Get Rid of Them All & Become a Zapatista

amory starr

“Get Rid of Them All & Become a Zapatista: Autonomy in the Anti-Globalization Movement” Critical Sociology mini-conference, American Sociological Association, San Francisco, 13 August, 2004.

i’m sad that Walden Bello is not here, but it’s a bit of a relief too, because i was nervous to speak alongside someone who i see as one of the best models of praxis today.

the last time i saw Walden was in cancún, during the wto meetings last September. he was standing on a truck, drenched, having just made the 40km trip around the fence to report to the front lines of activists on the crisis within the wto meetings. he had been working inside the meetings, sharing his research, to facilitate the growing solildarity, resistance, and vision among the global south nations.

and then he went back around the fence and was on hand in the press centre to interpret the collapse and to explicitly connect it with anti-imperialist struggle in iraq and Palestine.

maybe that’s public sociology. [the theme of the annual sociology meetings this year]


i think my role today is to demystify the tactics of this movement, particularly the meanings of autonomy and direct action. i’ve been researching and writing about the international movements that became the anti-glob movement since 1994 and i’ve been doing ~participant action research~ in the north American movement from seattle on.


i want to start out by saying that imagery that we may be familiar with and debates we might be attracted to regarding tactics in the north american movement need to be contextualized firmly on the margins of this movement, and not treated as the center of attention and analysis — because the intellectual force, the points of impact, and momentum of this movement come from the global south.


The defining and most powerful moments of this movement are both autonomous and direct. Just a few examples, to get us focused on what we are talking about: utility reconnections and removal of pre-pay meters, farmers land occupations, pirate radio, decommodification of food, squatted housing & social centers, blockades of destructive projects, culture jamming, and the development of what is arguably now the largest media organization in the world, the democratic, participatory, and movement-centered indymedia network.



i’m going to go over five basic points which are the foundation for autonomy and direct action as understood and practiced in the anti-globalization movement.

1. get rid of them all

The December 2001 uprising and what has happened since in Argentina is important to the movement in  many ways. One is the distrust of all the elites who had participated in decades of neoliberal economic policies. The resulting political culture of resistance was conveyed to the world through the phrase “que se vayan todos” (get rid of them all!)[i] which resonated with movements all over the world — of course that recognition is particularly poignant in south africa.  More and more movements are concluding that elites of any party and institutionalized politics in general have totally failed to control corporate projects.  ­— Hopefully, with the election of Kerry, that piece of political consciousness may arrive to the US as well!

2. don’t rely on representatives

“Que se vayan todos” takes another level of depth with the recognition that even those trusted to represent the social movements will fail.

The Argentinean piqueteros, for example, who as unemployeds cannot withhold their labor, so they withhold the road, have according to james petras

learned from experience that sending representatives to negotiate in a government office downtown leads to jobs for those individuals, their relatives and their friends, but not necessarily anyone else…[So they] demand that the talks occur at the blockade so all the piqueteros can participate. [ii]

Their strategy ensures, among other things, that the power will not be “reined in behind a moderate agenda”[iii] — or worse yet, disappear with unaccountable and changeable representatives as in Ecuador, where twice those trusted by the social movements have reversed their victories. And we could talk about Lula, who is collaborating with neoliberal economic policy and allowing for biotech to be implemented.

The attitude of independence from political parties is found throughout the anti-globalization movement. Farmers organizer José Bové from france explains that “it’s a condition of membership of the Confederation Paysanne that you cannot stand in an election….The aim of a social movement or a union like ours is to enable people to act for themselves.”[iv]

These perspectives, discovered through painful grassroots experience everywhere has contributed to a renaissance of anarchism throughout Europe, Canada, the US and Latin America. So it might be time to put anarchism back into social theory courses.


3. create alternative processes

A hallmark of the movement is direct, participatory democracy. The anti-privatization struggles in Bolivia and Peru both used mass assemblies to determine the course of the struggle,[v] as do the Asembleas in Argentina, the Sem Terra encampments in Brazil, villages resisting dams in Thailand and India, farmers associations, the unemployed movement in Europe, squats, and the blockaded intersections surrounding meetings like the g8 and wto.

In Argentina, the redefinition of political landscape, combined with the tremendous need for local provisioning, has produced a spontaneous experiment with local self-governance. People began holding meetings in their neighborhood in order to collaborate in survival. As reported by Chris Harman

The real excitement came from the level of political discussion. Everywhere people were discussing …how society can be changed, how to stop the slide into economic chaos and mass impoverishment, and what is to be done about the question of ‘power’.[vi]

In Venezuela, in order to defend the 1999 Constitution, President Chavez encouraged the organization of Circles through which people are “design, supervise and carry out their development projects without intermediaries, without people representing them.” The Circles are autonomous from the government and from political parties and avoid leaders. The Circles have been credited with reversing the attempted coup by taking “control of different parts of the country. [vii]

In Ecuador when Indigenous and other movements took over the government in January 2000, their system of parlamentos populares was already in place, and were promptly declared the national government in place of all three branches of the previous one. Similarly, after throwing out the President in October 2003, the Bolivian movements have used a the tool made popular in 1999 of “semi direct democracy” in which officials are elected first by their communities, independent of the official political process, and are held accountable to them through a two step process of negotiation “backed up by massive popular demonstrations and marches”.[viii]


At mass action manifestations such as the wto and g8 protests, principles of direct democracy, anti-hierarchy, organization based on affinity groups, and rotating or highly constrained leadership is de rigeur. Decisions are made by consensus at open, participatory spokescouncils in which each affinity group, large or small, has presence. Organizations which are exclusionary, elitist, or bureaucratic are rapidly censured by activists. An important international non-organization credited with conceptualizing indymedia, the campaign against the wto, and the seattle protest is Peoples’ Global Action. PGA includes anarchists but is mostly non-anarchist autonomous movements and largely from the Global South.

The Zapatistas, who are the closest thing to a vanguard the movement has, with many groups around the world striving to follow their model, have made major contributions to a methodology for “getting rid of them all”. Weekly or even more frequent meetings are held for the purpose of self-governance in each of the communities. When regional decisions are required, a lengthy Consulta is held, in which “intense discussions in each community is as central to the process as the vote itself.”[ix] Not every act in Zapatista communities is taken by collective decision. “Responsibles” are elected to councils and to carry out projects. But they are subject to immediate recall if they do not “govern obeying”. “Govern obeying” does not depend on the character or behavior of the responsibles, but on their constitutents who actively “compel” them to “carry out their work in accordance with the people’s interest.”[x]

And the Zapatistas have engaged the entire nation of México in popular plebiscites outside of the formal democratic process, so as to be able to answer questions the government does not ask, and in order to establish a relationship with civil society outside of Chiapas.

This type of process has a liberatory effect. writing for portland indymedia, t reports that

The members of the Asembleas movement in Argentina repeat daily that their lives have been transformed from passivity and consumption into active engagement of everyday life…[xi]

It is often pointed out that participatory democracy has a particular impact on women. In some Zapatista communities, the participation of women has resulted in the outlawing of alcohol and a corresponding reduction in violence and abuse. John Jordan notes that

It’s mostly women who do the speaking at the asemblea…. many of them elderly, many of whom had never had the possibility to make decisions or express important things about their lives… They would propose good ideas and then they would then go into the streets for their children’s sake.[xii]

Since the sociologists are in town, we might note that the innovative political processes developed by the movement, such as the Zapatistas’ “one no, many yeses”, the North American concept of “diversity of tactics”, & the southern cone anarchists’ “specifismo” have breathed action into what Northern scholars had vaguely termed a “politics of difference”.[xiii]

4. be a Zapatista where you are…

As sympathizers from all over the world sought to assist the Zapatistas in their struggle, we were exhorted to locate points of impact in our own cities and cultures and then elaborate Zapatismo there. We start by recognizing the key concepts of zapatismo: diversity (one no, many yeses), accountability (govern obeying), and solidarity wth all people who are marginalized (todos somos marcos).

This process of elaboration is quite incomplete. For global northerners, the challenge now is to maintain our solidarity work, in the form of concrete projects as well as high-profile actions, while also building struggles against neoliberalism at home. San Francisco is one of the us cities where those connections have been made most directly by connecting anti-globalization work with immigrant issues, gentrification, privatization, and police brutalilty.

5. don’t wait, take direct action. do it yourself.


Voltairine deCleyre is an American credited with first theorizing direct action, but gandhi’s concept of hind swaraj was direct action. Reclaim the Streets, London, which innovated the postmodern street blockade as rave-carnival-lockdown, explains that “direct action is founded on the idea that people can develop the ability for self rule only through practice, and proposes that all persons directly decide the important issues facing them.”[xiv] Direct action is doing what needs to be done without, as DeCleyre puts it, “going to external authorities to please do the thing for you”[xv] or as MC Lynx of the Hip Hop Congress says “without taking orders from anyone or attempting to influence anyone.”[xvi]

The most widely recognized and celebrated manifestations of the anti-globalization movement are direct. Worried that protective legislation will be too late, “midnight gardeners” act directly to protect biodiversity by uprooting biotech crops. Forest warriors move in to trees and tunnels blocking the paths of profit. Direct occupations of streets, corporate offices, social space, housing, and land may not always survive more than the day, but provide pointed, highly public educational moments, such as last summer here in sacramento when the police surrounded a community vegetable garden armed with m16s.

The infrastructure for European anti-glob movements and extensive influence on US & Canadian movements came from the European “autonomous movements” or “autonomen” which since the 1970s had built a pan-european political culture of “immediate actionism” in which housing, social centers, and entire neighborhoods were squatted, transformed, and defended. according to george katsiaficas, these movements sought more than “freedom from material want”, they fought “the colonization of everyday life”. And they had already radicalized the first large northern anti-imf protest in berlin in 1988. (As a side note, one crucial gap between the autonomen and the us anti-glob movement is that the autonomen had been fighting fascism and directly defending immigrants for years, while the us anti-globalization movement developed independent of anti-racist movements, a legacy we are struggling with. And the central issue of the European anti-glob movement is no borders and defense of immigrants.)

Of course the most impressive examples of direct action are in the global south. In Argentina, the piqueteros have established autonomous zones, including parallel economies. In one town more than 300 projects, including bakeries, organic gardens, water purifying plants and clinics have been developed. Meanwhile, the formerly middle-class asembleas started taking over buildings (a good use for the old banks), creating meeting space and neighborhood centers to share meals, information, and skills.[xvii] Sem Terra, the movement of landless workers in Brazil, occupies unused lands and establishes autonomous education, production cooperatives, and governance, a model proliferating in Latin America and Africa. Sem Terra in collaboration with other campesino movements has recently embraced agroecology.

The Zapatistas, in building autonomous municipalities, have first emphasized providing healthcare and education, “defense of language and cultural traditions”, and information (“news in local language…transmitted through the various zapatista radio stations”). They now have their own video editing studios, through the Chiapas media project or promedios. 80% of the videos are made in indigenous languages to share strategies and projects among the communities. They also make a few videos for global north consumption.

The most visible form of direct action is “global days of action”.  The first “global carnival”, May 16 1998 involved simultaneous actions in 30 countries on the occasion of the 2nd WTO Ministerial in Geneva.[xviii] The third global action day was November 30, 1999, when the WTO tried to meet for its 3rd ministerial in Seattle. Many simultaneous solidarity actions were planned and even more happened when the news was distributed of the successful shutdown in seattle. By February 15, 2003 this tactic had developed to the point that 16 million persons disrupted at least 133 cities to say “the world says no to war”. Aggressive mass mobilizations have raised the political and economic costs of elite meetings, intermittently effectively disrupting them, discouraging cities from hosting the meetings, driving them into symbolically remote and fortified locations (such as Qatar!), and drawing intense sunshine onto what used to be fairly secretive processes. Moreover, these large manifestations provide a new method of solidarity among social movements, a site for educational and strategic relations among dispersed movements, and experiments in self-provisioning with intense engagement with diversity.

Pundits increasingly trivialize these events as routine or ephemeral, perhaps missing the point that acts which would otherwise feel and appear marginal gain tremendous significance as part of this framework. Lee Kyung’s suicide in Cancún drew attention to all the farmers killed by corporate globalization and wto policies. Most farmers suicides happen with no cameras.

According to documentation in We are Everywhere (a brick shaped book which is undoubtedly the most comprehensive text on the movement) , in ten days of April of 2001, more than 40 african students were killed protesting world bank policies forcing cuts to education. The African media calls these student activists ‘hoodlums’ just as we are described here. The Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa wrote that this brutality was not new, but something changed in april of 2001, which was that “the anti-SAP student movement in africa has finally leaped from the streets of harare, addis ababa and Algiers into washington and prague. The world bankers…have been hounded, finally, by a truly international youth movement which has carried the African student dead to their door.” Jim Wakhungu Nduruchi, a student activist whose two brothers and his father have been killed by military and paramilitary and whose mother was raped and infected with hiv in punishment for his activism credits the success of the Nairobi protest of april 2002 on the international movement. He says “to everybody else around the world who participated in yesterday’s protests; you are rare guys! you might be living well, without the saps….you have jobs and refreshments. and yet your love drives you to fight for us, to protest and risk negation and even beatings from the police just for our sake. thanks brothers and sisters. we are so proud of you, and you are a source of strength for us.”


It’s through direct action that we are both proving that another world is possible, and building it.



[i]An October 2002 poll found 95% disapproval of all political parties and 90% dissatisfaction with the Congress, the markets, the banks and the judicial system. [Peter Greste, BBC, “Democracy Has Failed Say Argentines” October 3, 2002]

[ii] Petras February 2002 ibid.

[iii] Petras February 2002 ibid.

[iv] José Bové, “A Farmers’ International” (November 2001) 137-151 in Tom Mertes, ed., A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? 2004: Verso, London.

[v] Jordi Martorell, “Peru – Mass uprising defeats privatisation plans”. In Defense of Marxism 24 June, 2002.  at

[vi] Chris Harman, “Argentina: Swimming with the tide of revolt” Socialist Review 263 May 2002.

[vii] Rodrigo Chaves & Tom Burke, “The Bolivarian Circles”, ZNet 30 July, 2003 at

[viii] Susan Harvie, “Wind of democratic change in Bolivia”. Alternatives v8n6, 6 March  2004. at

[ix] These take months and have been a great source of annoyance to the Mexican government, which always wants an answer to its proposals on the spot or within days From “The Zapatistas, Anarchism and ‘Direct democracy’” Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, #27 Winter 1999.

[x] response to question 18 “why does the EZLN say it isn’t fighting for power?” in Subcomandante Marcos Answers 62 Questions from Civil Society February of 2001. Also see “The Mexican Zapatistas and direct democracy” Workers Solidarity No 55 published in October 1998 online at Emphasis added.

[xi] t, WSF-PDX IMCista, “Part 4: The Movement of Movements & update on the Casa de Indy” jan 25, 2003.

[xii]Jordan 2002 ibid.

[xiii]  In North America, after Seattle, an extensive debate took place among activists about the legitimacy of property crime and how to embody respect for diversity of tactics. The evolving framework ‘diversity of tactics’ was developed to provide equal respect to candlelight vigils, property crime, permitted marches, and everything in between. This debate became more refined over time, with the careful development of “action guidelines” and “zones”, methods also used in Europe.

More recently, there is an active struggle about the way in which identity and culture have shaped tactics inappropriately and even perhaps protected space for relatively privileged “diversities” which are sometimes detached from strategic action. The concept of specifismo distinguishes ideology from strategy so that groups can act contextually within larger social movements without abandoning their analysis. Specifismo is also facilitated by groups who prioritize grounded direct action and movement building over correct theory.


[xv] Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912), “Direct Action”.

[xvi] see,

[xvii] Jordan 2002 ibid.