Disquiet in the impasse

‘Disquiet in the Impasse’ is an exclusive extract for Turbulence from a text of the same name, prepared by Colectivo Situaciones for their forthcoming edited volume, Conversaciones en el Impasse [trans. Conversations in the Impasse] (Tinta Limón, 2009). The text is part of a dialogue with those who are interviewed in the book: Suely Rolnik, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, León Rozitchner, Sandro Mezzadra, Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Toni Negri, Peter Pál Pelbart, Santiago López Petit, Michael Hardt and Arturo Escobar. The excerpt published here, however, also functions as a stand-alone text which can circulate far and wide; not as a way of producing a ‘group statement’ separated from the threads of other conversations that permeate it, but as a response to a need for spaces for collective elaboration over a present that seems depotentialised whenever it does not acknowledges the value of the struggles of the last decade and a half. Here, Situaciones propose impasse as a concept with which to read the present Latin American situation. An ambiguous, promiscuous moment where the ‘victories’ of social movements in de-instituting neoliberal governance has not managed to replace it with something new, but created a confused grey zone where transformative power and conciliation, emancipation and recuperation go hand in hand. A limbo present where the past and potential futures become so entangled that it takes a special work to identify the vectors that might lead out of it.

Impasse: time suspended

We speak of an impasse in order to characterise the current political situation. It is an elusive image, hard to theorise but greatly present in the different situations we are experiencing. As a concept we wish to construct, it requires a perceptive practice that takes us beyond the representations used by the language of politics, essay, philosophy or social sciences; and a sensibility that will drive us towards this suspended time, in which all acts waver, but everything that must be thought of once again occurs.

The notion of impasse aspires to naming a reality whose signs are not evident, and it is put forward as the key to comprehend the atmosphere in which we live. In doing so, we recur to a set of conversations that aim at investigating what articulations of the discursive, affective and political imaginary order enable activity in the present. A present that, as we said, is revealed as suspended time: between the irony of the eternal return of the same and the infinitesimal preparation of an historical variation.

Impasse is above all an ambiguous temporality, where the dynamics of creation that have stirred up an increasing social antagonism since the beginning of the 90s – whose implications can be witnessed in the capacity to destroy the main machinery of neoliberalism in large parts of the continent of Latin America – have apparently come to a halt.

We talk of an apparent halt because, as we shall see further on, it is not true that the antagonistic perspective has been absolutely dissolved, neither is collective dynamism paralysed, not by far. On the contrary: in impasse, elements of counter-power and capitalist hegemony coexist, according to promiscuous forms that are hard to unravel.

Ambiguity thus becomes the decisive characteristic of this period and manifests itself in a double dimension: as a time of crisis with no visible outcome; and as a stage where heterogeneous social logics are superimposed, without any single one imposing its reign in a definite way.

The truth is that the feeling that political activity from below (as we came to know it) is stagnating and lying somewhat dormant acquires a whole variety of meanings when we regard reality in Latin America and a great part of the Western world. The complexity of situations, that do not cease mutating due to the global crisis, urges us to consider this impasse as a concept – perhaps momentary, maybe lasting – that is open to all possible shades and drifts.

In impasse, time passes by without faith in progressivism and indifferent to all totalisation. Suspension corresponds to a feeling of immobilisation/incomprehension of time, of an incapacity to seize the possibilities of a time hounded by all kinds of question marks. It is a time moved by a dialectics with no finality. However, while it rejects the argument that we stand before a new end of history (as was promoted a decade ago), there spreads a mood in which the exhaustion of a historical sense coexists with a splendorous rebirth of the already-lived.

In what sense do we speak of historic exhaustion? In that possibilities seem to multiply to infinity, but the meaning of an action becomes unfathomable, it dissipates. The possibility of opening (the opening of possibility) that is presented ‘as close at hand’, this attempt at an absolute question (a kind of and why not?), turns, in the tempo of impasse, into a dynamics of stagnation.

Finally, what do we mean when we speak of a return of the already-lived? A phantasmatic economy that drapes the present in memory, so that the past returns as pure remembrance, tribute or commemoration. This return of the same as memory presents itself as a closure in the face of a question that opened a new time and was, nevertheless, left disfigured. Disfigured in the sense that one tried to close it with the historical answers of the already-thought, neutralising it as a space of problematisation. And, yet, it persists, latent or postponed as unresolved tension. Thus, an incessant game of frustrations and expectations emerges in the impasse.

Governmentality and new governance

From dictatorship to the triumph of neoliberalism – as part of a process that can be perceived across Latin America – we are experiencing, in Argentina, the establishment of a new type of government, whose operation no longer depends on the unique and pre-existing sovereignty of the state, but rather overflows in infinite instances of management originating from contingent couplings that can intervene in any hypothesis of conflict. The novelty resides in a permanent invention of political, legal, market, assistance and communication mechanisms that are articulated each time in order to deal with specific situations. Foucault calls this form of rooting of the government in society governmentality. It is the incorporation of monetary mechanisms, of mechanisms of administration and public opinion, media influence and the regulation of urban life that renders neoliberalism a form of immanent control over lives, their calculation and their market disposition; while, at the same time, it takes the development of liberties and initiatives as a supreme value. However, in Latin America this new government regime presented a singularity: forms of counter-insurgent terror between the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s had a definitive role in its instauration. From that moment, the state is no longer the most consistent sovereign synthesis of society and blends in as an actor amongst us, inside the operation of more complex mechanisms of government (governmentalisation of the state).

We believe that due to the collective experiences that emerged in the context of social movements from the beginning of the 1990s until the early years of the new century – and subsequently caused a displacement of the ways of governing in many of the region’s countries, in the sense that they forced the interpretation of certain critical nuclei manifested by these new insurgencies – a point of inflection inside the paradigm of neoliberal governmentality was generated.

We will call this inflection new governance. It is formed by the irruption of the social dynamics that questioned the legitimacy of hardcore neoliberalism and the subsequent coming to power of ‘progressive’ governments in the Southern Cone. Governments that were determined, in different ways and intensities, by the impact of the new social protagonism in the alteration of the purely neoliberal regime. Here we must stress the sense of sequence: it was the de-instituting power of these movements that challenged and brought to crisis the financial mechanisms, mechanisms of subordinated social assistance, unlimited expropriation of resources and consolidated racisms (of neoliberal governmentality); and that, in turn, allowed, in one way or the other, the coming to power of ‘progressive’ governments. The new governance can be explained by this conjunction of dynamics.

By the neologism de-instituting we have tried to convey the meaning of the Spanish destituyente. A power which is, in a way, the opposite of instituent: that doesn’t create institutions, but rather vacates them, dissolves them, empties them of their occupants and their power.

Amidst this crisis, the movements and experiences of a new radicalism also questioned the neoliberal administration of labour and all things common (resources, land, public possessions, knowledge, etc.). These dynamics brought about an attempt at a – however partial – social crossing of the state (as an apparatus, but even more as a relation); a state that is already a form-in-crisis. Far from constituting new political models to be copied, the innovations that were put to practice appeared – where they had the opportunity to grow – as what they are: tactical sizing-ups in a dispute for the redefinition of the relation between power and movements.

Because, if amongst us ‘hardcore’ neoliberalism was able to define itself as the effort to channel and synthesise the social in the sphere of the market (through the general privatisation and marketisation of existence, nature and the state and institutions through outsourcing), the new social protagonism and its de-instituting vocation dealt with the violence of this synthesis, returning to the public sphere the political density that the purely mercantile treatment amputated from it, determining the expansion of a true difference in the political scene.

So, the new governance presupposes the increasing complexity of the administration of the social, installed since the end of the dictatorship. However, its novelty lies in that social movements aim – with varying success – at determining norms, orientations and dynamics of government (state and non-state), in a space that is also permanently disputed. We cannot achieve a definite and irreversible positive assessment of its actions from such a novel character. Rather, we realise that the plasticity and ambiguity of these processes is enormous, for they are subordinated, by nature, to the ups and downs of political struggle.

From this point on, we are interested in analysing what happens regarding this new governance, the specific processes that limit and/or broaden its democratic dynamics each time. For that, we must take into consideration two dimensions. On one hand, the ‘crisis of social movements’, that was formulated at an early stage by the collective Mujeres Creando [Women Creating], was translated to a great extent as a difficulty to favour and deepen innovative policies in the institutional sphere and the dynamics of movements themselves. On the other, the new governance insinuated in this encounter of heterogeneous dynamics was based on the partial and paradoxical recognition of the collective enunciations that emerged in the crisis. As a result, these expressions were recoded by institutions as mere demands, defusing their disruptive and transforming aspect.

The excess produced by the more novel social experiences of the last decade has not found enduring modes of public autonomous expression. However, a modality of this surplus of invention persists under premises that could possibly be taken into account by various current instances of government. In this sense, the postulate that has inhibited political repression in various countries of the continent becomes comprehensible; likewise the hypothesis that it is not worthwhile to keep appealing to the discourse of adjustment and privatisation. Although both can be considered ‘negative statements’ insofar as they translate as prohibition what had emerged as a de-instituting opening, at the same time they display the enduring character of their implications when they manage to be perceived as inevitable axiomatic principles.

Thus, the marks that the crisis (with its main actors) has inscribed in the institutional tissue are still visible today, amidst a process of normalisation and weakening of the movements themselves. And this persistence is presented as a game of partial recognitions with variable effects (reparatory, compensatory, confiscating) that, nevertheless, exclude the specific perspective of the social reappropriation of what is common that has emerged from the agenda of movements on a regional scale.

Let us repeat: this moment is characterised by ambiguity. The democratic statements that survive the circumstances from whence they emerged are left submitted to new interpretations by the disputing forces, to the point that their deployment no longer depends on the subjects that conceived them, but on whoever presently acquires the capacity to adjust them to their own purposes. Thus, the scene is like a game of mirrors, in which we all question the fate of such premises, while the positions never cease to multiply. For example, we cannot compare the experiment of the Single Party of the Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela with the dilemmas that Morales faces with the reactionary counter-offensive; just as situations as fragile as that of Paraguay do not resemble those of other countries – such as Ecuador – that have achieved constituent processes. Neither can we put on an equal footing the military and paramilitary advance in Chiapas, the incapacity of the Brazilian Workers’ Party to create a candidacy that is not Lula’s, or the narrowing down of the number of interlocutors that leave the political scene of Argentina completely hollow, inside as well as outside the government.

The weakening of the more virtuous tendencies that characterise the new governance has determined the blocking of its spirit of innovation, thus giving way to the time of stagnation in which we are submerged: the impasse.

New governance and good government

With the slogan ‘rule by obeying’ (mandar obedeciendo), the Zapatistas sought to redefine, in a fair way, the relation of power from below with the instances of government, once the occupation of the state as a privileged means of social change had been dismissed. ‘Rule by obeying’ thus turned into a synonym of another formula: that of ‘good government’. They were also the first ones to attempt a dialogue with the local and national government following the armed uprising in Chiapas, with the San Andres Dialogues. Under the impression of this failure, the Zapatistas manifested their distrust towards the more recent wave of so-called ‘progressive’ or ‘left-wing’ governments in the region, and relaunched, with the Otra Campaña, their calling to those below, and to the social and autonomous left. What were the implications of the fact that Evo Morales finished his inaugural address by saying that he intended to ‘rule by obeying’? What did the use of this political slogan in a situation as different as the Bolivian one mean? Firstly, it pointed out the weight of the social movements that, in their mobilising and destabilising power, forced a ‘beyond’ to representative forms of government. However, secondly, it highlighted the paradox that those same movements that have turned disobedience into their platform of political action, are now the basis of a new governance that has been in formation since then. In Bolivia, ‘rule by obeying’ was applied to the project of coexistence between, on the one hand, those powerful social movements that have been confronting neoliberalism and racism for decades and, on the other, a set of transnational corporations and political actors that are relevant in the struggle over the exploitation of key (natural-social) resources for Bolivia’s participation in the world economy.

So, the content of ‘rule by obeying’ emerges from the interplay between the ‘new governance’ and the Zapatista idea of ‘good government’ that is deployed in the Councils of Good Government. Rather than being two opposed hypotheses, both try to think of the issue of government in relation to constituent power from below, when they are not crystallised as irreconcilable polarities. And they are proof of how a communitarian element such as ‘rule by obeying’ has turned into an element that is radically contemporary when reflecting on new political hypotheses.

However, the Zapatistas have realised that, in Mexico, this dialectic between governments and movements could not work; this failure thrusts movements into a new phase of silence and, some times, a substantial reconversion of their strategies.

What happens when certain tendencies to ‘rule by obeying’ allow for a new attempt to permeate the state, inaugurating a dynamics of ‘new governance’? We said that social movements (and now we are referring more precisely to specific subjects, organised around embodied experimental struggles) were left without an ‘autonomous public expression’. The transversal plane of political production and elaboration that emerged during the more street-located phase of the crisis does not exist any more, or can only be verified fleetingly, impeding the construction of pragmatics that would deploy the conquered premises in an emancipatory way.

So, in impasse we observe the exhaustion of a certain modality of antagonism, be it in its multitudinous and de-instituting version, or in its capacity to inspire new (post-state) institutions. This decline in antagonistic tension allowed for the relegation of a set of dilemmas formulated by struggles regarding waged labour, self-management, reappropriation of factories and natural resources, political representation, the forms of deliberation and decision-making, the ways of life in the city, communication, food sovereignty, struggle against impunity and repression. This can be considered a sign of the relative incapacity of the ‘movements’ (that means, us) to play in a versatile way in the new situation. Versatility that not only (or fundamentally) refers to an eventual participation in the ‘political/conjunctural’ game, or to insisting on a clash with no destination (in the sense that it lacks anchorage), but above all to the possibility of creating independent areas from which to read the process in an autonomous way. To this end, only the political maturity of the movements can provide the tactical capacity to render autonomy a lucid perspective during moments of great ambivalence, and put its multiple dimensions to play. However, the democratising potential of social movements has remained suspended, a prisoner to the canons of economicism (that consider the increase in consumption as the only element to be taken into account) or confined to a strictly institutionalist dimension, with which the new governance has often been identified.

However, the impasse is also constituted by another kind of indefinition that emerges from the exhaustion of the inherited forms of domination and the confirmation of certain invariants that underpin domination as such. Particularly, the repositioning of forms of neoliberal administration of labour under a developmentist narrative, which not only impedes the better use of the balance that movements have deployed on this issue, but also de-problematises narratives that coexist very well with new dynamics of accumulation that inhibit the broadening of the democratic possibility of the use of collective goods.

Latin America: traversing the crisis

Thus, the current situation in Latin America makes two contributions to the critical reinterpretation of the crisis that affects the global scene. On the one hand, the overflow of images that anticipated the now generalised disaster of neoliberalism (especially in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina); and, on the other hand, having exposed the way in which the constitution of a political subjectivity from below allows for the possibility of a ‘democratic traversing’ of the crisis.

However, this interesting duplicity has been translated in a neo-developmentalist way by many governments of the continent who, while assuming the scenario of crisis, extract from it arguments that promote the reinstatement of a state-national imaginary plagued by the regressive yearning for wage forms. (The explicit or implicit critique of the control exercised by the wage over social reproduction being, in our opinion, one of the richest characteristics of the revolt.)

The lack of subtlety in the discourses that shape the current representatives of the ruling party in Argentina can be attributed to their insistence on abstractly opposing elements that are actually not antagonistic: ‘liberalism or national development’, ‘market or state’, ‘economy or politics’. Although it provides immediate legitimacy and distributes the roles in each scene, this way of expressing conflict entails the risk of re-establishing ‘political’ neoliberalism by evading all critical reflection on the ways in which institution and competition, private and public, democracy and consumption are articulated. The refusal to construct a singular diagnosis and the incapacity to create original interpretations of the nature of the contemporary crisis lead to policies that cannot describe the current challenge.

Thus, impasse is superimposed on the world crisis of capitalism: while capital tries to redefine new alignments for its reproduction, the global dimension of the debate seems to be focusing on the evaluation of the implications of a renewed policy of state intervention. The renewal of this old binarism implies the absence of rationalities that manage to express the power resulting from successive and recent cycles of struggle.


The struggles fought against neoliberalism in Latin America during the past long fifteen years are inconceivable without the development of movements that readopt or reinterpret an indigenous world, native cultures and a myriad of mythological elements that, having been subordinated for centuries to the colonial West, form part of a broader potential to fabulate the present.

The ambivalent existence of those mythological elements is given by the fact that they simultaneously nurture the imagination with new forms of administrating everything common and the autonomy of the social; and, also, they operate – in reverse – as a way of subordinating populations to the national developmentialist paradigm. Neo-developmentalism stimulates an imagery of reconstruction of the social ties linked to full employment, and at the same time it has sustained itself through precarious labour: many mythological elements participate today in complex hybrids that render them functional to these dynamics.

What to conclude from the recomposition of forms of labour regarding economies, such as that of textiles, which are supported by the so-called ‘slave labour’ of clandestine workshops that mix cooperative relations and methods coming from the native cultures of the Bolivian altiplano with criteria of capitalist valorisation? Or the exploitation of the skills and customs of the quinteras and quinteros, Bolivian migrants that produce a great part of the fruit and vegetables that are consumed in the metropolis of Buenos Aires today?

Are these communitarian (linguistic-affective) elements, in a post-modern (post-communitarian?) assemblage, reversed and used as a source of new hierarchies and forms of exploitation? What happens when these same mythical-cultural elements form part of the dynamics of creation of stereotypes and stigmas that justify the policy of the city’s social division in new ghettos and areas of labour over-exploitation? Or is it directly included in the calculation of the cheapening of labour?

So how do these communitarian traditions coexist with the modern, ever strong – and today omnipresent – Argentinean myth of the ‘glory years’ of import substitution, when at the same time the labour market is currently recomposed by elements that are both precisely not modern (hierarchies formed by race and skin colour, etc.) and post-modern (such as those mobilised in large parts of the service economy)?

In response to the multiplicity of attempts opened by social experimentation faced with crisis, the glorification of labour after the currency devaluation interprets the 2001 Argentine uprising, and the open situation of 2002-2003, as a catastrophe that must be exorcised, and once again turns unemployment into a threat and an argument of legitimisation in view of the possibility of a new devaluation.

We mentioned that the refusal of labour and the recovery of mythological elements constitute, among others, the ingredients of a political and conjunctural capacity to fabulate. Included as displaced tension in the ambiguities of the present, they form part of processes of constituting subjectivity in the impasse.

Today, that refusal of labour (its politicisation, its rupture-creating materiality, its other image of happiness) is a vague texture in the peripheral neighbourhoods (those who are in the city centre as well as in the old ‘industrial cordons’). It is included in the urban calculation of many who would rather participate in more or less illegal and/or informal networks than get a stable job. It can be seen in many of the strategies of the youth who do not imagine the possibility of employment, but indeed so many other ways of subsisting and risking their lives. For others, it still persists as a search for self-managing or cooperative solutions in order to solve everyday existence. Likewise, de-getthoising and de-racialising tendencies integrate the city’s liveliest communitarian and counter-cultural moments. They are minority components of an extended diffusion, an active compound that demands great attention.

The crafts of politics

So, within the promiscuity that characterises the impasse’s muddy terrain, what is happening with radical politics?

Although the most explicit merit of the practices and enunciations that were spread in Argentina at the beginning of this century (autonomy, horizontality, street confrontation, insurrection) was to reveal the inconsistency of the previous political institutions, there was another, equally decisive side to that new social protagonism: the opening of a broad field of experimentation, permeated by all kinds of questions and assertions. That is why today, when we ask ourselves about the present situation of politics, it is essential to keep in mind the extensive process of recoding the social that has caused the relative closure of said experimental space.

One of the layers that form the impasse, perhaps one of the hardest ones to analyse, implies the existence of discursive and identitarian fragments that belong to the memory of struggles with which we have learned to conjugate the verb to do politics. This appealing to certain formulas and symbologies of traditions of combat (even the more recent ones) has contributed to the reorientation of processes of extreme conflictuality (openly untameable) according to polarising dynamics that underestimate the sensible richness of antagonism, reducing the horizon of collective invention. When political difference is reconstituted in terms of binary options, the constituting experience ends up being replaced by a codified representation of the same.

Even so, we can distinguish moments of decodification and attempts at autonomous interpretation parting from efforts of relative subtraction that perforate the polarising calling. They are not experiences to be idealised, but rather active situations that, producing their own languages, create lateral drifts that try to evade the dominant code, the one that is articulated with the paradigm of government and establishes the monolinguism of capital.

We refer to processes in which the coexistence of a plurality of elaborations of meaning, living territories, and significant ties, lead to unique and unyielding compositions. In this sense, the production of intelligibility overflows the field of discourse and opens up to a much broader diagram (affective, imaginary, bodily), which can be observed at the level of great public and media visibility, as well as on the streets, in domestic-informal economies, and even in our physiological organs (eyes, brain, kidneys).

Antagonism has not disappeared. It has been led to polarisation, but at the same time it has been dispersed in mud and promiscuity, to the point of being played as a possibility in every situation. That is why we can insist on the true political value of collectives (the more inadequate they are in relation to the surrounding discourse, the greater this value is) that refuse to dissolve in the common sense that is articulated in the polarising process.

If it is so hard for us to figure out what political intervention is today, it is because of the ambiguity and the vertigo that make any categorical assertion impossible and render the exercise of evaluation even more complex. We must not react with conservatism, restoring the certainties that remain standing but, rather, immerse ourselves in this ambivalent medium, filled with very real potentialities that never manifest themselves but impede the definite closing of ‘reality’.

Perhaps politics is, more and more, this inflection through which we give consistency to the situations in which we find ourselves, discovering the capacity to fabulate on our account. This labour requires a delicate craft.

Translated by Anna-Maeve Holloway.

Colectivo Situaciones [trans. Situations Collective] are a Buenos Aires-based militant research collective with a long track record of intervention in Argentine social movements, including work with the unemployed workers’ movement of Solano; HIJOS, the organisation of children of the military dictatorship’s ‘disappeared’; and Creciendo Juntos, an alternative school run by militant teachers.


The original Spanish version of this extract can be found here.

Buzz it!
  • Who we are

    Turbulence is a journal/newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them. Read more here

  • Turbulence on Myspace

Flattr this