Words of the EZLN’s Sixth Commission at the Gathering of Support Networks for the Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) and its spokeswoman
Given time restrictions, we were unable to present these thoughts in full during the gathering. We promised you the full version, and we include the full transcription here, including the parts that were not read at the gathering. You’re welcome. Don’t mention it.
A Plantation, a World, a War, Few Probabilities
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano:
Good morning, thank you for coming, for accepting our invitation and for sharing your words with us.
We are going to begin by explaining our way of doing analysis and evaluation.
We start by analyzing what is happening in the world, then move to what is happening at the continental level, then to what is happening in this country, then to a regional and finally to a local level. From there, we develop an initiative and begin to move back up from a local level to a regional level, then to the national, the continental, and finally the global level.
We think that capitalism is the dominant system at the global level. In order to explain this system both to ourselves and to others, we use the image of a plantation. I’m going to ask Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés to explain this part.
Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés:
Compañeros and compañeras: we interviewed our own compañeros and compañeras who are our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, some of whom are still alive. The following is what they told us and what they helped us understand: how the rich, the capitalists, want to turn the whole world into their plantation.
There’s the plantation owner, or the landowner, who owns thousands of hectares of land. When he’s not around, he has his overseer watch over the plantation, and that overseer in turn has a foreman who’s the one who actually goes in person to force the people to work the land. The overseer, on orders of the boss, also has to name a supervisor who keeps watch over the plantation house itself. Our great-grandparents told us that there are different kinds of plantations: cattle ranches, coffee plantations, sugarcane plantations, as well as corn and bean plantations. These various areas of production are combined so that a 10,000-hectare plantation has cattle, sugarcane, beans, corn, everything. And the people who work on the plantation—who we call slaves or peons—live and suffer their whole lives there.
The overseer supplements his income by stealing some of what is produced on the plantation from the boss. That’s in addition to what the boss (the plantation owner) pays him. So for example, if 10 heifers and 4 young bulls are born on the plantation, the overseer doesn’t report them all, but tells the boss 5 heifers and 2 bulls were born. If the boss finds out he’ll fire the overseer and name another, but all of the overseers steal something. It’s part of the generalized corruption.
Our great-grandparents say that when the boss wasn’t around and the overseer wanted to go somewhere too, he’d name someone else to take his place while he was gone—always someone as much an asshole as himself. In other words, he’d pick a friend to cover his job until he got back to take it over again.
We see that that’s still the situation today: the real boss is off somewhere else, and the overseer in charge of what we used to call the country (but which we just call ‘the peoples’ now because we see there isn’t really a country anymore) is Peña Nieto. The state governors are the foremen and the municipal presidents are the supervisors. This is how the system of domination is structured.
We also see that it is the overseer, the foreman, and the supervisor who are in charge of controlling the people. Our great-grandparents say that every plantation had a store—the company store they call it—where the people working on the plantation accumulated debt. So those exploited people—slaves or peons we call them—would get used to buying their salt, soap, and whatever they needed from the company store. They didn’t use money; rather, the boss stocked there the things they needed—salt, soap, machetes, saws, axes—and the people would buy them not with money but with their own labor.
Our great-grandparents told us that women as well as men spent their entire lives that way—the boss would provide them with just enough to eat today so that they had to continue working for him tomorrow.
We know what our great-grandparents say is true because when we rose up in 1994 and took over the plantations in order to kick out the exploiters, we found those overseers as well as the people who lived there as slaves or peons and who were accustomed to getting supplies from the company store. And those people told us that they didn’t know what to do because once the boss was gone, where would they get their salt and soap? They asked us who the new boss would be so they could go find him because how else would they get ahold of soap and salt and things like that.
We told them: you are free! Work the land, it is yours! You can work the land like you did under the boss who exploited you but now that work is for you, for your family. But they resisted, saying no, this is the boss’s land.
That’s where we learned that there are people so deeply embedded in their slavery that they don’t know what to do with their own freedom; they only know how to obey.
This situation I’m telling you about is from over 100 years ago, because our great-grandparents—one of them would be about 125, 126 years old now, as it’s been more than a year since we interviewed that compañero—are the ones who told us these stories.
The way we see it is that this situation is the same today. They want to turn the whole world into a plantation. But now it’s the multinational corporations that says, “I’m going to my plantation—the Mexican one,” or, depending on their whim at the moment, “I’m headed to my other plantation—the Guatemalan one, or the Honduran one” and so on.
Then they organize their plantation production according to capitalism’s needs. Just like our great-grandparents said, some plantations would have everything—coffee, cattle, corn, beans—and other plantations would have just sugarcane or some other crop. That’s how the plantation owners organized and organize us.
And there isn’t a good boss; all of them are bad. Our great-grandparents tell us that a few of them were good, as they put it, but when we really analyze and think about it, when we see it clearly, by “good” they mean those bosses who didn’t physically abuse them, didn’t whip them. But there was no saving them from being exploited; that was a given. But yes, it’s true, on some plantations, in addition to being worked to exhaustion, if you didn’t do what they wanted you were whipped.
We think that all of this that happened to our great-grandparents is going to happen to us, now not only in the countryside but also in the city. Because the capitalism of today is different than the capitalism of 100 years ago, or 200 years ago; the forms of exploitation are different and exploitation occurs in the city as well as the countryside. That exploitation might look different today but it’s exploitation all the same. It’s the same cage, but they paint it a different color every now and then so it looks like something new.
Today too there are people who don’t want their freedom, but merely seek to obey. They’re only looking for a different boss, a different overseer, who isn’t such an asshole—that is, who exploits them all the same but is nice to them.
In other words, we haven’t lost sight of what’s coming, and we see that it’s already starting.
What interests us is this: are there others out there who see, think, and evaluate in the same way what’s coming?
And what are those sisters and brothers going to do? Will they be satisfied with a new overseer or boss or do they want freedom?
That’s the part that I wanted to explain to you because it comes from what we think, all the compañeros and compañeras of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation.
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano:
What we see at the global level is a predatory economy. The capitalist system is advancing by conquering territories, destroying everything it can. At the same time, there is a glorification of consumption to the extent that it seems that capitalism is no longer even worried about who is going to produce—that’s what machines are for. But there are no machines that consume commodities.
In reality, this great exaltation of consumption hides the brutal exploitation and bloody dispossession of humanity which isn’t immediate visible in modern commodity production.
The highly automated machine that, seemingly without human participation, manufactures computers or mobile phones is built not on scientific and technological advances but on the plunder of natural resources (thus the necessity for the destruction/depopulation and reconstruction/reordering of territories) and on the inhumane enslavement of thousands of tiny, small, and medium-sized units of exploitation of human labor.
The market (that gigantic warehouse of commodities) contributes to the illusion of consumption: commodities appear to the consumer as “unconnected” to human labor (that is, to its exploitation) and one of the “practical” consequences of this illusion is to give the (always individualized) consumer the option of “rebelling” by choosing one market over another, one product over another, or by boycotting a particular type of consumption. You don’t want to eat junk food? No problem, organic items are also available, at a higher price. You don’t want to consume certain brands of cola because they are unhealthy? No problem, we have bottled water sold by the same company. You don’t want to buy from the big supermarket chains? No problem, the same corporate conglomerate supplies your neighborhood corner store. And so on.
Global society is being organized to give priority to consumption, among other things. The system functions with this contradiction (among others): it wants to rid itself of the labor force because its “use” brings with it various problems (for example: it tends to organize, protest, strike, sabotage production, and join forces with other workers); but at the same time the system needs that “special” commodity to consume other commodities.
Regardless of how hard the system tries to “automate” itself, labor exploitation is fundamental to the system. It doesn’t matter to what extent consumption is generated on the periphery of the production process, or how effectively the lengthening of the chain of production simulates its unmooring from human labor: without its most essential commodity (the labor force), capitalism is impossible. A capitalist world where consumption prevails and exploitation doesn’t exist is good for science fiction, social media ruminations, and the lazy dreams of the admirers of the suicidal aristocratic left.
It’s not the existence of work that defines capitalism, but the characterization of the capacity to work as a commodity to be bought and sold on the labor market. That means there are those who buy and those who sell, and above all, those who have only the option of selling themselves.
The possibility to purchase labor power is provided for by private ownership of the means of production, circulation, and consumption. Private ownership of the means of production forms the nucleus of the system. Built upon this class division (the owner of private property and the dispossessed), and hiding it as such, are a whole range of juridical and media simulations, as well as other dominant evidentiary forms: citizenship and juridical equality; the penal and police system; electoral democracy and entertainment (increasingly difficult to differentiate); neo-religions and the supposed neutrality of technology; social sciences and the arts; free access to the market and to consumption; and a whole spectrum of nonsense (with some versions more developed than others) of things like “change begins within oneself”, “you are the architect of your own destiny”, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, “don’t give fish to the hungry, teach them to fish” (“and sell them fishing poles”), and, highly fashionable today, efforts to “humanize” capitalism by making it good, rational, and objective, that is, “capitalism light.”
But the machine wants profits and it is insatiable. There is no limit to its gluttony, and its eagerness for profit has neither ethics nor rationality. If it needs to kill, it kills. If it needs to destroy, it destroys; even if it has to kill and destroy the whole world.
The system advances in its re-conquest of the world without concern for what is destroyed, preserved, or made superfluous; anything is disposable as long as the maximum profit is obtained at maximum speed. The machine is returning to the methods of its origins—that’s why we recommend you read The Primitive Accumulation of Capital —which is to conquer new territory via violence and war.
It is as if capitalism left pending part of its global conquest during neoliberalism and now is trying to finish the job. As it develops, the system “discovers” new commodities that exist in the territories of the original peoples: water, land, air, biodiversity, everything that hasn’t already been damaged or ruined lies in the original peoples’ territories and that is where the system is headed. When the system seeks (and conquers) new markets, these aren’t just consumption markets—for buying and selling commodities—but also and above all, the system seeks and attempts to conquer territories and populations in order to extract from them whatever can be extracted, without regard for the wasteland left in its wake.
When a mining company invades the territory of Native (original) peoples—often with the alibi of offering “work opportunities” to the “autochthonous population” (yes, that’s what they call us), they aren’t just offering people wages to buy a new high-end cell phone: they are also discarding a part of this population and annihilating (in all senses of the word) the territory in which that population functions. The “development” and “progress” offered by the system in reality disguises what is truly its own development and progress and, more importantly, hides the fact that that progress and development are obtained via the death and destruction of populations and territories. That is how so-called “civilization” is founded: what the Native (original) peoples need is to “get out of poverty,” that is, they need a wage. So they are offered “employment,” that is, companies that will hire (exploit) the “aborigines” (yes, that’s what they call us).
To “civilize” a Native community is to convert its population into a salaried work force, that is, one with purchasing power. That’s why all the state programs claim to “incorporate the marginalized population into civilization.” As a consequence, the original peoples don’t demand respect for their ways of organizing their time and life, but rather “assistance” in order to “find markets for their products” and “to obtain employment;” in sum, the optimization of poverty.
And by the way, when we say “Native (original) peoples” we are referring not only to the poorly named “indigenous” but also to all of those peoples who originally cared for the territories that are now subjected to wars of conquest—the Kurdish people for example—and who are themselves subjected by force to the so-called Nation-States.
The so-called “Nation form” of the State is born with the ascent of capitalism as the dominant system. Capital needed protection and assistance for its growth, and the State assumed—in addition to its essential role (that of repression)—the role of guarantor of that growth. It was said of course that this was necessary to avoid barbarism, to “rationalize” social relations and “govern” for all, “mediating” between dominators and dominated.
“Freedom” became the freedom to buy and sell (oneself) on the market. “Equality” became the task of consolidating a homogenizing dominion; and “fraternity,” well, we are all brothers and sisters—boss and worker, plantation owner and peon, victim and executioner.
Later it was said that the Nation-State should “regulate” the system, taming its excesses and making it “more equitable.” Crises were the product of defects in the machine, and the State (and the government in particular) were the always alert and efficient mechanics, ready to repair imperfections. Of course it turned out that the State (and the government in particular) were part of the problem, not the solution.
But today the fundamental elements of that Nation State (police, army, language, currency, juridical system, territory, government, population, borders, internal market, cultural identity, etc.) are in crisis: the police don’t prevent crime, they commit it; the army doesn’t’ defend the population, it represses it; the “national languages” are invaded and modified (that is, conquered) by the dominant language of exchange; national currencies are valued in accordance with the currencies that maintain hegemony in the global market; national judicial systems are subordinate to international law; territories expand and contract (and fragment) in accordance with the new world war; the national governments cede their most fundamental decisions to the dictates of financial capital; borders vary in porosity (open to capital and commodity traffic; closed to people); the national populations “mix” with those from other States; and so on.
At the same time that new “continents” are “discovered” (that is, new markets from which to extract commodities and in which to generate consumption), capitalism encounters a complex crisis (complex in content, extent, and depth) that it itself produced via its predatory tendencies.
It’s a combination of crises:
One is the environmental crisis that is hitting every part of the world and which is a product of capitalist development: industrialization, consumption, and nature’s plunder have an environmental impact that alters what we know as “planet Earth.” The meteorite called “capitalism” has already hit and radically modified the surface and innards of the third planet of the solar system.
Another is migration. The impoverishment and destruction of entire territories obligates people to migrate in search of life. The war of conquest which is an essential part of the system itself no longer occupies territories and their populations, but rather classifies those populations as “surplus”, “ruins”, or “rubble”, destined to perish or emigrate to “civilization” which, we must not forget, is built on the very destruction of those “other” civilizations. If people neither produce nor consume, then they’re merely surplus, scraps. The so-called “migration phenomenon” is produced and fed by the system.
One more point, and one on which we coincide with various analysts around the world, is the exhaustion of the resources that make the “the machine” move: fossil fuels. What are referred to as the final “peaks” of oil and carbon reserves, for example, are very close. These energy sources are finite and limited; their renewal will take millions of years. Their predictable and imminent exhaustion means that those territories that hold reserves—however limited—of energy sources are strategic sites. The development of “alternative” energy sources is advancing too slowly for the simple reason that they are not profitable—that is, investment in them does not pay off quickly enough.
These three elements of this complex crisis place in question the continuation of existence on the planet.
Is this the terminal crisis of capitalism? Not by a long shot. The system has demonstrated that it is capable of overcoming its own contradictions, and even functioning with and within them.
Thus, in the face of this crisis that capitalism itself provokes, which leads to migration and natural catastrophes, approximating the limit of fossil fuel reserves (in this case oil and coal), it would seem that the system is testing out a kind of internal retreat, something like an anti-globalization, in order to defend itself, and it is using the political right as guarantor of that retreat.
This apparent contradiction within the system is like a spring pulling back so it can later expand. In truth, the system is preparing for war. Another war. A total war: everywhere, all the time, and through all means.
Capitalism is building legal walls, cultural walls and material walls in order to defend itself against the migration that it itself provoked, attempting once again to map the world’s resources and catastrophes, so that the former can be administrated for ongoing capitalist functioning and the latter don’t significantly affect the centers of Power.
These walls will keep proliferating, we think, until they create a kind of archipelago “above” where the owners—those who possess wealth—secure themselves on a series of protected “islands” while the rest of us are on the outside. Imagine something like an archipelago with islands for the bosses and different islands—plantations really—for specific kinds of labor. And then, far off in the distance, the lost islands for those considered disposable. And on the open sea, there are millions of barges wandering from one island to another, looking for a place to dock.
Sound like Zapatista science fiction? Google “Aquarius Ship” and you will see the distance between what we describe and current realty. The Aquarius was denied port in multiple European nations. Why? Because of its lethal cargo: hundreds of migrants from countries “liberated” by the West through wars of occupation and countries governed by tyrants with the blessing of the West.
“The West,” the self-designated symbol of civilization, goes out, destroys, depopulates, and then retreats and closes its doors, leaving big capital to continue on with its business: manufacturing and selling weapons of destruction, and then manufacturing and selling the machines for reconstruction.
In many locations it is the political right that is supporting this retreat. That is, they are the ones proving to be “effective” overseers who can control the peons and assure profit for the plantation owner…although there are a few [uno, una, unoa] who steal some of the heifers and young bulls, and whip excessively their peon population.
For the surplus populations: they must consume or be annihilated. They are, as we say, disposable. They don’t even count as “collateral damage” in this war.
This isn’t something that is changing; it has already changed.
Here we use the simile of the Native peoples because for a long time, in the previous stage of capitalist development, the Native peoples were forgotten. Before we used the example of the indigenous infants who were called “the unborn” because they came into the world and left it without anyone ever noticing. Those “unborn” lived here in these areas, in these very mountains for example, which at that time didn’t interest anyone. The plantations occupied the good lands (the “flatlands” we call them), and the large landowners that expelled the indigenous into the mountains. Now it turns out that these mountains are full of riches, commodities that capital now wants and so there is nowhere for the Native peoples to go.
They must struggle and defend these territories—to the death if necessary—because there is no other choice. There will be no boat that comes to pick them up when they are forced to navigate unprotected through the world’s oceans and territories.
A new war of conquest is underway in the Native peoples’ territories, and the flag under which the invading army marches is sometimes that of the institutional left.
This change in the machine’s functioning with regard to the countryside or “rural areas”—perceptible with even a superficial analysis—is also present in the cities or “urban areas.” The big cities have been reorganized or are in that process; they are in the midst or wake of a merciless war against their own marginalized inhabitants. Each city contains many cities, but one central one: that of capital. The walls that surround that city are made up of laws, urbanization plans, police, and shock troops.
The entire world is fragmenting; walls are proliferating; the machine advances in its new war of occupation; hundreds of thousands of people discover that the new home promised them by modernity is a barge on the high seas, the shoulder of a highway, or an overcrowded detention center for the “undocumented.” Millions of women learn that the world is a gigantic hunting club where they are the prey; children become literate as sexual and labor commodities; and nature hands over the bill with a long list of debts and a balance in the red, accumulated by capitalism in its brief history as dominant system.
Of course, we haven’t talked about the women who struggle, the others [loas otroas] from below (for whom—in contrast to the glamour of the half-open closets above—suffer disrespect, persecution, and death), those who go home to poor neighborhoods at night and spend the day working in the capital city, migrants who remember that that wall has not been there since the beginning of time, the families of the disappeared, murdered, and imprisoned who neither forget nor forgive, the rural communities who find they were deceived, the identities who discover they are different and replace shame with pride, and all [todoas] the disposable people who understand that their destiny does not have to be slavery, oblivion, or brutal death.
Because there is another crisis, largely unperceived, consisting of the emergence and proliferation of rebellion, of organized human groups who challenge not only Power but also its perverse and inhuman logic. With diverse identities, diverse histories that is, this eruption appears to be a systemic anomaly—it does not figure into the law of probability. Its possibilities of maintaining itself or growing are minimal, almost impossible. That is why they do not count in the calculations of those above.
The machine is not worried about those rebellions. There aren’t very many, barely 300 of them.
This vision of the world, our vision, is surely incomplete, and very likely erroneous. But that’s how we see the system at a global level. And based on this evaluation, what follows will be what we see at the continental, national, regional, and local levels.
(to be continued…)