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The Zapatistas and the International
Circulation of Struggles

Harry M. Cleaver

E-mail posting on the Chiapas 95 discussion list
(8 February 1998)


    What follows is a draft of a paper prepared for a conference on "Globalization from Below" being held right now at Duke University. I just finished his draft, which I will present to the conference in about 30 minutes. It is a rough draft and I would appreciate any constructive criticism or discussion that reading it might provoke. I am sharing it with you at this point because it concerns the work we are all involved in and discusses many of the problems of that work. 

    Harry M. Cleaver 

For a long, long time many activists have recognized two things:  first, that capitalism operates on a global level and second, that to achieve enough power to overthrow capitalism the working class must  find ways to organize its own struggles at the same level. 

The title of this conference implies a critique, with which I agree, that something has been missing from a great many accounts of the global character of capital. We have an enormous literature, generated by several generations of historians and economists, anthopologists and cultural critics on the character of capitalist operations at the level of the world as a whole. From the study of  imperialism through that of the international division of labor to current preoccupations with the latest phase of "globalization" we retain a substantial literature and considerable understanding of the cleverness and brutality of those operations. On the other hand, the extent and depth of the study of the international character of working class struggle is considerably less. Fortunately, that situation has been changing somewhat with the urgency to find new effective ways to counter capital's world-wide offensive during these last years. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that the force of necessity has been pushing innovation of such resistance from below faster than many have recognized or been able to study and theorize. It is not at all clear, however, that what we need is to oppose the globalization of capital from above by a homologous globalization from below. The formulation risks repeating past errors in which oppositional movements mirror that which they would overcome and therefore fail to transcend it even when they succeed. We are engaged in a war for our future and for the future of the planet and the last thing we need is more Pyrric victories in which we discover with horror that we have not won at all. 

It is paramount, therefore, that we accelerate both our absorption of recent experience and our efforts to derive lessons from it for present and future tactics and strategy. In this talk I want to discuss one set of experiences and discuss some of the questions they raise for our study, our strategic thinking and our organizing. 
 
 

The Zapatistas and their impact

The experiences that I want to address are those of the Zapatista rebellion in Southern Mexico, the world wide networks of support which were woven for it and the way the elaboration of those networks have transcended the traditional framework of solidarity to interweave a whole spectrum of different struggles into a fabric of interconnections highly suggestive of directions in which we might want to move. 

 A movement of primarily low waged and unwaged indigenous Mayan peasants, the Zapatista rebellion became public on January 1, 1994 when the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) came out of the jungle to occupy several towns in the highlands of the state of Chiapas. Since that day the images of their black ski-masked soldiers and the words of their primary spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos have become familiar to millions of people around the world. If this particular struggle in this small, relatively unknown part of the world had only generated its own handful of supporters in a widespread solidarity movement as so many other struggles have done, it would still be of interest to the issue of resistance to globalization as far as anysuch movement would be that has been able to reach beyond its own locale to connect with others. But the case of the Zapatistas is of particular interest, it seems to me, because it has not only generated wider support than might have been expected, it has also achieved what no other recent struggle has been able to do. It has set in motion the beginnings of a world-wide discussion about the current state of the class struggle and of a world-wide mobilization aimed at finding new and more effective ways of interlinking both opposition to capitalism and mutual aid in the elaboration of alternatives. It has done this not only across space but across a wide variety of very different kinds of struggle. Both of these phenomena --discussion and mobilization-- are now widespread but still limited in scope --there are many who have not joined in these discussions and many struggles that remain disconnected-- but these processes do seem to point in the right direction and therefore merit attention. 

There are several aspects of this struggle, the way it has developed and the impact that it has had that I would like to discuss. First, its indigenous character and the ways its own internal and culturally determined political processes have struck a nerve among those from quite different ethnic backgrounds in Mexico and elsewhere in the world. Second, the key role of computer communications in the global circulation of solidarity and the ability to link up with other struggles elsewhere. Third, the way its analysis of current capitalist policy and strategy has furthered the recognition of the common enemy at this point in history --and thus encouraged a search for common strategies of resistance. Fourth, the insistence of the Zapatistas on the creation and elaboration of a diverse array of alternatives to replace current capitalist institutions and relationships. Fifth, the experiences we have had with the extension of its very local practices of encounter to the large-scale meetings of people from many languages and different backgrounds. Sixth, the serious obstacles that have been raised by our growing experience in cyberspace for improving the effectiveness of the international circulation of struggle. 
 
 

1. An indigenous rebellion 

Despite all the efforts of the Mexican government to prove otherwise, it has become widely understood that the Zapatista rebellion has been an uprising of indigenous peoples, not of one people, but of several, with different, though interrelated languages and cultural practices. It has been, in one sense, a renaissance of "Mexico profundo", of mesoamerican civilization 500 hundred years after the conquistadors destroyed its classical form. Less widely understood has been the fact that this indigenous rebellion --like so many other indigenous struggles around the world-- is no romantic revival of cultural remnants but a newly constructed political process that has interwoven the old and the new, tradition and radical change, attachment to the land and hard experience with wage labor. What appeared at first as a disturbance on the margins was soon revealed as an embodiment of the most contemporary forms of struggle. The rebellion has sprung from regions in Chiapas which, over the last twenty years, have been scenes of dramatic changes, not stagnant backwaters. The Zapatista movement grew out of the efforts to cope with those changes both within communities and in the relationship among communities, from older more established villages to those of recent vintage carved out of the jungle by immigrants in processes of colonization. In a very real sense, the Zapatista movement emerged as a tentative and transitionary solution to precisely the problem which confronts us everywhere: how to link up a diverse array of linguistically and culturally distinct peoples and their struggles, despite and beyond those distinctions, how to weave a variety of struggles into one struggle that never loses its multiplicity. If for no other reason, all of us who are interested in accomplishing the same goal at a wider level would do well to study carefully this microcosmic experiment which so suddenly exploded in the political firmament with the brilliance of a supernova. 

But at the same time this indigenous rebellion speaks to those of us far from the mountains of southeastern Mexico because it has organized itself in ways which constitute profound critiques of all those modern political forms in which we have lost faith and offers one example that proves viable alternatives can be, and are being, constructed. Instead of demanding admittance to the established political arena, the Zapatistas' have resented a severe critique of representative democracy. The Zapatistas have gone far beyond Mexican social democratic reformers --who merely wish to constrain the ruling party in order to carve out a larger piece of the pie of governance for themselves-- to demand the elimination of the constitutional structure of the state that has sought to confine politics to the formal electoral arena where professional politicians act out a simulacrum of democracy while perpetuating the brutal exploitation by capital and the genocide of whole peoples. 

This demand was implicit in the 1996 Zapatista call for the formation of a national "front" --a misleadingly named network of interlinked local and regional mobilizations-- without political party affiliation and with a scope of political action that bypassed electoral politics. Its formal initiation in the Fall of 1997 sent a tremor of fear through the entire Mexican political establishment, both PRIista and oppositional. The explicit demand for fundamental constitutional reforms that would dismantle the current structures of power was enunciated by the Zapatistas in their forum on the Reform of the State and in the San Andres negotiations on Indigenous Rights. They were written into the final San Andres Accords --which were signed by government representatives but later repudiated as threats to the integrity of the nation. This rejection of the dominant illusions of democracy and the organization of creative, viable alternatives outside and against the state has had enormous appeal not only throughout Mexico but in many other countries as well --for many cynical resistance has begun to change into a new willingness to once more take up the problem of achieving real, democratic self-determination. 

On the other hand, the Zapatistas have quite explicitly rejected the dominant revolutionary project of the 20th Century: the seizure of state power and its consolidation in the hands of a revolutionary elite. While many have yearned to see one of those massive gatherings of hundreds of thousands of Zapatista supporters in Mexico City' Zocalo suddenly turn into a seizure of the Presidential Palace and a toppling of the PRIista state, the Zapatistas themselves have rejected such non-solutions and called for people to organize themselves autonomously from the state in ways that can lead not to its seizure but to its eclipse and abolition. This rejection has included an explanation of how they see the EZLN itself as but a mirror image of the Mexican Army and therefore entirely unqualified to replace it. The Zapatista Army with all of the formal hierarchies of any army is viewed as a distasteful and temporary tool to be discarded as quickly as possible. Indeed, in many ways their successful creation of new political spaces has already led to the demotion of the Zapatista Army to a largely symbolic role. 

The Zapatista political proposal is quite different. They offer their own experiences of successful community self-organization and of the effective weaving of networks of cooperation and collaboration among diverse communities as one, but not the only, example of practical alternatives to the modern state. This experience has been a complex one which has evolved over a period of many years and has confronted many obstacles within and among communities as well as those created by the efforts of the PRIista state to maintain its own structures of political control and the economic and social subordinations of those communities. Among those internal obstacles are racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious and gender differences which have long weakened the ability of these indigenous communities to develop alternatives capable of transcending a profound passive resistance to the dominant order. 

While discussion of these differences go beyond the scope of this talk, I do want to dwell briefly on one of these internal obstacles which has by no means been completely transcended but which has been confronted to the point of bringing about substantial and inspiring change. That obstacle is the profound patriarchal hierarchy which has pervaded indigenous communities and kept women in distinctly subaltern positions where they had little power over their own bodies and destinies and were forbidden to own land or exercise public responsibilities (cargoes). The Zapatista way of dealing with this obstacle has proceeded in at least two phases: first, the acceptance of women into the EZLN and a willingness to accord them rank, responsibility and command just like men, and second, the acceptance of an autonomous initiative of indigenous women to define and specify a series of women's rights that dramatically challenged the traditional structures of patriarchy. This was not, the EZLN leadership has emphasized, an according of rights from the top down, but an acceptance of rights demanded autonomously. This acceptance and embrace of women's autonomy on their own terms is prototypical of the centrality of autonomy in the Zapatista articulation of indigenous demands more generally. 
 
 

2. The key role of computer communications 

Chiapas, despite some long standing tourist interest in its ancient ruins and local indigenous color, occupies a relatively remote corner of Mexico. The daily travails and struggles of its largely indigenous and peasant population have historically been mainly of interest to anthropologists and linguists. The initial explosion of rebellion on January 1, 1994 led to spurt of media attention because it tore away the illusions crafted by the Mexican government and its Northern backers to surround and celebrate the initiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on that same day. But as the Mexican government responded to the rebellion by pouring some 15,000 troops into the highlands and the Zapatistas retreated into the jungles, this public visibility risked being purely momentary. Certainly the Mexican government downplayed the rebellion and sought to isolate it. As the body count dropped and fighting dwindled the Mexican government expected media presence began to evaporate and looked forward to the prospect of cleaning up an untidy and embarrassing situation out of public view using its normal brutal methods. 

This hope, however, proved futile as a wide variety of observers from elsewhere in Mexico and from abroad poured into Chiapas and solidarity crystallized in huge demonstrations in Mexico City and elsewhere. Before long such mobilization became an endless nightmare for the Mexican state and forced it to abandon an overt military solution and enter into the last thing it wanted: a formal dialog with the rebels in which it was forced to recognize the indigenous character of the rebellion and to negotiate. In this new political space the government did not know how to act and performed very poorly. The Zapatistas, however, won not only an ever wider audience but also ever wider respect and support. Eventually it would be revealed that the government's negotiations were extremely hypocritical and that not only were they laying the groundwork for an extensive low intensity (i.e., terrorist) war against the Zapatista communities but that they would --in the Spring of 1995 and again in the Winter of 1997-98-- return to the use of overt military force. Nevertheless, during the long hiatus between the end of fighting in January 1994 and the government's unilateral violation of cease-fire accords in February of 1995 the Zapatistas had the time not only to develop a spectacular political initiative, e.g., the National Democratic Convention that brought together grassroots and political movements from all over Mexico, but also to get their message out to the wider world in such a way as to inspire not only solidarity but new discussions and mobilizations about common concerns. 

Within Mexico the circuits of communication through which the Zapatista communiqus, interviews and stories circulated were largely traditional ones: a spate of books and collections, a few liberal newspapers and magazines, especially La Jornada and Proceso, the publications of formal political parties and organizations and a wide variety of informal networks in urban barrios and rural communities. 

Within Mexico the relatively new networks of computer communications played a subsidiary role, probably most importantly among those Mexican groups which had mobilized in opposition to NAFTA in the early 1990s and had elaborated Internet connections with their counterparts in the United States and Canada. It is important to remember that the Zapatistas themselves had no direct connection to the Internet, nor to any other means of wider communication and relied exclusively on the mediation of sympathetic individuals and organizations to get their message out. 

Outside of Mexico, however, the story was quite different. In the extremely rapid circulation of information about the Zapatista rebellion and of subsequent discussion and mobilization around the world computer communications played a decisive role. Whether media coverage was intense or non-existent, the Internet hummed with a steady and quite impressive flow of information generated from a wide variety of on-the-scene observers and distant analysts and commentators. The Zapatistas' ability to produce a surprising array of communiqus, letters, metaphorical stories and news bulletins provided a massive counterweight to government disinformation and media neglect. In moments of intensified conflict such information and analysis were downloaded by the megabyte and transformed into pamphlets, leaflets, newspaper articles, teach-ins, lectures and letters to the editor, all of which gave people far from Mexico a intense sense of the situation and fed local mobilizations protesting Mexican government repression. Within the context of a previous widespread organized opposition to NAFTA and equally widespread computer networks concerned with human rights violations, indigenous struggles, and women's issues, this flow of information generated an almost unprecedented breath of discussion political action. 

As more and more people became involved in these processes they brought their computer and artistic skills to elaborate discussion lists, PeaceNet conferences and an explosive proliferation of web sites. Larger numbers also meant a greater capacity for translation from Spanish into other languages and a further acceleration of the circulation of struggle. This was by no means the first time computer communications had played a key role in social struggle, but it quickly became a highly effective and widely recognized one. Even the media began to pick up on these hitherto largely invisible currents of communication that undermined and eclipsed their monopoly of and ability to limit and distort information but by providing means of almost instantaneous interactive discussion and collaboration dramatically accelerated the possibilities of long-distance organization. 

One interesting Zapatista initiative which reached out to the world using the Internet to involve others in the political debates inside Mexico was their Call for a plebiscite on their future political orientation. In an unprecedented move, that caught the government entirely off guard (once again), the Zapatistas talked Allianza Civica --a pro-democracy NGO-- into setting up thousands of polling booths in cities throughout Mexico where people could vote on a series of questions about the Zapatista program and methods. Participation was simultaneously opened to people throughout the world through the Internet which provided the means for circulating the questions and gathering the answers. Over a million people participated in this plebiscite in Mexico and over 81,000 people in 47 countries took part through the Internet. 

By early 1996, two years after the public appearance of the rebellion, these cyberspacial circuits of communication had reached into a wide variety of other struggles around the world. They provoked such extensive discussion of Zapatista politics and proposals that when the EZLN issued a call for continental and intercontinental encounters to exchange experiences of struggle and to compare notes of capitalist policies and strategies of resistance the response far outstripped all their expectations. Indeed, the Zapatista Call, which they issued with some trepidation, high hopes but low expectations generated a mobilization a scope and depth that no other individual group has been able to do in recent memory. Not only did thousands of people respond enthusiastically to the invitation and move quickly to organize a series of preliminary continental meetings. The organization of the European meetings, the Internet played a role in circulating ideas and proposals and the results of a series of face-to-face meetings. In North America, with the organization of the continental encounter in the hands of the Zapatistas, the Internet served mainly to circulate information about the event and collect applications for participation. The same pattern would be repeated for the Intercontinental Encounter, also held in Chiapas. For security reasons registration and certification was required for these meetings in Chiapas and was handled in each country. The Net circulated information about requirements for certification and communication between applicants and organizers. 

Over 3,000 grassroots activists from over 40 countries gathered in Chiapas in the Summer of 1996 for the Intercontinental Encounter. As many expected the meeting was tumultuous, even arduous, as a wide array of individuals with equally diverse backgrounds (in terms of both their struggles and organizing experience) came together to attempt a multi-sided, multi-lingual conversation about the state of the world and how to change it. Different kinds of people working within different political and theoretical perspectives shared their views on the state of the world and their proposals for struggle. All sorts of Marxists, feminists, environmentalists, indigenous organizers, social democrats, and human rights activists did their best to engage each other and to find common ground. 

This Intercontinental encounter was remarkable not for its difficulties but for achieving such a degree of coherency that virtually all concerned decided that they should be repeated as one vehicle for the continuation of the conversations begun. Out of that meeting came the decision to organize another --in Europe-- and enthusiasm for finding or creating not just periodical but an on-going conversations on a global scale about fighting capitalism and building alternatives. The Second Intercontinental Encounter was held in Spain in late July, 1997. 

Like the First Intercontinental the Second was largely organized via the Internet coupled with a series of face-to-face meetings of various groups in Spain. Ideas were circulated and discussed over various lists and conferences. As the time of the Encounter approached web sites were organized both in Spain and elsewhere in the world to carry the dozens of papers prepared for the meetings to all interested parties who were unable to attend. Voluntary translators multiplied these texts across linguistic barriers and made possible a multilingual multilogue at the meetings themselves. There was a quite conscious attempt to extend the Encounter beyond the 4,000 who showed up in Spain by providing daily reports on the Internet about the discussions being held. 

Originally, there were hopes to create real-time interactive text and video reporting from the Encounter but technical limitations on facilities available in Spain proved insuperable. Nevertheless, textual reports were generated regularly and the Italian participants proved adept at returning digitized audio and photographs from the meetings to their web sites. This material was not interactive but they certainly added depth, color and immediacy for those who were following events from afar. 

In the wake of the Second Intercontinental Encounter the associated web sites have maintained an archive of material to feed into future discussions and a variety of post-event evaluations and summations have circulated on the Internet and been added to those archives. Today computer communications with their networks of lists and web sites continue to provide an interactive flow of information about the ongoing struggles in Chiapas as well as of discussion about related struggles elsewhere. The explosion of net activity in the wake of the December 22, 1997 massacre of 47 men, women and children in Acteal, Chiapas and the widespread protests to which it has given rise is only the latest moment of the vibrancy of this technology at an international level. What we have experienced here seems to represent an historically new level of organizational capability whose potentialities we are only beginning to explore. Moreover, the legacy of these meetings has been an elaboration of an ever widening network of contacts and collaboration which has complemented, reinforced and expanded already existing networks. 
 
 

3. The Recognition of a Common Enemy 

From almost the beginning of their communications with the rest of the world, the Zapatistas have situated the policies of the Mexican government within the wider framework of what in Latin America is called Neoliberalism. By this is meant a set of policies which 1) privilege the market over government regulation, 2) mandate the privatization of state enterprises, 3) reduce constraints on business activity through the deregulation of both industry and finance, 4) reduce barriers to international trade and investment (both real and financial) and 5) impose the costs of these changes on both waged and unwaged workers through the slashing of government supports to consumption and the standard of living more generally. These have been the dominant policies in Mexico since the onset of the international debt crisis in the early 1980s and have been deepened under the recent regimes of Salinas and then Zedillo. The Zapatista rebellion and the pro-democracy upsurge to which it added emphasis helped precipitate the crisis of those policies by the end of 1994 as the flight of fearful hot money brought about the Peso collapse, a $50 billion bailout and renewed austerity and depression in Mexico. The Zapatista attack on Neoliberal policies, both before and after the Peso Crisis, has resonated across the Mexican body politic and forced a debate on these policies in which the government has been pushed back on the defensive and opposition has deepened and spread. 

As their discourse on this subject has circulated around the world it has also resonated in many other countries and social struggles as well. The Intercontinental Encounters, mentioned above, were subtitled "Against Neoliberalism and For Humanity." This provoked among the organizers and participants a comparison of Neoliberalism in Mexico and the rest of Latin America with Thatcherism in Britain, Maastricht & Schengen in Europe, IMF structural adjustment programs everywhere, Reagan - Bush - Clinton supply-side policies in the United States and so on. The result has been a widely shared perception of the unusually homogeneous character of capitalist policy in this period. Whereas we used to be able to contrast policies of development with those of underdevelopment in changing patterns of the global capitalist hierarchy of wages, income and standards of living, today we find, virtually everywhere a systematic attack on working class income coupled with continuing restructuring to decompose class power into new, more manageable configurations of capitalist accumulation. 

After several years in which the politics of resistance and struggle have been fragmented and weakened by certain theoretical tendencies so preoccupied with the rejection of "master narratives" that they blinded themselves to capitalist efforts to re-impose its own master narrative of exploitation and alienation on the entire world, this coalescence of recognition of a common enemy has provided a powerful sinew to knit together widely scattered struggles. Whereas the Zapatista demands for indigenous and women's autonomy and the rejection of any singular formula for political or social organization has made their struggle attractive to many so-called "post-modernists", their critique of Neoliberalism and capitalism has linked them firmly with the Marxist tradition of the revolutionary transcendence of capitalism. At the Intercontinental Encounters there were many who worried that while a great many participants might be willing to condemn and fight against Neoliberalism --because of its particularly nasty and retrograde character-- they would hesitate to embrace a rejection of capitalism tout court. These worries proved suprisingly and encouragingly unfounded and throughout the fabric of interconnections strengthened and expanded through these meetings the common rejection of capitalism is pervasive. 
 
 

4. Alternatives, Plural

The insistence of the Zapatistas on the creation and elaboration of a diverse array of alternatives to replace current capitalistinstitutions and relationships has been both the result of a conscious rejection of the revolutionary tradition of imagining the replacement of the current despised capitalist order by another preferred one, e.g., socialism or communism, and an outgrowth of their own experience with the politics of diversity in Chiapas. 

On the one hand, they have been critical of the way such replacement has in the past and would likely in the future only invert the structures of class power, e.g., the substitution of the dictatorship of the proletariat for the dictatorship of capital, and maintain rather than do away with the very class structures that need to be abolished. Thus, their refusal, mentioned above, of a politics of the seizure of power. 

On the other hand, the experience of their communities, out of which their politics have emerged has been that it is not only possible but highly desirable to eschew the generalized imposition of common rules in favor of a much richer diversity of cultures and ways of organizing and settling local affairs. That this is not a simple-minded withdrawal into localism can be seen in the willingness and abilities of these communities to collaborate with each other locally, regionally, nationally and even with others internationally. The EZLN itself was created by the communities as a collective project and its leadership is made up of people from many different ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups. Over the last four years the indigenous Zapatista communities have reached out across Mexico and helped weave hundreds of distinct groups into a linked web called the National Indigenous Congress. This organization of collaboration has no permanent institutional form, no central committee or steering group but a multitude of connections among autonomous knots which from time to time coalesce into assemblies for specific purposes. A key subset of these knots are now linked via computer. The Zapatistas have also provided key support for the formation of the Zapatista National Liberation Front that was formally inaugurated in Mexico City in September of 1997 and involves not only indigenous communities but a wide variety of grassroots movements both rural and urban. Once again, the object has not been the construction of a unified program or formal organization but the acceleration of the circulation of struggle and mutual aid. 

This insistence on the revolutionary project being a rupture of uniform rules has challenged the traditional rigid structures of Western constitutional states and offered the alternative of working out a more multidimensional politics across a greater array of social practices. While the Zapatista communities have considerable experience with such politics they have refused to recommend their own solutions to others. Instead they have pointed to the intolerability of current capitalist structures and called for others to apply their own imagination and creativity to the invention of other solutions. This open-ended proposal has stimulated widespread discussion and debate within Mexico and elsewhere.

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