The Agenda and Direction of the Anti-systemic Movements

“History,” said Andrés Aubry, “is not a teacher of life. How could it be, when it so often reeks of immorality and scandal?” But history, Aubry also said, is the mother of commitment, because it opens one’s eyes and reactivates the memory. This is why it fascinated him. And this is why he fascinated all of us with the history and histories that he conveyed.

Just two years ago, Andrés adopted the perspective that today brings us together to construct a working agenda for Chiapas: he reminded us that the only way of changing Chiapas is to change the world. And since this is very difficult, perhaps impossible, what we need to do, as the Zapatistas say, is to create a new world.

In the guidebook that he bequeathed us, Andrés shared his reading of the present, one he made in order to discover in it the signs of what will come. As was his custom, he was able to make his examination of the past interpellate the present, knowing that we are in one of those peculiar moments where we must investigate the past in order to discover the paths toward what awaits us. Because this is a moment of change.

In his guide, Andrés revealed to us the peculiar position of Chiapas: a hinge that receives all of the winds of the world and encapsulates here the material memory of the planet. We are in a moment of selection, Andrés indicated, at a crossroads. But the path has to be established from below, not from an elite. And that responsibility has fallen to Chiapas. Nothing less. It involves the responsibility, in the words of Juan Bañuelos of which Andrés reminded us, to weave the suit that I will wear tomorrow. The responsibility to give meaning to change.

The Turning Point

In all eras we are confronted with difficulties and crises and each of these is surpassed, be it in one day or in one hundred years. When crises appear that can no longer be resolved in the terms proper to an era, the historical necessity of a new era arises and there opens a chasm to pass through to it. That is where we are now.

The era that Wallerstein has called the capitalist world-economy has now ended, and it will be substituted by another. But the nature and characteristics of the new era are not written in the stars. This bifurcation has been formed by not only distinct but also directly opposed possibilities. We need to read these possibilities in the present, as Andrés taught us to do, in order to be able to choose, so that the era that is to begin is the one that we want and not the one that we fear.

The end of the American Empire

Two ingredients of this transition have already taken place and have created new possibilities. The first is the end of the American empire.

The United States elite has dared to speak of empire for the first time in reference to its projects… now that the empire had already arrived at its end. This is not as paradoxical as it seems. In their agony, all the empires of history have employed their last resources in order to pretend that they are at the height of their glory. But this only serves to hasten their end.

In 1945, the United States was a formidable productive machine. It produced half of registered world production. Europe and the Soviet Union had been left devastated by the war. Japan was occupied. The countries of the so-called South were European colonies or simply didn’t count, neither economically nor politically.

The United States possessed notable autonomy. Its imports and exports represented a mere 4% of its production. They were able to ”lower the curtain” without any change in their everyday life.

The United States was creditor to the world. This is why Bretton Woods allowed the dollar to be the world’s reserve currency and all countries, except one, had to submit themselves to the new rules.

The United States had political hegemony. It imposed the form of its own constitution upon the statutes of the United Nations.

And it had cultural hegemony. It was the moment of Hollywood, when the cinema that we all ran to watch was portraying the “American Way of Life” as the closest thing to paradise.

On January 20th, 1949, President Truman inaugurated this new empire. By indicating that “the old imperialism no longer fits into our plans,” he gave the United States an active role in the dismantling of the last European empires.

Truman also established the new emblem of imperialism: development, an emblem of American hegemony adopted blindly, without even the most adamant anti-imperialists realizing what they were doing. By coining the term “underdeveloped” and thus underdeveloping some two billion people, Truman gave new meaning to the term.

Therefore, a theoretical and philosophical proposal derived from Marx, packaged by the United States-style as a fight against communism and put to the service of US hegemonic designs, permeated the popular and literary imagination of the world for the rest of the twentieth century.

With the new century the American empire reached its end. The United States today produces less than 30% of world production. It is one among other economic actors, some of them of larger size.

It is debtor to the world. The dollar is being abandoned as a reserve currency. The United States needs two billion dollars every day just to continue operating. In other words, the country sells to the highest bidder for two billion dollars a day. Its external commerce represents more than a third of its economy. It has become entirely interdependent.

And although it is still able to capture the hearts and minds of a minority, it has lost its cultural hegemony.

Its current imperialist pretensions attempt to sustain themselves in its unquestionable military power. This is an attitude of apprentices without historical and political knowledge. Two hundred years ago, when other apprentices wanted to utilize the globally unrivaled power of Napoleon’s armies to similar ends, it is said that Napoleon himself told them: “Bayonets are good for many things, except to sit on.” With this chilling metaphor, he made them see that, with an army and a police force, you can destroy a country, but you can’t govern it. This is what the United States is learning at the moment in Iraq.

The United States already lacks the imperial capacity it used to have. The army cannot give it that. Restoration is impossible. One cannot reverse the course of history. As Marx once noted, when history repeats itself, it does so ”the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It is true that this farce could again become tragic, among other reasons because of the irresponsible cowboy mentality of the current American president. But it cannot re-establish what has already come to an end.

The end of the old regime in Mexico

Amongst ourselves we can confirm another ingredient of the end of an era: the liquidation of the political regime that existed in Mexico throughout most of the twentieth century. Since political parties have tried to convert this transition into a mere dispute amongst themselves, and since the PAN has dedicated itself to imitating the PRI, we might have the impression that we are still under the old regime. It is thus useful to keep in mind the facts that will permit us to observe the contrast.

When Miguel de la Madrid inaugurated the neoliberal period with a coup d’etat, the public sector represented two-thirds of the Mexican economy, which was almost totally closed, in other words, in the hands of the bureaucracy. Twenty years later the public sector had been reduced to a fifth of one of the most open economies in the world, an opening that signified that its evolution would no longer be determined within the confines of its borders.

The contrast is yet more acute in the political aspect. Before, the president controlled his government, his party, the Congress, and the judicial powers. Successive presidents modified the Constitution more than 500 times. The president held political control in every corner of the country, through a mafia structure that permeated the entire society.

Fox on the other hand did not control his government, nor his party, nor the Congress, nor the judicial powers, not even the presidential house. He was not able to push through any of the legal reforms that seemed to be so important to him.

In Mexico we still debate the nature of our political transition, precipitated by the Zapatista insurrection of 1994, because although the neoliberal approach persists, the shell of the institutions of the PRI regime are maintained and in some states the political classes have created perverse imitations of the old regime. But it is quite dead. It is true that, because we didn’t seize the moment to organize its funeral, the unburied corpse still emits all kinds of stench. But the insistence upon its restoration is as ridiculous as it is sinister.

The Reactionaries

The end of an era is a fountain of instability and chaos. It always generates immense uncertainty. In addition to this is the confusion created by the appearance of a new wave of reactionaries: people and groups that, confronted with this uncertainty, react by taking steps back, trying to return to known territories in which they feel safe. This attitude tends to veil our perspective and cause all kinds of difficulties.

Among the reactionaries one finds above all else religious fundamentalists, who search for certainties that they have lost in the foundations of their faith. The worst amongst them are those of the economic catechism. In Mexico we have the great shame of being what is probably the last country to blindly adhere to the so-called Washington Consensus, which defined the political package known as neoliberalism.

This consensus is broken. The last report from the World Bank, which was one of the consensus’s principal promoters, signals why and announces another route.  One by one the believers in this church have left it. Today they speak of the Washington Post-consensus. But none of this seems to reach the ears of Felipe Calderón and his Secretary of the Interior who continue to be tied to policies as obsolete as they are foolish.

What’s more, they do this with a particularly dangerous attitude. Calderón, when he spoke of the monopoly of power, demonstrated his anxious confusion. His actual deficiency of political power led him to imagine that he could substitute it with the monopoly of violence that the law reserves for the State. He urgently needs to listen to Napoleon’s warning: with arms one can do a lot of damage, but one cannot govern.

Among the reactionaries appear a few fascists here and there, people who want to recuperate that peculiar form of authoritarianism that arose in the twentieth century. They appear even in the most unexpected places, but until now they have not been able to garner much influence.

The statists are returning in Latin America. They maintain that neoliberalism was a misfortune and they desire to return to the good old days of the “patronage state.”

Some statists want to get rid of the “harshest edges” of neoliberalism. The phrase belongs to López Obrador, but the same could have been said by Lula or many other Latin American leaders.

Others want, in substitute for the neoliberal model, one with a greater social orientation, in the tradition of the European social democracy and its welfare state. They want to protect what remains of this after neoliberal devastation.

Still others have been rescuing the word socialism from oblivion. They don’t seem to have perceived that, like all historical phenomena, socialism had a beginning and is arriving at its end. Its problems and deviations appeared not only in its implementation, but also, and gravely so, in its theoretical and philosophical tradition. In the final analysis, socialism is just one variant of the economic society that will die with the era that is now passing. Some groups in this circle follow a line that could be called populist Stalinism. They talk of a supreme leader, a single party and a vertical structure, but instead of repression they believe in incentives for the masses. Other groups either talk vaguely of participatory socialism, or dream in pure and strict Stalinisms, without populist designs.

None of these currents are able to go very far. They still cling to the terms of a bygone era in agony. They will die together with it. But their presence—confused, rampant, and widespread—aggravates the uncertainty, and captures the attention of many people.

Mutations in the social movements

Contemporary social movements were born within the terms of the passing era, and they must face all of that political fauna which clings to the past. They are not always able to uncover the nature of the current situation and to convert themselves into anti-systemic movements in order to make sense in and of this new reality.

Two characteristics seem to accompany them in this transition.

One is referred to as “localization,” which appears as an alternative to both localism and globalization at the same time. Communities and villages which confined their resistance to colonialism and development in their locales, narrowing themselves down to those locales, tended to fall back into localism and even fundamentalism. Under current circumstances all localist movements will be wiped off the map. This is why, without falling into modernity’s uprooted forms, the discontent are now asserting themselves more than ever in their own places, but at the same time opening themselves to others like them and forming broad coalitions. This is localization. If a movement is able to extend deeply enough in a specific locale, it becomes directly and immediately global, achieving great reach.

In addition, the movements are increasingly adopting the politics of one NO and many YESES. In contrast with policies and parties, always in search of general affirmations to sustain empty promises, the people unite around common rejections: a dam, a highway, a policy, a governor, a regime… But they recognize the real plurality of the world, the differences between those that share that common NO, the value of its multiple YESES, of its affirmations, ideals, and projects for a different life. In so doing they anticipate a central characteristic of the new world that they are creating: a world in which the many worlds that we are will fit.

There exists a growing awareness that neither nature nor society will be able to support the current regime for many more years. And people realize that at the heart of this regime there are no options: there are no conceptual nor political resources that can deal with the increasing difficulties. And so there arises, little by little, the anticipation of the end of an era.

Contemporary social movements become anti-systemic on their own terms, when they are able to give depth to their efforts and they discover in practice the systemic nature of the obstacles they face.

The popular Assembly of the peoples of Oaxaca (APPO)

I would like to use Oaxaca as an example for this argument.

It all started with a conventional struggle: the economic demands of a union. When this struggle was repressed, a coalition of delegates was immediately formed, grouping hundreds of organizations together in what became a common rejection of Ulises Ruiz,[1] who had been placed in office through fraud and whose corrupt and authoritarian administration generated mass discontent.

In a short period of time this coalition was converted into a convergence of social movements, with the typical politics of one NO and many YESES. The APPO quickly synthesized the local cultural politic: popular assemblies, teacher unions, indigenous communalism, municipal and regional-based organization, religious extensionism, the radical left, ethnic diversity, and youth libertarian networks.

Very diverse movements participate in the APPO: some that have been around a long time, like those of the indigenous peoples, others that were activated by the situation, like the popular urban movement. This plural composition gives the APPO many parallel paths. One of the paths which stands out as highly convergent is that of democratic struggle.

  • There are those who still struggle for formal democracy, sick of the pigsty that has always characterized Oaxacan elections.
  • Diverse groups struggle for participatory democracy practices, including the popular initiative, the referendum, the plebiscite, the power to revoke public officers, the participatory budget, the public audit, transparency, and social accountability.
  • The main challenge is to subordinate these struggles to a third struggle which is in all likelihood which is the most widespread, which we call radical democracy. Instead of focusing on the constituted powers, this struggle is oriented towards the reorganization of society from below and what the people themselves can accomplish.

From another angle, those innovative movements that are already clearly anti-systemic coexist in the APPO with a variety of conventional struggles: economic struggles which strive to win certain gains from capital or the state, or those that seek to conquer the state, either through the ballot box or by force, in order to reorient dominant policy or impose a socialist variant of governance.

The basic characteristics of the APPO as a convergence of movements, is based on experience:

  • The lack of leaders. We have learned from the struggles of the 20th century that leaders have failed. Even those that have seemingly triumphed did not achieve what they originally intended.
  • We also learned to criticize socialism, although we maintain some of its ideals. In that tradition we criticize private ownership of the means of production, but we also vindicate communal property and we want to reserve the concept of collective property for certain special cases. The means of production should be in the hands of the people, not in those of a plutocracy that supposedly administers them for everyone.
  • We learned how to criticize formal and participatory democracy and to affirm ourselves in our communities and neighborhoods through a practice of democracy that can only exist where the people are, on the ground, in our autonomous assemblies.
  • We recognize that capital has a larger appetite than ever, but not the stomach to digest everyone it wants to control. This is why unemployment rates will rise. The social pact, in which the workers generated the capitalists’ profit in exchange for employment generated by the capitalists, has been broken. We have learned to challenge capitalism beyond rhetorical arguments and to form social relationships that escape the logic of capital. Our anticapitalism does not consist of simply declaring a rhetorical war with the bourgeoisie, but rather in organizing an autonomous environment that directly undermines the existence of that regime.
  • We learned to defy “progress” and “development,” affirming ourselves in our own plural definitions of a good life and adopting our own paths towards building that life.
  • We learned to question the individualism proper to modern capitalism in order to affirm ourselves in our community settings. When faced with the atomized and homogenized individual we uphold the person, a node of networks of real relations that form a community.
  • We learned to question the nation state, with its formal democracy, that is nothing other than a structure of domination based on violence. We now adopt other political horizons.
  • We learned to challenge the premise of conventional politics, which asserts that the people cannot govern themselves and reduces politics to defining how to determine who will govern them. We have another notion of power. We can govern ourselves with the appropriate political bodies, which are those we are now building.

The Zapatista Inspiration and our tasks at present

As a representation of what our struggle is about, Zapatismo continues to be our main source of inspiration, and, at least as a tendency, seems to define current anti-systemic movements.

Chomsky and Wallerstein uphold zapatismo as the most radical and perhaps the most important political initiative in the world. People in the barrios and villages might not say the same thing because they do not know enough about other movements outside of Mexico, or even within Mexico. But what they do know about zapatismo is enough to inspire them. They know what it means to command by obeying. They practice it in their own communities and now they want to extend it to the rest of society, much like the way we put it to the test in the city of Oaxaca in 2006.

Little by little, with the Zapatistas, we are learning to recognize the tasks at hand:

  • We must introduce order and sense into the turbulent disorder that prevails.
  • We must think everything anew. We must think now, with a sense of urgency, what we have not thought about for over one hundred years, trapped as we were in ideological disputes.
  • We must clear our personal and collective vision in order to invent the paths that we will travel.
  • We must act with a sense of direction.

These tasks can be formulated in simple terms:

  • Channel the general discontent, transforming protests and denouncements into viable initiatives, and resistance into liberation, using as building blocks the articulations of existing pockets of resistance.
  • Construct new political horizons, beyond the nation-state.
  • Subordinate the struggles for formal and participatory democracy to the construction of radical democracy.
  • Learn to be together but not the same.[2]
  • Retreat from the future and from ideologies to root ourselves in a transformative present.
  • Abandon the pretensions of state power to assume the worthy protagonism of the people, to transform the conquest of rights into the defense of liberties.
  • Construct autonomous forms of organization of social life beyond development, globalization, and the logic of capital.

In our present circumstances, we need to stop looking up, toward the constituted powers and uproot our obsession with taking power by whatever means.

We need to abandon the state as the exclusive horizon for political theory and action so that we can venture into the world of plurality and construct new perspectives within it. Understanding politics as a common good implies leaving behind obsolete notions, like national sovereignty or US imperialism, in order to confront clearly the new logic of transnational capitalist empire.

We need to seriously renounce socialism, recognizing that it has come to its end, and face firmly the consequences. Accepting that the future is not predetermined and that capitalism is not followed by socialism but rather by something still to be invented. This may be disquieting for those of us who have been trained in the socialist tradition and dedicated a good part of our lives to struggling for its ideals. But it is now a theoretical and practical necessity that we accept this insight.

How can we dissolve the old debate over power? Power is spoken about like a thing that some have and others do not, something that is imperative to redistribute. The World Bank made fashionable that frightening term “empowerment.” It wants to empower women, children, Indians, the poor….

We need other words to talk about something that is not contrary to Power (one that resists), but something radically different, neither its reflection nor its opposite. It is something else. It is a relation. And it is called dignity.

Humanists and revolutionaries from the entire political spectrum propose to modify ideologies without changing the institutions. Reformists want to change the institutions without altering the ideological system. This amounts to changing everything so that nothing changes.

What must be done is to truly change the institutional regime of production, that is, the enunciations/statements with which we govern ourselves and others. This requires a simultaneous mobilization of ideologies and institutions, articulating a historical knowledge of struggle that expresses the autonomy of our independent cultural nuclei, connected in a networked form.

It is about con-mover (moving-with), not pro-mover (promoting). Con-mover is a beautiful word. It suggests moving with the other, as in a dance, and to do so with everything one has: with the heart, the stomach, with one’s entire self, not only with the head. It operates through contagion.

On an ideological plane, we have lacked the courage to renounce the discourses of globalization and to reinvent the way we speak, our languages, categories, and systems that produce the enunciations by which we govern ourselves.

We need to abandon scientism and realize that humanism is increasingly more openly totalitarian, a provocation that prostitutes thought. Its paradigmatic figure is the professionalized and institutionalized technocrat.

On an institutional plane, instead of reforming or combating those institutions already in decline or taking them into our hands, we need to dissolve them, that is, eliminate the assumed necessity of their existence.

It is no longer about decentralization, the simple transfer of functions from the center to the periphery for the purpose of efficiency. It’s about reconfiguring the center… and dissolving it. This is the step from decentralization to decentralism.

Dismantling the state apparatuses that define power starts with dissolving the professionalism and institutionalism of the needs and capacities of the people. It is not about taking them over, since they already have an external and alienated boss—the virus of power and the logic of capital—but rather making them radically irrelevant in the articulation of other ways of thinking and doing.

Instead of institutions that are increasingly more openly counterproductive (schools that proliferate ignorance, health systems that sicken, etc.), each of which is a mechanism of domination, we must activate other tools that can realistically be in the hands of the people and substantially express their activity, capacity, and creativity.

The modernization of the political machine makes it more and more impotent, due to its fragmented and feudal character, the rigidity of its norms, and its rathersquare outlook. Under these conditions, any initiative from above to below falls into a social vacuum, and from below to above, into an institutional vacuum.

To stop looking upward, to abandon the obsession with taking power, does not imply carelessness. We need to be alert to the illegalities and absurdities that are woven into constituted power in order to impede them and employ the existing juridical and political procedures and institutions as a framework for transition.

We need to empty political power from all of the apparatuses of the state and leave them only administrative functions of coordination and service.

We need to resist the false dilemma between the electoral path and that of armed struggle, as if these were the only options. Our tasks have a fundamental commitment to non-violence, which is neither passivity nor pacifism, but rather a way of life that affirms dignity.

To carry out all of these tasks we need alliances and coalitions. But we should be conscious that seamless alliance is impossible. Even beyond distinct interests and organizational styles, the difficulty lies in that we walk in opposite directions, with different motives, reasons, and purposes.

It does not seem possible to seriously propose the convergence of all the organizations that locate themselves on the political spectrum of the left. But this does not necessarily imply accepting division and falling victim to the craze of converting a compañero into one’s principal enemy.

The circumstances demand that we keep ourselves grounded and from there look out horizontally at what is beside us. If that implies that we learn to listen to the people and recognize where they are and where their aspirations lie; if we are able to let ourselves go with them, trusting in their good judgment; if we let ourselves be guided by their inspiration and strength, more than by our own ideological manias and intellectual constructions; if it is really dreams, rather than static and obsolete vocations, that now make us dream; if we learn to seriously participate in the politics of one NO, NO to capital and the state, and many YESES, that is, the many distinct affirmations that emerge from a common negation; if we organize our path from a radical pluralism, together but not the same, as the actions of the APPO and the Other Campaign were woven, it will be possible to do the work that needs to be done.

The era that could follow the present one if the inertia of the constituted powers persists contains horrors that only the overflowing imagination of certain authors, like Orwell, have been able to capture. Although we can start to observe some signs in our present reality, they are but a pale outline of what may lie ahead.

However, like John Berger has said, in a world that gets continuously more desperate, naming the intolerable is in itself hope. If something is considered to be intolerable, then something has to be done. That is why hope is the essence of popular movements. In rediscovering it as a social force, the possibility for change is opened.

Hope is not being convinced that things will happen the way one thinks. It is being convinced that something has meaning, independently of what happens. For that reason hope resides initially, in mysterious form, in the capacity to name the intolerable, a capacity that has a long history and makes politics and courage inevitable.

We have been able to name the intolerable. We can no longer tolerate the present regime that destroys both lands and cultures. And we are not willing to tolerate a regime that could install itself in place of the old in a new era. Instead of waiting around or depositing our hope in new illusions, we have put ourselves in movement, gradually unplugging ourselves from systems that enslave and mutilate us, to freely construct a new world, one where the many worlds that we are fit. In that way we are defining, in practice, the meaning of the new era.

This is what I believe anti-systemic movements are about.

San Pablo Etla, Oaxaca December 2007.

[1] Current governor of the state of Oaxaca.

[2] Translation of a Spanish saying, “juntos pero no revueltos,” literally, “together but not scrambled.”

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