Material Life, Capitalism and Social Change
By: Raúl Zibechi
The greater part of the political analyses, with anti-systemic intentionality, are oriented to comprehending how the big multinational corporations and the whole capitalist economy function, the role that the nation-states play, and geopolitical power relations at the national, regional and global level; in sum, on the way in which the powerful dominate. We also count on a good fistful of studies about the social and political struggles of the popular sectors, from local struggles to the wider coalitions that they establish at a national and global level, and how these forms of action are changing throughout time.
One could say that a good part of these analyses and studies give an account of the reality of the system and of the different anti-systemic realities. Nevertheless, we have very few works about what Fernand Braudel calls the “material life,” which he also called “the ocean of daily life,” the kingdom of self-consumption, “the habitual, the routine,” the basic sphere of human life that in his opinion is the “great absence of history” (The Dynamic of Capitalism, Alianza). And, one would have to add, the great absence in revolutionary theories and in emancipatory proposals.
As we know, Braudel defined three spheres: the material life, which is the kingdom of use value; the economic life or market economy, dominated by the exchanges and exchange value, and on top of both capitalism or the anti-market, “where big predators forage and the law of the jungle reigns.” In this peculiar view of the world the State does nothing but aid capitalism and is antithetical to the market economy, as Immanuel Wallerstein remembers.
To complete the analysis, one has to repeat with Braudel that capitalism sinks its roots in the material life but never penetrates it. The accumulation of capital is basically produced in the sphere of the monopolies where the market doesn’t function, not in the material life and not in the economic life. It is certain that the upper strata is supported in the lower (strata), on which they also depend, but it’s not less certain that daily or material life is relatively autonomous and is never completely subordinated to the sphere of accumulation.
The interest and actuality of Braudel’s way of looking consists of the idea that the anti-systemic struggle is basically anchored in the material life and, in some way, in the economic life, but cannot be supported in the spheres of capitalism, be they the corporations or the states. The enormous power of the current anti-systemic territorial movements, the rural as much as the urban, is that they collectively organize the ocean of material life, and they are related from that place to the economic life, the markets, and from there they resist capital and the state.
It’s even in the big cities. Experiences of this type teem in the heart of a mega-city like Buenos Aires, which can also be found in many other Latin American cities (see cipamericas) and, of course, abound in rural zones. A broad network of spaces (outdoor restaurants, popular eateries, health centers, popular primary and high schools, women’s centers, work groups, communications media) give a collective form to the material life of the poorest, converting daily life into spaces of resistance but also as an alternative to the system.
In that way “the routine,” “the daily,” acquire a new sense. The popular organizations, at least those that are not limited to living off of the material life, working for organizing self-consumption beyond the family space. Above all, they recommend that within that space of autonomy that is daily life it be the most integral (complete) possible, which encompasses not only urgent necessities like food, which is the ground where the Argentine piquetero movement began to flourish, but also that expands to areas like la education and health, women’s dignity, children’s games and the organs of decision-making, like assemblies.
Organizing the material life, to deepen collective and communitarian consciousness, is to politicize it and to give it more autonomy to face the other spheres, very in particular in front of the multi-nationals and the states. That also happens by providing it with organs for adopting decisions and making them comply, for defending themselves in front of the other spheres; in other words, organs of power. When the material life organizes as anti-systemic movements, the assemblies fulfill that function.
How do they stand up to the monopoly capitalists? In the case that I comment on, the movements of the villas de Buenos Aires, recuperate what they need through direct action. To get medications for their health centers, they do pickets in front of the big pharmaceutical distributors, impeding the exit and entry of trucks; the same for getting food from the municipio or the city government. They got the camera that a community television uses by taking it from a five-star hotel; and so with everything.
Is it possible to revolutionize society from the material or daily life? It depends on the concept of revolution that each one manages. The material life is, among many other things, the space of the common people, which can limit or give wings to capitalism. Other spaces don’t exist where something different is able to be born and to grow than the world of accumulation. Things viewed like that, social change is a systematic way of removing making the material life less dependent on capitalism.
A new and different world cannot be born in any other stratum. I don’t mean that the material/daily life does not contain oppression, like machismo. One can only construct the new from relations seated in use value, and ordered by the common people. Doing it from other spaces is like reproducing domination or installing a new dominant class.
Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada
Translation: Chiapas Support Committee
Friday, May 31, 2013