S26 - Zapatistas take Prague?

Under a sweltering sun in early Autumn, Czech riot police stand guard over a huge concrete roadbridge that looms over a valley in the ancient city of Prague. Grim-faced and probably sweltering in their black uniforms, the cops are facing off several thousand protestors who are determined to cross the bridge and force their way into the conference centre where the World Bank is holding yet another annual meeting/publicity stunt. Cameras flash routinely in their faces: this is a first-rate photo opportunity for the assembled journos from both the big TV stations and the self-proclaimed Indymedia. On September 26th 2000, this is the new and loveable face of global democracy. Behind the police is a line of tanks, then the rest of the bridge is blocked up with police transport buses. It’s a long way across.

The valley below is filled with clouds of teargas where another strand of the many-headed demonstration has attempted to break through the lines. Prague has been turned into a battlefield again, although no shots have been fired on either side. This despite assurances that all of the police have been issued with live ammunition and are ready to use it.

Today is a Tuesday, but most of the demonstrators have been in the city since last Friday. Exchanging ideas at the counter-summit, where an impressive array of speakers from around the world have been brought together to bear witness to the new slogan of our times: "Our resistance is as global as your capital." From sociologists to musicians to webmasters to journalists, as well as dozens of contributions from the floor, this has been a barrage of new thinking from some of the best-informed people on the planet. Remarkable not only because of the wealth of experiences represented there, but also because of the convergence between them that grows from one hour to the next. There’s something happening here. You’d have to be a rare cynic indeed not to sense it, though there are the inevitable ironies too. At the coffee dock in the counter summit people have been learning Czech because if you order in English, they give you Nescafe.

Also published in Chiapas Revealed which you can print out as a PDF file 

Chiapas revelaed

 Not far from Wenceslas Square, where Jan Palach set himself alight in protest over 30 years ago, Jubilee 2000 have been holding their own meetings. A survivor of the Union Carbide accident at Bhopal in India invites us to join him in a minute’s laughter at the very notion of the world’s poorest people making debt repayments to the countries and the companies which owe them such a staggering ecological debt. An indigenous person from Colombia moves many of the audience to tears when he speaks of the relentless injustices that have been perpetuated on his people over the last five hundred years. It’s an emotional time for us stiff-lipped Europeans, so unused to expressing ourselves with anything other than the controlled voice of rational, male, enlightened logic. We have so much to learn from these people.

Tuesday’s demonstration inevitably has its tears too, given the amount of gas the cops are slinging about, but there is laughter as well. Inexplicably, the area immediately around the conference centre has been left poorly defended, and now a couple of groups have managed to break through and run up a grassy slope to the building where the delegates are assembled. A company of municipal police run headlong when chased by a huge fairy in a sequined pink dress brandishing a silver wand covered in tinfoil. Well what would you do?

Up on the bridge there is a final charge from a group of Italians dressed completely in white: the Tutti Bianchi. They form part of a group that calls itself "Ya Basta". It’s not the first time I hear echoes of the Zapatistas in Prague...

"Ya Basta!" was the cry of thousands of indigenous peasant soldiers as they marched down through the towns of the state of Chiapas on January 1st 1994. This was the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), bursting onto the stage with a flourish on the very day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Few of these insurrectionaries carried modern weapons; many of them indeed had only painted wooden rifles to point at the soldiers. War had been declared on the Federal Army by some of the poorest people on the continent, on the very day Mexico had supposedly arrived in the "First World".

Five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Zapatistas took the world very much by surprise. Commentators were soon dubbing them "the first postmodern revolutionaries" and they have had a major impact on political thinking over the last six - seven years. The CIA has conducted a hefty amount of research into their methods, considering their style of "netwar" to be a future trend among resistance groups. Indigenous groups around the Americas have been heartened by their ability to command respect from mestizo politicians. If the defeats suffered by the World Trade Organization and the Bretton Woods bodies at Seattle and Prague are really knock-ons from that rainy night in Chiapas seven years ago, then what’s it all about? Have the old icons of Bolivar andGuevara been supplanted by a gang of beardless Indians?

First, let’s take a look at the supposed postmodernity of the EZLN. Postmodern ideas are understood by most of us to be all about challenging the frameworks in which the old ideologies of progress - whether Left or Right - are developed. No way of thinking can be understood without reference to the culture that produced it as well as the medium through which we view it. Old certainties are swept aside. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. My solutions are your worst nightmares. The different languages of love and hate and human happiness are mutually exclusive, and any apparent similarities can be explained by the tinted spectacles our respective cultures impose upon us. The notion of development is deeply problematic.

Much of this rings bells with the words of the Zapatistas, but it also sounds some very discordant gongs. Indigenism - a philosophy expressed in the writings of Native American intellectuals like Ward Churchill and in the struggles of indigenous peoples around the world - certainly goes against the grain of materialism, exposing it as a colonialist, oppressive mentality. Theirs is the voice that has been excluded throughout all of capitalist/Marxist modernity, and their notion that humans were born to live in harmony with nature rather than to exploit it confronts such thinking head-on.

The Zapatistas do not stop at this, however. The families which support the indigenous revolution in Chiapas are often the very ones that fled from arch-conservative, traditionalist communites in earlier decades. They believe that attempts to ignore change in the larger world can only lead to domination and eventual extermination. Zapatista networking is the obvious consequence of a philosophy that seeks to build links with very different groups around Mexico and around the globe. Even their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos - a university-educated mestizo - is a kind of bridge to external cultures. It is a non-hierarchical relationship: as Marcos says, the Zapatistas speak "not as the one who imposes his will, but as one who desires a place where everyone fits, not as the one who is alone and feigns a crowd at his side, but as the one who is everyone even in the silent solitude of the one who resists."

The language is that of postmodernism, but the underlying idea is one of unity among all peoples, even at the moment when we are most different. Foucault’s idea that postmodernity is not a historical stage but rather a mood that is thrown up at critical times of flux when former ways of thinking no longer seem adequate, may help to explain the contradiction. Much of Marcos’ postmodernism is taken from Cervantes’ classic ‘Don Quixote’ - published in the very early years of the seventeenth century. It is a difficult book to comprehend, for Cervantes seems to sympathise most with his anti-hero even at the very moment he is splitting his sides laughing at him. Modernity within postmodernity?

The serried ranks of black-clad riot police on that bridge in Prague last September were there to defend more than a conference centre and a few thousand delegates from the wrath of a "mob". For the Zapatistas and their ideologues, they were defending the Single Way of Thinking, the model of development prescribed by the West and for the West, the tablets of stone handed down by the World Bank and the IMF and presented to the peoples of the earth as the only valid future. Among the protestors there were a thousand different ways of thinking, ecologists and feminists and socialists and liberals and anarchists, a thousand different colours and several dozen different languages, but everyone was trying to go pretty much the same place. Across the bridge.

1989 would appear not to have signalled the end of history after all, but perhaps Marx’s dialectics have been subsumed into something broader and deeper.

The delegates at the annual conferences - most of whom had come just for the junket - decided not to turn up for the Wednesday, and Thursday was abandoned altogether. For a couple of days at least, the lights went off in the shop window.


Also published in Chiapas Revealed which you can print out as a PDF file 

Chiapas revelaed

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