Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review: Beyond Resistance: Everything

[El Kilombo Intergalactico. Beyond Resistance: Everything -- An Interview with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Durham, NC: PaperBoat Press, 2007.]

This is a slim volume put together by El Kilombo Intergalactico, "a people of color collective made up of students, migrants, and other community members in Durham, North Carolina." They say that their aim "is to create a space to strengthen our collective political struggles while simultaneously connecting these struggles with the larger global anti-capitalist movement" [vi].

The book has three parts. It begins with a short, smart Introduction by the collective that put it together. Then it has an extensive interview with Marcos, the masked public face of the Zapatistas. It ends by reprinting The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which as far as I know is the latest major statement by the Zapatistas about who they are and what they intend to do.

The Introduction presents some concepts that the Zapatistas have used in their writings and that El Kilombo Intergalactico has found useful in assessing their own relationship to struggle. The Zapatistas believe the world is embroiled in the Fourth World War -- after the two we all name that way plus the Cold War for number three -- which is not a war between states that will have identifiable winners and losers as the first three did, but a war between humanity and the "Empire of Money". Which is to say, a war between humanity and capitalism. Every day, humanity is attacked, fenced in, harmed, degraded by the various manifestations of the logic of capital. The face that Marx called "primitive accumulation" means ongoing direct violence and taking by force. Then there is the creeping expansion of market logic into ever more facets of life. And there is the extraction of profit from anything and everything. Wherever there are practices, logics, or any potential anchors to ways of being that are not totally subsumed by capital, there the battles of the Fourth World War are fought. In the course of this war, states are increasingly transformed along neoliberal lines, armies are turned increasingly on their own populations, and conventional politics -- the path to supposed change that forces you into the realm of state power -- is a trap.

They are particularly vehement that the logic of the state form, the kinds of practices that it imposes on you even as you try to subdue it and turn it to your own ends, cannot be avoided. They recommend practices of democracy that are grounded, lived, rather than the idealistic conception of democracy in which we are trapped in North America. They advocate understanding society by starting with and centring those at the bottom. This allows you to see clearly a difference they describe as being between "power" and "Power", which I have also seen characterized as "power-to" vs. "power-over." The key to creating change is not to struggle to win Power, but to get on with the business of exerting power to collectively create the lives and communities and societies that you want. If you are truly exerting power that is not fundamentally about exerting Power -- and many elitist 'alternatives' in rich countries that have no oppositional edge to them depend very much on Power for their existence, however much they might have internal logics that are non-capitalist -- then you will inevitably come into conflict with capital and those who enforce it. This democracy is built as a sort of praxis cycle that includes practices like encounters between those who might wish to make common cause, assemblies to govern things, the creation in the here and now of ways of doing things that we might wish in the other world that is possible, and rebellion.

The interview with Marcos has the flavour of all of the Zapatista communications that I've seen. It is both humble and grand, grounded and flying high. There is humour, some grim, some sly, and some the sort you expect from that older uncle who thinks he's sooooo funny. There is a richness to it, a fluorishing complexity, that is a world away from what North American lefty academics write when they want to come across as rich and complex -- that is, it is powerful ideas in simple words. It is accessible.

The reason for this, I think, is that it flows from doing -- it is answering political questions with words that is integrated into answering political questions in actions. This makes a huge difference. And that really is the substance of the interview: Marcos talking about how the Zapatistas do things. Always just below the surface is the question, "And how do you do things?" It talks about the process the Zapatistas went through in figuring out the approach that was eventually embodied in the Sixth Declaration. It talks about how the Zapatista approach relates to things like geography and identity, with a strong emphasis on the ability of choices made in struggle to move beyond the inherited definitions of the past and on transformation through encounter with others. It seeks a politics that isn't based on our minimum requirements, on the minimum common denominator in which some sort of weak coalition can be forged, but on beginning from what we really want and on finding paths to unity that allow that. Then it goes on to talk about some of the practical creation of alternatives that the Zapatistas have done, including their autonomous municipalities and various grassroots services; some attention to the relationship between the individual and the collective (with the firm stance that the individual can only be realized in the context of a supportive collective); a look at the migrant justice movement in the U.S.; and a return to the staunch anti-political class stance exhibited elsewhere in the interview.

The basic political values exhibited here (and, again, in other Zapatista writings) speak to me. If my practice does not embody them, it is not because they do not speak to what I desire but because of my own context and my own frailty. There is a great emphasis on listening, on putting much effort into creating space to say, "This is me. Who are you?" They place great emphasis on seeing the connections between things. They imagine a unity across difference that values this not-sameness but seeks to transcend how power gives it force as difference -- through unity as political process based on the idea of identity as "I am this-and-more-than-this" rather than unity as assumption based on whatever ontological sameness that inevitably does violence to someone. They claim no blueprint, want no blueprint, but are committed to we are, this is where we are going, where are you going, and might we go there together.

One of the most interesting strengths of both the Zapatista approach to changing the world on the ground and to the way of seeing change that it requires of you is illustrated most strikingly for me by those who refuse to see it. There are left voices that I respect and know I can learn from in other ways that are utterly dismissive of the Zapatistas. They are, often, older Marxist men, and they see no alternative but seeking to take Power, to take the state, as a means to struggle against capital. They see their position as being ruthlessly practical, as dealing with the hard, unpleasant fact of the state's control of our lives, as using one of the few potential tools that exists for us. Yet to me they seem to be very disconnected from what actually goes on in the world. And I don't so much object to the criticisms they make of the Zapatista project as having problems, as being incomplete, as being imperfect, as having a certain pervasive tenuousness. All of that is true. What I object to is the self-deception involved in not seeing how their own preferred path is just as fraught, how the state form deforms their heroes and makes their project just as tenuous, and much more in danger of becoming the tool by which freedom is limited.

Perhaps the biggest question this book raises for me is what exactly it has to do with me. I like its principles, I like the actions it talks about, but when I think about what it might mean to apply them here -- or, to be truer to the spirit in which they are advanced, to learn from them as I walk my own path -- I feel at a loss. Is that because of where I am walking or is it because of some failure of imagination on my part? I don't know.

I mean, I know that rebellion is ordinary, and revolution an everyday thing. Yet the everyday sense in which all of us who live under capital live within-and-against, in which we assert our wholeness and therefore our opposition to that which denies it, if only for a moment, if only in this one specific way, seems so terribly fragmented in North America. I cannot help but think that walking from place to place declaring, "We are here. We rebel. Here's what we are doing," would get little more than blank stares, here. And yet I know that's not true, I know there are collective spaces in North America that cannot help but exist in collectively conscious rebellion, because it is necessary to survive. And I know even from that quite privileged realm, the blogosphere, that rebellion exists. Yes, vast numbers of the broad, formless "we" that claims to want better things for people are caught up in centring ways of shaping the social designed to catch our labour in ways that reinforce ruling regimes even when we win reforms, but there are also indications of many, many, mostly isolated people who are struggling in our own ways to figure out how to do in ways that respond to immediate need but do not get caught up in the state. And even if it looks different to be forging new subjectivities through the ebb and flow of struggle in the relatively privileged social segment of North America which produced me, that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

But if someone in a knitted mask were to come up to me and say, "We are here. We rebel. This is what we are doing. What are you doing?", I'm not sure that I could make a reply proportionate to either the question or the problems that all of us face. I'm not sure the spaces I inhabit have even reached resistance, let alone reached a place where we are ready to go beyond it.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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