As the specter of economic crisis continues to haunt Europe and the global north, a deepening and simultaneous crisis of representative democracy looks set to bring anti-system parties to power in Spain (Podemos) and Greece (Syriza) in the coming months. Yet the ideals of participatory democracy, non-hierarchical decision-making, organizing through popular assemblies and occupying public space that inspired the social movements behind them like Spain’s Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, Iceland’s Kitchenware Revolution and even the Arab Spring, were actually first embodied and experimented with on a mass scale a decade earlier, during Argentina’s 2001-02 uprisings following its economic collapse.
Yet while that revolt removed several presidents, it also petrified the ruling elites because of the solidarity that existed between movements of the unemployed structural poor, the industrial working class and those from the pauperized middle sectors. Indeed, as with these more recent global uprisings, participation was especially high among Argentina’s 7 million highly educated white-collar workers, small businessmen, university students and professionals who had enjoyed affluence but had then fallen below the poverty line during the 2001-02 crisis due to insolvency, unemployment, erosion of purchasing power (as the peso devalued having been tied to the US Dollar under the Convertibility model) and the wiping out of personal savings during the Corralito.
With the principle agents of contemporary global movements for social change often emanating from downwardly mobile or unemployed middle sectors (Mason, 2012), here I summarize the findings of my recent paper, published in Latin American Research Review (Ozarow, 2014) to examine how Argentina’s middle-class citizens responded when confronted with impoverishment and crisis during 2002. Triangulating World Bank data from its Impact of the Social Crisis on Argentina household survey (2002) with Latinobarómetro public opinion data, I analyze why some decided to collective resist their circumstances through protests and solidarity actions, while others confined their responses to private “coping” strategies like self-employment, finding work or becoming aid recipients.
Argentina: Pioneers of the revolt of the 99%
In December 2001 following a decade of failed neoliberal reforms under Presidents Carlos Menem and then Fernando de la Rúa, Argentina’s economy collapsed as the government declared the largest external debt default in modern history.
During the following year, GDP fell by 11%, almost one in four Argentineans became unemployed and half the population descended into poverty. Citizens responded with enormous popular protests that rejected both the neoliberal economic doctrine imposed on them and the exhausted ‘representative’ democratic political system which had remained corrupt-ridden and unresponsive to popular needs since the end of the military dictatorship in 1983. Famously conceptualized as “delegative” by Guillermo O’Donnell (1994), the weak democratic model that had developed since meant that the economic crisis was accompanied by a crisis of political legitimacy.
Encapsulated in the popular slogan “¡que se vayan todos!” (away with the lot of them!), during 2002 Argentina’s urban centers became incubators for radical experiments in participatory democracy, as citizens resisted personal hardship whilst seeking to remove the existing political and economic establishment through the re-organization of society from below. The rebellious spirit of those days was marked by a discourse of autonomy – that this grassroots revolution should be performed without interference from political parties, government, politicians or even trade unions. Millions took part in the bourgeoning protest movements that emerged, including the cacerolazos (pot-banging demonstrations), neighborhood assemblies, piquetero road blocks and escrache pickets of banks or in self-organized, collective economic actions such as barter clubs, cooperatives and worker-run enterprises.
Politicization of “the new poor”
Whilst diverse elements of the middle class who faced declining personal financial circumstances also found themselves at the forefront of resistance to the devastating impact of structural adjustment and mid-1990s austerity, what is clear is that such citizens increasingly did so through protest and other collective initiatives in 2002. The choice of response that they engaged in were informed by the way that changing macroeconomic and political contexts shaped both the spaces available to participate in different actions, as how Argentineans perceived their own pauperization at these two moments in time (Svampa, 2005).
First there was a shift in attribution away from self-blame in the 1990s to systemic factors during the 2002 crisis of legitimacy. The experience of those facing social descent in the earlier period was more isolating, surrounded by a general sense of societal enrichment fostered by the Convertibility model which boosted purchasing power and allowed many Argentineans to enjoy significant improvements in their living standards as they snapped up artificially-cheap overseas holidays and imported luxury goods such as TVs, cars and computers. Furthermore, the dominant neoliberal ethos of the time (which engendered a belief in self-reliance, entrepreneurship and responsibility for one’s successes and failures) reinforced the idea among those who faced hardship in the 1990s that it was something for which they were personally responsible. Manifestations that one was suffering from hard times were even seen as “shameful” and to be kept behind closed doors. These factors on the one hand impeded the formation of a collective identity and sense of shared grievance (necessary pre-conditions for protest to be undertaken according to social movement theorists), and on the other bestowed many with the feeling that rather than attributing their impoverished conditions to political leaders, systemic factors or external forces, they were to blame themselves.
Meanwhile in 2002, the enormous scale of impoverishment -having exploded from 29% in 2000 to 53% (INDEC)- may have helped those encountering personal hardship during that time to see their economic difficulties as part of a broader structural problem, for which they bore no responsibility and to which collective solutions had to be sought. Much of the stigma associated with middle-class pauperization withered away as a systematic critique of neo-liberalism’s flaws began to penetrate the media, popular culture and academia as they relinquished personal responsibility for their plight. This prompted many to emerge from shadows and move beyond self-contained survival strategies by seeking collective and protest solutions to their pauperization. Indeed the survey results revealed that among this strata, over two thirds arrived at the conclusion that it was their government that was culpable for having caused the crisis that led to their impoverishment, with many more blaming international financial institutions and neoliberal globalization. Less than a fifth saw themselves as at fault as individuals in any way.
The loss of faith in their elected leaders between 1995 and 2002 is demonstrated by the fact that the proportion that held “no confidence” in the government to run their affairs climbed sharply from 49% to 82%. Indeed disillusionment with the establishment extended far beyond a mere loss of faith in the government, as trust in each of Argentina’s key institutions including the judiciary, government, political parties, Parliament and police dramatically collapsed among the sample. This helped to politicize the way in which many perceived their hardship and transformed their action from the private realm of individual coping strategies in the 1990s, into the public arena, towards a preference for collective and protest actions by 2002.
Secondly, middle-class citizens became much less politically tolerant of their own material hardship by 2002. 77% of those surveyed during the 1990s were prepared to accept high personal economic loss because they credited President Menem’s government with having stabilized the economy after the hyperinflation and turbulence of the 1980s. In reducing from 4,900% to single digits and achieving several years of macroeconomic growth, few felt moved to openly protest their condition. It was only years later during the events of December 2001 that the deceit of the Convertibility model became apparent and mantra that Argentina had fulfilled its historic destiny of having reached the First World was exposed as a myth when the consequences of having accumulated unsustainable national and personal debt exploded so dramatically. This realization sparked outrage that fuelled the subsequent social unrest.
Further, unlike the 1990s, by 2002 the macroeconomic situation had deteriorated severely. Argentina had been in recession for three years, poverty had become rampant, and disenchantment with the political system grew. This was not only due to politicians’ inability to resolve the country’s economic woes, but also following a series of political scandals including alleged bribery of Senators to vote for the Labor Reform Law. This led to the resignation of Vice-President Carlos Alvarez in October 2000 in protest, adding to the impression that politicians were corrupt and self-serving.
Thirdly, the decision to join collective protests became more appealing in 2002 because the severity of economic crisis was so acute that such citizens were denied the same opportunities to pursue individual self-help strategies to resolve their personal hardship, compared to during the 1990s when jobs were generally still being created and microenterprise initiatives were bountifully supported with diverse sources of credit. For example, some 40% of Argentines found themselves under or unemployed during 2002 compared to just 29% at the worst point of the 1990s. This lead to the perception among the pauperized middle class that by 2002 the value of key assets that they would have traditionally relied upon to withstand periods of personal financial difficulties or to achieve upward mobility had eroded strongly. Human capital, qualifications, entrepreneurial and professional experience counted for little due to the shortage of skilled jobs, and social capital including networks of professional acquaintances and business-owners who they had previously been able to approach to leverage employment, promotions and business, dried up. Consequently, statistically significant falls were recorded in those who believed it was possible to recoup their lost socioeconomic status through either their own personal efforts or personal connections. Collective protest was increasingly favored as private routes out of hardship were undermined.
Furthermore, the results suggest that traditional electoral spaces (individual protest) to contest their condition also became discredited during the crisis. Whereas in 1995, the belief that “the way you vote can change things” was strongly supported (by 73%), and 81% also stated that they would “vote for an opposition party,” by the time of the voto bronca (mass casting of spoilt ballots) in the October 2001 legislative elections, such confidence in the electoral alternatives evaporated. For instance the Radical Party –the traditional preference of middle-class voters- went from being the largest party in the ruling Alliance in 1999 to receiving just 2.3% in the 2003 Presidential election. Faith was invested more heavily in joining extra-parliamentary opposition rather than in the ballot box.
Generative factors for collective action in 2002
In terms of how this stratum confronted the 2002 crisis itself, it was found that 28% of Argentina’s impoverished middle-class citizens participated in acts of collective resistance (including one in five who joined some form of protest) in the six month period in question, according to the World Bank’s study. They were also more likely to participate in locally, rather than nationally-organized activities.
These citizens were twice as likely to join collective actions as the structural poor, for which I offer three explanations. First, their relative abundance of human, social and physical capital placed them in a stronger position to mobilize alongside others. Secondly, the modes of contentious political actions that blossomed during that era tended to be both comparatively more attractive and relevant to the grievances of the impoverished middle-class. For example, the neighborhood assemblies appealed to their heightened sense of political citizenship and contingent events such as the banks’ seizures of savers’ deposits in the Corralito affected them directly (the long-term poor were also hurt by the subsequent liquidity shortage as their jobs tended to be remunerated in cash, but the impact was secondary), prompting their participation in the escrache protests. Third, the assemblies and cacerolazos -as distinct from traditional repertoires of protest engaged in by the shantytown poor or organized working class- offered a space to reassert their imperiled middle-class identity and restore their central role on the national political scene.
With regards to specific motivating influences on action, while the experience of having become poor in itself had no effect on whether protests were pursued, they were more likely to do so if their households either experienced deeper and more sudden financial losses, if their daily privations became more discernible, if they had histories of involvement in collective organizations (in a broad sense whether trade unions, sports clubs, Church attendees etc.) thus demonstrating a causal link between civic and political engagement, or if they worked longer hours (perhaps due to a greater meritocratic sense of injustice or because the workplace itself acted as a site of politicization). Meanwhile those who ended up with lower absolute household income tended to engage more in economic self-improvement strategies. Put simply, relative increases in hardship stimulated protest participation but absolute material deprivation prompted involvement in a wider range of private and collective self-help actions.
One final interesting finding was that pauperization generally invoked two polarized sets of responses, with survey participants tending to either actively engage in both collective protest and a wide variety of self-improvement strategies (whom I label “activists”), or in contrast those who minimized their self-help strategies while also refraining from protests altogether (“the non-activists”). Such dichotomous behavior may be explained due the traumatic experience of sudden social and material descent during severe economic crisis inducing distinct psychological and cognitive effects; mental paralysis and denial (thus intransigence) in the non-activist group, yet sparking anger, political militancy and energizing a desire to ameliorate one’s fall among the activists. It may also have been the case that particular collective protests or economic solidarity activities became sites of awareness-raising for other collective actions or for political radicalization.
In closing, it is worth considering how the rise of “pink tide” governments across Latin America in the early 21st century has left highly politicized societies in its wake. Next time a region-wide economic crisis arises, the responses of those in its middle class who suffer significant financial loss will surely carry huge significance.
Mason, Paul (2012) Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. London: Verso.
O’Donnell, Guillermo (1994) “Delegative Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 5(1): 55-69
Ozarow, Daniel (2014) “When all they thought was solid melted into air: Resisting pauperization in Argentina during the 2002 economic crisis.” Latin American Research Review 49 (1) p.178-202
Svampa, Maristella (2005) La sociedad excluyente: La Argentina bajo el signo del neoliberalismo. Buenos Aires: Taurus.