Today in Britain, we are, unmistakably living in a period of economic crisis. Whilst a triple-dip recession has just been narrowly avoided, the Coalition’s plans for austerity to deal with Britain’s deficit are beginning to bite, threatening long-fought for welfare rights, job prospects and cherished services such as the NHS. In this guest post, Chris Hesketh discusses the lessons we in Britain, resisting austerity, can learn from the Zapatistas in Mexico. Most importantly, this includes challenging the idea that there is no alternative.
When reflecting on the phenomenon of crises, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote, that they were connected to the fact that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”[i] It is possibly an over-exaggeration to definitively say that the old is dying. Indeed the austerity policies being pursued in Britain and Europe is essentially a restatement of neo-liberalism, without any of the Third Way niceties. Nonetheless, it would certainly be fair to say that ‘the old’ is rather sick and requires urgent treatment if it is to be returned to full health. The current crisis has, however, opened up the deliberative space to contest previously held ideas (notably about the benefits of deregulated finance). The word ‘capitalism’ itself has appeared back on the agenda and not just by the radical left. Ed Miliband has spoken of the need to end ‘predatory capitalism’, while David Cameron has called for a responsible capitalism or moral capitalism.
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Nevertheless, despite the outward appearance of debate and contestation around these issues, the mantra ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA), originally coined by Margaret Thatcher, has been newly invoked by David Cameron in recent months. This rhetoric is framed by a wider discourse about globalization and Britain’s place within the world. According to this story, it is time to ‘sink or swim’ as we are in a global race with competing nations (the idea that one of the most economically prosperous nations in the world might have something to do with constituting this very process is of course unmentioned).
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Fundamental questions about the social purpose behind these cuts, their class implications, how society might look once these cuts have been enacted and whether that is the sort of society we would like to live in, are all too frequently shunted to the side and ignored. There is therefore an important ‘politics’ to austerity as well as an economics and it is this politics we would do well to remember, as it has clearly not been forgotten by the right who have used this opportunity to engage in creative destruction (or better destructive destruction).
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What concretely then do the Zapatistas show us? I believe four key lessons can be learned from their struggle despite the obvious difference in circumstances between indigenous Mayan communities and post-Industrial Britain.
1. The occupation and eventual transformation of space is necessary in order to expand democracy. In other words, rather than letting others dictate what transformations occur within the built environment that shapes our wider social interaction, this must be a collectively driven process. The right to public space must be affirmed in opposition to the growing encroachment by private interests. This has clearly already been occurring somewhat in the wake of the crisis, notably with the various ‘Occupy’ movements worldwide. However, whilst hugely important in terms of conscious-raising, we should not forget that this activism takes place within the structures and spaces created by the powerful. Concurring with Henri Lefebvre, although having the potential to be pre-figurative, the occupation of space is no substitute in the long-term for its transformation into a democratic construction.
3. The instant recall of those who do not obey the will of those that they represent. A strong principle enshrined in the Zapatista project is that of ‘mandar obedeciendo’ – to command obeying. Those representatives that do not frequently consult with their base and represent faithfully their interests are subject to a process of recall. This was an integral aspect of any alternative democracy as envisaged by Karl Marx in his notes reflecting on the Civil War in France. This has already been put into place in countries such as Venezuela where Article 72 of the constitution allows for the petitioning of any public official, including the President.
4. Democratising the economy. If we are to be serious about living in a democratic society we must extend democracy and genuine participation to the level of the workplace. In Zapatista communities this is largely facilitated through the creation of co-operatives and collectives. As Peter Tatchell has forcefully pointed out, “Economic democracy is a central plank of progressive politics.”
In contrast to the mantra there is no alternative the Zapatista struggle is one that can remind us that another world is indeed possible. With the onset of the economic crisis it is ever more necessary. It is time to become a Zapatista where you are.
[i] Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers: New York.p276
[ii] Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin
[iii] Castañeda, J. (1994) Utopia unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War. New York: Vintage.