|English | Español||November 21, 2017 | Issue #42|
Time and Urgency: Reflections on the Politics of Listening in the Other Campaign
A Defense and a Critique
By John Gibler
Photo: D.R. 2006 John Gibler
These plans were brutally interrupted when hundreds of municipal and state police attacked flower vendors in Texcoco on May 3, and then over 3,500 federal, state, and municipal police raided the town of San Salvador Atenco on May 4. The Other Campaign suspended the listening trek to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of people who were beaten, raped, molested and taken prisoner during the police raids, and to organize to demand their release.
Since the beginning, the Other Campaign has been critiqued for going against the elections, for slamming the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for not attending Bolivian President Evo Morales’ inauguration, for ignoring the National Dialogue (a left organization with links to opposition political parties) and for being so stridently anti-capitalist. These critiques take aim at the whole enterprise of grassroots organizing outside of political parties, governments, and corporations; that is, of drawing such sharp lines of inclusion and exclusion. The Other Campaign drew these lines and has not looked back since.
But others have launched critiques of the Other Campaign that purport to stem from within the overall goals of the campaign and take aim thus not at the structure of the project, but its implementation. Guillermo Almeyra, for example, recently published in the magazine Memoria one of the most sweeping critiques of the Other Campaign (original Spanish here), a critique that serves as a model for how the politics of listening are mischaracterized and underestimated.
Almeyra has published hostile critiques of the Other Campaign for months. Almeyra has also never, to my knowledge, attended an Other Campaign event. I followed the campaign from the beginning (deviating from the trail three times to attend a national gathering of jaraneros (players of a kind of folk music native to Veracruz) in Tlacotlalpan, the people’s water forum in Mexico City, and to report on militarization in Guerrero) and I never once saw Guillermo Almeyra. A few of Almeyra’s former students also followed the campaign and confirmed that they had not seen him either. I do not call out Almeyra’s absence from the campaign trail to justify simply discarding his criticism, or to play some kind of an insider-outsider card. I do think it is curious that he would dedicate so much ink to criticizing the Other Campaign without putting in some hours to actually see what it is all about or, said another way, that he would verbally knife a 6-month listening tour without ever actually going to listen (imagine a university professor publishing critiques of Marx without having read his books).
Almerya writes that the Other Campaign: “is a campaign directed towards making contact with those who cannot express themselves – that is exactly its primary quality – but not a campaign whose objective is organizing or raising the political level of those who participate in their events…”
This is false. The stated objective of the campaign is precisely to organize and consolidate a national movement. The Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle summarizes this objective as follows:
We are going to go to listen to, and talk directly with, without intermediaries or mediation, the simple and humble of the Mexican people, and, according to what we hear and learn, we are going to go about building, along with those people who, like us, are humble and simple, a national program of struggle, but a program which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people.
Whether or not the campaign succeeds or fails, stumbles or leaps, or is faithful or not to this objective is another matter, but it is misguided to strip the campaign of its own stated goal.
Nor does it teach what capitalism is (it only divides society into the “rich” and the “poor”), or about what the State is (they simply say “we have to throw the rich out to Miami,” without saying how, nor by what means, nor how the potential expelled and the state forces will react, in addition to the United States). It is not educating politically (it says “we’ll take the lands away from them,” “we’ll expropriate the banks,” without even outlining the minimal necessary conditions for being able to do that). It is a campaign of anti-electoral and antiestablishment agitation, but not an organizing anti-capitalist campaign.
Almeyra makes two principal confusions here: 1) that the first phase of the campaign is the only phase and 2) that Subcomandante Marcos’ speeches (which were reported daily in La Jornada) are the only voices of the Other Campaign. Almeyra criticizes the Other Campaign for not doing now what it said it would do later. But he does not call that out, he simply ignores the proposed organizing phase to come and attacks the listening phase for not doing the organizing work. Second, Almeyra writes in his parenthetical clauses about the campaign that “it only divides” and “they simply say” and then quotes elements of Marcos’ speeches thus conflating all the voices of the Other Campaign into Marcos’. Both of these confusions stem from Almeyra’s disregard for the place of listening in the Other Campaign, one by arguing that the listening should be subverted with top-down organizing at the get-go, and two by boiling the underdogs’ voices into Marcos’ (again this later mistake, most likely a result of his selectively pulling Marcos quotes from La Jornada—that paper also covered the daily participation of the underdogs—and never going out on the road to listen).
This hits at an important point, an apparent contradiction in the first phase of the Other Campaign: if this whole unruly road trip is really about listening, why does Marcos talk so much? My answer to this question might be too generous, but it is what I came to observe over the months of listening both to thousands of people who came to talk and to Marcos’ daily speeches. Marcos gets up on town square kiosks, stands on the tops of vans and trucks out in the countryside to convoke, to call people to participate, to raise awareness about the social space that the Other Campaign is opening. Not every speech was as successful, or even as focused—try giving 2 or 3 speeches a day, seven days a week for four months—as the best, but this was the role of these speeches. Marcos’ involvement here harkens back to days of organizing when the working class had zero access to the then available media, and thus toured around standing on soapboxes to spread their visions of social change.
Quickly leaving aside the histrionic-folkloric aspects (Marcos’ motorcycle tour with his chicken mascot in the back), the journey never became anything more than making contact with sectors in struggle or those marginalized by the actions of the parties (which is undoubtedly very important, but it is also not sufficient). It sounded out their level of understanding, listened to their demands, saw their level of organization and decision-making, but they did not propose anything, even autonomy and self-management (fundamental victories of the Chiapaneco Zapatistas), nor did they discuss anything or present a program for the country (or the basic problems which it must confront) or organize.
Again, two confusions here: 1) Almeyra writes in the past tense, “the journey never became anything more…” as if the Other Campaign, or even the first phase of it, was finished and 2) he undercuts the value and commitment to listening by criticizing the Other Campaign writing that “they did not propose anything.” No, they did propose something: they proposed traveling across the country to listen to people. The EZLN could have organized a national tour to export their model of autonomous municipalities, but they did not want to organize from the top down. They called out, with the Sixth Declaration, for organizing from the bottom up, hence first by listening. And they set out to walk their talk by traveling across the entire country to sit down and listen, everyday, all day.
Some of Almeyra’s statements are simply venomous:
…the Other Campaign is not concerned about elevating the level of comprehension of those people who come to it. It does not try to present an anti-capitalist project for the country, nor does it talk about the country’s great problems…
Almeyra was not there, how could he thus issue such a sweeping condemnation?
The Other Campaign cannot organize because it does politics in a sectarian and primitive way, and it seeks power, but by inadequate methods like simple agitation against “the rich.”
The Other Campaign does politics in a “primitive way,” he writes (“primitivo” in Spanish). Considering the cultural baggage the word ‘primitive’ brings with it—500 years of colonialism and despotism—how should one understand the discrediting accusation from a well-established university professor that a largely indigenous and rural peasant political movement is “primitive?” Latent classism, or racism? Or is Almeyra just so eager to condemn that he is not careful with his words?
When Marcos exclaims “screw the correlation of forces!” he is teaching vulgar voluntarismo [willfulness] to his followers, who are ignorant of what battle is being unleashed, of what the enemy’s methods are, of how there is consensus on those methods in certain sectors, and this leads them to a lack of organizational and political preparation. By replacing reason and considered commitment with rage and improvisation, he leads them to disastrous adventures, as in Atenco.
Beneath the outrageous and truly dumbfounding accusation that Marcos’ statement in some way led to the brutal police repression in San Salvador Atenco, there is a point of interest here. Many of Marcos’ speeches take extremely complex situations and burst through them with strong, simplified and often unsupported conclusions, such as his famous response to the correlation of forces: screw them. But he also backs up these aphorisms with analysis, such as in his interview in the May 2006 issue of Rebeldia magazine where he explained that what he meant to target was the way in which intellectuals use the correlation of forces analysis to justify not doing anything to fight deeply rooted, and guarded, systems of oppression.
I see part of Marcos’ role in the first phase of the Other Campaign as that of the convoker. His highly simplified speaking strategy is that of the encourager, the one who calls out: Don’t get muddled in doubts and fears and endless complications, join us, organize from the grassroots! Don’t let anyone tell you it is impossible to change the world! The strongest military forces in the history of the globe back transnational capitalism and US imperialism, so what, screw them! Let’s get to work! We’ll figure out a way to beat them! This is not the strategy for overthrowing capitalism, but the call to get on board with the fight.
In summary, Almeyra’s criticisms of the Other Campaign stem from confusions about: the process of the campaign (listen first, then organize); the voices of that campaign (he conflates all down to Marcos); and the value of listening (evident both in his impatience with the time it takes to even begin to listen and his failure to show up and listen himself).
The Other Campaign, however, is not beyond criticism. Taking the value of listening in the Other Campaign as a kind of diving rod to gauge the success of the movement, the two-day national assembly held on June 30 and July 1, was for me, a deeply disturbing experience. The failure to listen characterized the assembly even before it began.
A week before the assembly, members of the Mexico City sector of the Other Campaign began to hand out flyers convoking a march from the Angel of Independence to the Zocalo on July 2. One of the main topics on the agenda for the assembly was precisely to decide what action to take on July 2. Yet, the Mexico City group jumped the gun, handing out unsigned flyers in the name of the Other Campaign days before the meetings.
I approached one woman handing out the flyers and asked how it was they were already calling for a march before the assembly. “Well, it is what we decided in the metropolitan sector,” she told me. “And what about the compañeros traveling from all 31 states to attend the meeting? How can you decide what everyone will do on July 2 before their proposals have also been heard?”
She was silent. No response.
After six months of a national movement built on listening to the voices of the underdogs, it was extremely unsettling to see the Mexico City contingency parade their disregard for listening by drafting, designing, printing and distributing flyers that entirely preempted the voices, ideas, and proposals of all the other participants around the country.
But it gets worse. At the end of the marathon first day of the assembly, only 40 minutes before the Venustiano Carranza theatre was to close, the Mexico City representatives on the facilitation team (la mesa) forced the issue of what to do on July 2—it was originally scheduled for discussion the following morning—onto the table when there was no time to truly listen to, much less debate and consider, the various proposals, and when the Mexico City group could call a vote and win by majority. By mildly disguised bullying the Mexico City group thus won their proposal (representatives from the states denounced the Mexico City group’s “mayoriteo” or majoritizing). Is this the Other Campaign?
Throughout the two day assembly the din of chattering was constant, and only dipped to near total silence when Marcos stood up to speak. Again, this is the national gathering of a movement founded on listening?
Most of the urban participants in the Other Campaign—and here I include myself as an “intergalactic” signatory of the Sixth Declaration accompanying the first phase of the campaign as a correspondent with various alternative media—were raised in a largely individualistic, capitalist culture and do not really know how to communicate and make decisions collectively in large assemblies. I think it is paramount to call this out: we don’t know how to carry out assemblies, or large group decision-making gatherings, and we need to learn.
The march itself on July 2 was colorful and energetic. I felt however, that it was unsuccessful at communicating its main political messages—there is no democracy when there are political prisoners; vote or don’t vote: organize—or pulling people into the energy. The march and the gathering in the Zócalo were products for the consumption of the participants only. But not even all of the participants really paid attention: once the march arrived in the Zócalo many huddled in groups to eat, drink, sell stuff and chat rather than listen to the manifesto being read from the stage.
We have much still to learn about listening.
So what is with the pompous title to this series of notes? Time and Urgency: Reflections on the Politics of Listening in the Other Campaign? It points to what I think is the central tension at this point in the Other Campaign: a tension between the time necessary to build from below, and the urgency felt in the wake of Atenco, Sicartsa, Oaxaca and in the context of the State intervention in and the resulting colossal mess of the federal elections. Things are falling apart. They have been for some time, but we stand here now, and we feel the intensity of what falls around us.
Among many who followed the caravan of the Other Campaign across the country, the Big Question is whether or when the journey will continue north. The question should not be, to continue the caravan, or not to continue? Rather, how can the Other Campaign continue building the base of a national grassroots anti-capitalist movement, continue listening in the north while not only continuing, but stepping up its struggle for the release of the political prisoners?
Time and urgency should not be seen as opposing forces, imposing a decision to give priority to one or the other. Both must fuel the spirit and direction of the organizing. Deeply entrenched cultures and institutions of oppression will be uprooted through slow, considered organizing from the bottom up, but the scale and force of state repression demand a simultaneous stepping up of the intensity, breaking out of the box of marches and town square speeches to carry out more diverse and creative actions that communicate and convoke.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism