What’s Your Problem? Activities

In this our final extract from What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor, University of Birmingham, Stuart presents three case studies where policy actors have attempted to influence and shape the problem policy process.

If we are wrong, not everything will have been lost, because our organising will have produced a populace that questions, that demands, that moves.

Baptist and Bricker-Jones ( 2001)

This chapter highlights three accounts of actions that have been taken by a range of policy actors in an attempt to influence and shape the problem policy process. These accounts include ‘Feebleminded policies’, ‘The control of tobacco’ and the ‘Piqueteros’. What is notable is that each of these accounts draws attention to the diversity and range of policy actors, positions, practices, relations and sites of action that constitute the problem policy process. Furthermore, each account appears to draw on different assumptions as to what the nature of the problem is, the justification for acting, what is considered to be an ethical act, the nature of policy making and how power and influence can and should be exercised to achieve given ends. Not only does each account provide a different case study for understanding how policy can be read, written and performed, but it also facilitates an examination of the different policy actor positions and if and how their practices seek to reflect and realise such a position.



In Argentina, the origins of what came to be described as the piqueteros, a mobilisation of the unemployed, can be found in the oil towns of Cutral-Co, Plaza Huincul, General Mosconi and Tartagal in 1996 and 1997 (Wolff, 2007 ). Defi ned through the use of piquetes – roadblocks – the piqueteros soon not only became prominent actors on the national stage, but also gained international renown. The term piquete may have been used in Argentina since the end of the nineteenth century to describe unemployed people’s blockades of factories, workshops and other establishments, but in 1996 the word took on a new contemporary resonance as the piqueteros started to take direct action.

The first acts were to be found in the context of the privatisation of the state petroleum company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales  (YPF), signifi cant job losses and the relative absence of alternative work opportunities and social and welfare support. Tactics and ideas varied across and within the various groupings of piqueteros, but direct action, particularly the use of blockades, remained a potent intervention. The blockades were organised through word of mouth and the distribution of posters and flyers citing the date, place and time to block roads to stop the transportation of goods. materials that were readily to hand, most notably tyres and the people themselves, were used to form the barricades. Foreshadowing the Occupy movement, tents and makeshift kitchens were established alongside the blockades. The sight of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people at a bridge, main road or town centre not only caused the necessary disruptions and brought the scale of the problem into view, but also, despite concerted efforts on the part of the authorities, limited the effectiveness of the use of force in efforts to move the protestors on.

The use of roadblocks in these towns and cities, despite attempts to suppress them, led to disruptions of transport and industry which effectively forced representatives from the state to hear and negotiate with the piqueteros. These early actions appeared to provide a model for other piqueteros across the country.  Characterised by open assemblies and participatory forms of selforganisation, and constituted by the unemployed from squatter settlements and a number of suburban and urban locations, by the end of 1997, the use of 170 piquetes had been recorded. The number of piquetes in evidence quickly increased. Some of the numbers are disputed but, between 1997 and 2004, it is estimated that the total number of road blocks was 7,135, an average of 892 per year (Ronconi and Franceschelli, 2007 , p 288). The result of such actions was that the piqueteros became, for a short time at least, a robust and infl uential political actor on the national scene.

So why did the piqueteros mobilise at this time? In the 1990s, Argentina was subject to mass unemployment and underemployment and increasing levels of poverty. Then it experienced a fi nancial and political context that saw national unemployment fi gures of around 30 per cent in 1995 and 37.7 per cent in October 2002 (Auyero, 2001 ; Epstein, 2006 ). However, the existence of inequalities, poverty and social deprivation does not necessarily translate into campaigns, protests and practices that seek to address such issues. One explanation offered is that previously and newly marginalised groups were able not only to identify a means of exercising power, but also to use this new-found influence to win material concessions. More specifically, the disruptive potential offered through the use of roadblocks enabled the piqueteros to win concessions from the state, namely what were described as planes socials – social subsidies granted to unemployed households for the purposes of supporting municipal work schemes and local development projects (Benclowicz, 2010 ; Dinerstein, 2001 ).

Arguably an extension of the practice of political clientelism, where goods and services are traded for political favours (Auyero, 2001), these relatively modest forms of financial support, combined with the solidarity and voice that such activities realised (Sitrin, 2006 ) also helped sustain the piqueteros.

However, it should also be noted that the piqueteros did not just spontaneously emerge. The relations and practices that characterised them can be considered to have their origins in the poor’s retreat to the barrio (Wolff, 2007 ). In the absence of state and corporate forms of support and a weakened labour movement, as is the case in a number of the world’s fast-growing global cities, the unemployed, under-employed and self-employed took it upon themselves to occupy land and provide shelter and basic amenities (Davis, 2007 ). It was this self-organisation and the networks that serviced them that provided the schooling for the relations and practices of the piqueteros (Sitrin, 2006 ; Wolff, 2007 ).

The piqueteros were far from the only social or labour movement that was responsible for social protests and campaigns during the financial and political crises of this period. However, what is notable about them was not just the tactics used – open assemblies and roadblocks – but that it was a movement constituted by those normally considered excluded and marginal to the political and policy process (Abal Medina, 2010 ). Other groups and parties may have sought to represent such constituencies in the past, and continue to do so (Dinerstein, 2010 ). However, when such representation, if not the political and policy system as a whole, was found wanting, the piqueteros sought to represent themselves.

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