Sacred Headwaters #52: TINA Pt 5 - the Zapatistas
In Chiapas, Mexico, a coalition of Indigenous peoples oversees a large swathe of autonomous territory. These Zapatistas are building lives free from the control of neoliberal globalization.
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Issue #52: TINA Pt 5 – the Zapatistas
This is the fifth issue focused on challenging the concept of TINA: “there is no alternative.” This newsletter has spent a lot of time critiquing capitalism and liberalism. Faced with critique, proponents of this ideological hegemony often cede ground but defend their position by saying, either explicitly (like Margaret Thatcher) or implicitly, that this status quo is the best we can do. All we can “realistically” strive for are tweaks around the margins. The ecological reality of the 21st century requires that we challenge that premise, and thankfully, humans have consistently proved it wrong over the vast majority of our 200,000 years on this planet. In this series, we are reading about historical and contemporary examples of and theories of human organization that disprove the determinism of TINA advocates.
Issue #52: TINA Pt 5 - the Zapatistas (May 17th, 2022)
The Lacandon Jungle, in what is now Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala, was once second only to the Amazon in terms of size and biodiversity. Both the forest and the Indigenous peoples that lived in the region have been devastated by centuries of colonial exploitation, first by the Spanish, later by American logging companies, then by Mexican state-owned enterprises and oil companies, and now, again, by northern capital. More than 70% of the region has been deforested since the 1970s, which was already a heavily exploited baseline.
The history of the Indigenous peoples of the greater region is similar to that of the land. Those that weren’t killed were exploited as slaves through the Spanish encomienda system or otherwise forced to flee their homelands. In the mid 20th century, the Mexican government began forcing and encouraging historically displaced Indigenous peoples from other areas into the Lacandon as part of a push to settle the rainforest, accelerate logging, and build a cattle ranching industry (supported by international development agencies like the World Bank). Then, in the 1970s, Mexico reversed course, transferred most of the land in the region to a handful of families and sent in the military to remove many of the Indigenous settlers that it had encouraged just decades earlier.
From this turbulent context, on January 1st, 1994 — the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect — the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) burst forth, taking control of a large part of the region and declaring it autonomous territory. They called NAFTA “a ‘death certificate’ for Indigenous people” and explicitly opposed neoliberalism and global capitalism, pointing out the ways that treaties like NAFTA allow global capital to exert control over land and people anywhere in the world.
The armed conflict was brief and the Zapatistas have retained control of the region ever since, though the Mexican government has consistently pursued counter-insurgency tactics and supported questionably independent paramilitary groups that constantly threaten Zapatista communities.
Over the 28 years since declaring self-governance, the Zapatistas have built systems of direct democracy, locally focused education, and agroecological food production with a focus on regional self-sufficiency. At the same time, they’ve worked to cultivate an international movement, sending emissaries around the world to build connections with other subaltern communities fighting neoliberal globalization.
While the idea of seizing a chunk of overexploited land, defending it, and learning to build self-sufficiency on it while cultivating systems of radical democracy might not seem like a plausible path forward for you or I (though maybe it is???), what’s so inspiring about the Zapatista project is their commitment to what Arturo Escobar calls the “pluriverse:” as the Zapatista put it, they are fighting for “un mundo donde quepan todos los mundos.” A world in which many worlds fit.
To achieve that world, they understand and communicate exactly what I’ve come to believe through the course of this newsletter: an inclusive, pluriversal world cannot coexist with neoliberal capitalism, a hegemonic system of domination that requires constant expansion and the commodification of everything.
The Zapatistas are an excellent case study (and inspiration) because their approach covers every aspect of societal transformation. Issue #47 on the Transition Town movement raised the question of whether efforts towards local self-sufficiency and autonomy can actually transform society more broadly without simultaneously challenging systems and power structures. The Zapatistas combine both vectors, working to create ecologically sound, self-governing communities (alternative systems) while simultaneously challenging power with an informed (and militant) critique of global political economy.
This issue is an introduction to the Zapatista movement — their history; their local efforts towards radical democracy, place-based education, and ecological health; and their political outreach and education both within Mexico and abroad.
The Unknown Icon (20 minutes)
Naomi Klein, The Guardian, 2001
In this piece, Klein gives a brief history of the Zapatista movement and explores “Zapatismo,” the holistic political theory or way of being underlying the Zapatista revolution. She also outlines how the Zapatistas leveraged the Internet (very early on!) to build international solidarity and attract attention in ways that were ultimately critical to their success — possibly even staving off US military intervention in the first weeks of the rebellion. Klein focuses on the communiques of Subcomandante Marcos, the masked poet-philosopher who serves as spokesperson of the EZLN and on how the Zapatistas have turned what began as an armed rebellion into a novel political force both in Mexico and internationally. Some of their tactics are concrete and replicable: the Zapatistas have held multiple “encuentros,” mass public assemblies that include people beyond the Zapatista community. They went on a tour through southern Mexico to the capital, advocating for Indigenous rights — the event that spurred Klein to write this essay. And a few years later, during a presidential election, they created “The Other Campaign,” a nationwide political campaign focused not on the election, but on raising the issues of marginalized communities entirely left out of mainstream politicking. Just a few months ago, a Zapatista envoy traveled to Europe as part of a “Journey for Life,” connecting with movements against neoliberalism throughout the continent.
There are two particularly interesting pieces that Klein draws out in this essay. First, she suggests that many North American activists who led the anti-globalization protests (Seattle WTO protests etc.) were heavily influenced by first or second hand encounters with the Zapatistas. She wrote this in 2001, but it’s not a stretch to draw a line from there to Occupy Wall Street and on to the (seeming) resurgence of the left in the US today. We perhaps owe the Zapatistas a great debt of gratitude in that regard.
Second, Klein explains how their revolutionary philosophy is distinct from typical leftwing revolutions that seek to build state power: the Zapatistas, like the residents of Rojava, do not intend to seize state power. Their goal is to end neoliberal state interference in their lives, and with it, to end the interference of global capital in their lives and everyone else’s, interference that they rightly recognize depends entirely on state power. As Subcomandante Marcos noted (quoted in the article): they are seeking “a revolution that makes revolution possible,” building a “world where many worlds fit.”
Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (50 minutes)
EZLN, June 2005
This declaration was published by the EZLN in 2005 and it represents something between a history, a raison d’etre, and an action plan. It’s written in the classic Zapatista style that Klein spoke of above: the words are simple and to the point, poetic and playful. They joke that they probably shouldn’t send revolutionary movements in Europe pozol, a fermented corn beverage, because it might hurt their stomachs and allow the neoliberals to win. This simple, straightforward language is particularly elucidative in section III — “How We See The World” — in which the Zapatistas explain capitalism and what western academics call the “neoliberal turn.” This section is brilliant. I’ve spent 52 issues trying to explain these words and processes, including an issue specifically on “What is Neoliberalism” that may well have muddied the waters more than it clarified them. This Zapatista explanation is easy to read and understand yet still communicates a deeply nuanced understanding of the political dynamics at play.
Capitalism is a social system, a way in which a society goes about organizing things and people, and who has and who has not, and who gives orders and who obeys. In capitalism, there are some people who have money, or capital, and factories and stores and fields and many things, and there are others who have nothing but their strength and knowledge in order to work. In capitalism, those who have money and things give the orders, and those who only have their ability to work obey.
Towards the end, the Zapatistas take a positive turn, speaking of how many different movements and groups of people they’ve encountered and collaborated with that are actively rebelling — each in their own way — against neoliberalism. It’s hard to write about the processes of what they call neoliberal globalization and stay positive, but that’s what this series of newsletter issues is about, and it’s what the Zapatistas insist on emphasizing: there are subaltern communities fighting for life, proving there are alternatives, all over the world. Together, “we will win one hundred times over.”
Food Sovereignty in Rebellion: Decolonization, Autonomy, Gender Equity, and the Zapatista Solution (10 minutes)
Levi Gahman, The Solutions Journal, August 19th 2016
This piece includes a bit more of the history of the Zapatista movement and then dives in, based on the author’s experience visiting the region, to the Zapatistas holistic efforts towards developing place-based, experiential education, towards food sovereignty, and towards gender equity. It helps elucidate what the Zapatista slogan “One No, Many Yeses” really means — in rebelling against neoliberal globalization, they are expressing their “One No.” By building new ways of life that aren’t dependent on the global web of capital, they are developing “Many Yeses.” It’s hard for us to see from the North how important food sovereignty is to escaping neoliberal globalization because we’re so far removed from subsistence agriculture, but in the Global South, food production is an active site of struggle. Companies like Monsanto frequently bully governments into land and legal reforms that make smallholder subsistence farming impossible and pave the way for large-scale industrial agriculture to move in and subjugate local communities to the market. Developing food sovereignty — and especially doing so by using ecologically sound practices to restore heavily degraded land, as is the case in much of Zapatista territory — is itself an act of militant rebellion against neoliberal globalization, and the Zapatistas are keenly aware of that.
What the Zapatistas prove through their resistance (i.e., efforts in autonomous education, decolonization, and gender equity) is that a recognition of Indigenous people’s right to self-determination, in conjunction with anti-capitalist collective work and movements toward food sovereignty, can indeed provide viable alternatives to the world’s neoliberal food regime as well as revolutionize the struggle for food security.
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