Letter, Gustavo Esteva to Jared James, November 16, 1999

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Subject: Hola
Date: Mon, 22 Nov 1999
From: "Instituto de la Naturaleza y la Sociedad de Oaxaca" insopcion@infosel.net.mx
To: Jared James anarresodo@home.com
CC: george.salzman@umb.edu

November 16, 1999
Dear Jared James:

      George Salzman, who is now in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I live, gently shared with me "Getting Free". I liked very much your pamphlet and I want to let you know my/our reaction to it.

      We fully share your anti-capitalist outlook.

      We share your conviction that "we have to learn how to destroy them (our oppressors) without firing a single shot", but not because "it is impossible to defeat our ruling class by force of arms". We consciously assume non-violence, as a principle, rather than violence or passive resistance, because we think we are the strong. As Gandhi said: violence or resistance are for the weak. I will not teach non violence to a mice in the hands of a cat, he said. If I am preaching non violence for the Hindu, he added, it is because I see no reason why 300 million people should be afraid of 150,000 British; since they are the strong, they can use non violence, the supreme force on Earth; nothing can resist that force. (More on this, later, about the Zapatistas -a revolutionary army shooting non-violence...).

      We share your awareness of how we do not want to live. We don't want the social relation based on exploitation of work by capital (not only wage relationships); we don't want a place without Meeting Halls (but we have plenty of Meeting Halls, as I will tell you later); we don't want the things you hate (most of them, at least, because we don't suffer many of them; and we don't like the word "hate" and the feeling it implies -which is but another form of love, of passion; we simply say no to all those things, we reject them).

      We share your evaluation of "Strategies That Have Failed", but in some cases for different reasons. We find no hope in Social democracy (with its current contortions on the Third Way of Blair, Schroeder, Jospin...), Leninism, general strikes, strikes, unions, guerrilla warfare (the Zapatistas are not a guerrilla), insurrections (however: we call what we are doing civic insurrection -that has nothing to do with burning down neighborhoods, etc.), boycotts (however: they can be used in particular contexts, if they are but elements of a larger struggle), dropping-out (question mark; see later), single-issue campaigns (however: we are finding that they are window through which many people start taking part in a more general struggle), Luddism (you have a good diagnosis of its limitations, but there are interesting things in the Neo-Luddite movement...), new social movements (question mark: see later), demonstrations, publishing (again, as part of a larger struggle, it is badly needed...), syndicalism.

      About the New Strategy: we share the basic point: "building a new civilization". As the Zapatistas say: "The question is not to change the world, but to build a new one". We fully understand your emphasis in "emptying out capitalist structures, hollowing them out", for your own context, which also define the condition of many Mexicans (perhaps 30-40%), but not for every one. For many of us, perhaps most of us, it is not only possible but in fact the only feasible option "to stop participating in the wage" system (with or without wages), explicitly refusing capitalism and replacing it by something else. This is our difference, our advantage.

      A third of Mexicans live in 120,000 rural villages, with less than 2,500 inhabitants. We have real community there. Yes, many of them have been infected by the virus of individualism and they suffer economic exploitation, political oppression, etc. but even in those cases we still have real communities. In all those communities, the meeting hall is the main and usually the best building of the village. In most of them particularly in Indian communities, People's Assemblies are the supreme authority.

Let me give you examples with your list:

      1. "Form a Neighborhood Association". We have them, in every village and also in our popular barrios in the cities.

      2. "Form an Employees's Association". We have thousands of them, operating regularly.

      3. "Form a Cooperative Housing Association". 60% of the houses now existing in Mexico have been built by the people themselves. In most cases, it was a cooperative endeavor: a group of people occupied the land, legally or illegally, organized the construction of houses, services, etc.

      4. "Build a Meeting Hall". We have them.

      5. "Do not deposit your money in corporate banks". We neither have much money nor cooperative banks. But we have created its equivalent: more than 3000 cooperatives which operate like banks for small groups of people.

      6. "Set up local currencies". We are having a thousand different forms of this system.

      7. "Do not fall into debt". We are healing from this addiction, promoted by the government for several decades.

      8. "Get control over union pension funds". No hope in the big unions, still controlled. But the movement is there.

      9. "Personal bankruptcy". It is not an option for us, given our current laws. But a movement called El Barzon, with a million members, had been challenging the banking system and the government, to avoid paying debts after the financial disaster of 1995. This movement changed the whole picture.

      10. "Do not become a boss". We do not really suffer the disease: for most of us it was never a real possibility. (The kind of boss you are talking about. We have a different definition of authority).

      11. "Don't wear a suit". Not our case.

      12. "Do not work hard at our jobs". This is an old strategy here, spontaneously adopted by millions, since the Colonial period.

      13. "Ridicule businessmen, etc." A generalized practice here, well embedded in traditions.

      14. "Don't cooperate with the police". Again, a generalized practice.

      15. "Leave school as soon as possible". See later.       17. "Engage in intensive self-education". See later: we are escaping all forms of "education". (Education and capitalism are twins).

      18. "Support the Home Schooling Movement". Home schooling can be even worse than public or private schooling. See later.

      19. "Reject credentialism and certification". Part of our political campaign.

      20. "Reject mainstream divisions of social knowledge". Part of our practice.

      21. "Don't go to college". The situation of the majority of us. Increasingly, we are conscious refuseniks.

      22. "Don't watch television or listen to the radio". I don't have TV at home or listen to the radio. But that is not a generalized situation and its is a very important point. Part of our current initiatives: to have our own, free radio stations, locally controlled. We already have many of them but there is a long way to go.

      23. "Don't buy into the culture industry or commodified entertainment". This is at the center of our current struggle.

      24. "Don't vote". Well: we are consciously using votes to dismantle our authoritarian system, but not surrendering to formal or representative democracy. Only to create legal and political "umbrellas" for our action.

      25. "Organize worker-owned businesses". That is the predominant condition for many of us. In many cases, we can no longer call our organizations "business", although some of them partially operate as such.

      26. "Do not play the lottery". The so called "crisis" is helping us to prevent that addiction.

      27. "Support orthomolecular medicine and the preventive health care movement". We are healing from health, avoiding any fundamentalism about specific medical schools (including traditional or alternative practices). More on this later.

      28. "Don't recycle". I can understand your point, about the business of recycling. But we are recycling by ourselves, our own garbage -in the process of eliminating it.

      29. "Start switching to solar/wind energy". Too expensive for us. We are basically reducing our reduced consumption of energy.

      30. "Start growing some of our own food". A generalized condition for many of us. (I produce most of my own food).

      31. "Community Land Trust". We already have its equivalent.

      32. ???

      33. "Don't join the military. Don't become a cop". It was an option for some peasants and unemployed. It is a very complex issue here. Any way, I agree with your argument, but I cannot discuss it here for our context.

      34. "Try to convert local business families to the democratic autonomous way of life". The "crisis", again, is helping in that process.

      35. "Shift our employment". No need, for most of us (we had not a salaried job); many previously employed are joining our ranks.

      36. "Recover the capacity for self-defense". We have it, in most villages and many urban barrios.

Some footnotes:

      Wages: in the 70's, for the debates in Mexico and Latin America, we (a few friends of mine and myself) felt the need to demonstrate how most of the people, in our societies, were exploited by capital even if they had not a wage relation. I think that you will agree with that. The argument was very useful for us, to understand capitalism as a "social factory" and to avoid some prejudices and distortions of many Marxists. Dropping-out: I think that I understand well your point. But we are drop-outs - from the school, jobs, wages, etc. After claiming for them, for many years, we transformed ourselves in refuseniks, enjoying that condition and using it for our struggle against capitalism.

      Social movements: I agree with your view about the so called "New social movements". The very category of "social movement" needs a complete overhaul. But I am still using the term to allude to the current convergence of independent grassroots initiatives, now organizing wide coalitions of discontents. (We need new words, you are absolutely right. We are also generating them - in Spanish, of course!. Hopefully, we will be able to discuss later this fundamental question and to examine our different "dictionaries"...).

      I have been trying, going point by point, to tell you how much we share most of your views. At the same time, I want to tell you that our current struggle is following a very different path, that cannot be assimilated to yours. I am convinced that the difference does not come from a different orientation or purpose, but from a different context. I am also convinced that we are in the same struggle and that, in fact, our different strategies are clearly complementary. Perhaps none of them can succeed without the other. In my view, your strategy is highly pertinent for what we call the social minorities in the world, the One/Third World if it is to be called something, including the social majorities in the industrialized countries and wide minorities in the other countries. We think that our strategy applies for the Two/Thirds World, the world of the social majorities -a minority in countries like the US, a majority in our countries.

      I am sending to you, as an Annex, some recent articles of mine, that can clarify for you our position:

      1. "The Zapatistas and People's Power" / published in Capital & Class, Summer 1999, 68, pp. 153-182.

      2. "Re-embedding Food in Agriculture"/ published in Culture and Agriculture, Winter 1994, 48, pp. 2-13.

      3. Draft of a talk in the panel "Social Praxis in the Post-Developmental Era", Towards Post-Developmentalism? - A Search for Alternatives, Conference at Harvard Law School, April 18, 1998.

      4. Draft of a talk in the Conference "Global Futures", The Hague, 1997. (A speculation about the year 2020).

      You will find the same ideas -and even the same phrases- in these four different texts. Perhaps you can take a quick glance at them to see how much we share the same spirit and also to understand our differences.

      I cannot send to you copies of two recent books, which describe, with a different language, for a different audience, what we are trying to do. One is: G.Esteva, with Madhu S. Prakash, Grassroots Postmodernism - Remaking the Soil of Cultures, London: Zed Books, 1998. The other: M. S. Prakash and G. Esteva, Escaping Education -Learning as Living at the Grassroots, New York: Lang, 1998. Perhaps you can take a glance at them in a library. If you are interested, I can also give to you many references in English about the Zapatistas and different aspects or elements of our ideas. (Those two books have plenty of them).

      I have been using the first person plural several times in this letter. Who are we? Sometimes, it is a cultural we (like we Black people, we men or women, etc.), applied to what I call "the social majorities", the Two/Thirds World. Some other times, it alludes to the "movement" (I am not happy with the term) emerging in Mexico after the Zapatista uprising, which changed the situation in my country. But there is also another use for the "We". I live in a small Indian village, in the South of Mexico. For the last 30 years, I have been involved in grassroots initiatives, basically with Indians, peasants and "urban marginal" (after trying to be a guerrillero in the 60's, a Marxist, etc.). I have been an advisor to the Zapatistas, in their negotiations with the government. During the last two years, I have been part of a group of "organizations" and "webs" (NGOs, grassroots organizations, etc.) who took the initiative of articulating the agenda of the "civil society", to define our political project. For more than a year, 40 people came together, for 10 hours, every week, to examine the situation and to articulate a proposal. We listened to the views of around 200 of the best "experts", leaders, etc. of Mexico. Our initiative was nourished with the experiences and ideas of many groups, all over the country, with whom we have a close relation. On November, we finally produced a long document, that is now being discussed among hundreds of grassroots organizations, in the whole country. With such feedback, we will produce a new document next May -and a book, that will be more specific about the proposal and will include a directory of all the people and "organizations" that may actively support every aspect of the proposal (they will be the "resources" for any one interested in advancing the proposal in local contexts). On August, after the circus of our elections (President and most of the Congress) we will present our proposal in a big political event and we will immediately start its implementation - which isnothing but articulating in one direction the current effort of thousands and perhaps millions of people. These are our hopes. As part of that group, I am using the "We" to allude to this specific group of social activists and practitioners and ordinary men and women now involved in a struggle...that I think is also your struggle. (I am not sending to you the document that we already have, because it is only in Spanish).

      I must stop now, this long letter. I hope that you will find in it my real, profound, passionate interest in your work. I did really enjoyed reading your pamphlet. It was a delight. It clearly enriched my/our own reflections. I am very interested in opening a conversation with you and to know more about your activities. (By the way: do you have the text of the pamphlet in your computer? If you have it, and you can send it to me by e-mail, I would love to share it with many friends... I don't have e-mail at home, since we don't have phone in the village where I live. But I am using the facilities of one of our "organizations", in Oaxaca. You can send to me any correspondence to the address in this letter).

Un gran abrazo,
Gustavo Esteva
P.D. Do you have a second edition, mentioned in the first? We intend to translate your pamphlet, to publish it here. It will be better if we have the larger version, with bibliography. Esteva to Jared James, November 16, 1999.

e-mail: Gustavo Esteva <dialogos@terra.com.mx>

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