An analysis of hegemony and consciousness among the economically distressed middle class of Argentina provides lessons for activists everywhere, finds Orlando Hill
Daniel Ozarow, The Mobilization and Demobilization of Middle-Class Revolt, Comparative Insights from Argentina (Routledge), 271pp.
Daniel Ozarow is not just a Marxian academic, but an activist both in his local community, as a member of the Elstree and Borehamwood Residents Association and as chair of the Hertsmere Labour Party, and in international solidarity as an organiser of Action for Argentina UK. This book is a result of his academic research and his political activism.
Using Argentina as a case study, Ozarow investigates the question of how middle-class citizens respond to the dramatic decline in material well-being and the threat of proletarianization. Why do some become politicised and join social movements, while others resort to individual coping strategies? According to the neoliberal rational-choice theory assumption, faced with a financial shock, people are expected to act solely as economic agents and rational decision-makers and seek out private economic responses. However, that doesn’t necessarily happen. Latin America’s recent history has shown a mixture of responses from the struggling middle-class (the new poor), from self-improvement strategies, including migration, to collective protest action swinging from the left to the right.
Ozarow recognises the difficulty in precisely defining ‘the middle class’. In his opinion this has prevented studies of the participation of the middle class in social movement from being conducted. Furthermore, the ‘middle class’ has been inflated by rhetoric of ‘we are all middle-class’ used by reformists. The book uses the term middle class more as a subjective and political identity rather than as an objectively defined social class.
For the purpose of the book, those interviewed had to satisfy three characteristics: a) hold a professional qualification or own a small business; b) own a home, and c) have worked in a perceived middle-class job. Of course, only those individuals who had experienced a fall in their income below the national poverty line figure of 232 pesos or US$2 per day were shortlisted to be interviewed. However, more important than the actual figure was the subjective perception of the interviewees’ economic descent.
Accepting or questioning hegemony
Ozarow uses Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony to explain how the ruling class manages to maintain their dominant position in society through consent, without necessarily having to resort to state violence. Even so, the state does not shy from using violence when threatened, as seen in Argentina and countries across the world.
The middle class, and many among the working class also, develop a ‘false consciousness’ in which they come to believe that they share the same interests as the ruling class. In their search for culprits for their economic decline, they end up focusing on migrants, the ‘undeserving’ poor and other minority groups. This cultural hegemony is imposed through various channels, but the objective is to convince society that the existing order is natural and therefore legitimate. Consequently, the majority strive to defend the interests of capital without even perceiving it. However, hegemony is not just unidirectionally imposed from above. It is a dialectical process between unequal sides in which the popular classes can ‘either support, reshape or even resist the ruling class’ attempt to impose hegemony’ (p.51).
In Ozarow’s opinion, Gramsci’s theory is crucial in the understanding of the mobilisation and demobilisation of popular movements, in the case of this book, of the middle class. When the ruling class succeeds in gaining the hegemony in the narrative that explains the pauperisation as a result of individual choices, or simply as a temporary state in the economic cycle which will soon be over, then the middle class is far more likely to internalise the crisis and adopt self-improvement strategies available to them as a result of their networks and social capital. However, if the narrative of the elite is questioned then the false consciousness can be broken, and people become conscious ‘that they had been supporting the dominant class’ interests rather than their own’ (p.71). It is when the middle class:
‘become proletarianized and construct alliances with the traditional poor and working class then take action alongside them within popular movements that their potential to change governments, influence policy or draw global media attention is strongest.” (p.17).
This state of consciousness can be achieved by bringing together seemingly unconnected struggles in a counter-hegemonic project such as that carried out by the Peoples’ Assembly Against Austerity (PAAA). Ozarow recognises the importance of the PAAA in paving the way for the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and ‘the resurgence of the Labour Party under a socialist project against neoliberalism and austerity’ (p.246). A similar project, the Constituyente Social, was also launched in Argentina, but with less success.
Despite its academic approach, this book is highly readable. It should be read not only by those interested in Argentina and Latin America, but by all those involved in political activism who wish to broaden the movement and build a project that seeks systemic change. The book is a good introduction to the Marxian theory of consciousness. Ozarow manages to examine the recent history of Argentina and extract lessons that are useful for activists across the globe. The only complaint I have is with the price. As with most academic books published by Routledge it is expensive for most activists, at £115.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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