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Argentine Workers: Peronism and Contemporary Class Consciousness.

by Peter Ranis. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. xi, 313 pp. $49.50 U.S.

Based primarily on survey interviews conducted in 1985 and 1986, this study sets out to explain what Argentine workers thought of themselves and their society in the 1980s. Peter Ranis disputes the relevance to recent Argentine labour history of early Marxist conceptions of class and class consciousness. His results confirm, in effect, what Argentine workers have demonstrated for half a century -- a rejection of socialist precepts that has set them apart from organized labour in Brazil, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries.

Despite having defined a rigorous methodology in the selection and questioning of 110 workers from seven unions in Greater Buenos Aires, Ranis is too rigidly wedded to his survey data. The result is an outstanding collection of worker opinions, but questionable conclusions in regard to working class culture. Ranis maintains that this study is about workers from all walks of life. But even as he dismisses notions of a "working class," in his survey model he succumbs to a key component of Peronist mythology: all members of trade unions are "workers" and all workers are within the Peronist trade union structure. This not only conditions the selection of the survey sample in a manner that neglects tens of thousands of nonunionized and informal sector workers, but brings into question Ranis's chief conclusion -- that the distinctions between the working and middle classes are blurred.

Ranis finds that workers' highest aspirations in 1980s Argentina were to own a home and give their children better educational opportunities -- two of several personal objectives that suggest to the author the antithesis of class action. But rather than rethinking what might constitute a working class in the Marxist terms he chides, or considering the implications on his model of a longstanding and significant labour aristocracy and lumpenbourgeoisie in Argentine society, Ranis stands by his ambiguous conception of "worker" defined by a trade-union structure that includes metal and automobile workers, as well as teachers and bank employees. Ranis is troubled by Marxist interpretations of class in the Argentine context. He proposes to "give space" to the views of workers, presumably in contrast to the methods of structuralist scholars. Yet while he demonstrates a skilled application of Marxist theory to his writing, Ranis is selective in how he introduces different forms of class analysis. For example, in laying the groundwork for a challenge to early Marxist definitions of class, he cites Gramsci's view that 'there exists in the totality of the working class many distinct wills." At the same time, when considering the failure of Argentine workers to "behave" in class terms, he ignores Gramsci's writings as well as those of other mid-century theorists that find no inherent contradiction between "individual" behaviour and class consciousness.

Some of the results are not as surprising as Ranis believes, if one rejects the premise that his survey sample of blue-collar and white-collar employees is an appropriate index of worker sentiment. The data indicate that workers held their employers in high esteem and that there was a more tangible level of contentment among private sector workers as compared with those in the public sector. Almost 70 per cent of workers in the survey did not view themselves as exploited (the observation that women felt much more exploited than men is one of few gendered references to work culture). Other aspects of the survey are less convincing. They highlight Ranis's limited attention to evidence beyond his survey sample, including a handful of recent Argentine studies on Peronism. The data reveal that Argentine workers have a high degree of identity with the cultural values of urban bourgeois society. Rather than reflecting, as Ranis believes, the absence of class consciousness among Argentine workers, this conclusion may suggest to readers that the author has drawn his class divisions incorrectly in planning and executing the survey.

Ranis also finds strong support among workers for democracy. But the reasons for that support are vague, suggesting the need for a more in-depth consideration of the nature of Argentine government in the past decade. Ranis believes that workers' views on democracy confirm their rejection of authoritarianism of the left and right. But he does not explore the nuance of recent democratic rule in Argentina, particularly the rampancy of political corruption, antidemocratic tendencies in the governments of the 1980s, as well as the extent to which workers have resigned themselves to abuses of political authority. On the basis of worker "support" for democracy, Ranis dismisses notions of so-called working class authoritarianism in the Argentine literature. Yet no survey question posed elucidates whether that support represented no more than disapproval of a brutal military dictatorship. As one interview subject stated simply, democracy means "I walk where I want. I speak what I feel."

The survey sample's composition of 55 per cent industrial labourers and 45 per cent white collar workers emphasizes that despite having conducted an exceptionally thorough study of his sample group, Ranis seems to miss an important point about Peronism and the labour movement it shaped; Peron and those who succeeded him in the movement thrived not by building class consciousness -- even in the context of a nationalist resistance to socialism that Ranis explores -- but by undermining it. In effect, Ranis adopts the Peronist model of ambiguous class distinctions within the labour movement for his survey, combining both middle class and working class subjects in a model meant to determine whether there is working class consciousness in Argentina. Though this approach does not make clear why unionized workers have supported Peronism for so long, it helps explain why organized labour has not adopted a more vigorous opposition to Peronism's rightward shift in the past decade.
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Author:Sheinin, David
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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