Anti-Systemic Movements on Planet Earth: The People’s Struggle For the Good Life

Over the new year, Chilean students; migrants from the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (New York); representatives of the Mexican National Indigenous Congress; and members of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) met at the CIDECI Unitierra in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, to recount their experiences of struggle and to analyze current economic systems and social movements.

From December 30, 2011 to January 2, 2012, the 2nd International Seminar of Reflection and Analysis “Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements” took place at the CIDECI Unitierra in San Cristóbal de las Casas (Chiapas). Many activists recounted their experiences of struggle: Chilean students; migrants from the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (New York); representatives of the Mexican National Indigenous Congress; and members of Occupy Wall Street (OWS). There was also much analysis of the current economic system and social movements that, as Boaventura de Souza Santos of the University of Coimbra (Portugal) said, “are making the world increasingly uncomfortable for capitalism.” Various discussions touched on the subject of counterinsurgency, whether disguised as a “stick” (for example the incessant militarization of Latin America: shortly after an important victory such as the closure of the U.S. Manta Air Base in Ecuador, the announcement was made of seven new bases in nearby Colombia), or whether presented as a “carrot” offered by NGOs. In Andean communities, for example, imperialism is creeping in via projects financed by USAID, which have as their objective to destabilize the progressive governments in the region. The big NGOs are also trying to guide social and political processes in the U.S. where, as Marelena of OWS reported, “they are applying pressure because we choose the path of elections.”

The choice between elections and popular struggle, between representative democracy and community democracy: such discussions traversed the four days of the Seminar “Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements.” Typical was an incident recounted by Boaventura de Souza Santos, about a Bolivian community where a candidate was elected in 2010 with 99% of the votes. The opposition responded to the overwhelming victory by making accusations of electoral fraud. However it was discovered that the community had met for four days to decide which candidate to support. The Bolivians made their decision through the consensus system of community democracy, and then they went to the urns to please the representative system.

Bolivia, like Ecuador, has a progressive government that came to power via the mobilization of the people. De Souza Santos pointed out that Ecuador knew how to transform a hegemonic and Eurocentric instrument like the constitution into a counter-hegemonic instrument: The Ecuadorian Constitution contains important principles such as the recognition of nature as subject to law, food sovereignty, and access to water as human rights. But the Ecuadorian Parliament passed laws that demonstrate how their Constitution is nothing more than a piece of paper: “They want to privatize water, and if we protest, they accuse us of being terrorists,” reported Luis Andrango of FENOCIN (Ecuador).

“Nothing looks more like a right-wing government than a government of the progressive left,” wrote Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar in her letter sent to the seminar, paraphrasing a famous feminist motto. The Bolivian feminist Julieta Paredes (Women Creating Community) emphasized how the government of Evo Morales is without doubt better than a neoliberal government, but that the present one should represent a situation of “transitional institutionalism,” that destroys itself over time.

According to most of the speakers, our societies should strive for the “good life” of the Andean peoples, a true challenge to the paradigm of capitalist development. The objective does not have to be wealth, but rather prosperity. Communism foresaw a more just distribution of goods, but it retains the objective of productivity. For example, Boris Nerey of the Centro Memorial Martin Luther King, in Havana, notes that the Cuban government envisaged wage-earning work that reproduces capitalist power structures, and therefore it has not created a truly alternative system. According to Nerey, socialism cannot permit the dedication of time necessary to compete with capitalist countries in the production of goods or public policy: A system that is just should give time, not steal it. This condition would also permit a more sustainable relationship with nature.

Beyond the Andean movements, which have modified social-political relationships while winning power and changing the structure of the state, de Souza Santos identified the presence of two more types of offensive struggle in Latin America: those that operate outside the state despite negotiating with it, like the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement; and those that operate outside state structures, like the Zapatistas. Those, according to Mexican philosopher Fernanda Navarro, knew how to “break the state-centric barrier to build communities without state.”

The Zapatista uprising in 1994 was, according to many discussions, the first step of the movement that consolidated in Seattle in 1999 and in Porto Alegre in 2001, and that permitted the birth of progressive Latin American governments and the indignados movements around the world.  Mexican intellectual Pablo González noted that the immense mobilization of the indignados began nearby in the Lacandon Jungle.

In an interview with the Mexican newspaper Desinformémonos, OWS activist Marelena agreed: “There are many people who have been influenced tremendously by the Zapatistas, who have given very clear and inspirational messages that have been raising the awareness of Americans. The fact that these communities continue to fight against the world, it is a source of strength, guidance and wisdom for those mobilizing today in the United States.”

The struggle of social movements, in Mexico as in the United States, is for the good life. In the words of González Casanova: “This universal movement, despite its differences, shares similar problems and finds similar solutions for the creation of another world and another culture that is necessary, expressed by the Andean people as the good life, such that for some to live well does not require that others live badly.”

A good life that, according to de Souza Santos, involves a civilizational change, because the true enemy is found within us and our lifestyle. The best-known slogan of Occupy Wall Street says we are the 99 percent. But are we sure that such a high percentage of people avoid capitalist dogmas?

Commenting on the book “The Power of the Poor” by Robert and Rahnema, Rafael Landerreche stressed that the international financial institutions are agents of imperialism. But we are all responsible for the continuation of the system, through our schools, churches, and our seemingly trivial daily customs like filling the gas tank. No one is completely innocent.