Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reflections of Crisis

My final year's project from Hampshire College has been published by a German academic publishing company. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.

From the back cover:
"A specter is hanging over the the United States: The specter of the Great Depression. This is a journey through the looking glass of economic crisis, and a study of how it is reflected across time and space into the present day and our own lives. It is an attempt to learn from the Great Depression and, in reflecting on its causes and consequences, to apply these lessons to the twenty first century and the current economic crisis. Unconventional and innovative in both form and content, this is a spirited trans-disciplinary investigation and analysis of both the dynamics and tendencies of capitalism as an economic and social system, and also of organized social movements in times of crisis."

Below is an excerpt from my faculty committee's final evaluation of my work, chaired by Laurie Nisonoff, with Stan Warner and Marty Ehrlich.

"In his economic research project Quincy seeks to cover a very ambitious landscape, exploring the differences and similarities between the Great Depression and the most recent U.S. and world economic crisis. His purpose is to reveal a fundamental set of critical factors in the very nature of capitalism that tends to produce crisis and to exploit a significant proportion of the working class.

Some of the issues he covers span the financial sector, consumer credit, the wages and working conditions of labor, international capital flows, monopolization, environmental consequences, and more. He begins his journey by exploring the nature of finance capital before and during the Great Depression. He tracks the rise of consumer debt, the rapid growth of non-bank financial institutions, the role of income inequality, and the interplay of productivity and unemployment. His 51 pages on this historical period are divided into 73 individually numbered sections. Some are quite terse, such as section 38 which states: “Debt is damnation in the genesis story of capitalism. Debt is the perverse form that trust takes in the capitalist mode of production.” By contrast, section 40 is a four-page essay that begins with a discussion of the paradox of a “dual economy,” in which the collapse of “plantation fiefdoms” in the South is presented as part of a larger “continental catastrophe of capitalist agriculture in the United States.” Sections 41-48 provide an insightful perspective on the social upheavals of labor migration and environmental collapse in the context of a marked intensification of monopoly in the North.

Part II of Quincy’s study turns to the current economic crisis in capitalism, again starting with the role of finance and identifying the specific ways in which that sector has been transforming itself. He details the argument that the globalization and deregulation of finance have served to heighten the vulnerability of the economy and to widen the gap between private profit making and the social good.  

It was an explicit objective of Quincy’s analysis to experiment with the way ideas are organized and expressed. The form of his essay, and his, at times, richly metaphorical language, reaches for an often literary effect. He adopted a style of short vignettes or snapshots that took up a particular issue in one or more paragraphs and focused on an aspect of that topic. He  frequently quoted from such writers as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Adam Smith, Upton Sinclair, John Maynard Keynes, John Steinbeck, Rudolf Hilferding, Josef Stendl and a variety of contemporary political economy theorists as a springboard for his discussions. Quincy hoped that the reader would treat these offerings as building blocks of accumulated knowledge and commentary that could be assembled and interpreted by the reader to come to an understanding of how capitalism performs in situations of crisis. He writes, “This is not a random buffet of ideas. On the contrary, I have avoided connecting the dots in certain ways in order to enable the reader to connect them in others. … This is an attempt to make many stories possible… These are pieces of a broken mirror. Shattered reflections of a country and a world in crisis.”"

Readers of this blog who are interested in knowing more about this project, scheduling a presentation by the author, or obtaining a copy, should leave a comment with their contact information and I will get back to you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reflections on the US Social Forum 2010

by Quincy Saul

(Photos by author. Apologies for these angles, I couldn't get them to scan upright)

This summer in June, over 10,000 people from across the country and from around the world gathered to attend the second US Social Forum in Detroit, Michigan. This massive political, economic and logistical feat (organized entirely by volunteers and funded entirely by donations) brought together a wide diversity of organizations and individuals under the common platform “Another World is Possible, Another United States is Necessary, Another Detroit is Happening” for four days of demonstrations, workshops, assemblies and for much more.

For better or for worse, the major media networks ignored this historic occasion completely, and remained rigidly focused on the relatively squalid constituents of the Tea Party, the paltry scandals of celebrities, etc. The task of reporting and reflecting on this event has thus fallen, again, for better or for worse, to people like myself, who are doing our best to spread the news and the stories and the ideas as far and wide as we can. These reflections do not presume to represent the forum or any of its constituents, but are the result of my own thoughts and experiences in Detroit that summer. They address the Social Forum as a whole, and specifically the first Excluded Workers’ Congress, which I attended on June 23rd of this year.

The second US Social Forum came at a particularly poignant time, to a world and a country and a city in crisis. On the first day of the Forum, the New York Times printed an article by Bob Herbert, who wrote that
“As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.”

This article, printed in the premier newspaper in the United States and read around the world by millions, testifies to the massive subterranean shift that is occurring today, as the legitimacy of government and private enterprise crumbles beneath the mortal weight of its inability to respond to the many overlapping crises of our era. While the NYT trumpeted defeat, the USSF announced its readiness to build political, economic and moral legitimacy in the eyes of the city, the country and the world.

There can never be a single synthesis of over 1,000 workshops and assemblies, attended by over 10,000 people. Multitudes do not conclude; no one has the last word. No one knows everything that happened. But we can reflect on some highlights of our own experiences, and attempt to distill some of the most portentous themes and ideas. In reflecting, we are not only analyzing, but breathing life into what happened that week in Detroit, amplifying it beyond its confines and pushing its possibilities to their limits.

Chico Whitaker said it right in the title of his book1: The Social Forum is above all a challenge. It is a different kind of challenge than many others. Not a challenge to overcome our enemies, but a challenge to overcome ourselves. To overcome both our differences and our similarities. Together, the forum is on the front lines, not against the familiar barricades of capital or the state, but against the equally formidable divisions between our movements for freedom and justice. Towards this, the convocation of the forum began with a call for “linguistic justice”, “rejecting the forces that homogenize and/or oppress the way we express ourselves, and speaking, loving and dreaming in languages of our choice.” Overturning the barricades that have divided our movements may in the long run prove more decisive and far-reaching than the limited victories our movements have had against the ruling classes.

The US forum of missed opportunities? Workshops and assemblies spend hours educating and inspiring each other, and then 15 minutes remain in the schedule to propose and arrive at consensus around specific proposals and a concrete plan of action. By the time we are through realizing the interconnectedness of our struggles and the magnitude of the possibilities that arise from that, time is up and everyone disperses.

Many people I’ve met here are in a way apathetic towards this forum, and the whole concept of the forum. They accept its diffuse structure as an unconditional mandate, and don’t expect anything in particular to come together. Perhaps they are right. But who is the burden of proof on? There seems to be a real lack of political will to moderate and facilitate large assemblies towards more concrete plans of mass collective action.

Perhaps it is a romantic notion to imagine that relationships made in a few days or hours can launch serious alliances or campaigns. If we really connect with another person or group we can contact them after the forum and build a relationship over the long term, and maybe that is the only really sustainable way. And yet this network of networks, this conference of conferences, comes and goes, gathers and disperses, without much effort to make anything more of it. It is frustrating most of all to see the experienced organizers apathetic about organizing organizers. Isn’t that what revolution is all about? As the saying goes, if not you, who? If not now, when?

Detroit. Detroit is a city in crisis and it is also a city which reveals in miniature the social and economic predicament which the whole country is diversely enmeshed in. Detroit was first established as a frontier fort in the colonization of the continent, controlled at different times by both the British and the French. Centuries later it became the final stop before Canada for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. It has always contained a warring dialectic of exploitation and resistance.

At the beginning of the 20th century Detroit was catapulted into the commanding heights of the global economy in the rough-and-tumble industrialization and urbanization that changed the face of the USA. The first assembly line was introduced in 1913, and by the time of the second world war, Detroit had earned the title of the ‘arsenal of democracy’ for its prodigious industrial output in the rising military industrial complex. By the 1950s, Detroit literally dominated the world automobile industry, accounting for 80 percent of the world’s production and assembly of cars.

In the last sixty years, Detroit has been transformed again. While the dramatic reversal of the character of economic development in the United States has been nation-wide, perhaps nowhere has the transition been as dramatic as in Detroit. Detroit has become a ghost city. The downtown skyscrapers oversee empty city streets. Within the city limits, 40 square miles of land are now vacant -- a territory the size of Boston. Economic erosion has generated widespread social problems and a shrinking welfare state has exacerbated them. The transition from welfare to work-fare under the Clinton administration was pioneered in Michigan and Detroit especially. The epidemic of police brutality in Detroit today is an acute expression of the macro-economic structural violence of de-industrialization. Detroit has been the model martyr in the United States of the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and the new world order. The decline of Detroit as one of the economic capitals of the US and the world was not inevitable, and could have been averted with public subsidies. Instead it was sacrificed for the new economic and political imperatives of finance capital.2

Today Detroit confronts a new level and character of crisis. What remains of the social contract in Detroit is under siege. The fundamentals of security and dignity are being privatized: Hundreds of city parks and recreation centers are scheduled to close, and a plan is on the books to reduce the number of ambulances that serve the city from 20 to 12. Public education is also under attack, and dozens of schools face closure. But today, these neoliberal economic policies operate under the guise of urban renewal. Private foundations are now directing massive urban planning projects with public money, and are increasingly unaccountable to local governance.

But in the midst of this, Detroit resists. Heir to a rich history of revolutionary organization and struggle, Detroit boasts the largest urban gardening movement in the United States. The movement is not limited in scope to producing food. The urban gardens are an expression of a praxis of self-reliance that has grown out of the experience and conviction of generations of struggle. Detroit organizers Wayne and Myrtle Curtis write that:

‘Grow a garden, grow a community’ is our tag line... Instead of always striving for money, we are challenging ourselves to develop relationships and practices that will sustain us spiritually and physically. We realize most jobs are not coming back to Detroit. And those we once had didn’t satisfy our needs. We desire work that matters and that doesn’t threaten our very existence. We believe that living in harmony with all life is more desirable than dollars... We say the garden is not just a garden, it is a gathering place for meetings of minds, a place where history lessons and education about all things connected to life are shared.

Wayne and Myrtle are part of an organization called Detroit City of Hope (, which is, in its own words “an emerging network of Activists, Artists, Architects, Community Gardeners, Poets, Environmentalists, Entrepreneurs, Block Clubs, and all those seeking creative solutions to the crisis of our city and of our time.” Detroit City of Hope is one example of the many organizations that are springing up to seize the crisis and turn it into an opportunity. Just as Detroit has led the country through both growth and crisis, perhaps it shall also lead the way forward towards a new social system. On the subject of the crisis in public education, veteran organizer and Detroit resident Grace Lee Boggs has written that teachers

can spend their time lamenting their hardships and struggling to get back their old jobs or they can take advantage of this strategic moment to redefine the role of teachers to become full partners with the students and parents in the visionary transformation of educations so that students have the tools they need to create a more just, democratic and sustainable world. (From The Changing Role of Teachers, The Michigan Citizen, June 27- July 3, 2010)

In hosting the second US Social Forum, organizers in Detroit have boldly taken up the torch of the spirit and direction suggested by Grace Lee Boggs. When a committee met after the forum in Atlanta, Georgia to decide on the next location of the Social Forum, Detroit was chosen because the local community of organizers was more ready than any other to take it on. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Detroit has in many ways epitomized the national character and condition. Perhaps the Social Forum is an indication that Detroit, in spite of its plight or perhaps to some extent because of it, will remain one of the vanguard cities of the United States.

The Excluded Workers Congress

In historical perspective
On June 23rd this year, representatives of over a dozen organizations representing historically excluded workers assembled in Detroit, Michigan during the US Social Forum. Farm workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, contingent workers (“temps”) from across industries, taxi drivers, students and many more of those excluded from US labor law, for the first time in history were gathered together, not in simple complaint or plaintive protest, but organized, and in continental congress assembled.

“We are standing in the doorway to a new labor movement,” someone addressed the congress as it convened, and it is high time. Today, the labor movement in the United States is barely worthy of the name. Under the current labor regime, union density and militancy have been in steady decline for at least four decades. Can something that has been shrinking and losing power so consistently for so long still be called a movement? In 1994, Time magazine called the labor movement “a toothless dinosaur on the way to becoming fossils.” Despite all the drama surrounding the leadership and direction of the big unions in the last few years, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Time’s rhetoric has not been proved wrong. If it can still be called a movement, its direction and trajectory are disintegration and retreat.

The answers to the burning questions of our time will not be found within the old labor movement, of this much we can be certain. However, the failures of the old labor movement and the conditions which have made a new emerging labor movement possible are bound together, in a history both shared and divided.

The legal split between included and excluded workers as we know it today was forged in the gauntlet of the New Deal. The New Deal came at a high price. Agricultural and domestic workers (the vast majority of black workers at the time) were excluded from the legislation protecting the rights of workers to form unions and collectively bargain for a contract. When the big unions accepted this deal, they turned their backs on the core principle that had built their movement: solidarity. They forgot that the old anthem “An injury to one is an injury to all” was not just a slogan, but a strategic necessity. From that moment, it was only a matter of time before that betrayal at the heart of the movement would come home to roost. It has officially come home. Today the institutionalized labor movement finds itself stuck in a swamp of internecine turf wars and personality conflicts, struggling to hold on to what privileges remain, an eager but unrewarded lackey of the Democratic Party, all but irrelevant to the majority of the working class population in the United States.

In all this time, excluded workers in the United States have learned the hard way the consequences of the old labor regime. They have paid the price of exclusion and see through the sham of a solidarity which is not universal. Together, they are joining together to lead a new kind of labor movement. They know better than to allow someone to fight for them. “Closed mouths never get fed,” one adjunct student worker concluded, “so it’s up to us to make some noise!”

Professor Dan Clawson, in his book The Next Upsurge3, suggests that the United States labor movement may be poised for a comeback. Just as the low point of the labor movement in the 1920s gave way to the highest tide of class struggle in US history in the 1930s, the swell of a new labor movement might even now be building. “[T]he labor movement will not grow slowly and incrementally,” Clawson writes:

“It hasn’t in the past and it won’t in the future... Historically, unions in the United States have grown in explosive bursts rather than in steady increments... Most of the time unions are losing ground; once in a while labor takes off... Each period of upsurge redefines what we mean by ‘the labor movement,’ changing cultural expectations, the form that unions take, laws, structures, and accepted forms of behavior... how labor relates to other groups in society, laws and regulations... what sorts of labor action are permitted, encouraged, prohibited.” (pages 19, 16 and 13)

If the increasing adversity of economic crisis provokes a new upsurge in the labor movement, as it did in the 1930s, the Excluded Workers Congress could provide some of the ideal leadership to coordinate the many diffuse movements in this country for economic, environmental, racial, sexual, and international justice. Their fight against exclusion gives the congress something in common with all of these movements, and the Congress could provide the organizational lens through with this diversity of alienation is focused against its systemic oppressor.

Many in the labor movement bewail the 12% statistic of total aggregate union density in the United States. The lowest in the industrialized world! The new labor movement will flip this statistic upside down. 88% of the working class today is excluded from their right to improve their conditions in the workplace, and it is this 88% that must become the new labor movement. What better form of organization to unite them than an Excluded Workers Congress?

Although convened in the format of a forum, it was an amazing insight to call it a congress. Not only does it suggest that it will convene again, but it suggests that it will be a place for not only meeting and the celebration of unity, but for empowered debate and deliberation over a common course of action, alongside coordination between representatives of large and very diverse constituencies. It not only suggests the move beyond service-providing to struggle, but also beyond advocacy and into leadership. The Excluded Workers Congress could be a staging point and organizing platform for a new revolutionary labor movement in the US.

In theoretical perspective
In our upside-down world, the truth can often be the inverse or opposite of the language used to express it. Really, these excluded workers are the most included, in the sense that without their labor, there could be no inclusion for anyone. This is not mysticism but de-mystification. What excludes these workers, and what simultaneously unites them as a class, is really the nature of their inclusion -- a kind of inclusion which at once excludes them and makes all other kinds of social inclusion possible. It is a paradox so striking that it’s hard even to express. But it is the daily life of millions.

These excluded workers are doing perhaps the most essential work, both in the United States and the world over. They are building and repairing the foundations that make all forms of inclusion possible. They are raising children, caring for the elderly, cleaning homes and clothes, growing, harvesting, cooking and serving food, transporting people and things; they are delivering the payoff of the social contract to our neighborhoods and dining room tables. Without them society would not only come to a halt, it would crumble.

This permanent underclass of workers is really at the “commanding heights” of the local, national and global economy, and this has big theoretical implications! (For example, an economy may survive for some time without a banking sector, but for no time at all without carework.) Their work is so essential that we take it for granted, and often do not even account for it in economic or political terms. But we cannot afford to continue to do so. Not only a moral imperative but a strategic and theoretical understanding of political economy demands that we doubly recognize these workers for both their potentially immense political and economic power and their historic exclusion.

These are the real proletarians, in the original particularity of the term. They are workers who cannot be freed from their chains until everyone’s chains are broken. And, which is more, they are workers who generally recognize and understand this. They are a class of workers who, as Marx and Engels theorized in the Manifesto, “cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.” The freedom and human rights that they are demanding are not any kind of rights or freedom. They will only accept a freedom that is for all society, and human rights for them must be universal. As excluded workers, anything else could not be enough. Of all classes of workers, they are least likely to sell out, because their experience as an oppressed class is a direct material consequence of being sold out by others; they understand the necessity of solidarity. Until they are free, no one in the world will be free, not in terms of metaphysics but in terms of political economy. “As long as there are excluded workers,” one said in the assembly, “the threat of indentured servitude hangs over us all.”

What are they fighting for? Inclusion in a system that excludes so many others? They will not have it. Their whole experience as individuals and as a class rebels against it. They will not take the road of the old labor movement. They are fighting for a world which does not yet exist, a world which will not exist until no one is excluded; or, perhaps, as the Zapatistas have said, a world where many worlds fit.

At the center of a tornado of all the forms of oppression that this society whips into a frenzy, these men and women will not be free until the whole storm of exclusion itself is ended. Which is to say that their struggle is directly and immediately a struggle against alienation, and against capitalism.

The real proletarians are standing up. Brought together by their exclusion, they are in continental congress assembled. With exclusion as their banner, they are intrinsically unlikely to fall into a trap of the business unionism that co-opted the radical inclusive demands of the best of the 1930s labor movement. Already they are recognizing themselves as a class, a class unique and apart in the Marxist sense, as defined in the manifesto: “All the preceding classes that got the upper hand,” (for example the representatives of the majority white male manufacturing working class) “sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation,” (namely, exclusive privileges for themselves; the private welfare state.) “The proletarians,” however, “cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation,” (exclusion) “and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation” (from slavery to wage-slavery). As a class excluded from all privileges, “[t]hey have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” They are by nature struggling not only for the abolition of exclusion, but, directly or indirectly, for the abolition of capital and its crises, of which exclusion is so constant a feature.

Exclusion: The deep significance of the term. Decades ago, Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael stressed that language is a crucial arena of struggle, and therefore that is essential for a movement to maintain conscious control of the terminology that surrounds it: “We have to fight,” he insisted, “for the right to invent the terms which will allow us to define ourselves and to define our relations to society, and we have to fight that these terms will be accepted. This is the first need of a free people, and this is also the first right refused by every oppressor.”

The paradigm of exclusion and inclusion is the economic, legal, political and moral backbone of the current world-system. This paradigm describes not only the primordial economic division in capitalism between rich and poor, but also the symptoms and ancillary characteristics of this system -- the multifaceted apartheid which saturates societies and divides them between those with and without worker’s rights (to organize), citizen’s rights (to vote), and human rights (to subsistence, dignity and justice). For this reason, the focus on exclusion, and the language used to describe this focus, is deeply essential and significant to the future of the movement. The language itself focuses the struggle, not only in analysis but in practical strategy.

In his recent book First As Tragedy, Then As Farce,4 Slajov Zizek categorizes that the current global crisis of capitalism as composed of four primary antagonisms: 1) the impending ecological catastrophe, 2) the ever-broadening contradiction between private property and the social character of production (now hotly contested in the realm of intellectual property rights), 3) the controversy over the moral and economic significance of new technological and scientific developments (from genetically modified foods to nanotechnology) and finally, 4) the extreme exacerbation of inequality on a local and global scale and its manifestation in “new forms of apartheid” between those included in the newer world order and those excluded from it. (p91) All of these antagonisms converge today in the current crisis, and it is on the terrain of these antagonisms that the battle for the meaning and outcome of this crisis is being fought. But these antagonisms are not all equal. Zizek goes on to say that

“[i]n the series of the four antagonisms then, that between the Included and the Excluded is the crucial one. Without it, all others lose their subversive edge -- ecology terns into a problem of sustainable development, intellectual property into a complex legal challenge, biogenetics into an ethical issue... In short, without the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded, we may well find ourselves in a world in which Bill Gates is the greatest humanitarian battling against poverty and disease, and Rupert Murdoch the greatest environmentalist mobilizing hundreds of millions through his media empire.” (page 98)

Zizek suggests that it may be possible for the system to resolve and/or accommodate the first three antagonisms without addressing the fourth. Indeed, he implies that the first three crises could be resolved by effectively exacerbating the antagonism between included and excluded; by ‘out-sourcing’ the crisis onto the excluded, and through the formation of socially and ecologically responsible gated communities (the Green Zone comes to mind) from where the next empire could be coordinated. It is important to understand that none of these contradictions can be resolved or transcended in the long run without addressing the paradigm of apartheid at the core of the system. Out-sourcing is only a temporary fix because as Subommandante Marcos says, “there are no seats outside the ring.” But in the meantime the reality of apartheid under the guise of economic development does threaten humanity in ever new dimensions. (For examples, see the book “Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism, edited by Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, New Press, 2007”.)

To combat this nightmare which holds the dignity of the planet hostage, it is necessary to focus the language used to describe the current crisis around the fundamental paradigm of exclusion. The Excluded Workers Congress can play a decisive role in framing both the terminology and terrain of this struggle.

Some possible points of unity:
1. The Excluded Workers Congress is not fighting for inclusion in the economic/legal/political system that is understood to be fundamentally at fault.
2. The Congress is united in its struggle against exclusion, but diversity is its greatest and most respected resource. Before the diversity of exclusion divided us. Now it shall unite us.
3. Organized struggle to improve our conditions is an inalienable human right to which all workers are entitled, but the struggle for inclusion in the legally-protected labor force must also be part of a struggle against all forms of exclusion.
4. The exclusion of one is a threat to all.

These explosive points of unity, at least as I was able to discern them from the prevalent discourse at the congress, are enough to catapult a new labor movement into political territory as radical as occupied by the Industrial Workers of the World. They propose a struggle not only against capital, but against all forms of alienation. The spirit of the IWW’s version of the “Internationale” could be theirs as well:

No more tradition’s chains shall bind us
Arise, ye slaves! No more in thrall!
The earth shall stand on new foundations
We have been naught -- We shall be All!

P.S. (in the style of el Subcommandante Marcos)
The alliance of the Excluded Workers’ Congress with the factory occupation movement

Following the Excluded Workers Congress, there was an international meeting of the factory occupation movement, attended and facilitated by union leaders from the US, Mexico, France and India. Attended by many participants of the Excluded Workers Congress, this meeting brought the best of the old labor movement together with the first waves of the new. A domestic worker who had lead a political campaign for legal rights argued in simple terms for a national appropriation of the means of production by the working class. A union leader from India offered important advice on the steps that need to be taken in advance to ensure the long-term viability of an appropriated enterprise. A US factory worker who had helped lead a plant occupation called for a general strike in support of radical immigration reform. In this international, interracial, intergenerational and inter-organizational meeting, the dead weight of the past seemed to fall away. History was not transcended, it was seized. The barriers that have divided these movements for generations, and the constraints that have narrowed the horizons of their politics for centuries, receded before the power of their alliance. I think everyone was equally radicalized and inspired by each other.

Such reunions are so fleeting in duration, but may reverberate very far, if we call attention to their significance and actively and collectively reflect on them. One of the great political failures of the last four decades has been the failure to connect the labor movement with the new social movements, particularly those that emerged in the 1960s. In Detroit this summer, some of these bridges were crossed. It will be important for these groups to meet again, not only in the context of a larger forum, but on their own terms and soil. First to reiterate and formalize both the conditions of their unity and struggle, and secondly to begin the serious debates and the political process of setting a course of action, for the country and the world. There is not a moment to lose.

Cracks in the walls of exclusion
A security officer from the Transportation Security Authority took the floor at the Excluded Workers Congress, not to threaten or cajole, but to humbly explain his plight. The Transportation Security Authority was mandated after September 11th, 2001 by the Bush administration in the advent of the War on Terror, to renovate and reinvigorate the nation’s security against the risk of terrorism. The formation of the TSA stripped 45,000 security officers throughout the United States of the right to unionize. Collective bargaining was overruled as a potential threat to national security. And so it came to be that the apparatus designed specifically to enforce the division between included and excluded forced its own employees into alliance with the excluded.

The security apparatus is devouring itself, making enemies of its own defenders. As William Blake foretold centuries ago, “A dog starved at his master’s gate / Predicts the ruin of the State.” That fact that a TSA officer was at the US Social Forum to ask for help and solidarity is a sign from both above and below that crisis is really upon us. He explained that he had to have his speech approved by the entire Homeland Security bureaucracy in order to obtain permission to attend the Congress. But I don’t think he was reading from it. He was speaking from his heart, and his experience is clearly not an isolated case. The centurions of empire are pleading with the barbarians outside the gates for help.

Justice vs. Capital
I talked at length with a warehouse worker from Illinois who had worked as a temp for six years in Chicago’s massive logistics and distribution industry. When I asked him the long term goal of his organization Warehouse Workers for Justice (, he responded, among other things, “a permanent job.” For such a dream, hundreds of workers moved from the United States to the USSR in the early 1900s. Those workers neither expected nor found a perfect world in Russia, but they understood that there were no permanent jobs in a capitalist economy. They had been ruthlessly taught that crisis and a reserve army of excluded workers are a permanent characteristic of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, this warehouse worker and his organization will not be satisfied with anything less than stable, living-wage jobs with benefits. They will not settle for less, and will indeed struggle for more. They are building power in the heart of this nation’s supply chain -- the third largest container port in the world. While these workers make the just-in-time world economy flow smoothly, running the distribution hub for the majority of all commodities bought and sold in North America, they endure terrible treatment -- low pay, no security, no benefits, racial and sexual discrimination and no rights to organize. The struggle of these warehouse workers for the justice that is due to them will put them up against some of the biggest most powerful representatives of capital in the world, who rely on the submission of these warehouse workers for the stability of their bottom line. These workers will learn in their struggle that the cause of justice is irreconcilable with the cause of capital. And with their hands on the levers of the global economy, their demands for the dignity they deserve may very well shake it.

Whose Social Forum?

On my way back from the Social Forum I had the time to begin to read through some of the literature I had picked up in my time there. As I learned more about the history and current events of the city of Detroit, an unsettling perspective weighed in heavily upon my high-flown reflections from the Forum. Somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand people attended the Social Forum this summer, an impressive number, unmatched by any other kind of political convention in the recent history of the United States. But whose Social Forum was it? At the end of 2009, 50 thousand people, not from abroad, but Detroit residents, filled the Cobo Convention Center, where the Forum was based half a year later. They were not there for revolution but for housing assistance. That these people in need were not more integrated into the vision of the Social Forum or even in attendance, represents a major problem not only for the Social Forum but for the left as a whole, which seems perennially isolated from those most in need of an alternative. The future of the Social Forum, not only in the United States but internationally, will depend on the understanding of this problem and the strategy to resolve it.

1 El Desafio del Foro Social, by Francisco Chico Whitaker, Loyola, Sao Paolo, Brazil, 2005
2 See in particular The Untold Story of Detroit’s Collapse, How the U.S. Press Helped Destroy the Auto Industry, by Eamonn Fingleton, Counterpunch, May 2009
3 Clawson, Dan. The Next Upsurge, Labor and new social movements. Ithaca and London: ILR Press, 2003
4 Zizek, Slavoj. First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, London and New York: Verso, 2009

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Lately I have been passing through Times Square on a regular basis, which has prompted me to reflect on the title of this blog and its meaning in our world today.

The screen has eclipsed our society more than we tend to realize. The screen is both the skin and the skeleton of our times; it is not only what we are perceived through and what we perceive each other through, but it has become part of the central infrastructure of our era. The screen itself has become the culture and the territory within which and through which we live and learn. As both means of communication and production, the screen plays a pivotal if seemingly passive role in the local and global status quo. Like money and the commodity form, the screen mediates all of social and economic life, representing anything and everything, a vehicle for all existing symbols, connecting and dividing us in ways that abound in metaphysical subtleties. All the time screens are reaching deeper into our lives -- on the streets, in our homes and our pockets, in our work-places and in our classrooms, in our desires and our fears, in our ideologies and in our subconscious. Like all technology, the screen expresses the psycho-social-economic condition of the world which has created it. But the screen also has unique dimensions, which have immediate and long-term consequences.

The pedagogy of the screen. There is a pedagogy of the screen which pervades our society and in particular ways controls the way in which it understands itself. The pedagogy of the screen is not limited or confined to those who uncritically embrace it, but includes the work of those who resist messages that the screen often displays. It is possible to fight your boss without understanding capitalism. Similarly, in struggling against what is on the screen, it is possible to miss the qualities of the screen itself. The pedagogy of the screen has certain characteristics and implicit imperatives which we can identify. They are all on display, not only in Times Square, but all over the world.

To plumb the depths of the superficial : To interrogate the image; to shore up its deepest dimensions and ambiguities, to engage in profound abstraction, but without departing from the superficial.

To disguise perspective as depth : The screen enables expression to explore new terrain, it allows us to see from a multiplicity of angles hitherto unimagined. The panoply of perspectives the screen makes possible could even be theorized as democratic or revolutionary, but its results as a pedagogy do not confirm this. Perspective alone is not profound; more often, meaning and purpose are lost and forgotten in the abundance and velocity of angles and frames.

To privilege the artificial over the tangible : The screen has somehow inherited the philosophy of Plato, who insisted that the tangible world is less real than the ideal world. Not only through advertisement but equally through news, shows and movies, we learn through the screen to yearn for what we do not have and to forget what has already been given us. Simultaneously,

To deify the distant at the expense of the present : To value what is far away and to discount what is near. Or, in different terms, to invert the reality of the immediate: Once what was urgent was defined by proximity and/or intimate relation to our own lives. The cumulative effect of the screen is to make the experience of immediacy in our lives ever more conditioned by realities ever more distant from our own.

To seek empowerment through the analysis of disempowerment? We may critically analyze our screens using psychoanalysis, political economy, feminism, and more, and pry into the depths of manipulation and power that the screens display. Many are working to mobilize this knowledge to challenge this power and manipulation. It is important but tricky work. This kind of knowledge has peculiar properties, listed above and below, of which we must beware. Knowledge must be dynamic, but more often than not the knowledge of media power is inert, relatively powerless upon the terrain of its enemies. Students of the media must risk becoming too invested in the infrastructure and world-view of the screen to challenge it fundamentally.

To disguise or muddle the difference between entertainment and research : Media studies, as an academic discipline or, more widely, as a personal hobby exercised by billions, usually makes no clear practical or theoretical distinction between entertainment and research. We can critically analyze advertisements and music videos, but we are still consuming advertisements and music videos.

To do the same for the difference between surrender and resistance : Just as the line between consumption and research is blurred, so the line between surrender and resistance is lost in revolutionary analysis of an oppressive screen. No matter what our politics are, when we are surfing the web or flipping through channels, we are collaborators.

To unite knowledge and inaction, both mental and physical : The pedagogy of the screen requires that we be still and silent. While armchair philosophy has been with us since time immemorial, the screen has taken us to a new level, which we might call La-Z-Boy philosophy. The act of reading, while presupposing physical inaction, at least requires and engages the imagination of the reader. The screen, on the other hand, substitutes for imagination. This is not hyperbole; the brain-wave patterns of a person watching TV is very similar to a sleeping person. The screen unites education and consumption, knowledge and passivity. Ultimately this leads to the final deadly imperative of the screen:

To paralyze praxis : The crucial bridge between theory and practice, mediated by the screen, paralyzes their unity as praxis. The paralysis or immobilization of praxis is the most frightening aspect of the pedagogy of the screen, with implications that stretch into the distant horizon of human evolution.

The title of this blog is not intended to be ironic. I hope it is obvious that this is not a call for the random destruction of technology. After all, your screen allows you to read this indictment of it. This blog and these words are only available online and through screens, so this indictment must also be of itself, and of myself. Nothing on a screen is innocent. But the individual screen does not represent the world of the screen any more than the individual private property owner represents capitalism. The screen is more than the sum of its [toxic] parts; it is also an outlook, a weltanschauung, a discipline, a pedagogy, a status quo. This blog is a call to smash the world-view, even as we are living and breathing it, to seize the depth and immediacy and reality of life, to reclaim the territory and cultures that have been colonized by the screen. This is a call to cut out the screen as the ultimate middle-man of both economy and consciousness, to free our minds so our asses can follow.


>From One Man’s Meat, “Removal [July 1938]”

by E.B. White

“Lately I haven’t had time to read the papers, as I have been building a
mouseproof closet against a rain of mice.  But sometimes, kindling a fire with
last week’s Gazette, I glance through the pages and catch up a little with the
times.  I see that a mother is ready to jump from a plane six miles above the
World of Tomorrow, that a sailor has read Anthony Adverse standing up, and that
Orson Welles (or was it Booth) sighs for the waning theatre.

The news of television, however, is what I particularly go far when I get a
chance at the paper, for I believe television is going to be the test of the
modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our
vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general
peace or a saving radiance in the sky.  We shall stand or fall by the 
television—of that I am quite sure.


It must have been two years ago that I attended a television demonstration at
which it was shown beyond reasonable doubt that a person sitting in one room
could observe the nonsense taking place in another.  I recall being more amused
by what was happening in the tangible room where I sat than by what appeared in
the peephole of science.  The images were plain enough, however, and by paying
attention I could see the whites of a pretty woman’s eyes.  Since then I have
followed the television news closely.


Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things
that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the
angel of God.  Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound 
“effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by the sound itself.  Television
 will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the
Elsewhere.  Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist 
that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the
remote.  More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, 
images—distant and concocted.  In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and
 television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door
closing, heard over the air; a face contorted; seen in a panel of light—these
will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell
or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice.  I like to
dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe, McCarthy
corporeal and Bergen stuffed, when all is reversed and we shall be like the
insane, to whom the antics of the sane seem like the crazy twistings of a grig.


When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy;
today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings,
and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

(Thanks to Andrew for this quote)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Reflections on the Primer Colloquio Internacional In Memoriam Andres Aubry: Planeta Tierra: Movimientos Antisistemicos

Convoked by the Zapatistas at CIDECI - Universidad de la Tierra, Chiapas, Mexico, December 13-17, 2007
by Quincy Saul


In December of 2007, I traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas, a city in the Southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. I joined hundreds of others; locals and internationals, young and old, academics and vagabonds, to attend a gathering in memory of the late Andres Aubry.

In the pages that follow, I will first introduce the geography and social context of the event and the man it honored: Planet Earth, Andres Aubry, Antisystemic Movements. I will use this stage as an opportunity to reflect on the role of intellectuals in social movements and in the social and political reality of the present day.

Drawing directly from the discourse of the week and on my own understanding and knowledge, I will then pose some of the principal problems and antagonisms present in the world today. Finally, I will outline some of the ideas, theories, analyses and strategies of resistance and struggle that are especially relevant to our historical moment.

These reflections are unconventional. I have constructed narratives and transitions freely and creatively, sometimes quoting directly, other times paraphrasing. Throughout I have been guided not by academic professionalism but by the force of the ideas themselves, and by the urgency which frames our times. Outright errors I am happy to acknowledge as my own, but insights, I hope, can be shared by all. All translations from Spanish are mine.


We arrived at the conference along a rutted dirt road which scraped the underside of the taxi as we entered the neighborhood of Esperanza, on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas. Houses built of cinderblock, concrete and corrugated tin line streets occasionally blocked off with barbed wire. Men and women carrying heavy bundles and children standing in doorways watch us pass slowly through the potholed streets on the border of the mountains rising out of the city.

As we continued along the road, initial uncertainty about our route and destination gradually gives way to hope and excitement. The other intellectuals, the ones we’ve come to hear, the intellectuals from and of below, will not be found in the glossy centerfolds of the metropolis, hiding behind glass doors and podiums. They will be, if they are genuine, with the people, responding to their desires and concerns, studying and articulating their struggles as participants, not as outsiders, not as academics representative of academia, but as comrades, as compañeros.


Andres Aubry was undoubtedly such an intellectual. Born and raised in France, Aubry eventually traveled and lived throughout Latin America for most of his life. He settled in San Cristobal de las Casas and became one of the principal advocates and defenders of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. In 1974, Aubry helped organize the Chiapas Indigenous Conference2, where the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolobal and Chol peoples gathered to discuss their common issues. Aubry coordinated a team of translators who published these testimonies for the first time in the book K’alal ich’ay mosoal, Cuando Dejamos de Ser Aplastados (“When we are no longer crushed”). Aubry continued to work with the indigenous organizations when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) became known to the world with their uprising in 1994. Author, historian, sociologist and geographer, Aubry also remains one of the most eloquent, uncompromising and outspoken critics of the dominant academic class and its perverse application of the social sciences as instruments of power and exploitation. His final book is titled: Chiapas Against the Grain, An Agenda of Work for its History in a Systemic Perspective. He died tragically in a car accident in September of 2007. This conference, the staging point for a convergence of “antisystemic” activists and intellectuals from around the world, was organized in Aubry’s honor. It was held at the Indigenous Center for Integral Training (Centro Indígena de Capacitación Integral -- CIDECI), a small university on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas with an emphasis on indigenous pedagogy and community empowerment. This “university without shoes”, run by and for indigenous people, really deserves the attention of a few papers all by itself, and it was an extra honor to experience these meaningful days in such an inspired setting.


Perhaps it is not even desirable to define “antisystemic movements”. This is especially the case because the tradition that is referred to as “antisystemic” is very often qualified more by the rejection and critique of tradition than by consistent traditions of its own. Immanuel Wallerstein, a pioneer of “world-systems” analysis and a participant in the colloquium, loosely defines antisystemic movements as those that are neither “liberal” nor “conservative”; movements consisting of “radicals” who demand and organize to bring about a complete change of the social and economic system, as opposed to specific changes or reforms within that system.

Throughout the five days of the conference, people from all over the world gathered to listen to over a dozen intellectuals reflect on the legacy of Andres Aubry, on the theoretical and strategic imperatives of antisystemic movements, and on the past, present and future of planet Earth.

But the colloquium was more than just a platform for intellectuals, more than just a fashion show for academics to show off their scholastic stylishness. As Jorge Alonso said, convergences in themselves are instruments to dynamize actors and change. In crowded rooms of eager faces and excited conversations between strangers, you realize that there are more comrades in the convergence than in your own community. The big names might steal the show, but meanwhile a network of connections grows in the crowd, antisystemic alliances weave through and around local and international borders, and really, everyone is at center stage of a revolutionary moment.


“The mirror,” according to the Mayan calendar, “is the best sword of truth”; it will help us cut to the roots that which we don’t need and it will multiply that which we desire. By re-articulating ideas and arguments, by reflecting both upon ourselves and towards the outside world the thoughts and feelings that found expression throughout that week, we can further vivify the moment and amplify its energy into the future. By reflecting we breathe life into that which we reflect, into ourselves, and into that which we reflect upon.

From Marx to Marcos

“Mexican dramas are so wrapped up in the picturesque that one lives stunned by allegory -- allegory that distances itself more and more from the essential throbbing of life, from the bloody skeleton. Philosophers become euphemistic, launched into existential disquisitions that seem foolish next to the volcano. Civil action is intermittent and difficult. Submission adopts diverse aspects and stratifies itself around the throne. But every kind of magic is always appearing and reappearing in Mexico...”
Pablo Neruda, Confieso Que He Vivido, 1974

Over thirty years ago, Neruda described with poetic precision the living paradox of the intellectual tradition in Mexico. It is not a tradition unique to Mexico. Intellectual history has always suffered from estrangement and division, and yet also shown a capacity for flashes of grounded compassion and insight. For centuries and even millennia, theoretical work can still be generally divided between that which reinforces and appeals to the dominant groups, structures and systems of the times, and that which speaks towards alternatives and towards oppressed or excluded groups. This second tradition has its most foundational intellectual celebrity in Karl Marx.

Millions of pages have been filled reflecting on Marx’s ideas and influence across the disciplines of economics, politics and culture. The Pakistani intellectual and longtime activist Eqbal Ahmad gives an excellent summary of Marx’s immense contribution:

“First, Marx focused our attention on the poor and the working class. Second, Marx and Frederick Engels rather brilliantly warned of and chalked out the exploitative oppressive patterns of capitalist development and the workings of the capitalist system... Finally, the biggest achievement of Marx and Marxism may have been to offer us the methodology of analyzing social and historical realities. I do not think that anyone has so far come up with a substitute for historical materialism as an explanation for the turns of history, the processes of history. Nor has anyone elaborated the idea of dialectics into a methodological system in the way that Marx and Marxism did. These are not mean achievements. These are high achievements, and were made within the context of focusing the minds of the educated class, or at least a certain sector of it, on people other than themselves -- the poor, the working class, the oppressed, the weak, even the distant ones. This had never happened before. The history of humanity is replete with the rejection of the Other. It is replete with callousness toward the Other, toward the habit of and traditions of and the intellectual outlook of that which is not you or not yours. Marx and Marxism focused the intelligentsia’s attention in a positive way on the Other, the poor, the weak. And at least a section of the intellectual class, the intelligentsia as a whole, students, others, saw it as their moral and intellectual responsibility to comprehend reality in order to change it, to make the world better for all and not for themselves only. I don’t think there had ever been such a class in history before... To the extent that these existed before Marx, to the extent that they existed at all, they were associated with the religious person. This was the first time you saw secular intellect focus on issues of the common good.3

Since Marx, thousands of others across every continent have carried on this intellectual tradition in the service of the Other. If Marx, both as a theoretician and a revolutionary, represented for many the antisystemic resistance of the 1900s, so Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos, as spokesperson for the EZLN, in many ways represents today’s praxis of resistance to systems of oppression and exploitation that have developed since the times of Marx. While Marx’s theories are still indispensable to understand the world today, new developments have necessitated some new ideas and new voices. This gathering at a barefoot university, living testament to 500 years of indigenous resistance and second home to a global network of revolutionaries, became a theater of antisystemic theory, and a celebration of its tradition.

In the economic and social verticalization that has resulted from our particularly neoliberal era, “geography has been simplified,” explained Mexican intellectual and activist Sergio Rodriguez Loscano: now, “there is an above and a below.” This metaphor, this geography of above and below, will help us throughout the reflection in analyzing the developments and trends of both concepts and events. The role of intellectuals in the world system has not escaped this vertical split. Quite the contrary. “Up above,” Marcos writes, “all respected theory must fulfill a double function: on one hand: displace responsibility with an argument, and, on the other, hide reality, which is to say, guarantee impunity”. Examples are not lacking of theory in the service of such power.

Theorizing away in the enclaves of academia, the intellectuals of above live and work in literal and conceptual isolation from the world they interpret. Their work is necessarily allegorical, of little relevance to the bleeding skeletons of a reality replete with injustice. The doctorates pile up, at best incidental to the volcanoes that burn and bury history. “[U]p above,” Marcos continued in his indictment,

theoretical production has become nothing more than a fashion that one thinks, sees, smells, tastes, touches, listens and feels in the spaces of the academy, laboratories and specialized institutes... theory becomes a vogue that has in theses, conferences, special journals and books, a substitute for fashion magazines. The colloquiums fill the place of fashion shows, and there the rapporteurs do the same as the models on the runway, that is, they exhibit their anorexia, in this case, their intellectual thinness.

But to think the theory of above weak or irrelevant is a mistake. Theory exercises incredible power and is in fact an essential aspect of power itself. As Edward Said reminded us in The Question of Palestine,

If we have become accustomed to making fastidious distinctions between ideology (or theory) and practice, we shall be more accurate historically if we do not do so glibly in the case of the European imperialism that actually annexed most of the world during the nineteenth century.4

As theory has been developed for pure power, so today is it developed for pure profit. Theory has been used to streamline and legitimize the exploitation (both calculated and accidental) that is endemic to the capitalist world system. “If the new paradigm is the market,” Marcos writes,

and the idyllic image of modernity is the mall or the commercial center, we then imagine a succession of shelves full of ideas, or better still, a department store with theories for every occasion. It will not be hard to imagine the big capitalist or governor browsing the aisles, comparing prices and qualities of different thoughts, acquiring those that best adapt to their necessities... It is here where the distance between theory and reality not only becomes an abyss, but we are presented with the sad spectacle of self-described social scientists throwing themselves with singular happiness into conceptual emptiness.

Throughout the colloquium, several different specific examples of this kind of intellectual opportunism and conceptual emptiness were given. One example given by Peter Rosset was what he called ‘false environmentalism’. This is a relevant subject for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Only one example: Huitepec, a wilderness area outside of San Cristobal, and visible from the roofs of its buildings, has since the uprising become a contested space between developers, the government, and the indigenous people who have cultivated its outskirts for generations. In recent years, the developers have employed the ideology of false environmentalism in an attempt to wrest control of this area from its indigenous inhabitants. This false environmentalism, Rosset contended, establishes national parks to legitimize dispossession. I visited and spoke with some of the Zapatistas in Huitepec. “They say that we don’t know how to conserve the land,” one told us, “but our ancestors have been living here for generations.” The masked farmers proudly shared with us the beauty of the lush cloud forest that bordered their high pastures, and a small but potent understanding of their humble, mighty and precarious struggle.

Another theory that several of the speakers condemned, at least as far as it has been popularized, is postmodernism. There is “no more perfect ideology for control,” Francois Houtart said: “[R]adical postmodernism... reduces history to the immediate, puts the individual at the center of the cosmos, is a totalitarianism of thought and action... [There is] nothing better for capitalism than an analysis that negates systems and structures.” While the promise of postmodernism has been to take us beyond the exclusionary mire of modernity, this has not been delivered in praxis. Postmodernism instead confuses and undermines the conceptual basis for challenging modernity, while the concrete political and economic systems which are its engines have only grown in breadth and complexity.

Theory has been deployed also in the wake of recent floods, earthquakes, tidal waves and hurricanes. Marcos discerned that “in the middle of catastrophes we can measure the stature of politicians and analysts.” So-called ‘natural catastrophes’ have become a very fashionable these days, he continued. By constructing theories which place the blame for tragedy entirely onto nature, slews of experts are deployed to hide the very real human participation in these catastrophes, before, during and after their occurrence. If a disaster is natural, it is also neutral, enabling any power broker to make use of it -- or even commodify it. In Tabasco, Mexico, shortly before the colloquium, in response to a recent flood, some Mexican political parties sent relief supplies covered with their party propaganda. After an earthquake in Peru, Naomi Klein told us, the transnational corporation Aramark set up refugee camps on government contracts, which had McDonalds franchises inside them.

A final theoretical framework which, like faux-environmentalism and postmodernism, arose as a challenge to systemic problems, but has failed to deliver its promises, is multiculturalism. The logic of multiculturalism, Gilberto Valdes said, results in everyone divided into separate groups. The immense cultural challenge to systemic hegemony is undermined and co-opted by an ideology that is self-divisive. Multiculturalism makes a fetish of separatism and in doing so severely limits the possibility of diversity’s fullest realization. Unity is forgotten and forgone in the pursuit of prioritizing difference. The malaise of multiculturalism is challenged and overcome by the Zapatista maxim: “We are equal because we are different”.

Such theories, while they receive little analysis and less condemnation, are probably as old as power itself. Pablo Gonzalez Cassanova warned against the intellectual tradition of “falling into ambiguities”; foolishly wrapping oneself up in the picturesque and existential. I am reminded of Nietzsche’s lamentation of explanations that “are considered deep. In reality they are not even superficial.”

But the shallowness of ideologies, as Said reminded us, should not lead us to underestimate their pervasive influence. They are deeply embedded in the whole imperial enterprise responsible for what has come to be known as “globalization”. Marcos emphasized that they can be traced and mapped geographically: “[T]hese theories and practices from the center extend out to the peripheries, not only affecting the thoughts and practices in these corners but above all, imposing themselves as truth and models to follow.” Just as the imperial centers mandate a certain regime of political and economic reality, so they enforce an intellectual paradigm that legitimizes their interests.

Yet while the role of intellectuals in a history of social struggle has been often both shameful and shameless, there are exceptions. Every kind of magic appears and reappears. “Fortunately,” Marcos put it, “not all progressive thought is well behaved.” For a week in the South of Mexico, a thousand eager eyes and ears bore witness to a culmination of this counter-history in intellectual tradition. “To act and think from below has always been my theme,” said Enrique Dussel, “I don’t want to talk as an academic but as a militant.” Dussell joined a formidable cohort of antisystemic intellectuals from Mexico and around the world: Immanuel Wallerstein, Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, Sylvia Marcos, Gustavo Esteva, Gilberto Valdes, Jorge Alonso, Ricardo Gebrim, Francois Houtart, Peter Rosset, Sergio Rodriguez Loscano, John Berger, Jean Robert, Naomi Klein, Pablo Gonzalez Cassanova, Jerome Baschet, Jorge Santiago and Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos of the EZLN.

What form might such a counter-history take? What roles can or should intellectuals play in these movements? This conference presented an unparalleled platform to reflect on these questions. Navigating upstream “[w]ith the paddles of critique and honesty,” Marcos recommended, “these thinkers of the left must question the avalanche of evidence that, with the disguise of science, bury reality.”

In pursuing this challenge it is essential that intellectuals abandon their extractive and intervening methodologies and turn their efforts towards more solidaritous and collaborative practices, in the service and defense of the people. “I’ve heard that intellectuals used to inspire revolutions and social movements just by thinking them,” Naomi Klein remarked. “Maybe it was a rumor. In any case, today it’s just the opposite: Social movements inspire intellectuals.” Klein was adamant in denouncing all “armchair critics”: “No spectators allowed!”

And perhaps most importantly, Marcos insisted, “we have to find a way of tying theory together with love, music and dance.” Armed with art and rhythm, another kind of theory, expressed by another kind of intellectual, will march boldly into the brittle laboratories of academia, overturning every armchair and shaming every spectator. In the last speech he gave before his death, Andres Aubry invoked such a vision: “[T]his dream opens to our profession a space of struggle to transform the University, do away with the academic class and its bureaucracy, and take back from their ivory towers our centers of investigation.”

Aubry’s vision continues to guide us. In the struggle for this future that will span many generations, while we insist and persist in vigorous theoretical work to unmask systems, ideologies and institutions of oppression, we must remember to never neglect our humanity. We cannot afford to divest our abstract theoretical work of its emotional content. “Analysis without emotion,” Houtart warned, “leads to cynicism”. It is with all these imperatives in mind that we proceed in our reflections. On behalf of the all the Zapatistas, Marcos addressed everyone in attendance with an entreaty to understand the weight of our own roles and responsibilities: “Your gaze, social scientists, intellectuals, theorists, analysts, artists, is a window so that others can see us. Often they are not conscious that this window is showing only a small part of the grand house of Zapatismo, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let them know that they’re seeing through your window.” Hopefully this can be both a window and a mirror. Hopefully some of these ideas think back at you. Hopefully you remain wary, because as Doña Rosita, the woman who managed the hostel where I was staying, and who shared some of her wisdom with me over breakfast, warned: “sometimes the most intelligent people make the biggest mistakes.”

Problems and Strategies

“Before every theory we must touch the ground” - Jean Robert

Look into the most violent and brutal chasms of our world, and there you will find theory, explaining it all as not only benevolent but inevitable. The human ability to theoretically and conceptually justify violence and brutality stems from our capacity for abstraction. Our ability to think and organize ourselves in and around the abstract is a source of enormous power but it always carries with it an enormous danger.

The abstract is uniquely seductive -- it promises a purity that is impossible on the ground. But when political ideology or praxis forget or intentionally abandon the ground, then abstraction becomes alienation. The idea of purity becomes an excuse for the ideology of power and soon enough for the discipline of death. Floating high above the living landscapes from which they emerged, with eyes searching only upwards, theories and ideologies become oblivious of the shadows they cast. By then, all bets are off; goodness and truth can justify lies and hate with no great difficulty.

For these reasons, it is essential that before every theory we touch the ground. We must refuse any point of departure other than the soil of struggle beneath our feet. Change will stretch and reach for ideas, but it will only grow from the earth. “If you look over the wise and the great and the useful,” wrote Luther Burbank, “you will find them down close to the ground.”

Theories become interesting, continued Jean Robert, only when they hit against reality, and come up against their own contradictions. Theories that can exist only in their own language, that are consistent only with themselves, are not only boring, not only useless, but dangerous. They are no longer theories but dogmas. “The image of the aseptic laboratory,” said Marcos, “is not limited to the ‘natural sciences’ or to the ‘exact sciences’, no. In the recent neoliberal era of the world system, this obsession for anti-reality hygiene has also arrived more than ever at the so-called “social sciences”. To rescue social theory from the clutches of dogma we must restore the ground beneath it, and give weight to the abstractions that would carry us away. For example, Salvador Allende touched the ground of the labor theory of value when he said “You don’t have to be an engineer or an architect to know how much a house costs. You have to carry the bricks and mix the cement.”

What is the ground of the world-system theories? Jean Robert asks. Many answers: Dignity, subsistence, language, conatus.5 The ground is the real local struggle against the global system of exploitation. It is not grandiose, not spectacular and not fashionable. “We’re not interested in monuments, museums, honors and prizes,” said Marcos. “We want to be able to wake up in the morning without fear on the agenda.”

The ground beneath the antisystemic struggle is the ground itself, visibly shattered and divided. As Enrique Dussel quips, it is not the same to be born in Chiapas and on Wall Street. The world-system is very real; it has objective parameters and trajectories that exist geographically and temporally. A few are blessed at the expense of the rest, who are damned, and as a result of this fragmentation everyone is condemned to a world without meaning. “We can’t hide from capitalism with a subjective decision,” said Sergio Rodriguez Loscano. On the ground, the abstract coagulates. At the end of the calendar, the antisystemic struggle is a war for the land.

The search for the ground is the struggle for meaning is the war for the land. And none know the land better than those who work it. “If anyone wants to know how the reactionary ultra-right really thinks and acts,” Marcos suggested, “chat with a Chiapan farmer.” He continued to address himself to one of the panelists who he felt was falling into ambiguities: “We’re not talking about people who have differences of strategy or tactics, or conceptions of reform or revolution. We’re talking about our persecutors, our assassins, our executioners.”

Only from the ground, literally and figuratively, can we see honestly the horrors of this world. In the horror first we must first learn to recognize and understand the systems. Then we can conceive of strategies to overthrow and replace them.


Whether we are searching to understand a problem or trying to solve it, understanding must come first. Unfortunately, intellectuals (the experts of understanding) are often in the way. There is many a theory twixt us and our liberation.

One of our greatest challenges is to understand. In the societies of the capitalist world-system, we suffer, said Pablo Gonzales Cassanova, from “prohibited thought”: “The inquisition doesn’t exist anymore, but many means still exist to prohibit thought. Sometimes they are very subtle.” In societies where certain kinds of thought are prohibited, as individuals and as organizations we can easily become like Hamlet’s “fools of nature”: When radical thought emerges, we will do our utmost to stifle it because it threatens the very foundations of our social system. We will think it horrid “to shake our disposition / With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.”6

Societies and cultures of prohibited thought rely on systemic lies to prevent widespread understanding. One example of a systemic lie, continued Cassanova, is the salary. The lie is that a paycheck is a fair trade for the appropriation of labor time and the surplus value it creates, that there is no exploitation in the labor market but only an exchange of equivalents. Systemic lies weave the fabric of our powerlessness, controlling us by prohibiting the thought with which to understand our oppression. They are present and perpetuated at every level, from the family to the firm to the super-national organization.

The discourse that systemic lies produce can be recognized by its aversion to understanding causation. News is not necessarily withheld -- on the contrary! In societies of systemic lies we are bombarded with huge quantities of information. Problems are analyzed in painstaking detail. But the real protagonist, the cause of the problem, is well buried. War, murder, famine, disaster; mainstream media does not hide these from us. But they do not explain them. In societies of systemic lies, “they speak of poverty,” said Gilberto Valdes, “but not of impoverishment.”

The thought that the powerful ‘fools of nature’ seek above all to prohibit is simple: That the cause of our problems is systemic. Because if this is understood, the demand for the complete dissolution of the system which privileges them will inevitably surface.

The system, which every day annexes more of the world into its monoculture, has many names and faces. “Sometimes there was brutality, sometimes there wasn’t,” wrote Edward Ball, “but the whole system turned on violence.” The system is most commonly called capitalism. Capitalism is a system that strives ever towards the subordination of all social relations to the logic of the profiteer. “No human today escapes the law of value,” said Francois Houtart: “Capitalism is civilized when it must, and savage when it can.” In our era of ecological endgame, its latest and most violent face is called neoliberalism.

The capitalist system runs on four wheels, explained Loscano: exploitation, repression, dispossession and contempt. Together they make up what has become “the single channel of neoliberalism.” (Valdes) The neoliberal world-system, Loscano continued, is “the new tower of Babel.” Its bricks are bone, its cement is blood, and its architecture is war. (Marcos) Paradoxically, the economies and societies of the new Babel are hollow: “Agriculture without farmers, fishing without fishermen, food without nutrition,” listed Peter Rosset. These are the products of the neoliberal war against life and meaning.

War is a perennial in the botany of the capitalism. “The concept of war in theoretical antsystemic analysis,” said Marcos, “can help to solidify ground that is still swampy.” Capitalism is a war against subsistence (Robert) and finally against humanity. (Marcos) War now is no longer politics by other means; politics is war other means, explained Loscano. And its latest face is corporate. Halliburton operates in 124 countries. The war in Iraq is not about liberation, we are reminded: it’s just business.

Operation Iraqi Freedom is not the latest chapter in the old book of empire written by kings, but the latest chapter of an attempt at a different empire written by businessmen. The war in Iraq, Naomi Klein said, is “a radical experiment in corporate rule.” Halliburton, et. al. are picking up in the Middle East where the East India Company left off in South Asia. Marcos, elaborating on Naomi Klein’s contribution, said: “One would suppose that capital needs peace and tranquility to develop. Perhaps it did before, I don’t know, but we see now that it needs war. Because of this, peace is anti-capitalist.”

War does not always arrive with armies and weapons. Loscano spoke of “the other bombs”. The other bombs are financial, and their tactical formation is speculative. Overnight they can “make [an] economy scream”, as Richard Nixon advised the engineering of financial crisis in Chile by the CIA. Accompanying the financial bombs, comes what Cassanova called “the Midas touch of privatization.” Everything touched by capital becomes capital. “Where it walks,” Marcos said,”the grass does not return to grow.” Universities are a recent addition to the private gallery.

According to Naomi Klein, the logic of privatization has evolved into a new dimension. If we think of the state as an octopus, she explained, the first wave of privatization consists of cutting off the arms and selling them to corporations, leaving only the core (army, police, firefighters, etc). When these core state functions become privatized, as is now happening, it is not just another privatization; it is the dawn of a new hegemony and also the next chapter in local and global struggles for sovereignty.

One particularly serious consequence of the violence of the neoliberal world-system is a global migration of unprecedented magnitudes. Immigration today has truly biblical proportions. There are 65 million recent immigrants in Europe alone. The human cost of this mass migration is enormous. “The Mediterranean has become a mass grave of African youth,” I heard Silvia Federici say in a lecture at the University of Massachusetts. Immigration, explained Loscano, serves a triple function for capital: Firstly, it provides cheap labor for the metropolis. (The immigrant community is a global reserve army of labor.) Secondly, the remittances sent home by immigrants allow markets for commodities from the metropolis to grow in impoverished areas. Thirdly, there is “savage urbanization”: the countryside is emptied and the land left behind can be appropriated and privatized with ease. These are the faces of the new international division of labor, the “end of history” promised by the ideologues of profit that our age is heir to.

“Neoliberal globalization has hidden the face of the exploiters,” said Jorge Alonso. Ever more complex, diffuse, speculative and decentralized, exploitation in the neoliberal era has become more difficult to target, more difficult to resist. No one person or group is in charge of the horror; the beaters and the beaten are all caught together in a cyclone of necessity that forces them to perpetuate their antagonism. Individuals are guilty, but not responsible. The real culprit for our problems is the system in which we are trapped. “Revise now,” Marcos recommended, “in detail, every one of the distinct destructions that the planet suffers, and you will see how capital appears there, benefitting.”

And not only capital, but also our failures to overcome it must be confronted. These too continue to pose considerable obstacles. Houtart cautioned that the “socialism of the twentieth century learned to walk on the feet of capitalism”. The many shortcomings of so-called socialist countries to deliver socialist promises cannot be ignored or excused.

Enrique Dussell sounded a warning against the fetishization of power, a recurring theme in the sad annals of revolutionary leadership. We must also be wary of the fetish for industry: Jean Robert cautioned that “the excess of mechanical energy in a society is a violence that paralyzes creativity,” that it glorifies “a will of alienation”. We must learn from these historic problems if we wish to build a socialism of the twenty first century worthy of the title.

Fear is the final problem. It stands before and behind all our needs and dreams. Fear offers no ultimatum. It must be overcome or surrendered to. Until we are without fear we are never free. Don Antonio, grandfather to all Zapatistas, told Marcos that “liberty is when we’re not afraid”.

Half or more of this colloquio explained and elaborated such problems. They are immense, precise, unprecedented, intimate, alien, imminent and incredibly dangerous. The odds are against us, against those of us who want and need a world without fear or exploitation, a world where many worlds fit. In many ways the systems that torment us are more resilient than ever. But we must know our enemy, no matter the odds. “To minimize our enemy,” Loscano proclaimed, “is to minimize ourselves”.


“Is it enough to pose questions, or must we provide solutions?” Doña Rosita asked me as she prepared breakfast in the morning for the guests in her hostel. We were discusssing the colloquium and what we had been hearing and thinking there. A wise and discerning woman, she drove to the heart of the matter.

She told us that she would have loved to attend this conference, but, of course, she had to work. Many thousands more also could not come, and for the same reason: The systems that rule our lives. It is what the Hopi called koyaanisqatsi: a way of life that calls out to be different. And it is also a call for strategies to get us there. It is not enough to pose questions, not enough to name the enemy. On the outskirts of Los Altos, from where the Zapatistas descended onto the world stage of revolution and dignity in 1994, we participated briefly in a small part of a search for answers. “We have been part and above all students,” Marcos said, “of the most beautiful pedagogical exercise that the Mexican skies and soils have contemplated in their history.” No better place to launch ideas, proposals, and declarations, no better time to devise, articulate and synthesize strategies for now and for our future.

While the purpose of the week was not to unify behind any one specific strategy, all the participants in the colloquium voiced a large variety of ideas, concerns, suggestions and declarations that are important to reflect on in considering the strategies and steps towards organizing antisystemic movements. It is not enough only to know the enemy, if that knowledge does not help to overcome the enmity.

Jorge Alonso said that convergences such as this one can be very important; they can be “instruments to dynamize actors and change”. Convergences of intellectuals can easily tend towards stifling abstraction, so it is important to remember to touch the ground. Pablo Cassanova, (accroding to Marcos, one of the few intellectuals highly respected by Zapatistas) said that the most important point of reference is the relation between what we think and what we do. Any solution or strategy must depart from this point of reference if it is to navigate today’s very cloudy waters of revolution. This will enable us to understand those who “call themselves socialist and apply neoliberal policies, are communists and confusionists”.

How does the vocabulary of anti-systemic theory figure into developing a strategy for change? Are ancient ideas irrelevant or more relevant than ever? “Concepts are not new or old,” Sergio Loscano advised: “they are useful or not useful”. Concepts are not superfluous. Theory is not a parasite to practice. It is an essential element to practice without which practice has no structure. Strategy must be based on certain ideas and prerogatives, or it is hollow. “When it seems like nothing’s left,” Marcos quoted Don Durito, “the principles remain.” Useful concepts, new or old, are integral to the circulatory system of a social movement. If they run dry then any defeat is a final defeat. Principles can make a movement invincible to even the most crushing of losses and setbacks. Participants in antisystemic social movements must take care to share these principles, ideas and concepts, to reflect them with their lives and to pass them on through generations of struggle. In this never-ending pedagogy, Marcos advised us all: “don’t confuse teaching with commanding or learning with obeying”. We must be always listening and agitating, sharing and evolving.

There can be no place in anti-systemic strategy for conciliatory diplomacy or compromising moderation. “We are not interested in patches or reforms,” Marcos spoke for all, “simply because they don’t patch anything and they don’t even reform the most superficial”. Instead, we must think the unthinkable.

“Don’t surrender to the utopia of having no utopia,” warned Gilberto Valdes. We must know and insist on the world without exploitation that is the birthright of us all. In getting there, Valdes continued, we must beware not to “repeat this strategy of stages”. We must “challenge the project of development,” as it is traditionally conceived. Speaking from his experience at a somewhat similar conference in Cuba, Valdes spoke of the importance of ‘emancipatory paradigms’, but insisted that in order to move towards them we cannot go slowly step by step. Instead we need to “create simultaneous processes of change.” It is not enough to fight separate wars in separate trenches against the media, the police, the federal and local government, corporations, the banks, etc. Any strategy that is not conceived and carried out holistically cannot hope to challenge the whole which is the system.

If the odds seem against systemic change, if the enemies seem too huge and too powerful, we must not lose heart. We are obliged to our ancestors to carry on the tradition of resistance. We may be small. But to whatever extent we can, we must use our size to our advantage. “If, to those of above, those from below are only insects” Marcos quoted Durito again, “let’s bite them!” A swarm of the smallest of creatures can bring down the most colossal of giants. The fight will be a long, unpredictable and bloody one, there should be no doubt. But there is meaning and hope even in this. “We don’t decide where we’re born,” Enrique Dussell reminds us, but sometimes, “we do where we die”. We can join the struggle, touch the ground of its meaning, give our souls to the soil of resistance, from which future generations will be nurtured.

We are up against an enemy that is a system. It is a system that survives by shattering its alternatives. “The power of capital fragments,” said Jorge Alonso. It must be confronted and defeated by the power of social movements, a power which gathers. This is a “power that while sharing itself, multiplies.” By gathering, sharing and multiplying, the small can grow mighty, the immune can become contagious and the invincible can be made vulnerable.

We must always be looking ahead. It will never be enough to find a temporary solution for a system. Time means nothing to capitalism as a whole. Its urgency is congenital, at the essence of its nature, but it is not a condition of its survival. It can end only to begin on another calendar, disappear only to erupt in another geography. It can be driven out only to return in the least expected way. It can be starved only to fatten at the tiniest opportunity. “It is not enough to bury capitalism --” Marcos again shared Durito’s wisdom: “it must be entombed upside down. That way, if it tries to leave, it will bury itself more”. With such long term vision must we endow our strategies for systemic change. Systems cannot change piecemeal. Change may come gradually, but it will be once and for all, or not at all. We would be careless to strategize only to bury the system. Most importantly, we must prevent its reemergence. In developing this long term vision, we are driven to ask profound and difficult questions about the histories and constituencies within the local and global communities that we wish to change.

Ricardo Gebrim, hailing from Brazil and the landless rural workers’ movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra --MST), brought many important and intriguing themes to the conference. He noted that of all the major antisystemic social movements in Latin America, the Zapatistas and the MST are the only ones which have refused to form a political party. Gebrim stressed the weight of this difficult collective decision. He warned of “the dangers of the electoral struggle” -- social movements throughout history have often created ‘wings’ to participate in representative democracy while carrying on the struggle outside the system. The danger, Gebrim warned, is that the arm gets stronger than the body -- that electoral politics absorb the movement and that the roots of struggle become lost. No single answer can be given to this dilemma -- every antisystemic movement has its particular context to contend with. Gebrim noted that much will be learned from the experiences of the Zaptistas and the MST in their respective countries, which face respectively ultra-right and liberal opposition (Felipe Calderon in Mexico and Lula de Silva in Brazil). Which situation is more advantageous for anti-systemic movements to grow? Time will tell.

Along the same theme of struggle inside and outside the electoral system, Peter Rosset weighed in with the idea that alliances between antisystemic groups and more moderate groups have potential. Provided that antisystemic strategies and principles are not compromised, these alliances in themselves can become antisystemic. Such alliances are in fact essential, Rosset argued: International struggle is imperative. In the face of neoliberal globalization, we must respond by globalizing struggle and globalizing hope.

Hope, John Berger reminded us all, is not a promise: Hope is the everyday struggle. This understanding of hope must be rekindled to empower antisystemic movements around the world that have lost heart in recent decades before the onslaught of neoliberalism. Such an understanding is particularly necessary among antisystemic movements based in the United States and other centers of the world economy, where hope has been corroded and corrupted with cynicism and other forms of despair. Naomi Klein suggested that those in the USA who have lost hope “need to apologize to those who never stopped resisting”. With a revolutionary understanding of hope, we can draw the strength to struggle against any odds. “Oaxaca will not be Atenco,” goes a popular chant.7 But while we cultivate our hopes we must not be fooled by them. Reflecting on the same popular chant, Marcos reminded everyone that “arrogance tends to be a bad counselor in practical and theoretical questions”

We must prepare ourselves, said Ricardo Gebrim; we need to accumulate the conditions for revolution. Three steps will get us there: Formation, Organization, and Struggle. Revolutionary moments, when they occur inside an oppressive system, are condemned to accept a reduced space and time, he said, but in non-revolutionary moments, we often can -- and must -- make our revolutionary plans. “New times await us,” he promised, “evolutionary windows” are before us, if we can stand together to open them.

As we move forward into formation, organization and struggle, it is important to understand and respect the long and diverse history of our antisystemic predecessors. And we must acknowledge and learn not only those before us, but from those with us, those living and resisting in the world today, who are examples to the world that many worlds are possible. “In Cuba,” Marcos said, “there is a calendar and geography of hope”. Cuba’s revolutionary history has not been one of absolute freedom and equality. But “within the long braid of pain and dignity, something shines,” Marcos continued: The world owes Cuba “not only analysis, but respect and support.” Embargoed, blockaded and vilified by the hegemonic world power just North of it, “the cuban revolution will continue because it is a revolution that knows how to dance,” assured Gilberto Valdes. All reactionary powers are paper tigers before people with rhythm, Mao forgot to add.

In addition, sometimes the oppression of an enemy can be made a grain of sand to form a pearl around. Valdes told us the story of a Puerto Rican woman, who remarked at a conference in Havana that she had learned “what my people need to have a viable agricultural sector: a US embargo!” Cuba is a unique example of unshakeable resolve in resistance to both US imperialism and global capitalism.

More recently the Zapatistas have greatly expanded the previous theory and discourse of resistance. In their ongoing defiance of military and paramilitary threats and counterinsurgency, they are giving to the world a precious gift: another rich example of how a people can locally resist the world system and all its manifestations, and build an alternative society and economy. Moreover, the autonomous Zapatista municipalities offer an example of how to move beyond the example of Cuba. “What,” Naomi Klein asked, “makes some societies more shock-resistant than others?” She listed several: deep historical memory, deep suspicion of the state, and a strong collective narrative of how the world should work.

While many visions and versions of the world we wish to see are rooted in ancient traditions and memories, there are also new proposals that seek to reconcile these old truths with the new conditions that we find ourselves in all over the world. Jean Robert listed six principles for a new kind of economics, an economics not based on scarcity: 1. Sustainability and not maximization, 2. Networks of credit founded in good faith 3. Life style before economics, 4. Personal relations, 5. Flexible fluidity, and 6. Combination is beautiful. Jean Robert’s suggestions and others like it found common ground with the new economic regime promoted and enacted by the Zapatista communities. In spite of all the legal travesties and tribulations of the Mexican malgobierno, in other geographies and calendars, Marcos encouraged us to understand, there is another space-time. He read at length from the Revolutionary Agricultural Law, published in December 1993 (just before the uprising) which details a plan of radical land reform based on communal ownership that gives priority to the least privileged, produces crops for local consumption instead of the global market, calls for environmental conservation, and more. Since 1994, the Zapatistas have acted to their fullest abilities in fulfilling this revolutionary law, transforming in the time of a single generation a colonial system of land ownership that had prevailed in Chiapas for the last 500 years.

None of this was ushered in with fanfare or parades. There are no spectacles in autonomous Zapatista territory like the ice skating rink that recently appropriated the central Zocalo in Mexico City under the auspices of modernization and development. On the contrary, “the revolution arrives by bicycle,” insisted Jean Robert.

Revolution has arrived in Southern Chiapas not only in the struggle for the land, and not only in the struggle for a new relationship with the land, but also in a collective struggle for new relationships between people, a profound reorganization of society around deeply democratic principles. The Zapatistas offer to the world a refreshed experience of democracy, of a ‘rule of the people’ not limited to electoral representation or political parties, but that pervades the very fabric of the struggle itself, from how it is carried out to how it is represented and perceived. “I will tell you,” Marcos insisted “with my heart in my hand: in Zapatismo, perspective is not an individual but a collective privilege.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, with the increasingly undeniable economic and moral collapse of the so-called liberal-democratic nation-state, the Zapatistas offer the world a revitalized vision of democracy. “Liberation defines democracy,” Pablo Gonzales Cassanova urged. In the space-time of indigenous resistance carved out by the EZLN in 1994, democracy, freed from the shackles of near oblivion, has taken on new weight and meaning.

The struggle itself, the strategies enacted to get there, and the results achieved are more important than the nomenclature or the theoretical one-upmanship that plagues intellectual discourse. “The name doesn’t worry me,” said Sergio Rodriguez Loscano, in his reflections on socialism. More important, he said, is that history “recuperate its moral.” There is a collective imaginary of insubordination that has always existed, he suggested, and through it we can find dignity. This dignity is a product of struggle and social collective organization.

Whatever name it goes by we will recognize it: Peter Rosset called our attention to Indonesia, where millions of hectares were reclaimed, and where hotels formerly for tourists are now used keep goats. In Zimbabwe, 11 million acres of land were appropriated by the people; the largest land reclamation, he hypothesized, in world history. In the wake of the tsunami that struck South and South-East Asia in 2004, real estate developers rushed to profit from the disaster by privatizing devastated coastal property. In Thailand, however, Naomi Klein brought to our attention the “reinvasions” carried out by hundreds of people who, anticipating the actions of developers, marched past armed guards and began to occupy and rebuild this coastal land themselves. In a process dubbed “negotiating with your hands,” they were able to legally win back their land and rebuild the infrastructure better than before.

As the toxic developments of the world system proceed apace, the enemy is ever more the same all over the world, leading diverse groups and peoples towards the terrain of international struggle against the singular world system. However, we cannot be wholly united without a common strategy to confront and change this system. Ricardo Gebrim insisted that “if we want a deep social transformation we have to attack the enemy in its central form of organization. We have to destroy it in its center.”

The center of this system is not only in the mother-countries of the capitalist world system (such as the United States, the countries in the European Union, Japan, etc), but is spread out all over the world. The center of the system is in the private ownership of the means of production, which must be fought all the way from the isolated latifundia to the urban thresholds of
finance capital.

The centrality of the struggle for control of the means of production is old news, theorized centuries ago, and its primacy in any antisystemic strategy remains uncontested. However, Marcos explained, “just because we sustain that the center nucleus of capitalist domination is in the ownership of the means of production, doesn’t mean that we ignore other spaces of domination. It is clear that for us, transformations should not focus only on material conditions.” Here the Zapatistas, Marcos and many of the intellectuals gathered at the colloquium charted a course of struggle beyond the unfortunately commonplace obsession of revolutionary theorists on a dogmatic reading of Marx’s historical materialism. While material realities continue to force the hand of history to repeat itself, antisystemic movements must additionally engage in struggle outside the purely material realms of production, distribution and consumption. There is power beyond the point of production! This awareness is at the root of real antisystemic struggle. “We can’t conceive an antisystemic movement if we don’t confront sociocultural discrimination,” said Gilberto Valdes. Echoing this, and taking it a step further, Pablo Gonzalo Cassanova warned that “no struggle can be successful if it doesn’t include the excluded.” The Zapatistas themselves are a central case in point for this axiom; as indigenous people they have been excluded for centuries from the so-called progress of modernity, not only by the capitalist magnates but also from many the revolutionary theories and movements.

Even within the Zapatista communities, the struggle against discrimination and for inclusion continues. Women are on the front lines. The Zapatista Revolutionary Law of Women, the constitutional result of what has come to be known as ‘the revolution within the revolution,’ represents an indigenous feminist revolution that within the space-time of a single generation transformed the role of women from servants that were not uncommonly bartered for bottles of liquor, to comrades and commanders who have the freedom to marry, divorce, reproduce, and live as they choose with or without the approval of their fathers, husbands and sons. The struggle of women, for recognition as both different from and equal to men, is a struggle which Marcos called “the heaviest, most complex and most continuous of all antisystemic struggles.” It is far from over, but it has begun.

Undergirding both material and socio-cultural struggles for dignity and self-determination, Jean Robert enjoined us all to remember, is language. Languages, he lamented, have become subsystems, held as prisoners by nation-states and world systems. We must be terribly careful, for the revolutionary future, he warned, “can be destroyed by the words used to explain it.” To guard against this we need “dictionaries of key words for transforming the world system,” and a glossary of words used and co-opted by capitalism. Our language itself is a front of struggle, and the medium through which we relate to each other will determine not only the course of our movements but the objectives themselves. Those who continue to speak non-Western languages, Robert continued, have an incredible treasure. They are languages that have survived colonization and capital. In his book ‘Los hombres verdederos,’ Carlos Lenkersdorf begins to explore the connections between the indigenous languages in the mountains of the Mexican South-East, the social relations that these languages presuppose, and their relevance to the Zapatista uprising.

Built with the bricks and cement of language are the stories that give our lives and struggles meaning. Naomi Klein cautioned that humanity at large is “trapped in a dangerous story... that we can escape”; from ourselves, from each other, and from the many crises that devolve upon the modern world. In defense, she exhorted, we must “fight story with story”; we must resist the monopolization of meaning that the single story of the capitalist world system enforces. In his book Anthills of the Savannah, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe writes that “It is only the story... that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind... It is the thing that makes us different from cattle”. After reading a moving story of resistance from the occupied territories in Palestine, John Berger spoke of the importance of stories, without which “we would never know how widely our pain and joy are shared.” For this reason, for their subversive potential which can unite people across calendars and geographies, Achebe recognized that “[s]torytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usupers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit -- in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”

Despite the best and worst efforts of the experts and lieutenants of the world system to enforce their single story and to stifle storytellers, the fight continues, and many tales of resistance slip through their nets. These stories have gone on to travel the world, inspiring the birth and maturity of movements everywhere. Today and now they are reaching you. “According to reliable sources,” Marcos told,

“who cannot be revealed because they wear ski masks, one morning these men, women, children and elders discovered their faces and sang and danced, always with rhythms that have no known catalogue. They say that they knew they were not any less poor than before and that all kinds of problems came upon them, including death, so we don’t know the motive, the cause and reason of their happiness. According to the latest information, they have continued to dance, sing and laugh for 14 calendars and they say that it is because there is another geography in their land.”


Our conclusion, that history recuperate its moral and meaning, and that antisystemic movements out-administer the world system and bury capitalism upside down, will come to us geographically, as Marcos titled his discourses, from “neither the center nor the periphery”. On our calendars it will come, as the Situationists promised, “gradually at first, and then suddenly.” Despite all the modern machinery of oppression, exploitation and counterinsurgency arrayed against us, John Berger reminded us that the answers are ancient and have been present as far back as Plato, who wrote that “courage is making a hole in the time that is imposed on us.”

For a few short days in an indigenous university at the foothills of the mountains of the Mexican South-East, such a hole was torn, through which a beautiful view of new calendars and geographies could be seen. It is a world very similar and yet different from our own, a world that is perhaps, like the poem by Paul Éluard which Marcos quoted, “blue like an orange.” Having glimpsed this world, we must continue in the tradition of Che Guevara, who knew: Hay que pedir peras al olmo, y hay que ir sembrando perrales.8 We must go accumulating the conditions for revolution, but even when they do not exist we must demand them.

“Go,” Marcos commanded, “as if another world is possible... As if tomorrow had appeared to today, for only an instant, and had shown its most fantastic, terrible and marvelous treasure, that is to say, its possibility”.


1. (El Congreso Indigena Chiapaneco)
2. from Confronting Empire, Pluto Press, 2000, p 120-121
3. from the chapter Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims
4. At the colloquium, Andrés Aubry was named Primus doctor liberationis conatus causa, which freely translated could be interpreted as a doctorate for his commitment to the effort and substance of liberation. Several people elaborated on the meaning of the latin concept of conatus, a word encompassing effort; endeavor; impulse, inclination, tendency; undertaking; striving, and more.
5. Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4
6. Oaxaca, a city in Southern Mexico, became the focus of national and global attention starting in 2007 with city-wide demonstrations lead by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca -- APPO). Atenco is another city in Mexico where massive police brutality and media control crushed a popular resistance movement in 2006.
7. This idiomatic phrase loses much of its eloquence in translation. Literally, it is “one must ask for pears from the elm, and one must go planting pear orchards.” Idiomatically, “pedir peras al olmo” could be translated roughly in English as “to ask the moon.”