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



La militancia tiene un gran significado en la parte social, en la familia, los valores, que nunca debe dejar de lado.

Activism has a real significance in social life, in the family, and in values, which should never be forgotten.


These words were spoken by a longtime activist in a video made by unionists in metropolitan Buenos Aires and shown at their union’s celebration of the Peronist Day of the Activist in November 2012.1 In one sentence they sum up the main themes of this book, as the speaker pithily brings together social life, family, and values in his definition of activism. In this book, I use ethnography to investigate that combination for two groups of public-sector unionists in contemporary Argentina in a study of the intimate, personal, and family aspects of political activism.

These aspects came to the fore after the shocking result of the first round of presidential elections on 26 October 2015. Daniel Scioli—the official Peronist candidate—won by only 2.9 percentage points, too small a margin to avoid a historic second-round run-off against Mauricio Macri, leader of the Cambiemos (Let’s change) coalition. Just prior to the October election, most of the people I knew—who tended to be kirchneristas (supporters of then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner)—had expected Scioli to win fairly comfortably, certainly by more than 3 percent. Since he had been nearly 8 percent ahead in the open primaries of the previous August and was leading in the opinion polls, some thought he might even avoid a second round. Instead, the unexpected first-round result created a shift in momentum toward his right-wing opponent, as voters across the country expressed their desire for change and their dissatisfaction with a regime widely thought to be corrupt, cronyist, and profligate with the country’s resources.

In the days following the vote, trade unionists and other opponents of Macri told me of their shock, fear, and sadness at the result: “It’s a disaster, a disaster!” was the first thing that one general secretary said to me, rolling his eyes heavenward and then launching into a lengthy analysis of how it had happened; another unionist said that she could not leave her house for two days because she was so depressed. Other friends posted testimonials on Facebook, describing their astonishment at the result and their fear of what a win for Macri in the upcoming run-off might mean for the country. Collectively, anti-macristas bemoaned what they thought would be a return to the neoliberal 1990s, an issue that seemed to be of particular concern to those who earned their living from the public sector, including academics. One Facebook post by a state-funded postdoctoral researcher circulated widely within academic circles: he announced his rates for washing dishes in the expectation that he would lose his academic job after a Macri win. The discussion rapidly moved off the pages of Facebook to offices, family gatherings, cafés, and squares, as people gathered to share their shock and anxiety and to analyze the election campaign. One particularly fervent debate that I attended took place in the office of a group of unionists in a ministry a few days after the election. Gathered around the table before a scheduled mobilization, we discussed passionately what Scioli and other official candidates had done wrong and how astonished we were that so many Argentines had voted against their interests and in favor of someone who—all agreed—would undoubtedly implement the orthodox economic policies that had caused such trauma for the country fifteen years ago. It was the first thing that everyone talked about when they met: “What happened?”

Within a couple of days at most, the mood shifted to “what now?” as groups began to convene to mobilize against Macri. University students from pro-Kirchner groups moved their booths from the faculty building onto the street to try to persuade passersby of the danger posed by Macri’s neoliberal views. Meetings were called to discuss what to do. A group of artists and cultural workers convened a demonstration in the central Parque Centenario, the scene of many famous neighborhood assemblies in the early 2000s. Their slogan was “love yes, Macri no” (amor sí, Macri no), and thousands of people turned up on the Saturday following the election. Marches were held; posters and leaflets appeared on the streets and through the letterboxes of apartment blocks. People held deliberately loud conversations about the elections in busy streets and grocery stores in an attempt to convince those who overheard them; they argued passionately with fellow customers and other strangers. A friend told me about a retired woman who called random phone numbers in the city and asked the person who responded, “Do you know what kind of person this Macri really is?” She wanted to engage people in conversation because, she said, she was protecting the twice-yearly increase in her pension that Cristina had introduced. Groups convened to discuss and publicize all the achievements of the previous twelve years that they felt could be under threat from a Macri victory, such as higher spending on tertiary education, nationalization of strategic enterprises and pension funds, social benefits for the popular sectors and pensioners, and prosecutions of violators of human rights during the 1976–83 dictatorship.2

Yet, despite what one unionist described to me as “an effervescence of Peronist activism” in favor of Scioli, on 22 November, Macri won the second round of the presidential elections, with 51.3 percent of the vote. But the experience of the four weeks between the two rounds of the election brings to the fore several important aspects of Argentine politics. First was the role of historical memory and its contestation: Will he or won’t he “return to the 1990s,” and what might that mean if he does? Second, in an emotional response to political events government supporters experienced shock, anxiety, fear, and disgust with Macri and those who voted for him (whom they perceived to be “middle class”). Third was the practice of seemingly endless and passionate discussions of how awful the situation was, many of which, we agreed, felt like a kind of group therapy. Fourth, these politically active people chose to respond to adversity with more activism to persuade others to vote for Scioli, or at least to assert the presence of a sizable opposition to Macri. Most important, they perceived the answers to political misfortune to lie in collective action, which they experienced as being drawn from a deep emotional response to that misfortune and their fear of the future.

What made that particular set of responses possible? How was it that an adverse election result provoked deep emotional distress followed by fervent collective action? How is activism understood and experienced in contemporary Argentina? In this book I explore the conditions of possibility for such mobilization. I also suggest that the capacity to mobilize in this way affords considerable strength to collective organizations, even though in this particular instance they failed in their immediate political goal. That capacity lies in the intimate, personal, and family aspects of political activism, the subject of this book. Argentine trade unions are unusually strong: Many of them can mobilize large numbers of workers, and they have achieved longevity in the face of repression and adverse economic change. A few key unions also hold significant power to shape politics, legislation, and employment conditions. Yet sustaining union activism in contemporary conditions is enormously challenging, as unionists are exposed to public hostility and suspicion in addition to structural and political forces that work against them on a global scale. Thus, their strength closely depends on the union’s ability to sustain projects of collective ethical-political self-construction among its activists. For the case of public-sector unionists in particular, these projects are enacted through practices of kinship and emotional connection.

In Argentina, the labor movement has been a central motor of historical and political development since the early 1900s. Unions were a prime site for active citizenship in the sense of both political participation and the distribution of social, economic, political, and even cultural rights. That situation has continued to the present and may even be truer today than it was at the turn of this century. Argentina has had a vigorous history of organized social movements since the late 1800s, ranging from anarcho-syndicalism to populism in its most archetypal form, Peronism,3 to leftist guerrillas and revolutionaries, unemployed workers, and middle-class antigovernment protesters. The two unions I study within this spectrum of political activism are Unión del Personal Civil de la Nación (Union of National Civil Servants, UPCN) and Asociación Trabajadores del Estado (Association of State Workers, ATE). They represent distinct political orientations within the labor movement. UPCN is predominantly—although not exclusively—Peronist and is very disciplined and “organic,” taking an “officialist” or supportive position with regard to the government in power. This position is easier for them to take with Peronist governments such as those of the Kirchner regimes of 2003–15; and part of the fear generated by the most recent electoral result comes from the fact that Mauricio Macri is avowedly non-Peronist. ATE is more autonomous and prides itself on its democratic and horizontal approach, answering to the assemblies of its activists rather than to any political party.4 In this book I explore comparatively the lived experience of both kinds of political activism and the contrasting ways that activists from each union create themselves as particular kinds of activists and their unions as particular—and very different—kinds of political community.

I focus on how they do so through the two interlinked processes of militancia and contención. Both are local terms. La militancia names the practices of activism as well as being a group noun that describes the collective of political activists. I translate militancia as “militancy” or “activism” and suggest that by studying militancia, we may identify how individuals create and understand themselves and others as political actors located in a particular time, place, and family and consisting of a particular set of values, dispositions, and orientations. For my informants, those values included having a vocation for political action, anger against injustice, commitment to the collectivity, and love for people and politics. Political action was understood as membership in the labor movement, placed in a historical narrative of anarcho-syndicalism (for some) or Peronism (for most), resistance to military dictatorship, and mobilization against structural adjustment and neoliberalism. The values and attributes of vocation, anger, commitment, and love were considered essential elements of individual character, almost biological. Yet they were also dispositions that could be cultivated by individuals, passed down the generations within families, and called forth or made stronger in pedagogical contexts, including training sessions for activists.

This cultivation, or calling forth, of values such as vocation, love, passion, and so on, happened through collective processes, which I describe ethnographically with the concept of contención, which means “containment” of both a psychotherapeutic and political kind. It has various dimensions (see Lazar 2013) but appears to derive in part from the concept of therapeutic containment, which originated in the work of Wilfred Bion, a British Kleinian psychoanalyst. In the therapeutic context it refers to the ability of the therapist to take on the emotions of the other and process them without being overwhelmed by them (Bion 1959; Douglas 2007: 33). More broadly, containment can be thought of as a way the group encompasses the individual, through individual therapeutic relations as well as collective activities of care and political activities of discussion and collective action, which I describe in the second part of this book. To avoid confusion with the false friend English cognate “contention,” I translate the Spanish word throughout and use the term “containment.” I argue that containment is an ethical process of encompassment and the creation of a collective self—the union—committed to action for the transformation of society for the better. The two unions I worked with understood the precise content of that action differently and, as a result, engaged in different acts of containment. These often boiled down to organization, but in contrasting ways. UPCN placed great weight on organizational strength and discipline and the ability to negotiate with the employers; ATE constructed its collective self as a political project of alternative unionism, summarized through its emphasis on horizontality and autonomy from governing party politics and tapping in to trends of horizontal political organization prominent in Argentina post-2001.

Both militancy and containment are ways that groups of Argentines make themselves into political subjects to participate in government and political struggle. Thus, the processes under discussion here are shaped by how the Argentine labor movement has developed in the last century, a history that is threaded throughout this book. Crucially, they are also shaped by daily life, family, and friendships. This is therefore a study of the intimate spaces of political activism within a social movement, albeit one that is now relatively unfashionable within social movement studies in the US and European academies in particular. For at least two decades, trade unions have not been a central concern for political anthropologists and social theorists outside labor studies or industrial relations departments.5 The relative invisibility of labor politics in anthropology in particular has perhaps resulted from the dominance of theoretical framings of politics that derive from the directions in which anthropologists and others have taken Foucault. Anthropologists have tended to focus on the creation of subjecthood either as governance and resistance or as introspective care of the self.6 In this book I investigate the relational politics of personal ethics and provide an ethnography of political relations in their fullest sense by exploring personal and collective ethics within the trade unions. Here, I first contextualize my argument within the anthropological study of social movements. I then introduce the aspects of ethics and kinship and propose that Argentine public-sector union activism is best understood as a form of collective creation of ethical selves enacted through the idioms and practices of character essence, active self-cultivation, and kinship, and revealed through the study of militancy and containment.


1. Britos is director of the Escuela Político Sindical (Political Unionist School) of Unión Argentina de Trabajadores Rurales y Estibadores (Argentine Union of Rural Workers and Stevedores, UATRE). He has been a Peronist activist since 1947.

2. A pro-Macri position would highlight contrasting aspects of the Kirchner regimes: irresponsible economic policies leading to severe inflation and dangerously dwindling national reserves, overly restrictive controls on imports and the purchase of dollars, corruption at the highest levels of government, insular and unnecessarily combative foreign policy, and failure to act on drug-trafficking problems in the country. The results of the second round of voting indicate a country split down the middle, and the impression I have from the last few years is of increased polarization, in part fueled by a virulent anti-Cristina media. See Lazar (2016a).

3. Peronism is the political movement founded by Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s when he became minister for labor and then, from 1946 to 1955, president of Argentina. In 1955, he was deposed by military coup, and his supporters entered a period of clandestine resistance, demanding his return from exile, which was achieved in 1973. Shortly thereafter, he became president again but died in 1974; his third wife and vice president was deposed in 1976 by one of the most brutal military regimes in the region. After the return to democracy in 1982, the next Peronist regime was that of Carlos Menem, in 1989–99, followed by the 2001 economic crisis during the Kirchner regimes of 2003–15. The political party founded by Perón—the Partido Justicialista (the Justicialist Party)—and the Peronist movement are not necessarily coextensive. Perón attracted followers from an extremely wide political spectrum, from leftist Marxist guerrillas to anticommunist death-squad members. This very brief description of Peronism does not give a sense of its complexities as an identity and way of life for its adherents, not just as a political orientation. In this book I explore that complex picture for one group of Peronists (the UPCN unionists), but there are many studies of Peronism across different periods of its history. For some of the best, see Auyero (2001), D. James (1988b), Karush and Chamosa (2010), Levitsky (2003a), Torre (1998, 2002, 2012), Martuccelli and Svampa (1997), Munck, Galitelli, and Falcon (1987), Halperin Donghi (2012); Elena (2011).

4. This makes it more like the social movement unionism discussed by Moody (1997) and Waterman (1993) and relates it to both the history of anarcho-syndicalism prominent in Argentina since the early twentieth century and the consciously horizontal and autonomous social movement activism of post-2001 Argentina, discussed by scholars such as Marina Sitrin (2006, 2012) and Ana Dinerstein (2003, 2014).

5. Within more economically focused anthropology and sociology, there is a distinguished ethnographic literature on trade unions, but it has largely focused on the Global North (e.g., Collins 2012; Durrenberger 2007; Zlolniski 2010; Durrenberger and Erem 2005; Fantasia and Voss 2004; Kasmir 2005; Lopez 2004; Mollona 2009; Johnston 1994; Moody 1997; Fantasia 1988). With a few exceptions, such as De Neve (2008), Donham (2011), and Werbner (2014), anthropologists have rarely directly engaged with trade unions in the Global South; and much of the anthropological work on organized labor in the Global South has been tied to questions of the globalization of the world economy (e.g., Collins 2007; De Neve 2008; Otañez 2010; Zlolniski 2010) or industrial employment patterns (Parry 2013).

6. On governance, see Ong (1996, 2003); Holston (2008); Blom Hansen and Stepputat (2001); Fassin (2015); Rose (1999); Nguyen (2010). On care of the self, see, for example, Faubion (2011); Cook (2010); Rose (1989).