Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Popular assembies are so...Popular

When the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) hit the news, everyone wanted a popular assembly of their own to foment revolution. They sprung up all over Mexico and in a few places in the US. Aside from the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Guerrero, where there is also a long and continuing history of autonomous governance by popular assembly, you don't hear much from them these days. But you'll read all about Guerrero's autonomy in practice on the Left Turn website soon enough thanks to the kind folks at Regeneracion Radio.

For now, let's talk about the APPO. I've been reading La Batalla por Oaxaca, a collection of articles written during and after the uprising. It really is a gem if you can read Spanish and want to learn about Oaxaca beyond the police riot and paramilitary free-for-all that dominated the headlines. For those of you who don't read Spanish, I've translated an insightful article by anthropologist Benjamin Maldonado about what is and is not a popular assembly.

One part of the article that really stands out is Maldonado's
discussion of the age-old question: "Which came first? The popular assembly or the uprising?" This certainly sounds like a no-brainer. We all know that the assembly was formed after a month-long teachers strike was violently broken up by Oaxacan police. But, given that popular assemblies shot up like dandelions in the wake of the APPO's founding, it's worth repeating Dr. Maldonado's wise words: "It's not the formation of an assembly that can foment a broad-based movement. Rather, a broad-based movement can foment an assembly." That said, we shouldn't be dismayed that the formation of numerous popular assemblies didn't spark continental (or even neighborhood) revolution. Forming an assembly does not replace getting to know your neighbors, agitating them, and then joining with them to fix whatever it is that makes them so agitated.

But certainly the most interesting part of this article has to be when Maldonado argues that the APPO is a departure from traditional Oaxacan community assemblies. What a renegade!

Most articles about the APPO have argued that its strength came from rich indigenous traditions of governance by popular assembly. These assemblies functioned by consensus, as does the APPO. As in the APPO, leaders lead by obeying, and leadership frequently changes to prevent a leader from assuming too much power (that is, any power at all over the assembly). But
Maldonado points out that what others have argued is its ancestral strength is in fact completely new terrain. The ancient tried-and-true assembly is territorial. It doesn't coordinate broad-based social movements; it coordinates daily activities within a territory like whose farm everyone will work on this week, who's going to keep watch, and how the new road is going to be constructed. That is, the stuff the government does now.

So how should the APPO organize itself for a sustained social movement? According to Maldonado, it should do exactly what many journalists report it is currently doing: organizing locally to strengthen its base. Every territory should organize an assembly, and the APPO should be an assembly of territorial assemblies that cut across associations based on trade, gender, or union membership. Then it'll move beyond what it was--that is, a coalition of various organizations--and become a real popular assembly.

The APPO as an Assembly
by Benjamin Maldonado A.

From the beginning, the recent social movement in Oaxaca has been defined by its participants as an assembly, which is interesting because since the '70s organizational convergences have been termed coalitions, fronts, unions, and, rarely, assemblies. And those which have been called assemblies have mainly been organizations of municipal authorities in indigenous regions, such as the Assembly of Mixe Authorities and the Assembly of Zapoteca and Chinanteca Authorities in the Sierra.

The differences between both assemblies and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) lie not only in their membership but also in the scope of its territory.

Because it's strange that the Oaxacan social movement headed by the teachers union would call itself an assembly without giving too much appreciation to its indigenous heritage, it becomes necessary to identify the origin of the proposal to name the movement "the APPO" and above all to broaden the scope of the definition of "assembly," and the latter is the focus of these brief reflections.

Point of Departure or Arrival

It seems to me that the creation of an Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca is the point of arrival where the popular movement could focus itself, and it is not a point of departure. In other words, it's not the formation of an assembly that can foment a broad-based movement. Rather, a broad-based movement can foment an assembly.

In this way, a powerful social movement's objective would be to achieve a social transformation that would be guaranteed by an assembly. This means to free a peaceful struggle (no necessarily violent) to achieve changes in the power structure, changes like substituting the state government based on the political party system with a popular assembly of Oaxacan people.

The work of said movement would be to impel conditions so that the Oaxacan people would be able to organize itself as communities and then as an assembly of communities, to be able to struggle because that new coordinating assembly would be an organization of power.

That is medium- and long-term work. Currently the APPO appears to be better defined as a coalition or a front of organizations that struggles to be able to have organic life and that has the goal of dismissing the governor.

The Territory Question

A community assembly is a means by which the citizens of a perfectly delineated, concrete territory exercise power. That is the principal characteristic of a community assembly, and that is the assembly model to which the majority of Oaxacans are historically accustomed: power in a space, not as a landless exercise, not as a way for people to control people or institutions, but rather as people organizing the way of life in a territory, or to be more exact, people organizing their own lives in their own territory.

So, the political exercise that countless generations of Oaxacans are a part of is a localized exercise. The landless experience, such as that of groups of people organized by interest (such as artisans' groups or producers' unions), is also strongly present in the teachers union, social organizations, producers' groups, unions, civil society--those for whom the assembly is their way of organizing. But the assembly does not form part of the socio-political structure of the community.

The assembly as a means of coordination and not as a means of governing a territory lies in the community organizations and not in the organization of the community, which is certainly an important, growing experience, but one that is more recent.

In sum, calling the APPO an assembly appears to come from an innovative interest in articulating the Oaxacan social movement, but it's still not clear what influence the majority of Oaxacan's historical practice of community power has.
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