Dual power is a method of struggle for the revolutionary transformation of society. It presupposes a pre-existing, fundamentally flawed social order. Within that society, those who envision a different future create alternative institutions (AIs) that embody their vision. AIs are places for experimentation with new social forms as well as places for liberation for those who are oppressed within the larger society. As AIs spread and diversify, they take on more and more of the functions of a larger social system: creating over time an "alternative social infrastructure" that fulfills economic, political, social, and cultural needs. In addition to their direct functions, AIs demonstrate the viability of new ways of organizing society, and attract interest to the ideals behind them.
As the ideological monopoly of dominant institutions is broken and people increasingly rely on AIs, those who benefited from existing arrangements may seek to dismantle their upstart competitors. At the same time, those who seek fundamental changes in society or who find the alternative ways of organizing it valuable may seek to enlarge and strengthen the alternative infrastructure. Counter institutions (XIs) are created both to defend the AIs and to promote their growth. These work to challenge and attack the status quo while creating, defending, and securing space for opposition and alternative institutions. They do this with everything from political protests, to direct appropriation (of plantations, government buildings, factories, etc.) for the use of alternative institutions, to civil disobedience or armed resistance. The line between AIs and XIs is seldom entirely clear as many alternative institutions are also self-promoting or defending. Together the AIs and XIs form an alternative source of power in society which is "necessarily autonomous from, and competitive with, the dominant system, seeking to encroach upon the latter's domain, and, eventually, to replace it."
During the process of building the alternative institutions and the ideology that supports them, the advantage of dual power is the creation of real, and not merely political, momentum towards the revolutionary transformation of society. Actual changes are ongoing, rather than postponed to a revolutionary moment, so needs unmet by the pre-existing order are being met during the struggle and no sector of society is told that its concerns can only be dealt with after victory is achieved. That is, creation of AIs and the political space for them has intrinsic benefits, apart from the advancement of the revolutionary project. Over the course of building AIs, the society at large is empowered, committed to change, and skilled in running society. Simultaneously, the credibility of a revolutionary vision is increased immensely by putting it into practice and by refining and improving it over time. It is also conceivable that factional splits between revolutionaries and reformers (and all the shades in between) could be reduced by having a common project that both find useful. Those forces that would be sent to suppress a revolutionary movement find themselves confronting people who have taken control over their own lives, rather than armed cadre attempting to impose a vision on the country, potentially obviating military conflict or at least reducing its severity.
Successful dual power rebellions end with the acceptance of the new social forms by much of the populace and the realization by the old rulers that they are no longer capable of using their systems of force against the revolutionary movement. This can occur because noncooperation has crippled the old structures of power, because too few people remain loyal to the old rulers to enforce their will, or because the rulers themselves undergo an ideological conversion. At this point, there is not general confusion. The disappearance of old leaders and structures of power is accommodated by the expansion of the alternative system. The alleged "necessity" for a revolutionary vanguard to guide the revolutionary impulse is shown to have no basis: because the people have already learned how to govern their own affairs, they need no tutelage from above. The possibility of co-option is minimized: "When the people recognize their true power, it cannot be taken away by rhetoric or [–] imposition."
Dual power is a strategy, rather than an ideology, and it could plausibly be used to advance a variety of forms of social change. However, the advantages of the strategy make it most compatible with perspectives that emphasize the exercise of power at the community level, that seek to make the revolutionary movement accountable to the people, that see the capability to revision and transform society as common rather than rare, and that seek decentralized forms of power. Call this version of the strategy grassroots dual power, the bottom-up transformation and replacement of the mechanisms of society.
The pre-existing community-level democracy underlies decision-making within the Zapatista areas and of the EZLN itself. At the community level, village assemblies were the traditional form of governance among the indigenous communities in Chiapas. These assemblies included all the families in the village and met to make decision and elect leaders, who were subject to the recall of the assembly. Upon encountering these traditions, the intellectuals who co-founded the EZLN found their Marxist, Leninist, and Maoist preconceptions "totally inadequate for communicating with the local population," and eventually concluded that their original plans for struggle were "undemocratic and authoritarian," in their words. Local communities taught the Zapatistas the tradition of mandar obedeciendo, leading by obeying: as the EZLN has put it, "the will of the majority is the path on which those who command should walk. If they separate their step from the path of the will of the people, the heart that commands should be changed for another that obeys."
With the growth of the Zapatista movement, the system of local governance has been elaborated somewhat. Among the officials selected from each assembly, there are now commissioners for health and education, as well as a representative to a Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI). The commissioners meet and coordinate with their peers on a regional basis, while there are four CCRIs, one for each language group in the area. The EZLN is subordinate to their decisions. This has fostered cooperation between community members and the EZLN, since "when a decision is made by the CCRI, it–s a decision based on consensus. It–s based on the agreement of dozens of families."
This local democracy has been extended by the creation of autonomous local governments, systems of alternative institutions that effectively replace local structures of power. On February 3, 1994, Manuel Camacho Sols, the conciliator between the government and the Zapatistas, announced the creation of two free zones in which the International Red Cross would operate and the militaries would not, unwittingly providing the Zapatista communities with a bit of national territory. On December 19, 1995, the EZLN broke the Mexican Federal Army–s encirclement and carried out the political and military seizure of dozens of towns, demonstrating that its influence went far beyond the small existing conflict zone. In this expanded area, Zapatista communities formed 38 autonomous municipalities covering more than a third of the state of Chiapas.
Autonomous municipalities are the Zapatistas– implementation of the 16 February 1996 San Andrs Accords, which the government abandoned in December 1996, after refusing to carry them out. The Accords guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to form and govern traditionally their own municipalities. In forming the municipalities, residents derecognize the official authorities and elect their own. They refuse federal government involvement and control. They name their "local health promoters [and] indigenous parliaments, and elaborate their own laws based on social, economic, political and gender equality among the inhabitants of diverse ethnic communities." Councils are constituted to plan the various areas of community action and are joined by councils of elders and, increasingly, of women. These communities are accomplishing long-ignored aspirations, like building bilingual (Spanish and the local indigenous language) education systems, and providing to all what once was only provided in accordance with political patronage. A report from the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas finds: "At a local level municipal presidents imposed by the PRI are left governing only themselves, without being able to penetrate into the communities. Basically this means the slow destruction of–false democracy–and its replacement by communities and organizations that construct their own history first as autonomous municipalities and eventually as autonomous zones."
This eroding of the status quo has proceeded despite the attacks by the Mexican Federal Army and their paramilitary allies, providing a dramatic demonstration of the effectiveness of grassroots dual power. Whatever its accomplishments, the EZLN sees itself as a temporary formation: A "mirror image of the Mexican Army," it is "entirely unqualified to replace it" since it includes the hierarchy and violence that it would remove from society altogether. It will remain only "until the armed struggle becomes an absurdity and an obstacle for the revolutionary transformation of our country."
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