The Neighborhood is the New Factory

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In 2001, Argentina suf­fered an eco­nomic cri­sis, sim­i­lar to the one that much of the world is expe­ri­enc­ing today. After more than a decade of IMF-mandated struc­tural adjust­ment, which only deep­ened poverty and unem­ploy­ment, the gov­ern­ment was forced to default on over $100 bil­lion of pub­lic debt and declared a state of emer­gency in an attempt to calm pub­lic unrest. Despite a military-imposed cur­few, thou­sands of peo­ple rushed to the streets and forced the pres­i­dent and other politi­cians out of office with the chant “que se vayan todos/ni se quede uno solo” (they all must go/not one can stay). These protests were the cul­mi­na­tion of years of orga­niz­ing in response to increas­ing unem­ploy­ment and simul­ta­ne­ous reduc­tions in wel­fare pro­grams as part of neolib­eral poli­cies. Work­ers were tak­ing over fac­to­ries, the unem­ployed block­ing high­ways, migrants occu­py­ing unused land. When joined by the spon­ta­neous protests of the mid­dle class in Decem­ber, the mobi­liza­tions were able to over­throw the gov­ern­ment as the pres­i­dent fled Buenos Aires in a heli­copter. The move­ments were not only the largest mass mobi­liza­tion in Argentina since the 1970s, but also qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from ear­lier move­ments: not inter­ested in tak­ing state power, nor in work­ing more jobs and longer hours, they strug­gled to cre­ate new forms of life, includ­ing new forms of socio-spatial orga­ni­za­tion and the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth. In the ten years fol­low­ing the cri­sis, the strongest of the move­ments, the Move­ments of Unem­ployed Work­ers (Movimien­tos de Tra­ba­jadores Des­ocu­pa­dos, MTDs), has con­tin­ued on this path, even as the coun­try has recov­ered eco­nom­i­cally and has so far been able to resist the effects of the global crisis.

Here I’ll exam­ine the his­tory and prac­tices of the MTDs, draw­ing on research I’ve con­ducted since 2003 with the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, and cur­rent research in Buenos Aires on the orga­ni­za­tion of the unem­ployed. The move­ments of the unem­ployed, which first emerged in Argentina in the mid-1990s, chal­lenge tra­di­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the unem­ployed as lack­ing polit­i­cal agency and rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial. While many Marx­ists and labor orga­niz­ers have main­tained the lat­ter posi­tion, Argentina’s recent his­tory paints a dif­fer­ent pic­ture: the mil­i­tant orga­ni­za­tion of the unem­ployed across the coun­try was instru­men­tal in over­throw­ing the neolib­eral gov­ern­ment in 2001 and steer­ing the course the coun­try would take fol­low­ing the eco­nomic cri­sis. Move­ments of the unem­ployed in Argentina are redefin­ing work through their orga­ni­za­tional prac­tice, dis­courses around labor, and active cre­ation of dif­fer­ent forms of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion. This will nec­es­sar­ily be a very par­tial descrip­tion of a com­plex, frag­mented, and diverse move­ment, which has existed for over fif­teen years.

Orga­niz­ing the Unemployed

By the mid-1990s, unem­ploy­ment in Argentina had reached nearly 20% (with even higher lev­els of under­em­ploy­ment), due to rapid dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion, along­side a work­ing class weak­ened from the ear­lier mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. New laws had stripped work­ers of remain­ing rights and led to the increas­ing “flex­i­bi­liza­tion” of labor, allow­ing employ­ers to hire work­ers under short-term con­tracts and pro­vide less ben­e­fits, mak­ing it eas­ier to fire work­ers and unnec­es­sary to com­pen­sate them upon doing so. Dif­fer­ent forms of infor­mal and pre­car­i­ous labor were already the norm for women and youth, and became increas­ingly so for adult men as well. Pres­i­dent Car­los Menem had effec­tively cut social spend­ing so that only cer­tain sec­tors received unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, and the job­less could not reli­ably depend on any sup­port from the state. The main, offi­cially rec­og­nized labor move­ment, headed by the CGT (Con­fed­eración Gen­eral del Tra­bajo), was polit­i­cally in ruins as it con­tin­ued to sup­port Menem because of its Per­o­nist party affil­i­a­tion, while these changes in the orga­ni­za­tion of work made the tra­di­tional forms of labor orga­niz­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult. With­out sta­ble employ­ment, the poor increas­ingly relied on dif­fer­ent forms of infor­mal labor, ille­gal activ­ity, and the polit­i­cal par­ties’ sys­tems of patron­age, as well as strength­ened net­works of mutual aid and sup­port within communities.

It was in this con­text that the unem­ployed began to orga­nize them­selves, first in the inte­rior of Argentina and soon after in the country’s major urban cen­ters. Their first pub­lic actions were road­blocks, using bar­ri­cades and burn­ing tires to block major high­ways, some­times for weeks at a time. The road­blocks were orga­nized with­out any sup­port from the major trade unions or left­ist polit­i­cal par­ties, but rather through the already exist­ing net­works of sup­port of the poor and unem­ployed. In the inte­rior of the coun­try, laid-off work­ers of the recently pri­va­tized oil com­pany were the first to protest in 1996, demand­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and/or their jobs back. In the urban areas, how­ever, the protests were of a more het­ero­ge­neous com­po­si­tion, includ­ing many who had never par­tic­i­pated in the for­mal labor mar­ket. In the urban periph­ery of Buenos Aires, the first actions were cen­tered around the ques­tion of food, with large pub­lic col­lec­tive meals and protests demand­ing food assis­tance from the state. Other early protests focused on the ris­ing costs of elec­tric­ity and gas, the poor liv­ing con­di­tions in working-class neigh­bor­hoods, and the lack of state sup­port for the unemployed.

While dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed emerged dur­ing this time in Argentina, the MTDs were gen­er­ally the most inde­pen­dent and inno­v­a­tive. The MTDs are orga­nized by neigh­bor­hood, instead of around a spe­cific work­place or sec­tor, tak­ing the name of the neigh­bor­hood or region where they are based. Although the dif­fer­ent MTDs some­times come together in spe­cific cam­paigns or actions, and have formed coali­tions or blocks, there has never been a national orga­ni­za­tion unit­ing all the dif­fer­ent groups of unem­ployed across the coun­try. The MTDs are engaged in a con­stantly shift­ing con­stel­la­tion of alliances and net­works with each other, dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the labor move­ment, and other social move­ments. Thus each group is unique, not only in its geo­graphic loca­tion, but in terms of its inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion, polit­i­cal activ­ity and ide­o­log­i­cal affil­i­a­tions as well. Yet there are sev­eral ele­ments the MTDs have in com­mon, includ­ing the tac­tic of the road­blocks, a form of orga­ni­za­tion that empha­sizes auton­omy and a cri­tique of hier­ar­chy, and an empha­sis on ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion and form­ing their own pro­duc­tive enterprises.

The MTDs first came into the pub­lic eye for their con­fronta­tional road­blocks, or piquetes. The roadblock’s imme­di­ate pur­pose is to stop the nor­mal cir­cu­la­tion of goods and ser­vices, and to make people’s demands vis­i­ble. It has been widely remarked that the piquetes are the unemployed’s ver­sion of the strike or work stop­page, the only avail­able tac­tic once denied access to this priv­i­leged form of work­ers’ revolt. How­ever, the deci­sion to block roads does not nec­es­sar­ily start from the assump­tion of lack: the piqueteros took their protests not to the fac­tory doors, but rather to the streets of the city, under­stand­ing the city as the cru­cial site of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion. For this rea­son, Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri exem­plify this tac­tic as a “wild­cat strike against the metrop­o­lis.”1 In Buenos Aires, the road­blocks were par­tic­u­larly effec­tive because they often took place at the major bridges or other entry points to the city from the sub­urbs, and as the cri­sis wors­ened and the government’s power weak­ened, at major inter­sec­tions within the city itself. The road­blocks were essen­tial in giv­ing the piqueteros a sense of agency many felt they lacked with­out access to employ­ment or the work site as a place to orga­nize and proved to be an extremely pow­er­ful and effec­tive tac­tic. The piquetes were suc­cess­ful in forc­ing the state to pro­vide unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and food bas­kets to the poor, and for the orga­ni­za­tions win­ning con­trol over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the sub­si­dies. This con­trol was impor­tant, as it allowed the move­ments to remain inde­pen­dent of the polit­i­cal par­ties, which would gen­er­ally dis­trib­ute ben­e­fits in turn for votes and polit­i­cal sup­port, and because it allowed the move­ments to choose how to rein­vest the funds in com­mu­nity organization.

The road­blocks were also impor­tant in that they served as a space of encounter, bring­ing together the dif­fer­ent unem­ployed and form­ing new social rela­tions and com­mu­nal val­ues. More than just protests, the piquetes were encamp­ments in the mid­dle of the street, where peo­ple took care of each other, and shared food and other respon­si­bil­i­ties for main­tain­ing the space.

Hor­i­zon­tal­ity & Autonomy

While dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed, and later other move­ments across the coun­try, use the tac­tic of the road­block, the MTDs can be fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­ated by their inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion and com­mit­ment to auton­omy. The MTDs’ inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion empha­sizes direct democ­racy, gen­er­ally using a mod­er­ated con­sen­sus process in assem­blies which are open to every­one in the move­ment. While the MTDs dif­fer in their exact prac­tices of inter­nal democ­racy, with some com­mit­ted to com­plete hor­i­zon­tal­ism while oth­ers have dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship struc­tures, they agree upon a cri­tique of unions and par­ties for their top-down, hier­ar­chi­cal, and bureau­cratic struc­tures and prac­tices, and are ded­i­cated to enact­ing dif­fer­ent forms of inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion. This dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from other orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed that are orga­nized more bureau­crat­i­cally, or that have come to rely on charis­matic leaders.

The MTDs were formed from self-convened and orga­nized groups of neigh­bors and remained autonomous from trade unions, left­ist and national-popular polit­i­cal par­ties, and the par­ties’ patron­age net­works. They have resisted being incor­po­rated into these insti­tu­tions although at times they make strate­gic alliances with the more inde­pen­dent unions or left­ist polit­i­cal par­ties. Since the elec­tion of Nestor Kirch­ner in 2003, many social move­ments in the coun­try, includ­ing orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed with a more national-popular/Peronist polit­i­cal lean­ing, declared their sup­port for the gov­ern­ment, and, in some cases, became offi­cially inte­grated into its ranks. Sev­eral of the MTDs, includ­ing those that make up the Frente Pop­u­lar Dario San­til­lan, and the MTDs La Matanza and Solano, have remained inde­pen­dent from the gov­ern­ment, choos­ing instead to focus on ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­niz­ing and cre­at­ing new pro­duc­tive prac­tices, which con­tinue to this day.

The com­mit­ment to hor­i­zon­tal­ity and auton­omy are accom­pa­nied by a cri­tique of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. It is rec­og­nized that the move­ment is inter­nally very het­ero­ge­neous and there is no ideal fig­ure of the unem­ployed worker. Addi­tion­ally, these move­ments emerged at the time of a com­plete break­down of rep­re­sen­ta­tional democ­racy, as seen in the neolib­eral gov­ern­ment of the 1990s and its even­tual over­throw. It was clear that the politi­cians in power did not rep­re­sent the peo­ple, not even of their own par­ties. Nor did the union, which con­tin­ued to sup­port Menem, rep­re­sent the work­ers. The loss of faith in rep­re­sen­ta­tional pol­i­tics led to the cries that “they all must go,” and the adop­tion of pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hood assem­blies across the city of Buenos Aires. This skep­ti­cism toward rep­re­sen­ta­tional pol­i­tics is coun­tered by a com­mit­ment to ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­niz­ing, to cre­at­ing new ways of life and social-spatial orga­ni­za­tion in the neigh­bor­hoods where the poor live.

Ter­ri­to­r­ial Organization

The ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion is another ele­ment that dis­tin­guishes the orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed, espe­cially those in urban set­tings, from other social move­ments in Argentina and else­where. “The neigh­bor­hood is the new fac­tory” was one of the prin­ci­pal slo­gans of the MTDs and other orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed. This slo­gan car­ries a dou­ble sig­nif­i­cance: pro­duc­tion is no longer cen­tered in the fac­tory but dis­persed through­out the ter­ri­tory and, in par­al­lel, labor orga­niz­ing must be dis­persed through­out the neigh­bor­hood as well. Many of the MTDs, espe­cially in south­ern reaches of Greater Buenos Aires, emerged from set­tle­ments in the urban periph­ery that had been ille­gally occu­pied in the 1980s. In these set­tle­ments, the neigh­bor­hood was already the key site of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, as the set­tle­ments were largely col­lec­tively con­trolled by their inhab­i­tants and sites of con­stant strug­gles to main­tain their land and for access to ser­vices. The neigh­bor­hood was also the obvi­ous site for polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion for the large num­bers of women and youth that had never been included in the for­mal labor move­ment and had always been excluded from other polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. Thus, they were the ones to take the lead as these move­ments emerged, a stark con­trast to the many forms of polit­i­cal activ­ity dom­i­nated by men.

The strug­gle against cap­i­tal must also be the strug­gle to pro­duce a dif­fer­ent type of space and dif­fer­ent social rela­tions within the space.2 That is pre­cisely what the MTDs seek to do in their ter­ri­to­ries, by estab­lish­ing a phys­i­cal pres­ence in the neigh­bor­hood and seek­ing to col­lec­tively man­age as many of the ele­ments of daily life as pos­si­ble. Ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion as prac­ticed by the MTDs includes cre­at­ing schools, soup kitchens, health clin­ics, day­cares, com­mu­nity gar­dens, social cen­ters and pro­duc­tive enter­prises within a given ter­ri­tory. It means orga­niz­ing around the basic needs of com­mu­nity res­i­dents, food, clean water, hous­ing, edu­ca­tion and the desire to form com­mu­nity in neigh­bor­hoods that are socially and eth­ni­cally frag­mented. Ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion implies open­ing up all the spaces of daily activ­ity to cri­tique and as pos­si­ble sites of orga­ni­za­tion. These move­ments rec­og­nize and more fully value the dif­fer­ent types of labor that go into pro­duc­ing a ter­ri­tory. Ulti­mately, ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion seeks to build on the self-activity of the work­ing class as expressed through the prac­tices of every­day life and social orga­ni­za­tion in the neighborhoods.

Labor

The MTDs dif­fer from what is tra­di­tion­ally con­ceived of as the labor move­ment because of their decen­ter­ing of waged labor and explicit orga­niz­ing of unem­ployed peo­ple. The MTDs have explic­itly taken on the chal­lenge of orga­niz­ing the unem­ployed, as well as partially-employed, infor­mal, and domes­tic work­ers. Through the pos­i­tive iden­tity of the piquetero and con­tin­u­ing to iden­tify as work­ers, the MTDs have moved beyond a def­i­n­i­tion of the unem­ployed that is based on lack, on what they don’t have (employ­ment), to one that val­ues the polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of the class. Thus, this dis­course no longer priv­i­leges wage labor as the norm, rec­og­niz­ing that this is no longer a pos­si­bil­ity for much of the country’s work­ing class. Yet, the MTDs con­tinue iden­ti­fy­ing as “work­ers,” as the work­ing class, even with­out employ­ment or even the pos­si­bil­ity of employ­ment. Rather, the move­ment rec­og­nizes that there are many types of work, and that they are orga­nized in many dif­fer­ent ways.

The MTDs decen­ter the expe­ri­ence of waged labor and instead put the spaces of every­day life in the cen­ter of their strug­gle. In this way, they are able to chal­lenge dis­tinc­tions between waged and unwaged labor, or for­mal and infor­mal employ­ment, to cre­ate a space for the major­ity of urban res­i­dents who sur­vive on some com­bi­na­tion of pre­car­i­ous work along with state sub­si­dies, ille­gal activ­i­ties, and sup­port from fam­ily and friends. Res­i­dents of the urban periph­ery often work part-time in domes­tic labor or con­struc­tion, are self-employed through micro-enterprises run out of their homes, and are involved in the con­stant labor of care in their own homes and com­mu­ni­ties. This labor lacks the rights and secu­rity that have helped other work­ers to orga­nize, as well as geo­graphic sta­bil­ity. This makes work­place orga­niz­ing extremely dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, mean­ing that there is gen­er­ally lit­tle place for these work­ers within labor unions. The piquetero move­ment, how­ever, is one of the few move­ments that has man­aged to suc­cess­fully bring together these dif­fer­ent type of work­ers with­out repro­duc­ing the hier­ar­chies and divi­sions of the labor market.

Within the piquetero move­ment there are dif­fer­ing analy­ses of work and diag­nos­tics of the eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion, which are man­i­fest in the orga­ni­za­tions’ demands and prac­tices. One sec­tor of the move­ment calls for “gen­uine work” and demands their old jobs back: real, legit­i­mate, authen­tic jobs. These were opposed to the demands for sub­si­dies and unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, which they con­sid­ered to repro­duce pat­terns of lazi­ness and depen­dency. While cer­tainly politi­cians’ use of these these sub­si­dies to pacifty and co-opt move­ments must be crit­i­cized, it is easy to see how the sim­ple cri­tique of subsidies-as-dependency risks repro­duc­ing the logic of neolib­eral cap­i­tal and its ide­ol­ogy of indi­vid­ual respon­si­bil­ity. The demand for “gen­uine work” makes another mis­take by label­ing cer­tain forms of labor as legit­i­mate and authen­tic as opposed to oth­ers, devalu­ing women’s work in the house­hold and com­mu­nity, as well as many other types of labor. It fails to take into account struc­tural changes that make its premise worth­less: there is no more gen­uine work.

Another sec­tor of the piquetero move­ment, mostly adher­ing to a nationalist-populist ide­ol­ogy, has cen­tered their actions around demand­ing unem­ploy­ment sub­si­dies from the state. Thanks to their suc­cess in win­ning these ben­e­fits and the right to dis­trib­ute them, these orga­ni­za­tions grew rapidly in the late 1990s, yet were unable to pro­vide a real alter­na­tive to the cor­rupt and hier­ar­chi­cal forms of pol­i­tics already tak­ing place in work­ing class neigh­bor­hoods. A pol­i­tics based on mak­ing demands of the state means that most of these orga­ni­za­tions now sup­port the Kirch­ner admin­is­tra­tion and many have offi­cially inte­grated into the gov­ern­ment appa­ra­tus, thus los­ing most of their oppo­si­tional potential.

The inde­pen­dent MTDs, on the other hand, have taken a dif­fer­ent approach from those either demand­ing “gen­uine work” or only demand­ing sub­si­dies. While these MTDs decen­ter waged labor, work remains at the cen­ter of their prac­tice and analy­sis. The MTDs do not just demand jobs, how­ever. Instead, they ask: “what kind of work do we want?” and answer: “work with dig­nity.” Work with dig­nity is not so much a demand as a state­ment of intent, for it is pre­cisely what the move­ments are putting into prac­tice, cre­at­ing new forms of work that spill over into new ways of liv­ing and orga­niz­ing the urban territory.

Alter­na­tives

Start­ing in the late 1990s, at the same time as some work­ers began tak­ing over their fac­to­ries, a num­ber of MTDs started their own pro­duc­tive enter­prises as a way to pro­vide an income for some of their mem­bers and to regain a sense of con­trol over their lives, which they had lost with unem­ploy­ment. These efforts mul­ti­plied after 2001, as the cri­sis hit its peak and the lack of a sta­ble gov­ern­ment made it clear that solu­tions would not come from the state. Dur­ing this time, the MTDs also par­tic­i­pated in orga­niz­ing barter mar­kets and alter­na­tive cur­rency net­works, cre­at­ing new eco­nomic sys­tems based on mutual aid and sup­port. Rec­og­niz­ing that full employ­ment was no longer an option, or per­haps even a desire, for every­one, these groups decided to cre­ate their own ways of repro­duc­ing life in their ter­ri­to­ries, out­side of the cap­i­tal­ist market.

There are dif­fer­ent ways of inter­pret­ing “work with dig­nity,” and dif­fer­ent ways of putting it into prac­tice. We can, how­ever, iden­tify some com­mon threads: (1) self-management/workers’ control/no boss, (2) work­place democ­racy and hor­i­zon­tal­ity, (3) com­mu­nal val­ues over mar­ket val­ues. These alter­na­tives some­times take the form of worker-owned coop­er­a­tives, but go beyond obvi­ously pro­duc­tive enter­prises as well. As part of their ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­ni­za­tion, the MTDs seek to col­lec­tively man­age other spaces and activ­i­ties of life, from health­care to edu­ca­tion to the food they eat. There is a dimen­sion of auton­omy to these projects as well: although most are funded at least par­tially through state sub­si­dies, the MTDs aim to be self-sufficient in order to no longer rely on the state. This is mostly a prac­ti­cal con­cern, since it is expected that the state will one day take away the sub­si­dies or enforce cer­tain require­ments the move­ments are not pre­pared to meet. The sub­si­dies are con­sid­ered use­ful, how­ever, inas­much as they pro­vide a mate­r­ial base from which to fur­ther strengthen the move­ment and people’s self-organization.

The alter­na­tives that the MTDs con­struct are not lim­ited to work­place alter­na­tives, to work­ing with­out bosses and demo­c­ra­t­i­cally con­trol­ling the work­place. They aim to cre­ate dif­fer­ent ways of work­ing, ques­tion­ing what counts as work and how that work is val­ued, how that work is car­ried out and orga­nized, and the rela­tion­ship between that work and other parts of life. This means going beyond the pro­duc­tive enter­prises to focus on activ­i­ties that cre­ate new social rela­tions within the neigh­bor­hoods, rela­tion­ships that are not based on com­pe­ti­tion or profit but on sol­i­dar­ity and mutual aid.

The pro­duc­tive enter­prises the MTDs set up are usu­ally small-scale work­shops mak­ing food or tex­tiles, or pro­vid­ing ser­vices. Bak­eries and pizze­rias are some of the most com­mon. These enter­prises are demo­c­ra­t­i­cally con­trolled by the work­ers them­selves and ulti­mately by the move­ment as whole, mak­ing the needs of the com­mu­nity more impor­tant than just turn­ing a profit. They attempt to pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the hier­ar­chi­cal dis­ci­pline of most cap­i­tal­ist work­places, as well as divi­sions between man­ual and intel­lec­tual labor, by includ­ing all work­ers in decision-making and rotat­ing roles. Profit is gen­er­ally invested into the orga­ni­za­tion as a whole or dis­trib­uted to mem­bers most in need.

In many ways, the coop­er­a­tives run by the MTDs are sim­i­lar to the “recu­per­ated fac­to­ries” that emerged in Argentina around the same time. In hun­dreds of sites around the coun­try, work­ers took over and restarted pro­duc­tion in fac­to­ries, rather than sub­mit to own­ers’ deci­sions to close the fac­to­ries and leave work­ers unem­ployed. These range from small print­ing presses to large metal fac­to­ries. There is a wide range of diver­sity in how the recu­per­ated fac­to­ries oper­ate: in some, work­ers rad­i­cally trans­form the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, insti­tut­ing non-hierarchical rela­tions between work­ers and equally shar­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties and tasks, decision-making power, and sur­plus, while oth­ers largely repro­duce the rela­tions and prac­tices of the fac­tory under its for­mer boss. Yet in many ways the recu­per­ated fac­to­ries remain lim­ited, because, after all, they are still cre­at­ing work, which, instead of rely­ing on a boss to instill the fac­tory dis­ci­pline, relies on col­lec­tive self-exploitation. Over­all, the recu­per­ated fac­to­ries do lit­tle to chal­lenge the over­all sys­tem of cap­i­tal, espe­cially as many con­tinue to fill the same con­tracts with cap­i­tal­ist cor­po­ra­tions as when they were run by a boss. The recu­per­ated fac­to­ries that are doing the most for polit­i­cal change are those that have been able to cre­ate net­works with other worker-controlled enter­prises, recre­at­ing the whole sup­ply chain, and those that build ties with other move­ments and the wider community.

One of the cen­tral focuses of all these move­ments has been edu­ca­tion, which can per­haps best be seen in the bachiller­atos pop­u­lares. The bachiller­atos pop­u­lares are high school degree pro­grams for adults run by social move­ments, but with state fund­ing and accred­i­ta­tion. The schools emerged out of the move­ments, both the recu­per­ated fac­to­ries and the MTDs, first with­out any out­side fund­ing or state recog­ni­tion, as a way to pro­vide edu­ca­tion to their mem­bers and the pub­lic. They arose out of a dou­ble acknowl­edg­ment: the lack of qual­ity edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for much of the city’s poor, and the power of edu­ca­tion for polit­i­cal empow­er­ment. After years of fight­ing, the degrees earned in these schools were for­mally rec­og­nized by the state (in 2007 in the province of Buenos Aires and 2008 in the city). The state pro­vides addi­tional resources as well, and in some local­i­ties pro­vides small salaries for the teach­ers. How­ever, the move­ments con­trol the cur­ricu­lum, and are respon­si­ble for orga­niz­ing the school and teach­ing the classes. Teach­ers are gen­er­ally move­ment activists and/or polit­i­cally com­mit­ted uni­ver­sity stu­dents; some work as teach­ers in other schools. The MTDs put a great deal of empha­sis on knowl­edge pro­duc­tion in gen­eral, in some cases even oper­at­ing their own pub­lish­ing houses, through which they edit and pub­lish their own research.3

Addi­tion­ally, some of the MTDs oper­ate health clin­ics, pro­vid­ing an alter­na­tive to the over­crowded and under­funded pub­lic health sys­tem and tak­ing more holis­tic approaches to health, as opposed to only treat­ing sick­ness. Along­side the clin­ics, the MTDs tend to offer classes about nutri­tion and well­ness, seek­ing to inte­grate these ele­ments of their activ­i­ties into the daily lives of their mem­bers. The orga­ni­za­tions offer a wide range of cul­tural and edu­ca­tional pro­gram­ming, from paint­ing classes to read­ings groups on Marx, pro­vide legal aid for migrants seek­ing to legal­ize their sta­tus, and facil­i­tate women’s empow­er­ment groups.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in these activ­i­ties, whether a worker-run bak­ery or a movement-controlled high school, cre­ates new sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and social rela­tions, pro­duces new ter­ri­to­ries and new forms of life. The par­tic­i­pants go from see­ing them­selves as help­less vic­tims of global cap­i­tal­ism, solely defined by their lack of employ­ment, to iden­ti­fy­ing as active agents of social and polit­i­cal change, with the power to con­front the state and cap­i­tal and pro­duce dif­fer­ent ways of liv­ing. The MTDs chal­lenge dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives about the cen­tral­ity and desir­abil­ity of waged labor and instead seek to cre­ate alter­na­tive forms of pro­duc­tion and social organization.

Today the MTDs are not as pub­licly vis­i­ble as they were ten years ago, with much less open con­fronta­tion with the state and piquetes no longer a daily occur­rence. The move­ment, which was never uni­fied, is per­haps even more frag­mented today: some piquetero orga­ni­za­tions have been inte­grated into the Kirch­ner appa­ra­tus, receiv­ing sub­si­dies and other resources from the state, and oth­ers are increas­ingly crit­i­cal of these new forms of co-optation. The lack of uni­fied action poses an impor­tant prob­lem as the gov­ern­ment tries to divide “good pro­test­ers” from “bad pro­test­ers,” deter­min­ing access to sub­si­dies, and the coop­er­a­tives dis­cover it is hard to sus­tain them­selves with­out build­ing larger net­works of trade and sup­port. Cer­tain groups, most notably the Pop­u­lar Front Darío San­til­lán, are attempt­ing to counter this frag­men­ta­tion through the con­struc­tion of new alliances bring­ing together the unem­ployed, low-wage and pre­car­i­ous work­ers, and stu­dents, along with indige­nous and campesino groups from other parts of the coun­try. Despite these chal­lenges, how­ever, the MTDs remain com­mit­ted to the day-to-day work of ter­ri­to­r­ial orga­niz­ing. There are now around 100 pop­u­lar high school pro­grams offer­ing degrees around the coun­try, dozens of coop­er­a­tives, social cen­ters, and other activ­i­ties, work­ing to directly improve people’s lives while strength­en­ing the self-organization of neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents and build­ing their auton­omy from the state and capital.


1. Michael Hardt and Anto­nio Negri, Com­mon­wealth, (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Belk­nap Press of Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press, 2009).

2. See Henri Lefeb­vre, The Pro­duc­tion of Space, (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Black­well, 1991) for a the­o­ret­i­cal analy­sis on the rela­tion­ship between space and cap­i­tal. For more on how social move­ments across Latin Amer­ica strug­gle to pro­duce new types of spaces, see Raúl Zibechi, Ter­ri­to­rios En Resisten­cia: Car­tografía Política De Las Per­ife­rias Urbanas Lati­noamer­i­canas, (Buenos Aires, Argentina: Lavaca edi­tora, 2008). This book has recently been released in Eng­lish as Ter­ri­to­ries in Resis­tance, trans. Ramor Ryan (Oak­land: AK Press, 2012).

3. The MTD La Matanza has self-published two books: De la culpa a la auto­gestión: un recor­rido del Movimiento de Tra­ba­jadores de La Matanza (2005) and Cuando con otros somos nosotros: la expe­ri­en­cia aso­cia­tiva del Movimiento de Tra­ba­jadores Des­ocu­pa­dos de La Matanza (2007).The Pop­u­lar Front Darío San­til­lán oper­ates a pub­lish­ing house which has pub­lished over 50 books since 2007. The MTD Solano has col­lab­o­rated with Colec­tivo Situa­ciones on var­i­ous projects, includ­ing the book Hipóte­sis 891: Más allá de los piquetes.

Author of the article

is a member of the Counter-Cartographies Collective and the Edu-Factory Collective, and is a graduate student in the geography program at UNC Chapel Hill. She spends much of her time in Buenos Aires, where she is conducting her dissertation research.