Zapatismo and the Latin American cycle of struggle

” […] This series of mobilizations that have sprouted throughout Latin America for the past two decades positively indicate that grassroots movements are alive across the region. Many of them are carriers of a new political culture and a new form of political organization, which is reflected in multiple ways and which is different from what we knew in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bases Zapatistas del municipo autonomo Olga Isabel mantendran  el bloqueo permanente por la construccion de la carretera ya que solo es pretexto la construccion del camino para que entre el  ejercito, seguridad piblica y policia municipal senalaron zapatistas al ser entrevistados.
Bases Zapatistas del municipo autonomo Olga Isabel mantendran el bloqueo permanente por la construccion de la carretera ya que solo es pretexto la construccion del camino para que entre el ejercito, seguridad piblica y policia municipal senalaron zapatistas al ser entrevistados.
(Foto: Victor M. Camacho)

Some of the movements, from the Chilean secondary school students and the Zapatista communities, to the Guardians of the Conga Lakes, the Venezuela Settlers’ Movement and the Movimento Livre Passe (MPT) of Brazil, reveal some common characteristics that are worth noting.

The first is the massive and exceptional participation of the youth and of women. As vulnerable victims of capitalist exploitation, their presence revitalizes anti-capitalist struggles because they can be directly involved in the movement. Ultimately, it is they — those who have nothing to lose — who give movements an intransigent radical character.

Secondly, a unique political culture is gaining ground, which the Zapatistas have synthesized in the expression “governing by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo). Those who care for the lakes in Peru — the heirs of peasant patrols (rondas campesinas) – obey their communities. The young activists of the MPL in Brazil make decisions by consensus in order to avoid consolidating a majority, and they explicitly reject the “loudspeaker cars” that union bureaucracies used to impose control on their marches.

Another common feature to these movements is the project of autonomy and horizontality, words that only started being used 20 years ago but which have already been fully incorporated into the political language of those involved in the various struggles. Activists claim autonomy from the state and political parties, as well as horizontality — the collective leadership of the movement rather than that of any individual. For instance, members of the Coordinating Assembly of Secondary Students (ACES, its initials in Spanish) of Chile function horizontally, with a collective leadership and an assembly.

The fourth characteristic is the predominance of flows over structures. The organization adapts itself and is subordinate to the movement; it is not frozen into a structure that conditions the collective with its own separate interests. The collectives that struggle are similar to communities in resistance, in which all run similar risks and where the division of labor is adjusted according to the objectives that the group outlines at every given moment.

In this new layer of organization, it is difficult to distinguish who the leaders are — not because referents and spokespersons do not exist, but rather because the difference between leaders and followers diminishes as the collective leadership of those from below increases. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the new political culture that has been expanding over the course of the past two decades.

Finally, Zapatismo is a political and ethical referent — not so much indicating a direction for these movements, but rather serving as an example from which to take inspiration. Multiple dialogues are taking place among all the various Latin American movements, not in the style of formal and structured gatherings, but as direct exchanges of knowledge and experience between activist networks: precisely the kind of exchange that we need in order to strengthen our struggle against the system.”

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Read the full article at: http://roarmag.org/2013/12/zapatistas-latin-american-movements/

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See also:

* New Forms of Revolution (Part 1): The Lacandona Commune

* EZLN: treinta años del más sensato de los delirios

This is What Solidarity Looks Like: Food Not Bombs, Long Island

“Food Not Bombs on the frontline of hunger: The hunger relief efforts of a small group of dedicated and caring Long Islanders operating on a near-zero budget is eclipsing that of the relief efforts of many well-funded 501-c3 organizations, both in number of people served and in the volume of food distributed” (Quote from Scott Crow)

24hrs with Long Island Food Not Bombs from Sparrow Media on Vimeo.

The June Uprisings in Brazil: Below and Behind the Huge Mobilizations (Part 1)

Brazil Uprising -- June 2013‘The huge mobilizations in June 2013 in 353 cities and towns in Brazil came as much a surprise to the political system as to analysts and social bodies. Nobody expected so many demonstrations, so numerous, in so many cities and for so long. As happens in these cases, media analyses were quick off the mark. Initially they focused on the immediate problems highlighted by the actions: urban transport, rising fare prices and the poor quality of service for commuters. Slowly the analyses and perspectives expanded to include the day-to-day dissatisfaction felt by a large part of the population. While there was widespread acknowledgement that basic family income had risen during the last decade of economic growth, social commentators began to focus on economic inclusion through consumption as the root of the dissatisfaction, alongside the persistence of social inequality.

In this analysis, I would like to address the new forms of protest, organization, and mobilization from a social movement perspective. These new forms emerged within small activist groups composed mainly of young people that began organizing in 2003, the year Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took government. Unlike political parties, trade unions and other traditional organizations formed in the early eighties, the new social movements are key to the June mobilizations because of their ability to organize beyond their local scene, to involve the broadest sectors of society in the struggle, and to employ forms of action and organization that sets them apart from the groups that went before them.

In most cases, media coverage and analysis have been guilty of overgeneralizing, often giving an almost magical role to “social networks” in mobilizing the millions of people in the street. “With nimble fingers on their cell phones, youth have taken to the streets all around the world to protest, connected by social networks,” said former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (Da Silva, 2013) “Beyond social media, the people are unorganized,” said leading intellectual Luiz Werneck Vianna. (Vianna, 2013 : 9) Others analysts linked the “revolution 2.0” to a new middle class and argued that the June struggles in Brazil form part of the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados or indignants. (Cocco, 2013:17)

Riot police respond to Brazil uprising - June 2013In this essay I assert — in tune with James C. Scott — that the key to what is happening in the public arena is to be found in the daily practices of the popular sectors and particularly in what Scott calls “hidden spaces” where the subordinated develop discourses antagonistic to power: “The acts of daring and haughtiness that so struck the authorities were perhaps improvised on the public stage, but they had been long and amply prepared in the hidden transcript of folk culture and practice.” (Scott, 2000:264) To focus on the continent behind and below the visible coast of the political, says Scott, is a necessary step to understand a new political culture. The new forms of protesting and organizing in Brazil can better be understood if we look closely at the practices of the small activist groups forged over the span of more than a decade. […]

Autonomous activism requires a greater level of dedication than is usually considered by observers like members of political parties. Furthermore, everything must be done without any institutional support so it relies heavily on collective work and creativity. Strong bonds of trust and solidarity emerge in these collective groups, to the extent that some activist groups could be considered living communities. Activists will often share a house or live within the same neighborhood and frequent the same social spaces, and this level of co-existence is a powerful cohesive factor which blurs the line between friendship and militancy, creating a climate of fraternity that is reaffirmed with the various regional or federal gatherings. Needless to say, this militant lifestyle goes together with a consistent ethic that does not separate words and action, the personal and the collective, or decision-makers and activists. It is a way of doing things that is counter to the hegemonic political culture, including the left parties.’

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Read the full article at: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/brazil-archives-63/4567-the-june-uprisings-in-brazil-below-and-behind-the-huge-mobilizations-part-1

Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots (David Graeber)

New York, NY – Almost every time I’m interviewed by a mainstream journalist about Occupy Wall Street I get some variation of the same lecture:

“How are you going to get anywhere if you refuse to create a leadership structure or make a practical list of demands? And what’s with all this anarchist nonsense – the consensus, the sparkly fingers? Don’t you realise all this radical language is going to alienate people? You’re never going to be able to reach regular, mainstream Americans with this sort of thing!”

If one were compiling a scrapbook of worst advice ever given, this sort of thing might well merit an honourable place. After all, since the financial crash of 2007, there have been dozens of attempts to kick-off a national movement against the depredations of the United States’ financial elites taking the approach such journalists recommended. All failed. It was only on August 2, when a small group of anarchists and other anti-authoritarians showed up at a meeting called by one such group and effectively wooed everyone away from the planned march and rally to create a genuine democratic assembly, on basically anarchist principles, that the stage was set for a movement that Americans from Portland to Tuscaloosa were willing to embrace.

I should be clear here what I mean by “anarchist principles”. The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society – that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.

Anarchism versus Marxism

Traditional Marxism, of course, aspired to the same ultimate goal but there was a key difference. Most Marxists insisted that it was necessary first to seize state power, and all the mechanisms of bureaucratic violence that come with it, and use them to transform society – to the point where, they argued such mechanisms would, ultimately, become redundant and fade away. Even back in the 19th century, anarchists argued that this was a pipe dream. One cannot, they argued, create peace by training for war, equality by creating top-down chains of command, or, for that matter, human happiness by becoming grim joyless revolutionaries who sacrifice all personal self-realisation or self-fulfillment to the cause.

Occupy Wall Street general assembly - Washington Square Park, NYC - December 2011It’s not just that the ends do not justify the means (though they don’t), you will never achieve the ends at all unless the means are themselves a model for the world you wish to create. Hence the famous anarchist call to begin “building the new society in the shell of the old” with egalitarian experiments ranging from free schools to radical labour unions to rural communes.

Anarchism was also a revolutionary ideology, and its emphasis on individual conscience and individual initiative meant that during the first heyday of revolutionary anarchism between roughly 1875 and 1914, many took the fight directly to heads of state and capitalists, with bombings and assassinations. Hence the popular image of the anarchist bomb-thrower. It’s worthy of note that anarchists were perhaps the first political movement to realise that terrorism, even if not directed at innocents, doesn’t work. For nearly a century now, in fact, anarchism has been one of the very few political philosophies whose exponents never blow anyone up (indeed, the 20th-century political leader who drew most from the anarchist tradition was Mohandas K Gandhi.)

Yet for the period of roughly 1914 to 1989, a period during which the world was continually either fighting or preparing for world wars, anarchism went into something of an eclipse for precisely that reason: To seem “realistic”, in such violent times, a political movement had to be capable of organising armies, navies and ballistic missile systems, and that was one thing at which Marxists could often excel. But everyone recognised that anarchists – rather to their credit – would never be able to pull it off. It was only after 1989, when the age of great war mobilisations seemed to have ended, that a global revolutionary movement based on anarchist principles – the global justice movement – promptly reappeared.

How, then, did OWS embody anarchist principles? It might be helpful to go over this point by point:

1)    The refusal to recognise the legitimacy of existing political institutions.

One reason for the much-discussed refusal to issue demands is because issuing demands means recognising the legitimacy – or at least, the power – of those of whom the demands are made. Anarchists often note that this is the difference between protest and direct action: Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently; direct action, whether it’s a matter of a community building a well or making salt in defiance of the law (Gandhi’s example again), trying to shut down a meeting or occupy a factory, is a matter of acting as if the existing structure of power does not even exist. Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.

2)    The refusal to accept the legitimacy of the existing legal order.

The second principle, obviously, follows from the first. From the very beginning, when we first started holding planning meetings in Tompkins Square Park in New York, organisers knowingly ignored local ordinances that insisted that any gathering of more than 12 people in a public park is illegal without police permission – simply on the grounds that such laws should not exist. On the same grounds, of course, we chose to occupy a park, inspired by examples from the Middle East and southern Europe, on the grounds that, as the public, we should not need permission to occupy public space. This might have been a very minor form of civil disobedience but it was crucial that we began with a commitment to answer only to a moral order, not a legal one.

3)    The refusal to create an internal hierarchy, but instead to create a form of consensus-based direct democracy.

From the very beginning, too, organisers made the audacious decision to operate not only by direct democracy, without leaders, but by consensus. The first decision ensured that there would be no formal leadership structure that could be co-opted or coerced; the second, that no majority could bend a minority to its will, but that all crucial decisions had to be made by general consent. American anarchists have long considered consensus process (a tradition that has emerged from a confluence of feminism, anarchism and spiritual traditions like the Quakers) crucial for the reason that it is the only form of decision-making that could operate without coercive enforcement – since if a majority does not have the means to compel a minority to obey its dictates, all decisions will, of necessity, have to be made by general consent.

4)    The embrace of prefigurative politics.

As a result, Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society – not only democratic General Assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centres and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organisation – a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old.

Why did it work? Why did it catch on? One reason is, clearly, because most Americans are far more willing to embrace radical ideas than anyone in the established media is willing to admit. The basic message – that the American political order is absolutely and irredeemably corrupt, that both parties have been bought and sold by the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population, and that if we are to live in any sort of genuinely democratic society, we’re going to have to start from scratch – clearly struck a profound chord in the American psyche.

Perhaps this is not surprising: We are facing conditions that rival those of the 1930s, the main difference being that the media seems stubbornly willing to acknowledge it. It raises intriguing questions about the role of the media itself in American society. Radical critics usually assume the “corporate media”, as they call it, mainly exists to convince the public that existing institutions are healthy, legitimate and just. It is becoming increasingly apparent that they do not really see this is possible; rather, their role is simply to convince members of an increasingly angry public that no one else has come to the same conclusions they have. The result is an ideology that no one really believes, but most people at least suspect that everybody else does.

Nowhere is this disjunction between what ordinary Americans really think, and what the media and political establishment tells them they think, more clear than when we talk about democracy.

Democracy in America?

According to the official version, of course, “democracy” is a system created by the Founding Fathers, based on checks and balances between president, congress and judiciary. In fact, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution does it say anything about the US being a “democracy”. The authors of those documents, almost to a man, defined “democracy” as a matter of collective self-governance by popular assemblies, and as such they were dead-set against it.

Democracy meant the madness of crowds: bloody, tumultuous and untenable. “There was never a democracy that didn’t commit suicide,” wrote Adams; Hamilton justified the system of checks and balances by insisting that it was necessary to create a permanent body of the “rich and well-born” to check the “imprudence” of democracy, or even that limited form that would be allowed in the lower house of representatives.

The result was a republic – modelled not on Athens, but on Rome. It only came to be redefined as a “democracy” in the early 19th century because ordinary Americans had very different views, and persistently tended to vote – those who were allowed to vote – for candidates who called themselves “democrats”. But what did – and what do – ordinary Americans mean by the word? Did they really just mean a system where they get to weigh in on which politicians will run the government? It seems implausible. After all, most Americans loathe politicians, and tend to be skeptical about the very idea of government. If they universally hold out “democracy” as their political ideal, it can only be because they still see it, however vaguely, as self-governance – as what the Founding Fathers tended to denounce as either “democracy” or, as they sometimes also put it, “anarchy”.

If nothing else, this would help explain the enthusiasm with which they have embraced a movement based on directly democratic principles, despite the uniformly contemptuous dismissal of the United States’ media and political class.

In fact, this is not the first time a movement based on fundamentally anarchist principles – direct action, direct democracy, a rejection of existing political institutions and attempt to create alternative ones – has cropped up in the US. The civil rights movement (at least its more radical branches), the anti-nuclear movement, and the global justice movement all took similar directions. Never, however, has one grown so startlingly quickly. But in part, this is because this time around, the organisers went straight for the central contradiction. They directly challenged the pretenses of the ruling elite that they are presiding over a democracy.

When it comes to their most basic political sensibilities, most Americans are deeply conflicted. Most combine a deep reverence for individual freedom with a near-worshipful identification with institutions like the army and police. Most combine an enthusiasm for markets with a hatred of capitalists. Most are simultaneously profoundly egalitarian, and deeply racist. Few are actual anarchists; few even know what “anarchism” means; it’s not clear how many, if they did learn, would ultimately wish to discard the state and capitalism entirely. Anarchism is much more than simply grassroots democracy: It ultimately aims to eliminate all social relations, from wage labour to patriarchy, that can only be maintained by the systematic threat of force.

But one thing overwhelming numbers of Americans do feel is that something is terribly wrong with their country, that its key institutions are controlled by an arrogant elite, that radical change of some kind is long since overdue. They’re right. It’s hard to imagine a political system so systematically corrupt – one where bribery, on every level, has not only been made legal, but soliciting and dispensing bribes has become the full-time occupation of every American politician. The outrage is appropriate. The problem is that up until September 17, the only side of the spectrum willing to propose radical solutions of any sort was the Right.

As the history of the past movements all make clear, nothing terrifies those running the US more than the danger of democracy breaking out. The immediate response to even a modest spark of democratically organised civil disobedience is a panicked combination of concessions and brutality. How else can one explain the recent national mobilisation of thousands of riot cops, the beatings, chemical attacks, and mass arrests, of citizens engaged in precisely the kind of democratic assemblies the Bill of Rights was designed to protect, and whose only crime – if any – was the violation of local camping regulations?

Our media pundits might insist that if average Americans ever realised the anarchist role in Occupy Wall Street, they would turn away in shock and horror; but our rulers seem, rather, to labour under a lingering fear that if any significant number of Americans do find out what anarchism really is, they might well decide that rulers of any sort are unnecessary.

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David Graeber, “Occupy Wall Street’s anarchist roots” (Al Jazeera)

Voline: Anarchism and organization

“A mistaken — or, more often, deliberately inaccurate — interpretation alleges that the libertarian concept means the absence of all organization. This is entirely false: it is not a matter of “organization” or “nonorganization,” but of two different principles of organization…. Of course, say the anarchists, society must be organized. However, the new organization… must be established freely, socially, and, above all, from below. The principle of organization must not issue from a center created in advance to capture the whole and impose itself upon it but, on the contrary, it must come from all sides to create nodes of coordination, natural centers to serve all these points…. On the other hand, the other kind of “organization,” copied from that of the old oppressive and exploitative society,… would exaggerate all the blemishes of the old society…. It could then only be maintained by means of a new artifice.”

Voline (Во́лин)