Intellectuals, Experiences, and Militant Investigation: Avatars of a Tense Relation

Over the past fifteen years, the figure of the intellectual has been challenged, combated, and reorganized in relation to practices that have severely questioned it. But, what is the status of thought and investigation in the face of the forms of conflict and dispute that have characterized the continent in recent years? What is the role of militancy when faced with a series of experiences that challenge the classical pedagogical models of politics? We must read these questions from the present: a crisis of the very notion of social movement and the decline of the so-called progressive governments that appropriated their legitimacy. 

Anti-intellectual prejudice has had a large influence on both intellectuals and activists and has settled into a series of common notions that remain operative today. For example, that constantly repeated division between thinking and doing, between planning and experimenting, between comfort and risk. Undoubtedly, these poles reproduce caricatures: militant self-denial devoted to practice as if it were completely lacking ideas and, on the other hand, the intellectual’s limpid adoration of a sky full of concepts, as if it were about pure abstraction. 

Despite the stereotyped nature of these figures, they continue marking the confines of a map that, however, has changed considerably, with shocks that make it difficult to return to how things were previously. In this sense, the issue can be raised in reverse: every time that this binary reemerges (in its most brutal formula of those who do versus those who think) it is a disciplining response to a displacement of the relation between thought and practice. Therefore, anti-intellectualism, rather than a nod toward the popular (which is often an overreaction), is a call to order and a confirmation of class-based hierarchies. In recent years, we have heard this repeated in many different ways: 1 that idea isn’t understood in the neighborhoods; that concept couldn’t have been developed by a group of unemployed people; we don’t need theory to know what to do when there is hunger; thinking is a privilege, etc. The stigma takes on a condescending and paternalistic form because it reacts to the quagmire of assigned places, claiming to have the best of intentions. 

Echoes of this are seen, in a discontinuous way, in the exercise of dividing the political field in two. “Those who fight and those who cry,” Jorge Masetti titled his interview-book with Fidel Castro in the Sierra Maestra (1958), the prelude to his conversion from journalist to guerrilla. The blunt caesura, in diagrams such as this, is a call to combat. It repudiates passivity and challenges intellectual tools to draw their firepower. In turn, the division between those who do and those who think traces a much more conservative and forced division: it does not provide any call or interpellation, rather it confirms the passive and subordinated division between an above and a below, in which knowing is an overvalued power of the elite and doing is a modest subaltern resource. 

Here I propose a situated exercise: a type of cartography of the problems in which the relationship between thought and practice has been shaken up over the past decade and a half. I will focus on Argentina but it should be clear that this delimitation becomes impossible: the transnational perspective emerges from the very conjuncture set in motion by the period in question. This is not only a move beyond the methodological nationalism that is repeatedly imposed as a premise, but I also want to show how that assumption has been undone by the material dynamic of certain political-intellectual events. I think that it is worth adding another shift: the idea is not to understand what militants read to comprehend their keys for action and classify them according to determined traditions, but rather to ask to what extent militancy implies a politics of reading. Therefore, in the field of reading, there is a productivity that cannot be reduced to pre-established pedagogical models. The contrived image of the specialized intellectual-reader (of books and conjunctures) is what is preserved in regard to regimes of reading that manage, in certain situations, to weave new relations and carry out other operations: precisely those that disobey the distinction between the manual and the intellectual and those that are practiced not to construct symbolic capital or personal prestige, but rather take a risk in naming and valorizing modes of existence that denounce and combat forms of exploitation and domination. 

It is possible to explore three moments-debates to address this relationship between concepts and experiences differently. 

One: The Destituent

The 2001 crisis in Argentina – tied to a continental sequence of anti-neoliberal revolts and uprisings – provided a space for theoretical-political creation. The moment of eruption of “subjectivities of the crisis,” that took the form of movements of the unemployed, experiences of self-management in factories and neighborhoods, and practices of alternative and popular economy (from barter clubs to the community supply networks to popular markets), demonstrated a capacity for opposition and action that was capable of breaking the neoliberal consensus. At the same time, it was able to articulate, in a new way, forms of resistance that had been woven together over the course of years. All of political theory is put to the test in moments like those. Multiple reactive responses of infantilization, contempt, and closure in regards to the heterogeneous movement emerged from all sides (and continue disputing the interpretation of the events): exactly when the Justicialist Party (PJ) 2 was facing its most difficult challenge in three decades in its traditional territories, perspectives that insisted on only detecting order did not see anything other than the PJ rebuilding itself there; any hint of finding something in that emergence other than victims or a desperate population was considered to be voluntaristic or overestimating popular power. In our collective militant investigation, we called that power destituent: precisely for its capacity to overthrow and remove the hegemony of the political system based on parties and for opening up a temporality of radical indetermination based on the power of bodies in the street. We also wanted to emphasize that what was called spontaneous was actually the visibilization of a fabric that had been patiently constructed, that synthesized a long elaboration from below, and that went deep enough to question the very distinction between the “social” and the “political.” Therefore we spoke of a “new social protagonism.” 3

The way in which the concept of the multitude resonated in the debate about the characterization and valorization of that politically novel “subject” also projected the Argentinean experience onto the plane of theoretical debates in other latitudes and found concrete interlocutors with Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno, to name two of those who were most cited during that time. But, why? Above all, because a cycle of struggles against neoliberalism in Latin America coincided with a cycle of struggles in Europe against globalization and war (with Genoa in 2001 as a key moment), which made it necessary to produce strategically common concepts to account for subjectivities that had already been disregarded in the practice of the model of the Fordist worker (in the center and the periphery) and that implied taking a balance of the forms of defeat in the 1970s. Those cycles, additionally, are inscribed in an open field by the Zapatista insurgence, which frames an entire generation of activists at the planetary scale. 

I’ll add that the work of the Comuna group in Bolivia also coincided, and not by chance, with similar theorizations, while following a unique trajectory. The reaction (of the disciplinary binarism between those who think and those who do) had its own interpretation of this conjuncture: the colonial idea that Europe placed its concepts onto Latin American practice was established from diverse intellectual positions, 4 precisely at the moment when postcolonial subjects were interrupting into European metropolises, “provincializing” Europe. Denouncing an intellectual imperialism (that places Latin America as a passive receptacle of “foreign” categories), these authors reaffirmed a theoretical and political geography that was being put into crisis by the emergence of a politics that found its power in other subjects, other territories. And precisely when Latin America was becoming a sort of vanguard scene of insurgency, its conceptual production remained marginalized and was only ever seen as in need of tutelage. As if what happens here in Latin America could not be understood as anything more than the experiential dressing for a bibliographical adaptation that follows the rhythm of “fashions” or dominant theories, this reveals the impossibility of detecting from another place those subjectivities that appear as “illegible” and, therefore, undervalued politically. 5 However, this issue demonstrates something interesting: the epistemic debate set in motion by any moment of insurrection and revolt and that allows for the moment to be politically defined as destituent. 6

The common question about a constituent power, capable of creating a world from below and imposing new rules – that is, the unfolding of the problem of what the destituent force gives rise to in terms of the construction of new ways of organizing social relations based on the moment’s struggles – was closed off in Argentina with the [police] murder of activists Darío Santillán and Maximiliano Kosteki on June 26, 2002. It was pure and hard repression which created the space for the political system to call elections. It also repressed a mode of composition between thought and practice that was the basis for the production of political concepts and languages that were also quite innovative. 

Second: the Prince versus the Multitude

Later there were two different readings that closed off the indeterminacy of destituent power. One, which operated on a continental scale, was the sociological classification of the multitudinous under the all-encompassing category of “social movements.” Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui analyzes a similar process in Bolivia: 

What has happened to us is that we have been enraptured by the vigor of the masses, by the destituent capacity of mobilizations, and we have automatically classified them as “social movements” to transform them into subjects of power. The ideological artifices of [Bolivian] “processes of change” have tried to appease their effervescence, to quell the ungovernable and illegible social magma that they signified. They have tried to reduce them to discourse and to a charismatic and authoritarian leadership. 7

The notion of “social movement” was turned into a credential for legibility: it revealed a repertoire of demands, identitarian features, and, finally, a structure of dialogue with the state that was capable of a certain form of managing resources. It functioned, to a large extent, as a mode of stabilization that froze certain ways of doing and thinking that were out of phase in respect to the new dynamics of mobilization. The second closure was the displacement – in a literal way in Argentina, as well as in a broad sense in all of the countries of the “progressive” cycle – of the idea of the destituent as the renewal of the idea of a “coup” against the government: now the right was “destituent.” The destituent thus went from referring to the indeterminacy of popular forces to a threat that required a call to defend the government. 

The persistent obstacle to understanding the collective figure (whether the multitude or another) as the prince (to adopt categories from Machiavelli and Gramsci, as well as from Italian operaismo) results in a fetishism of populist leadership. Whether the case of Néstor Kirchner or Cristina Fernández in Argentina or that of Evo Morales, and, particularly, that of Álvaro García Linera in Bolivia, although with their differences, the effects are similar: the expansion of a rhetorical radicalism that used the theory of Ernesto Laclau to justify a new “autonomy” of the political, with individual variations. The problem lies in the substitution of a collective figure for personal leadership when it functions as the expropriation of political surplus value produced from below. The problem, of course, is not leadership in itself (that is not more than a transitory projection of the imaginary of the multitude), but rather the nature of the political form at stake in the articulation of a certain leadership and the epistemic dispute that is tied up there. Nor is the point to demand purism from the so-called progressive governments (a list of commandments of what they should be), but rather to show to what extent their own mode of being prevents a political balance of the concrete effects that are constantly hidden in the name of “national sovereignty.” 

Populist leaderships have routinely displaced investigations into the communitarian democratic popular form and introduced a sort of expropriating clause that, for example, in the previous Latin American cycle sought to neutralize criticism of how neoliberal conditions were articulated with neodevelopmentalist initiatives and relaunched new forms of dispossession and exploitation. Laclau’s theory – which was postulated as a synthesis of that moment in the region – identifies the forces that deform and threaten the unity of the juridical and political institution exclusively with the forces of the global market and local elites. This total identification, however, neglects any “destituent” (to return to the term) effect emerging from the social dynamic “from below” that is not inscribed into “demands” that are acceptable to the political system 8 and discredits any force of overflow that would require rethinking (as frequently occurs) the game of the political institution in terms of the common-multiple. 9 With this movement, autonomy is no longer a capacity from below to condition and redefine power, but rather the discursive articulation that is carried out from above.

The substitution of plebeian materialism by the ethereal and discursive figure of the people displaces a series of problems that today are exploding in Latin America as misunderstood elements of the so-called “neoconservative turn” in the region: territorial violence, informal-illegal economies, neo-extractive conflicts around territorial and resource dispossession, renewed forms of capitalist exploitation under apparatuses of financial exploitation (for example, through the use of welfare benefits as guarantees for indebtedness with banking institutions), and an intensive war in the name “security.” 10

I reach this point to show how populism has restored the place of intellectuals as the privileged “powerhouse” for producing discourse and support: following the destitution of their role as an authority, intellectuals returned as those leading the so-called “cultural battle” against the mass media, in the framework of the celebrated “return of the state.” That function entered into crisis with the electoral defeats (in Argentina and Bolivia, but we must also take into account the Brazilian and Ecuadorian situations). The argument that is used is that of a “betrayal” at the polls by the people that those governments wanted to represent and favor. The evaluation of García Linera – the most celebrated progressive intellectual-governor – was the most developed and, at the same time, the most problematic: in a talk in Buenos Aires, he said that one of the obstacles of leftist governments has been “the redistribution of wealth without social politicization.” It is the expansion of the middle classes through the inclusion of subaltern sectors via consumption, something that, according to his words, does not lead to a change in “common sense.” Consumption without hegemony would thus produce “a new middle class, with a capacity for consumption, a capacity of satisfaction, but bearing the old conservative common sense.” 11

Here we see a new point of closure, from above, of a key discussion on our continent about the composition of the working classes, the expansion of consumption of non-durable goods, and the precarious apparatuses of social inclusion that appear as the “possible” form of redistribution of wealth and state intervention. But additionally, social politicization remains solely measured in terms of electoral results. From García Linera’s point of view, the paradox is tragic: the MAS (Movement to Socialism) produced the subjects that led to its defeat. The “revolutionary government” finds itself overwhelmed by the transformation of those who led the social movements that drove the anti-neoliberal agenda during the 2000–2005 cycle. 

The sociology (or the sociologization) of these changes in consumption habits through the analysis of class composition seeks to elude and/or replace – with more or less political astuteness – the idea of the popular “betrayal” of a governmental project that claims to exist in order to ensure the well-being of the poorest. It thus attempts to understand the undesired or uncontrollable effects of social ascension, of inclusive modernization, or neodevelopmentalism (these variations in the lexicon are not minor), without confronting the criticisms of the mode of subjectivation and decomposition of the community base that have been taking place in more than one space and with more than one voice. 12

We have also read intellectuals such as Emir Sader blame the so-called “ultra-left” for the progressive defeat. 13 This argument, which accuses the alliances between critical intellectuals and social movements of conspiracy and instrumentalism, with their only goal being that of an “adventurist” position seeking to obtain a place in the political field, is not only stingy (attributed to the famous hegemony of political space), but above all it positions critique as the “cause” of a broad rejection – that still has not been profoundly discussed – of the legitimacy of progressive governments, and thus avoids taking seriously the problem of the causes of successive “defeats.” This not only implies the infantilization of voters from distinct social classes, but also ignorance of how much more complicated forces operate: churches against the so-called “ideology of gender,” finance as a form of exploitation of popular economies, concessions to multinational corporations as direct expropriations of communities. 

The emergence of a populism that is displaced from the government but that theologically organizes the political field in Argentina instead invents a form of presence in the territories, of dispute for communitarian desire, and an affective network with the subjectivities made vulnerable by the violence that was not present in the progressive populism in power. However, one cannot be understood without the other. 

In Argentina, the role of the Catholic Church was key in the territorial dynamic of the last presidential campaign. The role of churches – particularly Evangelical ones – was also fundamental in creating the atmosphere and the parliamentary process for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil, as well as in producing new candidacies (the emblematic case is that of the new mayor of Rio de Janeiro 14).

Three: Social Unrest, Community Weavings, and Neoliberalism

The inverse map of current conflicts might arise from investigating the modes of politicization that accompanied the modifications in the Latin American landscape over the past fifteen years and that don’t exactly respond to the hegemonic elements for which the progressive imaginary today feels nostalgic or over which it projects its disappointment. The era’s “subjectivities in crisis” are connected to conditions that were structured around a neo-extractive type of insertion into the global market, micropolitics organized around the neoliberal conditions of the social bond, and the financial sector’s hegemony in the mode of accumulation that was never completely reversed and was then relaunched. The combination of policies of inclusion through consumption and the dynamization of new forms of financial exploitation and precarization of work has been deepening and maturing under the sign of the neoconservative turn. Sometimes the language is simply pathetic: in Argentina, state benefits for unemployment or for self-managed work now claim to be coordinated by a “Talent Agency,” and they speak of “originary personnel” in the Labor Ministry. 

The need for strategic conceptualizations – faced with social conflict whose “opacity” is also strategic – newly introduces the question about the composition of struggles and enunciations, of border practices and concepts. We can point to two constellations of problems that have sought to map conflicts and construct critique based on the rhythm of struggles in Latin America in recent years: on the one hand, all of the debate around the issue of neo-extractivism, of expanded extractivism, and the new forms of exploiting the labor force in its present conditions; on the other hand, the perspective of the “communitarian weavings,” as Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar calls them: a way of thinking about the variations of the common, communality, and the communitarian as modes of collective efforts of transformation and implementation of anticolonial or decolonizing practices. 

Thus as Karl Marx’s critique of political economy is shifted to the zones of production in which classes are materially constituted as social forces, militant investigation again takes up the issue of the non-discursive dimension of the constitution of subjectivities. In other words: initiatives of militant investigation train a certain sensibility for composing enunciations and conflicts. It is not a thematization (like constructing an agenda), but rather a question of method and a practical commitment. 

One current form of militant investigation is connected to mapping the composition of laboring, subaltern, popular classes (all variations which are worth taking into account). But it is necessary to add a third component that is fundamental in our conjuncture: the issue of violence against women, which requires that the question of gender takes on, as Rita Segato says, “a real theoretical and epistemic status.” 15 The “familial and patriarchal” onslaught drives a web of machista violence that today is articulated with new forms of exploitation and extraction of value targeting the gestures and spaces of autonomy that have been constructed both in the midst of variegated Latin American urban areas and in indigenous and peasant communities and, especially, in the types of mixture that emerge in those territories. The territorial femicides – as activists in Honduras and Guatemala call the assassinations of leaders of the struggles against transnational corporations – condense forms of conflict that structure new forms of war or counterinsurgent dynamics. 

The movement connected to the Women’s Strike opens up a radically heterogeneous space where a map of work can be read from a feminist perspective, incorporating informal, precarious, and even illegal economies as key elements of the new social composition. The struggle for bodily autonomy and sovereignty and the multiplicity of forms of violence (institutional, territorial, domestic, etc.) are inextricably linked, moving those conflicts out of the ghetto of gender issues. This leaves open the question of the instituting capacity of that common, the everyday force based in the streets and through which the question of its political capacity flows, or more precisely, of the radicality of a “politics in feminine” as Gutiérrez Aguilar theorizes it. In this sense, it can be said that more than a closure of the cycle of progressive governments as the key element for understanding the region, we must value the opening of a cycle of transversal connection pushed by the women’s movement (where the word “woman” itself is no longer bounded or predetermined but refers to an intersectionality of experiences), which revitalizes the need to put practices and concepts into tension, nourished by a micropolitical desire to create with others and by the indeterminacy of the regional conjuncture.

– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

This text originally appeared in Nueva Sociedad.


1 There is a situated character to this reflection: it involves my experience as a member of Colectivo Situaciones and the publisher Tinta Limón. I turn to that collective reflection, that we have carried out together with other collectives and comrades around the practice of militant investigation in order to take account of these debates. It is an experience that, in my reflection, continues to operate at different levels, as affective and intellectual premises, beyond the collective’s existence as a group.
2 Translator’s Note: The Peronist political party, originally founded by Juan and Eva Perón in 1947, based on a national-populist program. It remains one of the most important political currents in Argentina, which today encompasses both the right and left-wing elements of Peronism, including the neoliberal Carlos Menem and more left-leaning Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The PJ is traditionally strongest in the working class neighborhoods of Greater Buenos Aires, although this began being called into dispute during Menem’s neoliberal regime in the 1990s.
3 Colectivo Situaciones. 19 & 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism. Translated by Nate Holdren and Sebastián Touza. (New York: Minor Compositions, 2012).
4 This was most explicitly done by José Pablo Feinmann, for example, in “Poder y Contrapoder” in Página/12, December 14, 2002.
5 It is fundamental, although going back more than fifteen years, to remember that in the genealogy of the problematization of the relation between practices, theories, and coloniality, the translations of subaltern studies that we carried out in Bolivia by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Rossana Barragán, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Alison Spedding, and Ana Rebeca Prada can only be understood based on the need for understanding minoritarian political rationalities that seemed to be incorporated and pacified through neoliberal multiculturalism. Therefore, they demonstrated the need to reevaulate the condition of domination.
6 For more detail on this debate, see Diego Sztulwark. “Puede la trascendencia configurar luchas radicales? Notas de ontología política” in Grupo Martes; and Horacio González. “Cacerolas, multitud, pueblo” in Página/12, November 2, 2002.
7 “Palabras mágicas,” paper presented in the International Colloquium of Multiple Knowledges and Social and Political Sciences, National University of Colombia, Bogotá, October 18-21, 2016.
8 One of Laclau’s opinions in the news, that was often repeated at the time, indicated, “the demands of the indigenous people were not responded to in a timely manner, but they are not central to the structuring of politics.” Ernesto Laclau, “La real izquierda es el kirchnerismo,” Página/12 October 2, 2011.
9 We call the common-multiple the productive capacity of the social beyond the position of the demand that Laclau seems to require from the populist dynamic of the democracy that he theorizes.
10 Translator’s Note: For more on the links between territorial violence, neo-extractive conflict, and financial extraction, which emerged well before the progressive government’s electoral defeat, see: Verónica Gago.“Financialization of Popular Life and the Extractive Operations of Capital: A Perspective from Argentina.” Trans. Liz Mason-Deese. South Atlantic Quarterly 114 (1) (2014): 11–28; Instituto de Investigación y Experimentación Política. Apuntes Del Nuevo Conflicto Social. (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2013); Sandro Mezzadra and Verónica Gago. “Para una crítica de las operaciones extractivas del capital. Patrón de acumulación y luchas sociales en el tiempo de la financiarización.” Nueva Sociedad, no. 255(February 2015): 38–52.
11 García Linera en Argentina: No hay revolución verdadera sin revolución cultural” in Notas, May 29, 2015.
12 Translator’s Note: See, Verónica Gago and Diego Sztulwark, “The Temporality of Social Struggle at the End of the ‘Progressive’ Cycle in Latin America,” trans. Liz Mason-Deese, South Atlantic Quarterly 115, no. 3 (July 1, 2016): 606–14 and Maura Brighenti, Interview with Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, “New social conflict. Extractivism and politics of the common in Latin America.”
13 Emir Sader, “A los intelectuales latinamericanos,” Página/12, November 28, 2016.
14 Marcelo Crivella, el polémico pastor evangélico homofóbico que ganó la alcaldía de Río de Janeiro” BBC, October 31, 2016.
15 Rita Laura Segato. “Colonialidad y patriarcado moderno: expansión del frente estatal, modernización, y la vida de las mujeres” in Tejiendo de otro modo. Feminismo, epistemología, y apuestas decoloniales en Abya Yala. (Popayán, Colombia: Editorial Universidad del Cauca, 2014).

Author of the article

is a social sciences professor at the Universidad Buenos Aires and researcher at the National Research Council (CONICET). She is the author of Neoliberalism from Below (Duke University Press, 2017), Feminist International (Verso Books, 2020), and co-author of A Feminist Reading of Debt (Pluto Press, 2021). She was formerly a member of Colectivo Situaciones and is currently a member of the Ni Una Menos Collective.