The Neighborhood is the New Factory

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 Viewpoint editorial collective and currently teaches geography at the University of Mary Washington. She is also on the National Organizing Committee for the March 8 Women's Strike in the United States.