Navigating Dignity through Political Work in Argentina

Dignity is a key concept of Argentine public debates: it pervades polity, politics and policy. As a sort of an absent queen (for dignidad in Spanish is a feminine noun), she reigns a kingdom of national dramas: centralism, war, plunder, land dispossession, discrimination, dependence, neo-colonialism, neo-liberalism, extractivism, foreign debt, corruption, economic crisis, dictatorship, militarism, populism, poverty, unemployment, precarious housing, education, health, and so forth. However, while in collective and individual consciousness, dignity connotes unsolved historical dramas, within the political divide, Peronismo appears to be the only political movement that has made a substantial use of the term, politicizing its moral and ethical basis, and deploying it in a range of fields of power. It is possible to trace at least three visible sides of this. First and foremost, dignity, unlike other Peronistas values of military origin, was largely inspired by the Catholic doctrine of “the dignity of the human being.” A second dimension has to do with the setting of terms in relation with the State: Peronismo placed dignity at the centre of a State grounded on Social Justice — and a passage from a discredited elitist democracy to a State placed above all social classes as the engine of national progress. A third aspect is related with how leaders and their bases transformed dignity into a political concept expressed in the meanings of “work”, both as a right created after dignity, and beyond salary schemas.

Drawing from my ethnography about political work in contemporary Argentina, the aim of this paper is to explore “dignity” in relation with political state processes focusing on the everyday doings of politicians identified with Peronismo. The argument is devoted to show how these social actors produce dignity as a pre-political category through a political work economy of values. The paper proceeds as follows: it departs from how Peronismo established a historical relation between Dignity, Social Justice and Work. Thereafter introduces the ethnography of “political work”, looking forward to elicit the idea of dignity as a result of personalized and de-personalized actions of value production. For this I explore a selected case concerning “the fulfilment of a centenary dream” of a local population that otherwise felt “isolated and abandoned.” I focus on what politicians mean by “work politically” in relation with the construction of a massive 60 kilometres length viaduct over Paraná River. By the end of the paper, I return to the Peronista historical entanglement of Dignity, Social Justice and Work as the hallmark of a division that bridges the state as a general social system and the government as domination schema, questioning to what extent are we keen to think of the State as a locus for political work, and wheter it is possible to grasp its compelling nature without shifting from unmasking rhetorical or cynical “sentences” into a processual inquiry of “values-in-actions.”