Practices of the Zapatistas and the Movimento Sem Terra

Participatory Democracy in Action

by Amory Starr, María Elena Martínez-Torres, and Peter Rosset
Monday 10 January 2011 by LRAN

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” 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.

And yet, around the world, although their struggles and tactics and ideologies vary dramatically, these movements recognize each other in their passion and commitment 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.

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