There are many things going on in Social Movements in Latin America. Mapping the Mosaic. I especially appreciated the critical discussions of cultural political economy, of autonomy, of left critiques of progressive but extractivist governments, and the plea to account for the messiness of politics when we analyse social movements. I also welcome the historical perspective and case study approach, and I realise that no book that covers movements of workers, peasants, communities, women, indigenous peoples and for the environment will describe each of them in as much detail as would be possible with a more limited focus.
Of course, the point is to show the mosaic, while also highlighting how identities overlap constantly: women are workers, peasants, neighbourhood activists, indigenous peoples, environmentalists; peasants are workers, territorial activists, indigenous peoples, women, environmentalists, and so on.
It wouldn’t make sense to criticise the book for its mosaic approach, but I’ve been asked to think about an agenda for future research on social movements. So, I would advocate for a mix of this kind of approach with further indepth studies. My disciplinary background as an anthropologist makes this inevitable, but I think it also comes from a slightly different perspective on the purpose of comparison. For me, comparison is not so much about the possibility of generalisation, or of the generation of a framework that would enable consistent evaluation across different contexts and movements.
Rather, by placing detailed analyses of different cases alongside they can hopefully illuminate each other, suggesting questions that we might pose of our material in common (Lazar, 2012). In that spirit, here I depart from what I know about those social movements that I know best, which cross (broadly speaking) Argentina and Bolivia, especially labour movements in those two countries, but also to some extent a bit further afield.
As I think about the ways that I would like to take Ronnie Munck’s agenda forward, the first aspect I would like to highlight is class. I’ll then move to a discussion of social protest versus social movement.
My first observation is that movements of workers are changing as the workers change, in perhaps two significant ways. First, as Munck points out, precarious workers in the informal sector are an important constituency for regional labour movements, even though the traditional trade unions are often not doing very well at mobilising them. However, there are some signs that could give hope: in Argentina, there are very important initiatives for unionisation of workers in the popular economy – as Maria Inés Fernández Álvarez’ work with CTEP (Centre for workers of the popular economy) shows (e.g. Fernandez Alvarez, 2019) – and in the platform economy (e.g. the union ASIMM which mobilises messengers and delivery cyclists). Interestingly, both these organisations operate along quite traditional grounds and are associated with the traditional Peronist trade unions rather than the more autonomist labour movement. Meanwhile there are smaller independent initiatives, including with such informal and hard to reach groups as migrant garment stitchers.
In Brazil, the domestic workers union has been very active in recent decades and was part of the international campaign for the ILO Domestic Workers Convention agreed in 2011 (ILO convention 189); and domestic workers’ unions are very active across the region. In 2015, farm labourers in Baja California, Mexico mobilised quite dramatically in favour of independent unions, higher wages and registration in the national health system, and against abuse and sexual harassment by field supervisors (Zlolniski, 2019). My point is not that union density in the informal sector is anything like what it might once have been in more formal industrial settings, but that some kind of union revitalisation is not limited only to classic business unions. We should keep an eye on these developments.
Second, the classic business unions are changing shape – at least this is true in Argentina, where first truck drivers, then workers in the banking and public sectors have in recent decades taken over the power structures of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), formerly completely dominated by industrial workers. Today, Peronist unions of state employees and teachers are politically influential within Peronism but also as power blocs in their own right.
Another union of state employees (ATE) takes an autonomist position with respect to political parties but retains considerable mobilizational power. In Mexico, one of the most powerful (and also internally contested) unions is that of the teachers. This is – perhaps – a middle class movement, albeit one composed of the daughters and sons of workers. But so too are the emerging unions of moped and cycle riders who deliver for glovvo or rappi in the city of Buenos Aires; there at least, they are often highly educated Venezuelan migrants these days (and rarely chavistas).
When considering prospects for social movements in the region, we might also want to include other middle-class subjects in our frame, such as the women of the #NiUnaMenos movement, many of whom are university students. And my Bolivian friend, who has his own business stitching T-shirts for sale in Buenos Aires. He and his wife used to sell the t-shirts at the huge La Salada black market, but since 2019 they have been selling wholesale via WhatsApp. This might all suggest that an analysis of changes in class composition in the region could be rather important for social movement research and might lead us to rethink some of our assumptions. There is excellent work on the rise of the middle classes in Latin America (e.g. see Lòpez Pedreros, 2019), but I think that there is more to say about it within social movement research.
An especially Latin American analysis of class composition and social movements might also engage further with the notion of the popular classes, and relate that to Garcia Linera’s point about plebeian movements and the urban Multitude (Garcia et al., 2000). I don’t know where this would take us, but I do think we would have to take seriously the fact that the popular classes/plebeians are not always as ‘left-wing’ as university-educated professionals would like them to be. Many of my friends thought that it was the ‘middle classes’ that had elected Mauricio Macri in 2015, but the maps of voting patterns did not always bear that out. I also don’t think that support for Bolsonaro in 2018 was restricted to elites. If it were, he would not have been so successful.
The protests against Dilma in 2016 and against Evo in 2019 troubled easy associations between social movements, the popular classes and left-wing governments. Certainly, their organised supporters (for the PT and the MAS, respectively) could be characterised as ‘popular’, but if we wish to call their opponents ‘middle class’ then we must at least recognise that ‘middle class’ is now an incredibly capacious category that crosses a wide range of income levels and living conditions.
The middle classes are also very willing to engage in social movement strategies for both progressive and conservative ends, and here I disagree with Munck in his attempt to distinguish social protest from social movements. Perhaps the protests against Evo’s electoral victory in November 2019 were just that, protests. But I wonder how in the end they really differed in form from the unrest in Ecuador or the anti-neoliberal protests in Chile around the same time, other than that their politics didn’t quite fit with our own or with what we expect from people on the streets.
I suspect that it would be wrong to imagine that any of these protests are entirely spontaneous, coming from nowhere and without organisation. Instead, the challenge for researchers is to understand exactly what kinds of organisational technologies lie behind, or in the shadows. We know that the democratic (and anti-democratic) opposition to Evo was building from the referendum on a fourth term held in February 2016, and it is likely that social networks from then were mobilised anew in 2019, leading to an outcome that many participants must have subsequently found deeply uncomfortable.
The rise of Bolsonaro could be said – on one level – to bear some similarities in form with the rise of the PT as a social movement, only with Evangelical churches rather than trade unions as his organisational base, and with the addition of shadowy uses of social media technologies, especially WhatsApp. Back to Bolivia, in a recent memo, a Facebook data scientist described how she ‘found “inauthentic activity supporting the opposition presidential candidate [in Bolivia] in 2019” and chose not to prioritize it’ ; and many of my otherwise progressive friends certainly shared lurid stories about Evo Morales’ corruption and immorality on WhatsApp and Facebook.
But more progressive movements have also used social media to organise and mobilise. #NiUnaMenos is an especially powerful example, and maybe quite similar to the right-wing mobilisations in network terms, albeit of course – and very importantly – without the church, the fake news, and the electoral project.
For Munck, transnationalism seems to be a sign of social movement success, and here again we can see non-institutionalised forms of something that looks at least similar to the more institutionalised social movements he emphasises. On the progressive side, I would point to the remarkable spread of the ‘un violador en tu camino’ feminist protest. And just as feminist causes can cross countries and continents, so can anti-feminist cultural and political movements. I’d argue that we need to account for these as social movements, which have organisation and influence. Conservative objections to ‘gender ideology’ scuppered the Colombian peace process referendum in 2016 and brought Bolsonaro to power in 2018. Opponents of Dilma and Evo promoted a rhetoric that from the outside at least looked more ‘progressive’, arguing that they were defending democracy and opposing corruption, tropes that have enormous power across the region.
Social movement research in Latin America has become more complicated as the boundaries between left- and right-wing appear more blurred. The right has picked up on the movement tactics and rhetoric of the left and has done so very successfully. The protests in Eastern Bolivia in 2008-9 were an early version of this in its latest wave; but probably historical investigation would be able to illuminate the continuities between much of the right wing mobilisation today and pro-dictatorship movements in the 1970s. That is to say, this ambiguity might feel new, but it may also be that we have only recently begun to recognise it properly. It is the case that mass protests advocating ‘citizen security’ and ‘mano dura’ policies in Argentina in the 2000s and early 2010s bore links to the dictatorship in both rhetoric and personnel, while also drawing on long-standing modes of national-popular mobilisation.
I think the lessons for researchers here are: first, we shouldn’t confine ourselves to a purely institutional perspective, but be creative in how we think about what a social movement is; and second, we should be sure to explore the historical trajectories of each wave of mobilisation and organisation. It was only necessary to scratch the surface of the February and October 2003 protests in El Alto, Bolivia to see how a more organised life underlay the dynamic of mobilisation at the time (Lazar, 2008), and the electoral victory of the MAS in October 2020 has shown us the enduring power of that underlying social and political organisation. That recognition might give us methodological insight into how to navigate the problem of the relationship between social protest and social movement, by exploring what shapes agency and collective action in ordinary times, and how that experience influences extraordinary moments.
Fernandez Alvarez MI. (2019) ‘Having a name of one’s own, being part of history’: temporalities and political subjectivities of popular economy workers in Argentina. . Dialectical Anthropology 43: 61-76.
Garcia A, Gutierrez R, Prada R, et al. (2000) El retorno de la Bolivia plebeya, La Paz: Muela del Diablo editores.
Lazar S. (2008) El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia, Durham: Duke University Press.
Lazar S. (2012) Disjunctive comparison: Citizenship and Trade Unionism in Bolivia and Argentina. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18.
Lòpez Pedreros R. (2019) Makers of Democracy. A Transnational History of hte Middle Classes in Colombia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Zlolniski C. (2019) Coping with precarity: subsistence, labor, and community politics among farmworkers in northern Mexico. Dialectical Anthropology 43: 77-92.
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Author: Sian Lazar
Sian Lazar is a social anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, UK. She works on social movements, especially labour movements, in Bolivia and Argentina. She is the author of El Alto, Rebel City (Duke, 2008) and The Social Life of Politics (SUP, 2017).