Impact of Autonomous Movements: Part Two of Four
The Extent and Impact of Autonomist Movements
Because of the informal nature of autonomist movements, it is difficult to arrive at an estimate of the number of people involved in them or affected by them, although the number of people involved in certain manifestations of the current have been significant. In Argentina it is estimated that there are 25,000 workers employed in and administrating 350 recuperated (i.e. worker expropriated) enterprises. On more than one occasion between 2001 and 2012, also in Argentina, assemblies of “piqueteros duros” (those that refuse to cooperate with the governing Peronist party) have brought more than 8000 people together to tie up downtown Buenos Aires. Spokespeople for that movement have estimated that it has approximately 200,000 active members among its various tendencies. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the assemblies that lead to the public management of water involved around 120,000 people. 250,000 people live in the autonomous region of Mexico controlled by the neo-Zapatista EZLN. The autodefensas in Michoacán alone are said to number more than 20,000. The MST, the giant among Latin American autonomous movements, consists of more than 1.5 million active members. It would probably be reasonable to assert that, worldwide, there more than three million people (at least) directly involved in some kind of autonomous movement, and several million more directly affected by them—to say nothing of their indirect affect on the global struggle against capitalism and neoliberalism.
One of the questions that is frequently asked about the libertarian left in general, and anarchism in particular, is “What has it really accomplished?” Critics point to the eventual failure of the Spanish Revolution and the hegemony of Marxist-Leninist ideology in later revolutionary movements as evidence that direct democracy and successful (in one sense or another) revolutions don’t go together. A brief look at the history of various autonomous movements seems to vindicate the revolutionary and developmental potential of a directly democratic form of organization, in which working people and oppressed people play the central role in their own struggles.
To begin with, these movements have generated concrete benefits for oppressed people over the last twenty years, for the most part outside of the realm of the government bureaucracy. As we’ve noted, there are 25,000 workers in Argentina, and a significant number in Uruguay and Brazil, who were able to continue working and feeding their families in spite of economic collapse in the region. More importantly, the productive capital remains in the hands of those workers, giving them a degree of independence from the state and from the capitalist class that allows for the potential development of a revolutionary consciousness (a consciousness that, however, will not grow on its own like a mushroom, as we discuss below). In Bolivia the administration of the water of an entire city was put into the hands of local, autonomous cooperatives, relieving the residents of Cochabamba of a considerable economic burden and, again, leaving in existence a space in which the control of oppressed people and working people over their own lives was a real part of the agenda. In India and Mexico, autonomous movements have prevented the construction of large dams which would have displaced hundreds of thousands. Most recently, in Mexico, the state-abetted violence of drug cartels in Michoacan and Guerrero was curbed by armed autonomous groups.
As far as concrete gains in standards of living, broadly defined, by far the most significant of self-styled autonomous movements are the Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, and the EZLN in Chiapas. The MST has enabled 475,000 families, most landless rural workers, to actually expropriate and work land that has permitted them to survive. At the same time, their popular educators have taught more than 50,000 adults to read, and they have enrolled around 150,000 children in 1200 primary and secondary schools, run by the movement, which are located in occupied MST settlements. The MST has also provided training in pedagogy and agronomy for hundreds in its own university.
Upon rising in arms in 1994, the neo-Zapatistas of the EZLN expropriated the large landholders. The land thus obtained has been used to sustain a number of producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives, most of them geared to local consumption—this in an area where the vast majority of the population were essentially in the position of serfs on landed estates. Thus, in an era when the Mexican countryside has been depopulated by the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, agricultural production and consumption have increased in Chiapas, and the population has not been driven off the land. Even more significant have been advances in health care. According to a report by the World Health Organization:
“…there are currently some 200 community health houses and
25 autonomous regional clinics, some of which have already been in operation for 10 years and a dental clinic…If we bear in mind that almost all the medical facilities have been built in places where none existed before, it is easy to appreciate the significance of achieving this objective thanks to an effort by the community”.
Symbolic and Political Significance
The rebellion in Chiapas in 1994 marked a watershed in resistance to world capitalism. With the collapse of the eastern bloc countries, the press around the world was declaring the “end of history” and the triumph of “democracy”—a euphemism for Western capitalism. The traditional left was in disarray, its influence among the worker class severely diminished. The EZLN caught the Mexican state and the world by surprise, and embodied one of the first direct challenges to neoliberal globalization. The timing of the uprising—the same day that NAFTA took effect—made clear that this movement wasn’t simply targeting the national government or even U.S. imperialism, although both of those traditional enemies were implicitly challenged as well. The target, instead, was the system of finance and trade agreements, which were in the process of imposing the neoliberal model on Latin America and the rest of the formerly colonized world.
The autonomous movements which developed as the decade progressed all shared the common orientation of opposition to corporate capitalism and global finance, while at the same time acting against local class enemies regarding local grievances. The MST, for example, began as a movement by the rural proletariat against large landholders, or latifundistas. As the configuration of the global economy changed, the movement understood that it had new enemies, among them global agribusiness, and new allies—including both Brazil’s urban workers, and peasants’ groups from around the world. Since then, actions have been directed as often against Monsanto land and business activities as against latifundios.
The neoliberal model of development privatized state services and opened up land and natural resources for sale to world capitalism. The result was that millions were deprived of work, land, and, in the case of Bolivia, such basic needs as water. The backlash, which came from unemployed Argentine oil workers in MTDs, workers occupying factories across the continent that had been exposed to untenable international competition, land occupiers in Brazil and elsewhere, water “warriors” in Bolivia or armed Zapatistas in Chiapas, confronted these developments both through those who carried them out—local and national governments and national capitalists—and through the institutions that actually planned, financed and directed them, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. In this sense, autonomous movements are a part of the anti-imperialist tradition of the Latin American left, a tradition which has had an important influence on them. The difference is that they tend to conceive of empire as transcending the state power of the U.S. and Europe, and residing in international capital (including the national bourgeoisie). This orientation has created the basis for a new internationalism which has been enthusiastically adopted by its participants. Solidarity between Latin American autonomous movements is frequently expressed in concrete, material terms, and these movements also maintain fraternal contacts with movements around the world to which they have frequently served as models.
Direct Democracy: Popular Control of Popular Movements
The symbolic and ideological impact of autonomous movements is also apparent when we look at the internal organizing principles of social movements over the last several years. The assemblies which were traditional to the local, Mayan-derived culture in Chiapas, and were used a the basis for decision making by the EZLN, have been adopted throughout Latin America—possibly in homage to the Zapatistas, or possibly as the natural vehicle for self organization of a working class historically plagued by dictatorship, clientelism and betrayal. Subsequently, the forms developed in Latin America have been replicated throughout the world, whether in Tahrir Square, in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, or in Zucotti Park. For all the flaws that some of these movements might have (some of which will be addressed in the next installment of this article), the assembly structure has uncontestably allowed for greater participation by working class and oppressed people in the direction of their own movements.
It is significant that autonomous movements are controlled by popular elements to a much larger degree than traditional political movements. In places like Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil, autonomous movements have shown a strong capacity to resist cooptation by governing left-populist parties. The struggles of the MST against Workers Party governments in Brazil, the popular revolt against increases in gas prices in Bolivia, and the struggle for workers control in the SIDOR steel mill in Venezuela are all indications that autonomous movements might be the medium by which working people finally remove the national bourgeoisie from the “national liberation” equation, allowing oppressed people to direct their own affairs without the intervention of these traditional middlemen. In countries like Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, which went through long periods of dictatorship, there has been strong resistance in autonomous circles to manipulation or interference by political parties; instead, working people themselves have most often been the protagonists of movements like the piqueteros and the MST. Even in situations in which there are complex relationships between the movements, the state, and political parties, as discussed in the next section, there still exists the potential for, and the reality of, genuine self-directed action.
This article is the second in a series of four. These are the links to the other published sections: