Zibechi: Social policies, ethics and the Zapatistas


By: Raúl Zibechi

Banner at May 22 Rally at Mexican Consulate in San Francisco

Banner at May 22 Rally at Mexican Consulate in San Francisco

Behind the cowardly murder of the teacher Galeano in La Realidad are the so-called “social policies” inspired in the “fight against poverty” sketched by the World Bank four decades ago, after the United States military defeat in Vietnam. Those policies are one of the axes of the counterinsurgency and of the asymmetric wars designed by the Pentagon for destroying anti-systemic movements.

The key character in the social policies was Robert McNamara. President of Ford first, Secretary of Defense between 1961 and 1968 and later president of the World Bank between 1968 and 1981, he understood that wars are not won with weapons or with sophisticated technologies. In that sense he was against the grain of the dominant thinking among the military and he dedicated all his efforts to implementing new counterinsurgency methods.

With McNamara, the World Bank (WB) was converted into the principal center of the world’s thinking and analysis about poverty and acquired theoretical and political stature, displacing the problem of the distribution of wealth, considered until then –at least on the left– as the hard core of all social, economic and political problems.

As Michael T. Klare pointed out in La guerra sin fin (Barcelona, Noguer, 1974), [1] “the principal purpose of counterinsurgency work should be limited to influencing people’s behavior and conduct.” The social policies were changing through time. From the initial concerns, centered on demographic growth and family planning, they moved towards urbanization of the peripheral barrios and later towards cooptation of the popular organizations.

After the experiences of Pronasol in Mexico and of Prodepine (Proyecto de Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indios y Negros del Ecuador), [2] the social policies and programs were focused more and more on cooptation and domestication of social and popular movements through “organizational strengthening” (explicit policy of the WB), acting directly on the movements’ leaders and bases. The “fight against poverty” transforms dynamic and combative movements into hierarchical organizations to make the counterinsurgency war functional.

A gamut of actions were deployed that range from workshops and formation courses to monetary transfers and the lending of services for the purpose of breaking apart entire popular organizations. Of course, counterinsurgency was not talked about, but rather “empowerment” of the poor, about “participation,” about “mobilization,” and even “autonomy,” when at the end of the 1990s the movements were dodging the barriers of state control.

In that period the World Bank stopped managing the social and work programs so that the movements managed them. Those suited to managing the social policies are those coming from the left and from the movements, because they know them from inside, dominate the rules and methods, they know who to interest, with which leaders to establish relationships and in what way to approach them. In the whole region, be it under progressive or conservative governments, it’s usually former leftists that are at the front of the ministries of social development.

Zapatismo is the only rebel movement that refuses to receive social programs. “We are not beggars,” Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés said at the homage to Compañero Galeano. As the Zapatistas don’t bow down to the government’s charity, disguised as the fight against hunger, the counterinsurgency policy converts what were popular organizations into paramilitary groups for confronting poor against poor. The objective of the asymmetric war is that the Army arrives to “pacify,” (or keep the peace) with blood and fire.

Upon placing dignity at the steering wheel of command, the EZLN works so that the peoples and communities are not converted into an object of state charity, but rather into subjects of the construction of a different world. If they were to accept social policies, the Zapatistas would be undermining the autonomies. Constructing in this way, based on collective efforts, is more dignified than extending their hand to receive crumbs. Zapatismo has made collective dignity their political line and emancipatory horizon.

The old political culture says that dignity is not sufficient for defending oneself from the bullets and death of the system; that they lack material resources for confronting the repressive apparatuses and for constructing socialism. Those resources would be in the State; therefore, the old political culture proposes occupying the State as a shortcut towards a new world. That culture does not admit that that path was already traveled in many places and that it doesn’t lead to the new world, but rather a world of corruption.

By rejecting the social policies Zapatismo bets on the collective work of the peoples as the engine for change. The new world cannot be built except by expropriating the means of production and exchange from the appropriators. But it’s not reduced to that. The new world is the fruit of work, not of handouts. On the recuperated land and factories, collective works are the creators of the new.

Zapatismo has opted for peace, not war. It does not accept the poor confronting the poor. This is, also, an ethical option turned into a method for making politics. In some way, Zapatismo aspires that those of below not let themselves be manipulated by those of above. To the old culture that is something impossible, which is resolved by converting vanguards into subjects. It would also seem impossible that those from below construct the new world with their efforts alone, with dignity, as we were able to verify in la escuelita.

Even so, a third and definitive question remains: ¿how is the new world defended from armed aggressions? It depends on what we are capable of doing in each place, in each moment. The answer is everyone.


Translator’s Notes:

[1] The English publication is: War without end (New York, Vintage Books, 1972)

[2] Development Projects for the Black and Indian Peoples of Ecuador


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Translation: Chiapas Support Committee

Friday, May 30, 2014






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