Sunday, May 20, 2007

El Kilombo Intergaláctico

Big ups to El Kilombo Intergaláctico on the 1st Anniversary of the opening of their social center! Focused on the concerns of people of color, students, and working class communities in Durham, North Carolina, the center includes a radical bookstore, ESL learning center, progressive speaker and film series, community gardening/food distribution program, free technology center, and space for local cultural events, concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits. Its current programming includes English classes, homework help nights for kids, capoeira classes, theater classes, and a Black and Latino Radicalism Seminar...and all for FREE.

I first heard about this crew a few years ago from some members of Estación Libre who were pulling it together. Last year I heard they were opening a space and later I started seeing that they were the ones translating a grip of the new Zapatista communiques. FRESH. I was just in Durham for the National Day of Truthtelling and didn't even get to see the dang space :-(

And in case you haven't already noticed, this crew is not just practical but big on the theory as well. If you are looking for an economical way to break down this whole "Fourth World War" thing, the Zapatistas' Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Other Campaign...and what the hell it has to do with us here in the "brain of the monster," you might look no further than this:

The Fourth, the Sixth, the Other, and US
El Kilombo Intergaláctico, liaison to the Other Campaign
Talk given at El Kilombo's event: "Political Action: Beyond Solidarity"
March 8, 2007


I want to talk first about a country where severe poverty has reached a 3-decade high, where roughly 37 million poor people are dropping ranks at a rate of 26% over the last 5 years to swell the level of deep or severe poverty to 16 million. 60% of the population will spend part at least of their lives poor by official standards, and 40% will live an extended period in poverty. Among the top 10 states affected by this exponential growth are not the states historically known in the northern hemisphere to be poverty-stricken of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, but rather North Carolina. This is the United States in the 21st century, which, parallel to what we normally consider “developing” nations, has, at the mercy of neoliberal policies, experienced that once curious and now commonplace combination of statistical economic expansion on a national scale and falling wages and decreasing job growth for the great majority of the population. The benefits of US economic expansion and globalization do not benefit even the top 10% of the US population, but rather the top 1%. And while that 1% has enjoyed a salary growth of 87% in the last 30 years, the top .1% has enjoyed 181% increase and the top .01%, a 497% increase. But neither is this a US phenomenon; while Bill Gates currently holds the title of richest man in the world, he will, if current patterns and predictions continue, be surpassed shortly by Carlos Slim, Mexican businessman. So the richest man in the world will be Mexican, and in the country presumably posed to appreciate the rather non-globalized benefits of globalization, the richest country in the world, university-educated people are seeing their salaries sliding dangerously, rents rising more than 50% since 1995, a third of young workers without health insurance, and the rise of a “boomerang” generation of post-college kids now returning to live with their parents because their slim-salaried job options, if they find an option, are not enough to cover their crippling debt. In addition, we saw the willingness and capacity of local and federal governments to aid communities of color after Hurricane Katrina. The US and Mexico now find a surprising commonality, in addition to the 10-20 million Mexicans living in the US, and the fact that those people sustain to some degree both economies, the US and Mexico share the rank, accompanied worldwide only by Russia, of having the least and least effective anti-poverty programs. Neoliberalism, as the Zapatistas say, doesn’t turn many countries into one country, it turns each country into many countries.

I. The Fourth World War

This is the Fourth World War fought not in the “third world” or the “first world” per se, but rather in the 3rd world found in the first, and in the first found in the third, confusing categorization of who the “other” is, playing itself out on the streets of Seattle, Chiapas, Genoa, Quebec, Seoul, and a thousand other cities. Another US statistic: job satisfaction is dropping consistently, hovering now below 50% among workers of all ages and across all income brackets, with only 14% claiming to be “very satisfied.” 40% feel completely disconnected from their employers, 66% are unmotivated by their job objectives and almost all are unsatisfied with bonus plans, promotion policies, health plans and pensions; misery can’t be measured strictly with political economic indices. This is a war, in the words of the Zapatistas, where “each country, each city, each countryside, each house, each person: each is a large or small battleground.” You see, they say, “Behind our black mask, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind what you see of us, behind this, we are you.” It is unfortunate that this has in large part been taken metaphorically, the Zapatistas actually meant it.

Traumatic as these policies are for them, the Zapatistas remind us, for all of those who take the streets, it is in fact more traumatic for the political class, which finds itself irrelevant as its job in government becomes one of managerial duties, and as powers beyond even them ask why employ politicians if market analysts better understand the new logic of power, better understand how to divide, classify, and address citizens as clients and consumers? The new “society of power,” again in Zapatista language, that conglomeration which holds together international financial organizations, mass media, large corporations, educational centers, states with their politician-managers and national defense programs, this society often wields the discourse of national security and sovereignty but deploys the always internationalist will of capital to promote the only thing it is loyal to, the empire of money.

This isn’t the map we normally see or the war we usually hear about. Let’s return to the entities on either side of the US-Mexico border. In the Zapatista analysis, people who have suffered centuries at the hands and handiwork of the United States: “The nation-state which now claims the title of the divine hand of God... exists only on television, on the radio, in some newspapers and magazines, and in the movies.” What for one crowd is the world power of “democracy and justice” and for the other, “brutality and imperialism,” is in reality neither, they say, it is a media spectacle, a mythical haven, a hologram, and of course, a useful tool for capital. It cannot even be loyal to itself: the heroes of this hologram are equally fleeting and utilitarian, the image of New York City fireman covered in ash in 2001, held up by US media and government agencies as world saviors of civilization and humanity, where are they now, the Zapatistas ask. They are in fact dying of respiratory disease, if not already dead, fighting, or their widowed families fighting, for even basic compensation and medical coverage from the US government, replaced on TV by the brave, armed soldier in Iraq, also an image quickly fading when that brave soldier is sent injured to a rat-infested veteran’s hospital or is court-martialed for denouncing the war.

On the other side of the border, Mexico has moved into first place on a worldwide scale as receiver of remittances, which required that internationally it pass India in the amount of remittances received from citizens outside of the country and that internally, remittances surpass both petroleum and tourism as a source of national income, weighing in in 2005 at 25 billion dollars. In 2004 nearly half the country lived below the official poverty line of USD$4.00 a day, some 60% of the working population participates as part of the informal economy, usually some version of street-vendor, and in many areas the principal export product is labor: for instance, the Mexican state of Zacatecas has in effect moved to the US—that is, there are more Zacatecans living in the US than in Zacatecas.

Then, in addition to these two ambiguous entities, there are the people stuck in between. More than 26,000 immigrants are currently being held in detention facilities nationwide in the US, a record number that follows federal raids on workplaces over the past six months, this of course not counting the dead in the desert, the suffocated in the truck trailers, the cheated who are dropped off outside a Wal-Mart in Sonora, Mexico and told they have reached America, still hundreds of miles from the Rio Bravo and without a cent to go further or go home, and all the undocumented deaths of the undocumented lives that dot the border.

If these problems could once be pushed to the margins, always offset to a more marginalized group, it is now becoming clearer that in the North American continent there are no more margins, or perhaps better said, there is nothing but margins. This underlines a common tendency towards the generalization of precariousness (lack of job security or stability or backup by social support), massive social fragmentation (into market groups for those who qualify as clients and penal institutions for those categorized as delinquents), and spatial segregation (to manage precarity and preserve some semblance of who the “other” is), and, as many have already pointed out, into a normalized state of exception to keep the disorder in order.

So now we (Mexico and the US) share the 4th world war. We share a population. We share mutually lethal and complicit immigration and social policies. And, to gloss over what is a complex and important situation that deserves much more time than we’ll give it tonight, we share the experience of having an extreme right-wing president put in power through massive fraud and a self-serving electoral left that has offered, when it has offered anything, only a slightly more socially sophisticated management of neoliberal restructuring, which has left not only the majority of the poor, the workers, the country flailing but has abandoned what have been its faithful followers to their fates as its makes backroom concessions with the party in power. It is in this context: the sham of an electoral system, the lack of any relationship much less a representative one between the political class and the population, and the poverty, debt, and dead-ends available to most people, that I want to look at the Other Campaign as one alternative being built in Mexico and what it can offer to us in the way of constructing a movement. Because what we also share are the stakes: a possibility for constructing our own liberation, however we choose—a multiplicity of forms of free activity and being, or submission to a system of command where atomized fragments of life are made ready for work in the subordination of all life to accumulation.

II. The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle

The Other Campaign is the Mexican part of the national and international initiative proposed by the Zapatistas in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle which came out the summer of 2005. There are several ways to understand the “Sixth” as it is called, in the trajectory of Zapatista history. One can look, for example at the Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle, the first which came out the day of the initial uprising, January 1, 1994 when a guerrilla army took over seven important cities in the southernmost state of Chiapas, Mexico, declaring that after 500 years of oppression, enough was enough and that they would die for their demands: work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. The following declarations, which came out each time at long-awaited intervals over the next several years always explained a new moment, new “thinking” as they call it, in the Zapatista movement: an analysis of their interactions with the government, an analysis of what they have learned in their interactions with “civil society” (civil society is not used here inn the Gramscian sense, a more adequate translation would be civilian society—it is simply used to distinguish citizens from military), an analysis of global political economy and its manifestations locally, an analysis and accounting of their own processes of constructing their own liberation, or autonomy in Zapatista territory. These declarations were always accompanied by an announcement of the next step, the purpose of their actions, and a call to national and international civil society to join them. The 5th declaration came out in July of 1998, so the significance of the 6th was in part the seven year gap.

We could also look at Zapatista history in terms of their repeated initiatives to create more, and more profound, encounters with “civil society”: the National Democratic Convention in 1994, the Intercontinental Gathering Against Neoliberalism and For Humanity, also called the Intergalactic Encounter in 1996, the March of the 1,111 indigenous Zapatistas to Mexico City in 1997, the Referendum in 1999 in which 5,000 Zapatistas went out into villages, towns, and cities all over the country to hold a national consultation on indigenous rights, the March of the Color of the Earth in 2001, again to Mexico City, each of these a enabling them to meet another sector of the population, another sector or group which supported them but which also had its own struggle. We could also look at this history in terms of its symbolic icons: fire, word, silence, and the other. The fire referring to the 12 days of fighting in January of 1994 and the subsequent unilateral ceasefire called by the Zapatistas in response to civil society’s plea for an end to the fighting; the word refers to the dialogues, including the peace talks with the government but also the long process of the Zapatistas getting to know “civil society” through meetings, communiqués, letters, and the global traffic in and out of the Zapatista communities; the silence refers the years after the government betrayed the peace accords with a bad faith counterreform and the Zapatistas stopped communicating publicly or officially and set about implementing the accords “in practice.” That is, they decided they would continue with the process of constructing autonomy in their everyday lives and communities instead of asking or waiting for their rights to be granted. In this way they made autonomous education and health programs, an autonomous judicial system, a system of autonomous governments that govern all of Zapatista territory, and what has thus resulted in a system of new social relations that function from collective production, assembly decision-making, and direct democratic self-governance.

Or, in yet another way of looking at this history, we witness the expanding list of peoples and groups with whom the Zapatistas have met and begun to know, adding each time not just to their list of allies but to their network of “below”: students, workers, teachers, housewives, gays and lesbians, children, the elderly, religious laypeople who work with those below, artists, musicians, intellectuals, political prisoners, migrants, transvestites, transgendered people, punks, prostitutes, goths, skateboarders, and so on.

It is out of this context that the Sixth arises: announcing that, having done an analysis of the world, of the national situation, of global capitalism and of their local conditions, and a referendum throughout all Zapatista territory to come to an agreement on this next step, that they had decided that: 1) via the continuing process of primitive accumulation, total destruction was imminent, not just of the Lacandon Jungle and the Zapatista communities, but of the global environment and human living conditions, that capitalism was destroying everything for short-term profit and that it would stop nowhere, that it would eat its own to continue the process; 2) that what they wanted they could not obtain alone, nor was what they wanted just for them, and 3) that to do what they proposed in the Sixth Declaration was to risk everything, everything they have gained in the past 13 years of struggle, but to do nothing was to lose for sure. And so they would come out of the jungle, unarmed, out of the clandestinity and protection provided by a guerrilla existence in the mountains, to meet and organize with the rest of civil society, to, in short, peacefully overturn the entire system of government and destroy capitalism, to remake politics and change the world.

On a national level this would take the form of the Other Campaign, a project to create a national anticapitalist program of struggle, from below, nonviolent, non electoral, to create a new form of politics and a new constitution. On the international level it would take the form of the intergalactic—a planetary network of struggle. Tonight will focus on the Other Campaign.

The Sixth Declaration gave an account of Zapatista history somewhat like we have done above—a process not only of fighting for their own rights and demands, of battle and dialogue with the government, of construction and rebellion in their own communities, but of a process of meeting other sectors of society, of learning to know other struggles, of learning to respect and to demand respect from the “other.” In the Sixth they announce that, as a consequence of this process, “we couldn’t see and hear all that was happening on our planet and remain quiet, as if only we are where we are.” In Zapatista language this means, as they have stated elsewhere, today Iraq is in southeast Mexico, Chiapas is on the US-Mexico border, Palestine is everywhere. The project to connect struggles would be not just a strategy of mutual support and solidarity between struggles, but a project to create a new “we,” a collective subject from “below” capable of acting in cooperation beyond previously acknowledged borders that today function only to separate “us.” Included in this new subject are all those who are “humble, simple, dignified, and rebellious.”

III. The Other Campaign

Methodologically, the Other Campaign would start with the sending out of a Zapatista delegate to visit, traveling by land, each of the 32 states, in addition to three meetings on the US-Mexico border to meet with people from “the other side,” as they refer to the US. This was the work of Subcomandante Marcos, and this was the process that took place this past year. These meetings weren’t usually big public events in big cities—the Zapatista delegation traveled always where people lived and worked, the most remote corners of the mountains, the desert, the plains, the forests, the coasts, to indigenous communities, squatter’s colonies, anarchist squats, to the red light districts to meet with sex-workers, the schools to meet with students, and to the jails to meet with prisoners. The Zapatista delegation would speak briefly to give an account of the Other Campaign so far, to tell the stories they had already heard, but the great bulk of these meetings consisted of listening to the local people describe their situation, their struggle, their perspectives, and what they wanted, listening here implying not just letting them talk but creating the space for their words to be heard. Two or 200 participants, the Zapatista delegation listened to every single one. To create a new “we,” they say, to work together, we have to know each other, and the only way to know each other, to encounter each other, is to listen. After this initial exploratory journey by Subcomandante Marcos, more commanders of the Zapatista army would also emerge from the Chiapas mountains and distribute themselves throughout the country to continue the process
of creating a national network of struggle with other sectors and other struggles .

There are two important trajectories of this process that we can point out here as central to the process of building this new “we” of, from, and for below. One is the process of becoming united without becoming the same. The history of attempts by the left to unite struggles or create national or international level organizations have been characterized, and usually derailed, by structures and ideologies of the necessity of a vanguard to guide masses, or the need for a united “people” to lend support and legitimacy to a leader, or the inevitable process whereby peasants give way to proletariat or social movements become political party base, in general the necessity to suppress internal differences in the interest of making a common front to face the enemy. If there was one theme that was most repeated throughout the Other Campaign by the Zapatistas it was this: we do not ask you to be like us, we ask you to be with us; we are not looking for followers, we are looking for comrades, the only thing that makes us the same is that we are all different. The second aspect is to learn to know the “other,” to create a process of talking, and more importantly listening, that turns the category “other” from something marginal to something universal. That is, the “other” becomes each difference, self-valued and autonomous, among us, rather than measures of deviation from a norm. This was perhaps the conceptualization that most resonated across “civil society,” taking on fluctuating and transformative meanings that moved from something “alternative”: where the “other” of “an-other world is possible” and the “Other Campaign” became diverse calls for and projects of creating an “other” politics, an “other” education, an “other” media, an “other” communication, an “other” sexuality, into “other loves” as the Zapatistas refer to the non-heterosexual community; and then to something more than just alternative: the transformation of “todos somos Marcos” (We are ALL Marcos) chanted by the Zapatista communities in 1994 into the “tod@s somos OTR@S” (We are all Others) chanted by the transsexual community, adherents of the Sixth Declaration, in Oaxaca City, 2006.

The process of becoming “other” is not something figurative in the Other Campaign, it is a concrete process. There really was no other trick for doing this new “othering” than actually sitting and listening, for hours and hours, to how the transsexual community identifies neoliberalism in Oaxaca City, and how the landless peasants live neoliberalism on its outskirts. And in this process, it was not only Zapatistas and each group they met with that listened to each other, but each group began to hear the others, and a network of knowledge began to form in which farmers, street vendors, students, and housewives knew each other’s problems, persecutions, perspectives. These are not easy tasks, and it is only when you are sitting in an assembly of the communist party and the anarchist collective of Saltillo, Coahuila, or of Oaxacan indigenous farmers and Oaxaca City cross-dressers, that you begin to see that when there is no prescription to follow, when, as the Zapatistas have always said, and the Other Campaign had to tirelessly repeat, there is no road where we want to go, when the rebel is given options for life and doesn’t like any of them, they don’t pick, they start building a new one.

The new option being constructed in the Other Campaign starts here then, with a new “we” composed of all those from “below.” But “below” is not a term for victims, nor is it a term for an opposition, it is not the counterpart to, or the consequence of, “above.” It is an affirmative organization, a political project, a new way of composing community. The capitalist attack is to isolate the parts and destroy any semblance of a self-sustaining or self-determined habitat, and to thus force people into the exploitable relationship of capital; the political project must be to create a terrain of resistance and a collective subjectivity to inhabit that terrain, whatever that means wherever we are.

IV. Left Politics in the US

What does this have to do with us? What does it mean to be an “adherent” of the Sixth? We have established that the US and Mexican populations share and suffer under the same neoliberal capitalist system. We have looked at how the Zapatistas are facing that system and the state of permanent crisis it brings, specifically by creating a new collective subjectivity, new organizational forms adequate for that subject, new conceptualizations, that of the “others” that we all are, as a way to overcome the isolation and fragmentation of the neoliberal society and to provide a “we” that can act effectively in that setting. What does this imply for us, for the US?

Left politics in the United States have been dominated by two primary fields of organization, electoral politics and the NGOification of the grassroots. For those disenchanted with electoral politics—something we can’t go into at depth here—but speaking of, at minimum, dissatisfaction with the democratic party or a fraudulent voting system, and, more profoundly, with the party system (nullified by the empire of money) and the crisis of representation in general (which has become a spectacle of simulation), non-governmental and non-profit organizations have often been the refuge and catch-all for social concerns and activism. As has been written elsewhere and a critique increasingly common, the NGO model has cornered much of left politics into a cycle of fundraising bureaucracy and philanthropic fashion: launching funding searches, funding requests, funding report-backs, organizations have to find money to pay people to find money, to tailor or at least cater political initiatives or campaigns to funding requirements and preferences, and to dedicate endless energy and human resources to donor relationships, agency applications, and creating images attractive to foundations. And while they may be nicer people than many of those found in an electoral system of representation, NGOs do not offer a more democratic model—they seldom have or are accountable to a base (a community or a population), they are not chosen by a base, they are hired by a board, and they tend to, by the nature of their funding structure and salary scale, convert politics into NGO management, much the same way neoliberalism has converted state government into business management. This doesn’t mean they are useless, but it hardly provides a model for alternative social organization. Philanthropic trends and priorities have determined the focus and movement of these organizations, taking them through environmental justice, anti-nuke organizing, racial justice, gay rights, housing rights, youth development, anti-poverty initiatives, immigrant rights, anti-war movement, union organizing.... all worthy causes in themselves, but also very limited by themselves. And no matter how long that lists gets, it will likely never arrive at a new system of social relations, of community self-determination, of self-government.

This style of leftist politics not only does not provide us with a subject adequate for global anticapitalist struggle, but it in fact mirrors the fragmentation imposed by the market itself. What’s left? The tired ideologies of sectarianism and vanguardism have shown their utter inadequacy to address current global conditions; or have been so shown by their total rejection by people in struggle. Those discouraged by NGO politics and sectarian or vanguardist practices have in turn often taken refuge in solidarity activism, supporting those movements around the world who have managed to create something else, to do an-other politics. But the Sixth eliminates this last refuge. The conditions have gone beyond a solidarity structure where the privileged in the north help the poor of the south; the ethical responsibility of the cry, “we are all others” lies on our shoulders, to recognize our own conditions, our own struggle, to construct our own liberation. It is not solidarity groups, single-issue campaigns and sectorized activist identities that we need, it is our own organized communities—whether those be residential or professional, geographic or virtual—and a project to connect those communities.

The Sixth did not start with the Other Campaign or the highly publicized emergence of the commanders of the Zapatista Army from the Lacandon Jungle. It started years ago when the Zapatista bases began to organize assemblies and implement self-governing structures in their territories, experimenting with rotating juridical duties, a collectively created school curriculum, community-determined conservation and land use laws, in what amounts to a living constitution, and then creating a network of autonomous communities with the organizational power to make democratic decisions among hundreds of thousands of people. Their internal organization, with power firmly situated in assembly, is what created the ability and the collective mechanisms to open themselves to the project of a much bigger network, that which they have determined necessary for combating global capitalism. The Other Campaign was not about drawing masses of people into a centralized organization, but building, one encounter at a time, networks of communities that know each other, that would in turn form alternative communication networks, exchange systems, information circuits, routes of knowledge and resources, and eventually, an eventually that may come very soon, alternative institutions run by the same communities, what amounts to, at bottom, another society. We can’t wait for the “old” system, or society, to fall before we make the new one.

V. Conclusion

At this point, isolation is our enemy. Global neoliberal capitalism is not simply global markets and trade policy, it is a social system that carries the disease of separation and self-obsession, a depoliticization of society and disintegration of the collective political subject. “Raise your head, and with it your gaze,” the Other Campaign has taught us; you will not find the answer inside, nor is it outside, it is between us, what we create, what is created when we meet.

It has been our collective analysis here (in El Kilombo) that you can’t survive and struggle against capitalism at the same time by yourself; there is too much to do. You can’t know enough, have enough, or do enough to get through it safely and successfully—to pay the bills, take care of your health, secure housing, develop healthy human relationships—much less change it. We face the question, as if the Zapatistas have asked us, do you believe that, behind our masks, we are you, or do you believe that, behind your masks, there is nothing?

1 comment:

Frank Partisan said...

Really good blog.

The El Kilombo Intergaláctico program seems great. Well integrated subjects.