The Revolutionary Resonance of Praxis: Zapatismo as Public Pedagogy

James Anderson is a Ph.D student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, alternative media, Amy Goodman, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis. This week, James explores the practices of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

A little over 20 years ago, at the dawn of the New Year in 1994, when the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (the Zapatista National Liberation Army; EZLN) of Chiapas, Mexico, yelled “¡Ya Basta! (Enough!) in response to the ceaseless capital accumulation wrought by the 500-year-old capitalist world economy.

The armed conflict in January 1994 between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government lasted 12 days. After fighting stopped, the EZLN engaged in dialogue, entering into the San Andrés Accords in 1996, which the government promptly failed to uphold, prompting the Zapatistas to leave negotiations.

Operating “from below and to the left,” where the heart resides, they have since focused on strengthening autonomy, deepening direct democracy and developing what Kara Zugman-Dellacioppa calls a “transcultural activist network” (TCAN).

On the other hand, drawing partially on his experience with the Zapatistas, John Holloway, argues that to “Crack Capitalism” we should avoid valorizing activist efforts. “In other words, social change is not produced by activists, however important activism may (or may not) be in the process,” he wrote. It’s necessary, he insists, to “look beyond activism, then, to the millions and millions of refusals and other-doings,” the “barely visible transformations of the daily activities of millions of people.”

Perhaps it is so. Yet, Leonidas Oikonomakis and Jérôme E. Roos go in-against-and-beyond the proposition above by drawing on Holloway’s own conception of resonance.

Zapatismo, the philosophy and praxis of Zapatistas, is not a process of linear diffusion, they explained. It is, rather, resonance of Real Democracy, or, “activation of a latent potential for mobilization,” a simultaneous negation of the neoliberal death drive. It is Eros to the Thanatos that would extinguish any affective politics not mediated by markets, subordinate relationships to commodity exchange or legitimate hierarchical coercion.

This desire overflows from the hegemony of concepts that keep reproducing “capital, the value, which can perform its own valorization process,” Karl Marx expounded more than a century ago, “an animated monster which begins to ‘work’, ‘as if its body were by love possessed.’”

In contrast, Zapatismo resonated recently, Oikonomakis and Roos argued, through the Spanish indignados in Puerta del Sol, the Greek aganaktismenoi in Syntagma Square and Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park.

The resonance made manifest in the effervescence of anarchist-socialist social movements reflects a completely ordinary desire, shared by millions, to be sure. No self-serving vanguard need apply, as Holloway suggested.

Immanent human capacity for horizontalidad and collective self-organization exists, if often in the form of being denied, Holloway has pointed out. He has downplayed other human capacities, however.

“Human activity is theory and practice; it is reflection and action,” wrote Paulo Freire, the late Brazilian philosopher when articulating a “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Praxis cannot “be reduced to either verbalism or activism,” and it would indeed be “a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution.  People will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of praxis.”

We must actualize our potentials. We must. This requires reflection and action. The Zapatista’s poetics of spontaneity along with their mandar obedeciendo – “to rule by obeying” maxim, intimates praxis, perforce action and reflection. That is what resonates.

It is not mindless activism, nor is it devoid of thought. Oikonomakis and Roos claim the broad Real Democracy movement “consciously prefigured the creation of a different democratic model, one characterized by popular assemblies, leaderless self-management and consensus-based decision making.”

Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista’s public spokesperson, consciously uses words to traverse space and time. This occurs through neo-Zapatista new media networks, but also via the resonant quality of what he says and writes. He creates a mirror in which we see our interconnected selves and shared struggles. Such mirrored communication implores conscious reflection – and action.

The Zapatista adage of caminando preguntamos, or “walking, we ask questions,” suggests a particular form of praxis. During the escuelita, conducted in August 2013, more than 1,500 activists from all over the globe were invited to learn from and with indigenous in Chiapas. Like the Chiapas-95 email listserv and website run by activist Harry Cleaver in the years immediately following the 1994 rebellion, which provided an outlet for Zapatista communiqués and a forum for discussion, the contemporary Occupy-affiliated Zapatista listserv and website conveyed lessons learned at the Little School.

Students learned that for Zapatistas, “democracy is not about election season and candidates’ campaigns,” or about money. “Democracy is at any moment, at every level of our life.”

The salience of horizontal decision-making for the Zapatistas and for OWS is not always understood.

David Harvey, author of “Rebel Cities,” claimed in an interview that Occupy Wall Street operated as “a vanguard movement,” and that OWS was merely “talking to the 99 percent.”

Yet Occupy had an in-built guard against vanguardism. The movement’s prefigurative politics, while radical in relation to (neo)liberal capitalist democracy that denies most people a say in the major decisions affecting their lives, advanced assembly-style participatory democracy. Those ephemerally autonomous spaces for consensus building in Zuccotti and other encampments helped people recuperate their voice. It was not that the movement was “talking for the 99 percent,” like Harvey would have it. OWS gave the 99 percent space to communicate and act.

Like others echoing the ethos of Zapatismo, the vanguard label only applies insofar as it refers to autonomous collective action and praxis in-against-and-beyond the state-corporate nexus.

This reverberation of resistance entails a process of critical pedagogy, rejection of hierarchy and attack on the class antagonisms that cut across capitalist society. Antagonisms are not new. The hegemony has been reinforced through generations of generated cultures of consent.

Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, writing about egemonia during Mussolini’s reign, emphasized the importance of intellectuals for generating consent.

“All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say,” Gramsci wrote while incarcerated in fascist Italy, “but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals.”

Importantly, Zapatismo does not deny difference. That means seeking “a world where many worlds fit,” as the Zapatistas put it. However, it also implies conscious recognition and rejection of extant relations of oppressive iniquities.

Subcomandante Marcos asked a related, rhetorical question in “The Speed of Dreams”: “If the legal system, which sees the violent imposition of capital as being ‘rational and human,’ has judges, guards, police, and jails, then what are their equivalent in the culture of Mexico, in research and academia, in theoretical work, analysis, and in the debating of ideas?”

His answer? “The intellectuals from above, who say what is science and what is not, what is serious and what is not, what is debate and what is not, what is true and what is false. In sum, what is intelligent and what is not.” He goes on to describe “intellectuals in the middle,” those “in transit to above,” who propagate an ideology of “objectivity” despite the impossibility of a neutral public pedagogy.

“Education never was, is not, and never can be neutral or indifferent in regard to the reproduction of the dominant ideology or the interrogation of it,” Freire argued in “Pedagogy of Freedom” – a statement compounded by Gramsci’s insight that “every relationship of hegemony is an educational one.”

Mass media discourse – public pedagogy par excellence – remains, in the main, circumscribed within narrow, neoliberal bounds. Debate can rage over the best market-based approach to a problem, but seldom do media pundits problematize the hegemony of market-based approaches.

Online communication challenges traditional gatekeepers, as the Zapatistas illustrated. Yet efforts persist to erode the rhizomatic nature of the Net, including: the ubiquity of personalized ads created by data-mining and new niche marketing techniques; broadband providers increasing authority to block or slow content and new decrees paving the way to pay-for-play fast lanes that privilege capital-rich companies over everyone else.

Incremental reconfiguration of the cyber-sphere into a slightly more interactive cable TV arrangement does not bode well. Because really, cable television kind of sucks.

Transformation of other institutions, like University, pose similar problems. Opaque privatization through increased tuition and fees deepens divisions of class, disciplining indebted students and engendering a whole slew of “déclassé intellectuals,” Chris Hedges explains about those of us “conversant in economics and political theory,” who acknowledge disenfranchisement exacerbated by “the criminal class on Wall Street.”

Neoliberal education likewise valorizes the cultural capital of already affluent society, complicating the greater multitude’s desire for socioeconomic democracy.

“Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed,” wrote Laura Gottesdeiner, who visited Zapatista communities in Chiapas for the second escuelita earlier this year. “My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it,” she added.

Gottesdeiner, a Yale alum, helps edit the popular Waging Nonviolence “people-powered” news and analysis website. She recently authored, “A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home,” after traveling around to get stories regarding the millions of Americans who have faced foreclosure since the 2007-09 global financial crisis.

Not everyone has that privilege, certainly not those facing foreclosure and probably not the 71 percent of US college seniors who recently graduated with an average debt totaling $29,400, according to the Project on Student Debt.

So are we all on a horizontal plane when waging the interstitial revolution? Is the issue tantamount to debates over redressing unpaid labor through greater monetization and commodification that go nowhere?

Or, is part of the incipient revolutionary transformation of the everyday finding a way to “change the world without taking power” while also consciously checking the power-over of privilege?

Freire argued that it is the oppressed who “from their stifled humanity,” must wage “the struggle for a fuller humanity,” because the oppressor “is unable to lead the struggle.”

Of course, the oppressor-oppressed distinction is ambiguous. Granted, the 85 people that, according to a January 2014 Oxfam report, own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, probably won’t be picking up pitch forks anytime soon. Nor are elements of the “Davos class” likely to question the prevailing common sense of incessant, deadening “dead labour” reproduction, the likely death knell for humanity.

Likewise, efforts to end what Marx called capital’s “vampire thirst” is not going to come from parts of the “great vampire squid” at Goldman Sachs, who reportedly share such niceties on elevator rides at  work as, “I wish I loved anything as much as I hate almost everything,” in addition to earnest queries like, “Why would I marry? It’s betting some chick half my net worth that I will love her forever?”

Such romantic sweet nothings notwithstanding, the bankster mentality and the banking-model of education are not the only things standing in the way of cracking capitalism.

Perhaps “apathy is the biggest obstacle to change,” Russell Brand argued in his now famous revolutionary proclamation. “We can’t alter the former [politics] without removing the latter [big business, capital].”

Brand and his supposed brand of “brocialism” and “manarchism” ignited flak not so much from the reactionary Right, but from the left. Apropos alleged manarchy, purported “blindness to privilege,” “refusal to acknowledge structural gender oppression,” and inappropriate sexual innuendos are supposedly pervasive.

Criticism from the “Posh Left” attacked Brand’s privileged status too, as Kim Nicolini made clear, but Brand was “not speaking from theory but from experience,” as someone from lower class deprivation who “knows the streets, the hopelessness, the drugs, the feeling of beaten down and not able to get out.” She elaborated,

No matter how far you climb on the cultural or economic ladder, if you come from the underclass, you never stop feeling your inferior position. With elitist Leftists slamming you at every turn, the anxiety is amplified to the Nth. Not only do you feel awkward and anxious occupying a strata where you don’t feel you belong, but you get critiqued by people who think they know more about class than you do when you live with the burdens of your class background every day. Class manifests itself in a person’s entire psycho-social biological being, and it is not simply erased because one becomes successful of the surface.

Excoriating those who Marcos might call intellectuals from on high, she added:

So what if Russell Brand likes women? So what if he fucks a new girl every week? Who’s to say they’re not enjoying it to? Sex happens. Focusing on Brand’s sexual activity as a reason to dismiss his overall message about class is just a sign of how identity politics are part and parcel of the problem, not part of the solution.

In fact, collective pursuit of the Pleasure Principle, Holloway has argued, could thwart the alienating individualism characteristic of contemporary society’s suffocating social synthesis.

The drive against abstract labor and toward self-determination is one aspect of dignity part and parcel with Zapatismo. Another has to do with addressing power imbalances between men and women. This is what the Zapatista teachers from the autonomous municipalities told students on the second day of the aforementioned Freedom School. Through the practice of horizontal democracy “to reach equality between male comrades and female comrades,” the Zapatista women said: “Our organization taught us that we are worth it, that we can participate.”

What resonates is less counter-hegemonic “mass self-communication” constitutive of some “counter-power,” as Manuel Castells described, more public pedagogy of problematization – a participatory praxis of power-to. This love of democracy and democracy of love is “transcultural,” like Zugman- Dellacioppa termed it. It has much to do with the dialectical transformation of dominant relations of production and relations among people.

Perhaps the greatest flash of loving freedom throughout modernity, the comunismo libertario society organized by anarcho-syndicalists like the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (National Confederation of Labour, or CNT), transformed both of the above for a few months in 1936 Spain.

As the Spanish Civil War was getting underway, workers took collective control of the means of production on a decentralized level. Equally important, anarchist culture flourished. Popular anarchist weeklies like Revista Blanca published incisive analysis critical of concentrated power, and also offered “advice on everything from vegetarian cooking to the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases,” historian Jordi Getman-Eraso observed.

Both Brand and the Zapatistas surely would’ve approved.

But the revolution was crushed by the war effort and thecombined forces of fascism, capitalism and centralized Communism:  For “it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain,” George Orwell documented in his “Homage to Catalonia.”

“If we face facts,” Orwell added at the time, “we must admit that the working class of the world has regarded the Spanish war with detachment,” which we now assume had something to do with “the fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain,” had “made it its special business to obscure” how what “happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution.”

Given its label as “the first postmodern revolution,” we should consider whether the Zapatistas and the resonance of their dialogic praxis subvert that hegemonic bloc today.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued that in the purported passage to a postmodern era of Empire, the multitude of movements – or movements of the multitude – that emerged in the 1990s, including the Zapatistas, exemplify the “most urgent political paradoxes of our time: in our much celebrated age of communication, struggles have become all but incommunicable.” These movements are marked by “a very brief duration where they are born, burning out in a flash,” the two wrote, noting the “absence of a recognition of a common enemy against which the struggles are directed.”

Fast forward a few years, and Hardt and Negri reflected upon and expounded their theory, calling the Zapatistas “the hinge” between old forms of revolutionary struggle “and the new model of biopolitical network struggles. … Communication is [now?] central to the Zapatista’s notion of revolution, and they continually emphasize the need to create horizontal network organizations rather than vertical centralized structures.”

Subcomandante Marcos said that an independent media network would function “not only as a tool for our social movements but for our lives,” to save history and “share it so it will not disappear.” He later noted how the movement, from below and to the left, “is creating itself,” and “also creating new realities.”

Communication as public pedagogy remains key to this creation of the multitude – not a constitutive power, but a critically negating praxis of reflection and problematization.

Amy Goodman, recipient of the “George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language” – and recipient of my unrequited love, reminds us of the resonance of “Democracy Now!” by recalling in her column the late cyber-activist Aaron Swartz who committed suicide last year under undue pressure from the Justice Department.

Goodman quotes a statement Swartz made after he helped defeat legislation that would limit the democratizing potential of the Internet: “If we let them persuade us we didn’t actually make a difference, if we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work … then next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.” As Swartz suggested, asserting dignity in the face of enormous difficulties compounded by gross inequalities is inseparable from humanizing praxis. Such public pedagogy reflects the responsibility for reflection and action of Zapatismo, which is the resonance of revolution today.

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