Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 298 | Mayo 2006



The “Other Campaign” Is Forging a Path for New Ideas

In July, Mexico will chose from two rightwing options—the PAN (more of today) and the PRI (more of yesterday)—and an electoral Left option led by the PRD’s López Obrador. Meanwhile, the “other” Left is seeking and debating its “other” theory in its “other” campaign.

Jorge Alonso

The political moment in Mexico could not be more troubling. Security forces repress striking workers, leaving several dead and wounded. The avoidable deaths of dozens of miners have yet to be cleared up. Groups of drug traffickers are sowing terror with bloody turf fights in several major cities. Using public resources, Vicente Fox’s government has launched a costly campaign to support the National Action Party (PAN) presidential candidate and denigrate the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate. Forgetting the principles of its founders, the PAN has waged a campaign full of lies and slander. When the prestigious writer Elena Poniatowska publicly called on it to play clean, the party leadership attacked her with excessive, misogynist verbal abuse, leading several prominent national and foreign writers to come to her defense. In its hostility to culture, the PAN has shown quasi-fascist attitudes. The advice of foreign experts in waging a dirty war is clear in its campaign. The party boasts that all of this is advancing its cause. Meanwhile, rather than fulfill its role as arbiter, the Election Institute is openly working against the leftist opposition and has been justifying the dirty war instead of acting in accord with the electoral law.

For their part, the big television stations are proving that they wield real power. They appear to have most of the country’s legislators at their beck and call, as shown by the recently approved law governing radio and television, which renews the radio frequency licenses these monopolies hold for for another 20 years free of charge and will eliminate many public service, university, community and indigenous radio stations. This operation was headed up by the Televisa group, which already owns 62% of Mexico’s radio frequencies and is now poised to “legally” appropriate the new digital frequencies and cell phone and Internet businesses.

Fear of “populism” and the hard facts

Because of this strange climate, the PRD candidate, Andrés Manual López Obrador, chose to participate only in the last of the electoral debates. The first, in late April, was a dull affair as none of the participants ventured beyond what was already being said in their campaign ads. Some major news outlets have joined in the battle of the polls to make it appear that PAN candidate Felipe Calderón has taken the lead. In other surveys, López Obrador remains ahead. What is clear, however, is that the gap between the two has been closing. While the real foreign interference in this campaign has come from Washington, the PAN government is dragging Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez into the fray as part of its anti-Left scaremongering. It is claiming that, like Chávez, López Obrador is a populist. The PRD candidate has replied that neoliberals see anything that differs from their own position as populism. Distributing a little among those who have nothing is “populist” but lavishing benefits on a few is “promoting growth.” López Obrador insists that he’s not going to accept the neoliberal agenda they want to impose from abroad.

A look at the hard facts would clarify the situation. In 2005, Venezuela’s economy grew by 9.3%, one of the highest rates in Latin America, even though the country ignored the International Monetary Fund’s advice to save its oil income rather than invest it in social spending. Chávez spent the money on infrastructure, education and health care, with very good results. In contrast, data from the IMF itself shows that Mexico’s growth rate under the PAN government is below the Latin American average: Mexico will grow by only 3.5%, compared to regional growth of 4.3% and a global average of 4.9%. The IMF also noted that these poor results are because Fox’s government took advantage of the high oil prices “only to balance the budget.” Without the oil income, the deficit under Fox’s government—including the expenses involved in the onerous bank and highway bailouts—would have been 9.8% of the GDP instead of 0.2%. But although these hard facts condemn the PAN government, a huge campaign organized by the real powers in this country is urging people not to change course.

The thinking of those from below

In response to this cloudy panorama, another solution is taking shape. The Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” has been calling on people to shake off the deceptions of the electoral system and build an alternative from the bottom up, uniting people in their struggles against capitalism. The Other Campaign has already visited 19 of Mexico’s 32 states. One important episode during its travels was a meeting to think about “another theory” to guide the action of the Other Campaign.

The Other Campaign tour had barely begun in January 2006 when some of its members realized that they should discuss strategic issues with intellectuals at some point. Most of the events in the Other Campaign have been local ones, but people felt that while this meeting should not be held in Mexico City, it should be national. It was finally decided to hold it on March 21 in the University of Guadalajara’s Salvador Allende auditorium.

Among the participants were scholars from the Mexican National Autonomous University, the Nicolaíta University of Michoacán, the University of Guadalajara, the National School of Anthropology and History, the Wallerstein Center from San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Center for Research and Studies in Social Anthropology, independent researchers and the editors of the magazines Chiapas, Contrahistoria and Rebeldía.

While the country’s political parties are spending millions on dirty wars full of lies and slander, empty propaganda in the mass media and some impossible promises, everything said in the Other Campaign is being recorded and organized by the alternative media, which uses its modest resources to increase understanding and is keeping a record of all the proposals made at each place visited by the Zapatistas. As a result, anyone in Mexico or around the world can learn about and follow the struggles and the thinking of those at the bottom in this country. Like everything that has been said in the Other Campaign, what was discussed in this session in Guadalajara can be heard at www.kehuelga.org (under “las voces de LOC” or “the voices of The Other Campaign”).

“Elite,” “mid-ranking” and
“grassroots” intellectuals

The questions addressed at this first meeting with intellectuals included, “What is the basis for the thinking, actions and organizing efforts that should be carried out by the anti-capitalist Left involved in the Other Campaign in order to bring about a profound change in our country’s economic, social and cultural structures?”; “What elements can be drawn from the Other Campaign to build ’another theory’?”; and “What role can intellectual workers play in the Other Campaign?” The participants contrasted the dominant situation in the country and the role of the Other Campaign for national transformation. Although they recognized that the topics proposed were enormous and complicated, they also saw that we’re in an emergency situation that requires innovation. We have to take a fresh new look at some old issues.

Before a full auditorium, subcomandante Marcos began the meeting with a classification of intellectuals. He started with “elites,” who pontificate on science and truth, add a veneer of humanism to the desire for profit and present capitalism as the final end of history. There are also “mid-ranking” intellectuals, who try to take refuge in the fragile ivory towers of “neutrality” and “objectivity,” but flirt with the system and try to win attention in the president’s court. They don’t want to remain in the middle, but rather move up. With their tools of analysis and debate, they put themselves at the service of political and economic power. Then there are others who, sooner or later, abandon their principles, back down and desperately search for a justification to save themselves in front of the mirror. These are the “prudent, mature and sensible” intellectuals who have laid down the arms of criticism and use the language of the Left to disguise their rightwing work. From the comfort of academia, they set themselves up as judges. They sell resignation, trying to get people to accept the illusion that we have to maintain the macroeconomic project.

In response to new realities, the Zapatistas pose the need for another kind of theoretical analysis, another debate of ideas. First, they’re asking what they call “grassroots” intellectuals to have the humility to recognize that they are facing something new. Second, they’re inviting them to join the Other Campaign, make it their own and learn about the situation of indigenous people, workers, peasant farmers, young people, women, children, the elderly, teachers, students, employees, lesbians, gays, sexual workers, small businesspeople, grassroots Christians, street workers and others. By doing so, Marcos said, these grassroots intellectuals will undoubtedly stun the world with their theoretical debates and analyses.

Pablo González Casanova,
an authentic grassroots intellectual

Pablo González Casanova, one of Mexico’s most renowned intellectuals, is among those accompanying the Other Campaign. As a very young man, he got both a master’s degree in history, granted jointly by the National Autonomous University, the National School of Anthropology and the College of Mexico, and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Paris. He has been a profound and prolific researcher and the dedicated teacher of generations of scholars. He was one of the most dynamic and innovative rectors of the National Autonomous University and never shied away from facing up to vengeful authoritarian powers.

Don Pablo, as he’s affectionately known, has been a tireless promoter of scientific learning in Mexico and around the world, leading rigorous, creative research on all continents. He has established important higher education organizations and has been an active member of international social science associations, presiding over several of them. He has been awarded many prizes, medals and honorary doctorates and his work appears in the bibliographies of studies and courses the world over. He has authored some 25 books that have left their mark on the development of science, including Democracy in Mexico, which has gone through 21 editions and been translated into English, French, Portuguese and Japanese.

But don Pablo is not one to rest on his laurels. His latest book, Las nuevas ciencias y las humanidades, published in 2004, has made important contributions to world thought. Since generosity is one of his virtues, he has contributed numerous chapters to collections edited by his colleagues and students. He has also taken the lead in compiling groundbreaking collections on such topics as the history of Latin America in the second half of the 20th century, the history of the Latin American workers’ movement, the political history of Latin American peasant farmers, the state in Latin America, the perspective of the United States, Mexico’s situation in light of its current crisis and immediate future, the working class in Mexican history, and many other valuable publications on Mexican democracy’s problems, progress, challenges and options.

He has also written hundreds of articles in prestigious journals around the world, imaginatively addressing such topics as elections, political culture, rights, the new capitalist economy and economic and social alternatives. He has thought deeply about the role of the university and the social sciences in the contemporary world and since the 1980s has been especially concerned with what lessons for democracy can be learned from “those from below.”

Don Pablo’s activity has been limitless, and he never repeats himself. He’s always up to date on discussions, and invariably takes an original tack. Reading or listening to him always leaves one thinking.

Despite his more than 80 years, don Pablo’s research continues to open up new paths to knowledge. With an enthusiasm any adolescent would envy, he is committed to those from below, particularly the Zapatistas.

World war IV is underway

Don Pablo’s speech at the meeting with intellectuals was dazzling. Titling it, “Why are we here?” he proposed that one would have to examine previous alternatives and what happened to them to understand what the Other Campaign has contributed. Social democracy played neocolonialism’s game; revolutionary nationalism thought only in development terms and became mired in populism; state socialism became a stage of capitalism and neoliberalism made the rich richer and the poor poorer. Neoliberal globalization structured the world into two military-economic blocs that were leading it into a war that had already run through the Balkans to Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq, and now threatened Iran. What he called “World War IV” was being fought against the poor and the vital resources of nature. The situation couldn’t be more alarming, given the rate of ecocide and the destruction of the biosphere.

He noted that things have changed. In the current phase of neocolonialism and imperialism, transnational mega-companies are taking the place of governments and privatizing nation-states. True elections have been replaced by a system of political parties. The Mexican Supreme Court rules in favor of owners and their public and private officials. And there’s a policy of criminalizing and applying legallsanctions to any who dares get in the way of the plundering neoliberal program.

The class struggle remains influenced by the great division in global capitalism between central and peripheral, metropolitan and colonial regions, with places for the rich and powerful and places for the excluded and exploited poor. The proletariat of yesterday are the “poor” and “extremely poor” of today, and they’re joined by those being impoverished by neoliberalism. In today’s world, the poor and impoverished and their allies are history’s new actors, calling for a new project of liberation, democracy and socialism.

The three floors:
State, economy and culture

Other participants emphatically insisted that one can’t be anti-capitalist without a socialist proposal, quoting Rosa Luxembourg, who opposed state ownership of the means of production without workers’ control, arguing instead for workers’ self-government.

Members of the Wallerstein Center noted that it would take many meetings to fully discuss the questions posed by the Other Campaign. They called on people to dare think long and hard about how to bring about a critical reform of democracy, since politics has always been an affair of the elite. They suggested that anti-systemic movements have been mistaken in clinging to the idea of “three floors” and focusing
on the state one, seeking to take power in order to change the other two: the economy and culture. The system invariably caught them by offering “the distraction of the exercise of power.”

They didn’t change those two floors or transform the state, but rather legitimized it. The Zapatistas and the Other Campaign have not made this mistake, since they chose the bottom floor, that of the “humble and simple people.” They don’t care about the state, as shown by the Good Government Committees in Chiapas, which have established a power that’s not that of the state, but rather about devolving power to those from below.

Neither worshipping nor
weakening the state

Others argued that we have to examine the state more now than at any other time in history, since it has become a direct and docile instrument of the dominant class. Neoliberalism has weakened and reduced the states of dependent countries to exploit their peoples more easily. The neoliberal state has sacrificed the majority on the altar of the market.

In Mexico, this has led to a series of rapid and overlapping transitions. The country has gone from an authoritarian presidency to a petty “party-ocracy” that turned its back on people’s real needs and cares only about its own benefits. This party-ocracy does not really hold power, but rather plays the role of faithful servant to the “powers that be”—big money, big media and organized crime, especially drug trafficking. These powers, which weren’t elected by anyone and aren’t accountable to anyone, impose their own agendas.

Another transition was from pre-democracy to post-democracy, without ever enjoying democracy. The solution is for Mexico’s vast majorities to organize and build coalitions that challenge the “powers that be,” promoting a profound democratic reform of the state to turn it into an instrument that serves social needs and defends the weak against the powerful. This idea neither places the state in a supreme position, where it can crush its citizens, nor advocates a weak state that can’t help help those at the bottom defend themselves from the vast external and internal powers. It argues instead for a state that combines social equity and political democracy, defends diversity and protects the environment.

What power? what democracy?

People also proposed a discussion about power. The power of the elite consists in a few imposing their will on the rest, an accumulating and predatory power in which what one wins, the others lose. Those at the bottom aspire to another kind of power, a shared power, which grows when it’s shared.

Several participants focused on the role of democracy. It’s becoming increasingly clear that representative democracy excludes people. The political class has been widely discredited, and the parties are increasingly failing to represent the new sectors of society. Electoral democracy is in crisis, as those elected don’t take people into account or respect them. The political class doesn’t listen to those at the bottom and has nothing to tell them. Some proposed examining the lessons of Athenian democracy, such as the rotation of posts by lottery, accountability, votes of censure and the control of the assembly. Democracy should lead to the control of power, and ethical factors should play a central role.

Not leading the way, but listening

With respect to the role of intellectuals in the Other Campaign, people said that the movement could not establish itself as an alternative without its own intellectual base. It’s important to keep things straight, however: the movement will generate its own intellectuals and set them to work. These intellectuals will include all of those who have been reflecting on their experiences and sharing and comparing them, making them intelligible, without the need for books or universities. The Other Campaign offers a magnificent opportunity to discover a new movement being formed, which intellectual workers can try to analyze and explain.

Intellectuals will be one more actor in the Other Campaign. They will study it, and will surely learn a great deal from the efforts and ideas of those at the bottom. They can’t aspire to light the way, but rather follow behind dazzled by what is happened, attempting to understand and record this important historical moment. Nor can the intellectuals be reduced to eulogists. They will use their long critical training to encourage discussions that make it possible to identify elements of the “other theory.”

Naming those responsible

A huge percentage of the Mexican population is excluded from the benefits of development and from genuine political representation, and people are reaching their limit. A vast distance separates growing sectors of Mexican society from the world of formal politics. As Pablo González Casanova has pointed out, projects supposedly designed to bring about progress have instead destroyed many people’s lives. Precarious work, exploitation and plunder are the norm.

Those responsible have to be identified and named. Building an alternative to dominant politics, the Other Campaign includes a swath of the real nation whose existence is not reported in the official version of events. It records the insults and the damage done. While those at the top ask themselves what to do with the poor, those at the bottom are asking themselves what to do with the rich, those responsible for the country’s disaster.

From far away and far below

Some called for class language to be recovered, but without losing sight of the fact that there are old and new elements we have to understand. Many struggles are in fact anti-capitalist, without ever labeling themselves as such. The Zapatistas and the Other Campaign are promoting another way of doing politics by asking, listening and encouraging people to reach agreements. They invite people to look back on past victories and defeats, study the Left’s experiences in power, overcome the authoritarian characteristics of the old Left and build another kind of power from below.

We must remember that things always begin from very far away and very far below. We have to break the walls of exclusion without building others. At the meeting with intellectuals, participants accepted the challenge of beginning everything anew, in another form. The Zapatistas and the Other Campaign have created an anti-systemic initiative: they invite people to challenge the system and build the subjects of change, in the context of a polysemic subversion of the bourgeois order. There can only be another theory if there’s another practice. There was consensus around the need to examine theory, history and the present situation to see how the world could be different. The Zapatistas and their Other Campaign are encouraging a new political theory and insist that for there to be a world with room for many worlds, we first have to transform society.

The plan was for Marcos to speak at the close of the event. but when it was almost over, some 30 sexual workers broke in, many with their faces covered, demanding their rights and denouncing abuses suffered at the hands of the PAN government, especially police harassment. Marcos invited them to take the stage and say what they had to say. This highly symbolic act ended the first meeting, at which he was very attentive to what people proposed and took many notes. There were 17 presentations, not counting those of Marcos and the moderator. Many others were unable to speak due to time, but the participating journals pledged to publish the proceedings, including both the presentations made and the written statements that could not be shared.

Many pending issues

Only a few issues were sketched out, even in general terms, so there’s still a need to define things more precisely, clear up disagreements, carry out a thorough and wide-ranging discussion and reach conclusions that can be put into action. We have to further clarify everything related to the current phase of capitalism, the new class configuration, the constitution of power, the role of the state, comprehensive democracy and the forms of economic solidarity, autonomy, cultural diversity…

That afternoon, Marcos met with participants in the Other Campaign and reflected on the fact that some had argued at the morning’s meeting that socialism is the only alternative to capitalism. He believes that the Other Campaign is demonstrating other anti-capitalist proposals that aren’t socialist, including anarchist and libertarian ones, and even proposals to fight capitalism by means of the market. This is undoubtedly one of the main points to be addressed in future meetings with intellectual workers. Issue number 10 of Bajo el Volcán, the Autonomous University of Puebla’s journal, has printed 19 essays in which intellectuals reflect on the Other Campaign, addressing issues related to the various forms of resistance and social movements. Many theoretical issues raised by the Other Campaign’s tour are being discussed, and we must have the courage to delve much further into them. For example, why is the party system no longer viable? How can we weave together the various struggles and voices of those at the bottom? What kinds of alliances and agreements are needed to create a new kind of politics? How can we bring something new into being while taking advantage of what was good in the old? How can we prevent everything from being politicized? How can we create non-hierarchical organization and decision-making? How can we prevent totalitarian attitudes from taking hold, which instead of encouraging discussions that include disagreement, lead to rejection and attacks and the fear of raising certain questions? How can we free ourselves of slogans and secrets? How can we ward off efforts to impose a uniformity of thought that attempts to dictate what we can and cannot think? How can we guarantee plurality? These are but a few of the many pending questions.

Meetings like this one oblige us to think about such questions. Theory grows out of our attempts to understand experiences, and this kind of theory is intimately connected with praxis. Diverse positions are beginning to take shape. The first meeting with intellectuals was barely the beginning of a long road.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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