Book Review: Workers Go Shopping in Argentina

Based on novel historiographical research, Natalia Milanesio’s book: Workers Go Shopping in Argentina: The Rise of Popular Consumer Culture (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2013) illuminates the transformative experience of mass consumption during the Perón years in Argentina. Although unionisation, minimum wage requirements and work regulations increased the purchasing power of the working classes during the 1950s, Milanesio argues that advertisers, the press and state officials also helped turn workers into consumers by imagining and debating their integration into market society in certain ways. According to Milanesio’s finegrained account, mass-market participation during this period altered both private and public life, challenging gender relations within households as well as class distinctions in the public sphere. But Milanesio’s capacious argument goes further. She sees the rise of popular consumer culture as nothing less than cause and consequence of the structural transformations of mid-twentieth century Argentina. Working-class consumers became modernising agents of social change, helping to shape a new commercial ethos, transform social relations and collective identities, as well as redefining the role of the state as a mediator between business and clients.

Peronism has been studied largely from political and institutional perspectives. Its domestically-driven economic model, populist policies, caudillist leadership, and concern with social justice are all well-known features of the movement. With these features in view, Milanesio goes on to examine the popularisation of consumption brought about by Peronism, exploring working class practices of shopping, buying, displaying and desiring –and how these practices changed. Drawing on the socioanthropologyof consumption as well as cultural and gender studies, her book investigates the historical meanings of material culture, the relationship between subjects and goods, and the symbolic changes generated by mass consumption in Argentina.

The book is composed of six chapters. The first three look at the structural conditions and political decisions that enabled the emergence of the ‘worker-consumer’. In particular, they examine how this new category was socially crafted by industrialists, advertising experts and government officials, and how the dignifying representation of low income workers shifted the language of advertising, creating a more democratic public sphere. The last three chapters study the impact of these changes on gender and class imaginaries and identities. Chapter 4 reconstructs the anxious response of the upper-middle classes to the unwelcome presence of low-income consumers in the urban spaces of consumption, especially in grocery stores, shops and the city centres of Buenos Aires and Rosario. Chapter 5 explores how female consumption contested traditional gender expectations about female agency within the context of marriage, breaking the age-old distinction between male provider and female housekeeper. Finally, Chapter 6 recreates the memory of this exceptional period, examining how working class shoppers today remember and interpret the material bonanza that Peronism brought to their lives.

The book has many virtues. It does a good job of connecting the macro political-economic processes of mid-twentieth century Argentina with the micro changes in identity, visibility and sociability surrounding the emergence of worker-consumer subjects. Milanesio draws on a great variety of sources: advertising campaigns, popular media and magazines, regulatory changes in consumption and oral histories. Moreover, examples are plentiful and used to good effect. Government propaganda celebrating the high remuneration of Argentine workers (p.33), magazine editorials instructing low-income shoppers on what to buy (p.78), and home appliances ads targeting young consumer brides (p.174) are just some of the many examples that help illustrate how state officials, advertising agents and producers helped manufacture the identities and practices of worker-consumers. In similarly adroit fashion, Milanesio shows how middleclass fears of interclass mingling (p.141) help us re-think consumption as a site of class conflict over the appropriation of commodities, spaces and their meanings. Memorial testimonies given by living worker-consumers (p.184) show that fresh access to goods, appliances and urban spaces gave workers a new dignity and visibility during this period, helping to transmute modern Argentina.

Despite the many virtues of this book, the romanticised memory of the Perón years it reconstructs leaves little room for critically evaluating the long-term viability of Peronism and its populist policies. In a country marked by cycles of illusion and disenchantment, and in the aftermath of structural crises such as 2001, the ‘good old days’ narrative of 1950’s market inclusion sharply contrasts with the informal, precarious position of the working poor in Argentina today. By highlighting the dignifying effects of democratising consumption, Milanesio brightens the material and symbolic improvements wrought by Peronism. But the author pays scant attention to the decline of Argentine capitalism, and the deterioration of state institutions during the Perón years. Despite this omission, the book remains a must-read for those interested in Argentine history. This is a captivating, well-documented book that any researcher interested in material culture, gender studies or Peronism should read.

Tomás Undurraga

[La versión definitiva de esta reseña está disponible en Bulletin of Latin American Research]


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