BY Marcos Emilio Pérez
Over the past few decades, the combination of economic and political liberalization in many areas of the developing world has promoted the emergence of various forms of collective organizing. This dynamic has been particularly pronounced in Latin America, where drastic neoliberal reforms coincided with an unprecedented period of democratic expansion. One of the most visible examples took place in Argentina, where rising unemployment in the 1990s led community leaders to organize laid-off workers in poor neighborhoods across the nation. Despite their diverse origins, these groups rapidly developed similar repertoires that helped them recruit members and gain influence, giving birth to what came to be known as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, or piqueteros (Spanish for “roadblockers”). Since their emergence, these organizations have functioned as networks of local groups that use demonstrations to demand the distribution of social assistance, usually in the form of foodstuffs and positions in workfare programs. If successful, they allocate part of these resources among participants and use the rest to develop an extensive array of social services in underprivileged areas.
The trajectories of rank and file activists in this movement pose an intriguing puzzle. Most of them joined, in the words of many an informant, “due to necessity”: they were in dire need of resources and an acquaintance told them about a group that was “signing people up” for a social program. The vast majority initially held negative views of the piqueteros and had limited experience in politics. Once recruited, they started to attend demonstrations and other activities, receiving foodstuffs regularly, until they obtained a state-funded workfare plan. Since organizations usually administer these positions directly, respondents are expected to sustain their involvement in order to continue receiving benefits. Given these circumstances, we would expect most of them to participate for as long as they acquire resources and to withdraw when more effective sources of income become available. However, the subsequent behavior of many of them challenges these expectations, as they begin to make efforts to remain involved, prioritizing activism over family time, leisure activities, and even financial self-interest. The puzzle is more intriguing in that several of these committed participants remain openly indifferent or even antagonistic to central aspects of the movement’s agenda. What processes, then, lead to this level of attachment?
In my research, I found that the key to that question lies in the interaction between the personal histories of activists and their experiences while mobilized. Using interviews and participant observation, I discovered that for some of my respondents, involvement in a piquetero organization offers an opportunity to engage in practices associated with an idealized blue-collar lifestyle threatened by long-term socioeconomic decline. Through their daily routines in the movement, older participants reconstruct the routines they associate with a golden past in which factory jobs were plentiful, younger activists develop the kind of habits they were raised to see as valuable, and all members protect aspects of communal life undermined by the expansion of poverty. Everyday activities in the movement provide a reassuring sense of consistency and respectability, which makes continued engagement deeply appealing to some.
These findings have important implications for our field. In recent years, research on activism has expanded in exciting directions. Scholars have explored the complex role that culture, emotions and identity play in collective action, directed our attention to the diversity of trajectories along the life course of activists, and corrected much of the literature’s excessive focus on the early stages of participation. Cases like the piqueteros have a lot to contribute to this debate by illuminating how the intricate relation between people’s backgrounds and their experiences in a movement generates dispositions which in turn affect their post-recruitment trajectories. In particular, the analysis of why some individuals develop a strong attachment to their organizations (while others in a similar situation do not) suggests four interrelated lessons.
First, we need to pay further attention to the role of practices in the sustainment (or not) of activism. The positive resonance between an individual’s beliefs and his or her routines while mobilized might be as important for long-term participation as the alignment of such beliefs with the official platform of an organization. Literature on social movements has tended to conceptualize long-term activism mostly as the outcome of ideological conversion. However, the development of political commitment does not necessarily require that a person fully agree with his or her organization’s views.
Second, if mobilization becomes enjoyable due to its resonance with the backgrounds of activists, then our models of collective action must assign to their experiences outside of the movement the same explanatory value as those inside it. Participants rarely see activism as separate from other life spheres, thus we should be careful not to compartmentalize in theory domains that are united in the actual lives of individuals.
Third, since the mechanisms that influence people’s attachment to collective action are also present in other instances of collective life, it is imperative to expand our toolkits by borrowing concepts and insight from outside the limits of our field. The capacity of new frameworks to explain contentious events worldwide depends on our willingness to engage in broader debates and learn from parallels between contentious politics and other social activities.
Fourth, social movement theory should be careful not to overestimate the importance of extraordinary events for mobilization. While collective action can break with people’s customs and expose them to new lifestyles, its appeal can also lie in its established and everyday aspects. Given that the disruption of quotidian life can be an effective motivator for protest, we need to remember that both divergence and conformity with convention can promote activism.
What is most important, it is crucial to keep in mind that the desire among the rank-and-file to protect traditional ways of life does not necessarily preclude a movement from pursuing inclusive agendas. The relation between individual viewpoints and organizational goals is complex, meaning that the demands of members can be effectively addressed in multiple ways. In the case of the piqueteros, for instance, adherence to old-style notions of labor, family, and community has led to support for redistributive policies such as state-funded cooperatives, universal pensions, and guaranteed basic income for mothers and children.
This last point carries much significance given current events worldwide. Studying the piqueteros, along with similar instances in other countries, can contribute much to our understanding of the political consequences of working-class decline. The fact that some individuals affected by deindustrialization responded to the undermining of their traditional forms of life by engaging in progressive mobilization suggests that contrary to what many observers argue, the link between economic upheaval, social anxiety, and reactionary extremism is neither inevitable nor irreversible. At a time when political radicalization, rising inequality, and institutional backsliding highlight the fragility of democracy and inclusion worldwide, understanding the processes that influence grassroots activism among those most affected by global neoliberalism becomes essential.