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Book Review: Zapatismo Beyond Borders

March 29, 2009

Book Review: Zapatismo Beyond Borders


For artists, songwriters, storytellers, and dreamers that are reading this, you are in luck. Creativity has won out against the darkness and monotony of neoliberalism. Imagination is revolutionary. The world has good reason to hope. The affirmative and liberatory project of the Zapatistas has spread its message around the globe: un otro mundo es posible. This credo can guide our imaginations onto new terrains, but the work of building and constructing worlds remains in front of us, daunting and formidable. How do we move forward, and what weapons will our creativity arm us with? Alex Khasnabish gives us some guidance in his book, but choices remain to be taken, and we will measure our success only from the viewpoint of the end of a lifetime of imaginative struggle.

Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility (Alex Khasnabish, University of Toronto Press, 2008) explores the transnational resonance of Zapatismo - the guiding principles, tactics and beliefs of the Zapatistas - that has invigorated and inspired social activism and anti-capitalist struggles in North America. Khasnabish is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Mount St. Vincent University and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The book comes on the heels of his recent papers “A Tear in the Fabric of the Present” in the Journal for the Study of Radicalism (2009) and “Insurgent Imaginations” in Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization (2007), among other essays. Khasnabish's style reads like an academic thesis: rigorously documented, lengthy citations, and careful argumentation. Most accessible to academics, readers may find themselves wishing for a more palatable and digestible read.

Zapatismo takes the reader back to the Zapatista rebellion of January 1, 1994, in the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico, the same date that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became official policy in Mexico, Canada and the United States. Across the world, diverse socio-political realities responded to the Zapatista’s call for a global struggle against neoliberalism and for humanity. The theory that drives Zapatismo will not be lost on readers of Richard Day (Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements, 2005), Guy Debord (Society of the Spectacle, 1994) or Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1987). What Khasnabish asserts is the ‘rhizomatic’ quality of the resonance of Zapatismo in Canada and the United States, borrowing a concept from Deleuze and Guattari, and the productive power of imagination to create new fields of political possibility.

The work is important in it's grounding of post-structuralist critique in radical political movements, but that critique may only sit as an unused tool in our toolkit unless it is taken beyond the reading of this book and into the organizing tactics of imaginative activists. Creativity is important in political consciousness, from day-to-day advocacy and support, to communication, direct action, and popular education. How we utilize creativity is the key to implementing a well-directed social mobilization. The book will be of most importance as a reference for students and political theorists that seek a chronicle of the diversification and shape of radical struggles in North America after NAFTA. Activists seeking to cultivate a creative consciousness to apply to their political work, however, will need to look beyond this book.

Rhizomatic Resonance and Imagined Possibilities

The rhizome is a term borrowed from biology signifying a tuber or bulb possessing roots and shoots. Deleuze and Guattari posited it as a way of thinking about socio-political realities. Contrary to the tree or root, which grows in structured and predictable ways, the rhizome has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle from which it grows and overspills. When this multiplicity changes dimensions, it undergoes a metamorphosis. The concept of the rhizome provides a hitherto untapped yet powerful tool to understand socio-political tendencies such as the unpredictable, though not random, nature of transnational resonance.

Khasnabish contends that the most rhizomatic manifestations of resonance – the struggles that are least explicitly linked to Zapatista solidarity – are the locations of the most powerful dimensions of political possibility. The author presents some cases of anti-capitalist work in North America to demonstrate his point, including People's Global Action (PGA) and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

PGA is an obvious choice for mention because it traces its origins directly out of the 1996 Zapatista-convened 'First Intercontinental Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism'. PGA is a collective network with no organizational structure, central head or decision maker. The network brings together diverse groups in the spirit of anti-capitalism with a confrontational attitude. The imaginative framework for popular struggles in North America is clearest with a group like PGA, who in Montreal and Ottawa, have adopted the Resistance 2010 campaign, a popular struggle against three events taking place in Canada in 2010: the Vancouver/Whistler Olympic Games, the G8 meeting in Huntsville, Ontario, and the proposed ratification of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) - a NAFTA plus Homeland Security integration package for Canada, the US, and Mexico. Popular struggles against global inequality, the police state, and destruction of Indigenous land, are all tied up in the Montreal and Ottawa PGA-blocs. These themes reach above and beyond the Zapatista struggle in a new era of state repression, corporatization and colonization, all the while deepening an understanding elaborated by the international encuentros that founded the PGA. The Resistance 2010 campaign, in it's principles, grounds its work in active support and solidarity for local struggles of self-determination, justice and dignity.

In Toronto, Ontario, resistance has been fertile. Toronto's OCAP is a militant anti-capitalist organization, dedicated to non-hierarchical organizing and direct action. Like the Zapatistas and PGA, OCAP has actively demonstrated the belief that only through direct, militant action is true social change possible. OCAP conceives of its work as one struggle amongst a global multitude. OCAP might be conceived not only as a resonance of Zapatismo, but as a much-needed answer to the worsening problems of poverty, homelessness, state repression and corporatization in Toronto and across Canada. The link to Zapatismo is important, but no less important for a group like OCAP than the link with the struggles of the Tyendinaga Mohawks, who resist colonial expansion and destruction on their land.

The resonance of Zapatismo would not be effective without its inherently productive and creative qualities. With every step forward, movements bring with them the full weight of their own interpreted history. What brought us here? Why do we fight the way we do? The lessons of historical events, in other parts of the world, can inform us in ways that elicit new activities and new elements of struggle.

Imagination is woven through reality and creates the terrain of political possibility. When connected with lived experience, it is a powerful and necessary element of political action. The Zapatistas facilitated the transition from the New Left of the ‘60s and ‘70s to modern anti-capitalist struggle with their emphasis on building alternatives. The Zapatistas renounce the teleology of revolution and revolutionary trajectories, and see their project as open to many worlds and many alternatives, each being situated in a unique lived experience.

The author cites Guy Debord's argument in The Society of the Spectacle (1994) that social reality has become dominated by 'representation' rather than 'directly lived' experience. By imposing its ideological content on individuals, the spectacle determines acceptable ways of thinking and being in the world. The spectacle in a capitalist society is dominated by the marketplace: freedom has been reduced to a market strategy, and citizenship narrowed to the demands of the marketplace.

Khasnabish rightly points the way out of the spectacle: "In order to find a way beyond individualized, commodified and mutually destructive relationships, a capacity for collective critical imagination needs to be reclaimed." This process could reverse the phenomenon of isolated individuals looking for self-gratification and instead engage subjects in a collective struggle to build interconnected and dignified worlds.

The discourse of Subcomandante Marcos is steeped in myth and story. The powerful tools of imagery and imagination are used to re-tell stories of a culture and society that were able to spread through the minds of diverse listeners, uniting their hopes for a new society through recognizable images. By imagining the Zapatistas, activists across the continent could create new goals, new dreams and desires.

Khasnabish importantly denotes the tendency among northern activists to romanticize the Zapatista struggle, leading to an un-committed and short-lived spectatorship, rather than grounded solidarity. The implications of romanticization go beyond the problem of mounting a sustainable resistance. The popular movement across North America to support the Zapatistas needs to advocate a clear rejection of colonialism, in its historic and current forms, in order to stand in solidarity with the Zapatista struggle.

Anti-colonial struggles that are not waged on home turf are easier to understand for settler activists because they are more alluring and desirable. The divide that separates the Zapatistas and northern anti-colonial struggles goes beyond romanticization, and points to a lack of internalization on the part of Northern activists to fully engage in anti-colonial commitments. This analysis extends across the entire concept of resonance that Khasnabish wields. Despite the author's rhizomatic explications of the resonant locations of Zapatismo, we can see an important reason why the iterations of Zapatista solidarity have come from comfortable territories.

The Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994, marked the beginning of NAFTA and the inspiration for anti-capitalist organizers across Canada and the United States to organize against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. But has it informed and guided anti-capitalist and indigenous movements across Latin America, where access to resources and media are more limited, yet where the resonance would likely have more affinity due to language, culture, and history? Is this fundamental inequality a larger factor in the resonance of Zapatismo than Khasnabish gives credit?

Khasnabish ascribes a central role to Zapatismo in the shaping of intercontinental anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist struggles, but not to Indigenous direct action movements in Canada for Canadians. In fact, Khasnabish notes: “it would be difficult to contend that solidarity has been manifested towards Indigenous people in Canada at all the same level as to the Zapatistas."

One wonders what the tools of measurement would be for the amount of solidarity towards different struggles. Although the positive media attention of the Zapatistas did work in their favour in 1994 and beyond, this does not equate to solidarity, merely media coverage. Furthermore, a diversity of anti-colonial and anti-state Indigenous struggles happening in Canada have also resonated among anti-capitalist groups like OCAP and Canadian chapters of PGA, as much, or more so than Zapatismo.

The War Machine

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari describe a generative ‘war machine’ directed against enclosures and the dominance of the state form. It generates lines of flight: mutations, possibilities and radical alternatives. (39) When it is appropriated by the state apparatus, it becomes rigid, and reproduces violence. Deleuze and Guattari are effectively warning that the seizing of state power inevitably results in new forms of tyranny.

This reasoning was later fleshed out by Day who ascribes it to post-anarchists and autonomist Marxists who struggle against the hegemony of hegemony by subverting power rather than taking power. The Zapatista revolution didn’t overthrow the Mexican regime or usurp its power. Rather it created a new kind of power, an autonomous territory that declared itself free from the state and capital.

A new political possibility is a truly inspiring phenomenon whose relevance to contemporary radical political struggle can't be over-emphasized. Khasnabish rightfully highlights its importance. Spaces of creation and possibility are ripe with meaning, whether in other countries or in our own communities. The resonance of Zapatismo seems at best to be one of the many elements that underlie the hope, inspiration, and creativity that animate the hearts of contemporary anti-authoritarian activists. Other colourful elements that comprise this spectrum, which go umentioned by Khasnabish, are the Palestinian Intifada, the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican independentistas, and student anti-war activists.

The use of the war machine for concrete gains for humanity and dignity is a legitimate project of the people, and an interesting jumping off point for theorizing creatively about transformative change. Other revolutionary projects in Latin America, from Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, to revolutionary guerrillas living clandestinely in Colombia, fail to animate the same hope for change and political possibility that is demanded by a disillusioned global multitude. Opening spaces for new political imaginations and possibilities seems an appropriate strategy when confronting dominant systems of control. The global ecological disaster needs a solution on its own terms, and the power distribution amongst state regimes and elites does little for the situation of humanity vis-a-vis global inequality, vast environmental destruction, and the entrenchment and consolidation of power and wealth due to imperialism, capitalism and colonialism. Perhaps what is most important now is vitality and endurance in the face of adversity, with rooted commitment to struggle. The war machine, in it's continual unfolding of new potential, is rhizomatic; it pushes new territories on top of old ones, constantly destroying and creating along new lines of flight. Khasnabish captures one of these lines of flight, but fails to capture the scope and context of lines of flight in their entirety.

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Debord and Mexico

Useful review. Villa is also pertinent in regard to Debord--the bandit turned revolutionary who contracted with Hollywood to have a real battle filmed, thus defining in one mode the "Meta-Spectacle" that Debord hints at in a different context.

What Debord was most deliberately quiet about, however, was a slightly different mode of Meta-Spectacle, which was a kind of externalized reflexivity prepared as a trap for the putative "Spectacle Makers."

Debord and Villa go in opposite directions but stand united in an obviously inclusive disjunction.

One of the themes excavatable from Paz and Fuentes is also pertinent: the Mexican Revolution, which preceded the Soviet, continues, but at its own cultural pace, and partly because the ideology was impersonated in the people themselves not in what Stalin sometimes alluded to as a text interpeted by rabbis.