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Practices of the Zapatistas and the Movimento Sem Terra

13 February 2013

Participatory Democracy in Action

Amory Starr, María Elena Martínez-Torres, and Peter Rosset

Participatory democracy has been studied as an auxiliary to state processes and as
an institutional and cultural part of social movements. Studies of the use of participa-
tory democracy by the Zapatistas of Mexico and the Movimento Sem Terra (Landless
Movement—MST) of Brazil show a shared concern with autonomy, in particular
avoidance of demobilization through the clientelism and paternalism induced by gov-
ernment programs and political parties. Both movements stress training in democracy
(the experience of “being government”) and the obligation to participate. Detailed
examination of their governance practices may be helpful to communities building
democratic movements in other places.

Keywords: Democracy, Social movements, Governance, Zapatistas, Movimento Sem Terra, MST

Antiglobalization or “alterglobalization”1 movements insist on finding other
ways of achieving power than elections, parties, and unions; “they are not
fundamentally organized to seize state power” (Stahler-Sholk, Vanden, and
Kuecker, 2007: 6). In various contexts, these movements have created new
institutions and practices. Critics argue that because they so often refuse to
“address the question of the state,” they can only be trivial and marginal.

yet, around the world, although their struggles and tactics and ideologies vary
dramatically, these movements recognize each other in their passion and com-
mitment to create democratic power here and now. Their claim, compelling
and controversial, is that an intensely personal participatory democracy is a
response to the deprivations of globalization. (Meanwhile, as Stahler-Sholk
et al. point out, these movements’ effects include dramatic change in states
and parties, but that is not our interest here.) They have also have inspired
political practice all over the world by changing the discourse about the sources
and structures of social justice.

We are interested in the specific internal democratic practices of the most
powerful of these movements because their project is to create the power to solve their own problems and to do so democratically. We imagine that move-
ments around the world are interested in adapting successful practices to their
own contexts and eager to have specific information about how these move-
ments operate. We are also interested in confirming the recognition that many
forms of democracy are active and possible and that the rejection of the neolib-
eral fantasy is accompanied by a rich collection of tangible alternative realities,
among them authentic democracy.

One would expect political scientists to have provided a rich literature on
various approaches to democracy. Disappointingly, this is not the case. The
bulk of political science research regarding democracy is devoted to the study
of political parties, elections, and representative/parliamentary systems. Indeed,
despite considerable anthropological evidence of their frequency, no com-
pendium of world-historic democratic practices exists (see Clastres, 1987).

Indigenous communities, in a valiant attempt to save the world from their
conquerors, have increasingly argued that their ways contain the social and
political technologies required for ecologically sound, diverse, and dignified
societies (Indigenous Peoples, 1999; Indigenous Peoples Kyoto Water
Declaration, 2003; Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, n.d.).
Works that do seek a more inclusive view almost always understand “par-
ticipatory democracy” as a kind of advisory process to state decision making
(Barber, 1983; Wainwright, 2003; Mutz, 2006; Goodin, 2003; Fung and Wright,
2001) Similarly, in Latin America “decentralization” has referred not to a
localization of political power but to a way of responding simultaneously to
cost-cutting pressures from international financial institutions and local pres-
sures for more accountable social services (García-Guadilla and Pérez, 2002;
Fox, 1994; Barczak, 2001; Forero-Pineda, 2001). The forms of “direct,” “delib-
erative,” and “decentralized” democracy discussed in these works are all
ways of participating in the state. Participatory democracy as a viable politi-
cal practice independent of the state has seldom been a serious object of
scholarly attention.

Any investigation has been discouraged by Robert Dahl’s
(1970) influential pronouncement that participatory democracy is simply
infeasible and therefore an indulgence (or, at best, a resource) for social
movements. There has been widespread pessimism among academics about
the capacity of participatory forms to work on a large scale or be sustained
on any scale.


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