Elections and the powers from below

By: Raúl Zibechi

In recent decades the political culture of the left converted elections into the principal barometer of its success or failure, of advances or setbacks. In fact, the electoral conjuncture became the axis of political action of the lefts, in most of the world.

A new political reality, since not so distant times the electoral question occupied one part of the energies and was considered a complement to the main work, which revolved around organizing the popular sectors.

What’s certain is that electoral participation was articulated as the first step in the integration into the institutions of the political system (capitalist). That process destroyed popular organizing, weakening to the extreme the ability of those below to directly resist (not through their representatives) systemic oppression.

With the years, politics from below began to turn on what the leaders decided and did. A small group of deputies and senators, assisted by dozens of functionaries paid with public monies, were displacing la participation of grass roots militants.

In my country, Uruguay, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) achieved having before the 1973 State coup more than 500 grassroots committees just in Montevideo. There, militants gathered from the different parties that made up the coalition, but also independents and neighbors. In the first elections in which it participated (1971), one of every three or four voters was organized in those committees.

Now the reality is that almost no grassroots committees exist and everything is decided at the top, made up of people that have made a career in state institutions. Only a fistful of committees reactivated during the electoral campaign, to later be submerged in a long nap until the next election.

In parallel, the institutionalization of the lefts and of the popular movements –added to the centrality of electoral participation– ended up dispersing the popular powers that those below had erected with such determination and that were the key vault of the resistances.

In the debate over elections I believe that it’s necessary to distinguish three completely different attitudes, or strategies.

Immanuel Wallerstein has defended the first one for some time: the popular sectors must protect themselves during the systemic storm in order to survive. In that sense, he proposes that reaching the government through legal means, as well as progressive social policies, can help the popular camp both to limit the damages resulting from conservative offenses and to avoid that ultra-right forces take state power.

This point of view seems reasonable, although I don’t agree, since I consider the social policies linked to “fighting poverty” as forms of counterinsurgency, based on the experience that exists in the Southern Cone of the continent. At the same time, reaching government office almost always implies administering the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. Who today remembers the experience the Greek Syriza? What consequences do we get from a government that promised the opposite?

It’s evident that being focused on that such and so leader committed “treason,” leads the debate to a dead end street, except that one thinks that things would have gone another way with different leaders. It isn’t only about errors; it’s the system.

The second attitude is hegemonic among the global lefts. The strategy would be more or less like this: there is no organized social base; the movements are very weak and almost non-existent, so that the only way to modify the so-called “correlation of forces” is to try to arrive in the government. This situation has proven to be fatal, even in case the lefts succeed in winning, as happened in Greece and Italy (if the remains of the Communist Party can be called the left).

The case is different in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. When Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez arrived in government through electoral means, powerful movements existed, organized and mobilized, especially in the first case. However, once in government they decided to strengthen the state apparatus and, therefore, they undertook actions to weaken the movements.

They are the most “advanced” state experiences, but today no autonomous anti-systemic movements exist in either country that maintain those governments. Those who support them, with exceptions, are social organizations coopted or created from above. On this point I propose distinguishing between movements (anchored in grassroots militancy) and organizations (bureaucracies financed by the States).

A variant of this attitude are those movements that, at a certain time, decide to enter into the electoral terrain. More often than not, and I believe that Mexico has a long experience in this direction, over the years the bases of the movements weaken, while the leaders end up imbedded in the state apparatus.

The third orientation is what the Indigenous Government Council impels, which in my opinion consists of taking advantage of the electoral process to connect with the popular sectors, for the purpose of impelling self-organization. They have said: it’s not about votes, much less positions, but rather about deepening efforts to change the world.

It seems evident to me that it’s not about an electoral campaign, or that Zapatismo has taken an electoral turn. It’s a proposal –that’s how I understand it and I can be wrong– that seeks to continue to construct in a situation of internal war, of genocide against those below, like that which Mexico has lived for almost a decade.

We’re dealing with a tactic that brings back the 20th century revolutionary experience for confronting the current storm, not using the weapons that the system offers us (polls and votes), but rather with their own weapons, like the organization of those below.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, June 11, 2017


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee




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