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SALZMAN, George. "Building the Global Grassroots Infrastructure: A task both local and global"
Article published on 17 July 2005

by r-c.
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The focus here is on down-to-earth efforts to create the kind of world we want for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. It’s part of an evolving strategy for revolution, not for a violent revolution, but for a vast variety of constructive efforts aimed at gaining control over our own lives, the kind of revolution envisioned by James Herod in his essay Getting Free. We take as our starting point the assumption that all people are human beings, that all of us experience pain and suffering, and that the true measure of a civilization is how successful it is in minimizing the avoidable suffering of each person.

A second assumption is that humans are not born to be "bad", that is, we are not a "genetically flawed" species biologically programmed to do harmful things to one another. This is a basic assumption of anarchism. It follows, if one accepts this assumption, that the harmful things people knowingly do to one another are a consequence of social conditioning, i.e. of the social conditions in which we live.

Our third major assumption is that the currently dominant system of capitalism, of global extent, is extremely destructive, both of people and of the biosphere, and that these bad consequences are inherent in the system, which cannot be reformed; it must be totally replaced. That is why we call it a revolution. At the heart of the system we want to construct must be human values that hold life sacred and that maximize, as much as possible within communal bounds, individual freedom and autonomy.

Building local community

The fundamental building blocks we envision as the basis for transforming the whole society are autonomous local communities, self-governing with direct face-to-face non-hierarchical democratic assemblies. Such communities exist, not perfect of course, but where a strong sense of communality prevails, as for example in the town of Ixtlan in the northern Sierra of Oaxaca State in Mexico. The following photograph that I took in June 2002 exemplifies the communal values that prevail there.

Photo: George Salzman
In this community
private property does not exist
The buying-selling of communal land
The commission for communal property of Ixtlan de Juarez, Oaxaca

In many parts of the world it is difficult to imagine the internal structure of a community such as Ixtlan de Juarez, organized along lines profoundly different from those of, for example, Mexico City. Largely self-governing in accord with traditional usos y costumbres - uses and customs - the communal assembly, the seat of decision-making, is based on direct democracy. A discussion of the contrasts between traditional practices in indigenous communities (those without significant admixture of European bloodlines) and those of mestizo society (the major part of Mexican society) is in the essays Comunalidad y Autonomía in the folder Estrategia por Revolución, which I have thus far only partly translated into English and posted in the folder Strategy for Revolution.

Within Oaxaca State there is a large number of communities that are strongly motivated to maintain or regain a substantial degree of autonomy. This largely mountainous southeastern state of Mexico has both the greatest percentage of indigenous peoples (about two-thirds of the population) and the highest number - 570 - of municipalities (like counties in the U.S.), two factors that favor local autonomy. There is also, in the Oaxaca constitution, a provision for formal state recognition of traditional forms of local governance. Passed in 1998, a few years after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in the neighboring state of Chiapas, it is now regarded by some as being more or less a dead-letter article of the constitution. Nevertheless, the struggle for local autonomy is far from dead, and not only in Oaxaca but in many parts of Mexico.

With our focus on autonomous local communities as the basis for transforming the whole society, we must acknowledge that building them where they are largely nonexistent, as e.g. in the United States, is an enormous challenge. It is also a great challenge to support and strengthen them where they already exist, as e.g. in some parts of Mexico.

The tension between communality and individual autonomy

As social animals, we find meaning in our lives through our interactions with other people, through being an integral part of a community. In order to retain a secure place within a community one must abide by the communal patterns of living. This prevents total individual freedom and autonomy as long as one lives within, and is truly a part of the community. The tension between communality and personal freedom is therefore very real. I well remember that when first visiting some indigenous communities in the northern Sierra of Oaxaca in 1996 as a member of a Grassroots International delegation, an older American couple feeling they would not want to live in a community in which everyone else knew so much about their lives, in which they would not enjoy their accustomed privacy.

That lack of anonimity in the communities we visited (in sharp contrast to the degree of anonymity often available in the U.S.) is an essential element in their traditional system of government. There are no political parties, no election campaigns, no lies and propaganda about the supposed virtues and shortcomings of contending candidates. Such campaigning is irrelevant because everyone in the community knows which individuals can best serve the interests of the community. In many towns they have maintained their communal solidarity and traditional government in spite of the efforts of state and federal authorities to impose the dominant system of political parties, voting, majority rule, and so on, with all the corruption we know it entails in the ensuing struggle for power and privilege. Their value system places the well-being of the community as a top priority, in contrast to the dominant system’s focus on the individual. Cooperation and mutual aid, rather than competition, is emphasized.

Thus, while acknowledging the tension between communality and individualistic urges for total personal freedom and autonomy, it would be an error to insist on the absolute supremacy of either set of values, both of which are crucial for human fulfillment and happiness. The overriding criterion ought to be how best to achieve the primary objective (which we repeat): To develop a true civilization, one based on recognition that all human beings belong to a single race, the human race (homo sapiens), that all of us are sentient beings, all able to experience pain and suffering, and that the only true measure of a civilization is its success in reducing, to the greatest extent possible, the suffering of every single human being.

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