The problem of unemployment and underemployment in Argentina emerges as acutely pressing and very complex. The National Institute of Statistics and Censuses’ last report on Argentina shows some relevant data. 27.4% of 12 million of the economically active Argentinian population are non-salaried workers. At the same time, the unemployment rate is at 9.6%, and underemployment is at 12.4%. 40.6% of the population lives below the “poverty line” (INDEC, 2021). In 2017-2018, when I conducted field research in Buenos Aires, the Argentinian government had accrued significant debt with the International Monetary Fund, leading to profound economic and social adjustment policies, thus exacerbating these already pressing issues. Understanding the problem of the economic disenfranchisement of the Argentinian population is, however, a challenging task. Take, for example, the internationally acclaimed reports from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, known to reproduce hegemonic neoliberal ideology. Although informal work, self-employment, and unemployment feature prominently there, they have been criticized for rendering poverty an individual problem (Giavedoni, 2012) or for relying on the concept of natural inequality (Murillo, 2018).
At the same time, we need to consider the socio-technical mutations of capitalism apparent in Argentina. Although in contemporary highly-digitized capitalism (Freeman, 2015; Ford, 2016), robots, software, and apps are constantly replacing both low-skilled and white-collar labor, it is risky to make statements about the “end of work” (Rifkin, 1999). The human workforce remains necessary. For example, jobs involving social skills and human relationships (for example, care services) proliferate, and it will hardly be possible to automate them in the foreseeable future (Levy Yeyati, 2018:58). Also, highly-qualified workers, such as engineers, software programmers, and managers remain salaried.
This post explores the shift toward self-employment and entrepreneurship that has unfolded in this context. I argue that as wage forms of labor no longer instantiate the primary concern of capitalism in Argentina, the political-economic apparatus of governing the salaried masses gets repurposed into governing the chronically unemployed.
Since the crisis of 2007 – a historical moment that triggered the digitalization of production processes and mass unemployment as a global trend – wage policy has appeared as the main driving force for all macroeconomic problems (Castells, 2014). While unemployment and precarious employment have grown, the supposed remedy to this problem has been a decrease in public spending. Social policies began to promote entrepreneurship and forms of socio-community organization ― cooperatives and social and solidary economy initiatives.
The current framework to govern poverty is constituted by the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution requirements, understood as a global socio-technical mutation of capitalism led by countries as Germany, China, Switzerland, and the United States, in which the so-called “Third world” states “more than [being] a bureaucratic entity, must be an organization capable of changing its tactics based on the urgencies of concentrated capital” (Murillo, 2018:402). While the trend of global capitalism is to displace the workforce constantly, programs like “Potenciar Trabajo” contribute to improving employment and generating new productive proposals through the development of socio-productive projects. However, these projects are based on non-salaried labor and entrepreneurship. This kind of “social inclusion” disregards labor rights and promotes self-responsibility in precarious and uncertain market conditions.
These programs seek to address the problem of poverty by promoting the development of individual technical skills required for personal and community development. They see the solution in the growth of knowledge-based economies and the expansion of digital platforms as spaces for interaction and exchange. In so doing, they claim to create opportunities for quality, inclusive, and continuous education throughout life (“life-long learning”). In what follows, I will consider this governmental strategy as a way of managing social conflict.
“Technological Entrepreneurs” in Buenos Aires
My research focuses on non-governmental organizations and state policies that provide social microcredit and educational 3D print kits in Argentina. Specifically, I look into a project that promotes training initiatives in applied robotics and the construction of 3D printers, as well as related multimedia technology workshops, social organizations, and cooperatives in slum communities and precarious settlements in Buenos Aires. As I interviewed the participants in these projects, I realized that a recurrent theme reverberated in the material I collected: students routinely appropriated technology to engage with the question of how to transform what was learned into concrete productive enterprises, incorporating forms of self-production, e-commerce, and the future construction of a so-called “virtual solidarity market.” In so doing, they aspired to become “technological entrepreneurs”.
The project participants reproduce values of self-management and self-responsibility with respect to questions of creating one’s work and income. To give but one example, among the communities served by the project is a network of textile and gastronomic cooperatives. They seek to upgrade old machinery with the help of automation. Using the technical knowledge learned at training, they aim to change workers’ skills to operate old machinery. This means that even non-competitive cooperatives must give in to the current technological trends. In this context, I studied a community project (more details in Presta, 2020) and interviewed several project leaders. The following quote illustrates some recurrent problems:
I believe that technology itself doesn’t transform the social bond but it does transform the labor organization forms. The issue is getting the initial capital and creating local, market-oriented exchange and consumption networks (Female, 2017)
My interviewees pointed out the lack of adequate public policies concerning the initial capital acquisition and the formation of exchange networks. They also highlighted the substantial barriers in the process of project implementation, one of which is the pressure to invest their own work time without any monetary compensation (which can be conceptualized as the problem of precarious labor). Besides investing their time, entrepreneurs also tend to accrue debt. Although the state provides microcredit based on a “social guarantee” with a low-interest rate to support the project, a whole new possibility for “indirect” surplus creation and appropriation emerges. Value appropriation is not restricted to salaried working hours. It also extends to social cooperation processes that include the whole society (Negri, 2013: 21).
At the same time, the project participants self-identified as “technological entrepreneurs.” Self-esteem, life self-management, teamwork, and solidarity appeared as fundamental elements of their work, which demonstrates social skills, values, and feelings play a crucial role in the relationship between technology and associative labor. The following quote puts it succinctly:
I don’t want to train kids just to have chances in the market as employees. I want to train them to pull off their own associative entrepreneurship (Female, 2018)
As we can see, the central tendency in Latin American capitalism today lies in managing the spheres of production (the production of a service or a good for exchange) and reproduction (managing social and inter-community relations, socialization processes, calibrating cultural values and norms). In this sense, promoting entrepreneurship implies outsourcing workforce reproduction (community making and worker sustenance) and production costs to individuals and their households.
Entrepreneurship, Feelings, and “Self-Help”
As described above, contemporary forms of labor displacement in Argentina precipitate workers’ self-exploitation (as in the case of the extension of digital manufacturing technologies towards vulnerable populations under the imperative of innovation and entrepreneurship). These projects seek solutions to unemployment through the development of so-called “soft skills”, such as managing interpersonal relationships and feelings (empathy and compassion) (Schwab, 2017, Levy-Yeyati, 2018). In this sense, workers’ collective and subjective potential is incorporated into capital valorization processes (Presta, 2006). Nowadays, these processes extend beyond the factory space and into communities.
In addition, the extension of digital manufacturing technologies towards the most vulnerable sectors implies “forms of self-help” that also have neoliberal roots. Neoliberalism has emphasized the notion of the “entrepreneur” (with differences from Schumpeter to Hayek) and the importance of values, feelings, and affections as the core of government strategies. When they refer to poverty, the proposed solution lies in the combination of individual liberty and creativity: in his book The Emphasis on the Good, Leonard Read has argued that “sometimes hunger sharpens the wit” (Read, 2019 : 52).
The current neoliberal government rationality in Argentina leaves no place for discussions of social and economic inequality. The problem of poverty becomes reduced to an individual and moral issue. The individual must get out of the problem thus rendered with the help of their creativity and wit, that is, by taking risks as an “entrepreneur” in fundamentally precarious and uncertain market conditions. To compensate for this profound precarity, the current policy solutions to the problem of unemployment in Argentina co-opt social relationships and community support.
Castells, M. 2014. La crisis económica europea: una crisis política. Available at: https://www.europeG.com
Ford, M. 2016. El auge de los robots. La tecnología y la amenaza de un futuro sin empleo. Buenos Aires: Paidós.
Freeman, R.B. 2015. Who owns the robots rules the world. IZA World of Labour. Available at: https://wol.iza.org/articles/who-owns-the-robots-rules-the-world/long
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Negri, A. 2013. “Biocapitalismo y constitución histórica del presente,” in Cerbino, Mauro y Giunta, Isabel (Comps.) Biocapitalismo, procesos de gobierno y movimientos sociales. Ecuador: FLACSO.
Presta, S. R. 2006. “Formas de cooperación en el marco de una empresa metalúrgica transnacional”, in Revista Theomai, 13, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, pp. 1-15.
Read, L. E. 2019 . El énfasis en lo bueno. Auburn: Instituto Mises.
Rifkin, J. 1999. El fin del trabajo. Nuevas tecnologías contra puestos de trabajo: el nacimiento de una nueva era. Buenos Aires: Paidós.
Schwab, K. 2017. La cuarta revolución industrial. Buenos Aires: Debate.