Before Occupy Wall Street, there was La Victoria

Forward from: Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements by Raúl Zibechi

Raúl Zibechi, a writer whose work on social movements is widely read in Spanish, suggests that La Victoria may have been the first mass organized land occupation in Latin America. “In this new kind of movement, self-construction and self-determination take the place of demands and representation,” writes Zibechi, reflecting on the occupation of La Victoria. “This pressure from below transformed the course of social struggles and the cities.”

Forward from: Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements by Raul Zibechi; Dawn Paley (Foreword); Ramor Ryan (Translation) Published by AK Press.

La Victoria, a shack settlement turned bustling, permanent neighborhood, was born when 1,200 families living in desperate poverty in Santiago de Chile took over an undeveloped sector of the city. The new residents of La Victoria erected houses and buildings without government permits, communally organized a security system, and within months, were running their own school. This year, La Victoria will turn fifty-five.

Raúl Zibechi, a writer whose work on social movements is widely read in Spanish, suggests that La Victoria may have been the first mass organized land occupation in Latin America. “In this new kind of movement, self-construction and self-determination take the place of demands and representation,” writes Zibechi, reflecting on the occupation of La Victoria. “This pressure from below transformed the course of social struggles and the cities.”

The language Zibechi uses to describe the establishment of the encampment at La Victoria over fifty years ago finds echo in the words and practice of Indigenous sovereigntists, members of France’s Invisible Committee, and anti-authoritarian supporters of Occupy Wall Street. Throughout Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements, readers will find a close and compelling resonance between the movements Zibechi describes and various struggles in North America.

There are, of course, many differences between Occupy Wall Street and urban movements south of the US-Mexico border. Unlike the long term occupation carried out in Santiago de Chile, Occupy Wall Street and similar encampments didn’t make it through their first winter. But at the same time, the Occupy movement, which has its origins in crisis and is based in a firm rejection of the political and economic system, shares other important similarities with the movements documented by Zibechi.

Maybe, as in the case of La Victoria, the experience of Occupy will inspire new community-level urban movements in North America to stage and defend public occupations, transforming the course of social struggle. Or maybe not. The future of autonomous, grassroots struggles (including, but not limited to, Occupy) is contested. The aspirations of these struggles could be quelled by state enforced exploitation and repression on the one hand, or by the coercive power of the established left, linked to electoral politics and unions, on the other.

It is at this very juncture that the English translation of Raúl Zibechi’s Territories in Resistance has arrived, and the timing couldn’t be better. Honing in on enduring anti-authoritarian, anti-state, and anti-capitalist social movements in Latin America, Zibechi explores the successes of these struggles, and their challenges, which, he emphasizes, often come from unexpected quarters.Let’s go back to Chile for a moment, back to the hard scrabble settlement founded by women, men, and children determined to live with dignity. Over time, La Victoria evolved into a stronghold of resistance against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Eleven national protests against the regime were organized out of the neighborhood in 1983– 84, and repression was fierce: at least seventy five protestors were killed, while thousands more were injured and jailed. “The leaders were primarily young people who used barricades and bonfires to demarcate their territory and attack the closest symbols of order such as municipal buildings, traffic lights, etc,” writes Zibechi. But despite the repression, there was no defeat; instead, it was this movement that forced the dictatorship to retreat.

It wasn’t until the transition to democracy in 1990, writes Zibechi, that the movement began to wane.

Zibechi takes a fifty-year view on La Victoria and Chilean social movements, from which he draws three lessons: first, that communitarian movements cannot be defeated by repression, except by mass slaughter; second, these same movements can suffer defeat at the hands of the left, who can soften and fragment the movements, making them more amenable to the state; and third, that this kind of defeat requires the co-optation of key individuals or collectives within movements.

Though the circumstances are distinct, different versions of the same issues continually surface with regards to grassroots movements in North America, as anti-authoritarians are continually forced to calibrate their relationships with reformist groups, which are often well funded, media savvy, and purport to be allies. INCITE Women of Color Against Violence’s 2007 book The Revolution will Not be Funded is the seminal North American text on the mechanisms through which grassroots collectives and others are reined in using state and foundation funding. “The non-profit industrial complex is a system of relationships between: the State (or local and federal governments), the owning classes, foundations and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations that results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements,” INCITE writes.

In North America, activists accepting foundation and government funding has become somewhat of a norm. “One century after it began, corporate philanthropy is as much part of our lives as Coca Cola,” writes Arundhati Roy in her recent essay “Capitalism: A Ghost Story.” Though Roy acknowledges that some NGOs do good, she points out that “corporate or Foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally like shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within. They sit like nodes on the central nervous system, the pathways along which global finance flows. They work like transmitters, receivers, shock absorbers, alert to every impulse, careful never to annoy the governments of their host countries.”

Territories in Resistance describes how social movements in Latin America have been impacted by U.S. style democratization and corporate/foundation funded co-optation, and examines how collectives and groups have responded in order to maintain their autonomy.

But Zibechi pushes beyond the notion of co-optation, bringing to light the mechanics of statecraft as practiced by left governments of South America, which have developed increasingly sophisticated methods to control movements. He calls this the art of governing movements: “This is not a form of governmentality constructed by the state and assumed by the movements, but actually a joint construction in shared space/time,” writes Zibechi. “To oversee this strategy, it is not necessary to co-opt individuals, which could even be counter productive. There must be a will to construct it together.” He traces the roots of this form of movement governance from within (and above) to the insertion of leftist activists into the state apparatus of countries including Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico in the 1990s.

Zibechi also takes a critical position on the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela, and especially Bolivia. “Progressive governments are necessary for the preservation of the state… In this new situation, they are the most effective agent at disarming the anti-systemic nature of the social movements, operating deep within their territory and as revolt brews,” he writes. “Under progressive governments, current movements are weaker, more fragmented, and more isolated than ever.” His positions in relation to these governments aren’t based in sectarian arguments or more-radical-than-thou posturing, but instead are informed by his ongoing commitment to and long term connections with grassroots Indigenous and popular movements.

Territories in Resistance also includes stories from social movements in Colombia and Peru, countries that have avoided (or in the case of Peru, been late to join) the “pink tide” of so-called leftist presidents. These movements, which are generally overlooked by activists, journalists, and Latin Americanists in North America, according to Zibechi, constitute some of the most vibrant, innovative, and active social movements in the hemisphere today.

Territories in Resistance is a valuable, accessible text that will be of interest to community activists or readers looking for a critical, informed take on goings on in Latin America. Our understanding of movements and new forms of repression generally will be strengthened through a careful consideration of Zibechi’s position on progressive governments and their impacts on movements, a perspective that is too rarely articulated in English. His unflinching attention to autonomous and communitarian movements merits a close read, as he hones in on the challenges these movements face and the means they devise to survive and to stay autonomous. Such reflections are often disparaged by the established left as sectarian or radical. It is in these uncomfortable spaces, which are often left unexplored—even by grassroots groups—for fear of unnerving a funder or a powerful “ally,” where Zibechi is at his strongest.

“In essence, left parties accomplish tasks that the Right could not achieve through repression: an historic defeat of popular forces, without massive bloodshed but every bit as effectively as authoritarian states of yesteryear,” he writes. It’s not just states and the electoral left that pose challenges to movements, however, because “just as left-wing professionals and trade unions played a role in reinstalling constitutional democracies with restricted freedoms in the Southern Cone, some armed leftist groups contributed to weakening popular forces, particularly the urban poor.”

Zibechi’s gaze in scrutinizing movements in Latin America prioritizes “fleeting insurrectionary moments,” and he asks if it is not “time to change our perspective and focus our attention on dynamics that escape academic conceptualization but clearly have the potential to change the world?”

And though organizing a rebellion is, according to Zibechi, a contradiction in terms, he thinks it is also problematic when a movement lacks structure. His view of how that structure might take place runs counter to received movement knowledge: “the debate about articulation/structure should focus on: avoiding centralization and unification; avoiding converting the structures and or diffuse or informal networks into apparatuses with their own life; strengthening the new world which is born in the movement.”

In this sprawling, comprehensive book, Raúl Zibechi captures processes often hidden from view, adding a unique texture to our understanding of social movements (or, societies in movement) in Latin America. Territories in Resistance brings to life a host of valuable examples for English language readers wishing to develop new spaces for debate and discussion about popular movements in their own regions.

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