Building Urban Autonomy: The Construction of a Communal Form of Life in Mexico City’s Peripheries

By Sam Law

Emergent Conversation 15

This essay is part of the series Ethnographic Encounters with Destituent Power

The Acapatzingo Housing Cooperative is located at the foot of Cerro de la Estrella in the Iztapalapa district. Photo: OPFVII. Photo freely accessible and reproducible journalism from Disinformémonos, https://desinformemonos.org/acapatzingo-el-otro-mundo-en-medio-de-la-ciudad/

The only indispensable material factor in the generation of power is the living together of people.

—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1998, 201).

It’s early Sunday morning when I arrive at the Comunidad Habitacional Acapatzingo, an autonomous community of around 3,000 people in the southeastern peripheries of Mexico City. Too early for the usual hustle and bustle of informal activity that fills the streets of Iztapalapa, the city’s most populous, violent, and poorest borough, the trip to Acapatzingo gives me ample time to take in the gray self-constructed buildings that characterize the zone. Arriving, I pass by the communal guard keeping watch and enter Acapatzingo, making my way down wide tree-lined streets, past brightly painted houses to the lush space of the community’s agricultural project. Here, a fenced-in area contains an orchard, a medicinal herb garden, a few beds of plants, and two large greenhouses. Despite the early hour, the nearly thirty members of the Urban Agriculture commission are already hard at work, this being the first collective work party since the general assembly canceled them a year ago due to the pandemic. Walking into the Acapatzingo is like walking into another world, a qualitative shift from the metropolis just beyond the community’s gates.

This sense of passage into another world reflects the community’s past three decades of autonomous struggle. Whether penniless migrants to the city, families displaced from the urban center by rapidly rising rents and an economic downturn, or couples living in cramped and conflictual quarters with their in-laws, people joined the community searching for an essential condition of urban existence: housing. Arriving on a piece of squatted land filled with rubble , the air thick with dust from a nearby gravel mine, the dream of housing seemed a long way off as people set about building provisional shelters with cardboard, cinder blocks, tires, and other materials at hand.

David, who was just eight when his family piled all their stuff in a moving truck and made the long drive to the city’s peripheries, remembers thinking it was so ugly that he wanted to cry. Today, after 27 years of struggle, the community has transformed from the ragtag settlement in a dust-filled garbage dump into one filled with brightly painted houses, parks, Mexico City’s longest continually operating pirate radio station, a community first-aid clinic, and a cultural center. Yet, these material changes to the built environment are a testament to the construction of something more profound: a communal form of life organized through practices of collective decision making, solidarity, and mutual aid—a form of life capable of breaking with the dominant modes of metropolitan governance.

In a sprawling metropolis where most housing is the result of informal settlement (Connolly and Wigle, 185), what makes Acapatzingo notable is not its history of informal settlement but the construction of autonomy, whose depth and duration make it one of the most important experiences of urban autonomy in Latin America. While many members moved to Acapatzingo looking for housing, by joining the community, they became Panchos: members of a revolutionary communist organization that emerged from the radical wing of Mexico’s Urban Popular Movement.[1] For the Panchos, emancipatory struggles consist in practical responses to the ethico-political question of how to live together, here and now. Thus, unlike either revolutionaries bent on seizing state power or social movements that reduce political struggle to a series of demands, the Panchos build communities capable of collectively establishing the conditions of una vida digna, a communal and dignified form of life. As the Panchos put it, “No estamos construyendo un proyecto de vivienda ,sino un proyecto de vida” (We aren’t building a housing project, but a life project).

Placing the practical organization of collective existence at the center of their political project, the Panchos collapse the distance between everyday life and political struggle. Here, communism exists not as a receding utopian horizon but an immanent criterion of organization and action that allows the immediate configuration of the world otherwise.  In this article, I examine the autonomous political practices of the Panchos—their strategy of building a communal form of life as a means of overcoming the precarity of metropolitan existence—as a form of destituent power. Doing so, I argue that the everyday political practice of autonomy breaks from classical models of politics organized around the state, sovereignty, and political recognition. Instead, destituent power is not a form of rule removed from the organization of everyday life, but precisely the shared potential that emerges when politics, to paraphrase Marcello Tari (2021), becomes the unapologetic art of collective existence and its organization (34). By recognizing the construction of autonomy as the organized movement of destitution, I argue the Panchos’ life project sheds new light on the insurgent worlds coming into being in the urban peripheries.

Instead of beginning with a theoretical exegesis of destituent power or genealogy of autonomous struggles in Latin America, I begin with an ethnographic account of the community’s Urban Agriculture commission. To do so seems the most appropriate way to approach a form of emancipatory struggle that has a decidedly anthropological character, organized not around specific demands but instead seeking through everyday activity to create a qualitative shift in a particular form of life. I then turn to a broader consideration of autonomous world-building as a form of destituent power.  To conclude, I explore how the political project  of Panchos is a destituent life strategy that helps us think beyond the narrow framework used to understand the popular agency of the urban poor.

Autonomy’s Harvest

A work party of the Urban Agriculture Commision, in the community of Acapatzingo. Photo by Sam Law.

Each year, the Urban Agriculture commission harvests thousands of pounds of fresh organic fruit and vegetables sold at cost in the community. Despite this impressive yield, it covers only a fraction of the nutritional needs of the community. But the value of the Urban Agricultural Commission and its collective work parties lies not in a quantitative measure of agriculture productivity but in the qualitative shift in relations that this shared autonomous practice produces.

Early Sunday morning, the agricultural area is a hive of activity. In the greenhouse, a teenager with a John Deere hat and two older women chat about the city’s vaccine rollout as they weed and spread fertilizer between rows of lettuce, tomatoes, celery, basil, and chard. Along a wall outside, a group of women joke with each other while spreading lye and uprooting plants to kill a fungus that, taking advantage of the lack of chemical pesticides, had spread across from the nopal cacti into a small garden of medicinal herbs. I make my way to a short woman with long black hair, animatedly waving her hands as she explains to a group of young men how to remove the rocks and roots to prepare a garden bed. With seven years of experience on the commission, Mirella is the commission’s de facto coordinator and is in her element as she instructs the small group around her. The bed, she tells me, is where they will transplant their cempasúchil seedlings, the vibrant orange flower that will be used in November in the community’s Day of the Dead celebration to adorn the alters to martyrs from popular, revolutionary, indigenous, and environmental struggles.

The work party and the activity of the Urban Agriculture more generally is an autonomous practice in the double sense: a practice both for and of autonomy. On the one hand, the collective labor is part of a shared project to reduce and one day free themselves of dependence on the market. The harvest might not feed the entire community yet, but the commission allows members of the community to explore the relationship they have with the land and collectively imagine a shared future they hope to build. This both breaks down their separation from the countryside and gives a space to collectively explore an avenue to, however gradually, use collective labor to meet their immediate needs. In commission meetings, practical discussions about expanding agricultural productivity occur alongside discussions of land-based struggles of campesinos and indigenous groups. A concrete example of this entwining of practical activity and the exploration of a larger political orientation can be seen in the practices of seed-saving. While they could easily buy seeds, members have learned to save seeds, and as older commission members teach newer ones how to do so, their commentaries are interspersed with reflections on how genetically modified seeds produce dependence on markets that undermine food autonomy.  Growing food and learning about its production is thus a form of practicing for autonomy, a collective process of building capacities in anticipation of a future in which the material existence of the community is no longer mediated by money but depends on the relations and collective labor of the community itself.  Constructed in the mundane space of the work party, this vision of future self-reliance is the horizon that maintains autonomy as an open-ended process of becoming.

On the other hand, as a shared practical activity that requires collective decision making, coordination, and the sharing of particular knowledges, the urban agricultural commission is an everyday space in which autonomy is practiced. Each of the 596 families of Acapatzingo participates in a rotating manner in one of eight commissions, which beyond urban agriculture, help organize collective life in the domains such as health, collective security, and education.[2] Every other Wednesday evening, members of the Urban Agriculture Commission gather to deliberate on issues relating to the project, from what to plant and how to deal with fungal blights, to coordinating workshops about processing herbal medicine or building small window-box gardens for the home. With only 28 members, this space allows for a more in-depth and collaborative form of collective decision-making than is possible in the community’s much larger monthly general assembly, where practical constraints on time generally mean people only share their opinion if it hasn’t already been voiced by someone else or is an issue about which they have some sort of direct knowledge or stake. In other words, this quotidian practice, however mundane the details, is an exercise of horizontal forms of self-organization where the decisions about one facet of the overall life project, the struggle for a dignified life, are made collectively by people whose skills and capacities will bring this project into being.

Beyond collective decision-making, the commissions also are integral to the practice of autonomy as a means of de-institutionalizing knowledge and building the very relations that give the communal form of life substance. Because most of those who enter the commission have no experience to begin with, these meetings and work parties are opportunities to share the knowledge gradually acquired over the years from previous members or workshops given by outside collectives. As such, the commissions are sites for the de-institutionalization and return of practical knowledge to common use in a manner that recalls Ivan Illich’s (1970) vision of “educational webs which … transform each moment of living into one of learning, sharing, and caring” (2).

These moments of teaching also provide an opportunity for people to be appreciated by others for having particular skills. While the low-paying jobs that most people have outside the community are characterized by subservience and alienation, in the commission, people have the opportunity to be recognized for what they have learned and to share it. Here, rather than a communal form of life homogenizing individuals, it provides a space for the dignity and worth of one’s own individual skills to be recognized precisely in the moment of sharing and making common. As the anonymous authors (2004) of an influential pamphlet about communization, The Call, put it, “Every singularity is felt in the manner and in the intensity with which a being brings into existence something common” (50). When I sit in on commission meetings, I often ask why people participate in these time-consuming processes when their lives are already full of work and family obligations. While sometimes people refer to the larger goals of the commission for the community,  more often they note a personal sense of meaning and accomplishment they experience from being able to contribute their own skills and knowledge to the practical work of the commission.

The Sunday morning work party in the community’s agricultural area may not be as glamorous as the work of the other commissions. There is the maintenance commission that has overseen the construction of a solar-powered water storage and treatment plant, allowing the community to reduce its dependence on the intermittent municipal water supply. Or the work of the security commission to organize the collective security practices which, completely independent of the police and without establishing their own specialized armed force, keep the community free of incidents of violence in a zone so notorious that cab drivers will often refuse fares to the community. Yet, as Mirella puts me to work helping spread fertilizer in the greenhouse, I feel useful. An oft repeated dictum of the Panchos underscores the egalitarian ethos of participation in in the community: “A job for every comrade, a comrade for every job.” What has allowed Acapatzingo to remain organized years after paving their roads, building their houses, and connecting to electricity and plumbing, is a recognition that active participation in the shared activity, however small, is integral to the process of building a dignified and communal life. Power here is not a vertical structure of command that flows from active leaders to passive followers, but the potential that emerges when people act in concert to establish the conditions of a life worth living.

Autonomy, Destitution, and the Creation of Worlds

Writing on wall, translation, “We are a force capable of changing our reality, our environment.” Photo by Sam Law.

We are not entirely sure if this is a new form of doing politics, but we are sure that it is one that we need, a quotidian practice of politics that exists underground and in every corner of the country … And yes, we are sure that this new way of establishing human, political, and social relations is one that allows us to say from now on that we are building a new world.

The Panchos, “A New Politics, A New World.” Address delivered at the Festival of Dignified Rage, hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, (2009).

The metropolis is one way to name the totalizing ambitions of the world organized by capital, a globe-straddling integrated continuum of extractive infrastructure, logistical supply chains, modes of subjectification, and biopolitical governance. It is a world “that has granted itself the right to assimilate all other worlds and, by presenting itself as exclusive, cancels possibilities for what lies beyond its limits” (de la Cadena and Blaser 2018, 3). Amid the individuation and precarity of metropolitan existence, there are those who decide to face life together and in doing so, in the words of Italo Calvino (1978), “recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space” (165). Here, the practices and relations which allow people to survive a broken present become the raw materials out of which other forms of life are assembled and new worlds are brought into being. When the Panchos describe their project as one of creating other realities and other worlds, they name a politics that works not by challenging established power but by realizing an autonomous and destituent world-building potential. It is to this exercise of autonomous political power I now turn.

While classic models of power and politics center the state as the locus of political action, entailing a concern with demands and the recognition of the subjects making them, autonomous movements refuse to understand power as the forms of organization and rule that exist separate from everyday life. Power is instead the potential that emerges from the shared activity through which people collectively confront shared problems and establish the conditions, in a particular time and place, for una vida digna, a dignified life. Autonomy is, in short, the art of developing the shared capacities and potentials to build and sustain other worlds and the communal forms of life that inhabit them.

This formulation of autonomy is indebted to the Zapatistas, whose 1994 uprising flew in the face of millenarian neoliberal declarations about the end of history, the routing of the communist project, and the dawn of a new era of globalization. Against this vision, from their “forgotten corner of Mexico,” the Zapatistas insisted on the possibility of the plurality of worlds sustained by autonomous and communitarian political projects. The Panchos quickly aligned themselves with the Zapatistas and, as the largest popular organization in Mexico City to do so, play a prominent role in solidarity efforts, from hosting the military command of Zapatista in Acapatzingo for a month in 2006 to making up the largest contingents in any given solidarity march. However, more importantly, the Panchos quickly embraced autonomy as an emancipatory idiom and a way of understanding their own political project.

By doing so, the Panchos locate themselves within a renewed period of social struggles in Latin America that calls into question tidy narratives of democratic transition to neoliberal market economies. Over the past three decades, the emergence of a multitude of autonomous movements across Abya Yala—the Zapatista Uprising of 1994, the water wars in Bolivia, the piqueteros in Argentina, the landless workers’ movement in Brazil, the Minga in Columbia, to name but a few—has revealed the dawn of the millennium not to be the foretold end of history and revolutionary struggle, but a historical configuration in which politics and power were posed as problems which required novel responses. Across these diverse contexts, autonomy emerged as one such response, centering the role of territory, reproductive labor, and communal bonds to chart an ethical and political activity that decentered the state as the locus of political struggle and defining an emancipatory horizon “beyond development, globalization, capitalism, and modernity” (Esteva 2015, 140).

As a form of political struggle that privileges practices over programs and rejects classical models of radical social change, autonomous political movements have, in the words of Raul Zibechi (2012), required “a new language” that is “capable of talking about relationships and movements” and breaking with “the tangle of inherited concepts to analyze structures and organizational frameworks” (8). A crucial piece of this new theoretical language to make sense of autonomy is the concept of destituent power put forward by the Colectivo Situaciones (2011) in their book 19 and 20: Notes for a New Social Protagonism. Making sense of the Argentinian insurrection of 2001 and its iconic demand “everyone must go,” they noted that this “insurrection without subjects” rejected the constituent horizon of previous movements that saw revolution as a way of establishing a new sovereign order (43). Thus, rather than a constitutive form of power—one that seeks to institute a new sovereign power whose legitimacy was based on their claim to represent a popular subject—the insurrection was a form of “destituent” power that rendered all forms of sovereign representation impossible (52). This marks a large shift in the concept of political change, moving from representation and sovereign power to autonomous political practices:

In [this destituent insurrection] there was a rediscovery of popular powers (potencia). … If politics carried out in terms of sovereign institutions finds the point of its existence in the constitution of the social from the state, destituent action seems to postulate another path for practicing social change. Such destitution is not apolitical: to renounce support of a representative sovereign politics is the condition … of a series of practices whose meanings are no longer demanded from the state (Colectivo Situaciones 2011, 52-53).

Here, the loss of the classical subject of politics does not mark the end of politics, as Colectivo Situaciones argues, but rather the historical emergence of a new “social protagonism” that works not only to destitute representational politics but “to affirm a non-representational becoming” (112). Central to the articulation of this new “social protagonism” is an understanding that their power does not take the form of protestas or a “power over” but lies in the embodied and material capacities—potencia—the “power to.” For this new social protagonism, politics is no longer dependent on “political subjectivity” but instead is an ethical practice that “functions according to the capacity to produce novel sense from the power (potencia) of the practice of the new protagonism in order to create a sociability alternative to the dominant one” (93). This immanent understanding of power thus understands political power, not something that is located in the representative institutions of the state, but in the practices of everyday life. Emancipation is not a possible future but lies in the present, in people who “make their own lives the material foundation for such possibility” (26).

In his reading of Colectivo Situaciones, the Italian autonomist Marcello Tarì (2021) notes that “the essential characteristic of the destituent process is the refusal to work towards the establishment of new institutions and instead towards the construction of worlds” (20).   Grounded in autonomous political practices that eschew the representational politics in favor of developing the shared capacities to build a dignified life, Acapatzingo is one such world slowly coming into being as the result of a destituent process.

From Survival Strategies to Life Projects: Rethinking Poor People’s Movements

Brightly painted houses, street view in Acapatzingo. Photo by Sam Law.

The real secret, the one that Western ideology has always worked to conceal, is that there is no separation between “politics” on the one hand and “life” on the other. There is only a single flat surface—experience, everyday life—articulated into various grammars of suffering and populated by countless ante-political forms that here and there reach a threshold of intensity that polarizes them.

—Adrian Wohlleben, “Memes without End,” (2021).

Residents of Acapatzingo will tell you quite readily that the reason they joined Acapatzingo had little to do with a desire to take part in a practical political rethinking of the communist project or the construction of autonomy. Instead, they explain that they joined “por la necesidad” (out of necessity). They were, in other words, poor, living precarious lives with little access to the basic amenities of urban existence. Yet, by joining an informal settlement in search of housing, the early squatters took the first steps in actively confronting the experience of life offered to them by the metropolis. In doing so, they rejected their role as passive victims of material deprivation and set about transforming the spaces in which they lived into a “terrain of habitation, politics, and livelihood”—what urban theorist Ananya Roy refers to as “subaltern urbanism” (224). However, the discussions of the popular agency of the urban poor, fixated either on informality or traditional social movements, leaves little space to understand the Panchos and their emancipatory political project. By way of conclusion, I explore how recognition of a destituent struggle that places life and the creation of new worlds at the center reveals ways to think of poor people’s movements beyond informality or classic social movements.

First put forward by US modernization theorists, the idea that the urban poor are victims of their own passivity, hopelessly trapped in a backwards “culture of poverty” rather than occupying a structural position in capitalist society, has proven remarkably resilient (Lewis 1966, see also rebuttals by Portes 1972, Perlman 1975). To this day, popular portrayals of the urban poor describe “passive plebians struggling to make ends meet” who threaten the social order with their penchant to join the ranks of religious extremism or organized crime (Bayat 2019, 191–92). Accounts of the active roles the urban poor take to secure their needs and live fulfilling lives seek to challenges these narratives, usually focusing on informal survival strategies or participation in social movements.

Attention to informal survival strategies largely focuses on the extra-institutional means the urban poor engage in to secure their own survival, from participation in kin-based mutual aid networks, informal entrepreneurial activities like street vending, or the auto construction of housing (Stack 1975, Lomnitz 1977, Desmond 2012, Lubbers et. al. 2020). While emphasizing the autonomy and self-organization of the urban poor, this attention to “survival strategies” largely treats these activities as separate from politics and limited to securing immediate needs.

When the Panchos state that they are “not building housing projects but a life project,” they challenge how a focus on survival strategies reduces the activity of the urban poor to mere survival. Rejecting the biopolitical reduction of life to mere existence, the Panchos insist on the struggle for a dignified life, a qualified mode of political existence. By establishing shared practices of decision making and organization to address basic needs, Panchos use necessity to ask “the urgent and partisan question” that Marcelo Tarì (2021) identifies as the means by which destituent power places the entire world in question: “How do we live where we live?” (122). The ethico-political connotations of this question mean that however pragmatic the issue at hand, it would be better to speak not of “survival strategies” but of “life strategies.” (For more on life strategies, see Hernández, Law and Auyero 2021.)

The sociologist Asef Bayat (2019) glimpses what we might term the destituent potential of these life strategies. Focusing on the “ordinary practices of everyday life” of the urban poor, made up of silent direct actions to redistribute goods and preserve autonomy, he argued that these life practices led to greater transformation and material redistribution than revolutionary politics aimed at seizing institutions. In his poetic turn of phrase, the life practices of the urban poor constitute a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary,” a protracted and molecular force of social transformation.

Noting the substitution of everyday practices for protest, Bayat describes this force not as “social movements,” but as “non-movements,” or the collective action of disorganized actors. While the Panchos certainly don’t fit the model of the classic urban social movement, mobilizing excluded constituencies to demand inclusion in the city through symbolic or material redress by the state, they can hardly be described as disorganized. Indeed, in addition to solidarity and independence from the state and political parties, the Panchos insist that “backbone” of their organization is the recognition that “to create organization and consciousness is to create popular power” (Field notes, Urban Agriculture Commission Meeting, April 22nd, 2021). Indeed, central to the destituent process is a recognition that life strategies are not an individual but a collective endeavor requiring the organization of communal potential. Marcello Tarì (2021) thus insists that destituent processes “cannot be thought of in terms of social movements. In truth, they are revolutionary experiences in which autonomy, dwelling, and self-organization are already there” (187). Rather than a social movement, Acapatzingo is better thought of, to use Raul Zibechi’s (2012) neat turn of phrase, as  “a society in movement” (7-8).

As an organized movement of destitution, the Panchos are engaged in an insurgent world-building practice whereby the construction of a communal form of life emerges as a life strategy to confront the precarity of metropolitan existence. Their life project is an experience of destituent power, the potential that emerges in practical activities through which people struggle to control their conditions of collective existence. Here, the life strategies of the urban poor refuse reduction to individualized forms of survival or the limits of the modern state, and instead birth new worlds and new ways of life.

Sam Law is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Working ethnographically with poor people’s movements in Mexico City, he studies how autonomous responses to urban precarity contest contemporary modes of governance, generate new socio-territorial forms, reimagine ways of inhabiting the city, and generate novel emancipatory horizons that herald dignified and collective forms of life beyond the state and capital.

Notes

[1] The Panchos emerged with the founding of the Frente Popular Fransico Villa (FPFV) in 1989. Emerging from the most radical wing of Mexico’s Urban Popular Movement, the practices and political vision of the Panchos today reflects the eclectic mix of popular revolutionary struggles that flourished in Mexico City’s peripheries in the 1970s and 1980s: from the horizontalism of the student movement to the collective decision-making practices of popular, indigenous, and campesino communities, from the organizational models of cooperatives and liberation theology to the analysis and revolutionary zeal of Maoism and Marxist Leninism. Over the past three decades, counter-insurgency, cooptation by political parties, differences in strategy, and outright corruption far beyond the scope of this article led to myriad schisms and organizational splits. The Organización Francisco Villa de Izquierda Independiente (OPFVII) consists of those who refused to make any alliance with political parties and closely aligned themselves with the autonomous politics of the Zapatistas. Acapatizingo is the largest and oldest of the eight communities that today make up the OPFVII. While many movements in Mexico assume the moniker of Panchos, for the sake of simplicity, I here only use the term to refer to members of the OPFVII and the residents of Acapatzingo specifically.

[2] The eight commissions, which are replicated in each of the communities belonging to the OPFVII, are: 1) Vigilance (which organizes the communal system of security and mediates conflicts); 2) Lists (which tracks participation and other administrative tasks); 3) Communication (which runs the pirate radio station and publishes a weekly gazette); 4) Urban Agriculture; 5) Education and Culture (which organizes workshops for children and community festivals); 6) Heath (which trains community health promoters, runs the community clinic and discount pharmacy); 7) Maintenance (responsible for the community’s material infrastructure); and 8) Sports (which organizes fitness classes and team sports).

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