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From: Louis Proyect <>
Subject: Chiapas: The People of the Corn Strike Back
Followup-To: alt.activism.d
Date: 29 Jan 1998 05:37:38 GMT

The People of the Corn Strike Back

by Harry Cleaver

Since erupting into public view on January 1, 1994 the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas has become a world-event. A rag-tag indigenous army with more wooden rifles than real ones, and with more human dignity in its few thousands than the whole corrupt Mexican government and its army put together, the Zapatistas have found ways of expressing the hopes and aspirations of Chiapanecan peasants that have touched hearts and fired imaginations throughout Mexico and around the world. In a simple language, rooted in the day to day lives and cultures of its communities, Zapatista communiques and writings have elaborated a critique of Neoliberalism that while focused on Mexico has resonated with its victims and opponents in both hemispheres. At the same time, their major spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos has conjured from the same source visions of alternatives that have had an equally wide appeal despite their largely local origins and framing.[21]

Against Neoliberal reforms the Zapatistas have revealed its brutal reality: the final enclosure of the Mexican commons, deepened exploitation, increased suffering from malnutrition, lack of medical care, daily violence and cultural genocide against the indigenous. Against the Mexican government's Neoliberal Dream of a competitive Mexican ship rowing vigorously in a free market sea captained by Harvard-trained economists, the Zapatistas have revealed a Nightmare. The boat, they have pointed out, is no free adventurer but a slave ship, the rowers are chained to their oars and the captains either corrupt or delusional. Ex-president Carlos Salinas and current President Ernesto Zedillo are neither Jason nor Odysseus but mad Ahabs who have been steering their country to catastrophe.[22] Faced with such madness, the Zapatistas have demanded direct democratic control over their own lives and convoked others (in civil society) to demand the same.

Against the vertical subordination of indigenous needs to those of "Mexican" development, whose dynamic in turn has been subordinated to global markets (i.e., capitalist global policy in this period), the Zapatistas have called for a horizontally interlinked and cooperative pattern of autonomy -- for the indigenous communities, for women, and for bioregions. No pastoralists, despite their agrarian origins, they envision no abandonment of modern industries and technologies that can be turned to good account, but instead offer a fundamental reordering of social priorities and liberation from all mandates of development (accumulation).

At the same time, they have refused to be caught in what Marcos calls the trap of mirrors, in illusions of difference which upon close examination turn out to be but inverted mirror images. The most important of these mirrors have been political ones: oppositional political parties which remain integral cogs of a repressive political machine and more broadly socialism as mirror image of capitalism, differing only in patterns of ownership and the distribution managerial responsibility among private and public sectors, but at the core no different from its supposed nemesis. Such a perspective almost guaranteed immunity from the seductions of "sustainable" development.

By July of 1994 the Zapatista Rebellion had turned "sustainable development" into an issue of National Security in the United States. Not only was the US Defense Department aiding the Mexican government with advice and mat=E8riel for low intensity warfare, but Senator Timothy Wirth gave a speech before the National Press Club in which he suggested that sustainable development could provide a policy framework to replace the now vanished Cold War. One of his examples was Chiapas where "resource conflicts", he argued, "underlie the insurgency".[23] Unfortunately, the concrete contribution of the US government to sustaining Neoliberal development in Mexico has been to ship more military hardware (e.g. helicopters) for political repression and vast monies ($50 billion) to bailout panicked speculators (in the wake of the Peso Crisis in December 1994). . . .

In a week of intensive interaction, in the rain and mud of Chiapanecan jungle villages, these thousands discussed and debated the global relevance of the Zapatista critique of Neoliberalism and began a discussion of alternatives --a discussion in which "sustainable development" was often evoked, and critiqued. The manifest differences in perspective and analysis were many and expected. What was unexpected was the extraordinary consensus that the real problem, of which Neoliberalism was only the current manifestation, was capitalism. Gustavo Esteva and several other contributors to the Development Dictionary mentioned above attended the Intercontinental Encounter and their anti-economy critique of development, sustainable and otherwise, was received with sympathy or with echoes. But by far the central object of critique and ire was capitalism, not this or that kind of capitalism, but capitalism per se. What also became apparent was that even among the politicos in attendance, among those whom one might have expected to evoke past visions of socialism or communism, the Zapatista discourse and example of looking for alternatives within concrete communities overshadowed old inclinations and stirred new imagination.

Since the first few weeks of the Zapatista uprising, their struggle has been primarily political rather than military and their victories have been multiple. Surrounded by tens of thousands of Mexican troops and constantly subjected to all the ploys of low intensity warfare, the Zapatistas have repeatedly confounded and confused the officials of the Mexican government. They have reenacted, in their own ways, the ancient Mayan story told in the Popol Vuh of the defeat of the vicious Xibalbans by two children: little Hunahpu and Xbalanque. In that story the Xibalbans are portrayed in words quite appropriate for the Mexican government:

They are makers of enemies, users of owls,
they are masters of hidden intentions as well,
they are black and white, masters of stupidity,
masters of perplexity

Like the two boys, the Zapatistas have been achiving victory over the more powerful not through the force of arms but "only through wonders, only through self-transformation."[26] Their imagination and creativity in struggle is already legendary.[27]

Many who have read the Odyssey, upon coming to the passage where Odysseus must choose between Charybdis and Scylla have asked themselves the obvious question: why didn't he just sail somewhere other than the Straits of Medina and avoid two bad choices? Why take Circe's word that no other path was feasible? She may have been a Goddess, but by that time Odysseus should have learned to be wary of advice from on high! (It was jealous Circe [capital?], after all, who had turned Glaucus' [ecologists?] lovely Scylla [respect for Nature?] into a monster [sustainable development?].) Drawing on an entirely different mythological tradition, that of Mesoamerica, the Zapatistas have avoided Odysseus' mistake. They have looked sideways, not up, for advice, to peasants (Old Man Antonio) and even beetles (Don Durito) and they have been rethinking many things, including the relationship between humans and the world around them.

In Mayan mythology as in the daily life of the men and women of the corn, Nature is not a unified something but a multiplicity of which they are a part. The milpa from which they draw sustenance from the earth and sky and the comida where together they consume it link them with the rest of the cosmos.[28] In some ways their vision was expressed in poetic echo by Fernando Pessoa in the 20th Century:

I saw that there was no Nature,
That Nature does not exist, That there are mountains, valleys, plains,
That there are trees, flowers, grasses,
That there are streams and stones,
But that there's not a whole to which this belongs,
That any real and true connection
Is a disease of our ideas.
Nature is parts without a whole.
This is perhaps that mystery they speak of.

The Zapatistas are revolutionaries, not ecologists, certainly not environmentalists, but they have learned on the ground that there can be no harmony in the indigenous cosmos without a reversal of their separation from the land and a grounding of their own health in that of the soil, the forests and the rivers. The people of the Zapatista communities are not hunter gatherers, they are not forest dwellers and when the Mexican Army has forced them to flee into the deep jungles and mountains they have suffered atrociously. They are people of the soil, agriculturists, even when they go into the cities to work for wages because other options have been stolen from them. In their public discourse the Zapatistas have emphasized these particularities of their roots and their culture but they have not held it forth as a universal guide, or template, for others to follow or fit themselves into. They have set them forth to demonstrate not THE way, but one way, one alternative to what are usually presented as the only options. And by so doing they -- like other indigenous groups in recent years -- have stirred others, even city folk, to look away from the mirrors of reflected inverted images for real, instead of illusory alternatives.

From my point of view, one of the most attractive things about Zapatista thinking and politics is just this emphasis on multiplicity, on the power of collective bodies and on diverse paths or lines of flight that these bodies can trace into the future.[30] Two great mistakes in the Western revolutionary tradition have been the obsession with totalization and the idea that system must follow system. Revolutionaries, despite their rejection of capitalism's imperial efforts to absorb the world and impose a universal hegemony, have still thought the future in terms of unity and counter-hegemony. Many Marxists have believed that just as a unifying capitalist system followed feudalism, so must some unifying system called socialism (or communism) be constructed to replace capitalism. Many radical environmentalists, while condemning the destructiveness of capitalism's imposed unity, think in terms of bio-systems, of a holistic Gaia. To use Marcos' metaphor of mirrors, such conceptions, even in the intellectual form of the dialectic, or the spiritual form of Goddess worship, never escape an endlessly repeated mirroring of the past in which the best you get is inversion (e.g., public instead of private ownership, Mother Nature instead of God-the-Father) but no liberation of human society from a single hegemonic framework for the organization of life, no liberation of humans or the rest of Nature from the imposition of singular measures of value (e.g., money or labor). To see that mirrors can be set aside and newness crafted links the Zapatistas' vision to the best of contemporary Western thought, to a certain anti-dialectical tradition of philosophy, to the embrace of difference within contemporary feminism, to autonomist Marxism and to the most interesting biocentric explorations of deep ecologists.[31]

The implications of this line of thinking are at least two-fold: first, recognizing that we can reject the normally inescapable framework of the economy (capitalism) means that we are freed to see what alternatives are already being elaborated, and second, freed from the search for a single comprehensive alternative, we can take a more enjoyable phenomenological and experimental approach to the study of and participation in the crafting of alternatives. Unlike Odysseus, we can thank Circe sweetly for her "roasted meat and good red wine" and sail off into the sunset on courses of our own choosing. Whether we sail in search of Camðes' Isle of Love or follow Odysseus to Lisbon or head off into completely unknown waters, we are truly free to choose. We can even, like Old Man Antonio, simply paddle our log canoe into the middle of a quiet mountain lake, under a full moon, have a smoke and tell old tales for each other's amusement and edification.[32]

To conclude. We must find ways to link the emerging alternative new approaches to redefining and organizing the genesis and distribution of "wealth" and to crafting new relationships among humans and between them and the rest of the universe in ways that are capable of linked or complementary action. There are many on-going experiments around the world whose experiences and creativity can be shared. This does not mean unity for socialism or any other singular post-capitalist "economic" order, but rather the building of cooperative interconnections among diverse projects. Nor does it mean a delinked and divided localism. It means putting together a new mosaic of interconnected alternative approaches to meeting our needs and elaborating our desires. It means inventing new politics that welcome differences but provide processes of interaction which minimize antagonism.

Harry Cleaver
Austin, Texas
April, 1997


  1. Although the general thrust of this statement is accurate, it is also true that Marcos is clearly familiar with and able to speak in terms of concepts and conceptual frameworks familiar to Northern intellectuals. This has enhanced his ability to translate and make accessible the local, historically rooted experience and ideas of the Zapatista communities.

  2. In terms of the Mayan story of the children Hunahpu and Xbalanque mentioned earlier, Salinas and Zedillo find their counterparts in the duplicitous One and Seven Deaths, the two principle Lords of Xibalba, the underworld. Like those mythical Lords, modern Mexican leaders rule only through blood sacrifice. The main difference between these two thanatocracies being that instead of getting "cleanly blotted blood" through public sacrifice, these modern Xibalbans get their dirty blood in isolated villages through murder by soldiers and White Guards and in prison cells through torture and executions by the state police.

  3. Timothy E. Wirth, "Sustainable Development and National Security" (statement before the National Press Club), US Department of State Dispatch, July 25, 1994, Vol. 5, No. 30, p. 489(5).

  1. The Popul Vuh is the classic remaining text of Mayan mythology (the Spanish conquistadors burned all the others as the first act in a 500 year history of attempted cultural genocide). For the story of Hunahpu and Xbalanque see Part III of Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, translated by Dennis Tedlock, revised edition, New York: Touchstone, 1996, pp. 116-139.

  2. When the government sent 15,000 troups against the Zapatistas in early 1994, they responded with an appeal to civil society that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Mexico City and numerous observers to Chiapas -- which forced the government into a cease-fire and negotiations. When the government sought to keep their struggle hidden from the world through its control of the media, they responded with a deluge of interviews, communiques and stories whose seriousness, detail and humor were translated and appreciated in country after country. Their supporters responded by elaborating a complex alternative information system trough the Internet that completely outflanked the government monopoly of mass media. When the government sought to maintain the fiction that the locus of Mexican politics was formal elections in mid-August 1994, the Zapatistas organized an alternative politics through an unprecedented, huge gathering of 6,000 grassroots Mexican activists in the jungle of Chiapas a week earlier. When the government stole the elections, Zapatista supporters responded with an alternative local government in Chiapas and the creation of Consulats in Exile in many countries. In the wake of the government's unilateral abrogation of the cease-fire and negotiations in February of 1995 by sending 50,000 troops into Zapatista communities, the EZLN retreated into the mountains and jungles while its supporters in civil society launched widespread protests so much greater than than the previous year that once again the government offensive was defeated. Subsequently, the Zapatistas regained the political initiative by organizing first a national and international referendum (in which millions participated) about the form that their struggle should take and later the Continental and Intercontinental Encounters mentioned above. In each of these movements the Zapatistas have defeated the government not with guns but by using their imagination and creativity to transform their struggle in ways that have outflanked and bypassed the state's repressive measures.

  3. There is a nice discussion of the comida and its significance in Esteva and Prakesh's forthcoming book.

  4. Fernando Pessoa, Selected Poems, 2nd Edition, translated by Jonathan Griffin, London: Penguin, 1982. This passage is from poem 47 of Pessoa's The Keeper of Sheep. Here is the original from Fernando Pessoa, Obra Poética e em Prosa, Porto: Lello & Irmão Editores, 1986, p. 775:
      Vi que não há Natureza
      Que Natureza não existe,
      Que há montes, vales, planícies,
      Que há árvores, flores, ervas,
      Que há rios e pedras,
      Mas que não há um todo a que isso pertença,
      Que um conjunto real e verdadeiro
      Ä uma doença das nossas ideias.
      A Natureza é partes sem um todo.
      Isto é talvezo tal mistério de que falam

  5. For an extremely interesting study that draws parallels between mesoamerican mythology, contemporary Mayan social practices and Gilles Deleuze's reworking of Spinoza's concepts of collective bodies see: Byrt Wammack, Between Deleuze and Cháac: Bodies, Power and Space, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, August 1997.

  6. On the anti-dialectical tradition see the work of Gilles Deleuze. The feminists include Luce Iragaray and Donna Haraway. For a brief introduction to the autonomist Marxist tradition see the introduction to Harry Cleaver, Reading Capital Politically, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. On deep ecology and biocentrism see: Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology, Salt Lake City: G.M.Smith, 1985.

  7. Old Man Antonio's tale telling appears in Subcommandante Marcos' Book of Mirrors, (English translation) that is available on the WWW at URL:

(From a longer paper by Harry Cleaver available at

Louis Proyect

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