One way to think about revolutionary struggle is in terms of sovereignty. Revolutionary movement should work to build working-class sovereignty, a force by and for the masses that is able to govern and sustain itself socially, politically, and economically, and exert its power and authority against capital. This is in contrast to liberalism and its goal of incorporating restive classes and communities into the existing order, and thus stabilizing the rule of capital instead of undermining and overthrowing it. And as discussed previously, this form of liberalism is often infused into would-be radical and revolutionary movements, as seen in how often our campaigns revolve around lobbying politicians and technocrats on moral or rational grounds.
In the context of the climate crisis, to build revolutionary working-class sovereignty requires creating a force capable of moving beyond lobbying and symbolic acts of disruption (i.e. one-off sit-ins coordinated by a small group of activists), to being able to impose serious material costs onto fossil capital. This could look like a kind of popular regulation, where actions that are supposed to be monopolized by the state (levying fines, ordering production shutdowns) are implemented by a movement autonomous from the capitalist state.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the spring of 2016 show what this could look like. Establishing encampments, and using them to directly block construction of an oil pipeline, was an expression of indigenous sovereignty. Indeed, the overall conflict was itself an explicit clash over sovereignty between the United States of America and the Sioux, over the question of who has the power and authority to permit or prevent the construction of a pipeline in a particular area. But it is also an example of how difficult the construction and exercise of sovereignty really is, and underlines the harsh truth that it is ultimately violence that is the foundation of sovereignty (or, as Mao put it, that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”). The technicalities of treaty rights and other legal entities is secondary to who can actually control and hold territory against would-be challengers and interlopers. In this sense, although the protests raised the specter of direct popular regulation and revolutionary sovereignty, they were also clearly limited by the fact that the encampments did not intend to hold out indefinitely against state security forces – the real purpose was to raise awareness, capture media attention, and put a kind of moral pressure on federal authorities. And this was perhaps the only choice: the terrain of the Standing Rock reservation and the pipeline’s construction path was such that it was very easy for state security forces to lay siege to the encampments, cutting off reinforcements and supply lines, and thus eliminating the material basis of exerting Sioux sovereignty over the DAP.
Given the difficulty of deploying popular regulatory power in situations short of a full-scale revolution, it is still important to strategize around how to win gains through more limited campaigns and sway the state one way or another, without succumbing to the liberal impulse of incorporation. What is key is that such campaigns are organized with the understanding that even these constitute a clash of power, similar to that of two sovereigns, with the determining factor ultimately being not morality or logic, but force. A revolutionary movement understands that the only way capital can be pushed into giving concessions that go against its own interests is if other, broader interests are under threat.
A fantastic example of this framework can be seen in the insurrection in Ecuador in October 2019, when a massive uprising erupted in the capital city of Quito, demanding the state to reverse its abolition of fuel subsidies (see here for a discussion of how to resolve the contradiction between demanding access to cheap fossil fuels, and demanding decarbonization). The uprising was lead by the national indigenous federation, CONAIE, and created a crisis of governance, where state officials were forced to relocate the government to a different city entirely, key buildings in the capital were seized and occupied, police officers were taken hostage, and oil infrastructure in the Amazon was forcibly shut down. After two weeks of violent street clashes, the state gave in to the intransigent movement, and re-instated fuel subsidies and planned for future budget negotiations that would include CONAIE.
Unlike most protest movements in the US and other Western/Northern countries, this uprising took on the distinct characteristics of a sovereign power clashing against another sovereign power, mobilizing its own governance structure, logistics infrastructure, territorial holdings, and dedicated combatants. There was little moral dimension to the uprising, in terms of appealing to hearts of politicians or the ever-amorphous concept of the “public opinion”, and nor was there any focus on “raising awareness”. Instead, it was a straightforward assault on an enemy power, the goal being to disrupt and destabilize it as much as possible. CONAIE’s strategy was to paralyze Quito by seizing control of key buildings and streets, repelling attempts by state security forces to dislodge them, and thus shutting down the city. CONAIE also sought to blockade the oil industry, shutting off a vitally important source of revenue for the state. This way, the state would be threatened with a complete collapse in its ability to govern, as well as face an economic and fiscal crisis; compared to such a disaster, bringing back fuel subsidies would be a small price to pay. The state’s goal, of course, was to disrupt the disruption, and dismantle the blockades and occupations and stabilize and reinforce its rule. As it turned out, CONAIE and its allies were organized and dug-in for the long haul, and so the state was forced into complete capitulation. The October 2019 insurrection is thus a prime example of what revolutionary mobilization looks like outside of an actual revolution: an indefinite and concrete disruption of capital and the state, until demands are met.
Of course, the real question is how such a force can be assembled in the first place. How was CONAIE able to organize – and more importantly, sustain – a popular uprising that created an existential crisis of governance? Indefinite disruption requires numbers; to really disrupt state and capital, you need thousands of people in any given area on strike, manning blockades, and pushing back police lines, as well as cooking food, securing transportation, providing medical aid, and so on. This also requires a high level of coordination, and a synthesis of different skill-sets and resources. This is something that is near impossible to develop at the necessary scale spontaneously, in the heat of riot. It must be based on long-term grassroots radical organizing, that facilitates the creation of a widespread militant collective identity, and which brings together various fractions of the masses.
Developing mass organizations requires an ensemble of activities that are embedded in the materialities of ordinary working class life, and which create and preserve a kind of collective and militant socialization that resists and counters the drive of capital to atomize people into alienated individual consumers. Such activity could be seen as what some in the US have theorized as “base-building”, where militants dig in for long-term, day-to-day struggle in particular geographic and/or social niches, instead of engaging in aloof activism or haphazard protest-hopping. CONAIE consists of precisely such an ensemble of base-building activity, with constituent groups that have been active for decades at the center of indigenous life. Consider the case of an anti-mining campaign in the province of Azuay in 2011, as described by Thea Riofrancos in her book Resource Radicals. At the center of this campaign was UNAGUA, a local constituent organization of CONAIE and the coordinating body for 31 different community water boards across the province. These water boards are institutions of popular governance over water resources in the area, and emerged in the 1970s when local indigenous communities organized to build their own water infrastructure. Later, in the 1990s, it lead campaigns against efforts by the state to seize control of this infrastructure; and then in the 2000s, against efforts by the state to hand control over to private corporations.
UNAGUA was also part of the steady consolidation of different indigenous groups into a wider confederation encompassing increasingly larger geographic and social blocs. UNAGUA became a part of the Federation of Peasant and Indigenous Organizations of Azuay (FOA), which itself became a part of the regional highland indigenous federation (Ecuarunari), which was one of the two major regional indigenous organizations that founded CONAIE in 1986 – the other being Ecuarunari’s Amazonian equivalent, CONFENIAIE. The density, diversity, and granularity of CONAIE points to the fact that it was built over decades, as part of a long-term effort to bring together disparate indigenous groups in different regions, speaking different languages, working at different nodes of capitalist political economy – all of which themselves have been struggling (or, “base-building”) for autonomy, political rights, etc. for decades, if not centuries.
The process of connecting all of these different organizations, movements, and networks with one another is essentially the process of articulation that Salar Mohandesi describes in this essay on party-building. Articulation is the process where different social and class compositions are synthesized into an increasingly revolutionary force – or, a type of sovereign power rooted in the concrete struggles of the masses. If the process of articulation has matured to a certain point, then the party (or whatever is fulfilling the function of the party) can instigate a confrontation with the state, such that the state is not confronting small bands of activists or even a mass of angry but uncoordinated rabble, but a virtual society with its own autonomous institutions and the ability to sustain itself economically, even as it throws the circuits of capital into chaos. This was seen in the October 2019 insurrection, when indigenous militants from across the country, from highland agricultural villages to Amazonian tribes, traveled to the capital in massive caravans, where they converged with union transit workers, informal laborers, and radical students to seize control of key sites and bring the flow of capital to a grinding halt.
The process of base-building and articulation in the US will face different challenges than what indigenous radicals faced in Ecuador. For one thing, social atomization and the hegemony of the market is incredibly advanced in the US, making us unable to build off of existing ethnic and cultural institutions as effectively as indigenous groups in Ecuador. But this is all the more reason that we must immerse ourselves in patient base-building activity, and be wary of the activist/liberal habits of constantly jumping by ourselves into this or that policy battle or electoral campaign. Such causes are not unimportant, but we cannot hope to wage an effective and efficient struggle on such fronts if we are not connected to a variety of different day-to-day struggles against bosses, landlords, police, and other class enemies, and coalescing these into a sovereign force that can engage in ruthless combat – not cordial negotiation – with state and capital.