- Contentious Lives: Two Argentine Women, Two Protests, and the Quest for Recognition
If there is anything distressing about recent mainstream work on globalization and neoliberal structural adjustment, it is that while the scholarship analyzes structural transformations, it says very little about how people make sense of these changes as actors. It also says little about how significant economic, social, and political changes in Western democracies over the last 20 years have affected the nature of agency or the identity and organizational forms through which subjects have mobilized and participated in collective action motivated by these changes.
Contentious Liveslooks at two significant moments of resistance against neoliberal structural adjustment, both from Argentina in the 1990s: the 1993 Santiagazo and the 1996-97 popular rebellion in Cutral-có. The perspective is that of two of the protagonists, Nana and Laura. Auyero fends off potential critics with a plausible defense of his approach: [End Page 128]
At the time when a concern with the form and impact of globalization seems to pervade almost every corner of social analysis, to undertake a narrow investigation of two protests in two small towns in the South might seem utterly parochial, and my interest in two individuals dangerously anecdotal . . . [but] the intersection of contentious biographies and histories remains an untouched terrain.(p. 13)
With the election of President Carlos Menem in 1989, the public concern that democracy would not be consolidated, which had deeply marked the Raúl Alfonsín administration during the 1980s, came to an end. Democratic transition was thought to be over, and the urge to produce a quick, deep economic transformation and to achieve economic stability became the priority. The halt of hyperinflation by means of the Convertibility Plan agreed on with the International Monetary Fund in 1991 was considered an economic miracle. The 1991 Law of Convertibility implied the devaluation of the national currency and the pegging of the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar. As a result, inflation fell, and Argentina accomplished high rates of economic growth sustained byforeign capital investment.
Stabilization policies created the illusion that money was under political control and that this situation would benefit everyone. Paradoxically, economic and political stabilitybrought about uncertainty, fear, and isolation. Insofar as stabilization policies imposed a monetary constraint, the increase in productivity and economic growth demanded by the IMF was achieved by means of privatization of state-owned enterprises; deregulation of finance and the labor market; marketization of health services, social security, pensions, and industrial insurance; greater exploitation of labor; a regressive income distribution system sustained through repression and coercion; and strict provincial economic adjustments. Stabilization policies were supported by the flexibilization and casualization of labor combined with an unprecedented double-digit unemployment rate. Experts were concerned about the explosive combination of unemployment with underemployment and its impact on the rates of poverty, crime, clientelism, and social exclusion.
Although studies of the impact of this transformation abound, the impact on people's lives and their search for recognition remains relatively untheorized and unexplored. Auyero's book forces us to look into this vital, rather than residual, aspect of the neoliberal transformation: the search for recognition and solidarity against the processes of virtual disappearance of millions affected by poverty, exclusion, unemployment, violence, disillusionment, and depoliticization.
Nana's case takes place in the northern province of Santiago del Estero. The motin here was the first in a series of spontaneous demonstrations that erupted in the north and south of the country during 1993 [End Page 129] and 1994. Organized by public sector workers, the protests targeted overdue wages, suspensions, and dismissals in the public and private sectors; wage reductions and redundancies; cuts in welfare expenditures; and corruption. The Santiagazo was a watershed in the politics of resistance in Argentina. Its subject was, to borrow the notion used by Hobsbawn and Rudé to study preindustrial England and France, the multitude (Cotarelo 1999).
Laura's scenario is the popular upheaval of Cutral-có in the southern...