In isolated instances this disengagement and distrust of politicians and democratic institutions drives a popular movement that gathers significant momentum – but in most cases initial enthusiasm for ‘the cause’ fails to bring about lasting, sustainable change. Why? Because in most instances people do not organise themselves properly for the long haul.
In fact, it has been noted by scholars that people who are excluded or at risk of expulsion from livelihoods, labour and housing markets are often expected to accept their lot – or, at best, turn to individual efforts to change their situation.
However, if we travel back over 15 years we can find a perfect example of how a marginalised group created a movement that, together, improved their collective circumstances considerably.
In 2001 Argentina was in the grip of a serious crisis. The government had collapsed, unemployment soared and a widespread housing crisis ensued. In the years leading up to 2001, problems had been mounting and joblessness was becoming a problem in Argentina for the first time. Between 1991 and 1995 unemployment had jumped from 6% to 18.5%. In Greater Buenos Aires the problem was even worse, with more than 20% of workers out of jobs.
In line with this, the people started to rebel against the government – using roadblocks as their primary form of protest. Initially, the government’s response was to offer subsidies of $150 to protesters in exchange for some work. Although this was accepted by many, one group – the Unemployed Workers Movement (Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados, or MTD) decided in 2001 to reject these benefits on the basis that the system simply eased the situation for politicians, but did not help the workers in any real way. Fundamentally, what they wanted was a meaningful job.
In doing this, the MTD decided to move back to their neighbourhood and work together to ease their problems. They formed the Cooperativa La Junita and set about working with each other to create an improved living and working environment. First they set up a soup kitchen, then they established a basic bakery with a clay oven and developed a textile workshop to make clothes.
The cooperative continued to protest and march – they even attended the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2001, but efforts were largely focussed on improving the neighbourhood. They participated in a popular university, ran a socially-minded radio station and in 2004 a school was launched. By 2007 one of the cooperative’s most influential leaders was even asked to run in legislative elections as National Deputy. Local business people and entrepreneurs even contacted La Juanita to engage in joint business projects.
Today the co-operative has 52 members who work in the school, textile workshop, bakery and offer different sorts of training to the neighbours. Some have jobs maintaining IT systems and some maintain membership of the cooperative but have found outside employment.
The people of La Juanita found that when times are tough and money is tight, traditional protest will only get you so far. In a world where individual efforts are often lauded as the best way to improve one’s situation, the cooperative showed that engaging in mundane politics, rather than eye catching protests provides the opportunity to improve living standards outside the scope of government involvement. It was their way to find meaning in a world falling into pieces.
Mundane politics is building a school, a bakery, or a textile workshop instead of wearing a mask to a protest march, making roadblocks or looting shops. Mundane politics has the ability to provide essentials, enhance capabilities and build solidarity within a community. The people of La Juanita showed that mundane and everyday politics can be the most effective social movement of all.