The Threat of Totalitarianism Today – Or Why Hannah Arendt Still Matters

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Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), photographed in Paris, 1935.

THE THREAT OF TOTALITARIANISM TODAY

(OR: WHY ARENDT STILL MATTERS)

By Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer

It’s an obvious fact that the books of great philosophers survive the physical existence of the philosophers themselves: their thought is alive for decades or centuries after their deaths, ideas kept safe, like a treasure in a trunk, in the books they’ve written. Even tough they are no longer among the living, we are still under their influence, and our thought and judgement can be expanded and enriched by their legacy. A dead philosopher may have a long future after the brain that used to act inside his or her skull has vanished from the world. Looked in this perspective, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask, for example: “what would Arendt have to teach us about Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror? What would Arendt say, if she was alive today, about the danger of totalitarian horror happening again in the future? And nowadays, where would Arendt recognize a totalitarian regime in action, here and now? “

Similarly, one might ask: what would Nietzsche have to say about the III Reich and the Nazi’s “Final Solution”? What opinions would Spinoza nurture about the Enlightenment thinkers or the French Revolution? Would Plato agree with Jesus Christ if they had ever met? And what about Hannah Arendt, if she was living today, would she criticize some of our societies as totalitarian regimes? This sort of questions, in which one tries to figure out what some thinker would consider about historical events or people he or she didn’t live to witness, may seem to many of us some sort of absurd anachronism. Some may argue that this line of questioning may have its value only as an intellectual exercise, but can never achieve truthfulness because it relies too much on speculation and conjectures; it’s just philosophy acting in science-fiction-mode, right?

27388_hannah_arendt_olgemtlde_heidemarie_kull_copyrigt (1)Well, Hannah Arendt’s case is interesting to adress, in this context, because she seems to be one of the alivest of all dead philosophers. And scholars, researchers, political theorists and journalists keep invoking Hannah Arendt’s thought to explain recent stuff, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, which brought to light the wide-spread use of torture as the U.S. Army’s “interrogation method” at the detention centers for suspects of terrorism. An excellent doc about it is Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

In an article published by New Internationalist Magazine, for example, Sean Willcock evokes Arent’s très celèbre “the banality of evil” to explain Abu Ghraib’s mixture of terrible disrespect for basic human rights, combined with the banality of soldiers who took “selfies” with smiling faces, aparently stupidly unaware of the crushed dignity of those fellow humans they were humiliating, torturing and killing.


Also recommended: Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary by Errol Morris

Hannah_Arendt_Film_PosterIn our technologically connected “global village”, philosophers can also be brought back from their graves by other means than books, of course. Recently, Hannah Arednt was summoned from the tomb to appear as protagonist of Margaret Von Trotta’s bio-pic. Even tough it’s mainly an historical and biographical film, mostly about the Eichmman case, I feel there’s a lot to be found in the film to enlighten us nowadays (see, for example, this excellent article about the film @ “MantleThought.org).

I deeply agree with Celso Lafer when he argues: “Arendt is a classic in Bobbio’s meaning of the word: an author whose concepts, even tough developed in the past, still serve us to understand the world of the present.” There’s good fruits to be gained by trying to re-think and re-actualize Arendt’s thought, instead of treating it as fixed: wouldn’t it be better to deal with her works in a dynamic way, expanding it and adapting it to serve as tools for our understanding of new occurences? Of course this sort of thinking is based on what I’d call imaginative speculation, dangerously on peril of betraying a writer when transplanting him – or his ideas – to another era. But doesn’t the merit of a certain thinker lie also in what he has to say to posterity, what can be learned in his books by those who came afterwards?

In her book Why Arendt Matters, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl mobilizes Hannah Arendt concepts and theories in order to understand events that happened after Arendt’s death in 1975. What would Arendt have to teach us, for example, about suicide bombers on a jihad against “the West” and who hope to be rewarded in Afterlife by Allmighty Allah? And what would she teach us about the “War on Terror”, the military invasion of Afheganistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which were unleashed after the September 11th attacks in 2001?

Arendt’s inspiring intellectual courage, I think, lies in her ability to go beyond simple moral outrage. She tries to understand things that most people are so horrified of that they’d rather not even try to understand them. Instead of being paralysed in horror in front of such terrible realities – Hiroshimas and Auschwitzes, gulags and atom bombs… – Arednt confronts these realities and tries to judge them, understand them, put them in historical context, portray a web of relations inside which they occur. That’s why Arendt’s procedure, whether she analyses imperialism or anti-semitism or totalitarian societies, can be used by us today in order to enhance our understanding of our current geopolitical landscape.

9780300120448The Nazi concentration camps, those “factories of death”, made the most horrendous criminal acts into a day-to-day process. Trying to understand an era of genocide in industrial scale, Hannah Arendt never acts with simplistic demonization of the Nazis, for example. It would be narrow-minded and deranged to say that Hitler or Goebbels or Eichmann were “possessed by the Devil”, or have been born with innate evilness. Hannah Arendt tries to understand the emergence of “a new type of criminal, the consequence-blind bureaucrat, agent of a criminal state, so unconcerned for the world – or alienated from it – that he could help lay waste to it.” (YOUNG-BRUHEL: 5)

After carefully watching Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Arendt was surprised to discover not a devilish man, but rather a dumb fellow, blindly obedient to his superiors in the hierarchy. Eichmann’s triking characteristic was, in Arendt’s eyes, his “thoughtlessness”, his stupidity.

“Thoughtlessness – the headless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” (ARENDT, The Human Condition, Prologue).

 Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us, when he says “everything that the Nazis did was legal”, that Justice (as a value, as a virtue) is not necessarily the same as the Law. There are plenty of unjust laws – based on racist discrimination or ethnical cleansing, for example. Eichmann, inside Nazi society, was a lawful agent. In a land were genocide is not outlawed, a mass killer is also a law-abiding citizen. If we are really to understand how did the terribles tragedies of 20th century’s happened, includin the “World Wars”, with its Holocausts and Atom Bombs, we need to understand how much evil can arise from blind obedience, from lack of thought and atrophy of judgement. Hannah Arendt provides us a path to follow if we wish to understand how could this horrors happen. Arendt enlightens us by providing a way to understand our tragedies in which there’s no explanation of evil as a pact-with-the-devil or the result of innate-bad-genes. Stupidity can become criminal:

“After listening to Eichmann at his trial and reading the pretrial interviews with him, she concluded that he had no criminal motives but only motives – not criminal in themselves – related to his own advancement in the Nazi hierarchy. (…) He was a man who, conforming to the prevailing norms and his Führer’s will, failed altogether to grasp the meaning of what he was doing. He was not diabolical, he was thoughtless. The word “thoughtlessness” is used by Arendt for a mental condition reflecting remoteness from reality, inability to grasp a reality that stares you in the face – a failure of imagination and judgment. (…) No deep-rooted or radical evil was necessary to make the trains to Auschwitz run on time.” (YOUNG-BRUEL, p. 108)

It reminds me of that famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, in which he tested how far can people go in the art of inflicting pain unto others. Milgram came up with a test to check how people would act when asked to approve the use of electrical shocks of increasing voltage; he wanted to see how wicked could a human being act just because a certain authority ordered it. The 20th century teachs us that hierarchy (and blind obedience to it) has much more relation with tragedy of epic proportions than the principles and actions of anarchists.

 Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, it seems to me, is also a reflection upon the evils that follow from conformity to unquestioned authority. The Origins of Totalitarism, I believe, can and should be read and understood with the aid of classics of social psychology such as Erich Fromm’ Fear of Freedom or Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The shocking fact about the III Reich is that those crimes were commited by law-abbiding citizens, who were only following the orders and honouring the Führer’s will. One of the psychological factors that made it possible for so many Germans to participate in the mega-machine of mass-murder was the notion that Hitler assumed all responsability, and those who worked in the concentration camps, those who operated the trains to the death fields, those who released the poisonous and deadly Zyklon B, could all excuse themselves by saying: “I was merely following orders.” Which reminds me of Howard Zinn’s often quoted statement, somewhat inspired by Thoreau, that civil obedience is in fact a danger far greater than civil disobedience:

Howard Zin (1922-2010)

Howard Zin (1922-2010)

Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people… (ZINN, Howard. Here.)

 When Hannah Arendt writes about crimes against humanity, and relates them to an evil arising from thoughtlessness and lack of judgement, she seems to be praising the individual’s potential for autonomy. Blind obedience to leaders or to established laws, unthinking conformity to the status quo, can lead to disaster. According to Young-Bruehl, who also wrote one of the most comprehensive biographies about Hannah Arendt, “she had always written out of solidarity with the victims of such crimes, with the conviction that telling their story for the sake of the future was her life task.” (YOUNG-BRUEHL, op cit., p. 209). This, also, we can learn from Arendt: solidarity with those who are, nowadays, the victims of crimes against humanity – for example, the detainees in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, or the pakistanis killed by drone attacks. The U.S.A.’s War on Terror, even tough it justifies itself as a crusade of Freedom against Terror, utilizes “totalitarian methods”, argues Young-Bruehl, and such methods can be traced back to the Cold War era:

One of the most threatening ways that adopting totalitarian methods to fight totalitarianism helped shape the current world order  was in the practise adopted by U.S. governments during the Cold War period of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalists as agents of opposition to Soviet communism. This began on a small scale during Eisenhower’s presidency with support for the Muslim Brotherhood led by the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna… In Washington it was originally hoped that the political Islamists would help prevent the Communist ideology from infecting Arab states, but the policy of support became progressively aimed more at promoting Arab supranationalism and funding middle-ground wars. U.S. support of Arab supranationalism (with its own ideology, Wahhabism) focused on the reactionary Saudi monarchy, which was encouraged to create a network of right-wing Arab states using the Muslim Brotherhood as its agent. The Saudis also built on the Brotherhood’s violent opposition to Egypt under Nasser, who was considered a revolutionary nationalist in Washington and posed a direct challenge to U.S. and British oil interests in the Gulf… The CIA, in the most portentous instance, supported the Afghan fighters  in their resistance to the Soviet Union’s imperialist invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, the CIA helped Osama bin Laden build a network of ‘Afghan Arabs’, the forerunner of Al-Qaeda…(YOUNG-BRUEHL, p. 57)

 It gets me wondering what Hannah Arendt would have to teach us about the 21st century. Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamo Bays would very likely seem to her as dangerously similar to nazi concentration camps or soviet gulags, places where people lose their basic human rights and become victims of dehumanizing humiliation and torture. What about State Surveillance, a current reality denounced by whistleblower Edward Snowden? Isn’t it a dangerously totalitarian method, George Orwell’s Big Brother finally realized in mass scale? I’m quite sure Orwell never meant 1984 to be an Instructions Manual! And what to say about a country whose nuclear arsenal is huge, and who goes to war against Iraq claiming that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction in his hands? As if the United States of Atom Bombs hadn’t weapons of mass destruction also! And what to say about the thousands of americans who, misled by demagogy, blinded by patriotism, bound to their “duty”, marched straight to war, dropped bombs, launched drones? Now, of course, the damage is done and the thousands of dead bodies pile up as yet another reminder of human folly and of the dangers of thoughtlessness and blind obedience.

In her thought-provoking article A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism, Peg Birmingham investigates if totalitarianism is a threat today.  She answers with conviction – “yes it is!” – and argues with Hannah Arendt that the danger is co-related to the problem of political lies, of ideological deception. Historians can’t cease to be amazed by the re-occurence, in Human History, of mass credulity in ideologies and leaders. Humanity may seem ludicrous and ridiculous when we take a look back and discover the scale in which lies were massively believed in, with the outcome of radical evil of colossal proportions. How not to be flabbergasted with the fact that millions could believe Hitler’s racist lies about ethnical cleansing and the Jewish Plague, or believe W. Bush’s pious lies about Saddam’s nuclear bombs? It’s a scenario to make us bemoan the fate of this planet in a time, to remember Shakespeare’s King Lear, “when madmen lead the blind.” (SHAKESPEARE, King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1)

In her essay “The Seeds of a Fascist International” (1945), Hannah Arendt wrote: “It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform lies into reality. For such a fabrication of lying reality, no one was prepared. The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere, and of every time. The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that true which until then could only be stated as a lie.” (ARENDT, 146-147) For example: if Mr. X makes a statement such as “my aunt is dead”, but then Mrs. Y contradicts him with “No, this ain’t true, I saw your aunt just a moment ago at the market”, all Mr. X needs to do to mutate his statement from a lie to a truth is “to go home and murder his aunt” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 74.) 

Winter Soldier

In Winter Soldier (1972), an excellent documentary about the Vietnam War, built upon statements from the soldiers who were there and witnessed it all, a man who fought with the U.S. Army gives us an example of the Political Lie in action: when civilians were killed (military leaders, then and now, call this “collateral damage”), the U.S. Army ordered that those people  were to be labeled as gooks, written down in the “official reports” as if they were vietcongs. Kill first, then label the murdered person a devil, a filthy gook, an unworthy-to-live commie. That’s the strategy. Every dead Vietnamese, even tough he might have been a pacifist, is suddenly turned into a dangerous and murderous communist terrorist.

We still live in such a world where the Terrorist Menace is constantly evoked, and in its name are justified colossal measures of war, emprisonment and mass surveillance. If there’s a threat of totalitarianism in the world today, it certainly lies in the way governments are dealing with the so-called Terrorist Menace. The established powers, the status quo, the ruling elites, label as terrorists those who oppose their crushing powers. In India, the “terrorists” are the maoists who oppose Hindu nationalism and Free Trade Capitalism (check Arundhati Roy’s brilliant report Walking With The Comrades); in Mexico, the “terrorists” are the Zapatistas of Chiapas’s jungles who defend the rights of indigenous people against the pillage of big business; in the U.S., the “terrorists” are Islamic jihadists threatening to re-enact September 11th; in Brazil, “terrorists” are those citizens who take to the streets to protest against banks and corporate power, and refusing pacifism in their Black Bloc techniques or Anarchistic tendencies. And so on and so on… The “terrorist danger” is what justifies massive investments in police, it’s what governenmets use to justify the use of repression and mass incarceration. Welcome to “Democracy”, the best one that money can buy.

The danger of totalitarianism lies entangled with the threat of mass-belief in political lies:

The problem of ideology is, for Hannah Arendt, the problem of political deception. Ideology is the mutation that establishes the lying world order, by replacing reality with an ironclad fiction. In other words, ideology is the ‘most devilish version of the lie'”; these are Hannah Arendt’s words, and we should hear her claim that the banality of evil is, at its very heart, ideology. With both its hellish fantasies and its clichés, the ‘banality of evil’ is characterized by a strident logicality – a logic through which the whole of reality is thoroughly and systematically organized, according to  a fiction with a view to total domination.” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 77.) 

I wonder if our totalitarian threat may reside, today, also in the Market, or in what many specialists call “The Economy”. Aren’t we endangered by the “Free Trade” totalitarian ideology? In which every means are acceptable in order to enforce the holy end of “Free Markets”? Including the drone-attacks against Pakistan, the war of aggression against Iraq, the pious crusade of genocidal proportions against Afeghanistan? Who is naive enough to believe it was all made for the sake of Freedom and Democracy, when it actually resulted in a massive pile of corpses?  Not to mention, in previous decades, how Free Trade capitalism, Yankee-style, forced its way all around the globe with the aid of the military dictartorships and coup d’états imposed by U.S. interest in South and Central America. We, Latin Americans, can never forget what happened in Chile in September 11th, 1973. Not to mention the military interventions in Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.), justified as Anti-Communist measures.

The political lie, the fascist twist of propaganda to be discerned here, I would argue, lies in the preposterous idea that “Free Trade = Freedom and Justice”. That’s a lying and deceiving equation: if we take a closer look at the ideology of Free Trade, of the theories so dominant in today’s capitalism and that call themselves “liberal” and “neo-liberal”,  we’ll discover that they have a tendency to increase mass incarceration and police repression, for example. The U.S. currently has 25% of all the world’s prisoners. When prison become a business, that can be run for profit (with the aid, of course, of strick laws of prohibition against illicit drugs), neoliberal capitalism shows its true face: that of nasty greediness, mounting inequality, resulting in a dystopic society in which millions and millions of its citizens are behind bars, while an elite hides away, locked inside comfortable bunkers, with obscene accumulations of capital in protected by Hi-Tech Security.

To enforce capitalism, the preachers of Free Trade, with their billions – which could be invested to end global hunger or treat curable diseases in all continents! – uy themselves an immense apparatus of military repression and aggression. Remember Seattle, 1999. Remember Québec City, 2001. Remember Genoa, 2008. Remember Toronto, 2010. Remember Brazil’s World Cup, in 2014, in which neo-liberal interests where defended with military police and national Army, throughout the streets, programmed to silence and crush all dissidence and protest to FIFA’s money-making machine…

As Arundhati Roy reminds us, everytime that the world’s Capitalist Elites try to join for their summits, their G8 meetings, their WTOs and Free Trade congresses, they are only able to do it spending millions in what they call Security – another political lie, ideological fiction, that masks the fact that “Security” is based on agression, repression, and incarceration of political prisoners (it’s been done for centuries: put in prison your oponents, then justify yourself calling them “terrorists”). The so-called Liberal Democracy in the U.S. spends so much in War and Prisons that it shows to the world its true face, behind the masks and the fake twinklings of ideological propaganda. Look at Detroit, once America’s pearl, one of the wealthiest metropolis on Earth, now reduced to a wasteland; Detroit, who could be photographed nowadays in order to illustrate Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. Remember New Orleans when Katrina hit: the same country who spends billions with its Wars and who lets profits run wild with “free trades” such as that of Guns and Ammunitions, leaves its own citizens in abandonment while they face one of the worst climate disasters of American History…

Why, if a mandatory evacuation was issued, ordering that everybody should leave New Orleans before Katrina hit, the U.S. government didn’t provide the means for this evacuation to happen? Money, you always tell me, is not a problem in the U.S., The Land of Profit. When the poorest of people in New Orleans, who couldn’t afford a bus or plane ticket to a safe area, who couldn’t afford renting a hotel room in a Hurricane-free town, the least you’d expect from a sensible government is help. Perhaps they were too busy doing war in the Middle East, or spying on people’s private lifes in search of potencial terrorists, or torturing political prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, to ready be able to listen as New Orleans’ cried for help while drowning out in one of the crudest of the ecological turmoil’s of our “anthropocene” era. Rapper Kanye West, witnessing this, couldn’t do nothing but to speak on National TV: “George W. Bush doesn’t care for black people”. Neither he does care for Muslims. While the U.S. Army was bombing and torturing Muslims, in New Orleans it left off, unatended to, abandoned to their luck, those American Citizens who were still in town when the Hurricane came. As Naomi Klein shows in her The Shock Doctrine, after the disaster the authorities in charge of defending Free Trade capitalism took an interest in New Orleans: they saw that in Disaster there was Opportunity. What used to be Public service, in New Orleans, could now be refashioned to attend Private Interests. This is another reason why Arendt still matters: because Free Trade ideology wants to erase the notions of Public Space and of Common Good, in order to enforce its society of private interests and individualistic consumerism, protected by military force and crowded prisons.

In 1972, in a conference at the Toronto Society for the Study of Social and Political Thought (York University), Hannah Arendt said (and it remains for me inspirational stuff): “If we really believe – and I think we share this belief – that plurality rules the earth, then I think one has got to modify this notion of the unity of theory and practice to such an extent that it will be unrecognizable for those who tried their hand at it before. I really believe that you can only act in concert and I really believe that you can only think by yourself.” (pg. 305) Arendt matters because she can teach us a lot about thinking for ourselves (instead of accepting fixed truths that rain from above in the hierarchy…) and because she can teach us how to act in concert to criticize, dismantle and fight the threats of totalitarism today. 

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REFERENCES

ARENDT, Hannah. “The Seeds of a Fascist International”. Pgs. 146-147.

———————-. The Human Condition, Prologue.

BIRMINGHAM, Peg. “A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism”In: Thinking in Dark Times, New York: Fordham University press.

YOUNG-BRUEHL, Elisabeth . Why Arendt Matters. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.

SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear. Act 4, Scene 1.

ZINN, Howard. Zinn Reader. Seven Stories Press, 1970.

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SOME VIDEOS:

hannah08

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)

THE ROOTS AND FRUITS OF REBELLION – Remarks on the Zapatistas of Mexico and their clash against Free Trade Capitalism [Article by E.C. Moraes]

CddeMexico

“To kill oblivion with a little memory,
we cover our chests with lead and hope.”

SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS,
Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN).
In: ‘Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings’,
Foreword: José Saramago (Nobel Prize In Literature)
Published by Seven Stories Press (New York, 2003, Pg. 100.)

PART I – THE BIG-BELLIED BEAST
AGAINST THE GRASS-ROOTS RESISTANCE

CHAPTER I – CHIAPAS LOSES BLOOD THROUGH MANY VEINS

“We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first, led by insurgents against slavery during the War of Independence with Spain; then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism; then to proclaim our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil; later when the people rebelled against Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship, which denied us the just application of the reform laws, and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged…” – First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 2, 1994

EZLNIn the mountains and jungles of the Mexican southeast, an insurrection explodes in January 1st, 1994. Several municipalities in the province of Chiapas are taken over by the armed rebels that call themselves Zapatistas, followers of the legacy of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919).

Led by the campesinos and the indigenous populations of Chiapas, this neo-zapatist movement blossoms into the spotlight of the world’s arena in exactly the same day of the implementation of NAFTA, the Free Trade Agreement of the North American countries.

From day one, it was made quite clear by the rebels that one of the objectives of EZLN’s uprising was to be an obstacle to the implementation of Free Trade policies in Mexico. The economical set-up of Neoliberalism (based on privatization, free competition, consumerism etc.), argues the Zapatistas, is nothing but an authoritarian imposition of rules made-up by “the world of money”:

“The world of money, their world, governs from the stock exchanges. Today, speculation is the principal source of enrichment, and at the same time the best demonstration of the atrophy of our capacity to work. Work is no longer necessary in order to produce wealth; now all that is needed is speculation. Crimes and wars are carried out so that the global stock exchanges may be pillaged by one or the other. Meanwhile, millions of women, millions of youths, millions of indegenous, millions of homosexuals, millions of human beings of all races and colors, participate in the financial markets only as a devalued currency, always worth less and less, the currency of their blood turning a profit. The globalization of markets erases borders for speculation and crime and multiplies borders for human beings. Countries are obliged to erase their national border for money too circulate, but to multiply their internal borders.” – (Marcos, Unveiling Mexico, p. 117)

Wall Street and Washington join hands and try to persuade Mexicans that “Free Trade” will be a marvel for Mexico, but Mexicans have every reason to be suspicious of their neighbor who stole from it a big slice of territory in bygone years. Today, at the frontier that separates the countries, the yankees have built up a huge Wall of Segregation, and soldiers with license to kill can deal with illegal immigrants in very unbrotherly ways.  The same country responsible for La Migra (and Guantánamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib detention facility…) preaches the Free Trade gospel as if it was salvation.

The men and women who have arisen to speak out their discontent in Chiapas are yet to be fully heard by the world-at-large. Artists and writers have helped spread their voices, from Manu Chao and Rage Against the Machine, to José Saramago and Eduardo Galeano. 20 years later, the Zapatistas are still struggling against the powers that want to crush human dignity in the bloody altars of profit. And if the Zapatistas’ scream has the potentiality to be heard and comprehended all around the world, it’s because they accuse the established capitalist system of committing crimes that are visible worldwide, in many different countries: ecological devastation; ethnical genocide of indigenous populations and destruction of their cultures; concentration of capital in the hands of a few multinational corporations etc.

Zapatismo has been called the first revolutionary movement of the Internet-era, the avant-garde guerrilla that’s pioneering the ways to be followed by the guerrillas of tomorrow. But reactionary political powers have been violently trying to silence their voices – and the “money world”, also referred to by Marcos as “The Beast”, doesn’t refrain from methods such as military agression, police repression,  institutionalized murder, and para-military militias. All in order to maintain the Order imposed by The World of Money and to bury the voices of these “indians”, covered in masks and carrying guns, that insist in demanding social justice, autonomy and real democracy.

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Marcos describes Chiapas’s tragedies very vividly in his poetry-filled words: “This land continues to pay tribute to the imperialists”, writes the insurgent Zapatista, “and there’s a thousand teeth sunk into the throat of the Mexican Southeast” (Unveiling Mexico, 1992, pg. 22-23). Would the indigenous populations of southeast Mexico have risen in rebellion if the suffering they endured hadn’t become unbearable?

“In times past, wood, fruits, animals, and men went to the metropolis through the veins of exploitation, just as they do today. Like the banana republics, but at the peak of neoliberalism and ‘libertarian revolutions’, the Southeast of Mexico continues to export raw materials, just as it did 500 years ago. It continues to import capitalism’s principal product: death and misery.

The health conditions of the people of Chiapas are a clear example of the capitalist imprint: 1.5 million people have no medical services at their disposal. There are 0,2 clinics for every 1.000 inhabitants, 1/5 of the national average. There are 0,3 hospital beds for every 1.000 Chiapanecos, 1/3 the amount in the rest of Mexico… Health and nutrition go hand in hand with poverty. 54% of the population of Chiapas suffers from malnutrition, and in the highlands and forest this percentage increases to 80%…. This is what capitalism leaves as payment for everything that it takes away. (…) Chiapa’s experience of exploitation goes back for centuries. ” – Sub Marcos, Unveiling Mexico

In Subcomandante Marcos’ political tought, which seems to be deeply rooted in an understanding of Latin America’s reality similar to Eduardo Galeano’s, Imperialism is the name of the beast which has it’s thousands of teeths sunk into Chiapas neck – and so many numberless others places on this Earth where 85 flesh-and-blood earthlings retain the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population (according to Oxfam). Welcome to the established economical and political orden in 3rd planet from the Sun, a place of extreme inequality in which the criminal status quo is defended by armies and warmongers, for the profit of speculators, gangsters and banksters.

“A handful of businesses – one of which is the Mexican state – take all the wealth out of Chiapas and in exchange leave behind their mortal and pestilent mark..(…) Pemex has 86 teeth sunk into the townships of Estación Juárez, Reforma, Ostuacán, Pichucalco, and Ocosingo. Every day they suck out 92.000 barrels of oil and 517.000.000.000 cubic feet of gas. They take away the petroleum”, states Marcos, “and in exchange leave behind the mark of capitalism: ecological destruction, agricultural plunder, hyperinflation, alcoholism, prostitution, and poverty.”

It’s easy to delineate the image of the Enemy in the Zapatistas’ hearts: the face of the big-bellied beast of Greed. Imperialism is dirty business, greediness in action, devastating egotism that turns nations into vampires that suck the life-blood of others. Besides the petroleum that gets sucked out of Chiapas by greedy oil companies, another similar process affects the production of coffee: 35% of Mexico’s coffee is produced in Chiapas, but more than 50% of Chiapas’ coffee production is exported. The campesinos that work in the fields to produce it have terribly inadequate life-conditions of nourishment, health, education etc. The true producers are dying of hunger and disease while foreign powers ride on golden streets of robbed privilege.

The list can be enriched with many other “commodities” that are sucked-out of Chiapas to feed, elsewhere, the belly of the beast. There are 3.000.000 animals waiting to be slaughtered for beef in Chiapas: “the cattle are sold for 400 pesos per kilo by the poor farmers and resold by the middlemen and businessmen for up to 10 times the price they paid for them.” (Unveiling Mexico, p. 23) Chiapas’ forests are also among the culinary preferences of the greedy hungry beast: whole woods are cut down by capitalism’s chainsaws, and this precious wood is then shipped out of Chiapas to be sold elsewhere for huge profits. Similar histories could be told about honey, corn or hydrelectric energy – goods that Chiapas produces in large quantities, but get eaten away by this beastly creature which Marcos denounces and summons to answer: “what does the beast leave behind in exchange for all it takes away?” (pg. 24)

zapatismos

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CHAPTER II – THE TIME TO HARVEST REBELLION INSTEAD OF DEATH

John Lennon asked us in his era-defining song to “imagine a brotherhood of man”, but Chiapas isn’t the place to look for it. It ain’t brotherly treatment to exploit, repress and steal fellow humans – and that’s what businessmen and fancy capitalists have been doing against the Chiapanecos. “1.000.000 indigenous people live in these lands and share a disorienting nightmare with mestizos and ladinos: their only option, 500 years after the “Meeting of Two Worlds”, is to die of poverty or repression.” (Marcos: p. 26)

There are 300.000 Tzotziles, 120.000 Choles, 90.000 Zoques, and 70.000 Tojoales, among other indigenous populations, that inhabit the land of the poorest state in Mexico. Chiapas could be rich, but it’s wealth is sucked away and taken abroad, to bank accounts of greedy capitalists, and if you join the Zapatista up-rising against this reality you might end up killed by the repression. How many people has the Mexican Army killed in order to silence the voices that question the undoubtable goodness of the so-called “Free Market”? I leave the question unanswered, for now, and move on, from exploitation to rebellion.

At the dawn of the New Year, in January 1st 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army descended from the Lacandon Jungle to take over the power in several cities of Chiapas, including San Cristobal de Las Casas and Ocosingo. They believed to be “professionals of hope”, “transgressors of injustice”, “History’s dispossessed”, finally raising their voices to demand liberty, justice, democracy, dignity. This is the moment when they became visible, when they stepped out of the shadows, when they shouted for the whole World to hear.

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January 1st, 1994: EZLN takes power over San Cristobal de las Casas. Photo by Antonio Turok.

“Death does not hurt; what hurts is to be forgotten. We discovered then that we longer existed, that those who govern had forgotten about us in their euphoria of statistics and growth rates. A country that forgets itself is a sad country. A country that forgets its past cannot have a future. And so we took up arms and went into the cities, where we were considered animals. We went and told the powerful: “We are here!” And to the whole country we shouted: “We are here!” And to all the world we yelled, “We are here!”…”

This movement is deeply rooted in History: far from being immediatist and pragmatic, the Zapatista movement demands respect for the rights of human populations who descend from the occupants of this land prior to the European’s invasion. This scream of rebellion raises from an ocean of blood: the genocide of the Indians and the destruction of their civilizations is still an open wound in the Zapatistas hearts, and they won’t allow the world to forget these past misdeeds. In January 1994, Subcomandante Insurgent Marcos reminded us than in Mexico

“during these past ten years (1984-1994), more than 150.000 indigenous have died of curable diseases. The federal, state, and municipal governments and their economic and social programs do not take into account any real solution to our problems; they limit themselves to giving us charity every time elections roll around. Charity resolves nothing but for the moment, and again death visits our homes. That is why we think no, no more; enough dying this useless death; it is better to fight for change. If we die now, it will not be with shame but with dignity, like our ancestors. We are ready to die, 150.000 more if necessary, so that our people awaken from this dream of deceit that holds us hostage.” (pg. 17)

Seen from the capitalists’ perspective, there’s a dispensable strata of the population labeled as “Indians” (so called because Columbus thought, more than 500 years ago, that the land where he had arrived was India…). “Check out the text of the Free Trade Agreement, and you will find that, for this government, the indigenous do not exist.” (p. 66) Social inequality and marginalized people go hand in hand in Mexico: “on a national level there are 2,403 municipalities. Of these, 1.153 have a level of marginalization considered high or very high. States with high indigenous population have the majority of their municipalities with high and very high levels of marginalization: 94 out of 111 in Chiapas; 59 out of 75 in Guerrero; 431 of 570 in Oaxaca…” (p. 67)

 For 10 years the Zapatista uprising had been fermenting in the woods, since 1984, and at the beginning of 1994 time had arrived for their voice to be heard, not only in Mexico, but throughout the world, amplified by the Internet, sending its shout throughout the Global Village.  One of the easiest ways to understand the emergence of Neo-Zapatism is to look at the consequences of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) agreement becoming active: free market had kicked out the barriers and products from abroad were about to flood into Mexico, like a tsunami, drowning out Mexican campesinos with the devastating power of a Dust Bowl Storm. The Zapatistas knew very well that NAFTA would certainly enrich some big corporations, mainly american and canadian, but would wreck the equilibrium of the local economies – especially in southeast Mexico. NAFTA was inforced with “dictatorial” fashion: it’s a fact that neither civil society nor the indigenous populations of Mexico were consulted on the matter, even tough they would be tremendously affected by the transformations in the National Constitution.

 “The preparations for NAFTA included cancellation of Article 27 of Mexico’s constitution, the cornerstone of Emiliano Zapata‘s revolution of 1910–1919. Under the historic Article 27, Indian communal landholdings were protected from sale or privatization. However, this barrier to investment was incompatible with NAFTA. With the removal of Article 27, Indian farmers feared the loss of their remaining lands, and also feared cheap imports (substitutes) from the US. Thus, the Zapatistas labeled NAFTA as a “death sentence” to Indian communities all over Mexico. Then EZLNdeclared war on the Mexican state on January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA came into force.” – Wikipédia

According to Marcos, NAFTA “only means freedom for the powerful to rob, and freedom for the dispossessed to live in misery.” (p. 73) We’ve heard this real-life story many times: everytime a Wal-Mart opens in a city, lots of smaller stores go bankrupt because they can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices. That’s why it’s possible to considerer EZLN as a movement demanding national sovereignty; from the Zapatistas perspective – which arises from the experience of thousands of Mexicans – what is called “neoliberalism” is just a fancy name for imperialist capitalism, for foreign domination, for the sad reality known for centuries in Latin America of wealth being robbed from a country and getting transformed in capital that enriches some big-shot abroad.

In Ana Carrigan’s excellent article “Chiapas: The First Postmodern Revolution”, she reminds us that years before NAFTA forced itself into North America there was already a lot of rebellion by campesinos in Mexico: in April 10, 1992, for example, 4.000 indigenous campesinos marched to the country’s capital and read a letter adressed to President Carlos Salinas, in which “they accuse him of having brought all gains of the agrarian reform made under Zapata to an end, of selling the country with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and of bringing Mexico back to the times of Porfirio Díaz.” (pg. 36)

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“You are in Zapatista territory: here the People rules and the Government obeys.”

“The Zapatistas made their first, spectacular public appearance in San Cristobal de Las Casas. On October 12, 1992, amid demonstrations marking ‘The Year of The Indian, 500 Years of Resistance’, 4.000 young men and women armed with bows and arrows suddenly appeared out of the crowd. Marching in military formation, they advanced to the central plaza where they attacked the monument to the founder of San Cristobal, the 16th century Spanish encomendador, Diego de Mazariegos. As the symbol of 500 years of opression crashed from its pedestal, the Indians hacked it to pieces and pocketed the fragments before disappearing. In the annals of indigenous resistance, the toppling of Mazariego’s statue had a symbolic resonance equivalent to the destruction of the Berlin Walls.” (ANA CARRIGAN)

The communities in Chiapas who have embraced the EZLN program were bound to clash with Mexican establishment. The powers that be, unbrotherly as usual, sent Army soldiers in great numbers in a bloody attempt to silence the rebels. As Juana Ponce de León states,

“for the government, the issue is simple. There are vast oil reserves, exotic wood, and uranium on the autonomous indigenous lands of Chiapas; the Mexican government wants them, but the indigenous communities, who have no currency in the world’s markets, are in the way. While projecting through the national and international press an image of concern for the human rights issues and the intention to resolve them, the government orchestrates the privatization of the Mayan lands and a low-intensity war to weaken and divide the communities.” (Traveling Back for Tomorrow, XXV).

A graffiti at City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco

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Galeano and Jean Ziegler discussing “The World’s Criminal Order”
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To be continued…

“This inverted and absurd pyramid that is Latin America”: A journey with Subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)

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CHAPTER III – THE CLASH BETWEEN OBLIVION AND MEMORY

“…there once was a man named Zapata who rose up with his people and sang out: ‘Land and Freedom!’ The campesinos say that Zapata didn’t die, that he must return… They say that hope is also planted and harvested. They also say that the wind and the rain and the sun are now saying something different: that with so much poverty, the time has come to harvest rebellion instead of death.” – Sub Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, pg. 33, Seven Stories Press. All following quotes are from this source.

ezln 1 (1)The Zapatistas know their task is Herculean: the Mexican federal Army, certainly backed-up by Washington and Wall Street, greatly outnumbers the army of the Zapatista rebels. The power of destruction of the Establish Capitalist Powers is crushing: they own the police and the prisons, and they pay the soldiers and militias to persecute the Mexicans who join EZLN. The defeat of this insurrectional movement is something that has been aimed at by established powers for the last 20 years – according to Marcos, the enemy would like to see “democracy washed with the detergent of imports and water from antidemonstration cannons.” (pg. 54)

In 1994 Mexico’s president Carlos Salinas de Gortari is considered by EZLN as “the sales manager of a gigantic business: Mexico, Inc.” (pg. 63) Free Trade, for the Zapatistas, is nothing but capitalism’s “law of the jungle”, and it generates a couple of millionaires while throwing millions into hunger, sickness and death. To use Occuppy Movement’s imagery, the top of the social pyramid, the richest 1% of the country, don’t give a fig about defending the rights of the Mexican people as a whole (the 99%): “the only country mentioned with sincerity on that increasingly narrow top floor is the country called money.” (pg. 63)  “On every street corner misery knocks on the windows of the car.” (pg. 64)

Even tough they see peace and social justice as an ideal to accomplish, the Zapatistas feel they would remain powerless if they were Gandhian pacifists. Thus they take arms, just like the guerrillas led by Fidel and Che in Sierra Maestra in late 1950’s Cuba. EZLN, as the name itself sufficiently states, is an armed rebellion and doesn’t comply with what Marcos called, in Aguascalientes, august 1994, “pacifist complicity with injustice” (p. 56) and “fraudulent unconditional pacifism” (p. 58)

EZLN is quite aware that military victory is rather unlikely against such a powerful army as that of Mexico’s established powers, backed-up by Washington and Wall Street. So Marcos tends to underline the symbolical importance of the Zapatista’s up-rising, its capacity to inspire similar movements throughout Latin America. The 4th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 1996, states: “Brothers and sisters of other races and languages, of other colors, but with the same heart, now protect our light, and in it they drink of the same fire.” (p. 87)

“To confront an army superior to ours in weapons and personnel, although not in morality, nullifies the possibilities of sucess. But to surrender has been expressly forbidden; any Zapatista leaders who opt to surrender will be decommissioned. No matter the outcome of this war, sooner or later this sacrifice – which today appears useless and sterile to many – will be compensated by the lightning that will illuminate other lands. For sure, the light will reach deep into the South, shimmer in the Mar de Plata, in the Andes, in Paraguay, and the entirety of this inverted and absurd pyramid that is Latin America…” (74)

The future of Latin America lies not only in its ability to build international solidarity, planting the seeds of a future of social justice and true democracy, but also in its struggle against oblivion. The Zapatistas claim that memory has been progressively wipe-out by the forces of a capitalist production, distribution and consumption system that runs on shallow foresight and narrow hindsight. In other worlds: the system wants us to buy like crazy, and think only of immediate enjoyment of products sold in the markets, thus imposing to our minds oblivion of future and past generations. This is one of the most important ideas to understand if we want to grasp what these more than 20 years of the Neo Zapatista movement in Mexico means:

“On the side of oblivion are the multiple forces of the market. On the side of memory is history.” This thesis of the markets’ attempted murder against memory is illustrated by the treatment conferred upon indigenous populations by capitalists and their accomplices among politicians. The Zapatistas are saying: the past is not to be forgotten, consumed down to ash, thrown in the garbage can, in order for us to “enjoy” the here-and-now of mass society, mass production, mass consumption, and mass ecological catastrophes. The Zapatistas see the past as “a guide to be learned from and upon which to grow”. The problem is:

“the past doesn’t exist for technocrats, under whose rule our nation suffers. The future can be nothing more than a lengthening of the present for these professional amnesiacs. (…) What better example of this phobia of history is there than the attitude of the Mexican government toward the indigenous peoples? Are not the indigenous demands a worrisome stain on history, dimming the splendor of globalization? Is not the very existence of indigenous people an affront to the global dictatorship of the market?” (MARCOS, pg. 147)

The sad thing is: instead of learning from the past in order to build a better future, the authorities in charge of markets and governments complicit to them are basically waging war against those who are labeled by the repression forces and portrayed by the plutocratic media as “The Terrorists”. The inner enemy. The war against the Zapatistas waged by the Mexican Federal Army, with the aid of the Yankees, is simply an attempt to silence by massmurder those who are demanding freedom, dignity, and social justice. In March, 1995, EZLN writes “to the people of Mexico and to the peoples of the world”:

“Our voice was silenced all at once by the noise of the machines of war. Terror was unleashed again in the Mexican lands by the one who, from arrogance and power, looks at us with contempt, denies our name, and gives us death in answer to our thought. (…) With the complicity of big money and a foreign vacation, he wanted to force us with bayonets to deny our history. (…) For that reason, our past went to the mountains. We went into the caves of those who came before us. Death cornered us… Death came to wield its knife-edged oblivion. It came to kill memory. Again, our hand filled with the fire to avenge our own pain, again being animals eating dirt, dying persecuted and forgotten.” (pg. 81)

The name Zapatistas then gains the meaning of a very powerful symbolical weapon: a “collective name”, that any individual can claim for himself, and by adhering to it he goes away from the forgetfullness that his individual self lies buried in.  A campesino who haves always felt as nobody, as one of the many who History will forget, now can call himself a Zapatista and thus believe he’s part of a collective entity that won’t be so easily brushed away to oblivion. Every zapatista will die, but zapatismo will live, beyond the duration of individual lives. When an individual leaps from being an unrelated isolated atom and joins his forces with the supra-individual movement, it’s as if his heart has been connected to a vaster entity and now pulsates with a collective heart.

 “No longer are we the unmentionables. We the forgotten have a name. (…) Having now a collective name, we discovered that death shrinks and becomes small before us. The worst death, that of oblivion, flees so that the memory of our dead will never be buried together with their bones.(…) “They, our ancestors, taught us to be proud of the color of our skin, of our language, of our culture. More than 500 years of exploitation and persecution have not been able to exterminate us. (…) If they destroy us, the entire country will plummet and begin to wander without direction or roots… Mexico would negate its tomorrow by denying its yesterday.” (October 12, 1995, pg. 82-83)

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Read chapters 1 and 2

TO BE CONTINUED…

Copyleft material. Re-share and re-blog as much as you wish,
but please acknowledge Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer.