Zapatismo: other geographies circa “the end of the world”
Department of Geography, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Saunders Hall, Campus Box 3220, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3220, USA; e-mail: alvaroar Received 18 July 2014; in revised form 2 March 2015
Abstract. A chorus of activists and intellectuals claim that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation has either ceased to exist or become politically irrelevant for Mexico and the world. In this paper I put forward the rather different thesis that despite the enormity of their task, the Zapatista project continues apace and merits careful consideration. To this end, I first argue that much of the confusion regarding the ‘death’ of the Zapatistas arises from a change in Zapatista strategy in response to the decomposition of Mexican society resulting from the contemporary global crisis of capitalism. Next, I detail how, having foreseen this decomposition, the Zapatistas set out to both theorize the nature of contemporary capitalism and reconceptualise anticapitalistic politics accordingly. Since the early 2000s this reconceptualization has led to a shift in Zapatista strategy that, although not easily intelligible to contemporary media or much academic discourse, centres on the construction of ‘other geographies’. Finally, I argue that judging from the events of the past few years, this strategy has allowed the Zapatistas not only to persevere but also to pose a concrete alternative to the dominant strains of left political and spatial strategy.
As daylight broke across the Southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas on 21 December 2012, news cameras fixated on the throngs of tourists that had overtaken the state to witness the ‘end of the world’ purportedly predicted by the ancient Maya. Yet in the cities of Altamirano, Palenque, Las Margaritas, Ocosingo, and San Cristóbal de las Casas reports began to emerge of unusual activity: groups of indigenous people constructing makeshift wood stages atop the back of pickup trucks. Hours later 45 000 masked members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), all of them Chol, Tzeltal, Mam, Tojolobal, Zoque, and Tzotzil Mayan indigenous peoples, descended on these city centres in perfectly ordered columns. Bystanders stood incredulously in front of the improvised stages waiting for the masked Mayans to make a statement of some sort, but the Zapatistas marched by the thousands across the stages in chilling silence with their left fists in the air. In a matter of hours, the Zapatista contingent had left the city centres in the same silence and with the same much-commented-upon discipline with which they had arrived, leaving many wondering what this—the largest march in the history of Chiapas and the largest mobilization of Zapatistas ever seen—was all about. Late that evening, an equally cryptic five-line message appeared on the EZLN’s website. Signed by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos for the General Command of the EZLN, it read:
“To Whom It May Concern:
Did you hear that?
That is the sound of your world crumbling.
That is the sound of our world resurging.
The day that was day was night.
And night shall be the day that will be day” (EZLN, 2012a, my translation).
In a communiqué a few days later, the Zapatistas would further aid us in unravelling the mystery surrounding their actions of 21 December 2012, stating that what others had mistaken for prophecy (that is, ‘the end of the world’), they had set out to make promise (that is, ending this world) (EZLN, 2012b).
Amazingly, just months before their massive ‘End of the World’ march, the EZLN had been declared all but dead by a number of sectors of Mexican society. In this paper I will attempt to fill a lacuna in Anglophone academic discourse by offering a comprehensive analysis of the events surrounding both the ‘death’ and ‘resurgence’ of the EZLN.
The paper is divided into two major sections. The first, titled “The death of the EZLN? Or the death of Mexico?” begins with an examination of the way in which, after an explicitly ‘anticapitalist’ reorientation of its political strategy in the early to mid-2000s, the EZLN became radically isolated from the ‘progressive’ and institutional left in Mexican society and was effectively declared dead by the Mexican government.
In order to understand the epochal societal shifts that made the EZLN’s strategic reorientation necessary, I examine the contemporary decomposition of Mexico that began with the evisceration of communal land tenure and Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, opening it to the destructive dynamics of neoliberal reterritorialization. Having laid out the end of the social contract that had made ‘the people of Mexico’ a reality, I end this first section by outlining the contemporary growth of legal exceptionality in Mexico and of political rule through the terror that now engulfs the country with the full complicity of the entire Mexican political class.
In the second major section of this paper, “Life after death: how the EZLN proposes to build postcapitalism”, I develop three major points through a close reading of Zapatista texts and a firsthand account of contemporary Zapatista political institutions. First, I show that the EZLN, through a systematic analysis of the structural crisis of capitalism, both foresaw and explained the situation that now grips Mexico and increasingly, according to the Zapatistas, the rest of the world.
Second, I analyze the way that the EZLN, by adding new dimensions to the ‘geometry’ of political struggle, is able to conceptualize a ‘world’ in the here and now beyond that of neoliberal capitalism, potentially freeing political thought and action far beyond Chiapas from the mutually reinforcing dead ends of either reviving neoliberal capitalism or falling into apocalyptic despair.
Finally, through a brief personal narrative of my own experience in 2013 as a student of what the Zapatistas termed their ‘Little School’, I examine the ways in which the Zapatistas’ political strategy, based on the construction of alternative institutionality, has been intimately tied to the practices of building what they call ‘another geography’. This construction of new non-separatist territorial practices has today been taken up by other organizations across Mexico and increasingly overlaps and contradicts the territories of neoliberal calculation and destruction. I argue that these Zapatista ‘other geographies’ might serve as concrete examples of a viable anticapitalistic spatial strategy and therefore must be taken far more seriously than they have been by the left generally and critical geography more specifically.
Section I: the death of the EZLN? Or the death of Mexico?
A Chronicle of a death foretold
The EZLN is today still most widely known for its 1 January 1994 uprising……
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