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THE EZLN IS NOT ANARCHIST: Or Struggles at the Margins and Revolutionary Solidarity

In a future revolutionary period the most subtle and most dangerous defenders of capitalism will not be the people shouting pro-capitalist and pro-statist slogans, but those who have understood the possible point of total rupture. Far from eulogizing TV commercials and social submission, they will propose to change life…but to that end, call for building a true democratic power first. If they succeed in dominating the situation, the creation of this new political form will use up people’s energy, fritter away radical aspirations and, with the means becoming the end, will once again turn revolution into an ideology. —Gilles Dauve

The current restructuring of capital and its global expansion intrudes to an ever greater extent in to the lives of those on its margins. Peasants and indigenous people in non-Western, so-called “third world” nations, who have maintained some level of control over their subsistence up to now, are finding themselves forced to leave their lands or conform their activities to the needs of the world capitalist market simply to survive. It is, therefore, not surprising that movements of resistance against the various aspects of capitalist intrusion have arisen among these people in many parts of the world.

In previous issues of Willful Disobedience, I have written about the West Papua Freedom Movement (OPM). This movement of the indigenous people West Papua, many of whom continue to live as they did for centuries before any colonial powers arrived, against their Indonesian rulers is quite clear about refusing “modern life”—that is, the state, capital and everything that industrial civilization imposes. Or as they have said in communiqués: “We want to be left alone!” But this is the one thing that capital and the state will never grant. Although the OPM has sent delegates to demand talks with the Indonesian government, the West Papuans are increasingly aware of the futility of such negotiations. Recent communiqués talk increasingly of fighting to the death if necessary. After all, succumbing to the intrusion of capital would mean their spiritual death in any case. Their clarity about what they do not want has probably played an important part in guaranteeing that this movement, though armed, has never developed a separated military body, but rather has fought using methods traditional to their cultures. On the other hand, they have not completely escaped the ideology of nationalism, or at least its use in an attempt to have some credibility before world opinion. Still, this movement stands for having very few illusions about what the civilized social order and its institutions have to offer.

Another struggle at the farthest fringes of capitalist expansion is that of the people of Bougainville, an island about five miles west of the Solomon Islands, which has been under the rule of Papua New Guinea (not to be mistaken for West Papua) since 1975. The people of this island were pushed to revolt when CRA, an Australian subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc, installed a copper mine, causing hundreds of locals to lose their homes, lands and fishing rights, as well as destroying much of the jungle. The mine expanded until it was a half kilometer deep and seven kilometers in diameter. Protests, petitions and demands for compensation proved ineffective. So in 1988, a handful of islanders stole explosives from the mining company and began to destroy its structures and machinery. When the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government sent in its armed forces, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) was formed to battle the PNG military and their Australian advisers. Armed only with homemade guns, dealing with a total blockade of the island by Australian boats and helicopters and largely ignored by the outside world, the people of Bougainville have nearly achieved autonomy. A peace process began in 1997 and those PNG soldiers still on the island have been confined to their barracks. An independent governing authority has begun to develop—certainly to give credibility in the eyes of the states of the world to an autonomous Bougainville—and this will likely have a negative effect on the reconstructing of the community and the environment, making it easier for Bougainville to be drawn into the world economic order. As was said in Terra Selvaggio: “The history of rebellion is much too full of liberators who transform themselves into jailers and radicals who ‘forget’ their programs of social change once they’ve seized power.” Nonetheless, the small dimensions of the island combined with the absence of any urban centers makes the process of construction of state power difficult. And the determination of the people not to allow the mine to reopen is their best protection against the expansion of capital on the island.

While the indigenous people of West Papua and Bougainville have not really yet been integrated in to the capitalist market at all—giving them certain advantages both in terms of clarity about what they have to lose and in terms of knowledge of the still mostly wild terrain on which they fight—other indigenous people and small-holding peasants who were already involved in the market economy to some extent, but have maintained some real control over their subsistence, are now seeing this last bit of self-determination eaten away and are responding.

In India, groups of peasants have organized to attack genetically engineered crops. Recognizing the genetic engineering of seeds and the and the patenting of genetic structures as methods for finalizing the control of multi-national corporations over food production, even on the subsistence scale, these groups have attacked GMO fields and the property of corporations like Monsanto. But by no means do these groups have a clear critique of capitalism or the state. So alongside these direct attacks, the groups also petition the Indian state to make laws protecting them and preserving their place within the present social order. Their movement in its present form remains a movement for anti-global reform.

In India, groups of peasants have organized to attack genetically engineered crops. Recognizing the genetic engineering of seeds and the and the patenting of genetic structures as methods for finalizing the control of multi-national corporations over food production, even on the subsistence scale, these groups have attacked GMO fields and the property of corporations like Monsanto. But by no means do these groups have a clear critique of capitalism or the state. So alongside these direct attacks, the groups also petition the Indian state to make laws protecting them and preserving their place within the present social order. Their movement in its present form remains a movement for anti-global reform.

In India, groups of peasants have organized to attack genetically engineered crops. Recognizing the genetic engineering of seeds and the and the patenting of genetic structures as methods for finalizing the control of multi-national corporations over food production, even on the subsistence scale, these groups have attacked GMO fields and the property of corporations like Monsanto. But by no means do these groups have a clear critique of capitalism or the state. So alongside these direct attacks, the groups also petition the Indian state to make laws protecting them and preserving their place within the present social order. Their movement in its present form remains a movement for anti-global reform.

In India, groups of peasants have organized to attack genetically engineered crops. Recognizing the genetic engineering of seeds and the and the patenting of genetic structures as methods for finalizing the control of multi-national corporations over food production, even on the subsistence scale, these groups have attacked GMO fields and the property of corporations like Monsanto. But by no means do these groups have a clear critique of capitalism or the state. So alongside these direct attacks, the groups also petition the Indian state to make laws protecting them and preserving their place within the present social order. Their movement in its present form remains a movement for anti-global reform.

Probably the best known of the indigenous struggles is the one happening in Chiapas, Mexico. This struggle came into the light of day with the uprising of January 1, 1994. The strength of the insurrection, the preciseness of its targets and the general situation from which it arose aroused immediate sympathy among leftists, progressives, revolutionaries and anarchists throughout the world. The uprising was led by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN). The sympathy for this struggle is understandable as is the desire to act in solidarity with the indigenous people of Chiapas. What is not, from an anarchist perspective, is the mostly uncritical support for the EZLN. The EZLN has not hidden their agenda. Their aims are clear already in the declaration of war that they issued at the time of the 1994 uprising, and not only are those aims not anarchist; they are not even revolutionary. In this declaration, nationalist language reinforced the implications of the army’s name. Stating: “We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation”, they go on to call upon the constitutional right of the people to “alter or modify their form of government”. They speak repeatedly of the “right to freely and democratically elect political representatives” and “administrative authorities”. And the goals for which they struggle are “work, land, housing , food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace”. In other words nothing concrete that could not be provided by capitalism. Nothing in any later statement from this prolific organization has changed this fundamentally reformist program. Instead the EZLN calls for dialogue and negotiation, declaring their willingness to accept signs of good faith from the Mexican government. Thus, they send out calls to the legislature of Mexico, even inviting members of this body to participate in the EZLN march to the capital, the purpose of which is to call on the government to enforce the San Andres peace accords worked out by Cocopa, a legislative committee in 1995. So we see, regardless of the fact that they are armed and masked, the EZLN is a reformist organization. They claim to be in the service of the indigenous people of Chiapas (much as Mao’s army claimed to be in the service of the peasants and workers of China before Mao came to power), but they remain a specialized military organization separate from the people, not the people armed. They have made themselves the public spokespeople for the struggle in Chiapas and have channeled it into reformist demands and appeals to nationalism and democracy. There are reasons why the EZLN has become the darling of the anti-globalization movement: its rhetoric and its aims present no threat to those elements in this movement who merely seek more national and local control of capitalism.

Of course, the social struggles of exploited and oppressed people cannot be expected to conform to some abstract anarchist ideal. These struggles arise in particular situations, sparked by specific events. The question of revolutionary solidarity in these struggles is, therefore, the question of how to intervene in a way that is fitting with one’s aims, in a way that moves one’s revolutionary anarchist project forward. But in order to do this, one must have clear aims and a clear concept of one’s project. In other words, one must be pursuing one’s own daily struggle against the present reality with lucidity and determination. Uncritical support of any of the struggles described above is indicative of a lack of clarity about what an anarchist revolutionary project might be, and such support is most certainly not revolutionary solidarity. Each of our struggles springs from our own lives and our own experiences of domination and exploitation. When we go into these battles with full awareness of the nature of the state and capital, of the institutions by which this civilization controls our existence, it becomes obvious that only certain methods and practices can lead toward the end we desire. With this knowledge, we can clarify our own projects and make our awareness of the struggles around the world into a tool for honing our own struggle against the present social order. Revolutionary solidarity is precisely fighting against the totality of an existence based on exploitation, domination and alienation wherever one finds oneself. In this light, revolutionary solidarity needs to take up the weapon of unflinching, merciless critique of all reformist, nationalist, hierarchical, authoritarian, democratic or class collaborationist tendencies that could undermine the autonomy and self-activity of those in struggle and channel the struggle into negotiation and compromise with the present order. This critique must be based in a lucid conception of the world we must destroy and the means necessary to accomplish this destruction.


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