Zapatista Knowledge: Theoretico-political ontoepistemic alter-natives in times of war and civilisational collapse

zaptistas
At the 2018 International Summit for Women in the Struggle called by the Zapatistas. The mural reads: “Capitalism converts everything, absolute everything into commodities. For it [capitalism] we women are propaganda, decorations…Down with this capitalist system!” Photo credit: Global Justice Now/Flickr/CC 2.0
What we are experiencing today on planet Earth has been called in different ways “World War IV”, “slow, silent and lethal social holocaust”, “systemic crisis”, “global crisis of capitalism”, “polycrisis”, “crisis of Western capitalist (hetero)patriarchal civilisation”, “crisis of the hegemonic civilisational pattern”. All these conceptualisations agree that the crisis we are experiencing is global and systemic.

For several analysts, it is a multifaceted crisis that is simultaneously environmental, energy, food, migration, war and financial. Others point out that it manifests itself as a political crisis in a triple dimension: a crisis of the hegemony of imperialism, of the legitimacy of the modern state and of liberal representative democracy, as well as a cultural and ethical crisis in terms of a crisis of values, life projects, forms of identity and dominant subjectivities. Others place special emphasis on the crisis of structures and dominant forms of knowledge, and it is here that I would like to pause to consider the alternatives that have been emerging in the midst of crises and wars, insurgencies and counter-insurgencies since the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The terminal sense of crises has gained momentum with the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the planetary effects of so-called “climate change”. At the same time, such a sense has opened up the possibility of re-evaluating the practices and knowledge of those whose roots go beyond modern Western rationality. I am referring to re-evaluating the ontological, political, epistemic, ethical, theoretical and life contributions of those who have supported rebellions, resistances, patterns of insurrectional mobilisation, as well as anti-systemic, anti-patriarchal, anti-racist and anti-imperialist collectives and movements that have emerged at different times and in different parts of planet Earth.

In 2008, as a collective and in a network, we began to explore in depth the ontoepistemic and theoretical-political dimension of these movements. The headlines in the Spanish newspaper El País summed up the palpitation of the moment: “Panic sinks the stock markets. Wall Street and the rest of the markets close the week with falls greater than those suffered in the crises of 1929 and 1987”.1)

At first the link between other knowledge practices, crises and wars was not so clear, but as the years went by, the relationship became more and more evident as the crises – thus in the plural – became more acute and challenged us in different ways in our academic and university spaces, while at the same time savage patriarchal capitalism and its concomitant coloniality lashed out more forcefully against the subjects with whom we worked or of whom we were and are an organic part.

Many of these patterns of insurrectional mobilisation take their claims back to colonial times, as is the case, for example, in Latin America, but they were reinforced and revived, above all, in the 1990s, when the peoples of Latin America began to form political and continental articulations. I am thinking, for example, of the 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance Campaign.

From that moment on, these organisations and movements expressed themselves massively, practised civil disobedience and even, as happened in Chiapas (Mexico), took up arms in their own unique way. I am referring to the Zapatistas who did not advocate the seizure of power but, simply, to change the “patriarchal macho capitalist world”, as the Zapatista women called it in 2018. All this happened at the same time as Latin America was undergoing neoliberal capitalist and state structural reform and institutional change.

My and our approach to the political struggles of indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples was not new, but now it was taking place from a dimension that they themselves were putting at the centre: the contestation of the form and meaning of the dominant knowledge/power. In our academic jargon, we could say that this was a theoretical-political ontoepistemic edge that I called “other knowledge practices” (all pluralised).)2) To give birth to this form of naming, I wove together organic, academic and feminist intellectual traditions.

In Latin America, other knowledge practices grew and strengthened as indigenous and Afro-diasporic communities, organisations and movements advanced in their actions of self-defence of their territory and life; as their autonomies flourished de facto and without permission; their video-self-representation in rejection of hetero-representation; the construction of schools, curricula, indigenous universities, universities of the Earth and pluri-versities, all of which sought to respond to their own needs, urgencies and ways of life.

In the insurrection of other knowledge practices, indigenous women in resistance, peasant teachers appointed by the communities themselves, young urban indigenous artivists, community communicators and indigenous university academics who have dared to challenge the naturalised, have played a central role in the insurrection of practices and knowledge. It is important to add that similar ontoepistemic theoretical-political struggles are being waged in many other parts of the world by militants, activists and feminists from anti-patriarchal, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist collectives, organisations, movements and networks.

The insurrections of subjugated knowledges that these new patterns of mobilisation entail are, in a thousand different ways, cracking the dominant pattern of knowledge/power. But, unlike classical authors such as Foucault who coined the concept of “insurrection of subjugated knowledges”, we were looking at what was happening outside the social sciences and the academy.

For many colleagues, the insurrection of knowledge practices was reduced to postcolonial and subaltern studies, for others to feminist epistemologies, to participatory action research, collaborative anthropology or militant anthropology. All of these are undoubtedly real and important contributions, but they are only part of a much broader menu that cannot be reduced to what is recognised by the academy (with a capital letter and in the singular).

For seven years I dedicated myself – together with a handful of members of the Transnational Network of Other Knowledges (RETOS (Challenges) from the Spanish Red Trasnacional Otros Saberes) – to locating, making visible and weaving together as much as we could.

In this journal I cannot go into detail about me and our “discoveries”. They led us to put together three volumes with 1500 pages and 52 authors4), but to better explain my argument about the form taken by theoretical-political ontoepistemic alter-natives I will weave myself with the Zapatistas in the midst of crises and wars.

Zapatista theoretical-political ontoepistemic alter-natives

I begin with a fragment of our unlearning at the hands of the Zapatistas, which led us to question our Eurocentric notion of war. A concept that we learn theoretically at university and that is rooted in the Indo-European way of naming; it comes from the Old High German werra = disorder, quarrel. Centuries have passed since then, but we can say that today it is part of the dominant episteme to conceive of War (in the singular and with a capital letter) as a combat (armed or not) between nation states. But what happens when peoples declare war on a government and its army? What happens when women and peoples in resistance experience it in their own territory, body, land? When at the same time they create autonomy de facto and without permission? How does all this impact on the academic temples of knowledge/power?

First, it should be noted that the post-1994 Zapatista walk has taken place in the midst of a “rotation”, a “shift”, not only of the role and function of the female or feminised body in warfare, but of the war model itself in general, to what Rita Segato (2016))4 called the new forms of warfare. In them,

[…] domination and sexual prey are no longer, as they were previously, complements of war, collateral damage, but [come] to occupy a central position as a weapon of war that produces cruelty and lethality, within a form of harm that is simultaneously material and moral (ibid.: 59).

This harm functions as a pedagogy of cruelty (ibid.: 79) and is expressed in a thousand forms of violence towards women, diverse bodies, Mother Earth and peoples.

Something else I have learned by walking and listening to Zapatista women and other women and diverse bodies who struggle, is to think and act within the framework of wars (thus in the plural and in Spanish, in feminine). On the contrary, this is not just a semantic shift, it involved moving away from abstract masculinism, logocentrism, and androcentrism and opening myself up to feel about the other ongoing wars: epistemic-theoretical-political wars, energetic-spiritual wars, intra-familial wars, intra-feminist wars, intra-left wars, cybernetic wars, wars of numbers, media wars, etcetera.

Pluralising the dominant Eurocentric notion of “the War” was a whole process that began for me in 1994. I do not deny the contributions made by authors legitimised by the academy, but by putting the epistemology, theory and practice of the Zapatistas at the centre and weaving it with racialised feminisms and from the margins, I could and we were able to think and act in the plural and in the feminine. I will only refer to the first years of this journey between 1994 and 1997.

Zapatista prefigurative politics as an ontoepistemic alter-native

In 1997 the son of Castilla la Mancha, sociologist Manuel Castells emphasised that the Zapatista movement, to spread its message to the world, required both the Internet and what he called “a worldwide network of solidarity groups”. Already by then, new communication technologies played a central role as the organisational infrastructure of the Zapatista movement, along with the principle of authenticity of their own identity based on their cultural specificity and the desire to control their own destiny5).

Castells’ ideas did not remain secluded in the academy, but were taken up by researchers working for the US Department of Defense as part of the so-called think tanks. These analysts sought to understand how and why a “local” movement had global repercussions and put this knowledge at the service of the Pentagon. It was in this framework that they coined the concept of “network warfare” and, in particular, Zapatista social network warfare6).

From one angle, we can say that Zapatismo was contributing to the emergence of other ways of understanding conflict in the new global order. From another, we cannot fail to mention that the aforementioned analysts moved in a dangerous field that intertwined intelligence, military and academia to guide the political and military actions of the Mexican government and the US empire in what they called “the conflict in Chiapas”.

It is no coincidence, then, that the Mexican government implemented a counterinsurgency strategy in its facets of low-intensity warfare and counter-warfare to network warfare from a national security perspective subordinated to US national security doctrine. This put (and has put) the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and its solidarity, sisterhood and sympathisers in the target of social, political, psychological and military attack by government, military and paramilitary forces.

The think tanks, the military, the governments, the politicians, the academics, all had their theories and acted according to them, but something that neither the world nor the mainstream academy was used to was that an indigenous political-military peasant movement such as the EZLN also produced its own theory and that it spread ipso facto through the veins of the whole world, translated into a dozen languages.

In the same year 1997 that Castells published his book, Zapatismo carried out one of the most acute and complete analyses of the world situation, thus demonstrating prefigurative thinking in that it was ahead of its time and ahead of the events to come. What Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos proposed then, today in 2023, is commonly heard in spaces of radical critical thought, but at that time no Mexican or Latin American left-wing party or movement had a similar reading. Much less one that was accompanied by the collective creation, from below and to the left, of rebel municipalities that, from the end of 1994, began to build de facto autonomy, challenged Mexican federalism, countered the military and paramilitary occupation of Chiapas socio-politically, and dislocated the principle of maximum profit of the neoliberal economy.

In 1997, Zapatismo affirmed that “modern globalisation”, “neoliberalism”, should be understood, above all, as a new war of conquest of people, territories and nation-states, which it called World War IV, taking the Cold War as World War III. He described World War IV as “the worst and cruelest”, as it was being waged “everywhere and by all means against humanity” (emphasis mine). Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos identified the modus operandi of World War IV: on one hand destruction/depopulation, and reconstruction/reordering on the other. While warning that there were many more, he postulated seven pieces of the “neoliberal puzzle”:

One […] the double accumulation, of wealth and poverty, at the two poles of world society. The other […] the total exploitation of the whole world. The third […] the nightmare of a wandering part of humanity. The fourth […] the nauseating relationship between crime and Power. The fifth […] the violence of the State. The sixth […] the mystery of megapolitics. The [seventh,] the multiform pocket of humanity’s resistance to neoliberalism.

A final thought

Zapatista knowledge practices lead us to recognise – at all levels – the collective epistemic rights, as well as the sovereignty and epistemic autonomy of peoples in resistance and re-existence. They have been created outside the academic classroom, they are the fruit of the collective anti-capitalist struggle against machismo and patriarchy.

They were theoretical-political-practical conceptions that moved from indigenous, Afro-descendant and popular territories and impacted the ways of doing and conceptualizing of academics, activists and politicians.

These other knowledge practices were and are part of the processes of reconstitution, resilience, resistance and re-existence of these peoples. They disrupt and challenge the dominant academic system by challenging it to search for new methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies and theories.

These are insurrections that are an active and prolix part of the production, construction and creation of other knowledge: alter, anti, pluri, trans. These are key to the ongoing construction of other possible worlds here and now. But it is also worth saying that they coexist with systemic knowledge practices (thus in the singular) that serve to continue reproducing past and current dominant forms of knowledge/power.

2)Leyva Solano, X. 2015. “Una mirada al tomo I”. En X. Leyva Solano et al. Prácticas otras de conocimiento(s). Entre crisis, entre guerras, Vol. I. México: CLACSO, Cooperativa Editorial Retos, Taller Editorial La Casa del Mago, pp. 36-103. On line: https://onx.la/3f11d

3)The three volumes are free to download from CLACSO’s Latin American Social Sciences Library (Librería Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Ciencias Sociales of CLACSO). On line vol. I: https://onx.la/3f11d, vol. II: https://onx.la/e44e4, vol. III: https://onx.la/0b285.

4)Segato, R. L. 2016. La guerra contra las mujeres. Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños.

5)Castells, M. 1997. The information age: Economy, society, and culture: The power of identity (Vol. II). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

6)Ronfeldt, D., Arquilla, J., Fuller, G. E. & Fuller, M. 1998. The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. Santa Mónica: RAND Arroyo Center.

Xochitl Leyva Solano is an activist researcher. She works to create other possible worlds hand in hand with women, young people of the peoples in resistance, both indigenous and Afro-descendant, as well as those of gender diversity. She is part of the GTA core team. is a Senior lecturer and researcher at CIESAS Sureste in Chiapas, Mexico. Alterglobalisation activist, part of the Core Group of the GTA and, since 2016, coordinator of the CLACSO Working Group “Body, Territories, Resistance”

Originally published by Global Tapestry of Alternatives

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