Gustavo Esteva (Universidad de la Tierra)

Learning to Be Activated


In my view, Zapatismo is nowadays “the most radical, and perhaps the most important, political initiative in the world…No contemporary political or social movement has attracted public attention as Zapatismo has, in both quantitative and qualitative terms.  None.  The Zapatista rebellion, Wallerstein wrote, “has been the most important social movement in the world, the barometer and alarm clock for other anti-system movements around the world” (La Jornada, 19-07-05).


“But the Zapatistas continue to be a mystery and a paradox. Can there be such a thing as a revolutionary group with no interest in seizing power? Revolutionary leaders who refuse to hold any public post, now or in the future? An army that fires words and civil disobedience, championing non-violence? An organization profoundly rooted in its local culture with a global scope? A group that is strongly affiliated with democratic principles, and yet is democracy’s most radical critic? People profoundly rooted in ancient Mayan traditions and yet immersed in contemporary ideas, problems, and technologies? “Everything for everyone, nothing for us”, a principle daily applied in their initiatives, includes power: they don’t want power, even within their own communities, where the powers that be don’t dare to interfere. What kind of movement is this? Is it possible to apply to them, to their ideas and practices, conventional or alternative notions of Power or power? Do they fit in the archetypal model of the Prince? How to deal with their ideas and practices expressing their radical freedom, their fascinating notion of liberty and liberation?


“One of the reasons why so many seem to want to forget Zapatism…is the depth of their radicalism. The Zapatistas challenge in words and deeds every aspect of the contemporary society. In revealing the root cause of the current predicaments, they tear to tatters the framework of the economic society (capitalism), the nation-state, formal democracy and all modern institutions. They also render obsolete conventional ways and practices of social and political movements and initiatives. In reconstructing the world from the bottom up, they reveal the illusory or counterproductive nature of changes conceived or implemented from the top down. Their path encourages everywhere resistance to globalization and neoliberalism, and inspires struggles for liberation. They also contribute to articulate those struggles.


“In my view, however, there is nothing about the Zapatistas more important that their contribution to hope and imagination. For the Mahabharata, “when hope is destroyed, great grief follows which, forsooth, is almost equal to life itself” (Vol. XII, 186). For Iván Illich, “the Promethean ethos has now eclipsed hope. Survival of the human race depends on its rediscovery as a social force”. (Deschooling Society, London: Marion Boyars, 1972, 105). This is exactly what the Zapatistas have done: to rediscover hope. In liberating hope from their intellectual and political prison, the Zapatistas created the possibility of a renaissance.” (Celebration of Zapatismo, Penang: Citizens International, 2004).


This is what I have been writing about the Zapatistas. Some of their ways are clearly pertinent for all contemporary activists: Listening while you walk and Walking at the pace of the slowest are in my view the two most important lessons to learn with them. They timely revealed that the Emperor had no clothes…and dared to derive from this awareness the pertinent consequence: ¡Basta! Enough! To fully assume this statement, and transform it into a political attitude, requires a lot of courage and dignity.


Courage and dignity are the stuff defining APPO, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca). It is a social movement that comes from afar, from very Oaxacan traditions of social struggle, but it is strictly contemporary in its nature and perspectives and its views of the world. It owes is radical character to its natural condition: it is at the level of the earth, close to the roots. It’s acquired an insurrectional tint after trying all the legal and institutional ways and finding the political routes that it traveled to be blocked. But it does not dance to the songs played by the powers that be. It composes its own music. It invents its path when there are no indications.


APPO is a political initiative of the Oaxacan people themselves (not any leader or group), which established itself as the main player in the political life of Oaxaca, and has expressed itself organizationally as an assembly. The initiative started out in the form of a revolt and rebellion, until it crystallized into a social and political movement of a radically new kind. Born at the grassroots, from the deepest entrails of Oaxacan society, it expressed a discontent as old as it was generalized, which found in Ulises Ruiz (the corrupt, authoritarian, psychopathic governor) an apt emblem of all that it wanted to change. Guided by a vigorous transformative impulse, it is oriented toward the creation of a new society and brings to the world, in the midst of a rarified political environment, a fresh and joyful wind of radical change.


Both the Zapatistas and APPO have been for me, as for millions of people, a continual source of inspiration. Fifty years ago I started my activism. In the time of Che Guevara it naturally took the shape of a Latin American would-be guerrillero. Once I learned non violence and thus abandoned such path, I tried almost every form of activism, in very different settings. In the 80s I learned to abandon the attitude of promotion (moving the people in a certain direction), and replaced it with commotion/contagion: moving one-self with the other and with the whole being, not only the mind. This new attitude is an expression of radical hospitality – opening heart and mind to the otherness of the other, opening one-self to an authentic intercultural dialogue (even with the people of your own culture!).


Both the Zapatistas and APPO have confirmed and enriched my conviction about non violence and the value of horizontality, of carefully avoiding vertical and formal structures. They have been very important in the final, radical renunciation to any form of social engineering. With them, I am returning from the future, trying to avoid all attempts to hang our activities for social transformation from any intellectual or ideological construction about the future or the society as a whole, thus packing our images of both the past and the future into a present of transformation.


Apparently, what the people may appreciate at this point, given the current combination of their deep discontent, increasing awareness and great courage, is the participation of activists ready to be activated by the people themselves, activists humble enough as to surrender their own truths (the statements through which they govern their own lives and attempt to govern others) to the new truths emerging from the people themselves. At the same time, they should be ready to fulfill a very important function: to articulate people’s truths, giving to them the shape that can elicit in them the pertinent Aha! effect and also become a source of hope.


The dominant meanings of terms like ‘power’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘non-violence’ and ‘social change’ require a complete overhaul. They were conceived for another era. The paradigms of the XX century are now bankrupt. We cannot rule our lives with the ideological inventions of the XIX century.


We need to fully recognize that our era is dying.  Evidences of the new era are appearing everywhere, but they are perceived as anomalies of the old one, which looks stronger than ever. We need to resist such images and refuse to fool ourselves with them. Our role is perhaps to clearly articulate the options, in all their diversity, and be ready to follow the social majorities in their courageous path.


How can we change our daily lives today, in creating a whole new world?


What can we do by ourselves without the political parties or the government?


How can we organize our struggle and our resistance in the mold of the society we want to create?