Building the Global Grassroots Infrastructure:
a task both local and global
(en español)
this essay is both No.7 of the series, and the
opening page of the Infrastructure subfolder

December 27, 2002

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Grass/Infra/index.htm
and at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Grass/Infra/Infra-7.htm

      The focus here is on down-to-earth efforts to create the kind of world we want for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. It's part of an evolving strategy for revolution, not for a violent revolution, but for a vast variety of constructive efforts aimed at gaining control over our own lives, the kind of revolution envisioned by James Herod in his essay Getting Free. We take as our starting point the assumption that all people are human beings, that all of us experience pain and suffering, and that the true measure of a civilization is how successful it is in minimizing the avoidable suffering of each person.

      A second assumption is that humans are not born to be "bad", that is, we are not a "genetically flawed" species biologically programmed to do harmful things to one another. This is a basic assumption of anarchism. It follows, if one accepts this assumption, that the harmful things people knowingly do to one another are a consequence of social conditioning, i.e. of the social conditions in which we live.

      Our third major assumption is that the currently dominant system of capitalism, of global extent, is extremely destructive, both of people and of the biosphere, and that these bad consequences are inherent in the system, which cannot be reformed; it must be totally replaced. That is why we call it a revolution. At the heart of the system we want to construct must be human values that hold life sacred and that maximize, as much as possible within communal bounds, individual freedom and autonomy.

Building local community

      The fundamental building blocks we envision as the basis for transforming the whole society are autonomous local communities, self-governing with direct face-to-face non-hierarchical democratic assemblies. Such communities exist, not perfect of course, but where a strong sense of communality prevails, as for example in the town of Ixtlan in the northern Sierra of Oaxaca State in Mexico. The following photograph that I took in June 2002 exemplifies the communal values that prevail there.

In this community private property does not exist
PROHIBITED
The buying-selling of communal land
Respectfully
The commission for communal property of Ixtlan de Juarez, Oaxaca

A project in Massachusetts -- a local effort

      In 1996 I was inspired by the ideas in Getting Free, by Jared James, a midwesterner, by the actualities I saw "on the ground" in Oaxaca, and by the essays and declarations collected in Communality and Autonomy, by Jaime Martínez Luna, a Zapotec Indian who lives in the Zapotec municipio (county) of Ixtlan de Júarez. Jaime Martínez wrote the three essays in the year following the Zapatista uprising in the neighboring southern state of Chiapas.

      As a result, a few years later I set up an irrevocable trust for my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the goals of
1. preventing a parcel of "private" property from becoming, on my death, another piece of real estate to be bought and sold as a commodity,
2. contributing to building a material part of the grassroots infrastructure by transferring some wealth from the commercial domain, where it is controlled by the dominant market economy, into the hands of the grassroots infrastructure, and
3. contributing to building a local community.

      An account of The local grassroots infrastructure Trust, with information about the nuts and bolts of this "charitable foundation" (lawyers' legalese - it has nothing to do with charity), including the defining legal document, who the trustees are, how the trust is developing, and so on, is available. If the ideas interest you, and you wish more detailed information, you can contact me at <george.salzman@umb.edu>.

      At this moment (December 27, 2002) the U.S. government is threatening war on Iraq. Many Americans are strongly opposed to such predatory actions by a government that ought to be but isn't "ours." Begun during the Vietnam War to oppose that action, the National War Tax Resistance movement continues actively to oppose taxes for war. I believe that by setting up tax-exempt trusts into which we may be able to put substantial parts of our wealth, as has been my experience, it will be possible to redirect a great deal of money away from the government's coffers and into socially constructive purposes, possibly more effectively than by the tactics of the War Tax Resistance folks. Clearly we ought to try doing everything we can.

      Even without setting up a tax-exempt trust it is of course possible to contribute to tax-exempt groups and thereby reduce the part of one's disposable income that goes to the federal government. A locally-based trust has the added benefit that it makes it possible for people in a community (or even in a neighborhood) to make tax-exempt contributions that can be used for socially beneficial projects within their own community or neighborhood.

      My hope is that the Grassroots Infrastructure Trust will stimulate and encourage other people to think about ways in which we can actively participate in similar efforts to get as much as possible of our wealth out of corporate and governmental control. If enough of us do it, and remember we are many millions, we can gain real power to control our lives.

Back to the northern Sierra of Oaxaca

      In many parts of the world it is difficult to imagine the internal structure of a community such as Ixtlan de Juarez, organized along lines profoundly different from those of, for example, Mexico City. Largely self-governing in accord with traditional usos y costumbres - uses and customs - the communal assembly, the seat of decision-making, is based on direct democracy. A discussion of the contrasts between traditional practices in indigenous communities (those without significant admixture of European bloodlines) and those of mestizo society (the major part of Mexican society) is in the essays Comunalidad y Autonomía in the folder Estrategia por Revolución, which I have thus far only partly translated into English and posted in the folder Strategy for Revolution.

      Within Oaxaca State there is a large number of communities that are strongly motivated to maintain or regain a substantial degree of autonomy. This largely mountainous southeastern state of Mexico has both the greatest percentage of indigenous peoples (about two-thirds of the population) and the highest number - 570 - of municipalities (like counties in the U.S.), two factors that favor local autonomy. There is also, in the Oaxaca constitution, a provision for formal state recognition of traditional forms of local governance. Passed in 1998, a few years after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the neighboring state of Chiapas, it is now regarded by some as being more or less a dead-letter article of the constitution. Nevertheless, the struggle for local autonomy is far from dead, and not only in Oaxaca but in many parts of Mexico.

      With our focus on autonomous local communities as the basis for transforming the whole society, we must acknowledge that building them where they are largely nonexistent, as e.g. in the United States, is an enormous challenge. It is also a great challenge to support and strengthen them where they already exist, as e.g. in some parts of Mexico.

      In the United States capitalist development has been more effective until now in eliminating communality than in the so-called less developed parts of the world. The task of rebuilding true community in the U.S. is key to the transformation we are seeking to effect. People are of course motivated to establish communal relationships. But with lives largely circumscribed by the conditions imposed in a highly developed capitalist country, the impediments are numerous, and quite effective in pushing the society towards greater and greater fragmentation. Even extended families, the last bastion of traditional communal relationships, are being dissolved as children leave in search of work to support themselves conomically.

      There are, in the United States, a number of intentional communities, such as for example those of the Amish, but such communities represent only a minuscule fraction of the population. Most of the grassroots infrastructure in the U.S. is not to be found in localities that live communally. Rather, it consists of the myriad efforts undertaken outside of corporate and governmental auspices which are to a greater or lesser extent independent of corporate, government and/or foundation support. In order to undermine the dominant capitalist system, the grassroots infrastructure must be independent, to the greatest extent possible, of such sources of support. Many non-governmental organizations (NGO's) lack substantial independent, true grassroots bases of support, and are subject to considerable influence by governmental and corporate entities, which greatly weakens their effectiveness in instigating real changes in society. Some discussion of grassroots groups is in the folder Grassroots activism - a world on fire!.

The tension between communality and individual autonomy

      As social animals, we find meaning in our lives through our interactions with other people, through being an integral part of a community. In order to retain a secure place within a community one must abide by the communal patterns of living. This prevents total individual freedom and autonomy as long as one lives within, and is truly a part of the community. The tension between communality and personal freedom is therefore very real. I well remember that when first visiting some indigenous communities in the northern Sierra of Oaxaca in 1996 as a member of a Grassroots International delegation, an older American couple feeling they would not want to live in a community in which everyone else knew so much about their lives, in which they would not enjoy their accustomed privacy.

      That lack of anonimity in the communities we visited (in sharp contrast to the degree of anonymity often available in the U.S.) is an essential element in their traditional system of government. There are no political parties, no election campaigns, no lies and propaganda about the supposed virtues and shortcomings of contending candidates. Such campaigning is irrelevant because everyone in the community knows which individuals can best serve the interests of the community. In many towns they have maintained their communal solidarity and traditional government in spite of the efforts of state and federal authorities to impose the dominant system of political parties, voting, majority rule, and so on, with all the corruption we know it entails in the ensuing struggle for power and privilege. Their value system places the well-being of the community as a top priority, in contrast to the dominant system's focus on the individual. Cooperation and mutual aid, rather than competition, is emphasized.

      Thus, while acknowledging the tension between communality and individualistic urges for total personal freedom and autonomy, it would be an error to insist on the absolute supremacy of either set of values, both of which are crucial for human fulfillment and happiness. The overriding criterion ought to be how best to achieve the primary objective (which we repeat): To develop a true civilization, one based on recognition that all human beings belong to a single race, the human race (homo sapiens), that all of us are sentient beings, all able to experience pain and suffering, and that the only true measure of a civilization is its success in reducing, to the greatest extent possible, the suffering of every single human being.

Turning now from local to global considerations

      In a series of essays, Building a Global Grassroots Infrastructure, I wrote in the fourth essay, "I think it would be romantic, and probably fatal to our aspirations if we relied only on massive demonstrations against global capitalism, and failed to build simultaneously a new kind of 'community', that is, a real, conscious, geographically dispersed grassroots infrastructure. It seems to me that in order to succeed, it will be necessary to continue a vast number of efforts, which can be roughly grouped as follows:
1) massive demonstrations and/or other actions that publicize the widespread condemnation of global capitalism;
2) development of an in-depth global grassroots communications infrastructure;
3) development of the other parts of a global grassroots infrastructure, and the transfer to it, to the greatest extent possible, of resources of all kinds, removing them from corporate and governmental control and thereby 'hollowing out' the dominant structures."

      In the fifth essay I wrote, "We need to develop our infrastructure to include, eventually, all the resources we require to sustain ourselves. This will be a vast effort, taking as much ingenuity as we can muster to find myriad ways of transferring wealth from the corporate infrastructure into our own. In the long run this effort will yield the power to end corporate control. It will spell the withering away of capitalism. I believe the effort to build our infrastructure is at least as important as the giant demonstrations we are now seeing in opposition to global capitalism. In a subsequent note in the series I'll describe some things I did, small-scale but potentially effective if widely adopted. Of course that only scratches the surface of the mountain of possibilities."

      The completed essays of the series on Building a Global Grassroots Infrastructure, of which this is No. 7, are, in chronological order:

    1. Development of the Indymedia Center Network, 2001-04-21

    2. The Chiapas Media Project and Crisanto Manzano Avella, 2001-04-28

    3. A Struggle at the Local Level, Tanetze de Zaragosa, 2001-07-08

    4. Strategy for Replacing Global Capitalism, 2001-08-05

    5. Mutual Aid and Mutual Trust, 2001-12-29

    6. NarcoNews News Saga, 2002-07-29

    7. Building the global grassroots infrastructure, a task both local and global, 2003-02-00

    8. The local grassroots infrastructure Trust, a part of the global grassroots infrastructure in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2003-02-00

    9. Out of the Prison!, 2003-03-22

  10. After Iraq, What now?, 2003-04-28

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Last update of this page: April 9, 2004