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

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

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

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

—Santiago López Petit

1. Three names to describe a mutation

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

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

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

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

2. Goodbye neoliberalism?

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

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

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

3. Our paradoxes

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

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

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

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

4. Five orientations for political investigations

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fifth orientation for investigation concerns its own vocation to participate in current forms of politicization (Rodolfo Walsh 2), referred in many cases to the less visible articulation of what in a broad sense we could call, following Felix Guattari, the “machinery” of governance of the social, image production, government of money, sovereignty in the territories, management of consumption, etc.

5. Semiotics for a change of scenery

As the anthropologist Rita Segato 3 teaches, political investigation depends on sensitivity in relation to the signs. In fact, darkness, new forces, dangers, new phenomena, are all expressions that require a keen semiotic sense.

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

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

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

—Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

References   [ + ]

1. Jon Beasley-Murray, Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
2. Walsh’s classic investigative piece Operation Massacre will soon be published in English for the first time.
3. La escritura en el cuerpo de las mujeres asesinadas en Ciudad Juárez (The Writing on the Bodies of the Women Murdered in Ciudad Juárez).
4. “Runfla” is a not easily translatable term referring to gangs, groups of kids or the masses, multitude, or the popular in a broader sense. Diego Valeriano developed the term “runfla capitalism” in a series of posts on the blog Lobo Suelto, starting here. In this context, “runfla capitalism” refers to a form of popular neoliberalism, prevalent in the slums and other urban neighborhoods, based on consumption without work, but also characterized by hyper-individualism and increasing violence, often linked to the drug trade.

Author of the article

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