A warning to #OccupyWallStreet: anticipating the Phase of Demobilization of previous Assembly-based movements

* Thesis: The Disappearance of the Neighborhood Assembly Movement in Buenos Aires, Argentina 2001-2004: A Phase of Demobilization? Mariah Thompson.

Mariah Thompson‘s thesis is dedicated to understand the causes of the decline of Assemblies in Argentina.


“An interesting opportunity to probe the question of “why do some seemingly powerful social movements suddenly decline?” can be found in the Neighborhood Assembly movement that erupted in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the early twenty-first century and then vanished almost as rapidly as it arose. This nation-wide movement of autonomous, democratically-controlled neighborhood councils and community centers appeared along with several other social movements during a cycle of protest that began in Argentina in the late 1990s. The movement appeared in 2001 at the peak of the cycle, during a political and economic crisis of monumental proportions.

The assemblies were immensely popular and the movement swelled in size and reputation throughout early 2002. At their peak popularity, a poll by a local paper showed that one of every three citizens in Buenos Aires had participated in either a meeting or one of the movement’s activities.3 The assemblies gained international recognition for their consensus-based decision-making structure, high levels of citizen involvement, and community-building activities. However, within only two years they had all but disappeared. Today only a handful continue to operate in the capital.

The assemblies had many roles in Argentine society. They sprang up following an economic crisis that shattered the daily lives of families and individuals, crashed many parts of the middle class into poverty, and made most citizens of Buenos Aires experience a sensation of vulnerability that they had not felt since democracy had been consolidated in the country at the end of the twentieth century, following years of dictatorial rule. Citizen trust in the governmental power-holders gradually evaporated before turning, almost overnight, into a complete rejection of any claims that the budding democratic institutions were operating with the good of the people in mind. In the streets, and without work or any sense of stability, citizens were feeling betrayed and disempowered. The assemblies worked to take the power out of the hands of the corrupt government official and put it back in the hands of the citizens. They offered a way for disenfranchised individuals to connect across class or party lines and help each other in a time of need. They gave the citizens of each neighborhood a place to speak, be heard, and have a concrete impact on the ways that the future of their neighborhood would unfold, without the interference or assistance of governmental organizations.

The disappearance of the assemblies is fascinating because it occurred so rapidly despite the high levels of popularity and citizen participation. It is also interesting because it had been promoted by both the Argentine community and international spectators as an important new form of truly democratic politics that could serve as a replacement to the traditional methods of political participation in Argentina, which had previously been limited to unions and political parties. For the movement to end abruptly demonstrates that the high expectations for this vision of politics were misplaced, that the movement itself was not strong enough to resist the forces that eventually led to its dissipation, or some combination of these factors.

Disappearance of social movements has been discussed by many theorists. This work will examine the disappearance of the assembly movement through the theories of Sydney Tarrow, while also serving to evaluate the usefulness of his theories for explaining this case. As previously mentioned, the assembly movement appeared at the peak of a cycle of contention in Argentina. According to Tarrow, a leading proponent of protest cycle theory, these cycles occur in two parts: a Mobilization Phase and a Phase of Demobilization.

In his famous work Power in Movement (2003), Tarrow asserts that the end of a movement is marked by three sets of causal factors. These include

1) exhaustion of movement members, leading to member withdrawal and subsequent internal polarization

2) disputes within the movement over the use of violence, paired with the institutionalization of more moderate sectors, and,

3) repression of the movement by the State along with State facilitation of some movement demands.

Together, these factors contribute to the fragmentation, weakening, and eventual decline of a social movement. If Tarrow’s theory is correct, it can help explain the reasons that the assembly movement disappeared.

This work will serve three overarching tasks: First, it will explore the circumstances that led to the disappearance of the assembly movement to help explain how the movement could lose significance so rapidly. It will also test the strength of Tarrow’s theory. To do this accurately, Tarrow’s overarching theory of a Phase of Demobilization is broken down into three smaller theories and each piece is tested on its own by comparing the predictions of the theory with the actual circumstances that impacted the assemblies. For reasons of simplicity, in this work the three theories are given the same titles given to them by Tarrow in Power and Movement. They are “Exhaustion and Polarization”, “Violence and Institutionalization”, and “Facilitation and Repression”. Each theory is described in detail and outlined at the start of each section of analysis.

Lastly, steps will be taken to address any discrepancies in Tarrow’s model as applied to the assembly movement, and refinement will be made to the theory to better represent the reasons for the movement’s decline. The goal of these refinements is to create a more specific theory that students of political science can use when analyzing movements with characteristics similar to the assemblies to predict and understand what factors contribute to their decline.

This investigation uncovered sufficient evidence to support the argument that the decline of the assembly movement was representative of a cycle of contention coming to an end. Exhaustion of some assembly members led to withdrawal, and moderate members pulled out of the movement sooner, returned to traditional politics, and were coopted by state agencies. This caused radicalization in some assemblies and made them less likely to interact with other moderate social movement organizations, which alienated them and further undermined the movement.

Additionally, internal polarization of the assemblies based on a variety of factors meant that they could not continue over time as a single functioning movement. Even though the assemblies originally seemed united under their rejection of traditional methods of politics, the concept of the anti-political was not actually a unifying aspect of the movement and quickly dissipated once traditional political institutions had met some of the movement’s immediate demands.

The factionalization over ideological stances was furthered by successful partial institutionalization of the movement, as many members reneged on their anti-institutional stance and were co-opted by the political parties, such as the Workers Party and the Communist Party, who saw the assembly movement as an untapped resource of potential activists, and also by the participation of assembly members in the 2003 presidential election. While additional attempts by the state to institutionalize the movement through a decentralization program aimed at drawing assembly members into local government planning offices, called Centros de Gestión y Participación, were unsuccessful, these attempts added to pre-existing disputes within some assemblies, further weakening the cohesiveness of the movement.

State facilitation of movement demands, such as calls to unfreeze savings accounts of the middle class, was also one of the leading causes for movement decline.

After taking office, President Kirchner also followed through on campaign promises to clean up the judiciary and armed forces, work with human rights organizations, and lower the unemployment rate, all of which were important to the middle-class members of the assemblies. This helped him to re-legitimize the traditional political institutions and made the assembly movement largely irrelevant in the political sphere.

Two of Tarrow’s theories, ‘Exhaustion and Polarization’, and ‘Facilitation and Repression’, were accurate for predicting how the actions of the state and the internal dynamics of the movement would lead to its decline. However, his theory of ‘Violence and Institutionalization’ has several weaknesses in this case. First, it is overly deterministic in that it assumes that all movements contain at least one sector predisposed to violence. Secondly, it assumes that institutionalization of a movement and the use of radical action is always separate, which does not allow for situations where confrontational methods are used by institutionalized sectors. While most of the causal factors outlined by Tarrow were found during the decline of the movement, internal disputes over the use of violence were barely present at all and were not sufficient to have serious consequences. Confrontational actions took place in the form of building occupations and, contrary to Tarrow’s predictions; these tactics were employed by institutionalized sectors of the movement as well as autonomous ones.

Modification of this theory makes it more specific so that it better explains the situation in Argentina during the decline for the assembly movement. A new theory is proposed which states that the use of violence is unlikely in movements with a homogenous constituency of middle-class members. The theory also states that the use of confrontational tactics is not limited to autonomous sectors of a movement. This new theory more accurately explains the way that the assembly movement declined and can be applied to other middle-class social movements with homogenous constituencies.

This investigation has demonstrated several things. Primarily, it has demonstrated that it is rare for a single causal factor to bring about the decline of a prominent movement. The assembly movement did not fade away only because of the changing beliefs and values of individual members, or because of internal divisions over ideals and objectives. Nor did the interaction with other movements or the state single-handedly contribute to its dissolution. Rather it was a combination of all these factors, and most likely others that are not measurable by the tools of social science, that caused the movement to dissolve.

This multi-dimensional explanation for the end of a protest cycle is further evidence that the approach taken by Kardstedt-Henke, which was touched on at the beginning of this work, is incorrect in its assertion the relationship between the state and the movement determines its decline. Granted, the facilitation of key movement demands by the Kirchner regime did heavily impact the end of the movement, and it could be argued that it was the most decisive factor leading to the dissolution of the assemblies. Nevertheless, if the movement had not been so destabilized by the time the Presidential Elections of 2003 took place, the return to traditional politics may not have been as tempting for those who pulled their faith from the grass-roots alternative and put it back into the conventional outlets of civic participation. The fact that both internal and external forces were to blame for the cycle’s decline in Argentina is evidence that a strictly statebased approach is not sufficient.”

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