The Year in Revolts: A South American Perspective of the Arab Spring

Photo by Colorznshapes via flickr

In this year of growing popular protests worldwide, demands for political and economic equality have burst forth in the Middle East, Europe and even in the United States. Further south in the Americas, civil society organization over the past decade brought social movement leaders to state power and marginalized peoples’ rights to national agendas. In this interview, Uruguayan intellectual and journalist Raúl Zibechi gives us a South American perspective of the momentous changes taking place globally, through a focus on the inaugural mobilizations in the Middle East.

Photo by Colorznshapes via flickrSource: The Johannesburg Salon

A conversation with Raúl Zibechi, interviewed and translated by Cristina Cielo

In this year of growing popular protests worldwide, demands for political and income equality have burst forth in the Middle East, Europe and even in the United States. These mobilizations aim to transform national and regional political landscapes and possibilities. Yet the hope engendered by successful uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, and by massive European and now U.S. appeals for economic justice, has also darkened with ensuing repressions, violence and indifference. 

Further south in the Americas, civil society organization over the past decade brought social movement leaders to state power and marginalized peoples’ rights to national agendas. In this interview, Uruguayan intellectual and journalist Raúl Zibechi gives us a South American perspective of the momentous changes taking place globally, through a focus on the inaugural mobilizations in the Middle East. Such locally rooted yet transnational engagements are critical for the transformation of globalized power structures.

Raúl Zibechi is one of the foremost political theorists writing on and working with social movements in Latin America. His work combines acute, generative and ethical analyses of socio-political developments in Latin America with collaborative efforts to support grassroots transformation in the region. He is international section editor of the acclaimed Uruguayan weekly Brecha, lecturer and researcher with the Multiversidad Fransiscana de América Latina and a regular contributor to the Americas Policy Program and to La Jornada in Mexico. His recent books include Dispersing Power (2006, English translation 2010) and Territorios en Resistencia (2008). In order to contextualize the following interview with Zibechi in his wider body of work, our conversation is interspersed with selected translations from some of his essays previously available only in Spanish.

From “The Revolutions by Ordinary People”
(First published in La Jornada, 03 June 2011. Translation of entire article available here.)

The inherited and still hegemonic conception of revolution must be revised, and in fact is being revised by current events. Revolution as exclusively focused on the capture of state power is being replaced by another concept of revolution, more complex and integral, which does not exclude a state-centred strategy but supersedes and goes beyond it. In any case, the conquest of state power is a bend in a far longer trajectory, one which seeks something that cannot be achieved from within state institutions: to create a new world.

Traditional politics – anchored in forms of representation that replace collective subjects with managerial professionals, professionals of deception – are of little use in the creation of a new world. Instead, a new world that is different from the current one implies rehearsing and experimenting with horizontal social relations, in sovereign, self-controlled and autonomous spaces, in which no one imposes on or directs the collective…

Beyond their diverse circumstances, the Tahrir Square and Puerta del Sol movements in Cairo and in Madrid, form part of the genealogy of “All of them must go!” declared in the 2001 Argentinian revolt, the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the 2003 and 2005 Bolivian Gas Wars and the 2006 Oaxaca commune, to mention only the urban cases. These movements all share two characteristics: the curbing of those in power and the opening of spaces for direct democracy and collective participation without representatives.

Cristina Cielo: Is such a concept of revolution based on horizontal relations similar to Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude? What is the difference between their multitude and your idea of dispersed power?

Raúl Zibechi: Hardt and Negri’s multitude is linked to post-Fordism and to non-material work in cognitive capitalism. This mode of production is still in the minority in Latin America and I believe in the Arab world as well. So while it is interesting, their idea of multitude cannot be employed to understand what is happening here. My take on the collective is quite different. We live in societies that are “variegated”, an interesting concept developed by the Bolivian René Zavaleta Mercado to describe social relations in his country. These are societies in which many different types of traditional and modern social relations co-exist.

The best example of this is the Andean market, or the urban market in the peripheries of cities like Buenos Aires. These are spaces in which many families live together in a small area, with various businesses that combine production and sales in different fields, with diverse modes of employment – familial, salaried, in kind, commissioned – that is, a “variegated” mode that implies diverse and complex social relations that are interwoven and combined. In this way, if one of these relationships is modified, the rest are as well…

My proposal of “dispersing power” is rooted in communities in movement, non-formal communities, which, once set into motion, can disperse state power. How? Simply because they are composed of mobile powers… These cannot confront the state frontally, because they are annihilated. They surround it, embrace it, paralyse it, penetrate it subtly. That is what we saw in Tahrir when protesters slept under tanks, when women approached soldiers.

Cristina Cielo: Reports on Tunisia and Egypt’s uprisings emphasized the use of Facebook, Twitter and the internet as media for the horizontal organization of the protests. Your own work has focused on the territorial character of Latin American social movements. What are the implications of the differences between the virtual spaces of Arab mobilizations and the physical territories of the Latin American movements?

Raúl Zibechi: I don’t believe in virtual spaces, spaces are always material as well as symbolic. It’s another matter to speak of virtual media of communication among people in movement…. For me, territories are those places in which life is lived in an integral sense, they are settlements, as we say in Latin America. These have existed for a long time in rural areas: indigenous communities or settlements of Brazil’s Landless Movement, ancestral lands or lands recuperated in the struggle.

What was new in the 1970s onward was the proliferation of urban land occupations. In some cities, more that 70% of urban land, and therefore of households, are illegal yet legitimate occupations. In some cases, this marks the beginning of another type of social organization, in which semi-craftwork production – including urban gardens – is combined with popular markets and informal modes of distribution. In the decisive moments of struggles against the State or at times of profound crisis, these territories become “resistor territories,” that is, spaces that are in some senses liberated from state power and from which challenges to the system may be launched.

Cristina Cielo: ¿What is the importance of urban spaces in popular mobilizations?

Raúl Zibechi: There is a double use of spaces. One is the daily spaces of the neighbourhoods, the markets, all the spaces of daily socialization. The other is the space of protest, the mega-space such as Tahrir Square in Cairo or the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. These spaces are occupied for a time, sometimes for longer periods such as the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, but they are not permanent spaces in which people live their daily lives, because they have to go to work, go home to sleep, etc.

It seems to me necessary to make this distinction and at the same time to establish links between both kinds of urban spaces. I agree with James Scott’s point that people tend to “rehearse” their public actions in spaces that are distant from power, spaces that they can control and in which they feel secure. In contemporary cities, those spaces are the markets, the churches or mosques, social or cultural clubs, youth gangs. It is important to understand what is happening in those spaces, because it is from there that people come out to take Tahrir Square. It is in those spaces that powerful rebellions are spun, that is why they are so important. And, of course, the family. The changes in family, the role of women, of children, the number of children, all of these are indications of what is to come. I don’t believe that great popular uprisings can take place without some shift in the role of patriarchy in the home.

Photo by Mejuan via FlickrFrom “This is No Time to be Given to Distraction”
(First published in La Jornada, 25 February 2011. Translation of entire article available here.)

With the Arab revolts, the global systemic crisis enters a new phase, more unpredictable and increasingly beyond control. Until now, the main actors have been the financial oligarchs, the powerful multinationals and the leading governments, particularly the United States and China, followed at some distance by institutions such as the G-20. Now, as popular sectors around the world enter the scene, a momentous shift has taken place. It implies a deepening and speeding up of the global transformations taking place…

The activation of popular sectors modifies our analytic axes, and above all, imposes ethical choices. The scenarios of inter-state relations will increasingly collide with the scenarios of emancipatory struggles…

We are entering into a period of systemic chaos that at some moment will shed light on a new order, perhaps better, perhaps worse than the capitalist order. That system was born with the demographic catastrophe of the Black Plague, which killed a third of the European population over the span of a few years. It will not surrender on tiptoes and with fine manners, but rather in the midst of chaos and barbarity, as with Gaddafi’s regime.

From “The Arab Revolts and Strategic Thinking”
(First published in America Latina en movimiento, 4 February 2011. Translation of entire article available here.)

It is a matter of understanding the lines of force, the relations of power, the strong and weak points in international relations understood as a system. It is like understanding that the bricks on a wall are what sustains the structure; if these bricks are removed or affected, the whole building – despite its appearance of stability – may tumble….

To say we are traversing a systemic crisis, however, is not to say that the capitalist system is in a terminal crisis. The point, rather, is that the international system will not continue to function as it has since its last great re-structuring, which took place more or less in 1945, at the end of the Second World War. While systemic analyses do not pretend to specify exact dates for such profound changes, they do indicate stages characterized by important tendencies. For example: the crisis of U.S. hegemony. [Some of these systemic shifts include] not only the decline of U.S. power, but also the growth of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China, to which South Africa has now been added). Turkey’s geopolitical shifts have also been noted, as it has slowly abandoned Washington’s sphere of influence. But the Arab revolts constitute a pronounced turn of the screw.

Cristina Cielo: ¿Why has the coverage of events in the Middle East portray these as ‘revolts’, ‘rebellions’ or ‘uprisings’ rather than as social movements, as popular mobilizations in Latin America tend to be portrayed?

Raúl Zibechi: Social movement is a Eurocentric concept that has been useful in describing what happens in homogeneous societies that revolve around the capitalist market, in which there is one basic form of social relations. In Latin America, the concept has and is used by academic intellectuals whose perspective is external to popular sector organization. If they were on the inside, they would see that in fact there are two societies: the official one, of the upper and middle-upper classes, and the other society, the informal one, of use values and of the popular sectors. When I say that there are two societies, I mean to say that each of these is shaped by different types of social relations, and as such, by diverse relationships of power. That is why when the alternative, popular society sets itself into action, it makes more sense to speak of societies in movement, or alternative societies in movement, rather than of social movements. The difference is critical.

In any case, I suspect that in the Arab case the international media has not spoken of social movements because of issues of racism, of colonialism, as if it takes some level of modernity – which they don’t consider the Middle Eastern people to have achieved – to have a so-called civil society, which is also a Eurocentric construction. I prefer to speak, along with Partha Chaterjee, of political society, because it is only by doing politics that it can exist.

Cristina Cielo: If socio-political transformations in different regions point to a global systemic crisis, how do particular events in one region influence the processes or possibilities in other regions? That is, are there ways in which such diverse and disperse forces can transform each other, or transform into something else?

Raúl Zibechi: Fundamental processes and situational junctures respond to different logics and views. There is no mechanical relation between the two, rather we must focus our attention on the longer processes, and insert events into those, as Braudel taught us. The fundamental tendency is: a crisis of the centre-periphery relationship, a crisis of U.S. domination and of the unipolar world, and now, also, a crisis in Western hegemony. In this transition, which has been taking place over the last four decades, we must insert current processes.

What I mean to say is that the Arab and Latin American revolts disrupt previous equilibriums, or better said, they accelerate the processes of the crises of older structures. And when there are cracks in the imperial Occidental construction, emergent tendencies are strengthened: for example, China, India, Brazil. At the same time, we can register changes in micro structures such as the family, school, health system, the city itself, that is, in spaces of discipline that are undergoing very powerful transformations. Macro and micro transformations must be jointly examined, included within the same description. If we do that, we see a world in movement, one that enters into situations of systemic chaos at particular moments, such as the present one. We do not know what will come, but we are sure that it will be very different. All the cards say: Asia, multipolarity, emergent nations. I hope that some of the cards also say emancipation, but nothing is certain.

From “Everything Solid Melts into the Street”
(First published in America Latina en movimiento, 15 February 2011. Translation of entire article available here.)

The people in the street are a spanner in the works in the accumulation of capital, which is why one of the first “measures” taken by the military after Mubarak left was to demand that citizens abandon the street and return to work. But if those in power cannot co-exist with the streets and occupied squares, those below – who have learned to topple Pharaohs – have not yet learned how to jam the flows and movements of capital. Something much more complex is needed than blocking tanks or dispersing anti-riot police. In contrast to state apparatuses, capital flows without territory, so it is impossible to pin down and confront. Still further: it traverses us, it models our bodies and behaviours, it is part of our everyday lives and, as Foucault pointed out, it shares our beds and our dreams. Although there is an outside to the State and its institutions, it is difficult to imagine an outside to capital. Neither barricades nor revolts will suffice to fight it.

Despite these limitations, the hunger revolts that became anti-authoritarian revolts are a depth charge to the most important equilibriums of the world system. These will not remain unscathed by the destabilization in the Middle East… 


We are entering into a period of uncertainty and increasing disorder. In South America, the emergent power of Brazil has assembled a regional architecture as an alternative to the one that has begun to collapse. Everything suggests, however, that things will be far more complicated in the Middle East, given the enormous political and social polarization in the region, the ferocious interstate competition and because both the United States and Israel believe that their future depends on sustaining realities that can in fact no longer be propped up.

The Middle East brings together some of the most brutal contradictions of the contemporary world. Firstly, there are determined efforts to sustain an outdated unilateralism. Secondly, it is the region where the principal tendency of the contemporary world is most visible: the brutal concentration of power and wealth…. It is possible that the Arab revolts may open a fissure in the colossal concentration of power has been manifest in the region since the Second World War.

Only time will tell if what is brewing is a tsunami so powerful that not even the Pentagon will be able to surf its waves. But we mustn’t forget that tsunamis make no distinctions: they sweep up rights and lefts, the just and the sinners, the rebels and the conservatives. Nevertheless, they are in many ways similar to revolutions: they leave nothing in their place and they provoke enormous suffering before things return to some kind of normalcy, better perhaps than before, or maybe just less bad.

Cristina Cielo interviewed Raúl Zibechi while a Sawyer Seminar fellow with the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. She is now a professor and researcher at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Quito, Ecuador. She can be contacted at

Photo 1 by Colorznshapes. Photo 2 by Mejuan.