See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) books we recommend

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Interview with Gustavo Esteva
The Society of the Different

Part 3:
Regenerating Community / A Political Alternative

Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico

Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Gustavo Esteva at the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Mexico City - as depicted by muralist Diego Rivera
The original "City of Palaces" (referred to in this section of the interview) and lakes - Mexico City - as depicted by muralist Diego Rivera on the inside walls of the National Palace in Mexico City.
Oventic, Chiapas.
A Zapatista mural. Oventic, Chiapas.
Zapatista sign.
Zapatista sign near San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas.
Removal of the original historic paving stones in Oaxaca's zocalo
In a move that has lead to much grassroots community protest, the government of Oaxaca ordered the removal of the original historic paving stones in Oaxaca's zocalo and replaced them with new paving stones.
Gustavo Esteva is an author, a local and international “grassroots activist and de-professionalized intellectual”, and a founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is also a former corporate executive, a former guerrilla, a former high-ranking official in the government of President Echeverría, and an advisor with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas for the negotiations with the government. This interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on September 6 and 7, 2005 in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The interview is presented in three parts and followed by a lecture given by Professor Esteva to a group of university students visiting Oaxaca from the United States. 1 | 2 | 4

Human rights are associated with the law

In Motion Magazine: You spoke earlier of rights and obligations in the context of democracy and power. Also, in one of your books “Grassroots Post-Modernism / Remaking the Soil of Cultures” (by Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash), you discussed the history of the human rights movement, it’s positive and negative aspects. Could you please talk some more about that?

Gustavo Esteva: Well, I have been part of this struggle, using human rights against the ordinary abuses committed by authorities at every level, particularly in Oaxaca and Chiapas, and I can see the advantages of using legal tools against these authorities. We have had some important successes. And I can see that even the Zapatistas have been using, in the name of human rights, people coming as a kind of shield into the Zapatista area to prevent the aggression by the government, the army, etcetera.

But, the main problem is the whole system of human rights is associated with the law. You cannot talk about human rights and use human rights unless you can find human rights in the law of the country and in international law. I see the law itself as a power abuse. It was imposed on us. It is not the democratic expression of our will. It is not a social pact among the Mexicans. It is a law imposed on us by a small elite. Of course, I can use the law against them – that means the second level of power abuse. If the law was a power abuse, now they are failing to apply the law that they themselves created.

The values of individualism

My main problem with human rights has two aspects. One, is the idea of the universality of human rights. I can see very well the function of human rights in Europe when they were created, and in other parts of the world, where you have this society of individuals. The individuals have already been created and there was every kind of abuse against them. Human rights have been a very effective and important and interesting umbrella of protection for these conditions of the citizens. The problem is when you talk about universality and then you bring human rights to the communities where we are struggling against individualism. When you accept, for very good reasons, to protect the people in the community against the abuses of authorities, you accept the idea of human rights. The implication is that you can’t have in your own place an equivalent for the protection of the people of the community – that the morality of human rights is higher or superior, of a better quality, than the morality in the community.

And two very damaging impacts are produced that way (the two aspects mentioned earlier). First, the disqualification of the internal morality. Second, and this is the most terrible element, the individualization of the people. All the rights are individual rights. Through acceptance of the use of the human rights you are bringing the values of individualism.

Applying traditional justice

I am using, all the time, examples. A municipal president very near Oaxaca, in Huayapam, twenty minutes from here, told me a few years ago, “I can no longer apply justice in my village because a human rights activist is stopping me from doing that in the name of human rights.” We have not hundreds but thousands of examples of people in trouble because of applying the traditional justice. They are in trouble in the name of human rights. Perhaps a few examples can illustrate the point.

I mentioned before, in 1998 in Oaxaca, there were 700 municipal authorities in jail in the name of human rights. One example that became very famous, because it illustrates the point very, very well, is that one guy presented a claim to the village authority saying that his neighbor destroyed his milpa (corn field). The authority called this guy and said, “OK, according with norms of the community you need to pay to your neighbor the damage you did to his milpa.” Then he said “But I don’t have money.” “No, but you have a burro. You can give your burro to pay the damage in the milpa.” And he said, “Well, OK, I can give my burro.” But then the neighbor said, “But I have a burro. I don’t want a burro.” So, the authority in a very normal and fair way said, “OK, I’ll take the burro and sell the burro and I’ll give you the money for the burro.” And everyone was happy with the arrangement. That was the traditional arrangement of the conflict.

But then this guy came to the city of Oaxaca and he has a cousin who is a lawyer. And the lawyer told him, “You are stupid. They violated your human rights. You have the right for a fair trial. You have all these rights. I will present a claim.” The authority was accused of rustling and he was in jail because of that.

Compensation and responsibility

We have in Oaxaca, in at least half of the 12,000 communities of Oaxaca, traditional justice. When a person commits a serious crime, not destroying a milpa, something more serious, killing someone for example, the main question is, he is a person in need of consolation, not of punishment. What they do, to the irritation of human rights activists, is, first of all, tie the person to a tree. It is not punishment. It is just to bring the elders of the village to talk with him. The assumption is that he is out of his mind and they need to bring him back from his delirium, to talk with him to understand what happened.

Then, after they talk with him, they liberate him. He is free and everybody knows -- no one needs to tell him anything -- everybody knows in the village what is the next step. The next step is, again, not punishment but compensation to the victim. This guy has for the rest of his life the economic responsibility for the family of the dead person. Usually he becomes a very good citizen because he has two families on his shoulders. And, perhaps, because of this obligation he can go to the U.S. and work to send money for his two families. The beautiful thing of this is he is free. He can go around. He can go to San Diego and bring his own family with him to live with him, or to Mexico City, or wherever. But for him to abandon the responsibility, to fail to fulfill this responsibility, will be worse than jail or death. For the rest of his life he is doing that. That is justice that includes no lawyers, no law, no tribunals. Society is not paying for the problem. No jail. Not anything. I think it is a very wise solution for everyone, including the full rehabilitation of the person committing the terrible crime. But this includes full violation of many different human rights.

Not to compare, just to show the difference

Of course, I am not preaching about this system. It is beautiful but you cannot apply this in the city of Oaxaca. You cannot apply this in Mexico City. You cannot apply it in the modern society. You do this with a criminal and he leaves the place, no problem. He moves to the next city and that’s it. You don’t have anything like the community and this feeling that you are the community.

I am not saying that this morality or this system should be applied in other places. What I am arguing is that in those places human rights has nothing to do. This morality is a very good system of morality. When we see the arguments, the arguments against the dowry deaths in India, and the problems with clitorectomy in Africa where they manipulate the genitals of the women, this all the time in the name of human rights protecting the people, assumes that the people have no internal morality to deal with this problem. I think that we have in our cultures tools that are equivalent to human rights.

In fact, we had a beautiful project to not compare but just to show the difference. I think that human rights are a system of a specific morality within a specific value for certain societies. For example, in correlation to what Ramon Pannikar calls the homeomorphic equivalent of human rights in India, there is Dharma. Dharma is the opposite to human rights. It is a set of obligations. It is not rights but obligations. But Dharma fulfils exactly the same functions as human rights in the context of India. It is a clear equivalent.

We have the same thing here in Oaxaca. We call it “comunalidad” (in English it would be the combination of “commons” and “polity”). It has the same function as human rights but with a different idea, with the idea of obligations not of rights. In fact, the very idea of rights is a very Western idea that does not belong to our tradition. (As I mentioned earlier,) the word “community” means, “people linked by obligations” in Latin. In Rome, that was the tradition. The idea of rights is something very recent. Once you have a collection of separated individuals, then you have the question of rights. I see a problem in the universality of human rights and an un-critical use of human rights.

A more profound reflection

Let me mention a story. The second round of negotiations with the government in Chiapas with the Zapatistas was about the reform of the state. It failed completely. Well, there was a session for human rights, basically with people who were activists in human rights. Half of them were people in the office in the city, presenting all the claims to the lawyers, etcetera. And the other half of the participants were people going to the villages, or living in the villages, or people from the village themselves.

The coordinator of that area knew my position and asked me to go and present my views to that session. I knew what would happen but not exactly how it would evolve. I came and I said more or less what I am telling you. And there was big, big trouble in the session. There was a very clear division. The people in the offices, the lawyers, etcetera, they were furious, absolutely furious. Even, someone went to Subcomandante Marcos to accuse me and denounce me because now, they say, they have the pressure of the army and the government and now the pressure of people like me boycotting their work, their marvelous work. But the people working in the villages started to say, “Yes, that is right, exactly. We are having trouble. We are having many problems because of the individual, and all these things.”

At the end, the conclusion of the Zapatistas, after listening to the whole discussion, was a very wise conclusion. Yes, we need to continue using the human rights stuff, but we need to seriously consider, critically, the whole thing and to have a more profound reflection on what is happening; what is the impact of human rights in our communities. It was the main conclusion of that session.

The Cardenas agrarian reform / the Green Revolution

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about the Green Revolution and its role in what you call the social majority countries? How does the whole idea of the commons, as people moved into the cities, translate into how they function in the cities once the Green Revolution has had its effect?

Gustavo Esteva: The Green Revolution was born here and it was clearly a device for a political purpose.

You know that we had this revolutionary regime of President Cardenas from 1934 to 1940 when we had a real agrarian reform, meaning half of the land, by the end of the regime, was given to the peasants, the Indians in the indigenous communities, as well as the expropriation of the oil industry. We had many advanced reforms in those years, including the change of one article in the constitution about education to talk about socialist education in Mexico. It was a very advanced, a very progressive regime, in terms of the revolution of 1910.

That was too much near the United States in the middle of the World War. In 1940, not only was there a lot of pressure to change the candidate for the new president who was an even more progressive individual, and then to put in a rather conservative general, but also, the day he took office, Vice President Wallace of the United States came to Mexico and stayed three days talking with the new president.

They made an agreement and after that agreement two things happened. First, the (U.S.) State department sent a group of sociologists to study the whole agrarian situation in Mexico, three brilliant sociologists who produced magnificent books, the best history on rural Mexico, after three years of work, with all the facilities of the government. And second, U.S. funds, the Rockefeller Foundation, were paying the cost of a whole section in the Ministry of Agriculture. Usually, foundations don’t give money for the government. The foundation was paying for the department that was doing advanced agricultural research and this research was to create new seeds, the elements of the Green Revolution, the modernization of Mexican agriculture.

A political buffer between the U.S. and Mexico

But let me say something, you have here (drawing a map) Mexico. The agrarian reform was here, in the center and the south of Mexico. Here, in these states in the north of Mexico there was almost nothing, in terms of agrarian reform. Meaning, in this state, that is Sonora, here, you have only 6% of the land in collective or communal hands. In places like Oaxaca, today, 85% of the land is communal land, in the hands of the communities. In many places, here, you have the highest proportion of collective communal land. But in the states of this kind, you have only 6%.

Here (in the north), you still had in the early ’40s some big landowners and you had a new class of farmers, middle-size farms, and agribusiness people -- progressive people, in the eyes of the Americans. While here (in the south) you had the “revolutionary, dangerous communists” trying to have collective and communal land and struggling against private property.

Through this agreement with the Rockefeller Foundation, bringing some researchers and experts in American agriculture, they produced a Green Revolution concentrated in the north, with the whole package of seeds, fertilizers, tractors, irrigation, etcetera.

Let me give you a very clear example. Here (on the map), in Chiapas, you have 43% of the hydrologic resources of the country. There is a lot of water, a source for electricity, for everything. You have lots of water here. But here in Sonora, it is a desert. You don’t have water. Well, they created magnificent dams, gigantic dams, and brought water for kilometers of distance to create irrigated land in the middle of the desert. It was something like Israel. In all this area they put the whole package of irrigation, fertilizers, and miracle seeds with private owners. They concentrated on wheat -- “Corn is not our cultivation, it is not our crop, it is wheat” -- to promote the production of wheat in commercial terms in the north of the country. The Green Revolution was for a lot of time concentrated here. What they were doing was creating a political buffer between the United States and Mexico.

In Motion Magazine: In what years did this occur?

Gustavo Esteva: The agreement was 1940. The research project started immediately. Two years later they had the first results. Then, in the next ten years, the ’40s and early ’50s, you have the first impact of the Green Revolution, meaning promoting in all of this area the establishment of both the seeds, the chemicals, the fertilizers, the dams, the irrigation projects, etcetera.

The idea of the Green Revolution means that you create, artificially, first the seeds, the hybrids, and then the industrialization of agriculture. But, the magic of the miracle seeds cannot operate but in the theoretical conditions of the lab, and the conditions include the whole package, that is chemicals, fertilizers, irrigation, all this. All this requires a big investment of the government, subsidies, and credit. The government created all these packages to produce this buffer.

The closure of the commons

Let me also mention that the agronomists, in the time of Cardenas, were basically working with the peasants and with corn. Of course, the peasants needed to improve their yields, the ways of production. They knew a lot but they needed to improve those yields and to use modern science to see what you can use for the benefit of your activities. That was not the idea here. Here it was importing completely a whole system of knowledge, a whole operational system, to create this modern agriculture with technical, economic, and political functions.

Very much later, ten years later, they started to work with corn. We discussed earlier something about corn, in that it has a very short range of application but you have different varieties. The whole Green Revolution with corn had experimental fields in only four places in the whole country. They were producing standard seeds. Very standard seeds. And these seeds cannot be applied to the real conditions of the campesinos. This is to transform, to create modern agriculture to modernize agriculture and, of course, with the obsession of sending the people to the cities for the modernization of the cities.

A story may illustrate well the difference. In 1937, when I was one year old, the architects had a big meeting -- the architects love to foresee the future, to plan the future for mankind. They had studies fifty years ahead. They came with President Cardenas, and they urged President Cardenas, “President, you need to do something immediately. If we don’t have your immediate intervention this beautiful city, Mexico City, the City of the Palaces, will become a horrible monster, in fifty years, in 1987, an urban monster of two million inhabitants.” Two million, that was a horrible monster!

In 1950, after President Truman coined the word “underdevelopment” and launched development as an emblem of their hegemony, with the new President Miguel Aleman (president: 1946-1952), who was a developer, who was involved with the Green Revolution, etcetera, well, these same architects came to this new president to help. How they can help to bring as quickly as possible, Mexico City, to five million inhabitants to produce the growth of Mexico City? How they will plan the whole city with new developments? That was the obsession, to put the people out of the countryside, to bring them to the cities for the organization and industrialization. They had learned the lessons of history. They knew that capitalism started in England with the closure of the commons, etcetera, etcetera, and that that created a horrible human tragedy. The people of Europe were forced to migrate to the United States because there were too many of them to be absorbed by the cities and by industry. Now they knew how to do everything without this tragic condition.

The devastation of the countryside

In a very concrete sense, they succeeded in that they were punishing the countryside. They were literally expelling the people from out of the countryside through the destruction of the soil and the forests. Also, this is where the history of the cow comes in, through the dissemination and production of cattle that was also associated with the Green Revolution in Mexico. In Mexico you have the grains and you have the cattle -- two pillars for the operation.

The cattle growing in Mexico had a specific importance because there was a loophole in the constitution and the agrarian law implying there is a very clear limit for private property for agricultural land. You cannot have more than a hundred hectares of irrigated land and no more than 400 hectares of bad land in the hills. But you can have as much land as you need if you have cattle. The maximum number of cattle you can have is 500 cattle heads but you may need 50,000 hectares for 500 cattle heads in some areas -- or you can say that you need. Many of the hacendados, the landowners used the loophole in the constitution to keep their big properties, to prevent agrarian reform.

Bringing cattle and destroying good agricultural land for cattle, or in the other areas the Green Revolution, through this combination, after the regime of Cardenas, we had the devastation of the countryside. And the figures are very clear. In 1945, we had 75% of the population in the countryside, that’s 25% in the cities. In 2005, we have 63% of the people in the cities and 27% of the people in the countryside. At the same time, they failed because we have now more campesinos than ever in Mexico.

To eliminate the campesinos

It has been the real obsession of the government to eliminate the campesinos. It was absolutely an explicit decision of every president.

In 1976, the President that I did not want to become a minister with, Jose Lopez Portillo (president: 1976-1982), after Echeverría (president: 1970-1976), his personal obsession was, and he was saying in the campaign when we were having discussions, “We cannot be a modern country with 25 million campesinos, when we have 20%, or 25%, or 30% of the people in the countryside. The model is the United States. In the United States you produce food for the world with 2.5% of the people in farming. That is the model. That is the thing to do. We need to put the people out of this activity for a real modernization of agriculture.”

Again, I can mention this through anecdotes that can illustrate the point. In 1991, at three years, the mid-term of Salinas (Carlos Salinas de Gortari, president: 1988-1994), professor Hank Gonzalez, a prominent Mexican politician, declared in Hermosillo, in Sonora in the north of Mexico, “My goal as Minister of Agriculture is to put 10 million peasants out of the countryside.” The journalists asked him, “And what will you do with them?” He answered, “That is not my area of work. I put them out and someone else will take care of them.” Of course, no one took care of them. They have been systematically trying to do this.

The current Minister of Agriculture, Mr. (Javier) Usabiaga, six days after he took office in the year 2000, he declared that his goal was to put 20 million peasants out of the countryside. It is an increased goal. “They cannot be profitable. It cannot be good for the country to have so many peasants. They need to abandon their agriculture and absolutely to abandon the cultivation of corn.” This is the obsession.

Sometimes, even Mr. Fox (Vicente Fox Quesada, president: 2000-) as a candidate declared that perhaps they can be gardeners in Texas. Anything is better than continuing to do this stupid activity of producing corn for their families. To do what you have in your photos with this woman. This is a very clear obsession of this government. The Green Revolution was explicitly at the service of this operation.

But, I think the most important point was to create a political buffer. “We don’t want the contamination of revolutionary Mexico to spread to the United States.” To create two Mexicos: a northern, modern, and “progressive” Mexico between the Red states and the U.S.

Of course, you cannot continue doing that. The hybrids clearly illustrate very well the point. You cannot have the qualities of the hybrid reproduced by itself. You need to create the hybrids every year. The sterility of the regime is a metaphor for its condition. It cannot be sustained. It implies terrible damage for the soil, for the people, for everything. It is not the best but the worst kind of regime that we have ever had.

Ruralization of the cities

In Motion Magazine: The people that ended up in the cities, did they bring the idea of the commons with them?

Gustavo Esteva: It is the only explanation I have as to why they have not killed each other in places like Mexico City, this monster of 20 million people. It is because we have what I am calling the ruralization of the cities, in the sense that the only possibility of survival for them in the cities was to recreate, regenerate their communities. They created new commons in Mexico City and all the other big cities in Mexico.

They have the tradition of invading land and occupying it and creating life with the land. Half of the cities in Mexico have been created by the people themselves. First, invading illegally the land, occupying the land, struggling for it. Then, after that, producing their own services.

One example, Ciudad Nezahualco’yotl, is now part of Mexico City. In 1970, it had 30,000 people. Today it has 4 million people. The people occupied the land or bought it at very low prices, sold by developers who often illegally occupied the land and offered no services. Two million people came in a period of six to eight years and they did everything by themselves. At one point in 1972, I did a study, it was fantastic. They were stealing their electricity -- two million people. They had webs like a magnificent spider covering the whole city. Every family had its own wire to capture, to steal the electricity from the cables. To recognize the cable, because you can have some problems, you can see everywhere hundreds, thousands of wires with a specific mark. These cables have a few socks. Others have pieces of dolls. Every family knew exactly which was its wire, to steal electricity. And to have water. It was amazing. This activity, of course, recreated, regenerated community. They can live together and they can recreate their own tradition.

I must tell you that in Ciudad Nezahualco’yotl, this place I am mentioning, it’s now absorbed by Mexico City but it is a municipality by itself, 18% of the people are people from Oaxaca. They control the political life of Ciudad Nezahualco’yotl, this 18%. Usually, they have a Oaxaca person in every party as a candidate. That way, a person from Oaxaca will win the election every three years. They are very active and they have this power because of the communities. They recreate the unity and strength of these communities.

Even, you can have these communities in downtown Mexico City. I have many stories, particularly after the earthquake in 1985, of how they expressed a fantastic autonomy in downtown Mexico City, of how in downtown Mexico City you have communities regenerated.

The visibility of social majorities

In Motion Magazine: And you think that can translate into support for the Zapatistas?

Gustavo Esteva: You have there people who are expressing their own autonomy and are absolutely with the Zapatistas and supporting the Zapatistas. There are many, many examples in Mexico City and other big cities of people who have the same tradition, the same orientation, and the same attitudes that until now they did not have any way to express politically, at the level of the society -- their own position. They were in that sense marginals.

Living in Mexico, the tradition is, “If you want to be active politically you need to be part of a political party. You need to be a representative, or a leader of a union.” These kinds of things. It is only through the Zapatistas that we are expressing, in a different way, our collective will.

We have had many different ways, many expressions. In 1985 we expressed our autonomy, we expressed our ways, with magnificent organizations in the cities and the countryside but no political expression of this attitude had any legitimacy and visibility. When I was presenting my stories to my friends in Mexico City and other parts of Mexico they were saying, “Right, but there are only a few. You are lucky because you have contact with a few people that are very nice and they have their commons here in Mexico, but we are a modern society with individuals,” and this sort of thing.

Only with the Zapatistas we are seeing that we are many people. We are something like the social majorities. We were there but without the visibility. We are now having the visibility.

The 6th Declaration: they cannot wait any longer

In Motion Magazine: Can you talk about your understanding of the Sixth Declaration? And, on a more abstract level that doesn’t need to be abstract, what’s wrong with representative democracy? What does it mean not to take power?

Gustavo Esteva: They have a very clear connection. The connection implies that from the very beginning they have been trying to give leadership for the reorganization of the society to civil society. They have been saying from the very first minute, but particularly in August in 1994 when they had the Convención Democrática, and since then with the Zapatista Front, with many different initiatives they have been asking the civil society, “Please take the lead and we will follow. We will listen. We have our way here, but what we want is that Mexicans themselves take the decision and then we will follow whatever movement, whatever initiative emerges.”

But we were unable to react. What we had, time and again, was the classical conflicts in the Left. You are killing your neighbor. You are killing the next party or the next organization. They become the enemy because they don’t agree exactly with what your ideas are, etcetera, etcetera.

The Zapatistas apparently think that they cannot wait any longer. They recognize that they are taking a lot of risks now, but they see the situation as extremely dangerous. Their perception is that we are at the edge of disaster because the government, these political classes are clearly unable to govern the country. We are living more and more in chaos with violence, with drug traffickers. All these elements are destroying the basis of the society with global forces destroying our productive capacities. We are in a real mess and the danger is that in the middle of this destruction, with this basic ineptitude of the political classes, we may have a very, very authoritarian regime and that the people may call for this hard hand, this strong hand to keep control of the cities.

What we are having that is a very dangerous situation is the uncertainty of the people. The people are desperate because of uncertainty in the economy: no jobs, no employment, no social security, no welfare, no nothing. Radical uncertainty and uncertainty about your own security. You cannot walk around in Mexico City because you can be assaulted and there is every kind of violence and stealing, etcetera, in the big cities.

In this uncertainty, the people are calling for a strong hand. They are explicitly saying this. There were a million people in the streets, months ago, in Mexico City saying, “We want security. We want police. We want control. We want a strong hand. We want Giuliani all over the place.”

A political alternative

This is what the Zapatistas are saying: being quiet and in their own place will be suicidal. They also see a danger in putting all the eggs in the basket of the elections with the hope that Lopez Obrador will be president. They see two things. One is that if you have that hope that will be terrible for the country. And for Lopez Obrador, you will have the story of Lula (president of Brazil: Luis (Lula) Ignacio da Silva). Now that they are in power they cannot do a lot of things. The frustration can be terrible if the people have all these expectations -- “Oh, now we have a president on the Left,” and “This is a great leader and we will have everything changed.” -- because he will not be able to change much. The frustration can be again terrible; again, more violence, disorder, chaos, and calls for a strong hand.

The Zapatistas see that danger, that risk, in the current conditions. Because of that, they are assuming the risk of playing the role, the role that they play magnificently. When people come to the Zapatista encounters during the marches, etcetera, the people that don’t talk to each other, that are in stupid local fights, they come immediately together. The Zapatistas may say nothing. They don’t need to say anything. Just to be there. We are together and we don’t fight amongst us. They are playing the role, that role that is not ideological or political leadership, just moral, to have all of us together, to create a political alternative.

A radical critique of representative democracy

What I see in the Sexta is they are saying what they have been saying for ten years but they are also saying, “Now, we are going to listen and we are going to articulate the movements. We are not bringing our truth but listening to the truths of everyone.” That is, I think, the main element in their proposal and this is associated with a principle that they have, a very radical critique of representative democracy; that we don’t see any possibility of fixing any of the elements of the real problems of society through representative democracy.

The main point is that in the logic of the government, whatever government, whatever representative, they are exposed to such pressures by the economic powers or other political powers that they cannot really do what the people want. They don’t have the conditions to organize the changes that are necessary.

We can use the circumstantial arguments that all the leaders have been corrupted -- that is historical experience -- and that corruption does not mean only economic corruption, in the sense that you bribe but corrupted in ideological terms. That once you are there, you betray your principles because you need to adapt yourself to a different kind of logic. But those are not the main arguments.

The main argument is the scale of the operation. You cannot govern a country of a hundred million, or of a million -- it is impossible to do it -- in a democratic way.

Mexico City does not exist at all

I can give you all the theories, but let me again use the stories. In 1998, in Mexico City, we assumed we had the city in our hands. It was in that specific place that Salinas lost, in spite of the fraud, etcetera. Salinas got only 30% of the votes in 1998, when we had the gigantic fraud in Mexico against (Cuauthemoc) Cardenas to put Salinas in power. We had the feeling that really we have a different kind of thing in Mexico City. So, then, we created something like an alternative government in Mexico City; a kind of congress where the representatives of the neighborhoods, of the barrios, came together. I am talking of a movement in which tens of thousands of people came together to discuss what to do with the city.

I remember very well one brilliant leader of one area of the city who said that, “We have been dealing with the problems of our barrio, of our place and we are succeeding. In my area, for example, we don’t allow the police to come in. We are in real control of the situation. We are handling the situation. But we have been irresponsible because, after all, we live in a city, not just in a barrio. Now that we have the city in our hands, let’s see what we can do for Mexico City.” We started to discuss for months the whole thing.

To make a long story short, after two months and a half of discussion, very intense discussions, literally tens of thousands of representatives of the people in Mexico City, we came to one solid conclusion -- Mexico City does not exist at all. It is an administrative definition that has no meaning at all. We are different people who have different projects, different ideas, different ways of life. No one can govern in a decent democratic way this monster. “What we need to do” at that moment the city was less than 20 million, “What we need to do,” they said, “Is to have all the barrios with their own government in the barrios, and then we can create something like ministers of foreign affairs for the relations between the barrios.”

But then a group of enlightened professionals came with us and told us, “You are stupid. You have no idea of what is a city. For example, please think about transportation. For transportation you need plans for the whole city, not every barrio. You need the subway.” Or whatever. “You need to have it throughout the whole city.”

It was beautiful because after a month of discussion with these very nice people working with us we were able to demonstrate to them that through the planning of transportation for the whole city they were creating all the problems of traffic jams and the problems of transportation.

If you really have thinking in the barrio about the needs of the barrio, and how you can move in the barrio, and what the people in the barrio need to go outside, etcetera, then you will have planning for every barrio and your only problem will be how to connect one barrio to the next without this big design, big plan for the whole transportation, the matrix of transportation in which every time you conclude a highway, a speedway, it is out of use because it is full immediately.

This is just one example of when if you think with the view of the people, think in the interests of the people, the logic of the people, etcetera, you cannot think of a big government. You cannot have anything like a big government. This cannot be democratic.

Harmonious coexistence of two different systems

We know very well that things can be operated at the human scale, at a scale of real people who know each other and can take decisions. Of course, we recognize that there are areas in the cities in which they are so individualized that they cannot take decisions together. Even in a small condominium where you have ten families they cannot take good decisions about the administration of their condominium.

Also, we know that many people in the cities, particularly in the upper classes, they want representatives, and they want to be governed by others. “I pay him. I elect him. I want honest people and professional people to deal with all these problems. I want to take care of my own business and other people will do the government.”

What we see as our real challenge is how we can have the harmonious coexistence of the two different systems. Let them have their representatives. Let them have their administrators. For them, not for us. Let’s share some spaces, but basically have different ways of doing things.

This is not imperialism in reverse. It is not saying that we want to impose on them our own way. The people in the communities, the people in the barrios have a way and we want to keep that way going. We will respect other people that want another way. And the other way can be something like elections for representatives. Something like representative democracy.

In my experience, I get many lessons from different people. One of the phrases that I remember all the time is the advice of people at the grassroots telling me, “You must never go from two to three.” What they were saying is from two to three levels. When you have one level, the people themselves create one coordinator of the collective effort and the people have full control of this coordinator. Like we have in the communities. It is the will of the people. It is “command by obeying” as the Zapatistas say. The people are in control of their own lives, of their own government. Any time, any minute, they can control this guy or change him and put another guy in his place. If you create a third level, then the people have no control of the third level. It is when you have these people of the second level electing one of themselves to be on the third level, then the people no longer count. They have lost control. When you have not three levels but twenty levels of government, the people cannot count.

In the service of an abstract logic

The very basic point is that empirical experience all over the world shows that people in the government are not governing for the people. They are not doing what the people want. But that does not mean we are seeing a kind of plot up there. Rather, we are in the worst kind of situation because they are slaves of a logic. They are in the service of an abstract logic, an economic logic. And this is very, very dangerous.

One image that we are using to describe the situation in Mexico is you have all the political parties, all the candidates now, the leaders of the churches, the leaders of the business, all these people and, if Mexico is a big ship, you have all of them concentrated in the machine room discussing what to do because we are in the middle of a big storm and they are discussing and presenting different theories and different arguments. Arguing like mad, kicking each other, and beating each other, etcetera, in a big very intense debate. And, because they are so concentrated in the engine room discussing this, they don’t see that the ship is sinking slowly in the storm. But the people, the real people are on the deck and the people see that the ship is sinking and they take small boats, pieces of wood, whatever, and they go and jump. And then they see the beach.

I think this is a very good image for what is happening in Mexico today. We are seeing the ship sinking. The institutions are collapsing, all of them. Education, health, the political system, everything is collapsing, day after day. And the politicians are fighting, “I have the solution. I promise this. I promise that.” No one knows what to do. There is not any decent proposal about what to do in Mexico now in the political parties. And the people are doing their own things. The people are reorganizing their lives and taking decisions, very sensible decisions on what to do and how to organize a different kind of life.

An assembly and a web

I don’t think, even, we can keep the very idea of the parliament, meaning the place where people from many different places come, argue, present their views, and come to a decision, to a consensus. I think that that British creation it is a very good invention, that is fantastic -- but not for government, to transform that into an organized system of government.

In the National Indian Congress we adopted a principle that was born in Oaxaca. That is, we are an assembly when we are together and we are a web when we are separated. When we come together we have a very precise mandate from our communities, from our people, and we can discuss and compromise and come to a consensus, have an argument, etcetera. Then, when we take decisions we come back and explain to the communities what happened in the congress.

But, we don’t keep any structure for the National Indian Congress. We don’t keep it in operation. We don’t have an address, or leaders, or whatever, but every unit, every knot of the web can activate the whole web at any minute, can convene a meeting or do whatever they want independently, autonomously.

We have a very effective capacity to react. It was in no more than ten days that we had a decision of the National Indian Congress about the Sexta, about the Sixth Declaration. We said, “This is important. Let’s come together and take a decision.” Immediately we took a decision. We supported the Sixth Declaration.

Meaning we will retain some elements. For example, we can imagine very well to keep some coordination with administrative functions, not political functions. We can have administration of the roads, administration of railroads, administration of the telephone system. That can be centralized. No problem. You can have some kind of centralization without political decision, without political power. You are having a kind of “professional administration” of some services, of some activities. But not any centralized political power.

We don’t see the need for any centralized political power. It is a question more of principle, of the question that they can corrupt themselves, that they can betray their original mandate of the people. We don’t see this system as a decent operational functioning system. Part of it is a question of scale; part of it is the nature of the monster.

We turn it into a different thing. What kind of thing? We don’t know.

Not to take power

In Motion Magazine: And that translates into not taking power?

Gustavo Esteva: The main point is, it is the very idea of power that is wrong. It is not who has the power, but the idea that “Who needs to control?” You need somebody? In the nation state you have the monopoly of legitimate violence. What is this? That only through violence you will keep us together? That is unacceptable.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 8, 2006

Also see: