Alex Khasnabish’s Zapatistas explains why Mexican rebels had the audacity to fire back in a war against humanity
Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global
2010, Zed Books
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
THE impact of the Zapatistas in Chiapas has been widely debated but there are few accessible, yet authoritative, titles that summarise with clarity the significance of this movement within the political imagination on a global scale.
As the story of radicalism in Latin America moves on from the drift to the social-democratic left in the years following the end of the Cold War, it is this dimension of the Zapatista story that will become more prominent and worthy of exploration.
Alex Khasnabish’s Zapatistas is an excellent point of departure for any student of this movement and the political role played by social movements more generally in Latin America and within the growth of global activism.
The author explores the origins, political philosophy and practice and national and transnational impact of the rebel group in the debut title of Zed’s exciting “Rebels” series that aims to look at the place of such movements in global politics. His work will be of great value to teachers, students and activists themselves, not least because it touches on a range of themes relevant to this phenomenon.
Timing and content
Zapatismo is significant globally as much by timing as by content: it exploded into our consciousness as a precursor to the broader development of the “movement of movements” in the northern hemisphere following the end of the Cold War that brought together radical activists behind a shared agenda of anti-capitalism and global justice. It provided the first pinprick of light by example in an otherwise dark age of neoliberal reform and capitalist globalisation. Khasnabish writes:
“For many activists, the beginning of the final decade of the twentieth century seemed to be a very dark time as socio-political and economic alternatives to capitalism appeared almost non-existent with the collapse of state-sponsored socialism and the advance of neoliberal trade agreements in places like North America which enshrined the rights of capital over those of people and the environment.” [p. 168]
Thus, when the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional rose up on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force, 1 January 1994 – a celebration of capitalist triumphalism that is today looking increasingly flaky – it was “a shot heard around the world”. The author continues:
“… beyond providing a concrete, tactical example of dedicated resistance to a supposedly inevitable project of capitalist development, the Zapatista rebellion provided people around the world with a powerful example of hope and dignity in the darkest of times.” [p. 168]
The end of the Cold War is highly significant because, as Khasnabish explains, the Zapatistas have long argued that this in fact had been the “Third World War” that had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and that we have since been living through a “Fourth World War” waged by global capitalism in its search for new markets against humanity itself.
Supine populations tend to see the systems of political, social and economic domination under which they live as natural or unavoidable, making the Zapatista act of rebellion a key early skirmish in this epochal conflict. The author quotes Subcomandante Marcos on this theme:
“That is what this is all about. It is war. A war against humanity. The globalisation of those who are above us is nothing more than a global machine that feeds on blood and defecates in dollars.” [p.170]
And, adds Marcos, in the great hierarchy created by this “global slaughterhouse” certain groups – the indigenous, women, the elderly, migrants – “command a very low price”.
Khasnabish points out that absent from this rhetoric are the more familiar tropes of socialist ideology – the proletariat, the masses, the vanguard – and that in the place of familiar revolutionary actors and narratives we find the alter-globlisation “movement of movements” made up of pockets of rebellion and resistance all over the world. The utopia they envisage is not one that can be constitutionalised: their notion of resistance and the alternative society that can be built is expansive and unpredictable.
The author goes on to trace the international significance of Zapatismo in these terms, as the first shot in what has been called a “truly global insurgency”. He explores the concrete product of encounters between other radical movements and the EZLN, and the political and philosophical “hallmarks” around which subsequent consensus has evolved – from an unequivocal opposition to capitalism to the rejection of all forms of domination and discrimination.
Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global makes a valuable contribution to an extensive and growing body of literature about the EZLN and the consequences of its rebellion. It achieves the distinction of linking the local with the global in a precise explanatory way, enabling the reader to make genuine progress in a discursive landscape so often littered with the unexplained.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books