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Open futures: struggles from below

They do not ask for permission, but they do things. Structural adjustment policies have increased urban slums worldwide; it is time to recognize development innovation from the ground up.

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The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Bees networking. Bees networking. Flickr. Some rights reserved.At certain times and places, the future appears without alternatives, predestined or predetermined, closed and with no other options even imaginable. Royal dynasties have ruled entire countries over generations without major challenges. The same assumptions about the proper forms of government and social organization have held sway across centuries. Yet at other times and places, history has become more fluid, futures have opened up, alternatives have become imaginable, sometimes all of a sudden. 

A global sociology oriented at the possibilities for a better world can learn from attentive listening to the voices of discontent, resistance, struggle, and transformation. Much of the challenge comes from the grassroots, and not only from the Global North, but also from the Global South. As postcolonial scholars such as Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar, Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, or Boaventura de Sousa Santos have urged, we need a plural epistemology of diverse knowledges. Despite their appealing parsimony, unilinear models do not describe history as we know it, nor the futures we aspire to. Transversal concepts appear a better fit to muddy and often contentious realities. Meanwhile, the democratizing of futures depends on dialogues about alternative visions.

In this era of advanced globalization, the contractions and expansions of social imaginaries appear frequently in broader waves. This is so because ideas do not stop at borders. However, global diffusion itself is not new, as demonstrated for example by today’s world religions that are products of global diffusion over centuries. A difference between then and now is an immense acceleration via faster means of transportation and communication, which in turn can facilitate more intense interaction not only among the elites of international diplomacy and transnational corporations, but also among the grassroots actors of civil society. 

The 1980s saw dictatorships across Eastern Europe and Latin America crumbling. The rise of civil society and the transition from authoritarian rule in one country had an encouraging effect on neighbors. Yet, the space of the political was so curtailed that economic decision-making was often pursued as a merely technocratic matter. The Pinochet regime provided an early laboratory for the neoliberal agenda, which soontook hold in the US under Reagan and in the UK under Thatcher, spreading from there to the greater part of the world. The IMF and the World Bank often worked hand in hand with national elites to impose structural adjustment programs, irrespective of their form of political organization.

The term neoliberalism is of course a bit of a misnomer. The term was coined to refer to the resurgence of once discarded free market doctrines. Those models of a New Deal, Great Society, and strong welfare states that had replaced earlier pure market ideologies came severely under attack in the late 1970s and 1980s. Milton Friedman’s approach to economics became a cornerstone for the new thinking. Having failed to democratize production and a broader sharing of productivity gains, the social democratic parties in power at the time could no longer rely on growth to finance redistributive measures. 

Neoliberalism refers to the liberalization of capital markets and the abolition of regulations that impeded corporate interests. Yet, it typically did not remove the manifold restrictions on collective bargaining. Quite the contrary. New regulations were devised to weaken unions of workers while stripping away their defences. Neoliberal trade agreements facilitated the free flow of capital across borders while maintaining their restraint on the freedom of workers. Migration policies in the rich countries of the Global North labeled the millions of “undocumented” migrants from the Global South “illegal”, thereby allowing their enhanced exploitation and feeding national and ethnic cleavages. 

A key argument for neoliberal reforms was that an expanding welfare state would be too costly for a country, and that the resulting levels of taxation would scare away the investment capital needed for generating jobs. In the wake of Reagan and Thatcher, the 1980s saw a slicing away of welfare state achievements. Austerity measures financed tax reductions that were especially beneficial to the wealthiest. Consequently, socioeconomic inequality increased in countries subjected to neoliberal reforms. This is well documented, most recently in the masterful work of Thomas Picketty.

Yet, the hegemony of the neoliberal agenda met with resistance. Austerity measures along with the de-socialization of water and other natural resources provoked massive protests in South American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Popular unrest gave way to the ‘pink tide’, the election of a new brand of populist governments in most of the region. 

In contrast, the increasing income inequality in the United States was buffered by the widespread availability of loans via credit cards and mortgages. Domestic consumption kept the economy growing until trust in the sustainability of this scheme imploded in the Great Recession of 2007 when lenders who were overexposed in the subprime loan markets started to collapse. Banks were bailed out in a massive spending spree, while more austerity measures were imposed on ordinary people. This eventually provoked the protests of the indignados in Europe and let to the rise of Occupy Wall Street across the United States. 

The protests of the indignados in southern Europe and of the Occupy movement took immediate inspiration from the wave of uprisings in the Arab world. They also connected to the alter-globalization movement of the 1990s, when the massive protests in Seattle, Genoa, Prague and other summit cities challenged the neoliberal mode of globalization and its Washington-centered institutional backbone, until the post-9/11 War on Terror shifted the agenda again, allowing cover for yet harsher state repression.

To govern by obeying

A key source of inspiration for the alter-globalization movement was the Zapatistas. It was on the very same day that NAFTA, the North American free Trade Agreement took effect (on January 1, 1994) that some 3,000 indigenous peasants rose up in arms against the Mexican government’s authoritarian imposition of a neoliberal development project that threatened to convert rural subsistence farmers into a slum-dwelling urban proletariat. The Zapatista critique of neoliberalism became a central reference point of the alter-globalization movement. Over the years, the Zapatistas managed to surprise time and again with creative activities that connected local struggles with national and even transnational movements. And over two decades after the initial uprising, the Zapatistas have built communities of resistance with a whole new generation of activists struggling for alternative futures with dignity. 

Although the mass media spotlight has turned away from Chiapas, it would be a mistake to think the Zapatista movement had withered away. The rebellion continues, albeit in changing ways.  The insurgent Mayan communities have established their own autonomous municipalities where they experiment with grassroots forms of self-governance. The rotating delegates of the local and regional boards are bound by the principle of “mandar-obedeciendo”, i.e. to govern by obeying. In December 2012, the Zapatistas displayed their strength by mobilizing tens of thousands in a silent march through San Cristobal de las Casas, the major city in the highlands. 

In another recent initiative, the Zapatistas invited visitors to their communities to learn what they mean by freedom. Their “Little Schools” (escuelitas) turned the tables: the world was invited not to teach the indigenous about development but rather the other way around, to see, listen, and learn from their experience, how to carve out a social alternative, how to create participatory structures of autonomous self-governance. The “escuelitas” were not for big speeches on high podiums but for first-hand learning from their lived practices of daily resistance. Several thousand people of all ages traveled from across Mexico and countries around the world to participate in several rounds of these seminars. They included activists, artists, intellectuals, farm workers, musicians, poets, street vendors, students, and sympathizers from diverse walks of life. Common meetings provided opportunities for questions and answers about the Zapatistas’ visions and guiding principles. But the main part of learning took place in the communities who had prepared the visits over several months. Each student was provided with a Votán, or guardian and tutor, as an embodiment of the community. “There is not one teacher,” explained Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatistas’ spokesperson, “but rather a collective that teaches, that shows, that forms, and in it and through it, the person learns, and thus also teaches.”

The story of one of the guardians, a young Tzotzil, stands for the experience of many in his generation. Having obtained two years of secondary schooling, he was now himself teaching in the community’s own elementary school. He had experienced a different way of life in Cancún. Allured by the prospect of earning money, he had gone to the big city and secured jobs in construction, restaurants, and hotels. He described his fascination with the splendor of the city’s shiny-white mansions and resort complexes but also how he witnessed the abject poverty of the majority population just a few blocks away from the coastal strip and the wealthy neighborhoods. He endured for over a year this way of life in the cash economy, being bossed around, often being cheated of tips, sometimes of wages too. In the end, he had enough and returned to his community. He preferred dignity over discipline, community over competition.

Community schooling

Two decades after the uprising, an autonomous school system is now in place, in which the Zapatista communities define the curriculum according to their needs, values, and priorities.  They started by building a secondary school in one of the regional centers, where students would typically stay for two-week periods, due to the often-lengthy commutes. Then elementary schools were established at the local community level, taught by those with at least some schooling.  The Zapatistas consider this system far superior to the official schools run by the government with teachers who often do not speak the local language and feel humiliated at being sent to remote locations away from family and urban amenities. The Zapatista teachers prefer to be called promoters of education because they reject the conventional top-down approach of instruction in favor of a more cooperative way of learning together. Their teaching is unsalaried. The community provides accommodation, food, time-off from communal works, and a small allowance for clothing. 

Sharing life in a community includes working in the fields, planting vegetables, picking fruits, swimming and washing clothes, preparing food, eating together, singing songs and telling stories. If assessed by material measures, the living standard of the community where I stayed in the summer was quite poor. The adobe huts were simple and had only barren floors. There were neither modern appliances nor access to the electric grid. On the other hand, there were many advantages too. The setting was tranquil, well away from noisy highways or polluting industries.  A nearby stream provided fresh running water. The diet consisted mainly of corn tortilla, rice, beans, vegetables, occasionally an egg, but usually neither meat nor commercial soda. Largely locally produced, it was fresh, organic, and flavorsome. Perhaps most important, the community showed a strong sense of dignity and took pride in their autonomy. 

A major transformation has occurred in gender relations. The Revolutionary Women’s Law promoted gender equality. As this constituted a break with deeply rooted patriarchy, some communities adopted it faster than others. Faced with the high expenses for transportation and food, families living far from the secondary school may send only their son but not their daughter, thus reproducing imbalances. However, there are many signs that the younger generation is embracing gender equality more readily. For example, young men no longer consider the washing of clothes to be a woman’s task but can be seen doing laundry themselves.  Likewise, an increasing number of women serve as promoters of education and health and on the self-governance boards.

Resistance and sociology

The Mexican government’s strategic response to the Zapatistas has changed over time. It halted its early military campaigns after massive protests across Mexico and abroad. More recently, the government sponsored the construction of a Rural Sustainable City and an assembly plant right next to Zapatista strongholds. Yet, the promised jobs that might have lured peasants into abandoning their land quickly disappeared when the subsidies ran out, and the brand-new, brightly painted houses are mostly vacant, as they were deemed deficient in construction. While there are currently no army incursions into the communities, there are worries over low-altitude overflights by military airplanes. The Zapatistas consider the current Mexican president as having come to power only thanks to an unfair election system and massive media bias. The political system is in the Zapatistas’ view so corrupted that they refuse to cooperate with any of the political parties. The recent massacre of 43 students from a progressive teachers college in the state of Guerrero underscores the deep-rooted institutional malaise.

The Zapatistas’ resistance is simultaneously political, economic, social, and cultural. It is about making self-governance and subsistence work, creating a social model with inherent appeal.  Their answer to the question of social justice starts with freedom. They do not ask for permission, but they do things. Structural adjustment policies have increased urban slums worldwide; it is time to recognize development innovation from the ground up. A sociology with global aspirations and attuned to the problems of inequality can benefit from close listening to the voices at the grassroots in the peripheries of the Global South. 

Sociology can learn from these and other struggles about the malleability of futures. What defines the horizon of social imaginaries? How do assumptions and aspirations about the future influence daily routines and long-term collective lives? How do we need to rethink democracy in the age of advanced globalization? How can pressing problems such as global climate change, environmental degradation, hunger or violence be tackled in sustainable ways? What is to be done to democratize governance, infrastructure, production, media, and technology? How can the distribution of goods, risks and opportunities be made more equitable? How are different forces positioned to shape futures? What can be learned by comparing social struggles in different countries and settings?

How do emancipatory movements and everyday practices at the grassroots resist discipline, exploitation, and misrecognition? What visions for alternative futures are imaginable, desirable, and achievable? What are the roadmaps for social transformation? How can future-oriented social research relate to broader public debates? How do the social actors in a globalizing world debate the tasks and priorities?  How do social actors in different walks of life imagine desirable futures and the path toward them? How can the envisioning and the making of futures be democratized?  

By engaging with these and many other critical questions, an attentive sociology can contribute to the debates across borders about how to open up futures with alternative possibilities for a better world.  

How to cite:
Schulz M. S. (2015) «Open futures: struggles from below», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 17 March. https://opendemocracy.net/markus-s-schulz/open-futures-struggles-from-below-0
About the author

Markus S. Schulz is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and International Sociological Association (ISA) Vice-President for Research. He is organizing the Third ISA Forum of Sociology in Vienna, 10-14 July 2016 on the theme “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World.” 

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