From Decomposition to Inquiry: Militant Research in Argentina’s MTDs


By the 1990s it appeared that Argentina’s work­ing class, once one of the best orga­nized work­ing classes in Latin Amer­ica, had been sorely defeated. The mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of 1976 to 1983 tar­geted left­ist and labor activists with bru­tal repres­sion and began the imple­men­ta­tion of neolib­eral eco­nomic poli­cies. Of the many lega­cies of the dic­ta­tor­ship were the dis­in­te­gra­tion of social ties of trust and sol­i­dar­ity, and a gen­er­al­ized fear of par­tic­i­pat­ing in col­lec­tive action. Under Menem in the 1990s, the work­ing class saw its power decline even fur­ther, as laws were put into place encour­ag­ing labor “flex­i­bi­liza­tion” and lim­it­ing work­ers’ rights to orga­nize. The country’s cen­tral labor union con­tin­ued sup­port­ing Menem because of his Per­o­nist affil­i­a­tion, lead­ing to inter­nal con­flict and even­tual frag­men­ta­tion. Nei­ther the unions nor the polit­i­cal par­ties rec­og­nized the full extent of the trans­for­ma­tions brought about by the shift to a post-Fordist econ­omy, and con­tin­ued orga­niz­ing in ways that assumed the fac­tory worker as the priv­i­leged eco­nomic and polit­i­cal actor. For the most part, they ignored the grow­ing mass of unem­ployed and infor­mal work­ers, and when they did attempt to incor­po­rate their strug­gles, it was always sub­or­di­nate to the for­mally employed. These lim­i­ta­tions caused both the unions and left­ist polit­i­cal par­ties to lose legit­i­macy in the eyes of much of the work­ing class. As the newly poor and unem­ployed found them­selves aban­doned by tra­di­tional polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, they turned to mul­ti­ple forms of inves­ti­ga­tion to under­stand the con­di­tions in which they found them­selves, and to develop more effec­tive forms of action and orga­ni­za­tion. These processes of inves­ti­ga­tion were fun­da­men­tal for the for­ma­tion of move­ments of the unem­ployed across Argentina in the 1990s, and, in some cases, point to a dif­fer­ent way of doing pol­i­tics that places inquiry at the cen­ter of its prac­tice.

The “unem­ployed” are far from a homo­ge­neous group. Orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed bring together peo­ple with dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of work and unem­ploy­ment, such as laid-off fac­tory work­ers; those with tem­po­rary or part-time jobs; women occu­pied with house­hold work, whether paid or unpaid, in their homes or the houses of oth­ers; and peo­ple liv­ing off of ille­gal activ­ity, infor­mal jobs, gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, micro-loans or some com­bi­na­tion of all of these. One of the first tasks for inquiry was to under­stand the com­po­si­tion of this broad cat­e­gory of the “unem­ployed.” These inves­ti­ga­tions have employed mul­ti­ple meth­ods, from sur­veys and cen­suses in the neigh­bor­hoods most affected by unem­ploy­ment, to research and analy­sis of the struc­tural causes of unem­ploy­ment, to work­shops and dis­cus­sions on the effects and expe­ri­ences of being unem­ployed. In most cases, these inquiries were ini­ti­ated by the unem­ployed them­selves, with clear polit­i­cal objec­tives. With­out a shared work­place and clear iden­tity as “work­ers,” there is no obvi­ous site or sub­ject for a “work­ers’ inquiry.” The het­ero­ge­neous nature of “the unem­ployed” makes orga­ni­za­tion dif­fi­cult; com­mon­al­i­ties between the unem­ployed can­not be taken for granted. There­fore, part of the process of inquiry involves iden­ti­fy­ing shared prob­lems and expe­ri­ences, needs and desires, work­ing toward the cre­ation of a com­mon space and col­lec­tive sub­ject.

One of the demands from the early road­blocks, after win­ning ini­tial unem­ploy­ment sub­si­dies in 1996, was for the move­ments them­selves to be allowed to con­duct the cen­suses in their neigh­bor­hood to deter­mine how many unem­ployed fam­i­lies needed ben­e­fits.1 The orga­ni­za­tions that were most suc­cess­ful with this strat­egy were the large orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed, affil­i­ated with inde­pen­dent trade unions that had the resources to con­duct exten­sive sur­veys in broad ter­ri­to­ries of the urban periph­ery. Besides expand­ing the reach of unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, this had the effect of tak­ing power away from clien­telist net­works, in which local politi­cians and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of polit­i­cal par­ties used the dis­tri­b­u­tion of ben­e­fits to gain polit­i­cal sup­port and increase people’s depen­dence on them. Thus, the movement’s use of cen­suses not only allowed them to gain mate­rial ben­e­fits in the forms of unem­ploy­ment sub­si­dies for neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents, but also encour­aged self-orga­ni­za­tion in the neigh­bor­hoods, wrestling power away from clien­telist net­works and other hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures and allow­ing the move­ments to cre­ate new ter­ri­to­rial net­works of their own in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods.

These orga­ni­za­tions under­took ter­ri­to­rial inquiries into the con­di­tions of life in the neigh­bor­hoods where they were attempt­ing to orga­nize, largely focus­ing on objec­tive con­di­tions around which col­lec­tive demands could then be made: lack of potable water and sewage, gas and elec­tric­ity, food. This research aimed to doc­u­ment the extent of unem­ploy­ment and its effects, while at the same time assum­ing that a return to the full employ­ment of the Per­o­nist era was pos­si­ble and desir­able. Thus, it failed to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of other forms of labor, the mul­ti­ple ways in which peo­ple main­tain their liveli­hoods, as well as the new sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and desires – sub­jec­tiv­i­ties formed out­side of the work­place, and desires for lives not defined by work. Although some of these orga­ni­za­tions did attempt inno­v­a­tive mod­els of ter­ri­to­rial orga­niz­ing, for the most part they con­tin­ued to priv­i­lege the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the male worker, mar­gin­al­iz­ing women, youth, and migrants, who were less likely to fit the tra­di­tional model of the work­ing class.

Of the wide range of move­ments of the unem­ployed that emerged in the 1990s across Argentina, those that remained autonomous from polit­i­cal par­ties and trade unions, the Move­ments of Unem­ployed Work­ers (Movimien­tos de Tra­ba­jadores Des­ocu­pa­dos or MTDs), were the most likely to pri­or­i­tize inves­ti­ga­tion and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. The MTDs, unlike most other move­ments of the unem­ployed that became inte­grated into pre-exist­ing polit­i­cal par­ties or unions, rec­og­nized that old cat­e­gories and forms of orga­ni­za­tion were no longer suf­fi­cient for the cur­rent moment. Although also start­ing with sci­en­tific-objec­tive inquiries, these groups soon real­ized that under­stand­ing the objec­tive con­di­tions was not enough for effec­tive polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. They began focus­ing on the more sub­jec­tive aspects of unem­ploy­ment and using inves­ti­ga­tion itself as a tool for self-orga­ni­za­tion. Besides under­stand­ing who was unem­ployed and why, activists sought to iden­tify responses to unem­ploy­ment and the obsta­cles to the orga­ni­za­tion of the unem­ployed. They were com­mit­ted to inves­ti­gat­ing the changes in class com­po­si­tion, as well as the new forms of pro­duc­tion and exploita­tion. Their inquiries empha­sized the sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and desires of the unem­ployed, their ways of liv­ing and forms of self-orga­ni­za­tion.

New Subjectivities through Inquiry

For the MTD La Matanza, based in the munic­i­pal­ity of La Matanza imme­di­ately to the west of Buenos Aires, expe­ri­ences of col­lec­tive inves­ti­ga­tion and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion were key to their for­ma­tion as a move­ment, and to the estab­lish­ment of a school and a coop­er­a­tive. The move­ment began in 1995, as neigh­bors came together to protest ris­ing elec­tric­ity and gas prices. Then began processes, at first infor­mal and later more for­mal­ized, of inves­ti­ga­tion into life in the neigh­bor­hood. These inquiries led them to iden­tify unem­ploy­ment or lack of for­mal employ­ment as the com­mon prob­lem behind many of their com­plaints. They began more focused read­ing and study groups, invit­ing local intel­lec­tu­als to give work­shops, to bet­ter under­stand the causes of unem­ploy­ment and develop a cri­tique of neolib­eral cap­i­tal­ism. They fur­ther researched the effects of unem­ploy­ment and neolib­eral poli­cies in their neigh­bor­hood with more inter­views and dis­cus­sion groups. As con­di­tions wors­ened, these processes of col­lec­tive inves­ti­ga­tion then took to the streets in the form of road­blocks to demand ser­vices and ben­e­fits. The MTD was con­sti­tuted around the slo­gan “work, dig­nity, and social change.”2

The MTD La Matanza empha­sizes the impor­tance of a col­lab­o­ra­tion with social sci­ence stu­dents from a local uni­ver­sity for under­stand­ing the sub­jec­tive effects of unem­ploy­ment. They iden­ti­fied three responses to unem­ploy­ment: 1) those who main­tained feel­ings of indi­vid­ual guilt and respon­si­bil­ity with regards to their unem­ploy­ment; 2) those who looked to the state to resolve the prob­lem, either through finan­cial assis­tance for the unem­ployed or jobs pro­grams; and 3) those who started to cre­ate forms of self-man­aged coop­er­a­tive work and mutual aid to resolve the prob­lems of unem­ploy­ment them­selves. The focus on the sub­jec­tive aspects of unem­ploy­ment high­lights the feel­ings of guilt and iso­la­tion, and the break­down of ties of sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port that had pre­vi­ously been based around the work­place. Since both of these fac­tors make orga­niz­ing extremely dif­fi­cult, the MTD began to directly address those ques­tions, work­ing on chal­leng­ing those feel­ings of guilt and cre­at­ing new social bonds of trust and sol­i­dar­ity out­side of the work­place.

Through these processes of inves­ti­ga­tion, mem­bers of the MTD began to value their own knowl­edges and capac­i­ties, over­com­ing some of those feel­ings of guilt and infe­ri­or­ity. They later started their own radio pro­gram and pub­lish­ing house, which served as ways for the unem­ployed to tell their own sto­ries and recover con­fi­dence in them­selves. Under­stand­ing the struc­tural and per­ma­nent nature of unemployment/precarious employ­ment, in 2001 they decided to start a worker-man­aged bak­ery and tex­tile work­shop, instead of demand­ing jobs from the state or pri­vate enter­prises. Here they ran into addi­tional prob­lems, all stem­ming from a cap­i­tal­ist sub­jec­tiv­ity that accus­toms them to lis­ten­ing to author­ity and avoid­ing mak­ing deci­sions and tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity. Through work­shops with social psy­chol­ogy stu­dents, the MTD began address­ing these prob­lems, learn­ing how to make deci­sions col­lec­tively and how to work with­out the pres­ence of an author­ity fig­ure. Rec­og­niz­ing how deep these sub­jec­tive obsta­cles to self-man­age­ment run, the MTD decided to place fur­ther empha­sis on edu­ca­tion and for­ma­tion from a young age, start­ing a kinder­garten and other pro­grams for chil­dren in order to pro­duce “lib­er­ated sub­jects.” Along with a num­ber of adult edu­ca­tion pro­grams, these activ­i­ties focus on the cre­ation of non-cap­i­tal­ist val­ues and enhanc­ing capac­i­ties for self-man­age­ment.

The MTD of Solano, founded in 1996 in the south­ern region of Greater Buenos Aires, goes even fur­ther in plac­ing inves­ti­ga­tion and edu­ca­tion at the cen­ter of their prac­tice. Crit­i­cal of left­ist prac­tices that repro­duce cap­i­tal­ist hier­ar­chies and dom­i­nant sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, the MTD Solano aims to pro­duce new val­ues, sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, and social rela­tions. For them, inquiry is also an atti­tude, a dis­po­si­tion to exper­i­men­ta­tion and open­ness to the unknown and unex­pected. This com­mit­ment to inquiry has led to new the­o­ret­i­cal insights, under­stand­ing unem­ploy­ment not sim­ply as exclu­sion but rather as a speci­fic form of inclu­sion. They rec­og­nize that forms of labor have changed, and no longer cor­re­spond to the Per­o­nist ide­als of full employ­ment and mass fac­tory work. Pre­car­ity and unem­ploy­ment are not tem­po­rary anom­alies, but are cen­tral to the cur­rent form of cap­i­tal­ism. On the basis of this analy­sis, mem­bers of the MTD Solano do not call for inclu­sion or more jobs, like many of the orga­ni­za­tions of the unem­ployed, but instead focus their energy on cre­at­ing new forms of liv­ing that are less depen­dent on cap­i­tal­ist insti­tu­tions.

The MTD Solano under­stands inves­ti­ga­tion in a broad sense to include the for­mal work­shops and writ­ing activ­i­ties car­ried out by the move­ment, as well as the learn­ing that takes place in road­blocks and other actions: moments of self-reflex­iv­ity, dis­cussing actions and their con­se­quences, learn­ing to make deci­sions col­lec­tively and relate to one another dif­fer­ently. They describe their assem­blies as moments of col­lec­tive thought, beyond the dis­cus­sion of tac­tics and strate­gies, moments for devel­op­ing new ways of think­ing and cre­at­ing new forms of socia­bil­ity that chal­lenge the dom­i­nant indi­vid­u­al­ism. They empha­size the impor­tance of social­iz­ing knowl­edges and skills, allow­ing peo­ple to learn from each oth­ers’ expe­ri­ences, develop their own capac­i­ties, and take on more respon­si­bil­i­ties within the move­ment.3

Two of the group’s main activ­i­ties over the last eight years have been the cre­ation of a col­lec­tive farm and a com­mu­nity health clinic. The projects chal­lenge dom­i­nant dis­courses about food and health, attempt­ing to cre­ate sus­tain­able ways of liv­ing that are less depen­dent on the state and mar­ket. They have inves­ti­gated organic food pro­duc­tion and alter­na­tive crops with the help of Argen­tinean campesino and indige­nous move­ments and Cuban agron­o­mists, learn­ing what crops are most suited to their plot of land and how to deal with the effects of cli­mate change. The health clinic pro­motes alter­na­tive visions of men­tal health, work­ing with whole fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties to solve prob­lems instead of rely­ing on psy­chi­atric med­ica­tions. They incor­po­rate lessons from dif­fer­ent indige­nous and alter­na­tive med­i­ci­nes into their prac­tices. These projects are based not only on learn­ing new skills and tech­niques from other move­ments and com­mu­ni­ties but also on inves­ti­gat­ing the con­di­tions of the neigh­bor­hoods where they work. This research allows them to iden­tify com­mon prob­lems and needs, as well as the forms of self-orga­ni­za­tion and col­lec­tive sur­vival already being put into prac­tices, to rec­og­nize and strengthen the eman­ci­pa­tory aspects of those prac­tices.

What the expe­ri­ences of these two MTDs point to is the pro­duc­tive and polit­i­cal capac­i­ties of inquiry: the research process itself plays a fun­da­men­tal role in the pro­duc­tion of new sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and social bonds. Inves­ti­ga­tion into the causes and effects of unem­ploy­ment chal­lenge any notion of unem­ploy­ment as an indi­vid­ual prob­lem, help­ing peo­ple over­come feel­ings of guilt and per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity for not hav­ing a job. Active par­tic­i­pa­tion in these processes of inves­ti­ga­tion also plays an impor­tant role in build­ing unem­ployed peo­ples’ con­fi­dence in their own capac­i­ties and knowl­edges; it teaches them new skills and helps form group cohe­sion, cre­at­ing a shared expe­ri­ence among the par­tic­i­pants. More­over, this dis­po­si­tion toward inquiry implies a dif­fer­ent way of doing pol­i­tics, one which does not assume a pre­de­fined sub­ject or path of action, but instead empha­sizes the pro­duc­tion of new social rela­tions and exper­i­men­ta­tion in forms of liv­ing and orga­ni­za­tion.

At the same time as these move­ments of the unem­ployed were emerg­ing in the mid-1990s, Colec­tivo Situa­ciones was form­ing in Buenos Aires. Through intense col­lab­o­ra­tions with the MTD Solano and other social move­ments, Colec­tivo Situa­ciones began elab­o­rat­ing the con­cept of  mil­i­tant research/research mil­i­tancy against both aca­d­e­mic research and tra­di­tional left­ist activism. Against aca­d­e­mic research that pro­claims objec­tiv­ity, the neu­tral obser­va­tion of a pre-defined object that often does not go beyond soci­o­log­i­cal descrip­tion, and mainly serves the career inter­ests of the author. Opposed to tra­di­tional forms of activism with pre­de­ter­mined “rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­jects,” forms of action and orga­ni­za­tion, aims and con­clu­sions. Both aca­d­e­mic research and tra­di­tional activism con­strue them­selves as exte­rior to their object; the researcher and the activist both pose as experts, out­side of the strug­gle. Mil­i­tant research, on the other hand, is imma­nent to the sit­u­a­tion at hand. Colec­tivo Situa­ciones dis­cusses mil­i­tant research as a process of love or friend­ship that rad­i­cally trans­forms all of those involved, that pro­duces some­thing in com­mon. The mil­i­tant researcher does not pre­tend to be objec­tive, but rather val­ues the pro­duc­tion of knowl­edge for strug­gle. There is no purism of knowl­edge; inves­ti­ga­tion becomes risky, any easy dis­tinc­tion between the researcher and the researched breaks down.4

Mil­i­tant research is more than a dif­fer­ent form of research; it is also a dif­fer­ent way of doing pol­i­tics and under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between the two. As Hol­dren and Touza state in their intro­duc­tion to the work of Colec­tivo Situa­ciones: “Research mil­i­tancy does not dis­tin­guish between think­ing and doing pol­i­tics. Inso­far as we see thought as the thinking/doing activ­ity that de-poses the logic by which exist­ing mod­els acquire mean­ing, this kind of think­ing is imme­di­ately polit­i­cal. And, if we see pol­i­tics as the strug­gle for free­dom and jus­tice, all pol­i­tics involves think­ing, because there are forms of think­ing against estab­lished mod­els implicit in every rad­i­cal prac­tice – a thought peo­ple carry out with their bod­ies. Move­ments think. Strug­gles embody thought.“5 We can see this dif­fer­ent way of think­ing and doing pol­i­tics and inves­ti­ga­tion embod­ied in the prac­tices of the MTDs.

This new form of pol­i­tics took on unprece­dented dimen­sions in the wake of Argentina’s 2001 eco­nomic cri­sis. Peo­ple began cre­at­ing ways not only of sur­viv­ing the cri­sis, but also of build­ing new forms of social rela­tions and sol­i­dar­ity in the clear col­lapse of old forms of orga­ni­za­tion. New polit­i­cal sub­jects, with dif­fer­ent his­to­ries and prac­tices, demands and hopes, took the stage, lead­ing ulti­mately to a wave of des­tituent action in 2001 under the ban­ner “they all must go.” New forms of liv­ing, which the MTDs were already exper­i­ment­ing with, began to spread as unem­ploy­ment reached unprece­dented lev­els and more and more peo­ple sought to sus­tain their liveli­hoods out­side of the labor mar­ket. Nation­wide barter net­works emerged, where par­tic­i­pants would directly trade goods and ser­vices using alter­na­tive cur­ren­cies, or some­times with­out the medi­a­tion of money at all. Work­ers across the coun­try took over fac­to­ries aban­doned by man­age­ment to run them as worker-man­aged coop­er­a­tives. Neigh­bors in urban areas began meet­ing in hor­i­zon­tal assem­blies to dis­cuss and find col­lec­tive solu­tions to com­mon prob­lems.6 These prac­tices over­flowed tra­di­tional forms of orga­ni­za­tion, catch­ing them off guard and leav­ing them inca­pable of respond­ing to the sit­u­a­tion. These new forms of orga­ni­za­tion, with lit­tle par­tic­i­pa­tion from the tra­di­tional Left, were largely respon­si­ble for the protests in Decem­ber of 2001 that over­threw the neolib­eral gov­ern­ment. In this con­text, the inves­ti­ga­tions of the MTDs and Colec­tivo Situa­ciones turned to the these emerg­ing new forms of orga­ni­za­tion and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, explor­ing the col­lec­tive desires behind them. Inves­ti­ga­tions uncov­ered a gen­er­al­ized cri­sis of rep­re­sen­ta­tion marked by a wide­spread loss of faith in rep­re­sen­ta­tive bod­ies, as well as all forms of rep­re­sen­ta­tive deci­sion-mak­ing. They announced the emer­gence of new sub­jects desir­ing auton­omy, with enhanced capac­i­ties for col­lec­tive deci­sion-mak­ing and con­trol over com­mon affairs. Inquiries sought to under­stand the con­tra­dic­tions and lim­i­ta­tions of these processes, as a moment of self-reflec­tion for par­tic­i­pants, while cre­at­ing more oppor­tu­ni­ties for col­lec­tive exper­i­men­ta­tion and build­ing rela­tion­ships between dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences.

Investigation Today

These expe­ri­ences of inquiry provide some impor­tant insights into the polit­i­cal poten­tial of inves­ti­ga­tion today:

  1. Research must con­tinue into the chang­ing tech­ni­cal com­po­si­tion of labor, includ­ing the speci­fic roles work­ers play in the pro­duc­tive process and the soci­o­log­i­cal makeup of the work­ing class, but also the ways in which peo­ple are exploited, their level of aware­ness, and other sub­jec­tive qual­i­ties. Research should also explore the mul­ti­ple divi­sions within the work­ing class.
  2. This inquiry, how­ever, must move beyond the work­place: it is no longer a ques­tion of tak­ing inves­ti­ga­tion into the fac­tory but of research­ing those forms of exploita­tion and cap­ture that occur through­out the dif­fer­ent time-spaces of our lives. This must include the dif­fer­ent forms of infor­mal labor that are often unrec­og­nized, as well as the house­hold labor car­ried out mostly by women. In a broader sense, it must include all the ways in which value is extracted from social coop­er­a­tion and com­mon resources.
  3. Inquiry should con­tribute to the recom­po­si­tion of strug­gles by high­light­ing shared expe­ri­ences and prob­lems, goals and desires. This research process builds aware­ness and under­stand­ing of the mul­ti­ple forms of exploita­tion that define con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ism, and the process itself serves as the begin­ning of the con­sti­tu­tion of a new col­lec­tive sub­ject.
  4. Inves­ti­ga­tion must also look at those forms of self-orga­ni­za­tion, includ­ing forms of sur­vival and mutual aid devel­oped on the mar­gins of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, which often over­flow and move beyond the orga­ni­za­tions and insti­tu­tions claim­ing to rep­re­sent the work­ing class. Inquiry serves as a space for self-reflec­tion for these expe­ri­ences, to allow them to deepen and grow and con­nect with one another.
  5. This inves­ti­ga­tion is nec­es­sar­ily a col­lec­tive process. While indi­vid­u­als with rela­tion­ships to uni­ver­si­ties often engage in these col­lab­o­ra­tions, they are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from aca­d­e­mic forms of research based on notions of indi­vid­ual author­ship and objec­tive knowl­edge. It is research that val­ues, above all, the knowl­edge pro­duced in and from the per­spec­tive of strug­gles them­selves.
  6. The process of inves­ti­ga­tion is directly pro­duc­tive and polit­i­cal; pro­duc­ing new val­ues, social rela­tions, and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties, cre­at­ing new capac­i­ties and knowl­edges. It is the foun­da­tion for the for­ma­tion of a new col­lec­tive sub­ject and the basis of the pro­duc­tion of the com­mon.

As Argentina enters a new period, no longer defined strictly by the neolib­er­al­ism of the 1990s nor the protests and exper­i­men­ta­tion of the 2001 moment, the insights learned from the inquiries of the past fif­teen years can­not be for­got­ten. Since 2003, Argentina appears to have entered a period of polit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic recov­ery. The Kirch­n­ers came to power on the back of the strug­gles of 2001 and took up much of the move­ments’ dis­course and demands, speak­ing of social change and eco­nomic jus­tice and launch­ing pro­grams to (slightly) redis­trib­ute wealth. The gov­ern­ment has also devel­oped more com­plex ways of inter­act­ing with social move­ments, with less direct repres­sion, instead opt­ing for forms of co-opta­tion and nego­ti­a­tion. The gov­ern­ment attempts to use move­ments’ knowl­edge, hir­ing social sci­en­tists as well as activists in order to bet­ter under­stand the forms of life and sub­jec­tiv­i­ties in mar­gin­al­ized areas, and to develop more sophis­ti­cated forms of gov­er­nance. All of this takes place in a highly polar­ized polit­i­cal cli­mate, where the only rec­og­nized posi­tions are either with or against the gov­ern­ment, and in which the major­ity of mass move­ments have cho­sen to sup­port the gov­ern­ment. In this con­text, the terms of strug­gle become con­fused: move­ments are increas­ingly insti­tu­tion­al­ized and the gov­ern­ment takes on much of the work pre­vi­ously under­taken by move­ments; a com­plex web of rela­tion­ships between social orga­ni­za­tions and gov­ern­ments devel­ops as each tries to take strate­gic advan­tage of the other. How­ever, move­ments have lost much of their autonomous capac­ity to gen­er­ate the new lan­guages and forms of orga­ni­za­tion that were so preva­lent in 2001.

The social pro­grams, which do redis­trib­ute some amount of wealth, also serve to increase the government’s pres­ence in for­merly mar­gin­al­ized ter­ri­to­ries, expand­ing financ­ing to coop­er­a­tives and other social move­ment activ­i­ties, while attempt­ing to con­trol and con­tain those prac­tices. With eco­nomic growth, new forms of extrac­tion emerge to cap­ture the fruits of social coop­er­a­tion.7 Pre­car­i­ous and infor­mal work accounts for much of the growth in employ­ment. The increased avail­abil­ity of credit (both micro­cre­dit loans financed by the gov­ern­ment and NGOs and credit financed by banks) in low-income neigh­bor­hoods, along with the expan­sion of wel­fare pro­grams, pro­motes con­sump­tion with­out a cor­re­spond­ing increase in for­mal employ­ment. New sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and desires emerge, linked more to con­sump­tion than to work, marked by indi­vid­u­al­ist and com­pet­i­tive atti­tudes, as indi­vid­ual solu­tions come to be pre­ferred over col­lec­tive ones. These changes, along with the government’s attempts at co-opta­tion, make orga­ni­za­tion increas­ingly dif­fi­cult, and have led to grow­ing frag­men­ta­tion within and between move­ments. The MTDs find them­selves in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion: many peo­ple have either returned to employ­ment or found other ways to meet their needs with­out rely­ing on social move­ments, through gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies, credit, or from narco-traf­fick­ing orga­ni­za­tions.8

Once again, how­ever, inquiry can play an impor­tant role in recom­pos­ing strug­gles. Pro­found inves­ti­ga­tion must be done into the new forms of cap­ture, in order to develop a com­mon strug­gle between the mul­ti­ple sec­tors exploited and affected by all forms of extrac­tive indus­tries. In urban set­tings, this means inves­ti­gat­ing the expan­sion of debt and the finan­cial­iza­tion of more and more areas of life.

Inquiry must seek to under­stand to the sub­jec­tiv­i­ties pro­duced by these processes and develop the con­di­tions for col­lec­tive action. Inves­ti­ga­tion into the links between dif­fer­ent extrac­tive indus­tries can help to build rela­tion­ships between urban and rural strug­gles, espe­cially the urban strug­gles of unem­ployed and pre­car­i­ous work­ers, and rural strug­gles against mega-min­ing and the destruc­tive soy indus­try. Now inves­ti­ga­tion must move beyond the neigh­bor­hood to bring together dif­fer­ent sec­tors in strug­gle. Inquiry needs to invent new lan­guages and com­mon dis­courses, mov­ing beyond the polar­iza­tion encour­aged by the gov­ern­ment and oppo­si­tion polit­i­cal par­ties. Mil­i­tant inves­ti­ga­tion, in this con­text, must go beyond soci­o­log­i­cal explo­rations of what is to pro­pose new col­lec­tive imag­i­nar­ies and ways of being.

  1. The move­ments of the unem­ployed became known for their use of road­blocks, which often blocked traf­fic on major high­ways for days or weeks at a time. These road­blocks even­tu­ally won a num­ber of con­ces­sions from munic­i­pal, provin­cial and national gov­ern­ments, includ­ing dif­fer­ent forms of unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, food aid, and in some cases jobs. Move­ments also won con­trol over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of these ben­e­fits: each orga­ni­za­tion is accorded a cer­tain num­ber of ben­e­fit plans which they then deter­mine how to dis­trib­ute among their mem­bers. 

  2. For more on the MTD La Matanza (in Span­ish) see: Toty Flo­res, ed., De la culpa a la auto­gestión: Un recor­rido del Movimiento de Tra­ba­jadores Des­ocu­pa­dos de La Matanza (Buenos Aires: MTD Edi­tora, 2005). 

  3. Colec­tivo Situa­ciones, and MTD de Solano, La Hipóte­sis 891: más allá de los piquetes (Buenos Aires: Edi­ciones de Mano en Mano, 2002). 

  4. For more on Colec­tivo Situa­ciones’ fig­ure of the mil­i­tant researcher in Eng­lish see “On the Researcher-Mil­i­tant,” avail­able online at 

  5. Pref­ace to Colec­tivo Situa­ciones, 19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Pro­tag­o­nism, trans. Nate Hol­dren and Sebastián Touza (New York: Minor Com­po­si­tions, 2012), 6.  

  6. For more about these assem­blies and processes of hor­i­zon­tal orga­niz­ing see Marina Sitrin’s Every­day Rev­o­lu­tions: Hor­i­zon­tal­ism and Auton­omy in Argentina, (New York: Zed Books, 2012), as well as the book by Colec­tivo Situa­ciones men­tioned above. 

  7. In their arti­cle, “Is there a new state-form?” Veron­ica Gago, San­dro Mez­zadra, Sebas­tian Scol­nik and Diego Sztul­wark argue that we must expand our con­cept of “extrac­tion” to not only include processes of extrac­tion of nat­u­ral resources but also the ways in which finan­cial cap­i­tal­ism cap­tures the fruits of social coop­er­a­tion, espe­cially finan­cial cap­i­tal­ism. 

  8. In a meet­ing in June, one activist from a poor neigh­bor­hood described how when her orga­ni­za­tion had attempted to hold an event for Children’s Day, giv­ing out mod­est snacks and toys to chil­dren in the neigh­bor­hood as is cus­tom­ary, a local drug dealer upstaged their event by com­ing in on a truck and dis­trib­ut­ing much fancier brand name toys and events. Their orga­ni­za­tion, hav­ing no way to com­pete with the drug deal­ers, finds itself increas­ingly mar­gin­al­ized in the neigh­bor­hood. Because of the enor­mous dis­par­ity in resources between social move­ments and narco-traf­fick­ing orga­ni­za­tions, peo­ple increas­ingly turn to local drug deal­ers or become involved in the drug trade to solve their prob­lems. While not nec­es­sar­ily a new phe­nom­e­non, it seems to have recently become a much larger prob­lem for the move­ments of the unem­ployed that now find them­selves often directly clash­ing with local drug deal­ers. 

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.