Gustavo Esteva
"From Globalization to Localization"

October 5, 2000

David Pohl

Grassroots activist and de-professionalized intellectual Gustavo Esteva spoke recently at the Center for Latin American Studies, arguing that a vast majority of Mexicans reject globalization and economic growth, and that Vicente Fox will do little to benefit the majority of Mexicans.

Esteva pointed to grassroots initiatives in Mexico as the real agents of social change, saying that after centuries of repression by political institutions and in the face of a global system that has increased poverty and environmental destruction, Indians, peasants and urban marginals are designing their own social and political landscapes. "What I am seeing everyday . . .is the conviction that we are in the middle of the first social revolution of the 21st century . . .something radically new," he said.

Gustavo Esteva

"On July 2, we did not transform Mexico into a democracy, but organized the funeral of the oldest authoritarian regime in the world," said Esteva. The electoral outcome was not in favor of Fox, but in opposition to the PRI. Democratic institutions do not exist in Mexico and the political process "was as dirty as in the past," he added. Mexicans should not expect much from this transition to democracy because the "neoliberal catechism" that both the PRI and Fox support obscures concern for social equality.

According to Esteva, the contradiction inherent in neoliberal doctrine is that economic prosperity does not signify economic equality or the advancement of democracy. Indeed, the PRI had planned to remain in power for the next 25 years, that is, until the Zapatista uprising in 1994 changed the course of history. To illustrate the popular frustration that caused the rebellion in Chiapas, Esteva says that the elite have long boasted that a first world Mexico, "will have all the beautiful things of the American life, plus criadas," or maids, meaning that a prosperous economy would not alter the unequal social structure. For this reason, democracy is merely a "good umbrella" for a more profound grassroots social and political order.

Fox's high expectations for economic growth in Mexico are clearly illusory, Esteva claims, because economic growth does not alleviate inequality and poverty, but instead exacerbates it. Esteva writes, "the perverse association between economic growth and injustice is well known . . .[because] a good part of what is augmented when the economy grows is a social cancer: speculation, irrational and destructive production, extravagance." The balanced international accounts and foreign investment that drive Mexico's prosperity are very fragile. In addition, approximately 30% of the people in Mexico live below the poverty line. In such an environment Fox will not be able to fulfill the enormous expectations he created during his campaign and violence and opposition to market driven policies will likely increase.

Despite this troubling reality, Esteva and many other Mexicans are full of hope because the presidential election created "an opportunity to establish a new political regime that can be an alternative to globalization." Esteva considers this new regime to be one of radical pluralism and "ecological endurance" and he says that most Mexicans, the "Mexico Profundo" as coined by Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, support such a system.

The EZLN uprising in 1994 was the first expression of this new social and political order. The Zapatistas received immediate support from millions of discontented Mexicans, as well as from abroad. Though many opposed the use of violence, the rebellion gave legitimacy to a much larger opposition movement and served to inspire and unite many social movements that until that moment had been fragmented and disarticulated. The EZLN understood the dominating nature of the state and the limits of representative democracy, which, according to Esteva, allows citizens to elect their oppressors, and sought to create a new system.

The EZLN and other social forces in Mexico are advancing the idea of "localization," a philosophy opposed to globalization, which attempts to raze local identity, and "localism," which is an isolationist attempt to withstand globalization. Localization is the creation of identities within the "abstract space constructed by the market," but instead of causing isolation, localization projects its identity outwards. Though reluctant to embrace technology, Esteva said that the Internet has proven useful in connecting such social movements around the globe.

Over the past two years Gusteva has held workshops throughout Mexico that have brought together various social and grassroots groups to develop alternative visions of the "good life." Hundreds of organizations have participated in these forums and have published "proyectos," or projects, for their states and for Mexico. "Un proyecto para Mexico," is a rejection of Western attempts to develop Mexico and a strategy for community based political and social development. The goal of the proyectos is not to increase exportation, spur economic growth, or integrate into the global capitalist system, but to minimize the role of economics in the lives of the poor, thereby increasing their own self-determination.

Esteva argues that poverty is largely created by failed or misguided attempts to help poor Mexicans. Over the course of time poverty has come to represent an endemic condition that only development can alleviate. Yet, Esteva argues, aid such as the Green Revolution, in which chemical pesticides were given to rural farmers as a way to increase productivity, but which had a destructive long term impact, has exacerbated poverty considerably.

Gustavo Esteva proposes an alternative to globalization. Localization gives control back to the people, weans them from foreign aid, and creates broad coalitions of grassroots organizations. As stated in "Un proyecto para Mexico," "We want to remedy our limitations and failures, but from our own perspective . . .We want to decide for ourselves what we want, in terms of our culture."

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