Social Change and Building the Ties That Bind

Social Change and Building the Ties That Bind

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John Ahni Schertow
May 18, 2007

The following is around the first half of a recent article, titled Social Change and Building the Ties That Bind, by Raul Zibechi. I highly recommend you read the full article

“The question of power is not resolved by taking the government palace, which is easy and has been done many times, but rather by the building of new social relations,” said João Pedro Stedile, coordinator of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST), at the 2005 World Social Forum. His comment reflects a new vision of social change, one that until recently was almost exclusively promoted by the Zapatistas of Chiapas, but that has been gaining traction in prominent sectors of Latin America’s new social movements.

Among the region’s most important social movements, the growing sense is that activists should concentrate on constructing social relations different from hegemonic ones, relations anchored in horizontality and reciprocity. Indigenous movements in Bolivia, Mexico and Ecuador, the landless in Brazil and the unemployed and recovered factory workers of Argentina all have something extremely important in common: their strength is born from the building of communitarian relations in the geographic territories they occupy.

These movements have achieved something quite simple, yet utterly profound: they occupy territories, defend them, and within these spaces create new social relations. This new “territoriality” exercised by the movements distinguishes them from older ones and from their counterparts of the First World, and it is what has allowed them to reverse neoliberalism’s strategic defeat of the workers’ movement. Their territories are spaces of self-organization and power, in which new ways of organizing society are being collectively constructed. This territoriality of movements first emerged in campesino and rural indigenous areas, but in recent years has spread to big cities—Buenos Aires, Caracas, El Alto and others. Unlike the previous worker and campesino movements—in which the indigenous were subsumed—today’s movements are promoting a new pattern of organizing geographic space.1 Land is no longer a mere factor of production. Rather, it is an imagined and physical space upon which an alternative social organization is constructed through new social practices and relations.

The movements are beginning to convert their spaces of resistance into alternatives to the dominant system through two simultaneous processes: territoriality provides room for survival and social-political action, and in doing so, allows for the construction of non-capitalist social relations within those spaces. The novelty in all this is that in providing for health, education, and livelihood, as well as how these goods are distributed, the movements themselves are not reproducing capitalist patterns. Infact, in many of those undertakings, they have shown a penchant for questioning inherited ways of doing things.

The Intimacy of Politics

The movements that have most forcefully challenged the system—indigenous, campesino, landless, homeless and piquetero (Argentina’s organized unemployed workers) groups, but also non-territorialized movements of women and youth—have adopted organizational forms based on the family. These are not nuclear families per se, but rather stable relations similar to those of extended kinship, in which the role of women is usually central. And by not mirroring the domineering role played by males, they engender new frameworks for relations with children and other families.

The key role played by the family in the anti-systemic movements goes hand in hand with the reconfiguration of the space in which politics is exercised, the forms it takes, the channels it uses and even in the ends and means it invokes. In Bolivia’s indigenous popular movements, Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes, “politics is not so much defined in the streets as it is in the most intimate settings of the markets and domestic units, spaces of female protagonism par excellence.”2

Road Blockades

As the spaces for politics have shifted, so have the forms of struggle. In the past, workers’ movements revolved around their place of work and their most important form of struggle was the strike. The new movements, however, rely on the occupation of space and territory. Since they can’t hold traditional strikes, their principal form of struggle centers on the defense and control of territory and blocking the free circulation of goods. This explains why newer forms of struggle deploy road and highway blockades and occupations. Brazil’s landless, for instance, occupy lands, and if evicted, they build huge visible camps along the roadsides. Indigenous-based groups in Bolivia and Ecuador and the piqueteros in Argentina all use road blockades. While disposed workers in Argentina, left without the option to strike, have taken over factories left behind by their former bosses.

It is in this context that almost every Latin American country has movements of the “-less”: the jobless, landless, homeless; and every country has those “without”: without health care or education, without recognition of cultural difference, and without a language that enjoys equal status with the official tongue. These groups represent those marginalized by the system. They are invisible and heard only when they use non-institutional channels—mostly, roadblocks and occupations—which leads elites to view these new social subjects’ “subversive” interventions with disdain.

The roadblock (bloqueo for Bolivans, piquete for Argentines) plays a tremendously important role from the perspective of marginalized sectors. From the outside, a roadblock is a way of establishing a border, a break marking the territory controlled by the state and that controlled by the movements. In this sense, the blockade is as much a defensive footing as it is offensive: it not only creates a boundary, but it also impedes the effortless circulation of merchandise and state security forces. The most conflictive moment comes when the state moves to clear a blockade. (The state cannot allow a blockade to continue indefinitely, because this would signal its weakness or defeat.) In attempting to avoid these open confrontations, the movements employ various strategies: indigenous movements counter state forces by blocking many roads simultaneously and even changing from one road to another. In Argentina, the piqueteros opt for massive blockades, in which up to 10,000 people participate, dissuading a potentially bloody police intervention. continue reading


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