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Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces — Book Excerpt

Posted on June 11th, 2010 in AK Book Excerpts

“Zibechi goes to Bolivia to learn. Like us, he goes with questions, questions that stretch far beyond the borders of Bolivia. How do we change the world and create a different one? How do we get rid of capitalism? How do we create a society based on dignity? What is the role of the state and what are the possibilities of changing society through anti-state movements?… the most important practical and theoretical questions that have risen from the struggles in Latin America and the world in the last fifteen years or so…. The book is beautiful, exciting, stimulating…. Do read it and also give it your friends.”
—John Holloway, from the Foreword
“Raúl Zibechi recounts in wonderful detail how dynamic and innovative Bolivian social movements succeeded in transforming the country. Even more inspiring than the practical exploits, though, are the theoretical innovations of the movements, which Zibechi highlights, giving us new understandings of community, political organization, institution, and a series of other concepts vital to contemporary political thought.”
Michael Hardt, co-author of Empire, Multitude, and Commonwealth.

The first book by Raúl Zibechi to be translated into English, Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces, just arrived at our Oakland warehouse. You can read John Duda’s great review of it here. If that sparks your interest, here are some excerpts from the Introduction.

We’re really excited about this book…and you can order it today at 25% off!


What does the Bolivian struggle bring to the people of Latin America who seek to create a new world? The water and gas “wars” in 2000 and 2003 share some traits with other struggles on the continent like, for example, the lack of vanguards and leadership structures, or the ability to launch victorious insurgencies without any institution (workers, or farmers, union, or political party)—without those on top and those at the bottom. These struggles were won without the traditional division between the leaders and the led. The Bolivian experience also resembles other struggles on the continent in the sense that it was enough for them to draw from that which already exists in order to struggle and win: basically, the rural communities or ayllus,1 and the urban communities and local neighborhood councils. The “organizations” that carry forward the struggles and insurrections are the same “organizations” embedded and submerged in the everyday life of the people, and this is one of the new features of the movements (which are always social and political) of our region. I think it is necessary to elaborate on this point.

Revolution is the midwife of history. Marx’s phrase sums up a conception of revolution that has been buried by the Marxists. However, Marx was always faithful to this way of looking at social change, in which the revolutionary act of giving birth to a new world is just a short step in a long process of creating that other world.

Revolution helps give birth to the new world, but it does not create it. This new world already exists in a certain stage of development and that is why, in order to continue growing, it needs to be delivered by an act of force: the revolution. I feel that what is happening within the social movements is the formation of “another world,” one that is not only new but also different from the present one, based on a different logic of construction. This parallels Marx’s reflections on the Paris Commune. “The workers,” he said, “have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”2

Allow me to dwell on “to set free,” because I think it points to a pivotal element that runs through Marx’s entire theory of production. For Marx, communism exists as a potential within capitalist society. He is very clear about this in the Communist Manifesto when he discusses the transition from feudalism to capitalism and emphasizes how bourgeois society was born in the bowels of the feudal society. The same, he anticipates, will happen in the transition from capitalism to communism. The new society is not a place that one arrives; it is not something to be conquered and therefore is not out there; and it is even less something implanted. The image that Marx offers us of revolutionary change is that of a latent power that lies dormant within the world of the oppressed, and grows out like a flower. This is why he uses the expression “to set free.”

Marx did not use the word “spontaneity” or “spontaneous,”3 which Kautsky introduced and Lenin later employed, in his state-centric drift. Marx only used the adjectives selbständig (alone, on its own initiative) and eigentümlich (own / inherent)—or in other words, what exists in and of itself. His work is permeated by the idea of the self-activity of the workers and by the use of the term “naturally” to refer to how this activity arises. He affirmed, beyond any doubt, that the concentration of workers caused by the development of capitalism creates the conditions for their unity, based on self-education, and argued that this unity would erode the basis of bourgeois domination: competition between workers. Notice how he finds within the class not only the weaknesses that oppress them but also the powers that free them.

I maintain that the idea “to set free,” and the concepts of “self-activity” and “self-organization,” all derive from the same conception of the world and social change. It is one based on the idea that these processes occur naturally—a word Marx used himself—or, by themselves: that is, as a result of their own internal dynamics.

The internal dynamic of social struggle weaves social relations among the oppressed, as a means of ensuring survival in the first place, both materially and spiritually. With time and the decline of the dominant system, a new world grows upon the basis of these relations or, better said, a different world from the hegemonic. So much so that, eventually, society takes the form of a sea of “new” social relations amid a few islands of the “old” social relations—essentially, statist relations.

Twentieth-century history is full of births of worlds that embody “old” social relations. This tumultuous reality has brought disastrous consequences: in general, revolutions have not given birth to new worlds, though revolutionaries have tried to build them with the state apparatus. Although a good many revolutions have improved people’s living conditions, which is certainly an important achievement, they have not been able to create new worlds. Despite the unimpeachable goodwill of so many revolutionaries, the fact remains that the state is not the appropriate tool for creating emancipatory social relations. This is a contested topic, and a point from which an abundant literature has emerged.

From this perspective, the most revolutionary thing we can do is strive to create new social relationships within our own territories— relationships that are born of the struggle, and are maintained and expanded by it.


Critics point out the limits of the social movements. We are told that the movements are good for weakening or overthrowing governments, for mobilizing society, or for delegitimizing the neoliberal model, but that they lack the “other half”—the ability to strategize, to lead, or to seize the state in order to implement their programs.

From this point of view, there are only two ways of doing politics: based upon limits or based upon people’s power. Operating from within the limits implies privileging what we cannot do. It implies putting ourselves in a position of incapacity—like putting ourselves into a hole that “someone else” will get us out of, or so we hope. Setting limitations is to place in the forefront what movements have been unable to do. This attitude has several variants: from those who are banking on the state, whether they advocate establishing alliances with the government directly or through various other channels, to those who submit to the state altogether. At the most grassroots extreme, there are those who choose to “articulate” the various movements so that they will be coherent and have the capacity to influence the political agenda, thereby rendering the mobilizations’ pressure more effective. As is evident, these are two versions of the same project: the mobilized society is no longer the subject responsible for the changes—this role is passed on to the state, or the organization/ party, or various combinations of both. For those working in this spirit, “the political scenario is everything.”

In effect, the political scenario is quantity, while potency is quality. But one cannot be transmuted into the other. It is natural that the question about the usefulness of potency arises from the state-centered gaze. Like emancipation, this kind of power is not useful, it cannot transform itself into exchange value on the altar of the political market. Worse still, it only has use value for those who live it, feel it, practice it. For this reason, the political and social left does not usually extol emancipatory power in the great liturgies that they believe bring about change. And this applies as much to the party congresses as to the social forums.

To make matters worse, it is not possible nor desirable “to define it.” We can only recognize it as a hic Rhodus, hic salta of Marx. Because what we call potency relates to the experience of human relationships that men and women in movement establish with each other and others—relationships that, individually and collectively, are formed through suffering. “Potency is born of suffering,” says Negri.4 Even more, he states that “all major subject groups are formed from suffering, at least those who fight against the expropriation of the time of life decreed by power.” But it is impossible to explain suffering, or to convey it, only to share it; because “it goes beyond logic, rationality, language,” it is then, “a key that opens the door to the community.”5

In this sense we can say, yes, potency can change the people, and change each and every one of us. But only to the extent in which we participate in those relationships—not so much in the movements as institutions, but in movement. It is not the ritual demonstrations and marches that change people; but certainly, in some cases, street actions can embody the potencies of change. Something like what happened on December 19–20, and the memorable days of the Water War and October 2003 in Bolivia.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos reminds us that “below, to learn is to grow.” But he warns that “the seeds from below never yield their harvest immediately.”6 In that manner, Zapatismo cautions us to heed counsel on two things: first, the importance of learning collectively, of making learning an axis of the movement; and, secondly, to deal with the notion of time differently, to depend on internal time rather than the system’s time. But this means eliminating the instrumentalism of the means. There is not the slightest difference between ends and means; as Marcos says, the end is in the means.

During the best experiences one can sense a tension to overcome limits. If this tension—which tends to overflow—is the potency of the movements, it seems clear that the political scenario does not affect it. At that stage, the tension dissolves the internal and external. The tension goes to the limit (emancipation), but has no limits or limitations, except that of the tension itself. So potency is never realized, it is a thing that does not materialize, it is always the unfinished becoming. It tends toward the autonomous, because it only depends on itself. Potency expands as it forms and creates relationships—which are manifestations of emancipatory power. It is the only thing we can call power, and it depends only on itself. To enhance, to strengthen, is therefore to deepen the fabric of relations to avoid freezing them into forms of domination.


The Aymara experience is not only linked with the continental struggles but it also adds something substantial—the construction of actual non-state powers. By this, I am referring to powers that are not separated from or splintered off from society. Powers that do not form a separate elite that makes decisions or leads struggles or resolves internal conflicts. If the state is the monopoly of physical coercion exercised by a body that separate from society (a civil and military bureaucracy), in the Aymara world this capacity is distributed and dispersed throughout the social body and ultimately subject to assemblies in the countryside and the city.

The capacity to build non-state power—decentralized and dispersed—links the Aymara process with the Zapatista (the Good Government Councils), and both represent a vital contribution to emancipation, despite their differences and particularities. One could say that the construction of these powers is explicit in Chiapas and implicit in the barracks and other communal forms in the Aymara Altiplano. This is mostly due to the absence of territorial control among Aymara, although at base similar tensions and aspirations reside.

The non-state powers of the Aymara were born in territories in which the community machine operates: social mechanisms that are de-territorialized and “de-communalized” in order to be used by society in movement as non-state forms of mobilization and to create spaces where—far beyond mere rhetoric—the dictum “to lead by obeying” functions. These are the mechanisms that have enabled Aymara society and other social sectors in Bolivia to unleash powerful mobilizations that have toppled two presidents and defeated the neoliberal project without creating state structures. Now is not the time to think of what will happen in the coming years. The best scenario, the most desirable, is that the new government will be the bearer and voice of change without disempowering the social movements and that they, the social movements, will remain the key players. However, experiences such as those in Argentina—where many of the movements were co-opted by Néstor Kirchner’s progressive government—should alert us to the dangers of seduction by the state when it is in the hands of people connected to the movements.

For those of us who struggle for emancipation, the central and critical challenges are not from above but from below. There is no point in blaming the governments or issuing calls of “betrayal.” It is a daily task for all of us committed to creating a new world to care for the people’s power as the sacred fire of the movement. Let it beat in the heart of the people, a heart woven in popular sociability, without hierarchy or leaders; let it blossom due to the strength of brotherhood; let it be the driving force of any change, the basic fabric and the light of life.


1 Translator’s note: Ayllu is a word in the Aymara language referring to a network of families in a given area. It is a pre-Conquest indigenous local government model existing across the Andes region of South America, particularly in Bolivia.
2 Karl Marx, La guerra civil en Francia, Manifiesto del Consejo General de la Asociación Internacional de los Trabajadores (Moscow: Editorial Progreso, 1980), 69.
3 Daniel Guerin, Rosa Luxemburgo o la espontaneidad revolucionaria (Buenos Aires: Anarres, 2003), 15.
4 Antonio Negri, Job: la fuerza del esclavo (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2003), 147.
5 Ibid., 161, italics in the original.
6 Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “La velocidad del sueño (III): Pies desnudos” (In Rebeldía No. 24, México: October 2004), 14.