Juan Obarrio | The Event of Appropriation

The problem

How is resistance to capital possible if any movement of interruption or contestation is at present immanent to the “logic” of capital?

Where can resistance be located if all life worlds have been appropriated and subsumed by capital?

 

 

“So called” primitive accumulation: of time

In an ongoing, larger, project I explore these questions by revisiting the historico-economic process that Marx studied as “so called” primitive or originary accumulation of capital, by way of Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis, or “appropriation”.

This analysis presupposes a contemporary global condition in which the whole of social being has been subsumed by the capitalist logic of the commodity form. The process of real subsumption is a socio-political context that is experientally lived as an equation between Being and capital.

The current moment of capital constitutes a context in which a resistance to capital cannot posit itself as exodus or rupture but rather can only take place as immanent articulation, as an occupation of a space already internal to capital. This absolute condition internalizes all possible moments of evasion, rejection or resignification as movements that can only take place within the same plane of immanence that capital occupies and therefore are re-inscribed within its very logics.

To return to our first questions, one of the key problems posed by this condition is: how can immanent forms of antagonism resist from within the “logic” of capital and indicate emergent, different logics, when all forms of exteriority have been subsumed?  This is the predicament that seems to be indexed by current movements organized around occupations of symbolically charged places related to political or financial centers, which signal to broader contexts of territorialization: the occupation and counter-occupation of land, territory and borders taking place at key moments and spaces around the world. Current occupations, as forms of counter appropriation, as resistance to capital, attempt to reverse the movement of expansion and expropriation of life. They illustrate aspects of capital’s appropriation of previous life forms and economic modalities, fundamentally its appropriation of labor.

The problem of immanent movements internal to capital overcoming its alleged logic can be explored in relation to the history of capital’s appropriation of the world. Not in the historicist succession of moments that capital itself posits as its history, but in its peculiar temporality: a repetitive structure that could, perhaps, be studied following Heidegger’s conception of Being as the “event of appropriation”

These movements of expropriation, putting in question assumed dynamics of property and legality, illuminate facets of primitive accumulation and its singular temporality as an epoch that supposedly has preceded the emergence of capitalism proper, showing that occupations of place and space need to be studied in relation to the fundamental dimension of the occupation of time.

 

In order to explore this, in an ongoing research project I analyze moments or movements of occupation that emerged in Latin America as resistance to neoliberal policies since the 1990s,

The Brazilian movement of unemployed rural landless workers is a crucial example of the current expression of post labor stances and expropriation dynamics at play in current Latin American movements. Twenty years after the emergence of the Zapatista movement, it is important to reaffirm the relevance that its practice had for subsequent forms of resistance in the region and the world in general in terms of its approach to space and speech. Zapatismo presented an acute conception of the politics of time involved in occupation. Marcos had already established the distinction between the “time of politics and the time of the masses”. This politics of time signal the fact that the social movements of occupation as emergent political communities, represent, besides new forms of territorialization, also an intervention in terms of conceptions of historical time, as an interruption and a critical recall of the historical past.

Through their attempted reversal of the logic of capital, the social movements generate an opening at the heart of the contemporary moment. Subsumed within the current logic of global temporality of capital, these are communities organized around questions located beyond and besides the paradigm of labor. If anything, they evoke it as an empty space of signification, as unemployed negativity. They are territorialized forms of living labor. If the social movements produce anything, this is fundamentally a donation of time. The politics of these social movements, insofar as they create an interruption and a deferral, constitute a practice of giving time to an other and also to themselves.

 

The Open: occupations, roadblocks, settlements,

In Argentina, since 2001, different movements centered on practices of takes such as roadblocks, recovered factories, land settlements or urban squatting, have exemplified the potentiality of openness involved in these movements of simultaneous appropriation and expropriation. The movement of recovered factories, abandoned by their owners and (re) opened by the workers, has represented since the financial and political collapse of 2001 the most paradigmatic example of the “take” as a practice of social movements that reverses capitalist regimes of labor and social relations.

Yet, following transformations in the capitalistic mode, the dematerialization of work and effects of the Argentine economic crisis itself, the locus of political demand and struggle has expanded from the work-place to the territory, the take-as-opening has also become a central practice of the post-labor movement. In what follows, brief contextualizations of these practices illustrate how the occupation of space necessarily implies an occupation of time and how these posit anew the question of the meaning of resistance and potential

By the late 1990’s, the Central of Argentine Workers, (CTA) an alternative union to the main Peronist labor organizations, reflecting the immateriality of the contemporary political moment, defined its constituencies as “workers”, including unionized and non-unionized (informal sector), employed and unemployed, and articulating community movements and squatter settlement organizations as well as formally constituted unions.

CTA has also provided significant infrastructure and logistical support toward the piqueteros (picketers) movement, formed by unemployed workers organized around the practice of roadblocks protests. Within the context of real subsumption brought about by neoliberal governance, CTA, as a post-workerist union, considered territorialization to be at the center of its practice. Its leadership expressed it with the following motto: “today the neighborhood is the factory”.

The piqueteros represent a movement of the unemployed and disenfranchised sectors even though it galvanized protests against neo-liberal policies conducted by other sectors such as some unions, students movements and state employees. The movement emerged within the context of dematerialization and depletion of the national-popular field. Biopolitical reforms on the economy, territory and population have thinned the place of the labor movement within it. In 1975 the population of the country was 22 million and the poor were 2 million. In 2001, around the time of a national financial and political collapse, after 25 years of neo-liberal policies encompassing both totalitarian and democratic “rule of law” regimes, the population of the country was 37 million and there were 14 million categorized as poor. “Real” salaries during that period fell roughly 60% and poverty grew 600%. Unemployment, measured without considering the informal workers, grew up to 17%.

Within this context, the movement of the unemployed was organized around direct actions of protest-as-proposal, thus offered as an opening of territory and of a political space: the roadblock. The first piquete took place in 1991 in Patagonia and it involved the interruption of one of the national roads connecting all the southern provinces. At that time, it was the desperate strategy of workers laid off by one of the main national public energy production plants that was being dismantled through privatization.

The logic of financial capital engulfing national governance later on subsumed the movement’s practice. By the end of the 1990s, roadblocks had spread all over the country as a strategy for demanding increases in meager unemployment subsidies provided by the state and funded by the World Bank. Participation expanded, drawing from those that had recently been laid off, people who had been jobless for several years, informal workers and the urban poor.

The piqueteros movement was consolidated in 2000 through the enactment of direct actions such as piquetes (roadblocks) that launched the first organized movement of unemployed/informal sectors with national scope, relatively autonomous from traditional political parties. In 2001-2002 hundreds of roadblocks were organized throughout the country, some lasting for more than two weeks, thus extending the temporality of the initial event of the opening. Unions also supported the piqueteros and actively collaborated both in the protest and in the organization. People settled on the road, installed hundreds of tents and burnt tires to prevent the circulation of traffic. Soup kitchens were organized to feed all the participants and an open radio functioned where all were welcome to talk on the loudspeakers.

The government’s calculations that mobilization would decline as days passed failed due to the fact that people had better conditions at the takes on the road than in their homes. Eventually the government yielded to the demands, increasing the amount of social subsidies and at the same time accepting demands from other sectors supporting the piquete, such as state employees, students and teachers.

The takes represented by the roadblocks articulated two traditions of popular practice of resistance. They represented two distinct temporalities stemming from traditions of labor struggles as well as from repertoires of practices of squatter settlement organizations.

They combined the working class practice of picketing at the factory entrance with the squatter settlers’ strategy of setting up tents and collective soup kitchens on invaded land. Thus, the takes represented the passage from the immediate event of the occupation toward the attempt of prolonging it in space and time.

This “new” social movement with a strong identitarian component, removed from the traditional labor movement, the piqueteros make reference to a strong class component and its historically resistant tradition within Argentina’s politics, also invokes the paradoxical identity of the “unemployed” worker, implicitly referencing the status of social practice considered as extended “living labor”.

This expanded labor exceeds the traditional measures of time, making implode the parameters that have usually characterized processes of accumulation. This labor (dis)connects in new ways the aforementioned “two different histories of capital”: it exceeds, conjoining them, the labor that produces the texture of alternative local histories to be subsumed and the labor posited as “necessary” antecedent by primitive accumulation.

As mentioned above, these two forms of labor appear in the temporality of the take of “public” space, which is a time that follows the initial event of interruption. Within the expanded temporality of roadblocks, activists participated with their whole families and settled on the road, set up tents and even built homes (shacks) on the site. The piquete warranted solidarian assistance, and food was made available. Unlike at their homes people secured eating and feeding their families regularly. In the roadblock there was also electricity, obtained through illegal connections, which is not necessarily the regular situation at home. Some authors consider the roadblock to be a kind of temporal condensation and natural continuation of previous land settlements. (Isabel Rauber).

Thus, the territory closed and opened at the same time by the take, becomes lived space. Henri Lefevbre differentiates appropriation from domination, as two close terms that mirror each other. According to his perspective domination is related to control and property. While appropriation presupposes possession as a precondition, it is sharply different from it. Appropriation crucially denotes a modification of natural space in order to serve the needs and possibilities of a group. Time plays a key role in appropriation, which has to be understood according to the temporal rythms of life. In this post-Marxian sense posited by Lefevbre, the “event of appropriation” acquires contours related not only to capital’s deep transformation of locality but also opens a space to thinking about the production of a space that constitutes the territoriality of the social movements embodying lived labor.  “Lived space” presents, in this context, an acute political potential,

Participants of the roadblocks argue that “inside” the piquete there is a “re-composition” of the national-popular movement, as interests of workers and the unemployed are articulated within one same struggle. Roadblocks were also places of celebration and carnivalesque festivities, often visited by popular artists, left-wing activists and union leaders.

The mechanism of the take articulated in new intrinsic ways a new identity (piqueteros), a new organizational modality (assembly) and a new kind of demand (employment), which became absolutely entangled within national political imaginations and originated a profound transformation in the repertoires of political mobilization in Argentina.  (Svampa and Pereyra). To be sure, these openings of space and of political imaginations through the blocking of national roads represented a transformation in the composition of the labor classes, from the general strike to the interruption of time-space. Immaterial resistances: as the unemployed cannot halt production, they stop circulation and consumption.

Different political practices of take and appropriation got entangled in political and territorial terms, articulating the roadblock movement with previous, highly organized settlement and housing movements. In the early 2000s a Federation (FTV), got consolidated within CTA, which gathered foreign migrants, settlers, along with peasant and indigenous organizations and different trends of unemployed workers changed that rainbow coalition’s practice of protest on issues of regularization of settlements and housing policies, toward focus on demands for work.

The openings in and of the roadblocks, proved to be also openings of potentiality within the political imagination. In the last few years, the influence of piquetero practice has gone beyond demands around sectorial interests such as unemployment subsidies, food vouchers and land regularization, to articulate larger portions of the popular movement around mobilizations for broader political objectives, such as changes in economic policies or suspension of payments on the foreign debt.

The articulations between different kinds of movements representing variants of living labor –unemployed, landless workers, squatters- take place along lines of territoriality and temporality: as contiguous practices of occupation of space and time. This is observable, for instance, in the case of articulations between pickets and occupations of territory.

In Argentina, the aforementioned long term socio-economic process of de-industrialization and increasing impoverishment of life conditions among popular sectors and lower middle classes, dating to the mid-70s, also constituted the context for widespread illegal land settlements occurred from the end of times of the military dictatorship in the 1970s to the beginnings of the first democratic government. Contrary to the more spontaneous growth of shanty-towns (villas), most land takeovers were carefully planned and had support of other social actors such as ecclesiastical base communities or human rights organizations.

The settlements expressed the emergence of a new social configuration which pointed to the process of territorial inscription of popular sectors. producing the neighborhood as the natural space for political action and organization given that the workplace has lost its centrality.

Territorial activism. Which was originally limited to the struggle for the property of land and organization of neighborhood life, around the provision of basic services (streets, water, electricity, health), later expanded its scope to  encompass new objectives related to the provision of jobs and labor conditions. This expansion of the opening of the political imagination, mirrored the extension of the time of the take, into an everyday condition, a certain stable provisional time.

The first mobilizations in neighborhoods, took the form of soup-kitchens settled in suburban public squares, and were mainly mobilized by women. These direct actions became the meeting place for political mobilization. Certain popular leaders remember these soup kitchens as places where “we ate there, had our breakfast there, we went with the tents and settled down in the square, we had recently been laid off and felt depressed but there we went with one head and eventually came out with a different one….we felt like different people” (Juan Jose Alderete)

In the early stages of the development of settlements, they constituted a community project, sponsored by professionals and activists from different organizations (religious and human rights among others). Their emergence run in parallel to the implementation of “focalized” social policies (subsidies from ministries, provision of food parcels by the state) which defined the singularized specific beneficiaries in the neighborhood and were channeled through local community organizations, supporting their development but also rendering them thus dependent, through financialization, on the biopolitical ruse of state policy.

The experience undertaken by urban squatters of “occupying” vacant houses, also represents a taking over the city. It is often a practice actualized by poor rural migrants’ and their audacity to try to live in the city. Urban squatters who “take” or “occupy” private or public buildings in Buenos Aires refer to the initial moment of this practice as the event of the “opening” of a building. (Procupez)

Once again, questions of time and space blend around these practices, insofar as the appropriation of a place by urban squatters or a land settlement organized by rural peasants, that is, the temporary illegal occupation of a building, is aimed towards a deferral: its extension in time through its normalization within legal parameters.  In a mirror stage vis-à-vis primitive accumulation, violence and the law blend in the experience of expropriation by squatters. Immediately after the take, movements such as the Brazilian Landless Workers, or Argentinean recovered factories or organized peri-urban land and building squatters, mobilize legal advisers, or at least take legal means into account in order to prevent immediate legal eviction, police repression, or actions by former proprietors toward their expulsion.

The take of land, occurred along the fine line between legality and illegality, constitutes an opening, or moment of unconcealment, aimed onto the future. The initial event of appropriation already carries the seed of a life lived in common, and of setting the infrastructures for a political re-ordering of experience.

This rural context also gets replicated in urban and peri-urban land settlements, through the “opening” of the city, in terms of the expansion of its territory and of the scope of its infrastructure, as the takes were conducted in not yet urbanized fiscal land, hence without infrastructure. The opening of new streets or of channels for infrastructure open up both the spatial and the political city, as groups occupying land imagine the opening up for themselves of new spaces in the city understood both as place and as a juridico-political configuration.

In the case of land takes, or squatting of urban vacant spaces, the original illegal occupation takes place as a reversal mode of capital’s history of primitive accumulation: as an initial act of force that already tends toward a horizon of later legalization of the first unlawful event of appropriation.

 

References,

 

Heidegger, Martin. Time and Being . Harper Collins. 1977

 

Henri Lefevbre, The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell. 1992

 

Negri, Antonio, Time for Revolution. Bloomsbury 2004

 

Procupez, Valeria The Work of Dwelling. Life in Common in a Squatter Housing Movement in Buenos Aires (Forthcoming)

 

Svampa Maristella and Pereyra, Sebastian, Entre la Ruta y El Barrio. La expriencia de las organizaciones piqueteras. Buenos Aires. Biblos 2003.

 

 

 

 

 

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