First World, Ha Ha Ha!: A Review

First World, Ha Ha Ha!: A Review

[Elaine Katzenberger (ed) First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1995]

by Harry Cleaver

As the crises of Mexican society deepen, and reverberate throughout the world, the importance of understanding their nature grows. Mexico is not just Mexico. The political struggles that have undermined its authoritarian political structure and contributed to the collapse of its speculative economy must be recognized as explosions that are cracking the New World Order as a whole. The recent decision by the leadership of the Group of Seven industrial countries to find ways of containing such crises and preventing their circulation throughout the world capitalist system demonstrates how clearly the managers of the global work machine grasp this about the centrality of social struggles in Mexico. For those of us interested in wrecking that machine, understanding those struggles and why and how their power is being felt so widely has become an urgent necessity. To reach such understanding we must listen to the voices of those in rebellion and to those who are responding to them.

The Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas --which has restored hope to many and Revolution to political discourse-- has been both the result and a producer of a multiplicity of voices joined in a complex conversation. As the best known Zapatista spokesman, Subcommander Marcos, has insisted, his voice gives Spanish shape to a conversation among campesinos that has been carried on in many indigenous tongues for over ten years, in some ways for over 500 years. At the same time, the words of the Zapatistas have provoked a great many others to begin new conversations about many issues, both old and new. The proclamations, communiques and letters from the mountains of southeastern Mexico have generated a whole new world of impassioned conversation, throughout not only Mexico but in much of the rest of the world. Speeches, collective discussions, articles, reports and books have been, and continue to be, produced in reaction to Zapatista ideas and actions. It is fitting, therefore, for at least one of those books --First World, Ha Ha Ha!-- to present a cross section of the voices now joined in this complex encounter.

Elaine Katzenberger has assembled an interesting and stimulating collection of voices from Mexico and the United States, of those in revolt and those reacting to the revolt. The "book was conceived", she writes in her introduction, "as a way to translate, broadcast, and amplify the sense of possibility that was created by the uprising." Listened to as moments of an ever wider and ever more multi-sided conversation, the voices in the book should contribute to that amplification by giving their listeners a sense of the complexity and breath of the discussion. There are a LOT of people involved in this discussion.

While the book is by no means comprehensive, it does allow us to hear many of the passions engaged and issues at stake. For those who have not yet listened in, the book will provide a sense of what is being said. For those who have already joined in the dialogue they are likely to hear some new voices --especially those from Mexican writers and poets-- that will complement the Zapatista materials already available in translation (i.e., Voices Of Fire, Zapatistas! Documents Of The New Mexican Revolution, And Shadows Of Tender Fury) and the only book-length analytical response produced so far (i.e., George Collier's BASTA!).

The most familiar of the material in the book is that from the Zapatistas themselves --precisely because at least three collections have been published in English. After a brief introduction and three brief descriptions of the revolt itself, recounted by those who were there at the time, Katzenberger offers the reader a series of interviews that reproduce the voices of over a dozen Zapatistas. Some of these are well-known figures, such as Subcommander Marcos and Commander Ramona. Others are much less well known but often no less interesting in their stories and personalities.

Medea Benjamin's interview with Marcos is a useful addition to previously translated interviews. One of the co-founders of Global Exchange, an NGO dedicated to grass roots development which has sponsored several trips by international observers to Chiapas, Benjamin probes Marcos on both the nature of the Zapatista struggle and on his ideas of how those in the U.S. can support their efforts in Mexico. Marcos's account of the struggle speaks to a number of familiar issues, such as the aim of opening space for democracy rather than seizing power, the importance of women in the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the organization's support for women's struggles for political participation and control over their own lives and bodies. Asked about the best thing that activists in the United States could play in supporting the Zapatistas, Marcos answered "it is so important for the American people to be aware of what's going on, and to pressure their government to stop supporting the corrupt Mexican government. It's important for the American people to make sure that if another round of violence breaks out, their government will not intervene."

With respect to the very central issue of land reform and the reconquest of stolen territory by the indigneous (and campesinos more generally), Marcos makes clear that EZLN demands go beyond "land to the tiller" or a return to traditional methods (slash & burn) to the modernization of agriculture. As a later essay in the book by Peter Rosset, who draws on George Collier's field research, suggests, this attention to modernization reflects the changes which have taken place in Chiapas over the last decades as wealthier peasants and landowners have begun to use a variety of new techniques to raise the productivity of the land. "If we had tractors, fertilizers, good seeds, technical assistance," Marcos says, "this land would produce eight to sixteen times what it produces now." The reappropriation of land, in other words, must be accompanied by access to what is necessary to make it more productive. Unfortunately, neither Benjamin nor Marcos broach the controversial issues surrounding the use of "modern" technologies, not least of which are environmental ones. We know from other statements that the Zapatistas ARE concerned with such issues but no such discussion appears in this interview.

Another issue concerning land reform which Marcos does mention, but which is not developed as much as one might like, is that of how reappropriated land might be allocated and managed. When Marcos says "we need to have collective farms" alarm bells may go off in the minds of many readers who will associate such a term with the horrors of Soviet-style, state capitalist agrarian policies. Few today can associate the term "collective farms" with anything other than exploitation and the "collecting" of a surplus. Yet, Marcos' comments do NOT spell out any such vision. His comments appear in response to a question about the landless --thus collective farms as an alternative to handing out too little arable land to too many landless-- and there is no role for the state in his "collective farms". "We think the big farms should be given over to production collectives that would use some of their produce for their own subsistance and sell the rest." Thus, the vision would seem to be more akin to traditional arrangements where the land is held and worked in common than any kind of state imposed "collectivist" regime. However, the comment about "selling the rest" suggests that the Zapatista discussions have not yet invented alternatives to the market as a means of wider distribution and sharing.

Marcos' comments are complemented in the book by those of Antonio Hernandez Cruz, a Tojolabal Indian and leader of the State Indigenous and Campesino Council of Chiapas (CIOAC). Besides speaking about his arrest and torture by the military, he also speaks about the need to redistribute land, especially the good, productive lands stolen from the Indians by the landlords. He discusses the need to reverse the reform of Article 27 of the Constitution which legally abolished communal land ownership. But at the same time, he discusses these things in terms of indigenous rights; the need for land is the need for the basis of indigenous community and its cultures. "We have been advancing in the attempt to establish a comprehensive plan for indigenous people's rights. We need constitutional reform where a whole new chapter establishes various articles that speak of Indian people's concrete rights." Such efforts, supported by the Zapatistas who are overwhelmingly indigenous, have provoked a new self-consciousness and pride among many indigenous communities, of themselves and their traditions.

The voices in the book that speak of the key role of women's struggles in Chiapas and within the EZLN are varied. There is Marcos', of course, and the "Revolutionary Women's Law" --drafted by women in the EZLN and accepted by its leadership. There is also a brief overview by the well known Mexican woman writer Elena Poniatowska. These voices emphasize both the heavy burden of toil imposed on women by a capitalist exploitation that includes family patriarchy and the new struggles of women against that burden. Fresher, however, are the lesser known voices of several Chiapaneca women --both within and without the EZLN.

There is the Tzeltal Indian Isidora, for instance, who recounts her struggle to join the Zapatistas at the age of 13 --which sounds very young but is often the age of marriage and childbearing for indigenous girls in Chiapas. Twice she ran away from home and sought out the EZLN, only to be returned home by them, and was beaten by her family. Finally, respecting her tenacity and courage, the Zapatistas called a village meeting to discuss the situation and to ask for the community's authorization for her to join them. In view of her determination, the community agreed.

Then there is Maria, 22 years old and another Tzeltal Indian, who joined the EZLN, learned Spanish and other skills, met her husband-to-be in the Zapatista Army and then left it when they were married and decided to have a baby (which is not permitted within the army proper).

There are also Natalia and Soledad who live in San Cristobal and who are members of J'Pas Joloviletik the largest women's artisanal cooperative in Chiapas. These women, who are interviewed by Yolanda Castro, are not members of the EZLN but have clearly been influenced by it and are very much involved in the discussions it has provoked, especially about women's rights. Their comments display not only an acute consciousness of the injustices of traditional racial discrimination and patriarchy, but also firm agreement with the ten points of the Revolutionary Women's Law adopted by the Zapatistas.

When Yolanda Castro came to Austin a few months back, to talk about the cooperative and the struggles of its women, she showed a film in which the women in the organization were involved in extensive and detailed discussions, not only about the Revolutionary Law but also about the reform of the Mexican constitution. The Law has triggered a new critical feminist awareness of the two-sided character of those "traditions" supposedly protected by the Constitution. While indigenous leaders like Antonio Hernandez Cruz tend to speak in gender-neutral terms about "indignous rights" the women in J'Pas Joloviletik, Castro related, took a large piece of paper, drew a line down the middle and proceeded to discuss and sort out "traditions" into two categories: those worthy of being preserved and those which needed to be discarded or changed. One tradition in Chiapas which is underattack by women is the one whereby only men have the right to own land. Just as the indigenous community needs land to found its autonomy, so too are women demanding the material basis of their own. Such are the kinds of discussions among women that have been provoked by the Zapatista uprising and are forcing the revolutionary process beyond such tranditional issues as land tenure and native rights.

Intersperced among such native voices are those of several commentators who attempt to interpret and situate the struggles in Chiapas within a wider context. Noam Chomsky, for example, sees the Zapatista rebellion and the other struggles it has set in motion as revolts against the "free-trade", neo-liberal strategies of global capitalism, against NAFTA, against GATT and against the efforts of multinational corporations to pit workers of one area against those of another.

Native American intellectual Ward Churchill, for his part, after discussing the long history of Mayan rebellion, locates the Zapatista revolt as an integral part of a much wider (hemispheric and global) uprising of indigenous people. "The EZLN should be viewed", he writes, "through its deliberate internal alignment with the spirit of the 1630 Mayan revolt, as joining --conceptually and emotionally-- the much broader historical stream of indigenous resistance in the Americas . . . the Zapatista phenomenon is as much an extension of the resistance of Powhatan or Pontiac to British imperialism as it is of the example of Tupac Amaru or Ajuricaba . . . the list goes on and on." Churchill cites an article by Bernard Neitschmann in Cultural Survival Quarterly (1988) that cataloged some 125 of the world's "hot wars" and found that "fully 85 percent were being waged by specific indigenous peoples, or amalgamations of indigenous peoples." "In other words," Churchill concludes, "the Zapatistas --and the INDIGENISMO they incarnate-- represent the revitalization of revolutionary potential in America."

The Mexican intellectual, Antonio Garcia de Leon, who has written extensively on Chiapas and the history of social struggles in Mexico takes the EZLN's "zapatismo" as a point of departure to discuss its relationship to that of their forerunner Emiliano Zapata and more profoundly the recurrent rebirth of hope and struggle after periods of repression and exploitation. His evocation of this eternal return of new energy for both negation (of oppression) and affirmation (of new ways of being) is a celebration of "the collective dream, the most powerful imagining of Mexico Profundo [deep Mexico]". His voice ressonates with some of the most important feelings liberated in the world by the Zapatista uprising: those of renewed hope and renewed imagination for breaking free of the generalized capitalist assault on the workers and peasants of the entire world that has wrecked so much havoc over the last two decades. It doesn't remind us how that assault came as a response to a previous cycle of struggle, but it does give a sense of the new energy that has been loosed across the face of the globe.

Despite the general focus of such commentators on what is new and interesting about the Zapatistas and the bottom-up struggles in Mexico, there are a few voices still engaged in old debates. Ronnie Burke, while tracing the history of Mexico's influence on revolutionaries, would have us believe that "recent events confirm that Mexico's revolutionary character is very much in keeping with Trotsky's formulations" and proceeds to quote Trotsky that "the complete and genuine solution of their [the colonial and semi-colonial countries] tasks, democractic and national emancipation, is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat . . ." Perhaps the persistance of such thinking explains why Ward Churchill takes time to renew his attacks on orthodox Marxism (which includes Trotskyism) and why Mongo Sanchez Lira and Rogelio Villareal bother to berate Leftists North and South (including the PRD, those who support it and even the National Autonomous University Student Council).

More interesting is Iain Boal's discussion of the similarities and differences between the Zapatistas and the Luddites within the context of a celebration of the work of Marxist historian Edward Thompson, one of the founders of contemporary bottom-up history. The parallels between the Luddites and the Zapatistas are in the similarities between the resistance in Chiapas and Mexico more generally and that of the British people to the onslaught of industrialization. In both cases peasants have fought against the enclosure of their lands and their forced induction into the industrial labor army. Boal takes Thomas Moore and Karl Polanyi's writings about the enclosures as a point of departure (strangely enough he ignores those of Marx) to attack the myths of "modernity" and "progress" to which both Luddites and Chiapanecan peasants were supposed to subordinate their fates. Their refusal to do so, then and now, reveals the apologetic character of such ideologies. In an intellectual move which typifies the kind of thinking the Zapatista uprising has provoked, Boal extends his analysis to the broadest level. All this, he writes, "invites the widest possible generalizing, to enable a strategic --even a mythic-- connection, via the central idea of 'enclosure', between the lost struggles of the handloom weavers against factory discipline and starvation, and contemporary forms of resistance to the megamachine- --against the automobilism and zoning that denatures city life, against the mechanization of birth, against racist surveillance and the criminalization of poverty, against the iron cage of bureaucracy, against state borders and identities, and by the peoples of Chiapas against the storm from above."

First World, Ha Ha Ha! is illuminated with the work of American and Mexican photographers and poets. The photographs made in Chiapas allow us to SEE the the kind of people to whose voices we are listening, and a little bit of their world. Some are wearing ski masks, which draws our attention to their eyes and to what they are doing. Others are not, children and adults, in contemplation and at work. Some add depth to the voices --like David Muang's striking photograph of four women bend almost double, carrying heavy loads across a vast open landscape, an image which dramatizes the arduous toil against which the women of Chiapas are now speaking out. Or the cover photograph of the book itself, a photograph of a woman holding an AK-47 by Nunez Pliego. In the photograph there is only her colorful indigenous dress, her brown arms and the central presense of the gun which, like the woman herself, is too big to fit on the cover and disappears off of it in both directions. Some evoke the cosmology of the indigenous, their sense of place within the whole of nature. Others are self-reflective, like the photographs of political murals and of other photographs --such as that of Emiliano Zapata in the hands of a contempoary demonstrator-- both of which remind us that the power of images has developed alongside the power of words in this revolutionary struggle for a new world.

The poems chosen for this collection by Katzenberger express many of the same feelings and yearnings as the other voices, only in different ways. For those whose eyelids grow heavy when faced with long paragraphs of dense prose, they offer other, more aesthetically appealing, access points for coming to grips with the realities of the struggle in Chiapas. While Chiapaneco poets Juan Banuelos and Elva Macias respectively grieve for the tortured and assasinated and celebrate the warriors birthed by the jungle, Mexican City poet Alberto Blanco stretches the newly resdiscovered concept of tribe forward and outward, away from exclusivity toward a world "where everyone, all and always has their sacred place."

These are some of the voices, some of their preoccupations and tonalities, which abound in this book. You can start listening anywhere, there is no linear sequence. You can wander amidst this sector of Babel, following your intellectual or poetic ear where ever it leads. But if you let your listening be an attentive one you will soon discover that it is not enough to listen, you must also speak. You must add your voice to the tumult that is sorting itself out, your ideas to the conversations, your energy to the struggles.

June 1995
Austin, Texas