The Zapatistas’ surreal struggle for life — and against capitalism

  • May 20, 2021

Anarchism & Autonomy

A delegation of the Zapatistas is sailing for Europe. Not to conquer, but to connect and to join hands with other insurgents and join them in struggle.

In the name of the Zapatista women, children, men, old people and, of course, others, I declare that the name of this land, which its natives now call “Europe,” will from here on be called SLUMIL K´AJXEMK´OP, which means “Insurgent Land” or “Land that does not give up, that does not faint.” And that is how it will be known by its own and other people as long as there is someone here who does not surrender, does not sell out and does not submit.

These are the words that, according to SupGaleano, will be spoken by Marijosé when they set foot on European soil after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in La Montaña, the boat that set off from Mexico on May 3 and which is expected to reach the Spanish coast some time in June.

Marijosé is the one of the seven members — four women, two men and one transgender person (“unoa otroa” in the Zapatista lexicon) — of the Zapatistas’ 421 Squadron which has set out on a “Journey for Life.” They will later be joined by another group of Zapatistas who will travel to Europe by plane and together they will travel to about 30 geographies across Europe. This is to be first of several trips in which the Zapatistas plan to connect with other struggles for life on all the continents.

How wonderful and ridiculous, surreal and brilliant! How insanely beautiful!

Joining hands to create a future

Marijosé’s words are the combination of humor, simplicity and theoretical depth that we have to come to associate with the Zapatistas since they first rose in rebellion on January 1, 1994. In order to struggle for the life that is now so clearly endangered, they turn the world upside down. They sail in the opposite direction from Columbus and the conquistadores in order to discover a world of rebels. They do not go to find conquerors and ask them to apologize, they go to find insurgents and join them in struggle.

No talk here of imperialism or colonialism, nothing of the long-established leftist tradition of imposing territorial definitions on social antagonisms, but something much more simple, much more direct: the insurgents of one geography go to join hands with the insurgents of another. Because that is the only way that we can create a future.

An invitation, then, not so much to show solidarity with the heroic Indigenous people of Chiapas — for the notion of solidarity immediately creates a third-person “them” — but to recognize-and-create Slumil K’ajxemk’op, the insurgent land often known as Europe, a land populated by people born in many different geographies. A land ruled by money, a land that is part of the Empire of Money — the same evil force that rules in all the continents and drags us into an accelerating typhoon of destruction. An evil force that rules but does not rule completely, because the continent of Europe — like all the continents — is an Insurgent Land where people do not surrender, do not sell out, do not submit.

The insurgency takes many forms, for money is a hydra with many heads, each one with a different face of terror. These produce many pains, all of them ours in one way or another, for of the various things that unite us in our differences the first two are: “that we make ours the pains of the world: the violence against women; the persecution and contempt for those who are different in their affective, emotional, sexual identity; the annihilation of childhood; the genocide against indigenous peoples; racism; militarism; exploitation; dispossession; the destruction of nature.” And “the understanding that it is one system that is responsible for these pains. The executioner is an exploitative, patriarchal, pyramidal, racist, thieving, criminal system: capitalism.” The Insurgent Land is a land of many struggles against the multiple faces of the monster.

The Zapatistas’ trip is a reaching out to hold hands, not to guide, but to share. A holding of hands, a reciprocal flow of energies, a spark perhaps. An interchange of distinct experiences of the common struggle to kill the hydra. A learning that is a teaching, a teaching that is a learning. Not just an improvised interchange but a deepening of the interchanges that have existed for many years and that is being very carefully prepared by many people since the Zapatistas first announced their plan last October.

There will be, must be, a reaching out of hands to hold theirs. From all the individuals and groups who, like me, have fallen in love with them over the years since they first appeared. But it will be — must be — more than that. It is to be hoped that the insane journey will touch people far beyond the “usual suspects,” far beyond the activist world.

A volcano waiting to erupt

For obvious reasons there have been few great surges of political protest in the last year, in Europe or anywhere else. But there is a huge feeling of suffocation, of pent-up frustration. We cannot breathe. Probably there is a growing feeling that the system is breaking down, that capitalism does not work. It may not receive any clear political expression, or any expression that we recognize as being “ours” in any sense, and probably for most people the main concern at the moment is to return to some sort of normality, however noxious that normality may be.

And yet there is an awareness that capitalism is a failed system. Through its destruction of natural biodiversity, it has created a pandemic that has killed millions and transformed living conditions for nearly all the world’s population. A pandemic that is likely to be followed by others. Its relentless pursuit of profit is producing a climate change that is already having enormous consequences for human life and the life of so many other species.

Many parents now assume that their children will experience worse living conditions than they have done, and indeed it is the young who are suffering the worst consequences of the failure of the system.

There is a whole world of awareness that capitalism is a failure, a world of people who are losing faith in the system, a world of suffocation and frustration. A volcano waiting to erupt? Who knows? Living under a volcano, I know that it is hard to predict the how or the when of eruptions. But Colombia and now Palestine, both in the last few days, suggest the enormous force that pent-up tensions can have.

There is an urgency in all this. When the Zapatistas rose up in the New Year of 1994, there was a huge response of support for them in Mexico, enormous demonstrations that forced the government to halt the military attack on their movement. But the huge wave of sympathy was not enough to bring down the state and transform society in Mexico. One cannot help thinking that, if the response had been greater, it could have halted the social disintegration that has been taking place since then, with hundreds of thousands of mainly young people killed violently, more than a hundred thousand “disappeared,” more and more women killed for being women each day.

In Europe and in all the world, there is a growing perception of the thinness of the crust of civilization. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” Yeats’ famous line from his poem “The Second Coming,” is quoted more and more. But civilization cannot be saved from the center. The only way to create a “civilized,” socially acceptable society is by abolishing capitalism and creating other, mutually recognitive ways of living. The task is urgent, the windows of opportunity are closing.

A ridiculous journey

Surreal? Certainly. The surrealism of the Zapatista journey is no ornament, it goes to the heart of their politics. Time and time again the Zapatistas have surprised us with their initiatives, but this is perhaps the most wondrous of all. In the middle of the pandemic — and the Zapatistas have been rigorous in their observance of precautionary measures, introducing them even before either the Mexican state or most other states did anything at all — and without signing any contract with Netflix, they have created the most astonishing piece of theater. They have made the Atlantic Ocean their stage and before spreading to 30 or so different geographies in the newly named — certainly not baptized — continent of Slumil K´ajxemk’op.

This is to push revolutionary thought to a place it has never gone before. It is to take the struggle for life and against capitalism — for the struggle for life must be a struggle against capitalism — to a newly surreal dimension. The surrealism is crucial because it breaks the logic of capital and its state that drags and drags and drags our dreams of something better into a reproduction of the same system of death.

Read them, read them, read them! Read what they are saying. Read the six parts of the text that announced this mad journey, in the order that they were issued, from the sixth to the first — but of course. Read what they are saying about their voyage, look at their videos and photos, most of which can be found on Enlace Zapatista in different languages, follow the debates around the journey on pages like Communizar and listen to them.

Above all, join them on their ridiculous journey. Join them and let them join you. Share your struggles and your surreal-too-real volcanos. And perhaps that will help us all to breathe hope.

The author would like to thank Edith González, Panagiotis Doulos, Néstor López, Marios Panierakis, Azize Aslan, Eloína Peláez and Lars Stubbe for their comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

John Holloway

John Holloway is a professor of sociology in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. His books include Change the World without Taking Power (Pluto Press, London, 2002, 2019) and Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press, London, 2010).

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