Hope from the margins

May 21, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThese notes offer a quick glance to ways, in the south of Mexico, in which people are regenerating the society from the bottom up. It is a new kind of revolution without leaders or vanguards, which goes beyond development and globalization. It is about displacing the economy from the center of social life, reclaiming a communal way of being, encouraging radical pluralism, and advancing towards real democracy.

The Oaxaca Commune

From June to October 2006, there were no police in the city of Oaxaca (population 600,000), not even to direct traffic. The governor and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or private homes; none of them dared to show up at their offices. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had posted 24-hour guards in all the public buildings, radio and TV stations. When the governor launched nocturnal attacks against these guards, the people responded by putting up barricades.

Some observers began speaking of the Oaxaca Commune, evoking the Paris Commune of 1871. The analogy is pertinent but exaggerated, except for the reaction these two popular insurrections elicited in the centers of power. Like the European armies that crushed the communards, the Federal Police of Mexico, backed by the army and the navy, conducted a terrible repression on November 25, 2006. They could not use the ways of the 19th century, but they inflicted a massive violation of human rights using an approach that can legitimately be described as state terrorism.

APPO remains a mystery, even for those who were part of it. It challenges conventional interpretations. A popular revolt against a tyrannical governor became a social experiment to apply the governance practices of the indigenous peoples constituting the majority of its population at the level of the state of Oaxaca (3.9 million inhabitants). Ferocious state repression interrupted the experiment but could not cancel it. Instead it took a different shape in communities and barrios as people continued affirming their political autonomy.

A communal way of being still prevails in most of the 13,000 communities of Oaxaca, in which communal obligations have priority over rights. No important decision can be taken without the explicit consent of the communal assembly, where all families are represented and know how to construct consensus. Some inequalities may be easily corrected: a person bringing many dollars after his stay in the US will spend most of them in the next fiesta, as a good majordomo (someone who protects a residence and family), and in exchange earn great prestige in the community. Every family event counts on the contribution of neighbors. Mutual help is used to build many houses and cultivate and harvest crops. Justice means that a crime requires consolation and compensation to the victim, rather than punishment, and it is delivered through community wisdom, not through jails, lawyers or trials. In most communities, every I is still a We.

The notion of comunalidad, coined by two indigenous Oaxaca intellectuals, Floriberto Díaz, Mixe, and Jaime Martínez Luna, Zapotec, may help to explain the vitality and complexity of those practices and attitudes. It can be translated as commonality: the juxtaposition of commons and polity, but it is something else. Comunalidad defines both a collection of practices formed as creative adaptations of old traditions to resist old and new colonialisms, and a mental space, a horizon of intelligibility: how you see and experience the world as a We. The foundation of comunalidad and its core are: 1) the communal territory, in which 2) authority fulfills an organizational function beginning with 3) communal work and 4) fiestas, creating a world through 5) the vernacular language.1

The hierarchical cargos are honorary services to the community that you begin to do very early in life. The tequio – unpaid work done by every family, approved in communal assemblies and organized by communal authorities – is a practice responsible for more than half of all the public works in indigenous communities. Guelaguetza is a complex system of reciprocity involving mutual help and material, symbolic and emotional exchanges, particularly in key moments in life, where a sense of both community ownership and personal freedom is forged as the ethical principle of comunalidad. Guelaguetza is also the normative framework weaving the interdependence between the people of the community and the region, creating new links between them and the gods and the dead, and thus recreating the communal territory. Within guelaguetza, giving and taking are sometimes tied, which strengthens a sense of mutual obligation between two persons or families. But reciprocity implies an attitude of open giving to others and the community, and trust and reliance in others and the community, when you are in need.

All this and much more is comunalidad, still alive and thriving in most Indigenous communities in spite of the individualistic veneer imposed on them by the Church, the Spanish Crown, the Mexican State, private corporations or migration to the US. The Oaxaca Commune was an audacious social experiment to bring the same spirit to the whole state.

A political mutation: territorial defense beyond development

This way of being, with unique traits in every Oaxacan community, recently experienced a political mutation. As in many other parts in Latin America, the struggle for land assumed the form of territorial defense.2 People are weaving their efforts, knowledge and resistance in the defense of their resources and territory, opposing “development projects” and reclaiming their own notion of the good life.

Some people still struggle to get access to the goods and services defining the ideal of life that shaped the contemporary notion of development. They ceded to governments, corporations and the media a traditional function of the people and the civil society: defining what it is to live well. Conventional claims (more roads, schools, health centers, jobs) are still perceived as requisites for social life or as rights that must not be renounced. But practices “bypassing” those institutions are now proliferating as different definitions of the good life – often expressed, in Latin America, as buen vivir, living well – take root.3 These practices are getting increasing visibility in the midst of the crisis because they offer creative survival options in hard times and effectively resist the megaprojects still promoted in the region.4

In many ways the people are expressing a sovereign practice of the collective will, which openly challenges faculties of the governments. The political form of this claim is usually presented as autonomy. It has been actualized and reformulated by the indigenous peoples, especially after the Zapatista uprising in 1994, but increasingly includes many other social groups. It has already generated de facto institutional arrangements: an increasing number of people effectively control their territory and govern themselves in their own way (Esteva 2010). Even though indigenous peoples may be less than 10 percent of the population in many areas, they may represent more than 85 percent of the rural territory – as in Oaxaca – and also occupy popular barrios in large cities.

The struggle for autonomy

This struggle permeates people’s initiatives and movements all over Latin America. Its most solid expression is probably what the Zapatistas created in the 250,000 hectares they have controlled since 1994 in Chiapas, a state bordering Guatemala.

Until 1993 neoliberal globalization appeared as an ineluctable reality. Politicians and scholars offered mere variants of what seemed to be the general destiny. There were no alternatives. The Zapatistas created them. What they are doing in Chiapas is a social experiment without clear precedent. In spite of severe restrictions, after seventeen years of rebelliously rejecting any kind of public funds, under a porous siege of 30,000 troops and exposed to continual paramilitary attacks, their radical innovations clearly anticipate one of the shapes of the post-capitalist world. (Esteva 1998, 2005).

Zapatista families are producing their own life in their own way. They combine traditional practices with contemporary tools to cultivate their basic staples, coffee and other products, which they sell through fair or solidarity trade. Their children attend free “schools” based on community conceptions and common themes, like their own story. They use traditional methods for healing, complemented with their own modern clinics, which give them access to contemporary remedies and practices. They build their own houses and public buildings, with local materials and traditions, enriched with contributions from other parts of the world. Self-government, similar to the Oaxaca tradition in communities and municipalities, operates also at the level of regions through Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Boards of Good Government): ordinary men and women, some of them very young, occupy temporarily the highest rank of authority for a group of municipalities and communities.

In Zapatista territory, land is not an artificial commodity. Territory is a space of responsibility. Occupation is not equivalent to property or tenure. A cosmocentric attitude before nature prevents the possibility of owning it. Within communal territory, land is allocated to the commoners without granting private property, but respecting stable family rights.

People don’t delegate their power to representatives. The authorities command by obeying and are not professional politicians or bureaucrats, but ordinary men and women who temporarily perform functions of government, with specific mandates and responsibilities. They can be substituted at any moment. The distance between those governing and those governed vanishes. Justice is not the technical enforcement of formal rules, entrusted to professionals, but the practice of a non-written normative system based on the vitality of changing customs, and direct conversation among people.

The Zapatista struggle for autonomy combines the freedom for self-determination with a serious attempt to conceive ways of political and cultural communion with other peoples, through an intercultural dialogue. This attitude of radical pluralism, looking for the harmonious coexistence of different peoples and cultures, requires a kind of juridical and political pluralism that does not fit well within the design of the nation-state and representative democracy.

Radical democracy, Zapatista style, means “democracy in its essential form, democracy at its root…[It] does not abolish power; it says that the people shall have it, that the power will be their freedom…Radical democracy envisions the people gathered in the public space, with neither the great paternal Leviathan nor the great maternal society standing over them, but only the empty sky – the people making the power of Leviathan their own again, free to speak, to choose, to act” (Lummis 1996).

By their very existence, against all odds, the Zapatistas challenge both the dominant regimes and the conviction that people cannot govern themselves and someone should govern them. While Mexico is literally falling apart,5 dismantled by economic and political mafias, Zapatismo are attempting to reorganize the society from the bottom up, in order to forge new social and political pacts.

The Zapatistas reclaim dignity and creativity in daily “work,” to transform it into a free and joyful activity without the alienations that people face in capitalist societies. It is impossible to fully implement such alternatives in their current conditions, but they are advancing in that direction. Their point of departure is the notion of dignity, the only thing they were left with.

The Zapatistas can be seen as a community of learning. Learning is at the very center of their political project. “Asking, we walk” expresses the principle they continually apply – beyond the straitjacket of any ideology or party structure. It implies a radical opening to the interactions with others and a continual reflection, the decision to continually examine and re-examine their practice. Doing this as a group implies “to walk at the pace of the slowest” and transform their way, ideas and practices into a really collective creation.

As an expression of their learning, the Zapatistas formulated their own political and epistemological reading of reality which begins with reclaiming the word – in a process of liberation from the categories imposed on them during 500 years of colonialism.

They are changing the way to change. Change itself, not only its outcome, should be shaped in the mold of what is being looked for, eliminating the separation between means and ends. If the idea is that the people themselves should take control of their destinies, it is them, not a leader, a vanguard, a party or a structure, who should be the active protagonist of the change.

The struggle for autonomy looks for a new kind of social organization. The Zapatistas did not create a model and it will be absurd to idealize what they created against all odds. But they represent solid proof of the feasibility of a post-capitalist social organization. They are a source of inspiration for all the discontented, rebels and dreamers, who all over the world are looking for concrete proof that it is possible to materialize their dreams of transformation.

Archipelago of conviviality

The time has come to leave behind the era of homo economicus6 – from whom we inherit a planet in ruins. We are thus abandoning the economic society, capitalist or socialist, based on the premise of scarcity;7 never again will the economic sphere be at the center of social life. We are also abandoning the design of the nation-state, whose monopoly of legitimate physical violence became the curse of the modern society. And we are going beyond formal democracy without falling into new forms of authoritarianism.

The new society, emerging at the grassroots, has a new political horizon, in what André Gorz called the “archipelago of conviviality:” instead of the individual, the basic cell of this kind of society is the contemporary commons. No word can fully express the diversity of social struggles in Latin America attempting to create, at the grassroots, new ways of life and government. In the same way that commons is a generic term for very different forms of social existence, the immense richness of the social organizations currently existing or being created in Latin America cannot be reduced to formal categories.8 All these forms, actualizations of ancient traditions or contemporary creations, are beyond the private threshold but cannot be defined as public spaces, collective refuges or hunting preserves. They are not forms of property or land tenure. Specific ways of doing things, talking about them and living them express both cultural traditions and recent innovations. Their precise limits (their contours, their perimeters) as well as their internal strings (their straitjackets) are still insufficiently explored territory. They are getting increasing importance in initiatives that move beyond development.

The revolution I am trying to illustrate in this essay was initiated by those defending their way of being from colonialists and developers. They are now regenerating it in contemporary terms. To enclose the enclosers, as they begin to do, they are allied with those searching for alternative ways of life or attempting to protect the water, the air, the forest, the ecology, as Illich anticipated 30 years ago (Illich 1982). All of them are creating a world in which many worlds can be embraced.


  • Esteva, Gustavo. 1998. “The Revolution of the New Commons.” In Curtis Cook and Juan D. Lindau. Aboriginal Rights and Self-Government. Montreal, Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • —————. 2003. “The Meaning and Scope of the Struggle for Autonomy.” In Jan Rus, Rosalva Hernández and Shannon Matiace, eds. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias. Lanham. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
  • —————. 2005. Celebration of Zapatismo. Oaxaca. Ediciones ¡Basta!
  • —————. 2007. Oaxaca Commune and Mexico’s Autonomous Movements. Oaxaca. Ediciones ¡Basta!
  • —————. 2010. “From the Bottom-up: New Institutional Arrangements in Latin America.” Development. (53)1:64-69.
  • Illich, Ivan. 1982. Gender. New York. Pantheon.
  • —————. 1981. Shadow Work. Boston and London. Marion Boyars.
  • Lummis, C. Douglas. 1996. Radical Democracy. Ithaca, London. Cornell University Press.
  • 1. Illich renovated the meaning of vernacular to designate “the activities of people when they are not motivated by thoughts of exchange, a word that denotes autonomous, non-market related actions through which people satisfy everyday needs – the actions that by their own true nature escape bureaucratic control, satisfying needs to which, in the very process, they give specific shape.” “The radical change from the vernacular to taught language foreshadows the switch from breast to bottle, from subsistence to welfare, from production for use to production for market, from expectations divided between state and church to a world where the Church is marginal, religion is privatized, and the state assumes the maternal functions heretofore claimed only by the Church.” Ivan Illich. 1981. Shadow Work. Boston & London: Marion Boyars. 44 and 58.
  • 2. See also the articles in this book by Dick Löhr (pp. 410–415), César Padilla (pp. 157–160) and Liz Alden Wily (pp. 132–140).
  • 3. See also the conversation between Gustavo Soto and Silke Helfrich on the Buen Vivir concept on pp. 277–281.
  • 4. See Gerhard Dilger’s essay on the Belo Monte mining operation on pp. 174–176.
  • 5. The US State Department recently classified Mexico with Congo and Pakistan as “failed states.” The category is imprecise, but the fact is that the Mexican government can no longer govern in many areas; it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the world of institutions and the world of crime, and what is legal and what is illegal. During the last four years, there have been 50,000 deaths, 10,000 disappeared and 250,000 displaced, directly or indirectly associated with the “war” against organized crime. The very visible Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity argues that it is basically wrong to approach a public health problem as a military problem, particularly with very weak and corrupt institutions (including the army) and in times of crisis. After several decades of neoliberal policies, eight million young people cannot study or work; more than half of Mexicans live below the poverty line; a fifth of them live in the US…and the richest man on Earth is Mexican. He and many other Mexicans on the Forbes 400 list are increasingly investing abroad, while the country continues to endure a kind of vicious civil war.
  • 6. See Friederike Habermann’s essay on pp. 13–18.
  • 7. Editors’ note: In the commons movement, there is a lively discussion about the concept of abundance versus scarcity. See the conversation between Davey, Helfrich, Höschele and Verzola on pp. 102–110.
  • 8. Editors’ note: The Spanish ejido (the land at the edge of the villages, used in common by the peasants in the 16th century) is not identical to the British commons, to the pre-Hispanic communal regimes, to the modern Mexican ejido, or to the emerging new commons.

Gustavo Esteva

Gustavo Esteva is a Mexican activist, “deprofessionalized intellectual” and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in the Mexican city of Oaxaca.

Tags: buen vivir, indigenous communities, the commons