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Broken Barricades: The Oaxaca Rebellion in Victory, Defeat, and Beyond (2)
north america / mexico | indigenous struggles | opinion / analysis Sunday March 30, 2008 06:10 by Collective Reinventions
"…it can be calculated that, with little effort, more than 10,000 men would be ready to come to this parish from the surrounding mountains, bold like the climate of the land, as is witnessed by the atrocious happenings that have taken place, more in this one province than in all the others of the realm; and so wary are these men that I have heard and know things about them in this business that cannot be said of very experienced captains."
In trying to trace the contours of the larger context in which the Oaxaca rebellion emerged, one is reminded of explorers seeking the origins of the Nile: it all depends on how far back one wants to go. As the above citation indicates, the Oaxaca region was considered a rebellious land a full century after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and it was the scene of several major revolts against colonial authority. In describing the same revolt of 1660 that so alarmed the good Bishop of Oaxaca, another of his compatriots referred gravely to “circumstances of rebellion and bad spirit” that prevailed in the region.
Supporters of the current rebellion have been tempted to draw a direct line from incidents like the 1660 Tehuantepec revolt, which occurred in the south of what is now Oaxaca state, to the events of today, viewing the contemporary movement as being only the latest episode in an unbroken tradition of aboriginal opposition to Western society in all its guises, whether in the form of Spanish conquistadors, the Mexican state, U.S. imperialism, or globalized consumer culture. This theme has frequently appeared in the discourse of indigenous radicalism itself, where the connection between past and present has been made literal in the celebration of “500 years of resistance” on the part of native peoples to “foreign” (i.e., non-indigenous) domination.
If one sympathizes with the thrust of this argument, there are nonetheless problems with any idealization of native traditions, and with the construction of an imperfectly understood communality set against the supposedly absolute evils of Modernity. In stating this, one does not impugn, or describe as “false consciousness,” the viewpoints of the indigenous themselves about their lives, their struggles, and their fundamental grievances against the ruling order, both local and global. On the contrary, it accords these viewpoints the autonomy they deserve (who else but the indigenous can speak for, rather than just on behalf of, native cultures?), and it recognizes a certain incapacity on the part of the outside observer to grasp the realities of indigenous societies, to see the world in the same way as those looking at it through autochthonous eyes.
However, recognizing such a limit to understanding does not require a wholesale abandonment of critical faculties in favor of the empty generalities that characterize so much of the language of First World supporters of Fourth World radicalism, rhetoric that is more emotive than analytical, and more acclamation than a substantive encounter with indigenous realities. To read some accounts, one would think that there had existed some pre-Columbian Golden Age in which peace, equality, and cooperation reigned throughout the lands that would come to be known (in homage to their European colonizers) as the Americas. Put simply, this legend doesn't allow facts to get in the way of its utopian story line. It ignores or trivializes the existence of hereditary (and absolutist) authority, castes, slavery, and tribal warfare in the indigenous world prior to the Conquest.
To return to reality and to the situation in Oaxaca, a key challenge for outsiders (and the status of being an extranjero is not one that is necessarily possible to overcome, but may be one that, when allowances are made, affords a perspective that is of value precisely because of its focal length from the subject) is precisely that of grappling with the relationship of the rebellion to indigenous culture. Participants have stressed that there has been a strong imprint left on the movement by the example of traditional “practices and customs” ( usos y costumbres, which can also be translated as “customary law” or "traditional practices") observed in many villages in Oaxaca state. This influence is underlined, to begin with, by the central importance attached by the movement to the idea and practice of an assembly, with the assembly form being construed by participants as integral to the rebellion’s experiment in direct democracy in 2006.
The elements of usos y costumbres that are most often described by observers and by indigenous peoples themselves are, in addition to the importance of the village assembly as the sovereign body of consensual decision-making: 1) the system of cargos or offices that a village citizen is expected to serve in; 2) a form of obligatory and unpaid labor on behalf of the community known as tequio; 3) a practice of reciprocal exchange of gifts and services known (in Zapotec) as guelaguetza; 4) a deep commitment to the value of cooperation; and 5) the continuing communal ownership of lands.
It is worth noting that nearly all of these “practices and customs” are ones that have changed over time, and have undergone fundamental transformations, as has, of course, the very structure of indigenous society in Mexico, beginning with the disappearance of its hereditary nobility. Moreover, if today’s usos y costumbres are not whole and intact practices from another age that have been preserved in some kind of cultural amber, they are also not uniform, varying considerably within Oaxaca state.
As an example of how history has modified what are presented as “timeless” traditions, one can take the example of one of them: tequio, generally described as unpaid, but obligatory, labor on behalf of the community. Along with the importance of cooperation in indigenous villages, this practice is often adduced as a living example of mutual aid in a communal society, which in many cases in Oaxaca it undoubtedly is. However, it is interesting to trace the etymology of the word itself and to see the different meanings it has acquired in various contexts. Tequio is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word tequitl, and originally meant “tribute,” as in labor and lands due to the traditional nobility (the pre-Columbian, indigenous ruling caste) or other overlords (including the Aztec conquerors of other indigenous tribes). It was later integrated and codified as the tribute system of the Spanish colonizers, who deftly made use of tribal and caste divisions within indigenous society, fissures that had already played a major role in facilitating the Conquest itself.
While tequio, as it is practiced in contemporary Oaxaca, may conjure up in some North American or European minds a vision of voluntary collaboration - as in the community gardens of Berkeley’s People’s Park in 1969 or in still earlier cooperative endeavors in Provo Amsterdam - its positive connotations are again something that developed and were modified over time, and not everywhere. In parts of Central America, the negative meaning has not been lost: in Nicaraguan Spanish, tequioso means “overbearing,” “cumbersome,” or “bothersome,” clearly showing its root in a word associated with coerced labor, obligation, and duty.
The system of cargos is also problematic, and hardly merits the enthusiasm of anti-authoritarians who are proponents of assemblies and revocable delegates. In approximately 15% of traditional Oaxacan villages, women are formally barred from participating in the village assembly, and from holding office (a cargo). This fact has recently received a good deal of attention in the Mexican media as the result of the case of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, who could not stand for president in her native village of Santa María Quiegolani (in Oaxaca state) for the simple reason that she is female. Such an example of a kind of gender-based apartheid should give serious pause to anyone trying to see Oaxacan villages as being contemporary analogues to the rural collectives of the Spanish Revolution. It also underlines the degree to which the contemporary Oaxacan movement broke new ground vis-à-vis traditional indigenous culture, especially (but not only) in regards to gender roles. In many ways, then, the Oaxaca rebellion was not an atavistic or “traditional” phenomenon. The assembly in the urban Oaxaca rebellion - to the extent that it functioned as a gathering of the rank-and-file participants electing mandated, revocable delegates - was something different than an assembly of all the citizens of a indigenous village. It may have had a link to communal practices in Oaxaca state, but it was also an innovation compared to those same traditions, with more in common with autonomous forms produced in other struggles in Latin America in recent decades, ranging from Chile 1973 (the cordones industriales) to the recent piquetero movement in Argentina.
The relevance of indigenous customs and practices is open to question in other respects as well. In many traditional Oaxacan villages, one is obliged to perform “socially useful labor” and to accept responsibility in a number of defined positions (the aforementioned cargos). If one refuses or evades such obligations, one is deprived of citizenship in the village, in effect becoming ostracized from the life of the community. Oaxacans who leave their village and become immigrant workers in the U.S. and Canada still must fulfill such obligations in order to retain their status as village citizens. It is testimony to the importance of such an identity that many such immigrants return to their villages to acquit their responsibilities; it is revealing of the ambiguities of such an identity that its communality implies a certain coercion and that today the notion of what is voluntary or freely given is undermined by the fact that village members can pay others to perform their tequio obligations: the rural commune meets the cash nexus, and not only at this point. Remittances from Oaxacans working in the U.S. and Canada serve to buoy the state economy, but they have also transformed aspects of village life in rural Oaxaca, bringing satellite dishes and other appurtenances of the consumer society so disdained by First World supporters of indigenous cultures.
Furthermore, in the present array of social power in Oaxaca, the system of usos y costumbres - practices that have a legal, codified status in the state - can be understood as a form of recuperation, as a way of integrating traditional indigenous society into pre-existing structures of political and social power. The official enshrinement of usos y costumbres took place in 1995 during the tenure of the PRI governor José Murat, at precisely a time when the ruling elite in Oaxaca felt under attack by demands for autonomy from indigenous movements in the state. A careful study by Alejandro Anaya Munoz reveals the elite’s strategy, in the face of this threat, to have been one of cooptation and the integration of indigenous demands, combined with the traditional resort of buying off local caciques and making pay offs to villagers at election time (9).
What then, in the end, can be said about the relationship of traditional practices to the social movement in Oaxaca? Clearly, there is one, but as explained above, it is not unequivocal. This does not mean that it is trivial, either, or that the indigenous perspective is somehow only a secondary question. However, a definitive theoretical position vis-à-vis these issues may be a chimera. Rather than trying to arrive at an answer that in any case could never be definitive, but only approximate, one may have to pose questions instead, and to insist on the wrinkles in a landscape that others see as flat or uncomplicated.
For unconditional - and uncritical - supporters of indigenous struggles there are no such conceptual problems. They simply endorse traditional practices as being innately egalitarian and communal; some even go so far as to make extravagant claims about the cosmovisíon (view of the world) of native peoples, raising the dissimilarity between traditional and modern mentalities to the level of pure ontological difference (10). This a classic example of an essentialist argument: there is a true “Indian-ness” that is ahistorical, immutable and organic. And what emerges from such thinking is a kind of identity politics based on an indigenist fundamentalism.
Conversely, traditional Marxists tend to be preemptively dismissive of any argument on behalf of radical peasantries and their communal traditions. In this, one hears the voice of the Master: the Marx who famously referred in the opening section of The Communist Manifesto to “the idiocy of rural life.” There is, of course, more to the Marxist argument than mere condescension, including a younger Marx’s own rhapsodizing in The German Ideology about a communist society in which he could hunt, fish, and philosophize all on the same day, without having to be defined by any one activity (11). However, for almost all Marxists, who base their perspective on a theory of necessary, inevitable stages of history, there is only one possible passage to a post-capitalist future, and that gate is opened by the industrial working class. All other agency on the part of subordinated social elements is discounted; at best, it can be an adjunct to the actions of the working class, who must play a vanguard role (except, although this is never admitted by Marxist theorists, when they must follow the lead of the real vanguard: the radical intelligentsia to which the theorists belong).
In recent years, however, Marxist teleologies have been thrown for a loop more than once, and dissident Marxists have recognized this. Autonomist Marxism has shown itself to be much more open to a consideration of non-traditional social movements (in Argentinia, Bolivia, and Mexico) as being charged with radical, anti-capitalist potentialities. Unfortunately, their writings on the subject often veer into post-modernist self-parody, as when the terms “valorization” (as a positive term relating to radical protagonists and their autonomous actions) and “biopolitics” appear.
In contrast, the anarchist tradition historically has been far more open to the consideration of radical initiatives by peasants, and has gone much further than Marxism in including a critique of the domination of nature (a project that is at the heart of productivist Leninist states) as part of its rejection of social hierarchies, the state, and capital. It precisely for this reason, along with an insistence on the importance of cooperation and community, that the works of Kropotkin, Réclus, and Landauer have acquired a new relevance, even for some Marxists. And in the case of Latin American anarchist thinkers, and the kinds of issues present in Oaxaca, there is a much more direct connection. Peruvian anarchists in the very early years of the twentieth century not only were trying to integrate indigenous perspectives into their theory of how an Andean libertarian communism could be achieved, they included Andeans among their ranks. There is a certain, sweet irony in the fact that the histories and movements that seemed so antiquated or obsolete to 20th century Latin American Marxists (with a few exceptions, José Carlos Mariátegui among them) are now receiving the attention they deserve. Historians of Latin American anarchism continue to uncover a past that has implications in the present, and they have not yet begun to exhaust the subject (12).
As for Oaxaca, one need look no farther than its most famous anarchist native son: Ricardo Flores Magón, whose influence on the current social movement there is such that there is an entire sector whose orientation is Magonista (and this has been described in a previous section). Although, and this was also mentioned earlier, there is a possibility for any radical tendency to be neutralized or bought off by the state (and there does seem to have been a kind of recuperated Magonism among the various political currents in Oaxaca), at the core of Magón’s own thinking is an uncompromising insistence on revolutionary transformation and the linking of ends and means in the struggle to bring about a free society. His anarchism included more than a mere sensitivity to indigenous issues: in a very real sense, these concerns were at the core of his radical vision.
Magón famously declared in 1911 that “the Mexican people are suited for communism,” by which he emphatically meant libertarian communism, an egalitarian society beyond the state and capital, and beyond the tyranny of party bosses of whatever stripe. And this was no mere assertion of his own credo: he based his affirmation on observations made in Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, where he knew that a tradition of communal ownership and cooperation had survived into the twentieth century:
"The Mexican people hate, by instinct, authority and the bourgeoisie. Everyone who has lived in Mexico can assure us that there is no one more cordially hated than the policeman, that the soldier, admired and applauded in all other places, is seen with antipathy and contempt, and that anyone who doesn’t make his living with his hands is hated.
This in itself is enough for a social revolution which is economic in nature and anti-authoritarian, but there is more. Four million Indians live in Mexico who, until twenty or twenty-five years ago lived in communities possessing the lands, the waters, and the forests in common. Mutual aid was the rule in these communities, in which authority was felt only when the tax collector appeared periodically or when “recruiters” showed up in search of men to force into the army. In these communities there were no judges, mayors, jailers, in fact no bothersome people at all of this type."
( Regeneracíon, September 12, 1901. Translation by Chas Bufe, Dreams of Freedom: A Ricardo Flores Magón Reader, AK Press (2005) )
The common lands question is one that has intrigued a number of radical analysts of the situation in Oaxaca. While one might want to believe that in Oaxaca and Chiapas some sort of equivalent of the Russian mir survives as a opening through which society could make a radical leap - on the basis of collective property and communal, cooperative practices - into libertarian communism, in the absence of greater proof this only utopian speculation. As it is now, the “rural communes” of Oaxaca are often locked in disputes with each other over their collectively owned lands, and the demand for indigenous “autonomy” often seems more a call for a kind of radical autarky than any general, revolutionary transformation of society.
For modernizing capitalism or productivist Marxism, social differences are to be steamrolled in the name of homogenization, a process in which there is no place for traditional practices, except in their instrumentalization as folklore or cultural window dressing. But if traditional societies can be characterized precisely by the qualities that differentiate them from dominant society, there is another kind of difference that cannot rise up in a consensual, collective society at the village level. What is not there is a certain complexity and variation, as well as an aleatory quality that is usually associated with a more urban life. There is little possibility of a subculture, and ultimately, of politics in such communities. It is no accident that the initial site of the Oaxaca rebellion was in Oaxaca City and not the countryside, a fact that also largely accounts for its assuming a different complexion than the Zapatista movement in Chiapas.
Moreover, there is a danger in imbuing traditional society or some radical peasantry with a redemptive, salvationist mission that replicates that formerly assigned to the industrial proletariat. Today’s anti-authoritarians run the risk of furthering a kind of contemporary Third Worldism in their uncritical support of the Zapatistas and the Oaxacan movement, and even more nuanced interpretations sometimes reek of vicarious pleasure, the enjoyment of radical violence at a distance, one that is both geographic and social. There must be some more meaningful and creative way to engage the Oaxaca rebellion than that which basically corresponds to watching the street fighting of others (and lamenting the fact that circumstances don’t allow one to engage in the same sort of activity oneself).
However laudable the concept, mere emulation is another non-starter. In the first place, especially for those in advanced capitalist societies, all the world is not like this place called Oaxaca, much as one might like to think so. To be sure, there are cops and corrupt, arbitrary authorities everywhere, and to that extent one could say, if one wanted to engage in empty posturing, that “We All Live In Oaxaca.” But the specific mix that generated the Oaxaca rebellion, the particular socio-economic structure and history of the city and region, is not reproduced in the “metropoles” of the North, or even in those of the South, for that matter.
However, it would be a mistake to understand the Oaxaca rebellion as only a local, and localized, phenomenon. Oaxaca is literally part of the world, and especially in the context of a globalized economy, whether it wants to be or not. Oaxacan workers have emigrated to the US and Canada, and have brought their politics with them. The circulation of people who move within Mexico (and outside it) is impelled by forces that affect those in other countries and regions, and to that extent, others have a stake in the outcome of rebellions such as that in Oaxaca. This stake goes beyond the abstractions of political economy or even the concrete encounters with some aspect of Oaxaca that might occur in everyday life (if you live in California, for example, the person cleaning your dishes in a restaurant or picking the fruit and vegetables that end up on your table might very well be Oaxacan).
“Geography is not an immutable thing. It is made, it is remade every day;
at each instant, it is modified by men’s actions.”
For those outside of Mexico, especially in the United States and Canada, a study of the various processes that link these countries to Mexico, and to Oaxaca specifically, is perhaps more timely than an illusory attempt to “fully” understand the question of usos y costumbres. The phenomenon of large numbers of Oaxacans seeking work in the North is generally well known, but there are more aspects to this than the simple question of remittances or even of the status of illegal immigrants in a hostile (i.e., increasingly nativist and racist) socio-political environment.
Oaxacan workers have brought their culture and their politics with them in their travels to the North. They have created their own labor organizations, with their own publications, and have often brought to these activities a specifically indigenous perspective, which cannot therefore simply be assimilated as “Hispanic” or “Mexican-American.” It would seem incumbent upon supporters of the Oaxacan rebellion to learn more about the Oaxacans in California, Oregon, or British Columbia, for example, and about their struggles, which have included demonstrations in Los Angeles in 2006 against police repression back home in Oaxaca (13).
There are also ways to make connections to Oaxaca, and to make a conscious choice to aid the most radical wing of the movement there. There is material support that can be given to organizations; there are protests that can be (and have been) organized at Mexican consulates in support of political prisoners, and in the United States generally against anti-immigrant hysteria. There are also, and not secondarily, words: ones that go beyond mere received opinion, even of the “alternative” kind. The best tribute to the rebellion is to partake of its spirit in taking risks, and by sticking one’s neck out, even on the written page.
In a contemporary era characterized in many parts of the globe by war, misery, and environmental destruction - and made all the more dreary by mass indifference, resignation, or distraction in the face of this, especially in the misnamed “advanced” societies - events like the Oaxaca rebellion are as inspirational as they are rare. One can be fairly certain that, at least in Latin America, other radical social movements will emerge, and that they too will have their anti-authoritarian, emancipatory currents. But unless these consolidate themselves and become conscious of their aims and their enemies (who include, in addition to the generals and thugs of the right, the bureaucrats and caudillos of the left), they are doomed to remaining interesting footnotes to history, rather than doors that open on to a brighter future.
Collective Inventions would like to thank Claudio Albertani for his comments on an early draft of this essay, and also Loren Goldner for sending materials collected in Oaxaca. Of course, they are in no way liable for the opinions expressed here.
Those nearer to home who have helped immensely with this project know who they are, and how much their assistance has been appreciated.
We hope to publish a more complete printed version of this pamphlet in the near future. Translations of selected texts from and about the Oaxaca rebellion can be found at: www.collectivereinventions.org
1 For all of the Zapatistas’ disavowal of their being a vanguard in the tradition of Latin American Marxism-Leninism - a disavowal that led to the EZLN becoming the favorite army of the world anarchist and altermondialiste movements - it is still not clear how far Marcos has moved from the Maoist background of his youth. For all of the editions (in countless translations) of every utterance of the Subcommander, no one among the legions of Zapatists seems to have asked themselves a few obvious questions: Why is it that it is almost always Marcos - the intellectual who is both the ideologue and strategist of the EZLN - who speaks in the name of the Indians of the Lacandon jungle? How does the aura of celebrity surrounding Marcos differ from other cults of personality? And just where does internationalism begin, and Mexican nationalism end, in the Zapatista program? After all, the EZLN doesn’t call itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation for nothing.
2 The Oaxacan experience has attracted participant-witnesses who have produced interesting and detailed accounts of events. It also been a magnet for the kind of “revolutionary tourist” denounced long ago by Hans Magnus Enzenberger (“Tourists of the Revolution,” Dreamers of the Absolute, London: 1988) and whose breathless dispatches from the frontlines have not necessarily been accurate or informative. In the former category, one must mention George Lapierre, whose chronicles of the first six months of the rebellion are rich in detail and insight, and are frankly vastly superior to the earnest, but highly simplistic articles that comprise Nancy Davies’s The People Decide: Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly, New York: 2007. Unfortunately, Lapierre’s accounts - written orignally in French - have not yet been translated. Many of his accounts can be found compiled in the special issue of the French journal CQFD, “La Libre Commune d’Oaxaca,” January-February 2007 (www.cequilfautdetruire.org).
3 For the ICC’s verdict on Oaxaca, see http://www.internationalism.org/ . For the anarchist insurrectionist critique of APPO, which in its itemization of the various political maneuverings within APPO was both prescient and precise, see the text by the Coordinadora Insurreccional Anarquista (http://espora.org/okupache//b21hart_imp.php?p=1249&more=1). A notable early analysis of the Oaxaca rebellion, and one that avoided the pitfalls of either abstract denunciation or uncritical support, was “This Is What Recuperation Looks Like” by Kellen Kass, published in A Murder of Crows, no. 2, March 2007 (it can be found on line in the library section at www.libcom.org).
4 A kind of vulgar Marxism is the common currency of much of what passes for radical analysis these days. And in an era of war, economic turbulence, and a globalized capitalism that indeed has battered down all the walls of China (as if to fulfill Marx’s prediction of 1848), this should not be surprising. The campaign to “vindicate” Marx does not stop there, however, and when the term “vulgar Marxism” is used disparagingly by a writer, it usually only means that he or she is about to deploy a slightly more sophisticated argument, but one still based on Marxist categories. It is this Deeper Marxism that rules both the academic and militant left, including the parts of both that style themselves as anti-authoritarian, whose reliance on a Marxist crutch only shows their lack of autonomous critical skills. While the critique of Marxism past and present lies outside of the scope of the present essay, it is something implied in the orientation of our tendency toward renewal and reassessment in conceiving of an emancipatory social project.
5 To fully understand the dimensions of the crises that have buffeted the Mexican economy in recent decades, one must go back at least to the debt crisis of 1982, when the Mexican state - in the paradoxical position of being both a producer of oil revenues and a debtor nation receiving recycled petrodollars in the form of loans from international banks - defaulted on its debt payments. By means of a policy of austerity and privatization, Mexico qualified in 1987 for a “rescue” by international financial institutions, one negotiated by none other than the consigliere of the Bush family, James F. Baker. Further concessions on the part of Mexico would be demanded on the part of the Clinton administration as part of another “bail out” program, all of this forming a prelude to the implementation of the terms of the NAFTA treaty and, simultaneously and in response to NAFTA, the beginning of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.
6 See the interesting points raised about the nationalist left in Mexico by the Grupo Socialista Libertario in its critique of the EZLN’s Other Campaign (translation can be found at www.collectivereinventions.org).
7 See the article by David Recondo, “Oaxaca el ocaso de un régimen,” Letras libres (Mexico), February 2007. Magón's own anarchism is discussed later in the present essay, as are the revolutionary politics of organizations such as the Alianza Magonista Zapatista.
8 Quoted in Judith Francis Zeitlin, Cultural Politics in Colonial Tehauntepec, Stanford: 2005, p. 168.
9 Alejandro Anaya Muñoz. Autonomía indígena, gobernabilidad y legitimidad en México: la legalización de usos y costumbres en Oaxaca, Mexico City: 2006.
10 For one example of this, see Brenda Aguilar, “Autonomías Latinoamericanos: Algunas reflexiones sobre Utopías Posibles,” 2008 (http://anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=7625)
11 For a Marxist critique of a radicalism based on peasant “otherness,” see Tom Brass, “Neoliberalism and the Rise of (Peasant) Nations within the Nation: Chiapas in Comparative and Theoretical Perspective,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, Nos. 3&4, July/October 2005.
12 See, for example, Wilfredo Kapsoli, Ayllus del sol: anarquismo y utopía andina, Lima (1984), as well as books by Osvaldo Bayer (on the Patagonian general strike of 1921) and Sergio Grez Toso (on the history of Chilean anarchism).
13 For background on Oaxacan workers in the United States and Canada, see Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon, Duke University Press (2007)