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Autonomy and Participatory Democracy:
An Ongoing Discussion on the Application
of Zapatista Autonomy in the United States

Interview of Roberto Flores and Greg Tanaka
by Peter McLaren

The following interview was originally published in the International Journal of Educational Reform, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring 2001) and is re-published here with permission. for more information visit Scarecrow Education at

Over the last six years, the Zapatista struggle in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, has attracted the attention of those actively seeking social justice throughout the world. The Labor Party of Brazil in Porto Alegre, the mayor of Venice in Italy, and hundreds of thousands of guerrilla fighters participating in armed struggle, are anxiously examining the fresh and hopeful underlying assumptions and structures of the Zapatista autonomous method and movement. The central thesis of Zapatismo is the profound belief that the only way to accomplish profound change is through the organized participation of the vast majority of civil society. Of particular interest in this discussion is the Zapatista autonomous community as a micromodel and method of struggle. Is autonomy viable in U.S. conditions? Can the autonomous method and structures be imported? Are globalization and its subsequent conditions universal enough at their core to provide the universal context to spontaneously call for an indigenous form of autonomy?

Peter McLaren interviews Roberto Flores and Greg Tanaka here. Roberto Flores was awarded a 1996/97 Fulbright Fellow to Chiapas, Mexico, to study the role of women leaders, particularly the senior women, in creating and sustaining the Zapatista movement. Currently a Ph.D. student in inter national education at the University of Southern California, he is conducting a comparative study of the education systems of Chiapas and Los Angeles and helping to construct one of the first autonomous communities in the United States.

Greg Tanaka is a writer and lecturer in education, cultural studies, social theory, and ethnographic methods. A recipient of the James Clavell Literary Award, he has published a play as ethnography, a polyphonic novelistic ethnography, and a book, Transcending Culture and Power: The Intercultural Campus (Peter Lang Publishing, in press). He is currently completing a hybrid text on race and participatory democracy.

Peter McLaren: Instead of getting right to the question of whether the autonomous method can be applied here, why don't we first look at the question of Zapatista autonomy? Roberto, your experience in Chiapas convinces you that the main weapon of the Zapatista is the autonomous community as opposed to the Zapatista Army or the armed group of Zapatistas that is heldup in the mountains? Can you explain what you mean by autonomous community?

Roberto Flores: First of all, throughout this discussion I will refer to autonomy and autonomy building not only as methods and means of struggle for dignity and social justice, but also as methods whose long-term goal is the development of a different type of nation-state. Also, in this conversation, I will put more emphasis on community-based autonomous organization, as opposed to trade union, single issue, cultural, or civil rights organizations. I intentionally do this for two reasons. Although all of these groups and organizations need to move in different ways and to different degrees to wards autonomy, it seems to me that in the U.S. the weakest, yet the most needed and potentially broadest form of autonomous organizing is community based. Second, I focus on community-based autonomy because the autonomous community model as practiced in Chiapas allows us to bring out some of the main characteristics.

Second of all, I propose that we cover some background so that we can better understand the depth and breath of the tendencies toward autonomy. In general, critics of neoliberalism point out that structural adjustments resulting from globalization of economies have resulted in the further concentration of capital in fewer and fewer hands and in its necessary consequent increase in methods of control, poverty, and a general degradation of the quality of life and dignity. This decline, of course, is a global phenomenon affecting wealthy countries as well as poorer countries. Economic re structuring particularly affects many of the poorer countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, all of which obtained loans from the WB (World Banks) and are now under austerity programs put together and implemented by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The technocratic and impersonal (efficient) method of the neoliberal state affects all countries. Perhaps in the U.S. the main problem isn't mainly economic, but everywhere in different ways, it is control, dependence, and lack of dignity. Today's spontaneous responses are informed by both fresh unifying ideological, (nondogmatic) political, and organizational resistance. There are many aspects of this initial resistance that are different from activist-based traditional resistance. We will talk more about this in a while.

The main point here is that in this sense, the Zapatista form of struggle has been looked at as a response not only to the neoliberalism (open market economy and privatization) of the Mexican nation state, but to global neoliberal ism. Zapatismo is not only a local or regional response, but has become a prototype of other global responses to their particular conditions created by a global corporate economic system. From this perspective Zapatismo can be looked at as a global response to global neoliberalism. One can say simply that a global problem needs a global solution. To the extent that neoliberalism is affecting the poor and the middle classes on a global scale, it is then the ex tent that many believe this methodology can be applied in diverse settings.

Although the denial of economic rights is not the only degradation occur ring, autonomy seems to be facilitated by the quickly deteriorating community economic conditions in the minority Black and Latino communities. The deterioration in health, education, housing, and most other social areas, together with the increase in the exploitation of labor, drug infestations, gang warfare, and a general decline in the quality of life, seems to have paradoxically been facilitated by the successes of the electoral empowerment movements. In this situation, it wouldn't be a leap of faith on anyone's part to view the role of elected official as middlemen/women brokering the minority communities to the highest bidder for personal gain. In these communities you don't have to convince people that government has abandoned them.

According to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, the number of Latino elected officials has increased from 0 to 600 in the course of 20 years. Yet, in spite of this, many predominantly Latino barrios are still deteriorating. Minority communities in many respects are third-worldizing. This deterioration, I believe, is directly related to current global neoliberal governance which naturally attacks the welfare state -- welfare cuts, downsizing, runaway shops, wage restructuring, union busting, etc., and creates conditions for the development of an autonomy attitude and approach.

Peter McLaren: What then is autonomy?

Roberto Flores: Some of the main characteristics of an autonomous community and/or organization include: interdependence, asset based, intersubjectivity, expansiveness, incubation, participatory democracy, and the notion of accompaniment as opposed to activist support. These characteristics are over lapping and affect each other.

An autonomous organization could be defined as an interdependent grouping of individuals, households in the same neighborhood or organizations that collectively struggle to survive materially, culturally, spiritually, and psychologically. This is in part a response to the dependency that capitalism created and that neoliberalism reinforces. On the other hand, complete independence is unrealistic and narrow. Interdependence would lean a little more on the dependence side between communities and autonomy leans toward the independence side in terms of government and its agents.

The autonomous point of view assumes that the relationship of humans and all things to one another is really interdependent.

The intersubjective view of the Tojolabales (core Zapatista indigenous group) is naturally inclusive. Within an autonomous community it is expected all contribute to the greater good. Simultaneously, everyone needs the sup port and contributions of others and other things to survive. Interdependence can be seen as having the right amount and right type of independence and dependence. It considers and assumes that all humans are truly equal but as important truly different. Total independence from an overall capitalist con textual structure is unrealistic. While it exists, it needs to be engaged.

Autonomy is based on and driven by the new self-consciousness of civil society. According to Subcomandante Marcos, civil society is that part of the nation-state which includes all that is not government, army, or big business. In order that change be profound or structural, government needs a nongovernment agent or force to promote that change. Zapatismo sees civil society as that nongovernment, noncorporate, nonmilitary force. According to Javier Elorriaga, one of the coordinators for the Frente Zapatista, "the central Zapatista thesis is that it is only through the participation of the vast majority of civil society that profound structural change can be created." A corollary to this assumption is that civil society needs to build itself up to the extent that it can exert its collective will through peaceful means. This requires consensus, experience, and knowledge of democratic organization and governance through mass participation. Autonomous communities provide all of it. Initially civil society has the least information, participation, and decision-making ability on local, regional, and national issues directly affecting civil society.

Autonomy is asset based and builds off the strengths of the community. In the video Zapatista, produced by Benjamin Eichert, one of the Zapatista women says it best, as she asserts that Zapatista autonomy is "the profound conviction that the answers are in us." In the U.S., a very similar asset based project and framework has been developed and successfully implemented by John L. McKnight, et al., from the University of Chicago. Asset based is contrasted to the deficit model that has for centuries dominated and has become the pervasive self-image of conquered and oppressed people. Asset-based thinking develops, is informed by, and helps form community collective awareness of its own strengths. Autonomous organizations, movements, networks, and/or communities are conscious and convinced that the answers are in themselves.

Through the process that Paolo Freire calls "reflection" and concientizacion, the autonomous communities have come to the conclusion that present ''off1cial'' neoliberal government is by political nature based on the interest of the wealthy. As a result of its class base, the state is either unwilling and/or unable to act in the interest of poor communities. The propositive asset based thinking allows for the community to build off of its strengths as opposed to in reaction to oppression. The autonomous community eventually concludes that it must construct its own government structures and take upon itself the provision of basic human needs and rights.

Fourth, the autonomous community process entails building parallel government structures. Autonomy is a politically fortified organization. The Zapatistas communities, for instance, typically have a community assembly, as well as several concilios developed for specific issues which often include education, proyectos productivos (economic projects), mujeres, etnias, salud, and viviendas. The parallel structures are not for secessionist independence but for political and ideological independence.

The parallel structures serve at least three general functions. First of all, it is a response to government's neglect of poor communities and its unwilling ness to serve the community's basic needs through the structures. Second, parallel structures develop the collective organizational strength and mechanisms of consensus needed to effectively pressure existing government to provide the services it is supposed to. Third, autonomous parallel structures also serve to develop the micromodel of participatory democracy. Credibility and legitimacy are given to the community governance structures and they become the legitimate government of the people. The other is ''official'' but has lost all credibility because it is not looked at as legitimate. Autonomy does not deny the existence of the "official" government but instead calls for the coexistence of parallel political structures.

Fifth, the autonomous community is built on intersubjective leadership development and concepts. Intersubjectivity is closely related and based on participatory democracy. Intersubjectivity simply means that the main thinking of that community is that everyone is an equal subject. Not only does every one have something to contribute, but everyone is expected to contribute. This type of community is built through participatory democracy.

Sixth, the autonomous community is expansive in that the process consciously offers a micromodel, an archetype of a different type of national state system. It is important to note that the Zapatistas are absolutely not into even suggesting that their solution (strategy) is superior or "the" answer. In Eichert's film, Marcos points out that "the question everywhere is the same but the answers may be different." At this point the approximately 1200 autonomous communities in Chiapas are already linked into 55 (out of 111 total municipalities). The municipalities, in turn, have been organized into six autonomous regions. Half of Chiapas is autonomous. At this initial juncture of a growing process the autonomous community is not an end in itself, but is a microlab of participatory democracy. The Zapatista them selves call autonomy the ante-sala, the entry point of democracy, that could enable them to participate in a project of national reconstruction and redefinition. There are a growing number of scholars that, in the face of the transnationalization of capitalism and new mechanisms of exploitation and oppression, are looking at the possibility of an alternative world order and state. Paulo Freire calls it the Solidarity State; Gustavo Esteve and an increasing number of postcolonialist thinkers in the area of International Relations call it a Caring State and an Interdependent State, while others voice their desire for a Posthegemonic State. In Mexico, even the center-right PAN (Partido de Accion Nacional) has had to try to absorb some of this jargon by calling for the development of the Human Development State.

Seventh, the autonomous community is intercultural and pluriethnic. Part of the intersubjective aspect is the recognition that we are different and equal. Many communities, particularly in La Selva Lancandona, are pluri-ethnic and provide for the equal participation of all ethnicities by acknowledging and welcoming their difference. In most of these pluri-ethnic communities there is a special commission that is designated to focus the community attention to those ethnicities that fall in the minority. The basic paradigm is based on the assumption that difference is not only a way of life but a way to live.

Peter McLaren: Intersubjectivity seems to be an essential centerpiece. Greg, what have you found in the U.S. scholarship that addresses this question of intersubjectivity?

Greg Tanaka: I agree that intersubjectivity is the key to the establishment of an autonomous community, whether in Los Angeles or any other part of the United States. But one thing we need to ask, is: What kind of intersubjectivity?

I have encountered two major interpretations of intersubjectivity and they seem to be in conflict with each other. The first is the symbolic interactionist interpretation supported by the University of Chicago (the locus interestingly of the genesis of neoliberalism in the U.S.). This interpretation is phenomenological and focuses on richness of detail in human interactions. Prus (1996, 1997), Crossley (1996), and Jackson (1998) come to mind as proponents of this view. What I find limiting in their view of human interaction is that they do not in general examine historical asymmetries based on race, gender, or other socially constructed locations and they fail to examine the subject-to-object nature of the English language, which I find always sees the recipient of a communication as an object, as the "other."

In contrast, I find more promising the kind of intersubjectivity practiced by the Tojolabal and other indigenous groups in Chiapas, where you base your work, Roberto. Lenkersdorf joins de Certeau and others in noting how communication among the Tojolabal is based in complementarity, meaning each speaker and listener has subject-author position and no one is turned into an "object" of another's speech. This kind of "subject-to-subject" communication needs to be examined further by linguistic anthropologists and in particular, we need to see to what extent notions of complementarity" can be applied to U.S. based speech.

I also wanted to add that I find the idea of "participatory democracy" the single most important concept to come on to the American sociopolitical scene in 50 years. I agree that it will require establishing a firm foundation in intersubjectivity and that the U.S. is currently a long way from becoming an intersubjective society. But there are two developments that lend optimism to this project. One, there is movement afoot to introduce intersubjectivity into American schools. Roland Tharp is leading a team of scholars who have a book in press about this very thrust.

Second, and perhaps more intriguing from a theoretical perspective, there is growing recognition among some scholars that linguistic anthropology may soon have to reexamine its own precepts in light of its context of an increasingly multiethnic United States. Norma Mendoza-Denton (1999), Mary Beholds (1999), and others are now suggesting that neither category-based analysis nor interaction-based analysis is adequate to explain behavior in the shifting, complex context of communication in a multiethnic U.S.

Moving away from an object-based analysis, they seem to suggest that linguistic anthropology needs to start with a perspective that is "polysemic," meaning that any communication will submit of multiple meanings. Together, the work of Tharp and Mendoza-Denton suggest to me the origins of a theory base that will make intersubjectivity more commonplace in scholar ship in education and the social sciences.

Peter McLaren: Roberto, you mentioned accompaniment. What is that?

Roberto Flores: Oh yes, I forgot to mention accompaniment as one of the main ... . What the Zapatistas are saying is that with globalization the planet is one. That is that we are linked together much more closely than before. In short, we are all in the same neoliberal boat and encourage us to work together from our own rowing station or struggling trench.

Yesterday, Stoney, an ex-gang member from the El Sereno area of Los Angeles, who had managed to turn his life around and had dedicated his life to his wife and children was mortally shot coming out of La Panaderia on Huntington Drive. My daughter Rosarie and my son Quetzal went to school with Stoney. Stoney is at least the 20th youth to be shot to death by inter-EI Sereno rivalries among two gangs in the last five years.

Asistencialismo is an approach that denies many times hidden root cause and pays much more attention on the visible problem. Gang warfare, drug addiction, and alcoholism have devastated our communities, that is plainly visible. But how and why? Gang warfare like alcoholism and the illegal drug industry are certainly not the root cause but are reactions to a system that engenders self-hatred, is racist and discriminates, thrives on a certain percent of unemployment and low wage undignified work exploitation. Here in the U.S. one may not be dying physically of starvation due to extreme poverty but we are certainly dying of psychological starvation for identity and cultural nourishment.

One type of asistencialismo or supportism takes the form of solving problems with money and is related to the cultural practice of throwing money at our problems, buying solutions. While the root cause is the same, we, in the U.S., in the El Sereno area, have different types of particular problems than the starving and neglected indigenous. The absolutely indigent autonomous communities of Chiapas may be surrounded by 80,000 troops, but minorities in the U.S. are surrounded by a racist police force and 80 trillion bits of in formation that invade our initially innocent identities to inform us that we as minorities, as culturally different, are inferior, that we are nothing. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky suggests that we (in the U.S.) have no need to be surrounded by 80,000 troops to keep us in line because the powerful media and other consent manufacturing institutions such as education have meticulously placed a colonizing soldier in our mind.

When people from different parts of the world visit with the Zapatista, they from a very Western perspective frequently ask (at worst from a point of view of pity and superiority), what can we do to help you? How can we sup port you? The Zapatista answer is commonly, you can help by helping your self by struggling from your own foxhole. "We hear there are serious problems with your youth, gang warfare, drugs, with discrimination of minorities, particularly Indians and blacks, is that true? Is that true?" They are saying that we're going to walk together on this one.

According to yesterday's La Jornada, there are 3 million hard drug consumers in the U.S. The Zapatista movement is suggesting that we reconsider our situation and loss of dignity and struggle de nuestra propia trinchera (from our own trenches).

Acopañamiento or accompaniment is the alternative that Zapatismo is suggesting. Accompaniment is recognizing that people in the U.S. are differently oppressed. They are suggesting that we in the U.S. relook and rethink of sup port as part of an overall attitude projecting attitudes of superiority and arrogance. That we consider "support" as part of the colonial thinking that considers the poor and the different incapable of determining their own destiny, as helpless victims that can't solve their problems.

Peter McLaren: The proposal for autonomous communities sounds great but what are the chances of establishing an autonomous (intersubjective-based) community here in the U.S.? The indigenous communities are culturally rooted and go back at least 500 years. That is not the case here. Doesn't autonomy assume the existence of an already viable community?

Roberto Flores: Yes and no. First of all, it is true that one of the negative aspects of capitalism and today's globalization process has been engendering individual ism, negative competitiveness, poverty, and short-term residency and transience. These structures of oppression, in turn, have destroyed the essential fabric of community. Individualism has become so pervasive that it has even badly damaged immigrant and working-class communities that naturally have resisted this and would normally be open to more collectivity and cooperation. This fact, however, does not preclude the possibility of restoring the collective glue that plays such a crucial role in the reconstruction of community. In other words, this is what resistance and struggle are all about. Since when do movements for change accept the status quo? Well, I guess, that is the oxymoronic definition of liberal organizations for change that neither go to the source of the problem nor are they made of the community and part of a process that would simultaneously build community autonomy— the structures and source of permanent change. The main point here is that the initial phase of the autonomous-building process assumes the previous destruction or severe damage of community. As a matter of fact, autonomy is a response to the destructive forces of capitalism. The nonexistence of cohesive and developed communities does not preclude the possibility of creating but highlights their importance and urges their reconstruction. If and where there is already a de facto community, then the question is: "What type?" The method of building an autonomous effort entails rebuilding community by living it. That is, the process determines the quality of the outcome. In a situation of destroyed and politically abandoned communities, such as ELA, or South Central, oppressed people are left with the choice of either doing nothing or regaining dignity by rebuilding community, reconnecting with neighbors, coming together and organizing on economic issues such as absentee and abusive landlords, increases in rents, gang warfare, etc.

There are at least two types of outcomes from any struggle for dignity. One is the outcome that is directly related to the short-term acquisition of a particular need—what people normally call the goal. The other is what results from the process that one goes through to accomplish the goal. Most people call this the means. Neoliberalism, like most historical oppressive systems, takes the approach of the "means justify the ends." They negate the damage that is created in the process, pay little attention to process out comes, and focus in on short-term goals. To make a quick short-term profit, multinational corporations, let's say maquiladoras (sweatshops located at the border), wherever they exist, are willing to poison the water source, toxify the earth, and cause all kinds of abnormalities, human suffering, and pain. On the other hand, autonomy building is process oriented and it is long term. Let's take for instance the organization built for the purpose of freeing Mumia. The direct goal is freeing Mumia, but then there could be an other goal, which is building the type of organization necessary to free Mumia. All it means is that as you go through the process of struggle one needs to be conscious to deposit the learning from the process into building the relational and organizational structures necessary to struggle in general for any goal related to dignity. In the autonomous methodology, the process in many cases is more important than the direct goal.

Greg Tanaka: I think the question of whether it is possible to develop an autonomous community in the United States comes down to whether people can successfully reposition and locate members of formerly "dominant" cultures in places and identities that aren't based in superiority—whether in terms of race or gender or sexual orientation or the like. Giving all members of a community full voice is a process that I would call "resubjectification" in that it will involve helping people acquire the full subject-author position to tell their stories. On a more abstract level, this will mean pro posing an alternative theory base to neoliberalism, and that is what I see you doing. How then would this theory base of participatory democracy translate itself into live models for human social behavior—and what will be the role of schools in nurturing that transformation? I note with some irony that the idea of participatory democracy comes closer to the form of government that Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, and other "founding fathers" studied during the 1750s as the principle structural basis for the U.S. Constitution later. Educators and political scientists will want to examine more closely what Grinde and Johansen (1991) report about this "borrowing" from Native American law. It seems to me that the participatory practices of the Tojolabal closely resemble the historical (and current) practices of the Iroquois. This needs to be studied more deeply because, if true, it could mean that we have finally come full circle in that America ironically needs once again to turn to indigenous law in order to right itself.

Peter McLaren: When I talk to people about the idea of autonomy, people usually say, "It sounds great, but isn't a bit utopian?

Roberto Flores: Of course it's utopian in the sense that it has never been done this way before. Wasn't the end of slavery utopian in 1800, before any nation abolished slavery? Let's deal with the philosophical-ideological question of its possibility. First of all, we have to realize that control of media and discourse has as its ultimate purpose (beyond telling us what is and what isn't) of defining what is possible and what isn't possible. I believe that not only are the chances for building autonomous spaces great but everywhere people in their daily struggle are moving in the direction of autonomy de facto. That it may be an innovative system and one that is constructively critical because it is egalitarian is another question. Autonomy is utopian because there is no preconceived encl result. That is the autonomous method is caminando juntos not caminando adelante. Everyone needs to be at the same place in order to participate as equals. If something is preconceived by a few it is inevitably imposed.

Greg: I think Roberto is right. This does sound utopian. But I can report that there is at least one project in the U.S. that I myself worked on where one goal was to construct an intersubjective space. This was at Loyola Marymount University where I worked closely with quite a few campus leaders in an "action research mode" to create "the first intercultural university cam pus." The definition for interculturalism that we used closely matched the Tojolabal version of intersubjectivity: "a process of sharing and learning across cultures in which no one culture dominates." In the end, this project encountered the normal difficulties one would expect in any organizational change. Turf protection by administrators and faculty, petty jealousy by some minority leaders, and reluctance to participate by some white faculty members compounded the deeper problem of trying to find a new basis for identity for white students not based on race or race superiority (Tanaka, in press). The good news it that this project showed it is possible for leaders of an institution—its vice presidents, deans, student leaders, and others—to agree on a common goal of constructing a new community in no one culture would dominate. Whether this university ever reaches that goal is a matter that remains to be known and will be interesting to follow over the years.

Peter McLaren: I guess what makes many people doubt the viability of building autonomous communities is the independence and separatist aspects of autonomy. People get very nervous when they hear the word autonomy, which they equate with secession.

Roberto Flores: When most people hear the word "autonomy," especially coming from a Chicano or black, they immediately think of separatism and/or secession. The autonomy model that is being proposed is neither separatist nor attempting to secede. Autonomy is an attempt to develop spaces where op pressed people who have been abandoned and/or excluded from the overall political process of any nation can negotiate the redefinition of that national system so as to be integrated in a dignified manner, that is as they are and for who they are. Autonomy is based on international human rights and on the best and consistent parts of the constitution. such as, that all persons are created equal. An autonomous effort attempts to build an inclusive system or nation by developing the maximum negotiable strength and positioning the best position to renegotiate the social contract between government and civil society. It is true that it is not in the interest of oppressed people to continue with an exclusive system.

Greg Tanaka: I agree in part and disagree in part. As a third generation Japanese American, I have come to believe that existence in the United States is a matter of survival. So yes, one goal is to create safe spaces from which to negotiate change. That shouldn't in and of itself make people nervous. But at the same time, I have become more convinced than ever that true freedom will only come when members of oppressed groups can move out of binary opposition to dominant histories and discourse. In other words, we can either "resist" and achieve temporary relief or take on the task of "altering the mainstream," completely. The mere mention of the latter kind of transformation will make many people nervous. But I want to hasten to direct us here to the sage words of John Henrik Clarke who noted in "The Mighty Strong March" that the real path to social change lies in hard. quiet work in the trenches in a manner that yields more lasting success than the ego-gratifying initial strategy of protests, marches, and public speeches. What this means to me is that schools and universities can fulfill a crucial role by urging students to create new models for human daily practice that are intersubjective -- but in order to do this, its leaders have to be willing to do "the hard, quiet work."

Peter McLaren: But what does the transition to an alternative system look like? Doesn't building autonomous microsystems automatically assume the harmonious amalgamation of those mini-structures into some kind of nation-state?

Roberto Flores: Part of the problem with the classical Marxist approach is that it was preconceived, that it was already decided by a vanguard as to what type of alternative system was going to replace the capitalist system. The participation of the bottom was minimal. Socialism in many cases resulted because of imposition. Imposition from the top is the opposite of autonomy and participatory democracy. The Zapatistas say that the autonomous communities and organizations are the ante-sala (lobby) to an alternative democratic system. One of the long-term goals of the autonomous approach is the development of the experience in bottom-up democratic governance that this type of civic arrangement will provide. With the experience in questions of rebuilding the cultural foundations of a community, making decisions in its education, discussions and decisions on its infrastructure, participation on the type of water that it is receiving, organizing cooperatives as an overall effort to be come economically self-sufficient (autonomous), and all these matters and questions that the autonomous community will deal with, will give it the experience in participatory democracy and will prompt the community to organize structures of governance. This experience in inclusive participation will, in turn, allow it to participate in the overall development of a new type of nation state. Having a preconception of what that state will be and what it will look like is anxiety carried over from the vanguard days.

Greg Tanaka: I agree.

Peter McLaren: But isn't the system too powerful, and wouldn't an isolated autonomous community be so vulnerable that it would inevitably fall under the ideological, and cultural, and sometimes military blitz of neoliberalism?

Roberto Flores: That is a good question. The autonomous effort is an alternative way of living, one that is antithetical to all that neoliberalism promotes through economic policies, the media, education, politics, and culture. Autonomy is also the antidote to the ill effects (poisons) produced by neoliberalism. The economic interests in southern Mexico translate into billions of dollars in oil and other natural resources. The autonomous communities are no longer under the ideological control of large cattle ranchers and transnational coffee bean growers. So, from the beginning, the autonomous method and efforts need to be insulated. This insulation or incubation is the central strategic method to the sustainability and development of that autonomy. The Zapatista strategy includes not only internal structures that help protect it, but, national and international structures that extend the possibility of survival.

In addition, one of the positive outcomes of participatory democracy as an overall strategy is an even and universal development of leadership that en genders the direct involvement of civil society. On the other hand, the Foco-Guerrilla methods of the '60s and '70s does not seem to have the support of the Mexican people. What can the system do when you have a community with a new consensus of what and how things will be done and it refuses to be violent? Another tactic that provides needed incubation is the constitution in that the autonomous method is constitutionally based. It calls for the full implementation of communal land rights as articulated in the unadulterated initial constitution. It is also based on international law concerning the rights of minorities to self-determination; that is, it is not inherently illegal and therefore to an extent (in the eyes of the world) protected by both national and international law. Autonomy as a strategy is not for the armed struggle or the overthrow of the neoliberal system by force. The Zapatistas believe that force in any instance whether carried out by the left or the right is an imposition.

This, however, does not preclude armed struggle as self-defense. However, self-defense needs to be looked at in terms of place and time. Would armed self-defense cost them momentum and support? So far, the Zapatistas have not fired a shot since January 8, 1994, only eight days into the fighting. Al though the government has not detained themselves from the extensive forms of violence, the Zapatistas have refused to respond with armed self-defense.

Similarly, autonomy as a strategy may or may not include electoral politics. Electoral politics, perhaps the favorite strategic method for rights of liberals, is a tactical question for the Zapatistas. That electoral politics is a tactical question and as such part of a larger strategy was clearly revealed during Cuahtemoc Cardenas's bid for governor of Mexico City and the '97 and '98 gubernatorial elections in Chiapas. The Zapatista autonomous communities had internal voting on whether they should participate in the Chiapas elections for governor and statewide deputados. The autonomous communities voted not to participate. The reasons: First, it is commonly acknowledged that the indigenous communities' choice for governor in August 1994, Amado Avendano, had won the election but was taken away through electoral fraud. Second, the unarmed indigenous autonomous communities are surrounded by 80,000 troops or two-thirds of the Mexican Army. Are these conditions for fair and free elections? Third, the government doesn't abide by its own signed agreements. On February 16, 1996, the PRI government signed the Acuerdos de San Andres, Agreements on Culture and Rights of the Indigenous Communities which included autonomy. So the autonomous communities decided not to vote for anyone in the 1998 elections.

Autonomy, however, is also extralegal in the sense that the particular application of civil laws, the parallel structures, and the consensual legitimacy that the community would give itself are things that neoliberalism, capitalism, or any oppressive system has never encouraged nor systematically implemented. This is not to exclude the possibility of an autonomous community or region participating in civil disobedience, but it is, in the main, from the point of view of forcing government to do the right thing.

Autonomy builds an alternative system parallel to the old system, does not negate the existence of the old system, but builds the structures necessary to force it to carry out its written mandate and to adjust that written mandate to be consistent in the area of justice and human rights. Because the Zapatistas have based themselves on the most progressive aspects of the Mexican Constitution, they have been able to garner global support which in turn has insulated them and protected their existence, development, and expansion.

Greg Tanaka: One thing that is beginning to gain clarity in my own mind is the in creasing likelihood that the macro structures of neoliberalism may soon fall of their own weight. So rather than seeing autonomous communities as being vulnerable, it now seems possible we will need new models more than ever.

The WTO (World Trade Organization) protests in Seattle provide strong evidence of a growing public dissatisfaction with existing institutions -- with participation from a collaboration of people from quite different ideological persuasions. So the new question that arises for me is, "To which other models can we now turn before it is too late and the engines of neoliberalism representative democracy and market fundamentalism -- do crash? William Greider (2000), Susan George (1999), and others have warned, these large social institutions are closer than ever to breaking down. To avoid anarchy, or even worse, a police state, one could make the argument that participatory democracy and autonomous communities have the potential to fill the breach. The urgent question then would be whether reform-minded leaders will have enough time to debate, examine, and adapt such models to an increasingly complex American social and cultural landscape. This is where education can come in. In that education is about the production of knowledge, there is an opportunity here for truly positive and rewarding work to be done -- by students and teachers working together, caminando juntos.

Peter McLaren: I hope this discussion can be seen and taken as a continuation of a dialogue that very much needs to be had. There is no way that we can do justice to this subject in this limited space. We need more spaces.

Published in In Motion Magazine, April 10, 2002