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.
THE OTHER INTELLECTUALS
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.”
TOCAR EL SUELO: TO TOUCH THE GROUND
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
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.”