The Paradox of Autonomism

On the 1st of January 1994, the Zapatista (EZLN) uprising began on the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Demanding justice for the indigenous Mayan people who lived in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, it was to become a beacon of hope to a generation that was told history was over. Armed with rifles, they occupied several towns in the province, including the capital San Cristóbal de las Casas, and shouted to the world “Ya Basta!”- Enough!

The Zapatistas were an army of the poorest people in North America, “the people of the colour of the earth” who were conquered by Spanish colonialism 500 years previously. Although their province produced half of Mexico’s hydro-electricity, had huge cattle ranches, exported the most coffee and was the second largest produce of oil in Mexico, the indigenous people were pushed off their lands by ranchers. Now NAFTA was to give multinational corporations more control over their resources whilst they lived in grinding poverty.

The spokesperson for the CCNI, the Indigenous People's Coordinating Committee, made explicit that this rebellion was part of a larger global resistance against neo-liberalism. In one of his many poetic communiqués from the Lacandon Jungle (when asked his real identity behind his balaclava and pipe), Subcommandante Marcos declared that
“We are you- Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the streets of the metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student.”
Over 150 people died during the short rising, before the Zapatistas withdrew to the jungles. They were surrounded by the Mexican Army and bombed from the air, but by that stage their rebellion had captured the imagination of Mexico and the world. In solidarity, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the Zocalo, the central square of Mexico City, forcing the government to abandon a crushing final offensive. Since 1994, an uneasy truce has existed, with the Zapatistas controlling 30 odd autonomous zones, encircled by thousands of troops.

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, was herself inspired by this uprising, claiming that the Zapatistas and Marcos were the,
“…theorists of a new movement, another way to think about power, resistance and globalisation. Zapatistas aren’t interested in overthrowing the state or naming their leader, Marcos, as president. If anything, they want less state power in their lives. The goal is not to win control but to seize and build autonomous spaces where democracy,
liberty and justice can thrive. Free spaces, born of reclaimed land, communal
agriculture, resistance to privatisation, will eventually create counter-powers to
the state simply by existing as alternatives”.
Peoples Global Action and the Rise of the Autonomists

Communicating with the outside world through the new medium of the internet, Marcos and the Zapatistas represented for many a new form of politics, a Post-Stalinist uprising that rejected the quest for state power. In January 1996, they invited ‘rebels from all continents’ to their jungle bases for an ‘encounter’, the ‘International Encuentro for Humanity against Neo-liberalism’- 3,000 people came.

This Encuentro was to found the basis for what was later to become the People’s Global Action, a loose federation of international groups inspired by the autonomous philosophy Zapatismo, which rejected state power and all traditional left wing parties in favour of ‘decentralised, anti-hierarchical horizontal’ networks. PGA formulated itself in Geneva in 1998, agreeing on five hallmarks for international affiliates. These were laid out on its website,
1. A very clear rejection of capitalism, imperialism and feudalism; all trade
agreements, institutions and governments that promote destructive globalisation;
2. We reject all forms and systems of domination and discrimination including,
but not limited to, patriarchy, racism and religious fundamentalism of all
creeds. We embrace the full dignity of all human beings.
3. A confrontational attitude, since we do not think that lobbying can have a
major impact in such biased and undemocratic organisations, in which
transnational capital is the only real policy-maker;
4. A call to direct action and civil disobedience, support for social movements'
struggles, advocating forms of resistance which maximize respect for life and
oppressed peoples' rights, as well as the construction of local alternatives to
global capitalism;
5.An organisational philosophy based on decentralisation and autonomy.
Within the movement, they became known as the autonomists; consciously anti-party activists who ranged from groups with their roots in the ecological anti road struggles of the 1990s such as Reclaim the Streets to Italian post-Marxist groups such as Ya Basta! This current was also joined by many different shades of the anarchist, libertarian and syndicalist traditions.

In some European countries, Autonomism as a political tradition had preceded the Zapatista uprising. George Katsiaficas details these groups in his book, in particular the German autonomen and the Italian autonomia, declaring that "Autonomy is the political form appropriate to post-modern societies"


Autonomists reject the modern nation state and also reject the need to organise in parties. Some call for an anarchistic revolution, some instead try to create autonomous zones ‘in the here and now’. They claim that any strategy that seeks to contest state power will lead to authoritarian hierarchy. They also reject the Marxist strategy of overthrowing the capitalist state and replacing it with a worker’s one, claiming that this will lead to Stalinist dictatorship. The philosophy is best summed up by the title of a book by British autonomist John Holloway- Change the World without taking power- the Meaning of Revolution Today. However, this strategy of refusing to take power has led to some real problems for the movement.

The Zapatista rebellion was forced by circumstance to begin negotiations with the powerful Mexican state- about 30 “autonomous zones” are still surrounded by the Mexican army. They are increasingly reliant on support from progressive NGOs and international solidarity groups, as documented by Kingsnorth (2003) in the chapter ‘A Crack in History’. However, in the rest of the country, the struggle of the Zapatistas has inspired hundreds of thousands of people. In 2001 they led a march on Mexico City, the Zapatour, which saw huge crowds support them in every town and city along the way. However, they refused to lead a movement against the Mexican state, with Marcos claiming that each group must find their own way. Interviewed by the New Left Review, he explains that during the Zapatour, “in every town square we told people: ‘We have not come to lead you, we have not come to tell you what to do, but to ask for your help’

There was verbal support but no national political co-ordination with other struggles, such as those of strikers in the maquiladoras in the Northern Provinces or the year long occupation of the UNAM University in Mexico City, involving at its height a quarter of a million students. Eschewing any ‘centralised’ decision making, each group was left to “do their own thing”, autonomously and independently. In subsequent negotiations with the Mexican state, the Zapatista uprising seemed to become less of a global struggle against capitalism than an attempt to enshrine certain rights (the San Andres accords agreed in 1996) for Mexico’s indigenous minorities. These are still to be granted.

In Argentina, the huge wave of factory occupations and popular neighbourhood assemblies against IMF austerity plans that began in December 2001 was outmaneuvered by politicians of the old political order- they called an election in 2003. Naomi Klein notes “that some autonomists turned not having a plan into its own religion: so wary were they of cooptation that any proposal to move from protest to policy was immediately suspect.” As the election process gained momentum, she later notes that the refusal to contest the political arena led to a deflation of the mass movement from below,
“People weren't able to vote for the sentiment behind December 19 and 20, either by casting a ballot or boycotting but demanding deeper democratic reforms, since no concrete platform or political structure emerged from those early, heady discussions. They thus left the legitimacy of the elections dangerously uncontested, and the dream of a new kind of democracy utterly unrepresented.”
The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Many critics of autonomism point to what radical feminist Jo Freeman called the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’- the domination of supposed horizontal non-leadership groups by informal cliques and charismatic, movement ‘stars’.

Autonomism claims that all political parties are undemocratic and elitist. However, the alternative loose and spontaneous structures the autonomists propose do not have internal elected leaderships or democratic procedures that vote on agreed positions. Often, decision-making is not made by a collective majority vote, but on a consensual basis. Although this is supposed to guarantee the rights of minority positions, it also gives them great power to water down controversial demands or obfuscate around important political choices indefinitely. Responsibility to implement these ‘consensual’ decisions is then often blurred in the absence of accountable, elected positions (which is essentially what is meant by leadership by most political parties).

Instead, the autonomous groups are dominated by informal cliques of friends or
in-groups, where those who speak best (or loudest) carry the arguments. Oftentimes those who most loudly denounce the role of political parties can support a sectarian and domineering anti-political culture, which can inhibit rather than develop the wider movement.

Freeman observed these processes at work in the radical feminist milieu in the late 60s and early 70s.
“To strive for a 'structureless' group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an 'objective' news story, 'value-free' social science or a 'free' economy. A 'laissez-faire' group is about as realistic as a 'laissez-faire' society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of 'structurelessness' does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones… An unstructured group always has an informal, or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites.”
Freeman deduces that this tyranny of structureless does not negate power and leadership within autonomist groups but cloaks it. She draws an interesting parallel with some of the workings of early liberal economic theory,
Similarly, 'laissez-faire' philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus 'structurelessness' becomes a way of masking power, and within the [women's] movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal.
Social Movements and Leadership

In the introduction to Leadership and Social Movements, a compilation of essays that examine the tensions between political organisations and movements, Colin Barker observes that
Into libertarianism were woven two parallel strands: a suspicion of ‘leadership’ and a celebration of ‘spontaneity’… Leadership has been identified, for example, with monopolisation of decision making in groups, or with domination over a group (Weber’s Herrschaft). In response, some activists reject the very notion of leadership entirely. Yet they leave unresolved paradoxes- to say we don’t need leaders is itself to offer a lead.
Many autonomist ‘thought leaders’ present the idea of political leadership within the movement as structurally bureaucratic, an authoritarian Leninist or reformist vanguard in waiting. Instead, supposed non-hierarchical, ‘spontaneous’ grassroots structures are the organisational principle, although as Barker points out, this
… ignores Gramsci’s observation (1971: 196) that pure spontaneity never exists, for there are always leaders and initiators, even if many remain nameless figures who leave few traces in historical records.
Barker defends the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s conception of activists as ‘organic intellectuals’ within movements, who learn to give a lead by trial and error. He sees them as ‘technicians or artists of protest’, who have the crucial function of proposing appropriate action at key moments of decision. Organising is comparable to a craft, with a host of practical skills that are ‘transmissible by apprenticeship’, such as writing, public speaking, mobilising networks, designing posters, leaflets and websites. Organisers must judge how to allocate scarce resources, how to form alliances with other groups, how to maintain morale and commitment within a group in times of difficulty. Tactically, they must learn to recognise their opponent’s weak points and succeed in winning tangible victories or demands. It is a combination of these skills that make up what Barker refers to as leadership within a movement, that answers the eternal question famously posed by Lenin- ‘What is to be done?”. He concludes,
For collective images and ideas, projects, forms of action and organisation to emerge, someone must propose them. It is here that the issue of leadership arises. Leadership in movements consists in proposing to these differentiated entities how they should and can identify themselves and act together. Without such proposals, and any assent they receive, movements do not exist, collective identity is not formed, collective action does not occur. The terms ‘leadership’ and ‘social movement’ are inseparably interconnected.
Dual Power- The Paradox of Autonomism

The strategic problems of modern Autonomism in Argentina and Chiapas find historical parallels in the events of the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, in response to Franco’s attempt to overthrow the Republic with a fascist army, workers set up their own collectives, militias and councils- the city of Barcelona and the surrounding province were largely under workers control, portrayed memorably in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. The main force in this region was the syndicalist union, the CNT, which was the biggest anarchist movement in the world.

Some modern autonomists blame the CNT leadership for apolitical syndicalism- a belief that fighting through the trade unions whilst ignoring the need for political organisation is enough to change society. Here is an unspoken paradox that raises the tyranny of structurelessness- how did an anarchist organisation have leaders, and why were they unaccountable to their membership and unrecallable?

In the rest of Spain, there were many parties who were against Franco but in favour of keeping a capitalist system. They argued that to attempt a revolutionary transformation of society would divide anti fascist forces. The CNT refused to ‘lead’ a revolution from below, eventually joining with reformist and Stalinist parties in a Popular Front unity government. This government then began to smash the militias and the collectivised factories, murdering thousands of anarchist and socialist revolutionaries who wanted a total break from capitalism.

Marxists argue that the crises of the system have historically produced the possibilities for revolution such as Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936, and to a lesser extent, Argentina’s IMF crisis. For a brief time, there is a situation of dual power, where new popular forms of democracy such as workers councils challenge the hegemony of the state and of the capitalist economy. History has proven that nation states will not tolerate the autonomous independence of these organs of dual power for long, and will crush them region by region. It is here that Marxists claim that a centralised co-ordinating national network- a revolutionary party- is needed to challenge the capitalist state and replace it with a new democracy, a ‘socialism from below’ based on the popular assemblies and councils in the community and workplace. Socialist strategy within the movement asks important questions about the agency of change (class or multitude), the need for alternative parties to the Social Liberalism of the reformists, and has a vision of a democratically, planned economy in opposition to capitalism.

Joe Carolan,
Socialist Aotearoa.


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