This essay was first written in French collaboratively with a friend and fellow student, to which I'm grateful and who accepted for me to translate it into English

‘For us autonomy is the soul and heart of our resistance in our pueblos; it is a new way of doing politics in construction and in development in democracy, justice and liberty.’

~ Macario, a member of the Nueva Revolución community in the municipality of Diecisiete de Noviembre (Chiapas) (quoted in Mora 2017, 72)


Since the end of the postwar boom, a range of economic and political factors have transformed Western democracies. With regard to the political system and democracy in particular, citizens’ trust in their leaders has declined, and a sense of mistrust expressed outside political institutions and parties has burgeoned (Chapdelaine 2010, 2). Some of the inherent limitations of representative democracy — including the growing gap between representatives and the represented, the over-centralisation of power, and the disempowerment of citizens — are leading to dissatisfaction with this type of political organisation and a desire to turn to new practices (Hatzfeld 2011). This is why, in recent decades, some groups have increasingly called for forms of ‘participatory’ or ‘deliberative’ democracy to remedy the limited level of participation by the public in most countries (Sintomer & Bacqué 2011, 15-16).

A subset of French political sociology — starting with scholars Pierre Bourdieu and Daniel Gaxie — has argued that one factor in the low democratic participation of dominated groups is ‘structural social inequalities in the face of politicisation’ (Blondiaux 2007, 762), i.e. their ‘social inability to enter into the categories of judgement and expression of opinions imposed by [the political order]’ (Lagroye et al. 2012, 350–351). Individuals ‘experience’ and ‘manifest’ this incompetence, ‘in particular through non-participation in “civic” activities’ (ibid, 348). However, this is ‘not an “absence of opinions,” but rather a sense of incompetence maintained by the socially authorised agents defining the language and schemas of the political’ (ibid, 351). The illegitimacy of taking part in political processes is therefore an individual feeling of incompetence that is also socially recognised.

The scientific literature lacks any consideration of whether, or to what extent, conventional attempts at participatory democracy might be limited by the very fact that they originate in the modern state framework. This framework is based in part on the differentiation between political specialists or professionals and laymen, defined by their inability to intervene according to the codes and patterns of the established political system. As Starr et al. (2011, 103) put it, the research dealing with more inclusive forms of participatory democracy generally views this kind of system as ‘a kind of advisory process to state decision making (…) The forms of “direct,” “deliberative,” and “decentralized” democracy discussed in these works are all ways of participating in the state.’ What happens in contexts where this separation is deconstructed or even abolished?

The  Zapatista experience in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico is an example of popular stateless self-organisation that has lasted for more than twenty-five years. Since the 1990s, and especially since 2003, this experience of democracy from below has persisted despite an unfavourable context, linked in particular to repression by the Mexican state and the violence of paramilitary organisations. Nevertheless, its radical character can be identified by its popular, peasant, and Indigenous base; its project of self-government outside the state; and its internationalist and anti-capitalist demands. The participation of lay citizens is thus a foundation of the Zapatista organisation, directly raising the question of their competence and capacity to organise and manage themselves. As they say in the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona:

‘This method of autonomous government was not simply invented by the EZLN, but rather it comes from several centuries of indigenous resistance and from the Zapatistas’ own experience. It is the self-governance of the communities. In other words, no o­ne from outside comes to govern, but the peoples themselves decide, among themselves, who governs and how, and, if they do not obey, they are removed. If the o­ne who governs does not obey the people, they pursue them, they are removed from authority, and another comes in.’

In her analysis of the democratic function from the armed uprising of January 1, 1994, to the “Other Campaign,” an initiative for citizen participation at the national level initiated in 2005, Monique Chapdelaine (2010) emphasises the singularity of the movement. Among other things, she examines the Zapatista conception of democracy. The Zapatistas adopt a radical perspective by positioning themselves against the State and advocating new methods of consultation and decision-making, including a diversity of social actors and a total decentralisation of power. According to them, power in a democratic society should be located at the base — that is, in civil society. In total opposition to the current functioning of the Mexican government, the Zapatistas engage in participatory democracy as a part of their political organisation.

According to Sabrina Melenotte (2010), applying the notion of political governance to the practice of Zapatista autonomy allows for the inclusion of new actors in the analysis, and therefore, in civil society. Governance is a system of rules and institutions that implies a reorganisation of power and government (ibid 180). It allows us to think about citizen participation and the possibility of the emergence of organised power on the margins of the state, thanks to the diversity of actors it involves in the practice of power. Consequently, the governance approach makes it possible to link contestation and political reconfigurations through the self-governance of civil society.

Self-governance is the idea that the people are capable of governing themselves outside of a state system. It can be thought of as the outcome of the practice of autonomy, which, according to Jérôme Baschet (2019, 2021), represents the most important characteristic of the Zapatista experience. It is also through this concept that the Zapatistas themselves describe their practices and their modes of political and social organisation. Their emancipation project secedes from the institutions of the state and has relocated its form of self-government to another scale that does not include the state (Baschet 2021, 2).

Black and red text is painted on a white sign by the side of the road. There are EZLN star logos painted on the sign as well. Please see photo caption for English translation.
This Zapatista sign reads: "North Zone. Board of Good Governance. Strictly prohibited: The trafficking of arms, planting and consumption of drugs, intoxicating drinks, illegal sale of wood, and the destruction of nature. Zapata lives, the fight continues... You are in rebellious Zapatista territory. Here the people rule - the government obeys."

This approach identifies how Zapatista autonomy operates in the areas of education, health, justice, and government. Their political organisation is characterised by what the Zapatistas call ‘mandar obedeciendo,’ which means ‘the people rule and the government obeys’ (Baschet 2019, 356). But this does not mean that the relationship between government — broken down into community, municipality, and zone — and people is strictly horizontal. On the contrary, it works both ways: ‘[…] the government obeys, because it has to consult and do what the people ask; the government commands because it has to implement and enforce what has been decided collectively […]’ (ibid, 360). Zapatista autonomy thus goes beyond the oppositions traditionally put forward between representative and direct democracy, and the analysis of the exchanges that exist within and between the three levels of Zapatista organisation are essential to understanding it.

Mariana Mora (Kuxlejal Politics, 2017) has carried out an ethnography of cultural and political practices in the Zapatista municipality Diecisiete de Novembre, based on materials collected between 2005 and 2008 through interviews, observations, and informal conversations (ibid, 5). Mora performed these investigations with the informed consent and review of the Zapatista assembly. She focuses on what she calls ‘everyday politics’ which she places at the centre of what Zapatista autonomy represents as a mode of socio-political organisation (ibid, 3–4):

‘The everyday politics of Zapatista indigenous autonomy simultaneously interacts with the state through what Pablo González (2011) terms a politics of refusal and enacts multilayered forms of engagement internal to the rebel autonomous project, including dialogue with vast webs of national and international political actors (…) From this double-pronged politics emerge particular Tseltal and Tojolabal cultural practices — concentrated in three central realms, knowledge production, ways of being, and the exercise of power — that partially unravel the colonial legacies of a racialized and gendered neoliberal Mexican state.’

This close analysis of the Zapatista ‘way of life’ touches on the theme of legitimacy in certain respects, but only indirectly. In other words, it is a valuable source of evidence of how self-governance can be socially constructed through the direct praxis involved in making that system work in people’s everyday lives. This approach does not need to rely on a formalised, academic approach to ‘participatory democracy’ that attempts to use political science to empirically measure variables involved in it, like confidence, legitimacy, or engagement. In short, the Zapatistas do not need to rely on bureaucrats, academics, or politicians to research, vote on, and administer their democracy for themselves.

While academics have broadly analysed how the Zapatista political system works, they have not done so through a lens of citizen competence. It is therefore necessary to ask what constitutes the legitimacy of ordinary citizens in such a system. How is the political competence of the communities of Chiapas — mostly peasants and Indigenous people — constructed? What is the relationship between ‘governed’ and ‘governing,’ between ‘political specialist’ and ‘layman’ in this case?

The Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas

While the armed uprising of January 1, 1994, is generally identified as the beginning of the Zapatista movement as we know it today, it must be seen in the longer history of Indigenous and popular mobilisation in the country. That history goes back at least to the struggle of Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 which aimed at restoring agricultural land to the local populations who had been managing it collectively since before Spanish colonisation. The predominantly agricultural state of Chiapas was plagued by poverty and inequality, and Indigenous people were highly marginalised and had no recognised rights. Peasant movements emerged in the 1970s in response to neoliberal immiseration, and it is out of that milieu that modern Zapatismo arose.

The EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), the organisation that emerged as the main figure in the 1994 insurgency), was founded in 1983. It emerged from a Marxist-Leninist group in the north of the country, the FLN (Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional), and initially resorted to an isolated and clandestine guerrilla war. As Jérôme Baschet points out, ‘it is important to understand that Zapatismo was not born on 1 January 1994, and that there was a broad social movement behind and around it, with at least twenty years of struggle and experience accumulated by the Indigenous peasants of Chiapas.’ (2019, 19). The violence of the government and paramilitary organisations brought together the EZLN and Indigenous communities. The initial uprising, in which ‘for the first time in history, an indigenous army seized San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, and Altamirano […] with cries of “Ya basta!”’ (ibid, 33), carried the priority and central demand of the Zapatista movement: autonomy and the recognition of the rights of the Indigenous populations.

The initial phase of the uprising, from 1994 to 2003, was marked by a process of government repression, the transition from armed struggle to political struggle, and an attempt to negotiate with the Mexican authorities. The disillusionment of the Zapatistas with these negotiations led in August 2003 to the declaration of their autonomy in the seized territories, where they announced the unilateral application of the San Andrés Accords (providing for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous rights), which had not been respected by the Mexican government. They created ‘[…] five councils of good government, federating twenty-seven “autonomous Zapatista rebel municipalities” […]’ (Baschet 2021).

‘In Oventic the EZLN announced that the five Zapatista aguascalientes, regions created by the EZLN in January 1996, would be changed to caracoles and that five corresponding juntas de buen gobierno would be instituted as coordinating bodies for the multiple autonomous councils in the five Zapatista areas.’ (Mora 2017, 38)

According to Mora:

‘The San Andrés dialogues forged dynamic conditions for creative political endeavors at the margins of the state. Shortly thereafter, the Zapatista support bases, or community members who actively support the political-military structure of the EZLN but are not part of the rebel army’s military ranks, organized self governing bodies and administrative units to implement collective decisions and initiated their own education, justice, agrarian, and healthcare projects as part of their autonomous municipalities. Sympathizers of the movement also mobilized in support of these initiatives, myself included.’ (Mora 2017, 4)

A further expansion of autonomy was announced in August 2019 with the creation of four new autonomous municipalities and seven new ‘good government’ councils (Baschet 2021). Today, the Zapatistas have developed their own unique ideology not directly affiliated with any other, whether that be Marxism, Anarchism, or Maoism.

Autonomy as Participatory Democracy from Below

Today, participatory democracy refers to a wide variety of approaches in terms of formats, audiences, framing, and scale. It has its origins in criticism of representative democracy. In particular, these criticisms point to the dissociation between representatives and the represented, the excessive centralisation of power and the disempowerment of citizens, thus making ‘participatory democracy’ necessary (Hatzfeld 2011, 53). From then on, the development of participation was articulated around two distinct issues. If the aim was to make it a political tool available to leaders, it had to be able to correct and complement representation. With this in mind, governments sought to partially encourage the participation of actors traditionally excluded from the construction of public policies. But if it was to be a tool for challenging the political and social system, then participation had to be a political struggle. This last point makes it possible to understand participatory democracy as a means of producing a popular counter-power.

A painted sign for the Escuelita Zapatista, it depicts a diverse group of people pointing to an EZLN sign, with a backdrop of modest houses, a landscape, and the stars.
The Escuelita Zapatista ("Escuelita Zapatista: Freedom According to the Zapatistas”) or Little School of Freedom was a five-day educational experiment in August 2013 (12th to 16th) during which activists from around the world were invited to join Mayan families in Chiapas and participate in and learn from Zapatista autonomy.

But, ‘[…] to think of participation only in terms of its mechanisms granted and designed according to the needs of public decision-makers is a dead end.’ (ibid, 27). Indeed, it is also possible to identify independent attempts that are taking place outside the state framework and that advocate new political practices based on participation, as the Zapatista experience of self-government shows. A self-governing political system is based on the idea of ‘[…] the capacity of all to govern themselves.’ (Baschet 2021, 11) All citizens therefore participate in policy-making and decision-making.

Self-management is a concept that is part of the tradition of the labour movement in which workers are encouraged to work autonomously for the establishment of socialism (ibid, 54). It is therefore a practice that aims at a radical transformation of society’s behaviours and ways of thinking: the relationship to work, consumption, and knowledge are then completely different, advocating an alternative organisational model to that of capitalism (ibid, 55).

The Zapatista movement is also characterised by this desire to effect a complete transformation of lifestyles. However, rather than talking about self-management, the Zapatistas use the term autonomy to characterise their modes of organisation:

'Under this name of autonomy — by which the Zapatistas themselves synthesise their practice — one must understand both the implementation of modalities of self-government entirely dissociated from the institutions of the Mexican state and the reinvention of forms of life rooted in the Indigenous tradition and yet unprecedented, which escape as far as possible from capitalist determinations.' (Baschet 2019, 323)

On the one hand, Zapatista autonomy thus represents a radical critique of the state, insofar as it rejects any form of political organisation that includes a centralisation of powers. Indeed, it implies a relocalisation of politics not only at the level of scale, with a shift from national to local, but also at the level of power hierarchies, with the state now absent (Baschet 2019). After the failure of the San Andrés Accords to recognise the rights of Indigenous peoples, autonomy appears to be a mode of organisation that can better respond to the needs of these populations (Melenotte 2010). The state is unable to do this unless it is completely transformed, reorganised, and abolished. The Zapatistas thus declared de facto autonomy for their territories in 2003 and have been self-governing ever since. More than a reflection of an inability to dialogue with the Mexican government, the declaration of autonomy is above all a form of resistance to state oppression.

‘They are afraid that we will discover that we can govern ourselves,’ said Maestra Eloisa at the Escuelita. She thus confirms the essential principle: we, the ordinary people, are capable of governing ourselves — a ‘discovery’ that has the unfortunate consequence, for those above and for all the self-proclaimed experts in politics, of demonstrating their harmful uselessness!’ (Baschet 2019, 372)

On the other hand, autonomy is also part of a long popular tradition of community organisation in which the collective exercise of power and consensus-building are essential: the authority of the community prevails over that of individuals (Baschet 2021). The ‘tradition’ is nevertheless undergoing transformations in power relations, through the integration of youth and women, who are usually excluded from community assemblies, as well as in the social structure and symbolic roles associated with women (Mora 2017). Women, for instance, were made an early priority in the Zapatista revolution and were fully included in autonomy arrangements.As identified by Jérôme Baschet in 2021, Zapatista autonomy is being implemented in the fields of education, health, justice and politics. It cuts across several facets of daily life, in a process of struggle for lekil kuxlejal, a dignified collective life associated with a specific territory (Mora 2017, 12). It represents a daily aspiration to live with dignity and is therefore expressed through everyday practices (ibid). The relationship to the land is essential in that it allows for the creation of a collective identity territorialised around autonomy, without the need for legal structures for its implementation (Guimont Marceau 2010). By living their ideas out in practice, the Zapatistas demonstrate how stateless participatory democracy is about much more than a change in political institutions: it is fundamentally rooted in a transformation of social relations and everyday life. It is, in a word, revolutionary.

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