in these organizations explain their participation using that very logic. They say, “Honestly, what we do [at the communal kitchens] makes no difference at all. It is reformism, and makes things easier for the state. But at least in this way we get people together, give them a class conscience, and teach them about solidarity.”

In Argentina today, within the various grass roots organizations (piqueteros, communal kitchens, self-regulated businesses, networks of economic solidarity, etc.) there are thousands of people who are “organized,” who supposedly “meet,” “become class conscious,” “do something,” etc. It would seem that this mass of people represent an impressive force; but in reality they are thousands and thousands of people who are paralyzed, whose are tied  hands and feet by capital and its state. This has been demonstrated time and again, the last of which happened when these organizations drowned the workers of Garrahan in a false sense of solidarity.

The one activity that dominates all others in these organizations is the disbursement of [economic] assistance, the maintenance of misery, and its use by the state to perpetuate exploitation. All of this is done against the wishes of their members. It is of no use to discuss ways of combating misery when all activities revolve around perpetuating this very problem. This is why despite meaning well, despite attempts at persuading [the masses], no real discussions of or activities directed at revolutionary struggles can be developed within this context.

If we are to organize ourselves to combat our misery, we need to zoom in on an activity that gets to the root of the problem. It is only the working class struggle that can do this. However, this struggle is still in its infancy, and it will take time to develop a revolutionary force that will allow the proletariat to rise against capitalism. In the meantime, it is necessary to contribute an activity of discussion, interventions in the struggles, the international regroupment of revolutionaries, the creation of discussion circles around communist positions. Such an enterprise might seem “abstract” and out of touch with immediate concerns in our everyday lives. But each time there is a massive struggle by the working class, the usefulness and advantage of having a handful of revolutionaries—who contribute to such a cause with analysis, proposals and orientations—becomes clear. That is how we saw the waves of strikes in Argentina between June and August, when an intervention could have helped take the struggle further, to learn political lessons, to do away with the traps that the bourgeoisie employed.

Just a few days ago in Mar de Plata, Chavez and Maradona began a farce of “anti-imperialist struggle.” At that moment, what was needed was a revolutionary voice to denounce a trick aimed a diverting them  towards an impotent activism, and will progressively drown them in confusion and demoralization.

Therefore, those comrades who are the most conscious and combative—who feel the most indignation against misery and hunger—must direct will and thinking towards the clarification of the revolutionary positions of the proletariat, towards intervention within it, towards struggle against the lies and the traps that the capitalist state uses against them

ICC 19-11-05.

[1]              According to Wikipedia, “A piquetero is a member of a social movement originally initiated by unemployed workers in Argentina in the mid-1990s, during Carlos Menem's rule, a few years before the peak of the economic crisis that started in 1998 with a recession and erupted in 2001 causing the resignation of President Fernando de la Rúa and three of his successors in a matter of weeks.

                “The word piquetero is a neologism in the Spanish of Argentina. It comes from piquete (in English, "picketing"), that is, a standing demonstration of protest in a significant spot, in this case usually appearing as a road blockade.