In my last article I was looking at the Left’s current return to communism and that, while the thinkers most often associated with this return are adamant that this is a new and more fluid communism than the communist projects of the 20th century, there are three problematic commonalities that most of them share that prevent me (as well as many others of the “Left”) from supporting it, namely its uncritical Eurocentrism, it’s deployment of communism as a communal identity and the fact that this form of communism lacks any internal diagnostic mechanism. Following that, in this article I intend on examining the Zapatistas and their free schools as a different revolutionary merger of theory and practice that I believe is a better example of what is “Left” of communism.
The most recent Little Zapatista School of Freedom was held last summer was held from August 12-16 and was so successful that two more (one in December and then again in January) are being planned. These schools are non-hierarchical and build around the concepts of volunteerism, autonomy, equality and freedom. Designed to help people from around the world construct a lived experience beyond the capitalist spectacle, as the Zapatista villages have been for ten years now, the schools are fiercely international, sharing experiences and forming horizontal lines of affinity with other activists from around the world — fulfilling another Zapatista axiom to “create a world where many worlds fit.”
On paper all the criteria of the new theoretical return to communism are fulfilled, yet many of the intellectuals associated with the return to communism have little to nothing to say about this movement (anecdotally, when at a talk not last spring on popular volunteerism I asked the speaker why he didn’t include an examination of Zapatismo. His response was that the Zapatistas are just “really ‘90s”). This somewhat willful oversight is possibly due to the movement often refusing the moniker of communism. While they do borrow many integral aspects from communism, they place their emphasis on the individual in relation to the communal, rejecting both immanent communal identities as well as ideological metanarratives. This brings their projects closer to who was excluded in the previous article, Antonio Negri and his collaborative work with Felix Guattari, New Lines of Alliance New Spaces of Liberty, as well as the series of books Guattari wrote with Gilles Deleuze, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In their collaboration Guattari and Negri note that communist discourses of the 20th century have been appropriated by capitalism and reduced to techniques of manipulation. They thus redefine communism as the, ‘assortment of social practices leading to the transformation of consciousness and reality on every level: political and social, historical and everyday, consciousness and unconsciousness.” (2010, 28)
Not unlike other re-articulations of communism, their book calls for a fluid merger of theory and practice that is concerned with the problems of the commons, breaking away from (instead of reforming) capitalism, an affirmative politics and volunteerism and the affirmation of equality and freedom. However their conception carries with it three very different aspects that mark their project as something very unique: a focus on individuals as well as groups; an interest in “micro-politics,” or the individual and subvert uses of power that (often unwittingly) reproduce repressive structures; and their insistence on a non-essentialized or fluid identity. When taken together, these practices form something that I refer to as “assemblage politics.”
Interestingly, all three of these theoretical commonalities have been put into practice by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. I’m not suggesting that the Zapatistas are reading the theoretical work of Deleuze, Guattari and Negri. I also do not intend to use their theories to interpret the Zapatistas’ practice, or use the Zapatistas to legitimize the theory. But I do believe that by reading them along side each other we see certain commonalities and points of convergence, which, when taken together, illuminate how thought and practice assemble to form what I believe to be an incredibly effective revolutionary system that is free from the problems presented by today’s more dominate communist discourses.
The concern with the problems of the commons takes on a whole new dimension by the deployment of the Zapatista free schools. These “schools” however are not based on pedagogic teaching practices, but rather on the notion that everyone is both teacher and student (a point that the Zapatistas make throughout their writings and communiqués). The idea is that through daily interactions with activists from around the world all those who participate can learn about others’ struggles, their successes and failures and then take these lessons back with them to share in their home countries. Taken in tandem with their other global networking gatherings, their Councils of Good Governance (Juntas de Buen Gobierno), the World Social Forum and the assembly of Intercontinental Gatherings (Encuentros Interconintentales), they form a revolutionary solidarity where the participants adopt each other’s struggles as their own.
This solidarity carries with it an implicit focus on the individual within the group, rather than a collective identity. This echoes Guattari and Negri’s collaborative work where communism is defined as the, “…singular expression of the combined productivity of individuals and groups (collectivities) emphatically not reducible to each other. If it is not the continuous reaffirmation of singularity, then it is nothing — and so it is not paradoxical to define communism as the process of singularization.” (31) They go on to note that radicalization of the individual cannot take place without the group, to the two components are intrinsically tied to one another, the individual cannot exist without the group, but the group cannot exist without the individual. This political subjectivity where neither individual nor group are privileged over the other, but equally affect each other in the ongoing process of radicalization is precisely what Jean-Luc Nancy advocates in his essay The Inoperative Community and in his thoughts on the Latin word cum that I mentioned in the previous article as well as what Thomas Nail calls the singular-universal. The singular-universal subjectivity then would be a more fluid decolonized identity than any identity based on representation.
Far from reading themselves into a History, for the Zapatistas, “History” (identified as a proper noun insofar as it narrates a unified, essentialized, identity) is a discursive teleological field cast by elites in the service of oppression. As such the aim of the Zapatistas is to “open a crack in History.” (Marcos, 2001, 209) This “crack in history” constitutes the first aspect of their process of de-colonizing their identity insofar as they cast a historical narrative that de-centers the subject, or as Thomas Nail writes in his brilliantly insightful book, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze Guattari and Zapatismo, a tactic of history as diagnostic praxis. (2012, 38-66)
History takes on a topological characteristic. As opposed to the teleological history of succession which sees history moving on a progressive vertical trajectory with each generation building on the previous towards a unified subject, the Zapatista narration of history playfully casts events of the past, present and future on a topological plane that is then folded over, so that points on the plane converge in a non-successive manor, creating a historical assemblage. To quote Tomas Nail,
Consider the way in which they have selected some moments from Mexican history (Emiliano Zapata’s peasant uprising 1910-1917), some components from Marxist history (red stars, the use of the word ‘comrade’ and so on), some components from their own indigenous history (consensus decision-making, autonomous village networks and so on) as well as some components of the future (the promise of a non-neoliberal future) to compose the historical hodgepodge of their own political event. (2012, 66-67)
This practice of creating a topological history is very close to what Deleuze and Guattari also set out to do in their collective works. They state that a haecceity, an individual that lacks a unified (essentialized) subject, has, “…neither beginning nor end, origin nor destination, it is always in the middle… it is a rhizome.” (2002, 263) The subsection entitled Memories of a Haecceity from the “Becomings” chapter in A Thousand Plateaus explains that a non-essentialized subjectivity can be formed through a folding of time (or history), meaning that events are moving in all directions and recognizable by intensities, not in linear progression; and immanent – that they are always here, always in the middle. Subjectivity then is formed by the historical events coming together by their proximity to one another and joining together to form an assemblage, which is heterogeneous to the subject. By rejecting unified representational identities based in a mythic narration of history (like the re-articulated communist identity), this folded historical assemblage would subvert the danger of micro-fascism by opening up space to analyse and engage with the desire and historical components that constitute both the individual and the group.
When taken together these practices constitute what Jasbir Puar dubbed “assemblage theory,” and what I refer to as assemblage politics (I choose to emphasis politics here since this is not merely a theory, but a theoretically informed practice). Following the work of Guattari (especially his collaborations with Gilles Deleuze) in its simplest terms an assemblage is when two or more things that are in proximity to each other join together to form a new “machine.” Proximity here is defined not by actual geographic space, but by proximity of desire – indeed in the post-world wide web world, thinking in terms limited to geographic space has become increasingly irrelevant
Through their conception of history and by universalizing their struggle, and adding to it the struggles of every oppressed person forming lines of horizontal affinity and solidarity with activists the world over they have created an identity of Zapatismo that has nothing to do with a unified subject teleologically stemming from a mythic common ancestor. Or, as Deleuze and Guattari wrote in Thousand Plateaus it’s propagation by epidemic, by contagion that has nothing to do with filiation by heredity. (2002, 241)
The difference is that contagion, epidemic, involves terms that are entirely heterogeneous … These combinations are neither genetic or structural; they are interkingdoms, unnatural participations … [that have] nothing to do with families or states; they continually work them from within and trouble them from without … there is an entire politics … which is elaborated in assemblages … they express minoritarian groups, or groups that are oppressed, prohibited, in revolt. (2002, 242, 247)
So all of these subjects, whom are bound together in solidarity, not by formal relations, but by their proximity to one another, to those who are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes. This is the sense in which, for Deleuze and Guattari as well as the Zapatistas, becoming is a process of desire, in this case, a democratic and non-oppressive, non-fascist desire. And it is a desire that “infects” others, rather than spreading along lines of filiation.
Perhaps what is most impressive about the Zapatistas is that they are not just imagining a world beyond capitalism, they are actively living it. One of Zizek’s favorite concerns to point out is that today everyone, even radicals, are secret Fukuyamaists because nobody questions the capitalist framework. He often famously claims, paraphrasing Jameson, that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a world beyond capitalism. However the EZLN have been active for thirty years now, and actively resisting the government since 1994. They quickly learned that Revolution would not work, so on August 9, 2004 they adopted a different tactic, to live as though they had already won (for a more detailed account of the brief armed insurgency, the failed negotiations with the Mexican government and their subsequent move towards living as revolution see Marcos’ The Word is our Weapon, The Fire and the Word by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, Zapatistas Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global by Alex Khasnabish or Thomas Nail’s , Returning to Revolution: Deleuze Guattari and Zapatismo).
For ten years now they have been living autonomously, creating a world not consumed by capitalism’s manufactured desire. It would be naïve to assume that there haven’t been serious problems to overcome, but due to their refusal to essentialize their identity, the close attention they pay to their own micro-politics, continually locating their own instances of repressive “fascistic” actions, and the strong bond of solidarity they are forming, they have been able to realize their a life beyond capitalism and neo-colonialism. It hasn’t moved with the speed that many communist thinkers today would like, but that is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned here. The process of decolonialization is never-ending, so patience is by far the most important virtue. Or, as the Zapatista axiom states, “we walk slowly because we are going far.”