Movements of Resistance in the Americas

A proposed view of history

Much of Latin America won independence from Spain in the 19th century. All countries that were independent faced the same problem: the former imperial powers continued to control decisive military, financial, and propaganda might. How could the newly decolonized (or, in the case of indigenous nations, never decolonized) countries prevent a recolonization?

A proposed view of history

Much of Latin America won independence from Spain in the 19th century. All countries that were independent faced the same problem: the former imperial powers continued to control decisive military, financial, and propaganda might. How could the newly decolonized (or, in the case of indigenous nations, never decolonized) countries prevent a recolonization?

One possible interpretation of 20th century history is that the colonized countries took advantage of the European civil war that was WWI and WWII to get rid of their masters, who were too weak from fighting one another to suppress all of the revolts in the colonies. So did East Europe, the early ‘third world’, escape into the ‘second world’, to be followed decades later by many of the Asian, African, and Caribbean countries.

With so many countries ‘escaping’ from colonialism at the same time, a strategy for staying decolonized suggested itself: get help from other countries who are in the same situation but further along. Build strong nation-states, with internal unity and homogeneity to prevent divide and rule strategies. Build up heavy-industry and strong militaries. Get technical help, goods, services, and alliances, from advanced decolonized countries, notably the USSR. Without the imperial powers draining the resources, the country could accomplish all this and still enact the egalitarian reforms that colonies were not allowed– increasing literacy, redistributing land, preventing starvation and providing health care. In order to win independence in the first place, there was a long struggle, political and sometimes military, involving raising enough of the population in disobedience to make holding the country cost-ineffective for the colonizers. If the ‘independence strategists’ failed, they would see their countries ‘neocolonized’, with US installed military dictatorships of the kind suffered throughout Latin America and elsewhere.

Eventually, nearly all of the ‘independence strategists’ did fail, for various reasons: The nation states built unity and homogeneity by brutal suppression of numerically smaller ethnic groups and indigenous peoples that would eventually explode into civil wars. The heavy industry and military technology, if it was even possible, came at the expense of the agrarian programs so badly needed by the rural populations, and all-too-often at the expense of their basic rights. The fear, proved right time and time again, that allowing dissent would give the US an opening to exploit to overthrow an independent regime and install an obedient one, led to resented and authoritarian governments. And the help from the USSR often came to mean subordination to that country’s agenda or, perhaps worse, a still stronger pretext for US intervention, from which the USSR could not protect a country.

If the end of the Soviet Union meant ‘the end of history’ for some, in the form of the coming of ‘free markets and democracy’ to every corner of the world, it also meant, in a sense, the end of this strategy for resisting imperialism. Indeed, pronouncements of ‘the end of history’ weren’t limited to North American triumphalists. Jorge Castaneda, Fox’s current (embarrassing) foreign minister, wrote a book, published in 1993, called ‘utopia disarmed’, claiming that the Latin American Left was dead. Shortly after his book was published, the Zapatista uprising began.

A New Strategy

The EZLN and the work it has done in Chiapas is a showpiece of a different kind of anti-colonial strategy. There were threads of the Zapatistas’ approach throughout history, even when the older strategy was dominant. But it is a new approach, still being developed, in places like the World Social Forum and in localities all over the world. The strategy can be summarized as follows: Take whatever space you can, and make as many reforms as you can, without waiting for victory. Concentrate on political struggle, slowly and patiently organizing everyone in the locality. Embrace the diversity and do not seek to build a homogenous movement. Be explicitly democratic on a participatory, not a representative model. And for protection from the military strength of the imperial power, build international solidarity, including accompaniment, observation, and connections to dissidents in the rich countries. Movements developing this strategy include the Zapatistas, but also many others: the indigenous of Cauca, Colombia, the Worker’s Party in Brazil, the direct democracy movement in Argentina, the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, and the solidarity economic- movement that has quietly made major progress on many fronts, largely unnoticed in North America.

In this essay, I would like to describe some of the Latin American movements that are applying this strategy of resistance, and make some proposals that I believe are compatible with it.

Solidarity Economics

The discussion of Solidarity Economics here is based on a discussion paper by the Latin American Confederation of Cooperatives and Worker’s Associations (COLACOT) in January 2002, called ‘Solidarity Economics: an alternative for development, equity, social justice, and peace in Colombia’. ( This paper sets out some of the principles of solidarity economics:

1) Solidarity, cooperation, and democracy as norms that all people and organizations have to follow if they are to be a part of the Solidarity Economy.
2) The supremacy of labor over capital. Labor is the core of economic life and human development. It is to be rescued from the slavery of capital and returned to its proper dignity.
3) Worker’s association as the fundamental basis of the organization of enterprises, production, and the economy in general. This is to be substituted for the waged work of capitalism that is the principal cause of social disparities, the unjust distribution of wealth, poverty, and social exclusion.
4) Social ownership of the means of production by the workers who, as direct producers, are owners and managers of the enterprise as a community of workers and beneficiaries of the work. This eliminates the exploitation of people by other people, of people by the state, and the cause of the class struggle itself.
5) Self-management as the best form of participation of workers in the management of enterprises, of the economy, and of society and the state. This eliminates marginalization and constructs and consolidates real democracy.
6) The supremacy of service, social welfare, and equity over individual accumulation, profit, and ‘added-value’

The cooperatives that make up the solidarity economic sector often arrive in that sector by interesting paths. The Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign visited some of these cooperatives in August 2001. They report on “4 factories where workers have been striking, supported by the union central (CUT), for years. Glassworkers, machine workers, plastic and toy producers have been occupying plants to prevent their owners from taking the last of the machinery out from anywhere from 1 to 5 years. They have developed a micro-economy based on mutual aid and innovation, raising chickens, rabbits and fish and running a restaurant even as they pressure the government and their employer to meet their demands.”

‘Economia Solidaria’ is not the only movement for an alternative to ‘savage capitalism’ that Latin America has produced. The projects of Brazilian social movements, from the militant Landless Peasant Movement (MST) to the Worker’s Party (PT), are showcases to a different economic approach.

The Movimento Sem Terra

The Landless Peasant’s Movement (MST) slogan is: “occupy, resist, rebuild.” This describes their method as well. In a country where 3% of landowners control 62% of arable land, and where 4 million peasant families lack land, and where there is more agricultural land than the continental US, the MST’s tactics seem both a moral and a practical necessity.

By occupying land, and holding it in spite of repression, and negotiating with the authorities, the MST has recovered land for 300,000 families, and has no intention of stopping. What they do on the land when they have it is usually to bring it back to life. MST members are experimenting with ‘agroecologia’, organic farming, and other more ecologically sound ways of managing land. Having won their land, the peasants could join the ‘solidarity economy’.

MST activists have been assassinated, and the movement faces predictable repression against it. The MST faces less repression and more negotiation in areas controlled by the Worker’s Party (PT) in Brazil, like the state of Rio Grande do Sul. But even here, relations between the MST and the governments are not always congenial. The relationship between the most militant parts of the movement and the most ‘institutional’ parts is uneasy here, as elsewhere, and here as elsewhere, bridging the gap would provide the strength and authenticity needed to advance social justice.

The Worker’s Party and the Participatory Budget

Quoting from the ‘Latin American Report on the WSF’ (
The Participatory Budget is the medium, whereby disposition to decentralize power and promote an active civic participation materializes. The decisions are no longer taken in the Ministry of Economy but in 497 municipalities distributed throughout the whole State. In turn, civic participation in those grassroots’ discussions has grown from 190,000 people that participated in the first assemblies 3 years ago to 380,000 in 2001, which represents an increase of exactly 100%. These grassroots assemblies must be rigorously informed of the accounts and expenses incurred by the executive, which has created a wider understanding of how the supposedly infinitely complicated economy and finances work.
The process works as follows. Citizens set priorities for a section of the municipal (or state) budget. Each citizen lists their first, second, and third priority. The amount allocated to budget items is calculated based on the weighted average of the priorities of the citizens. In this way, public spending is directly controlled by the citizens. The result is a budget that is genuinely reflective of people’s priorities and, consequently, different from most budgets.
Even outside of the participatory budget, the PT prioritizes a social agenda. Education receives 35% of state revenue in Rio Grande do Sul, the state where the PT rules, with 20,000 new teachers hired since their election, 1400 new classrooms, 135 new facilities and a new transport system. A new State University has been created. Health takes 10%. Housing takes a higher place on the agenda, and policing has changed, with attempts to treat crime as a social problem rather than one that can be solved by repression alone. Here, where they were given a chance, the people made decisions that improved the quality of life for all.

The Indigenous of Cauca, Colombia

The project of the indigenous of Cauca, organized in the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), shares important similarities with efforts in Brazil. It shares with the MST the successful land reform effort that happened by courageous peasants taking lands over and surviving the consequences. It shares with the PT the creation of a machinery of government that is participatory and responsive to the people.

The indigenous of Cauca and their project are described here ( The current phase of their 500-year struggle started in 1971 with the Paez of Toribio. They launched ‘Proyecto NASA’ in a secret meeting with two directives: land, and culture. In the first year of their occupations of land, between 800-1500 indigenous were murdered. By persisting in spite of this repression, they have won back most of the lands of Cauca. Cauca is also the only department in Colombia that has an elected, indigenous governor.

Their government is based on a system of consultations and participatory planning done over years at the local level. The unity they built at that level enabled them to take over the machinery of municipal government. From there, they moved on so that they now hold the governorship of the state as well. The strength of the process is that the elected officials are viewed, and treated, as servants of the people. The people, in their councils, have the authority to discipline or recall these officials. Day-to-day, Cauca is run on the Paez’s own models of justice, agriculture, and development.

Here, again, what movements have done is appropriate what they could (some of the machinery of government and some of the land) and enact reforms in a participatory manner. But here in Colombia, the site of a horrific civil war, they have paid a more terrible price for it than in most other places. The indigenous of Colombia have been hit hard by paramilitarism, attacked with a special vengeance for their determined resistance.

The Zapatista Movement in Chiapas, Mexico

The approach of the indigenous in Cauca is remarkably similar to the indigenous movement in Chiapas, Mexico. In Chiapas, too, the indigenous have established autonomous municipalities. The idea that the leaders are the servants of the community is enshrined in a principle that Zapatistas ‘mandar obedeciendo’, or ‘lead by obeying’.

Here, too, the presence of war and the fact that the Zapatistas have occasionally fought with (very few) weapons against paramilitaries and the Mexican Army has blinded many to the political nature of the movement. The Zapatistas, like the indigenous of Cauca, built their political support locality by locality, community by community, over years. It was 12 years between the beginnings of the Zapatista movement and the uprising of 1994.

On lands controlled by Zapatistas, there have been innumerable experiments in ecological management of lands, of organic production, of fair-trade marketing, of women’s cooperatives and of ‘economia solidaria’. The Zapatistas have also reached out to the indigenous all over Mexico, linking to the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) who adopted a program in 2001 to establish autonomous municipalities all over the country. The movement mobilized in March, 2001 to have a bill recognizing indigenous rights and culture– the Cocopa Law of 1996 that was part of the peace agreements– passed in Congress. The Congress gutted that bill and then passed it, and it is possible that the Supreme Court will strike down the gutted version of the bill.

One of the innovations of the Zapatista movement was their systematic deployment of international solidarity to protect them from the armed onslaught of the Mexican Army and its paramilitary auxiliaries. They did this by making alliances from the very beginning of the uprising with other movements all over the world, with local human rights groups, and by inviting international observers and establishing camps for these observers to see what is going on in Chiapas. The success of this solidarity strategy is a lesson for movements with the kinds of aspirations for basic rights, justice, and democracy that the Zapatistas have. ( is ZNet’s Chiapas watch)

Direct Democracy in Argentina

When the IMF and local elites team up to showcase their total incompetence and failure to deal with the problems of people, what often results is what’s called an ‘IMF riot’. In Argentina this phenomenon caused a deterioration of living conditions, poverty, and hunger that was so rapid and so widespread that the ‘riot’ resulted in people from the poorest to the middle classes taking to the streets, trashing banks, facing police repression, and overthrowing successive governments. Facing all this, the elites retreated, not knowing what else to do. They are now developing a plan to take back what they left behind. But in the meantime, Argentinians are not sitting back. Instead they have developed participatory forms of management to deal with day-to-day life now that their masters have run away.

One observer describes the evolution of the ‘people’s assemblies’ as follows:

“People’s Assemblies are becoming an important means of organization. In Buenos Aires proper, for example, while plenty of neighbourhoods do not have assemblies (often neighbourhoods with a strong political party presence), there are about 80 ‘people’s assemblies’, and still more in the outlying areas.

“The assemblies work like this. People were pissed off over the corilitos (restrictions on banking), so they started going out in the streets and banging pots. For the most part this wasn’t organized by any group, but when people heard pots banging they went out in the streets and joined them. After December 20th when they overthrew the De La Rua they continued to hold protests. People were able to find neighbors who were also upset due to the loud pot banging. From there people just started talking. It seems, then, that the assemblies were truly spontaneous. There were lots of organizers who took up working on them but they are not the project of any preexisting group. In fact there has been a lot of tension within the assemblies where they are trying to force out any leftist parties and potential leaders who might coopt the assembly movement…

“Each assembly is ‘autoconvacado’ meaning self convening. They generally have something like working groups which meet separately from the barrio (neighborhood) assembly. The working groups (again an English term that doesn’t directly translate), meet once a week and report back to the assembly. The assembly is where proposals for other assemblies to adopt are created. Basically the way it works is a barrio assembly with come up with a proposal. Usually to have a protest on this or that day, take some sort of action in solidarity with piqueteros, or to denounce neoliberalism and demand the appropriation of all foreign capital and investments in the country. The barrio then votes on it. People can vote three ways. Yes, No, or abstain. If the no’s win the the proposal is dropped. If the Abstains count for a large portion of the votes then it goes back to be reworked and can be presented next week. If the Yes’s win then it is adopted. Similar processes work at the local barrio assemblies, interbarrio’s, and the national. None of the proposals are binding. Votes are based on everybody in attendance not on a one assembly one vote system. It’s a rough majority system although to be honest it is in flux and nobody counts the votes very closely. In the interbarrio I saw people contest a vote. Basically they do that by yelling and getting upset. Then they redo the vote and the vote counters count more closely.”

Direct democracy in Argentina has reached workplaces as well. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis interviewed workers at a textile plant in December, 2001. After cutting pay aggressively from 100 pesos per week down to 2 pesos per week, the owners faced workers who could no longer afford to work. When the workers demanded a travel allowance, the owners left the plant and were nowhere to be found. Like the people in the assemblies, the workers occupied the plant and kept it going– paying the owner’s debts and developing a direct-democracy system of decision-making and remuneration– because they felt that the abandonment by elites left them with no alternative. When Klein suggested that the workers had created a ‘Marxist Utopia’, the interviewee, Cecilia Martinez, said this:

“I don’t know about Marxism. I don’t know about all that stuff. I’m here to defend my work, my family, the families of the 120 people who work here. The owners left us, yes. We didn’t throw them out. They left us. They’re supposed to be responsible to the workers, and they abandoned their responsibility. They abandoned us, yes. We were orphaned by our owners, the way children are abandoned. And there are children who look for their parents, but we don’t want our owners back. They were bad ‘parents’. Now they want to come back, and the government is helping them. Why is the government doing that? It’s not for the workers. If they come back, they’ll continue to exploit us. They want to come back to exploit us. That’s logical, I guess, that’s what owners do. But we don’t want to be exploited any more. We want to work, but not to be exploited like before.” (Klein and Lewis, video interview, 2002)

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela

The path of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ or ‘Chavismo’ is somewhat different from that of the other movements. It is different from them in several important ways. At the same time, it shares the attempt to expand the public sphere and democratize it, as well as the attempt to make what reforms are possible immediately, even while attempting to build and consolidate power.

Before the Bolivarian movement, Venezuela had an bi-partisan electoral system (called ‘partidocratic’ by some) in which power was shared between ‘Accion Democratica’ (AD) and the ‘COPEI’, the Christian Democratic Party. (Warning to US citizens: the rest of this paragraph will sound all too familiar.) Over time, the differences between these two parties became increasingly small. Abstention grew and grew. The poor increasingly felt that the electoral system had nothing to offer them as politicians abandoned their interests.

Corruption became endemic. In 1989, Venezuela underwent what was called the ‘Caracazo’. A sudden increase in transit fares, that were only a part of the neoliberal ‘opening’ of the country, resulted in severe rioting in Caracas. The riots were repressed brutally, by the army, and ended with many killed. Suppressing the riots had a profound effect on many soldiers, who were to become sympathetic to the Bolivarian movement.
These soldiers, including Chavez, attempted to overthrow the government in several coup attempts in the 1990s. These failed, and Chavez and others ended up in jail. The governments, however, were increasingly resented for their corruption on the one hand and their failure to protect the population from the havoc caused by the neoliberal opening on the other. When Chavez emerged from jail, he linked up with several other small but important leftist parties to form an electoral alliance that eventually displaced the entire ‘partidocratic’ machine to put the Bolivarians into power in 1998.

The reforms Chavez has enacted have been fairly mild, as many have emphasized. It is standard, liberal, social-democratic reforms like a land-reform that pays owners at market rates; attempts to reverse rural-urban migration by increasing rural health and education services; a new constitution recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples. These reforms, however, were popular enough to bring the movement success in repeated referenda and elections; and popular enough to bring enough pressure to bring Chavez back a day after he was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. ( is a good online source; see also Richard Gott ‘In the Shadow of the Liberator’ and Julie Buxton’s ‘Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela’).

Gregory Wilpert describes the strategic situation of Latin America’s social movements as follows:

“Based on what is happening in Venezuela now and on what has happened in Nicaragua, Chile, and Cuba, it would seem that any political movement that seeks to use the state as a means for redistributing a country’s wealth will be challenged on at least three fronts: the international political (mainly the U.S.), the domestic economic, and international economic front (the domestic political front having been conquered by electoral means, in the case of Venezuela and Chile, by insurrectional means in the case of Cuba and Nicaragua).

While it is possible for progressive forces to win significant national political power (the next sign of hope being Brazil), progressives have yet to figure out how to deal with the other three fronts. Chavez has primarily dealt with them through confrontation. This approach, in light of the business strikes, the subsequent coup attempt, and the declining economic condition, is no longer viable. Sheer national political force, which Chavez has in spades, is not enough to combat the international political (U.S.) and the domestic and international economic opposition.”

( Wilpert goes on to suggest that the solution could be for the Bolivarian movement to adopt a more emphatically participatory approach, the way the PT and other movements have. Those who work in Chavez’s government have conceded that the importance of Chavez himself, and leadership from the state, are singular weaknesses of the movement.

Participatory Economics

One effort that I believe is compatible with the above strategy is the participatory-economic model. The COLACOT report offers the principles of solidarity economics as “the conceptual, doctrinal, and ideological guide that will keep us from returning to savage capitalism and preventing our cooperatives and associative solidaritous enterprises from losing their basic nature and becoming simple instruments of neoliberalism.” The participatory economic model offers institutional forms that can help in this effort.

The institutions of participatory economics are succinctly described in Michael Albert’s testimony at the WSF itself: and described at more length at

Council Democracy: Workers councils for team, divisions, workplaces, whole industries and the economy. Consumer councils for living units, neighborhoods, counties, cities, states, and countries.

Balanced Job Complexes: This is best illustrated by means of an example. Imagine a health clinic run on participatory-economic principles, with a staff of two. Under a hierarchical division of labor, you might have one person be the doctor, interacting with patients, and also doing finances and budgets, bookkeeping, and decision making. The other person would clean up, answer the phone, and sort the mail. This is hierarchical because one person has all of the conceptual, empowering tasks, and one person has all of the rote, disempowering labour.

Under balanced job complexes, each person does a balanced amount of rote and conceptual labour. This means that the workforce in a participatory economy is much more skilled. Doctors and bookkeepers clean bedpans and sort mail, and the only way to accomplish this is to have more people with skills, and no one monopolizing skills.

When, at the World Social Forum, we proposed balanced job complexes to one of the members of the Worker’s Party who was instrumental in setting up the participatory budget process, he seemed unsurprised. He said ‘of course, a balance of manual and intellectual labour. That’s what Che Guevara talked about.’

Remuneration for Effort: “Workers are entitled to a share of output in accord with the effort they expend in useful labors that help to fulfill human needs and to develop human capacities. Effort is measured by co-workers using procedures universally acceptable in society and also locally agreeable in each workplace.” This combines with balanced job complexes to create a situation in which the only way to get paid more is by working more, or working at less pleasurable and empowering tasks, than the average, balanced job complex in the economy.

Participatory Planning: Participatory planning is an alternative to markets and to central or state planning. Neoliberalism says cut the state down to police functions alone, and let markets control every aspect of society. Implicit in this argument is that the only alternative to the untrammeled destruction of markets is an expansion of the role of the state, itself no slouch in wreaking violence and destruction. Sensible reformers argue for democratization of the state to occur simultaneously with its expansion. This is the idea motivating the Worker’s Party with its participatory budget process: expand state intervention into the economy, but with every step of expansion, increase the participation of the citizenry in setting priorities and making decisions. It is also the idea of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, that has had referenda to ratify its constitutional changes and its reform program.

Participatory planning takes this idea to its logical conclusion. In Michael Albert’s words:

“Envision each workplace with a council, and likewise each community. Envision councils as well for larger units – for neighborhoods, counties, states, industries – and for smaller ones too, for parts of workplaces, work groups, divisions, and so on. Envision actors individually and also collectively in their councils proposing what they wish to produce and consume, and then also assume there is a communication system that brings such information to universal attention, and that does so in appropriate ways.

“Now imagine that each actor utilizes the information from all others, massaged into useful form by appropriate institutions (with balanced job complexes, of course) to adapt their own proposals. Imagine that individuals and units can get from this allocation system true indicators of real and full social costs and benefits – valid prices – and also qualitative information as needed. The planning process is then a negotiation between actors that whittles demands and elevates supplies into a match with one another, into a plan, but that does so by a cooperative process in which each actor – individual and collective – voices their preferences, evaluates the preferences of others, and refines their choices in line with budgets and desires, until there is a meshing.”

Worker’s and consumers, without the state intervening, use the participatory planning process to create a plan for the entire economy that is more efficient and democratic than any market or bureaucratic central plan could be.


I believe the compatibility of the participatory- economic model with the approaches of the Latin American social movements described above is clear, even from the brief sketches provided. I also believe that participatory economics can provide some solutions to help these movements “keep… from returning to savage capitalism and preventing our cooperatives and associative solidaritous enterprises from losing their basic nature and becoming simple instruments of neoliberalism.”

One simple example is the adoption of balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort, and council democracy internally to solidarity economic enterprises. There are enterprises in North America, including the South End Press, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, and Mondragon bookstore café that have done this. At least some solidarity economic cooperatives in Latin America are operating on such principles, particularly council democracy, including the Bruckman textile plant mentioned. Adoption of balanced job complexes involves the transfer of skills, what Latin American movements call ‘capacitacion’, and an explicit ‘letting go’ by those who, in the current cooperatives, now control more skills and empowering tasks. It would be demanding, but if successful, it would provide an institutional check against the return of corporate hierarchies and ‘savage capitalism’.

A more complex example is the adoption of participatory planning between cooperatives. This would be an extremely exciting development, even if only at a very preliminary, experimental level. In the absence of such a process, and in the absence of the inferior alternative to such a process (a central plan), these wonderful, self-managed solidarity-economic cooperatives are placed in the horrible position of having to compete with one another in a market. The basic logic of markets will create a constant pressure to ignore the social effects of economic activity, to cut costs and exploit the work-force, and all of the other anti-social ills critics of markets know so well. The solidarity economic movement has struggled against this logic, successfully. Participatory planning offers a chance to work according to a different logic altogether.

Imagine the cooperatives of the solidarity economic movement building a database of their productive capacities, their working circumstances, and their needs. Imagine each of these actors being able to see what the others could produce, and from there make production and consumption proposals that could be combined into a first draft plan for the ‘solidarity economy’. This plan could be evaluated again, until a final plan that was acceptable to all actors was reached. Even as an educational exercise, this would be highly worthy. As the beginnings of a participatory planning process for the solidarity economy, it would be extraordinary. Those of us who are proponents of participatory economics would be thrilled to join in any such effort, helping to develop software, educational materials and manuals of the participatory planning process, seminars, and so on. I can think of no way ‘parecon’ proponents would rather spend their time, in fact, since in return we could benefit from the wealth of experience the solidarity economic movement has developed over the years.

Other applications for movements in North America

Two quotes from North American activists. The first, from someone writing about the slice of life in the low-wage workforce that she experienced:

“Guilt, you may be thinking warily. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to feel? But guilt doesn’t go anywhere near far enough; the appropriate emotion is shame– shame at our own dependency, in this case, on the underpaid labor of others. When someone works for less pay than she can live on– when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently– then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor’, as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benfactor, to everyone else.” — Barbara Ehrenreich, ‘Nickel and Dimed’.

And the second, from a dedicated activist from the anti-capitalist globalization movement:
“It’s difficult to resist wondering if all the suffering I see as a medic is really worthwhile. Sure, it often radicalizes the victims, who tend to increase their commitment rather than shy away (it surely has the opposite effect on some, too). But in the end, is it achieving anything? There is some glory inherent in directly clashing with those who protect elites and elite interests, but it’s quite limited. Street fighting involves significant losses, and it distracts both activists and the public at large from the real issues of wealth and privilege which we need to address. (And we have trouble understanding why those marching under the anti-capitalist globalization banner aren’t more diversely representative of the populace, as we misdirect our energy against the guardians of elites instead of elites themselves, and pay a price so many cannot afford.)

Not so glorious is the job of actually articulating complex viewpoints on topics like political economy and global trade — not in journals or position papers, but in social settings where we can influence and learn from the perspectives of people outside our normal milieu. Far less spectacular than the street battle is the comparatively invisible conflict of working day in and day out to build the institutions which make real-world economic change in our communities and between societies.

If we can take the courage that so many of us carry into the streets each time a summit of world leaders/corporate delegates is held, and channel it toward work that really contributes to changing the world in tangible ways, then we will be onto something. But if our protest movement remains just that — a movement based on successive demonstrations but little change in people’s economic lives — we’ll accomplish little more than modest consciousness raising. If we can fight capitalism and capitalist globalization at the same time, why focus primarily on the latter and isolate ourselves from the people most in need of change?” — Brian Dominick, New Politics vol. 8, no. 4 (

There are several strong anti-poverty organizations who are concentrating on fighting for the poor here in North America. Groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (, who advocate for immigrants, homeless, and welfare recipients through ‘direct action casework’, use disruption and direct action to wring small reforms out of authorities on behalf of poor people every day. They are doing so despite being betrayed by the unions ( There are many ongoing efforts to organize immigrant workers and to organize boycotts against the corporations that exploit these workers. In efforts like these, efforts to win reforms and empower those that have been neglected and disempowered by everyone, including leftists, North Americans can join the strategy of the movements against colonization.

Another effort is in international solidarity. The international accompaniment organized in Chiapas by groups like Enlace Civil and Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Human Rights Center, of groups like Peace Brigades International, the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and of groups like the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine have helped to protect the people and the social movements of the south from attack. Colombian organizations like the Black People’s Process are seeking to develop similar programs for their communities on the Pacific Coast. Systematic solidarity of that kind and as well as the even more important task of education and organization and providing information to mass numbers of people about what is happening in these countries and communities is a critical element of the strategy, and is a part where North Americans can have a decisive impact. Doing the same thing right here, for communities suffering terrible repression and who want observers (including, for example, the Secwepemc indigenous nation in British Columbia, Canada– see and for more information) should have them.


In the Americas, a strategy for resistance to imperialism is being developed, led by social movements in Latin America. Its features are:

· An emphasis on participatory democracy. If the state, or the polity, at any level, is expanded to infringe on the market, it is simultaneously democratized and opened up to participation and ratification by the citizenry. Representative democracy is not the end. It is either rejected altogether (as by the popular assemblies in Argentina) or constrained by constant ratification, as by the Zapatistas or the CRIC in Cauca, or the PT in Brazil.

· Winning what reforms are possible in context. Reclaiming the space that can be regained and enacting the reforms that can be enacted, without waiting for the state or the conquest of state power.

· Using international solidarity and the systematic dissemination of information to protect people and movements from armed attack, by attacking the propaganda that always accompanies arms.

Participatory economics, a model that is a complete alternative to capitalism, is compatible with this strategy. North American activists can join in this strategy in several ways: by building movements that are participatory and democratic, wring reforms from authorities that improve the lot of the worst off, and use information to build solidarity, fight propaganda, and protect people. The strategy deserves a chance.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.