In my latest blog post, I announced the publication of a few selected papers from my course Diversifying Philosophy. The second piece is by Aaron Mattias Cardona. The sources from the course Aaron linked to are The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon and the documentary Lumières Noirs by Bob Swaim. He linked the questions raised there on postcolonial identity of peoples to the case of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. The paper gives philosophical food for thought on culture, history and identity. It may be remarked that the picture painted of the Zapatista movement is very rosy, that it is unlikely that it contains no flaws as any liberation movement. All the same taking this case as the outline of a utopian political model for decolonisation, the essay provides a compelling read. Here it is:
Postcolonial Identity and the Zapatista Experience
“Admitting, on one side or the other, or on one of the thousand sides, that I can change by exchanging with the ‘other’ without losing my own identity… until we can manage this, all the social solutions, or political solutions and so on, will be fragile and stop-gap. The old demon of the exclusion of the other will always come back and lead to genocide, massacre, and holocaust” (Swaim, 49:20-50:02).
Thus spoke French writer Édouard Glissant on the topic of black liberation. This is the lens through which we have chosen to observe bygone anti-colonialist struggles. Famous movements of the 20th century, such as the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, the Việt Minh in Vietnam, the Mouvement National Congolais in the Congo – all these subverted the colonial power-structures amidst chants of national liberation. Precisely this national-ness was left unsubverted, as a trace of the metropolis. This colonial spore was enough for the power-structures’ continued perpetuation. How have the emancipated peoples indigenous to their liberated regions followed the European path to neoliberalization? The schism of society was not abolished, it was merely transformed – and even today, in the backstage of civilization, the light of rebellion and unrest flickers, decades after the colonizers’ expulsion.
In this essay, rather than looking to respond to the above question, we would like to pose an alternative path to liberation, one we believe to be more fruitful; that of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional). For this, we will begin by sketching out the contour of the Chiapas conflict (1994-present) and its determining factors – as well as major events – in order to understand the EZLN’s political structure and ideology, and the manner in which these are pregnant with indigenous traditions. Therefore, this essay deals with the question of (national) identity in general and with the Zapatista experience in particular, hoping to etch out a way forward for future emancipation in the postcolonial era.
Chiapas from the 16th Century to the early 20th Century. Ever since Spanish conquistadors established colonial towns and encomiendas in the Lacandon jungles, the indigenous peoples of Chiapas – not unlike elsewhere – experienced tremendous hardships. Although Mexico officially ceased to be a colony after the War of Independence in 1821, indigenous communities’ hankering for freedom was crushed by the new regime’s neglect. Only during the Mexican Revolution of 1910 did this horizon re-open. The Liberation Army of the South (Ejército Libertador del Sur) led by Emiliano Zapata rallied for land reform in the name of the peasantry – largely constituted by natives –, a call heretofore unanswered. Although the insurgents eventually were forced to enter into peace-negotiations with the Mexican government after Zapata’s assassination, the seeds for the EZLN had been sown.
The Chiapas Conflict. Founded a decade after Zapata’s assassination, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) had emerged victorious from every presidential election in Mexico. Its dominant regime had been characterized as authoritarian by many a disillusioned citizen, but its continuous perpetuation caused many to lose faith in electoral reform. Amidst such concerns, the FLN (Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional) – a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist guerrilla – emerged in the late 1960s. In subsequent years, the FLN existed tumultuously as the haunting specter of communism in Mexico; which was duly responded to with military reaction by the army. A handful of the FLN’s members grew increasingly pessimistic of successful nation-wide insurgency, and founded the EZLN in 1984. This new organization, mostly consisting of non-indigenous (i.e. mestizo) members, went underground for the next decade, engaging in base-building and recruitment processes in indigenous communities in Chiapas (see “Collectivity and Spirit” below).
Meanwhile, in the presidential elections of 1988, the PRI candidate – Gonzalo Salinas de Gortari – won in highly controversial (and later demonstrably fraudulent2) manner. Thus began a period of stricter economic liberalization, culminating in 1992, when de Gortari’s government amended the constitution; reforming Article 27 to enable the privatization of not only communal land – on which campesino indigenous communities’ lives depended –, but also state-owned enterprises and institutions. Furthermore, on the 1st of January 1994, the NAFTA trade-deal was enforced. The EZLN shook off its decade-long slumber of underground recruitment, and awakened its military wing as they took advantage of New Years’ celebrations to take over key towns and buildings in Chiapas – liberating prisoners and vandalizing police headquarters. The insurgents’ demands were clear; constitutional recognition of and autonomy for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The demands were, in practice, a declaration of war.
The consequences were to be observed immediately. The economy slumped. De Gortari’s government defaulted on IMF-loans, and the peso’s value plummeted. The crisis was, in part, due to drastic reforms to the country’s political economy – but nonetheless, the insurgents played their part; foreign investors pre-emptively evaded Mexico due to the instability of encroaching civil war. Through a ceasefire orchestrated by the liberation theologian Samuel Ruiz, the EZLN was granted control over a small region in Chiapas – a peace-treaty which ended shortly after, in 1995, due to a military offensive by the army. A prime example of this conflict’s violence is the 1997 Acteal Massacre, where a paramilitary3 took the lives of 45 members of the pacifist organization Las Abejas for their support for the Zapatistas’ cause.
Only in 2001 did the tides seemingly begin to turn. The PRI for the first time lost their presidential elections to Vicente Fox from the conservative PAN (Partido Acción Nacional). The new government proceeded with Zapatista peace-negotiations – and the long sought-after inclusion of the indigenous in the constitution was materialized. Autonomy and self- determination within the framework of a united nation has ever since been recognized. This autonomy – autonomy of the indigenous – marks the emergence of new “indigenous ideology” as the internal re-affirmation of cultural self-esteem. Henceforth a new “self” has been in the books. But this self – what is it?
Zapatista Political Organization and Ideology
The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. In 2005, from the depths of the rainforest, the Zapatistas published the most important document they have released up to date; outlining their political mission and their Weltanschauung.
Reiterated multiple times is the key concept of horizontalism (as opposed to democratic centralism). The EZLN breaks from previous insurgencies in Latin America by adopting an autonomist strategy – rather than Marxist-Leninist (M-26-7, Cuba) or Marxist- Leninist-Maoist (Shining Path, Chile) approaches. The Zapatistas see themselves as a political movement not by a revolutionary vanguard, but from and of the people. By appealing to and grounding themselves explicitly in civil society, they “have been able to build that feeling that they [civil society] are participating with, and not behind [the movement]” (Monsivais and Bellinghausen 13).
In practice, this translates into the MAREZ (Municipalidades Autónomas Rebeldes Zapatistas). These municipalities are self-governed by the communities which inhabit them, and are mostly ruled according to traditional indigenous precepts. The municipalities therefore decide, by consensus, which person – from the same municipality – is to govern, and have the power to recall them at any moment. An important element of this is that the EZLN practically dissolves itself, instead of taking over previously-existing political structures.
In this manner, the EZLN successfully separates its politico-military influence from autonomous MAREZ by gradually transferring all executive powers to the municipal authorities (Juntas de Buen Gobierno). Members of the community are appointed to take over all tasks previously taken up by the rebels – including security – in rotating manner, in order to ensure the municipality’s autonomy from the EZLN, by teaching each of its members all necessary tasks. “We believe that a community which fails to keep an eye on its government is condemned to become a slave – and we fight to be free, not to change master every six years.” (“Sexta Declaración de la Selva Lacandona”).
The Zapatistas therefore clearly see themselves as the revolutionary face of civil society. Who belongs in the society they represent? Here a mixture of class solidarity and collaborationism is noticeable, as La Sexta4 calls for an alliance of all individuals in all social classes whose interests are opposed to those of neoliberalism. Case-in-point, the Zapatistas consider all people to be included in this premise. Subcomandante Galeano (“III. ¿El individuo contra el colectivo?”), de facto spokesman of the EZLN, in correspondence with Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro, describes that fundamental humanity is only achievable in collectivity – a collectivity of solidarity, of collaboration; of co-existence. Citing Bertolt Brecht (vv. 69-75),
Die wir den Boden bereiten wollten für Freundlichkeit Konnten selber nicht freundlich sein.
Ihr Aber, wenn es soweit sein wird
Dass der Mensch dem Menschen ein Helfer ist Gedenkt unsrer
we may ask, how does such collectivity emerge, and why has it hitherto failed to do so? As posed, the Zapatistas appeal to traditional indigenous practices – hence, a particular MAREZ’s social ontology corresponds to e.g. Tzotzil social ontology.
Collectivity and Spirit
The Heart (o’on) and its Potentialities (ch’ulel). For Tzotzil people, thoughts and feelings (synthesized in ‘thoughts-feelings’) reside in the heart (o’on). As a metaphor, this is not hard to conceptualize for us, since we also use the heart as the physical location of our emotions (e.g. love/pain in my heart, etc.). But what is novel for us is the conception of these thoughts- feelings as realizations of inherent potentialities (ch’ulel) of the heart. The closest equivalent in western philosophy is a Bergsonian/Deleuzian “virtual” reality – thus we could say that ch’ulel exists “virtually” in the heart. This ch’ulel is immanent in every interaction (which are all inherently relational) any entity has with another – living or non-living – and determines the relationship of the two. For example, a sheep’s potentiality to produce wool determines its relationship to humans who need clothing to keep themselves warm, which in turn determines the relationship of the human to the sheep. Collectivity emerges in the form of a community- traversing ch’ulel, which creates the “collective heart”, binding the members together into the “shared space of a single heart” (Fitzwater 34). This process is named ichbail ta muk’.
In a word, Tzotzil collectivity is the reciprocal interaction by which a “collective heart” is created through an encompassing potentiality. This potential is what determines the relationship of a particular heart to another – creating a larger (ergo collective) heart – and thus could be said to be the relationship itself, in its virtual form within the heart. According to EZLN educators, concepts such as dignity, autonomy, democracy, etc. can only be the result of a particular people’s creation as a collective – through ichbail ta muk’.
The Postcolonial Realm
The Colony is Dead, Long Live the Colony! 20th century anticolonial struggles were nationalist movements – seeking liberation/emancipation for people ascribing to a national identity (a shared history, culture, ethnicity, religion, etc.). Nation-building, according to Eric Hobsbawm, is the construction of a political artifact along this idea (110). Simultaneously, this construction is an inherently western pursuit, and, as Franz Fanon declares, the colonial power-structure must not only be overtaken, but destroyed altogether (6). The failure to do so is key to understanding the postcolonial nations of the 20th century, for their postcolonial-ness is merely nominal in the sense that colonial rationality itself has not been peeled off. A nation which identifies itself through colonial categories – the colonizer and the Other (e.g. the native, the negro, the indian, etc.) – finds itself entrapped within the colonial paradigm.
Slavoj Žižek describes this colonial paradigm as a rupture which creates the possibility for an entirely novel one (Žižek, “The Hegelian Wound”). The people indigenous to a region which become colonized thus become an ontologically new community, precisely bound by their colonial experience. But is the movement to extricate oneself from the fetters of colonialism a movement identifiable with an identity? Is the dovetailing of indigenous identities a colonial mindset, or a radically anticolonial one?
The Zapatistas and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Michael Löwy stated in reference to the Zapatista movement that,
“ . . . we must grant them one tremendous virtue: in these gloomy closing years of the century, in this time of triumphant neoliberalism, of rampant commercialism, of galloping cynicism, of a politics of politicians, they have succeeded in making people dream – in Chiapas, in Mexico, and in places all over the planet. They are re-enchanters of the world.” (Löwy 1)
Taking the notion of “re-enchanters” quite literally, we may approach the answer to our inquiry.
The EZLN’s anticolonialism is not a secular undertaking. We must remember that it is the realization of the collective heart’s potentiality which forms the movement per se. As such, this movement, by being pregnant with indigenous- ness, is in and of itself anticolonial, by virtue of these traditions’ pre- and non- coloniality. By a lack of adherence to colonial conjuncture the latter is contradicted and conflicted. This movement – in the form of the EZLN – is at once the antecedent and consequent of the emerging collectivity (for it sparks it, and is the materialization thereof).
It is not a radical-democratic revolution, it is an indigenous rebellion. The Zapatistas are civil society, and how the latter is organized is up to itself – not a politico-military hegemon in the form of EZLN commanders. Colonialism punctures indigenousness, leaving an unfulfilled and unfulfillable lack in the hearts of its victims6. But nonetheless, as long as there is a lack, there is a trace of the forlorn – to rebel is not to resuscitate it. Ichbail ta muk’ is the foreclosure of a no longer existing identity, a creation of a new collectivity, a new self – a negation of the negation. To obtain what never obtained, a return to a future identity. But what does this mean?
As mentioned above, the fundamental failure of the global postcolony is the appropriation of colonialism by those who overthrew it – consequentially, a perpetuation of the status quo. Returning to Glissant (see introduction above), the event-horizon of colonialism is the exchange without change. Insofar as the Algerian nationalists failed to permanently revolt against ontological colonialism, they failed, even if they achieved independence. The Zapatistas do not take the reins after the overthrow, they are passed on to the Being which allowed the moment (in the form of Zapatista rebellion) to occur; civil society, now comprised of pure collectivity, governed by itself. The difference therefore is essentially this: Unlike anticolonialists, the Zapatistas are not a movement, but a moment in the realization of civil society’s collective hearts. Rather than an army for national liberation, the Zapatistas are thus the object and subject of the liberatory process, they are from and for civil society, they are indigenous, they are the megaphone for the communities of Chiapas. They emerge to fight, and they disappear to govern; the conflict is not a flip of the power-relation, the conflict is a rupture which precedes the rule of postcolonial identity over the postcolony. Whereas the past was liberation for the Other (relative to the colonizer’s Self), the Zapatistas do not acknowledge the distinction.
As Chinua Achebe describes the process in terms of writing (343), decolonization is practically unachievable, because the concepts used therefor are intrinsically European (e.g. political boundaries, state apparatuses, modes of production/distribution, military doctrines, etc.). This is precisely what kneecapped past anticolonialism. Neozapatismo evades these problems (e.g. lack of political boundaries; municipal self-governance along indigenous consensus-building; communal land and distribution; dissolution of EZLN’s politico-military apparatus at municipal level; etc.). Essentially, a transgression from without, rather than an interior development.
Actually-Postcolonial Identity. To finally reach the point of this asymptotic explanation, we may summarize the distinction between the Zapatistas and the rest. The identity (or perhaps post-identity?) of the Zapatistas sublates the colonial paradigm (e.g. prevalence of feminist theory). The colonial identity-categories impose themselves onto traditional forms of self-acknowledgment and engrave them forever7. The postcolonial gaze is not reverted, it is abolished through a respective abolition of the postcolonial nation. The Zapatistas are not ‘in-power’, the regions under their control are free indigenous municipalities, and their objective is an eventual liberation of the entire postcolonial realm – not by means of a universal ideology, but through each collective’s own heart.
Thus, on the one hand, the Zapatistas de-secularize the social at the level of the collective, and secularize the political at the level of governance. This suspension of the liberal and the traditional allows for a new type of identity, that of a truly rooted collective, rather than a national, individual, or political identity.
To return to the thread proposed in our introduction – in what way is the ELZN’s liberatory program preferable in lieu of other 20th century “nationalist” movements? Our argument has been one of stability, perpetuity, and emancipation. By losing the chains of colonial concepts, by immersing itself into “civil society”, by de- and re- appropriating aspects of democratic radicalism, the Zapatista movement ensures its autopoiesis whilst retaining its roots in its base. Evading authoritarianism, economic liberalization, and exclusion, the Zapatistas distinguish themselves from national- liberation programs such as Nicaragua’s, China’s, or Algeria’s.
Therefore, in a final word, we believe the ELZN has taken the first steps down a road of future liberation for the colonized, creating a collective identity not based on any creed, ethnicity, or milieu, other than the belonging to the same collectivity which emerges from itself.
1 The historical account is, understandably, abbreviated and summarized – arguably even vulgarized – for the purpose of the essay.
2 In 2005, Miguel de la Madrid (president from 1982-1988) admitted that the elections of 1988 had been rigged in favor of de Gortari.
3 In September 2020, the Mexican government confirmed its participation in and responsibility for the 1997 Acteal Massacre.
4 The Sixth Declaration is conventionally known as “La Sexta”.
5 Oh, we / Who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness / Could not be friendly ourselves / But you, when the time comes / That man may befriend man / Think of us / With indulgence.
6 Prior to being colonized, a collective has no identity in the western sense. After imposing the colonial categories of identification, a “missing” identity emerges. Previously unidentified, now a self-identification with the Other (in the Colonizer-Other dichotomy) occurs. As the non-colonizer, characterized by the colonizer through a non-existent mythological prior identity (as the indigenous). This lack is an appropriation of this non- identity and a yearning for it (which tends to spark anticolonial movements) – causing a rallying behind a “self” which never existed, and is posited in the act of rallying itself. Thus, only through the colony can the colonized overthrow it, and the rope used to hang the former is a past-self emerging in the present; in the same act of overthrow.
7 The colony imposes its mode of identification (self-other, colonizer-colonized). The anticolonialists, in order to fight the dichotomy, tendentially immerse themselves into it – through a self-identification with the other (see footnote 6). But due to being of and from the same dualism, this movement fails to break out of the colonial paradigm. A negation of the negation is achieved through a third term – an outside abolition/dissolution of the dichotomy. By not identifying themselves as the other, Zapatistas do not participate in this duality.
Swaim, Bob, director. Lumières Noires. 2006.
Monsivais, Carlos, and Hermann Bellinghausen. “A New Direction – Marcos Outlines the Zapatista Change of Strategy in 2001.” La Jornada, 8 Jan. 2001.
“Sexta Declaración De La Selva Lacandona.” Enlace Zapatista, 19 Feb. 2019, enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/sdsl-es/.
Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente. “SCI Marcos: DE LA REFLEXIÓN CRÍTICA, INDIVIDU@S Y COLECTIV@S. Carta Segunda a Luis Villoro En El Intercambio Espistolar Sobre Ética y Política.” Enlace Zapatista, 5 Apr. 2015, enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2011/04/11/sci-marcos-de-la-reflexion-critica-individus-y- colectivs-carta-segunda-a-luis-villoro-en-el-intercambio-espistolar-sobre-etica-y- politica/.
An Die Nachgeborenen, by Bertolt Brecht, 1939, vv. 69–75.
Fitzwater, D. E. (2019). Autonomy is in our hearts: Zapatista autonomous government through the lens of the Tsotsil language (p. 34). PM Press.
The Age of Capital (1848-1875), by Eric Hobsbawm, Abacus, 1997, p. 110.
Fanon, Franz. The Wretched of the Earth, p. 6.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Hegelian Wound, 8 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRsrYi- wXro&ab_channel=DeutschesHaus.
Löwy, Michael. “Sources and resources of Zapatism.” Monthly Review, vol. 49, no. 10, Mar. 1998, p. 1+. Gale Academic OneFile. Accessed Nov. 2020.
Achebe, Chinua. “English and the African Writer.” Transition, no. 75/76, 1997, pp. 342–349. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2935429. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.
Reyes Godelmann, Iker. “The Zapatista Movement: The Fight for Indigenous Rights in Mexico.” Australian Institute of International Affairs, 30 July 2014, www.internationalaffairs.org.au/news-item/the-zapatista-movement-the-fight-for- indigenous-rights-in-mexico/.
Zapatista Timeline. 28 Oct. 2015, schoolsforchiapas.org/teach-chiapas/zapatista-timeline/. Bellinghausen, Hermann. “Zapatistas, Una Transformación De 25 Años.” Revista De La Universidad De México, Apr. 2019, pp. 39–45.
“Chapter Two: The Zapatista Clandestine Organization: The Creation of a Collective Heart (O’on) and Collective Potentiality (Ch’ulel).” Autonomy Is in Our Hearts: Zapatista Autonomous Government through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language, by Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater, PM Press, 2019, pp. 30–47.