Social Change and Building the Ties That Bind

“The question of power is not resolved by taking the government palace, which is easy and has been done many times, but rather by the building of new social relations,” said João Pedro Stedile, coordinator of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST), at the 2005 World Social Forum. His comment reflects a new vision of social change, one that until recently was almost exclusively promoted by the Zapatistas of Chiapas, but that has been gaining traction in prominent sectors of Latin America’s new social movements.

September 4, 2007

“The question of power is not resolved by taking the government palace, which is easy and has been done many times, but rather by the building of new social relations,” said João Pedro Stedile, coordinator of Brazil’s Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST), at the 2005 World Social Forum. His comment reflects a new vision of social change, one that until recently was almost exclusively promoted by the Zapatistas of Chiapas, but that has been gaining traction in prominent sectors of Latin America’s new social movements.

Among the region’s most important social movements, the growing sense is that activists should concentrate on constructing social relations different from hegemonic ones, relations anchored in horizontality and reciprocity. Indigenous movements in Bolivia, Mexico and Ecuador, the landless in Brazil and the unemployed and recovered factory workers of Argentina all have something extremely important in common: their strength is born from the building of communitarian relations in the geographic territories they occupy.

Protestor with indigenous Aymara flag marches in Buenos Aires in solidarity with Bolivian movements. (Credit: Vera Bolkovic, CC 2.0)

These movements have achieved something quite simple, yet utterly profound: they occupy territories, defend them, and within these spaces create new social relations. This new “territoriality” exercised by the movements distinguishes them from older ones and from their counterparts of the First World, and it is what has allowed them to reverse neoliberalism’s strategic defeat of the workers’ movement. Their territories are spaces of self-organization and power, in which new ways of organizing society are being collectively constructed. This territoriality of movements first emerged in campesino and rural indigenous areas, but in recent years has spread to big cities—Buenos Aires, Caracas, El Alto and others. Unlike the previous worker and campesino movements—in which the indigenous were subsumed—today’s movements are promoting a new pattern of organizing geographic space.1 Land is no longer a mere factor of production. Rather, it is an imagined and physical space upon which an alternative social organization is constructed through new social practices and relations.

The movements are beginning to convert their spaces of resistance into alternatives to the dominant system through two simultaneous processes: territoriality provides room for survival and social-political action, and in doing so, allows for the construction of non-capitalist social relations within those spaces. The novelty in all this is that in providing for health, education, and livelihood, as well as how these goods are distributed, the movements themselves are not reproducing capitalist patterns. Infact, in many of those undertakings, they have shown a penchant for questioning inherited ways of doing things.

The Intimacy of Politics

The movements that have most forcefully challenged the system—indigenous, campesino, landless, homeless and piquetero (Argentina’s organized unemployed workers) groups, but also non-territorialized movements of women and youth—have adopted organizational forms based on the family. These are not nuclear families per se, but rather stable relations similar to those of extended kinship, in which the role of women is usually central. And by not mirroring the domineering role played by males, they engender new frameworks for relations with children and other families

The key role played by the family in the anti-systemic movements goes hand in hand with the reconfiguration of the space in which politics is exercised, the forms it takes, the channels it uses and even in the ends and means it invokes. In Bolivia’s indigenous popular movements, Aymara sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui notes, “politics is not so much defined in the streets as it is in the most intimate settings of the markets and domestic units, spaces of female protagonism par excellence.”2

Road Blockades

As the spaces for politics have shifted, so have the forms of struggle. In the past, workers’ movements revolved around their place of work and their most important form of struggle was the strike. The new movements, however, rely on the occupation of space and territory. Since they can’t hold traditional strikes, their principal form of struggle centers on the defense and control of territory and blocking the free circulation of goods. This explains why newer forms of struggle deploy road and highway blockades and occupations. Brazil’s landless, for instance, occupy lands, and if evicted, they build huge visible camps along the roadsides. Indigenous-based groups in Bolivia and Ecuador and the piqueteros in Argentina all use road blockades. While disposed workers in Argentina, left without the option to strike, have taken over factories left behind by their former bosses.

It is in this context that almost every Latin American country has movements of the “-less”: the jobless, landless, homeless; and every country has those “without”: without health care or education, without recognition of cultural difference, and without a language that enjoys equal status with the official tongue. These groups represent those marginalized by the system. They are invisible and heard only when they use non-institutional channels—mostly, roadblocks and occupations—which leads elites to view these new social subjects’ “subversive” interventions with disdain.

The MST marching on Brasília in 2005. (Credit: Agência Brasil, CC 2.5)

The roadblock (bloqueo for Bolivans, piquete for Argentines) plays a tremendously important role from the perspective of marginalized sectors. From the outside, a roadblock is a way of establishing a border, a break marking the territory controlled by the state and that controlled by the movements. In this sense, the blockade is as much a defensive footing as it is offensive: it not only creates a boundary, but it also impedes the effortless circulation of merchandise and state security forces. The most conflictive moment comes when the state moves to clear a blockade. (The state cannot allow a blockade to continue indefinitely, because this would signal its weakness or defeat.) In attempting to avoid these open confrontations, the movements employ various strategies: indigenous movements counter state forces by blocking many roads simultaneously and even changing from one road to another. In Argentina, the piqueteros opt for massive blockades, in which up to 10,000 people participate, dissuading a potentially bloody police intervention.

Indeed, road blockades in Argentina have increasingly replaced strikes as the principal form of struggle. Strikes began a precipitous decline after 1988: that year, 949 labor conflicts were registered, falling to 125 in 1997 and to 122 in 2003. But road blockades followed an inverse pattern: there were 140 in 1997, growing to 1,383 in 2001 and reaching their highest point in 2002 at 2,336. With the recovery from the economic crisis, labor conflicts in 2005 again reached 820, but even then roadblocks reached 1,179.3

It is telling to note how the union movement has begun incorporating the repertoires of action pioneered by the piqueteros. Since 2003, unions representing metalworkers, telephone company employees, subway workers and others have used road blockades. On some occasions they have even used escraches in front of the homes of their bosses and executives. Escraches are public denunciations of rapists, torturers, irresponsible fathers or abusive bosses by staging demonstrations in front of their home. It seems that the social dynamism born on the margins of society among the new social movements is gaining ground, even becoming central to social conflicts involving self-described “more serious” actors.

Learning in Movement

Territorial control by itself does not guarantee that alternatives to capitalism will arise in those spaces, so it is worth examining some of the ways new social relations are emerging. Power is a set of relations. In other words, social relations embody relationships of power within every aspect of collective human life. Realizing this, movements in Latin America are forging novel forms of social organization. Education, for instance, tends toward self-education. The educational space is not just the classroom, but also rather the entire community. Teaching is not the sole purview of the teachers; the community itself plays the role of instructor, and the children are instilled with a capacity for both learning and teaching. The entire movement is a space for self-education.

The movements have taken the education of their members and the formation of their leaders into their own hands. In several countries movements have created their own universities: the People’s and Indigenous Nationalities’ Intercultural University in Ecuador, which draws from the experience of the bilingual, intercultural education of the country’s nearly 3,000 indigenous-run schools; the Popular University of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, where thousands of militants are formed; the itinerant Campesino University of Colombia, which has ties to the communities and municipalities in resistance; and the Florestán Fernandes School linked to Brazil’s MST.

These are the best-known examples, but not the only ones. The Aymara popular movement spurred the founding of the Public University of El Alto (UPEA), which has been playing a notable role in Bolivia’s social struggles. Moreover, thousands of schools exist on our continent that in some form or another depend on or are involved with movements—the indigenous, the landless and, incipiently, the piqueteros. Movements have left behind the days when intellectuals distant from their struggles spoke in their name.

In Mexico, Zapatismo brought education to all the communities in resistance. In these communities, the teachers are called “promoters.” According to one teacher, the promoters’ educational criteria are driven by the idea that education “springs from the thought of peoples own experience” so that “the children consult town elders and, together, they go about constructing their own didactic material.” And there are no grades, as one reporter noted: “Those that don’t know do not get a zero. Instead, the entire group does not advance until everyone is on the same level, and no one is punished. Similarly, at the end of a course, the indigenous promoters organize a series of activities attended by families and parents, who are invited to note the progress of their children without assigning any grades.”4

The communities not only build the schools, but also choose the promoters. And as “tuition,” the children bring a chicken to feed the teachers. Without receiving a single subsidy from the state, the Zapatista Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Councils of Good Government) are in charge of providing teaching materials, and the teachers are fed and clothed by the community, which also pays for their transportation costs and their shoes. The entire educational process is guided by the principle: “Nobody educates anybody, nobody is educated alone.” In this way, the Zapatistas have eradicated the state as an educational presence from their schools.

The Cure is in the Movement

With regard to health, movements are seeking alternatives to the pharmaceutical monopoly through the recovery of lost knowledge and increasing their reliance on medicinal plants and alternative medicine. In these efforts, an attempt is made to avoid having the doctor become a power over the community. Indeed, an attempt is made to eliminate the traditionally passive, dependent “patient” relationship, with the hope that all community members can re-appropriate medical knowledge and play a role in health coverage that has been appropriated by the medical establishment, capital and the state.

In the autonomous piquetero groups of Argentina, health care follows similar principles to those of indigenous cultures. At a health workshop held during the 2003 “Autonomous January” gathering, participants concluded, “The cure is within the movement itself.” The Movement of Unemployed Workers (MTD) often has preventative health clinics in each neighborhood staffed by professionals offering their services in solidarity, as do several other piquetero groups. The MTD of Solano in Buenos Aires and Allén in Neuquén supply their members with free medicines and glasses at the expense of the organization. The case of the glasses demonstrates what can be accomplished outside of the market: thanks to the support of an optician, discarded frames or those that have gone out of style are paired with lenses bought at cost, and now all the movement’s members in need have glasses.5

MTD members also distribute medicinal herbs and have proposed taking it a step further: they want to develop homeopathic tinctures from plants cultivated in small community plots. Traditional medicines are reserved for more difficult health cases, but piquetero families are discovering the advantages of alternative medicine. In some neighborhoods they have begun working with Chinese therapies, such as acupuncture, and shops with local, native herbs have helped broaden the use of alternative cures.

Making More than a Living

How people make their livings in the territories signals a radical break from the industrial past. Popular sectors have erected a network of independently controlled forms of production for the first time in an urban space. Although these remain connected to and dependent on the market, vast sectors now control their forms and rhythms of production, and are no longer dominated by those of capital and its division of labor. The movements are seeking to diversify this production and make it more self-sustaining; they try to avoid using agro-toxins and other pollutants; they aim for all producers to know each part of the production process; they try to remold the technical divisions of labor and prevent them from creating social hierarchies, whether of gender or age, as well as other divisions—namely, those between manual labor and intellectual work, between those who give orders and those that obey them.

Graffiti in Rosario, Argentina: "Being poor is not a crime." (Credit: Pablo D. Flores, CC 2.5)

In these territories, the excluded assure their daily survival and no longer solely rely on the “refuse” and “leftovers” of consumerist societies. In many cases they are actively producing their own food and other products that they sell and barter. This passage from consumers to becoming producers represents one of the most significant accomplishments of the movements in recent decades for what it signifies in terms of autonomy and self-esteem. Moreover, this passage arose as a “natural” development, not by any plan or initiative made by leaders outside the movements.

Indeed, the internal relations of today’s movements are markedly different from the paternalistic and caudillistic relationships typical of union leaders from the 1950s like Juan Lechín in Bolivia and the Argentine Lorenzo Miguel, who supplanted their respective bases by deciding for the rank-and-file members of the movement. Now, it is the bases that decide, while the leaders the ones who merely execute those decisions. In some movements, such as the Federation of Neighborhood Assemblies (FEJUVE) in El Alto, Bolivia, the leaders are referred to as being “stuffed” (rellenos), a designation that reflects that anyone could take charge of the tasks of leadership, which is rotational, and places them in a lesser place of importance than the bases.

The case of Argentina’s Zanón ceramics factory, which was recovered by its workers, is a significant example of the innovative mechanisms employed to create new social relations. The difference between how the factory used to be run and its current self-management is stark. One longtime worker explains, “We were not allowed to leave or go to the bathroom. The pathways were marked out with different colors. Red indicated places where there were automatic machines and you had to move with caution, and blue was for places you could go. Back then, the kiln operators had to wear red clothes, electricians green and so forth. That way, they could tell if someone from another sector was somewhere they weren’t supposed to be. It was like a jail.”6 The managers were on the top floors of the factory in offices with glass windows so they could keep watch.

With the recovery of the factory, each sector has an assembly that names a coordinator, who takes charge of the production process and is changed with sorting out problems that arise. Every few months, the coordinators rotate out so that after a certain amount of time, every person in each sector has had a turn as coordinator. Each coordinator earns the same salary as the rest but has more responsibilities.

The factory is divided into 36 sectors with three eight-hour shifts. “Each Monday there is a coordinators’ meeting, and there they decide what each shift needs; problems of individual sectors are resolved and if they cannot be resolved, they are brought before a larger assembly of all the shifts. But the final product that goes to market is the responsibility of everyone, not just the person who makes it, because we all work on the same level, in conjunction with each other from the raw clay until the final ceramic piece is finished and put up for sale.”

Solidarity action at the Zanon factory. (Credit:

Once a month, the factory calls a daylong meeting in which every member participates. It is the most important meeting, and it covers all topics—from the type of footwear necessary for each section, to the purchases they will make, and external actions of solidarity in which they will participate. “The social, political and production aspects are all discussed. For each point, we have a specific order that we go in, and we will not adjourn the meeting until every last issue is agreed upon,” says one worker. The assembly established some rules for coexistence. Everyone must arrive at the factory 15 minutes before their shift begins and cannot leave until 15 minutes after it ends, so that they can find out or relay the news of the day to members of the next shift.

The above descriptions by and large represent tendencies, searches or attempts within social struggles of resistance. They are not destinations but flows—that is, movements; because, what is a movement if not “in movement”? As geographer Carlos Walter Porto Gonçalves writes, “Every social movement is composed by those that break the social inertia by moving. In other words, they change places, rejecting the place that they have been historically assigned under a determined social order, and they seek to broaden their spaces of expression.”7

Before us is a series of activities embedded in new kinds of social ties, which are a sort of barometer for measuring the degree to which movements pose an alternative. In other words, a movement’s anti-systemic qualities no longer stems only from the societal position of its members (as worker, campesino or student, etc.), nor from the programs or declarations it might put forth, nor even from the intensity of its mobilizations, but rather—yet not exclusively—from the extent to which it can build new and binding social ties.

The affirmation of difference, whether ethnic or gendered, which plays an important role in indigenous and women’s movements, is also being valorized by the old and the new poor. This is an essential aspect of the type of power constructed by the movements and extremely different from that of the dominant powers. If the logic of the workers’ movement was to negate difference (“externally” converting the worker into a citizen and “internally” reproducing a centralist and unitary logic of the capitalist state), today’s new social subjects reject both attitudes. Their de facto exclusion from citizenship seems to have induced them to build another world from the very place they occupy, without losing their respective particularities.

Producing without bosses, educating on the basis of collective self-education, caring for health by breaking the medical know-how monopoly, creating flexible organizations based on horizontality in decision-making and the rotation of leaders, all indicate that the reality before us is very different from that of the old union movements and parties of the left. Now the bases are communities where the true power of the movements’ rests. We can say, then, that the today’s movements are the best spaces for people’s experimentation with emancipatory practices. From this perspective, the most revolutionary act is the creation of new social relations within our territories—relations that are born out of struggle and sustained and expanded because of it.

1. Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, “A formaçao do MST no Brasil,” Vozes, Petrópolis. (Porto, 2001; Fernandes, 1996: 225-246)

2. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Bircholas (La Paz: Mama Huaco, 1996: 132).

3. Instituto Nueva Mayoría, Investigaciones Sociolaborales, (Instituto Nueva Mayoría, 2006).


5. Enero Autónomo (2003) en

6. Raúl Zibechi, “Otro mundo es posible: cerámicas Zanón,” IRC-Programa de las Américas,

7. Porto Gonçalves and Carlos Walter, Geo-grafías (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 2001).

Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina and adviser to several grassroots organizations.

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