New Argentine Social
Review by Fernando López
In the last decade Argentines have been witnesses to and victims of the collapse of the system bequeathed by the dictatorship of 1976-1983. This system was prolonged by Alfonsín’s post-dictatorship “hostage democracy,” culminated in the robbery during Menem’s rule of 1989-1999, and was continued by De la Rúa. It established immunity for a small group that concentrated the country’s scarce resources in a few hands while condemning a third of the population to social exclusion. Faced with this brutality, our society generated varied and novel forms of resistance, as revealed in the social explosions that occurred in December 2001. They are called new social movements because, among other things, the labor organizations did not participate decisively and the social bases of these movements were impossible to frame professionally. Likewise, political organizations did not produce—and could not control—the new movements.
The protagonists of these revolts had been displaced from their sources of subsistence by the privatization of state-run businesses or budget cuts in the national and provincial states. They include landless peasants, those with precarious employment, ex-proletarians, and those excluded from salaried work in the urban and suburban centers, all whom achieved visibility in the media by successfully interrupting the circulation of merchandise on the national highways, thus earning a denomination that distorted their origins and the conditions of their existence. They are called piqueteros because the “picket” [blockade] is their most visible activity.
The first critical texts to report on the new situation were slow to appear and were not limited to the period immediately after December 2001. Those reviewed here contribute to the recent debate about the strategies and modalities assumed by the new actors in the social conflict. Raúl Zibechi’s Genealogía de la revuelta: Argentina, la sociedad en movimiento (Genealogy of the Revolt: Argentina, Society in Movement) covers the last ten years of our history, documenting and analyzing the varied forms of these new social movements. He begins by reviewing the human rights movement and two of its paradigmatic organizations, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and the HIJOS,(1) and then examines the 1990s, when hundreds of new groups exploded, and concludes by focusing on the most significant and novel of these groups, specifically the unemployed groups summed up under the term piqueteros. On the other hand, Hipótesis 891. Más allá de los piquetes (Hypothesis 891: Beyond the Pickets) is a collaborative text written by Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD de Solano (Unemployed Workers’ Movement of Solano) that tries to enter the theoretical core of these new social movements. Colectivo Situationes is a radical collective located in Buenos Aires, with roots in the student movement of the 1990s, and the MTD de Solano is an organization now grouping more than 800 families from various neighborhoods that has been struggling for the dispossessed since August 1997. Its participation in highway blockades and the piquetero movement is its most well known activity.
Colectivo Situaciones begin the text by clearly establishing the type of the investigation that they are undertaking. They not only advance a method, but also take a stand against other methods of research. They counter-pose the academic theorist—who “objectifies” from outside and constitutes his or her object by attributing values to it—to the activist theorist (militante investigador), who carries out research that puts his or her experience in relief and searches for insights that will intensify and strengthen his or her radical practice.
Likewise, they are critical of the methods of party militants and NGO, “humanitarian” activists. The first are loathed for their utilitarianism, strategic specialists, and the absence of dialogue, affinity, or authenticity and their replacement of these things by “tactics,” agreements, and representation. They write: “if we sustain the distinction—as we try throughout this book—between “politics” (understood as the struggle for power) and the experiences in which processes of the production of sociability or of [new] values enter in play, we thus can distinguish the political militant (who founds his or her discourse in some collection of certainties) from the activist theorist (who organizes his or her perspective around critical questions with respect to these certainties).”(2) The second group, the NGO humanitarians, are criticized for holding an idealized or unchangeable vision of the world and for overemphasizing (more or less exceptional) efforts in marginalized areas.
In contrast, they argue that activist theory is unique in the following four ways:
1. The character of
the motivation that sustains the investigation is
Thus they are not advancing a political line, but rather a critique of “lines” and one that investigates and criticizes its own circumstances.
An example of this situated, critical perspective can be found in the MTD de Solano. This group is famous for its horizontal structure and creation of a counter-power that is not organized around the goal of seizing the state, but rather the transformation of society and the construction of new, radicalized webs of sociability. It does not fight for some postulated, ideal society that is outside of its experience but to transform its own immediate situation. Its labor consists of “strengthening different economic, political, cultural-artistic projects among the residents of the neighborhood and the families linked to the movement, in order to resolve problems such as unemployment, hunger, and education, but at the same time manages to produce social cohesion and multiplies the dimensions of existence (values and senses).”(3) In a framework of fragmentation, misery, and impotence, the creation of horizontal forms of work and decision-making, structured around the principles of autonomy, pluralism, and respect for diversity, re-signify the highway blockade and the links with the state, converting the later into non-central instruments.
Colectivo Situaciones’s perspective has roots in identity, specifically that of the “excluded.” The “excluded” is one who is not only poor but also outside, in a territory from which there is no return. In fact, the category of “exclusion” has little to do with gradations of poverty: “exclusion is the specific form in which our society includes—represents—an increasing part of the society, that is ‘produced’ as excluded and constructed as such.”(4) This use of the idea of exclusion is successful because it names that which society produces as if it were something alien to itself and clarifies the fact that the included and the excluded are part of the same social order.
The power of the new social movements lay in their capacity to organize exclusion. Although the first data of identity is a “lack” (the unemployed, as someone who lacks work), the achievement is the creation of an identity that transcends the lack to affirm itself in a new practice. And if at first it was a protest activity—the picket [blockade], and from there the piqueteros—the economic and social initiatives produced by the movements generate new identities related to non-exploited, autonomous work. Thus the movements “do not announce their desire to ‘return to work,’ soliciting the reentry of a segment from the ruined social structure, that only could accept them in conditions that they have learned to despise. Neither included, nor excluded, but beyond these representations.”(5)
For Colectivo Situaciones, “The political—the statist, the party structure—belongs to our societies more like a machine that registers (misappropriating) the echoes of transformations underway than a productive site of these transformations.”(6) Although the end of the centrality of the political was seen as the end of history by neo-liberals and post-modernists—and the defeat of the whole project of social transformation—the end of the centrality of politics is not the end of politics. This work argues that it must be brought closer to the multiplicity of existence to assist in the “constitution of nuclei capable of producing a perspective internal to the experiences of the new sociability, strengthening it and making bonds, insights, and practical hypotheses.”(7)
of the Argentine Revolt
In his search for the origins of the new social movements, he goes as far back as the rise of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo during the first years of the 1976-1983 dictatorship and, later, to the formation of the HIJOS in the first years of democracy. He then covers the youth movements (built around fanzines and street musicians, etc), the free radio movement around 1989, the creation of the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos in 1992, the six Encuentros de Organizaciones Sociales (Gatherings of Social Organizations) between 1997 and 1999 that became the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Populares Autónomas (Coordinator of Autonomous Popular Organizations) around 2000, to conclude with a minuscule history of the movements of the unemployed, who originated in shanty towns during the dictatorship and reappeared at the end of the 1990s with the radicalized orientation that is so recognizable today.
What defines these movements as new? For Zibechi this classification arises when the “instrumental” and rigid character of the older social movements(8) is compared with the autonomy and horizontalism of the contemporary movements, which are created from a base of interpersonal relations and that question the logic of “representation.” A theoretical affinity with Colectivo Situaciones is evident when he notes that these movements do not have their origin in a universalist discourse but, on the contrary, are generated by particular situations and produce political consequences without this being their express mission. The spectrum of the participants in the new social movements was represented in the second Encuentro de Organizaciones Sociales in March 1998, which was attended by participants in student and neighborhood groups, independent newspapers and magazines, low frequency radios, street performance groups, cultural centers, cooperatives, human rights organizations, NGOs, organizations working of issues of childhood and health, feminist and sexual minority groups, unemployed groups, and (minimally) unions. To this it would be necessary to add the squatters on state-owned and private lands and the new workers’ collectives in the occupied, self-managed factories.
Although the essay focuses on organizations of the type mentioned, significant space is devoted to analysis of the Central de los Trabajadores Argentinos (CTA),(9) the dissident labor federation that arose in 1992 and became, for Zibechi, “the movement advanced experience that the labor movement in Latin America has produced since the defeat of the 1970s.”(10) He highlights the value of its territorial work,(11) “something totally exceptional in the labor movement in any part of the world,” the creation of a youth movement, and role occupied by the women and their emphasis on gender in the organization’s development. He highlights its combativity and internal democracy but notes that this vast and loose organization did not manage to attract the new social movements, which preferred to remain autonomous and shape their own networks. Zibechi explains this as a cultural difference, given the union’s rigid form and the centrality of votes and elections as means of decision-making. He displays a long list of reasons for this disconnection, but finally concludes that “The union of the masses can be as combative as it wants, but it does not belong to the category of movements that have emancipation as their ambition. It is inserted in the logic of progress and postulates the development and evolution of its members in this direction.”(12)
This strikes me as a prejudiced conclusion and one reminiscent of Lenin’s “DIAMAT,”(13) which only concedes trade-unionist ends to the labor movement and argues that The Party must bring consciousness to the workers. Here there is the—not very hidden—presence of the strong “reform versus revolution” antinomy that polarized the debate on the Left twenty years ago. And this is curious, because Zibechi’s attempt to rescue “exemplary” groups, such as the piqueteros, is premised not only on their horizontal and autonomous practices but also on their concept of revolution, which is distinct from the “storm the palace” type of the old Marxist-Leninists. They, on the contrary, are involved in making daily and invisible changes, made along cultural lines and in small economic transformations, which would have been seen as reformist by the revolutionaries of the 1970s.(14) And what does it mean to transform society without taking power? This implies the generation of other powers, multiple powers, and creation of a movement replete with small reforms that transform the relations of domination while generating new areas of emancipation.(15) Why can’t one argue that the CTA is also making such transformations? Doesn’t it do so when it produces a territorial organization such as its Federación de Tierra y Vivienda, which is conceptually very close to the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil and paves the way for land seizures by the unemployed, or the self-management and self-organization of seized factories (to which Zibechi proclaims his solidarity)? Certainly this is not a flagrant contradiction, at least as posed like this, especially, when Zibechi himself recognizes that the CTA raises similar claims, at times in the same terms, as the Encuentro de Organizaciones Sociales and that CTA Leader “Claudio Lozano(16) cites the phrase of Subcomandante Marcos “We will what type of militant or what type of man is generated by a movement that does not have seizing the state as its objective,”(17) and that the Secretary General of the CTA, Víctor De Gennaro, says that “‘the fight is outside of us, but also in our heart’”[…] and explicitly rejects the culture of delegation to signal that ‘we do not delegate the solution of our problems. It is necessary to construct our own power,’ even further, other leaders speak of horizontalism.’”(18) They are in fact participating in a project of social transformation, one that is doubtlessly different from that being perused by the new social movements. But there is more than one project of social transformation: the question—as always—is to search for the ways that they can coexist without suffocating one another.
The book continues with an analysis of the Coordinadora de Trabajadores Desocupados Aníbal Verón (Coordinator of the Unemployed Workers of Aníbal Verón) and the MTD de Solano and provisionally closes with commentary on the crisis that fired the events of December 2001.
Zibichi inevitably advances similar claims to those made by Colectivo Situaciones and at times cites and reinterprets them in simpler, more comprehensible language than one typically finds in their work. However, Zibichi believes that the movements cannot be understand solely in relation to local conditions but must be placed in the context of the evolution of these movements at the Latin American level. Indeed, this is the principal difference between both books, between the “in situation” perspective of Colectivo Situaciones and Zibechi’s generalizing framework.
From the prologue on, Zibechi develops a definition of the struggle that contains two currents: one carries out the natural struggle for life, “for existence,” and the other is militarist in essence. He writes that the “daily struggle to assure sustenance and the reproduction of life consumes the greater part of the popular sector’s energies. It is a creative struggle, for life. The other sense [of the struggle], the most frequent among activists and militants, refers to the struggle as a war or a confrontation, directed towards the annihilation of a real or imagined enemy. The difference [between the two] is substantial: while the struggle as the creation of life requires efforts of solidarity and reciprocity among human beings, the struggle as the logic of confrontation assumes the creation of a mechanism specializing in destruction.”(19) Zibechi believes that the militarist orientation is corrosive for social movements, given that it reconstructs all the forms of exploitation and domination against which the emancipatory movement fights. He is inspired by the indigenous movement, by the experiences of the Zapatista Army (which Zibechi denies is an army in the traditional sense), and the Movimiento Armado Quintín Lame in southern Colombia. He affirms that “that which really changes the world is learning to live in another way, in a communitarian way…. Fraternity is the key to social change, not war, not even the class war. Fraternity, the little sister of threefold motif of the French Revolution, clears the way for equality and liberty.”(20)
The following quote summarizes in some sense the conclusions of this work: “The state cannot be a tool for the emancipation since one cannot structure a society of non-power relations by means of the conquest of power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.”(21) Likewise, “…the past century puts in relief the impossibility of advancing from power to a new society. The state cannot be used to transform the world. The role that we attribute to it should be revised.”(22) From an anarchist perspective, there is the temptation to point out that this was said by the founders of the anarchist tradition, in the same terms, more than one hundred years ago and that since then this knowledge has formed an essential part of libertarian practice. In any case, it is highly auspicious that a great part of the Left is making this critique of Leninism, and to see them advocating the construction of horizontal, autonomous, and complex organizations in which power is socialized, like any other human necessity.
There is a lot superficial journalism about the movements analyzed in the texts reviewed here as well as a proliferation of photographs and statements without any originality. For this reason, the appearance of these books is especially gratifying, the one more attentive to the general movement of society and framed in the crisis of Latin America as a whole and the other more focused on the analysis of the “concrete situation” and the inner experience of these new social movements. Both of these works are indispensable for understanding the crossroads at which Argentina presently finds itself.