This text is the first in a new series of posts to be featured on For the Desk Drawer that aims to showcase the outstanding work of my doctoral students, past and present, to a wider audience. The series is called Thesis Pieces and starts with this empirically rich and theoretically nuanced set of insights from Chris Hesketh into the ongoing class struggle and geopolitical dynamic of the Zapatistas in Mexico. 

On December 21st, as the nineteenth anniversary of their new year’s day uprising was approaching, 40,000 Zapatistas silently and peacefully occupied 5 key municipal towns across Chiapas, Mexico, to announce the latest phase in their social struggle. This was their first significant public action for years and sought to remind both Mexico and the wider world that they are still very much here, in spite of the lack of media attention.

Following their initial uprising on January 1st 1994, directly timed to contest the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Zapatistas quickly became a fashionable cause célèbre and their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos hailed as “a new kind of hero.” However, since 2006 their popular appeal among some sections of the left has markedly declined (both within Mexico and internationally). The primary reason for this can be traced to their initiative to transform the Mexican political landscape from below. Their Otra campaña (Other campaign) ran alongside the Presidential bid of PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), whom Marcos denounced as the ‘left hand of the right wing’. Calls were made in their Sixth Declaration of the Lacondón Jungle to abandon traditional political forms of representation in favour of grassroots mobilisation and change, ‘from below and for below’. This is reiterated in their latest communiqué that argues for the construction of ‘a non institutional left alternative’. AMLO’s subsequent loss to Felipe Calderón by the narrowest of margins (despite electoral fraud being widely declared) was considered by some to be the result of the Zapatistas’ intransigence. Their ability to have any further effect on radical politics thus came to be questioned in many quarters.

My new article in Latin American Perspectives argues for the enduring relevance of the Zapatistas’ political project as a form of resistance to the advancement of capitalism in Southern Mexico. Refuting the popular thesis of Guillermo Bonfil Batalla in his celebrated text México Profundo that claims that indigenous struggles in Mexico can be seen as part of a longer, historical ‘clash of civilisations’, I instead assert that what is occurring is a clash between class-loaded spatial projects, or as I term it ‘a clash of spatialisations.’ On one hand, capital is seeking to expand and transform the region into a new pole of accumulation, or a space where capital accumulation can proceed. On the other hand, indigenous communities are vigorously struggling against the dispossession that this would entail and defending their claims to territory, often through the conscious creation of ‘counter-spaces’.

In order to make this case I first outline the inherent expansionary dynamics of capitalism as a mode of production, drawing from the key claims of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto that details how ‘the need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere’. However, it is emphasised that this expansion of capitalism is frequently met by processes of subaltern resistance. Therefore, to concur with Doreen Massey, the world should not be viewed as the product of capital’s requirements but rather remains open ended and the product of struggle.

Following this theoretical outline, a short history of Mexico in the 20th century is provided with regards to struggles to produce and command space. Of key importance here was the creation of communal property in the form of ejido land following the Revolution. As a result of the land reform process instigated by President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) this form of property came to occupy close to 50 percent of the national territory. I argue land reform in Mexico left a contradictory legacy. On one hand, it enhanced the legitimacy of the state, pacified the countryside and paved the way for the institutionalisation of capitalism in Mexico, conforming to the conditions of passive revolution as outlined by Antonio Gramsci and defined in more detail in earlier blog posts on this site. On the other hand, however, land reform provided the material basis for the development of indigenous territorial claims. As a result of the exhaustion of import-substitution industrialisation (ISI), the impact of the debt crisis, and the neoliberalisation of the Mexican economy more broadly, communal property has become a site which capital accumulation has sought to transform from a social right into a commodity.

Case studies of two southern states—Oaxaca and Chiapas—are then examined in my article to explore how this dynamic has played out in recent years. These states are what geographer Neil Brenner would term ‘spatial targets’ for a new round of accumulation. In the case of Oaxaca this involves looking at the authoritarian neoliberalism of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz that provided the impetus for the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO: Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca). Although ultimately an ephemeral social movement, the collective form of politics that was displayed demanded the ‘right to the city’ and has left an important impact on the region. Ongoing social struggles in places such as San José del Progreso, against Canadian transnational corporation Fortuna Silver, are also documented (for a concise chronology of events surrounding this click here).

The case of the Zapatistas in neighbouring Chiapas is then finally highlighted to demonstrate what collective forms of organisation can achieve. Drawing from Henri Lefevbre I argue that the Zapatistas have transformed their local conditions of life by transforming space, rejecting as they do so the current model of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ that neoliberalism is so frequently reliant upon. The multiple spatial scales through which their politics functions are detailed such as the community level, the municipal level as well as the regional level of the caracoles. Other key features of their model of governance such as the principle of rotation are also discussed as well as important achievements in both health and education.

The article concludes with a reflection on the emptiness of multiculturalism without class content, the contested nature of development and the need to enlarge our notions of democracy beyond a narrow liberal concern with representative politics and private property. Instead, the Zapatistas demonstrate how the remaking of space is also a remaking of democracy via their principle of self governance and the call for the permanent participation of people in civic life. It is through this rather less glamorous, but enduring, everyday form of struggle that we can take influence from the Zapatistas. They may not provide a ready made solution to the world’s problems, but they do allow us to expand our horizons of the possible.

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