Autonomy as societies in movement: Raúl Zibechi

Autonomy and difference go hand in hand, because autonomy implies that people have the right to govern themselves completely, “to determine their own form of government, their own sociocultural practices, and their own economic organization” (Díaz Polanco and Sánchez 2002, 45).

This point is extremely important because autonomy is often reduced to the function of government—this is how the powerful often receive the peoples’ demands for autonomy. In contrast, the Zapatista experience teaches us that autonomy is comprehensive and strategic—ranging from the smallest cooperative, to a school or a health center in the jungle—reflecting the form and manner in which each projects is carried out, in whom sovereignty resides, how they make decisions, and how they organize themselves.

Autonomy and heterogeneity are also related. If we are truly autonomous, each collective will do things as they decide. This enormous diversity is what the Zapatistas call “another world in which many worlds fit” and it shows us that “it is possible to act uniformly without suppressing diversity.” In that sense, the Good Government councils “are an instance of unified action rather than a mechanism of uniformity, to the extent that they do not centralize powers or dictate the terms of the base” (Ornelas 2004, 10). In this way, the Zapatistas cannot help but to undermine the homogenizing and excluding practices of capital. The political left replicates these modes of capitalism by seeking the cohesion and uniformity of anti-systemic forces, while, for the Zapatistas, “the multiplication of the subject of social transformation is the alternative to the mechanisms of power that characterize the capitalist system” (Ornelas 2004, 11).

Raúl Zibechi, Territories in Resistance

We often imagine autonomy as the aim of social movements, falling then into the inevitable debates about political means and ends, assuming throughout that these are distinct, that the movement must have a predefined subject-identity (e.g., worker, woman, black, etc), that they have demands to address to power or power to take.  And at whatever step in this process, so conceived, “autonomy” is constantly coerced into pre-established moulds.

If then we imagine autonomy as the creation of societies in movement, then then the theoretical and practical ground shifts from beneath our feet: means and ends are bound together in ways of being, political subjects become unstable, and rather than seeking to address or control power, ways of life are generated that may reach out, unpredictably, beyond capitalist social relations and modes of reproduction.

Raúl Zibechi so reads the contemporary politics of anti-capitalism in south america, and we share below a review of his collection essays entitled “Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements”, (AK Press, 2012) as well as a link to an online-pdf version of an earlier collection of essays with the title “Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces”. (AK Press, 2010)

From cascadia solidaria (29/10/2012) …

Raúl Zibechi: Territories in Resistance

Not social movements, but “societies-in-movement”; not “Another world is possible!” but seeking to defend and nurture the life forms of survival and resistance that already exist in the gaps and excluded zones of the dominant society and economy. In Latin America, rural workers, indigenous people, and the inhabitants of impoverished urban peripheries have embodied forms of struggle based on collective self-management of the economy; horizontal and emancipatory approaches to politics, education, and health; and the valorization of ethnic and cultural difference. The experiences described by Uruguayan militant and theorist Raúl Zibechi in the south of Mexico and South America offer glimpses of this “other” society which is being constructed day by day from below, in spaces that are fiercely contested by the forces of traditional statist politics, extractive industry and neoliberal dispossession, and the genocide of cultural homogenization. The “territories” that these movements invoke and seek to defend include urban and rural land occupations; autonomous municipalities and the natural resources of indigenous land; popular education and politics in the streets and classrooms; bakeries, city gardens and industrial factories. Zibechi argues, however, that the true “territory of resistance” is not a question of the bounds of a particular space, but of the social relations developed among human beings within that space–in particular, non-state and non-capitalist relations.

Zibechi lays this theoretical framework in the first section of “Territories in Resistance,” a collection of essays that approaches critical social movement theory and practice from both specific and abstract perspectives. This includes reportage and analysis from a variety of struggles: the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign, the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, unemployed workers’ assemblies and worker-managed factories in the Southern cone, and Andean and Mapuche indigenous resistance. The final half of the book is made up of a longer piece on urban peripheries and occupations, and a sacred-cow skewering critique of progressive and leftist governance in Latin America and its compromises with neoliberalism and coercive politics that undermine the emancipatory and insurrectionary possibilities of autonomous social movements.

Along the way Zibechi also offers practical reflections on building and defending movements, while humbly recognizing that “we do not know how a movement produces and generalizes itself.” The intensification and expansion of movements may rely most profoundly on uncontrolled flows of experience, communication, and action, rather than on external coordination or organization: “‘To organize rebellion’ is a contradiction in terms–to organize means to impose order, to discipline, to institute. …we need to expand the concept of organization and recognize that chaos is also a form of organization.” What can be organized, however, is the defense of emergent forms of rebellion:

“While non-capitalist social relations are not created beginning from an articulation, it is nevertheless necessary to defend and protect what has been created. I believe it is useful to understand articulation in the sense that a seed must be protected as it germinates–that is, to protect is not to create, it is not the articulation that creates the new world, but it helps it to survive until it can be born.”

For the defense of these nascent movements Zibechi offers a handful of aspirations and guidelines. He urges the creation of non-capitalist relations within movements and the avoidance of centralization and unification (and offering the mantra “divide and struggle better”), as well as cautioning against “excessive visibility” for young movements (an important reminder in the age of social networks). As means to foster such relations, Zibechi suggests the creation of “temporary and horizontal spaces for the exchange and sharing of knowledge regarding alternative experiences. …Instead of focusing our attention and our activity on the state, political parties, and capital, and so on, it is better to focus on the experiences that create new social ties. This needs to be our central concern. The key to our struggle is to look within, to grow inside, and thus create the new world. To resist and struggle in this day and age is fundamentally about creating those ties and thus a new, ‘other’ world.”

This is a challenging prescription for activists used to focusing our energies in profoundly asymmetric struggles, such as those against transnational mining or state repression. However, Zibechi’s case studies of vibrant movements in Latin America suggest that the most profound movements of rupture and resistance emerge from such processes–in his introduction, Zibechi employs the metaphor of a zumbayllu, or spinning top, “as a reflection of societies in movement that, in order to exist, to ward off death and oblivion, must move themselves from their inherited place.” It is the top’s centripetal force that keeps it standing and spinning, a non-dialectic “double movement, the rotation on its own axis and the passage across a plane…two complementary ways of understanding social change: displacement and return…repetition and difference.” The spinning top’s collision with other objects–as in moments of crisis or insurrection–exerts a reactive centrifugal force, but this force is ultimately derived from the top’s inwardly-focused motion, from the emancipatory social relations forged by people engaged in common struggle. The beauty of Zibechi’s analysis is that it privileges descriptions of real experiences of liberation and resistance over such abstract philosophizing, with a deep grounding in the value of autonomy:

“The spinning top of social change is dancing for itself. We do not know for how long or to where. The temptation to give it a push in order to speed up its rhythm can bring it to a halt, despite the good will of those trying to ‘help.’ Perhaps the best way to promote it is to imagine that we ourselves are part of the zumbayllu–spinning, dancing, all and sundy. To be a part of it, without any control over the final destination.”

From, the pdf version of Zibechi’s “Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces”.

From vocesenlucha, an interview with Zibechi, in spanish …

This entry was posted in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.