Notes for Political Investigation in the Heart of the Paradoxes of Post-Neoliberalism

Translator’s Intro­duc­tion: Diego Sztulwark’s text, orig­i­nally pub­lished on the blog Lobo Suelto in April 2013, speaks to a num­ber of con­tem­po­rary debates in Argentina: the “end of neolib­er­al­ism” and the “return of the state,” the neo-extrac­tivist econ­omy, and the role of social move­ments today. Specif­i­cally, it comes out of a series of meet­ings and encoun­ters between dif­fer­ent move­ments and orga­ni­za­tions to dis­cuss new forms of vio­lence, linked to the drug trade and extrac­tive indus­tries, in which social move­ments find them­selves in the cross­fire but often with­out the capac­ity to respond effec­tively. Through­out the coun­try, polit­i­cal dis­course remains caught in the dichotomy of sup­port or oppo­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to under­stand the sit­u­a­tion out­side of these lim­ited terms. Thus the call for polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion is twofold: on the one hand, a call to inves­ti­gate the com­plex­i­ties of speci­fic con­tem­po­rary con­flicts, and, on the other hand, a broader call to chal­lenge easy under­stand­ings and pre-estab­lished cat­e­gories, to invent new lan­guages and new imag­i­nar­ies. These notes are pre­sented as part of the process of estab­lish­ing an Insti­tute for Polit­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tion and Exper­i­men­ta­tion to con­sol­i­date a research net­work of dif­fer­ent move­ments and orga­ni­za­tions. 

A meeting of the Institute for Political Investigation and Experimentation.
A meet­ing of the Insti­tute for Polit­i­cal Inves­ti­ga­tion and Exper­i­men­ta­tion.

“Con­cepts are Molo­tov cock­tails against real­ity, weapons for inter­ven­ing in the bat­tle in which we are all involved.”

—San­ti­ago López Petit

1. Three names to describe a mutation

We start with three impre­cise terms to describe a pas­sage, a move­ment, some cir­cum­stances. We take three well-known proper names from the Argen­tine polit­i­cal nar­ra­tive: the 90s; the 2001 cri­sis; and “the model” (of “growth with inclu­sion”). As we all know, the ‘90s are pri­mar­ily remem­bered as those years in which the “cli­mate” con­ducive to “busi­ness” (open­ing to cap­i­tal flows) eroded a good part of the pub­lic infra­struc­ture and ended up immers­ing much of the pop­u­la­tion in mis­ery. It is a par­tial, but con­vinc­ing syn­the­sis. Those years were also those of a cap­i­tal­ist rev­o­lu­tion in agri­cul­ture based on the incor­po­ra­tion of new tech­nolo­gies, licens­ing, and man­age­ment tech­niques. We will see that this is not an unim­por­tant detail.

The cri­sis of 2001 is often remem­bered as a gen­eral exhi­bi­tion of the mis­ery and suf­fer­ing that neolib­er­al­ism causes the pop­u­lar major­ity: destruc­tion of jobs, labor rights, mar­kets, social ser­vices and state assets. It is true that the moment of cri­sis coin­cides with the con­sol­i­da­tion of new move­ments of social and union resis­tance, a new extended polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­ity. It is gen­er­ally accepted that the 2001 cri­sis is inter­nal to the neolib­er­al­ism of the 1990s, char­ac­ter­ized by growth with exclu­sion, devel­op­ment with­out sen­si­tiv­ity, pure cur­rency move­ment inca­pable of generating/distributing new wealth. From this point of view, the value of the strug­gles that emerged dur­ing the cri­sis is merely neg­a­tive, pure con­tes­ta­tion. They do not have the keys to announce a new time, only enough strength to bring clo­sure to an unjust time.

All of these per­cep­tions, mem­o­ries, con­cep­tions, belong to the cur­rent per­spec­tive, char­ac­ter­ized as a period of trans­for­ma­tions pre­sented as a model of “growth with inclu­sion.” Unlike the ‘90s, today’s rhetoric of devel­op­ment no longer rep­re­sents itself as exte­rior to the pop­u­lar world, the community’s rea­son­ing. The idea of inclu­sion has become fun­da­men­tal. Beyond rhetoric empha­siz­ing com­pen­sa­tion, social poli­cies, and increas­ing employ­ment, the expan­sion of rights is ver­i­fied by increas­ing con­sump­tion. The artic­u­la­tion between Argentina’s suc­cess­ful inser­tion into the world mar­ket as a food and energy pro­ducer pro­vides – through finan­cial medi­a­tion – the resources for state inter­ven­tion in social poli­cies. A new state will, rooted in a national, regional and inter­na­tional con­text that favors it, pro­mote eco­nomic activ­ity as the pri­mary vari­able of the ongo­ing polit­i­cal process.

The sit­u­a­tion has changed with respect to the recent past. The polit­i­cal sys­tem has approached the social. A new artic­u­la­tion between pol­i­tics and soci­ety has formed since 2003. Beyond the arti­fi­cial games between offi­cial­ism and oppo­si­tion, the rhetor­i­cal armies of crit­ics and defend­ers of the gov­ern­ment, over the last decade, soci­ety has enjoyed a new period of sta­bil­ity, con­sen­sus and coex­is­tence sup­ported by the hyper-activism of the state, pol­i­tics, jus­tice, the econ­omy, the media.

2. Goodbye neoliberalism?

It is worth ask­ing the ques­tion then: are we leav­ing neolib­er­al­ism behind? If we pay atten­tion to the gov­ern­men­tal rhetoric, as well as to cer­tain heavy­weight actors in areas as diverse as acad­e­mia, human rights, unions, social orga­ni­za­tions, and the media, it would appear that yes, the change is ori­ented in a new direc­tion. This impres­sion is strength­ened if we take a regional per­spec­tive (the prac­tices of the new pro­gres­sive gov­ern­ments), and even an inter­na­tional per­spec­tive (the con­trast with the Euro­pean cri­sis and the acti­va­tion of a South-South econ­omy cen­tered around the BRICS).

From any point of view, it is encour­ag­ing to ver­ify how the old elite tied to dic­ta­tor­ships and the sav­age appli­ca­tion of poli­cies pro­moted by inter­na­tional finan­cial bod­ies seems to sink into impo­tence in those places of the world where it stills gov­ern, while it loses its hege­mony in entire regions of the planet that are reap­pro­pri­at­ing their capac­ity to self-gov­ern and pro­duce wealth.

Cer­tainly cri­tiques emerge, if not true strug­gles, that at least rel­a­tivize the power (poten­cia) of this post-neolib­eral rhetoric. No one can fail to rec­og­nize that the pro­duc­tion of wealth, in our coun­tries, always depends on a “neo-lib­er­al­iza­tion” of the masses in rela­tion to con­sump­tion pat­terns. The same must be said in respect to the para­me­ters that artic­u­late the export of food and energy.

3. Our paradoxes

We encoun­ter, then, a series of para­doxes that are worth explor­ing, pay­ing spe­cial atten­tion to how they affect and deter­mine our modes of life and dis­cur­sive prac­tices:

The con­quest of greater auton­omy in the region with respect to the impe­ri­al­ist sys­tem nor­mally rep­re­sented by the USA coin­cides with a new sub­or­di­nated inte­gra­tion into the global mar­ket. This inser­tion sup­poses vio­lent dynam­ics of the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of land, the regime of pro­duc­tion and cir­cu­la­tion of food and energy, with its corol­lary of social suf­fer­ing in the coun­tryside (pol­lu­tion, destruc­tion of regional economies, forced dis­place­ments of com­mu­ni­ties) and in the city (pol­lu­tion, lower food qual­ity, loss of food sov­er­eignty).

The for­ma­tion of a new polit­i­cal will of the state (which has not only occurred in Argentina, but adopts diverse forms in the region and many parts of the world) has proven effec­tive at rec­og­niz­ing actors and his­tor­i­cal processes in the field of the pro­duc­tion of rights; legit­i­mat­ing the insti­tu­tional sys­tem and national pol­i­tics, includ­ing social con­tin­gents in the expan­sion of the con­sump­tion sphere; car­ry­ing out processes of inser­tion – pri­mar­ily processes of neo-extrac­tivism and food pro­duc­tion – in the global mar­ket; and regional polit­i­cal inte­gra­tion. How­ever, its activism has not man­aged to sub­sti­tute (from “above” or from “below”) the power of neolib­eral logic (Verónica Gago). From above, because the designs of the global actors – such as the finan­cial mar­kets and large multi­na­tional com­pa­nies – have not been dis­placed by a new social and insti­tu­tional space capa­ble of reg­u­lat­ing strate­gic processes (like price deter­mi­na­tions and con­tract reg­u­la­tions; the cre­ation of tech­no­log­i­cal devices and pat­terns of con­sump­tion); from below, because the expan­sion of con­sump­tion and rights has not come with a new pub­lic capac­ity to under­stand and reg­u­late preda­tory prac­tices tied to the promise of “abun­dance” (from real estate spec­u­la­tion to drug traf­fick­ing net­works; from the infor­mal econ­omy to money laun­der­ing; from neo-slave labor to human traf­fick­ing).

These para­doxes deter­mine dis­cur­sive prac­tices while they simul­ta­ne­ously feed off of them. The para­doxes are rec­on­ciled by admit­ting the com­plex­ity we have to deal with, by becom­ing aware of the biopo­lit­i­cal ten­den­cies they make pos­si­ble (that end up recon­fig­ur­ing life in com­mon) and con­vert­ing them into the object of polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion.

4. Five orientations for political investigations

The change of scenery is clear. It is enough to take a look at the world of work, the coun­tryside, ter­ri­to­ries, intel­lec­tual and polit­i­cal dis­courses (Mez­zadra). How­ever, com­mu­nica­tive energy, debates in the pub­lic sphere seem to exhaust them­selves in the imme­di­ate polit­i­cal strug­gle over con­trol of polit­i­cal deci­sion. The task of polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion has been left out of the pub­lic debate and falls under sus­pi­cion of oper­at­ing as a direct func­tion of this con­flict. Thus, the first vic­tim of polit­i­cal polar­iza­tion is the prac­tice of non-spe­cial­ized polit­i­cal dis­course, crushed by the sys­tem of opin­ions, char­ac­ter­ized by the media world’s pre-elab­o­rated lan­guage.

This is another one of our para­doxes: the hyper-polar­iza­tion of opin­ion (the regime of  jour­nal­ism, mil­i­tancy, law, etc.), accom­pa­nied by a rel­a­tive loss of capac­ity to autonomously elab­o­rate lan­guages and ques­tions. We call polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion the inven­tion of processes of recu­per­at­ing power (poten­cia) in rela­tion to the capac­ity of non-spe­cial­ists to elab­o­rate ques­tions, lan­guages, knowl­edges of col­lec­tive exis­tence.

A first ori­en­ta­tion points toward rec­og­niz­ing an indis­pens­able pro­vi­sion for the praxis of polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion: what we could call “arbi­trari­ness” (a word that León Roz­itch­ner has insisted on), in other words, the forms of autho­riza­tion we give our­selves to warn of dan­ger. To warn of the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions of cer­tain prac­tices, even though they arise from beloved areas of our own expe­ri­ences.

A sec­ond fun­da­men­tal ori­en­ta­tion points our atten­tion to what we could call, inspired by Niet­zsche, the “gray zones” of social exis­tence, those in which the forces that later affect us and force us to think are elab­o­rated. This opaque dimen­sion can refer to the zones of sub­jec­tiv­ity, of pol­i­tics and the econ­omy, to that which escapes legal­ity and the thresh­olds of vis­i­bil­ity applied by the regime of opin­ion (Guy Debord).

A third indi­ca­tion, attrib­uted to Fou­cault, has to do with the sup­pos­edly extra-moral method of “prob­lema­ti­za­tion” that inves­ti­gates muta­tions of prac­tices (dis­cur­sive prac­tices) to eval­u­ate that which, by com­ing into con­tact with new real­i­ties, we are ceas­ing to be, as well as what we are start­ing to become. With Fou­cault, we learn to look beyond the legal/illegal dis­tinc­tion to grasp dis­posi­tifs and dia­grams.

A fourth obser­va­tion emerges from Deleuze’s teach­ing of phi­los­o­phy taken up by Jon Beasley Mur­ray for pol­i­tics.1 It has to do with tak­ing seri­ously the world of inten­si­ties, not only dis­cur­sive mean­ings. Of pri­or­i­tiz­ing “affects” (and “habits,” that is to say, the artic­u­la­tion between affects), against the infla­tion of “lin­gual­ism” that char­ac­ter­izes the idea of “hege­mony” or “cul­ture wars” in the rhetoric of the so-called South Amer­i­can “pop­ulism.”

A fifth ori­en­ta­tion for inves­ti­ga­tion con­cerns its own voca­tion to par­tic­i­pate in cur­rent forms of politi­ciza­tion (Rodolfo Walsh2), referred in many cases to the less vis­i­ble artic­u­la­tion of what in a broad sense we could call, fol­low­ing Felix Guat­tari, the “machin­ery” of gov­er­nance of the social, image pro­duc­tion, gov­ern­ment of money, sov­er­eignty in the ter­ri­to­ries, man­age­ment of con­sump­tion, etc.

5. Semiotics for a change of scenery

As the anthro­pol­o­gist Rita Segato3 teaches, polit­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tion depends on sen­si­tiv­ity in rela­tion to the signs. In fact, dark­ness, new forces, dan­gers, new phe­nom­ena, are all expres­sions that require a keen semi­otic sense.

Indeed, processes like vio­lence against women, orga­ni­za­tion of gangs linked to busi­nesses that can reach global dimen­sions, accep­tance of the “vital­ism” accom­pa­ny­ing the enjoy­ment of con­sump­tion, the adren­a­line of risk, are all grounds for a fine under­stand­ing of what occurs in the ter­ri­to­ries where neolib­er­al­ism beats in unison with the pop­u­lar cul­tures, as indi­cated by the term “run­fla cap­i­tal­ism”4 (Diego Vale­ri­ano).

This is the world of per­ma­nent excep­tion (Gior­gio Agam­ben, Paolo Virno), in which social habit, power’s real force and the elab­o­ra­tion of law and insti­tu­tions are com­bined. It is also the gov­ern­ment of wealth pro­duc­tion through finan­cial dis­posi­tifs (Marrazzi/Vercellone). The hypoth­e­sis that we are try­ing to open starts from the fact that finance capital’s power is that of gov­ern­ing the world of coop­er­a­tion from the “out­side” (Negri), that this exte­ri­or­ity of cap­i­tal­ist val­oriza­tion in respect to processes of value cre­ation of the com­mon (goods, infra­struc­ture, knowl­edges) is at the heart of the sys­tem of dis­pos­ses­sion.

And the inverse, this world of the com­mon is also the active, irrev­er­ent pro­duc­tion of imag­i­nar­ies (Machete, Robert Rodríguez; Estación Zombi, Bar­rilete Cós­mico).

—Trans­lated by Liz Mason-Deese

  1. Jon Beasley-Mur­ray, Pos­thege­mony: Polit­i­cal The­ory and Latin Amer­ica (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2011). 

  2. Walsh’s clas­sic inves­tiga­tive piece Oper­a­tion Mas­sacre will soon be pub­lished in Eng­lish for the first time. 

  3. La escrit­ura en el cuerpo de las mujeres asesinadas en Ciu­dad Juárez (The Writ­ing on the Bod­ies of the Women Mur­dered in Ciu­dad Juárez). 

  4. “Run­fla” is a not eas­ily trans­lat­able term refer­ring to gangs, groups of kids or the masses, mul­ti­tude, or the pop­u­lar in a broader sense. Diego Vale­ri­ano devel­oped the term “run­fla cap­i­tal­ism” in a series of posts on the blog Lobo Suelto, start­ing here. In this con­text, “run­fla cap­i­tal­ism” refers to a form of pop­u­lar neolib­er­al­ism, preva­lent in the slums and other urban neigh­bor­hoods, based on con­sump­tion with­out work, but also char­ac­ter­ized by hyper-indi­vid­u­al­ism and increas­ing vio­lence, often linked to the drug trade. 

Author of the article

is a member of Colectivo Situaciones, a militant research collective based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In addition, he is involved with the publisher Tinta Limón, regularly blogs for Lobo Suelto, and participates in the Instituto de Investigación y Experimentación Política (IIEP). Two recent Colectivo Situaciones books have been published in English: 19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism and Genocide in the Neighborhood.