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.


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.


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

Liz Mason-Deese is a member of the Viewpoint Magazine Editorial Collective and currently teaches Geography at George Mason University. Her research explores the territorial and neighborhood organizing of unemployed workers’ movements and other popular movements in Argentina. Her translation of Verónica Gago’s Neoliberalism from Below was recently published by Duke University Press. She will soon be unemployed and encourages the reader to find her a job.