Autonomy or New Forms of Domination? The Complex Relationship Between Governments and Movements

Bolivian Land Reform Rally

Each time those from below throw off the trappings of domination, other, newer, more perfected forms necessarily appear. Only by neutralizing the social programs and overcoming the offensive against autonomy from below can social movements find their way back to the road to independence.

Source: Americas Program

Translated from: ¿Autonomía o nuevas formas de dominación?
Translated by: Monica Wooters

Bolivian Land Reform Rally

In late 2008, the Hugo Chavez administration celebrated 10 years in government. Since his first electoral triumph on Dec. 6, 1998, a new period began characterized by the emergence of progressive and leftist governments in South America. Chavez’s rise to power was the result of a long process of struggle from the bottom-up that initiated with caracazo of Feb. 1989—the first massive popular insurrection against neoliberalism. It has now led to crisis in the party system, which supported domination by the elite for decades.

In the following years, another seven presidents have come to power creating a new paradigm within the institutional political scenario in eight out of 10 governments in the region: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. These governments were made possible, to greater and lesser degrees, by the resistance of social movements to the neoliberal model.

In a few cases this change was the consequence of a long electoral history (notably in Brazil and Uruguay), while in other countries it was the fruit of social movements’ actions that were able to bring down neoliberal parties and governments (Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and in part, Argentina). After 10 years of this process, it seems timely to undertake a brief history of what has occurred:

  1. More important than the differences between these processes is the fundamental element they have in common: the return to a central state that has been converted into an actor for change;
  2. The marginalization of the social movements, which in the 1990s and at the start of 2000 were the main players in resistance to the neoliberal model;
  3. The dominant contradiction has been the dynamic between the government and the right, an issue that pushed many social movements into a pro-state position that has appeared largely avoidable;
  4. Some tendencies aim to move the social movements toward new bases of support, employing new causes and forms of intervention.

The decline of the "progressive" decade as a process of social, political, and economic change implies the need for social movements to take inventory of the period and analyze the gains and losses that it represented for the popular camp.

The Risks of Subordination

In the first stage after the "progressive" governments took power, the subordination of social movements to their respective governments predominated, resulting in demobilization, divisions, and the fragmentation of initiatives. Only small groups maintained open confrontation, while the majority collaborated with the state in return for subsidies and other material benefits, including positions in state agencies and institutions. Another large part of the original collectives simply dissolved.

In contrast, the social movements of Chile, Peru, and Colombia have taken important steps forward. In these three countries, it is the indigenous peoples that have taken the initiative. The Mapuche people of Chile are recovering from the destruction caused by the antiterrorist law inherited from the Pinochet era and reactivated by the "socialist" Ricardo Lagos (president from 2000-2006), and together with students and diverse sectors of the workers’ movement (miners and foresters in particular) are engaging in an important revitalization of their movement.

Indigenous communities affected by mining in Peru founded a new organization, National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining (Confederación Nacional de Comunidades del Perú Afectadas por la Minería, Conacami), engaged in vigorous resistance to the genocidal mining activities of multinational companies that contaminate water sources and air to improve their profits. Conacami is a Quechua community-based organization that continues to resist free trade policies with the United States and the neoliberal policies of Alan García. Its members have proved willing to risk their lives and incarceration as political prisoners to carry their movement forward.

In Colombia, the historical struggle of the Nasa people manifested in the Association of Indigenous Councilmen of the Northern Cauda (Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN) and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, CRIC), has been doubly successful. The large social movement known as Minga (collective work) was created in October in Cauca, joining dozens of indigenous peoples. Minga was able to break the military hold on society that paralyzed indigenous peoples. The vast majority of Afro-Colombians, sugarcane laborers, service industry workers, and community and human rights organizations united with the indigenous struggle.

The example of these movements, created and fostered in adversity, inspires social movements throughout the continent. The long hunger strike by Patricia Troncoso between Nov. 2007 and Jan. 2008, and the efforts of the indigenous Colombian movement Minga share the powerful goal of overcoming isolation and low-intensity genocide designed to wipe them off the map and deny their existence.

In other countries the social movement scenario is very complex, Argentina being perhaps the most emblematic case. Most of the piquetero movement was co-opted by the state through social programs and the designation of leaders of the movement for government positions. The human rights movement, and in particular the Mothers’ Association of the Plaza de Mayo (Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo), which played a major role in the resistance to neoliberalism in the 1990s, has moved toward a more official role and begun to defend government policies. In addition, a section of the neighborhood associations have disappeared.

However, not everything has regressed within the social movement community. In the last five years numerous collectives have emerged, many of them linked to environmental issues such as open-pit mining, deforestation, and soy monoculture. As a result, hundreds of local assemblies (most small but incredibly active) have been created, coordinated through the Union of Citizen Assemblies (Unión de Asambleas Ciudadanas, UAC), which has become an active leader in the resistance to multinational mining.

Some 200 rural organizations of small-scale farmers make up the National Campesino Front (Frente Nacional Campesino). This Front represents family and community agriculture against the imposition of soybean production. It brings together longstanding movements (such as the Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero, [Movimiento de Campesinos de Santiago del Estero, MOCASE]), with newer organizations of small producers including a handful of collectives from the urban periphery.

Movements in Brazil have not been able to overcome a long period of being on the defensive, which intensified under the Lula administration. In Uruguay, despite the strengthening of the union movement due mainly to state protection of the union leaders, social movements are far from being defined as anti-systemic actors. The urban poor have mobilized but only on a local level and their movement is extremely fragmented. Government social programs are largely responsible for the current weakness of grassroots movements.

In Bolivia the situation is different. Movements have not been defeated and continue to maintain an important capacity to mobilize their bases of support and pressure both the government and the right-wing. The political crisis of last Sept. was resolved thanks to the popular sectors. The intense activity of the social movements included a siege on the opposition stronghold of Santa Cruz, and by resistance from the huge Plan 3000 settlement of poor and indigenous people located on the outskirts of the oligarchic mestizo city.

According to Raquel Gutiérrez, the attitude of the Bolivian movement during this period reflects "a new margin of political autonomy from government decisions," since they learned that the government will be unable to restrain the oligarchy. "They are no longer willing to subordinate themselves so that the government will guarantee them what they want."

Alongside pressure from the movements, there exists a pro-state logic embodied in the profuse state bureaucracies (judicial, legislative, ministerial, and municipal agencies, and military). These bureaucracies are averse to change. In addition to their characteristic conservatism, there are the new political apparatuses integrated by a wide array of elected officials (representatives, senators, councilmen, and mayors) and un-elected officials (ministers and hundreds of consultants) whose main ambition is to remain in their positions.

New Forms of Domination

It seems virtually impossible for grassroots movements to overcome their dependence on and subordination to the state, especially given that the new "leftist" and "progressive" governments have instituted new forms of domination including social programs aimed at "integrating" the poor. These play the leading role in the design of new forms of social control.

Recently I had the following conversation with a high ranking official of the Uruguayan Ministry of Social Development:

"We understand the [current] social policies as policies of independence and not as policies used to control the poor."

"Is this your personal opinion or that of the Ministry as well?"

"It is the belief of the national government and not just that of the Ministry of Social Development or my personal belief. The national government did not come here to placate the poorest social sectors—it came to generate opportunities for integration and independence."

This conversation, no doubt honest, calls into questions the role of social movements as the state assumes their discourse or even their practices. The issue raises three central questions:

  1. The end of the old right. The new governments that gained strength during the crises of the first stage of neoliberalism—a period of privatization and deregulation—cannot move forward without destroying the foundations of the traditional domination of the elite right-wing. These elite have erected expansive networks with local political bosses to subdue the poorest individuals through mediation with state institutions and control of the electoral system.

    Grassroots movements came about in the battle against the elite. The case of the piqueteros is typical. The struggle to gain direct control of subsidies, taking it away from the network of local political bosses, gave meaning and power to the movement. The wave of mobilizations that modified the regional political map directly confronted the right-wing.

    The new governments tend to displace these networks, with more or less success, and replace them with state bureaucracies. Perhaps this is the principle "progressive" move on the part of the new governments. In order to dismantle the networks belonging to the old elite, the states appeal to the same language and the same norms and codes of the popular sectors organized into movements.

  2. The new forms of control. The crisis in discipline as a way to train new cadres in closed spaces was one of the main characteristics of the "revolution of ’68." The loss of control by patriarchal hierarchies and the breakdown of vertical control in factories, schools, hospitals, and the military forced capital and the state to create new forms of control, placing at the center of their strategy the question of population and security. Social programs directly implemented by the state but executed by a range of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are how new forms of domination are put into practice in the opaque area of control. Through these tactics the state becomes expansive and comes to the poor neighborhoods that have been converted into bastions of revolt to work from the inside; in other words, it works with the same sectors that have organized themselves into movements but to dismantle those organizations.

    The state’s presence no longer takes on the shape of the police baton, which never really disappears, but rather the more subtle "social development for integration and the citizenry." NGOs supply the state with information they have accumulated over decades of "cooperation" through daily interaction in the "participative" practices that characterized popular education to accomplish this task. We now have a new legion of young government officials who no longer wait for students in the schools or patients in the hospitals, but go directly into the heart of impoverished and rebellious populations. They have an advantage in this area of work; they know the ins and outs of the popular sectors because a large percentage of these officials have participated in the resistance to the neoliberal model. In other words, they have been radicals, or, at the very least have had close ties with social activism.

    It is fair to say, as does the Brazilian sociologist Francisco de Oliveira, that social programs are instruments of control based on a bio-politico mechanism through which the state classifies individuals based on what they lack and "restores a kind of political clientele relationship" in which the policy ends up becoming irrelevant.

    It is true that social programs can help alleviate poverty, but they do not change the distribution of wealth, avoid the growing concentration of income, or transform the central aspects of the model. In affecting the capacity for organizing movements, they block their growth and in this way are tools of the neoliberal war to commercialize life. It is interesting to note that almost all leftist intellectuals consider the implementation of social programs an accomplishment of progressivism.

  3. An offensive against autonomy. These same governments are now adopting the vocabulary of social movements, even saying that they wish to support a "critical autonomy" within the social sectors that receive the benefits of social programs. They create methods of coordination so that the social movements may participate in the design of social programs and become involved in the application of local policies (never general policies that could question the model).

    The social movements are made to participate in a "participative evaluation" of their neighborhood or town. They even charge them with carrying out the local assistance work so that they might become involved in the policy of "organizational strengthening" designed by the World Bank, which decides which organization is best suited to collaborate with the corresponding ministry.

    All of this occurs to "build the state" in the daily practices of the popular sector, the same context in which these individuals learned to "build movement." Social programs are directed at the heart of communities that have engaged in rebellion. The state seeks to neutralize or modify the networks and methods of solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual aid created by those from below to survive the neoliberal model. Once those ties and the autonomous wisdom that was generated by the social movements disappear, the people will be much more easily controlled.

None of this should be attributed to a supposed evil within the new progressive governments. Each time those from below throw off the trappings of domination, other, newer, more perfected forms necessarily appear. Only by neutralizing the social programs and overcoming the offensive against autonomy from below can social movements find their way back to the road to independence.

Translated for the Americas Program by Monica Wooters.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (

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Photo Credit: Photo from Indymedia Ireland by D’other

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