Dissidence: Towards an Inconclusive Topography

From Resistance to Impasse

Dissidence is, classically, the construction of a place positioned against a center of power. In Latin America, dissidence can be thought of, at different times, as changing figures, as itineraries that open to the decomposition and recomposition of the political topography. Here we have an implied thesis: Power mutates in relation to disruptive figures, alternately trying to subsume, metamorphosize, break and/or dissolve them. Power is always waiting, aware of what these disruptive figures produce and simultaneously testing their own ability to capture.

During the 90's in Argentina, dissidence possessed a colorful repertoire of responses and resistance to a neoliberal governmental arrangement that was basically the justification of reforms that had their origin in military dictatorships and genocide perpetrated by a state-sponsored terrorism. Dissidence, therefore, was clearly nurtured and spread by a network of practices that made, in the realms of justice and memory, human rights, social work, a commitment to non-institutional political action. In concrete terms, this meant forms of antagonism that surpassed the boundaries defined by the State for that designated political space. Also, this type of political action enabled us to trace a genealogy (or a non-linear story) within the struggles of the 60’s and 70’s.[1] Between the democratic transition (and its failed national reconciliation project) of the 80’s and the explicitation of the neoliberal project during 90’s, dissidence took the form of a resistant plurality.

A second phase began with the transition from resistance to the crisis as an event that made visible and audible a multiplicity of subjects and a new type of political spaces. The 2001 crisis in Argentina was the moment in which the network of practices of resistance was embodied in the street fighting that paved the way for a protagonism marked by the presence of the unemployed sectors that goes beyond its mere definition as excluded people and where initiatives of various social movements become a way of acting, thinking and proposing that redefines and radically reorganizes the political conflict. Such a dynamic deployment of specific initiatives (from the escrache picket to the creation of the barter network) renews the images and notions of politics from below.

This is when the antagonism becomes dismissive: the social leadership declares the end of the political legitimacy of neoliberalism and inaugurates the real beginning of the post-dictatorship[2] at the beginning of the century. Dissidence, then, becomes the popular affirmation of empty representations of the political system and, in contrast, the proposed modes of resolution for the concrete life from devices (communal, organizational, mobilizing and negotiation) of the social movements themselves. Dissidence, as a political figure, becomes purposeful and more than a negative formula or continuous change it is embodied in ongoing creative social dynamics. Dissidence functions simultaneously as a modality of political innovation and institutional critique. And it is, above all, an immanent position: it is not a form of critical or prudent distance, but rather a process of immersion, an inside perspective into the dynamics of crisis and invention from multiple positions that appropriate public space and its dilemmas.

That boiling phase of autonomy is brutally interrupted by the crime of two activists from the unemployed movement, which seeks to teach by terror: again, the slaughter appears as a real and effective possibility facing the territorial and experimental advance of the popular organization.[3]

In 2003, the period at the beginning of the Nestor Kirchner government (after a victory with a very low voter participation) operates as a kind of brake on the possibility of an escalation of social conflict and state repression. A truce is quickly proposed, because of encouraging signals from the government, in which both sides threw their support behind the recognition of social struggles as symbolic capital, became the sign and content of certain state policies.

The political polarization produced since then produced a shift in the issue, replacing the government and the State as principal vectors of the political topography. All this was possible because the government operated under a policy of dual recognition: social struggles, especially those related to human rights, on the one hand, and the need for reconstruction of the system of government, on the other. The result was a schema of new alignments that should have ruled in favor or against the current management. During the next mandate of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a series of intense corporate conflicts (with agricultural sectors, with some trade unions, etc.) further tightened the alignment scheme, from which the representation system recovered a vitality that had been missing for a long time, and social movements were affected—and generally broken—by that new dividing line driven from above.

Between the government and its antagonism, formal opposition figures emerge, and the role of the critic in society thrives. Among the autonomous social movements that do not conform to these positions, there was an impasse[4] that immobilized and neutralized much of the languages and past practices. A certain disorientation took over those who refused to position themselves within the binarism that delimited the playing field according to predefined classifications. The problem is this heightened political polarization in recent years in favor of a simplification that operates through an exclusionary dualism while addressing problems that cross the various territories. And that binarism is, above all, an ultra-centrist[5] space organized by three poles: a pole based on an extractive-exporter currency generator, a pole based in the technological-industrialist rhetoric, and a pole based on the dynamics of “rights” (social and human).

Thus, for example, either one is sensitive to the struggles that develop around the new neo-extractive economy, or one gives credit to the dynamics related to the rhetoric of the expansion of social rights without providing critical correction of what we might call the "economic base" model - as if the challenge does not to consist precisely in articulating (and not facing) what each territory formulates as a vital, democratic trait.

The potential wealth of current processes plays on the possibility of combining the different rhythms and tones of the politicization, on the ability to articulate what are now presented as the disjunctions such as rural-urban, interior-capital, consumption-employment, etc. and accepting the transversal premises of struggles for the reappropriation of natural resources such as the various processes of evaluation of services, production, and social networks as sources of shared wealth and dispute over a popular infrastructure in the territories.

Latin America in Transition: Dissidence in the Post Neoliberalism Era

Today’s Latin America is experiencing a transition. Dissidence rooted in neoliberalism is over for many people. In reality, what has been called "post-neoliberalism" is being discussed and problematized. As dissidence faces postneoliberalism, it attempts to open spaces of resistance and debate over neodevelopmentalism as a modality in which countries are inserted into the world market and the consequences that this implies in terms of destruction and submission to certain ways of life.

Neodevelopmentalism is not an economic model, but rather an objective-subjective assembly of techno-science applied to both the bíos (lifestyles) and the zoé (biological life). Its strength is not simple: it comes from the assembly of a rhetoric of collective rights amalgamated with social containment policies, financed with the proceeds of commodities. But these are ways of life, of metropolitan life, common life (that which was put at stake in the Once railway disaster, or that which was activated by the resistance to mining in Famatina), that emerge as a key to dissidence.

The political and intellectual debates have failed, so far, to imagine different forms of popular happiness outside of a single-mode instrumentation based on the country's insertion in the global market as an exporter of raw, technologically-assisted materials. The appeal to growth that has won over political consensus and political belief which, so understood, is sufficient to transform reality, has become the very edge, the limit of the thinkable, creating a difficult question about the social desire that becomes viable through these discursive and institutional configurations. In turn, this dynamic needs to confront a greater dynamism: in "emerging" countries, the emergence of a "popular" capitalist world is closely linked to the ability to recover the practice and experience of self-management capable of dealing with relationships, transactions and non-state policies in an increasingly heterogeneous society. This capability is regenerated over and over again from below, in direct relationship with the market. It is this growing reality, which operates as a permanent counterpoint of finished and stable institutional formulation.

Back to the question at hand: being a dissident in today’s world supposes a difference with respect to the two other figures already mentioned: the opponent and the critic. The opponent is internal to reality—a suitor seeking to occupy a central place in it. The critic is an objector, custodian of an ideal, and would like to modify this or that question. Dissidence, however, concerns the way of life, and therefore is not a discourse, but rather a subjective state that can account for a concrete materiality. The dissentor is not in a state of debate, but of minorization: their sensitivity and their way of thinking—in some sense, of living—doesn’t fit with the established and mediated reality while still connecting with other underground, but not marginal, dynamics.

The dissentor requires a very particular type of courage. He or she must maintain a perspective that runs to the contrary of the truth as affirmed by certain majority opinions. A (common) body able to sustain itself on these minority truths must be formed. Therefore, dissidence requires practice and a collective dimension. This link between dissidence and the commons is fundamental. Basically, dissidence speaks another language. It draws from other affects. It reads from other perspectives. It has another memory, another economy.

Exceptional Times or Times of Exception?

Is there a relationship between dissidence and exception? It is said that we live in a state of permanent exception. The power of this statement comes from the juxtaposition of meanings that aggravate it. Exceptionality is, at the same time, the standard and the history of the "oppressed" (Benjamin), and a condition of the reproduction of power (a state of exception, according to Carl Schmitt). But it is also the brightness of every singularity and the name of a reflective moment that attempts to spread to the whole experience. That’s where we’re headed.

However, it is worth distinguishing the present as an exception of to a rhetoric of the present as exceptional. Walter Benjamin is at the crossroads of a mess. Quoted in favor of development, pointing to a better tomorrow, he is a radical critic of the evolutionary notion of progress and of any policy that argues on behalf of the future, spurning suffering in the present. Exceptionality must be freed from the ideology of victimization. Do we not need to detect emerging hazards in the present that are invisible in the proliferation of institutional homage? Is it not that, perhaps, certain omissions are necessary for fighting and creation?

The formation of a new political-state power (which occurs not only in Argentina, but also takes different forms in the region and in many parts of the world) has been effective in recognizing actors and historical processes in the field of production rights, to legitimize the institutional system and national politic, to include social contingents in the expansion of the sphere of consumption, to consummate processes of insertion especially neo-extractive and food production—in the global market, and regional political integration. However, their activism has not yet substituted (nor from "above" nor "below") the power of neoliberal logic. From “above,” because the plans of global actors, such as financial markets and multinational corporations—have not been displaced by a new social and institutional spatiality capable of regulating strategic processes (such as pricing and regulation of contracts; technological device creation and consumption patterns); from “below,” because the growth of consumer rights and has not been fruit of a new public capacity to understand and regulate predatory practices linked to the promise of "abundance" (from real-estate speculation to drug-running networks, from the informal economy to money laundering, from neo-slave labor to human trafficking).

These paradoxes determine discursive practices while being fed by them. These same paradoxes are reconciled by admitting the complexity with which we must struggle, eventually one becomes aware of the biopolitical trends that they make viable (and eventually reconfigure common life) and transforms them into the object of political research.

Dissidence as a New Perspective of Social Conflict

The new social conflict is the most visible and reliable marker for understanding the current matrix of the exploitation of the ordinary, as well as the limits of democratic potential that can be attributed to state regulation. With this term, we make reference to a series of violent episodes ranging from the removal of peasants from their lands due to the expansion of agribusiness and the displacement of communities, a product of the advancement of the extractive investments of mega-mining and hydrocarbons, but also the proliferation of crime linked to the widespread drug business in these neighborhoods, with the complicity of part of the police force, justice system and political power.

The new social conflict is the dark, shameful flipside of this means of the neo-developmentalist accumulation in at least two fundamental ways: it forms part of the material constitution of lifestyles and the exploitation of the shared wealth with which inevitably governmental practices are articulated, and at the same time, shares the emphasis of values concerning the rhetoric of growth and the expansion of consumption understood from the perspective of generalizability of business practices.

This "flipside" weakens the rhetoric of "inclusion" in two essential ways: by revealing the ruthless expropriation regime of common property on which it is based, and by eroding the same imaginary social space based on the validity of the equation between the work wage and a citizenship which is worth having.

This new social conflict is no longer accurately outlined in the schema with which we survived the crisis of 2001: the state vs. social movements. Instead, it emerges from the new conditions of capitalist revival and new modes of statehood production and governance tools.

These conditions converge, especially in the connection between big, global business and innovative, popular entrepreneurship: it involves formidable profit generators that are linked to different types of stockholder valuations that have little or nothing to do with the industrializing ideology of the national and popular model. It also involves wild modalities of expropriation of shared wealth, and the introduction of the dimension of terrorist violence in territorial management.

These business activities, so different from one another, undoubtedly share other important features such as the use of illegal means, the power of reorganization / valuation of the territories—often peripheral—and its network organization, reproduced from above, but also from below. After two decades of uninterrupted rapid accumulation, these new patterns of economic power have the ability, today, to destabilize and change the functioning of the security forces’ services, as shown in the case of Paraguay. The remarkable modernity of its commercial structures contrasts with its conservative content and despotic political manners.

The new social conflict also extends to the world of labor to the extent that it teaches us to understand the link between super-exploitation / consumption / production of new ways of life that we see developing in the world of industry and services (in textile workshops transport logic). In both cases, growing state regulation does not vary significantly, but it rooted itself in what we might call a popular neoliberalism conditioning to the new ways of governing.

The new social conflict, we were saying, is not always a current schematic outline of the modes of politicization faced by the government and social movements during the 2001 crisis. As should be noted, social movements, by and large, participate in the government today, altering the relationship between government and territory. However, the activation of social organization around this exproprietary and terrorist violence remains present, updating the need for militant research and the production of knowledge and organizational initiatives on par with the occasion.

Dissidence, at this point, is renewed as a form of political research: a commitment to the presence of experiences with enough power to dissolve the space of state and media representation (to the extent that truth and justice are linked, research supposes an ethics against the crime of power) and, at the same time, the use of the necessary imagination to help us understand the deeper layers of that which we may assume to be true.

Final Notes for Policy Research

Often, in contemporary society, communicative energy and discussions about the public sphere, seem to exhaust themselves during the immediate political struggle over the control of political decision-making. The task of policy research is relegated to the collective debate, and falls under suspicion of operating as a direct function of this dispute. Thus, the first victim of political polarization is the practice of unspecialized political discourse, overwhelmed by the system of opinion, characterized by a language prepackaged by the media.

Here we indicate a first paradox: the ultra politicization of opinion (journalistic, militant, and legal regimes, etc.) is accompanied by a relative loss of the ability to develop languages ​​and questions autonomously. What we call political research is the invention of processes of recovery of power in relation to the ability of non-specialists to develop questions, languages ​​and expertise on the collective existence.

Thus, a first orientation that we propose aims at recognizing an indispensible disposition for the praxis of political research: what we might call the "arbitrariness" (word insisted upon by the Argentinian philosopher Leon Rozitchner), which is to say, the forms of authorization we create for ourselves to warn of danger—to warn about the negative connotations that certain practices may have, even though they are born of our own beloved areas of experience.

A second fundamental orientation refers to the direction of our attention toward what we might call, inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche, the "dark areas" of social existence, those in which the forces are made that affect us, and force us to think. This opaque dimension can refer to areas of subjectivity, politics, and the economy, the escape from legality and the thresholds of visibility imposed by the regime of opinion.

A third indication is concerned with the method of "problematization," supposedly extra moral (in the words of Foucault), which explores the mutations of practices (discursive practices) to assess both that which, in contact with new realities, we are ceasing to be, and what we are beginning to be.

A fourth observation deals with attempts to take the world of the intensities seriously, not only the discursive meanings. One has to put "affects" first (and “habits,” that is to say, the links between affections) in counterposition to the inflation of a "lingualism" that characterizes the idea of ​​"hegemony" or "culture war" as the rhetoric of what is called South American “populism.”

A fifth orientation refers to a deeper understanding of the articulations that are less-visible than what, in a broad sense, we may call the "machinery" of the social government, image production, the coin government, how they work and multiply the sovereignties in the territories, consumption management, etc. In this way, research is linked to its own vocation to participate in the current forms of politicization.

Finally, if the "social movements" don’t maintain the old ways and tend, rather, to be part of the fragile mechanics of government, militant research itself is forced to mutate in at least two different directions simultaneously: toward the problematization of new forms of government, and into the activation of what we call the new social mobilities, which in a way completely different from the movements of the past decade, prefigure a new map of struggles and languages ​​for their ways of doing and, especially, of problematizing the present. Dissidence, if it should be rethought of in this light, refers to a way of problematizing the consensus of the time (always a certain bringing-together of what is seen and what is heard) and to build a common intelligence about the injustices of the present.

Translation by Samuel Bauer

Verónica Gago and Diego Sztulwark are members of Colectivo Situaciones (Argentina), an radical research organization.


[1] Here we are referring to the cycle of struggles associated with political radicalization that includes a wide range of organizations that supported a revolutionary change in Argentina. State-sponsored terrorist violence is the counterinsurgent answer to this process.

[2] The development of this idea can be seen in Colectivo Situaciones (2002): 19 & 20. Apuntes para el nuevo protagonismo social, Buenos Aires: De Mano en mano. Available at http://tintalimon.com.ar/

[3] We are referring to the massacre, that occurred on June 26, 2002 at the Pueyrredón Bridge, where militant picketers Maximiliano Kosteki and Darío Santillán, members of the Movimientos de Trabajadores Desocupados de Guernica y Lanús, to the south of the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, were murdered by police.

[4] See: AAVV (2009): Conversaciones en el impasse. Dilemas políticos del presente, Tinta Limón: Buenos Aires. Available at www.tintalimon.com.ar

[5] For the development of this term, see: "Notas de la coyuntura argentina" in http://www.uninomade.org/notas-de-la-coyuntura-argentina/and "Cacerolas bastardas"in http://www.revistacrisis.com.ar/cacerolas-bastardas.html