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.
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 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.
One of the central focuses of all these movements has been education, which can perhaps best be seen in thebachilleratos 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