Raúl Zibechi, Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements. AK Press, 2012. Translated by Ramor Ryan, foreword by Dawn Paley.
Not social movements, but “societies-in-movement”; not “Another world is possible!” but seeking to defend and nurture the life forms of survival and resistance that already exist in the gaps and excluded zones of the dominant society and economy. In Latin America, rural workers, indigenous people, and the inhabitants of impoverished urban peripheries have embodied forms of struggle based on collective self-management of the economy; horizontal and emancipatory approaches to politics, education, and health; and the valorization of ethnic and cultural difference. The experiences described by Uruguayan militant and theorist Raúl Zibechi in the south of Mexico and South America offer glimpses of this “other” society which is being constructed day by day from below, in spaces that are fiercely contested by the forces of traditional statist politics, extractive industry and neoliberal dispossession, and the genocide of cultural homogenization. The “territories” that these movements invoke and seek to defend include urban and rural land occupations; autonomous municipalities and the natural resources of indigenous land; popular education and politics in the streets and classrooms; bakeries, city gardens and industrial factories. Zibechi argues, however, that the true “territory of resistance” is not a question of the bounds of a particular space, but of the social relations developed among human beings within that space–in particular, non-state and non-capitalist relations.
Zibechi lays this theoretical framework in the first section of “Territories in Resistance,” a collection of essays that approaches critical social movement theory and practice from both specific and abstract perspectives. This includes reportage and analysis from a variety of struggles: the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign, the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement) in Brazil, unemployed workers’ assemblies and worker-managed factories in the Southern cone, and Andean and Mapuche indigenous resistance. The final half of the book is made up of a longer piece on urban peripheries and occupations, and a sacred-cow skewering critique of progressive and leftist governance in Latin America and its compromises with neoliberalism and coercive politics that undermine the emancipatory and insurrectionary possibilities of autonomous social movements.
Along the way Zibechi also offers practical reflections on building and defending movements, while humbly recognizing that “we do not know how a movement produces and generalizes itself.” The intensification and expansion of movements may rely most profoundly on uncontrolled flows of experience, communication, and action, rather than on external coordination or organization: “‘To organize rebellion’ is a contradiction in terms–to organize means to impose order, to discipline, to institute. …we need to expand the concept of organization and recognize that chaos is also a form of organization.” What can be organized, however, is the defense of emergent forms of rebellion:
“While non-capitalist social relations are not created beginning from an articulation, it is nevertheless necessary to defend and protect what has been created. I believe it is useful to understand articulation in the sense that a seed must be protected as it germinates–that is, to protect is not to create, it is not the articulation that creates the new world, but it helps it to survive until it can be born.”
For the defense of these nascent movements Zibechi offers a handful of aspirations and guidelines. He urges the creation of non-capitalist relations within movements and the avoidance of centralization and unification (and offering the mantra “divide and struggle better”), as well as cautioning against “excessive visibility” for young movements (an important reminder in the age of social networks). As means to foster such relations, Zibechi suggests the creation of “temporary and horizontal spaces for the exchange and sharing of knowledge regarding alternative experiences. …Instead of focusing our attention and our activity on the state, political parties, and capital, and so on, it is better to focus on the experiences that create new social ties. This needs to be our central concern. The key to our struggle is to look within, to grow inside, and thus create the new world. To resist and struggle in this day and age is fundamentally about creating those ties and thus a new, ‘other’ world.”
This is a challenging prescription for activists used to focusing our energies in profoundly asymmetric struggles, such as those against transnational mining or state repression. However, Zibechi’s case studies of vibrant movements in Latin America suggest that the most profound movements of rupture and resistance emerge from such processes–in his introduction, Zibechi employs the metaphor of a zumbayllu, or spinning top, “as a reflection of societies in movement that, in order to exist, to ward off death and oblivion, must move themselves from their inherited place.” It is the top’s centripetal force that keeps it standing and spinning, a non-dialectic “double movement, the rotation on its own axis and the passage across a plane…two complementary ways of understanding social change: displacement and return…repetition and difference.” The spinning top’s collision with other objects–as in moments of crisis or insurrection–exerts a reactive centrifugal force, but this force is ultimately derived from the top’s inwardly-focused motion, from the emancipatory social relations forged by people engaged in common struggle. The beauty of Zibechi’s analysis is that it privileges descriptions of real experiences of liberation and resistance over such abstract philosophizing, with a deep grounding in the value of autonomy:
“The spinning top of social change is dancing for itself. We do not know for how long or to where. The temptation to give it a push in order to speed up its rhythm can bring it to a halt, despite the good will of those trying to ‘help.’ Perhaps the best way to promote it is to imagine that we ourselves are part of the zumbayllu–spinning, dancing, all and sundy. To be a part of it, without any control over the final destination.”