Changing the Face of Society

Popular Assemblies and the Growing Popular Assembly Movement
commentary from Oaxaca
by Nancy Davies [1]
4 January 2007

A popular assembly is a self-organized, autonomous, non-hierarchical group of people who come together spontaneously. They come together as gente (people) and metamorphose into pueblo (We the people, not them). In many cases the assemblies are based geographically (by neighborhood, town, county, state, etc.) as in Argentina or Bolivia. (The union base itself is not a popular assembly because it excludes those who don’t belong to the union. Nevertheless, the Bolivian Water Wars depended on the spontaneous participation of the non-union population ready to struggle).

In Oaxaca, as in those countries, the assemblies sprang up virtually simultaneously in many cities and neighborhoods. The assemblies are inclusive as opposed to exclusive, and develop in process rather than being pre-planned.

The immediate grounds giving rise to the a popular assembly movement are particular: a grievance or an assault. The long-standing cumulative grounds are the neoliberal depredations foisted on the people, which include downgrading of quality of life, (loss of middle class status, impoverishment of the poor) loss of jobs and loss of income. Grievances may come to the “ya basta” point, the last straw, with a particular land taking, privatization of water, theft of bank savings, privatization of electricity, oil, gas, increased school fees, etcetera. When the word “harto”, which means “fed up”, appears, as it did in Argentina and in Oaxaca in the popular slogans and songs, I take this to mean that the conflict has been simmering a long time, and the resentment has reached its climax.

The Argentinean popular assemblies set the anti-neoliberal pattern, emerging as spontaneous, unplanned uprisings of the outraged. Popular assemblies form as a furious alternative to electoral politics. In this era we see everywhere, including the United States, the ownership of elected officials by the large, usually transnational corporations. The “elected”, whether honestly or fraudulently installed in office, have a paying boss who is different from the voters from whom the officials are distanced by both their membership in the “political class” and their isolation from the lives of the multitudes they supposedly “represent.” The politicians are often very corrupt; they are often overtly and murderously repressive against their own populations in Mexico (not just Oaxaca), Latin America and around the globe. Some nations like the United States and some European countries keep their repression under wraps; one need only consider the number of persons imprisoned in the United States (According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2.2 million in federal or state prisons in December 2005).[2] Some seek to run the prisons as lucrative privatized businesses.

It can be noted in this context that transnational corporations have stripped away the social and financial power that used to belong to the nation states. The nations are now left only with the physical power to repress, and to administer whatever is left of their bureaucracies. The laws serve mainly to enforce the property rights of the ownership class, and facilitate transfers of wealth from the newly “colonized” nations to the transnational corporations.

The asamblea consists of people (pueblos) who define themselves as actors, and the asamblea is their show of power. Direct participation is the hallmark of the asamblea. It takes direct democracy to the participants and abandons the useless representative government – with good reason; “elected” or assumed (royal or dictatorial) governorship cannot respond to the needs of the ordinary people while simultaneously obeying the financial demands of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the corporations controlling social agendas, including health, educational and environmental agendas. (In this context, it is interesting that Hugo Chavez of Venezuela bailed out Argentina from its IMF debt. Subsequently Bolivia declined to accept a loan.)

By definition, a people’s assembly (asamblea popular) must be anti-capitalist and anti-neoliberal. The hierarchical structure of governments and corporations implies a boss and/or owner who benefits from the work of the people, hires and fires at will, and frequently owns or appropriates the national resources. (Coca-cola makes millions bottling and selling the public water supply, with or without added flavors.) Transnational capitalism erodes the middle-classes and siphons off wealth to the wealthy. It is therefore logical that the assemblies are not just the concern of the poor – or newly poor – but of the middle-class as well, which sees the handwriting on the wall, along with intellectuals, workers, the unemployed, youth, seniors, and professionals. The assembly is not class-structured. The assembly is composed of people who are being screwed and know it. They come together in recognition of the other, their previously invisible fellow citizens, and for a common purpose which may be economic but which may also be to defy repression or prevent environmental depredation or guard their farm lands or to demand some change in benefit to the people.

Read the rest of it here.

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