May Day, Stephanie McMillan
News and Opinion
Roger’s note: it is, of course, a good thing that criticism of the capitalist economy has broken even into the mainstream. And on the political left trashing capitalism has become pretty much the in thing. Nevertheless, a critical understanding of what capitalism (or, for that matter, what capital is) is a rare occurrence, even in the so-called progressive Blogosphere. Since the deepening of the word wide crises (war, economic disparity, environmental disaster, etc.) has become more and more evident, and because everyone knows that we live in a capitalist world (private, state and mixed), it takes no great leap of logic to realize there is something very much wrong with capitalism.
But what is almost universally lacking in analysis is a rigorous and historical understanding of what capitalist economy is, much less an understanding of the revolutionary nature of the struggle to go beyond capitalism, and even much less a philosophic context that takes into account the very nature of human existence and the notion of human freedom. I am no great revolutionary scholar, but what I have learned I have learned through a lifetime of participation in the struggles for social, political and economic justice and informed by a study of capitalism via the writings of and organization formed by the founder of Marxism Humanism in North America, Raya Dunayevskaya (www.newsandletters.org).
The work of Stephanie McMillan, of which I became aware from the article below, is a welcome exception to the usual analyses of capitalism from the left, which tend to be either disappointingly reformist or corrupted by a nihilist and defeatist attitude, largely a result of the gross failures of the various 20th Century Marxist revolutions.
When she became aware of flagrant injustice and felt the need to take action, McMillan was advised in essence to work “within the system,” to lobby and write letters to politicians. She soon became aware of the futility of such a strategy and began to dig further. Like most of us who have benefited by North American education and economic prosperity and who live relatively comfortable middle class lives, the truths that we discover when we are serious about investigating are difficult to adopt, “inconvenient,” if you will (for me, I was hit over the head with this reality as a 20 year old university student spending a summer in various Latin American countries). It implies a break with a world view that has always served as an emotional safety net; that is, the notion that if we follow the rules and work hard at uncovering and exposing injustice, then our democracy has the capacity to adjust and correct. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t have that capacity because democracy in a capitalist economy is more symbolic than real, and it only serves to mask the deeper source of injustice. We are left with no choice. We either abandon our comfort zone in a revolutionary way, or we consciously or unconsciously rationalize a reformist strategy (Communism didn’t work, so we can only try to reform capitalism), one that is doomed from the beginning to fail, the kind of failure of imagination for which William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles”.
My only criticism of McMillan, from what I have read in this article, is her use of the first person plural (we, our) in such a way that implies that those who come to a better understanding of the problem are the ones who are going to have to resolve it. Naturally, activist philosophers are essential to revolutionary struggles, but the subjects of revolution are the various classes of oppressed peoples, and without them no amount of intellectual acuity or vanguard “leadership,” can lead to meaningful change; rather the notion of Praxis, the intertwining of thought and action.
One cannot deny how bleak things seem. But the essential truth is not that there is no other option than cancerous capitalism, rather there is no other option than its destruction and replacement with a humanistic and democratic form of socialism.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He was discussing a personality type, but in doing so he came close, if unwittingly, to encapsulating the very essence of capitalism.
If capitalism keeps chugging along, we’re all in big trouble. That’s the prognosis of Stephanie McMillan, an award-winning political cartoonist and author of the new book, Capitalism Must Die! A Basic Introduction to Capitalism: What It Is, Why It Sucks, and How to Crush It.
The most urgent reason to stop capitalism in its tracks, according to McMillan, is its prominent role in harming the planet. Capitalism possesses an inherent growth imperative. This means that the normal functioning of capitalism is causing water shortages, ailing oceans, destroyed forests and ruined topsoil.
But even if an ecological catastrophe weren’t upon us, capitalism would still need to be dismantled because it’s based on exploitation, McMillan said in an interview. “There’s no reason why the social result of production needs to be in private hands and that only a few people should own what everybody produces,” she said.
McMillan uses her book to introduce and popularize basic concepts of revolutionary theory. “I wanted to provide something that was accessible to people, that people wouldn’t be afraid to pick up,” she said. But once they pick it up, readers will find a “doorway into deeper levels of theory because we always need to learn more about the system,” she explained.
Overturning capitalism, according to McMillan, will require getting as many people as possible — liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, environmentalists and unlabeled people — on the anti-capitalist bandwagon. And once they’re aboard, the goal will be to educate them on the complex and long history of capitalism.
A serious weakness among activists in movements for social change has been a lack of understanding of the true nature of the system they live under. Instead of naming capitalism as the problem, McMillan writes, activists often use vague populist terms like “the 1%,” “the rich,” “banksters,” or “greedy corporations.” But the problem runs much deeper than the corruption of any particular individual or institution, according to McMillan. “It lies in the structural foundation of the entire way of life that currently dominates the globe,” she writes.
“Capitalism Must Die!” also serves as a guide to fighting back because, according to McMillan, now is a better time than ever to get organized. “Capitalism is in a huge crisis,” she said. “We need to understand how it works and what the nature of the crisis is and the nature of the different moments that it passes through so that we can identify its vulnerabilities and weaknesses.”
Something will inevitably happen to capitalism as the crisis deepens. “It will probably have to restructure itself and it could become fascism or it could lead to a civil war between the representatives of different factions of capital or some horrible things that don’t actually improve anything,” she said in the interview. “Or we can organize and get rid of them.”
Indeed, McMillan hopes people will use what they learn from the book to organize in their communities, workplaces and schools. “Theoretical clarity for its own sake is pointless intellectualism; instead, it should be a guide for action,” she writes.
After decades of neoliberal supremacy, critiques of capitalism have sneaked into mainstream debates, with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate as notable examples. Both authors, however, approach capitalism from a reformist stance and hold up social democratic versions of capitalism in Western Europe as viable alternatives.
McMillan doesn’t believe Western European capitalist models — the ones that offer stronger social safety nets and more enlightened views on environmental issues — are worth defending. Capitalism, in whatever form, is inherently destructive because it converts the natural world into commodities. And it’s inherently exploitative because profit always comes from the exploitation of workers. “It doesn’t matter if you give them healthcare or a higher salary; you’re still exploiting them for private gain,” she said.
While still exploitative, Europe’s form of capitalism may in fact be less harsh than in the U.S. because the rising capitalist class in Europe had to deal with a feudal class. “They had to make some concessions to the masses in order to get their system in place,” she said in the interview. “Whereas in the U.S., they came over here and slaughtered everyone and took the land. There was no concession made. There was no feudal class that they had to fight against or deal with.”
Even with the publication of the books by Piketty and Klein, the supremacy of capitalism still remains unquestioned in the mainstream media. “It’s the framework that everything else exists within. The debate has to be inside that framework. Nothing can exist outside. It’s like what Margaret Thatcher said, ‘There is no alternative,’” explained McMillan. “It’s hard for people to imagine that there could be any alternative. People think, ‘I guess this is all there is. This is the only way humans can behave.’ Capitalism is naturalized.”
Right now, the level of political consciousness within the working class is very low. And that didn’t happen by chance. “That is by design and it’s by indoctrination and conditioning,” she said. “But it is a problem that we have to deal with.” The capitalists and their representatives in government are adept at finding new ways to squash and tamp down threats to their control. “We have to keep evolving our tactics as well,” she added.
The Occupy movement provided a glimpse at what’s possible. It made people realize they can rise up and take collective action. “It was very inspiring to people for that reason,” McMillan said. “There was a broad base of support for something like that. So many people got involved so quickly and there was so much discontent. It made people feel good that they weren’t alone and it showed the potential of what could happen.”
But Occupy also was a learning experience. “It showed the weakness and the need to be stronger. If we’re actually going to go up against the system, it can’t just be a spontaneous gathering of a bunch of people. It has to be organized — planned and strategic,” she emphasized.
It’s Our Only Shot
McMillan knows that eradicating capitalism is a long shot. “But I feel like it’s our only shot. The reason that I keep doing it is because there’s nothing else — the only other alternative is to give up and die or accept things the way they are and end up in a worse situation,” she said.
Anybody who really understands what’s going on cannot stand idle, according to McMillan. “It’s our historical responsibility,” she insists. “It’s a matter of human dignity.”
Accepting things the way they are would mean allowing 10 million children under the age of five to die annually because, under the normal functioning of global capitalism, it’s not profitable to save them, she writes in the book, citing a study by the nonprofit group Save the Children. It would mean continuing to accept racism, which has always been central to capitalism’s expansion and has been used to excuse the ultra-violent policies — from genocide of indigenous people to slavery and now the “war on terror” — that serve the accumulation of capital, she explains.
McMillan understood what’s going on when she was in high school and a relative urged her to read Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth, a 1982 book about the destruction of life on Earth from nuclear war. She was reluctant to read the book. “I instinctively knew that if I read it, then I would have to then deal with the horrible issues that were going to be in there. I didn’t want to disrupt my comfortable existence. I understood that I would have to do a lot of hard things,” she remembered.
But the relative kept prodding her: “You’ve got to read this. It’s the biggest issue. Reagan is going to destroy the world. We can’t let this happen and you have to read this.” McMillan eventually relented and opened the book. As she expected, it was horrifying and upsetting. She realized humans couldn’t go on living with the possibility of nuclear war hanging over their heads, which seemed very possible at the time.
McMillan started going to meetings with peace and justice activists in her native South Florida. They would tell her to write letters to her congressperson, write letters to the editor of local newspapers and sign petitions. Even as a newcomer to political activism, McMillan knew these steps were not going to be sufficient. “And I would ask, ‘Is there anything else?’ and they would say, ‘No, that’s it.’”
But then McMillan met a guy wearing a purple hat who was talking about revolution. He was standing outside a screening of a movie about nuclear war. “It was like a light bulb, ‘We could actually have a revolution now.’ I thought it was just a historical thing that happened in the past, like the Declaration of Independence,” she recalled. “I didn’t know we could have another one.”
The guy with the purple hat gave McMillan a copy of a newspaper filled with words she didn’t understand: the proletariat, the bourgeoisie. “I came home really excited and told my dad, ‘I think I’m a communist! This is going to solve everything,’” she recalled. “And he pounded his fist on the table and he goes, ‘What’s the labor theory of value.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘How can you call yourself a communist if you don’t even know what the labor theory of value is, one of its basic concepts?’”
McMillan immersed herself in study and quickly learned that the labor theory of value means that the exchange value of a product is based on the socially necessary amount of labor power — measured in time — that is generally required to produce it. But under capitalism, one of the key ingredients is surplus value. And under capitalism, the buyer of labor power — the capitalist — appropriates the surplus value generated in the process of commodity production.
You Can’t Be Neutral
Mastering political theory is tough enough. But putting it into action is even harder. Along with decades of organizing and activism, McMillan has worked as a cartoonist, drawing the popular daily comic strip Minimum Security and the weekly editorial cartoon Code Green, where she seeks to propagate her ideas through crafty drawings and funny dialog. She has received numerous awards for her cartoons, the most notable being the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoonists in 2012.
As a working journalist, McMillan has learned that reporting is never objective. “There is no such thing. It’s never neutral. It’s never non-partisan. If somebody is involved in an issue and they acknowledge it in the article — you know where they are coming from — then it actually has more credibility because they have a deeper level of understanding of the issue because when you just dropping into something like a tourist, you can’t really understand it deeply,” she explained in the interview.
Many of the journalists who reported on the Occupy movement, for example, were unfamiliar with it. “They just observed the surface, the spectacle. They didn’t know all the dynamics. They didn’t know all the people, all the different political trends, all the different tendencies within it. They’re just reduced to describing the surface imagery,” she recalled.
McMillan also has written several books with political and environmental themes such as “As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial” and “The Beginning of the American Fall.” Since the publication of “Capitalism Must Die!”, people have told McMillan that the book brought them clarity and a comprehensive understanding of capitalism. They also appreciated how the cartoons helped to make the concepts clearer.
Going forward, McMillan believes anti-capitalists will need to work with liberals and reformists, even if it often can be an exercise in frustration. Anti-capitalist organizations should only engage in common work with reformists, though, when they are organized enough to insist that their politics are represented, she writes.
If and when anti-capitalist groups make headway, the dominant class will respond with ever-increasing violence and, as it has repeatedly shown, will not hesitate at committing massacres on any scale using what McMillan describes as the “capitalists’ accumulated forces of lies, wealth and arms.”
“But we are potentially stronger than them,” McMillan writes. “We outnumber them, and we have right on our side.”
Mark Hand covers energy issues. You can reach him at email@example.com , or follow him on Twitter at @MarkFHand.
Roger’s note: William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles,” the shackles we impose upon ourselves that prevent our imagination from envisioning a world other than the shitpot we live in. When a skeptic alleges that human nature will never allow us to be free or to govern ourselves in a truly democratic way, we can and must point to the Paris Commune and the Zapatista Revolution as living proof that it can be done. I have read some who insist that the Mexican government will inevitably one day wipe out the Zapatistas. Maybe so, maybe not. As Marx said, the lesson of the Paris Commune was its living breathing existence. Unless we are ready to fall into cynicism and despair, we must never lose faith in these living examples of human freedom and dignity.
The mantra of ‘democracy, liberty, and justice’ has informed the Zapatista movement for more than twenty years. (Photo: Flickr/David Apellido/Falso Handala3)Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.
The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds. There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.
Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.
“A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.”
As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.
Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.
The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent — tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules.
“Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”
After five days of driving, we reached La Universidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run schoolin the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.
Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):
“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”
I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.
Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.
Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.
The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.
So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village — along with those from hundreds of other villages — seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.
The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)
Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.
The Boy Who Is Free
Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.
He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.
Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him — not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date — is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.
By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.
The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.
Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.
Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy — especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.
As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.
Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.
As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?
Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.
It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts and pasamontañas,the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.
Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world — and even the dissenter herself — dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.
But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”
Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.
The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.
The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization’s leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.
“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.
“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.
Roger’s note: In my opinion the Zapatistas are the most important humanist revolutionaries our time. They have shown us that the notions of individual dignity and communal responsibility are not in opposition to one another. As revolutionaries they have avoided the pitfall of vanguard-ism and dogmatism. From the beginning Zapatista women have struggled for and won equality within the movement. By all traditional logic they should have been wiped out by the U.S. supported democratically elected undemocratic Mexican governments. But through determination and having captured the imagination and support of freedom loving peoples around the globe, they not only have survived but continue to maintain authority over various Chiapas regions. They are a revolutionary example and inspiration for all of us.
Mexico’s Zapatistas, one of the world’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements, celebrated the 20th anniversary of their movement with high hopes for passing it on to the next generation. (Photo: Void Network / Flickr)
There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.
Thousands of Zapatistas turned out this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). At the New Year festivities in the five Caracoles, or regional centers of Zapatista autonomous government, veterans and adolescents not yet born at the time of the insurrection danced, flirted, shot off rockets, and celebrated “autonomy” — the ideal of self-government that lies at the heart of the Zapatista experience.
The Zapatistas came out by the thousands for their anniversary parties, surprising some. Their death, it turns out, had been greatly exaggerated. Accustomed to the face of politics as a white man talking, the press and the political class began writing obituaries for the movement when Subcomandante Marcos retired from public view in 2006.
Although Zapatista communities have continued to emit a steady stream of communiqués denouncing military and political attacks, land grabs, and the presence of paramilitary forces in Zapatista communities, the media has ignored them. It smugly predicted that the movement was moribund and would soon merit nothing more than a folkloric footnote in the history of the inexorable advance of global capitalism. The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power in 2012 seemed to reaffirm the idea that Mexico was “back to normal.”
When nearly 50,000 Zapatistas marched in silence on December 21, 2012, they challenged the official line that their movement had all but died. The EZLN communiqué was brief and to the point: “Did you hear that? It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of ours resurging.”
The 20th anniversary and New Year celebrations this month marked a second moment in that resurgence. The festivities were a family affair. Press was banned, and although a series of articles by Subcomandante Marcos came out before the events, the organization put out no public documents on January 1st, the day of the anniversary itself. It was a time for Zapatistas to pat themselves on the back, an internal affirmation more than a political statement.
It may have been “just family,” but the Zapatistas have a wide extended family. Thousands of supporters and students, mostly youth from Mexico and abroad attending La Escuelita (the Little School), fanned out to theCarcacoles to join in ceremonies and all-night dancing.
The Little School was launched in August to teach “freedom according to the Zapatistas.” Students paired up with tutors from among movement members and were placed in families throughout Zapatista territory. Classes consist mostly of accompanying Zapatista families during their daily chores and long talks over beans and tortillas.
The experience opened up the Zapatista experience to outsiders, who were encouraged to ask questions of their host families. It also enabled the organization to hold up a mirror to itself — to see itself through the eyes of the students, reflect on the ground covered, and get to know other communities.
On New Year’s Eve, many of the 4,000 students attending the school’s winter sessions went out to Oventic, a foggy village in the highlands close to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, or remained in more remote communities with their host families to join in the sports competitions, music, speeches, and dancing.
(Photo: Clayton Conn)
The anniversary sparked a debate on the movement, two decades after thousands of masked Mayans came out of the jungles and mountains in military formation to take over municipal seats in the southeastern state of Chiapas.
Subcomandante Marcos published a series of his characteristic communiqués, weaving meditations on death(“it’s not death that worries us and keeps us occupied, but life”) and biography (“historiography feeds on individualities; history learns from peoples“) with reflections on the organization and a story from a beetle named Durito.
Critics rushed to point out that poverty still exists in Zapatista communities — a fact not denied by the organization and obvious to the many visitors. Journalists and pundits invented and then passed around statistics on the number of Zapatista adherents, or lack thereof, as well as on the extension of Zapatista territory and on living conditions in autonomous regions. Many pronounced the world-famous uprising dead or dying for failing to resolve problems or maintain its high profile.
What reporters missed as they snuck into celebrations closed to the press is the significance of “autonomy.”
Zapatistas say the word with pride, much as you’d talk about your children or grandchildren. These communities have moved steadily off the traditional power grid. Disappointment at the Mexican government’s betrayal in rejecting its own signature on the San Andres Accords of 1996 led to a decision to de-prioritize pressuring institutions and instead build from below.
Imagine communities where local officials rotate to avoid accumulating power, political parties have no role or presence, and state and government programs — long used to buy off advocates for a more equal society — are banned. Much of the food is produced by the community, cooperatives do buying and marketing, and decisions are made collectively rather than being imposed by a state. The Zapatistas have attempted to resurrect this model, practiced for centuries in indigenous Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest.
Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd in Oventic. “We’re learning to govern ourselves according to our own ways of thinking and living,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward, to improve and strengthen ourselves — men, women, youth, children, and old people.”
She added that 20 years ago, when the Zapatistas first said ¡Ya basta!(“Enough!”), “there wasn’t a single authority that was of the people. Now we have our own autonomous governments. It may have be good or bad, but it’s the will of the people.”
The Zapatistas acknowledge that progress in improving material conditions has been slow and hampered by obstacles and errors. But they express deep pride in what has been built, in “their” organization. Local health clinics — often poorly stocked and precariously staffed — use natural medicines made by community cooperatives and have special areas where trained midwives attend childbirth. Schools with rudimentary equipment teach in the indigenous languages of the communities, focusing on understanding the world the children live in and basic concepts of freedom, equality, and cooperation. The organization of defense and production in the communities shows discipline and commitment.
The anniversary revealed that at 20 years old, this military-political organization that defies easy categorization is what a democracy should be: an ongoing effort at building a better life collectively. When Zapatistas came together from communities throughout their lands to celebrate, the main achievement they marked was the survival of the organization itself — after 20 years of attacks, they’re still there, running their own communities, raising new generations of Zapatistas, and carrying on the dialogue with the outside world that has enriched both sides.
Communities have survived the moment in a long distance race when the runners pass the baton. Youths make up a large part of the Zapatistas’ base, representation, and more and more, leadership. Educated in the Zapatista school system and raised in Zapatista communities, a new generation is beginning to take on positions of authority. Their eagerness to assume the collective identity of their organization is another mark of the staying power of the autonomy experiment.
The role of women has also transformed visibly — not just in the number of women in leadership positions, but also in aspects of daily life, such as increased male participation in housework and childcare, and sanctions against violence towards women. The shift from downtrodden alienation to indigenous self-government makes a huge difference in their lives, even as poverty remains.
In evaluating the two-decade experience, most criteria ignore these subjective factors. By opening up the communities to participants in La Escuelita, the Zapatistas did something governments almost never do: let the people publicly evaluate the experience themselves. Returning studentsrecounted the experience enthusiastically, describing how their hosts revealed a world that wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but a world where each person mattered and each effort, each achievement, and each mistake was their own.
(Photo: Clayton Conn)
As the Zapatistas celebrated their accomplishments, vowed to correct their mistakes, and honored their dead, they also enjoyed more traditional New Year’s activities like setting off bottle rockets and dressing up in their finest. The solid continuity of Zapatismo was joined by a portent of change, the sense that yet another phase of one of history’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements had begun.
As visiting students from all over the world joined together with veterans of the movement and younger members of the community, new possibilities shimmered under the moon of a new year. Contact with a new generation of supporters proved that the indigenous autonomy movement continues to attract people from all over. For now, the schools will continue. The Zapatistas have also jump-started the dormant National Indigenous Congress, holding an event in August where hundreds of indigenous representatives described the situation in their lands.
Amid mud, guitars, vivas, fireworks, and embraces, thousands of Zapatistas welcomed 2014. The debate on whether the movement is dead or alive, victorious or defeated, was left behind along with 2013. It wasn’t just the alcohol-free festivities that made people optimistic; it was a feeling of collective accomplishment, under tough conditions. A feeling of finally having a future.
“I know you don’t care,” Subcomandante Marcos noted in a missive to his critics, “but for the masked men and women from around here, the battle that matters isn’t the one that’s been won or lost. It’s the next one, and for that one, new calendars and grounds are being prepared.”
Roger’s note: in this article Hedges cites John Kennedy’s “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable,” which is more or less the theme of the piece. A chant I have heard at many a protest demonstration says the same in four simple words: “No Justice, No Peace.” In our upside-down world, the state purveyors of massive violence and terror, indict those who oppose it on the grounds of inciting violence and terror. Freud would understand, but I digress. Regardless of whether governments are democratic or not, it is capital that rules in our universe. Capital-ism is the system by which capital rules via economies, governments (all three branches: executive, law making legislatures and judicial), military and policing. In a very real sense, there is a war going on at all times, the war against human beings by those who own, manage and control capital (huge accumulations of stolen wealth). As the saying goes: they only acknowledge class war when we fight back.
NEW YORK—I was in federal court here Friday for the sentencing of Jeremy Hammond to 10 years in prison for hacking into the computers of a private security firm that works on behalf of the government, including the Department of Homeland Security, and corporations such as Dow Chemical. In 2011 Hammond, now 28, released to the website WikiLeaks and Rolling Stone and other publications some 3 million emails from the Texas-based company Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor.
The sentence was one of the longest in U.S. history for hacking and the maximum the judge could impose under a plea agreement in the case. It was wildly disproportionate to the crime—an act of nonviolent civil disobedience that championed the public good by exposing abuses of power by the government and a security firm. But the excessive sentence was the point. The corporate state, rapidly losing credibility and legitimacy, is lashing out like a wounded animal. It is frightened. It feels the heat from a rising flame of revolt. It is especially afraid of those such as Hammond who have the technical skills to break down electronic walls and expose the corrupt workings of power.
“People have a right to know what governments and corporations are doing behind closed doors,” Hammond told me when we met in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan about a week and a half before his sentencing.
I did not hope for justice from the court. Judge Loretta A. Preska is a member of the right-wing Federalist Society. And the hack into Stratfor gave the email address and disclosed the password of an account used for business by Preska’s husband, Thomas Kavaler, a partner at the law firm Cahill Gordon & Reindel. Some emails of the firm’s corporate clients, including Merrill Lynch, also were exposed. The National Lawyers Guild, because the judge’s husband was a victim of the hack, filed a recusal motion that Preska, as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, was able to deny. Her refusal to recuse herself allowed her to oversee a trial in which she had a huge conflict of interest.
The judge, who herself once was employed at Cahill Gordon & Reindel, fulminated from the bench about Hammond’s “total lack of respect for the law.” She read a laundry list of his arrests for acts of civil disobedience. She damned what she called his “unrepentant recidivism.” She said: “These are not the actions of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela … or even Daniel Ellsberg; there’s nothing high-minded or public-spirited about causing mayhem”—an odd analogy given that Mandela founded the armed wing of the African National Congress, was considered by South Africa’s apartheid government and the United States government to be a terrorist and was vilified, along with King and Ellsberg, by the U.S. government. She said there was a “desperate need to promote respect for the law” and a “need for adequate public deterrence.” She read from transcripts of Hammond’s conversations in Anonymous chat rooms in which he described the goal of hacking into Stratfor as “destroying the target, hoping for bankruptcy, collapse” and called for “maximum mayhem.” She admonished him for releasing the unlisted phone number of a retired Arizona police official who allegedly received threatening phone calls afterward.
The judge imposed equally harsh measures that will take effect after Hammond’s release from prison. She ordered that he be placed under three years of supervised control, be forbidden to use encryption or aliases online and submit to random searches of his computer equipment, person and home by police and any internal security agency without the necessity of a warrant. The judge said he was legally banned from having any contact with “electronic civil disobedience websites or organizations.” By the time she had finished she had shredded all pretense of the rule of law.
The severe sentence—Hammond will serve more time than the combined sentences of four men who were convicted in Britain for hacking related to the U.S. case—was monumentally stupid for a judge seeking to protect the interest of the ruling class. The judicial lynching of Hammond required her to demonstrate a callous disregard for transparency and our right to privacy. It required her to ignore the disturbing information Hammond released showing that the government and Stratfor attempted to link nonviolent dissident groups, including some within Occupy, to terrorist organizations so peaceful dissidents could be prosecuted as terrorists. It required her to accept the frightening fact that intelligence agencies now work on behalf of corporations as well as the state. She also had to sidestep the fact that Hammond made no financial gain from the leak.
The sentencing converges with the state’s persecution of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Barrett Brown, along with Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum, Laura Poitras and Sarah Harrison, four investigative journalists who are now in self-imposed exile from the United States. And as the numbers of our political prisoners and exiled dissidents mount, there is the unmistakable stench of tyranny.
This draconian sentence, like the draconian sentences of other whistle-blowers, will fan revolt. History bears this out. It will solidify the growing understanding that we must resort, if we want to effect real change, to unconventional tactics to thwart the mounting abuses by the corporate state. There is no hope, this sentencing shows, for redress from the judicial system, elected officials or the executive branch. Why should we respect a court system, or a governmental system, that shows no respect to us? Why should we abide by laws that serve only to protect criminals such as Wall Street thieves while leaving the rest of us exposed to abuse? Why should we continue to have faith in structures of power that deny us our most basic rights and civil liberties? Why should we be impoverished so the profits of big banks, corporations and hedge funds can swell?
No one will save us but ourselves. That was the real message sent out by the sentencing of Jeremy Hammond. And just as Hammond was inspired to act by the arrest of Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, others will be inspired to act by Hammond and the actions taken against him. And we can thank Judge Preska for that.
Hammond is rooted in the Black Bloc. As he was escorted out of the courtroom on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse at 500 Pearl St. on Friday he shouted to roughly 100 people—including a class of prim West Point cadets in their blue uniforms—gathered there: “Long live Anonymous! Hurrah for anarchy!” In a statement he read in court he thanked “Free Anons, the Anonymous Solidarity Network [and] Anarchist Black Cross” for their roles in the fight against oppression.
Hammond has abandoned faith not only in traditional institutions, such as the courts, but nonviolent mass protest and civil disobedience, a point on which he and I diverge. But his analysis of corporate tyranny is correct. And the longer the state ruthlessly persecutes dissidents, the more the state ensures that those who oppose it will resort to radical responses including violence. “Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable,” John F. Kennedy said. And the corporate state is not only making peaceful change impossible but condemning it as terrorism.
In late October I spent an afternoon with Hammond in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he had been held for 20 months. He said during our conversation, parts of which his lawyer requested be published only after his sentencing, that he believed that the sole way the people will now have any power is to rise up physically and seize it. My column last week was about that interview, and now I am including previously withheld parts of the conversation.
Hammond defines himself as “an anarchist communist.” He seeks to destroy capitalism and the centralized power of the corporate state. His revolutionary vision is “leaderless collectives based on free association, consensus, mutual aid, self-sufficiency and harmony with the environment.” He embraces the classic tools of revolt, including mass protests, general strikes and boycotts. And he sees hacking and leaking as part of this resistance, tools not only to reveal the truths about these systems of corporate power but to “disrupt/destroy these systems entirely.”
He participated in the Occupy movement in Chicago but found the politics of Occupy too vague and amorphous, a point on which I concur. He said Occupy lacked revolutionary vigor. He told me he did not support what he called the “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” of many in the Occupy movement, calling it “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejects the idea of acts of civil disobedience that protesters know will lead to their arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.” He condemns “peace patrols,” units formed within the Occupy movement that sought to prohibit acts of vandalism and violence by other protesters—most often members of the Black Bloc—as “a secondary police force.” And he spurns the calls by many in Occupy not to antagonize the police, calling the police “the boot boys of the 1 percent, paid to protect the rich and powerful.” He said such a tactic of non-confrontation with the police ignored the long history of repression the police have carried out against popular movements, as well as the “profiling and imprisonment of our comrades.”
“Because we were unprepared, or perhaps unwilling, to defend our occupations, police and mayors launched coordinated attacks, driving us out of our own parks,” he said of the state’s closure of the Occupy encampments.
“I fully support and have participated in Black Bloc and other forms of militant direct action,” he said. “I do not believe that the ruling powers listen to the people’s peaceful protests. Black Bloc is an effective, fluid and dynamic form of protest. It causes disruption outside of predictable/controllable mass demonstrations through ‘unarrests,’ holding streets, barricades and property destruction. Smashing corporate windows is not violence, especially when compared to the everyday economic violence of sweatshops and ‘free trade.’ Black Bloc seeks to hit them where it hurts, through economic damage. But more than smashing windows they seek to break the spell of ‘law and order’ and the artificial limitations we impose on ourselves.”
I disagree with Hammond over tactics, but in the end this disagreement is moot. It will be the ruling elites who finally determine our response. If the corporate elites employ the full force of the security and surveillance state against us, if corporate totalitarian rule is one of naked, escalating and brutal physical repression, then the violence of the state will spawn a counter-violence. Judge Preska’s decision to judicially lynch Hammond has only added to the fury she and the state are trying to stamp out. An astute ruling class, one aware of the rage rippling across the American landscape, would have released Hammond on Friday and begun to address the crimes he exposed. But our ruling class, while adept at theft, looting, propaganda and repression, is blind to the growing discontent caused by the power imbalance and economic inequality that plague ordinary Americans at a time when half of the country lives in poverty or “near poverty.”
“The acts of civil disobedience and direct action that I am being sentenced for today are in line with the principles of community and equality that have guided my life,” Hammond told the courtroom. “I hacked into dozens of high-profile corporations and government institutions, understanding very clearly that what I was doing was against the law, and that my actions could land me back in federal prison. But I felt that I had an obligation to use my skills to expose and confront injustice—and to bring the truth to light.”
“Could I have achieved the same goals through legal means?” he said. “I have tried everything from voting petitions to peaceful protest and have found that those in power do not want the truth to be exposed. When we speak truth to power we are ignored at best and brutally suppressed at worst. We are confronting a power structure that does not respect its own system of checks and balances, never mind the rights of its own citizens or the international community.”
“My first memories of American politics was when Bush stole the election in 2000,” he told me at a metal table as we met at the prison in a small room reserved for attorney visits, “and then how Bush used the wave of nationalism after 9/11 to launch unprovoked pre-emptive wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. In high school I was involved in publishing ‘underground’ newsletters criticizing the Patriot Act, the wars, and other Bush-era policies. I attended many anti-war protests in the city [Chicago] and was introduced to other local struggles and the larger anti-corporate globalization movement. I began identifying as an anarchist, started to travel around the country to various mobilizations and conferences, and began getting arrested for various acts.”
He said that his experience of street protest, especially against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was seminal, for he saw that the state had little interest in heeding the voices of protesters and others in the public. “Instead, we were labeled as traitors, beaten and arrested.”
“I targeted law enforcement systems because of the racism and inequality with which the criminal law is enforced,” he admitted in court. “I targeted the manufacturers and distributors of military and police equipment who profit from weaponry used to advance U.S. political and economic interests abroad and to repress people at home. I targeted information security firms because they work in secret to protect government and corporate interests at the expense of individual rights, undermining and discrediting activists, journalists and other truth seekers, and spreading disinformation.”
An FBI informant, Hector Xavier Monsegur, posing as an Anonymous member and using the online name “Sabu,” prodded Hammond to break into Stratfor and informed him of technical vulnerabilities in websites of the company.
“Why the FBI would introduce us to the hacker who found the initial vulnerability and allow this hack to continue remains a mystery,” Hammond said as he faced the judge.
“As a result of the Stratfor hack, some of the dangers of the unregulated private intelligence industry are now known,” he said. “It has been revealed through WikiLeaks and other journalists around the world that Stratfor maintained a worldwide network of informants that they used to engage in intrusive and possibly illegal surveillance activities on behalf of large multinational corporations.”
At Sabu’s urging, Hammond broke into other websites, too. Hammond, at Sabu’s request, provided information to hackers enabling them to break into and deface official foreign government websites, including some of Turkey, Iran and Brazil. The names of these three countries are technically under a protective court order but have been reported widely in the press.
“I broke into numerous sites and handed over passwords and backdoors that enabled Sabu—and by extension his FBI handlers—to control these targets,” Hammond said.
“I don’t know how other information I provided to him may have been used, but I think the government’s collection and use of this data needs to be investigated,” he went on. “The government celebrates my conviction and imprisonment, hoping that it will close the door on the full story. I took responsibility for my actions, by pleading guilty, but when will the government be made to answer for its crimes?”
“The hypocrisy of ‘law and order’ and the injustices caused by capitalism cannot be cured by institutional reform but through civil disobedience and direct action,” Hammond told the court. “Yes, I broke the law, but I believe that sometimes laws must be broken in order to make room for change.”
Roger’s note: I hope you find this correspondence as fascinating as I did. The left/progressive blogosphere these days is publishing more anti-capitalism analyses than ever. I am a life-long Marxist Humanist, so the notion of capitalism is something I have been thinking about for years (decades, actually). What I find troubling is that very few writers either attempt or demonstrate a precise understanding of exactly what capitalism is. Capitalism is not simply an ideology, although there are more than enough capitalist ideologues; and capitalism is not primarily about so-called free markets, nor is state ownership anything less than pure genuine capitalism (prime example: China). To understand what a genuine transformation of society will be, it is important to have a historical understanding of how capitalist economic relations developed. More important is the need to understand exactly what capitalist economic relationships ARE, and that has to do with the basic structure under which goods and services are PRODUCED (again, not marketed). Karl Marx discovered an entire new continent of thought that takes us into the heart of notions of human freedom and exploitation via capitalist economic relations. Much too complex for me to go into here; I just want to point out that being anti-capitalist is necessary but not sufficient. The dialogue below is a good example of revolutionary activist thinking, striving to understand in order to transform.
I hope you have been able to organise your life in prison around small rituals that make it tolerable, and that you have time to read. Here are my thoughts on your predicament.
John Jay Chapman, an American political essayist, wrote this about radicals in 1900: “They are really always saying the same thing. They don’t change; everybody else changes. They are accused of the most incompatible crimes, of egoism and a mania for power, indifference to the fate of their cause, fanaticism, triviality, lack of humour, buffoonery and irreverence. But they sound a certain note. Hence the great practical power of persistent radicals. To all appearance, nobody follows them, yet everyone believes them. They hold a tuning-fork and sound A, and everybody knows it really is A, though the time-honoured pitch is G flat.” Isn’t this a good description of the effect of Pussy Riot performances? In spite of all accusations, you sound a certain note. It may appear that people do not follow you, but secretly, they believe you, they know you are telling the truth, or, even more, you are standing for truth.
But what is this truth? Why are the reactions to Pussy Riot performances so violent, not only in Russia? All hearts were beating for you as long as you were perceived as just another version of the liberal-democratic protest against the authoritarian state. The moment it became clear that you rejected global capitalism, reporting on Pussy Riot became much more ambiguous. What is so disturbing about Pussy Riot to the liberal gaze is that you make visible the hidden continuity between Stalinism and contemporary global capitalism.
[Žižek then explores what he sees as a global trend towards limiting democracy.] Since the 2008 crisis, this distrust of democracy, once limited to third-world or post-Communist developing economies, is gaining ground in western countries. But what if this distrust is justified? What if only experts can save us?
But the crisis provided proof that it is these experts who don’t know what they are doing, rather than the people. In western Europe, we are seeing that the ruling elite know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with Greece.
No wonder, then, that Pussy Riot make us all uneasy – you know very well what you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to have any quick or easy answers, but you are telling us that those in power don’t know either. Your message is that in Europe today the blind are leading the blind. This is why it is so important that you persist. In the same way that Hegel, after seeing Napoleon riding through Jena, wrote that it was as if he saw the World Spirit riding on a horse, you are nothing less than the critical awareness of us all, sitting in prison.
Comradely greetings, Slavoj
Once, in the autumn of 2012, when I was still in the pre-trial prison in Moscow with other Pussy Riot activists, I visited you. In a dream, of course.
I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.
Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.
We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”
We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.
Laurie Anderson sang: “Only an expert can deal with the problem.” It would have been nice if Laurie and I could cut these experts down to size and take care of our own problems. Because expert status by no means grants access to the kingdom of absolute truth.
Two years of prison for Pussy Riot is our tribute to a destiny that gave us sharp ears, allowing us to sound the note A when everyone else is used to hearing G flat.
At the right moment, there will always come a miracle in the lives of those who childishly believe in the triumph of truth over lies, of mutual assistance, of those who live according to the economics of the gift.
I was so pleasantly surprised when your letter arrived – the delay made me fear that the authorities would prevent our communication. I was deeply honoured, flattered even, by my appearance in your dream.
You are right to question the idea that the “experts” close to power are competent to make decisions. Experts are, by definition, servants of those in power: they don’t really think, they just apply their knowledge to the problems defined by those in power (how to bring back stability? how to squash protests?). So are today’s capitalists, the so-called financial wizards, really experts? Are they not just stupid babies playing with our money and our fate? I remember a cruel joke from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be. When asked about the German concentration camps in occupied Poland, the Nazi officer snaps back: “We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.” Does the same not hold for the Enron bankruptcy in 2002? The thousands of employees who lost their jobs were certainly exposed to risk, but with no true choice – for them the risk was like blind fate. But those who did have insight into the risks, and the ability to intervene (the top managers), minimised their risks by cashing in their stocks before the bankruptcy. So it is true that we live in a society of risky choices, but some people (the managers) do the choosing, while others (the common people) do the risking.
For me, the true task of radical emancipatory movements is not just to shake things out of their complacent inertia, but to change the very co-ordinates of social reality so that, when things return to normal, there will be a new, more satisfying, “apollonian statics”. And, even more crucially, how does today’s global capitalism enter this scheme?
The Deleuzian philosopher Brian Massumi tells how capitalism has already overcome the logic of totalising normality and adopted the logic of erratic excess: “The more varied, and even erratic, the better. Normality starts to lose its hold. The regularities start to loosen. This loosening is part of capitalism’s dynamic.”
But I feel guilty writing this: who am I to explode in such narcissistic theoretical outbursts when you are exposed to very real deprivations? So please, if you can and want, do let me know about your situation in prison: about your daily rhythm, about the little private rituals that make it easier to survive, about how much time you have to read and write, about how other prisoners and guards treat you, about your contact with your child … true heroism resides in these seemingly small ways of organising one’s life in order to survive in crazy times without losing dignity.
With love, respect and admiration, my thoughts are with you!
Has modern capitalism really overtaken the logic of totalising norms? Or is it willing to make us believe that it has overpassed the logic of hierarchical structures and normalisation?
As a child I wanted to go into advertising. I had a love affair with the advertising industry. And this is why I am in a position to judge its merits. The anti-hierarchical structures and rhizomes of late capitalism are its successful ad campaign. Modern capitalism has to manifest itself as flexible and even eccentric. Everything is geared towards gripping the emotion of the consumer. Modern capitalism seeks to assure us that it operates according to the principles of free creativity, endless development and diversity. It glosses over its other side in order to hide the reality that millions of people are enslaved by an all-powerful and fantastically stable norm of production. We want to reveal this lie.
You should not worry that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the “real hardship”. I value the strict limits, and the challenge. I am genuinely curious: how will I cope with this? And how can I turn this into a productive experience for me and my comrades? I find sources of inspiration; it contributes to my own development. Not because of, but in spite of the system. And in my struggle, your thoughts, ideas and stories are helpful to me.
I am happy to correspond with you. I await your reply and I wish you good luck in our common cause.
I felt deeply ashamed after reading your reply. You wrote: “You should not worry about the fact that you are exposing theoretical fabrications while I am supposed to suffer the ‘real hardship’.” This simple sentence made me aware that the final sentiment in my last letter was false: my expression of sympathy with your plight basically meant, “I have the privilege of doing real theory and teaching you about it while you are good for reporting on your experience of hardship …” Your last letter demonstrates that you are much more than that, that you are an equal partner in a theoretical dialogue. So my sincere apologies for this proof of how deeply entrenched is male chauvinism, especially when it is masked as sympathy for the other’s suffering, and let me go on with our dialogue.
It is the crazy dynamics of global capitalism that make effective resistance to it so difficult and frustrating. Recall the great wave of protests that spilled all over Europe in 2011, from Greece and Spain to London and Paris. Even if there was no consistent political platform mobilising the protesters, the protests functioned as part of a large-scale educational process: the protesters’ misery and discontent were transformed into a great collective act of mobilisation – hundreds of thousands gathered in public squares, proclaiming that they had enough, that things could not go on like that. However, what these protests add up to is a purely negative gesture of angry rejection and an equally abstract demand for justice, lacking the ability to translate this demand into a concrete political programme.
What can be done in such a situation, where demonstrations and protests are of no use, where democratic elections are of no use? Can we convince the tired and manipulated crowds that we are not only ready to undermine the existing order, to engage in provocative acts of resistance, but also to offer the prospect of a new order?
The Pussy Riot performances cannot be reduced just to subversive provocations. Beneath the dynamics of their acts, there is the inner stability of a firm ethico-political attitude. In some deeper sense, it is today’s society that is caught in a crazy capitalist dynamic with no inner sense and measure, and it is Pussy Riot that de facto provides a stable ethico-political point. The very existence of Pussy Riot tells thousands that opportunist cynicism is not the only option, that we are not totally disoriented, that there still is a common cause worth fighting for.
So I also wish you good luck in our common cause. To be faithful to our common cause means to be brave, especially now, and, as the old saying goes, luck is on the side of the brave!
In my last letter, written in haste as I worked in the sewing shop, I was not as clear as I should have been about the distinction between how “global capitalism” functions in Europe and the US on the one hand, and in Russia on the other. However, recent events in Russia – the trial of Alexei Navalny, the passing of unconstitutional, anti-freedom laws – have infuriated me. I feel compelled to speak about the specific political and economic practices of my country. The last time I felt this angry was in 2011 when Putin declared he was running for the presidency for a third time. My anger and resolve led to the birth of Pussy Riot. What will happen now? Time will tell.
Here in Russia I have a strong sense of the cynicism of so-called first-world countries towards poorer nations. In my humble opinion, “developed” countries display an exaggerated loyalty towards governments that oppress their citizens and violate their rights. The European and US governments freely collaborate with Russia as it imposes laws from the middle ages and throws opposition politicians in jail. They collaborate with China, where oppression is so bad that my hair stands on end just to think about it. What are the limits of tolerance? And when does tolerance become collaboration, conformism and complicity?
To think, cynically, “let them do what they want in their own country”, doesn’t work any longer, because Russia and China and countries like them are now part of the global capitalist system.
Russia under Putin, with its dependence on raw materials, would have been massively weakened if those nations that import Russian oil and gas had shown the courage of their convictions and stopped buying. Even if Europe were to take as modest a step as passing a “Magnitsky law” [the Magnitsky Act in the US allows it to place sanctions on Russian officials believed to have taken part in human-rights violations], morally it would speak volumes. A boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 would be another ethical gesture. But the continued trade in raw materials constitutes a tacit approval of the Russian regime – not through words, but through money. It betrays the desire to protect the political and economic status quo and the division of labour that lies at the heart of the world economic system.
You quote Marx: “A social system that seizes up and rusts … cannot survive.” But here I am, working out my prison sentence in a country where the 10 people who control the biggest sectors of the economy are Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends. He studied or played sports with some, and served in the KGB with others. Isn’t this a social system that has seized up? Isn’t this a feudal system?
I thank you sincerely, Slavoj, for our correspondence and can hardly wait for your reply.
• The correspondence was organised by Philosophie magazine in cooperation with New Times. Longer versions can be found in German at philomag.de or in French at philomag.com. Tolokonnikova’s letters were translated from Russian by Galia Ackerman
Roger’s note: as with many of the articles I read on the Internet, readers’ comments are often a valuable source of opinion and ideas. For the comments on this article, you can go to the source at:http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/11/11-0.
NEW YORK—Jeremy Hammond sat in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center last week in a small room reserved for visits from attorneys. He was wearing an oversized prison jumpsuit. The brown hair of the lanky 6-footer fell over his ears, and he had a wispy beard. He spoke with the intensity and clarity one would expect from one of the nation’s most important political prisoners.
On Friday the 28-year-old activist will appear for sentencing in the Southern District Court of New York in Manhattan. After having made a plea agreement, he faces the possibility of a 10-year sentence for hacking into the Texas-based private security firm Strategic Forecasting Inc., or Stratfor, which does work for the Homeland Security Department, the Marine Corps, the Defense Intelligence Agency and numerous corporations including Dow Chemical and Raytheon.
Four others involved in the hacking have been convicted in Britain, and they were sentenced to less time combined—the longest sentence was 32 months—than the potential 120-month sentence that lies before Hammond.
Hammond turned the pilfered information over to the website WikiLeaks and Rolling Stone and other publications. The 3 million email exchanges, once made public, exposed the private security firm’s infiltration, monitoring and surveillance of protesters and dissidents, especially in the Occupy movement, on behalf of corporations and the national security state. And, perhaps most important, the information provided chilling evidence that anti-terrorism laws are being routinely used by the federal government to criminalize nonviolent, democratic dissent and falsely link dissidents to international terrorist organizations. Hammond sought no financial gain. He got none.
The email exchanges Hammond made public were entered as evidence in my lawsuit against President Barack Obama over Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Section 1021 permits the military to seize citizens who are deemed by the state to be terrorists, strip them of due process and hold them indefinitely in military facilities. Alexa O’Brien, a content strategist and journalist who co-founded US Day of Rage, an organization created to reform the election process, was one of my co-plaintiffs. Stratfor officials attempted, we know because of the Hammond leaks, to falsely link her and her organization to Islamic radicals and websites as well as to jihadist ideology, putting her at risk of detention under the new law. Judge Katherine B. Forrest ruled, in part because of the leak, that we plaintiffs had a credible fear, and she nullified the law, a decision that an appellate court overturned when the Obama administration appealed it.
Freedom of the press and legal protection for those who expose government abuses and lies have been obliterated by the corporate state. The resulting self-exile of investigative journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras, along with the indictment of Barret Brown, illustrate this. All acts of resistance—including nonviolent protest—have been conflated by the corporate state with terrorism. The mainstream, commercial press has been emasculated through the Obama administration’s repeated use of the Espionage Act to charge and sentence traditional whistle-blowers. Governmental officials with a conscience are too frightened to reach out to mainstream reporters, knowing that the authorities’ wholesale capturing and storing of electronic forms of communication make them easily identifiable. Elected officials and the courts no longer impose restraint or practice oversight. The last line of defense lies with those such as Hammond, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who are capable of burrowing into the records of the security and surveillance state and have the courage to pass them on to the public. But the price of resistance is high.
“In these times of secrecy and abuse of power there is only one solution—transparency,” wrote Sarah Harrison, the British journalist who accompanied Snowden to Russia and who also has gone into exile, in Berlin. “If our governments are so compromised that they will not tell us the truth, then we must step forward to grasp it. Provided with the unequivocal proof of primary source documents people can fight back. If our governments will not give this information to us, then we must take it for ourselves.”
“When whistleblowers come forward we need to fight for them, so others will be encouraged,” she went on. “When they are gagged, we must be their voice. When they are hunted, we must be their shield. When they are locked away, we must free them. Giving us the truth is not a crime. This is our data, our information, our history. We must fight to own it. Courage is contagious.”
Hammond knows this contagion. He was living at home in Chicago in 2010 under a 7-a.m.-to-7-p.m. curfew for a variety of acts of civil disobedience when Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning was arrested for giving WikiLeaks secret information about military war crimes and government lies. Hammond at the time was running social aid programs to feed the hungry and send books to prisoners. He had, like Manning, displayed a remarkable aptitude for science, math and computer languages at a young age. He hacked into the computers at a local Apple store at 16. He hacked into the computer science department’s website at the University of Illinois-Chicago as a freshman, a prank that saw the university refuse to allow him to return for his sophomore year. He was an early backer of “cyber-liberation” and in 2004 started an “electronic-disobedience journal” he named Hack This Zine. He called on hackers in a speech at the 2004 DefCon convention in Las Vegas to use their skills to disrupt that year’s Republican National Convention. He was, by the time of his 2012 arrest, one of the shadowy stars of the hacktivist underground, dominated by groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks in which anonymity, stringent security and frequent changes of aliases alone ensured success and survival. Manning’s courage prompted Hammond to his own act of cyber civil disobedience, although he knew his chances of being caught were high.
“I saw what Chelsea Manning did,” Hammond said when we spoke last Wednesday, seated at a metal table. “Through her hacking she became a contender, a world changer. She took tremendous risks to show the ugly truth about war. I asked myself, if she could make that risk shouldn’t I make that risk? Wasn’t it wrong to sit comfortably by, working on the websites of Food Not Bombs, while I had the skills to do something similar? I too could make a difference. It was her courage that prompted me to act.”
Hammond—who has black-inked tattoos on each forearm, one the open-source movement’s symbol known as the “glider” and the other the shi hexagram from the I Ching—is steeped in radical thought. As a teenager, he swiftly migrated politically from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the militancy of the Black Bloc anarchists. He was an avid reader in high school of material put out by CrimethInc, an anarchist collective that publishes anarchist literature and manifestos. He has molded himself after old radicals such as Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman and black revolutionaries such as George Jackson, Elaine Brown and Assata Shakur, as well as members of the Weather Underground. He said that while he was in Chicago he made numerous trips to Waldheim Cemetery to visit the Haymarket Martyrs Monument, which honors four anarchists who were hanged in 1887 and others who took part in the labor wars. On the 16-foot-high granite monument are the final words of one of the condemned men, August Spies. It reads: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voice you are throttling today.” Emma Goldman is buried nearby.
Hammond became well known to the government for a variety of acts of civil disobedience over the last decade. These ranged from painting anti-war graffiti on Chicago walls to protesting at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York to hacking into the right-wing website Protest Warrior, for which he was sentenced to two years in the Federal Correctional Institute at Greenville, Ill.
Hammond spent months within the Occupy movement in Chicago. He embraced its “leaderless, non-hierarchical structures such as general assemblies and consensus, and occupying public spaces.” But he was highly critical of what he said were the “vague politics” in Occupy that allowed it to include followers of the libertarian Ron Paul, some in the tea party, as well as “reformist liberals and Democrats.” Hammond said he was not interested in any movement that “only wanted a ‘nicer’ form of capitalism and favored legal reforms, not revolution.” He remains rooted in the ethos of the Black Bloc.
“Being incarcerated has really opened my eyes to the reality of the criminal justice system,” he said, “that it is not a criminal justice system about public safety or rehabilitation, but reaping profits through mass incarceration. There are two kinds of justice—one for the rich and the powerful who get away with the big crimes, then for everyone else, especially people of color and the impoverished. There is no such thing as a fair trial. In over 80 percent of the cases people are pressured to plea out instead of exercising their right to trial, under the threat of lengthier sentences. I believe no satisfactory reforms are possible. We need to close all prisons and release everybody unconditionally.”
He said he hoped his act of resistance would encourage others, just as Manning’s courage had inspired him. He said activists should “know and accept the worst possible repercussion” before carrying out an action and should be “aware of mass counterintelligence/surveillance operations targeting our movements.” An informant posing as a comrade, Hector Xavier Monsegur, known online as “Sabu,” turned Hammond and his co-defendants in to the FBI. Monsegur stored data retrieved by Hammond on an external server in New York. This tenuous New York connection allowed the government to try Hammond in New York for hacking from his home in Chicago into a private security firm based in Texas. New York is the center of the government’s probes into cyber-warfare; it is where federal authorities apparently wanted Hammond to be investigated and charged.
Hammond said he will continue to resist from within prison. A series of minor infractions, as well as testing positive with other prisoners on his tier for marijuana that had been smuggled into the facility, has resulted in his losing social visits for the next two years and spending “time in the box [solitary confinement].” He is allowed to see journalists, but my request to interview him took two months to be approved. He said prison involves “a lot of boredom.” He plays chess, teaches guitar and helps other prisoners study for their GED. When I saw him, he was working on the statement, a personal manifesto, that he will read in court this week.
He insisted he did not see himself as different from prisoners, especially poor prisoners of color, who are in for common crimes, especially drug-related crimes. He said most inmates are political prisoners, caged unjustly by a system of totalitarian capitalism that has snuffed out basic opportunities for democratic dissent and economic survival.
“The majority of people in prison did what they had to do to survive,” he said. “Most were poor. They got caught up in the war on drugs, which is how you make money if you are poor. The real reason they get locked in prison for so long is so corporations can continue to make big profits. It is not about justice. I do not draw distinctions between us.”
“Jail is essentially enduring harassment and dehumanizing conditions with frequent lockdowns and shakedowns,” he said. “You have to constantly fight for respect from the guards, sometimes getting yourself thrown in the box. However, I will not change the way I live because I am locked up. I will continue to be defiant, agitating and organizing whenever possible.”
He said resistance must be a way of life. He intends to return to community organizing when he is released, although he said he will work to stay out of prison. “The truth,” he said, “will always come out.” He cautioned activists to be hyper-vigilant and aware that “one mistake can be permanent.” But he added, “Don’t let paranoia or fear deter you from activism. Do the down thing!”
THE FIRS WEB SITE I GO TO EVERY DAY IS COMMON DREAMS. I DON’T READ EVERYTHING BECAUSE I HAVE OTHER WEB SITES TO CHECK OUT, BUT I TRY TO FIND WHAT SPEAKS TO THE CRISES IN OUR WORLD TODAY AND WILL HAVE A UNIVERSAL AND HUMANISTIC APPEAL TO THE READERS OF MY BLOG. AS HAPPENED TODAY, SOMETIMES I READ WHAT I HAVE A FEELING WILL BE SOMETHING I CANNOT AGREE WITH. AS WITH THESE KINDS OF ARTICLES, AS WELL AS THOSE WHICH FOR ME ARE RIGHT ON, MORE OFTEN THAN NOT THE COMMENTS AT THE END OF THE ARTICLE FOR THE MOST PART CONTAIN AS MUCH OR MORE WISDOM AS THE ARTICLE ITSELF. THIS GIVES ME LOTS OF HOPE BECAUSE THESE ARE NOT OPINIONS OF THE SO-CALLED EXPERTS, BUT RATHER ORDINARY JANES AND JOES LIKE YOU AND ME.
I AM NOT GOING TO POST THESE TWO ARTICLES, RATHER GIVE YOU THE LINKS AND SUGGEST YOU DO AS I DID AND TAKE THE TIME TO READ ALL THE COMMENTS. JUST READING THE TITLES OF THESE TWO ARTICLES GOT MY DANDER UP: “Bill de Blasio: Harbinger of a New Populist Left in America” AND “Class War is a Bad Strategy for Progressive Politics.”
JUST CLICK ON THESE TITLES TO READ THE ARTICLES AND I PROMISE YOU IT WILL BE WORTH YOUR WHILE TO READ ALL THE COMMENTS (THE GREAT PERCENTAGE OF WHICH I CONSIDER TO BE WELL STATED). THERE IS A QUOTE IN THE COMMENTS OF THE SECOND ARTICLE BY FREDERICK DOUGLAS, WHICH I GIVE YOU HERE AS AN APPETIZER:
“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. … If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Fredrick Douglas – 1857
Roger’s note: The Zapatistas are perhaps the most important revolutionary movement of our times. The figure known as Subcomandante Marcos was a Mexico City academic who went to Chiapas to teach revolution to the Indigenous population. Instead, he himself got his world view flipped 180 degrees, coming to realize that the true revolutionary spirit is indigenous to the Indigenous. What the Zapatistas have taught us is the prime importance of the notion of “dignity,” self-governance, and that genuine revolution at a given time does not necessarily imply the necessity of winning state power. I recommend that anyone interested in revolutionary theory and practice look into the Zapatista experience. I also recommend a work greatly inspired by the Zapatista movement, John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power.”
Last December, tens of thousands of indigenous Zapatistas mobilized, peacefully and in complete silence, to occupy five municipal government office buildings in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. That same day, which coincided with the end of one cycle on the Maya calendar, Zapatistas released a communiqué, asking, “Did you hear it?”
It appears that the answer was yes, because this week thousands of people from around the world are descending on Chiapas for the Zapatistas’ first organizing school, called la escuelita de libertad, which means the little school of liberty. Originally the group allotted for only 500 students. But so many people wished to enroll that they opened an additional 1,200 slots for the weeklong school, which begins on August 12.
Just as the Zapatistas have, for two decades, rejected hierarchical systems, the escuelita will also eschew traditional teaching models. Instead, it will be an open space for the community to learn together.
“There isn’t one teacher,” wrote Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement. “Rather, it is the collective that teaches, that shows, that forms, and in it and through it the person learns, and also teaches.”
While attending the escuelita, students will live with a family in a rebel zapatista community and participate both in the school and in the daily life of the community. Participants will cut wood, work in the cornfields and cook and eat with their host families.
Subcomandante Marcos acknowledged that attending this type of school requires shifting one’s way of thinking about learning and indigenous communities. As he asked in a communiqué:
Would you attend a school taught by indigenous teachers, whose mother tongue is typified as “dialect”?
Could you overcome the temptation to study them as anthropological subjects, psychological subjects, subjects of law or esoterism, or history?
Would you overcome the urge to write a report, interview them, tell them your opinion, give them advice, orders?
Would you see them, that is to say, would you listen to them?
Leading up to the school, the Zapatistas published a series of seven communiqués entitled “Them and Us.” These essays illustrated the absurdities of “those from above” — those who hold coercive and repressive power — trampling the freedoms of “those from below.” The writings also spoke to the need to learn by observing and listening in order to build an alternative world. But more than abstractions, the seven publications were a collection of lessons about how everyday life in the Zapatista communities, including how people resolve problems and how they organize themselves into an autonomous networks in which the people rule and the government obeys.
The last installation of this manual, published on March 27, also announced the upcoming escuelita and outlined three requirements necessary for any applicant: “an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.”
The Zapatistas are unique not only for challenging power or maintaining their resistance for nearly 20 years. What sets them apart is their ever-evolving definition of liberty, and this topic — liberty according to the Zapatistas — will be the central focus of the school. According to Subcomandante Marcos, liberty is “to govern and govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.” But the definition also shifts from generation to generation, and Marcos explains that new generations must find their own paths through rebellion and dignity.
The experience of living with Zapatistas and other indigenous families will be another central part of the school. Some students will stay with families living in autonomous rebel communities, while others will be with nearby non-Zapatistas, or even anti-Zapatistas families. These hundreds of families have all agreed on a votán, a person who, in the Zapatista movement, represents a guardian and the heart of the community. The votáns will translate for the families and the foreign students, although Marcos acknowledges that translation itself is an imperfect process.
“In legal cases, do cultures translate?” he questions. “In that sense, one understands that what they call ‘equality under the law’ is one of the greatest travesties of justice in our world.”
As for final evaluations, the school won’t, unsurprisingly, have an exam, a thesis, or a multiple-choice test. Rather, as Marcos explained, the school “will make its own reality,” and the results will be “a mirror.”
The school began after three days of festivals in rebel communities to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the councils of good governance, the Zapatistas’ autonomous governing system in which the community makes decisions and the government carries them out. During the celebrations, one could see empty buses and vans parked along the streets to Ocosingo and Palenque, waiting to transport the 1,700 students from San Cristobal de Las Casas into the rebel communities the following morning.
Earlier this summer, the Zapatistas announced that future escuelitas in the Zapatista communities will be held this coming winter.
Roger’s note: I have no idea how reliable is the author of this article. If the facts are correct, then we have good reason to fear massive repression of civil unrest. The article suggests that it is more likely to come from the right (tea party) than the left. In either case the notion of economic disaster leading to civilian rioting being confronted by agencies armed with lethal weapons is truly frightening.
Mona Eltahawy, an American-Egyptian journalist, wrote an eloquent essay published in the May/June edition of Foreign Policy titled “Why Do They Hate Us? The real war on women is in the Middle East.” The myriad negative responses to it reveal serious examples of counter-revolution from within the revolution in the wake of Arab Spring.
ARAB SPRING FACES COUNTER-REVOLUTION
Eltahawy takes up “the pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East.” It is crucial that her essay is about the need for the revolutions of Arab Spring to continue and deepen. So important is this to her that she begins and ends with that point. On the first page she declares:
“An entire political and economic system–one that treats half of humanity like animals–must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”
And on the last page she writes:
“The Arab uprisings may have been sparked by an Arab man–Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in desperation–but they will be finished by Arab women…. Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought–social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.”
Not one of the critiques I read mentions that this is what her essay is about. Rather than speaking to her essay’s content–the unbearable sexism that women experience in the Middle East–they try to discredit her. Where she talks of how “more than 90% of ever-married women in Egypt–including my mother and all but one of her six sisters–have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty,” she is chided for using the “wrong” word, genital mutilation instead of circumcision. Another critic attacks her by reminding the reader that genital mutilation of women did not originate with Islam or in the Middle East. But none speak to the actuality of genital mutilation, under whatever name.
FORM ATTACKED, CONTENT IGNORED
She was also widely criticized for publishing the essay in Foreign Policy, as if that somehow silenced other Arab women’s voices, even though Foreign Policy invited four responses from Arab women. Or, critics say, it was wrong to publish in Foreign Policy because her audience was presumed to be Americans, but no publications or websites the critiques were in would have printed her essay, and it is crystal clear from the responses that her essay was widely read by an Arab audience.
Then there was this age-old shibboleth, used whenever someone wants to shut up a woman who dares to bring up the fact that we live–all of us–in a deeply misogynist world: Eltahaway “blames and hates all men.”
Any who doubt the importance of what Eltahawy raises need only remember the Iranian women who, in the midst of revolution in 1979, came out by the thousands against Khomeini’s order to wear the chador. They cried out: “At the dawn of freedom we have no freedom.” They were calling for the Iranian revolution to continue. Had their demands been taken seriously by the Left, Iran might be in a very different place today.
NEED FOR PERMANENT REVOLUTION
In an interview given several weeks after her essay was published, Eltahawy reiterated that she is talking about deepening revolution:
“So what my essay is trying to do, is to say that the women…now have two revolutions that need to be completed: The revolution against the regime, which oppresses all of us; but also a second revolution against a society that oppresses us as women.”
While Eltahawy is not talking directly of Marx’s concept of revolution in permanence, that is what she is calling for. As Arab Spring faces counter-revolution from within and without–and is now facing an election where both candidates may well worsen women’s oppression–we call for the greatest possible solidarity with what Eltahawy is raising.