"Post-modern grassroots movements identify modernity with the death of democracy, not its flourishing. They reveal how the 'Global Project' is preparing democracy's tomb, even if the authoritarian apocalypse is avoided. To recover and regenerate peoples' power, they seek autonomy from the state so that local spaces may exert and govern themselves in their own cultural terms. Radically challenging the 'Global Project', they seek to subvert the foundations of modern power structures."
Grassroots Post-Modernism - Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash.
Toda es mentira en este mundo....
Mano Chao, Clandestino.
Zapatista grass-roots communities began to organise their own Autonomous Municipalities in 1996. These locally elected councils were formed to oversee the self-governing of the areas of Chiapas where the people had risen in armed rebellion against the Mexican State on 1st Jan 1994. A total of 32 Autonomous Municipalities were organised, encompassing a support base of several hundred thousand.
Challenging the power structures of the official Municipalities, whose authority they did not recognise, and in whose elections they did not participate, the Autonomous Municipalities declared- Here we are, we are the true representatives of the people, we declare we are autonomous from the corrupt government and demonstrate that we have the right to govern ourselves.
The Autonomous Municipality of Ricardo Flores Magon, situated in the town of Taniperlas, deep in the mountains of Chiapas was the first to get attacked by the military. On the 11 April 1998, around dawn, after the fiesta celebrated by several thousand locals had finished, 1000 soldiers of the Mexican Federal Army smashed into the community in armoured vehicles and tanks with helicopter backup. They destroyed the offices of the newly inaugurated Autonomous Municipality and terrorised the civilian, unarmed population.
10 villagers were beaten and incarcerated without due process. 12 foreigners, present as international observers for the inaugural of the new municipality, were violently apprehended, and within 48 hours forcibly expelled from Mexico.
The government continued the military offensive against the Chiapas population with an invasion of the Autonomous Municipality Tierra y Libertad situated in the village of Amparo Aguatinta a few weeks later. 1000 soldiers stormed in, destroying buildings, robbing money and tools and detaining 53 villagers.
On June 3, during a similar raid on the rebel town of Nicolas Ruiz, at least 40 people were beaten, and amidst a full blown military riot, clouded in tear gas, 164 villagers were incarcerated. The next Autonomous Municipality to be attacked was San Juan de la Libertad, located in El Bosque, which resulted in, during a spirited resistence from the people,7 villagers and one paramilitary-cop dead, and 52 arrested.
The function of the Autonomous Municipalities is solely administrative, overseeing community concerns like questions of land tenure, water, electricity and food distribution. The radical gesture was that the people wanted to elect their own authorities and not accept the authority of the municipal agents imposed on them from without. For this, a full scale protracted military offensive, 100s illegally incarcerated, 7 shot dead and 4 peasant villages terrorised and sacked. A highly trained fully equipped army pitted against a wretchedly poor indigenous civilian population. Autonomy in action is being recognised as the enemy of the nation- state.
Meet Gustavo Esteva. A warm, compassionate witty grandfather who has spent his whole life organising and resisting locally in his home state Oaxaca, southern Mexico, nationally, active as a zapatista advisor, and now globally having emerged as one of Latin Americas most eloquent writers and intellectuals concerning grass roots autonomous resistance to the nation state and global neo-liberalism. Autonomy, he explains in his usual clear, quiet manner, is about constructing a completely different way of living.
Beyond the usual political spectrum, beyond State Capitalism, beyond and against modernity and against the development illusion. Autonomy is the place we can begin to dream again.
Local autonomy, insists Gustavo, is the only available antidote for the "Global Project". The Global Project, that is, neo-liberalism, the triumph of capitalism and the free market, and the universalisation of US style "democracy" is being brought to us courtesy of a coalition of economic and political interests that is currently imposing its global project in Serbia and Kosova under the auspices of NATO. Against the Global Project, is pitted the forces of "Civil Society".
Gustavo provides a useful definition of this recently resurrected term. "The expression Civil Society draws attention to that sphere of social life that organises itself autonomously, as opposed to the sphere that is established and/or directly controlled by the state." Civil Society is not a class or a party, but a self empowering force that seeks to stand beyond the nation state, that seeks to marginalise the influence of the state, and instead of seeking to overthrow or seize the power of the state, attempts to supersede that power of by placing it back in the hands of the people; peoples power.
But not the people as a mass, rather as a multiplicity of diverse groups, organisations and movements acting together to confront the day to day oppression and injustices they face. If Civil Society is the vehicle, autonomy is the destination. This is a journey beyond the nation state, beyond political parties and beyond Government. As the Nation states get consumed by the economic power of the global transnational corporations, so too the resistance looks beyond national liberation and the revolution constrained within borders.
Organising on a level of local autonomy, we can begin to construct an alternative to Global Neoliberalism. Act locally to resist globally? Local autonomy has a multitude of incarnations, each with its own vision of autonomy. Together, like an invisible insurrection of a million autonomists, they effectively undermine the dominant system and the Global Project.
Some, like the zapatistas, or the landless movement in Brazil (MST), the unemployment mobilizations in Amsterdam, are huge, strong and visible, but the vast majority of Civil society mobilizations are local and invisible on the national context. Autonomy is the reinvention of revolution. It is anti-political in the traditional understanding of bourgeois or revolutionary politics because it looks beyond the state, the reform or the seizing of the state - it is against Power.
Sub Commandante Marcos, always one of the most eloquent voices in alluding to the possibilities that can be found beyond the traditional sphere of the political, addresses this in a communiqué in 1994- " ....In the midst of navigating from pain to hope, the political struggle finds itself bereft of the worn out clothes bequeathed to it by pain; it is hope which obliges it to seek new forms of struggle, new ways of being political, of doing politics. A new politics, a new political ethic is not just a wish, it is the only way to advance, to jump to the other side".
It being a conflict zone, the road to the zapatista community of 10 de Abril is littered with various army checkpoints, undercover agents, stalking migration officials and a variety of unsavoury bozos there to make life miserable. If you successfully navigate the nation states obstacle course, entering the community is quite a elevating experience.
Here in 10 de Abril, a small village of 100 families who occupied this former-ranch owned by a single large landowner after the zapatista uprising of 1994, the people wander around in what is quaintly referred to around here, as "alegre rebeldia"- rebel joy. Not the consequences of some ecstasy enducing local drug, nor semi-psychotic insurgent delirium, simply the quiet confidence of a community of people building their own future, determining their everyday lives and taking control, at last, of their own destiny's.
The ever-amicable Daniel might amble past on his Rozinantesque horse and stop to chat. He will inform you that he's on his way to the Milpa or cornfield, and you might notice he says 'my cornfield' in a particularly proud way. That's because, even though its essentially a collective cornfield, his my is an ours, and the tone of rebel joy is because before the uprising, before the occupation of this finca by the insurgents, he did not have his own land he worked for appalling wages for the previous owner of this very finca-farm.
To gaze over the lush valley of 10 de Abril you will see a matrix of small wooden houses with grass or zinc roofs, muddy pathways and grassy verges, and a variety of crops growing in each houses acre. Horses, cows, bands of scraggly dogs and a multitude of chickens wander easily amongst the men women and children who quietly go about their business with demure industriousness. Behind the tranquil pastoral picture, (which will be intruded upon by the regular overflights of military helicopters and warplanes), the lack of electricity or running water, the absence of roads or cars, the almost pre-industrial society atmosphere, lies another story that makes 10 de Abril extraordinary and an inspiration and hope for leaving the 20th century and confronting the new world order.
How do they live, how do they organise, how do they resist? They are the people of corn- their lives revolve around the growing and harvesting of the corn crop. They don't use insecticides and they protect the land they work, because they look upon the land as the mother-earth to respect, not as a commodity to exploit. Nevertheless they graze some cattle, grow some cash-crop coffee, keep bees for honey, and other business ventures. With this capital they buy clothes, tools and extra food.
But, the most pertinent point is that here is a community of about 700 people whose participation as consumers in the economy of the nation state is minimal. The energy use of the 700 people is about equivalent to 3 households in California. No cars, no electrical appliances, no luxuries. In the neo-liberal paradigm, they don't exist, they are invisible, not taken into account, but this form of self-sufficiency is economic autonomy.
If, for instance, the Y2K apocalypse was to occur, the people of 10 de Abril have all the basic necessities of life under their own control.
See how they organise. The people gather in a small church-social centre (which they built communally from start to finish) to make decisions. Representatives are elected to oversee various tasks or fulfil various duties. Committees are organised to oversee education, health, regional matters, and community justice. Then there are 7 co-operatives, corn, woman's horticultural project, coffee, cattle, arts and crafts, beans and community store. The community assembly is the supreme decision making body, and the elected council oversee the implementation of the decisions made by the assembly.
Leadership positions in all the positions are rotated every 6 months and a special role is given to give voice to the elder people in the community, and a quota system is introduced to give women more places in representative positions. This is political and social autonomy in action, and while it leads to a lot of meetings and requires enormous patience, the process leads to an inclusive form of local democracy in which everybody has a role to participate and a part to play.
Listen to the voice of the people talking about autonomy:-
"Autonomy is the right to organise and govern ourselves in our indigenous cultures, how we can advance our own communities , that our autonomous municipalities are respected and not violated by the government. We raise our hands and vote and elect our own authorities. And by our own customs, take someone out of power if they are doing something wrong."
Speaking is one of the 10 de Abril current council representatives, Carlos, a 34-year-old man with 5 children and a passion for developing the community. "If we don't have autonomy, we are being manipulated. The government does what it wants, it names the authorities from outside, not the community who decides, who supports the decision. Autonomy changes everything because the people, the men and women themselves give their opinion. The most important thing is, that its not just a couple of people making decisions, not the Government, not the President, who don't take us into account. We want everyone to participate."
Carlos recognises autonomy as the key demand of his people and the zapatistas, that they don't want more government help, not handouts and bribes, but less government intervention. Take the troops out of Chiapas, leave us in peace to organise ourselves, he says. "We demand autonomy so as we can be more united. Now we walk together, now we fix things together.....We don't want a different country- the government says we want to separate. No, we want autonomy for our indigenous people."
The government talks about the Balkanization of Mexico if they cede to zapatista demands. But this is confusing the demand for sovereignty with the demand for self-determination. On the 11 April 1998 the military stormed the community. 500 troops entered, shooting into the air, firing teargas, burning houses, destroying tools, and beating villagers. The last response of a nation state faced with the ultimate rejection of its authority.
The National Consultation that occurred on 21 March 1998, organised between the EZLN and Civil society, with the participation of 2 million Mexicans, was a great leap forward for the armed guerrilla movement in the mountains and the grass-roots organisations and individuals whom shared a common vision to create a new political and social reality.
Breaking the military encirclement imposed by 60,000 occupying troops based in the Chiapas and the media blockade and campaign of misinformation constructed by the government controlled television, radio and news papers, 5000 zapatistas were able to travel all over the country at the invitation of local groups and organisations to present the truth of what was happening in Chiapas and what the aims and objectives of the EZLN really are.
]This encounter, or face to face interchange between the rebels and civil society, (or the rebels against the nation state outside of Chiapas) had deep political implications in terms of organising a nation-wide resistance, of consolidating links between diverse opposition groups, and reactivating the practice of mobilising social and political brigades to mobilise across the country to educate, inform and organise.
Taking a break from weeding the cornfield, Pancho of 10 de Abril talks with enthusiasm about his trip to Mexico City in his capacity as a zapatista delegate. "The people there were more zapatista than us!" he laughs." They too have a fuck load of problems, like the drug abuse and homelessness and lack of work. The army enters their communities like they do here.... They are organising like us to change the way the government is. "
Pancho visited the Mexico city barrio of Santa Domingo, a community of 12,000 people who arrived there 10 miles outside the centre of the city 20 years ago to occupy and develop a tract of barren-rocky land. Today it is a thriving barrio with a strong sense of unity and resistance. The people are proud of the barrio they have built with their own hands, with little or no help from the city authorities. They dug the roads, put in the water pipes, the drainage, organised schools and heath and community centres.
At the centre of the community is the Escuelita Emiliano Zapata. This social centre acts as an autonomous space where the community comes together to hold meetings, do workshops, classes, hold cultural events and organise politically. It was here they held the Zapatista Consulta with 8000 locals participating. The zapatistas came to the city and found an echo. "We're Zapatistas too,!" say the people here in the Escuelita Emiliano Zapata.
They are the working class and the underclass of the city, part of the marginalised who are the majority. They have struggled, and they are organised. Still they are organising because things are getting worse, economically, and politically in a national sense. The elections of 2000 do not hold much hope for these people. The PRI will win as usual. Nothing will change, said people. One woman speaking, as she made artisanial crafts in the centre, spoke of the inspiration brought by the zapatistas. "They have so much dignity, so much hope. If they can do it, so can we."
5. Autonomy and a Song.
A Nahuatl poem, read at the beginning of the Zapatistas Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle-
now I have arrived
now i am here,
present i the singer
now is the time to celebrate
come here and present yourself
those who have an aching heart
I raise my song.