Slow Politics

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"In his recent book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Raj Patel documents how the Mexican Zapatistas are practising slow politics, using village-wide assemblies and rotating governing councils to draw all community members into decisions about local governance." (


Raj Patel:

"In the fifteen years since that declaration, they’ve won land — by some estimates over half a million acres21 — built primary health care facilities and made schools for the tens of thousands of people in their “liberated” territory. Their greatest victory, however, has been to build what has been hailed as a highly successful experiment in democracy and justice. I came to Chiapas to talk to the representatives of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (the Good Government Councils, or Juntas for short). And when I met them, they were wearing their signature accessory— ski masks.

Beyond the rather obvious reason that they don’t want to be hunted by the Mexican government— a fate that seems increasingly likely with the recent expansion of military forces in Chiapas — there’s another explanation for the masks. The foundation of Zapatista democracy is the village, which is usually anywhere between fifteen and one hundred families. They hold regular assembly meetings that everyone is allowed to attend, and at which everyone is encouraged to speak. At the meeting, the village appoints two or sometimes four responsables, men and women equally represented, who act both as local authorities and as representatives to a regional municipality (of about fifteen to one hundred villages). Together these municipalities select a pool of members from all villages to be on their Junta de Buen Gobierno — there are five in total, covering all Zapatista controlled territory. Once selected, the members leave their villages to serve at the Junta’s headquarters for one week out of every six, for a term of three years. After that, they’ll never serve again. With constant rotation, faces change all the time, but the Junta’s function remains the same.

The room of balaclavas is a sign that indigenous people are engaging in democracy without its most infectious symptom— elections. Rather than sitting in individual air- conditioned offices in front of large portraits of themselves, these demo cratic officials serve their communities anonymously, with their faces hidden by the masks of the office they have assumed. The ski masks also serve another political purpose. They are a reminder that when you visit the Junta, you aren’t there to see a par tic u lar person— you came to see the people. The masks reveal that the most important face in the room is yours. There’s still accountability, though— the Juntas sometimes publish denuncias, open letters denouncing a human- rights violation, as they did recently when the Mexican army, allegedly looking for marijuana fields while conducting “the war on drugs,” destroyed the main collective cornfield in the town of La Garrucha. In these cases, the Junta members will sign their real names, but when they’re working, the mask is a mantle of office.

At the entrance to the Zapatista territories, there’s always a sign that says “Está usted en territorio rebelde zapatista. Aquí manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece.” (You are in rebel Zapatista territory. Here the people lead and the government obeys.) This is in marked contrast to the famously corrupt Mexican ruling party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, which, despite its name, is structurally more aligned with the U.S. Republican Party, or the British Conservatives).

As one Junta member explained, “In Mexico, the federal government tries to buy your vote, the PRI gives out soda to buy your conscience. Here, we don’t get paid — we do it because we have been chosen.” They were at pains to stress that they weren’t there by choice. When they are at the Junta’s headquarters, they need to find someone to take care of their fields or their children, and yet, without exception, they said it was important to do.

Conducting an interview with a Junta is unusual. Names, ages, occupations and personal opinions are off- limits, because they’re irrelevant (see above). I was asked to present a written list of questions, they privately pondered their collective response and I was invited back to hear every member of the Junta take a turn answering. This takes time. Not for nothing is the name of the five Zapatista Junta headquarters “Caracol,” snail. I asked one of the Juntas why. “Three reasons— first, the snail walks slowly but surely; second, our ancestors blew through a conch shell to call a meeting together; third, the shape of the shell shows how information goes in and out of the Caracol, and that’s how we work: by listening and exchanging.”

Those familiar with the Slow Food movement will see some similarity here. Slow Food’s philosophy rejects the acceleration that capitalism has brought to food, insisting that food should be produced in consonance with the environment and with a respect for the labor that produces it. Not fast food but Slow Food. If you’ve ever tried Slow Food, you’ll know what a sublime and transformative experience it can be. Although the Slow Food movement has the reputation of being a middle- class supper club, its DNA is radical, and has a resonance with the Zapatistas — it shares the notion that everyone has the right to participate in, and enjoy, the world around them, and that genuine democracy takes time.

What Zapatistas are practicing is slow politics. Visitors and nongovernmental organizations trying to work with the Zapatistas can get a little impatient with the process of constant consultation, discussion and deliberation. It doesn’t feel efficient, and NGOs get frustrated at being made to wait, but that’s because they’re making a mistake in valuing time. It’s not as if the Zapatista government isn’t capable of swift responses. You wouldn’t want deliberative emergency service, and the Zapatistas have two ambulances and a clinic that provide prompt and universal coverage. But to decide justice and politics takes time — you wouldn’t rush a criminal trial, or cut short the presentation of evidence in order to reach a verdict more swiftly, and it’s the same with politics. Urgency is quick. Insurgency takes much longer. It’s a point I heard made rather clearly. “People know that we declared war fifteen years ago,” one of the masked men offered. “But what people also know is that the shooting war lasted only twelve days. Much more important was the political war. It takes time to build a secondary school— first we had to build all the primary schools. There’s nothing that happens overnight. It takes time to find the form.”

And, again, the form isn’t obvious, or even found the first time. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” said a woman whose eyes suggested she might be thirty. “We didn’t know if a government run like ours was even possible. But we’ve shown that it can be.” That the process works better if people spend more time on it is a finding only recently discovered by psychologists and behavioral economists. In one paper, researchers quote Henry Ford’s autobiography, where he states that “time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage.” What the economists demonstrate, and what the Zapatistas know, is that with a correctly structured system, you can build a great deal of trust between participants by taking time together.

The Juntas have been so successful in their deliberative democracy that ordinary non-Zapatista Mexicans seek their advice. The Zapatistas will receive anyone. Such is their reputation for impartial deliberation that their governing body is trusted by citizens and state alike to resolve cases ranging from divorce to grand theft. Local people prefer the Juntas’ deliberations to the federal court system, where the case will be decided on the basis of which side was better able to bribe the officers of the court.23 The justice that the Zapatistas offer is transformative justice rather than punitive. There is a jail that is mainly used for drunks, but incarceration is not the solution for most problems. The kinds of punishments that the Junta recommends are warnings, duties of care and community service. In one case involving the theft of over $40,000 from a truck carrying the salaries of local government employees, the Junta first tracked down the robbers, forced them to return the money to the government and then deliberated over their sentences. It was decided that sending them to jail would only hurt their families, who would have to work in the fields without the robbers’ labor, so they were sentenced to 365 days of community service, with half the time allowed to tend to family fields, and the rest spent on public work. This is, of course, a million miles away from the prison industry in the United States, which leads the world in incarceration in the name of “public safety.”

The Juntas are also involved in commoning, figuring how to share resources from land that they have reclaimed from large landholders. Balancing the economic needs of the community and the ecosystem’s ability to sustain them is a delicate art. One Junta has restrictions on chopping down healthy trees (and, if it needs to be done, three are planted in each tree’s stead). Revenues are shared between communities and the Junta."