Neozapatismo and Autonomy*
I want to start with the present, go back to the past for a few moments, then return to the present and examine it again in the light of that past.
Today, neozapatismo must be a central focus of any attempt to evaluate the question of possible autonomy. Not only has the Zapatista movement survived despite two serious military efforts to wipe it out (January 1994, February 1995) and years of state counterinsurgency operations (including murderous paramilitary violence) but it has also successfully carried out a whole series of innovative restructurings in its own communities. Elsewhere in the world, and not just in Oaxaca or the rest of Mexico, many other autonomous movements and projects - some newly launched, some thriving, some faltering, some threatened with annihilation - have been inspired by what the Zapatistas have accomplished.
For all of these movements and projects - including those of
the Zapatistas - one of their most common and serious weaknesses has been their
isolation from each other and from other struggles. Breaking out of that
isolation requires making connections with other efforts in other places and
creating networks of solidarity and mutual aid. When the EZLN first came out of
forests and invaded cities in January 1994 they were few and they were
isolated. The heavy military counterattack (some 15,000 troops, armored
vehicles and bombers) threatened to wipe them out. Only the mobilization of
hundreds of thousands demanding a political rather than a military solution
from the government made their survival possible. As time revealed that the government's
pretense at political negotiation was only a public relations ploy masking a
counterinsurgency strategy of repression, again and again it was the
mobilization of people throughout
Yesterday, Guiomar Rovira analyzed how the rapid dissemination of information by
journalists and others, through a variety of media, including the Internet,
played a central role in the mobilization of the solidarity and support for the
Zapatistas that helped them survive and continue to elaborate autonomous
approaches to self-organization. We also know that not only the dissemination
of information but also the spread of
discussion about tactics and strategy
in those same networks circulated the efforts at solidarity and the
mobilization of support: from demonstrations against the Mexican government
around the world to the arrival of international observers and material aid to
the rebellious communities. Moreover, we also know that those networks not only
facilitated the organization of the Continental and Intercontinental Encounters
against Neoliberalism and for Humanity in the spring and summer of 1996 and the
Second Intercontinental Encounter in Spain in 1997 but led to the formation of
Peoples' Global Action and the first Global Action Days against the World Trade
Organization (WTO) in Geneva in 1998. Those beginnings led, in turn, to the
subsequent Battle of Seattle and the emergence of Indymedia in 1999 and the many
demonstrations against the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the G8 that
followed in places such as Davos,
The importance of these developments cannot be overestimated. Never before in history have we seen anything like them. Never before has there been such intense and interconnected opposition to capitalism. Capitalism has always been resisted and opposed but never before have so many moments of resistance and opposition been linked in the ways achieved during the last ten years.
What has been the role of neozapatismo - born in the fires
of indigenous struggle in one small area of
But why did their message resonate? It was not just their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos' intellectual, literary and rhetorical gifts - though they certainly helped. The real reason for the resonance, it seems to me, was because the message spoke to common concrete concerns in ways previous messages had not. Whereas cries for help from many earlier struggles had often provoked little action, this time the story being told sounded all too familiar to be ignored. The Zapatistas may have been one more in a long history of indigenous struggles, but what they were struggling against was no longer just local repression but policies that had become general and all too familiar around the world. No longer did capitalist policy makers employ one kind of strategy here, and another there, so that those in struggle here had difficulty identifying with those in struggle there. As the 20th Century drew to a close similar strategies were being wielded against people everywhere and the Zapatistas recognized this emerging homogeneity and spoke of it in ways that others could understand.
From Imperialist & Colonial Hierarchy to the post-WWII Era
Before, for a very long time, there was no such homogeneity. This was obvious in the days of imperial empires where the people in colonies were treated quite differently than the people in the colonizing countries. Most, in both places, were exploited, of course, but the modes of exploitation, levels of productivity, wage and income hierarchies were quite different. Imperial hierarchies tended to concentrate more highly productive manufacturing industry and higher wages at home and lower productivity agriculture and mining and lower wages in the colonies. Racism, patriarchy and ethnic discrimination often rationalized the brutality needed to impose the hierarchy and keep colonial majorities abroad on the bottom. The overall higher level of productivity achieved through colonization also made it possible to pay the higher wages in the "home" country and construct an imperial wage and income hierarchy as a whole. The theorists of "dependency" tended to dichotomize this structure in terms of a rich "center" that exploited a poor "periphery" but in reality people were being exploited at every level, only some won higher wages and standards of living and others saw theirs reduced.
Even after end of most colonialism, however, when national liberation struggles bore fruit and formal colonial Powers were expelled in the years following World War II, both the existing international hierarchy and the radical difference between policies implemented by capital in the "First" or industrialized world, and those judged appropriate for the new "Third" or "underdeveloped" ex-colonial world continued.
On the one hand, the Keynesian solution to the Great Depression adapted to the new wave of industrial worker struggles that exploded in the 1920s and 1930s, reworked capitalist development in the First World around collective bargaining, rising wages, welfare and state support for technological change (to increase productivity to pay for the higher wages). In those areas, rising wages for some and welfare expenditures for others were seen through the optic of "macroeconomics" as central positive elements in "aggregate demand" that would induce capitalist investment and spur growth.
There were, of course, local hierarchies, with waged income generally exceeding unwaged welfare payments and wage growth limited by frequent capitalist recourse to new sources of labor, , e.g., recent rural-urban black immigrants or Mexican labor in the United States, West Indian or South Asian immigrants in Britain, North or West African immigrants in France.
On the other hand, in the "Third World" policy
makers still reasoned, more often than not, in terms of zero-sum games,
"development economics" and "growth models" - and sought to
minimize wages and maximize exploitation, savings and profits to generate investment
through repressive labor practices, the absence of welfare and such mechanisms
as intentional inflation to redistribute value from fixed-wage workers to the business
owners of the commodities whose prices were rising. Such economic policies were
complemented by the "modernization" theories of political science and
widespread institution, elite and nation building designed to replace the old
colonial structures of command with new "modern", i.e., neocolonial,
ones. Something similar was taking place
within the "
The reorganization of the international capitalist hierarchy from the colonial to the ex-colonial period was both a response to struggles against the old organization and an effort to cope with new ones. Britain may have pulled out of places like the South Asian subcontinent or Nigeria, just as France pulled out (well, was thrown out) of places like Vietnam and Algeria, but struggles in those places continued (sometimes quite obviously as in Korea where US government forces replaced the Japanese, or Vietnam where they replaced the French). As a plethora of "post-colonial" studies have amply demonstrated, the end of formal colonialism by no means meant the end of colonial-type social relations or the struggles that had grown up against them.
As a result, struggles against exploitation, alienation and repression multiplied and to some extent circulated, both within the First, Second and Third Worlds and among them - through awareness and empathy but also through multinational investment and trade. Capitalists always tend to invest in areas of high profitability and to abandon those of lower profitability. That is to say: they flee from stronger workers to exploit weaker ones, or to exploit weaker ones in order to make it possible to make concessions to stronger ones. The resulting changes in patterns of investment produce changing patterns of production and trade and thus changing patterns of struggle as well, e.g., Western investment in South Africa led to an internationalization of the struggle against apartheid in that country. Foreign aid, on the other hand, whether deployed by Western Powers or Eastern ones, tended to rush to areas of intense conflict, either to counter or support local struggles but creating another link between struggles at home and those abroad, e.g., US aid - military and economic - to the government of South Vietnam led to an intensified anti-war movement all across North America and beyond. Conflict also circulated through the movement of those in struggle, whether from countryside to city or from one country to another (and often back again). So while American, British, French (or even Soviet) planners often imported cheaper foreign labor (to limit the growth of local wages), the multinational workers who came (often autonomously in violation of capital's rules) not only brought their experience of struggle with them - creating ethnic communities of mutual aid - but in interaction with local labor and new production relationships learned new forms of struggle (which they often took back home).
The Crisis of the post-WWII Global Capitalist Hierarchy
For some years – almost a quarter of a century - these
conflicts, for the most part, proved manageable, but in the end they tore the
post-WWII order apart. In the
Counterattack and the Rise of Neoliberalism
The capitalist response was a halting and often ad-hoc
series of moves: abandoning Bretton Woods and fixed exchange rates, using food
and energy inflation against real wages, fear of limited nuclear war (presaging
current efforts to use fear of terrorism), a crackdown on immigrant workers, dramatic
hikes in interest rates and debt service demands, and finally global depression
with falling trade and rising unemployment in the early 1980s. In the
In the Third World, and then in the old Second World after
the Fall of the Wall, the dismemberment of the Soviet Empire, and the crushing
of the pro-democracy movement in China, capitalist initiatives took the form of
massive debt crisis, the implementation of austerity and wide-spread
privatization of state firms - sold off to private business to slash wages and
benefits and increase profits - and the opening of both trade and capital flows
to unregulated multinational corporate decisions, e.g., "free trade"
rules, institutionalized in regional arrangements like the European Union or
the North American Free Trade Agreement or globally in the WTO. All this was
rationalized with a refurbished 19th Century ideology of market
As these policies were increasingly implemented, North and South, East and West, the differences between the theories and policies applied in industrialized countries and those applied in so-called underdeveloped or developing countries disappeared. First brazenly implemented in Latin America during the debt crisis of the 1980s, then even more viciously applied in Eastern Europe, Russia and the various ex-socialist republics in the 1990s, and finally piece-meal and to varying degrees within the industrialized countries themselves in the same period, a new capitalist world order was crafted - still with a nasty hierarchy of waged and unwaged, rich and poor, less polluted and more polluted, etc., but being shaped with a much more homogenized set of theories, strategies and policies.
Zapatismo versus Neoliberalism
Both the existence of those more homogenized theories and
policies and the clear Zapatista grasp of them made their discourse against
Some are confronting this new situation with familiar, but stale and unappealing - because of past failures - theoretical and political paradigms. Orthodox Marxists with their "working class party" to synthesize diverse oppositional currents make up one example. Anarchists who only repeat their mantra of "smashing the state" - presumably at both national and supranational levels constitute another.
One new theorization of this new capitalist homogeneity which has sought to ground a more innovative approach to organization has been Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's concept of post-imperialist "Empire" - a shift in sovereignty that corresponds to the multinational corporate subordination of the nation state to the maintenance of a world in which capital can move freely to reorganize itself to counter changing patterns and intensities of many different kinds of struggle. They, and others, have sought to grasp that diversity of opposition and affirmation, that combination of "One No!, Many Yes's!!" in terms of Spinoza's constitutive, world-reordering "multitude". Unfortunately, the leap to organizational proposals has been hesitant and vague at best.
But whatever theoretical approach you decide to use, the basic point is to recognize two things as the basis for organizing: first, the existence of, and therefore the ability to point to, a common enemy and second, the possibility of diverse autonomous projects being complementary in their struggles against that common enemy at the same time that they construct the future along diverse paths. In earlier times, the commonality of the enemy was not so apparent, given the diversity of its means and methods. Today the unique, neoliberal face of capitalism is recognizable to more and more people. Political organizing must, of course, continue to sketch its features so that it will, eventually, be recognizable to all. But, thanks to capital itself, and the vivid prose of the Zapatistas, that's the easy part.
The Sixth, the Other Campaign and the Search for a New Politics
The hard part remains: imagining and constructing ways to achieve complementarity among diverse autonomous struggles, i.e., the politics of our own movement of movements. Our struggles for autonomous forms of life are always elaborated in particular places, among particular sets of relationships and at particular points in the international hierarchy of income and power that capital has imposed on our world. Our struggles are not automatically complementary, indeed they are often contradictory, or indifferent, and therefore isolated from one another.
One very partial solution has been joint action against the common enemy by representatives of many, many different struggles. This has the approach of international mobilizations that have brought tens of thousands of protestors into the streets against the WTO, the IMF and World Bank and the G8. Representatives of diverse struggles have stood shoulder to shoulder, quite literally, against these institutions of neoliberal capitalism. Success in such endeavors has been found partly in whatever degree of disruption has been achieved and partly in the inevitable, informal networking that has taken place prior to and during such protests. These gatherings have overcome isolation, at least momentarily, and not only given participants an acute sense of connectedness with others in struggle but laid the groundwork, through networking, for future common actions. For these reasons alone, such mobilizations have been fruitful.
On the other hand, participation in such mobilizations is
both irregular and expensive (in both monetary and human terms) and despite
communication ahead of time for organizing, and discussion afterwards for
evaluation, actual gains in terms of disrupting capitalist planning or
thwarting neoliberal strategies have been minimal. At the moment, such forms of
joint struggle seem to have peaked in the summer of 2001 in
We have been going through a very necessary period of reassessment and exploration of alternative ways to proceed. Now what? Or in Chernechevsky and Lenin's classic formulation "What is to be Done?" next. This is the question that was posed by the Zapatistas' Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona in the summer of 2005 and this is the question to which we must all seek answers. As is typical of their ways, "asking as they walk", the Zapatistas did not offer a final answer to this question, only a proposal for one step in searching for an answer (or for a collection of complementary answers). They proposed changing the terrain of discussion (away from the formal electoral spectacle) and then set about organizing that change, first through a series of meetings with diverse people in struggle in Mexico and then through their "Other Campaign".
The Other Campaign, as it wound its way through Mexico from Chiapas to the northern border where it met with those from "the other side", effectively created, as it went, new terrains of discussion, of listening and of speaking, of the exchange of experience and of reflection on the past, present and possible futures. As has been typical of Zapatista encounters, no unified program was proposed by the organizers or adopted by the many, many discussants in those dozens and dozens of meetings. But the whole process constituted a dramatic political act, far more dramatic although less spectacular than the formal presidential elections with all their fraud and ex-post contestation by AMLO and the PRD. Not only do I know of no other example of such a nation-wide campaign of grassroots discussion and sharing of experience and ideas, but I do not know, unfortunately, any other group besides the Zapatistas with both the power of convocation to carry out such a campaign and the interest in doing so.
The Other Campaign's criticism of and refusal to be drawn into the electoral arena, either in supporting the PRD before the elections, or in protesting against PANista-PRIista fraud afterwards, was highly controversial and infuriated a great many who have dedicated themselves to struggle on that terrain. Yet, as events have unfolded since the elections, from the vicious state violence in Atenco, through the popular uprising in Oaxaca, to repression in that state, the bankruptcy of the professional political parties, including the PRD, continues to be demonstrated as they either lag far behind, or participate in the repression of those in struggle at the grassroots.
Phase One of the Other Campaign is now over, another phase
is beginning. That phase will include a new Intercontinental Encounter in
And to the question of "what to do next?" there is
no simple answer. For if we are really proposing to build new worlds we are not
just talking about finding other ways of doing politics, we are talking about
the reorganization of all of society. While the possibility of global
discussion and the search for complementary strategies may be a function of
capitalist globalization, it also means the possibility of discussing,
comparing and learning from alternative autonomous projects of reorganization
of every aspect of life, e.g., ways of growing and consuming food, making
textiles and clothing, how we house ourselves, manufacture items we want, the
way we take care of our health, our bodies and their interrelationships, the
way we build and use computers, the ways we play, the relationships in our
families, the ways we learn, the ways we repair the damage done to the land,
the oceans, the atmosphere and ourselves. There is already a multiplicity of interesting,
alternative approaches to all these things. There are already coordinated
efforts to change many of these things simultaneously, as in Zapatista and
other indigenous communities. Innovations such as the Good Government Councils
or APPO's are not models to mimic but small scale examples of the concrete
reconstruction of social, economic and political relationships.
Local situations are already materially interlocked, both by
the circuits of capital and by our efforts. Some interlockages can, and should
be broken, e.g.,
For those of us in the
* Presentation to the workshop on Neozapatismo, movimiento indígena y autonomía at the Conference on La Autonomía Posible: Reinvencion de la política y emancipación at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México, October 24-26 2006.