What are the greatest ironies in Argentina

Light and dark - the social structure of Argentina in transition


With the disappearance of 30,000 people, the 1976 coup was not only the blackest chapter in Argentine history, it also began a development that fundamentally changed the social structure of the country. From this point on, the social divide widened: poverty, social and spatial segregation increased, workers lost social benefits and job guarantees. However, changes of this magnitude do not happen overnight. The debacle began during the dictatorship, but the most extensive changes did not take place until afterwards in the 1990s. Deindustrialization, flexibilization of working conditions, privatization of state-owned companies and a social policy that inadequately cushioned the social consequences unfolded their greatest effect in that decade, and it was the Peronist government under Carlos Menem that finally established the welfare state that Perón founded in the 1950s unhinged - an irony of history?

A look at a number of socio-economic indicators from the 1990s reveals a panorama that could not be more bleak. Maristella Svampa calls this period "the end of the exceptional Argentine situation", because Argentina had until then been characterized by a broad middle class and a high proportion of legally protected and unionized employment, which was unparalleled in Latin America. For Juan Carlos Torre1 In turn, Argentina's special position was - despite regional differences and the existence of economic centers of power - a relatively homogeneous society with minor social differences, in which the pursuit of social progress for all - also known as the "passion for equality" - enjoyed an extensive consensus.

A few indicators are sufficient to give an idea of ​​the deterioration from 1976 onwards. A first poverty study on Latin America, carried out in the early 1970s, showed that Argentina had the lowest poverty rates in the region: 5% in urban areas and 19% in rural areas2. The first study after the military dictatorship of 1984, on the other hand, recorded an average poverty rate of 22%, with clear territorial differences: in the city of Buenos Aires it was 7%, in the poorest rural areas 47%3.

A central phenomenon was the impoverishment of the middle class and the emergence of a »new poverty«, which rose by 465% between 1980 and 19904. During this period, the purchasing power of wages and salaries fell by 40%, especially for middle incomes. In this way, a hybrid layer of "new poor" was formed who are close to the middle class in terms of long-term economic-cultural variables such as educational level and family structure (for example, the number of children is lower than in the so-called "structural" poor), at the same time, however, in the case of income, underemployment and the absence of social insurance - i.e. for crisis-related, short-term variables - they have similar characteristics to the structurally poor.

The numbers speak for themselves. Unemployment rose to 15% as early as the 1990s, and every fourth job in industry was lost5Above all, however, there was a clear increase in the income gap: in 1973, before the dictatorship, the Gini index was 0.34, in 1988 it was 0.45 and in 1999 it was 0.506. Argentina, which had previously been one of the most egalitarian countries, has thus become a society with large income gaps. Ten years later, some economic variables can be seen recovering. Nevertheless, around 25% of households are still poor today. The last reliable measurement of income distribution took place in 2006 and resulted in a Gini index of 0.48, which corresponds to the 1997 value.

This gives an approximate picture of the changes in Argentine society over the past few decades. Detailed aspects of social fragmentation, regressive income distribution and socio-territorial segregation would not change it significantly. Of course, I basically share this diagnosis. In this article, however, I would like to discuss a few facets that run counter to the tendencies outlined so far. They do not fundamentally question the developments already mentioned, but must also be taken into account. This is the only way to create a differentiated picture of Argentine society, in contrast to the sole consideration of the regressive income distribution, social disadvantage and similar phenomena.

There are a number of other phenomena which undoubtedly also point in the direction I have indicated, but which are beyond the scope of this article. By that I mean the new political, social and cultural conditions that have developed parallel to growing inequality and social exclusion. Since the mid-1990s, the emergence of diverse, previously unknown forms of resistance, social compensation and creativity can be observed: actions by unemployment organizations, cultural collectives, district assemblies, occupied companies and a broad spectrum of initiatives at local, regional and national level. The distribution of income has deteriorated, but society does not accept this situation without resistance. Not only from an idealizing perspective, but from a purely objective point of view, it is clear that these initiatives leave their mark on today's society in Argentina. Since they have already been well documented in numerous works, I will concentrate here on less visible changes in the social structure.

Before I begin analyzing this chiaroscuro, however, I would like to mention two essential facets of social disadvantage that go beyond the indicators of income inequalities already mentioned. The first concerns the structure of the population: Argentina has an atypical age structure. On the one hand there is a large number of children typical of developing countries, on the other hand, as in more developed countries, there is also a significant proportion of older people. This phenomenon results from the coexistence of two different life cycles: a "long life cycle" with higher life expectancy and lower birth rate (lower number of children) found in higher, middle and lower classes with better living conditions; on the other hand, the poorer sections of the population have a »short life cycle« with a high number of children and a lower life expectancy. For them, all phases of life accelerate: after a short school education they enter work early and with low qualifications, have several children early and at short intervals, leave working life earlier and die younger. "Live fast to die early" was the title of Susana Torrado 's study on this subject7. The differences between the two life cycles become apparent when comparing the age structures of poorer and richer provinces. The unequal distribution of life chances is a consequence of the lower access of the most disadvantaged population groups to goods and services. Most serious, however, is the conclusion to be drawn from this: the prospects of living longer or shorter essentially depend on where and in which social structure one was born.

The second dimension is territorial. Gatto studied in 14 provinces in the northeast and northwest of Argentina how family and territorial disadvantage mutually reinforce one another8. It shows the existence of 900,000 households with four million people in chronic poverty. This number can be explained by a poor employment situation, but above all by the lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity and water supply, medical care and jobs in the respective region. This hard core of those excluded from society is dependent on both a family-oriented social policy and public and private infrastructure measures in the region. These are extremely disadvantaged people because they lack not only material resources, but also political and social organization, and the more so the further they are from the public sphere, where their voices, demands or protests receive national attention could wake up.

Opposing tendencies

This is where our actual analysis of the chiaroscuro begins, those phenomena that indicate a tendency contrary to the process described above. First of all, it must be said that, despite economic crises, various social indicators have improved over the same period. In 2000, all countries formulated the Millennium Development Goals for the coming decades of development. Argentina has set itself medium-term goals up to 2007. A recent review by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that Argentina, among others, shows an acceptable situation in terms of poverty, pre-school education, unemployment, the proportion of women in higher education, vaccination of young children and the number of infections, illnesses and deaths from HIV-AIDS. The goals set for 2007 were achieved and the trends observed suggest that the Millennium Development Goals will be reached on time9.

This gives a first indication of a relative independence of socio-economic factors from other, more social variables. That is, the latter can improve even if the former get worse. These advances, however, relate to national data, which may hide differences between different social groups or regions. Like other studies, the above-mentioned study not only shows differences between different provinces, but also that in some aspects, e.g. B. child mortality, the differences have increased in recent years. The bottom line is that the indicators continued to improve in the richer provinces, but worsened in the poorer ones.

The optimistic diagnosis is also put into perspective when compared with other countries. Argentina used to outperform most Latin American countries in many areas. If one compares their development over the last three decades, however, much more far-reaching improvements can be observed in many of these countries than in Argentina. In countries like Chile and Costa Rica, where child mortality was higher in 1980 than Argentina, it is lower today. In short, Argentina has made progress on one indicator or another, but regional disparities have increased and Argentina's development performance is below that of other countries in the region over the same period.

A second tendency relates to social mobility. The studies by Gino Germanis from the 1960s revealed an almost unique situation for Argentina: half of the working class children had managed to move up to middle-class professions in just one generation10. Although this represented an exceptional situation rather than a stable dynamic in society, later studies suggest that job mobility - and thus ultimately also social mobility as a whole - never completely disappeared. In fact, recent studies, including those by Jorge Raúl Jorrat, confirm11that this mobility continues despite the impression of general impoverishment. As a result of the employment of women, there is even a trend towards higher employment mobility from generation to generation. Pablo Dalle12 again shows that in the last decade, increasing mobility was higher than decreasing, albeit with fewer opportunities for a large increase in status. So it is very difficult for a lower-class child to fill positions with a very high status, which was quite possible in the past. However, they may want to do a little better job than their parents. In summary, we are dealing with a society that is less open than it used to be and that inhibits rapid social advancement, but that still offers opportunities for advancement.

The increasing mobility of today differs from that of the past, however, in the increasing importance of so-called "structural mobility", the changes in the job structure through economic modernization. As a result, the proportion of low-skilled work decreased, while skilled jobs increased in the growing service sector13. In 1980, 6% of the labor force consisted of academics, 40% of skilled workers and employees and 54% of unskilled workers; in 2001 the proportions of the same groups were 10%, 60% and 30%, respectively. That is, a large part of mobility arises from the simple fact that jobs are ranked higher than in the past because of the skills they need. However, if one compares the income development for the various positions at the same time, one finds that the income has decreased in all cases. In 2001, a skilled worker in the service sector earned almost 30% less than an unskilled worker in industry. It is also possible to make comparisons between different categories or long-term comparisons within a category14. The decisive factor is that structural mobility has increased, but at the same time the social benefits associated with the respective job have decreased. This means that even if there is a rise in the employment scale, the social performance does not have to improve compared to the past or there may even be a loss of income.

A third tendency, which contrasts with the worsening income distribution, is the inexorable expansion of the education system. Almost all Argentines have been attending seven-year primary school for several decades; However, there were still fundamental differences between the social classes when attending secondary schools and universities. In 1990, 53.3% of young people, who belong to the bottom 30% of the population, attended secondary school; in 2003 it was according to the information system on educational trends in Latin America (Sistema de Información de Tendencias Educativas de América Latina) already 74%. That is, the universalization of school education made progress despite the crisis. This is not a dynamic that can only be understood in terms of social exclusion or inclusion.

Guillermina Tiramonti has pointed out that the Argentine education system has integrated the various social groups in a class-specific manner over the course of its history15. Each type of school accepts a particular social group and excludes others, but the pressures of those excluded lead to the creation of new types of schools. In the 20th century, the vocational schools became an alternative to the university for the lower classes, because their qualification entitles them to practice a variety of skilled trades. In recent years, various educational institutions have been created for early school leavers who wish to continue their schooling at a later date, e.g. B. the so-called. escuelas de reingresotailored to the needs of working adults.

In the higher education sector, free state universities with a high academic level were established in poorer areas in the 1990s, especially in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, in order to provide access to the university for a population previously excluded from higher education. Innovative educational initiatives have also been launched by society: over the past ten years, with the help of educators, the unemployment and factory occupation movements have developed new school models whose pedagogy differs from traditional teaching methods. But inequality also plays a central role in this area. It's not just about the gap between state and private schools. There are also major differences between state schools in terms of infrastructure and teacher salaries, which mainly depend on how much each province invests in education.

The fourth dimension in which important changes have taken place is consumption. The "democratization of consumption" has been discussed in Latin America for several years - an indication of the improved access of the lower classes to a large number of goods16 -. The sales of cell phones and computers have increased. In Argentina there is little difference in the ownership of certain goods such as color TVs, refrigerators and washing machines between social classes17. Access to credit and reductions in the price of certain goods favored mass consumption. A decade ago z. For example, there is talk of a further opening of the “digital divide” and it was foreseen that the new IT technologies would increase the layer differences. However, the fall in prices for these technologies, contrary to expectations, enabled poorer sections of the population to have greater access to these products.Another example is the informal shopping malls that are forming in Argentina, as in all of Latin America. So z. B. in La Salada, in the greater Buenos Aires area, where branded goods and imitations of dubious origins are offered. The market has its own homepage, which says: "Because of the imitations of branded products that can be found here, this market is known as one of the largest transhipment centers for illegal goods in Latin America."18. But even without these examples, it is obvious how much the consumer behavior of the poorer sections of the population has changed in the last decade. Even in the poorest neighborhoods today there is a higher turnover in goods, which in turn changes the way in which the exclusion is experienced.

Finally, there has been a major change in terms of diversity and discrimination in Argentina. New laws were passed, but most importantly, significant cultural change took place. This includes the adoption of quotas for women in politics, a law on marriage for same-sex couples and a law against domestic violence in the last ten years. Equally important are the establishment of a Federal Office against Discrimination and an Immigration Act, which previously granted illegal immigrants from neighboring countries the right to stay and work. The problem of the indigenous population, which was previously ignored, is also discussed - especially since the constitutional reform of 1994 and the laws that enable multicultural education. These innovations are of particular importance because the main task of the education system in Argentina has traditionally been to promote the cultural integration of the population. There are also legal possibilities for the return of land to the indigenous population. These are undoubtedly steps towards social recognition and equality. But to what extent does this mean a reduction in income inequalities? It is still difficult to predict. Figures are only available for gender aspects: although the progress is still insufficient, there is a tendency to narrow the income gap between the sexes and to increase the participation of women in the various areas of social, political and economic life. In any case, it is very likely that all of these measures will reduce discrimination and ultimately promote equality, but it would be wrong to claim that discrimination is generally less accepted today than it was in the past. Argentina, like the rest of Latin America, is registering an increase in crime and the fear of being affected by it. Around 80% of Argentines believe that crime is a major problem19. One consequence of this is what we call a "general assumption of danger." It is a matter of seeing a possible threat in gestures, looks or silence in all interactions and in every environment and taking measures to recognize danger and keep it away. This leads to a general loss of trust that affects social life at all levels. The generalization of the suspicion shows a certain persistence of very widespread social practices and state measures. On the microsocial level, this leads to preventive avoidance of the other, which, with the intention of protecting oneself, often unintentionally leads to clear discrimination against certain social groups in the urban environment. The assumption of danger harbors such a profound subliminal risk, because although this behavior is not meant to be stigmatizing, it is ultimately. At the same time, not every difference is fundamentally rejected, and coexistence with diversity and otherness appears possible, even if potentially threatening things are brutally rejected.

The bottom line is that these tendencies suggest that there is more chiaroscuro in the Argentine social structure than is usually assumed. This statement is not intended to represent an antithesis to the increase in social differences, but rather to point out that both tendencies, which are not mutually exclusive and are based on reliable foundations, must be taken into account in order to gain a complete picture of today's social structure in Argentina. An image that takes all these aspects into account and, as a result, Argentine society will not be fairer than in the past, but it will not develop in just one direction. It is also a society that has changed radically. The forms and spheres of greater equality and disadvantage are different than in the past. Questions are addressed that used to be irrelevant, and at the same time some forms of inequality and discrimination that were previously hushed up are no longer acceptable.

Were we such a just society in the past?

A critical look at our present also forces us to review the depiction of the past, which we use as a basis for comparison. A closer look at some of the data on the basis of which we sociologists believed that Argentina was an egalitarian country could reconsider some of the conclusions that were generally held. This view was based primarily on the impressive mobility within and between generations in the 1940s and 50s of the 20th century. As already mentioned, Germanis' works represent an obligatory reference, but so do their limits. On the one hand, his studies were limited to the greater Buenos Aires area and - as was common at the time - to the male population. But above all, they cast doubt on what signs we thought of a society that has internalized social equality as its horizon. By that I mean that economic modernization created new jobs in middle and senior positions, the number of which exceeded those of the children of the elite and existing middle classes. Perhaps this was how this powerful pull came about, which absorbed all those with the necessary human or social capital to fill these positions. It was a "permeable" society that made social advancement possible just as it did decades later, in the absence of a social network, its opposite.

However, is this permeability a feature of an egalitarian society, as we assumed it to be? Or does it not rather show that the ascent was possible as long as the climbers did not question the position of the elites? The opportunities for social advancement are firmly anchored and shape expectations: Nobody is different from birth. This claim to equality still exists today and has undoubtedly played a decisive role in the resistance movements against growing inequality that have emerged in recent years. However, it has not crystallized as a plebeian demand in political institutions, a democratic practice, which could guarantee it in the long term. What we call an »egalitarian society« was more of an integrative »permeable society« - so we rashly equated integration and equality. This idea is difficult to prove, but I still have the option of a mind game. If social equality were indeed a fundamental value of Argentine society, it might have managed to put a stop to the increase in social inequality in the 1990s, as happened in other countries in the region. In Uruguay, for example, the weakening of the state was prevented by plebiscites against privatization, and in some cities the construction of fenced-in private housing estates, precisely because of their socially disintegrating consequences.

Implications of the opposing tendencies

This brings us to the last point, the implications for society of the trends examined so far. First of all, some of the effects that are inherent in inequality in its classic form will be discussed. Various studies have confirmed similar consequences of inequality for Argentina as can be observed in other countries. This highlights the link between inequality and crime, and Argentina is no exception: it has been shown that if the income gap between rich and poor increases by 10%, the crime rate increases by 3%20.

Second, there is the increase in territorial segregation. The research for the greater Buenos Aires area shows an increasing homogeneity of the population in some urban districts with a simultaneous increase in the differences between the various urban regions. The private settlements that emerged in the 1990s are another new phenomenon. Segregation further worsens the distribution of income. After all, the aversion to social injustice rests on the ability of the better-off to empathize with the less well-off and a sense of moral obligation to them. These attitudes are weakened by the lack of regular informal encounters between people of different classes - and these arise in public transport, in public places, in schools and hospitals, in football stadiums, in pubs, on the beach, at mass events, on the street. The segregation of living space and the segmentation of services mean that there are fewer places to meet and thus weaken the structural prerequisites for the development of empathy and a feeling of moral obligation. This in turn reduces the rejection of social disadvantage and the effectiveness of measures for social integration.

These are the effects of social disadvantage that can be found with variants in many parts of the world. However, I would like to draw particular attention to three that are more closely related to the opposing tendencies presented in this text. The first relates to social mobility and results from the impossibility of identifying a trend in a single direction. As already mentioned, the prevailing idea is that there will be massive upward mobility, especially among the middle class. However, the often declining mobility at the beginning of the 90s has now turned into unstable life courses. The impoverished in the 1990s improved their situation in the subsequent growth phases and then plummeted again around 2001. Especially those with higher qualifications and greater social capital later managed to recover. In many cases, long-term development is not a crash with no recurrence. However, the unstable curriculum vitae are characteristic of a large part of Argentine society. Their effects and how they differ from classic ascending or descending mobility have yet to be investigated.

As already mentioned, there is also increasing structural mobility, i. H. the absolute and relative increase in jobs traditionally attributed to the middle class due to the qualifications required. But at the same time the social benefits and benefits associated with these jobs have been lost due to loss of income and the general precariousness of employment. As a result, there was often a social rise in terms of job qualifications within a generation or from one generation to the next, but without the corresponding increase - or even with a loss - of prosperity. This in turn leads to so-called "fake mobility"21which leads to a certain incoherence between social status and the benefits associated with it. For example, with a working-class daughter who manages to become a teacher and has to discover that her standard of living is lower than that of her parents. Their conclusion: "I get on, but I get off." Others want positions that used to enjoy less prestige but are popular today because they offer more security. In summary, it can be said that the change in the social structure in front of the complex panorama in Argentina is different from what was assumed in the classic mobility studies.

A second consequence of these trends is related to the expansion of the education system. The situation of young people is determined by the tension between the awareness of the right to education on the one hand and the difficulties of integrating into the labor market on the other. In a recent investigation22 It was found that all social groups regard education as their right - regardless of the extent to which they actually have access to the education system. Everyone today strives for higher education and there is a perception that the state must guarantee access to it. On the other hand, expectations regarding employment prospects vary widely. While rights are increasingly granted in the education sector, the world of work is characterized by disadvantage and a lack of a say. It is true that the traces of the educational expansion in recent decades can no longer be misunderstood, but neither is the flexibilisation and restriction of employee rights. The world of work is perceived as a sphere with few rights, little security and various dangers. Young people from disadvantaged and marginalized groups in particular fear being expelled from society. This threat is perceived as particularly intolerable as the education system has increased expectations for social advancement. For the Argentinian youth, this results in a contradiction between better access to the education system and at the same time uncertain career prospects.

A third aspect is discrimination. As already mentioned, the sensitivity to all forms of discrimination and the acceptance of what is different has grown. Despite these advances, the general perception of danger creates a feeling of discrimination in those groups of society who are perceived as threatening because of their appearance or age. A comparative study in four major Mercosur cities - Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Asunción and Montevideo - found that most of the respondents in the Argentine capital felt discriminated against23. I do not think that discrimination is objectively more common in Buenos Aires, but I do not doubt that the sensitivity to it is very pronounced. It is possible that in Buenos Aires, due to the relative strength of historical notions of equality and recent advances in the recognition of diversity, fear of the possible danger of others is paired with a strong sensitivity to discrimination.

And so we come to the question of the here and now: What makes Argentine society today? How can their opposing tendencies be represented? As we have seen, there is an increase in social inequality, but also developments that can alleviate it in some ways; a decrease in many forms of discrimination as new ones emerge in the face of constant perceptions of danger that resonate with class aggression. Identities are also becoming visible that were previously unnoticed, and the education system has expanded, while the situation in the labor market has become much more difficult.

Some myths from the past can also be questioned. Some of them have a real background, some don't. Has come under criticism, for example. B. the idea of ​​Argentina as a melting pot that has succeeded in integrating (almost) all kinds of identity. In a sense, that's a good sign - a previously denied diversity can be recognized and valued in this way. So what characterizes this society? Undoubtedly all these characteristics: the disadvantage and consumption of the poorer classes of the population, a great cultural power of their cities and the marginality, the resistance to social exclusion and creative political approaches. This diversity, this heterogeneity of forces, identities and tendencies are proof of their vitality and offer a starting point for overcoming the evils that haunt us today, in the 200th year of Argentine independence.