Haji Mohamed Idris

Claude Alvares

Gustavo Esteva

Anwar Fazal

Ashis Nandy

Vinay Lal

Shilpa Jain

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Gustavo Esteva

Even today, five years after its public emergence, to approach the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) means to enter into the reign of paradox: a revolutionary group with no interest in seizing power; an army shooting civil resistance and non violence; a social and political movement renouncing to any public position; a locally and culturally rooted organization with a global scope; it is singular and typical, traditional and contemporary... Its attitude about democracy is ambiguous, if not unbearable paradoxical: clearly and firmly affiliated to it, the EZLN is at the same time its radical critic.

In examining here these paradoxes, I try to describe the content and implications of the Zapatista proposals. I would like to make it evident their importance for the current transition in Mexico and the inspiration that other social and political movements can get from them.

Radical democracy

Democracy is now both a supreme universal ideal and a frayed flag. Only the likes of the Nazis dare to openly challenge it. But to be for democracy does not say much today in settings deemed paradigmatic--most particularly the setting of the modern nation-state, with its ritualized circus of votes and election years.

Rather than elaborating a critique of the conventional idealization of such a vague notion, the Zapatistas are exhibiting the nakedness of the emperor. They bring to the public agenda and speak louder what before them was a widely shared open secret, which very few dared to declare: the extended disappointment with democratic realities.

The abandonment of the ballot box and the political parties was already revealing people's increasing awareness of democracy's flaws: not only "imperfections" (manipulation of suffrage, etc.) but its very nature. It is a regime in which only a minority of the people, and almost always a minority of the electorate, determines the political party that will govern the country; only an exiguous minority of that party determines who will be in charge of the government; and those in government take their decisions over or even against party programs, electoral promises or public consensus.

But there seemed to be no option. The Zapatistas gave legitimacy to a struggle for democracy that neither surrender itself to its illusions nor aspire to a transitory or permanent despotic substitute; a struggle that does not aim to conquer the "democratic power" but to widen, strengthen and deepen the space where people can exert their own power.

For the Zapatistas, as for many people, democracy means people's power. This is not a simplistic or rhetorical version of the democratic discourse. It grasps its very essence. After all, people's power is but the translation of the Greek work democracy, from demos -the people, the commons- and kratos -force, power, rule. For those who constitute "the people", democracy is a matter of common sense: that ordinary people govern their own lives. It does not allude to a kind of government, but to a government end. It is not a collection of institutions, but an historical project. With the word democracy, people are not alluding to present democracies, already existing or being established, but to the thing itself, to people's power.

This notion of democracy should be distinguished from formal or representative democracy and other political conceptions. It does not correspond, for example, to the expression "government of the people, by the people, for the people" . It is not equivalent to "direct democracy". It is something else. I call it here "radical democracy", an expression that captures popular experiences and debates. It means democracy in its essential form.

From the standpoint of radical democracy, the justification of every other kind of regime is something like the illusion of the emperor's new clothes. Even a people that has lost its political memory...may still make the discovery that the real source of power is themselves...Democracy is the radical, the square root of all power, the original number out of which all regimes are multiplied, the root term out of which the entire political vocabulary is ramified...Radical democracy envisions the people gathered in the public space, with neither the great paternal Leviathan nor the great maternal society standing over them, but only the empty sky-the people making the power of Leviathan their own again, free to speak, to choose, to act. Lummis 1996, 26-27.

This notion is ambiguously present in all political theories and the democratic debate: everybody flirts with it but at the same time evades it, as if no one dared to deal with it from beginning to end; as if it was too radical or illusory; what everybody looks for but no one can get.

Democratic theories shifts away from this notion, thus betraying the root of democracy as people's power. They define democracy as a form of government and a collection of institutions in which people's power is continually transferred to them. They recognize that people are the source of all legitimate power, but observe that, in modern societies, people can have the power, but not exert it. They legitimize the sequestration of democracy by parties and media, which manipulate the voters, turning illusory the suffrage, and reduce the options of the electorate. They are constructed on Hegel's apothegm, ruling since 1820 the debate on democracy: "The people cannot govern themselves". Assumed by both liberals and socialists, this principle surrenders the exercise of power to self-appointed elites and reduces political struggle to the ways for their legitimation, accountability and substitution.

Radical democracy rejects such shift. It attempts that the political regime expresses people's power in the very exercise of power, not only in its origin or constitution. It is not a return to a previous stage. Well rooted in a variety of traditions, it expresses the contemporary struggle of peoples which experienced how "democratic" governments corrupt themselves and betray their purposes and functions, and now attempt to modify such situation. They try to live in the "democratic state": to maintain in daily life that open and free condition.

The democratic condition exists when the people adopt the social form of existence in which that is possible, that is, when they endow themselves with the political bodies in which they can exert their power. There are not clear options for that purpose: for a hundred years we stopped thinking, obsessed with the ideological dispute. In searching for them, however, the urban or rural grassroots communities, the mutation of civil society and the reformulations of the state come to the mind. The Zapatistas are involved in such search, struggling for people's power.

Equality and representation

The social pact in which modern democracies rest is supposedly celebrated by equal and homogeneous individuals constituting electoral majorities, under the principle of representation. Homogeneity and equality, however, are but illusions; they are imposed by force and generate inequality and privilege. Electoral majorities are but a fictitious set of individuals supposedly endowed with a common reason. The system is based on the myth that they can express the rational interest of everyone and give to it a political form through their votes, that is, that the individual would be capable, through statistical aggregation, to determine the outcome of political action. It is a system that everywhere has generated corruption and bad government, which are incurable diseases in all the societies called democratic.

People are not individuals, but singular men and women. Through the abstract category of individuals, their condition is reduced to an atom of a bracket defined and controlled by others, and treated accordingly, in the terms prescribed for the mass of individuals constituting every abstract category: passengers in a flight, social security members, voters, consumers, students, workers...In a mass, however, people loose their mobility . In spite of its radical resonance, the word 'mass' comes from the bourgeoisie and the church: it reduces people to the condition they share with material things, being measured by units of volume . The illusion that the mass of consumers controls the market, the mass of workers capital and business, and the mass of voters political power, only hides the real state of things, in which people are continually deprived of their economic and political power.

People are persons, knots in nets of concrete relations. They want to continue being persons (people cannot be otherwise), and to organize the society in a way in which they can be treated as such, not as individuals or masses. This personalized treatment is a normal condition among the "poor" in their own contexts, in their communities and barrios: Juan is this singular and unique man, bearer of a net of concrete relations defining him; in his space, he is always recognized and treated for who he is. Only the very rich have such a privilege in modern democracies. "Come in, Mr. Rockefeller", the employees will tell him in the bank, while sending all the rest to the line. The Zapatistas claim for everyone such personalized treatment, as a style of social relationships.

People are not homogeneous and even less equals. They are heterogeneous and different. The illusion of equality, which now operates as a popular prejudice , became an ideal under specific historical circumstances, to struggle against power abuses and people's destitution. It now operates as a continual source of illegitimate privileges and inequality. The Zapatistas denounce the illusory character of this ideal, recognize personal and collective differences and claim people's power, for the end of privilege and license. They also affirm the assumption of the diversity of all peoples and cultures, whose interaction should occur on equal footing, that is, with no implicit or explicit assumption of the superiority of any culture over the others, in order to establish the harmonious coexistence of all the "different".

Most people want to govern themselves. There is no need to transfer their power to the market or the State, under the assumption that their mediation is indispensable, to later regret the consequences of their voracity and corruption. If people reorganize themselves in political bodies in which they can exert their power, some limited but important functions, that cannot be absorbed by those political bodies, could be entrusted to new institutions, in which the principle of command by obeying , rather than representation, will be applied. That seems to be the approach of the Zapatistas to political power.

Civil society

When Marcos, the Zapatista speaker, was asked if they were not betting too much in the civil society, he answered unhesitatingly: "And how not to, if it has demonstrated so many times what it is capable of doing!" When the journalist argued that it still looked too disorganized and a little slow, he smiled and pointed out: "And however it moves! (La Jornada, 25/8/1995).

References to "civil society" are a constant in the discourse of the Zapatistas. They find wide echo, but also are a source of confusion, given the long and convoluted conceptual and practical history of the expression. (See Cohen and Arato 1992; Ferguson 1969 and Lummis 1996). In its current incarnation, the notion can be associated with popular movements, in Eastern Europe and Latin America, that did not adopt the classic form of class organizations or parties for the substitution of authoritarian regimes. Their theoretical referents often include Gramsci, but also use ideas and experiences from many different traditions. Their common denominator is the autonomy of the organizations constituting civil society, their independence from the State and their antagonism towards it.

Liberal pluralism, more in line with the traditional meaning, assume that private businesses are the central actor of civil society, which is guided by a spirit of competition . When both liberals and neoliberals now proclaim: "as much society as possible, as less government as necessary", they express the opposite of what is being claimed by popular movements. The latter look for as much government of behaviors and events as possible, but by the people themselves, in their daily life. While the liberals transfer the function of government to private business, under the pseudo-anarchist illusion of the self-regulated market, the popular incarnation of the civil society attempts to snatch it from the state to give it back to the people, not to capital, that they can neither trust.

In Mexico, two specific periods re-legitimized and gave new meaning to the expression. The mobilizations and the initiatives emerging after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City redefined it. "The earthquake raised the term to the height of its glory. And on the 22nd of September it starts to be commonly used, at first as synonym for 'society' without any additional organizational emphasis or meaning. But by the beginning of October practice dominates: civil society is self-generated community power and solidarity, the space independent of the government, the actual antagonistic zone" (Monsiváis 1987, 78-79; translation by Frank Bardacke, quoted in Lummis 1996, 168). During a period of accumulation of forces in silence, insurgence occupied the place of guerrilla, and liberation became a substitute for development, while independent organizations got legitimacy. The uprising of 1994 prolonged the shift of 1917 (the Mexican Revolution, when "the people" became an alternative to "the nation"), and the organizational forms adopted by the people became those of civil society, which thus expressed "people's will".

Civil society is therefore defined as the sphere of society autonomously organized, in opposition to that established by the state or directly controlled by it or associated to it. It is not a substitute for other expressions having the same content of antagonism and a similar political meaning. It is not, for example, "the vanguard", as the agent for historical change. In contrast with a class or a party rising up to seize the power of the State, to impose from it a new regime, the civil society empowers itself in rising up, or, to be precise, with its mobilization activates the power it already has. Instead of occupying the State or substituting their managers or leaders, it stands against it, marginalize it, control it. It is not constituted by masses: it is not a herd, but a multiplicity of diverse groups and organizations, formal or informal, of people who act together for a variety of purposes. Given that organizational condition, in small groups, it does not lead to the "tyranny of the majority": its form of operation resembles the model of society that Alexis de Tocqueville, who coined that expression, considered the best protection against it (Lummis 1996, 30-31). It neither leads to a bureaucratic dictatorship in charge of the "revolution".

This historical variation in content of the term 'civil society', charged in it by popular movements, is a substantial part of the political conceptions of the Zapatistas. It is not an actualization of the classic term, but alludes to a mutation in the political body.

No, thanks

The contemporary coalitions of discontents play a central role in the new composition and dynamics of the civil society . They tend to adopt, in their initiatives, the "politics of no", which has allowed them to resist the temptation of their globalization.

Globalization, usually proclaimed as a description of the real conditions of the social life in the planet, is only real at the level of discourse. True, internationalization of capital is now in its culminating phase and the system of communication has a global reach. True, there is an increasing uniformity in the life style of wide minorities, both in North and South. True, Coke, MacDonald's, Benetton or Sheraton are everywhere. All these facts seem to give empirical foundation to the illusion that the world's population is being "globalized" -a prospect that some see as a threat and some others as a promise, but is usually assumed as a fact. The emblem of globalization hides the fact that the social phenomenon effectively defining the general trend, at the end of the century, is marginalization and localization, rather than globalization.

All people on earth seem now exposed to "global forces", but most of them, the social majorities, will never check into a Sheraton or have a family car: the "globalizers" would deplete the world's resources well before they can adopt the life style of the globalized minorities. They are in fact increasingly marginalized from such life style. Instead of frustration, rage or even desperation, an increasing number of people are reacting against the globalization of their marginality with localization: they are more firmly rooting themselves in their physical and cultural soils, in their commons, in the spaces that belong to them and to which they belong.

Most of the localized initiatives now proliferating are the expression of social discontent, given the discomfort provoked by globalized phenomena. They thus naturally derive towards coalitions drawing together local discontents in common efforts. Such coalitions do not uproot them, reduce their autonomy or dissolve them in national or global ideologies or campaigns. They resist the temptation of aping the scale of global campaigns launched by governments and corporations. They recognize that, rigorously speaking, global thinking is impossible. Imperialist governments and transnational corporations practice it at the price of statistical simplifications that cannot be called thinking and do to the globe the same that a satellite: reduce it to a blue bubble (Berry 1991). By resorting to the politics of "no", the new coalitions of discontents affirm them in their own local spaces, while widening their social and political force to promote their localized views and interests.

To say no may be the most complete and vigorous way of affirmation. The unifying "no", expressing a shared opposition, usually conveys multiple "yeses": the affirmations of what all those sharing a rejection are and want. The organization around what people don't want, avoiding the condensation of their diverse affirmations, recognizes such plurality. It thus potentiates the political force of the rejection, protecting the capacities and initiatives of those affirming themselves in their own spaces, mutually supported by the "no". Politicians and parties, in contrast, always in need of followers, find impossible or ineffective to focus themselves in the "no". They continually look for affirmative proposals, defining homogeneous and abstract ideals or wants. They thus unavoidably betray real people's hopes, carpetbagging with them.

The motives of those opposing a dam, a nuclear plant or a political regime are usually highly diverse. Some would be protecting their life space, and some others would be pursuing general ideals. Rarely they can reach a consensus about what they want, about their aspirations, given the diversity of their affirmative proposals; but instead of homogenizing them, to define a common goal, they use that diversity to nourish and enrich their common articulation of a specific rejection.

Recent history is particularly abundant in examples of social and political movements succeeding in their efforts to restrict, reject, limit. They have been able to effectively and in good judgement say "No, thanks". Each of their successes has translated into an effective affirmation of the diverse initiatives of those coalesced in a specific struggle. In contrast, they often failed or were dismantled when their own dynamics lead them to formulate affirmative proposals. After loosing their negative consensus, they weakened their driving forces, which tended to disperse. Many movements, highly vigorous at the beginning, failed to take off or lost their spirit and stamina when they gave an affirmative content to political proposals based on a radical critique. The "greens" are perhaps the best illustration of this process.

Globalized phenomena are real. Identifiable actors are promoting them. There are thus reasons to create coalitions of discontents of very different peoples and cultures, sharing a common opposition to those phenomena and lacking enough force to struggle against them at the local, regional or national level. To give to them the appropriate content, to keep their force and vitality without betraying their original impulse, they should stay in the plane of what they don't want.

The Zapatistas activated millions of discontents, which quickly organized politically effective coalitions, with one single word: Enough!. Wide sectors of Mexicans, with very diverse motives of discontent, felt themselves affirmed by such expression of dignity and started to mobilize themselves. The Zapatistas resisted the temptation of leading all those movements, to unify them around a single ideology, a common ideal or a specific political proposal. They thus propitiated that the affirmation of very diverse conceptions strengthen the common rejection. Enough! now is a vigorous political position, shared by millions of Mexicans, who also use it colloquially, in their daily life.

The expression quickly jumped over Mexico's frontiers and started to extend. Assumed as their own by many others, it started to unify the common rejection to phenomena of global reach, to a point in which the temptation to organically unify them, to globalize them, clearly emerged. In convening the First Intercontinental Encounter the Zapatistas seemed to be addressing such expectation and many people came to it with that idea in mind. In La Realidad the opposite happened. Instead of a new bureaucratic apparatus, for the world coordination of a political movement expressing universal ideals and proposals, the International of Hope was created: a web constituted by innumerable differentiated autonomies, without a center or hierarchies, within which the most varied coalitions of discontents can express themselves, to dismantle forces and regimes oppressing all of them.

To say no, with enough firmness, dignity and conviction, may be today the best way to say yes.

Autonomy and democracy

The Zapatistas brought the question of autonomy to the center of the political debate in Mexico, particularly in relation with the Indian peoples. But they refused to specify their own notion of autonomy, that they apply in their communities, clearly aware that it is not the only one and not necessarily the better. They neither attempted to define the form of autonomy. Their claim "could be applied equally to the townships, to the unions, to social groupings, to campesino groups..." "We have submitted our proposals", they specified, "but we have repeatedly say that we will not impose them to anyone" (Autonomedia 1995, 299). The affirmation of the autonomies, in plural, expresses a common rejection to the dominant heteronomy.

For the Indian peoples, autonomy implies, first of all, respect and recognition for what they already have. It is not an ideological proposal or a promised land. A Yaqui leader specified: "Autonomy is not something that we need to ask to someone or that someone can give to us. We occupy a territory, in which we exert government and justice in our own way, and we practice self-defense. We now claim respect and recognition for what we have conquered". (ANIPA, Oaxaca, August 1995). But in transforming their resistance into a struggle for liberation, they want to go beyond the liberal or neoliberal dream, which has become a nightmare for them, and beyond representative democracy, which keeps people trapped in an illusion. As the Zapatistas say, "things will only change if there also are changes up stairs" (Autonomedia 1995, 299).

This notion of autonomy is but another name for radical democracy. It implies your own government, and command by obeying. Power is not delegated in rulers "autonomizing" themselves from the ruled for the period of their mandate. A position of authority is assumed as a cargo, a burden, a service, not as a source of income and power.

For the Indian peoples, the administration of justice does not consist in the decentralized application of common norms, trusted to professionals, but in the exercise of a different juridical regime, based on the vitality of changing customs, with non codified norms. Marcos Sandoval, a young Triqui leader, says: "Westerners use to represent justice as a blind-folded woman; we want her with the eyes well open, for her to notice what is happening". "Jurisdiction" does not imply a sphere of application of the law or a section of the centralized government, but an autonomous space which limits State and economic power, in applying flexible principles for thought and behavior, giving historical continuity to tradition without freezing it. Among the Indian peoples of Oaxaca, a province neighboring Chiapas, a crime demands understanding and compensation to the victim, rather than punishment. He who kills someone should assume economic responsibility for the family of the dead person, thus getting a real opportunity for rehabilitation and saving the society the cost of trial, jail and social assistance for two families. He is free. But to escape, leaving the community, may be for him worst than jail or death.

The question of land, among Indian peoples, has no relation with the institutions ruling over it, as an artificial commodity, in modern societies (Polanyi 1957). The territory is a sphere of responsibility over nature and society. Occupation is not equivalent to ownership. Their cosmic attitude before nature, in which they feel themselves immerse, prevents conceiving the possibility of appropriating it in an excluding way: how to "own" your mother? Within a common territory, they allocate land to their members, without transforming them into private properties.

For the Indian peoples, self-defense is not equivalent to the government function of surveillance. It expresses the decision and capacity to resist, even with weapons, economic, political and military interventions by the market or the State.

All these practices exist in many Indian communities, and with different forms and intensities among diverse urban or rural groups, even in downtown Mexico City. But they have always operated against the dominant regime and exposed to contradiction or dismantling before "the empire of the law", the administrative invasion of their daily life, or economic exploitation.

"As Indian peoples that we mostly are,", say the Zapatistas, "we claim to govern ourselves, with autonomy, because we don't want any longer to be subjects of the will of any national or foreign power...Justice should be administered by our own communities, according with their customs and traditions, without intervention of corrupt and illegitimate governments" (Autonomedia 1995, 297). They are thus confronting the two-pronged challenge of consolidating themselves in their own spaces and projecting that style to the whole of the society, without imposing it to anyone.

The reaction of the State and the parties towards autonomy has good motives but bad reasons. True, the autonomist struggle poses a clear threat to the dominant regime, and undermines the juridico-political design imported by the founding fathers of Mexico. But it does not conveys elements of separatism or fundamentalism; it neither implies the fragmentation of the country nor creates castes; far from fostering "ethnic conflicts", prevents them. It attempts to forge a new social unity, not the chaos.

In international law, the right to self-determination recognizes the legitimacy of struggles to obtain political independence, both to adopt the form of a nation-state or to get autonomy within an existing nation-state. The European autonomist tradition, adapted in Nicaragua and promoted in Mexico by some groups, frame autonomy in the current design of the State, as part of a process of political decentralization. With that approach, autonomy is but "a specific order of government, constituting the system of vertical power of the State" (Díaz P. 1996, 109). Such "autonomy", however, lead to full subsumption of the people in the State order. That is not what the people are looking for. A Sumo leader, elaborating on the experience in Nicaragua, recently said: "(Our autonomous regime) has no doubt some interesting elements. We are testing it to see if it can be really democratic" (Simposio Indolatinoamericano de Jaltepec de Candoyoc, 1994).

The Indian peoples basically want to practice their own mode of living and government. This aspiration is not compatible with the dominant regime, and even the design of the nation-state; it can only materialize after a long process of social and political reconstruction from the bottom up. Such regime of local autonomy is not a counterweight for the state power, but make the latter superfluous. It affirms people's freedom and capacity to freely determine themselves, in their own spaces, and at the same time to determine with other peoples and cultures forms of communion based on intercultural dialogues; dialogues that transcend the totalitarianism of logos or the predominance of one culture over the others; that constructs a common myth for all, a shared vision and a new horizon of intelligibility.

New political bodies

The State, including the democratic State, naturally tends to be unjust and arbitrary. Restricting it seems today the point of departure of any valid political position. It has become a conglomerate of public corporations, each of them dedicated to promote its own product and to serve its own interests. The conglomerate produces "welfare", shaped as education, health, employment, etc. In time, the political parties get together all the stakeholders to elect the Board. And those stakeholders are not only, today, national or transnational private corporations, but also the big professional or workers associations, working for them or for the State: in defending their own interests, they strengthen the system from which they derive income and dignity, while at the same time keep them under subordination and control.

Communities appear as an answer to this dead end, because they reestablish the unity between politics and place . In them, the people shape themselves in a way in which they can exert their own power, instead of rendering it to the State. The conviction that the future will be, one way or the other, a community fact, is now back to life. Socialism clearly carried a message of communitarianism, but it was translated as collectivism, 'statism' and self destruction (Esteva and Shanin, 1992).

To describe and to explain to others their condition of existence, Indian peoples of Mexico have started to use the word comunalidad, commonality. Community would be the phenomenon, the shape in which the human condition is presented; commonality would define its identity, its essence (Martínez Luna 1992). Both words come from the Latin communis, a combination of com (together, near) and munis (linked by obligation, committed). Community would be the opposite to immunity (from the Latin inmunis: without obligation, exempt). In the community, the social order is not based on the rights of the individuals (central principle of formal democracy), but in mutual, common obligations, which give an effective foundation to the exercise of power. Instead of abstract individuals, formally endowed with rights, real men and women -knots in nets of relations- follow their own initiative, not an order or a law established from the top and from outside, to organize and construct the space that belongs to them and to which they belong. This form of existence has its highest expression in the Indian communities, but it also appear, in many different forms, in "Mexico profundo", the Mexico's social majorities, whose civilizational matrix is different to the western one (Bonfil 1987). It also exists among the globalized minorities in the industrial societies, even in the place of birth of the western possessive individualism. For real men and women can think they are individuals and behave as such, conditioned by the market or the State, but they cannot be individuals. And many of them are now busy trying to reclaim their commons, as a burgeoning literature is documenting (The Ecologist 1992; Esteva 1991 and 1993; Esteva and Prakash, 1998).

The emphasis in the local space also comes to the debate for another reason. Forty years ago, Leopold Kohr revealed the nature of contemporary crisis. They "are no longer caused by the system but by the scale which modern economic activities have assumed...They are no longer business, but what may be called scale or size cycles, which take their amplitude not from any particular economic system but from the size of the body politic through which they pass." He thus suggested to give back human scale to the body politic, substituting the oceanic dimension of globalizing integration for a dike system of inter-connected but highly self-sufficient local markets and small political bodies, "in which economic fluctuations can be controlled not because our leaders have Oxford or Yale degrees, but because the ripples of a pond, however animated, can never assume the scale of the huge swells passing through the united water masses of the open seas"(Kohr 1992, 11). Following his thesis, what is needed is to dismantle ineffective and corrupt bureaucracies, as the liberals propose, but instead of privatizing the functions of the State, like them, they should be socialized: left in the hands of the people, giving back to their political bodies the appropriate scale.

This is what many popular movements are attempting. They resist to surrender their experience of autonomous government to an individualistic and statistical democracy, manipulated by parties and media. They oppose decentralism to the old slogan of democratic centralism: they seem convinced that democracy depends on localism, on the local areas where the people live. "Democracy doesn't mean putting power some place other than where the people are" (Lummis 1996, 18).

The reformulation of the State

The democratic style based on rural and urban communities is clearly impossible in the centralist nation-state. But that does not mean that it cannot be the foundation for contemporary societies. It is possible to conceive and organize modalities of "State" and "nation" in which the coexistence of those communities can be harmonized. In the nation-state, civil spheres tend to be constituted as a residual (what the State has not reserved for itself). In the new designs, the State functions should be defined as a residual: it would have only those that the political bodies where people can exert their power cannot absorb.

The European design of the nation-state, western and capitalist, changed the meaning of its constitutive elements and acquired universal hegemony. Many traditions of organization of the State and many forms of existence of the nation, were thus left aside (Nandy 1991, 267). They now can be renovated. An effort to reorganize the society from the bottom up could find many historical referents to support a contemporary sociological invention, adjusted to the "era of globalization".

Furthermore, such effort would have an historical opportunity: the main function of the nation-state, the administration of the national economy, is rapidly vanishing, since the economies themselves loose their national boundaries. The attempt to transfer those functions to macro-national structures is not having real success, but foster authoritarian propensities by activating different forms of nationalism. At the same time, it has stimulated the impulse to reclaim that function for communities and regions. The social and political tension that starts to give feasibility to the effort to reshape all political bodies is thus being generated. With the current structure, the prospect is apocalyptical: to govern by the force and with the market. Substituting it, in contrast, opens many options.

To prevent the authoritarian prospect, it is not enough to consolidate and deepen democracy at the grassroots, in urban and rural communities. There is the need to simultaneously reclaim the juridical and political procedure, to reshape the political organization of a country. When the catastrophe becomes political crisis and the State, as a public corporation, loose legitimacy, the need to use the constitutional procedure is reaffirmed. At the same time, the loss of credibility of the parties, as rival factions of stakeholders, underlines the importance of using the contradictory procedures in politics, based on popular movements and their coalitions of discontents (Illich 1978; Esteva 1994).

Juridical and political procedures are structurally embedded into each other. Together they constitute the structure of freedom. (And the question now, in the struggle for democracy, is basically freedom, not welfare).

The concept of law has still its full strength, even when the society reserves for the privileged the access to the juridical machinery; even when law systematically mocks justice and clothe despotism with the veil of a sham of tribunals. Illich 1978, 209.

In using juridical procedures and political force, the effective articulation of local and issue popular movements can exert people's power at another scale. Instead of surrendering it, they will be opening spaces for its appropriate use and progressively limiting State´s power. At the same time, the juridico-political procedure will overcome the limitations of the politics of "no".

To live in the democratic condition, not in its illusion, in the terms of radical democracy, civil society should become directly and immediately political. And this requires, in turn, the generalization of autonomous forms of social existence, as the Indian peoples of Mexico have been claiming and the Zapatistas promote.

The path to radical democracy

In recent years, wide social groups lost their remaining trust both in the dominant institutions and in the administrators of the crisis. Their respectability, legitimacy and reputation, already damaged, vanished. New arrangements behind the scenes now attempt both to better express the new balance of forces and to sell the idea that new managers of the crisis will fix everything. Neither governments nor political parties seem to understand the nature of the current situation. The people's spirit, at least in Mexico, is not for popular revolt, but for political rebellion, for peaceful insurgency. They are not preparing themselves for civil war, but for a transformational peace. And they don't seem willing to give up their struggle, settling with cosmetic changes. They attempt to profoundly modify the society, after discovering that movements reduced to protest and claim, in order to stop the dismantling of the Welfare State or to keep in force their "rights", may slow down the process but can also become counterproductive: they legitimate again the very structures causing the current predicament.

This is the context in which the Fourth Declaration of Selva Lacandona was proclaimed, on January 1st. 1996. The Zapatistas invited the civil society without party affiliation to constitute the Zapatista Front of Nacional Liberation. The Front was defined as a political force, which does not aspire to power, but can organize and articulate people's claims and proposals in such a way that those with authority will command by obeying. The Front will also organize the solution for collective problems even without the intervention of the government or the political parties. They underlined that the function of government is a prerogative of the society and it is its right to exert that function. As a political force, the Front would struggle against the concentration of wealth and the centralization of power.

The proposal was controversial from the very first moment. The government and the parties celebrated the prospect of the transformation of the EZLN into a political force, but they disqualified its approach. The ideas of promoting democracy outside the parties, and renouncing to power and public positions, were taken as an invitation to a night rainbow, a kind of oxymoron. For them, as for many experts, the Fourth Declaration was unbearably inconsistent and basically antidemocratic. In fact, it is a radically democratic proposal, which challenges democracy's illusions, not its ideals. It departs from conventional wisdom and extended prejudices, not from common sense and people's spirit.

Most Mexicans are not voluntarily active in political parties and very few aspire to public positions, out of reach and unworthy for most of them. The disappointment with political parties is among them more intense than in other countries. Most Mexicans know how to use their votes, for a variety of purposes, but they don't see the electoral majorities as the expression of people's will. On July 6, 1997, in mid-term elections, they used their votes to put an end to the authoritarian regime governing them for 70 years; but they know that the new regime will not come from elections.

The Fourth Declaration appeals to that awareness of most Mexicans. The people, profoundly dissatisfied and eager to react, was lacking appropriate political channels to express themselves beyond their local spaces. In addressing their call to them, outside the political parties, the Zapatistas created the opportunity to forge a new political style, defined by the direct and continual exercise of people's power. To the power of the state, the only one of interest for the parties, they opposed people's power, their specific capacity to govern themselves in their on spaces. In contrast with elections, it can be exerted all the time and in the affairs that really matter to the people, not only in those defined by the market or the new technocrats of the State.

The proposal includes the continual vigilance of elected officers, both during the transition and in the new regime. No legal or institutional arrangement, in any democratic State, have fully succeeded in the struggle against the corruption and the elitist orientation of the government. A militant political force, with moral prestige and convening power, would make it possible to timely react against bad government and to get rid of it.

The Front would articulate the action, until now disperse, of communities, barrios and popular movements, to start the reconstruction of social and political life from the bottom up. It would propitiate political spaces in which ordinary men and women will not only be able to govern themselves, in their local spaces, but also to have an effective influence in the society as a whole. And thus it would pave the way for a new real and formal constitution of Mexico, through a Constituent Assembly, in which the principles of command by obeying, and to serve (instead of helping one-self), will be applied.

Since such new society does not fit in the frame of the nation-state, the proposal has been denounced as a threat to the nation or an unfeasible utopia, unless a clear political alternative is defined. But there is no need to define it at this point, and the Zapatistas have refused to present any specific option. A movement of this kind does not have to realize any ideal or offer an alternative utopia to the illusory one promised by the government and the parties: it is enough to give free rein to its own forces and to create the conditions for the construction of the new society, with the participation of everyone. On the other hand, the action to transform the society does not need to adopt as a premise a vision of the future for the "society as a whole"; on the contrary, what is needed is a radical challenge to the tyranny of globalizing discourses offering such visions. The present or future "society as a whole" is but the outcome of a multiplicity of initiatives and processes, most of them unforeseeable (Foucault 1979).

The Zapatistas are not promoting the "armed way" to follow that path. Given their weakness, they had no alternative but to create an army. The reaction of the civil society, sharing their causes but not their means, stopped both the government and the Zapatistas. It gave them the strength to continue their struggle by other means. They are thus an army paradoxically following the tradition of Gandhi. For him, who assumed cowardice as the worst of vices, violence is for the weak. He was preaching non violence to the Hindus, because he saw no reason for 300 million of them to be afraid of 150 000 British. They were the strong. They could thus use non violence for their political ends. The Zapatistas were extremely weak before their uprising. They clearly risked extermination in an armed struggle against the government. But they opposed dignity to cowardice, and opted for a dignified death to stop the slow and painful process of extinction to which they seemed doom. The strength they got from the civil society, massively reacting after the uprising, and since then increasingly articulated with them, have been allowing them to continue their struggle with non violent means. "Let's destroy this state, this state system", they said; let's open up this space and confront people with ideas, not with weapons" (Autonomedia 1994, 298).

They cannot yet give up their weapons. They are still surrounded by 50 000 troops and exposed to the continual aggression of paramilitary groups. A "low-intensity" war against the people continue to develop in Chiapas. The Zapatistas came to Mexico City, the Congress in which the Zapatista Front was founded, but only as observers. When they proposed the organization of the Front, on January 1, 1996, they assumed that it would soon be possible to transform themselves into a political force, inside the Front. During the last two years, however, the government failed to fulfil their commitments and spoiled the negotiations with the EZLN which may lead to peace. Given their increasing weakness, the local and national power structures are resorting to the use of force all over the country. The Zapatistas cannot transform themselves into a political force, inside the Front, under these conditions. But they are still taking wide initiatives. On March 21, 1999, two Zapatistas, a man and a woman, will be in every one of the 2 500 municipalities of Mexico to take part in the national consultation they convened for the constitutional changes agreed with the gvovernment. At another level, it is an exercise of command by obeying and the clever use of political and juridical procedures to generate social consensus.

The transition to hope

As the "antithesis of Neoliberalism", the Zapatistas practice a political style that is not focused in seizing the State power. "The Zapatista revolution...isn't proposing a homogeneous ideological concept of revolution" (Autonomedia 1994, 298). Their struggles are oriented towards a civil society that becomes political, displacing the political question to another field, in which the most important is the very exercise of power. They attempt to create spaces for new political relations, in which the conventional positions of force have not a place, because in them nobody will usurp power: it will be in the hands of everyone. In those new territories, the EZLN would dissolve itself, becoming something that would make it unrecognizable; the same would happen with the political parties and all the dominant forms of political activity (La Jornada, 27/8/1995).

On September 11, 1997, 1111 Zapatistas arrived to Mexico City, with thousand of Indians who organized with them a march, to present their claim for the constitutional reforms agreed between the Zapatistas and the government in February 1996. Both the content and the process to articulate that claim illustrate the political style of the Zapatistas that I have been trying to describe. They are a solution to the paradox of the transformation needed, which attempts to deepen formal deny it (transforming it into radical democracy) and to use the frame of the transcend it (leading to a new political regime). The use of juridical and political procedures effectively widen the democratic elements of the society, when they radically challenge the dominant political mythology and consolidate the differentiated and autonomous condition of independent organizations and coalitions of discontents constituting civil society. As the Zapatistas are doing.

The Front will have an important role to play in this process. In the new political spaces it is creating, new people and initiatives will reestablish people's trust in their own strength. They will use procedures of social regulation which recognize the legitimacy of the conflict of interests, give appropriate value to the precedent and are formulated by ordinary men and women, under the control of their communities. The juridical procedure will continually oppose the State or professional bureaucracies and prepare an institutional inversion. Labor organization will be profoundly modified, to give to it a convivial form which effectively represent an alternative to the industrial mode of production, at which door Engels established: "Lasciate ogni autonomia, voi che entrate!" ("Leave, in coming in, all autonomy").

Radical hope is the essence of popular movements (Lummis 1996, 11). The Zapatistas opened it, when the universal reign of formal democracy and globalized economy, with its disastrous consequences for the social majorities, seemed an unavoidable destiny in Mexico and the world.

Private hope and public desperation create the climate for the manipulation of the masses in modern democracies. Their leaders continually use ghosts and scape goats before the everyday disasters, while stimulating individual expectations and the survivor's attitude. The Zapatista proposal, in contrast, renovates the social fabric which articulates personal and collective hopes. Instead of new promises of development and welfare, the Zapatistas recover the original meaning of the word prosperity, from the Latin pro spere: "according to hope".

Instead of illusory futures, alienated to bankrupt ideologies, the Zapatistas suggest the construction of a future to be (a porvenir), defined by the people, by ordinary men and women, in their pluralism and diversity.

Instead of carpetbagging with and administering people's hopes, as governments and parties, the Zapatistas renovate political activities genuinely democratic, in which the art of the possible consists in extending it: it is the art of creating the possible from the impossible.

San Pablo Etla, December 1997


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Copyright: Gustavo Esteva (1997)



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