Popular Assemblies and the Growing
Popular Assembly Movement

commentary from Oaxaca
by Nancy Davies [1]  <nmsdavies@yahoo.com>
4 January 2007

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/2007-01-04.htm

      A popular assembly is a self-organized, autonomous, non-hierarchical group of people who come together spontaneously. They come together as gente (people) and metamorphose into pueblo (We the people, not them). In many cases the assemblies

A peoples’ initiative, the first plenary meeting of the ‘Dialogue for peace, democracy and justice’ general assembly held in Oaxaca on 12 Oct 2006. Photo, by G.S. No rights reserved.

are based geographically (by neighborhood, town, county, state, etc.) as in Argentina or Bolivia. (The union base itself is not a popular assembly because it excludes those who don’t belong to the union. Nevertheless, the Bolivian Water Wars depended on the spontaneous participation of the non-union population ready to struggle).

      In Oaxaca, as in those countries, the assemblies sprang up virtually simultaneously in many cities and neighborhoods. The assemblies are inclusive as opposed to exclusive, and develop in process rather than being pre-planned.

      The immediate grounds giving rise to the a popular assembly movement are particular: a grievance or an assault. The long-standing cumulative grounds are the neoliberal depredations foisted on the people, which include downgrading of quality of life, (loss of middle class status, impoverishment of the poor) loss of jobs and loss of income. Grievances may come to the “ya basta” point, the last straw, with a particular land taking, privatization of water, theft of bank savings, privatization of electricity, oil, gas, increased school fees, etcetera. When the word “harto”, which means “fed up”, appears, as it did in Argentina and in Oaxaca in the popular slogans and songs, I take this to mean that the conflict has been simmering a long time, and the resentment has reached its climax.

      The Argentinean popular assemblies set the anti-neoliberal pattern, emerging as spontaneous, unplanned uprisings of the outraged. Popular assemblies form as a furious alternative to electoral politics. In this era we see everywhere, including the United States, the ownership of elected officials by the large, usually transnational corporations. The “elected”, whether honestly or fraudulently installed in office, have a paying boss who is different from the voters from whom the officials are distanced by both their membership in the “political class” and their isolation from the lives of the multitudes they supposedly “represent.” The politicians are often very corrupt; they are often overtly and murderously repressive against their own populations in Mexico (not just Oaxaca), Latin America and around the globe. Some nations like the United States and some European countries keep their repression under wraps; one need only consider the number of persons imprisoned in the United States (According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.2 million in federal or state prisons in December 2005).[2] Some seek to run the prisons as lucrative privatized businesses.

      It can be noted in this context that transnational corporations have stripped away the social and financial power that used to belong to the nation states. The nations are now left only with the physical power to repress, and to administer whatever is left of their bureaucracies. The laws serve mainly to enforce the property rights of the ownership class, and facilitate transfers of wealth from the newly “colonized” nations to the transnational corporations.

      The asamblea consists of people (pueblos) who define themselves as actors, and the asamblea is their show of power. Direct participation is the hallmark of the asamblea. It takes direct democracy to the participants and abandons the useless representative government – with good reason; “elected” or assumed (royal or dictatorial) governorship cannot respond to the needs of the ordinary people while simultaneously obeying the financial demands of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the corporations controlling social agendas, including health, educational and environmental agendas. (In this context, it is interesting that Hugo Chavez of Venezuela bailed out Argentina from its IMF debt. Subsequently Bolivia declined to accept a loan.)

      By definition, a people’s assembly (asamblea popular) must be anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal. The hierarchical structure of governments and corporations implies a boss and/or owner who benefits from the work of the people, hires and fires at will, and frequently owns or appropriates the national resources. (Coca-cola makes millions bottling and selling the public water supply, with or without added flavors.) Transnational capitalism erodes the middle-classes and siphons off wealth to the wealthy. It is therefore logical that the assemblies are not just the concern of the poor – or newly poor – but of the middle-class as well, which sees the handwriting on the wall, along with intellectuals, workers, the unemployed, youth, seniors, and professionals. The assembly is not class-structured. The assembly is composed of people who are being screwed and know it. They come together in recognition of the other, their previously invisible fellow citizens, and for a common purpose which may be economic but which may also be to defy repression or prevent environmental depredation or guard their farm lands or to demand some change in benefit to the people.

      It has been the case in Argentina that the founding piqueteros were workers, but the caceroleras of December 2001 were middle-class housewives whose savings vanished into a bank vacuum-cleaner. Along with the working class they all rose up together, simultaneously, and took to the streets. In Cochebamba, Bolivia, everyone’s water supply was threatened, by privatization accompanied by very high costs. A participatory struggle was mounted via a popular assembly.

      In these three situations, the original organization, a union, was abruptly swallowed up by the popular assembly. In Oaxaca, the first nucleus of the asamblea popular was the local branch of the national teachers union. The spark to organize the assembly was outrage caused by yet another repression on the part of the state governor, Ulises Ruiz, against the 70,000 highly regarded Oaxaca teachers. Popular assemblies are not class artifacts as the Marxists might have hoped. They are public, socio-economic responses to public grievances.

      Furthermore, there is no vanguard. There is no political party attribute, because by definition the asamblea is a refutation of elected politics and politicians who have sold out and failed the constituents they supposedly represented. In Oaxaca, the pretext of representation was very thin anyway. The Institutional Revolutionary party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) was, and has been, a mockery of democracy for decades, operating with bribes, bosses, corruption, assassinations, imprisonments, disappearances, etcetera, all of which are amply documented. The inclusion of all sorts of political-left parties is not a contradiction (and how many American visitors were astonished to see the red flags and the photos of Stalin and Mao), because a hallmark of the asamblea is that all participants are political-social actors. The struggle of any political party to gain power is subordinated to the specific social struggle.That’s not easy. Fractures and schisms come about when elements break off , not willing to sustain the horizontal structure of the asamblea.

      In other words, none of the popular assemblies, including the Zapatistas, exclude adherents to political parties, but the asamblea is not a political party and refuses ownership of political power apart from the social power which comes from below, from the multitude. The asamblea by definition is the pueblo and that means people working on their own behalf. It is the counter to individualism; it is community of purpose and goal. The popular assembly forms spontaneously and without leaders. Since it is not easily controlled, the force that holds it together must be a common, not a particular, cause.

      In Oaxaca the rallying cry was “Ulises Out” but nobody believes Ulises is more than a symptom of what is wrong: social neglect, educational neglect, stripping of resources, neglect of public needs, corruption, institutionalized theft, etcetera. In other words, and as the people frequently say outright, “Ulises doesn’t live here.”

      [And I should add, my definitions are abstract and idealized. I recently heard from a socialist here in Mexico who declared that the Oaxaca asamblea has been at fault for not being more “representative” of its constituent groups, such as political parties and unions. My understanding is, it’s not supposed to represent those entities; it’s supposed to be a tool for challenging certain social-economic insults. In the case of Oaxaca, the first call was to depose Ulises Ruiz. That goal was universally accepted. So I’m not clear why he said the groups were not represented. Perhaps he meant consulted? Methodology must be a constant problem.]

      In a so-called representative democracy the multitude can march till they drop and nothing affects the power or decisions of the “elected leaders”, much less removes them from their “legitimate” positions as officials of the state. At the close of 2006 the elected officials of Mexico squandered through deals and in-fighting the possibility of serving the people of Oaxaca. Instead they resorted to force, the ultimate recourse and probably the last remaining recourse of a nation-state which owns nothing within its own territory. All the major industries – even the ones like PEMEX (oil) supposedly owned by the state – are in reality controlled by international corporations, mostly foreign. The Bank of Mexico is foreign owned. The telephone company, owned by the Mexican Carlos Slim, is actually an international conglomerate sprung from SBC which owns Prodigy. Continuum Resources Ltd., a Canadian mining corporation, holds in excess of 70,000 hectares of exploration ground Oaxaca. Included in their property portfolio are two of the most significant past-producers of gold and silver in southern Mexico: the San Jose epithermal silver-gold deposit and the Natividad epithermal gold-silver deposit. And so forth.

      Furthermore, all the political parties suffer the same defects, whether they are right or left. They are top down, easily corrupted, and dogmatically exclusive. They are based on ideologies rather than on practical solutions to pressing social needs. When the people march, they march for, and with, unity. When political parties march, they march for power and control. End of story. I needn’t tell you how many times I have been taken in by the “promises” of the left, like those made by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (“First the poor”); I imagine we have all had the same sad experiences.

      On the other hand, the popular assembly principal persons, are named (for their own convenience) by the mainstream media as “leaders”. This “leader” may have personal charismatic influence (like Subcomandante Marcos), or may be mocked like Flavio Sosa; other “leaders” may or may act as spokespersons. A popular assembly “leadership” position is held at the will of the pueblos, and is completely revocable. The “leader” is replaceable; that is to say, if one leader falls another person can step into the breach. This is possible because the leader is not a decision-maker but a decision-implementer.

      Decisions are made in the course of the assembly meeting, often (as in the case of the Zapatistas) by consensus, sometimes by majority vote. Decisions are fluid and evolving, hence driving crazy the Left which thinks there must be a program all fore-planned. (There certainly is a desired goal: social justice.) Meetings are called as often as necessary. In the case of an asamblea popular the size of a state asamblea, as in Oaxaca, there is a council of directors who help the process. However, the asamblea is self-organizing, allowing complete participation for those who chose a particular area in which to act. Thus, in the Oaxaca assembly movement during 2006, some people brought food, others staffed the first aid station, others drove around in the city to check on night activities, others supported the barricades, others blocked the highways, yet others ran the radio stations. In different cities people took over their municipal buildings, threw out the municipal presidents, held closed the schools against scabs. All these activities are part of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, but surely similar in direct method wherever the people assert their power.

      The asamblea is a free-wheeler, it does what seems possible and correct toward a goal, using various spontaneous and creative decisions. Thus it is often blamed for lack of long-range strategy, but the long-range strategy is clear: do away with neoliberalism and reclaim the common wealth for the people. “Long-range”, in the outsiders’ complaints about Oaxaca, really amounted to some months. For example, apparently nobody thought ahead very much to what would happen if Ulises Ruiz was not deposed. Many of us thought he would be – I wrote myself once that I thought he would be gone “by the weekend”, and I was not the only one who thought so. Indeed, the asamblea counted on it. So a back-up plan was lacking. Such a plan is now emerging, from much discussion and thought, although the goal of getting Ulises Ruiz out has not been renounced.

      It seems to me not possible that the popular assembly movement vanish, despite the murderous repression the government practices. It cannot vanish because the cause has not vanished. I suppose the popular assembly movement will evolve over years. The entire population is in the process of re-educating itself about the nature of power and who holds it. Oaxaca specifically is a clear example of failed electoral politics, failed state and national governments, failed neoliberal economics and failed social policy.

      Some challenges have not yet been addressed, among them how to wrest financial control from the international neoliberals. How to link the thousands of local asambleas which must achieve common goals to make national changes has been discussed – but not resolved. The next step is international, so will that be an enlarged block of Latin American nations? Will the USA let Mexico slip away? (An amusing side-light is the building of a wall to exclude Mexicans but not Mexico, from the USA’s orbit.) Some believe the nation state is useless and unnecessary; some regard it as the source of the cultures which in turn support the struggles for equity. Ways to own and redistribute the “national” wealth, especially natural resources, must be discussed – over and over, and in the context of horizontal decision making.

      The popular assembly movement is spreading, and with good reason. Many consider ourselves people who can rightfully participate in our own empowerment – how would one support, for example, a popular assembly movement in the United States? I begin to remember local “neighborhood” activism during the past thirty years – Love Canal? The Dorchester Neighborhood Association? The Grange, the town meeting – all of us (by us, I mean senior citizens!) must have memories of that sort of local organization. Younger people certainly know of younger organizations. Why did those old organizations vanish? Or did they? They were largely based on some injustice, and the injustices have not vanished. But perhaps they unsustainable by being single-issue and hence by definition exclusive.

      And other organizations, such as unions, professional organizations, League of Women Voters – all the ways in which people come together? People come together as exclusive groups, denominational groups, special interest groups – how can we come together in a common cause, like the people of Latin America and Oaxaca? The common attribute of social movements is a moral sense of injustice, concern for the welfare of others whom we perceive to be fellow human beings, pueblos, like ourselves. Is that sense lost in our individualist competitive society? Can it be reclaimed?

      A further and final note is the success of “organizations” or asambleas which provide services to the local people. The piqueteros help buy food in bulk for reduced price distribution, the Black Panthers offered social services, Hammas does the same. Thus far in Oaxaca the popular asamblea managed to feed striking teachers, provide emergency health care, and is now proposing ways to assist the families of the dead and disappeared. It snatched from the government commercialized tourist events cherished in the culture (Guelaguetza, Night of the Radishes) and returned them free to the public.

      In all these cases, the free social aid – undeniably small scale – is given not to highlight political points of view, but to engage the people with the people’s self-interest, by providing services which the governments can’t or won’t provide. Services, non-governmental, are provided to the extent that people contribute to them. So the people know from whom the sharing emanates – themselves.

      A popular assembly movement emphasizes the dignity of the people who are not helpless, but who have the capacity to organize, direct and sustain their own governing structures.

End of Nancy’s commentary

International solidarity with the people of Oaxaca

      The first, and possibly the most important need of the incipient revolution in Oaxaca is for people in the rest of the world to know what has been happening and why it is a profoundly significant development, if it cannot be crushed. Despite the severe repression by the federal government that began 29 October 2006, and by the State of Oaxaca, I believe the people of Oaxaca, and Mexico, will not allow themselves to be terrorized into submission. I believe they will not abandon their struggle. Our task – those of us who have international contacts – can be to help get accurate information out and to share our understanding. Widespread dissemination of honest information is both crucially needed and greatly lacking; misinformation is abundant.

      The Oaxaca Study-Action Group (OSAG),[3] is a Yahoo discussion listserv. OSAG describes itself as (in English): “an international non-governmental network in solidarity with the communities of Oaxaca. OSAG’s network communicates with thousands of people around the world, by using the internet and personal contacts. OSAG is a part of civil society, not affiliated with any government or political party”, y en español como: “una red internacional no-gobermental en solidaridad con las comunidades de Oaxaca. La red de OSAG comunica con miles de las personas alrededor del mundo, usando el internet y los contactos personales. OSAG es un parte de la sociedad civil, no afiliada con ningún gobierno ni partido político.”

[1] Nancy Davies’ reports and commentaries appear primarily on the indispensable Narco News website, which is at http://www.narconews.com/ . Her attempts to stay abreast of day-to-day (and even minute-to-minute) developments, and her exchanges with subscribers to the Oaxaca Study-Action Group (OSAG) discussion listserv are often posted to that listserv

[2] U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/prisons.htm .

[3] The Oaxaca Study-Action Group website is at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/oaxacastudyactiongroup/
To subscribe write to oaxacastudyactiongroup-subscribe@yahoogroups.com .

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