The Context for Autonomy

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Dan La Botz

MORE THAN FOUR years since it began, the Mayan Indian rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seems as intractable a political problem as ever. Why has the Mexican government found it impossible to reach some accommodation with the indigenous people of Chiapas?

In the following article, anthropologist and advisor to the EZLN Hector Díaz-Polanco argues that the central issue is the question of political autonomy agreed to in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords of February 1996.

On January 1, 1994 a group of Mayan Indian people and other Mexicans in Chiapas rebelled against the government of President Salinas de Gortari and the North American Free Trade Agreement.  President Salinas (1988-1994) unleashed an air force and army attack on the rebels, but under the pressure of the Mexican people and foreign public opinion, Salinas stopped the military attack and began negotiations with the leaders of the Chiapas Rebellion, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

In February 1995, when President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) ordered a military attack on the Zapatistas, once again the Mexican people and international opinion forced the government to retreat from its military posture.

This time, the President, working with an ad hoc legislative commission of the Congress in an extraordinary session, and with the vote of all the political parties, adopted the “Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and a Peace with Dignity in Chiapas.” It was approved by the Congress of the Union and published in the Congressional Record, 11 March 1995.

The law recognized created three different political organizations to deal with the Chiapas Rebellion.  First was the already existing Legislative Commission of Dialogue and Conciliation.  Second was the Commission of Concord and Pacification or COCOPA, made up of members of all the major political parties in both houses of the Mexican Congress.

The COCOPA also had a Commission of Follow Through and Verification to see that its decisions were carried out. The COCOPA also recognized the National Mediation Commission or CONAI, made up of prestigious persons and headed by Roman Catholic of San Cristobal de las Casas, Bishop Samuel Ruiz.

In September of 1995, the government and the EZLN agreed to a format for negotiations on the basis of four working groups: 1) Indigenous rights and culture; 2) Democracy and justice; 3) Well-being and development; 4) Women’s rights.  The EZLN invited scores of political leaders, independent intellectuals, academic researchers and social movement activists to join the working groups as EZLN advisors.

While the negotiations went on, the EZLN, with the support of both COCOPA and CONAI, convened National Indigenous Forum between January 3 and 8, 1996 in San Cristobal de Las Casas.  That forum adopted a declaration which began, “Autonomy is the central demand…” inspiring all the other elements of this document.

The Right to Regional Autonomy

In February of 1996 the Mexican government and the EZLN negotiated the first agreements on indigenous rights, what have come to be known as the San Andres Larrainzar Accords.  Those Accords recognized the right of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas to regional political autonomy.  Political regional autonomy of a multicultural character, because of the various ethnic and religious groups involved, represented an unprecedented step for the Mexican government, recognizing the right to create legal systems and new forms of property rights.

The signing of this agreement thus came as something of a surprise to the Mayan rebels, to the Mexican people and to many government officials, since government spokespersons had generally conceded the idea of cultural autonomy at a communal level, but rejected the idea of political autonomy at a regional level.  The government representatives agreed that the Accords should be affirmed in amendments to the Mexican Constitution and modifications in other existing legislation.

The suggestion that the indigenous peoples of Chiapas should have the right and the power to make decisions about their form of government, law and property threatens many interests from ranchers and political bosses to some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical or charismatic Protestant churches.  The Mexican government, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and especially the powers-that-be in Chiapas were not prepared to accept the Accords.

Consequently, the Mexican government ignored the Accords, while at the same time beginning a process of what has been described a counterinsurgency or low-intensity warfare.  During the last year the government’s low intensity warfare against the Zaptatistas and against the Mayan people has intensified.

There have been at least 500 political killings in Chiapas, most perpetrated against EZLN supporters and Mayan civilians.  Hundreds of people have been detained or arrested; thousands have been displaced as refugees.

While the Mexican Army in every greater numbers occupied ever larger areas, ranchers and local PRI organizations created paramilitary organizations to attack the EZLN’s supporters.  The result was a campaign of terror against the local activists including kidnappings, torture, and murder.  These culminated in the Acteal massacre of forty-five people, most of them women and children, on December 22, 1997 by one of the PRI paramilitary groups.

Since then, however, there has been no let-up by the government in its pressure against the EZLN. The latest campaign has had several elements:

First, the continued military occupation of Chiapas.

Second, the continued tolerance of reactionary paramilitary organizations.

Third, a campaign against foreigners-priests, human rights activists, political supporters of the EZLN-including the expulsion of 200 foreigners.

Fourth, the PRI and the PAN, ignoring the work of COCOPA and CONAI, have put forth their own legislative proposals which “interpret” the San Andres Accords, and obviously in such a way as to neutralize or eliminate altogether the idea of regional political autonomy.  The situation at present for the EZLN and for the people of Chiapas remains very difficult and threatening.

Dan La Botz is the editor of Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a bi-monthly electronic publication.  It is produced in collaboration with the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), and independent Mexican Union, and the United Eletrical Workers (UE).  For more information e-mail Dan La Botz.

ATC 74, May-June 1998

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    MYTHOMANIA: the specific characteristic which differentiates humans from other species. Animals live in the real world. People devise myths and live by them, create societies and civilizations with myths as the main fabric. The larger the number of people sharing a notion, a conviction, the more likely it is to be an illusion or fiction.

    Society: a group of people united by the BELIEF IN CERTAIN COMMON MYTHS― belief they seemingly need as much as food and oxygen.

    The social state of things, the social relations, are concealed by a screen of myths and lies. Let us tear this screen apart. The only possible lifestance for a person who wants to preserve his/her self-esteem, is the conscious and assertive effort to dissolve myths, illusions and lies.


    According to the prevalent perception, we are a democratic society of free citizens, with equal rights under the law. In the gloomy real world, WE ARE COMMODITIES. Our masters buy and sell us, accumulating wealth and power. We are poultry farm chicken, with a recognized right to elect our supervisors.

    The predominant religion is not Christianity, of which only the shell remains. COMMODITY IS THE NEW RELIGION of the developed world; it has prevailed gradually over several decades. Capitalists, politicians and bureaucrats constitute its sacred hierarchy. Consumption is its holy communion. Theologists and priests of the creed are regime intellectuals, journalists, technocrats, advertisers and stars. Its credo is limitless growth, and its temple is, of course, the market.

    All of us, THE FAITHFUL TO COMMODITY, we sell ourselves, our living activity, for a wage. Thus we receive holy grace, also known as purchasing power, in order to be worthy of participating in the ritual of Consumption. Being commodities in the Holy Market, the meaning we define for our lives is the increase of our purchasing power, to consume other commodities in limitless quantities.


    The capitalist system, the commodity democracy, is NOT forcibly imposed on society by the ruling class. MOST PEOPLE ACTIVELY SUPPORT AND REPRODUCE this system, that is THE RELATIONS OF COMPETITION, DOMINATION AND EXPLOITATION. We accept being used by the powerful as commodities, lifeless things; thus we gain the possibility to consume other commodities. By conforming, each person gains another miserable “advantage”: the possibility to use poorer people as commodities, to become himself a small boss.

    HYPOCRICY is the main element of interpersonal relationships under the commodity civilization. We use each other through coercion and manipulation. Relating to other people is not our top priority, we prefer relating to luxury items, status symbols, substitutes for self-esteem. Since we don’t hesitate cannibalizing each other, it’s not a surprise we treat nature accordingly.


    POLITICS under inequality: elites of major stockholders of corporations and politicians, exclusively hold the authority of decisions concerning the whole of humanity, using us, the ordinary people, as tools to their own benefit. Deception, intimidation and bribery are institutions of their poultry farm politics. If necessary, they have more convincing means for its continuation: armored divisions, aircraft carriers and cruise missiles. Parliamentary democracy (or rather commodity democracy) is the most advanced mechanism for the concentration of wealth and authority in the hands of the oligarchs.


    HIERARCHY, COMMODITY, MONEY, THE NATION-STATE, are not mere social institutions. They are DOCTRINES OF A SECULAR RELIGION. The believers are the overwhelming majority of people, regardless of class origin and income level, and they reproduce the creed through their daily activity.

    The holders of political and economic power are silly caricatures without their subordinates. The power of the rulers lies in the servility of their subjects; and the sheer need for sustenance is not the primary reason for their submission. Regardless of pretexts, their poverty or stupidity are rather secondary reasons. THE SUBORDINATES EMBRACE HIERARCHY AND IMPOSITION AS SACRED VALUES; SERVILITY AND THE WORSHIP OF POWER IS THE LIFESTANCE THEY CHOSE AND BELIEVE IN. Let’s face it: the working classes are probably more conservative than the ruling ones.


    Assuming the following notions are valid: The person is a social institution. Each society subjects its members to a particular socialization process, since birth; people’s thought, mentality and behaviour is thus definitely conditioned. Through this process, the young individual internalizes the values, rules and standards of the certain society; internalizes the special way his/her society fabricates meaning and projects it on the meaningless universe.

    If the above are true, concerning our “open democratic societies”, the culture of hierarchy is injected into the mind of the young person through institutions like the family, school and mass media. We are deliberately addicted to this sadomasochistic culture since infancy; as an outcome, we perceive domination, competition and exploitation almost as natural forces, like gravity or the light. At the same time, we like to believe we are free.

    The “normal” person of the silent majority absolutely believes that it’s “natural” to sell him/herself in the labor market, and that it is wise to trust “representatives” (usually gangs of honest and sincere people) to decide for his/her own life.


    THE SO-CALLED REVOLUTIONARY TRADITION IS INCURABLY CONTAMINATED. It is poisoned by hierarchy, the lust for power, bureaucracy, statism, elitism; by hypocricy-the opportunistic distortion of notions, vanity, dogmatism, mythomania, sexophobia, bigotry, sexism, by several kinds of discrimination; by the idealization of violence, and the mentality of self-sacrifice. All these elements of the Inhuman render the “revolutionary tradition” extremely dangerous. Notions like the Left, Communism, Marxism, Leninism, Socialism, Anarchy, Leftism, Democracy, are either inextricably connected to the system of domination and exploitation, or degenerated and defamed. Any attempt to restore them is futile, or even suspicious.

    By critically studying Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Communalism, Castoriadis’ project of Autonomy, as well as the project of “Inclusive Democracy”, we can selectively draw inspiration about the ideas, the values and the institutions of the society of the Equals.


    The social movement of the future, if one ever exists, will not be created on the basis of class interests. Its driving force can only be THE PERSONAL WILL FOR EQUALITY. The will of the people who consciously reject their class status and interests, as well as all kinds of external determination which compel them to serve the Inhuman. Of the people who commit themselves to eradicate the system of hierarchy, domination and exploitation. The will of the men and women who consciously desire personal relationships of solidarity, sincerity, equality and freedom― loathing competition, hypocrisy, exploitation, coercion and servility.

    The fundamental conflict is not between the rich and the poor, the bourgeois and the proletarians, the employers and the employees. The class struggle is not antisystemic but reformist. THE SO-CALLED PROLETARIAT AND THE LEFT ARE INTEGRAL PARTS AND CREATIONS OF THE SYSTEM, DETERMINED BY ITS VALUES. The class struggle reforms and revitalizes capitalism, even when it results in improving the living standard of the subordinate classes. The “proletarian revolution” results by definition in a coup d’ etat and the dictatorship of the vanguard party, it establishes state capitalism, not equality or autonomy.

    THE FUNDAMENTAL CONFLICT IS THIS: THE BELIEVERS OF HIERARCHY VERSUS THE LOVERS OF EQUALITY. It won’t be a conflict of classes, but one of civilizations: the traditional civilization of Hierarchy on one side, on the other the future civilization of Equality, we have to CREATE.


    The world of Hierachy and Commodity in which we were born, handed down to us two world wars and many local ones, for political imposition and for the control of wealth sources and markets; the ravaging of nature and the decimation of biodiversity, for profit; poverty and starvation; the reification of human beings, the misery of the life we live being commodities.

    All this horror serves this purpose: the oligarchs absolutely possess the authority of decisions, they accumulate enormous amounts of wealth, they control terrifying mechanisms of mass extermination, authority of life and death over humanity. “War, father of all things’’ is the essence of the civilization of Hierarchy.

    The apologists of the system present this sadomasochistic perversion as “human nature”. They preach the virtues of obedience, conformity and productivity, appealing to us to work “all together” for “the progress of our nation”, for the “growth of our economy” for the “competitiveness of our products”, for the orderly functioning of the poultry farm. They mean, of cource, that all members of the “nation”, “all together”, have common perspectives and common interests: the owners of the poultry farm, the elected supervisors of the chicken, as well as the law-abiding and productive chicken themselves, who lay eggs for their owners, to end up to the slaughter in time.

    Those of us who don’t share their vice, who don’t want to be neither masters nor slaves, we have the will and the critical ability to become the harbingers of the social movement that will create the institutions of equality and self-management.


    THIS MOVEMENT’S CORE AND REFERENCE POINT CAN ONLY BE THE NOTION OF SOCIAL, POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC EQUALITY. Everyone and all together, have the right of personal, direct participation in the decision-making processes concerning all functions of society. The movement will establish the general assemblies of neighbourhoods and communities, the equal citizens’ bodies of unmediated, public face-to-face discourse, which will assume control of politics. It will abolish political representation, hierarchy, the state, the professional politicians, the bureaucrats, all kinds of privileges. As a long term goal, the formation of regional confederations of these bodies of self-management, resulting ideally in the world confederation of the autonomous communities.

    The tools of production, the factories, the workshops, the laboratories, the mines, all technological means, the land, belong to all members of the society. We have to take them in our hands. Everyone and all together, we have the right to participate on equal terms in shaping and implementing decisions and policies concerning the production and distribution of social wealth; of cource, we all equally share and enjoy the products of our common production efforts. The workers’ assemblies of every workplace will take control of the means and process of production, and in coordination with the neighbourhood and community assemblies, they will undertake the free distribution of goods according to the needs of each community.

    The collaboration of these assemblies will undertake:
    the project of designing and implementing the production of goods for the satisfaction of social needs, for use value, to abolish commodity production, profit and exchange value. The designing of labor allocation on a regional scale, instead of the national and global allocation. The eradication of the antisocial and useless sectors of the capitalist economy, like, for example, the marketing business or the banks (which produce only profits for the capitalists, nothing useful for the people). Thus, huge numbers of employees will be freed from their odious jobs, to participate in the production of social goods. Their massive entrance into the common production effort, combined with advanced technologies, WILL MAKE POSSIBLE THE SUFFICIENCY OF FREE GOODS FOR ALL, WITH MUCH LESS WORKING HOURS.

    The bodies of self-management will design an economy for the people, in harmony with the natural environment, will restore the ancient notion of the sanctity of nature. They will eradicate money, the commodification of people and goods, the new feudal lords of the corporations and their continual crimes against humanity and nature.

    Capitalism, the most advanced offspring of the ancient civilization of Hierarchy, has created the technological means, the precondition of abundance of goods. This technology also bridges distances and language differences, it has made possible the uninhibited communication of people. We have within reach of our hands the means to create the civilization of Equality. We have to seize these possibilities. It’s time to bury the old world before it buries us.

    Athens, Greece, January 2009.

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