The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

The Politics of Austerity and Resistance: lessons from the Zapatistas

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.

Photo by OccupyMCR
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).

Photo by Aspex Design
This is not to argue that the economic course plotted by Cameron, Osborne and the Con-Dem coalition has been accepted by all. What I will call the ‘economics’ of austerity is regularly challenged by both opposition politicians, leading newspapers and key public intellectuals (with Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz among others regularly appearing in the media to advocate a return to a more Keynesian approach to the crisis, that would favour deficit financing and (limited) redistribution as a means to restore economic growth). However, this is part of the problem. It is this perpetual issue of how to return to growth that has served to limit the debate so far. In doing so the health of the economy has become somewhat fetishised and separated from the wider question of the health of the body-politic, or the basic social fabric that we refer to as society (some important radical contributions notwithstanding).

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).

Photo by stevendepolo
With this in mind, and remembering the narrative that there is no alternative, we might usefully turn to the Zapatista struggle in South-East Mexico to learn some instructive lessons about the politics of austerity and social justice. The Zapatistas originally sprung to prominence due to their uprising on New Year’s day 1994 to contest the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for which they highlighted the deleterious effects on the indigenous population. However, it is worth remembering the context in which this uprising occurred. Globally, it followed the collapse of Communism around the world and the triumphant discourse about the ‘end of history’[ii], meaning there was no challenge left to liberal-democratic capitalism. No doubt influenced by these political and intellectual developments, a second important thesis, put forward by Jorge Castañeda sought to draw out its implications for Latin America.[iii] Castañeda claimed that ‘leftist utopians’ in Latin America were now 'unarmed’ and that change would only come about through acting in a reformist manner with the state. The Zapatistas thus confronted head on the idea that there was no alternative and exposed it as a hollow myth, demonstrating that what was necessary, as always, was political will and commitment to a cause. As John Holloway and Eloína Peláez put it, the significance of the Zapatista’s revolt was that it “opens a world that appeared to be closed, gives life to a hope that seemed dead.”

Photo by cmldf
Nevertheless, their decision to fight for land and social justice has not been easy. One particularly tough decision they have taken is the refusal of government aid, leading effectively, as Niels Barmeyer documents, to quite severe austerity for many of their communities. However, austerity here has a very different social purpose in mind. It is not to achieve some vision of neo-liberal free market but to create an alternative set of social relations that emphasise things such as co-operation, solidarity, and political empowerment as main goals. In other words, austerity is pursued but with open debate as to the political implications and the desired social purpose.

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.

2.      Demand the right to participate fully in civic life. Decisions about the political, economic and social spheres cannot be limited to the cycle of parliamentary elections. Rather, responsibility for these matters must become part and parcel of everyday life. This includes reflecting, as the Zapatistas have done, on the limitations of their own transformative project and their efforts at inclusivity. Self-criticism and self-awareness, rather than posturing defensiveness become the hallmarks of politics in this instance.

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.


  1. Chris

    Interesting piece, it reminded me a bit of the Foucault-Deleuze conversation about “relays” between theory and practice across geographical space. However I wonder if such a relay in this case is not more problematic than you are suggesting, It seems to me the Zapatista movement has 3 core aspects, 1) it is an indigenous movement of which there have been many in Latin America since the sixteenth century 2) it is a peasant movement, of which there have been many and indeed there remain many. 3) it has adopted (through its most prominent “spokesman”) a very distinctive discourse which is postmodern in character and this is almost unique in Latin American popular politics. The question is then, why has the EZLN been so attractive to European Intellectuals, well it seems hard to imagine it’s the Indigenous or Peasant aspects (for example how many books have been written on the EZLN compared to the CONAIE in Ecuador or the FARC in Colombia???, both arguably much more long-standing and politically significant movements) so it can only be the discourse that has proved so attractive.

    The problem is if we accept that in the European context the Indigenous and Peasant aspects are not relevant to our problematic, we have to turn to the Postmodern model of Politics, which is essentially libertarian or anarchistic in nature (i.e. Chomsky, Holloway, Negri etc). This has all kinds of implications, most obviously the rejection of a politics of transformation through the state, with associated rejections of certain political forms most obviously those which pursue a politics which recognises the state: the political party and the trade union. While this wasn’t neccesarily the EZLN`s initial position, it seems to have become increasingly dominant in the movement (particularly in the discourse of the Other Campaign) summed up by John Holloway`s ideal of “changing the world without taking power”. Does this politics really threaten those in power? Certainly it seems both the Mexican and American Governments have been more or less prepared to accept the existence of a dissident movement in one of the poorest and most isolated states in the country, which is tellingly in contrast to the US governments massive investment in combating the Guerrilla movements in Colombia, Guatemala and El Salvador and the obsessive efforts to de-stabilise socialist governments in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile and Venezuela.

    There can be no argument that the EZLN was inspirational at a certain historical moment in the 1990s in which the global and Latin American Lefts were almost everywhere on their knees. However, twenty years on I wonder if this model remains so relevant in an era of ascendant Left (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador) and Centre Left governments (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Uruguay etc etc) which have pushed back neoliberalism and made significant achievements in terms of social infrastructure and redistribution of national wealth. By contrast, the Zapatista movement has only had sporadic influence outside of Chiapas, while it began by denouncing the sectarianism of the “old Left” it has become increasingly sectarian, particularly during the 2006 Presidential elections. This is not to downplay or diminish the particularity and dignity of the struggle, with which we should all be in solidarity, but if we are talking about influence and translation to other contexts we have to be very conscious of what is going on.

  2. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for this excellent comment which I know many people would share vis-à-vis the Zapatistas project of transformation. It is not an analysis I share however for a number of reasons that I will spell out very briefly, although I would be happy to defend these points at length.

    1. I would not characterise the Zapatistas as a postmodern form of politics (as people such as Roger Burbach have).

    2. Nor would I agree that it is only their discourse that is attractive to Europeans or the wider world. Although poetic sentiment, humour, story-telling etc are indeed an important aspect of the Zapatista project, if this were in the realm of pure discourse it would simply be wish-thinking/idealism. The Zapatistas not only discuss politics differently, the also practise in a new manner. They walk the talk as it were.

    3. There are of course very good reasons why the Zapatistas reject political parties and institutional politics per se given the context of Chiapas and Mexico as a nation. I find this moving away from the ‘politics of demand’ to a ‘politics of the act’ be quite interesting.

    4. Have the Zapatistas' existence simply been peacefully accepted as you imply? They were subject to intensive military raids early on (supported by the infamous Chase-Manhattan Bank Memo), resulting in well documented massacres. The prior cold-war context clearly makes the comparison to Nicaragua or Guatemala slightly invalid in my opinion. In addition the Mexican state continues to wage low-intensity warfare against the Zapatista support bases and Chiapas has been the regional state targeted the most with social funds since the uprising as passive revolutionary form of statecraft. The Zapatista caracoles remain encirlced by militray bases as documented by the NGO CAPISE.

    5. Yes, the state-based struggles in Latin America have achieved various successes. I am not sure this diminishes the Zapatista strategy however. Certainly many social movements have become highly frustrated with the manner in which their demands have been watered down via incorporation into state structures (look at CONAIE's statement about the re-election of Correa for instance, or the controversy over Evo Morales and TIPNIS for instance.


Comments welcome!