One of the most base characteristics in the theoretical thinking of the left locates the proposals, concepts, analysis, tendencies, and theories that come from below as folklore—produced by those who haven’t been formed in academia.
With a stroke of the pen or the keyboard, not only does this impoverish emancipatory theory but it flatly lies about the origins of such theory.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Marxist, or anarchist, or revolutionary syndicalist or Blanquist. All of the diverse emancipatory theories were linked to a social process that made them not only possible, but inevitable. And so, for example, the League of the Banned—then the League of the Just, finally the Communist League–were composed of tailors, shoemakers, watchmakers. Those revolutionaries didn’t elaborate their theories in an academic context—more than that, often they did it under conditions of hunger or in prison–but among ordinary people with whom they worked and worked out ideas; and of course, in the midst of the great social confrontations: the revolution of 1830 in France, the revolution of 1848 in a great part of Europe, and of course the Paris Commune of 1871. That’s why Karl Marx coined a phrase that still today burns among many commentators about social struggles. “Every step of real movement is worth more than a dozen programs.” (Letter from K. Marx to W. Bracke, London, May 5, 1875.)
All of this is relevant because a group of commentators on reality from social media (that is where their praxis is located) have joined the chorus of attacks against Zapatismo, especially against Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. These commentators’ practical activity amounts to crossing the Eje Central in Mexico City in fear (not without asking someone for help because contact with the people provokes disgust). Their “argument” – which would be laughable if it weren’t so dishonest—consists in pointing out that he isn’t really anti-capitalist (with a good-natured tone, it’s very chic to suggest that he could be if only he were to study and understand the profound significance of the law of value and commodity fetishism).
One could ask “where do the people who make this critique locate themselves?” Or “what are the theoretical and practical bases from which they make it?” Of course it isn’t strange that they join the anti-Zapatista chorus, or that the fundamentals of their critique come along with a big dose of racist contempt. Many have lined up behind them. Octavio Rodriguez Araujo is at the front of the line with his cool version of “my passage through Zapatismo.”
The Zapatistas’ theoretical elaboration, at least that which they have made public, begins in 1994. They laid out a series of concepts and categories that, many years later, some famous writer took up, of course, without citing the origin of the proposal.
There are also those who, at the pinnacle of retrograde racism, proposed the idea that Zapatismo was fine for the jungle but not for the city [polis]. That the city [polis] is a complex society and not a simple one like indigenous society. The idea is very simple: Zapatismo shouldn’t mess with the intricacies of theoretical proposals, they should construct their caracoles, stay in the jungle and not weigh in on burning themes like neoliberalism, the market, finance capital, the crisis of the Nation-State, accumulation by dispossession, commodity fetishism (for anyone who wants a simple but profound explanation of what this last concepts means, I recommend the discourse of the deceased Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos in Altepexi, Puebla about maquila workers) etc. (Altepexi, Puebla, Acto Público de bienvenida)
But it turns out that Zapatismo not only has spoken about all those issues, but has constructed a method of approximation that, has at least two variants:
- As they have said: their theoretical reflection is a product of their practice.
- What they propose are not final judgments or closed theories, so beloved of those who fill their mouths speaking of science–those who don’t understand the important role that doubt has played historically in science. Of course, we are speaking of “scientific doubt” that calls into question revealed truths. For science, every truth, in order to be scientific, has to be refutable. An “indisputable” scientific truth is therefore an oxymoron. A characteristic of all of the theoretical elaboration of the companeras is the “precautionary principle,” bound up with the following idea: “that’s how we see things, but who knows how you do?” They analyze economic, social, and political processes trying to locate the underlying trends that are expressed in them. And it has to be said: almost all of the trends identified by them have been demonstrated to be realities.
Why this precaution? I think there are three reasons:
- They are modest and their way of explaining things doesn’t involve the pedantry of desk theorists.
- They begin from an ethical principle that is profoundly alien not only to the theorists on social media, but also to the intellectuals in the academy who never or almost never take responsibility for what they write. One week they propose an idea, reality demonstrates the next day that their approach was completely mistaken, and they never reconsider their analysis to indicate explicitly the error or the horror, they just pass onto the next theme without the slightest embarrassment. By contrast, the Zapatistas’ word has value. When they write or say something, that something has been the product of a long process of reflection and not something that just occurred in the moment. And therefore they take responsibility for what they say. They don’t forget what they said, they have it present, they pursue the analysis of the historical trend they have identified—they see if others have other ideas, and then, via practice, they discover who was right. But, this doesn’t lead them to sing victory or to claim superiority. A new trend opens before their eyes and they begin the entire (practical-analytical) process again.
- Since their theoretical reflection is the product of their practice, they must be constantly measuring against reality those trends that they have inferred from new practices. They leave to others the confidence to disqualify a movement that said NO! Enough!–at a time when the end of history had been decreed, and a “new world order,” proclaimed; and when resignation had adorned itself with the cloak of cynicism.
Stupid things are said, like that Zapatismo is a “chic ethics” or that they aren’t completely anti-capitalist (despite the fact that this is how they define themselves) because they don’t understand the theory of value and commodity fetishism. Those who have said this last aren’t serious students of the works of Marx. They haven’t even read the fundamental works of Marxism, they only seek to be in “fashion” without knowing that, as Walter Benjamin said:
“Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands.” (Walter Benjamin: Theses on the Philosophy of History)
They interpret Marx through the lenses of Robert Kurz (who died in 2012). On this occasion, I’m not interested in debating the thesis of Kurz which besides having some interesting things, reveals the terrible result of someone who spews contempt toward ordinary people, who live, grow and relate to the streets or to the land. Kurz never spoke with ordinary people nor looked to find common ground with them, he didn’t even try to understand them, or even really to see them. It strikes me that those little people who grab onto Kurz in order to critique the Zapatistas and “demonstrate” why they are not really anti-capitalists—or that they’re not yet, though maybe some day, if they listen to them (they don’t say this but it’s suggested), they will come to be anti-capitalists—overlooking something fundamental: What are the concrete expressions, the practices, of Zapatista anti-capitalism?
Let’s look in some detail at the problem.
In a series of memorable paragraphs, Subcomandante Galeano, in the name of the Zapatistas, in reference to the discourse of five different generations of Zapatista women, pointed out the following – original source text in Spanish:
“Zapatismo can’t be explained by itself, it needs concepts, theories and critical thinking to become aware of itself. You have all heard or read the marvelous genealogy of the struggle of Zapatista women, their heroism, their stubborn tenacity, but something is missing.
“This rebellion and resistance could grow, develop and extend itself to an extent that now surprises, and even frightens us, only when there existed the material base that made it concrete. It wasn’t until women began to detach themselves from economic dependence on men, that the passage from theory to reality happened. It wasn’t until their cooperatives emerged, their own projects, not until they appropriated the economy, did they take off. The tireless work of the Ramonas, the Susanas, and all the Zapatista women who dis-oriented [ok, that was a little macho slip], who inspired other women; and those, others still—all of this was possible and is possible because the women don’t depend economically on men.
“And let me tell you that this itself was possible only after at least two fundamental transformations: one, the change in ownership of the means of production; and the other, making and implementing their own decisions–that is, politics. To explain this, I’ve used the tools of political economy. Without those, you could think that all of this was a question of will, of resolve, commitment, militancy.
“The natural sciences recognize the principle of the excluded middle. (Actually, in reality it is written as the “Tercio Excluido” (the excluded third) but the “Tercios Compas” , well we’re Zapatistas and we resist. This principle is actually very simple: a thing can’t both be and not be. That is, in identical conditions, a premise will always have one and only one conclusion. [there is no third possibility] In the social sciences, the dizzying rhythm of change in the very conditions of our premises means that when the theorist arrives to reality very excited about what he has to offer [“loco de contento con su cargamento,” [Editor’s note, translates loosely as: crazy happy with his products], reality has already transformed itself.
“Unless he’s a cynic who only wants to preserve his grant or his job, the critical thinker would have to come and go continually from reality to theory, in such a way and with such speed that it’s not surprising that pretty soon he’d get nauseous and vomit. The social scientist doesn’t have to redo everything, as they would have it in social networks and the paid media. The social scientist doesn’t have to rediscover fire every time he wants to register the multiple conflagrations that are growing and spreading in social reality. He starts from a theoretical framework, some fundamental ideas, scientific concepts, a theoretical base.
“For example in the science of political economy, there is the theory of value or the theory that orients us to look for general explanations in material conditions. To begin from the ownership of the means of production, circulation and consumption of commodities (we have added “the means of dispossession,” for reasons we will explain), and the social relations of production that this mode of ownership imposes.
“Those theories, those concepts – are they only good intentions, notions, more or less structured ideologies?
“Do they serve to explain a reality? For example, can the genealogy of the capitalist system be explained without the concept of the commodity, without the theory of value? Or to put it more provocatively, can the birth and development of capitalism be explained adequately with concepts and theories that are contrary to and that contradict the theories and concepts of political economy ?” (Critical Thought confronts the Capitalist Hydra, Volume 1).
So, is there something lacking for them to qualify as anti-capitalist? Do they need to read Kurz? Ha!
In these paragraphs, from my point of view, at least four fundamental elements of the anti-capitalist practice and theory of the Zapatistas can be found. Whoever was able to hear the narratives of the five Zapatista compañeras was profoundly moved. What we heard was evidence of “the struggle to transit from sorrow to hope.” We heard of the transit from life under the domination of the landowners to the construction of new social relationships. But the narrative didn’t take form based in a closed, hard, boring discourse, but from the perspective of those who told, in a completely natural way, the story of their great and heroic creation.
And then the Sup, based on that practical experience, creates and recreates a series of key concepts:
a) This was possible, only due to a change in the ownership of the means of production.
But that change in ownership has happened many times in history; what’s different here is that we’re not dealing with a “state-ization” of the means of production, but with their socialization. And the difference is not trivial. The process of organization that has permitted the creation of new social relations has its material basis in the social appropriation of the means of production, especially the land.
Everything changes as a result. The laws of commerce are modified. The new owners of the means of production decide the form, the structure, the rhythms—everything that has to do with work, the product and the distribution of the social surplus happens based on social criteria.
Work stops being a social relationship imposed by private interests that determine the objectives and the rhythms of production and that appropriate unpaid labor time for their own personal benefit.
Equally, work ceases to be imposed by a state bureaucracy that determines the objectives and the rhythms of production, and that, even though it distributes a little less badly the products of unpaid labor time, it appropriates a fundamental part, leading to corruption and a process over the long term of the configuration of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie.
In both of these forms of control of the means of production mentioned above, the product of labor not only doesn’t belong to the direct producers, but is the basis of exploitation and domination.
But when the direct producers have control of the productive process because they are the owners of the means of production, then the key idea of the society that we are struggling for— “the free association of producers”— becomes reality.
b) But this fact isn’t only located in an economic relationship but in something equally profound: “the making and implementation of their own decisions.” For those obsessed with ontology, what is the difference here between subject and object? Can they be separated? Is it possible to construct an other social relationship if the appropriation of the means of production isn’t accompanied by “making and implementing their own decisions” on the part of the producers? Can they make and implement their own decisions without appropriating the means of production? Isn’t this the real basis of the concept of freedom? Isn’t this the material basis of the concept of dignity? Isn’t this the material basis s of the concept of democracy? Isn’t this antagonistic to the law of value and the fetishism of commodities?
c) And the law of value? And the fetishism of commodities? If the social relations of production change and if the community (not a boss, not the state, not the government, not a bureaucrat, not even a revolutionary) decides the form that the relations of production are going to take and if they are defined in terms of the collective interest and there is no private appropriation of the social surplus, then only someone who is completely obtuse who doesn’t have any point of view beyond that of a screen, whether large or small, can say “that isn’t anti-capitalism, but maybe some day it will be.”
If we understand that the fundamental basis of the law of value has to do with the appropriation and control of life via the appropriation of unpaid work, then the response is obvious. If we understand that the basis of the fetishism of commodities is the external, alien character that production has for the producer—which makes it possible that commodities take on life before stunned eyes and begin to dance–,then we understand why in the Zapatista communities, the people dance with excess, they all dance and celebrate their creation, not the reverse.
d) But neither do they have the idea that what they are constructing is a phalanstery that exists on the margin of capitalist social relations of production. Nor the caricature that Kurz makes when he says:
“In recent years this formula has been used more and more in the sense of being a cooperativist economic alternative, “to the side” of the social synthesis engineered by capital and that in some way it would gradually spread. This simply provides continuity to particularism, ‘colored’” postmodern. Certainly, the formation of a negative society (negative Vegesellschaftung) of capitalism can only be overcome in its entirety, or it will not be overcome” (The era of capitalism has passed).
The Zapatistas have taken as their flagship phrase “what’s missing is missing.” Their heroic constructions, carried out in the Zapatista zones are only a demonstration that society can be organized in another way.
That the objective can’t be confined to a territory, a region, a state, a country, a continent, a world… That it is indeed possible to construct other social relations. That it is a lie that the egoism of humanity will inevitably impede any common egalitarian, collective construction. That capitalism is totally overcome or it will not be overcome.
That five continents speak and that all listen. That humanity suspend a moment its silence, of shame, and anguish. That humanity speak. That humanity listen…
In their world, those who live in Power and kill for Power don’t fit within the human. There is no space for hope, no space for the future. Slavery or death is the alternative that that world offers to all other worlds. The world of money, the world of the others, governs from the stock market. Speculation is today the principle source of wealth and at the same time, the best demonstration of the atrophy of the human capacity to work. It is no longer necessary to work to produce wealth, now all that’s necessary is speculation. (Second Declaration of La Realidad For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, August1996
No the idea isn’t to make six, seven caracoles, each operating in its own way, but what I think is at the base of the anti-capitalist thought of Zapatismo is that it is indispensable to confront the motherlodes of capitalism: private property in the means of production, and the domination that enables the society to survive or die without having control of its life. How is it to be achieved? The Zapatistas never say to others what they must know, do, and above all, discover. For that they have posed the key question on which real movement advances. Therefore, that step is indispensable to be able to generate (with a codified program or not) the bases of liberation.
That is a little more complicated that living with the pleasure of having a group of 8 whose mouths open wide with the face of “Oh, the scholar has spoken!” It’s an embarrassment. No, not everyone can do it. No, not everyone can be the subterranean drone named Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, but at least we should temper our judgements. But, in the end, each one with their flock.
A different idea can only take off from something that is profoundly unknown by this type of person. In order to arrive at that complex vision of political economy and of life, the Zapatistas leave us a footprint through which we can advance; obviously, it isn’t simple, but it is a path:
It is necessary to re-educate desire. To teach desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way. (Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Desde las montañas del sureste mexicano, Agosto de 1996).
There are 137 characters, three less than his universe. I don’t know, it could be, that in one of those, you will understand.
Translation by the Solidarity Committee with Chiapas, East Coast