The Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina

By Petras, James | Monthly Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Unemployed Workers Movement in Argentina

Petras, James, Monthly Review


Latin America has witnessed three waves of overlapping and interrelated social movements over the last twenty-five years. The first wave, roughly from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, was largely composed of what were called "the new social movements." They included human rights, ecology; feminist, and ethnic movements as well as Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Their leadership was largely lower middle class professionals, and their policies and strategies revolved around challenging the military and civilian authoritarian regimes of the time.

The second wave developed into a powerful political force from the mid-1980s to the present. Largely composed of arid led by peasants and rural workers, the mass organizations of the second wave engaged in direct action to promote and defend the economic interests of their supporters. The most prominent of these movements included the Zapatistas of Mexico (EZLN), the Rural Landless Workers of Brazil (MST), the Cocaleros and peasants of Bolivia, the National Peasant Federation in Paraguay, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in Colombia, and the peasant-Indian CONAIE in Ecuador. The composition, tactics, and demands of these groups varied, but they were all united in their opposition to neoliberalism and imperialism, that is, the neoliberal economic regime and the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of local and foreign elites. Specifically, they struggled for land redistribution and national autonomy for Indian communities, and they fought against U.S. intervention in the form of coca eradication programs, colonization of territory by military bases, penetration of national police/military institutions, and the militarization of social conflicts, such as Plan Colombia and the Andean Initiative.

The third and newest wave of social movements is centered in the urban areas. It includes the dynamic barrio-based mass movements of unemployed workers in Argentina, the unemployed and poor in the Dominican Republic, and the shantytown dwellers who have flocked to the populist banners of Venezuelan President Hugh Chavez. In addition to the urban movements, new multi-sectorial movements, engaged in mass struggles that integrate farm workers and small and medium-sized farmers, have emerged in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Paraguay.

The nature, mode of operation, and style of political action of the second and third waves challenge many of the stereotypes and assumptions of conventional liberal social science and post-Marxian orthodoxies. For example, the "new social movement" writers declared the end of class politics and the advent of cultural and "citizen-based" civic movements concerned with democracy, gender equality, and identity politics. Theorists like Eric Hobsbawm used "demographic" arguments to dismiss the centrality of peasant movements in contemporary political struggles, and others argued that the mass of urban poor, engaged in fragmented and marginal employments or divorced from the means of production, were incapable of challenging established political power.

The subsequent explosion of peasant and urban class movements throughout Latin America, in pursuit of land and political power, shattered these orthodoxies. The notion that economic and political liberalism would lead to the end of mass ideological struggles evaporated with the emergence of the Zapatistas, the FARC, and GONAIE. These movements have organized popular assemblies to challenge decades of abusive, corrupt, and reactionary rule, and in the process have defined a new substantive form of direct democracy. The centrality of direct action struck at the center of capitalist exploitation, frequently paralyzing the production and circulation of commodities essential to the reproduction of the neoliberal regime. And the Hobsbawm thesis has been refuted by the splendid display of political power embodied in the Indian takeover of the Ecuadorean Parliament in 2000, the FARC's formidable influence in almost half the municipalities of Colombia, and the MST's show of force in twenty-three of Brazil's twenty-fou r states. …

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