Zapatismo and Autonomous Development

Zapatista members in an autonomous Zapatista community – Source: Dorset Chiapas Solidarity

Once a guerrilla army, and today a long standing social movement in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas may be the last place one may look for examples of development. A predominantly indigenous movement, the Zapatistas choose community autonomy over state support. This means Zapatistas refuse any funds from the Mexican state, an odd concept for some when trying to envision groups of people seeking to improve their material conditions. So what is it about this curious case that makes the Zapatistas relevant to development? The concept of autonomy, and thus self determination, are unique to Zapatista communities and provide an example of development which diverges, and in some was exists externally, from contemporary practices informed by neoliberal ideology.

But first a little background. The Zapatistas flew onto the world scene when seizing the city San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994 – the same day NAFTA passed. Twelve days of fighting ensued between the Mexican military and the Zapatistas, until the guerrillas chose to enter into dialogue with the government. Arms haven’t been taken up since. January first was chosen as a symbolic day to say “ya basta” (enough!) to the economic policies passed by “bad governments” on behalf of corporations and the ruling elite. For years, 500 to be exact, the indigenous people who make up the Zapatista movement have been struggling against colonial governments and policies which degrade indigenous life. Zapatismo, and the struggle against globalization, is just a new form of this long struggle. (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007).

The concept of Zapatista autonomy is founded upon two basic principles: resistance and self determination. First, resistance to global capitalism is central to Zapatista organizing, as is the creation of a world which exists externally from neoliberal globalization. As stated in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, resistance is necessary to stop a system which “destroys what exists in [countries conquered by neoliberalism], it destroys their culture, their language, thier economic system, their political system, and it also destroys the ways in which those who live in that country relate to each other. So everything that makes a country a country is left destroyed” (EZLN 2005). Secondly, the concept of self determination emphasizes democracy and the right to determines one’s future. The latter is a right often stripped from indigenous groups in a colonized world. Both concepts of self determination and autonomy reject any aid or participation from the Mexican state. This is the view that, “the politics of the politicians is a sphere that functions through the simulation of public opinion… to administer the interests of transnational capital,” and thus, the state itself cannot divorce itself from the interests of business (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007, 7). Therefore, the Zapatistas can in no way align themselves with the “bad government”. It must also be noted that historically, the Mexican state has used aid projects in the Chiapas to buy off segments of poor and indigenous populations for political motivates, while leaving other sections destitute and without access to services (Harvey 2005).

But what does autonomy mean in a material sense, beyond the ideology? And how is it related to development?

Autonomous villages exist throughout the state of Chiapas, all of which have their own form of governance, laws, and right to the land. Each autonomous community organizes itself through a form of direct direct democracy, where all of the Zapatista villagers participate and serve on the governing council, Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Governance Council). Decision making power then extends to a council of all autonomous villages which also has rotating representation. Decision are often made through discussion which flow from autonomous communities to the regional council and back down until consensus is reached. It is through the democratic structures that communities can set development goals which exclude business interests and are instead on behalf of the whole community.

The projects enacted by autonomous communities include the creation of hospitals, health promoter training programs, cooperative agricultural and goods production, potable water systems, autonomous elementary and middle schools, community-run transportation, and non-extractive banking practices (Forbis 2014). Autonomy allows community members to choose how each of these programs is implemented and decision making power is exercised over the composition of each program. For example, hospitals practice both Western medicine, as well as “traditional healing and herbal medicine.” The curriculum in Zapatista schools is designed by the community to promote collective living, women’s rights, and indigenous history.  And the judicial policies enacted by Zapatista communities emphasize restorative justice and the health of the community, in lieu of punitive “justice”.  All of these programs are meant to proportionately benefit each autonomous community, a goal which can only be achieved through direct democratic control by all community members (Forbis 2014).

Although the Zapatista case is unique, autonomous community practices point towards alternatives to development implemented by foreign, undemocratic NGOs, or top down economic policies forced upon state by the International Finance Institutions. It seems difficult to imagine Zapatista style autonomy popping up around the world, but that is not to say it does not currently exist, or cannot exist in the future. International solidarity plays a central part in Zapatista success. The countless numbers of organizations internationally donating funds and time to support the Zapatistas helps enable the continuation of the autonomous project. If solidarity is extended to other communities globally which fight for autonomy and democracy, we may be able to see other projects similar to the Zapatistas. Additionally, development agencies can also learn from the Zapatista’s democratic practices. Reforming NGO and development agency structure to emphasize direct democracy and community autonomy enables greater project success via wider community participation, while also emphasizing the right of developing countries and communities to choose their own development path. Democratic, self-determined development enables a world of many worlds to exist, not just the world of global neoliberal capitalism.


El Kilombo Intergalático. 2007. “Zapatismo: A Brief Manual on How to Change the World.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. Durham: PaperBoat, 1-16.

Forbis, Melissa interviewed by Johanna Brenner. 2014. “The Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community.” Against the Current, March 23.

Harvey, Neil. 2005. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). 2005. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. 2007. Durham: PaperBoat, 62-86.

The Chicago Teachers Union and the Global Fight for Public Education

Rahm Emmauel. Yes, he is as evil as he looks. – Image from Front Page Mag

Last week, my friend Kyle and I chose to drive to Chicago for the one-day, “illegal” Chicago Teacher Union (CTU) strike on Friday, April 1. Although the absurdity of spending 15 hours in a car each way (yes, 30 hours!) with only one other driver and just over a day in the city was alluring (think of all the hilarious stories we would have!), the central reason Kyle and I chose to go to Chicago was for the magnitude of the strike.

The 25,000 member CTU has been at the forefront of the fight for public education since 2012, when the union participated in a 10 day strike for public schools. The teachers’ struggles come in response to neoliberal education agenda reforms driven by Chicago’s Democratic Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, and Governor Bruce Rauner, in collusion with private enterprises and the banks.  The policies pushed forward by the two, and which I recognize as “neoliberal,” include privatization, commodification, and competition in public education. In other words, neoliberal reforms in the city attempt to bring the mass enterprise of public (i.e., publicly owned and managed) education into the market system. I’ll outline the policies below.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is currently in the midst of a $1.5 billion deficit. Although the deficit sounds dire, teachers claim, and rightly so, that the deficit is a manufactured crises; a result of the misused of tax funds, low tax rates on business and high income earners, predatory bank lending, and the complete disregard for the crises by city and state to resolve the issue (CTU 2015). But why has CPS and Rahm ignored such a devastating crises? Parents, students and teachers surely have raised a ruckus about the lack of funds. The goal is to create a CPS  “Shock Doctrine”. When a crises situation is created, Rahm and his appointed school board are able to label CPS as “failing” schools, and promote an alternative, private, “more efficient” model for public schools. This has played out primarily through the closing of public schools and the proliferation of charter schools, privately managed (i.e., undemocratic) and publicly funded schools. Schools closing and private schools openings have disproportionately taken place in low-income neighborhoods of color, and effected elementary schools. These schools also have the highest percentage of teachers of color (primarily black teachers) and women. Thus, school actions are clearly gendered, racialized, and drawn upon class lines (Caref et al 2012). Charters schools are often non-union, have no community accountability, increase school segregation, and often have curriculum focused on standardize testing.

Most recently, Rahm proposed the layoff of 5,000 CTU teachers in order to  push through an increase in teacher contributions to pension funds in the current CTU-CPS contract negotiations. The increase would equate to a 7 percent teacher pay cut (Colson 2015). Cuts in the pension make individual teachers solely responsible for retirement and reducing the state’s obligation to public sector workers. The pension cuts fall within the context of the Illinois state budget “crises”. The state has yet to pass a budget for 2016, due to the Governors refusal to remove mass cuts to public services, pensions, and restrictions of union rights. 

So Chicago teachers chose to strike in the midst of contract negotiations with CPS, to pressure the Governor to pass a budget which did not include mass cuts to public services, and the subsequent privatization of these services. Additionally, CTU encouraged every worker in Chicago to withhold their labor and pressure the Governor as well. Firstly, it is illegal for a union to strike during contract negotiations until impasse has been declared in bargaining, as it is illegal to strike to pressure state government or engage in a solidarity strike. This level of labor militancy is unprecedented in the United States and shows a new level of class militancy in Chicago as citizens strike and stand in solidarity with CTU for public services, which the 1 percent who wishes to privatize and profit off of. Chicago’s working class offensive became strikingly (no pun intended) clear with the number of unions and community organizations who expressed solidarity with CTU, and the tens-of-thousands of people who marched together in the rain on April 1.

But why are 25,000 striking teachers in Chicago relevant to international development? Besides that fact that the action is astounding and unprecedented (as if I haven’t expressed that enough. I’m a fan!), the Chicago strike is in the belly of the beast, not just the United States, but the city of Chicago where Milton Freeman and a number of other economists helped make popular neoliberal ideology. When Chicago teachers struggle over pensions, school privatizations and racial and class injustice, they directly challenge neoliberal ideology globally. Much of the knowledge production that informs the development policy of the World Bank, IMF, and many Western NGOs originates in the global North. Thus, when CTU strikes, neoliberal ideology which restructures developing countries is directly challenged in the home country of development agencies, as well as bodies like the IMF and World Bank which the U.S. holds considerable control.

Secondly, due to the prevalence of neoliberal ideology in development practice, there are a number of similarities between education in Chicago and abroad. Chile provides one of the starkest examples. Neoliberalism’s “testing ground” in the 1980s, Chile has more private (charter-esque) schools than public schools, emphasizes school competition like a business model, a distressing levels of school segregation (Cabalin 2012). Neoliberal ideology is also seen in the World Bank’s “Education Strategy for 2020”. The Strategy’s policy brief emphasizes the participation of the private sector in education, and suggests more community run education programs. The implications of community education is that the Bank disregards the responsibility of states to provide public education, and opens room for more private sector involvement to a public right.

The CTU strike represents not only a struggle over the immediate needs of Chicago students and teachers, but a struggle over the hegemonic ideology used in development policy. When neoliberal education reforms face strong resistance in the United States, it becomes more difficult to apply this ideology abroad. Secondly, the struggle of Chicago teachers shows the deepening of neoliberal policy in the United States which has devastated developing countries globally. The increase in struggle clearly shows that people globally are upset with neoliberal development. If teachers in Chicago can adopt an international outlook which connects neoliberal policies abroad with those in the states, linkages between these seemingly separate movements can begin to challenge and dismantle the ideology which has privatized and commodified public education, opening new opportunities for rebuilding our public systems.


Cabalin, Cristian. 2012. “Neoliberal Education and Student Movements in Chile: inequalities and malaise.” Policy Futures in Education 10(2).

Caref, Carole, Sarah Hainds, Kurt Hilgendorf, Pavlyn Jankov and Kevin Russell. 2012. “The Black and White of Education in Chicago’s Public Schools.” CTU, Novermber 30.

Colson, Nicole. 2015. “Rahm threatens mass teacher layoffs.” Socialist Worker, September 30.

CTU. 2015. “Broke On Purpose: Board of Ed continues to peddle budget myths to justify its starving classrooms.” CTU, May 5.

Dimaggio, Anthony. “Illinois’ Manufactured Budget Crises.” Counter Punch, February 11.

Robertson, Susan. 2007. ” ‘Remaking the World’: Neoliberalism and the Transformation of Education and Teachers’ Labour.” Center for Globalisation, Education and Societies. 

World Bank. 2011. “Learning for All: Investing in People’s Knowledge and Skills to Promote Development – World Bank Group Education Strategy 2020.” World Bank Group.

Solidarity not Charity: A Look at Transnational Student/Labor Activism

Students at the University of Washington protest unsafe working conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories as a part of the United Students Against Sweatshops’ “End Death Traps” campaign (

In my introductory blog post, I noted I would focus on “development from the bottom up,” coming from citizens, not undemocratic NGOs, state-run aid agencies, or Bretton Woods institutions. The self-determination of communities in underdeveloped countries can take power to dictate their own futures. But it would be naive to pretend this type of organizing is always possible when the working and agrarian classes in these countries are subject to unequal global power relations that clearly benefit Western corporations. So what does it take to help challenge these unequal global systems? One possibility is transnational student/labor solidarity.

Transnational student solidarity has taken a number of forms in the United States. From the New Left’s solidarity with anti-colonial revolutions in the 1960s and 1970s; organizing against both South African Apartheid and the current Israeli occupation of Palestine; and, transnational student/labor solidarity in the 1990s and 2000s. Student/labor organizing of this period arose simultaneously with the anti-globalization movement as a way to support workers in newly exploited economies by either mitigating the effects of globalization or struggling directly against the corporations which drive the global system. In this post, I will focus on two differing approaches to student/labor solidarity in the 2000s by United Students for Fair Trade (USFT) and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).

Formed with the help of FairTradeUSA , an organization which helps certify fair trade farms and companies, in 2003, USFT was built as a student organization to help strengthen the growing fair trade movement in the United States. The goal of the fair trade movement was, and still is, to have corporations from the United States source a percentage of their production from small scale cooperative farms in the global South. These farms create more just living and working conditions than large scale agriculture. At the time, UFTC and FairTradeUSA worked together to help pressure brands to agree to source their products from fair trade producers, and in turn, when/if corporations agreed to the terms, a corporation’s product would receive the “Fair Trade Certified” (FTC) label (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The other half of the USFT/FairTradeUSA organizing focuses on promoting the Fair Trade brand to consumers and Universities in the United States. The idea was that consumers would not only purchase Fair Trade products, but become politicized by choosing the more “just” option.  This is where it gets messy. In order to politicize these consumers and create a larger market share for fair trade farmers, USFT needed to convince consumers to buy products which were FTC. Thus, a large part of student organizing focused on building the Fair Trade brand names.  FairTradeUSA, a private, unaccountable NGO, appropriated student solidarity with farm workers to build the FTC, and helped corporations profit from their “fairwashed” products. In 2005, FairTradeUSA, asked students to encourage consumers to buy products from companies like McDonalds, Walmart, and Coke, which sold FTC products. Students claimed these companies had been involved in human rights violations abroad, and had (and still have) inhumane working conditions in the United States. Students did not feel marketing for Walmart helped the fair trade cause (Wilson and Curnow 2013).

The X-Files the x files frustrated annoyed x files

USFT faced the contradictions of working with the undemocratic NGO, FairTradeUSA,  which profited off the Fair Trade label, ignoring whether it benefited farmers in the global South. Neither students, nor farmers, had a say in which corporations earned the label or the terms of FTC conditions. In 2011, students were so fed up they declared a boycott of all FTC products, claiming FTC products were illegitimate and not representative of an authentic fair trade movement. A central demand of the boycott was to make the majority of FairTradeUSA’s board of directors ‘farmers, producers and workers, community and student activists, academics, and 100 percent Fair Trade businesses’ (USFT 2011; Wilson and Curnow 2013). FairTradeUSA has yet to hand control to these groups, thus leaving the “fair trade” brand in private hands. Today, USFT works with Equal Exchange to source fair trade bananas, and is organizing against the Trans Pacific Partnership.

The USFT case provides a lesson to student activists engaging in transnational labor solidarity. The importance of democracy in any organization is clearly central to developing effective, representative campaigns. Secondly, the organizing shows that commodification cannot occur with development from below, because commodities require that someone profits. And most importantly, USFT’s organizing shows the necessity of centralizing workers/farmers in any solidarity campaign to maintain workers/farmers interest.

A second example, which is both democratic and centralizes worker organizing, is the work done by

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), an democratic organization which centralizes workers, provides a second example of transnational solidarity.

Formed in 1997, USAS grew out of the anti-globalization movement with the objective of supporting workers  subject to sweatshop working conditions in underdeveloped countries. Many of the companies who subcontract their production to sweatshops also profit from lucrative contracts with universities in the United States. The strategy behind USAS’ “International Solidarity Campaigns” is to use students’ unique position to pressure brands through universities by cutting contracts when workers report sweatshop conditions, “such as poverty wages, forced overtime, sexual harassment, union busting, and health and safety violations,” in global factories (USAS 2015). This organizing then links with workers struggling on the ground for better conditions through workers centers, unions, or NGOs. In this way, “transnational alliances enable [multiple] groups to exert leverage over the various links in the commodity chain” (Cravey 2004); students threaten the the legitimacy of brand names (Ibid.), while workers pressure brands in factories. In this sense, students provide leverage and make space for worker to define their labor conditions.

Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) acts as the intermediary body between USAS organizers and workers in the factory. As an independent observer of factory conditions, the WRC helps school administrators “sign codes of conduct for the producers of apparel bearing university logos” (Silvey 2013). Through years of struggle, USAS locals have pressured 183 universities (including Clark) to sign on to the WRC. By signing this agreement universities financially support WRC factory observations to prevent inhumane working conditions, and enable international solidarity around factory working conditions. The WRC is made up of a 15 person democratic governing body; USAS students, national and international labor organizers and NGOs, and affiliates of university administration. Additionally, a much larger advisory board, including national and international labor organizers and academics, help WRC organizers develop more inclusive strategy with factory workers.

So unlike FairTradeUSA’s undemocratic structure and self-interest in profiting off the FTC, which  students and farmers could not hold accountable, the WRC is built upon a foundation of student/worker democracy and has a self-interest in worker justice.

Multiple spaces of struggle can occur along the supply chain and empower students and workers at the global and local scale. For students fight exploitative conditions within university contracts i.e., subcontracting to global brands. The consciousness developed through sweatshop solidarity  also enables students to connect these conditions to low-wage workers on campus. For workers, the struggle is against the exploitative and inhumane conditions of the subcontracted factory i.e.the immediate conditions of their day to day lives. On a larger scale,  solidarity among students, workers, and labor NGOs enables transnational struggle against the proliferation of low-wage production. Global exploitative conditions necessitate global networks of struggle. The development of transnational resistance has the power to challenge neoliberal hegemony that is not possible when workers or students organize in isolated spaces.

The student/WRC/worker organizing model has resulted in sizable material gains for subcontracted workers in underdeveloped countries. First, as stated above, USAS has forced 183 universities, and the brands that make these universities’ logos, to agree to WRC investigations. Furthermore, Student solidarity helped Guatemalan workers win the first ever union contract in a maquila in the late 1990s (Cravey 2004); in 2010, USAS and the Honduran CGT [General Workers Central, a union] won a settlement with Nike, who agreed to pay $1.5 million in severance and a year of health insurance, plus hiring priority for 1,800 Honduran workers when Nike left the factory (Jack 2010); and in 2012, USAS and Indonesian workers pressured Adidas to pay $1.8 million in severance to 1,300 fired workers in Jakarta, Indonesia (Kong and Ortiz 2013). Most recently, USAS has been involved in organizing with Bangladeshi garment workers who face astonishingly dangerous garment factory conditions. In recent years, workers have experienced devastating, and preventable factory fires and collapses. One of the worst and most well known being the Rana Plaza collapse which killed more than 1,100 workers and injured more than 2,000 workers (Parveen 2014). From 2013-2015, USAS pressured brands to sign  the Accord for Fire and Safety, a binding agreement which allowed the WRC, local unions, and workers centers to take part in investigating unsafe factories and recognizing workers’ rights to refuse entry to unsafe factories (Rahman 2013). The fact that workers have a voice in the accord’s decision making process is an unprecedented win for Bangladeshi workers (Ibid). Additionally, USAS has played a pivotal role in forcing brands sourcing from Rana Plaza to pay compensation for workers and their families. The VF Corporation, which owns 30 brands such as, The Children’s Place  and Jansport,  refused to give to the fund (Arria 2015). Through student protest and occupations, USAS was able to force the Children’s Place alone to give $2 million (Shestack 2015).

A photo of the Rana Plaza disaster – Google Images.

USAS student/labor solidarity has been effective in pressuring brands to create more just working conditions and be held accountable for firing workers or mass murders. Despite large and amazing gains, the model has yet to create new opportunities for workers who don’t rely on employment from transnational corporations for Western consumption. James Heintz helps provide a broader analyses to address poverty and inhumane conditions in underdeveloped countries. Heintz notes, workers in developing countries don’t just need better working conditions, but “more and better jobs” which offer a number of high paying employment opportunities, not just  jobs from a single industry (2004). Heintz suggest that the anti-sweatshop movement can’t solely focus on immediate working conditions at the point of production. Instead, worker movements must address macroeconomic policies, such as social security protections, which extended to all people, not just those employed by a specific brand or in a specific industry (Ibid). This critique can also be applied to USFT’s work, which only focuses on creating market share for cooperative farmers. I think Heintz’s critique helps point towards a future for the anti-sweatshop movement. Yes, international labor solidarity must help workers struggle for broader social security services, if that is what workers want. But the only way to achieve these policies is through movement organizing. Transnational solidarity helps make space for worker organizing in underdeveloped countries. Organizing begins on the factory floor, but with solidarity, can grow and gain strength to impact macroeconomic policies. The Bangladeshi state’s response to factory collapses thus far has shown worker’s ability to make drastic changes in an industry.

International solidarity is necessary in combating the proliferation of inhumane working conditions globally, and building development based on justice. USFT and USAS have shown two strategies for helping further the struggles of workers and farmers in underdeveloped countries. USFT’s organizing focused on creating a larger market share for FTC  brands. But as we saw, this campaign was wrapped up in the commodification of student activism and worker conditions by building the FTC brand name. The case highlights the importance of focusing on worker struggle, instead of attempting to address issues of uneven development via further consumption. The USAS case highlights the importance of student/worker coordination in supporting worker struggles on the ground via international solidarity. This model strengthens individual student and worker struggles locally against exploitative conditions and privatization, while fighting neoliberalism globally through networks of students, workers and democratic NGOs. Thus, coordination, solidarity, and accountability provide a model for engaging in transnational organizing. Lastly, USAS’s model helps make space for workers to further their organizing and define their countries own development path with the strength of growing organizations. The continued struggle of workers and growing solidarity abroad could enable further worker involvement in deciding the fate of their future.


In the interest of transparency, I myself am a member of USAS and help run a USAS local on Clark’s campus called “Activists United”. Get in touch if your interested in local and global labor solidarity! Check out local USAS efforts near you.


Arria, Michael. 2015. “Students Ask Why JanSport Parent Company Won’t Sign Bangladesh Worker Safety Agreement.” In These Time, May 15.

Cravey, Altha. 2004. “Students and the Anti-Sweatshop Movement.” Antipode 36(2).

Heintz, James. 2004. “Beyond Sweatshops: Employment, Labor Market Security and Global Inequality.” Antipode 36(2).

Jack. 2010. “Victory! Nike ‘Just Pays Is’; Students and Garment Workers Beat Sportswear Giant!”, July 26.

Kong, Lingran and Mark Ortiz. 2013. “Victory in Nicaraguan Adidas Factory As Adiddas Garment Workers Stage Global Protest.”, November 8.

Parveen, Shahnaz. 2014. “Rana Plaza Factory Collapse Survivors Struggle One Year On.” BBC, April 23.

Rahman, Fazlur Md. 2013. “Trade Unions Vital for the Safety Accords to Succeed: Scott Nova of Workers Rights Consortium Says.” The Daily Star, August, 23.

Shestack, Miriam. 2015. “On 2-Year Anniversary of Rana Plaza Factory Collapse, Activists Announce Major Victory for Victims.” In These Times, April 24.

Silvey, Rachel. 2013. “Geographies of Anti-Sweatshop Activism.” Antipode 36(2).

USAS. N.a. “Garment Worker Solidarity.” Last modified 2015.

Wilson, Bradley and Joe Curnow. 2013. “Solidaritytm: Student Activism, Affective Labor, and the Fair Trade Campaign in the United States.” Antipode 45(3).

Workers Rights Consortium. N.a. “Governance.” Last Modified N.a.

Co-operatives: A Key to Just Global Development

Cooperatives have recently become the hot topic of economic development and sustainability in the United States. Many of us have visited food co-ops, or may even be members of “cooperatives,” like REI. This is especially relevant for those of us in Worcester who have seen the growth of new cooperatives and subsequent benefits for workers, members and the broader community. But why are cooperatives also relevant to international development, and what is it about cooperatives that help individuals and communities? Surely corporate, “REI style” cooperatives aren’t the answer to help decrease poverty in the Global South, right? I truly hope not.  I’ll be focusing on international co-op development and the multiple approaches to co-ops in “development” projects.

First, let’s outline the seven basic cooperative principles (

  1. Voluntary and open co-op membership
  2. Democratic control (one member, one vote)
  3. Member economic participation
  4. Autonomy and interdependence
  5. Education, training and information for members, managers and employees
  6. Co-operation among co-operatives
  7. Concern for community

So to put these principles simply, a cooperative is a democratically run enterprise which shares its profits and other benefits with that membership. Many cooperatives have a democratically elected board, member owners who may purchase goods from a cooperative, and workers who provide the labor power and also have democratic control. I would argue that the democratic voice workers have in the cooperative is what differentiates a corporate style cooperative like REI, from what I would call a “true” cooperative which benefits both workers and members. These cooperatives can take many forms, including manufacturing, agricultural production, and credit unions.

There has been a notable increase in the focus of co-op development globally in the past ten years. As a response to the global economic crises in 2007-2008, the UN General Assembly declared 2012 the international year of co-operatives (Mills and Davies 2012). The hopes are that expanding co-operative development can help bring about less global inequality and increase democratic practices in society (Mill and Davies 2012). Then in 2012, the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), a 289 member cooperative alliance which spans across 95 countries, declared 2010-2020 the “Co-operative Decade”. The goal for the decade is for policy makers to acknowledge co-operatives as the “leader in economic, social and environmental sustainability,” and focus on co-op development as a primary component of economic development.  Secondly, the ICA wishes to deepen existing international co-op networks and establish types of solidarity economies which aid independent co-ops and help create new co-ops through these networks (Mill and Davies 2012).

The benefits of existing co-ops thus far have been notable. Research has shown that co-operatives have helped small scale farmers in negotiations for farming supplies through their collective strength, expanded access to financial services for low-income communities and expanded access to water and electricity to low-income people globally (UKaid 2010). But although co-ops have helped marginalized people globally, co-op expansion still occurs under the same capitalist development framework. ILO Recommendation 193, in support of cooperatives, noted to governments ‘that pursuing [a cooperative] agenda does not mean pleading for special treatment, subsidies or favors,” from governments (Mill and Davies 2013). Nor is there special protection recommended for cooperatives in relation to other privately owned capitalist firms. How are small scale farmers expected to compete with transnational corporations without special government protection? Why shouldn’t co-ops receive preferential treatment if benefit the collective good and not private profit?

Countries like Nicaragua have centralized cooperative growth as a way to democratize the economy. Today, more than 5,000 cooperative firms exist in the country, “involving more than 389,000 families” (Tortilla Con Sal 2015). But “duty-free trade zones” also exist in Nicaragua, employing 140,000 people (Tortilla Con Sal 2015). It seems unjust that cooperative workers should have to engage in a race to the bottom with transnational capital. My research on cooperatives has left me with question regarding whether or not the internationally co-op solidarity networks, like the ICA, are enough to protect small co-ops from competition with international capital? And if not, how can co-ops limit the growth of capitalist firms? I think that this must begin not with the policy agenda set forth by the ICA, but instead social struggle to force states to leverage their power against transnational capital. A dialogue regarding development policy cannot move beyond the limits of capitalist logic, without social struggles to force a state response.




Alldred, Sarah. “Co-operative can play a key role in development.” The Guardian. 6 July 2013.

“Co-op Identity and other resources,” last modified N.a.,

Mills, Cliff and Will Davies. “Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade.” International Co-operative Alliance. October, 2012.

Tortilla Con Sal. “Nicaragua: Making Cooperatives Central to Democratization.” teleSUR. 10 September 2015. “”.

UKaid. “Briefing Notes: Working with Co-operatives for Poverty Reduction.” Department of International Development. 2010.


Development from the Bottom up: Moving beyond Neoliberalism and Neocolonialism

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde

The Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) holds a march on International Women’s Day 2015.
The Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) holds a march on International Women’s Day 2015.

The histories of both the Development Project and the Globalization Project have been built upon Western notions of a “good society.” Notions which are driven by global capital and leave little room for issues of justice or human need. Today, this image of a “good society,” is systematized into the workings of neoliberal capitalism, which through coercive means, draw underdeveloped countries into unequal market relations with developed countries, opening borders to capital at the cost of working peoples’ lives. Such a system disproportionately benefits Western transnational corporations and a small number of owning-class elites in developing countries. Hence, development today operates in the form of neocolonialism. Even though this form of global capitalism has brought wretched conditions to working people globally, the same neoliberal ideology persists in development theory and practice today, such as with Microcredit programs and trade policies like the Trans Pacific Partnership.

This blog will focus on alternatives to neoliberal development by challenging the broader concept of “development” under capitalism. My case studies will explore development from the bottom up, to show that the only way we can achieve just societies is through the self-determination of working people. Development cannot continue as a way to deepen the systems of neoliberalism, nor can it return to the practices of the Development Project which left working people in developing countries exploited by their own states and corporations (Chibber 2015: 81-87). The primary focus of bottom up development will be in economic terms, specifically focusing on workers, for two reasons. First, as Chandra Mohanty notes, because “capital as it functions now depends on and exacerbates racist, patriarchal, and heterosexist relations of rule,” (Mohanty 2003: 231) and many of these hierarchal systems must be fought through economic means. Secondly, I believe that workers have a point of leverage in their ability to halt the accumulation of profits by transnational corporations and International financial Institutions via strikes and slowdowns, which enables workers to leverage drastic changes in the material conditions their lives (Chibber 2016). Development from the bottom up centralizes marginalized people in development countries in their own process of “developing.”

The first section of my blog will focus on global attempts to establish cooperative economies as a way to mitigate the conditions of capitalism. There are a number of debates on the possibilities and strategies of developing cooperative economies, as well as organizations attempting to aid workers in starting cooperatives. The “Pathways to a cooperative Market Economy,” a part of Verso books’ “Real Utopias Project” is engaging with cooperatives at an academic level, attempting to develop strategies for cooperative development. Pathways has so far hosted conferences in Barcelona and Buenos Aires, and are preparing for upcoming conferences in Johannesburg in 2016 and Italy in 2017. Other organizations such as “US Overseas Cooperative Development Council”  have helped cooperatives with management strategies and “The Working World” has attempted to finance new co-ops through non-extractive loans in Argentina, Nicaragua and the United States. Although the creation of cooperatives is necessary, the viability of coops as system changing remains questionable. As of yet, there are few examples of co-ops accounting for large sections of economic activity (Gindin 2016). Additionally, issues of co-op competition with capitalist firms can restrict co-op success and may result in negative conditions such as worker self-exploitation (Luxemburg 1909: 41-43).

The constraints of co-ops taken into account, the second section of my blog will focus on worker action in capitalist firms in the Third World/South (Mohanty 2003: 222-228). Worker mobilization in the developing world, and international labor solidarity, has the ability to change the immediate conditions of workers who exercise militancy, as well as on other workers within a country due to the rippling effects of worker resistance. A key to investigating this activity will be to look for worker struggles from the most marginalized groups, usually poor women in the Third World/South, so I can create a more inclusive image of bottom up development (Mohanty 2003: 231). This work will focus on the struggles of female Bangladeshi garment workers, the recent strike wave in China, and the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas Mexico for autonomy and gender equality.

Development is not something that can be brought to a group of marginalized people. Instead, liberation and justice must be fought for by the marginalized peoples themselves, with solidarity from others, for marginalized people are the only groups who know what is necessary for their own lives. Development from the bottom up, as forms of social struggle, are the only we can live in a globalized society free of economic, gender, race, and other social inequalities. This blog will reframe development, stripping it of its neocolonial legacy, through the stories and struggles of the most marginalized people globally.



Andalusia Knoll and Itandehui Reyes, “From Fire to Autonomy: Zapatistas, 20 Years of Walking Slowly,” Truthout, January 25, 2014.

Chandra Mohanty, “ ‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles,” in Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

Jane Slaughter, “Review: Behind China’s Wildcat Strike Wave,” Labor Notes, October 15, 2014.

Milford Bateman, “The Power of a Dollar: Microcredit is nothing more than a socially validated way for financial elites to exploit the poor,” Jacobin 19 (Fall 2015): 9-19.

“Pathways to a cooperative Market Economy,”

“The Real Utopias Project,”

Rosa Luxemburg, “Cooperative, Unions, Democracy,” in Reform or Revolution. 1909. Reprint, (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 41-43.

Sam Gindin, “Chasing utopia: Worker ownership and cooperative will not succeed by competing on capitalism’s terms,” Jacobin, March 10, 2016.

“US Overseas Cooperative Development Council,”

Tula Connell, “Bangladesh Women Workers Increasingly Empowered,”

Vivek Chibber, “Development From Below: Capitalists are interested in profit, not development. Only workers can empower the Global South,” Jacobin 19 (Fall 2015): 81-87.

Vivek Chibber, “Why the Working Class?,” Jacobin, March 13, 2016.

“The Working World,”