Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of "Change the World Without Taking Power"


posted to www.marxmail.org on June 7, 2003


As should be clear to even the most casual observer on the left, the Chiapas rebellion has become as much of a paradigm for the post-Marxist left as October 1917 was for an earlier generation of Marxists. The collapse of the USSR, the difficulties faced by socialist Cuba and an ostensibly brand-new way of doing politics in Chiapas put wind in the sails of ideological currents that never were committed to classical Marxism to begin with, including the autonomist and anarchist movements. In contrast to the anarchists, autonomism has positioned itself as retaining the emancipatory core of Marxism, while disposing of the dross. This is one of the central messages of John Holloway's "To Change the World Without Taking Power". We will assess this claim in due time, but first some background on the Zapatista left in general and how it took shape.


Although the Chiapas revolt grew out of Mayan resentment over unemployment, land hunger, racism and other injustices that face indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, it transformed itself very rapidly into a global movement that at time appeared as spokes radiating from Subcommandante Marcos's laptop, just as an earlier generation rotated around the Kremlin.


The Zapatistas became hosts of a series of 'encuentros' (encounters) in Mexico and elsewhere, the first of which was held in Chiapas in August 1996, two and a half years after the start of their revolt. Some 3,000 guests from 43 different countries came together as part of an International Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity to discuss how to "change the world".


With the armed revolt at an end, the EZLN had begun to explore nonviolent options. According to the August 5, 1996 Guardian, some high profile guests including Danielle Mitterrand (the wife of the French social democratic leader), Eduardo Galeano and Douglas Bravo were encouraged by this transition. Bravo was himself a former guerrilla fighter in Venezuela during the 1960s but became committed to a kind of "civil society" reformism that eventually led him to join the opposition to Hugo Chavez.


When asked what he expected from the gathering, Subcommandante Marcos said: "I haven't a damn clue." This led French intellectual Regis Debray to comment. "This is a return to the essential resistance." Debray, like Bravo, was once part of the foquismo left in Latin America but in more recent years has become part of the French cultural establishment, serving for a time as adviser to President Mitterand whose wife shared Debray's enthusiasms for heterodox leftisms.


These encuentros had a tremendously energizing effect on the post-Marxist left in the same way that Comintern conferences in the early 1920s had on people like John Reed. Unlike the Comintern, these gatherings adopted the discourse of the anti-globalization movement. Instead of hearing Bukharin presenting an analysis of the latest stage of imperialism, the delegations focused on 'neoliberalism', privatization and other symptoms of the underlying capitalist crisis. The search for solutions in Chiapas stopped short of obviously passé measures such as socialist revolution.


Even though the imagination-challenged Marxist movement tended to shy away from these gatherings, as early as the second--held in Spain in 1996--some stodgy participants were beginning to get impatient and think in terms of goals, even though this was the last thing on Subcommandante's mind. As Gustavo Esteva writes in the collection "Auroras of the Zapatistas" (Midnight Notes, 2001), a tension arose between those "who fully enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share with others" and those who sought "a manifesto, an organization, a political platform…"


By 1998, the encuentros began to shift perceptibly toward becoming the anti-globalization movement of today (well, perhaps not post 9/11, but of a couple of years ago at least). Yale Professor David Graeber, who has become a highly visible opponent of Marxism and defender of this new way of doing politics (or rather not doing politics), claims that this movement was born in Barcelona that year:


"The real origins of the movement, for example, lie in an international network called People's Global Action (PGA). PGA emerged from a 1998 Zapatista encuentro in Barcelona, and its founding members include not only anarchist groups in Spain, Britain and Germany, but a Gandhian socialist peasant league in India, the Argentinian teachers' union, indigenous groups such as the Maori of New Zealand and Kuna of Ecuador, the Brazilian landless peasants movement and a network made up of communities founded by escaped slaves in South and Central America."




One year later the Seattle protests erupted and the world's attention became riveted on this new movement that apparently had its origins in Chiapas, Mexico. While some of the popularizers of this new movement put their message across in the mass media, a significant number were based in academia. At the University of Texas, Harry Cleaver synthesized autonomist Marxism and fashionable ideas about the power of the Internet in order to advance the idea that Subcommandante Marcos's laptop represented something entirely new. He writes:


"The rhizomatic pattern of collaboration has emerged as a partial solution to the failure of old organizational forms; it has --by definition-- no single formula to guide the kinds of elaboration required. The power of The Net in the Zapatista struggle has lain in connection and circulation, in the way widely dispersed nodes of antagonism set themselves in motion in response to the uprising in Chiapas."


While it would be foolish to underestimate the power of the Internet, one might plausibly raise the question of whether technical-organizational dichotomies between hierarchies and networks get to the heart of the challenges facing the left. As we move into a period of deepening social and economic crisis punctuated by brutal imperialist adventures, the Internet will eventually become part of the political landscape just as the mimeograph was in years past. But technology can be no substitute for a careful assessment of the relationship of class forces on the ground and intelligent strategies and tactics based on that analysis.


A balance sheet on the progress made by the EZLN in overcoming historic injustices to the Mayan people must be made on the basis of tangible gains. It is doubtful whether the Internet can ever serve as a panacea for problems that nag away at the Mexican left, Chiapas included. While the telephone and mimeograph machine undoubtedly did a lot to empower the trade union and social movements in the USA, it was ultimately strategy and tactics that determined the outcome.


Turning now to John Holloway's "To Change the World Without Taking Power", we enter a terrain where such mundane matters seem to matter little. Taking Subcommandante Marcos's refusal to specify goals or the methods necessary to achieve them as a starting point, Holloway has written a book that effectively inflates the Zapatista style of politics into a post-Marxist Communist Manifesto.


For narrow-minded technicians like myself who like to keep databases of such things, this is now the third new communist manifesto to occupy a place on my bookshelf alongside Hardt-Negri's "Empire" (Zizek, "Nothing less than a rewriting of the Communist Manifesto for our time") and Guattari-Negri's "Communists Like Us" which purports modestly to "rescue 'communism' from its own disrepute."


At first blush, all of these books seem driven by the need to proceed directly to something called communism without passing go. All the sordid business associated with what Bukharin called "the transition period" will somehow be leapfrogged by a monumental act of will, especially the bugbear of the autonomist movement: the state.


In chapter two (Beyond the State), Holloway argues that it doesn't do any good for working people to create their own state: "If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed." Correctly observing that China and Russia failed to "promote the reign of freedom", Holloway manages to avoid any reference to Cuba. Since Cuba defies any easy pigeonholing as a totalitarian dungeon, it tends to be swept under the rug in autonomist literature.


Holloway explains that Marxist assumptions about transforming society fail to take into account that "capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations". So, it becomes an exercise in futility to smash the capitalist state and replace it with a workers state of the kind conceived by Lenin in "State and Revolution" for to do so would simply re-introduce oppressive power relations, especially those refracted through a nominally socialist society's ties to the outside capitalist world. Or, as the Who once put it in "Won't Get Fooled Again":


We'll be fighting in the streets

With our children at our feet

And the morals that they worship will be gone

And the men who spurred us on

Sit in judgement of all wrong

They decide and the shotgun sings the song


Holloway expresses the same sentiments in a more polished manner: "You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost."


Far be it for me to even suggest that something as passé as Marxist dialectics can still have some value, it would appear to me that speaking in terms of power versus non-power cedes too much to formal logic. While it is true that a woman cannot be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, certain social phenomena have contradictory aspects. For example, when Father Gapon organized a demonstration to present a petition to the Czar, some 200,000 St Petersburg workers marched behind him with pictures of the Tsar, religious icons and church banners. Instead of dismissing this as a genuflection before Czarism, Trotsky saw the other side of the process: "Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St Petersburg, he merely released it and events completely overtook him."


Oddly enough, despite a tendency toward cryptic formulations, Subcommandante Marcos himself can be quite specific on the value of power:


"When we governed, we lowered to zero the rate of alcoholism, and the women here became very fierce and they said that drink only served to make the men beat their women and children, and to act barbarically, and therefore they gave the order that no drink was allowed, and that we could not allow drinking to go on, and the people who received the most benefit were the children and women, and the ones most damaged were the businessmen and the government...


"The destruction of trees also was prohibited, and laws were made to protect the forests, and the hunting of wild animals was prohibited, even if they were from the government, and the cultivation, consumption and trafficking in drugs were prohibited, and these laws were upheld. The infant death rate went way down, and became very small, just like the children are. And the Zapatista laws were applied uniformly, without regard for social position or income level. And we made all of the major decisions, or the 'strategic' ones, of our struggle, by means of a method that they call the 'referendum' and the 'plebiscite'. And we got rid of prostitution and unemployment disappeared as well as begging. The children had sweets and toys. And we made many errors and had many failures. And we also accomplished what no other government in the world, regardless of its political affiliation, is capable of doing honestly, and that is to recognize its errors and to take steps to remedy them."


Full: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/ezln/marcos_one_year.html


In a certain sense, attempts to seize power and transform all of society along the lines described by the Subcommandante are doomed to failure unless humanity overcomes something called "fetishization" which functions in Holloway's schema as a kind of tragic flaw, like Oedipus's pride or Dr. Frankenstein's mad desire to create life from the parts of dead bodies.


As most people are probably aware, fetish is a term that has its origins in anthropology. It is a charm or amulet that has magical powers for so-called primitive peoples. It is etymologically related to the word factitious, which means artificial. Freud and other experts on abnormal psychology have used the word to describe sexual attachments to objects like shoes and other garments. For example, according to the tell-all memoir of his mistress, President Salinas of Mexico had an Imelda Marcos-like fetish for charro suits, the silver-buckled outfits and matching sombrero, boots and spurs worn by mariachi singers. She reported that over 70 were hidden away in his closet.


Holloway uses the term in its Marxist sense, which he describes as a "central category" in Capital even though "it is almost completely ignored by those who regard themselves as Marxist economists". As understood by Marx and by Holloway as well, it is tied up with alienation, especially that between the worker and the commodity he or she produces. He sees fetishization as the main target for those who would change the world: "Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanization of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism." But Holloway takes Marx one step further. It is not simply the separation between worker and commodity; it is also by extension the separation between doing and done, and between subject and object. Thus, what begins as an attempt grounded in political economy to elucidate how capitalism appears to the ruled as a permanent system shades off into a kind of philosophical critique of Cartesian dualism:


"Constitution and existence are sundered. The constituted denies the constituting, the done the doing, the object the subject. The object constituted acquires a durable identity. It becomes an apparently autonomous structure. This sundering (both real and apparent) is crucial to the stability of capitalism. The statement that 'that's the way things are' presupposes that separation. The separation of constitution and existence is the closure of radical alternatives."


Leaving aside the question of how to translate this sort of thing into a punchy leaflet that will grab the attention of the average worker, it does not really convey what Marx was all about in philosophical terms. As a materialist, Marx saw human beings as part of the physical universe: "The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature." (German Ideology)


Within this context, ideas arise from social relationships: "The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour." (German Ideology)


While expressed in somewhat different terms than Holloway's heterodox views on "fetishization", the notion ideas arising from material conditions conveys much more accurately Marx's understanding of the relationship between humanity, ideology and class society. Historical and material conditions govern the way we think. In order to become free human beings unconstrained by bourgeois ideology, it is necessary to abolish commodity production, which is the substratum of bourgeois society. Struggles against "fetishism" are rather futile as long as commodity production is generalized throughout society.


For Marx, the only way to overcome alienation (and fetishism, by implication) is to change material conditions:


"This 'alienation' (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an 'intolerable' power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity 'propertyless', and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the 'propertyless' mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones." (German Ideology; emphasis added)


This is the reason that Marxists have historically targeted the state. In order to achieve a classless society, it is necessary to develop the productive forces to such a high degree that competition for goods becomes more and more unnecessary. As leisure time and the general level of culture increases, human beings will enjoy a level of freedom that has never been attainable in class society.


For a variety of reasons, socialist revolutions have occurred in backward countries where the development of productive forces has been hampered by a number of factors, including imperialist blockade, technological and industrial underdevelopment, low productivity of labor and the need to stave off invasions and subversion--in other words, the kinds of conditions that make a country like Cuba fall short of communist ideals. Notwithstanding Cuba's difficulties, the revolution has made a significant impact on peoples' lives, so much so that it earned the praise of James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, in May of 2001: "Cuba has done a great job on education and health and if you judge the country by education and health they've done a terrific job."


Wolfensohn was simply recognizing the reality of statistics in the bank's World Development Indicators report that showed Cubans living longer than other Latin Americans, including residents of the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Literacy levels were on a par with Uruguay, while the life expectancy rate was 76 years, second only to Costa Rica at 77. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.


While it is true that Cuba is enmeshed in a myriad of ways within the world capitalist economy, it did withdrew from the World Bank and its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, in 1959. Despite the collapse of the USSR and continuing efforts to destroy the country economically by the USA, Cuba continues to develop its productive capabilities and raise the cultural level of the people.


Turning to Chiapas, the general picture is far less encouraging. In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled "Infant Deaths Plague Mexico", we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate - five times the national average.


While nobody can blame the EZLN for failing to make a revolution in Mexico, we would be remiss if we did not point out the obvious material differences between the two societies, especially in the countryside where poverty has traditionally been extreme. With its abundant natural resources, including oil and fertile farmland, it is not too difficult to imagine how much of a difference a socialist Mexico would have made in the lives of the poor.


For John Holloway, access to decent medical care seems far less important than "visibility", a term that he sees as practically defining Zapatismo and presumably missing altogether in dreary Cuban state socialism. This is expressed through the balaclava, the mask that Subcommandante wore at press conferences and which has since been appropriated by Black Block activists breaking Starbucks windows in the name of anti-capitalism: "The struggle for visibility is also central to the current indigenous movement, expressed most forcefully in the Zapatista wearing of the balaclava: we cover our face so that we can be seen, our struggle is the struggle of those without face."


While every movement certainly needs an element of mystique, it is doubtful that the Zapatista movement could sustain itself over the long haul using such symbols. Nor is it likely that it could succeed without linking up to a dynamic, rising mass movement in the rest of Mexico. Localized peasant struggles have a long history in Mexico going back to the 19th century. If you strip away the balaclava and Subcommandante Marcos's laptop, you will find all the elements that ultimately frustrated the efforts of the original Zapata, namely the failure of a regional uprising to become part of a general assault on state power and the social and economic transformation of society.


To fetishize these sorts of incomplete and partial rebellions as a new way of doing politics not only does a disservice to the valiant efforts of the Mayan people, it also creates obstacles to those of us who also want to change the world but on a more favorable basis. For in the final analysis, it requires a democratic and centralized movement of the working class and its allies to take power in a country like Mexico.


Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org