The Social Life of Politics
Ethics, Kinship, and Union Activism in Argentina
Sian Lazar


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The introduction presents the main argument and surveys the relevant literature: of anthropology of social movements, class, ethics and kinship. It then summarizes the structure of the book.

1 The State and theUnions in Space and Time
chapter abstract

The chapter sets out the context within which the unionists work, describing the organization of public sector unionism and some of the differences between the two unions studied in the book. The unions are called UPCN (Unión del Personal Civil de la Nación, Union of National Civil Servants) and ATE (Asociación de Trabajadores del Estado, Association of State Workers). The chapter then outlines some key moments in contemporary history of state restructuring, which deeply affected public sector workers and their unions and framed nearly all of the discussions about this research with the unions. It introduces the various histories that run throughout the chapters of this book, as they are entwined with personal stories of militancy and shape projects of collective ethical subjectivation and political action: histories of Peronism, of the labor movement in Argentina more broadly, of dictatorship, of state restructuring, and of neoliberalism.

2 Militancia: An Ethics and Politics of the Self
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This chapter introduces the concept of militancia (activism), a philosophy of political action and self-definition with an associated set of historical resonances and claims about character. Union activists often explained that they became activists because of what they considered to be their essential being: they were that kind of character; they joined because their parents had been unionists; political activity was a biological necessity; an addiction or a virus. The chapter explores these narratives of character as essence, and shows how militancy as subject position is deeply ethical in that it has ethical consequences - for activists' life course and for political action, because it shapes how they strive for the good, how they are perceived from the outside. However, outside of the research interview it is not often reflected upon. Rather, it is a process of self-cultivation that just happens and for which they are naturally pre-disposed.

3 Family and Intergenerational Transmission of Militancia
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on one of the dominant ways that people explained their predisposition to activism, as something inherited from their families. The character of political militant can be transmitted through generations by stories, childhood experience, teaching and inherited characteristics. It is not always an easy path, and does not always happen, but family loomed large in many stories that activists told about their militant trajectories. Again, this is an aspect of ethical subjectivation that is considered to be part of one's essence, but it is more mutable than the character essence narrated in the previous chapter, which might be thought only to develop teleologically, by becoming stronger or weaker. In contrast, family transmission of essential ethical characteristics is more open to narration and thus to contingency, change and variation – as siblings take very different attitudes towards politics, for example.

4 Pedagogy and Political Community
chapter abstract

This chapter turns to explicit pedagogies of construction of individual militants and the collective ethical subject of the union by examining the ways that the two unions train newly elected delegates – by UPCN in the school for unionists, and by ATE in a less formal workshop structure. The chapter shows how the unions cultivate particular virtues among their activists, principally associated with how they orient themselves to and define the collectivity. This is a political community envisaged as vertical (for UPCN) and horizontal (for ATE), a difference which indexes the difference between political community as organism and as political project. This collective subject, and the individual selves that comprise it, is constructed through explicit exhortation, by appealing to characteristics and virtues that are thought to already exist among the delegates, drawing out their predisposition to rage against injustice or to feel a vocation for social action, for example.

5 Containment as Care
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the concept of containment (contención), and describes how members of a UPCN delegation in the Health Ministry enact collectivity in their day to day life. Containment names ways that the union delegation encompasses its activists and affiliates. This can be through quasi-therapeutic relationships between activist and affiliate, as the activist seeks to resolve workplace problems and to talk through concerns from their life more broadly. But the main subject of this chapter is encompassment through practices of sociability, care, ritual and problem-solving. The local delegation is a space for processes of kinning, of making people into kin and friends. This takes place as ethical values of vocation, will, or desire for social justice circulate alongside talk, food, and other shared concerns to build a shared collective subjectivity. Kinship also shapes the conditions of possibility for action and care on the part of the union.

6 Containment as Political Encompassment
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This chapter examines containment as collective political action, which provides activists with spaces for self-fulfilment and political subject-hood. Through assemblies and street protests, unionists in both ATE and UPCN act on themselves and on the world. They construct themselves as a collective ethical subject and seek to transform the world for the better, or prevent or mitigate its transformation for the worse. Both kinds of political ethical action take place from a particular embodied and spatialized subject position. They also involve a particular relation to time, as each assembly or protest is part of a trajectory of action in history that also builds history, as well as being an experience of quotidian work which might only achieve very small but incremental improvements. Finally, they are also events where collective subjectivation takes place through the building of kinship as 'mutuality of being' in moments of effervescence and shared effort.

chapter abstract

The conclusion summarizes the book's argument that, for the unionists, activism is an ethical mode of existence that combines life experience and action to transform society. The conclusion shows how the concepts of hexis, praxis, and essence describe different ethical modes for the unionists. Understandings of essential character or biological predisposition interact with hexis – the cultivated state or disposition of political activist – and then transform into praxis, or explicitly theorized political action. The book has introduced these concepts in turn as overlapping modes of subjectivation, and the conclusion ties together this conceptual framework. The unions derive their strength and longevity insofar as they are able to successfully achieve projects of collective ethical-political subjectivation, as people become good activists and contain each other within the group. Politics is grounded in the ethical realms of the everyday, of the intimate, of shared values, and of the family.