The New “Politics from Below”

Against the Current, No. 167, November/December 2013

Midge Quandt

Territories in Resistance:
A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements
by Raúl Zibechi, translated by Ramor Ryan, forward by Dawn Paley
AK Press, 2012, 363 pages, $19.95 paperback.

AS THE JULY, 2013 issue of Latin Amer­ican Perspectives makes clear, the reinvention of the Left from “below” is challenging the traditional approach to politics in the region. The old left emphasizes the state, political parties and the unions in a state-centered narrative of revolution. The debate centers on whether the state or the grassroots can best effect fundamental change.

Raúl Zibechi, a leading activist and writer (whose work is better known in Spanish), sides unequivocally with the new movements that arose in the 1990s largely as a response to the crisis of neoliberalism. This volume centers on the practices of the movements; their strengths and weaknesses over time vis-à-vis the central governments that they helped bring to power. In places where neoliberal extractive industries prevail, such as Chile, Peru and Colombia, the movements have retained particular power.

The book also focuses on the philosophy of local autonomy embedded in these movements. Zibechi gives emancipatory power only to the latter because they avoid the evils of domination and control. (The fact that the essays were written at different times can be somewhat confusing.)

For Zibechi, the state is too hierarchical to allow for the popular autonomy that these new movements require. The movements, including the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, and the indigenous in several countries are, both spatially and politically, beyond the reach of established institutions, including the state.

These movements typically provide alternative health services and education independent of the state apparatus. And they organize small-scale production in non-capitalist ways. Even the most progressive governments, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela come in for sharp criticism for their bureaucracy and verticalism. These undermine the grassroots autonomy that is the very foundation of the new communities in rural areas and on urban peripheries.

Neoliberal Devastation

As Zibechi and others have observed, whole populations were displaced in the 1980s and 1990s by the practice of neoliberalism. Agribusiness removed farmers from their land; industry, in capital flight, removed workers from factories. Neoliberalism left people without work, without union representation, without land.

The dispossessed responded by creating their own neighborhood-based communities (“territories” is Zibechi’s term) to replace the workplace as the site of struggle. The old left, organized in political parties and unions, was too distant, too vanguardist to meet their needs. Rejecting all centralized organization, the movements insisted on emancipatory self-organization and horizontal relations within the territories they claimed as their own.

Critics on the left, Zibechi argues, contend that the new social movements need structure and coordination if they are not to be ephemeral. This implies, in his opinion, a “state-centric” perspective on transforming society. However, these movements are not interested in confronting capitalist institutions; nor do they want to demand rights from the state — the outmoded logic of the 20th century, he would argue.

The new territories bypass capitalist institutions and ignore (when they can) the state. Moreover, coordination is not necessary when you do not engage in electoral politics or try to overthrow the state.

Transformation Without Power?

There are problems with Zibechi’s analysis, however. He admits that movement structures do not reach beyond the local level and professes to worry about this weakness. But he does not pursue this line of thought. Elsewhere he dismisses large structures (regional or national) because they are hierarchical.

Zibe1 effect, sidesteps the issue of structure and coordination. In addition, he sees no role for the state in changing society. Many on the left would agree with William Robinson’s recent thoughts on this issue: “No emancipatory project is possible without addressing the matter of the power of dominant groups, the . . . need to disempower these groups by seizing the state from them and constructing alternative institutions.” (Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective, 2009)

To dismiss political institutions because they can be, and often are, instruments of hierarchy and control is to deprive the popular sectors of a crucial lever of power. Are all large-scale political organizations fated to control political life? If not, how can they be made more responsive to the popular will?

What, according to Zibechi, is the current relationship of governments and movements? The governments sponsor and organize social programs (planes sociales) to aid the poor of the movements. These are usually run by institutions of civil society, especially NGOs, with government money.

Some NGOs, closely integrated with the government, use participatory rhetoric and methods to partially replace old and ineffective forms of repression. But from the author’s perspective, their programs are nonetheless forms of control which are meant to pacify and neutralize rebellious populations. Zibechi does not adequately discriminate among NGOs, but appears to highlight the social control they have exerted in Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay.

Then there is the issue of cooptation. Governments are said to hold activists in check by awarding them positions in government or NGOs. An example would be the piqueteros (road blockaders who were unemployed workers) under the government of Nestor Kirchner in Argentina. The piqueteros were given government jobs and economic subsidies.

In this way the state in Argentina and elsewhere holds movements in check. Zibechi concedes, however, that some social movements, notably in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, have reacquired political autonomy and managed to challenge the state.

Given the current marginality and weakness of some formerly powerful social movements, the reader is left wondering about the viability of territories or movements as nodes of resistance, and their ability to create longterm autonomous communities. “You can pretend to ignore power,” activist and analyst Jeffrey Webber recently reminded us, “but it won’t ignore you.”

November/December 2013, ATC 167