New Books | Zapatismo Urbano

Central to the movement against capital is the use of new forms of communication – including poetry – to produce and establish realities that defy the prosaic logic of everyday oppression.

We are the Crisis of Capital: A John Holloway Reader has recently been published by PM Press. It collects a selection of Holloway’s writing published between 1979 and 2014. ‘Zapatismo Urbano’, one of the essays included in the reader, was first published in 2005. This is an edited extract.

The Zapatista uprising has been a fundamental point of reference for urban struggles over the last 10 years. Yet there are obvious differences in the conditions and forms of struggle. We who live in the cities and look to the Zapatistas are not organised as an army. We do not live within the sort of communal support structures that exist in Chiapas. We do not have land on which to grow the basic foodstuffs necessary for survival, and we are not, on the whole, accustomed to the levels of complete poverty that is the daily experience of the Zapatistas of Chiapas.

There are aspects of the Zapatista uprising that have not found any echo in the cities. We urban Zapatistas generally do not want to be organised as an army and often reject militarism as a form of organisation and concept of struggle. 

The other aspect of the Zapatismo of Chiapas that has found little resonance in the cities is their use of national symbols – the country’s flag and the national anthem. The urban Zapatista movement tends not to be nationalist, and in many cases is profoundly anti-nationalist. It has been not so much an international movement as a global movement, a movement of struggle for which global capitalism and not the nation state has been the principal point of reference.

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What, then, are the aspects of the Zapatista uprising that have found echoes in the cities of the world? The most obvious is the mere fact of rebellion – the fact that the Zapatistas rose up when the time for rebellion seemed to have passed, their ¡Ya basta! [Enough!] to a world that is so obviously obscene. But it is more than that. It is also that their ¡Ya basta! also turns against a left that had grown stale and stiff and alienating. 

The rejection of the old forms of left-wing politics leaves us with an enormous question mark. That itself is important. The Zapatista saying “caminamos preguntando” (asking we walk) acquires a particular resonance because we are conscious that we do not know the way forward. The world around us makes us scream, but where do we go with our scream, what do we do with our scream? The politics of rebellion is a politics of searching – not for the correct line but for some sort of way forward, some way of making our scream effective.

The politics of asking leads on to certain forms of organisation. The organisational forms of the Zapatistas of Chiapas are characterised by a tension, as they themselves emphasise. This is the tension concentrated in their principle of “mandar obedeciendo” (to lead by obeying). On the one hand, they are organised as an army, with all that that means in terms of vertical lines of command. On the other hand, the army is subject to the control of the village councils, where discussion and consensus are the guiding principles. Perhaps the central challenge of urban Zapatismo is the challenge of autonomy. 

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Class struggle is traditionally seen as a struggle for power that inevitably determines the agenda, rhythms and forms of struggle. Confrontation is then the pivot of social struggle. If, however, we say that we do not want to take power, then the whole conception of struggle shifts. What is central now is not the confrontation with the other side (capital) but the construction of our own world. We try to focus on our own doing, to push confrontation to one side. This is still class struggle. It is still confrontation with capital (inevitably, since capital is the imposition of an alien control of our activity). But insofar as possible, we seize the initiative, we seize the agenda. We make capital follow our agenda, so it becomes clear that the aggression comes from them, not from us. We cannot be autonomous in a capitalist society, but we can push our autonomy as far as possible. 

Capital is the negation of autonomy, the ever-repeated negation of our self-determination. (As part of this, the state is the ever-repeated negation of the council.) If we see confrontation as the axis of struggle, then we are anticipating and therefore participating in this negation. By making the development of our own creativity (our own power-to-do) the centre of the movement, capital is revealed as a parasite, constantly forced to run after us. 

But doing our own thing, developing our own creativity, is not the same in the cities as in the countryside. We do not possess land on which we can grow even the most basic food crops. It may be possible to occupy land for these purposes (as some of the piquetero groups in Argentina are beginning to do), but for most urban groups, this is not an option. In order to develop our autonomy we are forced into contradictory situations, in which it is much better to recognise those contradictions rather than to gloss over them, just as the Zapatistas of Chiapas have had the great merit of recognising from the beginning the contradiction of their military organisation in a movement for human dignity.

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Urban autonomous groups survive either on the basis of state subsidies (sometimes forced by the groups themselves as in the case of the piqueteros who use the roadblocks to force the government to give money to the unemployed) or on the basis of some mixture of occasional or regular paid employment and state subsidies. Thus, many urban groups are composed of a mixture of people in regular employment, people who are by choice or by necessity in irregular or occasional employment, and those who (again by choice or necessity) are unemployed and often dependent on state subsidies or some sort of market activity for their survival. These different forms of dependency on forces that we do not control (on capital) pose problems and limitations that should be recognised. At the same time, the significance of these limitations obviously depends on the collective strength of the groups: in the case of the piqueteros, for example, the payment of the state subsidies was imposed by road blocks and administered by the groups themselves.

All these different forms of dependency on capital are imposed by property, by the fact that all the wealth produced by human doing is congealed in the form of property that confronts and excludes us. The limiting of our autonomous self-determination appears in the form of property, behind which stand the forces of law and order that defend property. We seem to be forced back into a logic of confrontation in which we lose the initiative, or in which we are forced to focus on winning power so that we can control the police and change the laws on property. If we exclude this course (simply because control of the state tends to become control by the state), how can we go forward? Possibly by defetishising property, by seeing that property is not an established thing but a constant process of appropriating, a verb and not a noun. The problem then is not to conceptualise our own action in terms of the challenge to property but to focus on our own construction of an alternative world and to think about how to avoid the capitalist appropriation of the products of our own doing.

However we think of revolution, we are faced with the task of dissolving reality. The transformation of the world means moving from a world ruled by objective reality to a world in which subjective creativity is the centre, in which humanity becomes its “own true sun”. The struggle for such a world means a constant process of criticism, a process of undermining the objectivity of reality and showing that it depends absolutely for its existence on subjective creation. Our struggle is a struggle against the world-that-is, with its logic that tells us that “there is no alternative”, with its language of prose that closes our horizons.

The poetry of the Zapatista uprising (of their communiqués and their actions) is not peripheral to their movement, is not the external decoration of a fundamentally serious movement, but is central to their whole struggle. The fact that the Zapatistas of Chiapas (and to some extent other Latin American indigenous movements) have made such an impact in the urban struggles of the world has much to do with the language they use.

This is not just a question of pretty words or of Subcomandante Marcos’s undoubted literary skills. It is above all that they offer a different way of seeing the world, a vision that breaks with the dominant logic of “there is no alternative”. Poetry and indeed other forms of artistic expression have come to play a central role in anti-capitalist struggle: poetry not as pretty words but as struggle against the prosaic logic of the world, poetry as the call of a world that does not yet exist.

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Is this a dangerous romanticism? Are the Zapatistas unwittingly leading the rebellious youth of the world into forms of action that are dangerously unrealistic? Recently, as part of the 10/20 celebrations, the Zapatistas have been emphasising the centrality of organisation in their struggle: is this a way of countering the impression that their struggle is just poetry, just the power of the word?

The poetry of Zapatismo does not deflect people from the question of organisation. What it does is to open up perspectives in a world that seems so terribly closed. More than that, it suggests forms of action that break with the logic of capital and are more difficult to integrate into the texture of domination.

The accusation of romanticism really has to do with the question of power. “Realism” is identified with a perspective that focuses on power and sees organisation and action as being instruments to achieve certain changes (whether minor changes or the radical change of society). What this realist perspective fails to see is that the very instrumentality of the approach leads to the adoption of forms of action and of organisation that defuse and demobilise the movement for change. It is precisely because instrumentalist realism has failed to achieve the objective of radical social change that people everywhere have turned away from this approach to forms of action that are expressive rather than instrumental.

Will this poetic romanticism prove more realistic than the previous socialist realism? We do not know. What we know is that the realism of power politics failed to achieve radical social change and that hope lies in breaking reality, in establishing our own reality, our own logic, our own language, our own colours, our own music, our own time, our own space. That is the core of the struggle not only against “them” but against ourselves, that is the core of the Zapatista resonance.

John Holloway is a professor of sociology at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades in the Benemérita Universidad Autùnoma de Puebla, Mexico. He has published widely on Marxist theory, on the Zapatista movement and on the new forms of anti-capitalist struggle.

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