originally published by Counterpunch on July 25, 2016
Now with photos by the author.
by Quincy Saul
“Did you hear it? It is the sound of their world collapsing. It is the sound of ours resurging.”
– Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, December 2012e
Mexico is living and dying for the sins of the global economy. The price of cheap clothes, cheap drugs and cheap labor is paid by the hundreds of thousands dead and disappeared in the last decade alone. From the North, an empire casts shadows of the end of the world. But from the South, an anti-thesis to empire shines, and the beginning of the world arises like a shining star whose five points stand for five continents.
Last month it was my privilege to be a student in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast. This school dispenses no degrees or diplomas, yet it has inspired and transformed millions around the world. This school is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and its civilian bases of support, whose autonomous self-government administers roughly half of the state of Chiapas. For the last two decades years they have been building and defending one of the world’s best hopes.
In 1994 the Zapatista uprising awakened the world to a reinvention of revolutionary politics. Over two decades later, its lessons are more relevant and revelatory than ever. As we traverse calendars and geographies between the end and the beginning, between the collapse and the resurgence, these lessons carry us beyond the chaotic conjuncture toward the holistic horizon. This is some of what I learned at school; six theses for the long term regeneration of humanity.
1/ The cure for the femicide machine is the forest garden.
The capitalist world-system culminates on the Northern border of Mexico, where the mode of production has become a mode of destruction. Three years after the Zapatista uprising, Ciudad Juarez coined the word femicide. It was a product of the same thing the Zapatistas rose up against: the North American Free Trade Agreement; a neoliberal pact which brought a bloom of sweatshops to the border and a blight of killings in their wake. Sergio González Rodríguez describes how the meeting of maquiladoras and machismo, along with the congregation of the drug trade and the arms trade, has given birth to what he calls “the femicide machine.”
The quantity and the quality of the killings have nightmarish proportions which resist reasoning. But Rodríguez pulls the pieces into historical, economic and political perspective, until we can see the man and the system behind the curtain and the killings: Capitalism and patriarchy, hand in hand, personified in the figure of the serial killer, whose crimes are neither persecuted nor punished. “The denial of extermination is part of the extermination.” (Rodriguez 84)
We can understand the femicide machine as part of what Raquel Guitérrez Aguilar calls “the painful and cruel ambitions – not only military – to reinstall a totally dominating and sick masculine symbolic order.” (Aguilar) Like ISIS, like Trump, like Putin, like Modi, and too much more, the femicide machine in Mexico and its diverse functionaries express the murderous desperation of a patriarchal order confronted with its own contradictions.
What is killing women in Juarez is nothing less than a mode of production. Policies may prune it, bureaucracies may offer band-aids. But justice for the dead and bereaved, along with hope and dignity for the living, require a solution commensurate to the problem. “Against an unprecedented form of totalitarianism,” writes Javier Sicilia, “an unprecedented form of struggle is necessary.” (Sicilia)
Luckily, the antidote is ready, radical, resurgent. The cure and antithesis to the femicide machine is the Mayan forest garden. Vital examples of this ancient mode of production are still alive in forest gardens, which are also biodiversity hot-spots, throughout Southern Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. And the Zapatistas are among its guardians. This I read in a recent and revelatory book titled “The Mayan Forest Garden” by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh. While they don’t mention the Zapatistas, they know the territory: “The Lakuntun agricultural system… is therefore a glimpse into the past – a quintessential example of the high-performance milpa.” (Ford and Nigh, 65) They chronicle a calendar which stretches back eight millennia, when population densities greater than those existing today were maintained in harmony with biological diversity, where “the dominant mode of production was the milpa forest garden.” (ibid, 124) I glimpsed it too, while working for an afternoon on the milpa with some Zapatista teenagers – not just the past, but the future.
The forest garden produces and prefigures all the solutions we need, ecologically and politically: it produces high quality food, regenerates woodlands, prevents erosion, increases soil fertility, preserves and propagates biodiversity, cleans and efficiently manages water, generates no waste, uses no fossil fuels, no artificial pesticides or fertilizers, and sequesters carbon in the soil. The social relations of production in the forest garden require free association and decentralization, replacing alienated labor and mechanization with “intensification of skilled labor and ecological knowledge.” (ibid 69) The political consequences of the forest garden were recognized by the conquistadors, for whom their destruction was a key aspect of counterinsurgency. Today the same struggle is still on. It’s the milpa versus Monsanto and mass extinction, the forest garden versus the femicide machine.
2/ The caracol of cosmovision outpaces the locomotive of history.
The symbol of Zapatista resistance is the snail, or caracol. “Lento Pero Avanzo” is its slogan and credo: “slowly, but I advance.” The highest authorities in Zapatista civilian self-government, known as Councils of Good Government, are located in base areas called “caracoles”. The symbol represents the shells which once were used to call gatherings; also the spiral which represents time and infinity; and finally, it invokes “the speed of democracy,” of which government negotiators at the San Andres accords complained bitterly: Everything moves slowly, at the speed of conversation and consensus; poco a poco, or “kun kun” in Tstotsil. Slowly but surely. And here’s the paradox: in the Lacondona, in el Sur, where everything moves slowly, political organization seems so much more advanced; while in el Norte, in the metropoles of the world, everything moves so quickly, and yet our organizations and politics seem so backwards.
Somehow the snail overtakes the locomotive! The imaginative cosmovision which takes its metaphors from nature overtakes the deterministic history which sees itself in the mirror of industrial production. On December 22, 2012, as 20,000 Zapatistas in perfect silence filled the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas to announce the end and the beginning of the world, the locomotive loses the race. ¿Escucharon?
The locomotive’s schedule moves at the speed of production, while the snail’s calendar moves at the speed of reproduction. The train races at the artificial light-speed of the business cycle, while the caracol crawls at the natural speeds of the seasonal, solar, lunar, and galactic cycles. And suddenly the snail slips ahead.
There’s something else to it as well; I saw it in a painting at the University of the Earth, where indigenous youth gather to learn everything from art to architecture and from weaving to world-systems analysis: The painting, stacked in a corner alongside dozens of others, showed a huge red-orange sun, glaring over dead trees, seeming to invoke the heat-death of the planet billions of years from now, as Earth’s orbit spirals towards its end, entreating in black letters along the bottom: “Do it now. The future doesn’t belong to any person.” The snail moves with no less urgency than the locomotive. Imagine if we all moved as urgently towards the distant future as we do towards tomorrow.
3/ “The rich are automatically poor.”
Studying with the Zapatistas, we learned that in Tsotsil (one of at least five indigenous languages spoken throughout Zapatista territory) there are two different words for wealth: takin and skulejal. Takin means money, or more broadly, artificial wealth. Skulejal signifies natural wealth, measured in life, in community, in happiness.
Each form of wealth is produced by a different form of work. The two verbs for work are kanal, which means work for money and for a boss; individual and alienated, and a’mtel, which they define as true work; collective and freely associated; its own reward.
The two kinds of wealth and work aren’t only distinct, they are antagonistic. To work individually for artificial wealth undermines the collective pursuit of natural wealth. While discussing the implications, the subject arose of the rich who are poor: “Automatically they aren’t rich!” our teacher said about the 1%.
This antagonism isn’t new to Mexican history. Over 100 years ago, Pancho Villa proclaimed and invited: “The tortillas of the poor are better than the bread of the rich. Come!” (Reed 74) And we are coming, gradually, towards new ways of work and wealth, in successive approximations towards new theories of value.
John Holloway writes recently that people rebel not because of their poverty, but because of their wealth – their natural wealth; their community, dignity, history, etc, which refuses to sell or submit. And you can see it and believe it in Chiapas, where natural wealth is rising up against artificial wealth. Where the poor are rich.
Life is better beyond capital, and this common sense culminates in the Zapatista hospital, where the surgeons also do the cooking and cleaning, where herbal tinctures prepared on site are prescribed alongside allopathic medicines, where the doctors sleep on the second floor, get only eight days of vacation every three months, and receive no salaries, but are happy and proud to do this collective work, because of their consciousness and their love for their community. Every week, two to five babies are born there, who will grow up rich on tortillas and dignity.
4/ Environmentalism premeditates eco-fascism.
“The important thing to understand is that we are part of nature, not something separate,” our Tsotsil teacher explained. And a mural on the adjacent building reads: “In the Autonomous Zapatista Schools, children are educated in the collective spirit and conception of the world. Our philosophy is the human being as part of nature.”
With the specters of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction haunting the whole world, questions about humanity’s relationship to nature are burning on every continent. But while the Zapatistas believe that we are a part of nature, others have quite the opposite outlook. Meet the Partido Verde, the ProArbol REDD program and the Biosecurity Law, all of which express the dominant ideology of environmentalism in Mexico. The politics of environmentalism come to a head in Chiapas, where “contemporary conservation practices of tropical forests have relied on the Western approach: removing the human element from the equation.” (Ford and Nigh 174)
The inevitable outcome of a philosophy which understands humanity and nature as fundamentally distinct and even antagonistic, is a world where one must die for the other to survive. Either destroy forests to build cities, or destroy villages to preserve forests. Thus environmentalism, whether in good faith or bad government, premeditates and prepares eco-fascism.
This paradox points the way to the profound shift which is necessary in how we understand ourselves and nature. The antithesis and antidote to environmentalism and eco-fascism is hard-wired in the grammar and vocabulary of Tsotsil and other indigenous languages, in which there are no objects, only subjects, and where humanity is understood as an inseparable part of nature. And it is embodied and prefigured in the Zapatista institutions of self-government, which reflect the milpa forest garden as mode of production and reproduction.
5/ Good government is natural.
The Zapatista reinvention of democracy is one of the most important and inspiring political lessons which concluded the 20th century and jump-started the 21st. The Good Government Councils (in contrast to the malgobierno, or “bad government” which characterizes the whole state apparatus from federal to local) are among the only political institutions in the world to have truly surpassed the ancient Greeks; a system of rotating and recallable elected civilian authorities, but, crucially, without slaves or patriarchy. The details are fascinating, but the most important lesson I believe is the general one: Good government is natural. It grows in the embrace of its local soil and sky. Leadership rotates like crops. Diversity is respected and protected. The goal is “a world where many worlds fit”; polycultures in the milpa and in the municipality.
And beyond the Greeks, the Zapatistas have also gone much farther than most in fulfilling Jose Marti’s philosophy and prophecy of government in his famous essay “Our America” – “the good governor in America… must know the elements that make up their own country, and how to bring them together, using methods and institutions originating within the country… Good government is nothing more than the balance of the country’s natural elements. This is why in America the imported book has been conquered by the natural person. Natural people have conquered the learned and artificial people. The native half-breed has conquered the exotic creole. The struggle is not between civilization and barbarity, but between false erudition and Nature.”
Here is the negation of the environmentalism which sacrifices humans, and also the negation of the humanism which sacrifices nature: a political system which is also an ecological system, emerging from a cosmovision where there is no separation between humanity and nature. Is there a word for this kind of government, this kind of politics? I concur with Hugo Blanco; “the Zapatistas are ecosocialists, even though they don’t use that word.”
6/ “Fue el estado!”
The slogan of Ayotzinapa (“It was the state!”) resonates across the geopolitical spectrum. The disappearance of 43 students – and the thousands more which their number represents – is not the fault of any single individual or institution. Neither the president nor the police nor the army nor the cartels can be blamed individually, because they are all to blame collectively. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a state to disappear a bus full of them. It’s the same state that today, on behalf of the stock exchange, is mobilizing the police and army nationwide against teachers and the popular uprising behind them. This state accuses its teachers of being drug dealers, an accusation whose desperation is surpassed only by its irony. For the biggest secret about drug dealing in Mexico is broadcast with the same password; fue el estado. The slogan is comprehensive. As Subcommandante Moises said to the caravan of families of the disappeared, which visited Zapatista territory in November 2014, “it is terrible and marvelous that the poor and humble students and families who aspired to become teachers, have become the best professors that the skies of this country have seen in recent years.”
And it seems to me that the teaching goes further still. We arrived in Chiapas in the midst of what appears to be a retreat of the Left and the return of the Right across Latin America, what some are calling “the end of the cycle.” And yet the Zapatistas are not retreating; if anything they appear to be more advanced than ever. Which leads us to ask: what exactly is failing, from Argentina to Brazil to Venezuela? What is failing, according to Raquel Guitérrez Aguilar, is the politics of state power itself:
“If one takes the unfolding struggles as a point of departure, then one can understand with more clarity what it is that is collapsing today: the deformed and alienated form of our previous efforts, of the collective aspirations for social transportation which we ourselves deployed years back. Thus, the current offensive of the Right is nothing more than the grotesque revelation of what has already occurred: the renovation of the domination of capital, organized by the validation of procedural democracy, as the emblematic – and almost only – form of politics. It is the end of what we accomplished in the previous wave, and this is why it appears to us like a cyclical phenomena – the circuit reopens.” (Aguilar)
Many revolutionary movements in Latin America over the last twenty years have been successful precisely insofar as they have transformed the state; constitutionally, institutionally, legally, structurally and subjectively, etc. It is now this same state which is falling back into the hands of the Right, through more or less the same procedural mechanisms by which the Left took and transformed it. It’s only catastrophic if you can’t see past the state as the only destiny of politics, or past the party as the only destination of democracy. If you can see beyond, and understand this moment not as the beginning of the end, but as the end of the beginning, then the circuit reopens – not a cycle, but a spiral!
Something seismic is going on in Mexico. Fundamental contradictions heave beneath the surface: Contending modes of production; rival rhythms and speeds of time; antagonistic concepts of work and wealth; radically different understandings of humanity’s relationship to nature; polar opposites of political theory and practice. The “Insurgent Mexico” reported by John Reed at the beginning of the 20th century rode the revolutionary railroad from the North to South and at last to the capital. Today, Resurgent Mexico can be read rising from the South to the North, at a snail’s pace, to a new world; a new calendar and geography, beyond capitals. “Ya se mira el horizonte,” the first verse of the Zapatista hymn sings: We can see the horizon already.
The Good Government Council we visited is decorated inside with a Japanese scroll painting, an illustrated passage from the Quran, flags and posters from literally all over the world; all testament and witness to two decades of a universal struggle waged on particular grounds, in the heights of Chiapas where the whole world finds itself reflected. While so much about the Zapatistas is specific, unique and particular to their history, mythology, language, culture and geography, they have touched the hearts and minds of millions around the world with their appeal to a subterranean universality which connects us all, not in spite of but because of our differences. “Behind ourselves, we are you,” the slogan and the ski masks promise and prophesy. “Be a Zapatista wherever you are,” the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacondona invites and entreats. And so I scatter these six theses like seeds to the winds of the sexta, in the spirit of Francisco, who promised his international students: “take this seed, put it into practice, and soon you will be like we are today.” (Fitzwater 17)
“Politica del Deseo,” interview with Raquel Guiterrez Aguilar, by Veronica Gago, March 18, 2016
Autonomy is in Our Hearts: Zapatista Autonomous Government Through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language, by Dylan Fitzwater, Division Three Thesis, Hampshire College, 2015
The Mayan Forest Garden: Eight Millennia of Sustainable Cultivation of the Tropical Woodlands, by Anabel Ford and Ronald Nigh, Left Coast Press, 2015
“Nuestra America,” by Jose Marti, 1891
Insurgent Mexico, by John Reed, International Publishers, 1914, 1969
The Femicide Machine, by Sergio González Rodríguez, translated by Michael Parker-Stainback, Semiotext(e), 2007
“Los desplazados,” by Javier Sicilia, Proceso, May 8, 2016
 “The centrifugal pattern preferred by milpa farmers made the art of governing a challenge.” (Ford and Nigh 162) This challenge is reflected in the writings of Viceroy Governor Thomas Lopez Medel in 1552, also cited by Ford and Nigh: “Therefore I order that all the natives… construct houses close to one another, and they should not sow any milpas within the town, but it shall be very clean. There shall not be groves, but they shall cut them all… so that they shall be clean, without sown land or groves; and if there were any, they should be burned.”
 “No one wants to remember that Mexico’s degradation began in the heart of its institutions… Mexico’s adverse situation at the beginning of the 21st century had been gestating for some time, and is related to State arrangements struck with numerous criminal groups. These accords, made in exchange for money, were the origins of today’s cartels. From that time forward, Mexico’s territory was committed to the transportation of drugs from South America… Mexico’s support of the US government’s Iran/Contra operation within Mexican territory beginning in 1981 set the precedent for these agreements. Delivering firearms to Nicaraguan anti-guerrilla forces in exchange for drugs to be sold on the US market was an operation conceived and operated by the CIA. Its Mexican partner was its correlative, the Mexican Federal Security Office.” (Rodriguez, 59-60)