Starting in the 1980s, Latin America has experienced an unprecedented wave of democratization. A region with a long history of military dictatorships, human rights violations, and fraudulent elections managed to sustain governments elected by citizens and high levels of political and civil freedoms. Latin American countries continue to struggle with high levels of poverty and inequality, and their governments are not immune to authoritarian attempts. Yet the overall predominance of democracy in this region is a remarkable achievement given its past.
Grassroots organizations have been one of the main driving forces behind this wave, catalyzing transitional processes, demanding accountability for human rights violations, and pushing for the implementation of progressive social policies. Their success has promoted even further mobilization, as historically marginalized groups have taken advantage of a more open political environment to organize. Thus, over the past few decades, Latin America has been a laboratory for grassroots development, as people in the region have established innovative ways to advance their interests through collective action.
One of the main examples of these experiences has been the unemployed workers movement in Argentina, also known as the piqueteros. In the late 1990s, community activists began to organize people who had lost their jobs due to neoliberal economic reforms, demanding access to work and relief programs. For the last twenty years, these groups have played a crucial role in countless poor neighborhoods throughout the country, managing workfare plans, providing health, education, and legal services, and creating opportunities for petitioning the government.
The experiences of activists in this movement challenge many of our expectations about political participation. For instance, we tend to assume that long-term engagement entails at least some degree of alignment between individual and organizational ideologies. It seems reasonable to expect that those who remain involved for extended periods of time, overcoming obstacles to participation and making efforts to sustain their engagement, must at some point in time agree with the ideas proposed by the organizations to which they belong.
However, throughout my fieldwork I found substantial evidence to question this assumption. Some of the most committed participants I talked to claim to be indifferent about their organization’s ideology, and people who I observed making substantial sacrifices for a group express opinions contrary to that group’s central tenets. I interviewed experienced activists who support a national government their organization actively opposes, who argue for tough-on-crime policies that are the polar opposite of what their fellows advocate for, or who criticize the very social programs that support most of the movement’s members.
What motivates these people, then? Why would someone consistently devote time and effort to an organization they disagree with? I argue that the answer lies in the reconstruction of an idealized working-class lifestyle. Pro-market policies in Argentina have caused a substantial decline in industrial employment, eliminating the kind of blue-collar jobs that working-class Argentineans associate with respectability. In this context, piquetero organizations offer a space for the actualization of dispositions developed in vanishing fields of life. By demanding that members show up to workfare programs, contribute to events, and make efforts to gain resources, organizations in this movement offer a way to embody a proletarian ethos of self-sufficiency, in which people see themselves as earning their livelihood instead of being passive recipients of assistance.
There are many implications to this argument, two of which are worth mentioning here. First, sustained activism may be motivated not only by ideological commitment, but also by the desire to engage in routines that provide consistency and respectability in people’s day-to-day experiences. In other words, we need to focus not only on what people think, but also what they do while mobilized, and analyze how their personal backgrounds interact with their experiences in a social movement.
Second, the case of the piqueteros highlights that while the undermining of safety nets and the internationalization of labor markets have affected working-class communities around the globe, the grassroots responses to these transformations have been very heterogeneous. In particular, while the last decade saw an expansion of right-wing movements in many developed nations, Latin American countries have experienced a wave of progressive mobilization that successfully pushed for the recognition of new rights. By exploring the ways in which marginalized groups use community activism to reconstruct an idealized working-class lifestyle, we can better understand cross-national variations in the ways civil society groups react to long-term socioeconomic decline. Given recent events in the United States and other parts of the world, this question is more relevant than ever.