- Study Abroad
- Centro Autónomo
History of MSN
A critical and strategic review of the MSN's history
written in 2009
The Mexico Solidarity Network began in May of 1998, following a national meeting held in Washington, DC, and attended by 250 solidarity activists to discuss the US response to the Acteal massacre. We formed an initial steering committee of 18 organizations, and Tom Hansen was asked to serve as the first Executive Director. The MSN began in Tom’s spare bedroom in Chicago with a humble staff of one, a telephone and a budget of $4,000, funds left over from the conference. For the first year, we attempted to make all decisions via email and occasional conference calls, but this communication strategy quickly fell apart, largely because email is not a medium by which different opinions can be synthesized into consensus positions. Our initial agenda included delegations to Chiapas, speaking tours and educational work. Much of this work did not address the local needs of solidarity groups or collectives, and in general it was an “activist” agenda without solid grounding in effective, long term strategies for social change.
Our first project in the Summer of 1998 was an 80-person delegation to Chiapas to investigate increasing militarization and human rights abuses. The fact that we were able to organize 80 participants on relatively short notice demonstrated the initial energy and fairly broad participation in the MSN, and was also due to the highly militarized political climate in Chiapas. The participants were overwhelmingly white, middle class activists motivated by a sense of justice but with minimal political understanding. This lack of sophisticated positions manifested itself in the post-delegation discussions on follow-up, which covered a veritable smorgasbord of ideas with little internal consistency or long term strategic orientation. In short, we were, from the beginning, a traditional solidarity group, with tactics oriented toward responding to unfolding events, very much issue-oriented, and without a strategic or long-term vision of social change. Over the years this orientation changed dramatically, in large part due to our long term relationships with community based groups in Mexico who developed around a powerful critique of the neoliberal model. Today we have a strong organization with solid theoretical principles and a long-term strategic outlook – but it took some time to reach this point.
Our initial agenda focused on the expulsions of foreign human rights observers from Mexico (including our Executive Director), Congressional delegations to Chiapas and Ciudad Juarez, grassroots Congressional lobbying, human rights observer delegations and speaking tours. In 1999, we organized an international conference with 18 invited guests from Mexico. The three-day conference in Washington, DC, drew about 300 participants. A review of our Mexican guests demonstrates how much the orientation of the MSN has changed over the years. They were almost all NGO representatives or intellectuals. There was not a single representative from an active social movement, and none of the groups we relate to in Mexico today were present at the conference.
In making these critiques, we don’t want to leave the impression that we didn’t accomplish anything during the first years of the MSN. In 2000, we won Tom Hansen’s return to Mexico and paved the way for hundreds of expelled human rights observers to return as well. Our Congressional delegations resulted in Sense of the Congress resolutions and Dear Colleague letters on the femicides in Ciudad Juarez and on human rights abuses in Chiapas. We introduced hundreds of people to Chiapas and Ciudad Juarez via delegations. We provided information and analysis on current events in Mexico. All of this work had value. Much of it was based in efforts to “educate,” but without a clear idea of how education could lead to social change. We offered a critique of neoliberalism based on the experiences of Mexican popular classes, but we didn’t have a very clear idea what it meant in daily terms. Our work and our meetings, particularly our retreats, reflected this constant search for something more meaningful, something with longer term strategic value.
We began to change our orientation in 2002, in large part in response to closer relationships that we developed with social movements in Mexico. In 2005, the Zapatistas issued the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona and initiated the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, which facilitated our direct communication with Mujeres por la Dignidad Rebelde, a Zapatista artesan cooperative. Part of the process of the Sexta, some of which predated the official publication by several years, included an invitation by the Zapatistas for civil society to define positions. We were part of this process of definition when we had to decide between maintaining our relationship with Chiapas based NGOs (non-government organizations) or prioritizing the Zapatista movement. The staff was divided, and the Steering Committee became actively involved in the process, with several members traveling to Chiapas to collect information. Ultimately, the argument came down to associating ourselves with a progressive national social movement (Zapatismo) or a group of NGOs. Some staff left the MSN after the unanimous decision by the Steering Committee to develop our relationsips with the Zapatistas at the expense of NGOs. The discussions that took place within the MSN during that period helped us to begin to define a more coherent, longer term orientation. As part of this decision-making process, we became adherents to the Sexta and members of the Otra Campaña.
During this period, we also began to develop stronger relationships with other social movements in Mexico, including the Consejo Nacional Urbano y Campesino and the Asamblea Nacional de Braceros. These relationships developed in part thanks to the work of two Mexicanas on the MSN staff, both former political prisoners in Mexico.
Another important change occurred in 1999 when we began to dedicate a significant amount of staff time and resources to local work in Albany Park, a largely immigrant barrio on Chicago’s north side. During this period we began to develop friendships and relationships with jornaleros in Albany Park. Our work included English classes (held in the kitchen and living room of Tom’s house!), participation in the Albany Park Worker Center coalition, writing press releases, interacting with local officials, etc., all in an effort to establish a worker center. Ultimately, the efforts to establish a center through official channels failed, and the Albany Park Worker Center was founded largely with foundation grants. These experiences influenced the overall orientation of the MSN as we began to assume more responsibility for local work and we began to see this as central to our overall struggle.
During this period we also began to hold staff and Steering Committee meetings in Spanish, or at least a combination of Spanish and English, rather than exclusively in English. This introduced a new cultural perspective, which in turn began to influence our strategic outlook and, perhaps more importantly, the social actors with whom we began to work on a regular basis in the US. In this context, the ethnic/racial makeup of the MSN changed dramatically over the years. We started out as a white, middle class organization, with all white, middle class staff and a largely white, middle class steering committee. Today we are largely an organization of Latinos, including staff, steering committee and community base. Our partners are divided between middle class university students, working class undocumented workers, and indigenous, campesino and urban working class Mexican organizations. From the beginning, the steering committee and the staff (after 2001) was majority female.
In 2005 we launched our Study Abroad Program in Mexico. Initially advisors with experience in study abroad warned that it would be at least three years before the program could be successful. We proved them wrong. We had 15 students the first semester and over 300 students have graduated from the program. The 14-week, 16-credit program focuses on the theory, practice and context of Mexican social movements. Students learn firsthand about community based social change in Mexico, with important lessons for their work in the US. Student tuition supports families and social movements in Chiapas, Tlaxcala, Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez, as well as the Autonomous Center in Chicago. The study abroad program allowed us to break the often precarious and overbearing link to foundations, which in turn allowed us to more clearly define our organizing principles.
In 2007, we opened the Albany Park Autonomous Center. The 6,000 square foot building offered us space to expand our ESL classes and launch a series of programs focused on education, cultural work and community development. Over 100 students now participate in ESL classes. Video nights are popular venues for political discussion and intellectual development. Community members offer a range of classes that draw on the skills and interests of Latino immigrants, including dance, guitar, yoga and jewelry-making classes. The Cleaning Power women’s cooperative is developing jobs for immigrant women, while also developing a collective analysis. The alternative medical program offers weekly sessions in herbal medicine, massage therapy and acupuncture. A monthly community Junta oversees the center and initiates new programs, depending on the needs of community members.
Over the past decade, the Mexico Solidarity Network has gone through significant changes, developing from an NGO with an activist-oriented solidarity agenda to a community based group with strong relationships with Mexico’s most important social movements, including the Zapatistas, the Frente Popular Francisco Villa Independiente, and the Consejo Nacional Urbano y Campesino. We work from a strong theoretical/political framework with a long range vision for profound social change. Next we’ll address this vision.
Throughout the more than ten years of our organization, we have been influenced by the ethical and political principles developed over the 25 year history of the Zapatista movement. It is not possible, nor would it be advisable, to try to reconstruct a set of ethical and political principles developed in Chiapas indigenous communities in the context of Albany Park. The historical and cultural contexts are very different, and hence the way we understand social change and the tools and resources available to us are necessarily different. The Zapatistas would be the first to argue that they don’t want to be - nor can they be - an example for anyone to follow like a recipe. Rather, the Zapatista movement has served as an inspiration, and the ethical and political principles upon which the movement is constructed should be interpreted in each particular historical and cultural context. This is happening, albeit slowly, through the growth of the Other Campaign, and we can see it unfolding, again slowly, in the case of the Albany Park Autonomous Center and our international solidarity work.
Critique of neoliberalism
So what are these ethical and political principles? Let’s start with the foundational principles of the Other Campaign – “from the Left and from below.” From the Left clearly implies a powerful critique of neoliberalism - opposition to social relations defined by exploitation, privatization of public goods resulting in vast inequalities of wealth and power, and rampant individualism.
In the context of Zapatista communities, the vast majority of community relationships are collective and non-capitalist (though they exist in the context of neoliberal hegemony). Production (work) is for self-consumption or consumption of the family or extended community. “Extra production” is used for autonomous schools and autonomous health care – in other words, to establish the foundations of community. Some of this surplus value is not produced by the communities themselves, but rather comes in the form of solidarity from national and international sources aligned with the Zapatista movement. The donations we make each semester for the study abroad program are one example of this kind of accumulation in the communities.
The communities control their own means of production (land) which is held collectively, although individual property rights are respected for smallholders. Collective or ejido lands are divided into parcels and everyone understands that a particular parcel pertains to a particular family, though the formal legal status of the land is always collective. Article 3 of the Revolutionary Agrarian Law recognizes the sanctity of small agrarian properties (up to 100 hectares for low quality land, 50 hectares for high quality land) while Article 5 establishes that all other lands will be held collectively with appropriate collective work responsibilities. Article 7 prioritizes possession of the “means of production” (defined here as fertilizer, machinery, etc.) for “groups organized in cooperatives, collectives and associations.” And Article 12 is explicit: “the individual monopolization of land and the means of production will not be allowed.” The respect for smallholdings, while simultaneously emphasizing the collective responsibilities of community members, can be understood as respect for the autonomy of the family unit, always embedded within the context of collective community responsibilities and understood under the ethic of equity.
Despite control of the land (and hence their principal means of production), many Zapatistas still suffer exploitation, basically in three forms. First, many families send one or more members to work as migrants on large farms, in cities or in other countries (mainly the US) for extended periods of time to earn money for medical needs, to pay debts, or to have access to products that can’t be produced by the family or community. In this sense, Zapatista communities form part of Marx’s “reserve labor force” that can be called into work when conditions of capitalist expansion require more labor and can be “sent home” when they are not needed. From the indigenous perspective, the need to migrate is due largely to unfair exchanges in the world market. Large corporations are able to exercise effective monopolies and/or benefit from government subsidies (both direct subsidies and legalized externalization of costs), while small producers get screwed with low (often below subsistence) prices for their production. Second, because Zapatista communities are not isolated from the rest of the world, exploitation happens every time a member enters into a market transaction with outside agents organized around principles that prioritize private profits. This is particularly evident in the sale of coffee, one of the major sources of cash income, or in the purchase of medicines or other products produced under a capitalist logic. Third, there is constant encroachment on Zapatista lands by forces of privatization that want access to water, minerals and other natural resources.
The fundamental social relations in Zapatista communities are constructed around non-capitalist, collective principles. In large part, the communities still exercise effective control over their most important means of production – the land. And central to the Zapatista political project is a demand for non-capitalist social relations, both in Zapatista communities and in the broader world. By necessity, Zapatista communities are involved regularly with capitalist social relations. A good example is the consumption of CocaCola. Coke offers certain qualities that are highly valued in the communities: a clean source of water, high in calories, and caffeine to ward off hunger and enable long work hours. Every time a Zapatista purchases a Coke, s/he is entering into a partially capitalist relationship that includes exploitation due to uneven exchanges between core and periphery. The Zapatistas say that someday they will produce their own equivalent of Coke, but until that day, they will continue to consume Coke. This example has lessons for every critic of neoliberalism who interacts – by necessity – with capitalist social relations. The Zapatista movement departs from the fact that neoliberalism does not offer real solutions for the needs of the majority of the people, and they have called on national and international society to construct “archipelagos of resistance.”
What does this look like in Chicago, where virtually everyone in Albany Park works as a wage laborer? Hardly anyone in Albany Park controls their means of production. Our only option is to sell our labor. In fact, hardly anyone owns their home. In this sense, an urban setting like Albany Park manifests a very different set of social relations than Zapatista communities. There is no control of large extensions of land, or even small lots with housing, upon which to build an alternative social movement. Virtually everyone is fully enmeshed in relations of exploitation and private property. The culture is individualistic rather than collective. There is no strong sense of community, especially in immigrant neighborhoods like Albany Park where most people don’t share common histories, or even common languages, though there is a shared history of exploitation and dispossession from native lands, and a shared experience of racism and undocumented status. Undocumented workers incorporate themselves into capitalist labor relations in similar ways, via day labor or low-paid and tenuous, though somewhat more permanent, work in restaurants, construction, landscaping, office cleaning, housework, etc.
The challenge in Albany Park is, first, the construction of some foundation that can serve as the basis for challenging exploitation. We need to begin with the construction of community, the construction of a sense of collectivity based, first, on friendship, trust, and common analysis, and, later, on collective projects to resolve common problems. This is what an anti-neoliberal project looks like, admittedly in its infant stages, in a place like Albany Park. We need to build a social foundation that can begin to offer alternatives to exploitation and the individualism inherent in social relations. We need to build collectivities based on mutual trust and horizontal relations of power. As these collectivities develop, we need to explore - and expand - horizons, and begin to develop concrete alternatives based on alternative forms of social relations, all in the context of a society in which exploitative relationships are dominant. This is no small task! Some of our initial community projects addressed simple questions, like access to a space for fiestas, modest employment for a few immigrants selling food during evening popular education classes, an immigrant rights committee, etc. As the sense of community in Albany Park develops, the Autonomous Center is addressing more profound issues faced daily by residents – housing, work, education, health care, discrimination, police abuse, etc.
In building the foundations for an alternative project founded on justice and mutual respect, we have to recognize that we are enmeshed in a system, and we can’t help but reproduce the predominant existing relationships on a daily basis. Every time we buy a newspaper or food, hire a worker, pay a phone bill or rent, etc., we are reproducing these exploitative relations – and these actions are inevitable in a social system where capitalism is hegemonic. In the search for alternatives, we need to be constantly aware of these relationships and we need to constantly look for ways to produce and reproduce relationships with a different character. In part, this means not falling into the traps of volunteerism or paternalism, which may make middle class activists feel good about themselves, but do nothing to change existing power dynamics and social relationships.
Most people in Albany Park recognize exploitation in their lives. Whether or not they are explicitly conscious of the details of exploitation and whether or not that consciousness leads to a clearly defined social/political project is another story, but at a gut level, almost everyone recognizes exploitation. If this is the case, why aren’t more people actively searching for alternatives? There are two main reasons. First, the Left in the US (and throughout much of the world) offers alternatives that call for overthrowing the current system. As bad as exploitation can be, most people see violence and an uncertain future as even less desirable. This is especially true in the modern world. In the context of an alienated population without solid community links to monitor or deter anti-social activities, the irrational actions of a very small group of people or even an individual can cause great destruction and disruption. For example, we can look at the individual train operator who can put thousands of lives in danger with a single decision, or the semi driver on a crowded highway, or the computer hacker, or a thousand other examples. In the context of a dangerous world where massive social disruption is often only a button or a quick decision away, people want control and security, not uncertainty. Ruling elites clearly understand this dynamic and build many of their political/social projects on a foundation of fear. Second, in the context of this complex modern world in which we are constantly bombarded by messages like “there are no alternatives,” it becomes hard to even imagine, much less begin to build, serious alternatives. The construction of hegemony (in the Gramscian sense) is an ongoing process that makes it very difficult, but not impossible, to mount counter-hegemonic projects. At the same time that there is constant reproduction of the existing power dynamics, there is also a long and rich history of production and reproduction of alternatives. This is where we find our own historic legacy – the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago, strong unions, the May Day marches of 2006, and many more examples. Counter-hegemonic projects are alive and growing, and we locate ourselves within these processes.
We need to build alternatives that can prove themselves effective, in fact, better than, the current social relations based on exploitation and individualism. Social change is contained in the process of building democratic political projects that empower people to envision a different future and that build the social relationships that make a different future possible. We can’t build a different future suddenly, with radical social change happening from one day to the next. Individualism is not suddenly going to be replaced by collective community. Exploitation is not suddenly going to be replaced by equity. Limited representative democracy (polyarchy) is not suddenly going to be replaced by direct, participatory democracy. All of these alternatives must be constructed through slow, careful processes that prove themselves each step of the way as superior to existing social relations. Our social/political project is defined by the daily organizing processes in which we are involved, not by some grand narrative that defines a future a priori. The context of daily work for social change is grounded in the (re)construction of community which can be the foundation of counter-hegemonic social relations.
The second element of the Other Campaign is “from below.” This strategic mandate explicitly rejects vanguardism, whether in the form of political parties with traditional hierarchical leadership models, or liberal democracies, or NGOs with representational leadership styles. “From below” is founded on the permanent mobilization of the population (civil society), so that people are actively involved in formulating the decisions that affect their lives. Leadership is defined as facilitating horizontal processes of direct democracy.
“From below” is both a strategic mandate and an end in itself. The “final results” of truly democratic processes can never be foreseen (though the value of people deciding about their own futures can certainly be foreseen). If they could - if we could construct a utopian world (socialism, anarchism, or any of the other pre-cooked visions of social organization) with all of its nuances and overall social structure outlined ahead of time - then we wouldn’t be involved in truly democratic processes. A commitment to democracy means a fundamental confidence in people’s ability to engage in decision-making processes and come up with workable conclusions.
Democracy is central to the Zapatista movement. In their case, democracy is founded on the collective communities that already exist, and on historic cultural processes of direct democracy that have been in existence for centuries. In Albany Park, we share neither of these characteristics. We have to base our work on a fundamental confidence in the integrity, intelligence and capacities of people who live in Albany Park. Our strategic direction is, in large part, facilitating the construction of the community foundations – trust, friendship, collectivity, shared understandings of society - upon which direct democracy can be built.
“From below” does not mean that everyone is an equal participant in these processes. “From below” calls on us to understand class, racial and gender hierarchies – in other words, to fully understand the construction of civil society - and to look “below” for the subjects of radical social change. Below includes exploited populations, and also repressed or dominated groups, like working class women, working class people of color, working class gays, etc. Elites don’t have a central role in this vision of social change, and the role of new social actors – those social actors with university education and the possibility of social mobility – must be carefully defined in terms of facilitation and mobilization of skills, but not in terms of leadership in the traditional, hierarchical sense of the word.
Democracy is based first on responsibilities and only secondarily on rights. Social actors must demonstrate commitment and win trust within a collective BEFORE enjoying the rights of democratic expression within the collective. The Zapatista communities are clear on this point, which is why many western-based “activists” wouldn’t last long within the discipline and commitment required of community members.
Mandar obedeciendo (lead by obeying) is the central mandate in the construction of direct democracy and the ethical foundation for movement leadership. In this understanding of leadership, leaders are facilitators and administrators with high ethical standards grounded in a history of service to the community. Fundamental decisions are always in the hands of the directly affected community. Leaders facilitate the development of direct democratic processes that involve community members in decision-making, always challenging participants to assume increasing levels of responsibility and gain increasing levels of knowledge and experience, and thereby construct increasing levels of direct democracy. Leaders also administer popular decisions. In this role, leaders assume the delicate task of understanding the difference between administering popular decisions and making decisions themselves (either from a mistaken position of entitlement, efficiency or power). Leaders often enjoy the respect of their communities, in large part, because they are able to make these crucial distinctions, and also because they have served communities and thereby gained a certain level of moral authority.
Leadership in the Autonomous Center and in our international solidarity work is challenging to define and difficult to implement under the principles outlined above. First, the MSN has paid staff, which gives us more time and energy to involve ourselves in political processes and projects. We were most certainly not chosen by the people in the community to assume these positions, which makes it all the more important to earn the trust and confidence of the people we work with by exercising leadership in democratic and responsible ways. Building democracy and politicized collectives often means taking more time to accomplish strategic goals by incorporating social actors in meaningful work and by distributing responsibilities.
Leadership is fundamentally an intellectual activity (discourse) embedded in and respectful of a social/historical context, and constantly aware of power dynamics, with full respect for agency (the capacity of people to form opinions and act on them). We shouldn’t be afraid of leadership, in the sense of hesitating to initiate educational or community-building processes. If we keep in mind the ethics of leadership outlined above, we shouldn’t hesitate to foment new social processes out of a false sense of “lack of legitimacy.” If we constantly wait for creative social processes to unfold before entering into those processes, then we are implicitly assuming one of two lines of analysis: Either we understand these processes as historically inevitable, in which case they require no initiative on our part. By assuming this line of reasoning, we are negating not only our own agency, but the agency of all social actors around us. Or we assume that “others” have more legitimacy to initiate processes of social change, in which case we deny our collective agency. We end up waiting for others to “do something” that we can then (possibly) contribute to. This line of analysis implies opportunism.
We must always balance our capacity to take initiatives with two important considerations. First, what is our long term commitment? There is no place for a group like MSN to launch initiatives in a community that we are not committed to for the long term. In other words, if we are not part of the long term construction of community, the launching of initiatives becomes disruptive to the processes of constructing community rather than contributing to those processes. Second, what is the social/political position of the people we are working with? Most social actors are not fully conscious of their agency and do not have fully formed, or even partially formed, political projects. In this context, launching initiatives that are beyond the capacity of social actors in Albany Park to fully integrate into their world visions and their political projects is both irresponsible and counter-productive. The response is often passive acceptance, which tends to undermine the development of leadership capacities and the construction of community.
Radical social change begins at the level of ideas, of changing horizons, of expectations and possibilities. Strategically, anyone can begin conversations about radical social change. Sometimes the conversations won’t have resonance in the community, in which case they are generally quickly dropped. Sometimes conversations might not initially have resonance, but can develop energy if pursued over time. This is a judgment call that all leaders make over the course of social movement development. And sometimes the conversations require some preliminary confidence building and/or consciousness-raising work, in which case we may enter into longer term processes involving identification of common problems, analysis of possible responses, construction of collectivity, etc. In any of these cases, the key is listening carefully and respectfully, in addition to proposing clearly, and respecting the results of horizontal democratic processes. Part of the art of leadership is knowing when to push and when to take a back seat.
An important element of leadership is ideological work, though not in the traditional and much maligned sense of imposing a way of thinking on the “uneducated masses.” In any case, this kind of direct imposition is, in a very real sense, impossible for the MSN, given the fundamental respect for human agency upon which our work is based, and given the fact that people are not sheep and cannot be “led.” However, there is a sense of compelled ideology, or perhaps more accurately compelling ideology, contained in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, defined as the leading ideas around which any society is constructed. In the case of the US, hegemonic ideology includes individualism, legitimacy of private property, legitimacy of the State, consumerism, racism, and many other “ruling” or “common sense” ideas, perpetrated mainly by the public education system, the news media, the public pronouncements of political leaders, and the advertising industry. Since the ideology of elites is hegemonic in the US, one of our main jobs is to build a counter-hegemonic project based on alternative principles, including direct democracy, the importance of collectivity, horizontal power structures, equity, justice, etc., or what Gramsci would refer to as “good sense” in opposition to “common sense.” Good sense implies a critical engagement with the leading (hegemonic) ideas in society and a search for alternatives.
Paolo Freire, and Gramsci as well, discuss the importance of popular education as a way to confront hegemony, and both highlight the importance of adult education. Popular education begins by examining the real life situations in which people live, and building a critique of the causes of the problems that people face on a daily basis. Realistically, this is a facilitated process that engages the intellectual capacities of social actors to analyze their own life situations, resulting in new and evolving understandings - or “new consciousness.” Facilitation is important because, if history teaches us nothing else, it certainly teaches us that social change, and changing social consciousness, does not happen spontaneously. It happens because people exercise their agency and initiate educational/social processes leading to social change. Effective processes start from a profound respect for the real-life experiences of social actors, without a pre-determined ideological outcome divorced from their lived realities. In this sense, an ideological project is grounded in a profound respect for the intellectual and political potentials of social actors.
When people begin to understand the social dynamics hidden behind the dominant ideology, when they become fully aware of their own situations, the result is often a desire to change things and a new level of consciousness, often characterized initially as a feeling of being angry. This can lead to a commitment to struggle, and the struggle may take any number of forms. In the beginning of struggle, newly conscious social actors often do not necessarily know where they are going, or who their opponents are. These problems are worked out in the process of struggle, and there may be very different answers at different stages of struggle. Social actors may not even know who and what they are as social actors: it is in the process of exercising their social muscles, struggling in the power-filled and complex social world, that they come to find out what they can be.
Ideological development is a constantly unfolding process of revelation based on an analysis of the real life experiences of social actors, rather than a pre-determined process with a clearly defined end point. Marxist dialectics can help to reveal the hidden processes of exploitation and domination in the context of Albany Park without being a rhetorical, pre-cooked social analysis. Dialectics begins with a clear understanding that the world is complex and interconnected, and composed of contradictions. The dialectic method is an effort to understand this complexity in its full richness, and to look at the resolution of contradictions as more than the sum of two opposites. Life is understood as process rather than an analysis of reifications (things). For example, racism is not an independent “thing” (like something that we can put in a bottle and set on the shelf), but rather part of a complex process of constantly unfolding and changing interactions. Democracy is another example. Democracy is not a thing toward which we strive (usually defined in traditional poli sci as fair elections and a free market), but rather a constantly unfolding struggle around distribution of power. Neither racism nor democracy exists outside of the realm of social interactions.
Relation to the State
Many discussions in the Albany Park Autonomous Center are of a strategic character: How should we spend our time? How should we address X issue? What should we do? The question of strategy for most NGOs is relatively clear cut. They deal with the issues that are on the government’s agenda, trying to influence the decisions that the State takes in relation to, for example, Plan Merida, immigration reform, etc. Or they may try to influence the composition of the State by participating in election dynamics, hoping that this will result in better policies.
A mission that prioritizes the needs of community means not allowing the State to determine our agenda, and here we can take some important lessons from the Zapatistas: Never organize your strategies on the timetable of the State – always organize on your own timetable. Never leave the ultimate success or failure of your strategies in the hands of the State - always organize your strategies from a position of power. Focus on the long term construction of genuine autonomous alternatives, not short-term quick fixes that don’t address fundamental issues of power.
The Zapatistas have certainly engaged with the State in many instances. Perhaps the San Andres negotiations offer the most important example. But the Zapatistas always did it their way. They didn’t accept the State logic of private negotiations between the Zapatista leadership and a few government officials held behind closed doors. Instead, the Zapatistas called on civil society to participate. Hundreds of people from different sectors actively participated in highly public negotiations, and they were able to build power through these processes. When the negotiations ended, the Zapatistas took the Accords to their communities for approval. And when the government ultimately refused to implement the Accords, the Zapatistas broke off talks with the government and self-implemented the Accords through the autonomous municipalities and the Juntas de Buen Gobierno.
An important element in this strategic orientation is a clear understanding of the role of the State as representative of elites. This understanding stands in stark contradiction to the traditional understanding of the State in political science as the arbitrator or “honest broker” among different classes or social groups. Whether and how we engage with the State depends on our understanding of the historic role of the State, which would require a much longer discussion than is warranted in this short analytical piece. Suffice it to say that this analysis of the relationship of the MSN political project with the State is based on a fundamental understanding that the State will always represent the interests of elites and will only take into consideration the demands of civil society when those demands are made from a position of power that has the potential to threaten the power and control of elites.
In Albany Park, we certainly don’t have the reach or power of the Zapatista movement, but until we do – until we can interact with the State on our own terms – it is largely a waste of our time to engage with the State. Engagement with the State sends the message that the State has legitimacy – that somehow we should go to the State for redress when we confront problems. This contradicts our message of constructing autonomy from below and from the Left. For example, mobilizing resources around a lobbying campaign to confront Plan Merida is not only a waste of time, it also places our entire strategy for action in the hands of the State to determine the outcome. We win or lose, depending on what the State decides, and if we lose, we have no other strategy.
Certainly it is the “realist” position that the State exists, that the reality of today is that the State exercises a good deal of power, and that decisions made by the State affect all of us. This is all true, but then the fundamental questions are: How do we challenge this power? How do we make the State's power over us disappear? We don’t do it by engaging the State, and thereby enhancing its legitimacy. Rather, we have to assume a long term strategy that begins to envision the end of the vertical power of the State and the construction of autonomies and genuine democracy.
If we’re not going to engage with the State, except on our own terms and from a position of power, then what are we going to do strategically? The short answer is that we are struggling for radical change, not reforms. We want to build autonomy from the community level. Autonomy means that communities and collectives organized with horizontal relations of power assume responsibility for making the decisions that affect their lives. Autonomy doesn’t just happen. It is constructed over a long period of time through patient processes of politicization and community building. Autonomy is built on initiative and responsibility in the context of a collective that builds power to do, rather than power over. Initiative and responsibility are qualities that develop over time and are directly related to learning processes, processes of politicization and leadership development, especially in the sense that participants feel ownership of collective social and political projects.
The ethical foundation of autonomous political projects can be found in the Zapatista’s “para todos todo, para nosotros nada” (for everyone everything, nothing for ourselves). This is a complicated ethical mandate. The first part of the phrase refers to an equitable distribution of wealth and power in society such that exploitation and domination are abolished. This is a fairly straightforward proposal, if difficult to achieve in practice. The second part of the phrase, “para nosotros nada,” refers to en ethical demand placed on movement leaders (and in the sense that autonomous projects have many, many leaders, this ethical demand refers to the movement in general). “Para nosotros nada” means that we always work selflessly for the collective, never for personal gain. This is a particularly difficult ethical measuring bar for organizers who receive salaries or other kinds of remuneration for their work. While a salary allows an organizer to devote full time to the necessary community work, it also means that person must assume an extra level of accountability to the community and the movement. Zapatista communities do not have salaries, and all of the “cargos” (voluntary positions that include the Junta de Buen Gobierno) are assumed without recompense. This means, for example, that members of the Junta work extra hard and suffer more personal hardships when they assume the responsibilities of the Junta. As paid organizers, we must look very hard at this question. This is not just a job – it is an ethical responsibility and we must always be prepared to rendir cuentas for anyone who questions this position. A salaried position in a movement is something that we earn through hard work and dedication, not something that we deserve as part of traditional labor relationship. A salaried position means that we must always look for ways to extend our commitment, not limit our work. Salaries are always problematic in movement dynamics, and they must by justifiable in relation to our political commitment and our willingness to commit to a life of relative poverty, humility and commitment to political/ethical principles. Of course, here we refer to humility before our fellow community members, not before the political and economic powers that exploit and repress. Before the elites, we demand dignity, another centerpiece of the Zapatista movement. We demand dignified working conditions, dignified housing, dignified health care, dignified education, etc. always in the name of the collective, never in the name of personal gain.
An important part of being a member of the MSN collective is the assumption of responsibility. In political projects, responsibilities always come before and supersede rights. Rights are earned through hard work and demonstration of political commitment, and are never a priori. Responsibilities arise directly from our commitment to a project of profound social change. Responsibilities always supersede the rights of a traditional labor relationship.
Who do we organize with? In general terms, we could say civil society – that part of society that is neither the State nor the elites of capitalism. Theoretically this may be true, but on a practical level, our work has focused largely with two groups “from below” (though “below” is a relative term that requires a more complete contextual definition): immigrant workers living in Albany Park and students/youth. Both groups potentially can make important contributions to social change. Immigrants, particularly Latinos, are the most exploited and dominated group in the US. They suffer racism, discrimination based on their “legal status,” and exploitation beyond anything experienced by citizens. It is their personal and collective life experiences that (potentially) form the ideological foundation of a popular movement from below. This is not a theoretical construction, but rather a proposition grounded in the daily experiences of immigrant workers in relation to work, housing, health care and educational opportunities. Community based projects must address these specific daily problems faced by nearly all undocumented workers.
The second group we work with is students/youth, generally university educated and often referred to in social movement theory as “new social actors” - people who are ethically committed to social change and enjoy relative privilege because of their social location, including citizenship rights, mobility (both social and physical), and expanded personal choices. These groups bring social/technical skills and resources that are important to community-based organizing work, including English language fluency, cultural fluency in the dominant culture, computer skills, developed social networks, etc.
Nearly every social movement throughout history has recognized the importance of cross-class and cross-cultural alliances, but few movements have been able to accomplish effective strategic relations, in large part because of differential power dynamics (determined largely by social location) and ineffective communication strategies. This is a serious challenge for our work in Albany Park. We already have a number of new social actors working in the Autonomous Center as education promoters in the language classes and as staff/interns. How do we facilitate their involvement in organizing work while developing leadership among immigrants? What is the most effective process of educational development with the two groups? How can we develop effective cross-class, cross-cultural communication so that the two groups can develop bonds of friendship and mutual confidence? (This question extends well beyond the question of learning English or Spanish.) These are largely unresolved questions, both in the Autonomous Center and in the vast majority of social movements in the US and Mexican context. For example, one of the reasons the Frente Zapatista was disbanded is because the members (almost exclusively new social actors) were unable to develop effective organizing strategies with those from “below.” At a theoretical level, it’s not hard to appreciate the importance of these kinds of cross-class, cross-cultural relations for the construction of effective social movements, but we don’t live at the level of theory. We need to struggle with the social mechanics of building these kinds of relationships on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Relationship of theory and practice
This brings up a related discussion – the relationship of theory and practice. The traditional Left in the US and Mexico sets out theoretical models and then tries to adjust practice to meet those models. The Zapatistas have rejected this approach, adopting instead “caminar preguntando” (questioning as we walk). Theory is not rejected in this approach, but is developed out of the concrete realities that people face every day. Then theory is proven (or disproven and discarded, or altered) by those same realities. Theorizing is part of work - thought, in other words, is grounded in activity, and forms an integral part of human agency. In the final analysis, theory is nothing more than the discussion of alternative ways of moving forward. The term struggle is appropriate here. People do not always know what needs are driving them, but as soon as they are engaged in finding out, through struggle, they necessarily become theorists.
Gramsci offers two important concepts that help us to understand the relationship between theory and practice. First, Gramsci differentiated between organic intellectuals and academic intellectuals. Gramsci claimed that all human beings, by their very nature, are intellectuals. When they discuss work problems over beers at a tavern and try to address solutions, they are involved in intellectual activity and, often, in theorizing. Gramcsi called the constant interplay (dialectical relationship) between practice and theory praxis. Here we very consciously place practice first and theory second. This may seem like a simple grammatical issue or perhaps a chicken-egg dilemma, but the order affects, in often subtle ways, the way we develop theory. By placing practice at the forefront, we avoid dogmatic uses of theory in which we try, usually without success, to bend reality to a pre-conceived set of theoretical propositions. By placing practice at the forefront, we also place social actors and their real-life organic intellectualizing about their social conditions at the forefront. Experience always comes first and is the foundation for analysis. The practice of every day activity informs theory which is then always returned to the every day work to prove (or disprove) its validity. The theoretical and the practical aspects of intellectual activity are achievements, and subject to constant revision as movements develop and change.
One of the keys to effective praxis is criticism/self-criticism, which is also the foundation of personal and collective growth and organizational effectiveness. Criticism/self-criticism requires an open mind as unhindered as possible by ego. We have to learn how to read and understand realities that may often be outside of our comfort zones or our own historical experiences. We should be constantly vigilant and open to critique. Perhaps even more difficult, we should be willing to offer honest and clear critiques in a loving and respectful manner. Sometimes we fall into the liberal trap of ignoring unproductive or politically insensitive actions by others because we want to avoid confrontation. We are constantly striving for a culture of criticism/self-criticism in the MSN collective and in the Autonomous Center, based on respect, love and mutual interest in both moving political/social projects forward and improving as social actors. We should approach criticism/self-criticism not as an attack, but rather as a demonstration of loving care for our work and the social development of ourselves and our compañeros.
The future of MSN
In addition to expansion of existing work, the MSN has two ambitious projects on the agenda for 2010 to 2013 – a popular education based, bilingual adult high school and the International Autonomous University. First a few words on expansion of our existing work.
Our study abroad program, focused on the theory and practice of Mexican social movements, has been extremely successful, but we are convinced that we can expand it. There is no other study abroad program like it in the world, as students live and work directly with active social movements. Given the overwhelmingly positive response from our alumni, we are convinced that we can expand the program from an average of 15 to 16 students per semester to an average of 25 to 30 students per semester. This would mean essentially doubling the program, with one group of students starting in northern Mexico and traveling south, while the other group starts in Chiapas and travels north. In 2010, we will begin to offer a 15-week, 16-credit research program, placing students with our partner groups in Mexico. To accomplish these goals, we are working diligently to establish consortium agreements with US universities to facilitate the participation of their students. Currently we have agreements with the entire State Universities of New York (SUNY) system, Hampshire College, New Mexico State University, Appalachian State University, the University of Texas-Austin, and many others.
The Albany Park Autonomous Center is at the heart of our work. As the Center grows, programs expand to meet the daily demands of Albany Park’s Latino immigrant community. Current discussions include formation of more labor cooperatives to create jobs, expansion of the alternative health program to include weekly office hours with trained professionals, and development of a cooperative housing project. The educational programs continue to expand, including a homework assistance program for middle and high school students. Child care is an increasingly pressing problem for immigrant families, and something that will be addressed by the Center in coming months. All of this work is grounded in constant discussions and analysis by community members who are increasingly clear about their roles as active agents of social change.
Plans for the Alternative Economy program include development of an on-line store to market artesany produced by Zapatista women’s cooperatives.
Over the past two years, the community Junta at the Autonomous Center identified education as a priority for Albany Park immigrants. Many immigrants come to the US with important real life experiences, but with little formal education. Development of a bilingual adult high school organized around principles of popular education will address these issues. The high school will offer a one year program, with classes from 6 to 9 pm, five days a week. Successful graduates will have a high school diploma that will help in job searches and offer entrance to university level education. The high school curriculum will include Latin American and US history, Spanish and English, math, and reflections on the reality of Albany Park (a combination of sociology, political economy and political science).
In the near future we will also establish the International Autonomous University, with a curriculum at the undergrad and masters level focused on the theory and practice of social movements, popular education pedagogy, and community-based research. The University will be based in the Autonomous Center, and offer students and community members a space for reflection, research and community development.
Ambitious plans these are, but the world in its present condition demands ambitious initiatives that extend all of us outside of our comfort zones. The next generation deserves no less than a better world, and working together, we are capable of constructing it.