The “Other Campaign” and the Left: Reclaiming an Alternative*

Reclaiming the Commons


          I said earlier that what is happening in Mexico during this period will probably be studied as an ideal laboratory for understanding the nature of modern power, that is, the extent to which it depends on general perceptions. Power operates based on certain statements that establish the way in which we govern ourselves and accept being governed by others, and these statements function as certainties, prejudices and guides to behavior. Only substantive changes in these statements reveal real changes in the "system of power," but this kind of change is not reflected immediately or automatically in the institutional apparatus, whose inertia maintains it unchanged, sometimes for a long time. (They can become empty shells, with a certain ritual function, even though the substance has changed, as in the case of the monarchy in England). What has happened in Mexico since 1994 is that many of the statements with which we governed ourselves ceased to exist. The genius of the Zapatistas consisted in giving expression to general insights and common perceptions, giving them a new articulation. Well-rooted in their traditions but open to contemporary reality, they have made their words into verbs, into symbols of action.


          The statements that define the new political regime have not yet been formulated. For that reason, the power structure and institutional apparatus seem more and more empty and continue to crumble, like the Berlin Wall, until new statements can mould new institutions. But the Zapatistas insist that they represent only the threshold of change. They do not want to function as the enlightened vanguard, a new elite, making decisions for everyone and trying to impose new statements conceived by themselves alone. They know that their "truth" is not everyone’s truth, and they hope that together we can articulate a new truth.


          How to realize this dream? If the people can express themselves democratically, they tend to vote for things that the good socialists call "petty bourgeois preferences" – a little more pornography and football, more television than reading … both socialists and liberals accept that for that reason an elite or vanguard should guide the people and make decisions in their name. But the elites easily become corrupt. All of them have been corrupted. After the bankruptcy of state socialism and all variants of the populist, liberal or welfare State, the authoritarian option once again beckons: to govern by force and with the market could become the new name of the Apocalypse. Or rather, it is the same old one that comes back in the moment that all the masks fall away. In a capitalist society it is possible to govern only by force; for that reason the State is granted a monopoly on "legitimate" force. What before was hidden, among other things because of competition with socialism, is now cynically confessed, governing by force … until the point is reached that where it is no longer possible to govern people or events, as is now the case.


          Given that the state, by its nature, tends to be unjust, corrupt and arbitrary, it is essential to stop it, to put a limit upon it. This seems to be the point of departure of a valid political position at the current time. Given the failure of the democratic mechanisms to establish these limits, because they are just as corrupt as the elites, communities have begun to emerge as alternatives. They emerge, because, more than anything, there does not seem to be any other option. But they also arise because of the conviction that the future will be, in some way or another, a communitarian one. Socialism brought a message of comunitarianism, but it was translated into collectivism, statism and self-destruction.


          But those who accept the value and potential of the communities do not believe them to be capable of simultaneously confronting the forces of transnational corporations and the modern State. How can we resist the abstract logic of modern power which seems to have escaped all possibility of human control? The notion of power that tries to construct itself democratically in the shape of a pyramid, in which the base is what is important, ends up having the shape of a mushroom (and here the implicit nuclear allusion clearly applies).


          At the same time, the vacuity and fragility of the paraphernalia of power is increasingly evident. The powerful can do less and less, except when it comes to destruction. They administer economic, military or police forces and they display them continuously, especially in the media, to conserve what effective power is left to them. But they no longer have anything to say.


          When the Zapatista movement showed that the Emperor was wearing no clothes, they precipitated the fall of the political regimen that had ruled us for 70 years. They did not attempt to become substitutes for that regime, but rather obstinately dedicated themselvesos How How to reorganize society from the bottom up, in their own spaces, and to extend their networks horizontally to all kinds of coalitions of the discontented. In this fashion they have been expanding and consolidating autonomous spaces that define new commons.


          The communities seem to be unable to confront the immense economic and political forces that continuously attack them, the large transnational corporations and a State that is increasingly at the service of capital. Nonetheless, broad coalitions of the discontented continue to extend themselves in their slow accumulation of forces. They can see in the distance the conditions under which they undertake the political inversion of economic domination, of the structures of capital. Without losing a sense of reality, that is, without denying the real risks in the situation, we should not allow ourselves to be blinded by the fireworks of the constituted powers, national and international, including the "superpower" that finally accepts itself as empire. In the final agonies of a regime, the last remaining forces are used  to impress the subjects, to make them believe that it still is what it was before. Though it is possible to destroy and intimidate with the armies and the police, it is not possible to govern with force … unless the people allow fear to paralyze their hearts and minds.


          It would be criminal to idolize misery. The new autonomous spaces suffer severe restrictions. But it would be equally criminal not to take into account their capacity for innovation. They are not forms of mere survival or to secure subsistence. They are contemporary forms of life, which constitute a sociological novelty that modernizes tradition and re-evaluates modernity. They have been conceived in an era in which everything that men and women need for the enjoyment of life can be obtained, given the technical means available; and for an era in which the non-economic means will enable those needs to be fulfilled freely and with dignity. These are forms that leave behind the era in which the goal of limitless improvement only concentrated privileges and imposed all types of suffering upon the social majorities, supposedly for their own good.


          Back from promised futures, which make of the present an always-postponed future, the Zapatistas affirm themselves day after day in their surprising creation, which is every day more ours. I cannot see any other way to escape the horror that has been put among us and that we are only capable of containing through the communities and their networks. The Sixth [Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which proposes "the Other Campaign"] is our opportunity to express ourselves with imagination and to walk with hope.


          Subcomandante Marcos anticipated this in a communiqué of June 1997:


The apparent infallibility of globalization collides with the stubborn disobedience of reality. At the same time that neoliberalism carries out its world war, groups of non-conformists and nuclei of rebels are being formed all over the planet. The empire of the stock exchanges (bolsas de valores) confronts the rebellion of the resistance exchanges (bolsas de resistencia).

Yes, exchanges (bolsas). Of all sizes, of different colors, of the most varied forms. Their only similarity is their rejection of the "New World Order," and the crime against humanity that goes along with the neoliberal war.

— EZLN. Seven loose pieces of the puzzle of the world


John Berger also talks about these exchanges (bolsas), in The Form of a Pocket [translators note: In Spanish, the term "stock exchange," "bolsa de valores", generates the metaphorical pun of "stock exchange" and "resistance exchange". The translation of Berger’s term, "bosillo," or pocket – a type of little bag – has the same metaphorical pun value in Spanish because of the connection between "pockets of resistance" and the "stock market."]


The pocket in question is a small pocket of resistance. A pocket is formed when two or more people are in agreement. The resistance is against the inhumanity of the new economic world order. The people who are together in this are the reader, myself and those about whom these essays speak: Rembrandt, the ancient Egyptians, an expert in solitude of certain hotel alcoves, the dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station. And, unexpectedly, our dialogue strengthens the conviction of all of us that what is happening in the world today is evil, and that what they usually say about it is lies. I have never written a book with a greater sense of urgency.


— John Berger. The Form of a Pocket. Mexico: 2002


          Berger wrote this four years ago. What I fear, what makes him feel urgency, is here, now, among us. It is the situation of Mexico today.


          In conclusion, before broaching some aspects of the immediate perspective and the conflict in Oaxaca, I would like to refer to an aspect of the Sixth [Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle] that defines and puts it in open contrast with other proposals by the left in Latin America: its anti-capitalistic posture.




A growing number of people are asking themselves what to do with capitalism. With the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Zapatistas brought this issue to public debate and the political agenda. They firmly declared that their struggle was anti-capitalistic. Among those who praised this fact, there were those who took for granted the socialist signature of this position. If they are against capitalism, they must be socialists, they said. But we must not approach this question by going backwards, returning to the ideological dispute that has entrapped us for more than a century. We are facing a situation without precedent, which cannot be examined with tools from the past.


          The current disorder began to deepen when the winners of the Cold War started the decade of the 1990s with the conviction that the end of history had arrived: the regime of capitalist production represented the culmination of human evolution. However, one cannot govern with capitalism. The policies inspired by it, which the international institutions and many governments follow, do not constitute a body of coherent doctrine that lead to collective obligations. George Soros, a prominent financial speculator who is intimately familiar with the workings of Wall Street, has shown for years his surprise and concern about what is happening. He calls it "market fundamentalism."


          We have before us the blind fundamentalism of a few people, ensconced in the highest levels of political power, who govern without order or agreement. Their policies express the ideological conviction that market forces are capable of doing everything. Some of them go as far as to say, in the extreme terms of an official of the administration of President Bush: "We don’t want to abolish government. We simply want to reduce it to the size in which you can take it to the bathroom and flush it down the toilet."


          To consciously adopt an anti-capitalist posture, as the Zapatistas have done, is not sectarian radicalism of a marginal group. It begins to define a consensus that emerging from the grassroots and also includes lucid people of all social levels. But we need to reflect seriously on what this means in the current juncture. As Harry Cleaver says,

"… after a long period of silence following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, calls for "socialism" can be heard echoing across the political landscape, especially in Latin America. Moreover, these calls are not issuing faintly from isolated, underground revolutionaries, but loudly from heads of state. Most notably, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and recently elected Bolivian president Evo Morales are rejecting the neoliberal, free market "Washington Consensus" and speaking out, not only against unconstrained capitalism but in favor of some form of socialism."


Cleaver, in Socialism? Oaxaca: Ediciones ¡Basta!, 2006, p.7


This happened, nevertheless, after the collapse of socialist governments in Eastern Europe and the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Socialism did not reach its end from the outside but rather from the inside: decades of passive resistance gave rise to open and general uprisings.


If, in spite of its benefits (more or less full employment, guaranteed housing, cheap basic foodstuffs, free medical care and free education), the masses of people of these countries rejected these variations of Soviet-style state-socialism, then certainly some serious rethinking is called for.


— Cleaver, in Socialism? p. 11)


Cleaver notes, with concern:


Indeed, for all of us who struggle for a better world beyond capitalism, whether we call ourselves socialist or not, for all of us who claim to believe in the power of common people to reshape our world, this dramatic upheaval in the socialist world must be the occasion for serious reconsideration of socialism as an alternative to capitalism. We may reject the claims of both capitalist ideologues and Communist hard-liners as self-serving propaganda, but we can certainly agree that something very significant has happened. Should we read in the actions of the people of Eastern Europe the definitive rejection of socialism by the only people who count — the working class (understood broadly) — and therefore, taking their lesson to heart, stop talking about socialism and socialist development as desirable alternatives to capitalism? Or, have the regimes been rejected because they were Stalinist police-states rather than because they were socialist? If that is the case, then what is there left of socialism to hang on to as a guide to thinking about moving beyond capitalism?


I cannot deal with this complex discussion here in detail. Cleaver, in the text to which I refer, carefully examines the problems that exist in socialism itself, in socialist ideas, not only in the experiences of so-called "real socialism." I use as a shortcut a conversation that I had with Teodor Shanin, when he passed through Mexico a couple years ago:

The only way to continue a discussion of socialism is to begin with the assumption that socialism might have reached its end. It is a historical phenomenon, had a beginning and an end. We are at the beginning of its end. We have to take our thoughts to this point and talk about it. The majority of socialists cannot go so far, because psychologically they cannot accept disaster. If they were to accept it, for what did they spend their lives?


          Even if we are able to advance beyond the circumstances of today, from the most difficult moment of state socialism in the negative sense, we will not have squeezed out a solution. Perhaps we need to throw away the word socialism: it’s not just a form of socialism that is finished, but its own reality. And so we need communism, which appears to be a natural response to our predicament.

          Now we know that all elites are corrupt. There has not been a single case of a socialist elite that has not been corrupt …

          This may be the moment to promote the establishment of new ideas. The interesting thing is that, in view of the fact that we have lost our relations with science, with progress and power, we are on the edge of a very peculiar situation in which we are looking toward the past to find responses for the future.


          The future should be, in some way, a communitarian one. Socialism was clearly a harbinger of the message of comunitarianism. The problem is that it was translated into collectivism, statism and auto-destruction. (Shanin 2006)


I am convinced, in short, that anti-capitalism of today, its theory and practice, is not constructed through socialism. The ideals of justice of all socialisms still seem valid. But their different proposals are now abandoned. They remain associated with the design of the nation-state, as a structure of domination and control, and the obsolete conceptions regarding development, the worn-out emblem of U.S. hegemony put forth by President Truman on January 20, 1949, the day on which he took office and coined the term "underdeveloped" and declared at the same time, the "Cold War," the Third World War.



Democracy? Presence and Representation


          During the First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, in July of 1996, subcomandante Marcos explained in an informal speech the attitude of the Zapatistas regarding power while they were preparing the uprising.


We thought that it was necessary to reconsider the problem of power, to not repeat the formula that in order to change the world it is necessary to take power and then once in power, we will organize everything in a way that is best for the world, that is, the way that is best for me since I am in power. We thought that if we conceived of a change in the way power is seen, the problem of power, proclaiming that we do not want it — this would produce another way of doing politics and other kind of politics, other human beings that do politics differently from politicians of the entire political spectrum. (EZLN, 1996, 69)


On January 1, 1996, in their Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Zapatistas invited everyone to explore on the local level what people could do without political parties and without the government. For the Zapatistas, the question is not who is in power, nor how any person, group or party reaches a position of power (through elections or any other means), but rather the very nature of the system of power.


          In drawing a line to separate themselves from the guerilla tradition, the Zapatistas show that such traditions always postpone the question of the role of the people.


There is an oppressive power, that which decides for society from above; a group of enlightened people who decide to run the country properly and displaces another group from power, takes power and also makes the decisions for society. For us this is a struggle of hegemonies … One cannot reconstruct the world, nor society, nor the nation states now destroyed, upon a dispute that consists of who is going to impose hegemony upon society. (Subcomandante Marcos, in an interview with Garcí­a Márquez, March 2001, reproduced in Lopes 2004)


Almost everyone is beginning to recognize that electoral procedures everywhere need profound and complete reform, in order to give them credibility and legitimacy again, or for the first time. The Zapatistas do not believe that these reforms are enough to resolve the problems arising from the very structure of the "democratic" nation-states. Nor do they believe that the necessary changes can or should come from above. They think that these indispensable transformations, which include the reconfiguration of the state itself, can only be achieved by the reorganization of society itself from within, from the very fabric of the people, from their communities, their neighborhoods, their municipalities.


          Democracy can only exist where the people are, not "up there", in the heights of the institutions, no matter how perfect the process might be of electing representatives that constitute and operate them. While confidence in the constituted powers continues to deteriorate, a new hope is put in the force that constitutes these powers, which can give them or take away their life, sense and substance. Zapatismo was from the beginning an open call to that constituent force, or strength, inherent in society — an invitation to its conscious exercise by those who are society, not those who try to represent it, to make the social transformation.


          It is increasingly evident, throughout the world that the constituted powers — whether or not they were constituted in a democratic manner — do not respect the will of the people. The voices of 30 million people who went out into the streets to end the war in the Middle East were not heard. That is how it is, every time, everywhere. This situation engenders growing disenchantment with formal democracy. It provokes a feeling of impotence. It engenders apathy, indifference and even desperation, so that voting or not voting seems useless or counterproductive.


          The Zapatistas have created an alternative way – one of a political force, instead a political party, which might transform social and political reality from the roots and which could enclose and corner those who have the people enclosed and cornered, to surround and control the constituted powers to the point that it might become possible to replace them in a new truly democratic regime.


          The Zapatistas know that their current struggle has to take place within the framework of the Mexican nation-state. They don’t live on Mars. But they have escaped the trap of the perverse illusion that the State is the only generalized political reality, the privileged form of political activity. They have recuperated the sense of politics as a commitment to the common good, which is expressed in common sense, the sense that the community has. They have snatched from the State the function of defining the good life, which it transferred to the market; they have reclaimed it for civil society, for the people. Far from seeing the State as the only or privileged horizon, they perceive it as a set of structures of domination that should be marginalized and dissolved.


          The Zapatistas are up to date on the current debate, in theory and in practice, regarding the situation and perspectives of the nation-state. They observe how this modern invention, within which economic society is organized and promoted in capitalist or socialist forms, is now exposed to a two-pronged attack: by transnational or multinational forces and institutions, and by internal groups with ethnic, religious or ideological claims. They know that some specialists believe that this two-pronged attack has been dissolving the nation-state, whose era would have come to an end once it surrendered its real and legal power upon the altar of the large private corporations; while other experts think that the nation-state should fulfill more than ever its police function in order to control resistance and rebellions of the people, and for that reason they would be stronger than ever. Almost all recognize that the State can no longer administer the national economy, which had been its primary task, because of the degree to which all economies have become transnationalized, and none of the macro-national structures that have been created, such as the European Union, Free Trade consortiums or the World Trade Organization, are capable of taking the place of the State. But while some see in this the beginning of the extinction of the State, others feel that it is necessary to reinforce nation-states so that they can control those who increasingly openly oppose the new world disorder. Others, from the left of the political spectrum, return to their traditional statism, demanding the reconstruction of the State and its sovereignty to realize the functions of transformation and redistribution that have traditionally been attributed to it.


          Like many other groups in the world, the Zapatistas have shown themselves to be interested in the recuperation and renovation of the different notions of the State and Nation, which were abandoned when the modern nation-state was created in the shadow of emergent capitalism. They have expressed sympathy with the forces that try to transform the homogenous State (monocultural or multicultural) into a pluralistic State, according to different conceptions. Nonetheless, they have not applied themselves or their discourse to any specific political plan proposed as a substitute for the "democratic" nation-state in whose ruins we live. They seem convinced that "society as a whole" (the general design of society) is always the result of a multiplicity of initiatives, forces and impulses — not the fruit of social engineering by professional bureaucrats or theoretical schemes created by a few enlightened ones. They call to the sociological and political imagination of ordinary men and women, while they underline again and again that what is really necessary is the full participation of everyone, especially those who until now have been excluded, in the creation of concepts and practices that will give a new form to society and its political regime.


          In the regions under their control, the Zapatistas have staked out a path in which democracy means presence rather than representation.



Go to: Other Campaign pt. 3

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