How do workers react to the undermining of their means of livelihood? What are the political consequences of rising unemployment and inequality? In recent years, the expansion of right-wing movements throughout the world has intensified concerns over the effects of neoliberal globalization for democratic governance. Faced with economic uncertainty and reduced prospects for social mobility, the argument goes, working-class voters in many nations have embraced authoritarian and nativist agendas. However, this is only part of the story. Underprivileged populations in different countries have responded to deindustrialization in various ways.
These are the issues that I explore in my book, Proletarian Lives: Routines, Identity, and Culture in Contentious Politics. Based on ethnographic fieldwork on the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in Argentina (also known as the piqueteros), I study how workers affected by job loss protect their traditional forms of life by engaging in progressive grassroots mobilization. Using interviews and participant observation, the book analyzes why some activists develop a strong attachment to their organizations despite initial reluctance and ongoing ideological ambivalence. I argue that a key appeal of participation is the opportunity to engage in practices associated with a respectable blue-collar lifestyle threatened by long-term socioeconomic decline. Through their daily involvement 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 communal activities undermined by the expansion of poverty and violence.
This particular case has important lessons for social movement theory. Despite substantial progress in this field, many aspects of people’s participation in contentious politics remain unclear. Even though there is a large body of literature on the factors that contribute to a person’s engagement in collective action, most studies focus on the recruitment phase and pay less attention to the trajectories of activists afterwards. Thus, we know a great deal about the factors that make initial participation more likely, but we are less knowledgeable about the mechanisms by which people develop long-term attachment (or not) to the groups they have joined. In particular, while researchers have analyzed how ideological processes sustain activism, the role that everyday practices play in the same outcome has received far less attention.
However, the implications of this case go further. As an instance of unemployed people using community activism to recreate an idealized working-class lifestyle, studying the piqueteros provides new insight into the wave of progressive mobilization that swept through Latin America in recent decades. The combination since the 1980s of unprecedented democratization with drastic neoliberal reforms promoted the emergence of various experiences of collective action that successfully pushed for the recognition of new rights. These experiences have received substantial attention by scholars and journalists. However, much of the literature tends to portray them in terms of a novel transformation of society, downplaying their more traditional aspects. While not denying the innovative contributions of anti-neoliberal movements like the piqueteros, ethnographic research suggests that established notions of labor, family, and community play a central role in activists’ ideals of social justice.
Studying these kinds of political experiences can therefore teach us much about collective action, both in Latin America and beyond. At a time when growing inequality, ideological radicalization, and geopolitical disputes raise questions about the future of democracy worldwide, it is important to focus on the diverse ways in which vulnerable communities around the globe react to deindustrialization. The connection between economic upheaval, social anxiety, and reactionary extremism is neither inevitable nor irreversible.