[DEBATE] : Crit of the Bamako Appeal & WSF...THE ZAPATISTAS AND PEOPLE'S POWER Gustavo Esteva
Riaz K Tayob
riazt at iafrica.com
Sun Sep 24 12:52:20 BST 2006
What informed my question of the criticism...
THE ZAPATISTAS AND PEOPLE'S POWER
Even today, five years after its public emergence, to approach the
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) means to enter into the
reign of paradox: a revolutionary group with no interest in seizing
power; an army shooting civil resistance and non violence; a social and
political movement renouncing to any public position; a locally and
culturally rooted organization with a global scope; it is singular and
typical, traditional and contemporary... Its attitude about democracy is
ambiguous, if not unbearable paradoxical: clearly and firmly affiliated
to it, the EZLN is at the same time its radical critic.
In examining here these paradoxes, I try to describe the content and
implications of the Zapatista proposals. I would like to make it evident
their importance for the current transition in Mexico and the
inspiration that other social and political movements can get from them.
Democracy is now both a supreme universal ideal and a frayed flag. Only
the likes of the Nazis dare to openly challenge it. But to be for
democracy does not say much today in settings deemed paradigmatic--most
particularly the setting of the modern nation-state, with its ritualized
circus of votes and election years.
Rather than elaborating a critique of the conventional idealization of
such a vague notion, the Zapatistas are exhibiting the nakedness of the
emperor. They bring to the public agenda and speak louder what before
them was a widely shared open secret, which very few dared to declare:
the extended disappointment with democratic realities.
The abandonment of the ballot box and the political parties was already
revealing people's increasing awareness of democracy's flaws: not only
"imperfections" (manipulation of suffrage, etc.) but its very nature. It
is a regime in which only a minority of the people, and almost always a
minority of the electorate, determines the political party that will
govern the country; only an exiguous minority of that party determines
who will be in charge of the government; and those in government take
their decisions over or even against party programs, electoral promises
or public consensus.
But there seemed to be no option. The Zapatistas gave legitimacy to a
struggle for democracy that neither surrender itself to its illusions
nor aspire to a transitory or permanent despotic substitute; a struggle
that does not aim to conquer the "democratic power" but to widen,
strengthen and deepen the space where people can exert their own power.
For the Zapatistas, as for many people, democracy means people's power.
This is not a simplistic or rhetorical version of the democratic
discourse. It grasps its very essence. After all, people's power is but
the translation of the Greek work democracy, from demos -the people, the
commons- and kratos -force, power, rule. For those who constitute "the
people", democracy is a matter of common sense: that ordinary people
govern their own lives. It does not allude to a kind of government, but
to a government end. It is not a collection of institutions, but an
historical project. With the word democracy, people are not alluding to
present democracies, already existing or being established, but to the
thing itself, to people's power.
This notion of democracy should be distinguished from formal or
representative democracy and other political conceptions. It does not
correspond, for example, to the expression "government of the people, by
the people, for the people" . It is not equivalent to "direct
democracy". It is something else. I call it here "radical democracy", an
expression that captures popular experiences and debates. It means
democracy in its essential form.
From the standpoint of radical democracy, the justification of every
other kind of regime is something like the illusion of the emperor's new
clothes. Even a people that has lost its political memory...may still
make the discovery that the real source of power is
themselves...Democracy is the radical, the square root of all power, the
original number out of which all regimes are multiplied, the root term
out of which the entire political vocabulary is ramified...Radical
democracy envisions the people gathered in the public space, with
neither the great paternal Leviathan nor the great maternal society
standing over them, but only the empty sky-the people making the power
of Leviathan their own again, free to speak, to choose, to act. Lummis
This notion is ambiguously present in all political theories and the
democratic debate: everybody flirts with it but at the same time evades
it, as if no one dared to deal with it from beginning to end; as if it
was too radical or illusory; what everybody looks for but no one can get.
Democratic theories shifts away from this notion, thus betraying the
root of democracy as people's power. They define democracy as a form of
government and a collection of institutions in which people's power is
continually transferred to them. They recognize that people are the
source of all legitimate power, but observe that, in modern societies,
people can have the power, but not exert it. They legitimize the
sequestration of democracy by parties and media, which manipulate the
voters, turning illusory the suffrage, and reduce the options of the
electorate. They are constructed on Hegel's apothegm, ruling since 1820
the debate on democracy: "The people cannot govern themselves". Assumed
by both liberals and socialists, this principle surrenders the exercise
of power to self-appointed elites and reduces political struggle to the
ways for their legitimation, accountability and substitution.
Radical democracy rejects such shift. It attempts that the political
regime expresses people's power in the very exercise of power, not only
in its origin or constitution. It is not a return to a previous stage.
Well rooted in a variety of traditions, it expresses the contemporary
struggle of peoples which experienced how "democratic" governments
corrupt themselves and betray their purposes and functions, and now
attempt to modify such situation. They try to live in the "democratic
state": to maintain in daily life that open and free condition.
The democratic condition exists when the people adopt the social form of
existence in which that is possible, that is, when they endow themselves
with the political bodies in which they can exert their power. There are
not clear options for that purpose: for a hundred years we stopped
thinking, obsessed with the ideological dispute. In searching for them,
however, the urban or rural grassroots communities, the mutation of
civil society and the reformulations of the state come to the mind. The
Zapatistas are involved in such search, struggling for people's power.
Equality and representation
The social pact in which modern democracies rest is supposedly
celebrated by equal and homogeneous individuals constituting electoral
majorities, under the principle of representation. Homogeneity and
equality, however, are but illusions; they are imposed by force and
generate inequality and privilege. Electoral majorities are but a
fictitious set of individuals supposedly endowed with a common reason.
The system is based on the myth that they can express the rational
interest of everyone and give to it a political form through their
votes, that is, that the individual would be capable, through
statistical aggregation, to determine the outcome of political action.
It is a system that everywhere has generated corruption and bad
government, which are incurable diseases in all the societies called
People are not individuals, but singular men and women. Through the
abstract category of individuals, their condition is reduced to an atom
of a bracket defined and controlled by others, and treated accordingly,
in the terms prescribed for the mass of individuals constituting every
abstract category: passengers in a flight, social security members,
voters, consumers, students, workers...In a mass, however, people loose
their mobility . In spite of its radical resonance, the word 'mass'
comes from the bourgeoisie and the church: it reduces people to the
condition they share with material things, being measured by units of
volume . The illusion that the mass of consumers controls the market,
the mass of workers capital and business, and the mass of voters
political power, only hides the real state of things, in which people
are continually deprived of their economic and political power.
People are persons, knots in nets of concrete relations. They want to
continue being persons (people cannot be otherwise), and to organize the
society in a way in which they can be treated as such, not as
individuals or masses. This personalized treatment is a normal condition
among the "poor" in their own contexts, in their communities and
barrios: Juan is this singular and unique man, bearer of a net of
concrete relations defining him; in his space, he is always recognized
and treated for who he is. Only the very rich have such a privilege in
modern democracies. "Come in, Mr. Rockefeller", the employees will tell
him in the bank, while sending all the rest to the line. The Zapatistas
claim for everyone such personalized treatment, as a style of social
People are not homogeneous and even less equals. They are heterogeneous
and different. The illusion of equality, which now operates as a popular
prejudice , became an ideal under specific historical circumstances, to
struggle against power abuses and people's destitution. It now operates
as a continual source of illegitimate privileges and inequality. The
Zapatistas denounce the illusory character of this ideal, recognize
personal and collective differences and claim people's power, for the
end of privilege and license. They also affirm the assumption of the
diversity of all peoples and cultures, whose interaction should occur on
equal footing, that is, with no implicit or explicit assumption of the
superiority of any culture over the others, in order to establish the
harmonious coexistence of all the "different".
Most people want to govern themselves. There is no need to transfer
their power to the market or the State, under the assumption that their
mediation is indispensable, to later regret the consequences of their
voracity and corruption. If people reorganize themselves in political
bodies in which they can exert their power, some limited but important
functions, that cannot be absorbed by those political bodies, could be
entrusted to new institutions, in which the principle of command by
obeying , rather than representation, will be applied. That seems to be
the approach of the Zapatistas to political power.
When Marcos, the Zapatista speaker, was asked if they were not betting
too much in the civil society, he answered unhesitatingly: "And how not
to, if it has demonstrated so many times what it is capable of doing!"
When the journalist argued that it still looked too disorganized and a
little slow, he smiled and pointed out: "And however it moves! (La
References to "civil society" are a constant in the discourse of the
Zapatistas. They find wide echo, but also are a source of confusion,
given the long and convoluted conceptual and practical history of the
expression. (See Cohen and Arato 1992; Ferguson 1969 and Lummis 1996).
In its current incarnation, the notion can be associated with popular
movements, in Eastern Europe and Latin America, that did not adopt the
classic form of class organizations or parties for the substitution of
authoritarian regimes. Their theoretical referents often include
Gramsci, but also use ideas and experiences from many different
traditions. Their common denominator is the autonomy of the
organizations constituting civil society, their independence from the
State and their antagonism towards it.
Liberal pluralism, more in line with the traditional meaning, assume
that private businesses are the central actor of civil society, which is
guided by a spirit of competition . When both liberals and neoliberals
now proclaim: "as much society as possible, as less government as
necessary", they express the opposite of what is being claimed by
popular movements. The latter look for as much government of behaviors
and events as possible, but by the people themselves, in their daily
life. While the liberals transfer the function of government to private
business, under the pseudo-anarchist illusion of the self-regulated
market, the popular incarnation of the civil society attempts to snatch
it from the state to give it back to the people, not to capital, that
they can neither trust.
In Mexico, two specific periods re-legitimized and gave new meaning to
the expression. The mobilizations and the initiatives emerging after the
1985 earthquake in Mexico City redefined it. "The earthquake raised the
term to the height of its glory. And on the 22nd of September it starts
to be commonly used, at first as synonym for 'society' without any
additional organizational emphasis or meaning. But by the beginning of
October practice dominates: civil society is self-generated community
power and solidarity, the space independent of the government, the
actual antagonistic zone" (Monsiváis 1987, 78-79; translation by Frank
Bardacke, quoted in Lummis 1996, 168). During a period of accumulation
of forces in silence, insurgence occupied the place of guerrilla, and
liberation became a substitute for development, while independent
organizations got legitimacy. The uprising of 1994 prolonged the shift
of 1917 (the Mexican Revolution, when "the people" became an alternative
to "the nation"), and the organizational forms adopted by the people
became those of civil society, which thus expressed "people's will".
Civil society is therefore defined as the sphere of society autonomously
organized, in opposition to that established by the state or directly
controlled by it or associated to it. It is not a substitute for other
expressions having the same content of antagonism and a similar
political meaning. It is not, for example, "the vanguard", as the agent
for historical change. In contrast with a class or a party rising up to
seize the power of the State, to impose from it a new regime, the civil
society empowers itself in rising up, or, to be precise, with its
mobilization activates the power it already has. Instead of occupying
the State or substituting their managers or leaders, it stands against
it, marginalize it, control it. It is not constituted by masses: it is
not a herd, but a multiplicity of diverse groups and organizations,
formal or informal, of people who act together for a variety of
purposes. Given that organizational condition, in small groups, it does
not lead to the "tyranny of the majority": its form of operation
resembles the model of society that Alexis de Tocqueville, who coined
that expression, considered the best protection against it (Lummis 1996,
30-31). It neither leads to a bureaucratic dictatorship in charge of the
This historical variation in content of the term 'civil society',
charged in it by popular movements, is a substantial part of the
political conceptions of the Zapatistas. It is not an actualization of
the classic term, but alludes to a mutation in the political body.
The contemporary coalitions of discontents play a central role in the
new composition and dynamics of the civil society . They tend to adopt,
in their initiatives, the "politics of no", which has allowed them to
resist the temptation of their globalization.
Globalization, usually proclaimed as a description of the real
conditions of the social life in the planet, is only real at the level
of discourse. True, internationalization of capital is now in its
culminating phase and the system of communication has a global reach.
True, there is an increasing uniformity in the life style of wide
minorities, both in North and South. True, Coke, MacDonald's, Benetton
or Sheraton are everywhere. All these facts seem to give empirical
foundation to the illusion that the world's population is being
"globalized" -a prospect that some see as a threat and some others as a
promise, but is usually assumed as a fact. The emblem of globalization
hides the fact that the social phenomenon effectively defining the
general trend, at the end of the century, is marginalization and
localization, rather than globalization.
All people on earth seem now exposed to "global forces", but most of
them, the social majorities, will never check into a Sheraton or have a
family car: the "globalizers" would deplete the world's resources well
before they can adopt the life style of the globalized minorities. They
are in fact increasingly marginalized from such life style. Instead of
frustration, rage or even desperation, an increasing number of people
are reacting against the globalization of their marginality with
localization: they are more firmly rooting themselves in their physical
and cultural soils, in their commons, in the spaces that belong to them
and to which they belong.
Most of the localized initiatives now proliferating are the expression
of social discontent, given the discomfort provoked by globalized
phenomena. They thus naturally derive towards coalitions drawing
together local discontents in common efforts. Such coalitions do not
uproot them, reduce their autonomy or dissolve them in national or
global ideologies or campaigns. They resist the temptation of aping the
scale of global campaigns launched by governments and corporations. They
recognize that, rigorously speaking, global thinking is impossible.
Imperialist governments and transnational corporations practice it at
the price of statistical simplifications that cannot be called thinking
and do to the globe the same that a satellite: reduce it to a blue
bubble (Berry 1991). By resorting to the politics of "no", the new
coalitions of discontents affirm them in their own local spaces, while
widening their social and political force to promote their localized
views and interests.
To say no may be the most complete and vigorous way of affirmation. The
unifying "no", expressing a shared opposition, usually conveys multiple
"yeses": the affirmations of what all those sharing a rejection are and
want. The organization around what people don't want, avoiding the
condensation of their diverse affirmations, recognizes such plurality.
It thus potentiates the political force of the rejection, protecting the
capacities and initiatives of those affirming themselves in their own
spaces, mutually supported by the "no". Politicians and parties, in
contrast, always in need of followers, find impossible or ineffective to
focus themselves in the "no". They continually look for affirmative
proposals, defining homogeneous and abstract ideals or wants. They thus
unavoidably betray real people's hopes, carpetbagging with them.
The motives of those opposing a dam, a nuclear plant or a political
regime are usually highly diverse. Some would be protecting their life
space, and some others would be pursuing general ideals. Rarely they can
reach a consensus about what they want, about their aspirations, given
the diversity of their affirmative proposals; but instead of
homogenizing them, to define a common goal, they use that diversity to
nourish and enrich their common articulation of a specific rejection.
Recent history is particularly abundant in examples of social and
political movements succeeding in their efforts to restrict, reject,
limit. They have been able to effectively and in good judgement say "No,
thanks". Each of their successes has translated into an effective
affirmation of the diverse initiatives of those coalesced in a specific
struggle. In contrast, they often failed or were dismantled when their
own dynamics lead them to formulate affirmative proposals. After loosing
their negative consensus, they weakened their driving forces, which
tended to disperse. Many movements, highly vigorous at the beginning,
failed to take off or lost their spirit and stamina when they gave an
affirmative content to political proposals based on a radical critique.
The "greens" are perhaps the best illustration of this process.
Globalized phenomena are real. Identifiable actors are promoting them.
There are thus reasons to create coalitions of discontents of very
different peoples and cultures, sharing a common opposition to those
phenomena and lacking enough force to struggle against them at the
local, regional or national level. To give to them the appropriate
content, to keep their force and vitality without betraying their
original impulse, they should stay in the plane of what they don't want.
The Zapatistas activated millions of discontents, which quickly
organized politically effective coalitions, with one single word:
Enough!. Wide sectors of Mexicans, with very diverse motives of
discontent, felt themselves affirmed by such expression of dignity and
started to mobilize themselves. The Zapatistas resisted the temptation
of leading all those movements, to unify them around a single ideology,
a common ideal or a specific political proposal. They thus propitiated
that the affirmation of very diverse conceptions strengthen the common
rejection. Enough! now is a vigorous political position, shared by
millions of Mexicans, who also use it colloquially, in their daily life.
The expression quickly jumped over Mexico's frontiers and started to
extend. Assumed as their own by many others, it started to unify the
common rejection to phenomena of global reach, to a point in which the
temptation to organically unify them, to globalize them, clearly
emerged. In convening the First Intercontinental Encounter the
Zapatistas seemed to be addressing such expectation and many people came
to it with that idea in mind. In La Realidad the opposite happened.
Instead of a new bureaucratic apparatus, for the world coordination of a
political movement expressing universal ideals and proposals, the
International of Hope was created: a web constituted by innumerable
differentiated autonomies, without a center or hierarchies, within which
the most varied coalitions of discontents can express themselves, to
dismantle forces and regimes oppressing all of them.
To say no, with enough firmness, dignity and conviction, may be today
the best way to say yes.
Autonomy and democracy
The Zapatistas brought the question of autonomy to the center of the
political debate in Mexico, particularly in relation with the Indian
peoples. But they refused to specify their own notion of autonomy, that
they apply in their communities, clearly aware that it is not the only
one and not necessarily the better. They neither attempted to define the
form of autonomy. Their claim "could be applied equally to the
townships, to the unions, to social groupings, to campesino groups..."
"We have submitted our proposals", they specified, "but we have
repeatedly say that we will not impose them to anyone" (Autonomedia
1995, 299). The affirmation of the autonomies, in plural, expresses a
common rejection to the dominant heteronomy.
For the Indian peoples, autonomy implies, first of all, respect and
recognition for what they already have. It is not an ideological
proposal or a promised land. A Yaqui leader specified: "Autonomy is not
something that we need to ask to someone or that someone can give to us.
We occupy a territory, in which we exert government and justice in our
own way, and we practice self-defense. We now claim respect and
recognition for what we have conquered". (ANIPA, Oaxaca, August 1995).
But in transforming their resistance into a struggle for liberation,
they want to go beyond the liberal or neoliberal dream, which has become
a nightmare for them, and beyond representative democracy, which keeps
people trapped in an illusion. As the Zapatistas say, "things will only
change if there also are changes up stairs" (Autonomedia 1995, 299).
This notion of autonomy is but another name for radical democracy. It
implies your own government, and command by obeying. Power is not
delegated in rulers "autonomizing" themselves from the ruled for the
period of their mandate. A position of authority is assumed as a cargo,
a burden, a service, not as a source of income and power.
For the Indian peoples, the administration of justice does not consist
in the decentralized application of common norms, trusted to
professionals, but in the exercise of a different juridical regime,
based on the vitality of changing customs, with non codified norms.
Marcos Sandoval, a young Triqui leader, says: "Westerners use to
represent justice as a blind-folded woman; we want her with the eyes
well open, for her to notice what is happening". "Jurisdiction" does not
imply a sphere of application of the law or a section of the centralized
government, but an autonomous space which limits State and economic
power, in applying flexible principles for thought and behavior, giving
historical continuity to tradition without freezing it. Among the Indian
peoples of Oaxaca, a province neighboring Chiapas, a crime demands
understanding and compensation to the victim, rather than punishment. He
who kills someone should assume economic responsibility for the family
of the dead person, thus getting a real opportunity for rehabilitation
and saving the society the cost of trial, jail and social assistance for
two families. He is free. But to escape, leaving the community, may be
for him worst than jail or death.
The question of land, among Indian peoples, has no relation with the
institutions ruling over it, as an artificial commodity, in modern
societies (Polanyi 1957). The territory is a sphere of responsibility
over nature and society. Occupation is not equivalent to ownership.
Their cosmic attitude before nature, in which they feel themselves
immerse, prevents conceiving the possibility of appropriating it in an
excluding way: how to "own" your mother? Within a common territory, they
allocate land to their members, without transforming them into private
For the Indian peoples, self-defense is not equivalent to the government
function of surveillance. It expresses the decision and capacity to
resist, even with weapons, economic, political and military
interventions by the market or the State.
All these practices exist in many Indian communities, and with different
forms and intensities among diverse urban or rural groups, even in
downtown Mexico City. But they have always operated against the dominant
regime and exposed to contradiction or dismantling before "the empire of
the law", the administrative invasion of their daily life, or economic
"As Indian peoples that we mostly are,", say the Zapatistas, "we claim
to govern ourselves, with autonomy, because we don't want any longer to
be subjects of the will of any national or foreign power...Justice
should be administered by our own communities, according with their
customs and traditions, without intervention of corrupt and illegitimate
governments" (Autonomedia 1995, 297). They are thus confronting the
two-pronged challenge of consolidating themselves in their own spaces
and projecting that style to the whole of the society, without imposing
it to anyone.
The reaction of the State and the parties towards autonomy has good
motives but bad reasons. True, the autonomist struggle poses a clear
threat to the dominant regime, and undermines the juridico-political
design imported by the founding fathers of Mexico. But it does not
conveys elements of separatism or fundamentalism; it neither implies the
fragmentation of the country nor creates castes; far from fostering
"ethnic conflicts", prevents them. It attempts to forge a new social
unity, not the chaos.
In international law, the right to self-determination recognizes the
legitimacy of struggles to obtain political independence, both to adopt
the form of a nation-state or to get autonomy within an existing
nation-state. The European autonomist tradition, adapted in Nicaragua
and promoted in Mexico by some groups, frame autonomy in the current
design of the State, as part of a process of political decentralization.
With that approach, autonomy is but "a specific order of government,
constituting the system of vertical power of the State" (Díaz P. 1996,
109). Such "autonomy", however, lead to full subsumption of the people
in the State order. That is not what the people are looking for. A Sumo
leader, elaborating on the experience in Nicaragua, recently said: "(Our
autonomous regime) has no doubt some interesting elements. We are
testing it to see if it can be really democratic" (Simposio
Indolatinoamericano de Jaltepec de Candoyoc, 1994).
The Indian peoples basically want to practice their own mode of living
and government. This aspiration is not compatible with the dominant
regime, and even the design of the nation-state; it can only materialize
after a long process of social and political reconstruction from the
bottom up. Such regime of local autonomy is not a counterweight for the
state power, but make the latter superfluous. It affirms people's
freedom and capacity to freely determine themselves, in their own
spaces, and at the same time to determine with other peoples and
cultures forms of communion based on intercultural dialogues; dialogues
that transcend the totalitarianism of logos or the predominance of one
culture over the others; that constructs a common myth for all, a shared
vision and a new horizon of intelligibility.
New political bodies
The State, including the democratic State, naturally tends to be unjust
and arbitrary. Restricting it seems today the point of departure of any
valid political position. It has become a conglomerate of public
corporations, each of them dedicated to promote its own product and to
serve its own interests. The conglomerate produces "welfare", shaped as
education, health, employment, etc. In time, the political parties get
together all the stakeholders to elect the Board. And those stakeholders
are not only, today, national or transnational private corporations, but
also the big professional or workers associations, working for them or
for the State: in defending their own interests, they strengthen the
system from which they derive income and dignity, while at the same time
keep them under subordination and control.
Communities appear as an answer to this dead end, because they
reestablish the unity between politics and place . In them, the people
shape themselves in a way in which they can exert their own power,
instead of rendering it to the State. The conviction that the future
will be, one way or the other, a community fact, is now back to life.
Socialism clearly carried a message of communitarianism, but it was
translated as collectivism, 'statism' and self destruction (Esteva and
To describe and to explain to others their condition of existence,
Indian peoples of Mexico have started to use the word comunalidad,
commonality. Community would be the phenomenon, the shape in which the
human condition is presented; commonality would define its identity, its
essence (Martínez Luna 1992). Both words come from the Latin communis, a
combination of com (together, near) and munis (linked by obligation,
committed). Community would be the opposite to immunity (from the Latin
inmunis: without obligation, exempt). In the community, the social order
is not based on the rights of the individuals (central principle of
formal democracy), but in mutual, common obligations, which give an
effective foundation to the exercise of power. Instead of abstract
individuals, formally endowed with rights, real men and women -knots in
nets of relations- follow their own initiative, not an order or a law
established from the top and from outside, to organize and construct the
space that belongs to them and to which they belong. This form of
existence has its highest expression in the Indian communities, but it
also appear, in many different forms, in "Mexico profundo", the Mexico's
social majorities, whose civilizational matrix is different to the
western one (Bonfil 1987). It also exists among the globalized
minorities in the industrial societies, even in the place of birth of
the western possessive individualism. For real men and women can think
they are individuals and behave as such, conditioned by the market or
the State, but they cannot be individuals. And many of them are now busy
trying to reclaim their commons, as a burgeoning literature is
documenting (The Ecologist 1992; Esteva 1991 and 1993; Esteva and
The emphasis in the local space also comes to the debate for another
reason. Forty years ago, Leopold Kohr revealed the nature of
contemporary crisis. They "are no longer caused by the system but by the
scale which modern economic activities have assumed...They are no longer
business, but what may be called scale or size cycles, which take their
amplitude not from any particular economic system but from the size of
the body politic through which they pass." He thus suggested to give
back human scale to the body politic, substituting the oceanic dimension
of globalizing integration for a dike system of inter-connected but
highly self-sufficient local markets and small political bodies, "in
which economic fluctuations can be controlled not because our leaders
have Oxford or Yale degrees, but because the ripples of a pond, however
animated, can never assume the scale of the huge swells passing through
the united water masses of the open seas"(Kohr 1992, 11). Following his
thesis, what is needed is to dismantle ineffective and corrupt
bureaucracies, as the liberals propose, but instead of privatizing the
functions of the State, like them, they should be socialized: left in
the hands of the people, giving back to their political bodies the
This is what many popular movements are attempting. They resist to
surrender their experience of autonomous government to an
individualistic and statistical democracy, manipulated by parties and
media. They oppose decentralism to the old slogan of democratic
centralism: they seem convinced that democracy depends on localism, on
the local areas where the people live. "Democracy doesn't mean putting
power some place other than where the people are" (Lummis 1996, 18).
The reformulation of the State
The democratic style based on rural and urban communities is clearly
impossible in the centralist nation-state. But that does not mean that
it cannot be the foundation for contemporary societies. It is possible
to conceive and organize modalities of "State" and "nation" in which the
coexistence of those communities can be harmonized. In the nation-state,
civil spheres tend to be constituted as a residual (what the State has
not reserved for itself). In the new designs, the State functions should
be defined as a residual: it would have only those that the political
bodies where people can exert their power cannot absorb.
The European design of the nation-state, western and capitalist, changed
the meaning of its constitutive elements and acquired universal
hegemony. Many traditions of organization of the State and many forms of
existence of the nation, were thus left aside (Nandy 1991, 267). They
now can be renovated. An effort to reorganize the society from the
bottom up could find many historical referents to support a contemporary
sociological invention, adjusted to the "era of globalization".
Furthermore, such effort would have an historical opportunity: the main
function of the nation-state, the administration of the national
economy, is rapidly vanishing, since the economies themselves loose
their national boundaries. The attempt to transfer those functions to
macro-national structures is not having real success, but foster
authoritarian propensities by activating different forms of nationalism.
At the same time, it has stimulated the impulse to reclaim that function
for communities and regions. The social and political tension that
starts to give feasibility to the effort to reshape all political bodies
is thus being generated. With the current structure, the prospect is
apocalyptical: to govern by the force and with the market. Substituting
it, in contrast, opens many options.
To prevent the authoritarian prospect, it is not enough to consolidate
and deepen democracy at the grassroots, in urban and rural communities.
There is the need to simultaneously reclaim the juridical and political
procedure, to reshape the political organization of a country. When the
catastrophe becomes political crisis and the State, as a public
corporation, loose legitimacy, the need to use the constitutional
procedure is reaffirmed. At the same time, the loss of credibility of
the parties, as rival factions of stakeholders, underlines the
importance of using the contradictory procedures in politics, based on
popular movements and their coalitions of discontents (Illich 1978;
Juridical and political procedures are structurally embedded into each
other. Together they constitute the structure of freedom. (And the
question now, in the struggle for democracy, is basically freedom, not
The concept of law has still its full strength, even when the society
reserves for the privileged the access to the juridical machinery; even
when law systematically mocks justice and clothe despotism with the veil
of a sham of tribunals. Illich 1978, 209.
In using juridical procedures and political force, the effective
articulation of local and issue popular movements can exert people's
power at another scale. Instead of surrendering it, they will be opening
spaces for its appropriate use and progressively limiting State´s power.
At the same time, the juridico-political procedure will overcome the
limitations of the politics of "no".
To live in the democratic condition, not in its illusion, in the terms
of radical democracy, civil society should become directly and
immediately political. And this requires, in turn, the generalization of
autonomous forms of social existence, as the Indian peoples of Mexico
have been claiming and the Zapatistas promote.
The path to radical democracy
In recent years, wide social groups lost their remaining trust both in
the dominant institutions and in the administrators of the crisis. Their
respectability, legitimacy and reputation, already damaged, vanished.
New arrangements behind the scenes now attempt both to better express
the new balance of forces and to sell the idea that new managers of the
crisis will fix everything. Neither governments nor political parties
seem to understand the nature of the current situation. The people's
spirit, at least in Mexico, is not for popular revolt, but for political
rebellion, for peaceful insurgency. They are not preparing themselves
for civil war, but for a transformational peace. And they don't seem
willing to give up their struggle, settling with cosmetic changes. They
attempt to profoundly modify the society, after discovering that
movements reduced to protest and claim, in order to stop the dismantling
of the Welfare State or to keep in force their "rights", may slow down
the process but can also become counterproductive: they legitimate again
the very structures causing the current predicament.
This is the context in which the Fourth Declaration of Selva Lacandona
was proclaimed, on January 1st. 1996. The Zapatistas invited the civil
society without party affiliation to constitute the Zapatista Front of
Nacional Liberation. The Front was defined as a political force, which
does not aspire to power, but can organize and articulate people's
claims and proposals in such a way that those with authority will
command by obeying. The Front will also organize the solution for
collective problems even without the intervention of the government or
the political parties. They underlined that the function of government
is a prerogative of the society and it is its right to exert that
function. As a political force, the Front would struggle against the
concentration of wealth and the centralization of power.
The proposal was controversial from the very first moment. The
government and the parties celebrated the prospect of the transformation
of the EZLN into a political force, but they disqualified its approach.
The ideas of promoting democracy outside the parties, and renouncing to
power and public positions, were taken as an invitation to a night
rainbow, a kind of oxymoron. For them, as for many experts, the Fourth
Declaration was unbearably inconsistent and basically antidemocratic. In
fact, it is a radically democratic proposal, which challenges
democracy's illusions, not its ideals. It departs from conventional
wisdom and extended prejudices, not from common sense and people's spirit.
Most Mexicans are not voluntarily active in political parties and very
few aspire to public positions, out of reach and unworthy for most of
them. The disappointment with political parties is among them more
intense than in other countries. Most Mexicans know how to use their
votes, for a variety of purposes, but they don't see the electoral
majorities as the expression of people's will. On July 6, 1997, in
mid-term elections, they used their votes to put an end to the
authoritarian regime governing them for 70 years; but they know that the
new regime will not come from elections.
The Fourth Declaration appeals to that awareness of most Mexicans. The
people, profoundly dissatisfied and eager to react, was lacking
appropriate political channels to express themselves beyond their local
spaces. In addressing their call to them, outside the political parties,
the Zapatistas created the opportunity to forge a new political style,
defined by the direct and continual exercise of people's power. To the
power of the state, the only one of interest for the parties, they
opposed people's power, their specific capacity to govern themselves in
their on spaces. In contrast with elections, it can be exerted all the
time and in the affairs that really matter to the people, not only in
those defined by the market or the new technocrats of the State.
The proposal includes the continual vigilance of elected officers, both
during the transition and in the new regime. No legal or institutional
arrangement, in any democratic State, have fully succeeded in the
struggle against the corruption and the elitist orientation of the
government. A militant political force, with moral prestige and
convening power, would make it possible to timely react against bad
government and to get rid of it.
The Front would articulate the action, until now disperse, of
communities, barrios and popular movements, to start the reconstruction
of social and political life from the bottom up. It would propitiate
political spaces in which ordinary men and women will not only be able
to govern themselves, in their local spaces, but also to have an
effective influence in the society as a whole. And thus it would pave
the way for a new real and formal constitution of Mexico, through a
Constituent Assembly, in which the principles of command by obeying, and
to serve (instead of helping one-self), will be applied.
Since such new society does not fit in the frame of the nation-state,
the proposal has been denounced as a threat to the nation or an
unfeasible utopia, unless a clear political alternative is defined. But
there is no need to define it at this point, and the Zapatistas have
refused to present any specific option. A movement of this kind does not
have to realize any ideal or offer an alternative utopia to the illusory
one promised by the government and the parties: it is enough to give
free rein to its own forces and to create the conditions for the
construction of the new society, with the participation of everyone. On
the other hand, the action to transform the society does not need to
adopt as a premise a vision of the future for the "society as a whole";
on the contrary, what is needed is a radical challenge to the tyranny of
globalizing discourses offering such visions. The present or future
"society as a whole" is but the outcome of a multiplicity of initiatives
and processes, most of them unforeseeable (Foucault 1979).
The Zapatistas are not promoting the "armed way" to follow that path.
Given their weakness, they had no alternative but to create an army. The
reaction of the civil society, sharing their causes but not their means,
stopped both the government and the Zapatistas. It gave them the
strength to continue their struggle by other means. They are thus an
army paradoxically following the tradition of Gandhi. For him, who
assumed cowardice as the worst of vices, violence is for the weak. He
was preaching non violence to the Hindus, because he saw no reason for
300 million of them to be afraid of 150 000 British. They were the
strong. They could thus use non violence for their political ends. The
Zapatistas were extremely weak before their uprising. They clearly
risked extermination in an armed struggle against the government. But
they opposed dignity to cowardice, and opted for a dignified death to
stop the slow and painful process of extinction to which they seemed
doom. The strength they got from the civil society, massively reacting
after the uprising, and since then increasingly articulated with them,
have been allowing them to continue their struggle with non violent
means. "Let's destroy this state, this state system", they said; let's
open up this space and confront people with ideas, not with weapons"
(Autonomedia 1994, 298).
They cannot yet give up their weapons. They are still surrounded by 50
000 troops and exposed to the continual aggression of paramilitary
groups. A "low-intensity" war against the people continue to develop in
Chiapas. The Zapatistas came to Mexico City, the Congress in which the
Zapatista Front was founded, but only as observers. When they proposed
the organization of the Front, on January 1, 1996, they assumed that it
would soon be possible to transform themselves into a political force,
inside the Front. During the last two years, however, the government
failed to fulfil their commitments and spoiled the negotiations with the
EZLN which may lead to peace. Given their increasing weakness, the local
and national power structures are resorting to the use of force all over
the country. The Zapatistas cannot transform themselves into a political
force, inside the Front, under these conditions. But they are still
taking wide initiatives. On March 21, 1999, two Zapatistas, a man and a
woman, will be in every one of the 2 500 municipalities of Mexico to
take part in the national consultation they convened for the
constitutional changes agreed with the gvovernment. At another level, it
is an exercise of command by obeying and the clever use of political and
juridical procedures to generate social consensus.
The transition to hope
As the "antithesis of Neoliberalism", the Zapatistas practice a
political style that is not focused in seizing the State power. "The
Zapatista revolution...isn't proposing a homogeneous ideological concept
of revolution" (Autonomedia 1994, 298). Their struggles are oriented
towards a civil society that becomes political, displacing the political
question to another field, in which the most important is the very
exercise of power. They attempt to create spaces for new political
relations, in which the conventional positions of force have not a
place, because in them nobody will usurp power: it will be in the hands
of everyone. In those new territories, the EZLN would dissolve itself,
becoming something that would make it unrecognizable; the same would
happen with the political parties and all the dominant forms of
political activity (La Jornada, 27/8/1995).
On September 11, 1997, 1111 Zapatistas arrived to Mexico City, with
thousand of Indians who organized with them a march, to present their
claim for the constitutional reforms agreed between the Zapatistas and
the government in February 1996. Both the content and the process to
articulate that claim illustrate the political style of the Zapatistas
that I have been trying to describe. They are a solution to the paradox
of the transformation needed, which attempts to deepen formal
democracy...to deny it (transforming it into radical democracy) and to
use the frame of the nation-state...to transcend it (leading to a new
political regime). The use of juridical and political procedures
effectively widen the democratic elements of the society, when they
radically challenge the dominant political mythology and consolidate the
differentiated and autonomous condition of independent organizations and
coalitions of discontents constituting civil society. As the Zapatistas
The Front will have an important role to play in this process. In the
new political spaces it is creating, new people and initiatives will
reestablish people's trust in their own strength. They will use
procedures of social regulation which recognize the legitimacy of the
conflict of interests, give appropriate value to the precedent and are
formulated by ordinary men and women, under the control of their
communities. The juridical procedure will continually oppose the State
or professional bureaucracies and prepare an institutional inversion.
Labor organization will be profoundly modified, to give to it a
convivial form which effectively represent an alternative to the
industrial mode of production, at which door Engels established:
"Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate!" ("Leave, in coming in, all
Radical hope is the essence of popular movements (Lummis 1996, 11). The
Zapatistas opened it, when the universal reign of formal democracy and
globalized economy, with its disastrous consequences for the social
majorities, seemed an unavoidable destiny in Mexico and the world.
Private hope and public desperation create the climate for the
manipulation of the masses in modern democracies. Their leaders
continually use ghosts and scape goats before the everyday disasters,
while stimulating individual expectations and the survivor's attitude.
The Zapatista proposal, in contrast, renovates the social fabric which
articulates personal and collective hopes. Instead of new promises of
development and welfare, the Zapatistas recover the original meaning of
the word prosperity, from the Latin pro spere: "according to hope".
Instead of illusory futures, alienated to bankrupt ideologies, the
Zapatistas suggest the construction of a future to be (a porvenir),
defined by the people, by ordinary men and women, in their pluralism and
Instead of carpetbagging with and administering people's hopes, as
governments and parties, the Zapatistas renovate political activities
genuinely democratic, in which the art of the possible consists in
extending it: it is the art of creating the possible from the impossible.
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Copyright: Gustavo Esteva (1997)
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Crit of the Bamako Appeal & WSF...
Date: Sun, 03 Sep 2006 18:40:35 +0200
From: Riaz K Tayob <riazt at iafrica.com>
To: Debate List <debate at lists.kabissa.org>
Appreciate the critique and also the very persuasive view that Zapatismo
type challenge to the very nature of power needs to be made...
what happened to "one no, many yesses" as per the Zaptismo modality of
work given their communities' diversity?
Surely, at some level the Bamako Appeal has a lot to learn (like the
Zapatista's in the engagement with CSOs during the initial phases) and
is also a dynamic process. Not defending the Appeal or the Crit, but
just want to understand how we in "Zapatista speak" walk together even
with those who are straggling.
For me the question is how do we accomodate these various strands of
action into buidling a workable alternative for all people.
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